Compare and Improve

26 Nov

I’m currently teaching a young teenager about riding her pony, shifting our focus from her position and correct aids to how well her pony is going.

Recently I’ve tried to get my rider to think more for herself, and not wait for me to tell her to use her leg or half halt, so lasts week I asked her to rate her walk out of ten. She said six.

Now I went with this score: she’s left herself plenty of room for improvement but is still more than halfway so it is a positive approach. I asked her why it was a six and then to identify an area to improve so that the walk was a seven.

She said that she had an energetic walk but it was a bit fast, so we worked on slowing the rhythm and making the strides more deliberate, using circles and half halts with the whole body.

Soon the walk improved to a seven and I moved on to some trot work. After a bit I asked my rider to ride forwards to walk and let her pony catch her breath. In the walk I asked her to get that seven walk. Which she did quite quickly, so we tried making it a seven and a half walk. This time I focused on her rein contact. She ensured the contact was symmetrical and balanced as we walked around the track, and then I told her to feel like her legs were pushing her pony forwards into her hands, which had to remain light and gentle, and then her hands allowed her pony to travel forwards. I didn’t want to speed up the walk but I wanted my rider to feel like the front and back ends of her pony were working together, instead of a disjointed walk.

Within a lap of the arena the walk had jumped up to an eight out of ten. The mare was soft to the contact and stretching forwards in her neck, taking even, deliberate strides, with activity in the stride. I praised my rider a lot, as this was great progress and we moved away from the walk and onto some canter work, which seemed to be better than usual. Before we finished the lesson I had my rider walk around with a seven and a half walk, before letting her pony stretch.

This week I continued the theme; beginning the lesson with aiming for a seven walk. I had previously explained to my rider that the best work does not come at the beginning of the session, but once the horse has warmed up, so it is unfair to expect the pony to produce an eight walk at the moment. But we should still start as we mean to go on.

When we revisited the walk after a trot my client asked “does Valegro get a ten for his walk?”
“So if I’m between a seven and eight, am I almost as good as Valegro?”

Now this is a bit of a predicament …

After I’d gathered my thoughts I explained that as lovely as this pony is, she isn’t in the same league as Valegro so our scale of one to ten is different to Charlotte Dujardin’s. The ten we are aiming for is the best that this pony can do. I then went on to explain how our scale changes when the level of training of the pony improves or the rider gains knowledge and experience.

My rider seemed to understand this concept, and was happy to continue improving her walk so that it reaches a ten. When she rides consistently at a ten walk we will change the scale so that that walk is a seven again. And so both horse and rider will continue to improve.

Llani’s Progress

24 Nov

Yesterday Llani went to his first dressage competition so it seems fitting that I look back on his progress over the last few months.

On the ground. Llani is much more relaxed and less clingy to other horses on the ground. In the stable he’s more accommodating of his handler, shown when he lifts his foot to be picked out in anticipation. Yesterday he happily stood on the trailer alone while I went off with Otis, although initially it looked to be a bit traumatic for Llani. Llani is easy in the field, interested in you as you potter, and very easy to catch. Of course that may be just because he knows me! So whilst he didn’t have any vices initially on the ground I think he is more settled and relaxed with his handler.

On the lunge. When Llani came to me he really struggled to lunge, rushing round on the left rein and refusing to go on the right. Now he works evenly on both reins, stretching his back and topline with the help of the Pessoa, and in a forwards, open stride.

Out hacking. This is where I think Llani has really progressed. He happily hacks alone, in front or behind company, and no longer sees a monster, turns tail and flees. He stops, studies it and then hurries past. This approach is much more mature and shows that he is gaining confidence and experience. He is responsive on hacks, waiting for me to give the go signal, although he does enjoy a race!

In the arena. In the arena Llani can still ride as though the handbrake is on, but he is gaining confidence in moving forwards. Yesterday I was really pleased how he stretched in his free walk on a long rein as it is something he is yet to fully comprehend. Although Llani still has a way to go, he is much more supple on circles and his upwards transitions move forwards instead of up and down like a pogo stick. Yesterday this was reflected in his marks – eights for a trot-walk-trot transition! Our canter work is our next focus as he is uphill and big striding we tend to bowl on a bit, so we need to learn to contain it.
Whilst jumping, Llani is confident over fillers now and jumps grids and courses happily and in a good rhythm. I’ve also taken him over the cross country logs, which he loves.
Recently Llani has taken one of my friends out for a hack and been foot perfect, and has also looked after a novice rider in the school like a gentleman which shows that he is more trusting and sensible.

Yesterday Llani was very well behaved, and showed that he is actually very talented. A bit reluctant to load, he eagerly followed his feed bucket on when he thought Otis might end up having it, but at the competition he walked straight on after. He was easy to tack up and took the new surroundings in his stride, warming up quietly and obediently. The dressage boards were a bit scary as we trotted round before the bell, but overall he wasn’t spooky. In the intro test he scored 72% which was a great second place, but still gives a lot to work on. The judge marked generously, and Llani needs to work on the halt. We were straight, and he didn’t try to run through the bridle, but he did insist on stretching his head to the floor and look exhausted as I saluted! In the prelim his canter work brought the mark down to 64%, but that is still a great baseline to work from!

So Llani’s next goals are improving the canter transitions and balance, continue the suppling work onto smaller circles, and become more in front of the leg.

Curly Coats

23 Nov

You know that distinctive curly coat of a horse with Cushings? Well what if there is a breed of horse with a gene that gives them a curly coat?

I was surfing the web as you do, and came across The Curly Horse! They look cute, but with a rather drowned rat appearance!

I’ve posted the links to the websites that I perused as they will provide much more information than I can repeat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a curly horse, but with their hypoallergenic properties they could be a useful addition to many riding schools.



Rain Scald

22 Nov

I saw a horse earlier this week with rain scald, so I thought it was a very topical subject for the time of year.

So what is rain scald?

Rain scald, or rain rot, is a very common skin ailment of horses which predominantly affects the back of the horse. Like mud fever, the bacteria which cause rain scald thrive in warm, moist conditions which means the disease is more prevalent in spring and autumn.

The actinomycete, dermatophilus congolensis, has properties of both fungi and bacteria and causes the disease rain scald. This organism lives on the horses skin, not in the ground as is often believed, but a horse who is carrying the organism will not necessarily suffer from rain scald.

What does rain scald look like?

The horse will suffer from numerous scabs along his top line, varying in size from a pea sized to a two pence size, and can be crusty. The scabs and embedded hair can be easily picked off, revealing pink skin and often pus underneath. The scabs usually heal rapidly, turning grey and drying up.

Rain scald can be transmitted between horses by sharing rugs, saddle cloths or grooming brushes, so infected horses need to be carefully managed and the horse isolated as best as possible.

Horses suffering from rain scald will usually have thick coats, such as those going into winter as they retain a high level of moisture close to their skin. A cut or scratch allows the organism to enter the horse`s epidermis and thus the scabs form.

Putting a warm rug on a sweaty or wet horse provides the ideal conditions for rain scald to occur, or over rugging a horse so that they sweat. Some people suggest that poor stable management, or damp walls, can be a contributing factor.

Rain rot may go away on it`s own accord, when the horse moults and loses their winter coat, but there is a high risk of secondary infection so it should be treated immediately as the secondary infection will be harder to treat and more resistant.

To treat rain scald the scabs need to be removed gently. Baby oil is a useful tool for softening the scabs and making them less painful to remove. As the organism grows best in an oxygen reduced environment opening the scabs and removing the thick hair around them will oxygenate the area and promote healing. Ointments aren`t recommended for use as they hold moisture close to the skin, but it is beneficial to wash the affected areas thoroughly with an anti-bacterial shampoo, and drying the area carefully afterwards, and keeping the horse in a dry, well ventilated environment. In severe cases a course of antibiotics may be required.



Mud Monster

20 Nov

I ride this horse once a week and he’s a bit sensitive when you groom him, particularly in the barrel. It took me a few sessions to get to know him and his idiosyncrasies, but the best method is a cactus cloth and the softest body brush on the planet. Ignore him peering round to look at you because he isn’t going to nip you, he just looks like it.

A fortnight ago I commented to another livery, “I don’t know how he stays so clean when you can’t use a dandy brush”.

This livery then informed me that my ride rarely rolled, unlike her mud monster. So I bathed in luxury that whilst everyone else was scrubbing away I could lightly flick off this horse and crack on with riding.

That is, until this week.

I was horrified! Great clumps of mud clung to his neck, mane and forelock. Out came my cactus cloth and I rubbed his body in large circles, loosening the mud. That cactus cloth had never worked so hard in it’s life! I had to resort to picking out smaller clumps around his ears.

Eventually he was presentable and I could enjoy the ride, but it did make me glad that Otis is not adverse to the plastic curry comb on his quarters after he’s had a spa in the muddy field!

I was impressed with the effectiveness of the cactus cloth though so may look into getting one to help de-mud his ears and around his eyes.


Image 19 Nov



18 Nov

A couple of weeks ago a friend came round to my stable, and said:
“I was walking along the gallops and found an over reach boot. It looks Otis size so would you like it?”

“Ooh yes please,” I enthused. Otis is renowned for losing over reach boots and the two he was currently modelling were hanging on by a thread. He used to have to wear them all the time when he was younger, but regularly lost the boots at the far end of the field or lost the shoe but retained the boot. Since he matured I’ve had a reprieve, but my farrier recently shod him with lateral extensions to encourage the inside heel to grow. My options were to put over reach boots on at all times or to book routine shoe replacements every three days. So I went down the boot route.

The next morning we hacked out with another friend. Our route took us towards the gallops so we decided to have a blast. After all the ground was perfect.

We cantered steadily away from home before turning around and letting them go.

Five minutes later we pulled up and I cast my eyes down to check the boot and shoe situation.

Otis was minus an over reach boot.

I guess that’s what you call karma. I received a boot from the gallops, but I had to leave one in return.

Solo Hacking

16 Nov

I was hacking Llani last week, and was really pleased that he hacked out through the village and up a previously unexplored road before going into a new field and cantering around before wandering home. All without spooking or getting worried.

He was nosey but confident as he peered into the driveways and at the plastic wrapped silage, but he didn`t hesitate at all.

It made me think as I went along about the process of teaching a horse or rider to hack along. After all, it was only a couple of months ago when Llani was a nervous wreck, spooking at any excuse, even in company.

Initially I guess the first step is to happily hack with others, be it in front or behind, and to have a selection of familiar routes.

If it is the rider who is nervous about hacking on their own then they need to feel like they can take the lead on a group hack confidently and then, on a fine day they can spend fifteen minutes in the arena, getting their bodies warmed up and making sure they feel comfortable with their horse – for example make sure your horse isn`t unsettled today – and then finish their ride with a walk around the block. If necessary, someone could walk on foot to boost confidence levels. The route taken should be familiar to both horse and rider as it quells some nerves and reduces the number of unknowns. Once the rider feels happy going around this route they should try another known route and build up from there.

I think if you are a nervous hacker it is important to regularly hack so that you build on each week and make progress, as well a maintaining the standard.You should aim to push yourself slightly more each time. So ride a route backwards, or wander down an unknown lane and then return to your original road, or pick a slightly busier time of day, when you know you may meet a few more cars or pedestrians. Factoring in new things one at a time can improve your ability to cope with the unknown and will mean that you are more confident in a variety of situations.

The one thing a rider shouldn`t feel is stressed. So don`t pick a time of day when you have a pressing appointment, or it is getting dark, make sure you have plenty of time so you can stay in walk for the entire hack should you wish. The horse will pick up on your nerves too, and start looking out for monsters which could upset a rider further. If you have bags of time and reach something you don`t feel is solvable (such as roadworks) then you have chance to take a longer detour which will leave you and your horse happier.

If it is the horse who is being introduced to solo hacking I tend to follow the same procedure. I make sure that the weather is suitable. For example, I wouldn`t choose a windy day to hack out alone, and I would avoid the village on bin day. After riding in the school, and ensuring he has got rid of any excess energy, I would walk him down along the lane or wood or field, whichever he feels most confident at. Once this route becomes easy I would alternative it with another, more complex route. This more complex route may just involve crossing a road, or it may be riding past horses in the field – thus testing the napping response. On slightly windy or wet days I would do the easy route, as the weather is an additional factor for the horse to cope with.

Once I have established a few routes I make sure I vary them, or combine them to make longer tracks, and to make sure the horse isn`t becoming stuck in a rut and that he is happy to be taken wherever I want to go. Sometimes I just ride past the turning for home a few times to make sure they aren`t hurrying home. If you`re lucky enough to have a couple of entrances to the yard it is important to make use of them.

Gradually, with regular work you can reduce the school work before the ride outs and increase the duration of the solo hack. As with a nervous rider I push boundaries everytime. We end up wandering along a different track in the woods, or stopping to watch some lorries go past the gateway. I want to feel every hack is beneficial and educational. The horse should enjoy it, and even if they face their fear of the cyclist behind them, they are still rewarded. Any spook should be discussed. If Llani spooks at something I make him stand as soon as possible. I don`t tell him off, but make sure he can look at the object, take it in, and learn that it is`t a monster. When he`s considered my question I quietly ask him to go past it. When he has he gets a big pat and verbal reward. I believe that teaching the horse to digest their situation and what is being asked of them is key to them remembering the lesson and means that they react positively when put into that situation again.

I don`t think it should take too long to teach a horse to hack alone, but it needs to be consistent so that they don`t forget the lessons they have learnt and become wary of the monsters they haven`t seen for a month. If I know there is roadworks or other monsters nearby I take the challenge of introducing it to my horse. If I know they`ll be worried I go with someone, but then later I ill revisit it on my own.

If anyone else is going through the process of learning to hack alone then I`d appreciate their feedback and suggestions.

Do They Ever Learn?

14 Nov

Sometimes I feel that I spend my whole life saying “don`t walk behind your pony”, “Careful of your reins, they`re by your feet”, “Turn your pony away from you”. Today, I had a classic example of a girl who thought she knew best.

This seven year old girl was on her own for the lesson so I spent a bit of time tacking up her pony with her. She loves doing that and when you have lots of kids it`s hard to get involved with stable management, so I made the most of this opportunity. She put on the bridle fairly easily, and could tell me the different parts confidently. Then we put the saddle on, adjusted it so it was in the correct place, and then girthed up her pony and led him out of the stable. I got her to halt and adjust her stirrups from the ground, before checking her girth and then she wanted to go to the Big Mounting Block.

She walked her pony over confidently, but somehow ended up with his tail facing the block. Slightly confused, she looked to me for advice.
“Right, we need to get ourselves the right way round, otherwise you`ll be riding backwards”, I joked. “Now you`re going to turn Popeye right and walk a big circle so you end up approaching the mounting block with you closest to it.” I accompanied by explanation with vigorous arm movements, to make sure she knew where she was going.

She nodded and promptly swung round to the left, pulling her pony towards her.

I watched, interested to see how this would evolve as she still wouldn`t end up with the mounting block on the near side of her pony when she continued her three hundred and sixty degree turn before emitting this piercing shriek. If I`d been wearing glasses they would have shattered!
“HE`S STANDING ON MY TOE!” She squawked as I intervened, pushing the blissfully unaware pony off her flat foot.

Telling her she`d be fine, and to make sure she could wriggle her toes I began to demonstrate the error of her ways. I showed her (again) how to correctly turn her pony away from her, highlighting how far away his hooves were from mine. Then I turned him towards me, and pointed out how close he was to stepping on my feet. She watched me, silently taking it all in. I suppose at least she wasn`t still shrieking. I handed her back the reins and she then turned her pony away from her (towards me, but you can`t win everything) and approached the mounting block and then quietly got on.

One lesson well learnt!

Opposition Buzz

12 Nov

The equestrian world was devastated by the sad news of Opposition Buzz`s death . He was a prolific cross country horse, who took Nicola Wilson to eleven four star events.

The sad thing about Opposition Buzz was that he had only recently been retired. Nicola said that “he would not know the right time to stop, so they had to make the decision for him”.

This led me down memory lane, and a certain pony came to mind.

This pony was 13 hands high, a wiry black mare flecked with grey hairs. Her name was Bubbles. Bubbles was a raving lunatic. To ride anyway. On the ground she was quiet as you like, but as soon as she hit the arena she was a powerhouse. She flew over everything and was faster than lightening. Oh, and did I mention she was ancient?

I first remember Bubbles when one of the older teenagers took her on at the yard. There were various teething problems, such as Bubbles spinning on a sixpence and leaving the yard, discarding her ungirthed saddle as she went. This rider was fifteen and soon went off to university, so Bubbles was passed to a friend of my age. When I finally got my chance to ride her, aged eleven, I loved her! Yes, she pulled my arms out of my sockets, but it was great not having to kick! Shortly after that Bubbles contracted strangles and was severely ill.

She recovered well, and my friend continued to ride her until she grew too big. Another girl a few years younger than me took her on then, and again grew to have a great relationship with her. This was the last permanent rider Bubbles had.

The biggest problem about Bubbles was that she was immensely strong for a small pony, so it was difficult to find a rider gutsy enough to jump at a hundred miles an hour, yet strong enough to apply the brakes when necessary, but also not too big for Bubbles, as we were aware that she was “aged”.

The last winter Bubbles lived in, as she always dropped weight badly, and was exercised by us all in varying degrees – even if we could wrap our legs around her stomach. No rider appeared for her and by the spring the yard owner decided to retire Bubbles, and let her nanny the yearlings and youngstock.

We all accepted this, Bubbles was old and grey, she was still full of life, arthiritis-free, and jumping anything put in front of her, and galloping full pelt along the green lane, but it was useless if we didn`t have someone to enjoy her.

About a month later I remember arriving at the yard, where the atmosphere hung grey and dreary like the March day. Bubbles had colicked and died as she was rushed to the vets.

It was tragic that Bubbles had been so full of life and energy, but hadn`t enjoyed retirement. Despite a large field of lush grass and companions, she still whinnied everytime we rode up the lane.

I believed, and I still do, that Bubbles was a worker. A bit like Opposition Buzz. A bit like me. She liked to be kept active and feel useful, but being out in the open field babysitting the youngsters hadn`t occupied her mind. I think she became stressed and eventually that triggered the colic.

Which leads me onto the question. Perhaps Opposition Buzz hadn`t wanted to retire? Perhaps he still needed to stay in a lower level of work to stay happy and healthy. That isn`t to say his owners made the wrong decision, because he probably needed to stop top level competition, but maybe he wasn`t a horse to be retired. Health wise, I don`t know the ins and outs of his seizure, or any other factors involved, so it may just be an unlucky coincidence.

So how do we decide if our horse should be retired? I guess their general health gives you a good indicator, but also they will tell us. Not trotting over to us in the field, or being lethargic in the school. It`s the same indicators which tell us that they need a holiday or change of workload, but owners of veterans may need to ignore the jogging, excitable horse underneath them, and not let them jump more than twice a week because the arthritic changes will cause them pain – even if the adrenaline pushes them through at the time. Retirement for some horses may mean working at a lower level, or it may be no jumping, or less frequent exercise, as opposed to complete field rest. I guess this is where it counts to know your horse.


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