Riding Through It 

The trouble with riding young horses is that they have, like children, a short attention span.

I don’t really remember having a big problem with Otis as he grew up, but his best schooling sessions were usually on a late winters evening, as no one else was braving the cold, and the darkness enveloped any distractions in the field. I think as well it helped that when I was backing Otis he was usually ridden as an extra in the younger group lessons, so he was used to a busy environment from the beginning.

I school this young mare who is renowned for having the attention span of a gnat on a hot plate. It’s quite amusing albeit slightly frustrating when you’re trying to get some work from her. This was highlighted this week when we started on schooling on the flat on our own in the school and she put her head down and focused, beginning to show improvement in her lateral work. Until another horse entered. And then my mare raised her head, turned, gawped, and slowed down each time she passed the other horse. Like rubberneckers in the street.

So I toned back the schooling and kept it simple – circles and transitions – so I could focus on keeping her forwards, straight, and on a contact as we passed the other horses. Eventually she realised what was expected of her and concentrated on me a bit more.

So a couple of days later I was jumping her. She tends to rush but makes a lovely shape over the fence. Thankfully it was the middle of the day so it was quiet and once I’d warmed up we started jumping a basic cross pole. I was really pleased that she didn’t rush, and responded to my aids nicely, and didn’t rush away from the fence. On about the tenth go someone walked up to the arena gate. We approached the jump towards the gate and I felt the mare get distracted … She turned and gawped before I used my legs and she returned to my planet just in time to take off. The only problem was that she was so busy rubbernecking that her legs dangled as she jumped flat, sending the poles flying.

I spent a few minutes back on the flat refocusing the mare before jumping again. She was great, keeping the canter rhythm, not falling in on the turn and basculing nicely. I was just riding my last couple of fences, which was a bigger cross, and then another horse arrived in the arena. Two strides out, the mare started gawping, before jumping the cross and dangling a leg again. 

I didn’t bother rebuilding the jump as I knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate now she had company in the arena, and her approach has been consistent throughout my ride. I finished by asking her to trot around the other horse, with her mind on the ball.

This made me think about the difficulty of teaching a young horse to concentrate. As they get older they will get better, but I think riding lots of school movements keeps their focus on the rider which should stop them looking outside the arena for distractions. Then I think you need to desensitise the young horse to busy situations, so try and ride with one or two quiet horses in the arena and build it up so the quiet horses do more canter work, or poles, or the rider asks for more complicated movements from the young horse. 

The same goes for competing young horses; start small and quiet, until they perform as well as they do in a busy home environment and are fairly consistent, and then gradually go to bigger and busier shows.

With the young mare that I school I will just be continuing to work her in the company of another until she settles to work, and leave the jumping and lateral work to when I’m alone in the school until she is consistent in the basics in company and hopefully she will get better at concentrating! Otherwise I may resort to blinkers!


Does anyone’s horse have a particular quirk or ritual?

One little mare I teach is full of character, and has this routine within the first few minutes of being ridden.

She gives a diaphragm wrenching cough, throwing her head to the floor, and coughs a couple more times, before “blowing her nose” and exhaling noisily and then “wiping her nose” on her foreleg. Akin to a child rubbing their nose on their sleeve. 

The routine is so predictable her owner can direct the mare, in much the similar way as a parent with a full-of-cold child. 

Once her nose is wiped, the mare continues her job as though nothing has happened, but it ha hilarious to watch.


The horses are kept near a small river, and it`s rapidly becoming a feature that is high on my priority list when looking at livery yards.

Initially, the river is an excellent way of introducing young horses to water. They can follow a friend into the water a couple of times, get used to standing in the running water, have a paddle up and down the river, and then leave. As they grow in confidence they can take the lead into the river and stand there for longer.

For a horse who rushes through water, getting them used to just standing and chilling out in the water with their friends. Other horses love playing in the fresh water or having a drink. Otis walks confidently into the water, and will wander up and down, but Llani took a bit of persuading. Even now, he`ll walk straight into the river and sniff it curiously, but is fairly quick to exit it. A few weeks ago I went that way with a couple of friends, and we stood in the river whilst one horse splashed around. He dug away with a foreleg, creating waves and sending droplets everywhere. If Llani were human, he would have a look of total disgust on his face, as he edged away from the playful horse – he was mad!

So as well as being able to get horses used to entering water, the river has a couple of other uses. For instance, if you`ve been competing or hunting and you notice your horse has slightly filled, or warm legs, taking them down to the river to stand in the cool, running water for a few minutes, is very beneficial for their legs, and much more time saving than cold hosing all four legs one at a time! Obviously if your horse is lame then it`s another matter, but slightly puffy legs benefit from the equivalent of a cold compress, even if it`s on your way home from a heavy days hunting. After a one day event I often take Otis for a leg stretch down to the river.

The other benefit of having a river so close to home is when a horse has an injury, or wound, to their leg and is being difficult to treat, then letting them stand in free flowing, clean fresh water will irrigate the wound much better than you throwing cotton wool at a moving target. Once the wound has been cleaned then you know your only job at home is to put some wound powder on to kick start the healing process. I took Llani down to the river last week as he had an over reach, which combined with his fidgeting and his feathers, was difficult to treat. Once the wound was irrigated I walked him home and then covered the wound in wound powder to help dry it up.  The next day it looked much better!


Chase Me Charlie

As kids we all love Chase Me Charlie`s don`t we? The opportunity to jump as high as you can, and hopefully post a personal best.

My pony wasn`t the world`s greatest jumper, especially near fillers, so I never gravitated towards the puissance style classes. Some kids and ponies thrive off the pressure though.

Yesterday at the end of the Pony Club rally we ran a Chase Me Charlie competition. The idea of the day was to encourage the kids to come to camp, so we ran it in a similar manner to a day at camp – a mix of flatwork, showjumping and cross country.

All my young riders had poor hands over the fence – either they leant on them as they folded, or they fixed them at the wither, or tucked back with their hands as they folded. We worked over a jump without reins and stirrups before they rode a much tidier, secure, showjumping course. Unless they were concentrating on where they were going and forgot.

Until the Chase Me Charlie that is.

We started at a mere 70cm and to my horror all of my girls approached the fence leaning forwards, fixing their hands, and forgetting to allow with them hands over the fence!

After four rounds? By which we had only eliminated one rider we widened the wings so the pole was delicately balanced on the edge of the cups. We had a few more knockdowns then!

The problem I have with this competition is that everyone forgets how to ride – they cut their corners, they don’t balance the canter, they forget to fold or ride away. I saw all my good work of the day being undone rapidly!

There were a few exceptions obviously; a couple of the seniors rode the upright much more intelligently than they had earlier, as the height made them concentrate.

It was really interesting watching the horses jump. Their approach, their expressions, the way the riders panicked when it got out of their comfort zone, the horse’s technique and bascule. 

As ever, there were some surprise eliminations. In the shape of the ex-showjumper knocking a 1m upright. Or the point-and-kick eventer who hung a hind leg. Other impressive combinations were the little ponies who leapt vertically, or scrambled over, and the heavy cob who cleared 1.15m. 

Another area of concern I found was that the little ones didn’t know when to stop, so experienced horses were taking inexperienced, and out-of-their-depth riders, into jumps much larger than they should be jumping. Call me a scaredy cat, but I’d much rather keep kids in a safety zone so they don’t take it into their head to jump high at home, or even enter competitions at that height. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

One girl made me laugh. She was only ten and on her 13.2hh pony, and cleared 1.10m before retiring. As she exited the arena her older sister jumped the fence, knocking it down.

“Beat ya!” The little sister cried in delight! 

A couple of minutes later her other older sister cleared the fence and called the same taunt to her youngest sister.

It was interesting that the final handful of horses weren’t the flashiest, most expensive, most talented or most experienced horses. They were ponies who had heart.

The winner cleared 1.25m and the cremello 15hh gelding had a very neat bascule, and was very reliable and consistent on the approach. I was really pleased as it showed that money doesn’t buy the best horse!

Chase Me Charlie’s still don’t rate that highly on my list of show classes, but I found it really interesting to see it for the first time from the instructor’s point of view. There is such an element of luck too, as I’m sure many puissance riders will agree.

Simulated Cross Country

I had a fantastic weekend teaching. 

A couple of months ago I went to a Pony Club cross country training lecture, and whilst we were watching the guinea pigs in the arena warming up I had a good idea. So many people get worried about going cross country for the first time, and so often people point, kick and pray, and young horses wobble around, unsure; so I thought that it would be a great idea to run a simulated cross country clinic, that takes the technical elements of a cross country course and allows riders and horses to learn how to ride them within the safety and confines of the arena.  

I figured this clinic would be ideal for young horses, nervous riders, inexperienced or new combinations, or just people wanting to have fun.

So with a bit of advertising and planning, it all started to come together, and I really felt it was a success.

I had a lot of interest in the clinic, and initially a lot of people booked places, but unfortunately when I emailed round with the times for each height a week before I didn’t get anywhere near the response – lesson learnt, try and get people to pay upon booking! But it was still worthwhile me running it, and I felt it would be useful to have a dry run.

I organised my helpers: an amateur photographer, who can be found at Www.facebook.com/beckybuncephotography , and a keen pole-putter-upper. Then we set out the course and were ready!

I warmed all the riders and horse up over a single fence, that began as a cross, and then was made into an oxer to mimic a log or tabletop. This allowed the horses to get into the swing of jumping, and for me to assess my riders.

Once they had all negotiated the warm up we moved on to riding an offset triple, beginning with poles and tramlines to help them find their line, and then we built it up into fences without the tramlines.

It was great seeing it come together for the riders; once they could see their line and used the leg and hand correctly, channelling their horse the jumps rode beautifully. We used the technique for riding an accurate line to ride a two stride double of skinnies on a curve. One client kept getting three strides, but after a couple of tries she had the confidence to use her outside leg more firmly, plan a stride earlier, and stick to her guns, to get two lovely strides and great jumps on both reins. 

We also rode a ditch fence – a tarpaulin between two poles – to teach them not to look down into the ditch. One pony got her legs in a muddle and kept trotting on the tarpaulin. In canter, she popped it nicely, and her rider soon learnt not to look down!

After the ditch there was a corner. At first all the riders looked at it in horror, but once I’d explained how to bisect the corner to give their horse the best chance of jumping it, and not being led to the narrow side, all the horses and riders jumped it easily.

The final test for my riders was a barrel arrowhead; two poles tunnelled the horse to the barrel (on its side for these guys). The horses found the barrel spooky and when the riders weren’t accurate with their aids and line, the horse jumped to the side of the barrel.

To finish each session the riders put all the elements together in a course, and it was great to see the improvement in their accuracy, positive riding, and security of their position.


Picking Out Feet

Why can picking out feet be such a painful learning curve with young horses?

If you look back to their natural lives and instincts, it soon becomes clear. Horses are creatures of flight. So when we pick up their foot we are stopping them running from anything that scares them. Logically, you can see that horses would be reluctant to give you a leg, and only let those they trust pick out their feet.

Picking out feet should become part and parcel of your daily routine, even if your horse is a foal or yearling. When you groom them, let them get used to you running your hand down their legs without flinching or fidgeting. Then, when they are comfortable and trust you touching their leg then try lifting the foot. If it is introduced like this at an early age then your farrier will thank you, and picking out feet never becomes an issue.

You want to get your horse into a routine when picking his feet out; horses love routine so he likes to know what is expected of him, and what is next on the agenda. Once he is confident in this routine then you can change the routine slightly, by changing the order in which you pick his feet out, for example. I always used to pick Otis`s feet out in the following order: near fore, near hind, off fore, off hind. But once he started to be confident here I started picking out the feet from the near side in this order: near fore, off fore, near hind, off hind. This means that anyone can pick his feet up in any order and he will oblige.

It is usually easier to start with lifting the front leg, so lets start here. Keep the area quiet so he`s not worried about fleeing from a monster, and make sure your horse trusts you around him, before running the hand nearest to his leg down the back of the foreleg. If the horse has feathers then use these to your advantage (grabbing hold of them is useful when he waves his leg around) and cup your hand around the inside of his fetlock. Lean slightly on his shoulder and say “foot” or “lift” or whatever you would like to say – it doesn`t matter as long as you are consistent. You lean on the shoulder to encourage the horse to take their weight off that leg, not for you to support the horse`s weight. Try not to get in to a leaning match with him!

Initially, you don`t want to hold the foot up for a long time, just long enough for him to hold it still and to begin to understand the process. If the horse waves his foreleg around, as if digging a grave, hold on tightly until he stops! When he stops and keeps it still momentarily it can be put back to the floor. This means he learns to keep his leg still until you say so. If you know your horse is going to wave his leg around then lifting the foot up so that the sole is as close to the elbow as possible prevents any wriggling. When he relaxes so you can lower his foot. If your horse is resistant to you lifting the foot do not worry about using the hoof pick initially, just get him used to the process of lifting his foot when asked, holding it still, and then replacing it. Take every opportunity to lift up feet as it will help in the long term – at the beginning and end of the grooming session, and after exercise, or when he is turned out and brought in to his stable.

Lifting up hind feet can quite often get people in a pickle as the horse can be worried, and inclined to wave his leg around, but then the handler timidly holds the fetlock, tickling the horse`s leg and not giving him security and not inciting confidence. Standing close to the hindquarters, you should run the hand nearest the horse down the front (this is so if he should strike out, your arm will not be in the firing line) then cup the front of his fetlock and ask him to lift. Young horses naturally respond by snatching up with their leg, so be patient and try to hold on to it so he learns that he should lift a little slower, and then hold it there. If the hind leg is waved around, unfortunately you do just need to stand close and hold on tight. If the horse kicks out with his hind leg as you start running your hand down his cannon bone then spend some time desensitising him to the process of being handled on his hindlegs.

It can be useful, when you don`t use the hoofpick, to use your second hand to help cradle the foot still and angle it correctly.

Once you get the hang of holding up a fidgety horse`s foot, then it`s a fairly easy process and tends to result in a battle of the wills – i.e. who is more stubborn and determined! When the horse holds his foot up correctly and you put it down to the floor, remember to praise him! A quick pat or “good boy” is usually enough. Remember though, repetition and consistency are the key to ensuring your horse has good manners when having his feet picked up.


Leading Feisty Horses

One of the first thing everyone learns is how to lead a horse correctly. I’ve spent hours with Pony Day children teaching them to walk by the shoulder, stand on the left of the horse, turn the horse away from them, and hold the right hand just below the head and the excess lead rope in the left hand, to avoid trippage. But these are docile riding school ponies who are used to being led around by the ears.

Leading a fresh or excited horse is a whole new ball game.

So what’s the first thing to think about? If I know a horse is likely to play up I automatically put my hat on. Yeah, so what if it’s a 10hh Shetland, my head is very important to me! Gloves are useful too, especially if you will be working with that horse for a while. Holding on to a naughty horse is hard work, and usually hot work, so I check I’ve got the right clothes on. I don’t want to be unzipping a gilet or sweating buckets.

Then you should look at your method of restraint. Is he string enough that you need a bridle? If you have a bridle are the reins a good length? Would a lunge cavesson be of any benefit? It’s always better to be safe than sorry. There is also the dreaded chiffney available …

It sounds silly, but think about when you’re going to be taking the method of restraint off. If you are, for example, turning a horse out who’s been on box rest for a week, a bridle is a good idea. However, you don’t want together to the field and have to start faffing with the noseband or threading the throatlash through the keepers while the horse dances around at the gate. Ensure the bridle is secure, but at the same time easily undone.

Think about the route you’ll be taking; either to trot the horse up, or turning him out, and do your best to avoid hazards, such as another equally exciteable horse being led around. Another tip is to work in pairs. Another pair of hands to open and close gates, or move hazards, will make the exercise much less stressful.

Yesterday I was about to turn out a pony and another exciteable gelding, who goes to the field like a kite on a windy day. Usually the pair are manageable, but as I was about to get them out of the stable I changed my mind. The week old foal had just been turned out with her Mum, and the pony I was about to take to the field, was cantering around his stable, fretting. I left him there and took them one at a time. I was glad I did too, as both geldings were a handful, and taking them together would be asking for trouble.

Once you are ready to lead your fresh horse (hat on, bridle on), take a moment to calm yourself. It’s easy to get uptight about the potentially scary experience, but the horse will pick up on your angst and behaviour worse. Then sort out the body language; stand tall, shoulders back, chin up. Everything that asserts dominance, that you are in charge of the situation. Hold the horse firmly under the chin with the right hand and excess rope in the left. When a horse is on his toes I try and walk with my right hand outstretched. This shows the horse my personal space. I can see what’s going on more easily, and my feet are out of the way of his dancing toes. Aoher horse I turn out shows stallion like behaviour – head snaking in an attempt to dominate me. Having him at arms length protects my face. Another thing to try is to have your elbow quite high, so you can prod the horse in the neck if he comes into your space, and if he gets strong you can anchor yourself against him.

Keep moving when leading the fresh horse. Walk purposefully and he is more likely to settle as he’s going somewhere. Walking slowly bores them, and like an under stimulated child at school, they begin to misbehave. Another thing that drives horses mad is being turned in a circle as they are led. It elongates the exercise, which is of no ones benefit, and the handler invariably ends up in he middle of the circle with a more excited horse.

Finally, you should remember  to talk to the horse. Soothing tones will help relax him, whilst a firmer tone helps discipline him.

Leading a strong, or fresh horse is never an enjoyable job, but by planning and going in prepared you should feel more confident, which will rub off on the horse and hopefully make him more amenable and the whole process less stressful.

Anchored Elbows


This blog post is very relevant to a client I teach at the moment. Her pony is a bit unbalanced on the flat, tending to fall onto the forehand and get very long and flat in his frame. As he does this he pulls his rider so her shoulders are tipped forward and her arms straight. Whilst I keep telling her to sit up and open her chest, bend the elbows and secure her arms, with light wrists her job is made even more difficult by the fact her pony also finds it hard to come off the forehand so leans against her. Now, I`ve ridden this pony and it`s a tough situation, but my rider will need to be extra tough with herself, and strong through her upper body and core muscles so that her pony realises it is easier not to lean back on his rider. I`ve had this little argument with him already, so I know he`s perfectly capable of working correctly, but he needs to respect his rider in order to oblige as it easier for him not to.
When my rider has ridden a few times in this manner her muscles will become stronger and her body will remember the correct position. Additionally, her pony will develop the correct muscles and find it easier to work in this way so will not fight against his rider as much.

This pair are in for a tough couple of weeks to secure the correct position but then I`m sure it will become natural to them both and then they will come on in leaps and bounds.

Originally posted on The Rubber Curry Comb:

Recently I`ve taught two girls with wobbly arms, and have used the same demonstration with them both, which I thought was worth sharing.

First of all, I explained to each client that their elbows help stabilise their core, and upper body, almost as if they`re holding you together. To help them understand, I had them ride sitting trot and then stick their elbows out, like a chicken. It was an exagerrated fault but both girls immediately felt their upper bodies wobble like jelly on a plate. Then I asked them to squeeze their elbows to their sides. Voila! The felt and looked more secure and balanced, and their arms weren`t moving around nearly as much. Give it a go yourself next time you ride, and you`ll suddenly have more respect for the positioning of your elbows.

Next I reminded them of my age old adage, of “heavy elbows” with “helium…

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