Leaving The Arena

Apparently you can’t reblog a post more than once, even if it’s still relevant. So instead here is the link, and I will continue my ramblings below.

This is the time of year when everyone starts getting brave; venturing outside the arena. It’s amazing how institutionalised we become working on circles in the arena through winter. I do think working on a variety of surfaces is very beneficial for horses in terms of soundness as the tendons are neither continuously strained or the bones continuously beaten. 

But anyway, how does riding in a field differ from an arena?

Firstly, the ground is undulating which means a greater degree of balance is required from horse and rider. This also leads to a slight variance in their way of going – the rhythm and frame may adjust slightly to maintain balance. So the rider needs to adapt to slight changes, relax into the horse, whilst giving the horse support from the leg and quiet hands which don’t restrict the head and neck, thus inhibiting their balance. And go with the flow. 

Dressage tests on grass are usually ridden more tactfully; not quite such deep corners and more progressive transitions as the ground conditions and inclines dictate. I think it definitely contributes to the differences between pure dressage and eventing dressage.

I do a bit of teaching on grass and it definitely tests my ingenuity, particularly through winter. Any jump courses I design have to have bigger or complicated fences going uphill. Downhill fences are avoidable in wet weather so diagonal ones work quite well so long as there isn’t a sharp turn anywhere! I have to avoid using the same take off points for too long as they get poached. Grid work is uphill, and lengthening the trot and canter also need to be uphill, and other areas of flatwork need to be tactfully ridden.

But how does riding on grass affect you as a rider? I think it gives you a far better sense of balance, makes you confident over all sorts of terrain – uphill, downhill, hard ground, soft ground – and able to negotiate it correctly by adjusting the gait, your position, and horse’s balance. All of which are very useful for cross country! I think you also develop a “just get on with it” mentality which helps both yours and your horse’s confidence. 


Sometimes we get stuck into the regime of flatwork and showjumps in the arena and cross country out in the open. When really, developing the dressage side of things in the open fields improves the horse’s general way of going which improves the quality of the jumping canter. Jumping out in the open has similar benefits, as well as the horse learning not to run onto the forehand or flatten over fences, which is useful for skinnies and tricky combinations on the cross country course.

Even if you aren’t wanting to event I think it’s really useful to shake things up a bit and ride in the fields, and within a few sessions you should feel an improvement in yourself as well as your horse. Being used to working calmly and quietly in open spaces also stops horses getting over excited when their hooves hit grass and galloping off to find some cross country obstacles. Horses find their fifth leg when working over varying terrain which should mean that you feel safer in the saddle because they are more foot sure – think of the native ponies scaling the wild, desolate mountains!

Therefore my challenge to you this summer, is to take your lessons outside the arena! Practice grid work on grass, or perfect those lateral movements on an incline.


Fly Masks

I bought Otis a new fly mask this season. Well, two actually. I can`t believe the number available, in numerous sizes; some with fluffy padding, some providing UV protection, some with ears covers, and some with nose nets. Then of course comes the range of colours and the material.

The first fly mask Otis had this year has ear covers, mainly because a couple of years ago he got bitten inside his ear and it abscessed – not at all pleasant. So I like to keep the flies away from his sensitive lugholes. However, the downside to these ear covers is that if your horse has ears that fill the covers the stitching and excess material on the inside can rub the tips of the ears. Debris also collects there, so as well as washing the mask I also need to turn the ears inside out. The little rubs on the tips of his ears have caused me to purchase another fly mask without ears, with the idea that a couple of weeks break from the ear covers will allow his ears to heal and then I can revert to the original fly mask.

The original fly mask is well shaped, with a fairly rigid mesh because I don`t like the idea of the mask lying too close to the eyes, which is why I opted for one with more contours and not such a soft, floppy material. I’m sure it damages the sensitive eye whiskers, and can`t be that comfortable for the horse. At the other end of the scale the stiff mesh fly masks don’t contour to the horse`s facial shape and are more likely to rub because the material is not as forgiving. It`s personal preference, but fly masks are now made of far more superior materials than the ones the first graced the market a couple of decades ago.

I never looked for a nose net for fly masks for Otis because although he has a small patch of white on his lip, he doesn`t suffer from sun burn, but this mask I bought earlier this season happened to have a nose net. It doesn’t cause a problem for Otis, but some horses don`t like the feel of a net around their muzzle. The nets also collect dust, from grazing and from their nose so need cleaning frequently.

Some masks, and they tend to be at the higher end of the market, have UV protection, which is a must if your horse suffers from uveitis, blue eyes, or has sensitive, pink skin because this could still get sunburnt with a normal mask. Do these masks come with UV nose nets because I assume that horses requiring UV protection to their face are likely to need similar protection on their muzzle.

Another accessory on fly masks is padding; if your horse has sensitive skin then it`s another thing to consider. Some have discreet fleece over the stitching and edges of the mask, whilst others have more elaborate padding. Again, this is down to personal preference. If your horse needs the padding to prevent rubbing then it is definitely worth considering, however the padding makes the mask warmer so you may get into trouble on hot days. I find the discreet fleece edging an attractive option.

Finally, you want to consider the fastening for the mask. One strap or two straps? Double Velcro? If you have a horse who plays with his field mates then a secure fastening is the most important aspect, however it also needs to be quick and easy to put on, either in the gateway or around the headcollar on the yard. I also prefer the masks to fit quite snugly around the jaw because I worry that the ones that are a little loose in their fit can allow flies up inside the mask, which would be torturous for a more horse and potentially cause a bad accident.

I`ll start off with a picture of Otis in his bug-like fly mask, but lets see your horses sporting their summer head wear too, with a bit of blurb about the type of mask you chose.

Milk Thistle

Last year one of my clients had a mare who was suffering severely from sunburn on her nose. She`s a piebald mare so has a fair bit of pink skin and white hair, but it was strange how badly affected her nose was considering that suncream had been applied daily and she wore a fly mask with a nose net to protect her.

I had seen this sort of angry, red sores before on a liver chestnut with a white stripe, and that was treated by the vet with flammazine cream and the mare was diagnosed as having photosensitivity issues. I think the blood test results showed abnormal functioning of the liver.

So I told this client about this other horse and left her to read up about it.

The liver removes toxins from the body before they can damage other organs and systems in the body. Disease and heavy drug use (for example, horses on a low-level dosage of bute for long-term) can affect the functioning and efficiency of the liver.

Horses detox their body via the digestive system, kidneys and urinary system, liver, lymphatic system, respiratory system and through the skin. Herbal remedies can be used to aid detoxication, but should be a low strength so that the horses delicate digestive system. The most common herbal supplement for liver support is Milk Thistle.

Milk thistle contains Silibinin which protects the liver by preventing certain toxins from entering the liver cells and stimulates regeneration of damaged cells. It also boosts antioxidant activity as well as increasing the oxygenating function of red blood cells.

If your horse was on long-term courses of drugs then your vet might recommend feeding a milk thistle supplement to support the liver. Research has shown that horses being treated for Lyme disease, EPM, or other chronic diseases have benefited from a milk thistle detox a couple of times a year.

This year, the coloured mare has been fed milk thistle seed, in the powdered form which is supposed to be the most digestible. She has definitely benefitted from it as her nose doesn`t have the crusty sores that she did last year. Her nose is covered in sun cream every day, and she definitely still needs it as on sunny days it still looks a bit pink, but it is a normal reaction to UV rays. I guess you could check that her fly mask and nose net are UV proof as that would provide her with more protection, and potentially when riding out on hot days a UV nose net could be attached to her noseband for added protection. In more severe cases (possibly a horse with more white throughout their body) they could end up with the scabs on other areas of their body, especially where the coat is thinner and the skin more sensitive, so would benefit from a UV rug.

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If your horse tends to get sun burn similar to the above photo, it would be worth speaking to your vet and considering feeding a supplement that supports and promotes liver function as well as superficially protecting them from the sun with masks and cream.

Working Horses on Hot Days

The last few days we have been experiencing a heat wave. Temperatures in the high twenties, low thirties.

Yes I know, you South Africans/Americans/Australians, it’s not that hot but for us British it is!

This brings me onto the slightly controversial topic of should we work our horses on hot days? Some say it’s cruel. It’s cruel to send anyone to work on days like today in my opinion. Other’s find it a necessity.

For my job, I need it to be a necessity otherwise I don’t earn any money, but there’s a difference between working a horse and, well, working a horse. If you’re a competition rider then you need to be able to perform well come wind or shine; you wouldn’t not go to championship show just because it was halfway through a heatwave, would you? 

First of all, if you look at the forecast for the week and notice one day is particularly hotter than others then perhaps you can organise that day to be their day off, or if you can’t do that then organise your day so you ride early in the morning or in the late evening. 

Then of course you can adjust the actual workload you do with your horse. Choose a cooler day or time of day to jump or do any intense riding. Pick a shady route for your hack, or just ride for a shorter period. Of the horses I’ve ridden this week I’ve taken some for quiet hacks in the woods, others I’ve schooled for half an hour before taking them into the woods for a good cool down. During the schooling sessions I tend to focus on lateral work, especially in the walk, and have frequent rest breaks, or walk work to try to stop both of us from overheating. And of course keep the canter work to a minimum, with a good breather between reins.

I think the important part when working with horses in the heat is to listen to your horse. Does he have a thick coat anyway? Is he a horse who doesn’t like the heat? How fit is he? Does he tend to sweat up anyway? One of the horses I rode today, a Shire cross, came out in white foam on a walk hack – there’s little point trying to school him in this weather unless it’s before nine am. He won’t appreciate it. 

Once you’ve decided what the best form of exercise is, it’s important to remember to take lots of breaks, and make your cool down longer than normal, and if you feel the horse is getting tired, or lethargic in his way of going, then call it a day and cool down on a hack. Even if you’ve only spent twenty minutes schooling instead of his usual forty five minutes. Working in the heat is far more exhausting than during normal temperatures. The aim is to exercise the horse, not kill him.

With a long cool down their breathing should return to normal, but their muscles don’t cool down that much, so the next important step is washing them off. Lots of water, a big sponge, wipe away excess water as it warms and douse them with fresh, cool water. Offer them a small drink, and leave them in the shade for a bit, just like you would do after exercise.

Some people, especially those who’s horses don’t have shelter in the field, bring their horse in for the day when it’s hot. I left Otis in today, mainly because of his thigh sweet itch rug, but I found it was stifling in the barn whereas there was a small breeze across the fields, so I’m not a hundred percent sure which option was better – in with no rug, or out with rug. Also, you should make sure your horse is happy to be in. Some are creatures of habit, and resent change so can get worked up in the stable, which is counter-productive. The best solution really is to have a nice high hedge on one side of your field (or a tree!) so they can shelter there. 

Other hot-weather care includes sun cream, to both horse and human; fly spray (again to both horse and human); checking that the water troughs are clean and filled up.

When horses get dehydrated they lose the desire to drink, which can make it very difficult to rehydrate them. Which is why it’s so important to make sure there’s clean, fresh water, in the shade if possible – I hate drinking from a water bottle that’s been in the sun! You can add electrolytes to their feed or water to help replenish the salt they’ve lost through sweating. Providing a salt lick can be beneficial, and adding some apple juice to a bucket of water can help entice them to drink.

I always have this problem with Otis at competitions. The water is from home, yet he rarely drinks. So I make his breakfast quite sloppy to get some liquid into him, and offer him buckets, wipe his mouth with a wet sponge, and totally drench him after riding in the hope that water goes in somewhere! At home he goes straight to the field, where he sometimes drinks from his trough. If a venue has some lush grass I let him graze before loading him because there’s a higher water content here than in his haynet.

So really, it’s not that bad riding during a heatwave, you just want to adjust your day and exercise plan according to what suits you and your horse best. Being sensible, taking shade and riding at a slower pace, are all sensible precautions that will keep both of you more comfortable. Then of course, pay extra attention to hosing them, and you, off afterwards so that their core temperature is brought back down to normal. 

Day One of Pony Club Camp

Pony Club Camp has started.

Not that it`s a bad thing, I`ve been looking forward to it since last year when it was over! This week is a proper old-fashioned kind of camp, all the kids from three to sixteen are there during the week (the mini monsters only arrive on the last couple of days) and we have the run of a family`s estate. It`s bliss! In the riding field numerous arenas have been fenced off, with a specific showjumping ring, gridwork ring, dressage arena, and arena cross country ring. The only competition we have for space is with each other, vying for extra time in the surfaced arena to practise our top-secret musical rides in preparation for the big competition on Friday.

Away from the riding field, there is also the cross country course through the woods and two small paddocks for Handy Pony and Mounted Games.

As an old hand at Camp I felt a lot more confident going in – after all, I actually knew some names! It was nice being recognised from last year too. Knowing the layout and the routine helps put you at ease too, as well as knowing the dynamics of the instructors so you can join in on banter. Which this camp has a lot of.

That reminds me of our Instructors Supper a couple of weeks ago. We were all sat around the table having a serious conversation about Health and Safety over chilli con carne when the sole male instructor at the table picked up the Chief Instructor`s brand new BMW car keys. After a muted conversation our end of the table decided that the remote would work on the car sat on the drive outside. So he pressed the button to open the boot.

With a polite cough, he informed the C.I. that “he thought her car boot was open”. So she got up and peered through the living room window. With a tut she slipped on her flip flops and went outside to shut the door.

The C.I. came back in, closed the front door and was just taking off her flip flops when the M.I. said “I think it`s happened again” as he pressed the button again. This time he had to dodge a smack on the back of the head!

I think I had tears in my eyes as we rolled around with laughter.

Anyway, I`m sure you can imagine how conversation flows over the lunch table.

My group this year is an interesting mix of boys and girls. Last year I had six sweet six year old girls, who all got on very well and would do anything to please, but were all very similar in ability and confidence.

With the boys I have one competitive, very fast yet I must say very polite boy with an equally fast pony who loves mounted games and jumping. Another boy is slightly quieter, but equally confident and happy around a cross country course. The third boy hasn`t ridden for very long, is shy, and lives in fairy land.

On the girls front, there is a nervous girl, who panics about her pony taking off with her so trots very slowly, and in actual fact her pony would be less likely to take off to catch up with the others if he opened his stride and didn`t get left behind – I`m working on it. The other two girls are both on Section A`s, which is actually rather nice to see. Kids who are on ponies slightly too small for them, yet are perfectly happy and the ponies are well behaved and toeing the line. These girls both have strong positions and are confident.

I had to do a tack check at the beginning of the day, focusing on the safety. I always ask the kids who cleaned their tack, and if they say “Me” they gain a point, even if it is not as clean as that which has been scrubbed by proud mothers. I`m also a bit more lenient if they haven`t put it together quite correctly – like the boy who had a twisted martingale which I untwirled. Checking stirrup leathers is a must, and I found two culprits who had stitching about to fray. They were fine for todays activities, but would need a new pair for Tuesday`s cross country. I also checked the bottoms of their stirrup irons for cleanliness and tightened girths.

Our first riding session was mounted games, which I was slightly worried about as I`d already identified the weaker riders and was worried they would be fazed by their confident counterparts. But I began our session with a bit of a lesson on the flat, so I could assess their control, trot, knowledge of diagonals, security, position, independent riding, and canter. First the trotted individually, and then after a trot as a ride on both reins they cantered individually.  Then I paired them up into teams.

I was surprised, if I`m honest, that I managed to make the teams so evenly matched they almost drew in our tournament. Mounted games was a great way for them to get to know each other, start to work as a team, and support each other so it was actually a really good starting point for the week. They all enjoyed the morning and we finished just before the ponies got overly excited.

The kids got a shock when we went back to the pony line though, as they all prepared to hand over the reins to their parent and dash off for lunch. I had other ideas. They all had to untack themselves, brush off, give their ponies haynets and water buckets, before I would let them sit down for their own lunch. And I strongly discouraged parents unless absolutely necessary.

This afternoon we had dressage practice. This is where we had to run through the test that they would be riding on Friday`s competition. Again, I warmed them up in a ride and ran through riding circles and changes of rein together, before running through each test individually. It was really interesting to see the gender divide in their approach to dressage. The girls all wanted to do well, focus on sitting trot and riding accurately, whilst the boys hoped for more than 46% and had long reins, swung across their change of rein two strides after the designated letter. More interesting, was the fact the boys had very little knowledge of the layout of the arena, the physical size of a twenty metre circle,  and couldn`t do sitting trot to save their life. As they bounced around one of them yelled,

“Why do we have to do this? It`s hard!”

To which one girl primly replied with “sitting trot helps develop your seat.” Touché.

They got there eventually, but I don`t envisage myself taking their stirrups or saddles away this week!

Before riding the dressage test we had a little discussion about what a dressage judge was looking for – riding position, using the corners, riding to letters, rhythm, correct canter lead and diagonals, and ensuring their pony was forwards, were all answers. I didn`t think they did too badly.

Each child tried when riding their dressage test, and I gave each one a couple of things to work on so that I didn`t overload their brains, and they would hopefully make some improvements. I think the girls would have happily run through it again, and worked on specific movements, but the boys were bored of it, and we`d run out of time, so we headed back to the pony line to untack and clean our tack ready for tomorrow.

Tomorrow we`re practising our musical ride and having two cross country lessons – wish me luck!

Summer Wardrobe

Who’s been enjoying this lovely sunny weather? We certainly have.

Yesterday the girls at the yard rode in their vest tops, whilst couple rolled up their jodhpurs or put on shorts, and I worked on my farmers tan.

I usually wear polo shirts because I think they tend to be the most practical and smart, and as soon as the sun comes out my arms brown like a banana in the window. But my shoulders stay paper white!

Anyway, the conversation in the barn moved on to what is okay and not okay to wear around horses.

Let’s begin at the bottom. Last year I heard so many stories of injuries caused by people wearing flip flops around their horse.  That’s just stupid! You’re in danger of tripping over without factoring a clumsy footed horse into the occasion! So footwear should always cover your foot. Some people wear jodhpurs boots alone, which is fine, but not the most comfortable all day. In wellies or long boots your feet and legs slowly cook. My answer is those yard boots, which look like walking boots and lace up. Unfortunately the tack shops charge an arm and a leg for such boots, so I go to the local sports shop and buy walking boots, comfortable, they last well, easy to change for jodhpur boots, cover your foot, and you can have high tops, which support your ankle. For the weak ankled among us. I do admit that I will pop up in my trainers when I’m just doing my horses, but they are tough trainers, as opposed to the fashion trainers. If I was looking after an unknown horse I’d make sure I opted for the hot, sweaty, but fully protected option!

Moving up your legs. Who wears shorts around the yard in summer? The biggest problem if you don’t, is finding enough daylight hours to stop your legs looking like they’ve spent their entire life in Alaska. And as a professional, when can or can’t you wear shorts? I think if you’re working on a private yard and your employer is happy, then shorts are fine, as surely it’s better you are comfortable and can do your job, than are lethargic and suffering from heat exhaustion? If I’m teaching regular clients I often wear shorts, but if I were to teach at a riding school, pony club, or new client then I would most definitely have jodhpurs and boots on. So that I look professional. I think it’s important though, to make sure your shorts are sensible, and not too short that you may a client feel uncomfortable. 

You can buy summer jodhpurs and winter jodhpurs, but I’m never organised enough to remember which ones are which, so just have regular pairs.

Next it’s the tshirts. As I said before, I mostly wear polo shirts, but they lead to the dreaded tan lines. At my old yard we had a uniform so used to rolls our sleeves up to reduce the contrast. It never worked.

But I’ve found an alternative! Sleeveless polo shirts! They still look professional and smart, and are surprisingly cool, compared to usual polo shirts. I tend to think that vest tops in a public environment, such as a riding school, can make clients feel uncomfortable and it isn’t always the best when running with the kids pony or riding.

I’m sure you get my drift! Personally, I feel much more confident in the sleeveless polo shirts. 

I think the horse owner can wear whatever they want, but they should remember to be safe and sensible in their outfits, but professionals need to find that balance between being safe, setting a good example, and being comfortable so they can do their job to the best of their ability.

There are other summer time problems that you come across. Most recently, I am struggling to find a pocket. One pair of jodhpurs has a large hole in the pocket which results in my phone sliding down to my kneecap. Another has silly little fashion pockets which don’t hold anything! So where on earth do I put my phone and keys? Now I don’t have a coat or gillet, I’m pocketless. 

I’m currently looking online for phone holsters. Together with some decent sunglasses and a cap so I don’t have to squint across the arena to watch a client. Oh and I’d better buy some sun cream too.