Otis’s Rehab – Week 1

I thought everyone would appreciate a regular update as I bring Otis into some sort of work, and any research, management techniques, trials and errors that I meet.

Last weekend I took Otis out for a couple of 30 minute walks, with a trot on the good tracks. Nothing had changed in his diet, routine etc, but I needed to get a baseline of how he feels to compare to in coming weeks.

Then I did a lot of research into joint and mobility supplements, spoke to my physio/vet friend and another physio, who is a bit of a witch doctor, and both agreed with my research that natural inflammatories were the best place to start as they will help stop the tendons being aggravated. I also wanted something to help regenerate tissue so any damage to tendons was repaired quickly. No one supplement offered this combination, so I have opted for a bespoke supplement which can be adjusted according to Otis’s response to it. This has four ingredients; botswellia serata and turmeric, which are both natural anti inflammatories; GLHCL which is glucosamine HCL and regenerates connective tissue; MSM which improves circulation. I guess the MSM means toxins are removed from the area quicker. These ingredients all seem logical and reasonable, providing Otis responds well to them so I will just have to try. The supplement arrived on Thursday so we are still on the loading dose and I’ll have to see if I feel there is an improvement over the next couple of weeks.

Someone told me to ensure Otis is receiving sufficient Vitamin E as this helps repair and recovery. I looked at feedstuffs that are high in vitamin E, and linseed is very good. Otis is already fed cooked linseed powder, so this morning I fired off an email to that company to get confirmation of levels of vitamin E. If I have to change linseed suppliers or the form of linseed, in order to get enough vitamin E into his diet then I’ll consider that once they have replied. I’d rather have one supplement that provides two elements than two different pots.

If this supplement doesn’t work then I will give him a week’s break to get it out of his system before trying a different set of ingredients. 

Otis was shod last week and is now on a five week cycle, so that will just require me to keep an eye on how much his toes are growing and if I feel he is still getting enough support from the shoes for the whole duration. He’s not shod on his hind feet at the moment, but I’ve a feeling I might need to put them back on next shoeing. But again, I’ll just go with the flow.

I’ve also done lots of research into photonic red light therapy and this week another friend who uses it to manage her horse’s foot condition is going to come and see Otis and show me her lights, how they work and if Otis responds to them. I won’t go into too much detail here as it’s an interesting potential blog subject, but photonics has been developed by NASA and uses red light to “reset” cells so they are vibrating at a healthy level and kickstarts them into correct functioning. Google it if you want, there’s plenty to read out there!

If Otis doesn’t respond to the photonics then someone suggested magnetic therapy, which I haven’t researched much about except that I do know my cynical Dad found that it reduced his symptoms of carpel tunnel syndrome. Depending on the effectiveness of the photonics I will look at other therapies.

I want to try things one at a time to find out what Otis responds to. Additionally, the witch doctor physio told me about a client she had who had thrown every therapy and supplement under the sun on her horse’s splint, basically feeding it, until it grew humongous! Obviously there is a balance to be had here between providing nutrients to aid healing and providing nutrients to grow. She did think that my idea of supporting his injury through his foot with additional support of a therapy was the way forwards.

Chatting to my physio/vet friend, we agreed with each other that whilst with tendon injuries you avoid deep going in rehab and bone injuries you avoid hard ground, Otis has an element of the two. We’re going to avoid extremes of ground, but use a mixture of softer to firm going. 

This week has been half term so I’ve long reined and ridden Otis three times during the week, and both weekend days. I felt that he was better yesterday afternoon, so he’s spending his first night out tonight. I prefer riding in the mornings and I’d rather he’d had a leg stretch before I got on. Then I shouldn’t have the effect of standing in complicating my assessments of his way of going.

I still worry that Otis won’t tell me when it hurts. He’s such a patient, quiet horse who always tries for you, I’m concerned that he will “grin and bear it”. Today though, I felt quite positive as he jogged a little on our hack and was very keen, looking around at everything. He was shattered by the end as we’d walked up a steep hill, so I hope the worried look in his eye was just muscle fatigue rather than foot pain. 

I’m feeling more positive than last week when I heard his diagnosis, but there’s a long, rocky road ahead of us as I find the right balance to help him.

Riding to a Contact

I always think that teaching a learning about a “contact” is one of the hardest concepts within equitation.

To begin, the word “contact” appears on level three of the German Scales of Training. It is defined by “the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth”. 

I introduce this idea, or at least make sure they are aware of it, to all my clients. With beginners I encourage a long rein until they have more stable hands so they are more forgiving on the horse’s mouth, and then we slowly shorten the reins so that we have what resembles a straight line from their elbow, through the hand, to the bit, but the riders are always aware that there should be a line of communication between elbow and mouth. With novice riders, I try to get them to feel that they are in a more direct communication with the horse’s mouth, but they don’t have to say anything, and just keep the contact light and still.

This is usually accepted and understood by everyone, but it is the next step that can cause problems. That is, going from holding a rein contact to riding into a rein contact.

“The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and “seek” a contact with the rider’s hand, thus “going onto” the contact.”

Here we can then see two types of riders developing. Those which become heavy in the hand, perhaps fixing them on the neck, or bringing the hand backwards, and those who increase the driving aids yet let the hand go forwards so the rein contact is always just out of reach for the horse.

Let’s look at the first type of rider and the mistake in this understanding. When we start talking about riding into a contact, the rider is by now aware that some horses have pretty, arched necks and some don’t. However unless they understand the biomechanics of how a horse moves they will just squeeze the rein, pull in to their stomach and try to draw the horse into a “pretty, arched outline”. Some horses will unfortunately accept this, but you can see there is tension in their underneck muscles, and the back is not swinging, nor the hind legs tracking up. Others will put the brakes on and not go forwards. 

I find the best way to solve this situation is to re-educate the rider; use circles, transitions to engage the hindquarters and focus the rider on having positive hands, using the leg and seat aids, and then hopefully when you remind the rider to lift, present and allow with the hand the rider should be able to feel the horse come through over their back, and their way of going becomes freer and lighter. This should help the rider understand the importance of not tying their horse in at the head.

Some riders tend to develop straight, stiff arms when focusing on the rein contact, which then gives a heavy feel on the horse’s mouth and encourages the horse to lean against the hand, raise the head and hollow their back.

I’ve recently worked with a client who tends to stiffen her arms. So we’ve done lots of work on bending the elbow, carrying the hands and minimising the rein aids to bring her focus onto the leg and seat aids for turning her horse. 

This has all been working so that she now has a good arm position, so my next step was to get her to hold a bit more of a rein contact without stiffening her arms. Using half halts and leg aids to “pause the front end so the back end can catch up” we managed to get the trot a bit more active but we were still struggling to find the balance between the leg and rein contact. Because the mare backed off any rein contact (probably because it had been heavy in the past) the focus of riding into the contact had to be, more so than usual, from the hindquarters. Which made me think about the fact my rider could be improved by having a more effective seat and leg, which may make it easier for her to ride towards the contact.

Which led me to lunging her in her last lesson without reins or stirrups. The lack of stirrups deepened her seat and made her use her leg, which also stayed underneath her, not creeping forwards. The lack of reins made her aware of the tension she sometimes carries in her arms, and improved her core stability and reduced reliance on the reins.

Once she was back in control and off the lunge we revisited stabilising the outside contact to support the shoulder, supporting the horse as she adjusted her neck carriage (even if the reins felt heavy for a moment), and then keeping that same feeling in each hand as the leg continued to push the mare forwards to the contact. The hand then had to allow the mare to take the contact forwards. I think the penny really dropped when my rider realised that as the mare adjusted her balance and neck carriage after the half halt she did need support from the hand momentarily while she found her balance. Then the contact became elastic, light, and steady. I’m really pleased with this pairs progress because the mare was moving much more actively and started to swing over her back, looking happy in her way of going. My rider also seemed to understand the concept and the feel of the contact, which will enable us to move into more exciting dressage! I think with this rider the focus still needs to be on the driving aids and creating an independent seat so she isn’t as likely to tense her arms up again, but now we can really crack on with the dressage ready for some events! 

The other type of difficulty that arises with teaching riders about contact is the rider who is worried about having too heavy a hand. These riders usually have light hands, in a good position, but as they use the leg to drive the horse forwards the rider’s hands tend to creep forwards.

This is a tricky situation as you don’t want the rider to develop negative hands, yet they can have the same effect as dangling a carrot in front of a donkey. With riders who either give the rein away accidentally through a weak core, or those who are reluctant to have any more than a feather light touch on the reins, I explain how horses like the security and guidance of a rein contact and how the contact gives them boundaries. Imagine you’re holding a child’s hand in a busy street. They like to feel you are always there. If you dropped their hand, they’d stop, worried. Likewise the hand is stopping them stepping off the pavement or detouring into danger. The correct rein contact provides a horse with a sense of security and guides them in their way of going.

If a rider has a weak core I’d work them without stirrups to develop this area, before asking them to maintain the hand in the same position as – elbows bent, hand carried – but to close then fingers around the rein slightly more, so they feel they are firmly holding the reins, yet without tensing their arm.  They need to become accustomed to closing the hand a bit more positively on the reins, and when they are comfortable we can focus on maintaining a consistent feeling down the reins. Usually, by holding the reins with a bit more grip we immediately get a better contact because the reins aren’t sliding through their hands. Then by using a combination of focusing their attention on the position of their hand, and the amount that they are “holding” the reins we begin to create a better contact. Then as the rider is providing a consistent contact, the horse can be ridden into one.

I’ve done some work with a client recently who’s horse has stopped going forwards, which I think is to do with the fact the rein contact is light and inconsistent (I have another client who’s nappy pony goes forward only when there is a rein contact, so that is a similar situation). Last lesson we did a lot of work on her keeping her hands still when she used her leg, and not throw them forwards so that her horse had a contact to seek. I think he was getting fed up of chasing the hand, because as soon as her hands improved he settled into work, looked happier, and was more responsive to her aids. We now need to carry on making her core strong and hands independent so that she can hold the rein contact in a supportive, guiding way to help her horse coordinate himself so the back end and front end work in unison. This pair aren’t ready to ride “into a contact” in as far as pretty outlines are concerned, but it is vital for the horse’s confidence that he has the reins to help keep him straight, or support him if he loses his balance or rhythm.

The aim of me as an instructor is to try to create the situation when the rider can feel the correct rein contact, and then they have a goal to aim for and know if they’re right during their own schooling sessions. Then we can look in more detail about the tools they need to ride a horse “on a contact” whether it’s a novice line of communication, or a more advanced rider using driving aids to ride the horse “into a contact”.

Removing Shoes

If you sat, or are planning on sitting, your BHS Stage II exam then you will know all of the farrier’s tools and the process of shoeing. 

But for all horse owners, it’s worth learning about shoeing. Perhaps ask your farrier if you can have a go at taking a shoe off under their supervision because you never know when you might need to take a shoe off in an emergency.

Earlier this week I went to get one of the horses in from the field to ride. She dawdled on the way in, and stood still to be tied up. I took her rug off. That should have been my warning sign because she stood perfectly still when normally she fidgets. I went to the rack room, and when I came back she was still stood in the same spot. Weird. Then I noticed she was reluctant to put weight on one hind foot. Looking more closely, I could see the mud was sticking out beyond her foot so I had to investigate.

It was pretty impressive. She’d managed to twist her shoe anti-clockwise so that the shoe stuck out over the outside of her foot, outside nails still firmly in, but the inside branch was across the sole, with the quarter clip embedded into her sole.

I’ve seen horses who have lost a shoe, not been uncomfortable in any way, and can be lightly worked in the school. I’ve seen horses with slightly sprung shoes. That is, they’ve stood on the heel of one branch, so the shoe isn’t flush to the foot. Slightly sprung means that I wouldn’t want to work the horse, but I’d rather leave the shoe on if the farrier was coming that day, and restrict the horse’s movement. 

This twisted shoe, however, couldn’t be left. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take a photo of it. Leaving the mare resting her foot I spoke to her carer to organise the farrier. Then I managed to get hold of a hammer. Some yards have an old set of farrier’s tools, but after looking for some for myself I’m afraid they’re surprisingly expensive so will become a rarity.

With my friend’s help, we slowly and carefully removed the shoe. Initially, we wiggled it to see which nails were tight, and which were loose. We didn’t have any loose nails, so we decided to try the loosen the tight nails and prise the shoe off. We couldn’t lift the clenches, so wiggled the shoe until we could fit the claw of the hammer under the outer branch of the shoe, and gently rocked the hammer until the shoe was a bit looser. One nail came away, but the rest of the shoe took more wiggling.

After almost twenty minutes (yes, I know I’d be a rubbish farrier) the shoe came off. The hoof wall was still in tact, which I was quite impressed with.

With the farrier coming at the end of the day, I decided that the mare would be happiest out in her field, not in the stable. However, I was concerned about the mud.

I dug around until I found some poultice materials, and brushed out the foot. I was concerned that dirt will get into wound on the solders . But I wrapped up the foot well and left the mare in the hard standing area of her field, happily eating hay to wait patiently for the farrier.

The shoe was put back on and she doesn’t seem to have come to any harm from her exploits.

  1. To remove a shoe, you want to lift clenches up, and then grasp the branches with the pinchers and slowly prise the branches from the heel to the fro.
  2. Keep gently prising until the shoe is looser and then hinge the shoe from the toe back to lift the shoe off.

Here’s a video to demonstrate – Here it is

If you do have to remove a shoe in an emergency, just remember to do everything slowly so you don’t hurt the horse, shock them so they kick out, or bruise the sole, nor take off any hoof with it, which will make replacing the shoe a much easier job.


I’ve slowly come to realise why so many instructors get themselves a small livery yard and base themselves there to teach.

It’s so that they have a place to call home. Somewhere to make their mark.

As a freelance groom, instructor, dogsbody; you flit between yards. Being welcomed, but not included. Yes, yard politics can be a nightmare, but equally not getting involved can be … isolating. 

I know now how gypsies and nomads feel, hovering on the fringe of society. 

However if you get involved in yard gossip, you make friends but get a reputation for meddling and always having an opinion. But if you keep yourself to yourself, act like a chameleon, then you become known as stand-offish and anti-social.

My conclusion. You can’t please everyone and the best position to be in from a professional point of view is to be as impartial and independent as possible. 

Lunge Lessons

They`re one of my favourite lessons to have, or teach, but they are quite a rare occurrence. For some reasons people are reluctant to embark on a position-focused lunge lesson. They are physically demanding, much more than people expect, and because you are limited to a circle and focused on rider position some find it boring. Which is possibly why there is so little take up for lunge lessons.

Beginners, who often benefit most from spending time focusing on their position, are often the hardest to persuade to have lunge lessons, whilst those more advanced often don`t have quiet, sensible enough horses to have a productive lunge lesson.

At college we had lunging every Tuesday after lunch, and the Stage two students warmed the horses up on the lunge before the PTT students took over and taught a Stage two student on the lunge. I loved this, although one snowy day I was the only Stage two student in so had three lunge lessons in one day!

For the ITT exam I need to give a lunge lesson, so have been recruiting willing volunteers from the riding club. Lucky for me, I have a few victims, I mean, volunteers, and now to prepare a variety of exercises so I am armed to improve whatever position faults are thrown at me.

I always start a lunge lesson by assessing the rider`s position, and prioritising areas to work on. Getting them to demonstrate sitting trot tells me if they are likely to be confident going without stirrups, and I can get a general feel of their confidence so I can pitch the exercises to their level. After all, there`s no point saying to a nervous rider, “today we`re going to work without stirrups and reins.” Which will make they not only worried, but also inadequate. So I would be better saying, “let`s begin by working without stirrups.” I also usually run through the ideal riding position, and ask the rider which areas they feel are their weakest.

Arm Exercises

So long as riders are happy to go without reins, you can do a variety of exercises to improve the independence and stability of the arms and hands.

Keeping one hand on the pommel of the saddle, and the other hand hanging like a pendulum by your side, whilst rising to the trot will activate your core muscles and stop you using your arms (however little) to help your rising. You can progress to having both hands hanging by your side, thus stopping reliance on the rein contact, and helping you sit up taller.

Pretending to hold the reins is a useful exercise in correctly the position of the hands. So many riders carry their hands too low and back by the saddle. I ask my riders to feel that they have half a dozen helium balloons tied to their wrists, lifting their hands so they threaten to fly away. To stop your hands disappearing into space, your elbows are anchored to your sides. For many, it takes a few minutes to acclimatise themselves to this new hand position, and the feeling that they aren`t restricting the horse in any way. Taking back the reins, they want to keep the feeling of lightness and positivity in the rein contact.

One arm at a time, and potentially both together at a later stage, in walk and then trot (possibly even canter) swing your arm in big circles. Start with forwards circles, slowly as to not strain any muscles. Then move onto backwards circles. This opens the chest, encourages the shoulders to come down the back and the collarbones to open. The rider usually then has a better upper body position.

Upper Body Exercises

Beginning at the top of the upper body, is checking that the head is sitting centrally on the body and the rider is looking straight ahead. Turning the head slowly left and right, or lifting the chin up and then down to the chest, can help loosen any of these muscles and relieve tension if needed.

Rolling the shoulders up and back can have a similar effect to the arm circling exercise above. If a rider carries tension in their shoulders, then getting them to lift their shoulders to their ears and drop them whilst exhaling can “blow away” the tension. This is one of my favourite Pilates warm up exercises! This is best done in walk.

Holding both hands out to the side, turn the upper body at the waist so the rider is looking into the circle, and then out onto the circle. Be aware of any changes to the seat bones in this exercise. The rider should feel the muscles on their sides working. This movement can push insecure riders out of their comfort zone as they are moving out of their usual position so require more balance. If they are happy doing this is walk I sometimes give it a go in sitting trot to test their balance. The kids calls it the helicopter exercise.

Once the upper body is looking more correct I try to improve my rider`s proprioception, and ask them to imagine that they have headlights on their hip bones, points of shoulder, and chest. These lights should ideally point forwards. As they ride round the circle on each rein, get them to focus on the lights showing them the way. This stops riders collapsing one side, and encourages them to turn their body around the bend. Imagine the spine is the centre of the carousel and the body is rotating around it.

Seat Exercises

Ideally, riders want to sit squarely on their seat bones, but so many pitch forwards. I ask riders to shift their pelvis around in halt and walk until they’re aware of any asymmetry and their seat bones. Then we look at rocking themselves back, so they are sitting on “the back of” their seat bones whilst keeping their upper body tall.

Taking the feet out of the stirrups and then drawing the knees up to the pommel of the saddle, will put the rider onto the correct part of the seat bones, and this should become obvious to them. Slowly let the legs down without shifting off the seat bones. Repeating this gets the leg muscles loosening. If your rider is quite competent then bringing the knees away from pommel tests their balance and stretches the hip flexors. This is tough though, so be gentle!

Sitting trot is the most effective way to improve the seat, and if a rider is comfortable, then work them without stirrups. If they aren’t, do short bursts of sitting trot with stirrups taking rising before the position slips. The rider should soon be able to sit well to the trot for long periods.

Leg Exercises

Swinging the whole leg, from the hip, will open the hip flexors and help the rider lengthen the leg to create that elusive vertical line.

If a rider has stiff ankles then rotating the foot without the lower leg swinging will relieve tension here. 

The knees up and away exercise above, is really useful if a rider tends to grip with their knee and turn their leg in, thus blocking the horse at the shoulder. After opening at the hip the rider is more able to drape their leg around the horse’s barrel.

Keeping stirrups, for a rider who has an insecure lower leg, getting them to stand up in their stirrups and keep their balance in walk, and later trot, will help stabilise and strengthen the lower leg position. To further test their balance, they could hold their arms out.

I like to keep exercises simple, so my rider can devote their attention to how their body feels, not on what they should be doing. Then you can build the complexity according to how the rider is coping (and indeed the horse to these weird goings on on his back), so you’re less likely to cause an injury, but continue to build their confidence and ability. Getting riders to ride with their eyes closed can enhance their feeling and use of other senses, and also test their balance. If they are a novice rider, you could test their feel for trot diagonals and canter leads, and awareness of foot falls, which takes the pressure away from working without stirrups. There’s a whole plethora of exercises to improve the basics for all riders, which creates the building blocks for the more technical and exciting exercises, whilst also making these exercises easier and more achievable for the rider.



Bittersweet. That’s how I feel when I look at Otis right now. One look into his great, soft, gentle, brown eyes and my heart literally melts. He has such a look of adoration, love and trust. 

But things will never be the same as they used to be. And then I feel guilty. What should I, could I, have done? And where do we go from here?

You see, we’ve been walking in hand for six weeks and he had his vet check before I started riding. However there’s something not quite right still. On the lunge he looks great, but in a straight line there’s a niggle. So we took more x-rays and analysed them closely.

The consensus? The sidebone that was suspect in the first place actually has signs of a fracture. So we can only deduce that the fracture, which happened in the summer, hasn’t healed cleanly so is intermittently interfering with the connective tissues within the foot.  Which means that he will never be 100% sound.

Obviously I was devastated, inconsolable, depressed, sad, and all other emotions on that scale. It’s taken me a few days to come to terms with Otis’s diagnosis but now I can think straight.

It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions over the last six months. I’ve been walking through a dark tunnel, with a ray of light giving me hope. Then there’s a tunnel collapse and I lost all hope. After getting my bearings I start shifting the rocks, finding a glimmer of hope behind as I work out the problem each rock has thrown at me. 

Let’s examine each rock and see how to move it.

Firstly, he’s only got a niggle that isn’t right. So can I manage this with remedial shoeing? I spoke to my farrier, who’s opinion I trust wholeheartedly. Otis was shod on Friday, with natural balance shoes and the breakover point has been brought right under the toe to support the back of his foot. He is also going to be shod in five weeks time to prevent his toes getting too long. Fingers crossed!

Would he benefit from being fed a supplement? This weekend I’m going to be researching feed supplements. He doesn’t have arthritis so it’s not a mobility supplement he necessarily needs, but the tendons of his foot will be at risk of abrasions so a supplement that promotes repair could be beneficial. Suggestions or recommendations on a postcard please! 

This is the biggest rock. The most crushing statement the vet said to me earlier this week was; “I thought you wanted an event horse. He won’t be up to that work so you’d better look for another one. You might get him sound enough to hack and play around with.” It took all my might not to burst into tears at that point.

But now I’ve thought about the conversation I’ve realised that the vet originally asked me what we had been doing, to which I said eventing and dressage, and he has locked onto this idea that I want to event. That I want to ride around Badminton, perhaps.

I don’t. We did low key eventing because I enjoyed doing it with Otis. I don’t mind if we don’t event again. The worst thought of all is not being able to ride him again. So perhaps the vet was being pessimistic in his verdict because he thinks I want to do more with Otis, and take him right through the levels, whereas we will actually be alright with riding club level activities, or sponsored rides (if I can get him sane enough).

Besides, what does the future hold for me? As my Dad kindly pointed out last time I saw him, I’m almost past my prime and when are the grandchildren arriving? Perhaps Otis’s working life depends just as much on me as it does him.

Which leads me onto the subject of soundness. How many horses (or people for that matter) are 100% perfect in their gait? Some have asymmetric muscle tone, others have a queer movement, and others remain marginally lame after an accident or injury. They remain happy and able to do the work asked of them. They may have a mechanical imperfection, but it doesn’t affect their performance in their current job.

In terms of how to work him or what to do with him, I guess I need to learn by trial and error as the vet didn’t leave recommendations in this department. If I have to avoid hard ground I could jump or do dressage on a surface. There’s combined training, arena eventing, pure dressage. There’s plenty of options to pursue. Unfortunately I now feel that I’ve been signed off by the vet – possibly because he thinks I know how to bring a horse back into work, but some guidance would be helpful. I will speak to my friend, vet and chiropractor, about it to see if she can support me in creating a back to work plan for Otis. 

The next rock is the elephant in the room. Is Otis in pain? I’d hate to think I was causing him any pain by working him. Judging by the way he was rearing and cantering around his field as I poo picked on Wednesday, and the way he marches into the stable everyday I don’t think he’s in pain. So perhaps I should just monitor his behaviour and demeanour as I bring him into work. He likes working and has an active brain, so giving him a routine should help. I’ve also spoken to another friend who’s horse has had lots of foot problems, and she uses photonic light therapy on his bad days to reduce inflammation and pain. Perhaps this is a route to go down too? Again, it’s a topic to research. Yes, you can feed half a sachet of Bute a day, but I don’t like the idea of doing this long term. I’d rather try natural inflammatories, such as turmeric, or a non invasive therapy like photonics. One vet suggested de-nerving Otis’s foot. Which is pretty drastic, and I think that if he needs his foot denerving then I shouldn’t be asking this level of work for him. After all, is it fair that in order for me to enjoy the rest of his life he has to live with a permanent dead foot? 

So I’ve found some hope. Do my research, seek advice, and work out the best way to manage Otis – his level of pain, if any, and mechanical movement. I hope a combination of remedial shoes, feed supplements, photonic therapy, and the correct level and type of exercise can give him a happy, wholesome life.

I’ve been long reining Otis this week, gearing myself up to ride. But I’m scared. Is he going to feel unlevel? Is he going to feel amazing? I guess there’s only one way to find out. And I guess then at least I know which road we’re going down. 

I feel better now I have a plan, and all I’m left with now is the bittersweet taste of regret that I didn’t fully appreciate what I had.


I did it. I plucked up the courage to ride Otis. Of course he behaved perfectly. What did I feel? His walk felt fine although I had to stop overanalysing every stride. We had a short trot along a firm bridleway – the happy medium between hard and soft ground. He felt like a wiggly worm coming out the pub on a Friday night as he looked around. So I couldn’t tell for sure. But I guess I’ve just got to keep on going slowly.

It was great though, sitting in my comfy dressage saddle, feeling the spring in his step, and the rotund belly pushing against my leg – he’s never been so portly! Plus I got to see that view between his ears!

Finding The Perfect Stride

A client of mine has been having trouble finding her jumping stride recently, and they’ve been getting in too deep and getting in a muddle over courses.

After a problematic weekend competing, we had some work to do this week. I put a grid out, and we began with the middle fence as a cross, building to an upright and then oxer. Over the cross and upright they were fine, but as soon as I put the back rail onto the 1m fence the pair crashed and burned. 

I noticed two problems, which need to be overcome. The first problem is that my rider was micro managing her horse, and trying to place him precisely to the jump, even a stride or two out. Her adjustments, and change in body position (especially when she folded before him) unbalanced the horse, and now that they’re jumping a significant height, he’s unable to get them out of trouble. To explain more; if she saw a long stride, kicked and folded, her body weight went onto his shoulders causing him to put in an extra stride and then stop because he’s unable to lift the shoulders to take off over a 1m+ jump.

We went back to basics for a moment and looked at the quality of the canter. The canter needs to be punchy and energetic, especially as the jumps get bigger. Sometimes their canter wasn’t quite energetic enough, which can also cause her to ride at the last minute. Next I reminded my rider that her job is to set up the canter and create a good approach but the last three strides were up to the horse. After all, it’s his legs and body that need to get over the fence. 

Once my rider stopped panic riding at the last minute, they met the jumps nicely each time.

Next, I built the grid up to an upright, one stride, oxer, one stride, upright. Again, we focused on the canter approach to the first fence and meeting that nicely. Then as long as my rider had her leg on quietly and didn’t chase her horse through the grid, the rest of it flowed nicely. Then my rider could work on the feel of a good shaped bascule and take off.

Once we’d worked through the grid I got out the muscles again to build a simple course. I only used single fences as this exercise was to focus on creating a good approach to each fence individually, and we’d already covered combinations with the gridwork.

We ran through a couple of courses, checking lines and ensuring the canter is balanced but energetic. Which is when we came to the second problem.

My rider has jumped, with the help of placing poles, from a perfect take off. Which is what she’s focusing on achieving. But when the take off is slightly out, she’s getting het up about it not being perfect. This is actually creating the last minute panick-adjustments we’ve just discussed. 

I explained to her that whilst there is a perfect position to take off for a jump, there is also some leeway to be six inches closer or far away. 

There is the perfect take off point – probably with some mathematical formula linking the distance from the base of the fence to the height of the fence and the parabola – but there is also the correct take off point for the approach they’ve had. 

When she approaches a fence there’s a distance her horse has to travel. The canter stride will cover some ground, and depending on the type of canter this distance will vary. Which is why it’s important to have a good quality, regular canter. Then over the last three, maybe four, canter strides (when a horse has locked onto the fence) the horse will adjust his stride, like a long jumper, to get as close to the takeoff point as possible. Just like long jumpers though, sometimes they’re over the line or just back off the line. Therefore my rider needs to focus more on creating a good approach so that her horse is in the best possible position to adjust the canter over the last couple of strides to get a good jump.

So whilst we all strive for that perfect take off point, it’s important to remember that the horse needs to be able to control the last couple of strides (yes, I know some horses have a tendency to run out, but let’s look at the keen jumper who loves to jump) and that there is a good take off point for every approach, which is important to accept, so don’t worry if you took off over that jump a little too far away, or a tiny bit too close because it is better to go with your horse then interfere and cause him to doubt himself.

Herd Stabling

Someone was telling me about their stabling arrangements earlier this week, and with the drastic changes in business rates I wonder if this is the way forward for riding schools.

The riding school I went to as a child was a converted dairy farm, so we had a similar arrangement for some of the horses.

Matt, as well as my previous pony, spent the first three winters in The Sheep Shed. Yes, it had previously housed sheep, but was a long, single storey barn with a five bar gate at one end. The barn was rectangular, with the back, long side against the hill, and right two-thirds of the front wall had the muckheap barn (yep, that’s right, our muckheap was under cover!) against it, and the gate on the left. To the left of the sheep shed were more barns which were converted from machinery storage to pairs of stables. Anyway, the gate had a piece of black plywood on to stop the horses getting their feet stuck in the bars.

So know you know how the sheep shed looked. Each winter four geldings (14.2hh sort of size) lived in there. They were all chilled out geldings, who naturally gravitated towards each other in the field anyway. None were particularly dominant, although I remember the first couple of days being quite noisy as they established the pecking order. One year I think we had an emergency swap because one pony was being a bit too boisterous. I can also remember doing a winter with five in there and that was hard work!

The four of us became very adept at working together to muck out, and became quite a team. The bonus of being one of four was that you had someone to fall back on if you were ill or overwhelmed by schoolwork, and you didn’t have to muck out every day!

My friend and I went to school together, so we did three weekdays and a weekend day, and the other two owners (who were mother and daughter) did the rest of the week.

Anyway, each horse was designated a corner, and when we arrived after school we would tie each pony into their corner. Then we’d ride, leaving the other two tied up. When we’d finished, we fed each horse their hard feed in their corner and tied up haynets for all of them. In later years a hay rack appeared, but mine always had haynets. We’d fill the two dustbins of water and take out four wheelbarrows of muck. It was a semi deep litter arrangement, with a good clean out on weekends and the whole shed emptied in the spring. Fresh straw was scattered over the top and then we’d let the horses go.

Yes, they moved around the haynets and you couldn’t monitor closely how much they were eating, but as soon as one was noticed to have dropped weight (usually Matt) they were taken out and fed an extra feed on the yard in the mornings. On weekends we used to leave them tied up most of the day because we were always there and always coming and going, so it was a good chance to pump forage into the slimmer ones.

I’m sure the horses didn’t get bored, despite no turnout December until February because they had so much social interaction. It was always lovely to come around the corner and see three or four heads looking over the gate, whinnying to you.

The riding school ponies had similar accommodation, in large rooms that used to be the cow stalls. Between three and five ponies were in each one. Usually the four dominant ones, and then the milder ones. Again, swaps were made if someone got a bit big for their boots, and the end stable, which you had to walk through to access the stalls, was often conscripted mid winter when someone started losing weight or being unhappy in the group. On days there were lessons the ponies just stayed tied up – out of the cold and wet – munching hay and easily brought out for lessons. We had to do the old fashioned thing of offering them water before tying them up, although they were pretty good at leading us to the water buckets when they were hungry!

In terms of riding schools, I think this is the only way to beat the increase in business rates because to house six ponies in six stables you need six 10ftx10ft stables. However, that equivalent space in an open barn would probably house seven ponies, perhaps more if they were small. Which would mean that the riding school barns are being used in a more cost effective way.

Obviously this situation wouldn’t work for liveries because of the risk of injury and argument, but for horses and ponies used to living in a herd environment it is a definite possibility. So long as enough feed stations are provided and the animals integrated carefully, and monitored through the winter in case they drop off weight, then this living arrangement is far more natural and you should end up with happier and healthier horses.

It’s food for thought though, if you are a small riding school facing business changes.