Should We Be Riding?

Since lockdown began and normal life ceased, I’ve been plagued by all sorts of emotions regarding riding in “these unprecedented times”.

Many people I know have decided not to ride, many have decided to continue, and many have had the decision made for them by livery rules. The pressure not to ride comes from the British Equestrian bodies which are strongly advising horse owners not to ride so as to not add to the burden on the already overstretched emergency services. Fair enough, and the pressure will have been removed immensely by the cessation of organised equestrian competition. Paramedics and ambulances are usually present at events, so by cancelling our spring programmes we are freeing up personnel and vehicles without any accidents even happening. Let alone the beds we’re not occupying with injured riders.

But should we be stopping riding altogether? In Spain and Italy the government have banned it. So we are lucky. At the moment!

The biggest question I’ve been pondering these last weeks is the psychological effect being told not to ride because of unnecessarily pressuring the emergency services will have on riders. I mean, do you get on your horse to go to the school for a flatwork session and think “I might fall off today and need an ambulance.”

I hope you don’t, and if you do I question whether you should be riding at all. But now, everyone is ultra aware that there is a risk to horse riding and it could happen to them. Of course, you do get those freak accidents which happen in the arena during flatwork, but they are exactly that – freak. You could have a freak accident getting out of your car, or carrying something upstairs, or doing the gardening.

I wonder how riders, particularly the less confident and more insecure riders, will be after this is over. Will they ever get rid of that niggling thought? Will there be a sudden decrease in leisure riders jumping and competing? Although this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in that I often see riders competing at the top edge of their ability, which is more risky. But I think it will be a bad thing for the less confident ones. Will some people give it all up as a result of the Covid pandemic?

Of course I’m not advocating that life continues as normal, I just wonder what the net result of this new line of thought is.

I think everyone has to balance out their needs, their horse’s needs, and being sensibly safe, when they come to their own decision.

One big factor, which my GP friend said to me about the emergency services issue, is that if you continue to ride, or do whatever sport or DIY you want to, and take risks then you have to accept that the level of care you will receive will be below the usual standard. It might be that you have to wait longer for an ambulance. After all, they need thorough disinfecting after transporting a potential Covid case, which takes time. Or your injury or treatment might be managed at home, when in an ideal world you should be in hospital. So you have to accept a drop in the level of care you will receive. However, you could have just as serious an accident climbing up 25′ ladders to clean the guttering which you are doing instead of riding your horse.

Start by evaluating your horse’s needs. If they are fit and ready for the competition season you can’t just turn them away. They might do themselves an injury in the field burning off excess energy, or injure their handler because of said excess energy. If they are a horse currently in rehab then is it detrimental to stop halfway? If they suffer with weight issues coming out of the winter are you risking obesity and laminitis by stopping riding them? Do they have a previous injury which actually benefits from steady exercise to maintain muscle tone and strength? If the answer to any of those is “yes” then exercise needs to continue in some form or another. Additionally, take into account your horse’s nature. Are they a mature, sensible horse used to being ridden, used to their environment, or are they flighty, spooky, unpredictable? If they’re the latter then there is obviously more risk involved in each ride. But that goes for your ride in February as well as April!

Now let’s look at you. Do you have a lot of exterior stress in your life and need to unwind by riding your horse? Do you struggle with your fitness which would benefit from continuing to ride? Do you suffer from depression, and without riding need to resort to increased medication? If the answer is “yes”, then you need to try to do some form of riding for your personal well-being. I would add here, that if you regularly fall off then you want to assess the reason (if you tend to fall off jumping then remove jumping from the equation) and try to avoid it.

Once you’ve assessed yours and your horse’s needs, you should be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement which keeps you both happy and healthy. My decision, and how I have come to it is as follows: Phoenix is better in consistent work, so continuing to work her is beneficial. It’s spring time, and she would get too fat if turned away. I don’t think she’d become rude and bargy if not in work, but with a toddler around I don’t really want to try it out. I am now looking after a toddler 24/7 and for my sanity I need some time in the saddle. I also want to keep a reasonable level of riding fitness ready for returning to work, so need to consider this. Phoenix is now working in the school under saddle three or four times a week. She is lunged once or twice, either in the school or the field. I’m not jumping her under saddle because it’s unnecessary at the moment, but I am lunging her over poles and little grids to provide variety to her work. Phoenix will hack alone, but until they’re turned out 24/7 and the north wind disappears, I don’t think it’s sensible to hack her because she is not as relaxed and the risk of finding gremlins in the hedge is higher. But I usually finalise my solo hacking decision when I’ve checked the actual weather and felt how coiled a spring she is, so in reality this hasn’t changed much from normal. I don’t think we should hack in company unless we’re from the same household because there’s no way we can stay two metres apart. Having said that, last weekend I was desperate for a hack, so went out with a lady who I see from a distance at the yard each morning. And kept our distance. So reducing the risks of Covid whilst giving myself a much needed time out. But I can’t see that happening again in the near future.

This arrangement and routine seems to be working well, and Phoenix is definitely benefitting from the increased routine and consistency. Plus my morning pony time sets me up for all the thrills and spills a toddler in potty training throws at you!

I think it’s important to know your horse, and what will keep them sensible. Some horses need a canter in the school to warm them up, particularly veterans, and others need a steady canter to get their brain engaged and eliminate any tension. So you need to work out what level of work your horse needs to keep their bodies and minds healthy. I’ve heard of some yards banning cantering at all, which is all very well but I’d be concerned that the horses would maintain a relatively good level of fitness, but not be able to release their tension and energy through canter so could become explosive when cantering is permitted or when the bottle of pop is shaken and the lid opened…

The way I see it, for myself, and for any clients who I’ve discussed exercise programs with, is that you have to think of your riding education like a growing tree. Usually, we are focused on growing upwards, with a few willowy branches going out to the side. Now, we are going to focus on increasing those branches. Growing more of them, and strengthening them. Our tree will become denser and stronger as our skills develop, knowledge increases, and foundations for later work is built.

Let’s say that you are currently working towards Novice level dressage. You can continue to develop the movements you have already introduced, but it wouldn’t be wise to introduce a new movement or concept. Instead, look back at your last prelim tests – was you free walk as good as it could be? Could you improve your centre lines? The answer is most likely “yes”, and if not I’m sure you can find a couple of movements which only received a 6 instead of a 7. Spend a week focusing on those movements to make those branches more robust. Then when you’re allowed, they will grow upwards more easily. For example, giving and retaking the reins is a weak spot of Phoenix’s, so I have been working on her maintaing her trot rhythm and balance whilst I give either the inside rein or both reins, and extending the amount of time I am giving the reins. Another area to improve could be your sitting trot, or your transitions. Think of developing and improving your current level of work rather than stepping up a level.

You can also use this time to practice a new skill, such as long reining, or to spend the time improving your lunging technique, which will help keep both you and your horse fit, provide variety to the workload, and improve your knowledge and understanding.

So whilst I’m very much leaning towards continuing to ride in a sensible and safe way; developing current knowledge and ability rather then stepping up, I think it’s important to consider how your actions are viewed by external people. That doesn’t mean the keyboard warriors who aren’t riding, either because their yard has stopped them, or through their own decision (they can get off their high horses and support those who can ride because yards are permitting it or their horses are sensible instead of going green with envy). I mean the non horsey passers by. And let’s face it, there is increased pedestrian traffic at the moment. Does it really look good if there’s three or four of you hacking out together? Does it look good that walkers see you jumping? Not really, in either case. I think if we want to continue to have the ability to ride we need to be seen to be obeying social distancing guidelines and to being precautionary in our activities.

Containing The Excitement

I’m working separately with two teenagers at the moment to try to retrain their (funnily enough, both) mares so that their jumping isn’t so fast and furious. Both horses are experienced jumpers, but very quick in the air, and very fast on the approach.

Now, I don’t think you’re ever going to completely change a horse’s way of jumping, in that some have more scope than others, some prefer a slower, more collected canter approach, and others like the leg applied on take-off more than others, and so on. However, correct training can enhance a horse’s jumping technique, and there are lots of exercises to help correct undesirable jumping behaviours. I don’t expect either horse to stop being forwards to a fence, but I aim to have them politer and steadier on the approach so that it is safer and less hair-raising for their riders.

With one mare, I started off with a pole on the ground between two wings and incorporated it into their warm up. I had my rider walk and trot over the pole, using it within circles, and basically doing flatwork around the pole, going over it every so often calmly, and when it’s least expected. This takes away the novelty factor of jumping and poles, and reduces the amount of repetition and so stops her anticipating jumping.

Initially, she made quite a thing about the pole, jumping it and cantering off. So we repeated the calm and quiet approach, with my rider staying positive but neutral. She just went with the pony over the jump before calmly slowing her down. Then there was no negative connotation between the rider and the jump.

What I liked about this mare, and I don’t know her very well, was that she was very obedient to her rider’s downward aids. She was happy to let her rider influence her. I did think that her jumping was almost a bit panicked, so I hope that by slowing her down she learns to read and understand the question, so begin to enjoy jumping more. The important thing though, is that she was willing to work with her rider, and seems to become steadier each time.

I built the jump up slowly, and we focused on my rider aiming to trot the approach to the jump by half halting strongly until a couple of strides out when the hand is softened and the seat and leg tells the horse to go and jump. After the jump, my rider had to sit up quickly and ask the pony to come back to trot.

We varied this basic approach by using circles on the approach, transitions to walk (a good exercise was trotting towards the pole on the ground, walking over the pole, and trotting away), and varying the length of the approach. She started to listen to her rider and stayed in trot until a couple of strides off the jump, and was fairly quick to trot again after the jump. I emphasised to her rider that she shouldn’t interfere on the last couple of strides so that her pony could sort her legs out. The pony should be at the tempo and rhythm set by her rider on the approach and getaway, but ultimately they have to jump the jump so shouldn’t be hindered.

The other mare will jump an exercise very calmly the first time, but then she gets over excited and gets quicker and quicker. So I change the exercise promptly, only doing each level once or twice – making a cross an upright, or changing the rein, adding in another element etc. And my rider tries to keep the trot and rides a circle or two, or three, on the approach until the mare stops anticipating the jump. The circle shouldn’t be too close to the jump that the pony thinks she is being pulled out of the jump, and it should be planned by the rider. Using a combination of changing the exercise and using numerous circles on the approach we managed to get a steadier approach, but there was a fine balance between containing the excitement and not frustrating this mare as she then has the tendency to explode and go even faster to the jump!

With both mares, I’ve found that avoiding simple jumps helps slow them down and get them thinking about the obstacles. This week, I built a grid of one pole and a canter stride to a small upright, then one canter stride to a cross. I had my rider walk over the first pole, then ride forwards to the little upright. I was really pleased that the pony walked happily over the pole and my rider could then ride positively to the jumps, instead of having to restrain the mare. We only did this grid twice because she jumped it so calmly and quietly. I want to build up to trotting over the first pole and then calmly cantering the grid.

When working with a horse who tends to rush fences it’s important that the rider has an unflappable demeanour, and a strong core so that they can hold the horse together before and after jumps, yet calmly stay in balance over the fence and don’t pull the horse in the mouth or get left behind in the air.

It can be difficult to retrain a horse to jump, but with a consistent approach of calm, quiet riding and using a variety of approaches to keep the horse focused on their rider and not rushing to the jumps. I also find that not repeating exercises too often, and returning to flatwork for a few minutes between jumps to resettle the horse has beneficial effects. As a horse starts to slow down and keep a more rhythmical approach to a jump their bascule will improve as well, which will help improve their posture and muscle tone, so making their jumping easier and prolonging their working life.

The Rider’s Seat

I refined one of my rider’s understanding of her seat earlier this week.

In walk she sits squarely, nicely upright, but in trot she collapses her lower back. After a quick chat, it became apparent that the collapsing is when she’s trying to use her seat to send her horse forwards. But this was counterproductive as her shift in position hinders him.

I used two analogies to begin with. The first, is to think of a bucket of water sat in your pelvis. Sitting squarely and correctly, the bucket can be brimful and not spill a drop. My rider keeps her bucket of water full in walk, but in trot, the water spills out the back.

The other thing that I wanted her to think about were the four corners of her seat bones. We only have two seat bones, but I think it’s better to think of them as having four points. Sitting correctly in halt a rider should feel that they are sat evenly left to right, and front to back. I.e. they can feel all four corners of their seat bones. When they can feel all four seat bones that bucket of water is brimful.

I sent them off in trot, tweaking their position slightly so that my rider kept feeling all four seat bones and didn’t spill her bucket. This is when the seat is in a neutral position. It’s not hugely effective, but it’s the best place to start. In order to keep her horse trotting forwards she used more voice, more leg, and a couple of little taps with the schooling whip. We had to break the cycle of her feeling the need to collapse her core when in the sitting phase of rising trot. With a more active trot she could keep her seat in neutral until she recognised when she deviated, and started to build some muscle memory.

Once my rider felt she was keeping the bucket of water inside her hips steady and could feel all four corners of her seat bones, we revised how a rider should weight the inside seat bones slightly on turns before putting that into practice.

Next up, we returned to the original discussion about using the seat. The horse was more forwards now, so more responsive to changes to her seat, which makes the learning process more rewarding as she gets instant feedback.

To send a horse on, or drive them forwards with your seat, you want to rock onto the back two corners of your seat bones. This opens up the front of your body and allows your seat to swing with the horse and encourage the energy to flow from the hindquarters to the front. If you rock your pelvis from neutral onto the back two seat bones in halt, you soon realise how slight a movement it is. When my rider tried this, she realised how she’d been trying too hard when she’d collapsed her lower back.

You can also think about that bucket of water. It’s no longer brimful, let’s say an inch from the top. When you rock onto the back of your seat bones to encourage more impulsion, the bucket will tip slightly. But you don’t want that water to slosh out the back. It’s a refined movement.

They practised changing between a neutral seat and a driving seat, until my rider could feel the slight differences in her position and could control it, and then the horse was responding to her seat aids.

Finally, we discussed the seat as a downward aid; rocking onto the front two seat bones, without spilling the bucket of water out the front, to help collect her horse, and to help ride a downward transition.

Then we put it all into practice, buy thinking of the bucket of water and the four corners of the seat bones, they rode transitions within the trot, circles and serpentines (making sure they didn’t slosh the water out the side of the bucket) until my rider felt in control of her seat aids, understood what slight movements they are, and was getting the correct response from her horse, who also started moving in a more forwards manner because he had clearer seat aids and she was carrying herself in a balanced way.

My Gridwork Clinic

I’ve planned a series of polework and gridwork clinics over the winter, approximately one a month, at a beautiful local showjumping venue. They’re designed to run independently, so people don’t feel they have to attend all six, and I’ve given each date a theme. This helps me plan, and also helps riders chose which clinics to come to as they have a rough idea of what we’ll be working on.For my first clinic, I chose straightness as the theme.I wanted to work evenly off both reins as symmetry improves straightness, and often riders find it harder to ride straight when turning off one rein more than the other, so in order to ensure everyone had a chance to improve their stiffer rein, I used the centre line.I laid two tramlines just onto the centre line, to focus the riders on their turn so they didn’t drift, and were set up straight for the grid. With a fairly short approach I laid out a jump, followed by another one canter stride away. The third jump was two canter strides away, with a pair of tramlines in the middle to correct horse and rider if they’d drifted. Then there was a fourth and fifth fence one canter stride apart. The fifth fence was an oxer, and there were tramlines on the landing side and the then just before the turn at the track.The tramlines ensured they started and finished straight, and stopped any cutting of corners after the grid, so improving the getaway.I warmed up all the riders by getting them to trot through the grid with the poles on the ground, alternating the reins they’re coming off. Initially, all the horses had a good look at the arrangement of poles, but after a couple of goes, they started going straighter, my riders were channelling them forwards because they’d stopped looking down, and the horse’s stride length opened and rhythm became consistent. The riders could also start to think about whether it was easier to turn off the left rein or the right rein and make corrections.We then cantered through the poles from both reins. All horses will struggle to get the distances while there are no jumps, but as they got straighter and more forwards they started to work out how best to place their feet. So long as the horses are going through in a positive, rhythmical canter, I’m happy at this stage.I built the grid up slowly, starting with a cross as the first jump. The centre of the cross meant we knew if there was any drifting on the approach. The second fence was also a cross to help straightness, and then the tramlines corrected any drifting on the getaway and over the rest of the poles.The third jump was an upright, and once they’d jumped it confidently once, I made it into an A-frame. The apex emphasised the centre of the jump, and encouraged the horses to be neater over the jump. Of course, the horses and riders back off this slightly intimidating set-up, so I encouraged the riders to sit up after the second cross and ride positively in order to get the two strides. Once the horses have jumped it a couple of times it doesn’t cause any problems. The fourth jump also became an upright. With some groups I also made this into an A-frame, but if I felt that the first A-frame improved the horse’s technique over subsequent jumps I didn’t bother. And finally, we built the fifth fence into an oxer.Everyone found that the tramlines were incredibly helpful at helping both horse and rider stay straight, and the crosses highlighted any drifting so the riders’ knew how and when to correct over the last three elements. They could all feel the difference in their horses as their straightness improved because the distances were easier and the hindquarters more efficient at pushing the horse over the fence. They also landed in a more balanced way, ready for the next obstacle. When the horses were going straighter the riders could feel the effects of any twisting by themselves through the grid, which helped them fine tune their position.

All in all, it was a great, rewarding morning, with lots of progress from each partnership. Now I need to plan next month’s “Gears to the Gaits” clinic!

Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.

Left Anchors

I’ve done a few lessons this last week, strangely enough, correcting various riders on their hand position. And particularly, their left hand.

I’m not sure why it seems that so many riders are fixing their left hands down; I can only suggest that society’s bias towards right handedness causes people to use their left hand to stabilise themselves whilst their right hand does the dexterity work.

Anyway, I’ve had several riders this week who ride with their left hand held further back than the right, and low to the wither, like an anchor. This positioning has more impact on a horse’s way of going than many people realise, which is why I’ve been drumming on about it so much.

Let’s take a closer look at the effect of anchoring your left hand down.

On the left rein, you usually find the horse bends more easily and you find it easier to ride round the turns. Having the left rein fixed onto the wither creates left bend in the horse’s neck, which is why it can seem like they are going better in this direction, but when you pay attention to the hindquarters they usually are not following left curves. Riders who fix their left hand usually use this rein to steer, and so their right leg is less effective at pushing the horse left.

This becomes a cycle in that the horse doesn’t respond to the right leg so the rider is more inclined to rescue the situation by pulling their left rein, which means the horse becomes less responsive or understanding of the outside aids.

The left rein needs to be improved by reducing the amount of left bend. I usually ask the rider to take up more contact with the right rein and to raise their left and carry it further forwards. So it feels like it’s much further forwards than the right rein (then they become level) and then to focus on the right leg turning the horse round each turn and the left rein merely indicating.

I quite often ride squares or diamonds with riders who fix their inside rein as it focuses them on their outside aids and encourages them to ride their horse with a straighter neck. I also experiment with counter flexion to increase their awareness of how their horse tends to give too much inside bend in the neck.

On the right rein, an anchored left hand gives a more stable outside rein which I find the horse tends to prefer and they definitely look more settled, but if there is too much anchorage in the left rein it will encourage the horse to look to the outside and to fall onto the inside shoulder and so fall in. They will find it harder to produce right bend, purely because they are restricted. When working on the right rein I encourage my riders to soften the left arm to allow the horse to look right. Then I get them to focus on using the right leg to keep their horse out round the track, on circles etc. Most riders in this scenario fall into the trap of pulling even more with the left rein to try and pull their horse back out to the track. So I do some leg yielding exercises to improve the horse’s response to the right leg and to change my rider’s thinking so they are riding from inside leg into outside rein, rather than using their hand first. This usually triggers an epiphany moment, when they feel the horse begin to give right bend because the right hind is coming under their body more and to feel more balanced.

Some horses try to rush off when the left anchor is released, which is understandable as effectively the handbrake is being taken off. I often suggest the rider half halts with the right rein, even though it is the inside one, because it stops them anchoring the left rein back down, and also encourages the right hand to be a stabilising rein which has huge benefits on the left rein.

After working each rein independently, I then incorporate serpentines and figures of eight to help the rider feel the improved straightness and symmetry in their horse, and for them to tune in to the actions of their hands, when they are the outside and the inside rein.

By now, most riders are beginning to understand the consequences of fixing their left rein down, and with a few gentle reminders here and there, they are beginning to carry their hands and are more even in the contact. Sometimes it’s a matter of practice to retrain their muscle memory.

Correcting the left hand position improves the horse’s way of going, and usually the effect is instantaneous, but as an instructor I then need to work out why the left hand feels the need to fix down so much. Is it related to their confidence? Their balance?

The majority of the time, riders who anchor their left rein sit to the left. Which of course means they’re encouraging their horse to give left bend and will find it harder to apply their right leg. Both of which are symptoms of the situation I described earlier.

Chicken or Egg?

This leads me nicely onto my next teaching subject: working without stirrups and focusing the rider on sitting evenly on their seat bones and the correct aids. Hopefully in a couple of lessons both rider and horse will be working straighter, more correctly, and more symmetrically, which means the rest of their ridden work will improve.

Shallow Loops

Every so often I remember an exercise and utilise it with various clients of all ages and abilities. Currently, it’s shallow loops.

Quite often they’re overlooked in favour of serpentines or figures of eights, but they have their own benefits as a movement which tests a horse’s balance.

First appearing at novice level, shallow loops are ridden down the long side of the arena, as perfectly illustrated by my friend’s sketch for Demi Dressage, below.

The criteria for a shallow loop is to ride a smooth, flowing line from F towards X and then return to the track at M. They become an easier movement if you only leave the track by five metres – that is, you cross the E-B line five metres from the track. Riding FXM makes the turns more acute so requires greater suppleness from your horse. As with everything, start easy and once you’ve mastered level one, up the ante.

So what are the benefits of riding shallow loops? Firstly, they stop horses getting too track bound, and ensure they are listening to the rider’s outside aids. They are good at teaching riders to be less reliant on the fence line, and they show up any erratic steering issues! If you don’t plan and ride subtly, you end up staggering across the arena. For the horse, you are changing their bend in quick succession so it is a test of their balance and suppleness as they shift from one hind leg to the other.

Riding trot shallow loops are really helpful for improving the trot-canter transitions as in the shallow loops the horse changes from the inside hind (in relation to the inside of the arena) to the outside hind (the one nearest the fenceline) as they return to the track. In the trot to canter transition the horse shifts from the inside hind leg in trot to the outside hind in canter.

Riding shallow loops in canter introduces counter canter, further testing a horse’s balance.

When introducing shallow loops I find the hardest aspect of the movement is getting the loop to flow smoothly with an even incline to and from the track, so the most useful thing is to provide visual cues for riders. By guiding their eyes they automatically begin to flow away and towards the track. I use cones or jump blocks to show riders where to go. I place one cone near the corner, where the rider needs to go round the outside of before they leave the track, then another on the E-B line which they need to pass on the inside, and the final cone in the next corner to encourage the rider to return to the track and ride into their corner. As we develop the movement we increase the shallow loop from five metres towards ten metres.

How do you ride shallow loops? Begin by riding into your corner to give yourself plenty of space, and then using the outside aids, ride off the track. Almost imagine you’re riding across the diagonal, so turn your body to look across the arena, sit into your inside seat bone as you open the inside rein and close your outside leg. As you approach the E-B line, and the innermost part of the shallow loop, start riding parallel to the long side. Aim for three or four strides, during which use the leg nearest the fence on the girth, and open that rein to change the horse’s bend and engage that hind leg. Then return to the track and upon reaching it change the bend back to the original direction with the leg nearest the centre of the school acting on the girth to engage that hind leg and opening that rein. Ride into your corner ensuring your horse stays balanced.

The biggest faux pas I see when riding shallow loops is riders having dramatic changes of bend, which unbalances their horse. Minimise the bend and take your time in the middle of the loop and the loops will begin to flow and feel balanced, with the horse able to maintain their rhythm. If a rider doesn’t spend sufficient time in the middle of the loop; riding straight lines to and from X, then it may be useful to replace the cone with a pole, which forces some straight strides.

I’ve been putting shallow loops into my warm ups to give variation, and to help riders move around the arena. Instead of trotting the long side, we’ve put in a shallow loop to keep the horse’s focus. Have fun incorporating them into your workouts!

Our Story

This isn’t easy to write, but it’s taken me long enough to stop being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand. This is the missing piece to Phoenix’s story of the last few months.

You may remember in January that she started shooting off in canter in the arena, which I discovered was caused by muscle adhesions and tightness in her left hind so she had a course of physio therapy. In April, this limb got a clean bill of health.

In February I was working on Phoenix’s walk and trot in the arena, and cantering in straight lines out on hacks. Until her left hind was sorted, I didn’t really want to canter her in the arena.

Phoenix’s uncontrolled right canters in the arena in January had unnerved me a bit. I’ll be honest. Whilst I could ride the eight laps of fast, uncontrolled canter calmly round the arena, I didn’t enjoy it. So I decided that I would ensure she wasn’t in any pain before readdressing the canter, and just focus on improving her trot, work the canter on the lunge so that she was calm and balanced throughout the transition. We were enjoying our hacks, and she was behaving perfectly.

Then it happened. I took her for a hack one afternoon. We were on our own, and I decided to trot across the patch of grass which cuts off a junction. That trot turned into canter, which turned into a flat out gallop. She jumped the ditch onto the road, turned left. Slipped over, and we parted company.

Ok, so I wasn’t particularly hurt. A couple of grazes and bruises, but nothing a hot bath won’t cure. But I was gutted. I felt betrayed. A bit like if you overhear a friend talking behind your back. It hurts much more than a stranger saying the same words. I think Phoenix scared herself too. I wish I knew what had triggered her bolt. But she definitely changed towards me after that incident. I led her home, lunged her hard and then got back on.

The rest of that week I beat myself up. Why was I being so pathetic? We had a tumultuous week weatherwise, with constant gales, so each day I weighed up the pros and cons of riding. And inevitably chickened out each day. I was tense and worried, and she was equally stressed out.

When the weather settled, a whole week later, I got back on and hacked round the block with a friend. It took both me and Phoenix most of the hack to relax. The next day I went in the arena, but I was so worked up about it I ended up getting another friend to lunge me to get the first trot, and then just stand there talking about the weather to me as a distraction.

I felt so disappointed in myself. My riding of clients’ horses on the other hand was feeling better and I was getting good results. But I couldn’t ride my own horse without stressing out.

It was about this time I began investigating Phoenix’s nutrition, and the possibility of ulcers. And decided to come up with a rescue plan for myself.

Firstly, what I’d tell my clients, I took the pressure off myself.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that it had to be me who solved this problem. There was no point getting someone else to ride her because that wouldn’t stop my qualms, and given Phoenix’s current mental state she wasn’t trusting of anyone. And as a friend said, she is actually very attached to me. You can see by the way she watches me and follows me round.

Someone described her as a cat pony. Which is totally true! Phoenix is affectionate, but on her terms and can be a bit aloof. Which I think makes it harder to build a relationship. You can’t kiss and make up, so to speak.

So I was sorting out Phoenix’s diet, she was having regular physio sessions, saddles had been checked, and I was focusing on spending more time grooming and just being with Phoenix so that we became friends again. I worked her on the lunge, and she was behaving perfectly here.

I decided to box over to my instructor to have some lessons to remove any environmental stimuli. I needed some advice to overcome Phoenix’s tension in the school, and to develop some tactics to stop her scooting off. After all, every time she scooted off I tensed, and that made her more jumpy. It was a vicious circle.

The hacks were getting back on track: we’ve been out alone again, and she’s been on her best behaviour ever since.

I hoped that a change of arena would help reset our flatwork. It seemed to work, and after two lessons we had a short canter on both reins. In the third lesson, the canter was beautifully calm and balanced, like it was at Christmas. I felt like we were back on track.

Just before the second lesson, Phoenix had had the all clear from the physio, and as I couldn’t find any physical excuses for her to be stressed about cantering I decided to take her on a sponsored ride. I hoped the long canters would build some muscle, and she had plenty of time to find her rhythm and balance. And of course she would realise that it didn’t hurt. She was phenomenal, and I was euphoric. We were friends again!

Since the sponsored ride I felt like we’ve been on an up; we had a great third lesson at my instructor’s. I still wasn’t getting the same level of relaxation at home, and was sticking to walk and trot. But then I think we are both aware that that particular arena is where she’s misbehaved.

This takes us up to last weekend. I was feeling happier, getting better work from Phoenix and we were making progress. I was schooling last Saturday and getting the best trot work I’ve had for a long time, just doing a last circle when Phoenix had what can only be described as a panic attack. Halfway round the circle she shot into canter, heading towards the corner of the arena. I pulled her round and we cantered a few panicked circles and she started putting her head down. But I pulled her up, then dismounted because she felt like she was about to explode. Her back was up, the saddle had shifted forwards. What caused what, who knows. Once deflated and with the saddle adjusted, I got back on and we had a tense trot. I was pretty disappointed, as I should’ve finished a circle before!

On Sunday I had a very disappointing ride. Phoenix was scooting off each time I asked for trot, and wouldn’t relax in walk. She behaved perfectly on the lunge, but her jumping and scooting made me jumpy so the vicious cycle was back (I did observe her to be in season too). I wrote it off, but wasn’t happy as I was going cross country schooling the following day!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get in the cross country field, but Phoenix was again, phenomenal. She jumped everything I asked her to, and felt incredibly bold and rideable!

It’s like a rollercoaster at the moment. Phoenix behaves so well out of the arena, but we’ve taken a few steps back again inside the boards. She’s living out now and whilst she has plenty of fresh grass, she seems happier so hopefully the nutrition and management side settles down now. I think that whilst she’s had some issues over the winter (left hind and not eating enough forage) Phoenix has started to try it on. Her scooting off was initially from discomfort, but she is now doing it to get out of work. So I’ve got my work cut out being consistent in the arena and teaching her that she’s not going to get away with not working. She’s trying to be in control in the arena. Out of her comfort zone on hacks or cross country, she’s happy for me to take control and is submissive.

This weekend is being spent repeating the lessons of last week and trotting with a softer neck, and relaxing through her body. Hopefully a few days of this and proud Phoenix will back down and submit to me in the arena. Then we can get our competing again!

I’ve signed us up for riding club camp in June too, so I’ve got a goal, a focus, and I shall keep plugging away; keeping consistent, putting the boundaries in place, and waiting for Phoenix to settle back down. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, the good days are fantastic, I just need to iron out the bad days, but hopefully now things will start to come together.

Eyes Closed!

Trot to canter transitions have been a sticky point for one of my clients and her pony. Both the trot and canter work has come on in leaps and bounds, but the upward transition is still sticky – like a smudge on a drawing.

I think it stems from when the pony was more on the forehand and my rider less of an adult rider and more of a child rider so had less finesse over the subtlety of her aids. After all, it’s a huge transition from child rider (leg means go, hand means stop) to an adult rider (leg and hand together mean go,stop,left or right!).

I decided that we would have a session taking apart the trot to canter transition, to see how and where it could be improved.

After warming up, I put them on the lunge. She rode a couple of canter transitions as normal, but thinking about what her body is doing.

Then, I took her reins away. As this rider asks for canter, her upper body gets quite active, yet is also stiff, which comes out in her arms. As her arms stiffen in the transition, so her pony raises her head and blocks through her back.

I had her relax her shoulders and arms and then ride some transitions on the lunge without her reins. This helped improve the transition by keeping the pair relaxed and in sync. Then the pony was more forwards. Having no reins, it was obvious to my rider as her hands came up and her arms stiffened.

Staying without reins, we moved on to looking at my rider’s seat aids. To help her tune in to what she could feel and what she was doing, I got her to close her eyes for the canter transition. This was enlightening, and once she’d recovered from the feeling of not being fully in control (hence why I was there at the end of the lunge line!) she could tell me a little about her seat aids.

I reminded her that during the trot to canter transition her hips have to go from an up-down motion to a circular one, akin to doing the hula hoop. She then focused on this movement of her seat through the next couple of transitions with her eyes closed.

We also checked the angle of her pelvis; sometimes she sits a little onto the front of her seatbones, and whilst I don’t want her collapsing her lower back, by tucking her tail between her legs and sitting towards the back of her seat bones, her seat became a more forward thinking aid, so encouraging the energy to flow up from the hindquarters and through to the front end.

The upwards transitions were looking better, but we were still missing something. I asked where her weight was distributed between seat bones and asked her to put a little more weight onto her inside seat bone as she transitioned from the up-down hip movement to the hula-hooping movement.

Voila!

They got it! The transition suddenly looked like the completed jigsaw, and lost any resistance from either party, and meant they could immediately get a balanced, relaxed and rideable canter rather than wasting a few strides.

I made them repeat the transitions with no reins and eyes closed a few times on both reins. I considered taking her stirrups away but decided to save her that torture, as I thought my rider might tense her seat without stirrups and so undo all our progress.

With her reins back, I unclipped them and we worked on the trot to canter transitions around the arena. Every so often, to draw her attention to her seat, I got my rider to close her eyes for the transition. This was only possible because we were in a standard arena on our own with a very well behaved pony!

The transitions gained in consistency and became much more fluid. We didn’t focus very much on the leg aids because the improvement to her seat aids made such a difference, but in a few weeks I’d like to progress to minimising the leg aids, but my rider needs to strengthen and get more awareness over her seat aids first before we reduce the support of the legs. I really enjoyed the challenge of fine-tuning the aids and discovering the element which isn’t quite perfect.

If ever there’s an “blemish” to your riding, taking it apart and putting it back together piece by piece until you find the weak links and then spending some time focusing on improving that area with pay dividends in not only improving your blemish, but also having a positive impact on other areas of your riding, and in the future too. It’s far better from a long term point of view to find the cause and treat it, rather than put a plaster over that area and cover it up because that plaster will trip you up later on!

Equine Nutritionist

There will be a few posts over the next week or so, which all link together to create the full story. So be patient.

I thought I’d share my experience with an equine nutritionist with you. It’s not something I’ve really thought about doing before, but it was surprisingly informative.

I’ve found Phoenix very tricky over the winter, in terms of her being very tense and reactive to ride – to the point that I can’t actually apply any aids. I was sorting the left hind muscular issue with physio, but she was still unhappy. When riding her, she was struggling to relax, but when I applied my right leg the whole of her right side was going rigid. It didn’t make sense. If her left hind was sore then she shouldn’t be resisting engaging the right hind. Her reaction was unlike any I’ve ever felt on a horse.

It was a puzzle, and when I stood back and looked at her, her stance was uptight, rigid; a horse in full flight mode. But nothing had changed. I did some thinking and asking around and then a theory came to me.

What is she’s suffering from stomach ulcers? Perhaps not full blown ulcers, but some form of gastric discomfort?

Phoenix wasn’t responding to the classic ulcer trigger points, and the only way to diagnose ulcers is to scope. Which involves sixteen hours of nil by mouth – a highly stressful situation for what is already a stressed horse. So I decided that I had nothing to lose by assuming she has them and coming up with a plan.

Then, with hindsight (isn’t that a great thing?) I realised that when she started living in at night she ate very little of her ad lib hay, and periodically had nights where she ate very little. She had been eating better recently though, upping her intake to what I would expect from a horse her size, except for the night before my epiphany.

Immediately I bought some haylage and started mixing it with her hay to encourage her to eat. A couple of days later, I thought her body language seemed happier. Which led me to wonder if I could improve her diet.

I didn’t want to go to a feed company and ask their advice; they have a product bias. I wanted someone independent to look at the whole picture. So after qualming slightly at the cost (but decided I could easily waste that amount on inappropriate supplements) I approached an independent equine nutritionist.

I had to fill out a lengthy form, answering questions about vet history, behaviour, current diet and management system. It was very in depth, but I did think it could be improved by requesting a photo because the condition scoring relied on my honesty, and me being knowledgeable enough to score her correctly.

A week later, I received a thorough report, which I thought I’d share the main points with you.

  • Phoenix’s behaviour suggested gastric discomfort, potentially ulcers, and is probably rooted in it being her first winter stabled overnight. The nutritionist suggested that it could take several seasons for an adult horse to acclimatise to stabling, which I didn’t realise. Whilst Phoenix didn’t show signs of stress outwardly, she probably internalised it, and her not eating hay overnight is a sign of stress. I should continue to mix in haylage to increase her forage intake. Again, with hindsight, I know that Phoenix will keep her worries to herself, so I have let her down here by not cottoning on quick enough, and her stresses have now bubbled over. The nutritionist suggested that I could offer Phoenix multiple different types of forage in the stable: different types of hay or haylage, a bucket of dampened chaff or grass nuts, which is definitely something to consider next year.
  • There was a paragraph, which I think is fairly compulsory, describing the importance of good dentistry and worming practice. As Phoenix is on a 6 monthly dental routine, and in her worm test last week had a clear result, I’m not concerned about these factors as a cause for her unhappiness, but of course everything needs to be considered.
    I am feeding Phoenix the correct amount of a suitable hard feed – 1kg of Pure Feed Fibre Balance – but the nutritionist found this to be lacking in zinc and copper, so I could either supplement these or change to a different feed.
    Again, there was another compulsory statement reminding me to ensure Phoenix has salt added to her diet when she’s working as feeds and forages don’t supply sufficient sodium.
    I was told to feed 20g of magnesium oxide – which is quadruple the recommended amount on my supplement tub – which is perhaps why I haven’t noticed a difference in her behaviour.
    I was also recommended to feed Phoenix a probiotic until she starts living out, and then again next winter. I’m currently using Protexin gut balancer, but a friend has told me that it isn’t that effective if a horse has an Alf-Alfa intolerance. So if I don’t find a difference in Phoenix, try a different brand.
  • The equine nutritionist also suggested that I could try a stomach supporting supplement or a calming supplement, but recommended that I made other changes first before exploring this avenue. She finished the nutritional report by saying that although I could end up feeding lots of different supplements they should all complement each other nicely.

What I liked about this nutrition report is that it wasn’t trying to sell me a product, it took into account her current lifestyle and limitations that I have with regard to yard rules or routines. The nutritionist had obviously taken on board my spiel about her behaviour, personality, physio, and adapted her recommendations to reflect this. I also felt I could go back with any queries, and feedback to her in a month’s time. She’s also given me a plan for next winter.

I’d definitely recommend speaking to an independent nutritionist if you need help designing your horse’s diet; they have the knowledge to save you hours of research, and only recommend brands that they think will benefit your horse. It’s not cheap, but for the cost of a private lesson or two (depends on your instructor!) it’s worth it in the long run.

Here’s hoping that the improvements I’ve seen in Phoenix since feeding her haylage, a probiotic, magnesium oxide, salt, zinc and copper, continue now that she is living out 24/7. Once she’s stopped gorging on all the grass of course!