Breathing Easy

I saw an article online a couple of weeks ago that said you shouldn’t assume a horse who coughs at the beginning of all rides.

A lot of horses I know will have a cough or nose blow when they start working. One of them always has a cough, stops, snorts and then wipes her nose on her leg. 

It’s always worth keeping an eye on any coughing or spluttering. It may be that their hay needs dampening in winter, or that they are acclimatising to a drier environment when they are stabled. But then again, it could be a mild virus or bacterial infection. Telling the vet and having them check your horse annually when you have injections done, and if you feel the coughing is changing over the year then it’s worth getting the vet to check them over. After all, a reduced lung capacity reduces their work capacity. 

As well as the obvious coughing you hear when exercising, it’s also worth keeping an eye on your horse’s respiration rate, and his recovery after exercise. The average resting respiration rate is eight to sixteen breaths per minute. A horse who pants a lot, or seems to take longer than usual to recover after exercise might have an impaired respiratory system and definitely worth monitoring. 

Then of course you have those horses who breathe forcefully, with a double expiration to fully expel the air from the lungs. These horses usually develop strong abdominal muscles, called a heave line, and suffer from Recurrent Airway Obstruction. This is similar to asthma in humans, and the horse cannot tolerate much dust in their environment. The vet definitely needs to be involved in this case to help provide medicine and to help monitor and manage the condition. 


Some horses are loud breathers anyway. One cob I school often sounds like he’s having an asthma attack. His breathing quietens as he’s become fitter, but when his breathing gets louder and wheezier when I’m riding, I tend to let him have a walk break.

Another horse I know is a “roarer”. That means that he suffers from laryngeal hemiplegia. The problem most often occurs in tall, young horses, and is usually first identified when they begin serious exercise for an athletic career. Thoroughbreds are the most commonly affected and sufferers tend to be over 16hh.
Laryngeal hemiplegia is a permanent condition, and is when the nerve to the arytenoid cartilage doesn’t function properly and the cartilage is not drawn to the side of the airway, meaning that air whistles around it causing the roaring noise. Interestingly, it is usually only the left side that is partially paralysed, and only in some cases is the right side affected as well. 

Horses who suffer from roaring can usually continue in hacking and light work, but if they work harder and struggle to breathe then the Hobday operation can be performed. This involves “tying back” the paralysed cartilage so that the airway is always open.

Another horse I know seems to suffer from hay fever. Since the spring she has been “snuffly” and seems less tolerant of exercise. Her owner now feeds her a supplement to aid respiration which seems to help the mare. It will be interesting to see if it disappears in the autumn.

Rising to the Challenge 

This morning I had a text from a client. I hack out one of her horses on a weekly basis. She events and recently bought herself a 1* horse.

Anyway, I just ride the other horse and go green with envy as she jumps effortlessly around the arena in her lessons with her International trainer. So I was surprised when in her text this morning she asked if I would have time to give her a lesson this morning as she’d been let down by her trainer.

I did actually have a spare hour in my day, and after quaking in my boots for a minute or two I said yes, and then asked if she wanted to flat or jump. After all, I need all the preparation I can get!

She said a jump lesson on the eventer, not the cute little one I ride. Just to up the anti.

At this point I realised that I’ve actually grown up quite a bit. Not that long ago I would have shied away from an opportunity like this. But today I was busy thinking about how to make the most out of the opportunity – my mentors would be proud!

I decided that I would do a gridwork lesson; I didn’t really know the combination but I knew they didn’t do much gridwork. About the same time I also realised that this was the perfect opportunity to get some practice for my Intermediate Instructor Exam. 

Not that I’ve booked it yet. But this client is a prime example of the level I would be expected to teach in the exam. 

“Don’t be shy”, was a phrase bandied round at the training day I went to. People who fail the exam tend to build the distances incorrectly, not make the fences big or wide enough, and not move through the lesson quickly enough. It’s not really surprising really; most AI’s have grassroots clients with ponies, or cobs with short strides, so your eye for distances contracts, and you get used to putting fences up at 2’3″.

Anyway, I paced my grid out using competition distances. A placing pole, an upright. One stride to another upright, then another to an oxer. 

During the warm up I studied the horse, who seemed fussy in the mouth and not accepting of the contact. When I found out he was wearing a Waterford snaffle I suggested that he might prefer a bit with fewer links that is more stable in his mouth, thus allowing his to be a bit stiller and accepting of the bridle. It’s hard when you step into someone else’s rather large shoes, but I felt I had valid reasoning and my client could mull it over. We settled him in the flatwork but I’d have liked to spend longer on smaller circles, using leg yield, and getting him to step under with his hind legs, lift the back, and take the contact forwards. I think the reason he’s so inconsistent and fussy is because he isn’t connected. But we were here to jump so jump we would.

Initially the just cantered over the poles, and then I removed the poles from the second and third jump, making the first a large cross. They jumped it fine, and the placing pole looked to be in the correct place. After twice through I made it to a 80cm upright. “Don’t be shy” I thought.

Again, not a problem so I built the second element to a similar height and after placing a pole to the left of the jump on the landing side, they jumped through easily and straight.

I knocked the uprights up to 90cm and added a final upright at that height. Every so often the two missed the placing pole slightly. I had rolled it out with the bigger fence and it was in the right position. My client told me that her horse can be erratic on take-off points, so I think their problems came from the horse trying to understand the placing pole as opposed to it’s location. 

I made the oxer square and wide. They jumped it easily and my client commented on how easy it was to ride the jumps when she knew he would take off in the correct place.

Because she didn’t have much experience of grids, I kept putting in little explanations of how useful they are for improving jumping technique, agility, straightness, and fitness.

To finish I changed the grid slightly, to an upright, oxer, upright. This is to teach the horse not to get longer and flatter through a grid, because he needs to be neat in his bascule for the final element. It also tests his agility because he has to change from a longer, shallower bascule to a steeper, shorter shape over the jumps. 

After another problem with the placing pole – the horse backed off the new grid so chipped in before the pole – they flew the grid beautifully, even when they slightly missed the placing pole the final time due to the canter being a bit flat. The fences were all by now between 100 and 105cm tall. High enough for training, and a good practice for her BE100 on the weekend.

I felt really positive after the lesson; she and the horse had worked well and I felt there was some improvement to his technique and her eye for strides. I hadn’t been afraid of hoicking the jumps up and I think I challenged them. It’s made me realise that I really do need to get my act together to do my Intermediate Instructor exam. Perhaps 2017 is the year!

Pony Club Achievement Badges

The Pony Club camp I taught at last week devotes their stable management sessions to achieving the care badges.

There’s hundreds of the blighters; mini badges for the little children, and big badges that require a greater depth of knowledge for the older children.

Was anybody in Scouts or Brownies when they were young? It’s a similar concept. Once you gain your badge you’re supposed to sew it onto your jumper so that you look like a brightly coloured patchwork quilt. I’ll admit, the kids do look cute with all their badges.

This camp though, is the only one that I see kids with badges at. I guess they get pushed to the bottom of the pile, underneath passing the D or C tests, riding, and below competitions and qualifying for PC championships. 

I think, and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, that young riders’ stable management knowledge is less nowadays than it was twenty years ago. How many of them can identify the ergot? Or list the rules of feeding? Yet many of them compete to a fairly high level. Perhaps Pony Clubs should pay more attention to improving their stable management knowledge? After all, better knowledge means their pony will be in better physical and mental health. 

Yes some of the achievement badges are a bit obscure (star-gazing, and butterflies, for example) but teaching them could trigger another interest in a child, which is always healthy. And unless we teach these things the knowledge is lost forever. I know I would definitely have to research different types of butterflies if I ever had to teach it, but then maybe it would be more interesting for the kids if a butterfly expert was brought in to do a show-and-tell?

Perhaps kids nowadays think that wearing badges on their arm is geeky or uncool? In which case, is there a way to encourage participation and increase the “coolness” level? I’ll get back to you when I have an answer.

Maybe the achievement badges come into their own at PC centres. Centres are clubs for children without their own horse; usually run at riding schools. So these kids will have less focus on competing, and will have set stable management sessions. It makes logical sense then, to orientate these sessions around a specific badge. Then they can have a test once they have learnt the syllabus.

Or maybe the badges only appeal to those with a tendency to collect things. Like me! I ended up quitting Brownies because I never received the badges I had spent all summer doing. Initially I had the dilemma as to how to position them on my sash so that they were in order (ideally I think I wanted every badge before I sewed a single one on!) but then I became disenchanted by the lack of badges. Maybe it takes a certain type of person to enjoy collecting achievement badges.

Personally I find the badges useful for planning stable management sessions because you have a topic to talk about, and an aim. This is especially useful with the little ones. I think the little ones actually like receiving their badges, it’s just a question of maintaining this enthusiasm as they reach double figures. I was appalled by the poor knowledge the senior group had that I tested for their C test last month.

Pony Clubs tend to go very quiet over the winter, with the odd Christmas rally, or half term madness. The weather doesn’t help. But maybe doing some badge work that doesn’t involve being outside or getting muddy will help keep the spirit of Pony Club, and strengthen friendships. For example, you could print out pictures of the different birds in the bird spotting badge and hide them around a room (say the village hall) and once you have taught the children how to identify the different species they could go on a pretend bird hunt. Or they could organise some fundraising or charity work to get their fundraiser badge… 

Teaching is only limited by our imagination, but I think I’d definitely like to see more children focusing on stable management, and improving their pony care as well as their riding ability. The key is to make the badges more appealing to the modern members.

Nerve Blocking

It’s so frustrating when your horse is lame without a clear indicator. No huge gash pouring blood, very little heat and swelling. But definitely not right.

When the vet comes out the first thing they look at is the horse trotting up, to see if there’s any abnormality in their gait, such as placing the foot down one side first, or not flexing a joint as much as it’s counterpart.

Then they inevitably suggest nerve blocking. At this point you hope your horse’s problem is in his foot, not his shoulder, otherwise you could be embarking on a nerve-blocking Safari.

Nerve blocking is a very straightforward process in which general anaesthetic is injected into the long nerve that travels down the leg, one on each side. Once the limb has been numbed, after ten minutes, the horse is trotted up and reassessed for lameness. The level of lameness after a nerve block allows you to identify the area of injury.

Logic dictates that you want to nerve block the distal part of the limb first, so the vet will inject the foot just below the pastern. If they think the problem is on one side of the limb then they will inject just one nerve. 

After looking at the horse trot up in a straight line and on the lunge the vet will then make a decision as to if the level of soundness has improved or not. 

If not, then unfortunately it means another injection; either at the same point of the leg but on the other side, or higher up the leg.

At the point in which the horse becomes sound you can identify the joint/area/tissue that is injured. Then a closer inspection and comparison may be done to try and shed some light onto the problem. Failing that, the vet can make some educated guesses and suggest the next step. 

For example if the horse comes sound at the hock nerve block the vet may think that the horse needs an X-ray of the hock to see if there are any bony changes which are causing pain and subsequent lameness. 

Nerve blocking allows us to pinpoint the area that needs further investigation, instead of scanning it X-raying the whole limb, will ultimately save time and money; hopefully solving the problem quicker and bringing the horse back to soundness. 

However it would be far easier if horses could tell us where they hurt! 

Proprioception 

Proprioception. It’s a good word isn’t it?

I read it in an article about the importance of hacking to improve the schooling of a horse.

Proprioception comes from a Latin word and means “to sense the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed to move them”.

From a horse’s point of view this means that they are sure footed. Able to adjust their stride to step over logs or tree roots, and agile enough to balance themselves over undulating terrain. 

This is where hacking is important. Walking, trotting or cantering along tracks in the wood teaches horses awareness for their surroundings and hopefully will develop their balance and sure footedness. Even if you just do dressage there may be a time that you need to compete on grass, which may be on a slight incline, and not be perfectly even underfoot so your horse will need to be able to adapt. In the arena they could mis-step, and having good proprioception they will recover rapidly. Also, different surfaces feel different to ride on, and a horse who is ridden on different terrain will find it easier to adapt to new surfaces underfoot. 

In terms of physical health, a horse who has good proprioception will have stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments, which are also flexible so they should be at less risk of injury because they are used to making small adjustments to their striding and foot placing on hacks.

We all know horses and ponies who are sure footed; some are naturally so, but others who tend to trip over tree roots, or find it difficult to negotiate hills, need training to improve their proprioception. Lots of hacking, riding the horse positively and together to discourage them from being on the forehand, will help them learn to be aware and to adapt to their surroundings and before you know it they will be less reliant on you directing them, and feel more sure footed. 

It’s definitely something to bear in mind when planning your horse’s exercise regime as it’s of such benefit to him and you. 

Shorten Your Reins!

This could be called Pony Club Anecdote #4 but I’m sure you’re bored of my anecdotes by now (and there may well be more coming your way after this weekend’s mini camp). 

It involves a girl at the camp I taught at last month. When I first met her I rapidly realised that she had no concept of a rein contact, and would drop her reins at every opportunity. After telling her a few times on the first morning to shorten her reins, or even hold her reins, I decided I needed a plan of attack.

I usually find the best approach to dealing with an ongoing problem with a child is to make it into a bit of a game. Otherwise they could feel persecuted when you shout “reins!” at them for the thousandth time that lesson. 

So I offered to do her a deal. Every time I had to tell her about her reins she would be fined a Haribo sweet. I picked them because there’s lots in a pack and everyone loves them. Well she didn’t have any Haribos so she offered an Oreo biscuit as a fine. We shook on it.

From then on everyone got involved, keeping count, reminding her so that I didn’t say the words and subsequently charge her an Oreo. By the end of the first day she owed me fourteen biscuits. I think that’s more than a packet!

The nice thing about this game was that she laughed and giggled as I said her name warningly, or started saying “shorten”. It was a race between her catching my eye and gathering her reins up and me saying “shorten your reins”. The other kids were involved too, and I could threaten them with the fine of a biscuit if their reins got too long too. 

Throughout the week we played this game, and although I still had to remind her about the length of her reins, she kept hold of them and it was a minor adjustment as opposed to a major adjustment. I don’t think I said the phrase as much in the second part of the week either.

I was really pleased with her progress because she had far more awareness of the job of the reins and her hands, kept an eye on her reins herself, and by holding the contact more her pony didn’t nap or play “follow the leader”.

I will say though, that it’s a good job those Oreos didn’t materialise because there would have been no way Otis would have let me back on him without a serious diet! 

#FriendsOfHorses

A couple of months ago you may remember I wrote an article about how I had written an email of thanks for a highway company who went out of their way for me and the horse I was riding to pass safely. You can read that blog post here.

The idea has been floating around my mind for a while now, and I approached a hi-vis company to see if they would support this idea but as I haven`t heard back I can only assume they think it`s a load of tosh. So I`m going to put this idea to the public, and hope that everyone gets behind it, for the benefit of all of us.

Lets face it, when you`re riding on the roads the bigger vehicles tend to be the scariest, because of air brakes, size, smell, etc. Nothing related to the way they are driven. These vehicles tend to be commercial, so have the company logos scrawled all over them. That means that the driver has some responsibility. He can be traced.

Now we don`t want to hold drivers responsible in a negative way, otherwise that will just tarnish the reputation of equestrians, which is tainted enough as it is by other road users.

What we do want to do, in my humble opinion anyway, is to reward courteous commercial drivers. Publicly thanking them will raise awareness of passing horse riders safely within the company, makes the company appreciate their staff for positive public relations, and setting a good example. Hopefully it will lead to companies incorporating some horse awareness in their driver training, as well as being a good form of advertising. I also hope that a driver who has been recognised by his company will take the same approach forward to their private lives, which should help make the roads safer. I toyed with the idea of giving drivers window stickers or some other form of nomination scheme but that seems very complicated.

I wrote an email to the highways company, but it`s time consuming and a bit excessive if all you experienced was a driver stopping and turning off his engine while you pass. I hadn’t thought of the answer to my predicament yet.

Then one day last month I was riding up a fairly narrow country lane when a large lorry came around the corner. He pulled in close to the hedge, turned off his engine and waited patiently while I walked the two hundred yards to the lorry. I thanked him as I passed; my horse wasn`t at all fazed by the lorry which meant that he had a positive experience – all good for his education. I kept a note of the company name, and on my way home the light bulb came on. I would tweet that company. By adding the location and saying “this morning” I hoped that the driver would be identified and thanked personally by the company.

My tweet was liked and retweeted by the company.

Then a couple of weeks later I met a large recycling lorry which stopped and turned off the engine, giving me plenty of room to pass. I decided to tweet this company. But this time I would add a hashtag – #FriendsOfHorses. Not too long, fairly self explanatory.

It`s happened a few more times since. Everytime I`ve met a lorry or commercial vehicle that has stopped, waited patiently, turned off their engine, reversed, or just shows respect to us horse riders, I`ve tweeted the company a thank you with the hashtag. Each time they have liked or responded to the tweet.

I think if everyone can try to take the same approach we can litter social media with positive messages, promoting horse rider safety, promoting good driving, and improving customer relations for those companies. Hopefully companies will reward their staff and become far more aware of equestrians on the road, and then we will have more positive experiences with larger vehicles. 

Does anyone else agree? I think the next stop for taking this idea forward is to speak to some equestrian magazines, such as Horse and Hound, and charities such as the BHS to see if they will get on board…

Watch this space!

 

Making Hay

Back in the spring I remember chatting to a young farrier half way through his day – it was about 3pm and he had been shoeing his first horse at 6.30am, and had his last appointment at 8pm that night. He was saying how busy he was at work currently and how he had to make hay while the sun shone so to speak, and take the work as it came in. 

It’s definitely a mentality of the self-employed. If you aren’t working you aren’t making money. But that means you can end up working all hours of the day, and almost working to the point of exhaustion. It’s really hard to find the right work-life balance in terms of the hours you work and the days you work.

When I first started my business I remember leaping at every opportunity to teach or work; usually the rubbish hours, or days made of awkward shifts. But as you and your business become more established you can begin to get picky; ensure specific days are your days off, give clients an option of time slots (so instead of saying “any time Tuesday” you can say “Tuesday at 10 or 11.30” or whatever fits in with your work schedule). You could even turn work down! 

When I saw Otis’s farrier last week he was telling me he had a quiet week. In a similar way to me, he was finding it eerily strange and discomforting that the diary was empty. But he was using the week as a reprieve from a very busy few weeks. I had a similar situation last month in that I had an incredibly busy week with Pony Club, and then a slightly quieter week after – whether it was actually quieter or whether it was just quiet compared to an intense week, who knows? – but I tried to use the longer evenings, and lunch break, to get on top of other life jobs; emailing friends, cleaning the house, designing and ordering everything for the new bathroom. 

I think most self-employed people have a similar outlook on their working life, and it’s only with age and experience, that you learn not to overload yourself. Running your own business is not for the faint hearted! It’s tough, but very rewarding.

Another thing that people don’t realise with those who run their own business is that your working day is twenty four hours long, seven days a week. Even if you run a shop, then once the doors close you still need to balance the books, check the stock, and tidy the shop floor. My Friday evenings are spent checking and filling in the diary for next week, balancing the monthly spreadsheets, and updating clients on their horse’s schooling sessions and confirming lesson times. You are also always at the end of the phone for booking appointments, be it Friday night or Sunday morning. And people want responses instantly.

It’s so hard to find that balance. I would love to see a smart phone that has been adapted to be both a work phone and a personal phone, because no one wants to carry around two phones. In my design you would be able to categorise contacts and apps into “work” and “personal” and then at the end of the working day you turn your “work” setting off (perhaps the phone could do it automatically?). From this point, work related apps no longer ping notifications; phone calls from work contacts go straight to voicemail, and texts or emails are muted. Then you could check that tomorrow’s first client hasn’t cancelled if necessary, but you can also enjoy an evening of peace. I think that would really help people in modern day life find their work-life balance and be able to switch off, which is important to keep you fresh for work.

So any techie readers out there; if you want to give designing a work-life app a go, I’d be happy to trial it!