Winter is Coming

I have been looking towards winter with some trepidation for the last couple of months, dreading a potential repeat of last year’s emotionally unstable Phoenix.

So as with everything, I made a plan.

I decided to maximise on the fact that she’s come on so well in her training over the summer, and reap the rewards by booking a few competitions. Having something to focus on would also help distract me too.

So in the last five weekends, Phoenix and I have been adventuring four times, and have two more adventures before November. She’s entered four showjumping classes, doing three double clears and being placed in all four. She’s been placed first and second in dressage tests, which whilst they weren’t her best work felt much more established than her last test and the consistency had improved. She’s also been on the Badminton sponsored ride to get in some cross country practice. Our next two outings are hunter trials, which will hopefully put us in good stead for some one day events next year.

So we’ve had a lovely few outings, thoroughly enjoying ourselves and building on her CV.

I planned to make some changes to Phoenix’s management this year, but I wanted to ensure I did it step by step so that I learnt which aspect she didn’t appreciate and what stressed her. She’s continued to spend time in her stable over the summer so that it is a familiar environment, which would hopefully reduce any stress there.

I decided to get her saddle checked before she started living in, and to buy her a dressage saddle that I’d promised myself, so that I knew there wasn’t an issue with either saddle or back. Phoenix’s regular massages mean I know that her overall muscle tone is healthier and better than last year, with any problems being ironed out quickly.

I have come to realise over the summer that Phoenix doesn’t cope well in the wind and rain. She gets chilly very quickly, even when we’ll rugged up, and when ridden is more tense and “scooty” in the wind and rain. I retrieved my exercise sheet which when Otis grew out of it several years ago I loaned to Mum and Matt, who rarely used it. Over the last week I’ve used it a few times and definitely found Phoenix to be more settled and rideable with it in adverse weather.

With this sensitivity to wind and rain, I decided to give her a blanket clip, not a full clip, so that her loins had extra protection. Additionally, she found clipping a very stressful experience last year, so I planned to clip her before she started living in. Then I could gauge her reaction to clipping without the factor of being stabled. We actually had a much more positive experience last week; Phoenix ate her bucket of feed, and let my friend gibber in her ear while I clipped away. It’s not my best work of art, as I quit while I was ahead and stopped clipping when she ran out of food! But it was a positive experience, and there hasn’t been a change to her behaviour under saddle.

So I’ve ticked off clipping, saddles, and back, and still had a lovely, happy horse to ride. Next on my list was feed. Phoenix didn’t eat well last year, not tucking into her hay, or drinking sufficient. She’s happily eaten hay in the field the last month so I decided not to change her forage unless she went off it when she started staying in. And then I would immediately introduce haylage. However, I bought some Allen and Page Fast Fibre a couple of weeks ago and have introduced it alongside her chaff based bucket feed. This has a low calorific value, but will fill her tummy up and hydrate her, which will hopefully mean she is less skittish as a result of gastric discomfort. I’ve recently increased her magnesium the level she had in the spring, and maintained her daily dose of gut balancer.

My plan was to get all of these steps established before Phoenix came in at night, but the fates were against me as last weekend she and her field mates started living in due to the atrocious weather conditions. I haven’t been able to exercise her as much as I wanted to this first week due to family problems, but I was thrilled when I have that Phoenix has been lovely to ride, and that she seems happy in her new routine.

It may be that Phoenix is more settled this year; in her ridden work, at the yard, with me, and having experienced a winter living in, so is less likely to become a stress head this winter. But by taking these steps I feel I’ve done my best not to overload her system with simultaneous changes, and could identify triggers that upset her.

I’m not so anxious about winter now as I feel in control, yet ready to make positive changes at the first sign of stress from Phoenix.

Why Do We Mount On The Left?

The other week, after a young client asked for what must be the one thousandth time, which side she should get off, I decided it needed explaining.

She knows perfectly well which side to dismount, because she can correctly tell me which side she got on, and which is the near side. She just forgets to switch her brain on. To keep things straightforward for little people, I explain that we lead the horse from the left, and we put the bridle and headcollar on from the left, so we mount and dismount from the left too.

Then her Mum piped up, “Why do we mount from the left?”

Fortunately, I had looked it up previously when I was asked before.

If you take a trip back into the olden days, you will see knights in shining armour riding horses. Now most people are right handed, so use the sword with their right hand. Which means that the sword needs to sit over their left hip. Now imagine you have a long bar of metal being over your left leg and try mounting the horse from the right. It`s nigh on impossible because you would have to be exceedingly flexible at the hips to be able to swing your leg that high. As well as having a bombproof horse who is not going to spook should the sword thump onto his back. So this is why we mount on the left.

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Researching further, I found that the Ancient Greeks mounted from the left, or vaulted from the left, as they hadn`t invented stirrups, as their spears were stored on their left side.

So why do we still mount from the left? Research has shown that mounting puts pressure on the horses back and can cause crookedness. There are two reasons. Tradition – both horses and humans are creatures of habit. The horse is a prey animal, so has predominantly monocular vision, which means that they may accept something on one side of them, but not the other. For example, you know that horse which walks quietly past the dustbin on the right, but spooks when it is on their left. So we train horses to accept mounting from the left and those which are docile when being mounted traditionally could behave unpredictably when mounted from the off side. Can you imagine if there were no rules when training horses, and you went to mount an unfamiliar horse, and mounted from the wrong side?

Of course we should train horses to be mounted from both sides in case our situation requires mounting from the off side…

Potty Training

One of the horses I’m looking after always stops to urinate when you are turning him out.

“It saves on bedding” commented someone.

I had to agree, but then over the next couple of days I thought about this horse and his routine.

He is on livery so is turned out every week day at 8.30. But on weekends his owners looks after him, so sometimes doesn’t come until a bit later. And she may not turn him out immediately, preferring to muck out or ride first. So on days like these, such as those when the farrier or vet is coming mid morning, this horse is crossing his legs for hours on end. What does this do to his bladder and kidneys?

I noticed a morning or two later how concentrated this horse’s pee was, as well as the huge quantity, which again indicates that it could be harmful to his health.

So how long is the horse stabled for? Assuming he is brought in at dark, this is about 4pm at the moment. Which means that he is waits sixteen hours until he next goes to urinate. And that is assuming the last thing he does before going into the stable is to do a number one. No wonder his urine is dark yellow!

Looking into the situation, it does appear to be a surprisingly common issue, with many horses refusing to pee away from home, or in trailers, or new yards until they have settled. Some people overcome this by taking their horse out to grass last thing at night to urinate, and again first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, there is a risk of bladder infections with this behaviour so it should be discouraged if possible.

Some yards teach horses to pee into a bucket, which reduces the bedding wasted. I used to do this with Otis, as he insists on marking his territory on a fresh bed, as it seemed ridiculous to dirty the bed immediately. Instead of getting Otis to aim in the bucket, I used to push the bucket into the firing line as he prepared himself, which meant that Otis wasn’t reliant on the bucket to be able to urinate.

You can encourage the horse to urinate more frequently by providing a deeper bed so that there is less splashing on the legs. Also by ensuring the horse is relaxed and encouraging excretion by whistling yourself. In a similar manner to humans, the noise acts as a trigger.

I also read that some horses are shy, so cannot relieve themselves if too many people or horses are watching. Someone said they overcame this by crowding around when they knew their horse would definitely pee, and then rewarding him verbally and with treats. Soon the horse was comfortable in all situations, and much happier.

So how can we solve this little horse’s problem? Firstly, by changing his routine slightly so that he is given more opportunities to urinate in the afternoons and evenings, and provide a deeper, bigger bed. And then hopefully he’ll begin to relieve himself more frequently and so reduce the chances of getting an infection of some sort.

Pony Parties

I’m not a fan of children’s birthday parties at the best of times, and it’s my worst nightmare when I see my name next to a birthday party on the lesson list. But recently I’ve had a couple of good experiences.

What I dread is hordes of clueless, excited kids and equally clueless parents who you have to fit hats, boots and mount within ten minutes so as not to waste valuable riding time. Then there’s always the problem of coercing leaders and assistants.

A fortnight ago I took a birthday party of six girls, aged about eight. This is a great age as they’re big enough to do thing on the horse, but young enough not to be self conscious. We went in the school and did a few balance exercises and had a go at trot – I like to be educational – and then we did some games.

The games have to be fairly straightforward; such as walk to the end, turn round and trot back. I’m always aware of not wearing my leaders out, so we put in a slow race every so often. Then I incorporate “round the world” races, and some that they have to dismount and run around. A colleague of mine does this hilarious game when the kids have to trot to the end, dismount and run to high-five him. As they approach him, he runs away! He only stops once all the kids are running round him. It always ends in lots of laughter and smiles. He got caught out the other day though cos one girl took forever to dismount so he was running away from the kids for AGES!

Yesterday’s party was an interesting one. It was pouring down with rain as the four girls arrived for their birthday woodland ride. Someone suggested we did a fun lesson indoors instead, but the birthday girl was adamant she wanted to go into the woods. Having already been round the woods twice I wasn’t looking forward to squelching through puddles, so I negotiated half and half.
They mounted in the doorway of the barn so they didn’t get too wet. One promptly started crying so got off again. Aware of how much time we were wasting I took three ponies to the indoor arena and got the girl who didn’t want to ride to lead one in walk. I started in a similar fashion to usual, but when we got to trotting the unmounted girl had to run round.

Thankfully, she was quite a game kid and lost all nerves on the ground. She did the races on foot; instead of doing round the world she had to do 20 star jumps. To be fair she did quite well, but soon got puffed out, so I had a change of plan and we played Simon Says. With the unmounted girl playing Simon.

Thankfully the sky cleared, so we made a short dash round the woods to finish back at the yard just in time for lunch. Dad thanked me very much for involving all of them, and said he’d see us again next year!

Anyway, whilst not a children’s entertainer I think I can just about manage small parties of 6-8 year olds – that day in the diary with sixteen kids on a party unfortunately coincides with my duvet day ….

Serpents and Serpentines

I always like using serpentines in my teaching as it switches both horse and rider on a little bit more and it’s easier to compare the evenness of the reins, but today I taught a lesson solely about serpentines.

My mature client warmed herself and horse up on both reins using circles and the traditional three and four loop serpentines before we focused on the first style.

The French Serpentine
I didn’t know the correct name for this, but it’s one I’ve used before with my horse. It’s based on the traditional serpentine but instead on going straight across the school you curve in a S-shape.
Easy. After all it’s the straight lines which are hard to ride. But appearances can be deceiving, as my client found out. In a traditional serpentine you go from right bend, to straight, to left bend, thus giving the horse and rider time to rebalance and change their bend. On the French serpentine you go right bend, left bend, requiring a greater degree of balance a and flexibility from the horse.
Initially my rider found her horse rushed say from her and came above the bridle, so I had her ride a more gentle curve the next time. We worked with the three loops and after a couple of attempts the change of bend was consistent and flowing, the circles were of a similar size (which is actually quite hard to do) and the rhythm was like a metronome. To make it harder I got my rider riding a circle in each loop, ensuring her horse waited for her to change the bend, and we progressed to a four loop serpentine. This meant the circles were smaller so required more flexion and greater balance from the horse.
As a further exercise I suggested we increase the curvature of each change of bend to further push both horse and rider. You could really see the improvement in the suppleness of the horse and how it evened up his work. My rider found that a straightforward change of rein was very easy after as she only had to think about the change of bend and her horse responded, meaning she rode across the diagonal in a much straighter and steadier line.

The Lengthways Serpentine
The next serpentine we looked at is quite tricky, as it involves smaller turns but also long sides, so the rider needs to control the shoulder and not let the quarters swing coming out of the turn.
This serpentine starts at either E or B and turns down the school. We started with three loops, which is about half a 7 metre circle at each end – quite tough. It took a few tries on both reins for my rider to correctly prepare for the turn and not override it. I think she was surprised with how far round she had to turn in order to help her horse. Once we’d established the serpentines my rider rode some transitions down the length. A good test of her straightness. We had a few wobbles, but soon mastered shoulder fore in the direction that he drifted before each transition.
Finally, to finish off my rider rode a four loop lengthways serpentine, which really engaged her horses hocks and hindquarters.

I was really pleased how something as simple as a serpentine could improve the horse and rider so much. The work they produced at the end of the lesson had definitely stepped up a gear, and her horse was rhythmical, balanced, active, and in self carriage.