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.

Recommendations

In my line of work I’m always being asked for recommendations for equine dentists, farriers, chiropractors, saddlers.

I work on the basis that I can and will recommend those who I use for my horses. But sometimes I know that a client may be out of that professional’s area, so I have to have some alternative names up my sleeve.

I like to know who my clients use, for shoeing or saddle checks or massages. Because over time I can see the effect of their work, and get feedback from my clients if they are happy with the service they’ve had. Which means that when I’m asked for a recommendation I can say, “I have seen and heard good things about so-and-so who covers your area”, or “so-and-so has done a great job with a client’s horse who had a similar issue. Might be worth contacting them?”

Regardless of recommendations clients have though, I always suggest that they do their own research and make sure the name they’ve been given is a member of the society of their profession. For example, qualified saddlers should be members of the Society of Master Saddlers. According to the website, “The Society of Master Saddlers aims to ensure and achieve a high quality of workmanship through setting standards and overseeing the training of the membership’s workforce to give their customers a professional and quantified service. It continues its work to carry these standards through build, repair & fit, and to work towards the complete comfort and safety of horse and rider.In layman’s terms, a master saddler attends regular training days and has certain standards to adhere to, which means you know you are going to get good service.

Equine dentists should be members of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians; a list of members is found on the website, just as master saddlers are on their website. Again, you know that they are attending training days, have undergone numerous exams, and have a network of support from other professionals. This means that you could ring up one member, and whilst they may be too busy or not come out as far as your yard, they will be able to put you in contact with a qualified dentist who can help you.

Farriers have a more complicated set up as they invite vets to be part of their club too. But the Worshipful Company of Farriers is a good place to start your research, as it lists the various qualifications farriers can achieve, but doesn’t have a concise list of professionals that you can search from. In which case individually research the farrier you’ve been recommended to see that they’ve passed their qualifications and if they’re training towards further exams. A lot of farriers have independent businesses, even when fresh from an apprenticeship, which I see no reason to avoid. Being fresh out of college means that they will have had access to the latest technology and knowledge. However, experience is important and can only be gained with time, so I would want my fresh faced farrier to have a supervisor. Perhaps a more experienced farrier whom they work with once a week/month and who they can ask for advice should they come across a problem they haven’t encountered before. You can only find this out by talking to individual farriers though, and making your own assessment as to whether they are able to shoe your horse well. This is more of a consideration if your horse has special foot care requirements, such as being laminitic or having a conformational defect.

Physiotherapists, chiropractors, and equine masseuses all have their own governing bodies, so it is worth spending some time looking individuals up to see their credentials, be it examinations or experiences.

Of course, instructors have the BHS to govern us; provide training days, insurance, and support the exam system. There are also databases for Pony Club, British Dressage, British Eventing, British Showjumping etc trainers, who are also required to stay up to date with their first aid, child protection, and professional training. Regular training days ensures that we stay abreast of any training developments, new equipment to aid performance, and any rule changes to disciplines. The same goes for saddlers attending seminars where they will see new designs of tack, or witness new materials which are being developed. Dentists or physiotherapists will be introduced to new techniques or tools to help them do their job.

I would also say that it is important to chat to the professional you are considering using and see if you like them; get good vibes and find them personable. Qualifications count for a lot I feel, not only because they have the correct foundations to work from, but because they will have a network of support, both of which will help them get a vast range of experience to enhance their qualifications.

So my advice to anyone looking for a professional for any aspect of your horse’s care, is to ask a couple of friends or mentors, who’s opinion you trust and who knows your horse, and then do your own research to ensure that they are qualified, experienced enough to work with your horse, and part of a society or association which ensures they will continue to provide the best service that they can.

Phoenix Goes Showjumping

Any journey with horses is full of ups and downs. They are excellent creatures for keeping your feet firmly on the floor. I’ve been lucky so far that Phoenix and I have basically been on a smooth ride, but we were bound to encounter a couple of ruts in the road soon.

Two weeks ago Phoenix had her final massage as my friend’s case study and then had a long weekend off while we were away. On the Tuesday I lunged her and she was a bit fresh – trotting quickly, cantering before being asked, reluctant to come back to trot, that sort of thing. So I just let her get it all out of her system and then on Wednesday I lunged her again with her sensible head back on and she went nicely, relaxing and swinging along nicely.

Over the weekend, Phoenix had been plagued by little black flies around her ears, so she was feeling sensitive when I put the bridle and headcollar on. I cleaned them out as much as I could, and found an old fly mask of Otis’s for her to try. I wasn’t sure if she’d had a mask on before so wanted to trial her before buying her one of her own. Unfortunately this one didn’t have ears, so as soon as I saw that Phoenix kept a mask on and was comfortable with it, I ordered one of her own. As well as ensuring it had ear covers, I also got a UV proof nose net to protect her white nose.

Thursday and Friday I rode, avoiding the heavy downpours, but she was a bit tenser than I’d have liked. I put it down to her finding it harder to stay balanced in the wetter arena, her ears being a bit tender, and the fact she’d had a week off from schooling but by the end of Friday she was feeling normal again.

On Sunday I took her to a showjumping training venue. We’re so lucky to have such a fabulous arena and set of jumps so local. It was only the fifth time I’d jumped her under saddle, and the aim of the session was mostly to work well in a new environment, to link some fences together be them poles on the ground or small cross poles, and to see some fillers in the arena. It was a very positive experience; Phoenix took it all in her stride, building up from trotting over poles to cantering related distances, and finishing by jumping a little course. We had a couple of duff take off points, but I loved that she was calm and confident throughout. Here`s a link to a video on YouTube – https://youtu.be/vJrJ9PRH7Lk

As she’d worked so hard on Sunday, and probably used muscles which don’t get used very often, Phoenix had Monday off and then a gentle hack on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday we had the saddle fitter again. The good news is that she’s slimmed down to a wide gullet bar, and has changed shape enormously as she’s developing muscle. The bad news is that although the jump saddle was fitted to her, she didn’t like it and refused to move! I highly doubt that she has worn a saddle of that style before so my plan is to hack her to gently get her used to the shorter tree points, the different weight distribution, and it sitting slightly further back on her body. Throughout the saddle fit she went awfully. She was incredibly tense, choppy in her stride, fixed in her neck and shooting off in canter. Saddle fits are always a rush job in the sense that the saddler wants to see all three gaits, whereas in a schooling session I’d work on relaxation, stretching, and her balance in walk and trot before having a canter. The net result was that I came away disappointed and feeling that we haven’t made any progress.

That afternoon I had chance to reflect on everything. I think I underestimate how sensitive to change Phoenix is. Even my dressage saddle would have felt different to her, and the jump saddle is a completely new sensation, so I would take her back to basics on our next ride: walk and trot, getting her relaxed and working over her back again. Her new fly mask had arrived so hopefully in a couple of days her sensitivity around her ears would reduce because she was definitely unhappy in this area. I had also possibly underestimated the after effects of Sunday. The jumps weren’t big and she hadn’t seemed overly tired, but it was a lot of new things to digest and process, so although her muscles may have recovered, her brain might still be suffering from information overload. The final thing I thought of, and I was prompted by my saddler, is that Phoenix is wearing Otis’s bridle which is a bit on the big side so getting shorter cheek pieces would reduce the pressure just below her ears. I’m now researching different bridles to see what’s out there and what I should be considering for her.

On Thursday we had our back to basics session, using the dressage saddle and my friend’s Micklem bridle as it has good results with tense horses. Phoenix started off very tight and tense, but by the end she was trotting in a much more relaxed way, stretching down and forwards to the contact. Did the bridle make a difference? The stretching moments were some of her best, but whether that’s because I managed to release the tension or if she was used to how the dressage saddle was now sitting, or even if she liked the fit of the bridle. Who knows!

Today I gave her a quick lunge and she was back to stretching nicely again, so hopefully we’ve negotiated the little ruts in our road. I will make sure that her next saddle fit I have warmed her up more, and ensure that it’s at a time when I can give her a few days to adjust to any changes.

Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks.