Location, Location, Location 

If Kirstie Allsopp ever leaves Phil Whatshisname then he should give me a ring. In fact, budge over Kirstie, I’m what Location, Location, Location needs.

I’ve been doing plenty of hacks around the local villages over the last few weeks and have discovered I’m a bit of a property connoisseur. With expensive taste.

There’s a half timber, Tudor style house that I really like. It’s not black and white though; the timber is natural and the rest of the wall a warm cream colour. Much more tasteful. Another property used to be the village shop, and “General Store” is still legible in the brick work on the second storey. Peeking through the windows I can see the white railing and half step that would have denoted the counter. The windows have those swirls in some panes, typical of shops. I love these sorts of  houses embedded with history. Another house I pass used to be the forge, and there’s a row of rusty horse shoes on the lintle. You can see how the garage and lean-tos have been adapted from the original buildings. The house itself is double the original, I noticed last week, with a true to type full size extension at the back.


I spend quite a lot of time looking at the extensions and gardens, noting the features I like. I’m not convinced by the giant stone pear in one garden, but I do like the wisteria that has been grown into the shape of a porch. I admire the brave people who planted pampas grass in their small garden, and I like the rustic wooden fences with bent, au natural planks. I try to work out if the numerous wells in gardens I spy are authentic, or modern features. I like the house with the massive window, displaying their mezzanine floor. However I’m not sure that I like how public it is – it’s mere feet from the lane so can’t afford much privacy. I’m no so fussed on the new build bungalow that has just been completed, but I don’t understand why there is a different number of gaps in the new hedgerow each day – I have visions of pensioners (which seems to be the average age of the population) digging up the baby shrubs each night, leaving plant pot sized holes behind.

I’ve seen what I find a very ugly house, white washed, with a flat, timber roof akin to Spanish villas. I’ve also discovered that I dislike pebble dashing, and post war pre-fab houses. And the dilapidated bungalow with rotten wooden outbuildings would be demolished as soon as I collected the keys!

One house I absolutely adore is on Millionaires’ Row, with plenty of palatial neighbours with manicured gardens. It has a circular drive surrounding a large well, sandwiched between 100ft high conifers, and a beautiful lawn, electric gates, and large, simple, white house. I looked it up on Zoopla. In preparation for when I buy my winning lottery ticket … I only need £1.8 million – gulp!


Another aspect of houses that I ponder about, is the naming. Does Steep Wood have a steep garden, or woodland, at the back? Is Foxwoods named so because of the foxes who lived in nearby woodland? Should The Firs change their name now they’ve cut down the fir trees along their boundary? Little Slade obviously can’t be named so because of the small house as I think it’s at least four bedroom. But then I remembered that slade means little valley, and this house must have stunning views of the valley behind. I can see why they built a small balcony to the rear. Cauis Cottage sounds rather ostentatious, but I like the way it rolls off the tongue. The series of semi detached numerical cottages must have been some kind of residency for the farm labourers, especially as the plaques are identical.

Perhaps when I get bored of horses I’ll digress into property. On which note, I’m going to catch up on last nights episode of The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes!

Uncommon Sense

Please may I let off some steam?


Earlier this week I read, on a coaching forum, about a road traffic accident witnessed by a coach. A girl had been riding her horse past a school at pick up time, and it had spoiled, bolted and crossed the road into an oncoming vehicle. Horrific, I know.

This coach was suggesting that the Riding Road Safety legislation should be altered to explain the possible hazards of hacking near schools.

I was aghast. What is the world coming to? Do we have to spell everything out to everybody? Am I part of the last generation with any common sense?!

I don’t know what part of your brain says, “I know, let’s go for a hack today. Yeah, we’ll go past the primary school… oh, it’s 3pm? Doesn’t matter, it will be fine”

It’s not just your horse that you are stressing and putting at risk by riding in places that are known to be busy at particular times. It’s parked vehicles – do you want to pay for that scratch of the 66 plate BMW that your whip caught? It’s the public themselves – kids run out of school, slam right behind a horse. Horse kicks out in fright. I won’t continue. Parents have an awful habit of pushing prams in front of them as they cross the road – horse spooks, rider falls off, loose horse amongst hundreds of children. 

You get the idea.

We have a bridleway near us that goes alongside the playground and comes out next to the school gates. It’s the ideal length for me to walk with Otis at the moment. But I won’t. Because I walk him out between 7.30 and 8.30am – prime going to school time – and between 3 and 4pm – picking up time. Whilst he is ok passing the playground as I have accidentally ridden it during break time, I don’t want to risk him getting scared by a child and causing an accident, and I don’t see the point in causing more of a traffic jam then there already is with dozens of cars parked on one side of the road and other road users trying to pass them. It’s a weekend route for us, and when I’m riding him again it will be light enough for me to ride that route at 5pm, once everyone has gone home.

I totally understand that you want to ride your horse, and that for some people hacking is limited. Some like to expose their horses to as much as possible, but don’t go looking for trouble! I’m sure you can adjust your day to hack before or after school time – perhaps ride in the morning and muck out after, or even muck out in the afternoon. Or you could change your plans for the day to hack a route that will avoid the school run, or if you have to exercise your horse at that time then lunge or go in the arena. Hack another day!

It strikes me that as much as horse riders play the victim, with fast and rude drivers, we also have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe by avoiding congested routes, not hacking out in fog (don’t even let me get started on this stupid act. I saw someone hacking from the yard a couple of months ago in such a pea souper of a fog I couldn’t see from one end of the arena to the other – a hi-vis does nothing to help you when light doesn’t penetrate the atmosphere) or dangerous ice, dark (another subject not to get me started on), and wear hi-vis clothing.

Perhaps the riding and road safety legislation should spell these things out to riders, but it saddens me that common sense is becoming more and more uncommon.

Riding Your Line

To make life a little more interesting with some of the kids I teach I’ve recently been testing their ability to ride lines towards fences with offset doubles.

With one client I put three fences on a diagonal line, one canter stride apart. With another I had two fences two canter strides apart.

Firstly, we trotted through the line, making sure the rider knew what they were aiming for, and feeling that the pony was staying straight between the poles, so they trotted over the poles at an angle. Next, we cantered through the line until both horse and rider were confident with the exercise.

Next up we began building the fences one at a time. I used cross poles, fairly low, to help centre the rider’s eye. 

Approaching jumps at an angle means horses are more inclined to run out, so we discussed keeping the whip in the hand of the open side, so it could be used on the shoulder to help keep the horse straight if necessary. That leg also needed to be prepared to prevent a run out, and a contact needed to be held in the opposite rein to help keep the horse on the diagonal line. My riders needed to stay committed to their line of jumps, and ride until the take-off point, not presuming that their pony would take over a few strides away.

Being clever ponies, both of them tried to correct themselves so that they jumped the fences perpendicular, but this caused a wiggle between the fences. After a few tries, and being a little bolder over each fence, they managed it. 

When a horse locks onto the diagonal line, the exercise feels effortless, and you can feel the horse’s straightness. It’s very hard to describe, but the art of jumping on an angle makes you acutely aware of any drifting over fences. 

Building the fences to uprights makes it trickier to find a line, and the exercise can be made to simulate cross country fences by turning them into oxers.

The client who was jumping the two stride double let slip that she hated jumping skinnies. So I set her a challenge! 

Riding a skinny fence requires commitment, and riding a line. 

I didn’t have a short jump pole to hand, so I slid the jump blocks in, making the jumpable section of the pole two thirds of the width. They managed it fine! 

We progressed to jumping the skinny at 18″ wide, with neither pony nor rider faltering.

Testing your ability to ride to a fence on an angle, and learning how committed your horse is to jumping on angles, can help get you out of sticky situations cross country, or shave off vital seconds in a jump off.

Rein Back

Rein back is the order of the week for me at the moment. I`ve been using it with horses who are apt to hollow in the halt, and be reluctant to engage their abdominals and lift their tummy. It`s not that they are particularly disengaged with their hindquarters, it`s more that they need to step up and raise the bar with how much their muscles are working!

The key to rein back is to keep it steady, one step at a time, and to keep the aids mild. You should feel that as your horse lifts his legs to take them backwards his back comes up slightly, his neck stays relaxed and out, and nose drops marginally. If they come against the hand you need less of a rein aid, more of the seat and leg. When a horse comes against the hand and stays hollow in the back during the rein back they also cannot lift their foot up to step backwards, and tend to do more of a Michael Jackson moonwalk.

A couple of mares I`ve ridden this week did the moonwalk, scraping their feet back whilst they locked their back to resist my aids. In hand, I`m going to work both of them at stepping backwards over poles because in order to rein back over a pole they have to lift a leg up! Hopefully this will trigger the correct muscles to work so that when I ask for rein back from the saddle they will keep using their tummy muscles.

Another horse I`m riding this week is on a long, slow rehab, and is doing plenty of rein back to build his tummy muscles. It made a change to feel that he totally understood and was balanced through the movement, keeping his feet moving back in diagonal pairs.

So yes, clients, expect to be doing some rein back over the next couple of weeks!

The Rubber Curry Comb

I was teaching rein back to a client a couple of weeks ago. It`s one of those movements all hackers utilise, opening gates for example, but how many people do it correctly?

The footfalls of a correctly ridden rein back mirror the footfalls of trot – each diagonal pair moves in turn.

Now, think about this the next time you rein back, and I`m sure you`ll find it is more of a shuffle. One leg creeps back, then another, and another, and the other. The horse is usually short in the neck and hollow.

This was how my rider and horse reined back the first couple of times. It was all a rush and veered to the right.

Firstly we ran through the aids; both legs behind the girth, rein pressure and the verbal command “back”. Often the legs swing too far back, which unbalances the rider. The rider should…

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Net Curtain Syndrome

Net Curtain Syndrome. We all know humans who suffer from it. Like Harry Potter`s Aunt Petunia, they know all about the ins and outs of the lives of their neighbours, work colleagues, shop assistants, local barmen, everyone.

Horses also suffer from this ailment. Do you know of one?

Matt has a classic case of Net Curtain Syndrome, but I also know a few other horses who have degrees of the syndrome.

How do you know your horse is a sufferer? Firstly, how much attention and focus does he pay to you when you are working with him? Is he solely concentrating on you or does his mind wander to watch the horses in nearby fields, or the person walking across the yard?

Horses with a short attention span, one who is easily distracted, will show this most frequently in the halt. When you ride forwards to halt, they stop, but turn their head to immediately look at something outside the arena. Then when you ask them to move off again it takes a couple of asks for them to respond. There is also nothing worse then cantering towards a jump and they suddenly become more interested in the horse walking past!

If you have a horse who suffers from Net Curtain Syndrome the best thing to do is to confront the issue and consistently teach them that when you are working with him it is paramount that he focuses entirely on you.

When you are actively riding, in the school, and something triggers a loss of attention (perhaps a horse cantering around his field) the best way to stop your horse getting to carried away at watching or joining in is to act like a demanding toddler.

Toddlers are renowned for being very self-orientated – “me, me, me!” – so repeatedly bring your horse`s attention back to you. Pretend you are pulling the apron strings on a busy Mum (old fashioned I know, I don’t think I know anyone who wears an apron on a regular basis). If you are a parent I`m sure you can relate to this irritating situation.

When your horse`s focus has begun to drift, circle. Or make a transition. Ride a shallow loop, or a serpentine. Expect a good quality movement, and instant response; and your horse will rapidly realise that his attention is better concentrated on you and your wishes, rather than what is going on across the field.

Once you establish that instead of reprimanding your horse when they lose concentration, you just redivert their attention, and your schooling sessions are busy enough, and mentally taxing, to keep your horse`s focus, they will soon learn that there is no point daydreaming and gazing outside the arena.

If you have a horse who really suffers from Net Curtain Syndrome then you try to ride at quiet times of the day. After all, it`s far easier to avoid the problem! But this doesn’t help you at competitions. So you need to expose your horse to different situations, and different distractions.

Take an easy exercise, that`s well within your comfort zone, and ride it in the arena while a distraction, such as the morning turnout, is happening. The work itself is easy, so you can focus your efforts on keeping your horses focus. By doing this frequently your horse should soon learn to work in all conditions. So long as you are paying very little attention to the distraction, it shouldn`t affect your work.

My Mum has a goal to work on with Matt now that he`s home. She is going to work on keeping his attention. When you are schooling him, or hacking, he is pretty good at ignoring most things – he is much better when you yourself aren’t paying any attention to it. Matt`s weak areas are his walk, any stretching, and halt. That’s when he is most likely to peer about. It`s what lost us a couple of marks in our last dressage test. We were trotting a twenty metre circle, allowing him to stretch, when the next competitor came into sight. The second half of the circle consisted of Matt sticking his head up, looking out, and me rapidly picking up the reins so I could minimise the negative effect on our next movement. In the final halt, he also looked at that competitor. To overcome this little issue, Matt needs to do lots of walking, free rein, halt transitions, with the ethos that he must remain focused. Hopefully with this consistency, he will soon stop trying to look around. After all, if he never succeeds then why try?

Net Curtain Syndrome can be frustrating, but by working on it, having consistent standards, keeping your horse`s mind busy, and ensuring you don’t let your mind wander either, it can be minimised.

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Snow Day!

Now I’m not going to try and outdo my Canadian and bloggers from other Snow-covered lands, but today is a snow day.

Yesterday afternoon we had heavy rain until the early hours of this morning and then it snowed. So this morning we woke to a faint smattering of snow, but more importantly, the rain that had fallen yesterday had frozen solid.

Now us Britons are renowned for making a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to snow, but ultimately we aren’t used to it so need to take various precautions.

I’m going to London this evening, so I had a short day anyway. Plus the fact that I’d had a cancellation due to illness and moved a pony from today to yesterday in order to fill in a gap in my day due to a lameness. So I only really had four “jobs” to do. 

I don’t like cancelling, unless it’s really necessary, but I also know what weather like today’s tends to be very localised so I needed to speak to each client individually. 

When I got to Otis the roads were covered in black ice, so I decided not to take him for a walk – why risk either of our legs?! He could do a longer walk this afternoon.


The arena there had a light dusting of snow, but the surface had a fair bit of give still. With this client I’ve been introducing leg yield, so I decided that we’d focus on the leg yield in walk, with a couple of trots to get the circulation going. It was a good, thinking lesson and I feel both horse and rider benefited from the focus on leg yield, evenness of rein contact, and straightness. 


Meanwhile, I had spoken to my next client, who’s arena is not so good in cold weather. We decided to do some long reining and double rein lunging. Her cob tends to turn in, so the time was well spent keeping him walking on a big circle. Then to finish, we did some turn on the forehand from the ground. Again, another useful lesson given the weather conditions. With both horses we just kept an eye on the surface balling up in their hooves and removed it when it did.

Next up, I had two horses to ride another yard. I’d spoken to one owner, who said the ground was fine, but when I got there I was told the arena was frozen solid. It had become waterlogged yesterday afternoon and frozen solid. I could hack one of the horses around the fields; less ice, and away from the roads and traffic. It was howling a gale, and sleeting when we set off, but the mare behaved beautifully and we had a lovely ride. After that, we decided that the spooky mare didn’t need exercising – it just wasn’t worth the risk.

So that’s why I’m home already! It’s strange, and I feel that I’m skiving work!

To pass the time, here’s a family favourite snow story.

It was early 1995 and I was four, in my first year at school. We woke up one morning to snow. I don’t know, about two inches? Anyway I remember that the school bus didn’t come, but Dad thought the school would be open anyway, so he took me. I can’t remember why he didn’t go to work, but he was home that day. 

Anyway, we pulled up at the small village school, about five miles away, and Dad said words to the effect of,

“Right, off you go, have a nice day.” And out of the car I got.

I toddled along the snowy pavement, past the empty staff car park. I paused, the school looked shut. I turned to check Dad was still there, only to see the back of the car disappearing into the distance.

I tried the door, but it was locked and the lights were off. The school was closed.

I started trudging back along the path, I think I must have made the decision to walk to my best friend’s house around the corner. Then a car pulled up. In it was another school friend, and her parents.

They asked me what I was doing and if school was open. To which I must have told them the situation because soon I was climbing into the car and they were driving me home.

Once home, I opened the front door to see Mum frantically phoning the school, friends, anyone who could go out and get me, while Dad looked on saying “they wouldn’t have closed school in my day for this!” 

We had more snow that day, and it ended up going up to my knees and leading to several days off school!

T.P.R.

Quick quiz for a Thursday evening.

  1. What is a healthy horse’s temperature?
  2. What is a healthy horse’s resting pulse rate?
  3. What is a healthy horse’s resting breathing rate?

If you know the answers then well done, if you don’t then read on – although even if you do know the answers, it might be an idea to read on anyway!

Temperature 

A horse’s normal temperature is 100.5F or 38C. You take their temperature by inserting the thermometer into the rectum. Firstly, coat the end of the thermometer with Vaseline. Then standing to the side of the horse, lift the tail, and push the thermometer into their rectum, ensuring it is close to the wall, in order to get a true reading.

Some horses readily accept this procedure, but others really don’t. If you know your horse isn’t a fan of having his temperature taken, and one day he calmly lets you then you know he is under the weather. At the same time, as soon as he no longer lets you take his temperature then you know he is on the way to recovery.

Like humans, all horses are individuals so their normal temperature will vary slightly. It’s worth recording your horse’s temperature when he’s healthy so that you have a base line to work with.

The body temperature tends to fluctuate slightly during the day, and depending on the time of year, so you should not be concerned if their temperature is half a degree above or below their “normal”.


Pulse

The resting pulse can vary from between 36 and 42 beats per minute.

However… the pulse depends greatly on the individual horse, his fitness level, and his state of arousal. I.e. is he standing alert staring at the horses galloping around the field? The adrenaline is kicking in and his heart rate is increasing in preparation to either fight or flight.

You can take your horse’s pulse rate from the transverse facial artery. Standing on to the horse’s left, follow the line of the jawbone until directly below the eye and you should feel a cordlike structure, the diameter of a pencil. Wrap your fingers around the artery and apply slight pressure until you can feel the pulse beating. 

Then all you need to do is count!


You can also take the pulse from the digital artery below the fetlock, of which a “bounding digital pulse” is a symptom of laminitis. 

Another way of checking the pulse is to use a stethoscope, which is how vets do it.

When you are taking your horse’s pulse you want them to be as calm as possible. Choose a quiet moment, with few distractions and the horse standing quietly.

Again, it’s useful to have a good idea of your horse’s resting pulse, but you should be aware that it changes according to their fitness level as well as the weather.

Respiration

A horse’s respiration rate is between 8 and 16 breaths per minutes, but again it varies greatly according to fitness, weather, age, and arousal.

Standing behind and to the side of your horse, you should clearly be able to observe the rise and fall of their flanks. One breath is an exhalation and inhalation, so make sure you don’t count each breath twice! 

You can also see if your horse has a double exhalation, which is when they seem to force extra air out at the end of exhalation. It is a common symptom of horse’s suffering from COPD, and suggests respiratory problems. 


Having a good idea of the normal readings for your horse when healthy, along with knowing his normal gut sounds, behaviour and mannerisms, will help you pick up on the first symptoms of illness so you can treat them quickly and effectively.

Out of Your Comfort Zone

Once we get our own horse it’s very easy to get complacent, and only ride our horse. We get to know them inside out and get comfortable with what we know.

I’m going to set you a challenge. Ride another horse. It could be a friend’s, a riding school horse, a prospective purchase, anything. If this thought terrifies you then book a lesson on said different horse. So long as you’re honest with your instructor they will set the pace of the lesson to suit you and how quickly you are adapting to this new horse. 

Of course, we’re all going to be slightly anxious trying the unknown, it takes bravery to leave your comfort zone, but you don’t have to go round Badminton! The whole point of having a go on another horse is to educate yourself. It might be that your horse forgives your bad habits, or you don’t know what a proper leg yield feels like, or this horse has a more active stride which will make you ride your own horse so that they become more active. I always think that even if you hated every second of riding the unknown horse, you will learn something. Even if it is that you don’t like horses that are behind the leg, or you feel more comfortable on the narrow Thoroughbred frame. 

Next time you can’t ride your horse, for whatever reason, see if you can borrow a horse. It will help you keep riding fit, probably help out your friend, and teach you something new.

Last week one of my young clients had a lame pony. So hesitantly, his Mum and I suggested that he had a lesson on his sister’s competition pony. To make it clear, we were asking him to go from a sweet, steady, honest, rotund native 13hh pony to a fine, sharp, strong, extravagant competition 13.2hh pony jumping 1.10m and competing at Advanced Medium.

Quite an ask really.

I’m not sure who was more nervous; his sister, his mum, himself or me. But he met me in the arena and we started off in walk, discussing the differences between his pony and today’s mount.

He actually described the differences very well so we moved onto the theory of trotting. I didn’t want to bore him, but it’s important to know how to stop before we set off! We talked about the fact this pony had a stronger bit and was more sensitive in the mouth than his, so he needed to make sure his hands were very still and to use them as little as possible. We talked about using circles to help slow down, and the fact that very little leg was needed. And they were off!

It took a couple of laps, but soon they were working together, and the pony looked quite relaxed. My rider was also calm, keeping his hands very still, and using his body more to direct the pony. I thought we were making a good start, so we kept trotting, changing the rein, so my rider could acclimatise to all these new feelings. 


Once the trot was looking more established I introduced transitions between walk and trot. This was so that my rider felt confident that he could control this pony, and learnt the amount of aids he needed – it’s like going from a Fiesta to a Jaguar car! We had a couple of transitions that were a bit heavy handed. He would have gotten away with it on his pony, but having a stronger bit, more sensitive mouth and more dramatic pony, every error was exaggerated. The pony let us know when there was too much hand by throwing his head around, so we aimed to minimise this. We practised though and took away from the lesson the feeling of a carried, more independent hand.

The next step is, of course, canter. It’s the part of any lesson I dread with a whizzy pony, so peering between my fingers I directed my rider into canter on the corner preceding the short side. They did it! A nice steady canter, my rider trying to sit this bigger stride. Thankfully this boy is very chilled out, and level headed because when the pony tried to go faster, he listened to my instructions and didn’t panic. I think if he’d tensed up the pony would have become quite stressed and accelerated rapidly.

We did some trot canter transitions with the pair now looking much more together, and then I suggested trying a jump.

This was met with some apprehension, but again we talked through the theory of jumping. Keep in trot, keep your shoulders back, maintain the rein contact, expect a bigger jump than usual, give with your hands, sit up and quietly ask him to slow down after. 

The cross pole was teeny tiny to begin with, and we worked over the one fence talking about the technical details – correcting my rider’s position and helping him adjust the pony before and after the fence. The final jump they did was an upright, of about 60cm, and my rider stayed totally in sync with the pony and managed to pull up after with very soft hands.

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​I was super pleased with my rider for managing to adapt so well to this completely different pony. Whilst he probably won’t ride the pony very often, it’s a really good opportunity for him to open his eyes to how other horses ride and to build his experience and confidence because unfortunately he will soon have to look for a bigger pony for himself. The pony handled a more novice rider very well too, and was an excellent testament to his young owner and the amount of training she has put into him. All in all, a really useful exercise for everyone involved, and now I challenge you guys at home to try riding another horse, outside your comfort zone – good luck!