Who To Trust?

I’m always seeing posts on social media by people asking for recommendations of farriers, dentists, saddlers, instructors etc. Word of mouth is definitely the best form of advertising. But when you’re inundated with a number of recommended professionals, how do you know who to pick? Coincidentally, I read an article today about the legality of the self employed, such as equine dentists and farriers, and how you can ensure that you put your trust in the right person.

  • Most importantly, you want to make sure your chosen professional is qualified. Usually if they are qualified they will have letters after their name, or state under which   association they are registered with, and put them on their website, business cards, social media. For example, qualified saddlers often have the Society of Master Saddlers emblem on their van or website.
  • They may also be listed on the appropriate association’s website. For example, you can search the BAEDT (British Association of Equine Dental Technicians) website to find qualified EDTs (Equine Dental Technicians) in your local area.
  • I always think that, unless they are old school, there should be some kind of online presence from professionals. Otis’s dentist is always sharing interesting, and often disgusting if I’m honest, images of horses mouths. It’s an online world we live in now, and I think regularly updating your website shows that you are current. Utilising social media proves that you are actively working, and also engages with your clients which can also boost business. So I would definitely look up any professionals online.
  • I would also find out more from people who have recommended the professional; find out what their horse is like, their situation, and how the person in question helped them. After all, if you’re a nervous, mature rider looking for an instructor and another mature rider recommends their instructor who has boosted their confidence, then it is highly likely said instructor will be able to help you.
  • I’ve used some professionals and not been very impressed, but other knowledgeable people I know really rate them. I recently realised that you can be a saddler, but you may have trained mostly with Warmbloods or Thoroughbreds, so you aren’t actually that competent fitting saddles to the cobs and heavier horses. Which is why I think it’s important to take recommendations from people in a similar situation to you.

So once you’ve narrowed your list of recommendations down, there are a couple of questions you need to ask yourself. Perhaps you can be at the yard when another horse is treated to see the professional at work, or can meet them to discuss your horse before booking an appointment.

  • Watch them around the horses. Do they have a natural, quiet manner and do the horses seem to like them? Last time Otis had his back treated I caught his chiropractor kissing his nose! At least I’m not the only one to fall for his charms …  I can remember when Matt was only young he was shod by the farrier’s apprentice. Matt was at that playful stage and took the end of the boy’s belt in his mouth. To my horror, the boy shouted at Matt and hit him in the ribs with his hammer. I was shocked, upset, and from then on hated that apprentice. I’m pretty sure I didn’t like him in the first place, but I know after that I avoided him like the plaque. Can’t remember what happened to him.
  • Are they reasonably priced? You do get what you pay for, so I’d always avoid the cheapest option unless there is good reason for it. Some farriers offer a discount to yards if they have a lot of horses to shoe there.
  • How busy are they? A sign of a good professional is a busy diary. But they should also be flexible to their loyal clients. For example, squeezing you in when your horse has a suspected goof abscess. Again, I’m lucky with my chiropractor because when Matt fell over in the field just before the champs she popped out that afternoon, checked him over (she used to be a vet) and tweaked his back as well as advising me how to treat him over the weekend.
  • The next thing that I like to hear from professionals are explanations. Before they treat, do they ask how your horse is going, and if you’ve noticed any changes in them. No matter how small, you want them to take your opinion into account. Then they should be able to explain what the problem is, such as how the saddle isn’t fitting, or how the foot balance and type of shoe can be improved. Then, you want to be able to see the difference. The saddle should visually sit better and feel more comfortable when you ride. The new shoe should look like an extension to the foot, with an unbroken hoof-pastern axis. Some dentists let you feel inside your horse’s mouth, so you should be able to feel for yourself the improvements.
  • It’s not always relevant, but I always think it’s good when records are taken. So a dental chart is filled in, notes are made about physio treatment, and tracings are taken of the horse’s spine in the saddle fit so you can see how they change as the muscle up and grow.
  • Asking a professional for recommendations is also useful. For example, asking your vet to recommend a physio who can help your particular horse, or to suggest a farrier who is knowledgeable in your horse’s feet – for example, one who specialises in laminitics.
  • Sometimes different professions overlap; such as a physio noticing muscle tension at the back of the saddle, suggesting that the saddle doesn’t fit. They should be able to make educated suggestions, validate them, and assist if you need help investigating. Maybe suggest a saddler, or be able to voice their concerns to the right person if you can’t explain the situation adequately. It’s the same if an instructor feels there’s an issue with tack. I was asked about an I’ll fitting saddle by a new client. Even I could tell it didn’t fit, so I had to tactfully say that it was worth getting a saddler to look because the seat of the saddle didn’t sit horizontal and I thought it was a bit low at the wither. By pointing out my thoughts, this client could see my reasoning, agreed with me, and thankfully the saddler noted both plus a couple of more specific faults in the saddle.

I feel that I’m in a very lucky place because I’ve got a very reliable farrier, who has a quiet manner around Otis and always does an excellent job, especially recently with our foot issues. His chiropractor is amazing, and has a magic touch! But I can ring her about any worries I’ve got. Otis’s dentist always treats him efficiently and quietly, and our saddler watches me ride closely, tweaks the saddle and then watches me ride again. By which time I can feel the difference. I think the important thing here is that I feel involved in the process: the saddler may have to give me the reason behind a feeling I’ve got when sitting in the saddle, but the explanation educates me and helps me understand how the saddle needs adjusting. Which reminds me, I need to book an appointment with him now Otis is toning up. I would readily recommend all of Otis’s crew to anyone who asked, which is the best form of advertising in my opinion.

To Ride Or Not To Ride?

The cat is out the bag, and I can finally blog about this subject. For weeks I’ve sat deciding on a blog subject, and this always came to mind. But my lips were sealed and I couldn’t write.

Should you ride whilst pregnant? Do you ride whilst pregnant? 

And before anyone gets any ideas, it is not me I’m talking about!

I know a few horsey women who are pregnant or have been pregnant in the last year, so it’s a topic that has been covered, dissected and rebuilt.

Once you find out you’re pregnant you don’t tell anyone, just in case. No one can tell by looking at you. But you feel different and you’re more aware of your body and risks you’re taking. So what do you do?

I know some people who have found out and immediately given up riding. It’s personal choice, and I guess if you aren’t comfortable with the situation then the best thing is to stand back. However, for many women horse riding is the drug that enables us to function at work and at home, so it’s a big ask to give it up.

One of my clients told me she was pregnant a couple of weeks after I’d given her a gridwork lesson and whopped the fences up high. She knew in the lesson she was expecting, but I think if I knew I wouldn’t have jumped her so high. 

Another client told me, to explain potential “wimping out” situations, and the knowledge definitely made me back off the lesson plan. But over the next few weeks I got used to the idea and I think she did too and started to relax back into riding, and now we’re up to speed and jumping normally. I do think it’s important that an instructor knows about your pregnancy so they can adapt lessons, and are aware if you need first aid. 

Having not been through this myself, I’m no expert, but I have heard that whilst falling off is to be avoided (I’m sure doctors think we purposefully hit the deck!) it isn’t really a problem until you start to show. Oh, and you shouldn’t fall off onto hard ground or at speed. Or have the horse fall onto you – seriously, do you think we ask for this to happen?

So I guess what you do depends on how confident or safe you feel with your horse. And your riding may change during those nine months to accommodate your physiological changes. 

I’ve known a couple of women who have ridden throughout their pregnancy, but the last couple of months were steady hacks in dressage saddles (apparently more accommodating that jump saddles). These women also didn’t have a large bump, which was the reason a client of mine stopped riding.

Some say that the horse’s behaviour changes towards you when you’re expecting a baby. I guess that you smell different because of hormones, and perhaps they can hear the heartbeat? Geldings seem to get really cuddly and gentle around pregnant women. I think mares can be hit or miss. Someone I know rode her mare before she knew she was pregnant and the mare tried to throw her off. It was like she had a vendetta against her. But when they knew the reason it made sense. Interestingly, the mare in question has always had problems with her seasons and has since had her ovaries removed – would her behaviour be any different around a pregnant woman now? 

I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to stop riding immediately, or to stop any of your usual activities because your body would need to adjust to that as well as what’s growing inside. By losing fitness and muscle tone you could cause other issues, such as fluid retention and less fatigue. But you can start to pick and choose which equestrian jobs you do. For example, skipping out may be fine, but you don’t want to be lugging heavy wheelbarrows around. Someone I know skipped out each day until the baby arrived, but left the stacked wheelbarrow on the yard for her husband to empty on the weekends. She also clipped and regularly groomed all the way through.

This has led me to wonder whether you can compete whilst pregnant. Mary King competed at Pau in 1995 whilst five and a half months pregnant. There was uproar at the time, but I don’t think it did Emily any harm – except perhaps giving her an unfair advantage over her peers in that she’d already jumped a four star course by the time she was born?

I have seen a heavily pregnant woman competing at a riding club dressage competition, but there must be rules to cover everyone’s backs.

I looked it up and the FEI do permit it, however you have to inform the medical team and it’s very much down to your doctor to give you permission – here is their statement about it. 

I’ve also been told, on a hack with a pregnant friend with a story I’ve sworn never to reveal; that once you start to show, it upsets your balance, which makes riding trickier. Which is also worth bearing in mind for anyone planning to ride whilst expecting. I guess the size of the bump and it’s effect on your balance is the main limiting factor in the length of time into your pregnancy that you can ride.

All in all, should you ride whilst pregnant or not? It’s all down to personal choice, really. I guess the most important thing is to listen to your body and your gut instinct. Just do what feels comfortable and make sure your horse is happy with the situation too. I’m not one for sitting still, yet I don’t think I would be going round Badminton, but dressage and hacking would certainly be on the cards. 

For a bit of light reading, Horse and Hound did this amusing article about the problems encountered riding whilst pregnant.

Our Native Rare Breeds

I read a fascinating article a few weeks ago about The Welsh Ponies. Growing up in Wales, they were everywhere, but I do remember some talk in later years about them not getting very good prices at the auctions, particularly those fresh off the mountains.

There was also a paragraph about a small group of Welsh ponies, in the Carneddau mountains, that has recently been genetically tested and has been found to be genetically unique. This means that although genetically related to the Welsh Section A, they separated about 400 years ago and are now a distinct population which should be maintained and encouraged to thrive. The latest population estimate I could find online was 2015, which suggested there are 100-150 ponies. Which isn’t very many if you think about it!

Then I did some reading up on our other native breeds. It’s scary really, that a lot of them are actually on the endangered lists.

On the critical list, which means there are less than 300 registered breeding mares, are the Cleveland Bay, Eriskay Pony, Suffolk Punch, Dales Pony, and Hackney Pony. The endangered list, with less than 500 breeding mares, has the Dartmoor Pony and the Exmoor Pony. On the vulnerable list, with less than 900 breeding mares, are the Clydesdale, the Highland Pony and the Fell Pony. With less than 1500 breeding mares, the New Forest Pony and Shire are on the at risk group. Only the Shetland Pony and Welsh Pony and Cob have more than 3000 registered breeding mares.

These ponies and horses are part of our heritage, and I think we need to do more to help them. That doesn’t mean you should go and breed from your Shetland mare, or keep an unsuitable stallion entire and so inhibit his quality of life, but I think we should aim to buy or breed more pure bred natives instead of crossing them with a warmblood or thoroughbred to create a horse  that is more athletic and sporty. 

Yes the native ponies are hardy, which makes them good doers, and are full of character. But you need to have character to survive on the Scottish Isles, or out on the moors. I think sometimes owners are put off from having native ponies because they can be cheeky, but our ancestors only bred those which were easily trainable and friendly towards humans. Which means that a good routine and training will hone a cheeky temperament. Bad breeding and poor management in the last couple of generations has left us with some anti social types. 

I think with the recent problems the U.K. has had of overbreeding, not breeding good quality animals that are sellable, and the financial recession has led to a lot of horses being dumped. Some die, but some survive, which means they invariably mingle with our native breeds and dilute the gene pool. For example, I saw an advert not so long ago for a coloured New Forest Pony. Now call me colourist, but New Forests are supposed to be of solid colour. Which means that, whilst this pony is probably lovely, it should not be classified as a purebred. A coloured mare was probably dumped in the forest, and produced a foal from a randy New Forest stallion. Making it only fifty percent New Forest. Even if a horse looks typical of the breed, these other genes could cause it to become over height, or create unknown physical defects in the future (and after it has been passported), all of which lower the quality of the breed, particularly if this horse is bred from later in life.

I applaud the work done by the conservationists to round up the wild ponies, count them, register them, sell some, castrate the less desirable males, because these people are working on increasing the population, improving the quality of the breed whilst keeping it true to type, improving the diversity of the gene pool, as well as raising awareness for their cause. 

But the general public also needs to get involved. Don’t dump your unwanted horse where they could hinder a native breed, by breeding or fighting over territory. Research your breeds to find your suitable horse or pony; don’t breed willy nilly, and think carefully about mixing breeds – as with dogs, sometimes you get a good one but more often than not, they are just mediocre.

This new fashion of cross breeding does mean that we are seeing a decline in breed purity and standard, be they native or foreign, equine or horse. Which is sad, and I think it will cause problems in the future. After all, we’re meddling in evolution. 

Some may say that native breeds aren’t suitable for the sports disciplines they want to compete in. But be realistic with your goals. A native pony such as a Connemara is perfectly capable of jumping around a one metre course. And other breeds, like the Welsh, are perfectly capable of pulling of brilliant dressage tests up to elementary level. By the way, has anyone seen the Native Championships that British Dressage introduced last year? I think it’s a great idea and can’t wait for eventing and showjumping to follow in their footsteps. Other breeds may not be able to jump or dance, but they make sturdy and reliable hacking horses, or have the temperament to tolerate children all day, every day. Anyway, if your horse is trainable, friendly and lovable, you will find an area of horsemanship that you will both enjoy immensely. 

Learning Styles

I love getting inside a clients mind and getting to know how they learn, and what makes them tick. And how I can shape my lessons and teaching style to get the best out of them.

There are four main types of learner, according to Mumford and Honey anyway, but many people can identify with more than one style.

Activist learners like to keep moving. They’re the sort that whilst you’re explaining a new exercise they’re already starting to ride it. They like to keep busy and dabble in lots of different topics. They also have quite short attention spans so need short explanations of concepts.  Activist learners learn by doing; so they will learn the aids for canter, for example, by applying the aids and repeating the process. Even if they get it wrong the first time, they’re happy go keep trying until they get it right.

Pragmatic learners are similar to activists in that they like to learn on the move, however they like to focus on one area at a time. With pragmatic learners you have to give them the theory and then show them how to apply it to their riding. I think with these types of learners it’s important that they see the reason behind the exercise. For example, they would ask what is the reason behind working without stirrups? Even the youngest of children can understand that it’s important to learn to go without stirrups in case you accidentally lose one out riding. Pragmatic learners are also happy to repeat an exercise multiple times until they feel it is perfect, whilst an activist learner would get bored of focusing one aspect for more than a couple of goes.

Theorist learners are the ones who can be quite tricky to teach equitation to. They need to know all the theory, the little ins and outs. Which tests my knowledge and ability to explain everything in depth! Only once they have all the information then they feel confident to try it themselves.

The final type of learner in this model is the reflector. They learn by observing and reflecting on experiences. Watching other riders and videos of themselves will help this type of learner learn the correct movement. When teaching these types of learners it’s useful to discuss the exercise, have them ride it, and then discuss their performance before they try again.

There is also the VAK learning style model; some of which are related to the above styles. Visual learners like to watch, and observe others before trying out at exercise; akin to reflectors. Auditory learners learn by listening to explanations like theorist learners. Finally, kinaesthetic learners learn best by doing, in a similar way to activists.

In private lessons an instructor can adapt their teaching style to that of the client, but it’s far harder in group lessons when you have several styles of learner. So each exercise needs to be taught with an element of each learning style. 

I read somewhere that knowing your own learning style can help improve your way of coaching. So I had a bit of a think, but I’m not sure where I best fit. I often like to get involved with a job, or learning. But only when it’s something I’m familiar with, e.g. Horse riding. If I took up skiing lessons I wouldn’t feel confident enough to get stuck in, and would prefer to watch others first. Which is a reflector style of learning. Then I read that your learning style can evolve as you gain more knowledge, experience and I guess confidence. So perhaps I began life as a reflector, but then developed into an activist at some point. However I do like to learn the theory; but I think I like to learn the theory as I go along rather than at the beginning of a lesson… Really, I’m not sure where I fit in, but I think I can identify with each style. 

How do you think you learn best?

I know one of my young clients is definitely an activist learner – he’s the type that you have to say “do not start until I’ve finished telling you what to do”, or “shorten your reins!” As he kicks off into canter! 

Another young rider likes me to discuss what we’re going to focus on in each exercise before we set off. Making her a theorist learner. She also seems to absorb any titbits of information I give her, and she sussed her trot diagonals in ten minutes – and she’s only seven! She then has elements of a reflector, in that after a lesson she will go away and think about the content before practising it the next day.

I would describe one of my mature riders as an analyst; she tries to perfect everything at once, overanalyses why it didn’t happen, and then builds it up into a big issue when really she needs to forget about the tiny details until the exercise can be done by rote. I feel she’s a theorist learner, but has elements of a pragmatist and a reflector. She likes to know exactly what she should be doing, yet finds it hard to put everything in place. And then she picks herself apart afterwards. I try to get her to focus on the big picture initially and to stop overthinking the exercise and then I focus her attention on one element. I actually find this quite a tricky style to teach, and almost feel I have to formulate my lessons to influence her learning style (making her more of a pragmatic learner), rather than try to adapt to meet her complex mix of learning styles. But she thinks I’ve got it – she’s always saying that I seem to have got inside her brain when I teach her. Which means I’m doing a good job. Hopefully. 

Making Molehills Out Of Mountains 

I realised a couple of days ago that it’s been a while since I’ve done a lesson based blog. It’s not for the lack of teaching, I think rather just the busyness of holidays and revision has made in depth blogs rather less appealing. 

But one of this week’s jump lessons has quite a useful exercise in it.

We’ve been working a lot with this horse on improving the quality of his canter as he is such a long horse and he’s finally getting the idea of shortening his stride and taking his weight onto his hindquarters. This is really noticeable in the jumping because he’s not losing the quality of the canter around corners which is improving his take offs.

A couple of months ago I did some bounces with him and his jockey. It didn’t go that well because I think my rider got overwhelmed with the concept of bounces and over rode them. So I returned to some gridwork and other jumping exercises.

I decided this week to try again with bounces. But as I know this rider will focus on them and make a mountain out of a molehill I planned to just incorporate the bounce into a grid. I wanted the grid to make her horse think, to highlight  the improvement in his canter, as well as to work on their gymnastic ability.

I laid out four poles. Between the first and second was 12′ to make a bounce; 36′ between the second and third for two canter strides; and 24′ between the last two for one canter stride.

We worked over the poles in both directions in a slightly lengthened canter to accommodate the distance (which was built for jumping) until my rider relaxed into the exercise and loosened her hips so that she folded slightly over each pole to not inhibit her horse.

Next, I built the last fence as a cross and had them ride the grid a few times. Once they were in the grid, the poles flowed fine, but my rider was still focusing on the first pole and bounce. 

Repetition is key and reminding my rider to ride towards the jump at the end, and to look up not down at the poles meant that they negotiated the grid more comfortably.

We raised the cross pole to an upright and then made the third pole to an upright. I wanted the bounce poles to just become normal, part of the furniture so to speak, before I raised them.

Once the grid with the third and fourth fence up was flowing nicely I put the second element up as a teeny fence. The last two fences were around the 75cm mark, but the second fence was more like 50cm. They popped through it a couple of times until my rider looked more relaxed, and then I made the first bounce a 50cm upright. They were deliberately small so my rider wasn’t phased by height and so they felt more like exaggerated canter strides. Then once she’d stopped overthinking them I could raise them a bit.

The first couple of times my rider looked down and they met the first fence erratically, but the two strides after the bounce allowed both horse and rider to sort themselves out – the main reason I put two canter strides in here. 

When my rider created a balanced canter, rode the corner and closed the leg a couple of strides out, they met the bounce on a perfect stride, and had an excellent run through the grid. Her horse thinking about every fence, picking his feet up well and not rushing – he can sometimes get flat through grids which is why the one stride distance was after the two stride distance. When they’re more confident we could do a similar grid in reverse. My rider was also starting to see each stride and stay in balance over each element.

To finish, we had the bounce fences a bit bigger, and the last fence at 90cm, to test the horse’s proprioception, rider’s balance and for the bounces to be more influential and challenging.

They negotiated the grid perfectly; the bounce was no longer playing on my rider’s mind, which meant she just created the quality canter and allowed her horse to meet the fence appropriately. Where she was more relaxed over the fences she went with the movement of the horse more, which caused the grid to flow nicely. The horse wasn’t rushing the grid, and was jumping each element carefully and steadily, which was lovely to watch. 

I’d like to use more bounces with this pair to strengthen the hindquarters of this horse and to help improve his agility and quickness that he lifts the forehand and bends the forelegs over fences because I feel that is a weakness in his technique. Hopefully now my rider is less concerned about bounces we can incorporate them into other exercises and then see an improvement in the horse’s jump technique.

Riding To Different Fences

I`ve done a few cross country lessons over the Easter holidays and it`s tied in quite nicely with one of my revision topics for tonight … so I thought I`d kill two birds with one stone. Not that my aim is very good, so I`d probably miss both birds.

When you learn to jump there are a few golden rules you go by. Approach perpendicular to the jump, aim for the centre, have a rhythmical approach and getaway.

But then the jumps start to change, so you need to adapt your rules to best tackle the fences successfully. Shall we look at the different types of jump you will encounter around a showjumping and cross country course, and how best to tackle them?

Starting in the ring, the majority of the course will be uprights or oxers. Upright jumps require a steeper bascule, so the ascent and descent is steeper and the take off point slightly closer to the jump. In order to have the hindquarters underneath, hocks engaged and ready to push the horse up and over the jump, the canter wants to be fairly collected; energetic and bouncy. An oxer is a wider fence, so requires a take off point that is further away from the jump and a shallower ascent and descent with a wider bascule. Therefore, the canter needs to have a bigger stride, whilst still maintaining the impulsion.

A triple bar is an extreme oxer, so the canter needs to be even more longer striding and powerful in order for the horse to make the distance.

A Liverpool, or water jump, can be tricky for horses because they don`t see the water until quite late, and reflections or ripples can cause all sorts of problems. To give yourselves the best chance of jumping, approach in a collected canter, maintaining impulsion. This gives your horse plenty of time to see and assess the fence, so as long as you are riding quietly and positively, they will jump it.

Style-type fences are narrower than usual fences so test the rider`s accuracy. Again, collecting the trot, sitting up tall, and creating a tunnel for the horse with your hands towards the centre of the style before using the leg to drive them down the tunnel should ensure you jump it successfully. Because run-outs are common on narrower jumps it`s important that the rider rides to the very last stride, and doesn`t assume that because they are three metres away from the jump that the horse is fully committed.

Some jumps around the showjumping course are more “spooky” than others, so I would always advise steadying the canter to increase rider control, and creating the tunnel with the rider sat back and tall, with plenty of positive leg and seat aids so that the horse has no escape route other than clearing the fence.

Let`s move onto the cross country course. Many fences here are the equivalent to the oxers in the showjumping in that there is width to the obstacle – tyres, barrels, logs, rolltops that sort of thing. These simple, often island jumps, are invited and should be jumped from an open canter or gallop.

The same technique applies for skinny fences on the cross country course as in the arena; steading the pace to increase rider`s control and to focus the horse on the question ahead.

Ditches can cause problems for novices because the horse won`t spot it until the last moment, or the rider focuses down into the ditch which causes the horse to also look down. Shorten the canter, sit up and look up and beyond the ditch. Ride quietly and positively with the leg so the horse doesn’t have the opportunity to back off the fence. I always tell my riders to be prepared for a big jump and to hold on tight! We then repeat the ditch, incorporating it into little courses until the horse is confident, and then we introduce the coffin complex – or jump, ditch, jump as it`s now described as. Then other fences such as Trakheners and ditch palisades can be introduced. Again, when ditches are involved in fences you want to make sure the horse isn’t approaching too fast that they get surprised by the ditch – and don`t look down into it!

Offset doubles and angled fences aren`t jumped from straight on, which can make it difficult for the horse to assess the fence, and also can encourage them to run out, following the angle of the fence. I like to make sure my whip is in the hand that they are most likely to drift towards, so I can use it gently on the shoulder to back up that leg if necessary. Again, the canter needs to be balanced, but doesn’t need to be particularly collected unless the horse is prone to running out, and the rider needs to tunnel the horse along their line with the rein and leg aids. It`s important that the rider can see their line over the jump or combination to help focus the horse.

Another challenge often seen cross country are steps, either up or down, and sunken roads. Going up steps requires a lot of power from the horse. On the approach the canter needs to be collect so that the hindquarters are engaged and there is plenty of impulsion in order to get up the steps. The rider wants to be off the horse`s back up the step, but not resting on the neck or inhibiting the shoulders. When going down steps, the rider wants to lean back down the steps, with the weight into the heels and the hands letting the reins slip as necessary so the horse isn’t impeded. Again, horses need to have time to assess the question, so don`t rush towards the steps. Have a balanced canter and as always, positive aids. A sunken road is a step down before a step up. I think it`s a big test of rider balance as much as anything, but the horse has to recreate the impulsion to jump up out of the sunken road very quickly, so needs to be strong and confident.

For some, corners can be the trickiest part of the course. It can trick you into taking the wrong line and jumping it at an angle, which encourages a run out. When walking the course you should bisect the corner, and focus on riding to that line. The whip should be in the hand nearest the corner, as that is the side horses are more likely to run out, and it can back up that leg by being tapped on the shoulder. The canter wants to be controlled to reduce the likelihood of a run out.

Finally, on a cross country course you also encounter hills. When jumping uphill the horse needs more power because of the greater effort of jumping up an incline, and the rider needs to be off their back for as long as possible to help the horse canter economically. When jumping downhill you need a smaller canter to stop the horse getting onto the forehand, which could cause them to peck on landing or to falter over the jump. The rider should have their weight back on the approach and fold minimally over the fence, making sure they sit up quickly afterwards to help the horse rebalance.

I`m sure there are some types of fences that I have missed, but this post has taken me long enough to write (between various distractions of dinner, drink, cats and TV).  If in any doubt about a jump or combination, I always think it`s better to go a bit steadier, with impulsion, and positively ride to the fence. Then the horse has a little longer to process what is being asked of them, but you are also more effectively closing any escape routes with the leg and hand so they are more likely to jump the obstacle.



Leaving The Arena

Apparently you can’t reblog a post more than once, even if it’s still relevant. So instead here is the link, and I will continue my ramblings below.

This is the time of year when everyone starts getting brave; venturing outside the arena. It’s amazing how institutionalised we become working on circles in the arena through winter. I do think working on a variety of surfaces is very beneficial for horses in terms of soundness as the tendons are neither continuously strained or the bones continuously beaten. 

But anyway, how does riding in a field differ from an arena?

Firstly, the ground is undulating which means a greater degree of balance is required from horse and rider. This also leads to a slight variance in their way of going – the rhythm and frame may adjust slightly to maintain balance. So the rider needs to adapt to slight changes, relax into the horse, whilst giving the horse support from the leg and quiet hands which don’t restrict the head and neck, thus inhibiting their balance. And go with the flow. 

Dressage tests on grass are usually ridden more tactfully; not quite such deep corners and more progressive transitions as the ground conditions and inclines dictate. I think it definitely contributes to the differences between pure dressage and eventing dressage.

I do a bit of teaching on grass and it definitely tests my ingenuity, particularly through winter. Any jump courses I design have to have bigger or complicated fences going uphill. Downhill fences are avoidable in wet weather so diagonal ones work quite well so long as there isn’t a sharp turn anywhere! I have to avoid using the same take off points for too long as they get poached. Grid work is uphill, and lengthening the trot and canter also need to be uphill, and other areas of flatwork need to be tactfully ridden.

But how does riding on grass affect you as a rider? I think it gives you a far better sense of balance, makes you confident over all sorts of terrain – uphill, downhill, hard ground, soft ground – and able to negotiate it correctly by adjusting the gait, your position, and horse’s balance. All of which are very useful for cross country! I think you also develop a “just get on with it” mentality which helps both yours and your horse’s confidence. 

Sometimes we get stuck into the regime of flatwork and showjumps in the arena and cross country out in the open. When really, developing the dressage side of things in the open fields improves the horse’s general way of going which improves the quality of the jumping canter. Jumping out in the open has similar benefits, as well as the horse learning not to run onto the forehand or flatten over fences, which is useful for skinnies and tricky combinations on the cross country course.

Even if you aren’t wanting to event I think it’s really useful to shake things up a bit and ride in the fields, and within a few sessions you should feel an improvement in yourself as well as your horse. Being used to working calmly and quietly in open spaces also stops horses getting over excited when their hooves hit grass and galloping off to find some cross country obstacles. Horses find their fifth leg when working over varying terrain which should mean that you feel safer in the saddle because they are more foot sure – think of the native ponies scaling the wild, desolate mountains!

Therefore my challenge to you this summer, is to take your lessons outside the arena! Practice grid work on grass, or perfect those lateral movements on an incline.

My New Secret Weapon 

I don’t clean my tack on a daily basis, but when I do sit down to clean it I like to do a thorough job. At one yard I go to, I swear there are tack cleaning fairies, because the tack is always immaculate.

I always notice that Matt’s tack always feels very clean, even if it hasn’t been cleaned for a week. It also never feels clogged up with products. No matter what I do, my tack never feels quite so soft and supple.

So when I was getting organised for the champs I casually hinted to Mum that I’d be cleaning tack on Friday evening when she arrived … and if she wanted to help she was more than welcome.

She came prepared. And boy does she go the whole hog.

First of all we took the tack apart and wiped it over with a damp, sponge. Then we sprayed each piece of leather with Belvoir Step 1 tack cleaning spray. Mum thinks this is good at degreasing the tack and I was surprised at the benefits of it.

I used to use the spray tack cleaners, but I then converted to good old saddle soap and elbow grease, which I felt cleaned the leather more deeply than the spray. But perhaps that’s because the spray encourages you to cut corners…

Anyway, next we applied the saddle soap and elbow grease. 

Finally, came Mum’s secret weapon. She brought out this tin of Belvoir leather balsalm.

We applied it fairly liberally to all the tack (I had to stop her getting carried away on the reins) and after a few minutes wiped any excess off and gave it a buff.

Voila! The tack felt soft, supple and very clean. Even better, Mum forgot to take the balsalm home!

Tonight I finally got around to strip cleaning Otis’s tack; yes I know it’s been a few weeks but work, Easter holidays and life got in the way. I skipped the tack spray step as I didn’t have any, but I have to say that the tack feels much better than the last time I stripped and oiled it. I’ll have to do his jumping tack next which, despite being thoroughly cleaned in September and sitting in the office all winter, doesn’t feel that great. 

So when you run out of saddle soap and pop to the tack shop, try the balsalm and see how you get on with it. I’ll definitely keep using it.

The Work-Life Balance 

I’m a self confessed workaholic. We all know that – I spend my days off pressure washing the drive, or gardening, or any of the plethora of household tasks that need doing. I rarely sit down for more than an hour, and invariably get bored doing so. Unfortunately I think many other equestrians are guilty of the same trait.

After all, working with horses is a passion. You have to want to do it to ensure the early mornings, cold winter weather, weekend work and heartache. All of which invariably leads to us rarely taking days off, not having time to ourselves, and getting worn thin and losing enthusiasm for the job. Sometimes we beven resent the horses, which is the saddest part of all.

Last week I developed a cold. No biggie, didn’t even think about cancelling or taking the day off. Until Monday evening when I sneezed and coughed all evening. I didn’t feel any better on Tuesday morning so decided to juggle my Tuesday around; this meant that I lunged two horses instead of riding them, gave Otis the day off, and cancelled my evening lessons. It’s hard, but I’m learning as I grow older that it is better to have an easy day or two and knock any bugs on the head, instead of forging on and getting run down. I prioritised my evenings to consist of early nights and lots of rest and felt better by Wednesday, although I still have a lingering cough.

That’s the joy of being self-employed. You can juggle your workload if you’re under the weather. But when you’re sick you don’t get paid, which leads most of us to struggle on. Likewise, we have our reputation to uphold. No one wants an instructor who lets them down every other week. I felt guilty for a couple of days about cancelling those lessons on Tuesday, but I know it was the right thing to do because I wouldn’t be on top of my game, and my clients wouldn’t get value for money. Hopefully by now I’ve got a reputation of being very reliable so clients know there is something very wrong when I cancel.

Horse riding is a leisure activity, which means that horse owners expect to be able to have lessons out of work hours. Which can lead to us instructors working all the anti-social hours available. Things are changing though: more and more people are working shifts, flexi-time, working from home, or part time, which means that it is possible for us instructors to work more normal hours. It’s still important when you’re managing your diary to fix your working days; whether it’s five days a week or six, or one weekend day and one weekday off. By sticking to a set week pattern clients soon learn when you work so don’t request lessons on your days off – so you don’t have to have the awkward conversation about you not being available that day. You can also set the evenings that you work late, and the days that you finish early. Then you don’t get overloaded with work. 

Personally, I think it’s important to have one weekend day off, so you don’t miss out on family get togethers, nights out etc. At the moment I’m in the lucky position that I don’t need to work weekends, being able to fill five days of the week with work, but I can change to work Saturdays if need be.

With the whole self-employed thing comes the holiday. Or lack of. We don’t have a holiday allowance like the employed, and it’s really hard to justify taking time off! I try to get around it by taking bank holidays off as normal. Then clients don’t expect me to be working. Over a year I get another half a dozen days off this way. The other way to justify taking time off is to actually do something, be it a long weekend away or a full week’s holiday. If I’m not at home I don’t feel guilty for not being at work. A client of mine said a refreshing thing last week when I told him I wasn’t working on Good Friday; “Of course you aren’t. I’m not working so I don’t expect you to work.” 

Again, my advice with taking holiday, and I think I’m finally starting to get the balance; is to be firm with your diary and take opportunities to go away, even just to visit your parents, because telling someone you can’t teach them at 6.30pm on a Friday is far easier when you say you’re going to visit your parents and need to finish work by 5pm. They’ll find another free evening, and if they miss a lesson it’s not the end of the world.

Talking of this Easter weekend, I find hard to switch off. On Friday I had two clients doing an ODE. Both had had difficult journeys to get there and I was keen to know how they had got on. So whilst I tried to forget about horses, the girls were still on the back of my mind. Once I’d heard from them though, I didn’t need to hear about horses for the couple of days that we were away. It’s time to soak up some culture, have quality time with family, and forget about all things equine. After a couple of days away, I’m refreshed and have a fresh set of eyes to my work so am full of enthusiasm again. 

I know a lot of other self employed people get into the same position. My farrier told me I was his favourite client as I didn’t text him over the weekend to tell him Otis had lost a shoe … I didn’t need to call in that favour this time, so left him alone until Monday morning. If I do need to contact other self employed people, I try to do it by email so they can ignore it until they’re next at work. I definitely wouldn’t expect a response from them until the next working day. This part comes from politely encouraging clients to respect your time off, and to have the willpower to set your phone to do not disturb and turn off your emails. It’s tough, but to get the right work-life balance, you need to have the strength of mind to isolate yourself from work. It’s hard to ignore client texts and emails; but very often they don’t need an immediate response, and clients don’t expect you to reply late in the evening. Just remember to run through all your messages when you’re next at work to reply to all which need a response!

I heard a sad thing a few weeks ago. A friend said she didn’t want to go and do her own horses after caring for other people’s horses all day. Hers were then a chore. The point when I don’t want to see Otis is the point I know my work-life balance is very out of kilta. I may not want to spend hours at the stables on a Sunday morning, but at the moment I still want to see his face! After all, he’s my best friend and the reason I pursued this career.

So yes, getting that work-life balance is so important. Yet so tricky to achieve. But taking frequent time outs, prioritising your time, walking away from work, talking non-horsey topics with non-horsey people (yes, they do exist!), and keeping special time for your special equine all helps balance life. Then you have a fresher approach to work; have more enthusiasm; have more energy, a positive frame of mind and a passion for the job, which means you perform better when riding and teaching. Which leaves happier clients and a greater sense of job satisfaction.