Satisfaction with Success

Anyone who brings home a red rosette is happy. They`ve succeeded. But is there a difference between those who have piloted an experienced horse around an event, compared to those partnerships who have a history, and have been on a journey together?

There must be.

Just before Christmas I gave myself a kick up the bum to have a go at elementary tests. After all, I know I can do all the movements easily individually, it`s just putting them all together in rapid succession and in a competition environment that causes me concern.

Anyway, we went for it and entered an Elementary 44 class in December. Practised like mad and came away unplaced, but with a score of 63%. Initially I was a bit disappointed if I`m honest, but then I read the comments and understood how the judge had marked and it made sense. Over Christmas and January Otis and I focused on our weaker areas, and at the end of the month we went to a competition and rode the Elementary 44 test again.

This competition was at a more familiar environment for both of us, and the whole test felt much less hurried; I was more relaxed, the movements came more easily, and it felt more consistent. I was really happy with Otis and felt that we`d taken a step forward. Elementary felt an achievable level; no more bumbling around at Novice level, feeling stuck in a rut. Of course there was stuff to work on, but we were front crawling to the side of the pool instead of treading water in a whirlpool.

As the test felt better, I was pleased that we had gone up by 3% to get 66%. It was the highest out of all the Elementary tests, which meant third place in the pick your own class. I don`t think it would have mattered where we were placed, the mere fact there wasn`t an individual score lower than 6.5 and there were a couple of 8s in the mix was enough to satisfy me and motivate me towards our next test. Perhaps trying a different test this time!

Earlier this week I found another competition for a fortnight`s time, with Elementary 49. To shake things up, it doesn`t have collected trot, or simple changes, but rather leg yield, rein back and more complicated canter changes of rein. In my lesson on Wednesday I rode a few of the movements and in theory they shouldn`t cause a problem – it will be my ability to prepare for each movement on time.

Now that I feel I am able to continuously try elementary tests I feel that Otis and I are making progress. Yes, we won`t be aiming to win, and I doubt we`ll beat 66% as it`s a different test, but the idea is for it to feel achievable, have good bits and not so good bits, and leave us feeling thirsty to try again. Of course if we are successful in this, then I`ve no doubt I will be ecstatic with Otis, and feel he is worthy of a lap of honour like Valegro at London 2012. But I doubt I`ll be able to do that, so he`ll have to be sated with a big hug and a kiss.

To me, and I`m sure it is the same for all who have produced their own horse (or child), it isn`t the level of success that you achieve (national, international; prelim or grand prix) but the knowledge that all your hard work has paid off and been recognised.

Here is the link to our last elementary test – here – which is not for everyone at home to judge, because I`m my own biggest critique, but rather there as a comparison for future tests, and so that I can watch and see where my mistakes were so that I can avoid them next time. I think everyone should have their lessons or competitions recorded regularly as it is hugely beneficial for understanding judge`s comments or why something went wrong. Likewise, when watching other people we should all appreciate their attempts, focus on the positives, and learn what we can – too many people find faults in others.


Block Elimination 

When I first became an apprentice I was introduced to this game called Block Elimination. Heard of it?

At the time I passed over it, but I remembered about it when revisiting skinny fences.

Block Elimination is ideal if you’re short on space or have a variety of horses and riders as it is not about height and speed, rather accuracy.

Depending on the ability of the riders and horses, you start with a line of poly blocks, about the same length as a normal jump pole, either standing upright or on their side.

Initially each combination jumps the jump. It should be easy, to build confidence and warm everyone up, especially the spooky horses.
Then you remove a block, so the fence is narrower. Some will then be knocked out. In the next round you remove another, until you’re left with one block in the final round.

Some horses who love jumping may surprise you by skirting round, because it is strange, there’s no wings to guide them.
In my experience kids always love this game, and the ones who take their time and listen to instructions are usually the successful ones, whilst the cocky, gung-ho ones get knocked out early on.

I didn’t play Block Elimination yesterday, but I will try it with this pony and rider to get them confident with skinnies and keeping their line. I did however, have two blocks upright and jump this pony over the centre of them.

He’s a jumping pony, and likes to rush, but surprised me the first time by rushing to the side. He then skipped over the corner when I re-presented in a very collected canter.

So I made a small gap between the blocks, so the jump was a bit wider. If it was a green horse I would’ve had more blocks to start, or put jump wings at the side to help focus.

With a four inch gap, the pony seemed more confident and didn’t rush his approach. It was almost like a panic attack – when he worried he rushed and that was when he dived out. I had to be really strict with myself and wait for the fence to come to me.

He popped it fine a couple of times so I made the gap smaller.

As long as I kept a contact, focused on my line, with my shoulders back, collected canter and leg supporting him, he flew it each time.

He popped it very nicely when the two were together, touching, giving us a testing skinny to build his confidence and understanding of the question.

If you think about it is a strange ask, pointing a horse at a random block in the school, with no guide, and expecting them to jump it.

Now this pony understands skinny fences better, and this idea of block elimination, I want to use this exercise with his rider to teach her to focus on her line, ride steadily towards it and not to rush the final strides, which could cause run outs in real competitions, and will help with riding corners and other cross country combinations. I also want to progress to jumping just one block with the pony, a bit like the barrel jumping exercise a lot of eventers do. I like it, but the barrel is a bit big for many of my clients!

Equine Enigmas

Last week someone asked me if it was strange riding so many horses; how long did it take to get used to them, and did I ever get used to each horse.

I ride four or five horses a day, but they tend to be regulars so I ride them either once or twice each week. Of course you get used to them; each horse has different dimensions – tall, wide, low head carriage, short neck, dressage saddle, jump saddle, active hindlegs, on the forehand – and a different brain to engage and focus, and need different approaches to their work. I think this ability to switch easily from mount to mount has a certain knack, and is definitely a skill worth acquiring, even for the amateur owners.

Once you get your own horse you tend to stop riding the variety that you would in a riding school, and become very comfortable with your horse and how they feel. However, if you were to take your BHS Stage exams you would need to be able to sit on a horse suitable for that level and ride it well. Likewise, when you go to try horses in view of buying them, you need to be able to mount a strange horse and assess it for your needs confidently. I see a lot of riders fall down here; they know their old horse inside out, but a different horse is an alien concept and they forget how to ride! My advice would be to have a go on some friends equines so you know how and what to compare prospective purchases to so you don’t waste too much time.

However, once you know a horse each time you mount it’s like putting on a pair of shoes. You just fit. Even now, if I were to ride my Mum’s pony, who used to be mine, I just fit into the saddle, and my legs hang just right around his flanks. It’s like putting on your well worn, favourite trainers. Now that I’ve ridden so many horses of all shapes and sizes I find I adapt quite quickly to each one, and feel at home on the regulars. It does take a few minutes to adjust from the wide, chunky 16.2hh Shire cross to the 14.2hh petite pony though! 

I find it usually takes a few rides to get to know a horse and what makes them tick, especially if I don’t know them at all. If I handle a horse on livery, or teach with a horse and then occasionally school it I usually very quickly get the hang of them because I’ve already learnt a bit about their personality and what buttons to press in previous lessons. The you can discover the enigma of their behaviour and unwind it so that you can best help.

One thing I’ve learnt and developed over the last couple of years is the ability to judge how a horse will ride from observing it on the ground. Try it with your friends. Watch each other ride, describe your expectations (neutral expectations, as opposed to negative ones) and then try riding said horse. Sometimes you’re caught by surprise, but by being able to get a plan of action based on what you see is really helpful in getting you to click quickly with a horse. Then once you learn to connect your observations with suitable exercises, horses will very quickly go nicely for you – much to their owner’s horror. When you have experienced a few horses you can begin to recognise traits, physical or behavioural, and so apply  the same approach or technique to a couple of horses. Obviously it doesn’t always work, so you want a plan B.

I’ve just started riding a complex mare, and it’s taking me time to get to know her. She has some quirks and I need to find the buttons to press to get her working with me, not against me. I’ve been contemplating her since our last ride, and have a couple of ideas to try next time. 

One of my favourite classics when I was young was the novel “What Katy Did” by Susan Coolidge. In it they talk about “getting hold of the smooth handle” in order to build the best relationships. I find this applies to horses as much as humans; if you can find the best tactic for working with each horse, be it quiet coercion or less subtle dominance, then they will respond positively to you and try to please you and work with you as opposed to against you. Ever wondered why some people don’t click with horses? It’s because they’re jerking away at the rough handle!

Another important aspect of riding horses is spending time with them on the ground and away from the arena – a factor I find lacking in part or full livery. Watch their body language with other horses. Are they dominant? Do they try to bully their handler? Do they fidget on the ground, do they pick up a gear when working over poles? Are they wary of the yard tractor?

Learning all these little nuggets of gold helps you establish reasons for spooking, or napping. Is it pain? Do they genuinely lack confidence? Are they taking the mickey? One horse I’m schooling has gotten into some naughty habits and is napping and refusing to work in the school. She’s had a thorough vet check, and it seems to be all in the mind. So to get her thinking forwards and fun I ask her to trot towards a pole on the floor. She falls into the trap every time, but her love of jumping takes over and I’ve tricked her into being on my side. Now I’m beginning the long process of forgetting about nappy behaviour and learning correct responses tithe situation and her riders aids.

I think one of the most rewarding things, which proves you have developed a rapport, is visual recognition by the horses. When a lovely coloured cob I teach and sometimes ride, hears or sees my voice and pricks his ears towards me and waits patiently until I greet him. They usually show some form of recognition when I catch them or walk past their field. Once, I passed the arena and a gentlemanly gelding I hack saw me and wandered over, ignorant to the fact he was supposed to be perfecting his circle or transition. I think it’s this relationship, and the stronger one between owner and horse, which makes horse riding so addictive and fulfilling.

Back to my original point. Working with a variety of horses is a useful skill to acquire, as it brings greater understanding to you as a rider and handler, and provides you with tools to see outside the box and easily overcome problems you may encounter. At the same time, it’s important to take the time to build a rapport with horses so that they trust you and you can get hold of the smooth handle, because you understand the enigma of their mind.


Going Continental?

My reins are beginning to wear a bit smooth, so I’ve been contemplating getting some new ones, and am thinking that I move away from my rubber reins on my snaffle bridle towards plaited or continental reins.

Rubber reins were the staple piece of tack in our tack room when we were younger, and I remember many a time wrestling with air end to try and pull rubber martingale stops over the thick rubber grips. I moved away from the norm when I discovered the joy of half rubber reins. They were so much thinner in my hands. Not that I have small hands, but I enjoyed the closeness of my fingers around the reins.

Somewhere I’ve lost this; perhaps it’s because every bridle comes with full, bulky rubber reins, or perhaps it’s because become accustomed to using them on riding school horses and other peoples. Who knows!


Anyway, I cleared out my spare tack box over the weekend, mainly because it consisted of green leatherwork. After washing and oiling it, I was surprised by how many spare pairs of rubber reins I have. When I get new ones I don’t throw the previous ones away, just in case the new ones break, but then I end up with half a dozen worn pairs!

So I’m now on the search for some more durable reins, which won’t develop smooth patches. Today I saw some rubber grip reins, but they seem softer, less bulky, and more long lasting, so they may be a good option. Especially if they have good grip and don’t become slippery when wet, as they would be useful going cross country.

I once loaned a pony who wore continental reins, but they were the old fashioned cloth ones which were a bit floppy and always looked dirty! Now though, I’ve seen some nice leather continental reins which seem to be good grip, although you’d have to remember to avoid soaping them so they didn’t become slippery in your hand! For those who struggle to either hold the reins at an equal length, or to hold their hands level, I find these reins the best (without going down the childish coloured reins route) for being able to check hand position and rein length. However, I’ve seen people struggle with micro adjustments of the reins – perhaps the leather notches encourage you to make big adjustments so that a notch sits under your thumb, or perhaps the notches just aren’t comfortable in every position. I think the key to good continental reins is to have subtle notches, which means that leather ones are superior as the fabric ones are quite thin and flimsy in your hands.

Until recently, I haven’t had much experience of plaited reins, but one of my clients uses the modern style and they strike me as being quite a happy medium between continental reins and plain leather reins. The plaits provide grip and you can see to a certain extent whether your reins are level, but they are easier to adjust by small intervals. The older style reins, which are just big plaits of thin leather are soft in your hand, but always seem quite slippery to me.  

So what reins does everyone use, and why do you prefer this type?

Placing Poles – Friend or Foe?

Some placing poles were out by the jumps earlier this week so I made use of them.

They have their purpose, of course, but depending on you and your horse’s stage of training they can be a friend or foe.

The idea of placing poles is to position the horse in the ideal spot to jump. I do find that for green horses the poles can be off putting, so I prefer to use trot and canter poles separately to improve the actual gaits and then use the improved gait to a single fence. Then, if the young horse should have a wobble, or back off the fence, then they don’t need to worry about the pole as well as the jump. It doesn’t matter then if the horse goes on a long, or short, stride. When the horse is confident and more consistent over jumps then we can start to improve his technique and teach him where best to take off from.

I find placing poles most useful when teaching a more established horse and an inexperienced rider. The pole ensures a good jump; less chance of unbalancing the rider which means they don’t lose their position or pull on their horse’s mouth, and the rider learns to see a stride. The horse is also encouraged into a steadier gait and is less likely to rush the last few strides; overall creating a much nicer picture.

One horse that I school isn’t very confident over jumps, and likes to get quite close to the jumps. Ideally placing poles would be used to encourage her to stand off the fence, but because the mare lacks confidence she backs off fences with placing poles, so ends up jumping awkwardly. That doesn’t mean I won’t carry on using placing poles to help this horse. I will make sure that the pole is a bit closer than normal to the fence so that the horse learns that the pole won’t make jumping harder, and when she stops backing off I can roll it out slightly until it is best placed to have her jumping with a perfect take off point. Keeping the jump simple, an inviting cross, and not too big for her, will help keep her confident. To further her education I will introduce wide, low oxers to teach her to make a longer bascule, so that she doesn’t feel the need to jump in such a steep manner. Then hopefully the mare finds jumping easier, is more confident, strengthens her jumping muscles, and makes a better bascule. So long as placing poles are carefully used and don’t outface her, they will become her friend!

At the other end of the spectrum, another horse I ride has no concept of striding, and frequently scares the life out of me by taking a stride (or two!) out. At the moment I’m working her over canter poles so that she learns to wait and stops rushing through them. When she consistently does this and her overall canter is more balanced then I will build a jump at the end of the canter poles. Building grids with ground poles will make the mare pause and think, which will hopefully cause her to take her time into all jumps! I think it will be easier for this horse to adapt to placing poles than the first horse I described, but ultimately both will benefit from the use of placing poles.

I do find that in the wrong hands placing poles can do a lot of damage; from either being the wrong distance and negatively affecting the horse’s take off point and causing them to feel uncomfortable and subsequently lose confidence in their ability. But at the same time, a skilled trainer can vastly improve the way a horse jumps using the same concept. 

Chasing The Wind – a Book Review

Some of you may remember last year I reviewed the fourth book in the Aspen Valley series, Making the Running, by Hannah Hooton.

Well, a couple of months ago I was asked to be a beta reader. This means that I was one of the first to read the book, compare the alternate endings, and provide feedback. 

Now the book is officially finished and available to buy (links at the end of the post). I can provide you guys with a review and recommendation.

Chasing The Wind is the final book in the Aspen Valley series. Set in Somerset, the series revolves around racehorse trainer Jack Carmichael, his family, his horses, his staff, and his career. The book got off to a gripping start, with the tragic death of Jack’s two-year old daughter, Gabrielle, in the hands (or hooves) of a racehorse, Shenandoah.

Simultaneously, young journalist Lucy Kendrick, arrives on Jack’s doorstep. Already the reader can smell a rat, as we see the edges of her web of lies in her shadow, suggesting that all is not what it seems.

The book follows Jack as he tries to come to terms with his loss; tries to make amends with his devastated wife; battles the horse racing authorities when his reputation is threatened;  finds the perpetrator within his closest; solves the enigma that is Lucy; and all whilst planning his revenge on the unbeatable Shenandoah at the upcoming Grand National.

I would class this book, as with the others in the series, as a romance book, with the backdrop of the horse racing industry. It’s got plenty of witty, comedic moments, memorable and instantly recognisable characters, and is easy to read and to pick up, making it perfect bedtime reading with a mug of hot chocolate.

It is also definitely part of a series. Whilst it can be easily read on it’s own and thoroughly enjoyed, previous protagonists pop up throughout.

What I particularly liked about this book, compared to the previous ones, is that it brings in a few technical elements – having a horse x-rayed for kissing spines, a common complaint of the racing industry, and jump schooling to improve a horse’s technique. To me, it makes the books more realistic and well researched, if not slightly idealistic.

The book has many sub plots, and a couple of traps to fall into, and I was kept guessing until the end. When I thought I knew who Lucy the journalist was, another suspicion was raised. 

I will admit, that when I read the ending -which I will not reveal – in the beta version, I was slightly disappointed. It took me from the highs of reconciliation to the lows of retribution. For the end of the series I felt there was something missing. I voiced my opinion in my feedback, and I have to say I was thrilled by the improvements.

In the final version of Chasing The Wind there is an epilogue, which cleverly ties up the series whilst leaving the door ajar if Hannah Hooton decides to revisit Aspen Valley in the future.

The books are available from AmazonNookiTunes, and Kobo

Effortlessly Glamourous

A combination of being on the home straight for our wedding and venturing out into town last weekend I`m finding myself in a bit of a pickle.

I`ve never been a girlie girl, or paid a lot of attention to my looks, aside from having clean clothes and not being covered in mud! In town I feel out of place against the high street catwalk, and around the yard I see so many people looking effortlessly glamourous and I just wonder how they manage it?

I mean, take a look at your hands. If they`re anything like mine they`re black under the nails. Yes, even just a little bit. Regardless of how long I spend with a nail brush I can never get all the grime out. I keep my nails short as I can`t function with long clicky fingers. Thankfully my nails are really strong because they rarely break. That`s more of an annoyance than a fashion faux-pas because broken edges snag on everything. Then of course are the actual hands. I spend ages every day washing my hands, or using the anti-bacterial wash in my car, and following this with super softening hand cream. Only by religiously following this routine are my hands presentable enough to the rest of society. I hate that feeling when you dash into the shop for some lunch and the cashier stares at your hands as you hand over your money …

So apart from keeping my nails short, I steer well clear of any manicure procedures. But then I see livery ladies with purple painted, long, false nails, all of which are immaculate. How do they keep them so perfect? On Sunday I decided to try and be more girlie and paint my nails. Within minutes I realised why I never do it. Because I can`t sit still! I never wait long enough for the nails to become solid, so I end up with smudges and finger prints across my nails. Or lumps where I`ve tried to repair the damage. Or my nails being rather two tone. Anyway, after some mockery from my fiancé about my poor painting, and the fact most of my nail beds were painted too, I decided to leave it. Perhaps next time I should challenge him to a manicure duel.

Monday morning came and by lunchtime I had realised precisely why I don`t bother to paint my nails. I was already sporting a couple of chips. So tell me, those of you who have immaculate fingertips, how do you manage it?!

Moving swiftly on to the rest of the components of looking effortlessly glamourous. Or not so in my case!

My hair is forever in a tangle; tied in a pony tail it twists into ringlets, and when plaited, stray wisps blow into my eyes. I see some ladies with loose hair … how does it not drive you up the wall? Other people just have hair that behaves itself and always looks tidy.

Then of course is the outfit. I`m sure you can now see in your mind`s eye that one livery owner who is always in clean clothes, with not a speck of mud or horse saliva to be seen. How many times this winter have I been leading in from the field and been splashed up the back by a horse, leaving lovely damp mud spots all up the back of my legs and bum? Too many for my liking! And their clothes are always co-ordinated. The only time I`ve ever coordinated my wardrobe is by pure accident and then I tend to look like a tin of paint has been thrown over me – blue jodhpurs and a blue hoodie … If I`ve got dressed in the dark there is always the risk of a blue polo shirt too …

So, if you`re one of those women who look effortlessly glamourous about the yard, please spill some of your secrets! How on earth do you manage to stay so clean and tidy, and how do you find the time to spend ensuring you look your best?

Interval Training

This year I`m aiming to do more stamina training with Otis, as we always end up tight to the time cross country, or flagging towards the end.

I`m not in a hurry to go eventing or anything so I`ve been doing a lot of dressage and flat work in January, and he`s now barely coming out in a sweat after an hours intense dressage lesson. But galloping muscles are completely different.

Now the weather is starting to get better and hopefully drier, I`ve decided to begin doing some interval training. Last year I had a useful field, but it`s still too soggy for that, so I boxed Otis over to some local all weather gallops.

Interval training with horses is a lot like interval training for humans, and it can become a precise art form…

I kept it simple though. Mainly because the gallops was slightly less than a mile and I didn`t have a stop watch. As it was our first session and the ground still a bit squelchy I didn`t want to risk his tendons in deep ground, so I chose not to work on Otis`s galloping speed too much, but rather his stamina.

We began with a trot once around the gallops; a swinging, open stride to get us both warmed up. Then we went round twice in an open, easy canter in light seat. I didn`t need to push him at all, and it felt very comfortable until the last half lap, which was a good estimation of Otis`s baseline fitness.

Next we had a break for half a lap. This is the boring part as there isn`t much to see or look at on the gallops, and I felt that Otis was recovering well. The idea behind interval training is that you work your horse for a specific length of time (I used laps) and then allow them a set time to recover, but they won`t fully recover, before working them again for either a longer time or at a faster gait. This improves their cardiovascular fitness because it is not allowed to fully recover before being stressed again.

Back to my session. After half a lap of walking, well perhaps it was slightly less, I asked Otis to gallop up the hill, and then we walked the last stretch, which was the boggiest. We probably galloped between a third and half a mile.

When we reached the next lap, we set off into another easy, open striding canter. After a whole lap it was back to trot on a long rein and two thirds of the way round we walked and then I took Otis out for a walk down the road until he was fully recovered.

In total I was on the gallops for almost forty minutes and Otis was definitely hot, with his veins up, and sweating around the shoulders, under the saddle and girth, but he wasn`t exhausted. Which wasn`t the aim of my ride. I wanted him to work his galloping muscles and to find a baseline level of fitness for future reference.

Since Sunday I`ve done some more reading about interval training to remind myself of the ins and outs. Ultimately interval training is a procedure that has fairly vague guidelines and everyone has their own specifics, depending on their discipline, horse and hacking availability. Initially I want to increase the duration of our work, as opposed to the speed, and then fit in some sprint sessions, whilst leaving the rest periods the same. When this is becoming easier for Otis then adding in some hills (which may mean finding another field or set of gallops to use) will increase the demands on his cardiovascular system.

Here are some links I came across which you might find interesting: