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Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.

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In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!

Exercises for Developing Medium Trot

One of my clients wants to have a go at some novice tests in the near future, and with another trying to establish herself at novice level, I thought that a blog post all about developing medium trot would be a useful guide for them. Homework so to speak when I’m not around to help.

Firstly, it’s important to understand what a judge is looking for at novice level. Tests will state to “show some lengthened strides” between two markers. This means that they are looking for a gradual yet balanced transition from working trot towards medium trot and then another balanced transition back down over a few strides. It’s far better to do fewer lengthened strides yet keep the horse in balance, than to rush out of working trot and have an unbalanced, incorrect medium trot.

In the lengthened strides, the judge is looking to see a difference in the length of strides. It sounds obvious, but many riders go faster instead of lengthening the step. The hindlegs should lengthen in step as well as the forelegs. This is another common mistake that people make – hurrying the horse so they fall onto the forehand and leave the hindlegs trailing as the forelegs paddle along. The rhythm of the trot should stay two beat, and the horse stay on the contact. Some riders can make the error of pushing their hands forward to encourage the medium trot, which actually causes the horse to lose balance as they reach forwards to find the contact again. When lengthening the strides it’s important to feel the push from the hindquarters, maintaining the impulsion.

So how best to introduce the concept of lengthening the trot strides? To begin with, I like just playing around with variations of the trot so that horse and rider get in tune with the subtle aids needed and improve their internal metronomes. This can be done anywhere in the arena, on circles or straight lines. Initially, I just ask my rider to try to shorten their horse’s strides for a couple of steps, then lengthen for another couple of strides. We aren’t looking for a huge difference in the trot, but rather for my rider to feel the level of half halts from her seat and hand, and the push needed from their seat and leg. Playing around with the trot also make the horse more switched on to the aids and engages the hindquarters. I think it’s important to discuss collection, or shortening the strides at the same time as extending because if a rider cannot collect to help the horse balance, then the horse cannot engage his hindquarters sufficiently to extend.

Then we begin with using the long sides of the arena to start lengthening the strides. I tell my riders to think of slowly growing the trot, a bit like a music crescendo if they are musically minded. To begin with, we want the trot to grow over half a dozen strides. It doesn’t have to grow by very much, but my rider should be aware of the push from the hindquarters, and the two beat rhythm staying consistent.

Over time, the rider should feel that they can push the boundaries in this trot: getting slightly longer strides over the same number of transitional strides, or reach the lengthened strides in fewer transitional steps.

Sometimes I ask my rider to check that they feel they are going uphill. Envisaging standing at the bottom of a hill and looking up to the brow, can correct a rider’s position do that they don’t collapse forwards, and then their seat is more active at driving the horse forwards towards medium trot. This position then helps the horse lift their shoulder and forehand.

If the rider lets their hands creep forwards as they lengthen the trot strides, then I remind them to ride the hindquarters towards the hand and then allow the horse to move forwards, with the hands following them so the contact is neither restrictive or lax.

Getting the rider to think about how their rising to the trot will help too. With longer trots strides, the rider’s hips need to swing more in the rise. Just by getting the rider to push and swing into their rise can help the horse push from behind and transmit the energy over their back. Likewise, by reducing the swing of the hips and using smaller rises will help shorten the strides. Developing the seat in this way makes the transition from working towards medium trot more fluid. A novice dressage judge is focusing on the strides lengthening without the horse hurrying, with smooth and balanced transitions, rather than an extravagant trot.

With both rider and horse beginnings to get the feel for lengthening the trot strides it’s now down to practice. Practice to build up their balance, their suppleness and their strength.

Outside of the school, practicing lengthening the trot along bridle paths or up hills can be very beneficial because the horse is naturally more forwards and the incline strengthens their hindquarters and helps them lighten their forehand.

In the school, one of the popular exercises is riding a 10m circle at the beginning of the long side before lengthening the trot strides. At the end of the long side, shorten the trot onto another 10m circle. It can also be ridden across the diagonal, with circles in the corners before and after. The circles encourage the horse to step under with their hindquarters, take the weight there, and then they can more effectively push up into the lengthened strides. This also helps the suppleness of the horse which can make them more “through” over their back.

Lengthening the trot strides on a 20m circle will further test their balance. They need to have the correct bend in order to do this exercise, but if they rely on the rider’s hands, or use their shoulders to balance, then the circle will become distorted.

Ride shoulder in, into medium trot. This has a similar effect to the 10m circles in that the inside hindleg is engaged, and is particularly useful for lengthened strides across the diagonal. Coming out the corner, the outside shoulder sometimes gets stuck on the fence line so the horse isn’t straight and instead of pushing into the medium trot and propelling effortlessly forwards, the horse falls onto their outside shoulder and pulls onto the forehand. Riding shoulder in ensures that the horse straight before lengthening the strides.

Using poles can help lengthen the trot strides too. Begin with poles the usual distance for your horse in working trot, and then slowly roll the poles out to encourage longer steps. Having to lift their feet over the poles also helps improve cadence.

If you only practice lengthening the trot strides in a certain place then a horse begins to anticipate the downwards transition so look like they’ve run out of petrol on the second half, losing the impulsion and balance. A good exercise to overcome this is to ride medium trot out on hacks, but to also ride it in different places in the arena. So if you have a 60x20m arena you can lengthen the trot strides across the short diagonal, the long diagonal, and any other line you fancy, as well as the full length of the long side. I quite like riding medium trot across the diagonal of the 40x60m arena, which really tests the horse’s staying power.

The Equicore

A friend told me a couple of weeks ago about her new toy – the Equiband. I’d seen them around, but not seen them in use, so when she asked me to lunge her horse with it I jumped at the chance to get some footage for the blog.

The Equiband system is made by Equicore Concepts – Their website is here for some more information about the company. The Equiband system consists of a saddle pad, with two large plastic clips on each side, and two lengths of what can only be described as a fitness elastic band – very similar to the ones we use in Pilates, albeit hopefully much stronger. The saddle pad is a generic one, so has high withers and can be used with all types of saddles, or lunge rollers.

The shorter of the bands, the abdominal band, runs under the horse’s belly (near their belly button) attaching to the saddle cloth via the plastic clips. The purpose of this band is to activate the abdominal muscles. It shouldn’t be tight, in the way that an over tight belt is uncomfortable, but it’s mere presence should encourage the horse to lift their abs. Strengthening, or activating, the abdominals encourages the horse to flex and lift through their back, improving their posture and way of going whilst reducing the risk of injury. This means that the Equiband should greatly help horses with kissing spines and poor posture.

The longer band, hindquarter band, runs from the saddle cloth, from the diagonal clips, around the hindquarters so that it sits above the hock, passing just below the stifle. Immediately I was reminded of the back straps of Pessoas and Equipment-Amis. Again, there is slight pressure but it shouldn’t be uncomfortably tight, which will increase the horse’s awareness off their hindlegs. According to Equiconcept’s website, the hindquarter band improves gait asymmetry, increases engagement of the hindquarters and helps develop the muscle groups of the hindquarters.

To begin our session, once I’d sorted out the different bands, I warmed the horse up in trot on both reins. I’ve videoed each stage on the left rein so that you can compare the changes in his gait and posture.

Next, I attached the abdominal band. Initially I didn’t really see a difference, but then he suddenly started to engage them, dropping his nose as he lifted the withers and back.

After going on both reins, I attached the second band.

Again, initially I didn’t see a huge difference, but after working on both reins and probably ten minutes since attaching the first band, I noticed that this horse (who is quite fit) had all his veins standing out. He was obviously working a lot harder than I gave him credit for. I thought it was interesting to see how much he was stretching in his neck, without any assistance, as a direct result of engaging his hindquarters and abdominals.

I worked this horse lightly in the canter, but unfortunately didn’t get any video footage – story of my life is running out of storage on my phone! However, I did think that there was more impulsion and his inside hind leg seemed to be coming under his body further and he looked lighter in the canter.

Overall, I was surprised at the changes in this horse’s posture with just the slight pressure of the bands. As well as how the horse tired quicker than normal, which shows he was using different muscles. In the instructions it does tell you to reduce your workout duration because the horse will be working harder.

The Equiband can be used in ridden work, so I’d be really interested to see and hear owner’s feedback as to how their horse feels whilst being ridden in the Equiband. Otherwise, it’s definitely a lunging aid that I’d consider for building up a horse’s topline if they have poor posture or been out of work for some time. I think it has to be introduced in such a way that the horse doesn’t panic by the feeling of having the bands around their body and only when they accept the pressure should they be ridden with them.

Matt’s Recovery

Here is the conclusion to Matt’s recovery saga. In my last update, it was the six month mark since fracturing his stifle – Which you can read about here.

December wasn’t an easy month for Matt. In mid December he managed to scratch his eye, developing an ulcer. Unfortunately the ulcer took a long time to heal. I think it was a combination of his age (he’s now classed as a veteran), and the weather – a cold, biting wind irritates the eye. Matt’s had an ulcer in that eye before, and it took a long time to heal then.

Between Christmas and New Year, Mum got one of the girls at the yard to sit on Matt for the first time. Matt was a bit fresh, but not naughty. And hopefully happy to be back in work – although his expression when Mum produced the saddle tells another story.

Unfortunately, after only a couple of rides, Matt decided to have an asthma attack. The symptoms were similar to colic so he had an emergency vet visit and put on a course of ventapulmin, soaked hay, dust free bedding. The vet suggested that Matt has COPD, but as he’s never shown any symptoms of it before I’m hoping that it’s the result of a cumulative effect of being stabled for six months, the fact turnout over Christmas was limited, and through the winter he has been stabled with two neighbours who are also bedded on straw. If Matt’s been in when his neighbours were mucked out then the process of spreading fresh straw would create a dusty environment. Potentially his lack of exercise could also mean that dust and irritants sat in his respiratory system, instead of being shifted regularly when he’s ridden.

Once Matt was back into his turnout routine and things had settled down again, Mum began riding again.

You can see from the photos that Matt is very much out of shape. He’s built up a bit of muscle just being turned out because the large field is on the side of a hill and has plenty of terrain for him to traverse. However, now that Matt is up to hacking for an hour, including some cantering, Mum will begin lunging him in the Pessoa to improve his topline and schooling him. It will take time, after all he’s never had eight months off in his life, but the fracture site is fully healed and in theory stronger than before, so it’s just a matter of fittening and strengthening his whole body.

A Rhythmical Approach

There’s this horse that I was schooling for her owner who is best described as quirky. I’ve never really been aware, but she’s actually a very difficult horse to ride. Not because she’s particularly strong or nappy, or naughty or anything. But because you have to ride the whole spectrum with her. She can be really lazy and disengaged in the arena, then suddenly spook and do a snorting dragon impression whilst piaffing. She can be moving beautifully laterally and then change her mind and throw in a buck. So you have to have a huge range of tools and be quick to react to her behaviour at that particular moment in time. Because it will change in a flash.

This makes it hard to explain to someone else how to ride. You know, some horses you can sum up with “very quick off the leg but doesn’t spook” or “needs a lot of leg and seat to get canter”. But with this mare she can be everything within the same five minutes!

So I’ve enlisted a couple of friends to ride her under my supervision. I can tell them which buttons to press to get the best out of the mare on the day, and I can explain what exercises work best. There is a very fine balancing act too, between getting the mare working in a good rhythm with impulsion and straight, without her toys coming out the pram and her putting on the brakes, particularly in the canter.

I’ve had the girls jumping a lot because this mare really benefits from more complicated exercises, which to be frank can be a pain to set up on your own, and I like to get the mare thinking about the question rather than her usual cock-sure approach coloured poles.

One of last week’s exercises began as a series of canter poles. On the approach to fences it can be really tricky to find the right canter – three time, not too fast and flat, yet energetic. Then on the last few strides it can so easily go out the window. I felt that this exercise would help my rider get the feel of this delicate balance, whilst also making the mare stay in the correct canter rhythm.

After working over the poles in both directions I put up a cross pole. So there were three canter poles before a cross pole and then a landing pole to keep the mare’s focus after the fence.

It took a few goes in order to stop her rushing, or backing off, and to keep the rhythm in the canter throughout the exercises. My rider found that a walk to canter transition followed by a small circle and short approach helped create a lovely canter to the poles, and then the poles dictated the canter.

I built the cross higher and then turned it into an upright and then after removing the landing pole, an oxer. As the jump got bigger the mare had more of a tendency to change her canter on the approach – flattening, rushing and leaving her hindquarters behind her. Which made it harder for her to bascule correctly.

Its a very useful exercise to help riders learn to ride a rhythmical approach, and to be able to keep the canter together. Quite often, they’ll apply the leg to commit to the jump and a horse will be rushed out of their rhythm and lose the quality of the canter. When you have a horse as delicate to balance as this, the poles give a helping hand. Now this rider has got the feeling for approaching a jump with this mare which will help her get the best jump from her.

Lunging Gadgets

I asked a couple of weeks ago for any requests for blog subjects, as I’m trying to write a few in preparation for having my hands full. Plus it’s a useful occupation whilst lying on the sofa and stops me googling too many inane questions about babies.

One request was a continuation of a conversation I’d had with a client about lunging aids. Or gadgets. How do you know which one your horse needs, or doesn’t need. Or if they need any at all.

I think I’ve said before, that whilst I feel lunging aids have a use and can be very beneficial to a horse, they can just as easily cause more harm than good by being adjusted incorrectly or with a poor lunging technique.

Firstly, when deciding on which lunging aid you’re going to try, I think it’s important to reflect on how the horse goes when ridden, and if there’s any issues there which need resolving before you start a lunging program, or indeed if there’s any area under saddle which would benefit from being worked on on the lunge. Then it’s useful to see the horse on the lunge, to make sure they understand the basic concept, and are relaxed and focused on the aids, before adding the complication of a gadget. Thirdly, speak to your instructor about it. They may have more experience of a lunging aid so be able to help you fit it and use it correctly, as well as advise to how often you should use it. Lunging, whilst a useful way to burn some extra calories, should supplement the ridden work. So if your horse will work long and low on their own accord on the lunge, find their balance and self carriage then you don’t need a gadget as such, just some exercises such as spiralling in or pole work to help improve their work under saddle. But for some horses, they need some help to point them in the right direction of self-carriage, balance and working long and low.

Finally, critique your own ability – easier said than done – about lunging. Are you able to influence the way a horse goes through body language? In which case do you actually need any more than a lunge cavesson to improve your horse’s way of going or would some lessons and good old practice suffice?

Lunging aids, such as a bungee or side reins, focus on the front of the horse so I feel that if you decide to go down that route then the lungee needs to be able to efficiently send the horse forwards from behind, and the horse respond appropriately without tensing or rushing, in order to use these gadgets correctly. A Pessoa, or Equi-Ami, or any other whole body gadget, will work on both the front and back ends, which so long as they are fitted correctly, require the lungee to do less technical work. Which may explain their popularity, in that they don’t need quite so much skill in order to see an improvement in your horse.

Here are a couple of examples of horses that I’ve lunged, and which lunging aid I’ve opted to use to help improve their way of going.

Firstly, is a pony who tends to drift through his right shoulder. When ridden straight, he’s fine, it’s just a technique he’s developed to make his life easier. Now in lessons, I’ve spent a lot of time straightening and evening out his riders rein contact (her left hand tends to fix whilst the right hand drifts forward constantly, so enabling the pony to go crooked). It’s a bit of a vicious circle in that neither are truly straight, so to help correct the pony, I suggested he was lunged in side reins. This would give him an even contact in his mouth, help teach him not to fall through the right shoulder, and improve his straightness because he would have to engage his left hindleg under his body. He also likes to tuck behind the bit, so his rider can see for herself how he starts to take the contact forwards when driven on from behind and straight. This will help her understand that she needs to use more leg and seat to push the pony into the contact, whilst stabilising the hands, and she will be able to visualise the results. Lunging in side reins once a week will help break the cycle because the pony will become straighter and then my rider will feel the effects of her wobbly right hand and more easily get the correct result when she corrects herself.

One mare that I lunge tends to get tight in her neck, and lock her back. She looks active enough, but it’s just the legs pedalling as fast as possible whilst the back stays as still as a duck serenely floating along the river. When you ride her she likes a contact, but it mustn’t be restrictive, and you must be riding her quietly from behind so that she goes forwards without getting tense. She’s the classic example of the benefit of riding from the back to the front of the horse, rather than pinning the front end in. Anyway, when using side reins, she stiffens her neck, lifts her head and goes behind the contact. Sending her on, when lunging, just makes her paddle quicker with the legs as she rushes. She needs more encouragement to release over her back and to drop her nose forwards and down. So I put her in the Pessoa. The strap behind her hindquarters sends her on from behind, without the lungee flapping and worrying the mare into tension. It mimics the “riding from the back to the front” adage. The clips to her bit and between her front legs should not be too tight, because she will just tense and contract her neck instead of seeking the contact forwards. These clips will also put pressure on her bit to encourage her to lower her head as that’s where she’ll feel the release of pressure. After lunging her a couple of times like this, she stopped getting tense when the Pessoa was attached, and immediately took herself into a long and low position, swinging nicely over her back. Teaching her to work over her back without the interference of a rider and their balance will pay huge dividends under saddle. After a couple of months lunging like this, I’d expect to see her stretching long and low in her warm up on the lunge, which then means you can lunge naked, which will encourage more self-carriage, or use a different technique or exercise to help strengthen another area of her body.

Another horse I’ve been working on is quite short coupled and easily over tracks. In fact, in walk his hind feet over step his the prints left by his forefeet by an easy two lengths. Under saddle, the horse can throw himself out through the outside shoulder to evade bending through his rib cage. He can get a bit tight under the saddle and at the base of the neck, so would benefit from stretching on the lunge. However, because he’s at risk of over reaching due to his conformation I think the Pessoa will hurry his hindquarters too much. No you don’t want to ride from hand to leg, but I think the lungee can influence the hindquarters sufficiently with this horse that his engine will work without the pressure of the back strap. I decided to use side reins, on a fairly long setting so that the horse is encouraged to lengthen his neck as he seeks the contact. The side reins also help prevent the horse evading through his shoulders. Then whilst lunging him I can work on sending him forwards so he works with the right amount of impulsion and then he will seek the contact of the side reins for himself and develop self carriage.

Another horse I teach with lacks impulsion and can be very lazy with her hindquarters. Whilst she uses crookedness to evade her rider’s aids, I feel that the first port of call with her on the lunge is to activate her hindquarters. In order that she doesn’t rush and shuffle off, but instead lengthens the stride and pushes with the hindlegs, the lungee needs to be able to maintain some tension down the lunge line whilst also using their body and the lunge whip to drive the mare forwards. This takes a bit of skill, so her owners actually need the help of a well fitting gadget around her hindquarters to support them in sending her forwards. For this reason I suggested they tried using the Pessoa. Perhaps once they’ve developed their skill and become more adept with the lunge line and whip, and the mare is more forwards, they could move on to the side reins to assist with the straightness and help establish the outside rein contact.

You may have noticed that I only really use the side reins or a Pessoa. I’ve experienced other gadgets, especially when lunging a horse in rehab for their owners but I’m not fully familiar with them or completely satisfied with the hows and why’s they work, so prefer to use a tool that I’m confident with, and then if it’s not having the effect I imagined it to, I’ll do more research into other options. Something about not being a jack of all trades and master of none!

When going down the route of lunging to improve your horse’s way of going I always advocate having a couple of lessons, to improve your technique, and to ensure the lunging aid is fitted correctly and is benefiting your horse, and what exercises you can do on the lunge. And if your instructor doesn’t know how the gadget you want to try works, then see if another instructor in your area does who can offer advice. Perhaps this is a gap in the market? To offer lunge clinics, which teach owners the correct basic technique, and also demonstrate the correct use and fitting of such lunging aids.

Keeping the Lower Leg Still

The other week I was trying to focus one of my riders on their lower leg over fences, and how it likes to swing backwards. But he was more interested in jumping bigger/higher/more exciting so I made limited progress. However, he went out competing over the weekend and saw some photos of him jumping and was horrified by his lower leg.

Great – so I had his attention!

In his last lesson I came armed with string. After a short warm up, in the indoor because of the unfriendly February weather, getting my rider to be really aware of what his legs were doing as he trotted round, I brought out the string.

I tied the inside of his stirrup iron to his girth. There’s still a bit of movement, but the resistance of the string makes the rider aware of their leg movements. This means that we can train their muscles to remain in the correct place whilst supporting his legs to help him learn the slightly different rise or slightly different feel in his balance.

Through the lesson we did rising and sitting trot, worked in light seat, and then worked the canter in sitting and light seat.

The string on his stirrups made my rider more aware of how his leg wanted to swing, but because the string stabilised the position of his lower leg, my rider could turn his attention to adjusting the height of his shoulders, how far back his bottom had gone to the cantle, and position of his hands. Thus allowing him to find the right balance.

I made some other tweaks, like getting him to carry his hands, and not hollowing the lower back as he went into his light seat. He also had to have softer knees so that the weight stayed in his foot, with the heel slightly lower than his toe and the leg stable. He started to understand how this new position would enable him to ride a whole cross country course like this without tiring, and how he could still use his calves to ride his pony towards a fence without losing balance.

At the end of the lesson I removed the string and we ran through light seat in trot and canter to see if his legs were remaining in the correct place and if he felt balanced. His homework over the next few weeks is to keep practicing maintaining the lower leg position, and hopefully by practicing on the flat and when hacking it will become second nature when he’s jumping.

Today, I got a video from him asking me to critique his position over a fence! It looked much better, he wasn’t in front of his pony over the fence and they looked much more balanced, as you can see in the rather blurry still from the video below.

I always think that when I jumping position, the rider should look as though they would stay squatting and not topple over if their horse has been removed from under them. If the lower leg swings back then a rider will topple face first, akin to superman gone wrong! I have high hopes that this rider will correct his position and strengthen it over the next few weeks because he’s understood the importance of it in helping his pony jump neatly and in balance, and in helping him recover quickly after a fence so that he can rebalance his pony and ride the next turn on the course.

Feed Balancers

Feed balancers are a relatively new concept in equine nutrition, and not something I’m overly familiar with because my horses have always needed hard feeds so I’ve been able to feed the recommended quantities of concentrates of chaff which provides the right balance of vitamins and minerals. According to the nutritionalists I’ve spoken to and blurb on the bag anyway.

Balancers have been brought to my attention recently because of an increase of time spent on the sofa and in my own company, but also because Phoenix appears to be a good doer and whilst she is thriving on quality ad lib hay in the field, and a token feed of fast fibre when I bring her in, when I start working her more I want to ensure that she gets the right nutrients to best support her body as she builds muscle and works harder.

Feed balancers are concentrated, usually pelleted, sources of protein, vitamins and minerals which provide the correct ratios for horses to balance out their forage or straights (feedstuffs like oats and barley) when extra calories aren’t needed because such a small portion is fed.

It all seems very straightforward, but of course it isn’t – life never is! Feed balancers can be feed on their own; so for example to the overweight pony on poor pasture who most definitely does not need calories but the quality of the grazing means that they risk becoming deficient in one mineral or vitamin, which could lead to further problems.

Balancers can be fed on top of hard feeds of sugar beet, oats or other straights which in their basic form do not provide sufficient vitamins or minerals. For example, horses require a Calcium:Phosphorus ratio of 2:1 yet oats contain far more phosphorus than calcium so providing a feed balancer would ensure the horse wasn’t deficient in calcium.

Some people feed concentrate feeds, which are scientifically balanced to contain the correct ratio of vitamins and minerals and then feed a balancer on top of this to increase the nutrient density. However, nutritionists recommend that you reduce the amount of balancer that you feed from the recommended rate.

Really, balancers are like the vitamin and mineral supplements you can buy; for example, NAF’s General Purpose Supplement. However, supplements focus on providing sufficient micro minerals, whilst feed balancers provide protein and macro minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus as well as the micro minerals. This is why you shouldn’t feed a supplement and a balancer because you risk overloading the horse’s system with a micro-mineral and causing a health problem. For example, horses can suffer from an excess of vitamin D, causing depression, weight loss, stiffness and an accumulation of calcium deposits in the organs.

To complicate your decision over which feed balancer to use, is the fact that the level of protein varies between brands and their different balancers. To decide how much protein your horse needs, you need to consider the forage in their diet and the horse’s individual requirements. Younger horses, who are growing, or broodmares, or veterans, need higher levels of protein than mature horses in light work. Likewise a horse in hard work, or those building muscles, also need higher levels of protein. This would be when feeding a balancer on top of a concentrate feed would be beneficial to “top up” the horse’s protein intake. Poor quality forage will have lower levels of protein, and hay usually contains lower levels of protein than haylage. The best way to check your forage protein levels is by conducting soil and forage analysis tests on it.

Why are balancers becoming more popular? Well, basically because our understanding of nutrition has improved and many of the equine population are overweight, or at least on the heavier side of the scale. Horses have evolved to work quite hard off limited calories, and the improvement in grazing and forage means that owners are turning towards low calorie yet nutritionally balanced feeds. Concentrated feeds are designed to be fed in certain quantities, dependent on the horse’s size and workload. However, horses are often not fed at the correct rate because of the risk of obesity and excess of calories, which means that these horses don’t receive sufficient levels of protein, vitamins or minerals. As our scientific research increases and understanding of the horse’s biology improves, we’ve become more aware of the effects of deficiencies in vitamins and minerals on the body. For this reason, some owners feed concentrates in a reduced quantity, but then feed a balancer to ensure the horse’s dietary needs are being met.

Feed balancers have the advantage in the fact that an owner can meet the individual nutritional requirements of the horse. Symptoms of a well balanced diet are:

  • Well developed top line
  • Good body and coat condition
  • Strong, healthy hooves
  • Improved post exercise recovery
  • Improved stamina
  • Improved fertility
  • Healthier gut
  • Easier foaling
  • Improved milk production
  • Better utilisation of food
  • A happy horse.

My next job is to read up on different brands of balancers to find one which will suit Phoenix, and when I’ve narrowed down my list, it would be worth my while ringing the feed companies to speak to their nutritionists so they I can make an educated decision as to which one to begin feeding Phoenix when she starts ridden work.