Water in the Gutter

You know how water will flow along the gutter easily when it’s following the side of the building, but when it turns the corner at the end the water slows and the debris collects here first? Well it’s exactly the same with horses.

When a horse is straight through their body their energy propels them forwards much for efficiently and easily. I saw an excellent example last week when I was teaching.

This dun gelding had a driving accident years ago which has resulted in treatment in his neck and poll this year, so after lots of hacking over the summer his owner has started taking him into the school again.

Over our few lessons I’ve focused on  this rider being straight herself, having a correct length of rein and even contact. Then we’ve worked both reins evenly to establish preparation for transitions and movements, and the horses response to the correct aids. One lesson was spent doing numerous changes of rein to try to reduce the change in both horse and rider as they moved onto their harder, right rein.

Last week I noticed a real improvement in the horse on the left rein at the beginning of the lesson, he was no longer short and tight in the neck, but trusting the more consistent and even contact. His strides had gotten longer and he was really swinging through his body. It looked much more effortless for both horse and rider, as well as being more harmonious. Energy was flowing, like water in a gutter, straight through the horse’s body so propulsion was easy.

However, when they went onto the right rein the strides became choppy and the neck became tight. The water was turning the corner in the gutter. With them trotting large, I asked my rider to focus on the straight lines; ensuring her horse’s neck and head was straight in front of her, not to the outside as he liked to do. To do this she needed to use her inside leg to push him over to the track, not use her outside rein, but also ensure her right rein was supportive of his right shoulder so he wasn’t inclined to fall in through it. Round the corners the right rein still needed to support that shoulder and not open too much on the turn. When he is a little stronger and straighter the inside rein can open more to encourage him to bend right, but as he chronically bends left, we need to establish straight before right bend so he isn’t outfaced.

As she rode one corner correctly, suddenly the strides matched those on the left rein, and they almost flew up the long side it was so effortless.

Obviously this horse needs lots of little and often to build the correct muscle, and then when he can maintain a quality rhythm, length of stride and relaxed frame on both reins the we can look at more supplying exercises to improve right bend and engage the right hind leg.

We will be continuing to focus on finding that straightness in trot, and when riding large circles. On the right rein he falls in, so the inside rein needs to support his inside shoulder while the inside leg reminds him to stay out. The outside rein may need to give forwards slightly more than ideal to help the horse realise he can stretch the muscles over his left shoulder and not look so much around to the left. On the left rein, they tend to have too much inside bend so the right rein still needs to support the right shoulder, and remind the horse that he can’t bulge out through it. Then my rider doesn’t want to try to create too much inside bend on the circle, as riding him slightly straighter will encourage him to step under with his left hind leg and not throw his weight out of the right shoulder, but rather learn to carry himself. Having a straighter horse makes this easier for him initially as he strengthens his inside hind.

I’m looking forwards to seeing this combination progress as their confidence and knowledge increases. By taking these baby steps and finding the straightness of his body first we can reduce the chance of his old injury flaring up. Then we can work on suppling  him with the hindquarters working correctly, which will further improve his muscle tone and fitness.

In Reflection 

I had a fantastic ride this morning on Llani. As you can see, it was dark, but I dragged him in by the light of my head torch and tacked him up with the help of the yard kitten.

Out in the school he settled immediately, walking purposefully and oblivious to his surroundings he softened immediately to the contact and in the trot he engaged his hindquarters from the beginning, lifting his wither and maintaining an even contact constantly. Because he was forwards and engaged he didn’t falter on the changes of rein or circles, and he flew into a balanced extended trot when I asked. Leg yield was more extravagant than previously and he maintained his balance.

Everything I asked is within his capabilities, but if often takes one or two tries before we get our best work. For example, he often hollows and runs out of balance when I first ask him to open his trot up.

The best part, and I’m not sure if it was because I was working in sitting trot (even the extension!) to try to save my sore knee, but when I asked for canter Llani did his best transitions ever! I’ve been really focusing on them, but the first one can always be a bit of a pogo-stick hop into a stuffy canter, but this morning the hind legs pushed him straight in his body, and with open strides, into a lovely, easy canter. Of course it was easy, he wasn’t curling up around my inside leg so he could propel himself along more easily.

I was thrilled with his canter this morning; numerous beautiful  transitions and very balanced. 

We ended with a free walk on a long rein, and I reflected on how far he’s come. 

For starters, he never used to be able to walk on a long rein; he’d peter to a halt, confused at the lack of rein contact.

A couple of weeks ago I took him for a solo hack and we crossed the motorway bridges easily, just a pause to look round. His outlook on “monsters” has changed. He used to stop and try to run away, but now he stops, assesses and then hurries past, holding his breath.

He used to be terrified of the sound of clippers, but last month I clipped him without sedation. Just with the help of some apples.

He let me drape a plastic bag over his back this week without batting an eyelid. He also walks over tarpaulin confidently too – something he never would’ve done last year.

When jumping, he pops fillers straight away, without the panic that he used to have, and again his mentality has changed from “oh my god, run away” to “oh my god, scary but … Let’s do it!”

Llani’s demeanour has changed too, and he’s much more laid back on the yard. My friend had a go at lunging him last week. She’s not lunged before, but soon got the hang of it and he behaved very well. 

Then his latest achievement was last weekend, when one of my friends took him for a hack and ended up leading a beginner on a pony from him.

Even though it can be hard work, and demanding, now that I’ve thought about Llani and his journey, I think he’s unrecognisable from the horse that I met last year.

Getting Fit

I’ve started riding this large Shire cross a couple of times a week and it’s made me think about fitness and getting different types of horses fit.

I ride him for an hour and tend to start with fifteen minutes in the school of trot and canter, before embarking on a hack which in this weather is fairly steady. 

However, after each ride he is dripping in sweat and breathing fairly heavily, despite the fact that the last fifteen minutes of the ride are a steady walk. Today we got back and I dismounted to untack and his head sank to the floor, so his chin was resting on the ground. I laughed at him, sure that he wasn’t that exhausted, and felt it would’ve been easier to untack him if I’d sat on the floor.

Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve ridden a really cold blooded horse, and the way they are built means they need their fitness built up differently. 

I tried to remember my GCSE P.E. lessons and the body types there are. An ectomorph is a tall, thin person with lots of fast twitch fibres, which makes them good at sprinting and other fast exercise. The thoroughbreds are the ectomorphs of the horse world. A mesomorph is a person who can put on muscle very easily, so the weight lifters of the world. I’m not a hundred percent sure which breed of horse fits this – any suggestions welcome!

Finally, you have the endomorph, which I remembered as the dumpy physique (the letter d is in both words). Endomorphs have lots of slow twitch fibres which makes them good at stamina related exercise.

I think that draught horses, or cold bloods, are the equine equivalent of the endomorph. After all, they evolved with the primary job of being able to pull heavy objects, such as ploughs, for long periods, but at a steady pace. This means that they have a large proportion of slow twitch fibres, and subsequently are quite hard to get fit. Also, even when fit they will still have quite a round physique, unlike the streamlined fit racehorse.

Most riding horses will have more fast twitch than slow twitch fibres, so progressively increasing the duration of work in mixed gaits will rapidly get them fitter. Whereas this Shire cross that I’m riding needs lots of slow steady work to build his fitness up; so an hour of walking is more beneficial to him than half an hour of schooling or trot work, or a turn on the gallops.

Of course, the trot and canter needs to be included in his workouts, but with plenty of breaks and a very slow increase in duration so that his body doesn’t become overly tired and fatigued, otherwise he risks injuring himself.

I had noticed that this horse wasn’t quite as sweaty today as last week, so hopefully we’re on the right track and soon his workload can increase slightly. It is interesting to work with a horse so much bigger and heavier than most riding horses, and it made me think about allowances you need to make (soft ground may be fine for the 15hh thoroughbred to canter on, but a heavier horse will find it much more of a strain) with draught horses when developing an exercise program for them.


Newton`s Cradle


This cartoon made me laugh the other day – as a science geek when I was young I loved playing with our Newton`s Cradle. It did give me an idea for an analogy to use with some clients though.

In a Newton`s cradle the energy is generated by lifting one ball, and letting it swing back down, sending waves of energy through the row of suspended balls until the energy projects the ball at the opposite end out.

Now compare this to a horse. We generate the energy in the hindquarters, and we want it to flow through the body so that it comes out in a forwards motion. Now, if you have a slack rein contact, or don`t half halt or use the seat, you are creating a gap between Newton`s balls. (I can`t actually think of another way to say that…) which means the energy you generate in the hindquarters is lost, or at least diluted.

As you know, riding is a balancing act, of keeping the horse between your leg and hand, or between your right and left. So as a rider if you can imagine the horse as a Newton`s cradle, and ride with a smooth flow of energy from the hindquarters forwards then the horse will move more easily, fluidly, and straight.

Likewise, if you can imagine the energy flowing from your leg, their hindquarters, to your seat and then to the hands, in a knock-on effect, then transitions will become more balanced. I also find it useful to think of this flow of energy when performing lateral work. When, in leg yield, you ask the horse to move over from the inside leg you should allow the outside shoulder over as the inside hind leg steps under, in a smooth flow. If you let the shoulder over before the hind leg then momentum is lost and the horse loses balance and falls onto the forehand. If you block the shoulder when the inside hind leg steps under then you don`t move sideways and the horse becomes confused.


Next time you ride, have a think about your aids and the way you apply them to see if you are encouraging the flow of energy and movement akin to Newton`s cradle, or if you are blocking, or creating voids for, the energy. Let me know if it helps!

Should I really be doing this?


With horses all now living in, fully clipped, full of haylage, and with the north wind under their tails, I know a few people who have parted company with their horses over the weekend. It reminded me of this story …

Originally posted on The Rubber Curry Comb:

As a mature apprentice with my riding road safety and stage 2 exams under my belt I was qualified enough at my training yard to escort hacks. No stranger to hacking, I had hacked my own horses out with kids at the yard I grew up on and was usually the responsible adult when I went with my Mum and friends.
So ths particular January day, my yard manager told me I was taking a hack out, of girls from the local uni. Great I thought, good company and not having to go at a snails pace.
I had a selection of mounts; a roan 13hh pony, a 17hh gentle giant, a 16hh mare, 15hh beginners mare, and a speedy 14.2hh Welsh section D for myself.

The girls arrived and I introduced myself, and discovered that there were 2 experienced riders and 2 lesser experienced, but had still ridden previously…

View original 501 more words

Riding in Winter

This weekend, when the cold north wind blew and the clear skies sent temperatures plummeting,  really sorted the wheat from the chaff in terms of riders.

Luckily for me, all my riders wrapped up warmly, meaning that I had to do the same! So with the thermals fresh from their summer hiding place, an extra jumper and coat on, I braved the cold.

A couple of weeks ago I had a showjumping lesson myself, and was given an ear piece so that I could hear my coach over the gusty breeze. After yesterday, I`m considering purchasing one for myself. It`s a very strange feeling, hearing someone`s voice right in your ear as you canter towards a jump. I guess that we subconsciously get used to having our own bubble when we ride, which is occasionally pierced by shouted instructions, so having the feeling that your instructor is sat on your shoulder takes some getting used to. I think the one I used in my lesson was one way, which meant that I still had to shout in response to any questions. Well, I hope it was one way, otherwise I`ve deafened my poor coach!

Something for Santa to bring me anyway.

With the first cold snap of the year, it reminded me of the numerous occasions in the riding school when a small child would turn up for their lesson in a t-shirt and waterproof jacket, shivering with cold. I never knew what parents were thinking, not making them to wear a jumper, gloves, and thick coat. I think my Mum was pretty switched on about going outside in winter, as I remember being chilly, but never frozen. I did have a huge puffy gilet that was mustard yellow. Fairly hideous I`m sure, but it did the job of keeping me snug. It`s much easier to take off a layer halfway through a lesson because you`re too warm then to warm yourself up before you ride.

I can also remember children being told to put an extra pair of socks on for their lessons, and the next week they would still complain of cold feet … upon questioning them we would find out that they had eight pairs of socks on and somehow managed to cram their foot inside their riding boot, thus cutting off the circulation because they were so tight!

Personally, I find a thin pair of socks and then a thick thermal pair, from the ski shop, are sufficient, and means most boots still go on. I am a big fan of my neoprene wellies which also help keep my feet dry.

During my first winter as an apprentice I discovered a series of circular bruises on the outside of my thighs, which after a couple of days became painful and raised bumps. After googling them, we discovered that they are chilblains. Not very attractive, believe me! The wind is the main culprit, so I try to always wear full length chaps over my jodhs, and fingers crossed, I`ve been chilblain free for the last couple of years.

What else do I have in my winter wardrobe? A good selection of coats in varying sizes so that in the depths of winter I can get away with one thermal layer, one tshirt, a thin hoody, a normal hoody, a gilet, and two coats! I`ve had some funny looks when I`ve tried on a size fourteen jacket, when I`m clearly closer to a ten!

Gloves. That is another important part of the wardrobe. I like to warm mine as I drive between yards on the car dashboard, but it can be difficult to find gloves that leave your fingers warm, yet dextrous. When teaching I use thick, thermal gloves; but when on the yard I have my own invention. Thermal motorbike undergloves, are really tough (I always put holes in the tips of my gloves) yet are fairly thin, so I can still change rugs and tack up whilst wearing them. But to give me a bit more heat I wear fingerless gloves over the top of these thin thermal gloves. I find my hands stay dry, and snug, and I`m not forever taking them off to fasten a buckle, dropping them in a puddle in the meantime.

Instead of a hat, I usually wear a fleecy headband, which keeps my temples warm and is really useful in windy environments as it stops any headaches. I also wear a snood thing around my neck (it`s basically a fleecy tube) in place of a scarf – much less likely to get caught on anything, and does the job of keeping my neck and chin warm!

Hopefully you`ll find these few tips for getting dressed for going to the yard in winter useful, but don`t be surprised if your car ends up looking like a wardrobe with spare gloves, jumpers and coats scattered around – and don`t forget the spare outfit in case you get caught in a monsoon like I did on Tuesday!

The best thing about dressing up for winter is that come spring, when you venture out in just a tshirt and jumper, everyone exclaims about how much weight you`ve lost!

Stallion Chains

The stallions at the yard I grew up on all wore stallion chains as a matter of course. One of them used to put it in his mouth and chew it as he went along!

Some of the stronger geldings had them too, and I remember using one for both Matt and Otis as youngsters to help establish ground manners in the early days. Very quickly, the chains were put into the cupboard.

The chains were threaded through the head collar, under the chin, so that when the horse got strong you tug the lead so the chain runs tight, making a satisfying  whoosh noise, and tightens against the horse’s chin to put the brakes on. Usually the sound of the chain running across the headcollar will stop a horse in their tracks. Obviously, you don’t tie a horse up by the chain as they could severely damage themselves if they pulled back. Likewise, when leading, the chain shouldn’t be pulled tight constantly; it’s an emergency brake, so you should be leading with quite a loose rope.

Some people prefer to put the chain over the horse’s nose, as putting it under their chin can encourage rearing. I’ve never seen this, but I have seen horses jerking their heads up in reaction to the chain being pulled. However, I feel the top of the nose, with the delicate turbine bones, are more sensitive and easily damaged than the curb area, so I think I would personally always use a chain under the jaw. If the horse was a rearer then perhaps a normal rope over the nose to provide pressure would be a better alternative?

People tend to prefer stallion chains to bridles as they aren’t pulling on the horse’s mouth, so aren’t damaging their ridden work. Others think they are cruel. I think they have the potential, just like anything, to be harmful in the wrong hands, but when used sensibly and with care they will ensure you as a rider or handler are safe and your horse respects their human and behaves.

One of my clients a few weeks ago told me that she was having problems with her cheeky horse when bringing him in. He’d do a swift swing of his head before marching rapidly back to his field mate, with his owner hanging on desperately. Even the bridle didn’t help because he wouldn’t let her put it in in the field.

When I saw, I thought the problem was because he used his neck against his handler, and they didn’t have enough leverage when holding on to the reins to counterbalance the misendeaviur. I suggested trying a chain.

The first time, I helped. As soon as the horse swung his head, his owner pulled the chain hard, to shock him and to stop him in his tracks. It worked! So she gave him a pat and loosened it off before continuing. He tried again, but this time the sound of the chain running across his headcollar was enough to stop him!

 So the stallion chain is useful to help establish ground rules safely. But then the next step is to make sure you aren’t relying on it. Begin by having a normal lead rope as well as the chain, and only grab the chain if necessary. Then of course you can just keep the chain for shows, or environments that might cause the behaviour to rear it’s ugly head.

Since using the chain, my client has become a lot more confident on the ground with her horse, who has mellowed, and you can see the improved relationship coming out in their ridden work.