Are You a Lark or an Owl?

Last week was pretty busy for me, and I ended up doing a few early starts so I could fit in all the horses I had to exercise before my lessons after school. Friday was a particularly early start.

I got to the yard just after six am, which is about an hour earlier than my usual early starts. The gates were still locked, and a mist of silence hung around the buildings. You can always tell when you’re early as the stabled horses are still asleep. No one whinnies in greeting, and no doors bang as they demand their breakfast. I managed to feed in near silence, and it was only after I’d fed that one of the ponies who doesn’t get breakfast suddenly neighed to me  – she’d only just woken up!

I skipped out and prepped the stables for the horses coming in during the day in an autonomic state, similar to that of a sleepwalker. After all, it was early for me too! As I filled the haynets I woke one of the farm cats from his reverie, but he rolled over to carry on dreaming.

It’s strange being up and about before the rest of the world has snoozed their alarms. You make the first prints in the snow in winter, and get to see the sun paint the sky as it rises. However, at this time of year the time just after dawn is the freshest part of the day, and has a slightly eerie grey aura, as if the world is still snuggled under it’s  duvet. The sun is up, but the lights are on and nobody’s at home – I guess a bit like me and the horses. Working at this time of the morning is also like wearing ear plugs. Everything seems muffled, and you have the urge to whisper and tiptoe about.

I tiptoed down to the field with my first charge, a pony who usually gallops and bucks as he is let free, but not today. He meandered off slowly, stretching and rubbing his eyes like a teenager before midday. The mare that I usually bring in (remember the efficient business woman from last week?) wasn’t waiting at the gate for me, I had to walk across the field and get her! Even on the way in we didn’t have our usual power walk, which I have to say was a relief!

Next was the turn of the part Shire and pony. The Shire clopped across the yard, louder than a peal of bells, waking the whole village, I’m sure. I hushed him, and took him to the grass as quickly as possible. Why do noises like that seem so much louder in the dense atmosphere of early morning? At their fields we had the usual problem of neither of them wanting to go in through the gate, hen they both try to, then one turns around, and then one (usually the Shire) pulls me off my feet as he spots a blade of grass. As I pull the first gate shut it clangs deafeningly. That’s the snooze alarm hit! It seemed to wake up the Shire though, as we made our way to his adjacent field quite quickly,

Once I’d brought the other horses in is started mucking out. Liveries were starting to arrive, but it’s amazing how quick you can do your jobs when you don’t gossip, or need to greet everyone as they arrive, and I had finished the yard by half seven, ready to go and feed my horses, and ride a client’s horse at 8.15. 

Although it seems awful when your alarm goes off at that time in the morning I still find it peaceful and enjoyable pottering around with sleepy horses, goats, dogs, cats, and doves to keep me company. I don’t have the same feelings if I work late and everyone else has gone home and switched off for the evening, curled up in pyjamas with their hot chocolate.


I hear of so many horses being labelled now; when people are looking to buy, or describing their horse, but it makes me wonder what happened to a good old fashioned riding horse. You know, the one that you could have a go at anything on.

I totally understand if you are a professional that you want to have a horse who is talented in your particular discipline, but as an amateur as we not being egotistical calling out unaffiliated prelim horse, a “dressage horse”? Does it make us feel better having a label for our horse, instead of saying “I like doing dressage but we do a bit of everything”. Surely any horse can do dressage at a low level? Likewise, if you want to do some hunter trials and showjumping on your free weekends then looking for a horse who enjoys jumping should be enough than trying to purchase an “event horse”.

I think this continues over to riders. I see so many kids who enjoy one discipline, and call themselves that – for example, they enjoy jumping, but then label themselves as a showjumper and focus solely upon that. Does this mean riders are forgetting to enjoy the whole spectre of horsemanship, and are they pressurising themselves and their horses too much?

I guess this pondering comes from a conversation I had this week with a local dealer. She was saying that amateur riders “specialised” too early in their careers at the jeopardy of their riding, which has led to an increasing difficulty in selling horses because people want a specifically talented horse (e.g. dressage), and they don`t want the slightly lesser talented horse, but one who will turn his hoof to anything. This puts pressure on those producing horses to push them further then they are mentally or physically able to, which can also lead to problems in the future. Another thing she mentioned was that more talented horses tend to have a quirk or two, which many inexperienced horse owners cannot understand or handle, which leads to other problems.

My other gripe is when people are looking at adverts is that they target specific disciplines, or labels, at the cost of characteristics and other important factors. What I mean is, if you want your first horse, or one for a teenager, then by only looking at horses with a particular label then you risk missing out on the gentle, quieter all rounder who will look after you as you learn the ropes of horse ownership, or keep your teenager safe while they embark on their hot headed ideas.  Perhaps we should be able to filter adverts according to disposition, as opposed to speciality?

When I think about us as kids looking to buy, it was mainly through word of mouth, but it was mainly height and age that were the dictating factors – were we looking to bring a horse on, or did we want a more experienced horse; and then would the horse be big enough for our growing legs? After all, most horses can pull of a basic dressage test, jump a steady showjumping course, and take us around a cross country course. Then of course, we were happy to give anything a go, and prioritised fun in our riding, which I think, meant we had happier and healthier ponies.

Anyway that is my musing for today; should we try not to label ourselves or our horses and focus on having a more varied approach to our riding, and try entering that jumping competition for fun or go on a sponsored ride.

Seamless Joints

This came up in a lesson earlier this week where we were looking at position. My client was riding her Mum`s armchair pony as hers had twisted a shoe, so we focused on the rider instead of the horse.

Have you ever stopped and thought about where in your arms you feel it if your horse gets strong and pulls the reins?

The ideal position is, as we all know, a straight line from the elbow through the wrist to the bit. Now, if you take that image and place a drainpipe over  that line, you should be able to see that water would flow effortlessly from the elbow to the bit. Now, we need to step away from physics and ignore gravity, and imagine that the drainpipe has two way flow. If your arms are in the correct, straight line position, then a pull on the reins can be felt in your elbow. If you feel it in your wrist then your wrist is tense, and acting as a lock on the canal to stop the flow of water.

Now straighten the elbow and rest your hands just above the wither. If your horse were to pull now, you would feel the tug on your hand and wrist, and it would be amplified (it would feel stronger and potentially move the hand around) because it is further away from your core muscles so therefore the wrist is a bit more unstable than the elbow. Going back to the drainpipe scenario, the break in the line at the wrist will affect the consistency of the flow of water.

Does that make sense so far? If we take a look at the other extreme, i.e. the wrists being too high, and the flow of water being affected. With the hands up in the air, any pressure from the reins is felt as a downward tug on the wrist.

A really easy way to find out if you carry your hands correctly is to get an active, marching walk, with some head swinging and then with a good rein contact (so you can feel the swing of the head and neck) experiment with raising and lowering your hands until you can feel the movement of the head in your elbow. If at first you struggle, then remember to relax your wrist and grip on the reins so that you don`t block the flow of energy and communication.

Hopefully once you`ve established this straight line you should be able to communicate more subtly with your horse and be able to maintain a consistent contact which will produce better work from both the horse and rider.


I had my knowledge tested last weekend by an old friend. I’ve always helped her with her two ponies, but recently she’s acquired a young donkey.

I don’t know much about donkeys except that they are stubborn and a lot of horses are frightened of them.

So these were her problems and the solutions we came up with.

1. Whenever my friend lead her donkey he would stop and plant his feet, seeming to grow roots as she could not get him to shift.

I suggested that instead of getting into a tug of war situation my friend enlisted the help of one of her teenage sons to walk behind with a plastic bag attached to a lunge whip. When the donkey stopped and dug his heels in my friend should ask him to walk on while her son waved the plastic bag behind him. When the donkey walked forwards, the bag monster could drop back and the reward was the disappearance of the monster, but it was ready to assist when the brakes went on. 

My friend trialled this the next day with success, so will continue this routine. She had been leading the three equids together so that she didn’t get stuck with a stubborn donkey. Now she can lead the donkey in separately and work on him without the ponies being present.

2. The donkey has no idea about personal space, and continuously pushes against his handler, wedges himself between the handler and ponies, and barges into people.

My friend needs to start putting the donkey firmly back in his box. When he gets too close she needs to calmly clarify her personal space, this may be by throwing her arms wide and discouraging him from coming any closer, pushing him back when he edged closer, and telling him off verbally. It’s important to be consistent though as donkeys are quick to fall back into rude habits. I think handling him separately to the ponies will allow her to focus more on his stable manners and he doesn’t have the ponies to distract him. She can reward him with a pat, grooming session as he loves that, or the odd ginger nut that he adores. Hopefully spending extra time with him will remind him of his manners and get him into a good routine and good habits.

3. When the three are turned out the donkey barges against the ponies, pushing them out the way and biting their necks. Even the grumpy chestnut mare walks away, letting the donkey walk all over her.

This donkey is only two years old and the two ponies are in their early twenties, so it could be that the donkey wants to play. Not having grown up in a donkey herd he won’t have developed vital herd social skills so throws his weight around and thinks he’s the boss. Handling him separately, and quietly and consistently confirming her authority over him, my friend will stop the donkey being top dog. She could try to stimulate the donkey in the field. She uses paradise paddocks but I suggested maybe putting an old football in the field for the donkey to play with, or putting large branches or logs around the field for him to explore and chew on – I believe donkeys are like goats in that way. Then I also suggested doing a bit more work with the donkey. Yes, he’s too young to lunge or physically work hard, but taking him for walks will mentally stimulate him and possibly doing ground work with poles and cones will give him something to think about. My final suggestion if all else fails was to send him to a donkey herd for the summer so he learnt some donkey manners, and then my friend can take over in the autumn and re-establish her expectations of him.

So far the donkey is learning to stay out of my friends personal space, and she is doing more on the ground with him to build onto longer walks and play sessions. But if anyone has any other donkey related tips we’d be more than grateful!

Thinking On Your Feet

I taught at a Pony Club rally tonight, hence the late post as I am shattered, and it was a new club too. I went in blind, as I hadn’t been emailed the group list. It’s not the first time it’s happened and it won’t be the last, but it can be a bit nerve racking to say the least.

A few weeks ago I was at another rally and was chatting to another instructor. It was her first time teaching for the pony club and she was very nervous. There’s a good reason for that – you’re teaching a group of unknown riders and unknown horses, usually of a variety of abilities, in an unknown venue. You either sink or swim.

This other instructor asked me what I was planning on working on during my lessons and I had to say that I didn’t actually know. I mean, I had a couple of ideas but until I’d seen my group trot I hadn’t decided which one to follow.

In reflection, I was in her position last year; worrying over who I would be teaching, writing plans A,B,C and D in the hope I could use one. However, once you’ve jumped in at the deep end a couple of times you soon learn to swim.

I think working in various riding schools can help teach you how to wing it. Or to put it another way, to think on your feet. We used to have groups of foreign students come for lessons in the summer – there you had familiar horses but a huge variety of abilities AND the language barriers. You soon learnt to be imaginative. Then on Pony Days you always had a mixed bag of kids, so you rapidly learnt to juggle a lesson to match all the riders. 

In tonight’s lessons I had some young horses and young riders so I warmed them up in closed order but with 2 horses distance apart, and quickly put them through their paces – including sitting trot, which they hated! They cantered individually but it involved passing the ride on the inside, circling, and exiting and rejoining the ride on a circle. Then I worked them over trot and canter poles until the young horses stopped rushing and the other riders were approaching straight and in a rhythm. I made them jump a single fence from trot that was built up from a cross to a spread. They all seemed to enjoy it, and improve too so that was good. I wanted to keep the kids on their toes with busy exercises but keep the content safe and steady as I didn’t know them very well.

In my second lesson I had another mixed bag. One girl on her young pony, another on a trial pony, and a gung-ho but unbalanced boy and a wobbly girl, who seemed to be in her own world. After warming them up in the field and cantering them individually (peeking through my fingers as the boy and saddle slid up his pony’s neck and the little girl on her trial pony bombed back to the others). Then we played some games, and the young pony got a bit over excited and more balls were dropped and poles askew so that we soon gave up, but the kids were laughing and enjoying themselves so I didn’t matter too much that I was having palpitations. I finished that lesson with some interesting trot poles (aka a hundred miles an hour pick up sticks) and a little jump, where I spent a lot of time correcting their position, approach and ride away. I had a hairy moment when the boy and his saddle crept forwards and I told him to hop off and adjust his tack. As he leant forward to dismount, his pony put her head down and the boy rolled down her neck! We all laughed with him, and then I held my breath whilst the little girl practically galloped over the tiny cross.

I think the second lot of kids enjoyed themselves too, but I definitely had to work hard and think on my feet in the last lesson to keep them all occupied.

Drop Nosebands

Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of drop nosebands  on the scene?

At a competition a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to see so many horses wearing drop nosebands. Growing up, they were a rarity and seldom seen, and it is usually flash nosebands that are sold with bridles in tack shops.

Then I thought about the increasing popularity of the Micklem bridle, and realised that the noseband on the Micklem bridle is based on the drop noseband. So drop nosebands have come back into fashion because people have been reminded of them and their usefulness by a new design of bridle, which is unfortunately still fairly expensive. Riders may well have dug out their drop nosebands to try before purchasing a Micklem and found it alone to be beneficial to their horse.

I just remember the difficulty in fitting drop nosebands, as you have to be careful that it is not over tightened so as to not interfere with the horse’s breathing, whilst ensuring that the top of the noseband fits the nose of the horse so that it doesn’t interfere with the bit and it’s action.

As you may have noticed, the Spanish Riding School only use drop nosebands on their young horses, and indeed many of their older charges. The drop noseband helps stabilise the jaw and prevents the horse opening his mouth too wide, although there should still be room for salivation so that the mouth remains relaxed.

Personally I’ve always thought drop nosebands a little in the ugly side (but my horses have all had long faces!) for horses, but then I think I would ideally just have a plain cavesson on my horses (buying one on a bridle is a nightmare though, and recently I’ve noticed that a grackle suits Otis’s long face as the cross breaks up his long nose a bit. Not that I use it for that purpose, it’s an observation!) as I like the plain band dividing the face up – I think this is why they went out of fashion. Although if you need the drop noseband you should just use it!

Some say a drop noseband should always be used with a full cheeked bit to help prevent the drop strap slipping up and pushing against the bit cheeks.

Drop nosebands are dressage legal which should help boost their popularity, and I think people are starting to see them as milder alternatives to flash nosebands, which means they are being trialled on more horses.

At the moment I’m quite happy to stick to the loose flash on Otis, with the grackle for cross country, but it’s good to know the drop noseband is an increasingly popular alternative for me to try on my horses it suggest to any that I ride.

Capped Hocks and Elbows

No they aren’t baseball caps on the joints. 

Capped hocks is a common ailment, and is also called bursitis of the hock. It’s caused by trauma to the joint, such as travelling injuries, or lying on hard ground, or direct trauma. Symptoms include a firm swelling on the point of hock, but the horse isn’t usually lame. Sometimes there is a small wound, and that can be permanent.

You often see capped hocks temporarily on a horse who has knocked himself, such as in the case of a bruise, and often has an edema accompanying it. When this is noticed it is important to reduce fluid as soon as possible so that the bursa sac is not mishapen permanently.

Treatment for a capped hock includes anti-inflammatories and rest. In severe cases you may need corticosteroid injections and a pressure bandage applied. 

If the injury occurs a few times then the skin becomes permanently stretched so the hock looks disfigured permanently. 

Capped elbows is a similar bursa on the point of elbow, which is caused by lying on hard ground, or not having enough bedding in the stable, or wearing horseshoes with long heels.

So the best thing to do with capped elbows and hocks is to protect them as much as possible (with travel boots when in the lorry, with large sausage boots on the foreleg to prevent the shoe catching the elbow) and treat any sign of swelling in the early stages to prevent the injury becoming chronic. Early treatment and irrigating any wounds also help prevent the joint or bursa becoming infected.


Do you ever imagine what your horse would be like in human society?

I was bringing a horse in one morning last week and a livery said to me, “if she were human she’d be a very efficient, highly career-driven woman. Intolerant and a strict parent.”

I laughed. How right this lady was! Each morning as I turn out a pony, the mare marches across her field to stand by the gate, alert, and tapping her watch. Once the headcollar is on we march full speed into the barn, sending doves, cats, dogs, chickens, and goats flying as we speed past. The stable door is already open and she fairly flies in as I undo the headcollar in a swift movement before she buries her head in her breakfast. She’s like this in the winter too, desperate to go out to the field, and nothing will stop her – it’s my fastest walk of the day! And she’ll be very impatient should you need to stop for anything. It’s not that she’s particularly rude or bargy, she just has a tight time schedule, akin to many business women.

This got us thinking. Are there any other horses that stand out as particular characters in human society?

One of the lady’s Dales pony is very laid back and loves being groomed, cuddled and the centre of attention, so I could imagine him being some kind of hippie therapist – “just chill, man”, sort of thing.

I know these two veteran Anglo Arabs, and I can imagine them being the two old ladies at the bus stop watching the world go by, pretending they are too old for life, but by night they jump on their skateboards and practice complex jumps.

Or that highly strung horse, who could almost be high on drugs, or suffer from ADHD, leaving him with the attention span of a gnat and the inability to stand still for more than two seconds.

Let me ask you this then, if your horse were human, which sterotype  in society would he/she fit in? 

Accepting the Leg

I’ve got an interesting couple of horses to work with at the moment, along with their owners.

A few weeks ago a lady had the chiropractor (Otis’s McTimoney chiropractor actually) to her Welsh cross gelding who had begun bucking in canter and cantering on the spot. The chiropractor, who was a vet for years, couldn’t find anything amiss so suggested that I came and rode the horse to see if I could discover the problem.

So duly I went along a few days later to see the lady and her little horse. He was whizzy on the lunge, but ultimately he behaved. And on I got, noting his martingale and Pelham bridle.

That first session was fairly exhausting. This horse had a very choppy, quick walk and his trot was short striding, tense, and he didn’t seem to go anywhere. When I applied the leg he bounced up and down. Soon I asked if there was a snaffle available, and we put a loose ring on him. The effect was instant. I could get him to stride out a bit more, and whilst he still ran forwards from the leg, I had microseconds of him softening his neck and relaxing.

The next few sessions continued in walk and trot, with his owner now riding him for some of the time so that she knew how to school him during the week. We worked on transitions, circles, and serpentines until the walk became more consistent, with a slower rhythm. However, he was a bit strong in just the loose ring snaffle when hacking, so we tried a double link hanging cheek snaffle, which has so far been successful.

A couple of weeks ago we had our first canter and I focused on letting him go forwards, so he learnt that he wasn’t being held back, and his stride slowly got larger. Every so often he would forget himself though, and hop on the spot, but over a couple of canters he became more consistent.

This week`s session was one of the best to date. He`s starting off with a longer frame and a more relaxed work. I`m working on getting him to accept the leg on circles and changes of rein, by using leg yield on a circle, and it is coming but he sometimes rushes, hollows, and loses the quality of his walk. I`m finding it easier to get it back again after though. In the trot he has a bigger stride and is getting more even on both reins, not falling out through his right shoulder, as he likes to do. The consistency is coming slowly, and he is learning to understand the leg aids, which is pleasing. I`ve also been working him in sitting trot so he learns to accept that sitting trot does not mean canter! When he softened over his back I asked for canter. Result! A lovely forwards transition and no hopping in the canter. I rode several transitions, each time spending time to settle the trot, as he thinks it`s all about the canter from then on. To finish, we worked on settling the trot again, and he was lovely and forwards, with a light contact and using his back nicely.

So this brings up the question, along with the Arab mare I rode earlier in the week, what is the purpose of leg aids? And how do you teach your horse to accept them?

The equine dictionary would state that “horses are taught to move away from pressure” and “horses are taught to move away from the leg”. From this you can deduce that a horse should learn to move away from pressure from the leg, which almost works in a push, and release, way.

However, many sensitive horses never learn to accept the leg. They scoot away from the pressure so the rider stops using their leg and turns to the reins instead, because at least the horse doesn`t accelerate then. The only problem with not using the leg is that the rider cannot correct and help balance the horse on turns.

So how do you teach a horse to accept the leg aids? The Arab mare swung her quarters and accelerated when I moved my leg against her, let alone applying pressure. So I rode each circle by placing my outside leg against her, and keeping it there while she swung her haunches, and then when she moved around the circle, away from the leg, I took the pressure off, to reward her. Each time she resisted less, but the key was not to ask in a louder way, but to keep the slight pressure on until she moved correctly. But we had to begin again when I changed the rein! She seemed to completely forget about the other leg, and was surprised when it became the outside leg and started asking her to move away.

Then the question is, what are the hands and reins doing whilst you are using your leg and seat aids to move the horse forwards and around? Initially, while the horse is starting to understand the leg aids you may need to indicate with the rein, as he probably understands that more than the leg. But you should ask with the leg first, and then clarify your intentions with a slight rein or hand aid. As the horse begins to understand how to respond correctly to the leg the rein aid can be reduced. For a whizzy horse who only believes that the leg means run, the rein can be useful in providing a half halt before you ask him to move over with the leg, and then after, so he learns to balance himself and not run away from the aids.

It can be a difficult process, teaching a horse to accept the leg, but you need to persevere and be patient, until he understands, and has made the memory pathways to respond correctly to the leg aids, and then the rider can fine tune the horse`s movements and body position, which will enable more lateral work to be done and a more correct way of moving established, which should all help the dressage marks!

Free Jumping


I was asked a little while ago to write a blog about free jumping, and I was positive I`d done a similar one last year. However I must have mentally done it, like we mentally reply to text messages or emails and then wonder why we don`t get a reply. Go on, admit it, you`ve done that!
Anyway, I used to do a lot of free jumping with the little riding school ponies in the little indoor during the miserable days of winter.
Riding school ponies put up with a lot of trudging around the arena with people bouncing on their backs, pulling on their mouths, so my idea of free jumping them was to give them something different in the arena. They could jump without the hindrance of an unbalanced rider, so they could stretch and build the correct muscles, as an instructor you can build their confidence so they will want to help their rider out, as well as see their natural ability and desire to do it. Usually the ponies went into their next lesson refreshed and interested again, which made teaching much more enjoyable. If the ponies were a bit over excited due to being stabled then free schooling is a good way to burn off the extra energy.
Free schooling is much easier in a confined space, so not your large 50x60m arena! Trust me, I`ve tried!
I set up my poles on the track, adjacent to the fence so that the fenceline helps tunnel the ponies towards the jumps. Then I place a pole either side of the wing nearest the middle of the school, and usually place it on the slant so that it discourages the ponies from running out. These need to be bigger than the actual jump though, so they are the harder option.
Then, get ready to run! You need to be behind the shoulder of the pony, so they don`t stop, and encourage them into a forwards trot or canter with your voice and lunge whip. Reward them verbally after, but it helps enormously if they respect your voice aids so you don`t have to flap and shout as they approach the jumps.
I usually start with some poles and then build either a single fence or double, depending on the level of training of the horse. As the horse doesn`t have the rider on board making him jump you can really see their confidence level, and at what height they are mentally comfortable with, as well as seeing their technique when not hindered by tack.

Definitely a fun exercise to try, if only for the exercise for the handler!

Originally posted on The Rubber Curry Comb:

We have a green pony in the riding school who was bought donkeys years ago as a youngster with the thought of him replacing one of the school favourites. He’s now rising eleven.

I don’t know the full story, but when I arrived I was told he was very green and a wimp. He wasn’t used in the school and was mainly a field companion.

“Why?” I asked. He was fairly well handled, and of a quiet, sweet nature, but just hadn’t been exposed to very much.

So last winter one of the teenagers who’s horse was off work was given this pony as a bit of a project.

She rode him in walk and trot for about a month with a bit of lunging. As she was quite big for him she didn’t do much in the way of canter or poles but he had seen them a couple…

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