Keeping the Momentum Going

This year has been very stop start for a number of reasons, mimicking the stop-start of Phoenix’s cross country training the last couple of years.

I was determined this spring to improve Phoenix’s cross country CV with regular training outings and her competitive debut. Covid had other ideas, but since being released from lockdown I’ve made a concertive effort to get her out and about.

We went to an arena cross country lesson in June, which was full of suspicious health and safety checks at each fence before flying them the second time. She wants to do it for me; but equally wants to make sure she’s read the question thoroughly and risk assessed. Then I took her to a local schooling venue with a friend and had fewer stops, but upon reflection, I realised that I was starting to expect the first stop, and at times froze and became passive on the approach. No wonder she was suspicious of the jumps!

I gave myself a kick up the bum and went to another venue a few weeks later with another friend. Again, better. I actually rode positively to the fences and Phoenix took more of it in her stride. Interestingly, ditches and steps were becoming easy and Phoenix was no longer spending minutes tottering on the edge before committing to navigating the obstacle. Water was also becoming less of an issue, with her trotting through happily. Canter was still out of her comfort zone, but I wasn’t overly concerned about this as she just hadn’t quite worked out how to move through water. Towards the end of this session I felt like I was starting to jump out of a cross country canter rather than showjumping into each fence.

We were making steady progress, but when you’re on your own it’s very easy to sit within your comfort zone, and work your way up to doing a jump. Which of course you can’t do at a competition. Realistically, I needed to start looking at going to a competition. But I’m reluctant when there’s such a high risk of either a cricket score or being disqualified.

Next up, was riding club camp. Where we had a good cross country session, where Phoenix had jumped some meaty fences and grew in confidence. I of course had some tips to take away – mainly that I shouldn’t hesitate with the leg or hold back with the hands. Even if my brain was reluctant to commit until Phoenix did! Keeping my upper body back would save me.

What I actually realised this summer is that the motivation to go cross country schooling comes from making it a social event. Yes of course, we aren’t supposed to socialise currently but there’s less than 6 of us and we can’t get much closer than two metres whilst mounted, so we’re as low risk as you come. Going schooling with someone, who doesn’t have to be working on the same trajectory as you, gives you some support. And encouragement to challenge yourself with a slightly bigger obstacle, or trickier line. They can provide a lead if needed, or you can discuss and feedback on performance and how to improve. I think ultimately, that the attraction of going out with friends is the ulterior motive for getting out and about.

So when a friend spoke about forming a WhatsApp group of those who want to keep up the momentum of cross country schooling during winter, I realised that whilst I rarely feel a desire to go cross country in the winter, it’s exactly what Phoenix and I need. I need to keep the ball rolling with her cross country so we don’t go back to square one next spring. And there’s no reason to regress with so many arena cross country venues available to hire.

Today we had our first cross country club lesson. We’re all at different levels, but as I joked with our instructor “a good coach can manage several different levels of abilities within the same lesson”. Which doesn’t make it any easier! Phoenix was awesome. She took on the various step and jump combinations; skipped over the ditches; took on some trickier lines and flew over the couple of BE100 fences I aimed her for. I need to push with the height as it’s nearing the edge of my comfort zone as well as Phoenix’s. But equally I don’t want to just face Phoenix at huge meaty jumps as she could easily tire, make a mistake and lose confidence. But adding in the odd fence challenges us both. I felt she tackled these more easily than only a fortnight ago at camp. My job, when approaching these, is to keep riding forwards, straight, and keep my body balanced so I don’t inhibit Phoenix at all. She can get a little deep if necessary, but ultimately she is able to work the question out herself.

In the last third of the lesson we treated it as a competition by stringing some fences that we hadn’t yet jumped, including the water complex, so mimicking the competition environment. Overall, I was pleased. We stopped at the second fence, but I was slightly worried about it and I didn’t feel that Phoenix had quite gotten into her stride, still with her mind on her group of friends behind us. But she did it the second time and then flew over the next few questions, albeit feeling slightly tired by now. However, she stopped at the simple tyres just before the water. Once over it, she cantered boldly through the water. The next fences were great, but she stopped at the other jump going into the water, and then she ran out of steam at the final one before jumping it second time around.

On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but I think it was tiredness kicking in for the last fence, partly my fault for the first one, and the distraction of the water just behind the jump which caused her to have a closer inspection of them prior to jumping the other two. So after a long breather, I finished our session by jumping both jumps into water and the final hanging log. She cleared them all easily this time, so I felt we’d consolidated the subject of jumping towards water.

Overall, however, I was really pleased with Phoenix’s development across country, feeling that the stops we have are fewer, and more excusable. Plus, once she’s assessed, she is very willing to take on the challenge, and has learnt the lesson.

We’re going to try to have monthly outings to practice our cross country, either in an arena or out in the open when possible, using our group to encourage and support each other, as well as motivating us in the depths of winter. It has definitely motivated me to look at some hunter trials this autumn, and hopeful for our one day event debut next year.

I think it’s easy to underestimate the benefits of a supportive social circle, even if you are focused and ambitious, with our hectic lives, but actually it’s your horsey friends who help you achieve your dreams, no matter how diverse the dreams are within a friendship.

So if you’re struggling to find the motivation to develop your riding definitely find some friends with similar ambitions to egg each other on. We’re all on different journeys, but we can all help each other reach our destinations.

Phoenix and Cross Country

Phoenix’s cross country education has been a bit stop-start due to one thing and another. Her first summer with me I didn’t feel she was ready to go cross country schooling and the ground was rock hard. The second summer she was bolting in canter in the spring so with cracks in our relationship and very hard grouuhnd I only got her out a couple of times over solid fences. My plan of getting her over solid fences last autumn and this spring were scuppered with storms and covid respectively.

Anyway, now hopefully we’re back to some normality, I’m hoping to further her education across country over the next three months.

So how do you plan a progressive cross country session? You don’t want to out face a green horse, but equally they need to learn new skills and build confidence. It’s a skill I’m working on from both a rider and a teaching perspective, so I can develop inexperienced riders on the cross country as well as give inexperienced horses valuable, positive training.

I use the warm up as time to play around with the gears of the trot and canter, getting the horse responsive to the aids, checking the steering, and assessing how the horse feels on the terrain. Are they confident under foot, slipping, or finding it hard to keep their balance down hill. Then I focus on any weak areas for the rest of the warm up. With a green horse I’ll ride them near the jumps, circling round them and settling them so their eyes aren’t out on stalks. Last weekend when I took Phoenix out cross country schooling she was much less “looky” at all the jumps during our warm up, settling into a rhythm immediately and being attentive to my aids.

If a horse hasn’t seen water then I won’t do this, but I usually incorporate water into the warm up; trotting and cantering through the water. This helps teach a horse that water is no big deal, and for the greener horse it reminds them of the water question.

Once warmed up I find an inviting, plain jump well within their comfort zone height wise and then jump that a few times until the horse settles into cross country mode. The first jump should be done from a showjumping perspective; upright, three point position and a balanced, controlled canter. Just in case the horse hasn’t got the memo about it being cross country, and has a stop, or thinks twice about it. Last week Phoenix hadn’t gotten the cross country memo and was very green over the first few jumps with me ending up by her ears a couple of times! With an inexperienced horse, it is best to approach in the three point position as you are more secure with any sticky moments or awkward leaps over the jump. Approaching in a steadier canter gives the horse more time to assess and process the jump, which hopefully leads to better understanding by them and they grow in confidence.

I start to string some straightforward jumps together, starting to open up into a cross country canter and two point position as the jumps become more familiar, but revert to the showjumping approach over new, fences which might cause the horse to back off. I find it best with green horses to get them started with the first fences so that they find their rhythm and then add in a couple of new fences. Each subsequent “course” uses jumps the horse has already jumped before introducing new jumps, as they’re more likely to pop straight over because they’re travelling forwards and in “the zone”.

After riding a few courses, I then do something less physically challenging for the horse, but still mentally stimulating. I’ll go and play at the steps. We walk up and down some steps, taking it steadily so that the horse has the opportunity to study and understand the question. For some reason, steps seem to puzzle Phoenix so I take it back to basics each schooling session and give her plenty of time to process the steps. Each time it’s taking her less time to work out where her legs go and how. By walking the steps you give a horse time to look at, process and understand the situation. This means that they will be confident in similar situations because they know the correct response. Whilst this takes time and patience, in the long run you’ll never be caught out with a sudden stop or hesitation.

I develop the step work so that the horse is trotting up and down them, linking it in with a course, and then cantering them when they feel bold and confident.

Next is another short course, using familiar jumps as well as posing new questions and perhaps linking in the water to remind the horse what it is. Before I find another technical challenge for them. Of course, this assumes that they horse has coped well with everything so far.

With ditches, I use the same approach of walking over them a few times, before trotting and then linking jumps in and cantering over them. The idea is to go as far as the horse is comfortable. So if walking over a ditch is enough of a drama for today then that’s fine. Jumps can be integrated, but the ditch can still be walked over.

By then I usually feel that both horse and rider are reaching the limits of their learning capacity for the session, but if I have time then I will finish with one or two courses which revise what they have learnt over the session. The jumps don’t have to be the biggest they’ve jumped all day, or new questions, but a simple course popping through the water, over the ditch and steps will mimic a cross country course and prove a horse’s understanding and confidence to finish on a very positive note.

The next time I go out with them I fully expect to have to revise the technical elements, but the plan is to give them such a positive, confidence building experience that they come out next time bolder and less looky. So we start from stage 2 rather than stage 1. And progress through the stages quicker, with only a short revision session, and then we can build on the size and technicality of the lines between fences and make that step from just cantering through water to jumping into or out of water and so on.

The Way The Mane Lies

I read a really interesting article about what the lay of the mane tells you about a horse’s body.

In a nutshell, a foal is curled inside the womb either to the left or to the right. The side they curl to is their naturally more bendy side before undergoing training (as don’t forget that a lot of training focuses on straightness) and this is also the way their mane falls. The mane, so long as it’s not trained to lay on the offside because it’s more traditional, falls to the side the horse bends more easily to, even over bending in some instances. It’s to do with muscle fascia, but I’m afraid that’s getting far too complicated for my little brain to comprehend so for that information I’d recommend asking a physio or Google.

I had never heard of this before, having just presumed horses who’s manes fell left were the left handers of the equine world. Phoenix’s mane falls left and I hadn’t even made the connection between her softer left rein and more resistant right rein.

After reading this article, which you can find here I started to pay attention to all the horses I see and their manes. Of course my observations are limited by the fact that we still subconsciously lay the mane right, and neck rugs compound this laying, so like a lot of lefties, left lay manes can often pass as right lay manes. This limits my observations a bit, but when grooming Phoenix s couple of weeks ago I had a light bulb moment.

She doesn’t wear a rug at the moment and her mane has gone from a very definite left lay, to sitting either left or right with minimal effort and if anything going upright or favouring lying to the right. It’s almost as though her mane has been blow dried to increase the volume by encouraging the roots to stand up. Ladies, you’ll understand what I mean. Before it was very flat to her crest. Thinking about her current way of going, she is much straighter and stronger so presumably the improvement in her muscle tone and strength is causing her mane to change it’s lay. It will be interesting to see whether it stays right, upright, or reverts left as she continues to develop.

I asked a friend who’s a physiotherapist for her opinion on mane lay. Apparently it’s quite common for a young horse’s mane to switch sides as they go through their training and favour one bend more than the other. Additionally, sometimes half the mane flips sides, which indicates neck dysfunction, and the muscles working incorrectly.

In this not particularly brilliant photo of Phoenix you can see that her mane is very much undecided which way it wants to go, and you can see the shorter part of her mane at the bottom goes fairly straight up.

I would say that observing the way the mane lies is not a foolproof way of identifying their supple side, because heavy breeds offen have so much mane it has to part down the middle, and rugs with necks encourage the mane onto one side or the other, and some people put a lot of effort into training the mane onto the off side. However, during a schooling session the mane will usually try to revert to it’s natural lay, as I observed whilst teaching last night. But having an understanding for the mane lay and the possible effect on the horse’s way of going, hopefully you can use your observations to successfully feed back into your training plan.

Choosing Your Line

I chose a straightforward jumping exercise for a couple of my riders this last couple of weeks. They haven’t jumped for a while due to lockdown and with no lessons so I wanted to get them all back in to the swing of things whilst being aware that they’ve lost their jumping fitness.

I laid out a one stride double of jumps with tramlines between the two jumps down the centre line. After trotting and cantering over the poles, revising straightness and riding lines before and after jumps. I built the jumps up as crosses, still requiring my riders to ride to the centre of each fence, and to stay straight between them. Then I made the jumps into uprights, which makes it harder to stay central. Both of my riders have been my clients for a while so found this exercise very straightforward as I regularly use tramlines in lessons. But it was useful for settling the horses and rediscovering their jumping rhythm.

Next, I discussed with them how sometimes it is beneficial to not jump the centre of a jump. Perhaps on a course the turn is quite tight, or the turn after is tricky. Or you need to shave nanoseconds off your time. Or the previous fence and turn went wrong and you’ve overshot the next jump.

In any of those cases, it’s very useful to be able to chose a different line to ride; be it the inside line that F1 drivers talk about, or the outside line.

I moved the tramlines, leaving one pole in the middle of the combination, dividing the jump into left and right. Then I put a pole before and after the combination to give a visual line to my riders.

Firstly, I had them coming off the right rein, but jumping the left side of the fences i.e. the outside line. Afterward the jumps we alternated between turning left and right, so my riders could get a feel of the effect of jumping off centre. Riding the outside line is slightly easier than the inside line, but if a horse tends to drift around corners then they often continue drifting out along the line of jumps and it is harder to get them straight before the fence. Turning left after jumping the left line of a fence is tighter, which saves precious moments in a jump off, but could have a detrimental effect at the next fence if it’s a short line or your horse is likely to lose balance on a tight left turn.

Next, we stayed in the right rein, but jumped the inside line; again alternating between turning left and right afterwards. This was a tighter turn on the approach which may make it harder for the horse to stay balanced, especially if insufficient outside aids are used. However, the jump itself may be better because the horse’s hindquarters are more underneath them. Turning right afterwards is a tighter turn than turning left when jumping this inside line.

I wanted my riders to compare how easy or difficult it was riding the inside line and the outside line from different directions, and to understand this in relation to their training on the flat and how this might affect their choices when jumping a course.

For exactly, a horse who is stiffer on the right rein will find it harder to jump the right line of jumps from a right turn. This might cause the horse to be unbalanced before the jump and potentially knock the jump down. This can of course be improved by focusing on suppleness on the flat and making the stiffer side of the horse more supple. In an ideal world, a horse will find it as easy to turn tightly from the left rein and the right, but whilst you’re training it’s useful to know which turn is harder so you focus on improving that, but also from a tactical perspective you can choose the lines of your jumping course which are most economical on time with the greatest chance of jumping clear.

With my clients having mastered riding different lines through combinations the next step is putting this theory into practice on a course of jumps. Getting a feel for the difference that riding an outside or inside line can make to how well a course flows, stays intact, and the time it’s ridden in.

Continued Professional Development

As part of my accreditation as a BHS and PC coach I have to attend CPD days annually. They can often be a pain because of the effort involved in rescheduling my diary, travelling to the venue, and finding an appealing course at the right time in the right place which actually counts as a CPD course.

I was up to date with all my certificates, so thankfully won’t be affected by the cancellations surrounding lockdown, but I have seen a huge rise in webinars and online lectures this spring. With the extra time I have, I’ve been quite busy expanding my professional knowledge.

Ros Canter and Caroline Moore did a three session lecture over the course of a fortnight which was very reasonably priced and had the attraction that the lectures were recorded so I could “catch up” during the week. They were fascinating, and really useful – some clients have already started to see the exercises popping up in lessons. It was a combination of a PowerPoint, a series of YouTube video clips, and the experts discussing the subject. I’ve actually still got the last one to finish owing to a broken laptop, so I’m looking forwards to catching up on that soon. There is also a sports psychology talk for me to catch up on as well when I have a functioning laptop.

I’ve also just completed a mental health course, which was very straight forward to complete and meant I could pick it up and put it down easily around toddler challenges. This course was about helping coaches know how to help people with mental health problems, remove the stigma, and make our sport more accessible to them. As a coach, I often find the first few minutes of a lesson is a client unloading their woes so that they can forget about it for an hour and get the best out of their time with me. And now I have a few more tools in my toolkit to help if anything more serious than a “I got stuck behind a tractor which made me late so I haven’t groomed his tail” moan.

I’ve got a talk tomorrow night about arena surfaces which will be interesting, plus my riding club is organising an online rider biomechanics talk – a personal favourite subject of mine.

I don’t want to overload my brain with too many talks, but I really like how equestrians are embracing virtual education and are offering all these courses for horse owners and professionals. Whilst it means that not all subjects can be covered, it definitely opens up opportunities for us to learn whilst social restrictions are in place.

With the BHS requiring annual CPD days, a more flexible arrangement of alternating between courses which you attend in person, and online courses totalling sufficient hours, would definitely give coaches more ability to learn about the subjects which interest them as well as the ability to fit training around their busy working lives.

I hope that now we have the ball rolling with virtual lectures they continue to be offered after lockdown and social distancing is reduced. After all, more accessible education can only benefit our horses. It will also enable us to listen to a wider range of experts, perhaps who are out of our area or who do very exclusive talks.

The Art of Repetition

I’m working with a client who’s teaching a green horse to jump. The mare is quite happy over simple crosses and uprights, so we’re at the stage that she needs to learn to read the question with simple exercises and start knowing where she’s putting her feet before we progress to more complicated shaped jumps or grids or distances. I want her to be cleverer about getting to the jump, going over, and getting away from the jump so that we create an intelligent jumper, rather one that is over reliant on her rider or one who wings it each time.

Last lesson I set up two jumps, three strides apart. Starting with poles on the floor, I had them trot then canter over the poles from each direction. I’m looking for the horse to maintain her rhythm, forwardsness and confidence towards the poles. Most green horses will alter their gait as they look cautiously and assess the question. We want a horse to be able to quickly and correctly assess the jump in question so they are best able to clear it comfortably. As she is inexperienced with poles, I’d expect her to back off the poles slightly.

This is when there’s an art to knowing how many times to repeat an exercise. I want an exercise repeated enough times that the horse and rider are confident and competent through it, but I don’t want to repeat it so that they become complacent. It’s exactly the same with flat exercises as jump exercises. I also want to repeat the exercise enough times that it proves it’s not a fluke. I went to a demo with Paul Tapner this week and his rule is that he wants an exercise performed “twice, nice” to prove the first wasn’t a fluke, and to ensure the lesson stays progressive. To an extent, I agree, but I often find a third repetition really useful for cementing the learning.

Anyway, with this mare, I wanted to repeat each stage just enough times that she proved she was happy with the question. She only needed to trot over the poles twice in each direction to become consistent from A to B. Cantering over the poles, she did it perhaps three times in total on each rein. The first time she wobbled and fell into a bit of a heap, and then she sorted her legs out.

Once I was happy with her at this stage I made the second element a cross pole. A height within her comfort zone, but the question had changed. I wasn’t looking to challenge her jumping ability, but rather her ability to judge the jump and get it right first time. I think it was a bit of a mess first time round, as she slowed to look at it, wobbled and the launched over it. The second time was better, and she got it the third.

So I changed the question, putting the first cross up. This time, her first attempt was better and she didn’t back off to study the jumps. Rinse and repeat until she understood.

Then I changed direction, and I was pleased that she reached stage two quicker and seemingly more confident.

I was rattling through the stages but without rushing the mare. Previously, we’ve repeated the exercise more times than necessary to build muscle memory, confidence and practice. Now, I wanted her to complete a task well a couple of times and then move on. But I needed her to achieve the previous stage and be confident about it before moving on otherwise she will lose confidence later on.

Once the mare had negotiated the cross poles I changed the shapes of the jumps. Making one jump an upright, then once this successfully negotiated, the other one too. Then we changed the rein and had the upright first and cross pole second. And then changed it round.

I was pleased that the mare began confidently taking her rider into each set-up, unfazed when the jumps changed. Of course, she was still green and put in the odd wobble and didn’t always get a good take off spot. But that will come as her canter develops and with future sessions to improve her straightness and rhythm. The important thing was that she wasn’t backing off the jumps when they changed.

To finish the session, I steadily built the second jump into an oxer; by putting an upright behind the cross, so that it was inviting and my rider could continue aiming for the centre easily.

I feel it’s important to teach horses to read and process simple jump exercises quickly when training them so that they learn to think for themselves and adjust their canter and bascule as appropriate. I think a horse’s ability to adapt to new jump exercises is related to their confidence, which is why I wouldn’t move onto the next phase before the horse is competent at the previous one. One horse which I ride always backs off an exercise the first time, even when the jump has only changed by a small amount. We’ve worked a lot on progressing exercises steadily and repeating the exercise twice from the off and he is less sticky the first time now, but his general confidence over jumps is also improving.

Building a horse’s confidence when jumping is related to the number of times they have repeated am exercise – it’s a big circle! And I stick to the theory that a horse needs to repeat the exercise until they have done it well two or three times, but have not started to become complacent or anticipate the exercise with detrimental effects. There’s no point mindlessly repeating an exercise with no improvement. Changing it, however slight, will keep both horse and rider thinking about the job in hand.

Lunging With Two Reins

I’ve fallen back in love with lunging with two reins for a number of reasons, but in all the cases I’ve used it with there has been a huge improvement.

My first victim, I mean client, was a mare who has always struggled with straightness due to previous injuries, but is becoming much better under saddle. However I don’t find her lunging sessions as beneficial to her because she drifts out, bananas her body, gets a bit stuck on the track and is a touch lazy. I felt that she needed an outside rein contact to reduce how much she could twist and pull me out on the lunge. I also hoped that the outside lunge line going around her hindquarters would be a prompt for her to go forwards.

She was not impressed. When I flicked the outside rein over her rump and she felt it come into contact with her haunches she stopped, tail facing me, swishing it angrily. I let her tell me how upset she was before asking her to walk on, and initially I had my work cut out to keep her walking and on my circle, not drifting to the fence line. After arguing with me for a circuit she started to relax, and I felt she was straighter through her body and not holding her hindquarters in so I asked her to trot. Again, she grumbled for a few minutes until she aligned herself and began to move with more impulsion and efficiency. Combined with her circles becoming rounder and her inside hind leg becoming more engaged, the trot improved in cadence and she started to use her abdominal muscles and topline.

The next time her owner rode, she felt a huge difference in her mare’s vertical balance; she had a uniform bend throughout her body and had an engaged inside hind leg. The mare was also less fixated on staying on the track, which triggered my next lesson of working on the inner track, and my rider had more of a response from her outside aids.

I suggested double lunging to another client with her young horse who long reins well, but tries to turn in on the lunge. The outside rein will prevent him turning in to his handler, which means he can be taught how to lunge and then just lunged with one rein as required. This will allow his owner to introduce canter work safely on the lunge.

Double-line lunging a little pony in rehab has really helped her learn to seek the contact forwards and stretch over her back and subsequently develop her topline.

Then last week I decided to lunge a horse who I often school, to change things up a bit. He’s a long horse, who finds it hard to connect his back end to his front end and wiggles to avoid doing so. I’ve done a lot of work improving his rider’s outside aids to help stabilise the wiggles, and I felt lunging with two reins would complement this work.

This horse was the only one I felt was ready to canter in the double lines, and where I felt would benefit the most. You can see in the video how balanced this horse is with the outside lunge line supporting him.

Lunging with two reins helps bring the outside shoulder around on the circle, so improves the horse’s straightness, understanding of the outside aids, engagement and connection. This results in an improvement to the horse’s vertical balance and way of going as they use their body correctly.

So how do you lunge with two reins? Fit a bridle and roller to the horse, and run the lunge lines from the bit through the rings on the roller. The outside lunge line then runs round the horse’s hindquarters and into your hand which is nearest the tail as you stand in the usual lunging stance. The inside rein is held in your hand closest to the horse’s head. The horse is sent forwards with the voice, a flick of the lunge whip, or the outside lunge line against the hindquarters. Once you’ve got used to handling the two reins (experience with long lining is helpful!) Lunging with double reins is not that difficult, and has remarkable benefits to the horses when ridden. Definitely worth trying as a change to your usual lunging technique.

Working a Young Horse

There’s such extreme opinions and attitudes towards working young horses; when they should be backed, first jumped etc. Racehorses are still on the track as two year olds, and some people leave a horse feral until they’re five.

Despite scientific evidence about when a horse’s skeleton is matured, there is still a lot of pressure for talented, well bred sports horses to be produced for four year old classes. Which causes all sorts of problems later in life for them. It’s a society of instantaneous gratification; in which horses who are capable of performing today do, rather than waiting until they are mature enough to in five years time.

In this sense, lesser quality horses – perhaps with less talent or with a less favourable conformation – actually fare better because they are produced at a slower rate and usually later in their lives.

Anyway, I’ve come to my own conclusion about how I feel an intelligent, talented young horse with a trainable temperament and good work ethic should be nurtured. It’s important to introduce brain work early in their lives, without doing too much physical work.

Mental stimulation can involve introducing a young horse to different environments, showing them poles, fillers, tarpaulins etc, in hand work to establish good manners, taking them to in hand shows, leading them out along quiet lanes, and meeting cars and bicycles. This sort of enrichment builds a bond with their handler, which should make the backing process less stressful for the horse, and builds the horse’s confidence when out and about.

I’ve got a new client, with her new four year old. The mare was produced in Ireland before being sold at a sales, and has a very clever mind as well as talent to boot. Whilst she needs to mature and increase condition, she also needs work to keep her busy brain occupied so that she stops jumping out her field or box walking.

They had their first lesson this week. The mare is fussy to mount, quite anxious and tense. This behaviour stems from anxiety so we have formulated a plan to overcome this. As it’s not rudeness, I don’t think the mare will benefit from a confrontational approach, but we do need to encourage her to stand more quietly to mount. It’s a long term approach, of mounting and allowing the horse to walk until she relaxes slightly and then asking her to halt momentarily. Hopefully each time she’s mounted the walk period gets shorter and halt gets longer. Time can also be spent standing by the mounting block with nothing further happening. We don’t want to add to the tension, but we need to introduce the concept of better mounting manners. Hopefully within two months she is less anxious about the mounting procedure and only needs walk a couple of steps before halting for as long as her rider needs her to. Racehorses have a similar problem with mounting because they’re used to being legged up and hurried into work.

The mare, as with all youngsters, walked into the arena and immediately started calling and looking for her friends, drifting back towards the gate. She’d left her brain in the stable. Add this to her tense, quick walk, and there’s nothing to work with. So we began the lesson by my rider just walking around the arena, circling around every jump she passed. I told her not to worry about the quality of the walk, or the bend. We just wanted to use the circles to draw the mare’s focus to her rider, forgetting about her friends in the stable. My rider could start to think about her aids and assess the mare’s understanding and response, but we didn’t want to start changing the mare until her brain was on side and she had begun to relax. It took a good few minutes of walking for the mare to take her mind off the gate and stables, and to relax into a longer striding walk. You could see she was starting to concentrate on what was going on in the arena.

Now that the mare was starting to relax we could introduce halt transitions. Reluctant to stop, she opens her mouth and tries to barge through the hand. She’s in a Micklem bridle, with a Neue schule eggbutt snaffle with bit stabilisers, which means she isn’t fussing as much with her tongue or gaping her mouth as wide as she did when viewed, so I’m hoping this habit reduces more when she settles fully into her new home. Anyway, I asked my rider to vibrate the rein as the mare set against her hand so that we diffused the tug of war situation. After a couple of halts, the vibrations were less because the mare was starting to understand the question and responded to my riders’ initial aids.

With this starting to fall into place, and the mare focused on her work, we could then take a five minute break. They halted and stood still for almost five minutes, taking in the scenery, and most importantly, relaxing. This halt is the type I’d like them to get upon mounting, so it’s good to see the concept is there. We repeated the halt frequently throughout the rest of the lesson to give the mare time to assimilate each exercise.

Staying in walk, as I now wanted to ask the mare a couple of questions to see how trainable she is, we began to introduce the idea of straightness. Now I know it’s halfway up the Scales of Training, but the mare was showing preference for left bend and unless we iron out her banana-ness, we won’t be able to start at the bottom of the Scale.

On the right rein, the one which the mare bent outwards, we started riding a square. Again, we weren’t making a huge change to the mare’s way of going, but rather showing her that there was a different way of moving. Riding straight lines emcourages the mare to straighten out of her left bend, and start to think about bending to the right. Her rider could also check she was sitting straight and giving even aids.

As with all youngsters, the mare wobbled along the sides of our square, so we made sure the reins and hands were channeling the mare straight without being claustrophobic, and the legs hung round her barrel to guide her between the reins. Just with a little more support from her rider and the mare started to move straighter, stride out and relax.

We repeated the square on the left rein to show the mare that she didn’t have to curl up to the left. Then we did some more circles around jumps and my rider felt the mare was better balanced and she had more influence over their direction. I was pleased with the improvement in the mare’s walk. As she relaxed she was exhaling in big snorts, lengthening her stride, lowering her neck and generally looking happier.

We finished by trotting a gentle square on both reins, aiming for a consistent rhythm and the mare relaxing into trot, stretching herself into a longer frame as she and her rider found their balance together.

Despite spending most of the lesson in walk the mare was mentally drained. She stood with her head low, ears floppy. You could see that she was tired. Her working routine will be two schooling sessions a week; one a lesson similar to this one and the other a shorter revision session with her owner. The rest of the week will be spent either in hand walks, some in hand work, such as pole mazes, or short ridden hacks. She’s a very clever horse so we need to keep her brain ticking over in order for her to be more manageable in the field and stable, but we do need to be careful not to stress her body physically, but I think this arrangement should benefit her best.

Training Bursaries

My poor bank account has taken a bit of a beating this month. As well as paying HMRC my tax bill, I`ve also just paid for my exam fee and training. Which means I`ve done quite a lot of maths.

As a BHS AI (Assistant Instructor) I`m at the second level of instructor. To get here I had to sit my BHS stages 1-3, PTT exam and then complete a portfolio. After qualifying and having a time in a riding school I went self-employed. Like numerous other instructors.

So when I started looking at taking my next exam, improving my knowledge and qualifications, I had a bit of a shock. I`m not surprised there are so many BHS AIs around, and comparatively few Intermediate Instructors (IIs), because training is out of reach for so many of us.

This exam costs £300, plus £300 if you need to take your stage 4, to complete the II qualification. Then if you look at training with Fellows of the BHS for these exams you are looking at a rate of £45 per hour. Now, if you are a freelance instructor, perhaps working at a riding school, you are looking at an hourly rate of £15 per hour. So for one hour of training you need to teach for three hours. For private lessons, you are looking at £20-25 an hour once you have taken out the expenses of traveling and insurance. Which means you need to teach two private lessons to pay for one hour of training. Never mind the fact that while you are engaged in training you cannot earn any money – either from the riding school or from private clients – is it really surprising that so many capable instructors don`t bother to further their education?

Whilst doing a bit of research, I came across a training bursary offered by the BHS – click here to read. However, in order to qualify you must be associated with, and teach a minimum of 20 hours a month at a BHS approved riding centre. Working at such a centre means that you will already have a network of support and the ability to be trained for a reduced rate (If you are training for your Stage 4 riding exam you can often be a guinea pig for ITT training days or join in with client group lessons of a similar standard). Some centres may even let you attend clinics and lectures on site for free, or to pay for you to attend others at different centres.

The BHS is trying to promote the development of coaches, and to motivate instructors to further their education, but in doing so I feel they isolate the self-employed. The self-employed have to fund their own learning, motivate themselves and have limited contacts within the BHS network to gain support.

I thought I was the only one who thought of this bursary as flawed, and feel that many freelancers would benefit from a similar training grant, but I have just read a paper by Jo Winfield, FBHS – you can read it here – which states that as a freelance instructor she felt “very isolated once I achieved my professional coaching qualifications and had no further opportunity to advance my skills and competency as a self employed coach. The equine industry lacked any support for my own career development.”

Jo Winfield discusses in her article how important self-reflection is for coaches, and I admit that that is my main method of self-training. Teach a lesson, reflect on it, and make notes about how to improve my performance. I hope that this means that I can do the majority of the learning by myself and then use any formal training hours effectively.

Perhaps I have shot myself in the foot by not being associated with a BHS approved riding school? Riding schools usually provide a reliable source of income, but as the rate of pay is substantially lower than private clients surely if you can build a business on purely private clients you are showing better business sense? I`m sure there are also other freelancers who either teach at an unapproved riding school (perhaps an ABRS approved school) or do not teach at a riding school, preferring to work more closely with a Pony Club or their private clients.

With so many freelance instructors, and the BHS Register of Instructors, I would have thought that the BHS could run a similar training bursary for the self-employed. Especially if training can only take place at approved BHS training centres, then they are putting money back into their society. Perhaps I will have to petition it to them!

Donkeys

What did everyone get up to on the weekend? I had quite an interesting one.

I was at home with my parents, being molly-coddled by my Mum, who insisted on applying witch hazel to my bruises and strains, and painkillers at every opportunity. Turns out she had an ulterior motive – I had to move plant pots and look after her friend’s horses. 

On Saturday afternoon I had a bit of downtime so went to visit a friend, who lives on the side of a Welsh mountain in a small holding. The views are stunning, and we walked the dogs around the Punch Bowl before going to see the equines.

We have a story here. When I was drifting around having left school with no direction or ambition, I was introduced to this lady who had two ponies on the verge of laminitis. One was rescue so couldn’t be ridden, but the other one was quite capable of doing some work.

So I went there three times a week and lunged, schooled in the field, and hacked this pony. It was a massive learning curve for me; being asked for advice, having minimal facilities, having to source and fit tack, instruct someone on how to lunge and give basic riding lessons. I really enjoyed this new found responsibility and have always kept in touch with this lady.


Anyway, since I stopped riding the pony my friend has acquired a young donkey. He’s now three years old and ready to start his working life. Not that his working life will be particularly arduous, but his mind needs occupying.

He is now leading well, stands to be groomed and have his feet picked out, and has had the bridle put on a few times.

My job on Saturday was to check the bridle and make sure it was comfortable and well fitting.

It’s strange, fitting tack on a donkey. I mean, the basic premise is the same, but a donkey has huge ears to fit under a headpiece, a deep jaw, wide forehead, and a tiny mouth. But with a bit of tweaking the bridle fitted nicely, and he looked very smart!


Do I have any donkey enthusiasts reading my blog? Because my friend picked my brain, which unfortunately doesn’t have much donkey knowledge.

Can donkeys get canker? The farrier visited last week and thought it was canker, but as he didn’t know if donkeys can get canker he wanted to ask some farrier friends and return to treat the hooves, which don’t seem to hurt him. A photo is below, please feel free to tell me about donkey foot care.


Another thing we looked at, were the donkey’s teeth. I was looking for wolf teeth, but instead found the tip of his corner incisor (the last incisor to grow) just breaking through the gum. Which can lead us to a whole new topic about teething!


Next time I go home it will be interesting to see how this donkey is getting on with his education. Again, if any donkey enthusiasts have any hints on long reining donkeys, or tips to train donkeys then please let me know!