Horses and Heat

Horses and Heat don’t mix very well do they? Poo picking, stable chores and riding are sweaty work in average temperatures.

The trouble in the UK is that we aren’t geared up for hot weather. Our native breeds have dense coats all year round, and the temperatures tend to sky rocket for days at a time before dropping again, which makes it hard for everyone to acclimatise.

If we are due only a couple of days of hot weather then I think I sit with the majority of equestrians in either riding early in the morning or giving the horses a day off. It’s also then easy to rearrange my work onto cooler days.

However, if the heat is here to stay, then there’s a degree of acclimatising to do. Especially if you compete. It’s all very well avoiding the heat and riding early in the morning, but what if your class falls at midday? As painful as it is pulling jodhpurs on over slippery, sun creamed legs, you do need to ride during the day so you are both prepared to ride a dressage test in the scorching heat. If a horse is in rehab, or needs to be exercised in order to lose weight then long periods of down time aren’t conducive, so it’s better to do lower intensity work for a few days than nothing at all. For example, I’d say that this week it is acceptable for a pony on fat camp to do less work because he’s unfit and finding it difficult to work and plateau in terms of building fitness and losing weight. Weight is maintained rather than lost, or even worse put on! When it gets cooler, his workload and weight loss can increase again.

However, exercise does need to be adapted in this heat, taking into account humidity, horse and rider fitness, taking lots of breaks, seeking shade, avoiding fast work and jumping in the heat of the day. Some horses cope better with the heat – usually finer coated animals, and those with no excess fat. Older horses tend to struggle with the heat too.

My lessons this week, working around the heatwave, have involved;

  • Hacking with a young client and teaching her about the ground, where it is suitable to trot, how to ride up and down hills, and what to look out for when riding in woods and fields. All the time building her confidence to trot independently on hacks.
  • Long reining and in hand work.
  • Walk poles.
  • Teaching the different types of walk so that rider and pony don’t waste the elongated walk breaks, and to encourage them to have slow and steady schooling sessions for the rest of the week.
  • Taking a horse into the jump paddock and desensitising him to traffic on the other side of the hedge, and riding him around and between jump fillers.
  • Stable management.
  • No stirrup work, as riders are usually happier with shorter bursts of work.
  • Transitions, especially halt transitions.
  • Lateral work and rein back.
  • Bareback.

I like having lessons at an enforced steady pace. Walk is so often overlooked, and improving the walk makes dramatic improvements to the quality of the trot and the transitions. I was really pleased with how one lady started to get a longer striding, swinging walk and then floated along in the trot, truly using his back and looking very supple through his ribcage.

The important thing to remember is that everyone copes with the hot weather differently, and to remember frequent breaks, sun cream, modified riding attire (I’ve not used gloves all week), and to drink lots of water. Each lesson has begun with me asking my client where their water is, and to say if they feel unwell or need to stop for a break. Then I know the lesson will run more smoothly.

Guinea-pig Riding

When I was at college and an apprentice I frequently had to ride for coaches training for their teaching exams, or at demos. I don’t like people watching me ride, or strangers critiquing me, so it’s not something I particularly enjoy.

I also happen to be quite difficult to teach. I don’t like being shouted at, and as I’m a trier and detest doing something wrong, if I’m shouted at by an instructor when I’m trying my best I get sulky and close down. I can’t help it, but I appreciate it makes difficult teaching so if someone’s being assessed it’s not an ideal situation.

However, just down the road from Phoenix’s yard is a British Dressage venue, which were looking for guinea-pig riders at novice and elementary level for coaches training for their next exam. Feeling more confident in ourselves, wanting to get Phoenix out to other venues, and wanting more feedback from BD judges, I signed us up.

It’s a bit of a pot luck exercise, but as you don’t pay for your lesson and are only giving your time,it’s a risk you have to take.

I had a shared lesson, with a horse competing at novice level, who was the complete opposite to Phoenix! He was heavier in build, had a workmanlike way of going with a tendency to get behind the leg. In all fairness to the coach, providing a lesson to benefit both horses was a tall order.

We worked on transitions, which are always useful. For the other horse, it was useful for getting him in front of the leg and more active. For Phoenix, there was a bit of work on my aid timing to help her step through in the transitions and not brace in her neck.

I was pleased with Phoenix, who showed how much she’s matured mentally in that she settled to work immediately, wasn’t spooky, but could’ve relaxed a bit earlier into the session. At home I do lots of movements, lateral work and transitions to keep her brain active and attentive to me; but this lesson just used a 20m circle which while she didn’t connect like she does at home, she did settle into a consistent rhythm and remained accepting of the aids, with her transitions improving in softness and balance.

By taking out the complex school movements I could focus on the quality of our transitions. Something I don’t do enough of. But I came away realising that I can simplify my schooling in order to focus on one area without detriment to Phoenix’s way of going.

At the end of the lesson, the rider’s have to feedback to the coach and their assessor. Which is a test to your articulation as much as anything!

For me, I found the day’s exercise useful in that Phoenix worked calmly and focused in a new environment. I realised that she’s matured mentally and I can have productive sessions in a short amount of time. The trainee coach used a couple of explanations which will be useful in my teaching, as another explanation if my clients don’t comprehend my analogy. I didn’t have a ground breaking lesson, but that’s not really to be expected as they’re in training, don’t know me or Phoenix, and I didn’t pay for the lesson!

I think if you are confident at your level of training and understand the correct way of going and how to get the best out of your horse, then these guinea-pig riding sessions are a useful exercise. You only contribute your time and effort, the coaches are all BD trained, many of them judges, so it’s useful to get another point of view and feedback on your horse’s work, and of course you’re doing your bit to help the future of coaching. It’s also useful for young horses. However, if you’re going through a training blip, or aren’t technically secure then it could be detrimental to you and your horse’s state of mind if the trainee coach gives conflicting advice or explanations to your current trainer.

I think I will volunteer again, especially at such a local venue, because there’s very little to lose in the exercise, and the potential to get a few hints and tips.

Poles and Transitions

I adapted this exercise last week for my clients to improve their canter transitions.

When you aren’t working to a dressage test, or set of quick directions, it can be easy to spend too long preparing for a canter transition, aborting at the first corner, and then in the downward transition it’s easy to spend half a dozen strides recovering and finding their balance.

I wanted my riders to be in the position that they could strike off into canter with instant preparation, and can ride into a balanced trot immediately. After all, once you get to elementary level, the movements start coming up very quickly!

I laid out five trotting poles on the track on the long side; with a fairly short distance between each one. I wanted the horses to be on the verge of collecting over the trot poles. With the mare who struggles to get the correct canter lead I placed the poles so that the last pole was at the quarter marker and she could use the corner to get the correct strike off. The other, more established horses, had the poles in the middle of the long side so that the canter transitions were in a straight line.

I worked each combination through the poles until they were balanced, and the trot had become more together and uphill, with increased cadence. Then we added in the canter.

After riding the trotting poles, I asked them to ride forwards to canter before the corner (or at the corner for the less established mare). Then they had to ride forwards to trot at the corner before the poles.

We repeated the exercise a few times, moving the transitions so that they were closer to the poles.

The result was that my riders started riding more quickly, and I don’t mean rushing; the time between preparing and riding the transitions, and then reacting to the outcome, decreased. The horses became more responsive to the aids and then more active in the transitions.

The trotting poles engaged the hindquarters, which helped the horse push upwards into canter, so it felt like a pop into a steadier, more powerful canter. The mare who tends to run into canter suddenly began to almost jump into it, which resulted in a less harum-scarum canter.

Having the trotting poles in the near distance when riding into trot encouraged the riders to sit tall and hold in their core so that the horse sat on his hocks and didn’t fall onto the forehand after a couple of strides, unable to contain all this energy. Often a horse and rider will go into a powerful, energetic trot, pushing nicely from behind, but after a few strides they both seem to collapse and lose energy, so losing the quality of the trot as they bowl onto their forehand. However, the poles require the horse to maintain the initial trot for longer so builds up their strength and balance. Again, the horse and rider have to be thinking and react quickly to correct any loss of rhythm or balance.

Having to ride a downwards transition before some poles doesn’t give a rider the opportunity to accept a sloppy, unbalanced transition, nor does it mean they can do it “when the time is right”. The time is now, and they have to make it right. If they do get an unbalanced transition, for whatever reason, the looming poles encourages them to react and correct it; which is very important around showjumping courses, and so that the next dressage movement is not impeded.

I was really impressed with the improvement to both the horse’s transitions, the quality of the canter and trot, and of the positive, quick thinking way that my riders were now riding.

Figures of Eight

For some reason I’ve been doing a lot of figure of eight work in lessons. I think it’s because I’ve been focusing my clients on changing their horse’s bend, and staying balanced throughout, but I’m enjoying seeing the horses strengthen as they switch between hind legs.

I was teaching one lady on her horse, who can be a bit lazy and not engage his engine, but where we’re building up his topline and trying to strengthen his hindquarters it’s important that we get him thinking forwards at the beginning of the session. So we’ve been using trot poles as an incentive.

After a short trot to warm up on each rein, I started them working over five trotting poles. This increased their impulsion immediately, and the stride length started to improve, but because the poles were on a straight line the horse could avoid bringing his inside hind underneath him, which makes it harder for us to improve his suppleness and strength. He needs more circle work, but without overstressing him. So we began to put the poles onto an oval.

The poles were still ridden in a straight line, but my rider curved away just after them, to ride a distorted circle before curving back to the poles with a short approach. This improved the horse’s cadence over the poles as he started to flex more through his knees and hocks and couldn’t sneak onto his forehand in the straight lines.

Next, we started to alternate which way they turned after the poles, so we were riding a figure of eight. This had the benefit that it made my rider ride straight over the poles, and not accept the slight bend her horse left himself in on straight lines. Which improved their balance round the turns because he wasn’t pretending to be a motorbike and stayed vertical.

Next up, we incorporated canter transitions. After the trotting poles, as they turned left my rider asked for left canter. The aim was to have a positive response from the canter aids, have a forwards canter round the bigger oval, and then ride a transition into an active, balanced trot ready for the poles again. Having the poles after the transition helped maintain impulsion and stopped him trying to drop his forehand.

We developed this into a figure of eight exercise with one circle in canter and the other in trot. Which improved his suppleness and stopped him predicting the canter transitions. Especially when we turned the same way consecutively!

I’d like to develop the exercise further with them so that both circles are in canter, and the poles are raised. This will get him more responsive to his rider because there are a few questions in quick succession, and it will improve his balance, strength and suppleness. He will also begin to work more consistently over his back, engaging his abdominals and bridging. This will help his rider learn the feeling of him working correctly so that she can recreate it without the help of the poles as he gets stronger.

It’s a really simple exercise which has immediate, positive effects, and I loved the way it stopped this horse anticipating and rushing the poles, or the canter transitions.

Improving Canter Transitions

I had a very rewarding morning with Llani today. I’ve done a lot of work both on and off the lunge on his canter transitions.

When I started working with him he used to do this funny jump into canter. His hindquarters are very powerful and pushed him into canter, yet his front end often didn’t go anywhere, so it was almost like sitting on a pogo stick.

Initially I did a lot of work on keeping the rein contact very light, almost non existent, in the transitions and he really improved, travelling forwards into the canter. This was a great improvement, so o focuses on other areas of his work for a while.

However, his trot work has stepped up to the next level, with him much more consistent to the contact and working over his back, and soft in the neck. However, Llani started finding the canter transitions difficult again, and reverted to his pogo stick imitation. I think the improved balance and trot work meant it was difficult for him to engage the correct muscles for a good upwards transitions. When I allowed the trot to revert to it’s old self he managed the transitions fine.

So I began focusing on the transitions on the lunge using side reins.

Today really showed how everything is coming together. I took him into the school and he gave me a cheeky look before trotting off onto the left rein. He came back to walk after a few strides, and I knew that he was trying to make a game out of “which way around the circle will I go?” He began trotting actively immediately, tracking up, and in a steady rhythm.  As with most horses the first couple of minutes can be spent focusing him on work, not doing as many circles as possible in the first two minutes. 

Anyway, I clipped the side reins up, which are fairly loose to encourage him to take the contact forwards, and not to restrict his head and neck. Then I worked on his trot on different sized circles, using a bit of leg yield as he stepped out onto a bigger circle to engage his inside hind leg. He was really focused on me,and not looking for any distractions from the yard, and from the ten metre circle he was on I asked for canter. He struck off correctly, uphill and moving forwards towards the contact into a really balanced canter. I let him come back to trot after half a circle and sent him out onto a bigger circle so he could rebalance. I brought him in again to repeat the exercise as he can be a bit inconsistent with the transitions and practice makes perfect. He cantered beautifully, this time maintaining his canter for longer as I asked him to move out onto the bigger circle. After a couple more transitions, all of which were very correct I worked his trot again, which hadn’t deteriorated between canters, and then brought him in to change the rein.

I gave him a big fuss and then sent him out onto the right rein, which is slightly weaker. Funnily enough, it used to be his left rein that was weaker! I spent a bit longer in trot getting the correct bend and engaging his right hind leg, getting him to soften over his back, before practising the canter transitions on the right rein. This is the rein that he is more likely to do a pogo stick impression on, and the first one was a little bit up and down, and not so forwards, but after a short canter I brought him back to rebalance his trot. The second transition was much better!  He was relaxed and stepped forwards to  the contact, looking a bit more free through his shoulders. I think previously he has been ridden with a very short rein and not been allowed to move through his shoulder. After a few transitions on this rein I let him trot to finish, before letting him walk around on a long rein to encourage him to stretch forwards towards the ground, another alien concept to him.

I was really pleased with his performance today as he was very focused on me, and really tried to do exactly as I asked. Hopefully I can build on this next time I ride him.


Setting Their Neck

Since getting Llani to move forwards and stretch over his back and generally becoming more supple I have moved on to focusing on his transitions.

Unfortunately, Llani doesn`t like this idea. Last week, about halfway through our schooling session I brought him back to walk to ride some walk-halt transitions. I rode him forwards in the walk with a relaxed frame and then half-halted before asking him to halt.

This is where we disagreed. Llani halted the first time, for about three seconds before setting his neck and walking off. So I repeated the transition again. But Llani just set his neck as I half halted and carried on, oblivious. I asked a couple more times and eventually he responded, albeit reluctantly. So I addressed the walk and settled him again before repeating the transition. As soon as I asked he tensed his brachiocephalic and leant against my hand. Frustrated, I lent forward and tapped his poll sharply. Surprised, he stopped immediately.

I gave him a little pat, and then repeated the transition. Sometimes Llani responded well, but needed more encouragement to stay stationary for longer than he wanted, and sometimes he hollowed and gazed into the distance but so long as he listened to my aids he was rewarded.

I did a bit of research about how to improve the transitions, and today we had a better session.

Some suggestions were that I should work Llani on circles and introduce more lateral work so that his neck was relaxed and he was focused on other work before riding the transition. Others said to adjust the timing of my aids so that we were both better balanced and he was carrying more weight in his hindquarters and would step under in the transition and stay soft in the neck. I was also told to ride more transitions on circles. Dutifully, I followed these directives today, and found that leg yielding on a circle into a transition was really helpful. I have to be careful not to do the exercise too many times in a similar environment because Llani soon starts to predict it and halts for a maximum of two seconds before rushing away, so I rode travers or shoulder in before a transition, which really helped.

Interestingly, his trot-walk transitions are fluent and he stays relaxed and focused. Going up the transitions, today Llani went forwards more, instead of coming up and back at me (which was getting rather tiresome) and they are becoming more consisten. I was particularly pleased with his canter transitions as they were more relaxed and less of an imitation of a pogo stick. All I have done here is to ride them on a very quiet, allowing contact and when he doesn`t step forward I ride him back down the gaits and try again.

Llani is definitely improving in his way of going as he is more forwards, in a longer and more relaxed outline, keeping a very consistent rhythm and is much more supple. He is beginning to understand lateral work more, which I think is improving his suppleness. He is also accepting the leg a more and today I had some good strides of medium trot today with him pushing from his hindquarters, as opposed to pulling from his shoulders and falling out of balance as he did previously. He is also learning to walk on a long rein, although when I let him stretch in trot he stops and tries to find my hand, worried about being on his own! I`m looking forward to his first dressage competition in a couple of weeks time, and getting a baseline to monitor his progress.