A Family Pony

When 14 year old me was given Matt as a two year old, I never envisaged he would become such a family pony. He let teenage me career around the country, have a go at anything and everything, yet also allowed me to be slightly responsible. Like the time I escorted 3 under 10s on a sponsored ride – now I think I was mad! He wasn’t a guaranteed red ribbon winner, although he did win a few unexpected prizes against the odds. And I was always guaranteed that he’d stop at a filler jump!

We did shows, sponsored rides, my first dressage competition, galloped up the field bareback numerous times, went to the Boxing Day Meet, the annual Christmas gymkhana, and he let me learn so much with him. Looking back, there’s definitely things that I would have done differently when backing and riding him. But with age comes wisdom. And I hope he doesn’t think ill of me for my mistakes.

When I turned my attention to Otis, Mum started riding Matt more. She had to build her confidence up after years out the saddle, with mainly hacking and flat lessons. It was a rocky ride initially, especially when I moved away and Matt was in less work but still young enough to have silly moments, like charging off across the school, or excessively spooking at a trembling leaf. However, he did settle into a quieter way of life and they now enjoy lots of hacking and sponsored rides.

Then when he was 15 he got the shock of his life coming out of semi retirement, when I had him back for a few months. What started as something to occupy me while Otis was lame, Matt gave me some of my proudest equestrian moments. Flying round sponsored rides, doing more jumps in one ride than he’d done in 5 years, his first hunter trial, scoring 78% in a dressage test, qualifying for the BRC National Championships, winning his arena and overall competition… His bromance with Otis, riding and leading them both for miles for Otis’s rehab…

I was actually quite sad to give him back to Mum, and do miss his cute face and secretly miss his quirky ways – although his separation anxiety can be a real pain in the bum.

Only a couple of months after the pinnacle of his career, Matt fractured his stifle from a kick in the field, which led to six months of box rest, various secondary problems as a result of his confinement, a long rehabilitation programme by Mum, and he thankfully returned to normal work.

Mum continues to enjoy riding him, having lessons, venturing out to local dressage herself, and hacking for miles. And more recently, Matt has taken on an extra role with the third generation.

He quietly stands (so long as he can see other horses) to be groomed from atop the mounting block. He lets a certain little person sit on his back facing forwards, backwards, lying down, hugging his neck, kissing him, and generally be loved. Then he allows himself to become a lead rein pony, doing short, gentle trots, ignoring the giggles and shrieks of laughter. Oh and doesn’t bat an eyelid with the emergency dismounts when a wee is needed!

After last weekend all I’ve heard is “I ride Matt. Matt horse my best friend. I trot! You teach me.” It appears he has a fan!

I’m actually very proud with how adaptable and tolerant Matt has become in his old age (he’s 18 this year. Or possibly 19…), and how he has taken on every challenge we as a family have given him, and how much fun he has given us. To me, he has become the epitome of a family pony, and is firmly part of our family. Roll on the next few years, when I’m sure he’ll have all three generations trotting and cantering around on him!

Containing The Excitement

I’m working separately with two teenagers at the moment to try to retrain their (funnily enough, both) mares so that their jumping isn’t so fast and furious. Both horses are experienced jumpers, but very quick in the air, and very fast on the approach.

Now, I don’t think you’re ever going to completely change a horse’s way of jumping, in that some have more scope than others, some prefer a slower, more collected canter approach, and others like the leg applied on take-off more than others, and so on. However, correct training can enhance a horse’s jumping technique, and there are lots of exercises to help correct undesirable jumping behaviours. I don’t expect either horse to stop being forwards to a fence, but I aim to have them politer and steadier on the approach so that it is safer and less hair-raising for their riders.

With one mare, I started off with a pole on the ground between two wings and incorporated it into their warm up. I had my rider walk and trot over the pole, using it within circles, and basically doing flatwork around the pole, going over it every so often calmly, and when it’s least expected. This takes away the novelty factor of jumping and poles, and reduces the amount of repetition and so stops her anticipating jumping.

Initially, she made quite a thing about the pole, jumping it and cantering off. So we repeated the calm and quiet approach, with my rider staying positive but neutral. She just went with the pony over the jump before calmly slowing her down. Then there was no negative connotation between the rider and the jump.

What I liked about this mare, and I don’t know her very well, was that she was very obedient to her rider’s downward aids. She was happy to let her rider influence her. I did think that her jumping was almost a bit panicked, so I hope that by slowing her down she learns to read and understand the question, so begin to enjoy jumping more. The important thing though, is that she was willing to work with her rider, and seems to become steadier each time.

I built the jump up slowly, and we focused on my rider aiming to trot the approach to the jump by half halting strongly until a couple of strides out when the hand is softened and the seat and leg tells the horse to go and jump. After the jump, my rider had to sit up quickly and ask the pony to come back to trot.

We varied this basic approach by using circles on the approach, transitions to walk (a good exercise was trotting towards the pole on the ground, walking over the pole, and trotting away), and varying the length of the approach. She started to listen to her rider and stayed in trot until a couple of strides off the jump, and was fairly quick to trot again after the jump. I emphasised to her rider that she shouldn’t interfere on the last couple of strides so that her pony could sort her legs out. The pony should be at the tempo and rhythm set by her rider on the approach and getaway, but ultimately they have to jump the jump so shouldn’t be hindered.

The other mare will jump an exercise very calmly the first time, but then she gets over excited and gets quicker and quicker. So I change the exercise promptly, only doing each level once or twice – making a cross an upright, or changing the rein, adding in another element etc. And my rider tries to keep the trot and rides a circle or two, or three, on the approach until the mare stops anticipating the jump. The circle shouldn’t be too close to the jump that the pony thinks she is being pulled out of the jump, and it should be planned by the rider. Using a combination of changing the exercise and using numerous circles on the approach we managed to get a steadier approach, but there was a fine balance between containing the excitement and not frustrating this mare as she then has the tendency to explode and go even faster to the jump!

With both mares, I’ve found that avoiding simple jumps helps slow them down and get them thinking about the obstacles. This week, I built a grid of one pole and a canter stride to a small upright, then one canter stride to a cross. I had my rider walk over the first pole, then ride forwards to the little upright. I was really pleased that the pony walked happily over the pole and my rider could then ride positively to the jumps, instead of having to restrain the mare. We only did this grid twice because she jumped it so calmly and quietly. I want to build up to trotting over the first pole and then calmly cantering the grid.

When working with a horse who tends to rush fences it’s important that the rider has an unflappable demeanour, and a strong core so that they can hold the horse together before and after jumps, yet calmly stay in balance over the fence and don’t pull the horse in the mouth or get left behind in the air.

It can be difficult to retrain a horse to jump, but with a consistent approach of calm, quiet riding and using a variety of approaches to keep the horse focused on their rider and not rushing to the jumps. I also find that not repeating exercises too often, and returning to flatwork for a few minutes between jumps to resettle the horse has beneficial effects. As a horse starts to slow down and keep a more rhythmical approach to a jump their bascule will improve as well, which will help improve their posture and muscle tone, so making their jumping easier and prolonging their working life.

My Phoenix-versary

Last week marked two years since we brought Phoenix home so I took a moment to reflect upon that time.

It’s been an eventful journey, but certainly since the spring it has been a predominantly positive one. When I got her she was physically six, but mentally four years old. Now, she’s eight years physically and probably closer to seven years old in her head.

She had done very little apart from being backed, lightly hacked under saddle or led from another horse, had no concept of canter, and was very suspicious of life.

This year, she has been perfectly behaved on sponsored rides, jumped cross country fences confidently, competed showjumping and represented the riding club (I’m still not over having the final fence of the second round down and losing the ticket to the champs!). She’s confident, powerful, has a great, springy jump, and is a lot of fun to jump.

Dressage wise, we still aren’t really where I anticipated us to be after two years. She’s so sensitive, and has bad days when she’s more tense than a bow just before the arrow is released. She also needs to be shown an idea or concept and allowed to think about it until it becomes her own idea, which slows down the teaching process. Although she’s a quick learner. However, unlike last winter, I can use the canter work to relax her, loosen her up, and fatigue her. Which is a definite improvement!

Phoenix is still great to hack, although on windy days I tend to err on the cautious side as she can be silly, especially on her own.

I’m still working this enigma of a horse out, in terms of how to reduce her tension. She’s living in overnight at the moment and is far happier than last year. She isn’t racing round the stable waiting to be turned out, and has even been spotted lying down asleep in there! However, some days I mount and she’s like a ticking bomb who’s brain has fallen out of her ear, and I have to spend twenty minutes replacing the brain and defusing the bomb. Cantering her helps, but you have to get her in the right frame of mind to canter for it to be beneficial. Lunging doesn’t diffuse the situation as she’s beautifully relaxed then.

Initially, I thought that when she’d had two days off she was tense and buzzy to ride, but this theory was disproved when she was scooting from my leg and blocking over her back when I’d worked her eight days in a row! And this week she had the weekend off yet was lovely and settled to ride on Monday.

Now, I’m beginning to think it’s the weather. She’s more uptight when it’s wet and rainy, blowing around her hindquarters. She accepted the exercise sheet for a couple of weeks but then decided any rustling on her back was terrifying and she must run away from it. Only giving her a blanket clip has definitely helped matters here. In Princess Phoenix’s world, she’d have an elaborate indoor arena for the winter.

I think I can guarantee to have a calm, sensible ride with Phoenix’s brain firmly stuck between her ears on a mild, still winter’s day when she’s been worked regularly in the days leading up to it. Wet, cold and windy days are just a survival challenge!

I think Phoenix has now got herself an all round CV. She’s had positive experiences of most things, and is definitely improving in terms of her acceptance of the aids and I feel I have a stronger relationship with her. It may have taken longer than I expected, but I think she’s got a solid foundation to build upon now. We’ve come further in our journey than we think we have.

What are my goals for the next year? Without putting too much pressure on either of us, I want to consolidate the novice dressage movements – we’re at the showing her and letting her think it’s her idea stage – and get out and do more dressage. I wanted to affiliate her originally, so that may be on the cards. I’d like to do a one day event with her, but she still needs a bit more experience cross country. Otherwise, it’s just continuing to give her a good education, and for me to continue to enjoy her, as she is my downtime and I need to make the most of it before she’s borrowed by the next generation (you wouldn’t believe how soft, gentle and tolerant of a certain little person Phoenix is).

A Flexible Mindset

I’m not sure if it’s my history of working with ponies, or my experience with Welsh Cobs, that has given me this skill, but it’s such a useful tactic when training horses and I love the satisfaction I get when I’ve outwitted them.

Last week I was doing some canter poles with a client and after they’d gone over the three poles nicely it all started to go wrong. The mare got quick, tried to cut the corner, and her rider froze in the saddle. So we stopped and took five, to chat about what was happening and where we were going next.

My client told me that this was why she didn’t like doing canter poles. Because the mare got excited and she felt out of control.

The mare has a history of being in a riding school, which I think possibly contributes to the behaviour as she’s used to repetition. But basically, she’s anticipating the exercise. Which causes her to rush or to motorbike round the corner on the approach.

We can predict the behaviour, and we know the reason why it’s happening. The important thing is to make my rider feel in control and confident. So let’s trick this mare!

I got them to walk up over the poles, then trot over them. Doesn’t matter that they’re canter poles, the point is that the horse goes at the requested speed. Then we changed the approach. Coming off either rein, taking a long approach then a short approach. The mare soon stopped anticipating canter over the poles. So then we cantered over the poles! My rider was still expecting to be tanked off over the poles so had the handbrake on a bit. But now that she was realising our tactics, she started to ride the canter and relax her arms.

We then added in circles. If the mare tried to rush on the approach, my rider had to immediately ride a 10m circle. She could repeat the circle as many times as needed so that she felt in control as she turned towards the poles.

With all the variety of approaches to the poles, it started to come together nicely in that the mare was waiting to be told what to do and when, and my rider felt more confident. I also told her that another option whilst schooling is that she leaves the poles and works on the flat for five minutes before returning to the canter poles to diffuse the mare’s ability to predict the exercise.

This got me thinking about where I’d learnt these tactics, and then I remembered King. He was a riding school pony when I learnt to ride who fidgeted and pawed at the floor whenever he was at the front of the ride. I should explain that when we did canter or jump exercises (depending on the lesson level) we’d halt at B in a long line. Anyway, King just anticipated the cantering or the jumping, so to keep him calm and the rider settled, when King was second in line at B, he would overtake the first horse, do the exercise with perfect manners, and then when the first horse had returned to the rear of the ride, they slotted in in front of King. Quite often fidgety horses, especially youngsters, would do this for a few weeks if they showed signs of impatience, and it really worked well.

Another outwitting exercise I remember was with Aries, who loved jumping but got very excitable and usually cantered sideways towards the jump before being straightened three strides away and he’d bomb over. I loved riding him, and know exactly what I’d do to break this habit now, but times and attitudes change. Anyway, to stop Aries predicting the bombing to the jump a few strides away, I remember his owner cantering a circle around the jump, and only when he stayed calm on the turn to the jump, was she allowed to let him jump. She must’ve done twenty circles that first time!

Then I think about Phoenix and how sensitive she is. Some days, an exercise will work really well for her, but others she’ll get her knickers in a twist about. So very often I have to ride a movement once, assess whether her brain has fallen out, and it has, try a slightly different exercise which will have the same results.

It’s the same in lessons sometimes. I may have a plan, but if rider or horse are struggling with one of the first steps I either have to change my goal for the end of the lesson, pushing my original plan back a week or two, or I have to divert in order to get over this stepping stone.

It’s all about having a plan, but knowing the three or four optional routes which will get you there, and then responding quickly to the horse you have on the day, so that you keep them on your side and maximise your training session.

Lightening the Forehand

Feedback I’ve had when jumping Phoenix, and what I know to be true, is that I need to get her stronger in canter and get her nose off her chest. This isn’t because I put her in an overbent frame, but more to do with the fact her confirmation allows her to do this easily and when she’s finding the canter work harder she leans on my hands and gets a bit on the forehand.

On the flat we’ve been focusing on relaxation and self carriage, ignoring the canter unless she’s in the right frame of mind because she can get uptight and a bit panicky if you do too much correcting to her way of going. She doesn’t like to be interfered with.

I’ve kept the idea of her taking her nose out in any canter work we’ve done on hacks and any other time, but I decided this week to give her more of a challenge.

I laid out three canter poles, then one canter stride to a final pole. Phoenix is getting much more confident in her footwork through pole exercises so I wanted the three poles to help establish her rhythm and discourage her from rushing. As she can sometimes drift through grids I laid two poles as an arrow with the tip touching the final pole. I wanted to jump an A-frame but wanted to introduce the question early so that Phoenix could process it and be confident.

After trotting and cantering the poles from each rein I put the final fence up, leaning the diagonal poles in the middle. I approached in canter, and whilst Phoenix was spot on over the jump, really lifting her shoulders and staying straight, she kept giving a hop, skip and a jump over the canter poles.

I felt like she was getting herself in a bit of a stew on the approach because she was a bit too fast and unbalanced in canter. So I trotted into the exercise, letting her pick up canter over the first pole. Then, she was foot perfect and wasn’t as quick. Which felt better as it felt more controlled, like she understood the exercise more.

I continued to approach in trot, and gradually raised the second and third canter poles to little bounces. Now I actually wanted her to give a little skip over the poles, so that she lifted her shoulders, engaged her hindquarters and lifted her nose so that she was looking where she was going.

The final jump immediately felt better, as she pinged over them, really coming up in front.

I raised the A-frame fence gradually, but Phoenix took each height in her stride, feeling very correct in her bascule and technique. I loved the feel of the canter now – the balance and power that I had – and it was only when the jump reached 1.05m did she feel like she was having to work over it. I only did it once before leaving our session on a very positive note. She had jumped her biggest to date comfortably, and was confident in her approach. I felt there was an improvement to the canter, which she will hopefully take forward to the flatwork and allow me to adjust her to re-create that canter next time I ride.

My plans now are to do more of the bounce work, perhaps a line of six or so, to strengthen Phoenix’s hindquarters and improve her canter, as she seems to respond better to the poles dictating her canter rather than me interfering. She’s already schooling over 90cm courses, so I won’t push it any higher without getting her some more competition experience and getting her stronger. But hopefully the combination of the bounce work and more canter work on the flat will improve her performance around courses.

Vetting Riders

I see a lot of adverts on social media from people either looking for a sharer for their horse, or looking for a horse to ride.

It`s at that point I realise that I`m very fussy about who rides my horses, and always have been.

I guess I wasn`t so bothered when I was younger, and loved swapping horses, but as soon as I was responsible for the schooling and education of my horses I was suddenly terrified that a single moment of bad riding could undo all of my good work.

With Llani, I was interested in other people riding him to broaden his horizons and get him used to different styles. However, with Otis I still consider him too precious to put up for share, or to let anyone ride him without my close supervision. Not that he would ever do anything to hurt anyone, but he`s not used to novice riders and I know it would worry him, even if he didn`t react. Plus, Otis is extraordinarily bouncy, so even experienced riders can struggle to follow his movement. I know now that minutes of pootling along with a different rider will not stop Otis performing at elementary level, as he can differentiate between different riders and with me being the main jockey he won`t slip in his standards.

That being said, if I knew someone in the position of needing a ride I would consider letting them ride Otis, or if I had another horse. One of my favourite memories is when two sisters came to my rescue.

It was a few days before Otis and mine first ever one day event and the silly pony managed to get rope burn around his left hind leg. Something to do with scratching his ear whilst tied up and getting tangled up with his lead rope. As he was still not sound forty eight hours before the competition, I had resigned myself to withdrawing.

However, my luck was in. I was supposed to be going to the event with our yard manager, her husband, and another livery – a girl slightly older than me. She and her sister approached me and offered to let me ride their other horse at the event. I was thrilled, I had been so excited about going and had been struggling to hide my disappointment.

Anyway, that day was Friday and I was working all day Saturday, before the competition on Sunday. The girls were really kind and after they`d ridden Saturday morning groomed their little black Welsh cob (just my cup of tea!) and cleaned his tack for me, so I didn`t have too late an evening.

So the next morning I loaded this cob on the lorry and tried to find out as much about his as possible during the journey. Once there, I had a long dressage warm up and I remember I struggled to get to grips with him. I`d almost given up and accepted I wouldn`t get a very good score as I couldn`t get him forwards and accepting the contact. As the rider before me went in, I set off for another trot. And I got it! We clicked suddenly, and I didn`t stop for breath before my number was called, and kept him together for the test.

I remember being quite happy with the test, and then started to relax for the showjumping. Again, it took a few warm up fences to get used to him, but we jumped clear.

Then, in my borrowed cross country colours, we set off for the final phase. I think he was tired by now, as even a 2`6″ ODE was a lot of a horse who was only really in light work, but he gave everything a shot and didn`t refuse anything, we just had numerous time faults as we trotted through the finish line, before collapsing in a heap!

I was thrilled to have actually competed, and this little horse had tried his heart out for me, despite not knowing me from Adam, and given me an excellent taster for eventing. Obviously we weren`t placed, but I did find out that our dressage score was a personal best for this pony, even with his usual riders.

 

These girls were really generous in letting me borrow their pony, and I like to think that if the shoe was on the other foot I`d do whatever I could to help them, or others in that position, out.

Every so often I see this little Welsh cob, now in his twenties but still full of life, and I always reminisce about my first ever ODE.