Phoenix’s Hydrotherapy

I’ve recently been managing, well surviving, Phoenix in winter mode. She’s not as hyped as previous winters, and kept a lid on herself until February. Hopefully by the time she’s twenty she’ll be cool as a cucumber over winter!

Sure, she was a bit fizzy, but a good canter took the edge off. Then, a new horse went into the adjacent field, so Phoenix spent the next couple of days charging at the fence line defending her territory and herd. When I rode her she was super tense and tight over the lumbar area of her back.

So I booked her in with the chiropractor pronto, who found a slight misalignment but mostly tight muscles. About the same time, Phoenix had her first season of the year, and seemed even more sore in her lumbar, which I can only put down to period pains as it’s fairly close to her ovaries. She also had a massage the following week and definitely felt looser in that area afterwards.

Phoenix’s biggest issue when she gets a sore spot is that we then have a mental block about it. For example, this time the tension in her lumbar area caused her to almost wince when asked to bring her right hind slightly further under her body – travers, right canter, leg yield. Which then sends me down a rabbit hole as to whether there’s an underlying issue…

However, after some stretches which showed full range of movement, just moving with caution, and some lunging in just a cavesson proved that there’s nothing physically wrong, just her suspicions that it will hurt, combined with the need to canter in a straight line for several miles to burn off the excess energy. Similar to many kids coming out of lockdown!

Which means that I’m now schooling to loosen up her lumbar, getting it to work correctly, and making her realise that it doesn’t hurt and to relax into her work again. Which she’s starting to do after some canter work. The better weather is also helping and I’m pleased with her work at the end of the last few schooling sessions. They feel progressive again.

While all this has been going on, I had had thoughts about boxing her the five miles to use the water treadmill. Hydrotherapy is a very good workout for their core and my initial plan, to try and keep winter Phoenix in her box next year, is to take her weekly to the treadmill over the worse of the winter months. It’s another form of exercise; when the weather is bad riding is a calorie burning exercise rather than being particularly beneficial to her way of going, so this would take the pressure off me to ride her on wet and windy days, hopefully keep the energy levels in check, and help keep her topline (which unfortunately has deteriorated this last 6 weeks while she’s been tense and reluctant to use her back properly). I felt guilty at the thought of travelling her during lockdown as whilst travelling for hydrotherapy is permitted, Phoenix wasn’t exactly in dire need of it.

Phoenix took to the treadmill happily, walking straight on, although the look in her face when it started and she shot backwards was a picture! It was interesting watching Phoenix’s lumbar muscles begin to work over the course of the treadmill session, starting a little locked but by the end her whole back was swinging nicely.

I’m not expecting a huge transformation in her physique as a result of going on the treadmill. This month of sessions is to help get her using her back again and feeling stronger. In the summer I can work her correctly easily and get her long and low (which is not natural or easy for her, like stretching out a strong spring which likes to be on alert) but now she’s experienced the treadmill she will be ready for the winter, when she comes weekly and hopefully we have a more constructive training programme. As well as the fact we will hopefully be allowed out competing and to blow off steam on the gallops.

Roll on spring!

Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.

A Lockdown Layout of Poles

I love having the opportunity to teach consecutive lessons at the same venue as it means I can play around with one setup of poles or jumps and utilise a variety of exercises. If I had a base to teach from I’d probably have a layout for a couple of weeks which could be used for flat, pole and jump lessons. Which would give the opportunity for clients to get some continuity and to develop the exercises over a couple of lessons.

For anyone bored during lockdown, this is a fabulous arrangement of poles which can be used umpteen times without becoming boring.

The pole at X is used in both circles, and the 3 poles at each end are laid out to make an accurately sized circle of about 18 metres. It’s useful to have the outer track free from debris.

The first use for this layout is to make circles rounder. For some young riders they tend to ride EB in a straight line, so the poles help teach them how to ride an arc across the school.

For more established riders, I usually discuss and encourage them ro to evaluate the quality of their circles and compare them to the opposite rein. Then we discuss stiffness; why one rein is harder than the other to get a round circle.

Once the circles are round and symmetrical in trot the same work can be repeated in canter. Often a pony will drift out on a canter circle without their rider noticing. Well with the poles it’s obvious when your circle isn’t round!

The poles can be raised on the inner end to improve cadence, help prevent them from falling in and improve vertical balance.

Finally, the poles can be converted to cross poles which tests jumping from a rhythm and improves suppleness.

With the exercise as poles on the floor, raised poles (although the pole at X needs to be raised at both ends) or jumps, a figure of eight can be ridden over the circle of poles which helps with flying changes; teaches a rider to plan their route and use their seat and body to affect their horse.

Apart from improving circles, this layout has another use – teaching gears to the gaits. Using the two poles on each three quarter line, ride straight over them in working trot, counting the strides. Then try to lengthen the strides into medium trot, getting fewer strides between the poles. Then collect the trot and increase the number of strides between the poles.

Again, this can be done in canter, and then as jumps instead of poles. With young kids you can keep it simple and just teach them to count strides which increases their awareness of rhythm. And with older kids it becomes a game, with them becoming more determined to get a set number of strides.

You can then also discuss the way the bascule changes shape depending on the type of canter – how when jumping from a medium canter the take off and landing points are further away from the base of the fence, giving rise to a long, shallow bascule. From collected canter those points are closer to the fence so creating a steeper, shorter bascule.

I love the versatility of this layout and how each subject can be layered to suit all abilities and all levels of understanding. It gives me so much variation between individual clients with the exact same lesson plan.

Arc of Poles

I only ever blog about exercises or lesson subjects which I feel have gone particularly well, would benefit others, and require a more in-depth explanation. A few of my clients will recognise this exercise from the last couple of weeks.

Riding trot and canter poles in a straight line is fairly, well straightforward, but putting them onto a curve makes it trickier, and is useful for highlighting a horse’s strengths and weaknesses. Using a twenty metre circle, I laid three or five trot poles on the curve, with the middle of each pole the correct distance for that horse’s working trot.

Firstly, I like to work a horse on both reins over the curve of poles. Having to increase the cadence of the inside hind requires a greater degree of balance, and if a horse finds this difficult then they may well drift out on the curve. At this point, it is really useful to compare the two reins to see if one is significantly easier than the other. Riding the curves and exaggerating the stride and push from the inside hind starts to improve the quality of the trot around the rest of the arena, and circles feel easier and more balanced.

I like to use the poles to improve medium and collected trot, by riding a smaller and larger arc. The poles encourage the strides to be adjusted and consistent over the poles, whilst the engagement of the inside hind leg encourages a lightness of the forehand. I used this exercise to good result with a duo, which really helped the balance of their medium trot and for the first time my rider felt the lengthening of her mare’s stride without an increase in speed or loss of balance onto the forehand.

For those horses who tend to fall into their inside shoulder on circles raising the inner end of the pole can really help them. If they have to lift their inside foreleg higher over the raised pole then they are less likely to load that limb. It almost acts like a jack, propping up the inside shoulder. The horse will feel more level, with vertical balance, as a result, and is then able to give a more through bend around the rest of the arena.

Raising the poles helps strengthen and increase the suppleness of the inside hind leg. It is also very beneficial to improving the stability of the pelvis because of the increased range of movement in the hips, so is very useful for horses coming back into work, mares after a pregnancy, and those with hindquarter asymmetry and muscle atrophy.

Next up, is canter poles, which is very useful for reinforcing a three beat rhythm, increasing the cadence of the inside hind, and creating a more uphill canter. A lot of horses will jump the raised poles, or try to canter a straight line across the poles. However, once the horse relaxes through their rib cage, they will find it easier and be able to maintain their curving line over the poles.

I find this exercise very useful for improving a horse’s vertical balance so that they feel more level, strengthening and suppling them, and getting them to work into a even contact with a bend throughout their whole body, which improves their general gait in terms of stride length, cadence, engagement of the haunches and lightens the forehand. Plus, it’s a fun exercise for both horse and rider!

Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Introducing Poles on the Lunge

As I’m doing a lot of lunging at the moment I’ve had to think of ways to make it more interesting for both me and the horses.

Which means a bit more polework and some jumping. When lunging over poles the onus is on the horse to go over the poles because as a lunger you have less control over accuracy than if you were riding the horse. So you have to introduce poles and jumping in such a way that the horse doesn’t learn that there’s an option of running around the poles. Then it’s far more fun for both the lunger and the horse, and you can develop their confidence and technique without the added weight or impact of the rider and their balance.

Before introducing poles the horse wants to be settled in their work, not too sharp and focused on the lunger. Then lay out one pole perpendicular to the fence, with plenty of room either side. Having the edge of the pole against the fence will prevent the horse running around the far side of the pole. Then it’s a case of knowing the horse – are they young or new to poles? Do they like jumping or do they have the tendency to be cheeky with poles (this may be more applicable with ponies!)? Are they confident with poles or jumps or do they rely on the rider to give them confidence?

If I feel the horse needs more support, or clarification over the question, then I will place a couple of poles on the inner side of the first pole to help channel the horse straight over the original pole. Sometimes I place a block or low wing by the first pole, which will later become the stand to build a jump and the guide poles can be leant up on this to make more of a barrier, and to make the question crystal clear.

Depending on the horse’s approach to new things and their experience, I will either lead them over the pole or walk or trot them on the lunge over the pole. I work on both reins until they are happy, and settled in the approach to the pole, neither rushing or backing off. If I’m honest I don’t tend to do too much in the way of cantering over poles. Going that much faster means I have less influence to avoid a sneaky run out and I find the horses better balanced in trot. Besides, any jumping we do on the lunge is not so high that they can’t jump from trot. If they pick up canter on the last handful of strides then that’s fine.

Back to building up the pole work. Once one pole is negotiated confidently I add in a second, about 4’6″ away from the first to make trotting poles, adjusting the distance to the horse I’m working with. We work over these until settled and then I add in another. I keep them on a straight line and put in as many as I feel the horse will benefit from. Using this step by step approach I find that most horses accept the exercise and take responsibility for going over it. I can also then judge how quickly I can build the exercise up next time and if the guide poles are necessary. For example, an experienced horse that I know well can probably go straight onto three trot poles.

When a horse is working well over poles on the lunge they are maintaining their rhythm throughout, improving their cadence, and using their back muscles to facilitate lifting each leg slightly higher. It’s also a good test of balance for them and horses who find it difficult tend to rush as they lose their balance. Not having the hindrance of the saddle or rider’s weight can help a horse learn where and how to carry themselves and build up the necessary muscles. This means that the horses learn to think for themselves for and to place themselves in the correct place.

When normal trot poles are established on the lunge, it’s a case of providing variety. Placing them away from the fence if the horse is committed to them, altering the number of poles, adjusting the distance to teach the horse to lengthen or shorten, placing the poles on a curve and raising the poles.

Raised poles exaggerate the step of the horse, so improving their cadence, suppleness and balance. Some horses just rush through and clonk each pole as their feet traipse over the poles, so it’s a matter of encouraging them to stay steady while they learn to lift their feet higher and more slowly over the raised poles. Without a rider to balance, young horses usually get the hang of raised poles quite quickly.

Do you keep the lunging gear on a horse while doing pole work? I think it depends on the horse and the gadget. If the horse is calm and experienced with poles then I will often leave them as they are. If they are likely to get excited or exuberant over the poles or if I think the side reins or Pessoa or whatever gadget they’re wearing will hinder their negotiation of the poles then I’ll take it off. Side reins can help a horse stay rhythmical and straight. A Pessoa can help encourage a horse to engage their core and lower their head as they lift their back over the poles so can be useful with raised poles if the horse tends to hollow their back instead of engaging their core.

When moving onto jumping on the lunge horses need to be naked so that they learn to jump without hindrance.

I always build the jump up from a cross pole, to an upright and then a bigger upright and then oxer if needed. I like to keep the jump adjacent to the fence and use the guide poles to help focus the horse unless I know that they’re confident jumpers. I approach it in a forwards trot, allowing the horse to pick up canter if they want. Going over the jump, it’s important for the lunger to keep moving parallel with the fence and to allow the lunge line to skip through their fingers as needed, so that the lunge line doesn’t jerk the horse’s head on landing. If the horse feels hindered on the getaway it may put them off future jumping. I have them jumping from both reins, keeping the question simple so that they can focus on finding the right take off point and improving their technique in the air. And I make it as fun as possible so that the horse enjoys the exercise and builds their confidence. Then their bascule over the fence improves.

A Polework Exercise 

Last weekend I did a polework clinic for the riding club. Polework is becoming increasingly popular, and I have to say they are enjoyable lessons to teach. Plus, using the poles for two or three hours is far more satisfying than just the one lesson.

As I had a variety of horses and riders I decided to layer the exercises, so riders could opt to stay at the easier level if it suited their horse, or progress to slightly more challenging exercises.

Let me describe the layout, and by popular request I will do a diagram.

I had a jumping arena to use, so it was roughly 30m x 60m, giving me plenty of space and I left the outer track clear. At each end I laid out four poles on a 20m circle. Then down the three quarter line, in line with a pole on each circle, I did five trotting poles on one side and three canter poles on the other side. I put wings on alternate sides of the trot and canter poles, and put wings on the inside of each pole on the circle.


Automatically I had two levels of exercise; raised poles, or poles on the ground.


Each set of poles can be worked with independently, or linked together to add an extra level of difficulty.

The poles of the circle improve suppleness, ability, strength of the inside hind, and check the effectiveness of the rider’s outside aids. Riding to the outer edge of the circle makes a 20m circle, whilst riding closer to the middle is a 15m circle and more difficult for the horse. So within my lessons, the riders could adapt the one exercise to their ability by the size of the circle.

The poles on the circle can be raised to increase flexion of the inside hock, improve flexibility, suppleness and balance. I raised one circle, so I could accommodate both levels of horse.

Using the two circles you could ride a figure of eight going across the diagonal from circle to circle. This improves the horse’s ability to change their bend. You can also ride one circle in trot and one in canter, thus adding in a transition to further the exercise.

Now let’s look at the poles. I only raised the trotting poles as the horses had enough to think about without raising the canter poles. Once the horse is comfortable with the poles on their own you can start to have some fun.

The circles can be linked together via the three-quarter line poles to make a course.

These are the courses I used and the benefits:

  1. Trot the circle of raised poles, trot the raised trotting poles, canter the circle of ground poles. The elevated trot strides should improve the canter. You want to aim to get a clear transition, which should feel more active due to the increased engagement.
  2. Canter the circle of ground poles, trot the trotting poles, trot the circle of raised poles. For horses who run down into trot this course makes them and their ridersthink because they haven’t got time to waste in a sloppy trot otherwise the trot poles go everywhere. Downward transitions then become more balanced and clearer.
  3. Canter the circle of ground poles, canter the canter poles, trot the circle of raised poles. Again, you need a crisp, balanced transition into trot in order to negotiate the raised poles.
  4. Ride clockwise over the circle of raised poles in trot, change the rein across the diagonal, making a canter transition ready to ride anti-clockwise around the circle of ground poles before returning across the diagonal and trotting in preparation for the clockwise circle. You can progress to riding both circles in canter, and having both circles with raised poles. You’re looking to have clear transitions straight into a balanced gait, with no anticipation from the horse so that they negotiate the poles easily.
  5. Trot one of the circles (it will depend which rein you’re on) canter upon leaving the circle, over the canter poles, make a transition to trot before the next circle. Again, transitions need to be clear and the horse shouldn’t rush the canter poles.
  6. Canter one circle, trot upon leaving the circle, trot the trotting poles, canter the next circle. 
  7. Trot on circle, as you leave it ride a walk or halt transition. Ride back into trot ready for the trot poles. Ride another transition between the trot poles and next circle. The same can be done over the canter poles.

Putting all these exercises together keeps the horses on their toes; they can’t anticipate or rush because the poles will cause problems. They also have to work hard in staying balanced through the transitions, which helps improve the quality of the gaits, improve the rhythm and suppleness.