Bug Bears

We all have bug bears don’t we; little things which cause us far more agitation than they should. Well, I’ve worked out my equestrian bug bear, and that is stirrups. Or more specifically, inappropriate stirrups.

There are so many designs of stirrups available now that I think it’s easy to lose sense of the safety aspect of stirrups, as we try to match stirrup treads to saddle cloths or follow the latest fashion.

I hate seeing children riding in non-safety stirrups. We always had stirrups with peacock rubber on the outside, which pop off with the slightest pressure. Sure, that can be annoying when a child has little control over their lower leg and foot, but it’s of paramount importance when they tumble off the side as their foot comes straight out of the stirrup and they won’t be dragged along by the pony.

The Pony Club I teach for insist on all children having this type of stirrup, but I do think it’s a shame this level of safety hasn’t reached the general population. In my opinion, it should be mandatory for riding schools to use these stirrups on ponies. If kids want to be matchy matchy then you can buy coloured stirrup treads for the stirrups. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a traditionalist.

These stirrups only have one metal side, so aren’t that strong, the same as free-jumps. Which means they aren’t an appropriate design for adults and teenagers as they can bend with the downward force exerted on the stirrup when doing rising trot or cross country position. Instead, you can buy bent leg irons, which have a forward facing curve on the outer side of the stirrup, so allowing your foot to easily come out of the stirrup. I have these on my jump saddle, and can’t imagine going cross country without some form of safety stirrup. It always amazes me that I don’t see more of this style amongst leisure riders.

There are so many different designs of adult stirrups now; lightweight, flexible types, and of course different styles of safety stirrups. And of course they have their benefits, but there’s still safety factors to consider. Stirrup irons need to be the correct size for your foot so that you have the best chance of losing your stirrups in a fall or accident. Even stirrups which claim to be safety ones cannot work effectively if they are too small for your foot. To check that your stirrup iron is the correct width for your foot place your boot-clad foot into the iron and there should be half an inch either side of your boot. Any less and you risk your boot getting jammed. It’s worth remembering that yard boots tend to be chunkier than jodhpur boots so if you swap between the two types of boots you should ensure the stirrups are wide enough for both types of boots.

Unfortunately, it’s something I see all too often. Chunky boots jammed into too narrow stirrup irons, and riders using stirrups that are not strong enough for their weight. There’s a reason free-jumps have a weight limit! Who wants a stirrup to break halfway round a course?! It probably does irk me more than it should do, but I think it’s such a simple thing to get right which makes the difference between a fall and a serious injury. And surely our safety is more important than the latest fashion?

Half A Hole

You know sometimes your stirrups are slightly uneven? Like one’s half a hole longer. So you shorten it. And then it’s too short. So you end up riding fully aware of the lack of levelness in your stirrups. And then blaming any small error, tension, or crookedness on the fact your stirrups aren’t quite right.

Well. I have a solution. Apart from switching your stirrup leathers regularly so that the shorter one is on the near side. It will stretch as you mount. I was taught this by a colleague in a riding school, where matching stirrup leathers are rarer than saffron!

Get your stirrups as even as you can, and then with the end of the leather, pass it behind the top leather. So that it sits just below the buckle. Then thread the end of the leather through the keeper.

This configuration lies flat against your inner thigh, so doesn’t cause any rubs, and is usually enough to shorten your stirrup length by half a hole. Thus making your stirrups level!

Tight Nosebands

So I’m a little late to the party with this topic, but I didn’t have time to read, digest, mull over, and think about the Open Letter to World Horse Welfare on the 26th November 2018. When I did have time, I’d lost the article and didn’t have time to find it and blog about it.

But voila, here it is. Hopefully it was worth the wait.

Firstly, I’m going to direct you to the original article, that is the Open Letter, which was shared on social media last week. The link will take you to the renowned Dr David Marlin’s Page (you can thank me later Sir, for your sudden influx in popularity) where you can read the article.

The World Horse Welfare recently covered the delicate yet very current topic of noseband tightness in sports horses. The letter is basically correcting a few misquotes and clarifying statements, but let’s start with the subject of tight nosebands.

I think the equestrian world has become conscious of the issue about how tight a noseband should or could be in the last couple of years, especially as more and more bridles are moving away from the traditional fit and more down the micklem route, highlighting the importance of avoiding facial nerves. I think this has had more of an impact on the amateur riders. The leisure riders. The riding club level riders. These are the people who’s horse is their best friend, a member of their family (go on, admit it you’re signing those Christmas cards love from, then a list of human and fur members. In order of preference, with the human child at the end? Yep, you know you do!). These horse owners want what’s best for their horse. They read magazines, articles online, chat to friends and on forums learning about new equipment and advances within equestrianism. They then buy or trial said item and are converted. Yet I’m disappointed in that the professional world is slightly behind the times. Think about it, not that long ago in Horse and Hound they covered a story about a racehorse (Wenyerreadyfreddie) who races in a micklem bridle. Everyone was aghast. How many professional riders do you see in non traditional tack, even that which is FEI legal? Very few. Charlotte Dujardin rides in either a cavesson or a flash noseband snaffle bridle and the lower levels. Not that I am saying that she has over tight nosebands, I’m just using her as an example to the fact that the higher echelons in our sport are very much traditionalists. A quick look at eventing and showjumping royalty shows a similar trend towards flash and grackle nosebands.

So my first question, is why is there such a difference in tack preference between amateur, lesser qualified riders, and professional, top level riders? We’re all privy to the same information on scientific research, so why are leisure horse owners seemingly so much more open minded to tack, and especially nosebands, which differ from tradition. Of course, if your horse works at their best in it’s traditional noseband then there’s no need to change things, but you can’t tell me that not a single horse on a professional’s yard would benefit from a bridle which reduces pressure either around the nose or poll. Perhaps they need to take a leaf out of Nicky Henderson’s book and experiment to find a happier horse.

One piece of research showed a positive correlation between the tightness of nosebands and the number of oral lesions in competition horses in their post performance tack check. I can quite believe this, but I think it would be a more substantial piece of evidence if a wider range of horses were considered, such as leisure and riding school horses, along with information on their usual tack and its fit (some horses may be ridden in a snaffle for the majority of their training, just wearing a double bridle for test preparation and the competition), their age, and frequency and type of work. After all, competition horses tend to be more highly strung, sensitive, and given the pressures of the competition environment possibly more at risk of developing mouth ulcers, or lesions. As with any piece of research, including the recent stats about Oxbridge being socially exclusive, stats can be skewed and need to be read with open eyes.

The letter also addresses the lack of standards in sample size and getting a cross section of equines from all disciplines, levels of competition or ridden work so that it accurately represents the equine population. This will only change if we, as readers, question research and the quality of their samples, and demand higher standards in equine research.

The crux of the letter, and the most important subject to reflect upon, is what appears to be the World Horse Welfare’s reluctance to accept the taper gauge, which is a standard measure used at competition tack checks, to ensure fairness to all competitors. After all, we fit cavesson nosebands with a two finger gap between that and the horse’s nose. But the width of two fingers on a petite woman is significantly smaller than that of a tall, strong man.

You can view the taper gauge here.

Claims were made that the taper gauge was involved in an incident where a horse got loose at a top international competition, but these were found to be misleading. As far as I can see, from my reading, competitions could do with a quiet area for tack checks, and to somehow try to reduce the tension in the environment while they’re being done. That would hopefully reduce the risk of a horse panicking and bolting, as in the example in the letter. Perhaps more time needs to be devoted to tack checks so they are less hurried, and grooms can remove fly veils with less haste so are less likely to dislodge the actual bridle. Or the tack check is in a small enclosure, so a loose horse doesn’t pose a risk to the rest of the competition. I don’t know the logic in organising this level of competition, but I believe it’s an area which can be improved.

Returning to the subject of taper gauges. In order to fairly measure the tightness of nosebands you must have an objective and standard method. Of course, some horses will take a dislike to a green thing near their head, but in my opinion it is the duty of the owner or rider to introduce the gauge at home, so that the horse is used to the measuring procedure. After all, they can be purchased for a mere ten pounds. Combine this desensitisation process with tack check stewards being trained to safely approach and use the gauge to minimise risk to all involved, and the necessary post competition tack checks should be safe and fair to all competitors.

As with everything in the media, there are ulterior motives and deception, which have certainly been highlighted by this Open Letter from the ISES, so whilst equestrian sport is moving in the right direction in terms of equine welfare, we still have a lot to do to persuade the powers that be to move from their antiquated pedestals and embrace the changes.

Tack Trouble

Today I saw an interesting article doing the rounds on social media. You can have a peruse here.

Over a cup of tea I had a read of the article and all the comments from keyboard warriors. It made interesting reading for sure.

Now, I’m going to digress from the topic of the article, which is about a tack malfunction, onto the subject of tack in general.

As one commenter typed, I’m not a “tack nazi” and completely understand that some horses cannot be ridden in the classical snaffle and cavesson bridle. But I do think that as riders we should aim to have tack that is minimal so it doesn’t hinder the horse, and so that the tack clearly and precisely relays our aids to the horse. Regardless of the level of horse or rider, as I know some will say “well you try riding at 3* level”, well all I can say is that Michael Jung went around Badminton cross country in a snaffle so we can all aspire to be like him.

Anyway, the big issue I had with the horse’s tack in question was the amount of conflicting tack and how much clutter there was on the horse.

I feel that everyone should put more consideration into the reasons why they want to put a piece of tack on a horse, and the mechanics behind said piece of tack. And not use it because their horse “looks pretty in that bridle” or because everyone else is using that noseband.

For example, a gag works on poll pressure, so you wouldn’t use it on a horse who is sensitive over the poll, or one who already raises his head.

Of course, some horses haven’t read the manual and work well with tack that theoretically shouldn’t suit them. But I’m talking in general.

Then, I think tack should compliment each other. For example, if you have a cutaway headpiece to reduce poll pressure, as in the article above, then it doesn’t make sense (in my humble opinion) to fit a tight browband which puts pressure around the ears and pulls the headpiece forwards. Nor would I put a bit which works on the poll on a bridle which is cutaway so it doesn’t touch the poll …

Tack has come on hugely in the last twenty years, and companies like Fairfax have done scientific research on the effects of tack on horse stride length, muscle tension, etc. So we can make more informed decisions on what we use on our horses. There is also far more choice. Which means that if a piece of tack, for example a bit, doesn’t suit your horse you can find an alternative. A lot of companies even do trial periods on tack which can be a more cost effective alternative if you’re trying out a variety of items.

The horse in this article is wearing two breast plates and a running martingale, which shows that the saddle slips back when jumping. Which is a common complaint with fit eventers. Off the top of my head. I can think of half a dozen breast plates or breast girths which work on different ways, and suit different builds of horse, so if I was looking after this horse I’d be tempted to try different styles, and incorporate the running martingale, in order to find the breast plate which bear suits this particular horse. So the saddle is stabilised and there is less clutter on the horse, which can potentially hinder their movement.

I don’t mind what bit or tack riders use within reason, but I do think it’s important to consider why you are using this piece of equipment, and bear in mind that less is more so that communication between horse and rider is not hindered by straps sitting on top of each other, or pressure points caused by multiple straps. Tack should enhance a horse’s performance, not hinder it.

Returning to the article in question. Perhaps the rider has found the best combination of tack for this horse, and he’s certainly thinking outside the box, but in that case could he not work with a bridle maker to make a bespoke bridle which is less cluttered or confusing? For both horse and observer!

Without becoming a keyboard warrior or slating others, I think this article serves as a reminder to everyone to think carefully about their tackroom choices; bearing in mind how tack fits a horse and how it works because their comfort and wellbeing is our top priority.

Yard Storage

Is spring finally here? Until tomorrow it seems anyway. The last couple of days have been sunny and warm. The mud in the field has dried so that it’s like being in quicksand and you have to pull your foot up slowly, toes curled up, so that your welly is sucked out of the mud and you aren’t left with a soggy sock.

Anyway, yesterday one of the liveries was having a spring clean. All her rugs were out as she was putting lightweight rugs onto her horses and taking the thicker ones to be repaired and cleaned.

This prompted me that I’ve had a blog subject on my to-do list but never gotten around to doing it. And that is, storage of all your horsey gaff.

Most people don’t have a large garage or garden shed (a vacant one at least) in which to store their numerous rugs, spare boots, travelling equipment, body protectors etc, so they need some space at least at the yard. What options are available?

Most yards allow you to have a small storage box outside your stable, which is useful for everyday bits and bobs – grooming kits, riding hat, boots and whip for example. One stable Otis had had a corner cupboard which was incredibly useful and didn’t impinge on stable space either.

Then it’s a matter of storing rugs, feed, bedding, and the other less frequently used but still essential equine equipment. One yard I go to has a row of garden sheds. Each livery owner has their own shed. Obviously this takes up a lot of room, so would only be an option for bigger yards. However, in terms of security, it’s nice to know that your gear is under lock and key so won’t go walkabouts. I have to say it’s luxurious to have this much storage space.

Another yard I visit is an old farm which has been converted into a DIY livery yard. One building is used for storage. I think it must’ve housed pigs but it’s got a central walkway and low walled stone pens on each side, which is perfect for putting storage boxes in. Two or three liveries share each pen, which means each person’s stuff is kept fairly separate yet it’s all easily accessible. The only downside is that unless you can lock your storage box, things could be borrowed. But I like to think livery owners have all the paraphernalia they need so don’t need to borrow from others.

I’ve also seen large metal lorry containers put to good use. One yard has it as their tack room, and another has divided a container into lockers. Each wooden cupboard has two shelves and a door. I think this is a really good space saving solution, but it’s only really for essential every day items. With hindsight, with which everything can be improved, I think I would have larger lockers. Liveries can individually provide locks for their cupboard, but the container itself is pretty secure.

On a similar vein, I’ve seen part of a barn divided up like stalls, with wooden partitions, and each livery has their own area. This is more spacious than the container lockers but the security isn’t as good.

It’s hard to find the right balance of space and security for liveries, without becoming the equine equivalent of the Big Yellow Self Storage Company, especially when some people have far more rugs or tack than others. And for some people it is their only storage for horsey things because either they don’t have space in the garage, or their partner doesn’t want equestrian things taking over house space. I’m lucky in that my husband doesn’t really go into the garage … so he has no idea how much equine stuff is there. Not that he’d mind, of course.

I want to know, what storage solutions other yards have and how you, my readers rate each experience you’ve had.

Breastplate Research

Recently some scientific studies have been published which discuss the negative impact on a horse’s jump.

Fairfax, who are famous for their pioneering girths which gave British riders an advantage at the 2012 Olympics, have published the research describing how a breastplate shortens the shape a horse makes over the fence, so that they land more steeply thus putting more stress on their joints. You can read about it in more detail Here.

Obviously Fairfax have developed a breastplate which is far superior to all others on the market. At a price, of course. Now, unless you are planning on remortgaging your house to purchase this ultimate breastplate, let’s have a look at what other options there are.

Breastplates are used to help stabilise the saddle and stop it slipping back. They’re most commonly seen on eventers, who due to their high level of fitness are rather streamlined, almost herring gutted, which encourages the saddle to slide towards the croup.

If your saddle slips backwards the first port of call is to get it checked. It may be that the make of the saddle isn’t best suited to your horse’s conformation, but equally changing the girth may have an impact on the movement of the saddle. You can also use gel pads or non slip pads under the saddle which can help stabilise the saddle. Phoenix came with such a pad, so when I get the saddler out I’ll make sure I take that with me so the saddler can assess if I’ll need it with my saddles and take it into account when he fits the saddle.

I think with any piece of tack, you only want to use what you need. So if your saddle stays still when you’re jumping or going cross country then don’t weigh yourselves down with a breastplate. The same goes for martingales for that matter.

There are a few options with regard to designs of breastplates and breastgirths, and I think it’s so important to consider the horse’s conformation when choosing one.

I tend to feel that if your horse needs a martingale then it’s a good idea to combine that with a breastplate in order to reduce clutter, but otherwise I’d look at breastgirths.

Horses with large shoulders tend to have trouble with saddles sliding back, but the ironic thing is that large shoulders tend to make fitting breastplates difficult. Which was exactly the problem I had with Otis. Initially, I had a hunting breastplate which worked well when he was a youngster, but as we started jumping bigger and getting more serious, I found that the hunting breastplate wasn’t so effective at preventing his saddle from sliding backwards and it encouraged the saddle to sit a bit low at the front.

From there, I tried the V-check breastplate, hoping that the elastic would provide more freedom through his shoulders, but the angle that the straps came up from the centre of his body caused the saddle to drop at the front again, which I think made it harder for him to use his shoulders over jumps and when galloping.

As I needed the breastplate to have a more gentle angle, I looked at a five point breastplate. This one I was most happy with. The sheepskin pads and girth attachments helped reduce the downwards pressure at the pommel, so I felt there was less pressure near his sternum and point of shoulders.

As well as the research done by Fairfax about breastplates affecting jumping, I think it would be more interesting to use the biomechanics technology to see the effect that different styles of breastplates and breastgirths on horses of a variety of stamps – for example, warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and cobs – has on their jumping and where the pressure points are. After all, it would be lovely to be able to had a breastplate which only puts pressure on the horse when needed, but we can’t all justify the price tag, and indeed not all horses are super fit eventers. However it would be great to educate the average horse owner in the pros and cons of different style pieces of tack so that we can do best by our horses.

To Boot Or Not To Boot?

Another subject request from a client was on the topic of booting. Should you put boots on or not?

To me, boots have done a bit of a full circle. At least twice. Years ago, nobody would have used any form of leg protection at all. Didn’t Black Beauty scar his knees in a fall? Then bandages were introduced, but they’d only have been used by the elite – they’re tricky to put on correctly and are dangerous if they come undone. Especially on the hunt field or cross country course.

Then the basic brushing boot came onto the market, which soon became popular amongst all as it was affordable and easy to use. These became more elaborate with sheepskin and various fancy fastenings. And we all became a little obsessed with protecting our horses against any knock or cut, and boots were used to turn out competition horses in the field as well as when ridden.

Then along came the scientists, who found that boots heat the leg up, which makes the tendons more liable to injury – Here’s a really interesting article about the pros and cons of boots from a scientific perspective.

So then owners started to move away slightly from boots. But we still have that urge to protect our horse’s legs. Which has left us in a bit of a quandary and susceptible to the marketing ploys of all the scientifically researched boots which require you to take out a second mortgage to purchase them.

I joke, but after perusing the Premier Equine spring catalogue and dreaming of winning the lottery, protective boots have become very complicated areas.

Back to my client’s original question. To boot or not to boot?

I think ultimately it requires you to be sensible. Take precautions, use good quality equipment, but also allow horses to be horses.

Firstly, have a look at your horse’s conformation and way of going. Are they at risk of overreaching because they’re short-coupled? Are they young and unbalanced? Do they move straight, or is there a swing to their limbs? Are they “out of one hole” and narrow chested? All of which increases their risk of inflicting damage upon themselves, by one limb knocking the other. Do they have shoes? A shod foot will do more injury than a barefoot. And studs will do more damage than a plain shoe.

If your horse answers yes to any of the above questions then I’d be more inclined to use protective boots.

Next, what are you doing with your horse? A gentle hack, or prelim/novice level flatwork has a lower risk of injuries than cross country or interval training. The BHS taught me to put brushing boots on to lunge because the risk of injury is higher when the horse is working on a circle. Whether they still advocate this, I’m not sure, but it’s a valid point. Equally. I would consider the horse’s energy levels – is he fresh and likely to throw in a couple of spooks or bucks which may cause injury?

Another point to consider is how hardy is your horse? A thin skinned, clipped Thoroughbred will knock themselves and blood will start gushing, whilst a well feathered cob has more natural protection. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, so get to know your horse.

Does your horse have a previous injury? For example, if they’ve previously done a tendon, or have an old scar on their leg, then you may want to consider booting them for supportive reasons as much as protective reasons.

Otis wore boots as a matter of course. I always put brushing boots on him; simple, basic ones. Mainly because I think I always did, so we were both used to it. Then he frequently pulled shoes off, so he wore overreach boots when ridden and when in a herd, he wore them in the field. On his own, he is fairly sensible about it all. His hind legs are quite close together, and when he was shod behind the inside of his shoe used to catch the inside of the other coronet band, so that he lost his feathers in that area. So I put sausage boots on his back legs, which I’m not one hundred percent convinced that they solved the problem, but they definitely reduced the effect. Upon reflection, I think overreach boots would have been a better alternative.

With Matt, I didn’t put brushing boots on him in everyday riding, and Mum doesn’t either. However, when I took him on some sponsored rides last year I did put brushing boots on him for protection over the solid fences.

With Phoenix I’ve not yet used boots on her. She’s barefoot and straight moving, so I’m not worried too much about overreaching or knocks, especially while she’s in such light work. Plus the fields are so muddy that I would struggle to get her legs clean enough to put boots on, so risking damage to her legs from abrasions due to pieces of grit being caught between the boot and her leg. Once I start jumping her properly I’ll definitely put boots on her, to protect her from knocks as she learns what to do with her body. But I think I may be more relaxed with her than with Otis, and just put boots on when I feel she needs protection. Once she’s learning lateral work then she’ll need protection as she gets used to crossing her legs over.

So to answer my client’s question, I think it’s important to take precaution with our horse’s legs to avoid injury from knocks, abrasions or cuts. But it’s equally important to try to prevent soft tissue injury by fittening your horse sufficiently because the jury is out as to how supportive boots actually are. And don’t feel that you have to use boots all the time: work out when you think your horse will most benefit from them and which types of boots (tendon boots, brushing boots, fetlock boots, etc) will best serve the purpose.

Then of course is the mind boggling question of which boots should you use. After all, they come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Basic boots are usually neoprene, which are lightweight so won’t have too much of a warming effect on the horse’s legs or weigh them down as they move. However, neoprene does soak up water so will become heavy and possibly hinder the horse after the water element on a cross country course.

Some boots have sheepskin inner, which were in fashion twenty years ago, but as the sheepskin warms the limbs up excessively they dropped out of fashion. Plus they’re so difficult to clean! However, sheepskin is better for sensitive skinned horses, and creates more even pressure around the leg so avoids rubs and pressure points. I saw some sheepskin boots in the Premier Equine catalogue which states that the sheepskin uses “airtechnology” to prevent the leg overheating. I’d like to see an independent study on the heat of legs and different materials of boots to see what materials are best.

Then there are more specialist boots, for example for fast work and cross country. These advocate their cooling technology. The ones I saw have vents which allow air to flow under the boot when the horse is moving. Together with technological advances, these boots have become very hard wearing and tough without getting heavy. Heavy boots will impede a horse’s movement and performance.

In all, despite the fact that we now know there are limitations and side effects of using protective boots for horses, technology has allowed boots to be developed which aim to enhance performance, prevent overheating, and provide protection to the limbs. So we shouldn’t be put off from using boots when necessary. However, I think I would choose when I used boots, and only use the level of protection that I required – so if a horse doesn’t need overreach boots then don’t use them, and don’t use specialist cross country boots for flatwork in the school – because the very nature of putting boots into limbs, or bandages for that matter, alters the way a horse uses their body. Then I would also minimise the length of time a horse spent wearing them.

On a side note, have you seen the research done on barefoot (human) runners and the difference in the way the foot absorbs impact when bare as opposed to when wearing trainers? It’s really interesting how the toes spread out and work independently to balance the body when unrestricted.

Getting Their Tongue Over The Bit

I remember it happening a few times when we were younger, but I’m not sure if it’s the fact that we know how to fit bridles better or if it’s the fact that bits are more ergonomically shaped and with different types of joints, so it’s actually harder for tongues to get over the mouthpiece.

However, it did happen a few weeks ago while I was lunging, which led me to wondering how many people would recognise the signs of a horse getting their tongue over the bit and how to prevent it happening on a regular basis.

The horse I was working with was trotting around sweetly in side reins when he started fidgeting with his head, not really shaking it but it became more mobile. Then his tongue came out the side of his mouth a couple of times as he contorted it and he lost all impulsion as he hollowed. A bit of white lipstick appeared suddenly and by that time I was bringing him back to a walk to sort him out.

I unclipped the side reins and gave him a moment. After all, if he got his tongue over the bit, he may be able to wiggle it back under. Which he did. I had a close look at the bridle he was wearing and decided that the bit could potentially be sitting slightly low. So I put one cheek piece up a hole and then straightened the bit in his mouth. It looked to be sitting slightly better, with a fraction more of a smile at his lips, and as I didn’t want a repeat performance I left it like this. We set off, and he continued as if nothing had happened.

From the ground, it’s quite easy to see a horse in discomfort in his mouth because you can see the tongue moving around, and the head shaking. What are the symptoms though, when you’re riding?

Firstly, it feels like the horse comes behind the bit and very light in the hand. Their neck may feel tense and contract towards their body. You should also feel a lot of movement in the mouth – almost like chomping at the bit – and possibly some head shaking. They’ll lose focus on the exercise and hollow.

If you think your horse has their tongue over the bit then it’s important to dismount in case they start to panic. Immediately give them a loose rein and find somewhere safe to jump off. Once on the ground you can see if their tongue is above or below the bit, and if they’re able to resolve the problem. Undoing the noseband, especially if it’s a flash or grackle, is sometimes enough to enable the horse to correct the tongue. I’ve known people to put their fingers in the corner of the horse’s mouth and push the tongue down. Obviously the horse needs to be fairly calm for this otherwise you could get injured. Alternatively, and this relies on you being in a safe place (I.e. not on the side of the road) you can take the bridle off and then replace it. Undoing one cheek piece and letting the bit drop carefully in the horse’s mouth is also helpful in allowing the horse more space to sort their tongue out.

Putting the tongue over the bit is an evasion tactic, and often occurs in youngsters who are playing with the bit whilst being backed. It can also happen because the horse is physically uncomfortable, either because of the type of bit or because of pain in their mouth.

If a horse repeatedly gets their tongue over the bit or seems generally uncomfortable with the bit and bridle, it is worth getting an equine dentist to thoroughly examine the mouth. The molars may be sharp, or the cheeks, gums or tongue irritated by the sharp edges.

Unfortunately however, getting the tongue over the bit releases endorphins so a horse is tempted to recreate the situation and give him a buzz. Which can make it a difficult habit to break.

Then you need to assess the bridle and it’s fit. Is the bit in good condition – plastic coated bits often develop rough edges over time which can cause callouses on the tongue and cheeks. The type of mouthpiece is important to consider as horses with different mouth conformations will find different shaped bits more comfortable and a horse who is comfortable in the mouth will move their jaw and tongue less so will be less likely to get their tongue over the bit. Horses with fleshy lips and tongues will find thinner mouthpieces much more comfortable, whilst some horses dislike pressure on the tongue so prefer a ported mouthpiece or multi jointed mouthpiece. You could even consider bitless bridles.

A bit that is fitted too low in the mouth commonly causes the tongue to go over the bit because there is physically more space above the mouthpiece and the bit is more mobile so there is more scope for the tongue to move around as the horse tries to stabilise the bit why get can cause it to get into trouble.

A correctly adjusted bit should sit so that there are two wrinkles at each corner of the lips. I miss the traditional bridles where the cheek pieces can be adjusted independently and the headpiece can sit slightly off centre. For example, the bit can be at the perfect height for the horse with one cheek piece on the third hole and the other on the fourth hole. The plain leather headpiece can sit slightly asymmetrically but the horse is very comfortable. However, with padded and shaped headpieces the bit has to be adjusted evenly on both sides to maintain symmetry in the mouth. Which sometimes I feel affects your ability to find the perfect fit.

I think in years gone by one answer to horses getting their tongue over the bit was to tighten the noseband or apply a flash or grackle. However, now education has increased and we are more aware of facial nerves and the effect of overtight nosebands people are moving away from this answer, and trying to find the root cause as opposed to fixing the symptom.

Jump Jockeys

I had a fun lesson yesterday with two kids. Obviously being after school it’s dark when they ride, so my repertoire of jump exercises is being tested as I find ones which make them and the ponies think whilst not being too big, and ones which aren’t too spacious so doesn’t use the darker side of the school.

Last week I decided that I wanted to get the jumps flowing for my riders. One has a speedy pony so where he was over folding, and now is using his shoulders and upper body as brakes is now getting left behind, so it’s a fine balance that we need to rediscover; the other tries to micromanage and pins her horse down with her hands so restricts his jumping and then it doesn’t flow or look harmonious.

The obvious choice of exercise was without hands. Thankfully, we had the arena to ourselves so I didn’t need to worry about the increased speed by the end of the exercise as they had plenty of time and space to gather reins back and circle to bring the ponies back under control.

Once they’d popped through the grid of three cross poles on both reins I told them to knot their reins.

“Oh no!”

“No way!”

“He’s going to go so fast!”

“I don’t like not having control” (this came from the dressage dive, who I keep telling to think of being a little messy when she rides because then her pony relaxes and she gets better jumps)

Reins knotted, I sent them straight through the grid with both hands out to the side. I told them to let go of the reins over the first jump, to try and keep some semblance of control on the approach, and then to circle until they brought the canter back to trot.

The first rider, where he’s been consciously not over folding has been a little slow giving with his hands over the fence, so has been getting slightly choppy bascules. This exercise allowed us to work on finding the fine balance between not over folding and encouraging the pony to accelerate and flatten the canter on landing and still allowing him to use himself properly over the fence. After a few tries this rider was starting to get the feeling of the right balance, and when we took back the reins the pair looked much better.

My second rider, by not holding onto the reins, gave her pony a much nicer ride through the grid, which enabled him to jump more freely and rebuilt his confidence because I don’t think he was that happy with being micromanaged. It also taught his rider that he does know his job, and the fences can flow. Which built her confidence because she had more faith in her pony and in her jumping ability. She was able to replicate this afterwards when she had her reins again.

Both of these riders managed to achieve this relatively quickly, so I decided to try out another exercise.

For the boy, it was more just having fun. End of term-itis is kicking in so I wanted the focus to be more on fun. For the girl, I wanted her to sit lighter after fences because her tendency to sit up quickly, which she needs to do a bit of in order to stop her pony getting too fast, comes with her also sitting heavily into the saddle which I think upsets his sensitive soul.

So I put their stirrups up eight and ten holes respectively.

There was quite a lot of banter by now: the boy in his jump saddle was quite happy and set off to trot and canter in jockey position. His core is a bit weaker so he did sneak in a few little rises, but I didn’t want to put his stirrups up too high so his balance wasn’t disturbed. I removed the knee blocks from my other rider’s dressage saddle, and she found it slightly easier then to ride light seat, but the high cantle stopped her really crouching low over the wither. She did start to find her balance on the flat, and I thought her pony looked a bit freer over his back with her out the saddle too.

Then they popped through the grid a few times in both directions, working on keeping their seat light yet still folding, or at least differentiation between their position on the flat and over the fence. The key here is to have a strong core, and to adjust the upper body without sitting heavily into the saddle or losing your balance. I’m a big believer in using the upper body after a fence to rebalance the canter and reorganise, yet both kids are still finding the balance between sitting right up after a fence to discourage their ponies from accelerating away and sitting deep into the saddle so their bums are driving the ponies forwards. With short stirrups it’s hard to drive!

The ponies started to soften over the fences, and use their backs a bit more. Where we’d worked without reins you could see that my riders were less reliant on them for either brakes or balance.

I was planning on leaving the lesson there, but they were keen to try no reins and jockey stirrups. I should have said no, and finished when we did, but I thought I’d run with their keenness.

The girl did it very well, and was pleased with herself. I think she had a lot to consider from the lesson and knows now that her pony is more than capable, but she needs to learn to take off her dressage hat and put on her showjumping one, which is a little bit more relaxed and laissez-faire. Unfortunately, my other rider bounced off over the last fence. Squashed pride and end of term-itis meant this was a bit sore, but he remounted and popped through the grid with jockey stirrups and reins. When I debriefed him after I think he understood that it was just a wobble due to lack of core stability (despite the no reins work, when he had the short stirrups he was giving with his hands but leaning on them as he folded over the jumps, showing that there’s more work needed to get him really secure over fences) and balance, rather than him or his pony doing wrong. I think he took a lot away from the lesson and I look forwards to hearing about his jockey riding on the gallops next week!

Riding like a jockey is so helpful at improving balance, and strengthening the core and thigh muscles. I think going to the extremes of a light seat will help my young riders learn to sit lightly whilst keeping their shoulders back on the approach and getaway of fences, which will hopefully help courses flow and for them to influence the quality of the canter without getting heavy in the hand and blocking their ponies shoulders from jumping. You can see in the first picture below, that the jockey is limiting the speed by his position and shifting his upper body back, and in the second image he is opening up the canter. For my two riders, they want to try to imitate the first picture on the approach and the second picture over fences to really help their ponies out.

Girthing Myths

I saw this little article last night – All about girths – which highlights how important it is to keep yourself up to date with scientific developments within the equine industry.

I can remember when elasticated girths first appeared. They were the bees knees. Then there was a phase which said elastic should be on both sides so that the tension is even.

There has been the warning for a few years that you should be careful not to over tighten elastic girths, but it was interesting to learn that it makes the saddle more unstable. More controversial then, are those anti-slip girths designed for barrel shaped cobs, which have a rubbery anti-slip pad on the girth, and elastic on both sides!

I didn’t know that girth tension varies with pace: although it makes logical sense because the different footfall sequences will affect the horse’s body. If you lift one arm up, for example, your barrel shifts to maintain balance and muscles around your rib cage contract in order to enable you to move your arm, so this follows through that the horses’ barrel will be similarly affected. In canter, their breathing is also in sync with the stride, so that could help explain the variation in girth tension whilst cantering.

Girths are now much more ergonomically shaped, cutting back away from the elbows, so I guess manufacturers are already aware of the pressure points.

I’ve heard plenty of times that girths shouldn’t be overtightened. And it’s easy to get carried away with rotund ponies prone to saddle slippage, but I wasn’t aware that it affected athletic performance other than the horse being uncomfortable – try running in too small a trainers, or like me still squeezing into your jodhpurs – and unable to take deep breaths that over tight girths compromised a horse’s performance.

I’m not really sure how the average horse owner assesses the tension in their girths, in order to be as close to the ideal 10kgs as possible. I would say that 10kgs doesn’t sound very much though!

I think it’s fairly obvious that men create more girth tension than women. It’s a fact, feminist or not, that men are usually stronger than women, and if you take into account their usually increased height, you can see quite easily how they can crank the girth up.

Even in my limited history of being around horses, which scarily enough is twenty years now, technology and research has made huge advances in tack and the way horses and riders are taught. It’s actually exciting, in a geeky way, to see how our knowledge and understanding changes in the next decade, and the impact this will have on all areas of the sport.

Centaur Biomechanics does a lot of research in this area. It’s a fairly local company to me, and once I’ve swallowed the price of a lesson, I’d be really interested in having a biomechanics session to really see how straight I am as a rider. I’m just off to Google some biomechanics books to add to my Christmas list … I’ll be needing some bedtime reading in the New Year!