7 Years

It has been seven years of Starks Equitation this month, so I’ve been doing some reflecting.

They talk about a seven year itch, but it’s not something I’m feeling. I think that’s because I have so much variety to my job.

Starks Equitation has changed significantly over the last seven years. I’ve changed significantly. I’ve more experience, more qualifications. I’m older. My values and opinions have shifted slightly. And Starks Equitation doesn’t just offer schooling and lessons now. There’s Demi Dressage, Pony Club, BHS stages training; let alone the other roles of confidant, advice guru, Prix Caprilli trainer, and anything else that’s asked of me.

I think it’s the ever changing challenges that keep me fresh. Sure if I were in any one role I’d rapidly get bored or stale in my job, but the fact that I teach all different ages and abilities, and across a range of activities definitely keeps me on my toes.

Although the ever changing nature of being self employed always makes me nervous. What if I lose all my clients? Well in the early days that was definitely a risk – a combination of fewer clients and the risks of injury, lameness, financial changes etc could potentially leave me with an empty diary. But now I have a finger in a few pies and lots of contacts I feel more secure in this area. In fact, now if I happen to have a couple of cancellations, or someone is away one week, I breathe a sigh of relief and use that free time to catch up on the rest of life’s admin.

One thing I don’t think I’ll ever get used to though, is the emotional involvement of teaching. I see all of my private clients at least once a fortnight, and see many Pony Clubbers regularly. I am on their riding journey with them. Whether it’s buying their first horse, or taking them from lead rein through to a one day event, or building their confidence from a nervous wreck to a shining star. I am there each step of the way. I like getting messages about their amazing hack when they felt confident enough to go solo. Or their competition results, or a super schooling session between lessons.

I don’t think clients always realise this emotional involvement. Perhaps it’s a fault of mine and I should be more business-like and leave each client in a box between their lessons. Social media doesn’t help this, as they pop up. But equally, I think it makes me a better teacher for being personally involved.

Possibly one of the hardest parts of this job is losing clients. Often it’s by no fault of anyone – they outgrow the pony, retire the horse, move away, either party gets injured. But sometimes you get dropped as an instructor. They want to try a different direction, they’ve jumped on the yard band wagon with a different instructor. Or sometimes, it’s just unexplained. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Sure, if you’ve taken a rider to the highest heights of your teaching skills and they are ambitious then often they move from towards a specialist coach; then so long as you all part with a “thank you” and “keep in touch” everything is funky dory. The tough bit is seeing, physically or on social media, them falling into bad habits or not progressing as you imagined their trajectory to be. It can be gut wrenching. And I know it’s not just me, but other instructors have this level of emotional involvement with their riders. I think more so at grassroots level, when you are involved weekly and get asked advice on a host of other management questions, as well as celebrating their milestones.

This emotion is what gives us the drive to stand outside in all weathers shouting “heels down” until we’re hoarse, and enables us to give 110% to every lesson. It makes freelancing a roller-coaster of emotions for which the highs (thankfully) usually outweigh the lows. But it’s nice to feel appreciated every now and again as we shadow you along your yellow brick road to success.

That’s not to say I feel under-appreciated. In fact I usually feel I’m being given too much credit by most of my clients! It’s just something that I’m very aware of, and know how detrimental it can have on your confidence as a coach.

Learning to Canter

I had a few of my young riders have their first canter just before Christmas, and I’ve decided that the first canter stage is the most nerve wracking thing to teach.

There’s so much groundwork and preparation to do, and if you get the timing wrong it can have catastrophic results.

Before I even think of a rider having their first canter, they need to be confident in sitting trot, have experienced working without stirrups – how much no stirrup work they do depends on how big the child and how bouncy the pony is. I like them to be very confident in trot, and to happily ride a “fast trot” in a balanced way.

In a riding school there are usually two or three ponies with perfect learn-to-canter canters. Economical in stride length and cadence, steady, and voice controlled. So I would familiarise the rider with this pony in a couple of lessons beforehand, and then they would ride this pony for a few weeks to establish their canter seat and confidence.

With privately owned ponies, I like to do some research. Either I’ll lunge them without a rider, or I’ll observe an older rider cantering them. Sometimes, ground work needs to be done with the pony, so that they canter next to a leader (from either side), or canter quietly and are balanced on the lunge. Often I will set the parents some homework to do with the pony before the child has their first canter so the environment can be as controlled as possible.

It’s important to choose the right day for the first canters, and equally feel that the rider doesn’t need to canter everytime they ride; base the decision on the child’s state of mind that day, as well as the pony’s way of going, and any environmental factors.

I’m probably a bit too cautious, with my riders spending a long time on the lead rein or lunge in canter; until they stay balanced without holding in to the pommel. I like to think all the running is good for me, but in reality it’s very easy to send them solo before they are ready and they have the skill set to steer and stop. Then they get a problem – usually a bit too fast, or not stopping on cue – and take a few steps back in the confidence stakes. Which overall makes their learning to canter journey more challenging. I predominantly canter them on the lead rein because the straight lines are easier for the rider, and very few ponies are balanced enough to canter circles on the lunge. However, it’s a very useful tool for particularly nervous riders or sharp ponies. Plus I like to revisit cantering on the lunge once they’re fairly established to refine position and work without reins or stirrups.

I don’t think a rider needs to have many canters each time they ride. Again, I base it on their energy levels, and how the pony is responding to the lesson. They might only do two canters, or half a dozen on each rein. Regularly cantering keeps the feeling fresh in their minds so keeps confidence levels up, but not overdoing it when they’d actually benefit from more focus on their trot work is important to remember too.

The first few canters I do with a rider, I get them to have longer reins and hold the pommel. Once they’ve found the rhythm and are fairly in sync with the pony, I get them to take the outside hand off the pommel but still hold the rein loosely. Then they work on keeping the hand still in canter. Then they can start to use the outside rein to help keep pony on the track, and to make the downwards transition. At this stage, I start to lead without a lead rope, just resting a hand on the rein and letting go for a few strides to introduce the concept of going solo. It’s also a good opportunity to check the rider can bring the pony back to trot easily. Because we’ve worked off both reins, the rider should be happy letting go with either hand, so a natural progression is to let go of the pommel with the outside hand and then follow with the inside hand. This may only be for a stride before they cling on again, but I make it progressive. Let go for the count of three, then four, then seven. Get them to let go earlier. Let go during the transition. All these baby steps will gradually build confidence until they are cantering without holding on without realising.

Only then do I seriously start letting them canter independently. The last couple of strides initially, then just leading for the transition and first couple of strides. Then just running alongside. And without realising, they’re off!

I think the reason I find it so nerve wracking is that it’s so easy to get carried away and move through the stages too quickly, not allowing the foundations to set fully. Plus, kids bounce out the saddle so much in canter I’m always holding my breath hoping that the homing device is fully functional!

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.

Teaching Trot Diagonals

This week I was given the challenge of teaching one of my young riders her trot diagonals. I laid the foundations in her last lesson, giving her some homework to practice before taking the plunge this week.

Before I teach a child their trot diagonals I like them to be able to maintain trot whilst rising. Some beginners do a double bounce when using their legs. They also need to be able to differentiate between sitting and rising, and for rising to be autonomous. Before even introducing the idea of diagonals I use a simple exercise to introduce the double sit to change diagonal. With my young rider trotting around in an up-down-up-down rhythm, I ask them to change the rhythm to up-down-down-up-down, which tests their balance and core strength as well. I also get them familiar with the sequence of legs in trot and feeling the movement of the legs.

This rider had been practising her double sits, but has fallen into the trap of sitting for three beats. I established that she could do it correctly when she applied herself, but I felt that she didn’t see the point in perfecting the exercise. Sitting for three was close enough, wasn’t it?

She needed to start to see the bigger picture. Why I was making her do a double sit. She is also mature for her age, and likes to have the explanation for everything, so I knew I’d have to discuss it in depth. But on the level of a six year old.

I began by checking she knew the sequence of the legs in trot, and then told her that on circles and corners of the arena the inside hind leg has to work hardest to keep the pony trotting. So to make her pony’s job easier we should stand up when that leg is moving forwards. I then checked she’d been listening earlier by asking which other leg is going forwards at the same time that the inside hind is (the outside fore, if anyone’s having a blonde moment).

My little rider correctly identified the front leg, so we then watched her pony’s shoulder moving. If she couldn’t see it I was going to put a strip of tape along the shoulder blade to emphasise the movement. But she could see the shoulders move in walk.

Next, we went up into trot and studied the shoulders moving in trot. I did say she might be able to feel the hind legs moving forwards, but the visual cue is easier for children to process and link steps together.

I asked my rider which front leg was moving forwards as she rose. And therefore which hind leg was. Then I asked if she was helping her pony, or making it harder for her. I find that linking a movement to a pony’s welfare encourages children to pay attention because they don’t want to hurt their pony so will be more likely to practice and perfect what we’re doing.

Once we’d established the shoulder that was going forwards when she rose, and if it was the right one or not, we talked about how to change the trot diagonal so that she was on the correct one. Of course, it was the double sit exercise we’d practiced last week!

Now she still does the odd triple sit, but there was more determination in my little rider to just sit for two beats and to change her diagonal. With practice, she’ll crack it, but now I know she will try harder at it.

We spent the rest of the lesson doing quick checks. For example, every time they changed the rein I asked what did she need to do – change her whip and sit for two! Then when they had a sneaky walk I asked her to check her diagonal. It’s important that a rider doesn’t get used to being told they’re on the incorrect diagonal, but rather by asking them if they are right or wrong as they will become more thoughtful and independent riders, as well as fully understanding the concept. Also, it’s important to choose the moment to correct trot diagonals. Don’t do it before canter, or on a tricky school movement. Wait until they can devote their full attention to the outside shoulder and double sitting.

This rider took to my explanation, and seemed to really understand it. I l her that her Mum will be able to tell if she’s right or wrong, so hopefully World War Three doesn’t break out when they’re practising! Some children need more explanation than others, but I think by breaking it down into small steps of verbal explanation, visual guides, and demonstrations, you can pinpoint when it starts to go over their head. Then you can change tact, or leave teaching diagonals until they have fully grasped the previous step.

Riding Dog Legs

I did the keyhole jumping exercise with a client a couple of weeks ago, and we discovered that she and her pony found riding left dog legs significantly harder than riding right dog legs.The pony is a left banana, and will drift through his right shoulder at every opportunity, but we’ve been addressing both of their straightness and it’s improving all the time. However, jumping and turning left highlights the fact there’s still a weakness here.So this week I decided to tackle left dog legs. I warmed them up with the focus on riding squares, my rider using her outside aids to turn, and keeping the inside rein open without going back towards her, and the pony turning from the outside aids. I see this a lot and for whatever reason, a rider may apply the correct aids to turn, but the horse doesn’t obey immediately, and then in a panic that they aren’t going to make the turn, the rider resorts to pulling them round with the inside rein. They know they’re doing it, but you can’t help it if you’re going to miss the turn! This then creates a cycle that the horse doesn’t turn until the inside rein is utilised, which causes the outside aids to fall by the wayside.My rider has identified in previous lessons that she sometimes forgets to use her right leg to push her pony to the left, so a lot of our flatwork looks at switching that leg on. Furthermore, as she reverts to her left rein, her right hand disappears up her pony’s neck, thus allowing him to drift out of that shoulder. Now I’m not saying she’s to blame – it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But she’s the bigger person, the one I can explain things to, so we have to address her aids first. This is where the flatwork is so helpful; riding the squares and leg yielding, to identify her asymmetry in her aids, and to ensure her pony is responding to the right leg before we add in jumps.Once warmed up, I had them canter a three stride, left dog leg of poles, of which I’d laid dressage boards on the outside of the curve. The visual aid will encourage the pony to turn left, which breaks the cycle of her resorting to the inside rein. She could focus on applying the correct aids and get the correct response from him which would help his understanding.They cantered through the exercise a few times until the canter stayed forwards and the turn was balanced with the correct aids. Interestingly, when the pony was asked to turn left correctly, his evasion technique was to slow down, so my rider had to keep her foot on the accelerator whilst turning and ensure her hands were positive aids.The aids she was giving, or was aiming to give, was a bit of weight into the left stirrup to keep left canter, opening the left rein wide (but not backwards), using the right leg to turn him, whilst keeping her right hand near the base of his neck to provide a wall to support his right shoulder. The trick is for the outside rein to be reactive: not pulling back and causing him to slow, and not slipping forward as he starts to drift, but rather being “there” until he starts to lean on the right shoulder, and then firming the contact to prevent the drift. She’s reacting to his body rather than blocking him with an immobile rein.Next, I built the fences up to crosses. This was to guide both of them to the centre, and to ensure they were totally accurate. This was when the pony started putting in four strides. They were getting the line, but he was becoming sticky in the canter. A check that the reins weren’t restricting him, and then she could apply more leg to keep the power.Once they’d mastered the line, the aids, and planning the turn, I removed the white boards. This made it a bit trickier, as we realised how much the visual line was helping them. So I popped one board in the middle to help them, and once they’d negotiated it successfully then I removed it, and they managed to ride the dog leg line. There was an element of my rider needing to start riding her turn earlier in the exercise; because the pony found it harder that turning right, he needed more setting up and more time to find his line.We ended the session with two steep crosses, getting the dog leg line perfectly and maintaining the canter rhythm to get three strides between the jumps. Hopefully we can build on this in the next few weeks with different exercises.

A Group Exercise

I did this exercise with my Pony Clubbers last week; we used to to it a lot when I was learning to ride as a child, but I don’t see it utilised very often now, nor unfortunately do I use it much myself as I don’t teach many groups.

It’s a very good layering exercise which introduces independent riding, and ensures the horse or pony is listening to their rider’s aids.

Starting with the ride in closed order on the track in walk. The first rider moves up into trot, trots around the arena until they reach the rear of the ride. Then, they should take the inner track and trot past the ride before trotting back to the rear. With more experienced riders, you can have the ride trotting, and the individual cantering around and past them.

This exercise is useful in the following ways:

  • It allows every rider in the ride to experience being lead file.
  • It teaches awareness of the change in a horse when they move from following the tail in front of them, to going off the rider’s aids.
  • It teaches the rider how to pass other horses at the correct distance.
  • Riders need to use their outside aids to stop their horse rejoining the ride instead of passing them, otherwise the horse just falls out and slows down to slot in behind the ride.
  • The horse is encouraged to work independently and the rider taught to plan their route in advance, otherwise their horse tucks in behind the ride.
  • Riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t crash into the ride.
  • It’s a useful precursor to riding in open order. Once a group are familiar with the exercise the lead file can be sent off before the previous horse has reached the back of the ride.

A different exercise, which I find quite useful for testing horses who are a little bit herd-bound, is to have the ride trotting around and the rear file ride a transition to either walk or halt. When the ride catches up, they ride forwards to trot and become the leader. Some horses can be reluctant to be left behind, so it’s a useful education for them, which pays off in other areas, such as hacking or cross country. It also teaches patience, as horse and rider have to wait calmly for the rest of the ride. The rider also has to plan their upward transition so that the rhythm of the ride is not disrupted, and they also experience lead file. I find you can allow the new lead file to do a few movements, such as circles, serpentines or changes of rein, which develops their independence and confidence.

If the weather’s cold, or it’s wet, and you don’t want a group of riders standing still for too long, these exercises are useful for keeping everyone moving and keeping them warm. I’d like to see instructors incorporating these exercises into their group sessions because they are definitely underappreciated.

The Inside Hind

I’ve been on a mission recently to try to improve the feel of my riders. Some people say that talented riders have a “good feel”. Yes they may do, but for those of us less talented at equitation, don’t lose hope. You may have to work on your balance and coordination of aids, but you can still feel. Everyone can. It’s one of our five senses. You just might need a little more help in understanding what you can feel when riding and how to respond appropriately.

This is why I’m forever asking clients to tell me what they can feel. I’m not looking for correct terminology, or long winded descriptions, but I want to know if the rider can tell the difference between a long stride, a short stride, one full or impulsion, or one dragging their toes. I want to know if they’re aware that they have a heavier right rein, or if they can feel their horse bending or not.

Sometimes I’ll ask, “what can you feel?” Or “how does that trot feel now?”

Other times, I’ll give more leading questions such as “can you feel your horse leaning on your outside hand?” Or “can you feel a bit more push from the hindlegs?”

It’s never a problem if someone answers no. We just revise what we are aiming for in this session and where the rider should be feeling the change. Usually just by focusing their attention on that one area of the horse, they start to feel what I am explaining, and understand the subject more clearly. Occasionally, videos help. I’ve videoed jumps before, which haven’t been perfectly executed, and replayed them to the rider so that they can relate what they feel in the saddle to how it looks from the ground and the final result.

So in my quest to further my riders’ feel for what their horse’s legs are doing, and their ability to enhance their horse’s way of going, I have been encouraging them to think about the hind legs and what they can feel in terms of power and stride length.

When trotting the inside hind leg is the propulsion leg. It powers the horse forwards. In order to do this efficiently, the horse needs to step under their body with it, sit on that leg so that it takes the weight, and then push their weight up and forwards from the leg. It’s similar to the mechanics of human walking.

On curves the inside hind leg has to work extra hard, and this is where horses often lose their balance. If the inside hind leg is weak or lazy then it will step short, and the horse won’t be able to sit on that leg so well in the stance phase. This causes the horse to lose the balance in their body, and to load the outside shoulder in compensation.

For novice riders who are developing their feel, trotting corners are often when they first begin to feel the action of the hind leg, so I use lots of circles and turns to get them feeling. Sitting trot is useful at this stage so long as the rider can maintain it comfortably and the horse doesn’t brace against them or slow down.

Then I explain the mechanics of the horse, their particular strengths and weaknesses, and how improving the stride of the inside hind will improve the whole gait by engaging the abdominals and topline muscles, maintaining a consistent bend and contact, and increasing impulsion.

Then I link the footfall of the horse to their rising trot. When the rider is rising on the correct diagonal, the inside hind leg is stepping forwards. We are trying to encourage the inside hind leg to step further underneath the body, especially if it’s a little lazy, so that it can then propel the horse forwards more easily and powerfully. Therefore, we have to influence that hindleg whilst it is in the swing phase. As my riders are about to rise, and that inside hind about to come off the floor, they need to encourage it to come forward with a bit more vigour. A squeeze of some description with the inside leg is usually enough to make all the difference. Of course each horse is different, so you have to play around with the leg aids, and perhaps a flick of a schooling whip, on that haunch, to find the button which works for horse and rider.

Riders can learn to time their aids by linking it to their rising, and you can test their feel by working in sitting trot. But by at least applying the aids at the correct time, the rider will start to feel an improvement in the horse’s way of going, and the more active hind step should increase the feeling of movement to the rider, so further establish what they are aiming to feel. Once a rider has begun to become aware of what’s going on behind the saddle, you can start to dissect the walk and canter, and then fine tune the timing of their aids to improve their quality.

I’ve reminded several riders recently, of different abilities, to think about and to enhance the inside hind leg action, which has resulted in their horses maintaining impulsion, balance and consistency, which means the rider can ride more accurately and with a better quality of gait. Improving awareness of the inside hind is particularly important when changing the rein and changing the bend through the horse’s body. By focusing on the new inside hind leg propelling the horse forwards, the horse changes the rein more fluidly.

Equine Flu

Last week the UK Equestrian population was thrown into panic. British racing was shut down due to three cases of equine influenza in racehorses. A particularly nasty strain of flu too. It’s a subject that we need to take seriously, but we need to be careful not to create a mass hysteria.

Flu in horses is a highly contagious serious respiratory virus, which whilst not usually fatal itself, can lead to potentially life threatening secondary infections such as pneumonia. Flu, along with tetanus, is recommended by vets that horses be vaccinated against, and many competition bodies insist on it.

Signs of equine flu

  • A very high temperature of 39-41C (103-106F) which lasts for one to three days

  • A frequent harsh, dry cough that can last for several weeks

  • A clear, watery nasal discharge that may become thick and yellow or green

  • Enlarged glands under the lower jaw

  • Clear discharge from the eyes and redness around eyes

  • Depression and loss of appetite

  • Filling of the lower limbs

Equine flu is endemic, which means that there is always the odd case somewhere. Our problem at the moment is two fold. Firstly, the horses who were first identified to be suffering from flu were vaccinated. Which means that this strain of the virus is new, and particularly vigorous. Secondly, the fact that it was racehorses who first contracted the virus means there is a massive risk of the disease spreading nationally due to the number of horses attending each race meet and the distance of which they travelled, the number of humans and horses in which a racehorse comes into contact with on a daily basis.

British Racing did completely the right thing by shutting racing down, taking swabs of all horses who were at risk fixtures, quarantining yards and risk horses, and getting the virus under control. It is necessary to inform the wider equine community too, because the flu virus is airborne so there is a risk to local equines. The fact that racing was halted made national news, and unfortunately I did hear some misinformed newsreaders, who could have potentially caused panic amongst the general public. Really, they should have just warned the general public not to touch horses they meet out walking to help reduce the risk of the disease spreading – there was talk about equine flu being contagious to humans!

Now the virus strain has been identified as the Florida Clane 1 H3N8 strain, vets can begin to research whether horses have been vaccinated against this strain. Vaccination doesn’t mean that they are immune to all types of flu, but it does mean that they will have reduced symptoms if they do contract it. From my reading, it appears that this strain of flu has only been used in vaccines since September 2018. Together with the fact that vaccinations become less effective after six months, it is recommended that all vaccinated horses have a booster vaccination now. Unvaccinated horses are advised to have the initial vaccination course.

So as well as some vaccinated thoroughbreds contracting flu, there has been some isolated and seemingly random cases in non-thoroughbreds across the country. Part of me is curious: if the racehorses hadn’t had flu or meets been cancelled because of it, would the general equestrian public have heard about the stand-alone cases so soon? Perhaps locally, but I don’t think it would have been such big news until now, when there are more cases.

So what does this mean for us?

As horse owners, you need to stay abreast with the news, and be aware if there are any cases near to you. It is worth booking your horse in to have a booster vaccination. I’m lucky: Phoenix is due her booster anyway so was booked in for this week. I have brought Otis’s forward by a couple of months too, for peace of mind. Plus I can’t possibly forget their boosters next year if they and Matt (Mum’s brought his jabs forward a couple of weeks too) are due on the same day!

In terms of competing, or leaving the yard, advice varies. As far as I can see, if there is a case of flu in your county, or local area, than a total lockdown is advisable to reduce the risk of your horse contracting the disease. Otherwise, most vets are advising that you continue with your normal routine, albeit with care. Don’t share equipment between horses, don’t let horses touch noses out hacking or at competitions. Learn the symptoms of equine flu, and be vigilant. I guess I just think that if I don’t need to go out, then I won’t. However, if there’s something I really want to do (such as a clinic or competition) then I will risk assess it to decide if it’s worth going.

I think it’s also important to speak to any visitors to your yard: farrier, dentist, instructor, physio, etc. Check that they are following basic bio security steps, haven’t come into contact with infected horses or worked in a risk area. From a work perspective, I’m lucky that I work in quite a small area, so don’t have the worry of venturing near to any danger zones (yet!). I need to keep an eye on the news and hope it doesn’t spead any closer. I will continue with my usual hand sanitising procedure between yards, and add a boot dip as well as have a couple of changes of clothes in my car. Then if I do come into contact with a suspicious horse, I can completely change upon leaving that yard.

I think this flu outbreak will give everyone a bit of a kick up the bum with regards to bio security. Competitions and venues open for hire are now requesting to see passports and proof of vaccination within the last six months before allowing horses on site. To me, it’s always seemed silly that you arrive at a competition, unload, tack up, chat to the competitor next to you, and then go and present your passport. Surely, as with an airport, you should have to show your passport before entering.

With competitions getting more vigilant, hopefully more owners will vaccinate their horses if they’ve allowed them to lapse. I read that a shocking 60% of the equine population are unvaccinated. Below is an image which sums up why it is important that the majority of horses are vaccinated to protect them all from disease.

Along with competitions bucking their ideas up with bio security, yards should also be more conscientious over bringing new horses onto the property. Most yards I’ve been to have an isolation procedure on paper, which is used if a horse comes from a suspect area, but in general are very lax about integrating new animals. Vets recommend an isolation period of 21 days, which seems an awful long time! But at least after 21 days your horse is fit and healthy. Hopefully from now on yards will be stricter with their isolation procedure and take more caution with imported horses or those who have been in contact with those.

I do think that it’s important to maintain transparency. Strangles comes with a stigma, and we should be careful that equine flu doesn’t get the same taint. After all, no one holds a flu party, like parents hold chicken pox parties. It’s bad luck if your horse picks up the virus. So far I’ve seen that yards and businesses are being very honest when they have a case of Equine Flu. Which will hopefully help reduce the spread of the virus in the local area. Unfortunately though, the dreaded keyboard warriors have been at it again, and written many an unkind word on social media. Come on equestrians, we need to work together and support each other to stop the spread of Florida Clane 1!

Below are some useful websites to get all the latest updates on the flu outbreak:

https://www.aht.org.uk/disease-surveillance/equiflunet

https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/

https://m.facebook.com/Stranglessupport/

https://bef.co.uk/News-Detail.aspx?news=more-cases-of-equine-flu

What’s What?

We all know that an instructor teaches, but have you ever thought of why they charge what they do, and the other hats that they wear?

Firstly, let’s look at the behind the scenes costs an instructor has.

Arena hire – if you go to their yard they need to include wear and tear, and maintenance costs for their arena. Some instructors have a separate fee for arena hire, as this can vary depending on the facilities hired or the number of riders using the facilities.

Petrol costs – if they come out to your yard, you may be saving on arena hire, but it’s amazing how quickly the mileage clocks up when you visit several yards. On your accounts you can claim £0.45 per mile, so if you imagine an instructor has travelled 10 miles to your lesson that costs them £9 in motor costs, because of course they have two journeys. Some instructors have an area or radius of X miles and if they have to travel beyond that they charge petrol money. Other instructors work in different areas on different days of the week, or try and book their work into the most economical blocks, saving on both travel time and travel costs.

Insurance – all instructors should be insured, whether it’s for teaching, or riding, or both. Even if you have your own insurance as a horse owner, as soon as you pay someone to teach you or ride your horse that insurance becomes invalid. Instructor insurance covers the instructor for any accident that happens to them whilst working, any injury to you or your horse under their supervision, and any damage to a third party or property whilst they are riding or teaching. As well as paying a monthly insurance premium, there are also compulsory courses for instructors to attend, such as annual CPD training days, first aid courses, DBS and safeguarding certificates. Of which all adds up.

PPE- horse riding equipment is expensive, as we all know, and being a self employed instructor you have to provide your own PPE, as well as suitable clothes to work in. This can become very expensive, so it’s no wonder so many equestrian professionals wait until there are holes in their boots before replacing them.

Of course there is then time spent, unpaid, preparing for lessons. For many regular clients, it may be thinking of an appropriate exercise from your repertoire, but often you have to spend a bit of time researching new exercises or planning your delivery of a new concept. But you may be investigating alternative tack or preparing a stable management lecture.

I think that pretty much sums up the hidden costs of an equitation instructor. But what about the various hats they don? How do they help you out of the saddle?

Firstly, an instructor is very often your first port of call to discuss anything and everything equine. I spend a surprising amount of time talking to clients, both during lessons, or over text, about things that are not related to their lessons at all.

I’m often asked about feeding. Is the feed the correct energy level for their horse. Should they have hay or haylage? Have I any experience of various supplements and which does their horse need? Has their horse gained weight?

I also get asked about field management; whether the horse should start living in at night, if they should come in during the day out of the sun, how to divide and rest their paddock. What bedding should they use, how to provide water so that their horse can’t tip it over.

Clients also ask me about tack. Does it look like it fits, would a different bit be better, is this the right style girth to buy. Then I’ll also be asked what type of clip they need, if they’ve got the right weight rug on, or do they need a fly rug.

Often I also find I am someone to tell about their week’s riding. Their horse’s behaviour on a hack, or their amazing schooling session, or the fun they had competing. Or perhaps they want to analyse a new behaviour they’ve come across in their horse and see if I can suggest a cause.

Then of course, we talk about the upcoming week. Queries about loading, what to work on before their competition, how to manage or balance their horse’s workload.

I guess you could say that whilst an instructor is primarily employed to educate horse and rider in equitation, they are also a bit of a life coach and agony aunt. Clients go to them for advice about everything equine, and it is the instructors duty to advise where they can, listen when needed, but also to be able to direct the owner to someone who specialises in their problem area. For example, I may be able to tell them that the saddle needs adjusting, and help them find a temporary solution to keep the horse comfortable, but the client needs to book a saddler to fit the saddle long term, and I often need to be able to suggest a couple of suitable professionals for them to contact.

You want to feel that you can contact your instructor “out of hours” so to speak. No, that does not mean late at night! It means you can speak to them outside of lesson times and they will help or support you. For example, I love getting texts from my clients who have been competing, telling me how they’ve got on and sending videos. I also regularly get texts from them telling me how fabulous their schooling session was, or thanking me for giving them the confidence to try new things. Or just telling me how much they appreciate and love their horse!

So yes, there are many hats that an instructor needs to be able to wear, and a plethora of information that they need to have at their fingertips. Remember that as they’re worth their weight in gold, and are most definitely working hard to earn that lesson fee, in ways which aren’t always immediately obvious. Value them!

Sharers

I was asked the other day on my opinion on sharers, which is becoming a more and more popular option for horse owners. So here are my thoughts.

I’ve seen sharing arrangements which work really well for all parties, and I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong with the sharer fleeing at the first cold wind of winter or the first sign of lameness and the horse owner picking up the pieces.

For the horse owner, having a sharer can help reduce the workload of horse ownership; a sharer can make a financial contribution, help keep your horse exercised and fit, and help out with yard chores. Which can give you a lie in, or a day off from horses. It can help you maintain a healthy horse-family-work balance.

For the sharer, it’s an opportunity to forge a strong bond with a horse which you can’t do in a riding school environment, usually at a fraction of the cost. You get the horse ownership experience without the full time or financial commitment, which can work really well for those with young families or students.

Unfortunately though, I repeatedly see adverts on social media of young people who are basically looking for free rides in return for mucking out. Yes, I understand that financially they may not be able to afford riding lessons, but I worry that their naivety of riding unsupervised, plus the fact privately owned horses often have more get-up-and-go than riding school horses, poses a huge risk to the horse owner.

I still think that sharing arrangements can be a good solution for horse owners, it needs to be entered into carefully and with both eyes open.

Firstly, you need to decide why you want or need a sharer. Is it to help you exercise your horse as they can be too fizzy for you? Is it to give you a horse free day a couple of times a week? Is it to help cover your livery bill? Some share arrangements exchange riding for money whilst others exchange riding for chores. When advertising for a share you need to be very clear with what you expect in return.

Regardless of your sharing currency, there are a few hoops to jump through to help set up a successful share.

Firstly, insurance. You will have your own insurance, but you need to check that your horse is covered with other riders, or that other riders are covered. A good option is to get a sharer to take out BHS Gold membership as this will cover both them and your horse on the ground and in the saddle.

Assess their riding. Have them ride your horse under your supervision a few times, and doing all that they will want to do. So watch them school, pop a fence, and hack. They don’t need to be brilliant, but your horse shouldn’t be offended by their riding. Find out their riding goals, as it is really beneficial to have complementary aims. For example, if you like hacking and the sharer wants to do dressage this can provide variety for your horse. If you don’t like jumping then a sharer who does can be beneficial to your horse’s mental well being and fitness. However, regardless of what you both want to do, you need to have a similar approach to riding. For example, you don’t want to spend your days working your horse in a long and low frame to get them working over their back and relaxed, only for your sharer to undo all hard your work by pinning their heads in or galloping wildly round the countryside. I would strongly encourage sharers to have regular lessons, ideally with the same coach as the horse’s owner so that you can be sure you’re both singing off the same sheet, even if it’s at different levels.

The horse owner should watch how the potential sharer acts on the ground, whether they’re confident around horses and know their hoof pick from their body brush. Even if they’re straight out of a riding school and know very little, they can still learn. It’s worth the owner spending a few sessions with the sharer to help them build confidence on the ground and to set the owner’s mind at rest that their horse will be well cared for. Again, from an owner’s perspective, make sure you’re happy with the standard that the chores are done to when assessing the sharer. They can have room to learn, but you don’t want them doing a poor job and then you playing catch up the following day. It is also worth checking that the sharer is happy with any other horses they may have to deal with. For example, if your horse is in a field with one other then the sharer may well have to feed or hay both horses on their days, so they need to be happy with this, and the owner’s of the other horse does too.

I would also be careful of sharers who are fresh from the riding school as they often don’t foresee how time consuming the looking after aspect of horse care is, especially when they’re fumbling with tools or buckles, so can either shirk their duties and just chuck the tack on with a careless glance over the horse, or lose interest after a week. As an owner, your horse is your first priority and you want them to feel as loved by their sharer as they do by you. It’s definitely worth investing the time in training up a sharer so that they’re happy, your horse is happy, and you can then enjoy your horse free time without worrying.

Draw up a contract. This may seem formal, but it’s a useful reference point if anything goes wrong. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated but should contain the following subjects:

  • Insurance
  • Number of days and which days the sharer has use of the horse. The arrangement for flexibility or additional days (such as school holidays). How much warning needs to be given for changing days.
  • The chores or payment the sharer needs to provide in return for riding, and how often. Some sharers pay weekly, others monthly, some in advance and others in arrears. Some sharers have to do the chores for the entire day that they are riding the horse on, so for example turn out and muck out in the morning, and bringing in in the evening. Others just the jobs when they’re there to ride.
  • What the sharer can and cannot do with the horse. It may be that the horse has physical limitations (for example, an old injury which means they can’t be jumped too high or more than once a week) or that the owner doesn’t feel the sharer is competent enough to hack alone. However, there may be a clause that the sharer can compete or attend clinics with the approval of the owner.
  • What happens in the event of the horse going lame. Unfortunately I’ve seen many sharers up and go when the horse is injured and needs a period of box rest, leaving the owner high and dry. It may be that the sharer has such a bond with the horse that they want to continue caring for them without the benefit of riding, or the owner may have another horse the sharer can ride.
  • The notice period for terminating the contract. This may be a natural end because of the sharer outgrowing the horse, or changing jobs or moving house (or yard) but in order to end on a good note, it is more respectful to forewarn the owner.
  • Who is responsible for livery services? If for example, the sharer has to have the horse turned out on one their days, who foots the bill at the end of the month? Who is responsible for cleaning or repairing tack?

Of course, creating a sharing agreement is far more complicated than it initially seems, but having a good starting point for discussion helps both the horse owner and sharer work out what they want from, and what they can bring to, a sharing arrangement which will then hopefully have the horse’s welfare at its heart and makes for a lasting friendship between owner and sharer.