The Island of Comfort

I have this theory, or metaphor, about comfort zones which I use a lot when working with riders and horses who are not the most confident.

I tend to think of someone’s comfort zone as an island. It may be round, elongated, any shape really, because we know our confidences are not always logical or predictable. At the beginning of a lesson or relationship with a rider or horse of low esteem I aim to get them confident and happy on their island. I explore the perimeter of their island, by chatting about goals, previous experiences, and using exercises to gauge their attitude, actual ability and perceived ability.

Once I begin to get a grasp on what makes them tick, I start to expand this island. Depending on the rider’s personality, learning style, level of nerves or confidence, I lead them to the perimeter, or shore line on the island, and get them to dip their toes in. I aim for them to get their feet wet and slowly the tide goes out, so the island gets bigger as their comfort zone increases.

Often, I set up an exercise which is fairly straightforward initially, and well within their comfort zone. Once horse and rider know where they are going and are riding it well, I start to layer the exercise. Depending on the difference between their perceived ability and actual ability, I will make the exercise appropriately harder. That may be introducing a transition, adding in lateral movements, increasing the gait, increasing the frequency of movements. Because we develop the exercise slowly and steadily, I usually find that my rider achieves much more than they expect they will and finishes their session on a confidence high.

Whilst my aim when working with nervous riders is to push them outside their comfort zones and to improve their confidence levels; I think it’s so important to respect when the rider says “no” or “that’s enough for today”. After all, everyone is different and if they feel they have achieved sufficient for that session, or want to go away, bottling their current feeling of elation and reflect on what they’ve achieved then so be it. After all, often it is better to take two small steps into the shallows and stand there enjoying the view, then take a further step and hit sinking sand.

Besides, I’m nudging my riders out of their comfort zones with my support, not throwing them in the deep end and hoping that they will swim and not sink. Half of the secret in developing someone’s confidence and increasing their island is giving them respect and increasing their self-esteem.

A Change of Lifestyle

One of my client’s ponies has always struggled with her weight. She has too much of it!

They were doing everything right; soaking her hay, minimal hard feed, exercise, restricted grazing, but after an injury and enforced rest over the summer this plump pony was even plumper!

We started her rehab, and although she started to lose a bit of weight but then she plateaued and as winter approached it was a stalemate. Something had to change before spring, when she might actually explode on the sugary grass!

The mare needed more exercise; canter work specifically but in order to do that post injury she needed a different arena surface to work on, and it being winter they needed more dark evening friendly facilities. So they found another yard, with an arena that wasn’t as deep as her current one, and with very good floodlighting, which meant she could be ridden every evening, and the work could be faster and more intensive. More polework and jumping could then be reintroduced. With faster workouts, and more frequent ones, she will increase in muscle tone, posture, and burn off fat.

Her routine was also changed as they went onto a DIY yard, so she was turned out earlier in the morning and caught in later. This totals an extra three hours out in the field. This might not be so great in spring or summer, but on a winter paddock it’s three hours more of wandering around, nibbling at grass, rather than those three hours spent stationary, demolishing a haynet. This means she requires less soaked hay as her nights are shorter, and I think it’s had a surprisingly strong effect on her losing weight.

With the change of yard there is of course a change in the hay and type of grass in the paddocks. The grazing is slightly poorer, but this suits a good doer, and has a higher percentage of grass in it rather than her previous field, which had a lot of clover in. Clover is rich in nitrogen and very fattening. I think this will have more of an impact in the spring and summer. I think the hay the little mare is now fed is of a similar nutritional value to before, and it is still soaked overnight so I don’t think the forage has affected her weight.

In the two months since moving to their new yard, the pony has become much fitter, improved muscle tone, and has improved in posture, which will hopefully mean that she is less likely to injure herself. Her good muscles have improved, so she has a topline. The weight has literally dropped off her; she’s gone from the bottom hole on each side of the girth to top hole and it still being loose!

Before Christmas…
… today.

I find it amazing the way a couple of changes – increased workload and reduced time chomping in the stable – have had such a huge impact on this mare’s weight. I feel much happier heading into spring with her and less concerned about laminitis, as I feel we will be able to control her weight more easily. I also think that she will be finding the ridden work far easier carrying less weight,which will only improve her performance.

It does make you realise that if you struggle to get the weight off your horse then increasing workload and increasing turnout on minimal grazing but plenty of space, is paramount to the weight loss journey.

The Wise Man

The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …

I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.

If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.

My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.

For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.

It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.

Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?

I Blame the Mud

Personally, I lay all blame squarely on the mud for this subject, but I have to say that I’m so proud of my clients, and pleased to have such a good bunch who listen closely to what their horse is saying and so averts a potentially expensive and time consuming treatment and rehabilitation programme.

On an aside, I’ve have several clients who have been on long term rehabilitation programmes for their horse’s injury, which in some cases their horse came to them with, and they are coming through the other side. One lady proudly told me that the physio feels that her horse no longer needs treatment to mend her long term problems, but now needs treatment to maintain her excellent muscle tone. Just like a normal horse! Another lady was told that her horse is moving well, and has better muscle tone than previously so it’s time to crack on and work him that little bit harder so that he starts to develop this muscle. I’m so pleased when I hear this positive feedback from physios. My riders are doing the right thing!

Back to my initial subject of listening to your horse. In their first lesson back after Christmas, one of my riders had a problem jumping. Her pony jumped beautifully over some smaller jumps, especially as we were working on jumping a tarpaulin. He did give a couple of bucks on landing when he basculed particularly nicely, but this isn’t uncommon for him. However, he jumped very erratically over some 90cm fences, even stopping. This is well within his comfort zone so I felt it was odd. We discussed the oddness, but he felt fine to his rider so we decided to monitor it.

The following week, I built a simple grid. If he’d lost his confidence, although I couldn’t work out why, this would help. They flew the grid at 80cm, although he wasn’t happy turning left after the grid and was marginally better with a right canter lead approach. Again, this isn’t unusual with his way of going. But as soon as I put the jump up a notch he threw in the towel. We reverted to the lower grid and just popped him through to finish on a positive note. As I couldn’t see any lameness or sign of soreness, my only suggestion was that he saw a physio or chiropractor in case he’d tweaked something and flatwork and low jumping didn’t affect it, but the extra effort of a bigger jump caused a twinge.

Anyway, she booked the Mctimoney chiropractor and just lightly rode him in the interim. I had feedback from the treatment yesterday – a slightly tilted pelvis, but more interestingly, a pulled muscle between his ribs and pelvis. Possibly due to careering around a slippery field. Which would explain everything. Thankfully, this pony doesn’t need any more treatment, just an easy week building him back up. But his refusing and erratic jumps could so easily be misinterpreted as naughty behaviour and disciplined, or ignored for a few weeks. Whereas by paying close attention to what he was telling her, my rider averted any major incident, either by his behaviour escalating so that it was dangerous, or by his injury worsening or a subsequent injury occuring from him trying to protect the pulled muscle.

Another rider had something similar just after Christmas when I noticed her horse’s right hind being slightly short in stride length, and not picking it up as much as usual. I was riding him and wasn’t happy with the trot, although I hadn’t noticed it in his walk around the tracks to warm up. He wasn’t lame to the bystander, but it wasn’t normal for this horse. I text my client to tell her and she immediately contacted her chiropractor, who came out a couple of days later and found a very sore fetlock and tight muscles all over – again, she put it down to field antics, but this time suggested that it happened because the mud is so claggy, he literally left a leg behind whilst showing off and wrenched it. But because his owner acted swiftly he only needed one treatment, and was completely recovered within a week.

So you can see why I’m blaming the mud! My final casualty to it felt off in walk when I hacked him. Not lame, although he definitely wasn’t comfortable in trot, but wobbly and uncoordinated. I reduced his work to walk only on as flat a ground as I could provide until we waited for his chiropractic appointment. By walking him out in a long and low frame he started to feel much better, more together and stronger. I did find that he was leaning on the right leg though, so much so that his winter coat was rubbing off with friction. Initially I thought it was something I was doing (moving my leg excessively etc) but after paying close attention to the matter, I felt that he was pushing right as he walked, so pushing into my right leg. His treatment showed very tight, sore muscles over his hindquarters and lumbar area, which ties in with slipping in the field. Hopefully he won’t do anymore field acrobatics, and I can start to build him up again, although I’ll be limited with the lack of dry bridleways!

I actually feel very grateful to have clients who pay so much attention to changes in their horse’s behaviour and try to find out why before labelling the behaviour as naughty. I’m equally grateful that they respect my opinion, based on observations and feelings from the saddle. Of course, I’m not an expert in this area but I like to think that I know these horses well enough, and have a good relationship with their owners, that when they aren’t themselves yet look normal from a distance, we can have a conversation about the different possible causes (be it back, saddle, bridle, teeth, feet) and can investigate them. Then between us we can nip any issues in the bud, get them treated before secondary problems develop, and with the minimal disruption to their activity plan.

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.

Working a Young Horse

I’ve been working with a young horse all summer, who has really tested the patience and determination of his owner and rider, but thankfully she’s starting to reap the benefits.

He came to her as lightly backed, but we soon discovered that he’d been missing a key element in his training: consistency.

So we took him right back to square one, and the first couple of weeks were spent with them building a relationship and him learning the routine in his new home. He’s a tense, nervous little guy, and it comes out in bolshy behaviour, so his owner had to establish ground manners and wait until he started to feel confident before starting to work him.

Now because he had already been introduced to tack, lunging and long reining, not a huge amount of time needed to be spent notching up the girth hole by hole as he got used to the feel of the saddle on his back, but we soon found out that he had some undesirable behaviours when being worked in hand, such as napping, twisting his body, bunny hopping, and charging at you. The same when he was ridden.

When I first met them they’d had some positive in hand sessions, but not so positive ridden sessions and his owner had realised she’d bitten off more than she could chew and needed help.

We decided to step back and focus on their long reining. They’d done some long reining around the farm tracks, which were going well, but weren’t doing any long reining in the arena, only riding, which wasn’t going so well. I completely agree that young horses should be educated outside the arena as much as possible, but this little horse didn’t have good associations with the arena. I believe this was because he was upset and confused about the ridden process and it was in a less familiar environment.

I think it stemmed from the lack of consistency in his backing process, as well as his individual personality, but as soon as the youngster was out of his comfort zone he displayed his “naughty behaviours” of napping and not going forwards. Starting to understand his personality and behaviour, we began to formulate a plan.

The horse wasn’t comfortable or confident in the indoor arena. Neither was he confident about being ridden. So putting the two together was a recipe for disaster. I sent my client home with the homework of long-reining in the indoor arena, doing basic circles, changes of reins and serpentines to build her horse’s confidence of being in that space. By doing some basic ridden movements from the ground they will become familiar, so hopefully when his owner rides him and rides these movements they will be more familiar and hopefully less stressful so he doesn’t exhibit any of his insecurity behaviours.

They continued to long rein out of the arena too, and the next lesson we began in his comfort zone with long-reining. They did ten minutes of this until he settled. Then his rider mounted, and we did exactly the same from the saddle as from the ground. So what he was being asked to do was familiar, but with the ridden part being unfamiliar. He was dipping his toe out of his comfort zone.

You can almost think of the comfort zone as an island, and the aim is for the sea to recede, so the island becomes bigger as the horse grows in confidence and experience.

Anyway, they had a positive ridden session, with him starting to relax. They didn’t need to trot until walking under saddle was within his comfort zone. The next few rides involved less long-reining and more in the saddle time, adding in short trots when the conditions were right.

They got to the point in the next few weeks that his owner could get on at the yard, enjoyed their rides round the farm, and were having positive sessions in the school. I think it was to their benefit not to increase the ridden work until the consistency was established. The horse began to relax into his work: he knew what to expect, was familiar with his surroundings and handlers, so stopped napping and responded correctly to the aids.

Once the consistency was established, we started to develop the ridden work. We introduced trots for longer and longer periods, transitions, circles and changes of rein. I was pleased that he was taking it all in his stride because he was growing in confidence.

Unfortunately, they had a blip and the youngster started napping again. Instead of persevering from the saddle, I suggested they returned to long-reining for a few days. I’m not sure what caused the blip, but the horse strikes me as a worrier, so it’s best to reaffirm his comfort zone and then start to ask the questions again, and be on the lookout for the first signs that he isn’t understanding, before his behaviour escalates.

It didn’t take long to get them back on track, and this will be the first thing we do if he has a sudden lack of confidence again.

Bearing in mind that this horse doesn’t have the best mindset to new experiences, and isn’t overly confident, we need to teach him to open his mind to new experiences. So we need to reduce the stress involved. I suggested that his owner introduced the outdoor arena by long-reining in there first, and then to ride in there after doing most of their work in the indoor until the horse relaxes in that environment. Then she can begin to work him properly in that arena. Hopefully by not throwing him in the deep end and asking him to swim, he will benefit in the long term because the relationship between him and his rider will strengthen as he gets more confident, and then we can ask him to step into deeper water more quickly and he won’t sink.

Next up is to continue establishing the basics, improving his rhythm and suppleness, adding in more school movements and getting the correct response from her aids. Being naturally tense, I want to see him starting to relax his topline and become more free in his body before we move on from each stage as that change in his body language tells us that he is more confident and understands his work.

Improving Symmetry

I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.

Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.

Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.

We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.

The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.

I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.

My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.