Colour Change

Otis’s cat-friend had kittens last week and they are adorable! Their eyes are just starting to open now, and their ears straighten up.


You may be able to tell that they are a funny colour, almost black underneath with a grey top coat.


Being the geek that I am, and knowing that we will be bringing home the kitten with the white belly, I thought I’d look into kitten colours. 

I found a really interesting article online that spelt out cat colours, patterns and white spotting a for the everyday person – and includes  pictures! Here it is. Because the mum is a tortoiseshell (black base with a red pattern) and I’m pretty sure the tom cat was black, and black is a dominant gene I think the kitten will be black – looking surprisingly similar to our own Princess Penny.


Aside from that, I also discovered that the grey hairs on both kittens are called “fever coats” and occur either when the mother is ill or under stress, or if the particular kitten was under stress in the womb. I know the mother had antibiotics in April for a cold, and because both kittens have it I strongly believe it is a fever coat. After a few months the fever coat is shed to reveal their true colour.

This led us onto discussing the fact that foals are often born a different colour, and change in the first moult. This makes it really hard to fill out the passports, because indeed it is a legal requirement that

You must get the foal microchipped and have a passport before it’s 6 months old, or by 31 December in the year it’s born (whichever is later).

Since 2009 new passports have to be accompanied by a microchip. I hope that the added expense of having to pay for a passport and microchip discourages indiscriminant breeding, and I guess that was the aim of the law. I was also amazed that the fine is unlimited.

One of my Mum’s friends bred a foal a few years ago and he was the most fascinating colour. Almost a dun, he became a lot darker by the time he needed passporting – even the vet didn’t know what colour he would be – and each year since then he has become more roan. Maybe passports, especially with modern technology, could be more easily updated so you can put “current colour” and “predicted colour” when first registering a horse and then, like you do with the lifetime height registration, put “mature colour” or words to that effect. Perhaps there is also the space to update bodily markings because whilst whorls don’t change, scars are acquired over time.

Riding With One Stirrup

“Take your inside foot out of your stirrup iron” was a staple part of my early riding lessons. And not one that I’ve heard repeated much. 

When we first did it we used to lean right over the outside stirrup, often missing a rise and generally struggling to keep our balance. I did this exercise for years until one day I didn’t lean. It was as easy as rising trot with stirrups.

I never really understood the full implications of this exercise, but it’s a good half step to removing both stirrups, and teaches you not to lose your balance should you suddenly lose you stirrup, and retaking the stirrup mid-trot after the exercise helps teach you how to quickly regain your stirrup in an emergency.

I find it quite a useful exercise with beginners and nervous riders, however I stick to sitting trot, and walk for the very beginners.  It just pushes riders’ boundaries without making them feel like they’ve lost total control or balance.

Yesterday I used the traditional rising trot exercise with one lady I teach. She has, and she knows, a stronger right leg, which means that although she’s sat centrally in the saddle her weight sits towards the right, with her right leg looking more secure, and every so often on circles you can see her upper body lean slightly right.

Using the fence line down the long side to help I first got her to trot with only her right foot in the stirrup. She managed this fine, but felt like she was really leaning to the right. We then repeated the exercise with only her left foot in the stirrup. She found this much harder, and the rises were smaller and less established. After a couple of goes like this I got her to put both feet back in the stirrups. The left leg instantly looked more grounded, the heel was more secure and down more.

Going back into rising trot I got her to think about both legs putting in the same amount of effort, and you could see the improvement on circles. On the right rein they weren’t mimicking a motorbike and the left circles became more circular. 

So if you know one of your legs is stronger than the other, try this little test because it really wakes your weaker leg up and gets it working harder. You don’t want to overdo it (straight lines are best), and be careful that it doesn’t shift your seat from the centre of the saddle, but other than that it’s a very useful tool for finding the symmetry, or lack of, in your body.

Rainy Days at the Yard

This week we had one of those miserable wet days, when it never seems to get light. I wrapped up in my waterproofs, and managed to hack Otis is the dry, but then I might as well have gone swimming with my next two mounts! Amazingly, it stopped raining so I took the opportunity to change (keep a change in my car) and then at least I was dry and warm (ish) to teach my lunchtime lessons. At home for a late lunch I didn`t solicit going back outside for the evening`s lessons – and was even less impressed when I was soggy again!

Anyway, it made me reminisce about rainy days at the yard when I was growing up.

It always looked deserted on wet days; lessons were out of sight in the indoor arena, the outdoor arena was empty. In the early days a large puddle was developing in the F-A corner, with a smaller one near V. On really wet days a channel would develop, with a waterfall from the step into the arena and down the track towards the yard. The yard was deserted, with people dashing from building to building, and all the ponies hiding in the stables, back stalls or sheepshed; heads buried in haynets, rugs over them. Us girls usually declined to ride, and either took residence in the tea room – sharing the squishy arm chairs, or crowded along the work surface, legs dangling down amongst abandoned wellies and sleeping dogs, and the door pushed to. The rest of us hid in the tack room; door firmly shut, sitting on our closed tin trunks (often with bum shaped dips in the lids) around the walls, and our tack in various stages of dismemberment; sharing the slithers of saddle soap and crusts of sponges, cursing when we lost bits into the murky lukewarm buckets of water.

It was days like this that we grew close. We had the typical teenage girl conversations, which was both an eye opener and educational for the younger of us. We laughed as we  discussed a medley of topics, retold stories of past helpers and ponies, and gossiped about school, house parties, and boys.

In many ways we would look forwards to rainy days, because of the friendship aspect. But as soon as it stopped raining we used to dash outside to enjoy the freshly washed world; run up the field, or turn out the horses, or sweep the yard leaving straight lines akin to a mown lawn from the adverts.

mel and katie

Teaching Horses to Lunge

Recently I’ve done quite a bit of lunging for clients for various reasons.

Teaching a horse to lunge can prove difficult though. Putting you on the ground means the horse can be less responsive or overreactive, and puts you in a more vulnerable position. 

One horse that I worked with has no idea what he’s supposed to do, but the problem was that when he doesn’t know what to do he goes to the nearest person!

Turning in to the lunger can be quite frustrating, and a tricky situation to get out of, so we started this cob by walking him smartly along and slowly stepping away from the shoulder, but not getting in front of it. I managed to get him out on a circle after a few tries and quickly went into trot before he thought about turning to me. It’s important if they try to turn in to make sure you’re always in a driving position – behind their shoulder. I didn’t worry about the shape of the circle, the important lesson was for the horse to understand he needed to stay out of my space. Staying in trot helped because he’s thinking forwards and not so much on stopping for a cuddle!

When his owner had a go she had more difficulties than me, which I think stems from the fact they have a closer bond than I do, and he gravitated to her more. It’s important he learns personal space though, and if he looks towards her she pushes him away, with her voice and flap of the arms to show him which space was hers and not his. Even leading him standing closer to his shoulder than his nose and widening the distance between them will improve his understanding of lunging because he will get used to being on his own whilst still being directed by his handler. 

So I left them with the homework of practicing leading from the shoulder and having a more purposeful walk so the horse is focused on marching on rather than where his mother is! Hopefully next time we will be able to get him moving onto a circle more easily. I don’t think having someone lead him from the outside will help because the issue is teaching the horse not to cling to his handler. Another alternative is to lunge him with a rider, but the rider is telling him to stay on the circle while he gets used to the idea of having someone in the middle.

I think a lot of your success when lunging depends on how you approach the exercise. After all, you’re in full view of your horse, there’s no deceiving him! I lunged a horse for his owner this week. She said he had been hard work to get trotting on a circle, and charging in at her but she suspected it was her fault. Which is very  honest of her. Anyway, I couldn’t fault him, and I think there are a couple of key areas that give you away when lunging. Firstly, body language is key; if you stand tall, face your horse, and use an assertive, confident voice they will probably pay you the utmost respect. Secondly, the way you hold the lunge equipment will tell your horse how proficient you are. If your lunge line is baggy or your whip facing the wrong way he will take advantage; either by cantering off, going nowhere, or bullying you as this horse did. Having better control over the equipment makes you more efficient which gives the horse less time to think of an evasion. Now, I haven’t seen his owner lunge so I can’t comment, but I suspect the veteran knows just how to wrap her round his little finger. After another couple of lunge sessions with me I hope to give his owner a lesson in lunging, and help her overcome this charging. I think there may be an element of “Mummy’s Boy” as with the cob learning to lunge, so they will have to learn how to be friends, yet have a working relationship too.

So, one trick horses can do when lunging is to turn in or slow down, but my most disliked habit is when they shoot off as you change the rein. I hate this because a buck or kick out can often follow rather too close for comfort. When any horse looks a little fresh when led to the arena, I try to send them off without them knowing, whilst moving as far away as possible! I’m working with a sharp mare at the moment and when I first lunged her I thought she was going to career off. She didn’t, just trotted off. Whilst that isn’t as bad, I still try to discourage it so after the initial five minutes, when the horse’s brain is back in the arena I do some walking on a circle so they learn that they can walk on the lunge. Then I put in some trot transitions to teach them not to rush off, before lots of changes of rein with plenty of walk before trotting so that they understand the correct procedure. I really value time spent improving this behaviour because you never know when a vet may want to see them trotted on the lunge. He doesn’t want to wait until the five minute canter burst is over!

Teaching a horse to lunge correctly and safely is so useful, and then it becomes an enjoyable activity for you as well as for them because you can introduce poles and lateral work too. If it’s not working for you then invest in some lessons for you and your horse separately.

Jumping off a Corner

Today I did what looked like a simple two strided double in a lesson today. However, it wasn`t so.

To begin with, I put the double on the diagonal, and secondly the first fence was a skinny.

There were two aims for the lesson. The first one was straightness through the double. As my two riders came around the corner they lost energy. For one it meant that he chipped in a stride, and for the other it meant an uncomfortable launch over the fence. One of the reasons both horses lost their impulsion was that they lost their balance around the corner and fell out through the outside shoulder.

Initially we started the exercise with pole on the ground for the skinny and the second fence as a cross, focusing on the riders setting up their left canter nice and early, riding deep into the corner and turning using the outside aids – not resorting to the inside rein! Once the corner was right and they came out straight, aiming for the centre of the grid, the canters were far more punchy and the horses jumped the cross easily.

Next I put the skinny up as a low upright. It had a useful yellow band in the centre for my clients to aim for, so that they were central and straight. The middle of the cross helped them aim for the centre for the whole duration of the grid. My clients started to realise the importance of creating a good approach. If they rode a balanced corner and kept the forwards canter then the distance through the grid was a perfect two strides, their take off points were correct, and they were in the centre of the fences with no thoughts of running out.

We put the cross up to an upright, using the centre band as the focus through the grid. Having an upright is a bit harder because the centre is not so obvious and the horse won`t be drawn to the middle. Again, it took a couple of attempts to stop drifting. Both horses drifted to the left of that band the first time.

I made an A-frame over that upright next, to just help improve the horse`s technique as they were getting a bit complacent. I didn’t want to make the fences high particularly, because the ground was a bit slippery and I didn`t want the riders to lose focus on their accuracy. The A-frame was quite close at the top, and it took a couple of goes for one of the horses to stop drifting over the A-frame. As they rode over the skinny fence they needed to use their opposite hand and leg to keep their horses straight, and keep using the opposite limbs to prevent any drifting between the fences.

Both riders were riding a much better approach now, and really focusing on their lines to the fences. I did put a cone out to prevent them cutting the first corner and help them visualise their line. The canter was more powerful so should the fences have been bigger they would have had no problem jumping couple of strides off the corner. The horses were jumping better now they were aligned, finding the fences easier.

However, I noticed that both riders were drifting right upon landing. Time to focus upon the getaway part of jumping. After all, if the getaway is smooth then the approach to the next fence is already good, so is more likely to be successful.

On the landing side to the A-frame I placed a pair of poles to make a tramline. The clients thought it was very narrow, but as I reminded them, only their horses` legs have to fit between the poles, not their bellies! The first rider rode a good line to the fence, and landed central, but within two strides had drifted onto the right pole. I explained that as she`s landing after the fence she needs to keep the weight in her left hand and her right leg to keep her horse straight in the next few strides. The next client lost his horse around the corner, so came into the grid veering slightly right. It wasn`t much and the scopey horse wasn’t affected by the distance but by the end of the line you could see how much they had drifted. We revisited riding the corner, and as soon as the horse improved his approach his rider found that only a little bit of pressure from the leg or rein was enough to prevent any deviation from his line and they stormed between the poles.

In all, both clients realised the importance of a good approach and how it made combinations flow, and then they also learnt that the jump isn`t over until after the getaway. The five stages of jumping are coming together for them – approach, take off, jump, landing, getaway – and over the next few weeks we`ll develop this so that they are riding courses perfectly!

Triangles

Here’s a post from last year; now we’re moving into competition season it’s useful to remember how to ride lines, be it over skinny cross country fences or styles in the working hunter ring. You can even apply the tunnel technique to riding your centre line in your dressage test.

The Rubber Curry Comb

When riding skinny fences, or with a horse who may be a bit green and try to run out over tougher showjumps, I keep my shoulders back, hands off the wither and close together so that I`m tunnelling the horse down my line over the jump.

I took a client cross country schooling a couple of weeks ago and explained this principle to her when I started teaching her aboout skinnies, and riding a line to her fences. Similar to when you`re riding the centre line of a dressage test, you want to be focused on being straight, tunnel the head and shoulders with your reins close together and then use your legs to push the horse down this tunnel.

My rider applied this technique and was soon soaring over the skinnies and through little combinations. Afterwards though, when she was cooling down she asked me why. Previously she had…

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Irksome!

What is the most annoying trait a horse can have?

Today I discovered it – being difficult to catch! I find it so irksome I think it would put me off buying a horse who wasn’t a hundred percent to catch.

I’ve started working with this new mare and on Friday I went to catch her. She took one look at me and cantered off! I’d hardly come near her! She careered around the field merrily, trotting swiftly away from me when I even looked in her direction! 

After a bit I got some feed in a scoop but even then I only got close enough for her muzzle to go in the scoop before she ran backwards as I edged towards her neck. In the end her owner managed to catch her. I spent a bit of time trying to bond with her as I lunged her and let her sniff me all over. But her whole demeanour was uptight, and on edge.

Today I was a bit more prepared, with half a carrot another horse had donated, and I walked nonchalantly towards the mare. My body language passive and submissive, as non-threatening and disinterested as possible. She watched me, intrigued, so I made a big deal of showing her the carrot and seeing if she’d come to me. She didn’t. But on the other hand she didn’t turn tail and flee!

For the next twenty minutes she walked around me, just out of reach, but very curious of the carrot. I had the same problem where she came tantalisingly close but had I moved to her headcollar she would have gone. I let her eat a bit of carrot so she got the taste for it and learnt that I was a friend with presents, and after getting to within breathing distance a few times she eventually gave in and let me clip on her lead rope. Again, I gave her lots of attention walking in and when I turned her out, hoping that she was learning to trust me.

When a horse is difficult to catch it can be the most frustrating thing in the world. Minutes slip past you. You can’t get upset or tense because in makes the situation worse. You can’t think about how this is making you late, or what you could be doing right now. You just have to stand there as if you haven’t anything better to do and look like you aren’t posing a threat.

This mare is hard to catch because she doesn’t trust strangers, so I hope a few more quiet stand offs, where I wait to get my way will earn her respect as well as trust. I think perseverance with her is the way forwards so we become friends.

Some horses, however, can just be naughty on the odd day – but how good is their timing?! It’s always when it’s raining, or your late. Then they gallop full speed around the field, bucking, while you sigh with frustration. They won’t take any notice of you!

One cob I teach and school can be tricky to catch, so the first thing you do is show him the treat and then he’s putty in your hand and won’t bat an eyelid as you fasten the headcollar. 

Sometimes catching or removing the field companion can help persuade a horse to be caught, or at least follow to a corral or smaller paddock. I always take the option of shutting any gates to minimise the distance the horse can put between themselves and me.

I remember a colleague telling me about “good cop, bad cop” for catching naughty horses. I think it depends on the type of horse – it won’t work for the timid ones, but I’ve never used it. One person goes into the field and shouts and flaps,  making as much noise and unsettling the horse as possible. After a few minutes someone else enters the field with some food and quietly approaches, or let’s the horse approach them. The idea is that the second person seems much safer and nicer to be around so the horse with (hopefully) let them catch them! 

Has anyone used this technique? Or for that matter, what are everyone’s tips for catching difficult horses?

Straightness

Using the traditional German Scale of Training you will find that straightness is quite high up, at level five, but it`s still important every so often to remind yourself of it, even at the lower levels of training.

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If you start with the ideal horse – perfectly symmetrical, perfectly healthy and sound, then you can go quite swiftly through the scales of training, not deviating from the direct route.

However, I increasingly see that people get so caught up in the suppleness factor that horses develop asymmetry (they have a certain amount of asymmetry anyway) and cannot work on a contact and with impulsion because they are crooked. The second stage of training, suppleness, doesn`t just mean that a horse can ride a circle in rhythm, but they can stretch their topline, and adduct and abduct their limbs easily, as well as utilising their hindquarters. When they can do that they can begin to move onto the next stage of training.

So let`s go back to straightness. When I warm up horses, or I’m watching a client warm up, I often ask them to think about how straight their horse is going on the long side of the arena or down the centre line. I get them to think about how straight they are; are their legs sitting evenly, is their rein contact even, are they sat in the centre of the saddle? A straight horse will have their left hind leg following behind the left foreleg, and the right hind following the right fore. They also won`t drift from a straight line.

Some horses and riders are crooked; looking out on one rein, or having their quarters in on another. For me, correcting this asymmetry is as important as establishing the rhythm. Straightness goes hand in hand with suppleness, because if a horse maintains those two tracks on circles or school movements then they are working their muscles correctly and will improve their flexibility and suppleness correctly, with less risk of injury.

If a horse is showing a crookedness then I will begin by ensuring the rider is turning correctly. Earlier this week I was teaching a client and horse who carries her quarters to the right. After ensuring that my client could feel when the quarters swung in, and adjusted the mare correctly by bringing her right leg slightly behind the girth whilst closing the left rein slightly to stop the mare drifting to the left. Then we looked at how this rider was asking the mare to turn on the right rein. Obviously it was the textbook “outside leg behind the girth and inside leg on the girth” but because the mare`s hindquarters moved too easily to the right and she tended to leave her outside shoulder out on corners. I suggested my client brought her outside leg further forward, so it was closer to the girth, and would influence the shoulders more than the hindquarters. Together with the outside rein this should ensure that the mare goes around turns with her body on two tracks, and in balance. I used a mixture of trot corners and walk turn around the haunches (this was to bring my rider`s attention to turning the shoulders around turns, and to improve the movement in the shoulders, and responsiveness to the aids) to improve the mare`s straightness and balance around turns. My rider found that her circles afterwards felt much more symmetrical, easier to ride, and a lot more balanced. We worked on both reins, but the left needed the outside leg to “talk to” the haunches more than the shoulders.

We repeated a similar exercise in canter; turning the shoulders on the right rein, and being aware of the hindquarters trying to escape to the right at all times. The upwards transitions improved because there was impulsion, and energy wasn`t lost wriggling through the transition, and the circles improved vastly. Now that my rider was so much more aware of their straightness we did some medium canter, and as soon as the mare was straight she pushed up into the medium canter brilliantly. You could see the hindquarters push, and the mare become slightly more uphill.

Going back to the trot work, we revisited some leg yielding on a circle. The mare tends to fall out on the right rein instead of stepping out, but now that my rider was so much more aware of straightness, and could influence the positioning of the mare`s shoulders so much more she could get a correct leg yield on both reins. From this week`s work I want to move on to correcting the contact and improving impulsion.

Because straightness isn`t at the lower levels of the Scale of Training it is easy to forget that a horse (and rider) needs to carry themselves straight and level in order to not injure themselves, and to achieve all the other stages of training because ultimately the stages are based on the symmetrical horse and rider. Even when riding around turns and circles, no matter their diameter, you want to still feel that the horse is on two tracks (imagine a railway track going around a circle) and they aren’t overloading a limb.

Putting Bridles Back Together

On Thursday I went into the BHS tent at Windsor Show to find out about their replacement Register of Instructors, which I`ve typically just renewed but that’s another story. Anyway, I saw an interesting competition they were running.

Akin to Top Gear`s celebrity racers, there was a tall board with names and times written on. Who could put the bridle together the quickest?

Tonight I was cleaning my tack. One of my favourite evening pastimes. I strip cleaned the bridle and oiled it, and then I had a lightbulb moment! Why don`t we have some fun, and see how quickly everyone can put their bridle together?

I had cleaned my jump tack, so I put the breastplate aside as many people won`t have one. The rest of the bridle consists of a snaffle and a grackle noseband, but I don’t think nosebands influence putting it together that much. Don`t forget the reins too. Oh, and it`s also a traditional style bridle with the noseband running underneath the headpiece, rather than buckling up on both sides of the headpiece.

So there I sat, on the floor with the leatherwork out in front of my on a saddlecloth, and asked the non-horsey other half to time me.

My time, wait for it, was 2 minutes 4.32 seconds. Not overly fast, as I don`t think oiling my tack helped my cause, but I challenge you to beat me – comment with your time below. The bridle needs to be put together correctly; no twisted leather or backwards bits, and buckles on the correct hole in all the keepers – otherwise start again!

Oh, and you may as well clean your bridle while you`re at it!

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Keeping Feathers Clean

Today was a bit different for me today. I was up bright and early to be at the yard by 7 to leave to go to Windsor Horse Show with a client. I was grooming for her and her coloured mare.

Once we arrived, narrowly avoiding being towed onto the lorry park we unloaded and titivated the mare, who is predominantly white and had an uncharacteristically large stable stain. We washed, chalked, brushed and sprayed until she looked immaculate.

As you may know, Windsor show was cancelled yesterday due to flooding, but I wasn’t prepared for the quagmire of the horse walk to the arenas.

Imagine our dismay at the prospect of walking four white feathered legs through all that mud!

At least everyone was in the same boat. We wrapped up the long thick tail into a tail bag, put on the special hind boots and bandaged the forelegs so that the feathers were wrapped into the bandages.

These hind boots are something else. Made of fleece they wrap around the cannon bone, velcroing up, but the fetlock to heel is covered with a plastic shower cap contraption. It has a drawstring and Velcro to keep all the hair inside – and hopefully clean!

Once we reached the mud, I realised we were in trouble. Hair was falling out from the bandages on the front legs, and mud crept up the shower caps.

What we should have done, and hindsight is a great thing, is put a carrier bag over each hoof and bandage over it to secure it so that the feathers were completely encased and mud-free.

We arrived at the ring in plenty of time so could do a bit of cleaning up there, satisfying my OCD for cleanliness and I was pleased to see everyone in similar states of mud splatter, and trying to do repair jobs. I think that’s the part that puts me off showing because by the time you get to the ring you aren’t perfect anymore.


The little mare was very well behaved, and the class difficult to judge due to the sheer variation of coloured horses, and they came away with sixth place. I’ve not been re-converted to showing, but I did enjoy today; being organised, grooming and cleaning, and then going around the rest of the show in the afternoon.