Working the Older Horses

I have a few clients with older horses; the older horse has many advantages of experience, reliability, patience and steadfastness to teach and build confidences. But with that comes an aging body and the associated problems that come with old age. They are usually still enthusiastic to work, but can be slightly stiff.

Every older horse, I believe, deserves someone (like one or two of my clients) who will dote on them. Give them everything they need; treat any ailment; have tack adjusted to compensate for an aging body; groom and fuss them to within an inch of their life; and lightly ride them to maintain fitness and mobility. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a riding school horse retired to this life of Riley.

Teaching with the older horse is different too. For instance, they often need a longer warm up, or a light seat canter early on to loosen them up. It’s also about recognising their limitations and working within them. We always strive to improve a horse’s way of going, but with an older horse you have to be aware of pushing too hard and triggering a problem, and be ready to accept their limitations.

A classic example of this is polework. Trotting poles aim to improve rhythm, cadence and length of stride. With a young horse or one in their prime, you can use the distance between the poles to encourage them to stride out. When I set the distance between poles for an older horse I adjust it based on how they’re looking that day, and aim to encourage good strides over the poles, rather than pushing them to lengthen. If they’re finding it a stretch today, I roll the poles in. It’s about maintaining their range of movement rather than improving it. Usually by encouraging several consistent good strides of trot, they will improve their range of movement slightly.

As older horses are more experienced and established I find it useful to focus on the rider position, which puts them in good stead when they ride a younger horse. So apologies clients with veterans; expect lots of no stirrup work!

We also still work on improving the horse. Older horses can vary in their performance depending on the day – some days they’re a little stiffer, other days they’re like a spring chicken! It depends on the temperature, if they’ve been stood in, or what they did the previous days. So the first part of my lessons are always spent assessing the veteran and deciding if they’re okay to do Plan A, or if Plan B would be better. I also think it’s really important for the rider to be able to evaluate their horse’s way of going each day so that they work them appropriately and pick up on any changes quickly. We talk about the Scales of Training, and how to improve the horse relative to their abilities. For example, we compare their suppleness between left and right, and to their work last week. We can them improve their symmetry a bit, and ensure they aren’t becoming stiffer than previous weeks without a good reason. Knowing the theory of equitation, even if it’s not always possible to practise it all, creates a good foundation for riding future horses.

I’m working a lot with a client on straightness with her older horse in preparation for her new horse. The veteran is crooked, because he has lots of niggles and the result is that his rider is a bit crooked and most importantly, unaware of the crookedness. It’s a tricky situation because I think if we straighten the horse like I would approach a six year old, we’ll open a can of worms and his niggles will become issues. But equally, we don’t want him to become more and more wonky. So I’ve mainly highlighted to my rider the assymetry in his way of going and the differences between the two canter leads and his lateral work on each rein. Then we’ve worked on reducing his assymetry by improving his rider’s straightness. By getting her to sit straighter, be more even in the saddle and with the leg and rein aids her horse will start to adjust his body. By doing these adjustments indirectly, we won’t achieve perfect straightness. But I don’t want perfect straightness with a horse carrying niggles. But we will hopefully lengthen his working life as he will straighten his body by degrees.

By improving my rider’s awareness of asymmetry and straightness, she will be in a better position to school her new horse. I’ve done lots of grid work jumping and pole exercises on this subject of straightness. Improving her awareness, minimising any drifting over jumps, and encouraging even muscle development. Whilst accepting a certain level of crookedness. For example, when jumping from the right canter, the horse can stay on a straight line and balanced, until the jump is a little big or the takeoff a little long. Whereby he changes to the left lead and drifts left. At the edge of his comfort zone, he’s showing that he favours his left canter. If he were a five or six year old we’d develop and strengthen the right canter. But to be honest, I find this totally acceptable in an older horse and am quite happy if he shifts to his preference in these circumstances. If he stopped staying straight and balanced in the right canter over small jumps or poles I’d be concerned, but he’s managing the top end of his work load in this way, so as long as my rider is aware for her future then we’ll go with the flow.

Keeping an older horse in work is all about making small improvements to their way of going and focusing on the longevity of their working life rather than upping the workload and putting demands on a body which is perhaps carrying old age ailments and previous injuries. And of course making sure they are comfortable with their workload – medicating hocks if necessary and weighing up the pros and cons of feeding daily bute. By developing a relationship and seeing the horse regularly, and working them consistently to a level, it is easier to spot any deterioration, which then allows them to be checked out and cared for as quickly as possible.

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.

And There Goes Another One …

So it`s that weird time between Christmas and New Year when we don`t know what day of the week it is, who`s working, when the post is delivered, or when the bins are collected. It`s always quiet on the lesson front and today was no exception.

Except for me, I was teaching all day.

I guess I could view it as a compliment to my teaching …

But it was one of those days, and I broke my record of fallers!

To start with, the 9am hack was successful. Except we chatted too much and were a bit late getting back. And my usually mild mannered escort pony decided to throw in a couple of handstands when I wouldn`t let her canter.

10am and I`m covering another instructor`s kids group lesson. There`s only three of them and I know them quite well, so I warm them up in closed order (after discovering they didn`t know what a serpentine was), take their stirrups away, and then a bit of cantering. They are all competent in canter so I kept them trotting as a ride and then they cantered one at a time to the rear. Then we changed the rein and came back to walk so that they could canter to the rear, canter past the ride (a good check of the outside leg) and then canter round the arena again. So far so good. They all managed it, albeit with the ponies getting a little bit too close to each other, but nothing disastrous. Until Emily. She`s on her second lap, cantering in a bit of a wild fashion, legs flapping to keep round the outside. As she comes out of the corner I say “Prepare your transition, and trotting!” The next pony is about to start. When Emily reaches E she suddenly bounces onto the floor! I pick her up, brush her off and ask everyone what on earth happened. We came to the conclusion she was just over riding and forgot to slow down, so when her pony did it for her she kept going!

Later in the lesson, when we`re jumping two teeny jumps on a 20m circle; I`m working on their approach and planning how they ride between jumps. Emily struggled because if she didn`t present her horse dead straight he would refuse (a good learning curve) and she also rushed between each jump, so cut corners and got unbalanced. She stayed on though! To finish I made a little upright, and one of the other riders came at it with her pony nicely forwards but not rushing and he takes off about an inch too early, puts in a lovely jump with a bit of a stretch, and as she landed she missed the saddle and hit the sand. Popped her back on and she finished with the cross. Happy and smiling. So then I explained to them why they fell off and what they need to work on.

11.15 lesson: two teenage girls who needed a flat lesson to re-establish their seats and position. forty five minutes in and we`ve spent most of it without stirrups, working on trot rhythm, bend, balance and leg yield. I let them take their stirrups back for canter, and the rider on the bigger horse (she`s ridden that size before, but not this particular horse) picks up trot and then canter. I`ve already informed them about balancing their canter so they make it round the arena safely. She`s going down the long side and I saw her freeze. Her horse wobbles, unsure what she wants, so decides at the end he would go right (I should probably mention here that our arena is 60mx40m so we divide it with dressage boards) and she was planning on staying in my arena and went left. Into the arena fence with a thud. She explained what happened immediately and how to overcome it before. While she caught her breath her friend cantered and we checked out her bossy left rein, which was too dominant as the inside rein, and when it`s the outside rein it`s forever crossing onto the right side … weird!

My final lesson of the morning was a success – phew! I thought the curse was lifted!

Then came my 2.30 lesson …

It`s a group jumping lesson and I have one rider who isn`t quite ready for this lesson but his sister was riding and we didn`t have time to do two consecutive lessons. I gave him a quiet horse who would look after him, and he`s very game, so I knew he wouldn`t be fazed. And I can always pop the jump down for him. I also had one of the grooms riding a pony who`s rider hadn`t turned up earlier. She`s also exercising him during the holidays. We warmed up quickly, open order, circles, sitting trot, canter, and then over the poles. I had them moving quite rapidly through the poles which I think caused a bit of concern as they had to be on their toes. And make sure their ponies weren`t chasing the one in front! I built the grid up quickly, it was only about 2`3 crosses, then a cross and two uprights. Finally I converted the last one to a spread.

This is where the problems started. All of the horses were getting one stride between each fence when they were crosses, but as they went to uprights the quick little pony suddenly became a pogo stick and backed off, so I had his rider hold for two even strides instead of one. The little pony ridden by the groom forgot what to do and started refusing the big scary yellow pole. Even my more novice rider on his jumping school master had a couple of flyers when the pony stretched for one stride. He just sat there grinning! Then it`s his sisters turn. Shes cantering the lumbering, coloured Heinz 57 towards the grid and I could see that he didn`t have enough impulsion. He`d probably scramble over (after all 2`3″ to a 17hh horse isn`t that big) so I yelled (with correct terminology … ) “KICK!!!!”

She didn`t. He made it over the second pole and creeped to a halt, throwing his rider onto his neck (she`s still trying to work on her lower leg security, and naively expected him to carry her through the grid), he lifts his head and she falls to the left and lands on her feet. Completely unhurt. Thank God! Her next go was much better now she knew the end result of not having enough energy.

Finally, to complete my day, my groom and her pony go off through the grid and I want her to encourage her pony to take a stride, and not chip in so that he makes a nicer shape over the fence, and over the middle fence (the scary yellow one) he forgot to pick up a leg and caught the pole between his front legs. On landing he pitched forward but regained his balance and then decides he can`t possibly to the spread. Groom somersaults over his head and lands on her feet. Admittedly there isn`t a huge amount of pony underneath her and even less in front of her so I`m not surprised she fell off.

Thankfully all my riders were unhurt, and hopefully learnt something today. Perhaps it was the after effects of Christmas, but I didn`t do anything out of the ordinary or dangerous, they just all forgot their superglue!

I think it`s time for a large glass of wine after all of that!