Improving Balance Around Corners

I saw an exercise online last week and modified it slightly to help a client who’s pony tends to motorbike around corners.

Using one corner of the school, I laid out three trotting poles on the track. There was 4’6″ between the centre of each pole, which also conveniently also lay on the track my rider had made.

We worked on both reins with the poles laid flat until they were trotting around the corner easily, making the distance between each pole comfortably. Initially, the pony found it difficult to bend and increase her cadence so drifted through the outside shoulder. My rider had to use her outside rein and leg to support her pony through the turn and maintain the support for longer as they came out of the turn. She also found that if she used her inside rein and had too much bend through the neck, they drifted out more and found the exercise harder. So it was a good way of reminding my rider of the correct rein aids and contact.

Next I built up the trot poles into cavaletti, however I only raised the inside of each pole. This was to discourage the pair from falling in around the corner and to improve the activity and strength of the inside hind leg.

As the pony had to put in more effort over the raised poles she started to drift out around the corner, but the fence helped my rider correct this and as the bend developed through her whole body so she began to find it easier and stayed more balanced throughout.

With the abdominals now switched on the trot improved generally and the mare had a good stretch over her topline.

We moved on to riding a canter transition just after the poles to start working the canter. The more active trot helped the transitions have more energy and the subsequent trot was looser so their trot poles improved further.

Now finished with the trotting poles, I converted them to canter poles and after cantering through once started to raise them. This pony tends to motorbike more in canter, so the raised poles were even more beneficial at improving her balance and bend through the corners. They also stopped my rider leaning in!

The canter became stronger, balanced and more three time because the inside hind leg had become more supple and was stepping under the body more.

I was really pleased with the improvement in the quality of the trot and canter due to the trot poles, and my rider could feel how much more balanced they were around the corners which is great for developing her feel. She’ll now know when she gets it right and can strive to replicate the feeling.

I wanted to see how the poles on the corner helped their jump, so I walked two canter strides away from the third pole and put up an upright. As expected, the mare backed off the first time, but from then on she jumped it beautifully. The poles kept her really balanced and her hocks engaged so that the bascule was neat and my rider could feel the lift through the shoulders, and generally felt that the jump was more scopey and powerful. I then reversed the exercise so they could do it on the other rein. Hopefully this exercise will help them create better corners around a jumping course and with time ride tighter turns whilst staying balanced which will help them stay clear whilst against the clock. I just wish I’d taken a photo of the exercise!

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Self Trimming

A while ago now I went with a friend to view a horse. While we were doing the initial overview, prodding and poking, I asked the seller when the (barefoot) horse had last seen the farrier. I was told that she preferred to let her horses self trim. This rang alarm bells for me when I considered the size of the medial flare of the horse’s hoof. It could easily cause a brushing injury to the opposite limb. Were there issues in that opposite limb? Was the horse a nightmare for the farrier so it was easier to let her “self trim”? Yes I know, I’m playing devils advocate, but that’s sometimes needed when viewing horses.

Since then I’ve heard the term self trimming with increasing frequency. So I resolved to ask my farriers.

Horses have worn shoes for thousands of years, from leather pads used by the Romans to today’s iron shoes, but increasingly there is a movement saying that shoes are unnatural and we shouldn’t use them because of the damage they cause to the growth and strength of the hoof capsule whilst protecting the sole of the foot. I don’t disagree; shoes can cause damage but ultimately we have created an artificial environment for horses which means we may have to artificially intervene in order for the horse to be comfortable and to function to the best of their ability.

For example, humans now keep horses in smaller paddocks, ask them to trot and canter increasingly smaller circles, and jump higher and wider. In the wild horses roam over many miles of varying terrain, trot and canter in straight lines and only jump when necessary to avoid danger. Factor in our breeding which focuses on certain traits (for example speed in thoroughbreds) at the cost of other traits (again, in thoroughbreds, the quality of their feet) and humans are causing many of the problems we see today, be they conformational or due to injury. Which means that it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help our horses.

So let’s return to the barefoot versus shoeing debate. Scientific advancements and a greater understanding of the equine body does mean that we should rethink shoeing – the materials, technique, frequency etc – and the development of hoof boots are providing us with excellent alternative options. Although hoof boots do make me think we are going a full circle and returning to the leather pads used by the Romans and ancient Asians, albeit a little less crudely. So with this move away from shoeing horses, we naturally gravitate towards the barefoot approach.

Yes, it seems like the easy option – no lost shoes on competition morning, smaller farrier bills – but I don’t think it is necessarily the easy way out. A barefoot horse still needs their feet checking on a daily basis and having the correct diet to help them grow strong hoof. I think that keeping a horse barefoot is great so long as they are comfortable and able to carry out their work. It’s awful seeing horses struggling to walk across gravel. But ultimately if they can’t manage then it’s our responsibility to do something about it, be it through a change in their diet or by shoeing.

Moving on to self trimming. What is it? Now, it has two interpretations. To the innocent bystander, it is not interfering with the natural growth and shape of the foot, and through work letting the horse wear their feet down naturally. Minimum intervention, if you like. Which is fine. But, just like any athlete looks after their legs and feet, we should still look after our horse’s. A foot expert will notice any changes in hoof quality, spot abscesses, and still with minimal intervention, help the horse’s hooves grow in the best direction for that horse. For example, removing excessive flairing and encouraging the hoof wall to grow downwards as opposed to out to the side. Or vice versa if the horse has boxy feet. In the same way that occupational therapists help correct human’s gait. They teach you correct foot placement, use insteps to stop you walking on the outsides of your feet, and especially with children aid skeletal growth so that they are stronger and less prone to wear and tear. I’m going to direct you to a Michael McIntyre joke about learning to walk correctly now. Go on, have a laugh while you watch it and come back after to finish reading.

Anyway, whilst keeping things as natural as possible, regularly having your horse checked or trimmed by a farrier will help prevent problems developing. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people who go down the “self trimming” route see it as just letting a horse sort themselves out. Which would be fine if the horse had perfect conformation and lived over a variety of terrains, but as I said earlier, humans intervening with natural selection are responsible for less than good conformation in some horses so they need to help them where possible, so it’s important for barefoot horses to still see the farrier on a regular basis even if it’s just the condition of the feet that is checked, or as in Phoenix’s case a fortnight ago, only a tiny bit of shaping to rebalance them and encourage the hooves to grow in the preferred direction. I think also, that when a farrier is called out to a barefoot horse he feels obligated to trim so that the owner feels something has been done. But if the horse’s hooves have worn down through work then taking any more hoof off will only cause problems, so in that case maybe farriers should feel more able to say to an owner, “his feet look great, they’re in excellent condition but I won’t take any off because that may make him foot sore… shall we rebook for next month?”

Whilst talking to my farrier, he said that he views his job as assisting the horse. So he takes into account conformation, strength of the hoof horn, workload, management routine, and does as much or as little to the feet as each horse requires to make their job easier and them more comfortable.

The next interpretation of self trimming, is I guess, a more detailed and natural way of looking after horses feet, but is probably more time consuming and potentially more expensive than initially appears. The best place to read up about it is here – Rockley Farm website . Self trimming is still about minimal intervention and letting the horse’s hooves respond to their environment. Which means that a horse who has low mileage grows foot at a slower rate than one who does a lot of hacking and needs more hoof growth because they wear them down quicker. It’s also about providing a variety of surfaces for the horses. I get lost on the physiological benefits, but working on both hard and soft ground helps stimulate correct hoof density and growth. I think! It helps improve proprioception anyway, so horses will become sounder and have less variation in their stride length over different surfaces.

So self trimming is really about providing a variety of surfaces to best stimulate healthy hoof growth, either during turnout or by in hand exercise. Which again, is great. But you need the facilities! There are very few livery yards which even allow you to do a track system, let alone have different surfaces in their fields, and the surrounding area may not have suitable surfaces for encouraging self trimming. So this interpretation of self trimming may be leaving the hooves up to the horses, but it requires a lot of time invested by their handler in stimulating hoof growth, which just may not be possible for horse owners with full time jobs, family commitments, who also want to ride!

I think it will be really interesting to see how the barefoot movement develops, as I certainly think it has benefits. Before embarking on that journey though, amateur horse owners need to be aware of the need to provide a balanced diet to encourage healthy hoof growth, the fact that we keep horses in unnatural environments so don’t allow them to roam for miles over varied terrain and surfaces which help them to regulate their hoof growth, and that we work them on artificial surfaces which can be very abrasive. The idea of self trimming is great, but the realities of being able to follow a program such as Rockley is more time consuming than many are led to believe, so I think you have to meet halfway. Go barefoot if your horse can tolerate it; use your farrier’s guidance and expertise especially if they don’t take much off when they trim; use different surfaces that you have available but don’t be surprised if small trims or tidy ups are needed because their conformation or living circumstances require it.

Tack Trouble

Today I saw an interesting article doing the rounds on social media. You can have a peruse here.

Over a cup of tea I had a read of the article and all the comments from keyboard warriors. It made interesting reading for sure.

Now, I’m going to digress from the topic of the article, which is about a tack malfunction, onto the subject of tack in general.

As one commenter typed, I’m not a “tack nazi” and completely understand that some horses cannot be ridden in the classical snaffle and cavesson bridle. But I do think that as riders we should aim to have tack that is minimal so it doesn’t hinder the horse, and so that the tack clearly and precisely relays our aids to the horse. Regardless of the level of horse or rider, as I know some will say “well you try riding at 3* level”, well all I can say is that Michael Jung went around Badminton cross country in a snaffle so we can all aspire to be like him.

Anyway, the big issue I had with the horse’s tack in question was the amount of conflicting tack and how much clutter there was on the horse.

I feel that everyone should put more consideration into the reasons why they want to put a piece of tack on a horse, and the mechanics behind said piece of tack. And not use it because their horse “looks pretty in that bridle” or because everyone else is using that noseband.

For example, a gag works on poll pressure, so you wouldn’t use it on a horse who is sensitive over the poll, or one who already raises his head.

Of course, some horses haven’t read the manual and work well with tack that theoretically shouldn’t suit them. But I’m talking in general.

Then, I think tack should compliment each other. For example, if you have a cutaway headpiece to reduce poll pressure, as in the article above, then it doesn’t make sense (in my humble opinion) to fit a tight browband which puts pressure around the ears and pulls the headpiece forwards. Nor would I put a bit which works on the poll on a bridle which is cutaway so it doesn’t touch the poll …

Tack has come on hugely in the last twenty years, and companies like Fairfax have done scientific research on the effects of tack on horse stride length, muscle tension, etc. So we can make more informed decisions on what we use on our horses. There is also far more choice. Which means that if a piece of tack, for example a bit, doesn’t suit your horse you can find an alternative. A lot of companies even do trial periods on tack which can be a more cost effective alternative if you’re trying out a variety of items.

The horse in this article is wearing two breast plates and a running martingale, which shows that the saddle slips back when jumping. Which is a common complaint with fit eventers. Off the top of my head. I can think of half a dozen breast plates or breast girths which work on different ways, and suit different builds of horse, so if I was looking after this horse I’d be tempted to try different styles, and incorporate the running martingale, in order to find the breast plate which bear suits this particular horse. So the saddle is stabilised and there is less clutter on the horse, which can potentially hinder their movement.

I don’t mind what bit or tack riders use within reason, but I do think it’s important to consider why you are using this piece of equipment, and bear in mind that less is more so that communication between horse and rider is not hindered by straps sitting on top of each other, or pressure points caused by multiple straps. Tack should enhance a horse’s performance, not hinder it.

Returning to the article in question. Perhaps the rider has found the best combination of tack for this horse, and he’s certainly thinking outside the box, but in that case could he not work with a bridle maker to make a bespoke bridle which is less cluttered or confusing? For both horse and observer!

Without becoming a keyboard warrior or slating others, I think this article serves as a reminder to everyone to think carefully about their tackroom choices; bearing in mind how tack fits a horse and how it works because their comfort and wellbeing is our top priority.

Phoenix Goes Showjumping

Any journey with horses is full of ups and downs. They are excellent creatures for keeping your feet firmly on the floor. I’ve been lucky so far that Phoenix and I have basically been on a smooth ride, but we were bound to encounter a couple of ruts in the road soon.

Two weeks ago Phoenix had her final massage as my friend’s case study and then had a long weekend off while we were away. On the Tuesday I lunged her and she was a bit fresh – trotting quickly, cantering before being asked, reluctant to come back to trot, that sort of thing. So I just let her get it all out of her system and then on Wednesday I lunged her again with her sensible head back on and she went nicely, relaxing and swinging along nicely.

Over the weekend, Phoenix had been plagued by little black flies around her ears, so she was feeling sensitive when I put the bridle and headcollar on. I cleaned them out as much as I could, and found an old fly mask of Otis’s for her to try. I wasn’t sure if she’d had a mask on before so wanted to trial her before buying her one of her own. Unfortunately this one didn’t have ears, so as soon as I saw that Phoenix kept a mask on and was comfortable with it, I ordered one of her own. As well as ensuring it had ear covers, I also got a UV proof nose net to protect her white nose.

Thursday and Friday I rode, avoiding the heavy downpours, but she was a bit tenser than I’d have liked. I put it down to her finding it harder to stay balanced in the wetter arena, her ears being a bit tender, and the fact she’d had a week off from schooling but by the end of Friday she was feeling normal again.

On Sunday I took her to a showjumping training venue. We’re so lucky to have such a fabulous arena and set of jumps so local. It was only the fifth time I’d jumped her under saddle, and the aim of the session was mostly to work well in a new environment, to link some fences together be them poles on the ground or small cross poles, and to see some fillers in the arena. It was a very positive experience; Phoenix took it all in her stride, building up from trotting over poles to cantering related distances, and finishing by jumping a little course. We had a couple of duff take off points, but I loved that she was calm and confident throughout. Here`s a link to a video on YouTube – https://youtu.be/vJrJ9PRH7Lk

As she’d worked so hard on Sunday, and probably used muscles which don’t get used very often, Phoenix had Monday off and then a gentle hack on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday we had the saddle fitter again. The good news is that she’s slimmed down to a wide gullet bar, and has changed shape enormously as she’s developing muscle. The bad news is that although the jump saddle was fitted to her, she didn’t like it and refused to move! I highly doubt that she has worn a saddle of that style before so my plan is to hack her to gently get her used to the shorter tree points, the different weight distribution, and it sitting slightly further back on her body. Throughout the saddle fit she went awfully. She was incredibly tense, choppy in her stride, fixed in her neck and shooting off in canter. Saddle fits are always a rush job in the sense that the saddler wants to see all three gaits, whereas in a schooling session I’d work on relaxation, stretching, and her balance in walk and trot before having a canter. The net result was that I came away disappointed and feeling that we haven’t made any progress.

That afternoon I had chance to reflect on everything. I think I underestimate how sensitive to change Phoenix is. Even my dressage saddle would have felt different to her, and the jump saddle is a completely new sensation, so I would take her back to basics on our next ride: walk and trot, getting her relaxed and working over her back again. Her new fly mask had arrived so hopefully in a couple of days her sensitivity around her ears would reduce because she was definitely unhappy in this area. I had also possibly underestimated the after effects of Sunday. The jumps weren’t big and she hadn’t seemed overly tired, but it was a lot of new things to digest and process, so although her muscles may have recovered, her brain might still be suffering from information overload. The final thing I thought of, and I was prompted by my saddler, is that Phoenix is wearing Otis’s bridle which is a bit on the big side so getting shorter cheek pieces would reduce the pressure just below her ears. I’m now researching different bridles to see what’s out there and what I should be considering for her.

On Thursday we had our back to basics session, using the dressage saddle and my friend’s Micklem bridle as it has good results with tense horses. Phoenix started off very tight and tense, but by the end she was trotting in a much more relaxed way, stretching down and forwards to the contact. Did the bridle make a difference? The stretching moments were some of her best, but whether that’s because I managed to release the tension or if she was used to how the dressage saddle was now sitting, or even if she liked the fit of the bridle. Who knows!

Today I gave her a quick lunge and she was back to stretching nicely again, so hopefully we’ve negotiated the little ruts in our road. I will make sure that her next saddle fit I have warmed her up more, and ensure that it’s at a time when I can give her a few days to adjust to any changes.

Suppleness Bootcamp

Fed up with the same comments on her dressage sheets regarding lack of suppleness, one of my clients is sending her mare to a suppleness bootcamp.

She’s been working on suppleness for a while, but with school, jumping, winter weather, and general life, her pony’s flexibility has improved, but not as much as I’d like so the only way is to make it our sole focus.

There are a couple of things they can change in their daily routine which will have a positive impact over a couple of weeks.

Firstly, I suggested they fit carrot stretches into their day. I do Phoenix’s on the way to the field, usually just outside the gate, but having a regular slot means I don’t forget the carrots or to do them. Just a couple of stretches every day will make all the difference.

Secondly, my rider needs to get into the mindset of circles. It’s very easy to troll around the arena putting in a circle at A. Then another at C, and so on. So I challenged my rider to ride five different sized circles on each lap of the school. I also want her to begin to use four loop serpentines and demi voltes to change the rein.

The joints of a horse, or any animal for that matter, are stabilised by tendons, ligaments and muscles, all of which work in different directions. If a horse is lacking suppleness it is usually because the muscles in one direction around a joint are tight and contracted. For example, if a horse finds it hard to move their leg forwards it’s because the muscles at the back (involved in moving the limb backwards) aren’t relaxing for whatever reason. If a horse has damaged the muscle then they’ll be lame, but it’s it’s just muscle tension then they’ll lack suppleness. Does this make sense? So as well as the muscles on the opposite side of the limb affecting movement, the muscles either side will too. Which means that in order to create a truly supple horse you not only have to work on the forwards and backwards movement, but also the adduction and abduction of their limbs.

I devised a bit of a course for this pair, which would work all areas of the pony’s body and hopefully by improving the movement in each direction the mare would start to swing over her back more, become more connected and ultimately more supple.

On one three quarter line I laid out five trotting poles. Over the course of the session I raised them into cavaletti. The poles encouraged the mare to lengthen her stride slightly and then to improve her cadence by lifting each limb higher. Increasing cadence requires more flexion at the shoulder and hip; both areas which when tight can limit suppleness.

Then at A they had to ride a circle. This was partly to give them time to prepare for the next three quarter line, but also to get both rider and horse turning on the circle. Their circle was fifteen metres but it could be made smaller to increase the difficulty level. I had my rider thinking about the inside hindleg on the circle, and making sure there was a uniform bend through her pony’s body, and minimal inside rein being used!

Down the next three quarter line I had them leg yield towards the track to improve adduction and abduction, which releases the lateral muscles. Again, we focused on feeling the inside hind leg coming under and pushing them over, rather than the outside shoulder dragging them across.

After a few goes on each rein, I was thrilled to see the mare taking her head out and stretching from the base of her neck as her length of stride increases and she floated along, swinging over her back. They had a good trot whilst stretching. And they really stretched; far more than I’ve seen them do before.

We’ve been improving their canter to step up to novice dressage, so repeated the exercises in canter. Again, working the limbs a little bit in each direction improved the stride length and overall quality of the gait.

For me, the pair showed real improvement, and the mare did some super stretching, showing that she’s really worked her muscles hard. I want to continue along this theme over the next few weeks, adding in some shoulder in type of exercises as well as varieties of polework so we’re improving the mare’s flexibility in all directions.

Learning the Seat Aids

When kids learn to ride it’s very much about the reins steering and stopping while the leg kicks to say go. I understand why kids are taught this way: cognitively they can’t comprehend multiple aids simultaneously or the concept of the seat, and they often aren’t strong enough to apply the aids and to get a response from their pony given that most of the time the ratio between child and pony is greater than between adult and horse. I think there is also an element that in the riding school environment many kids take up riding for a year before moving onto the next fad, and you’re more likely to retain their business by them seeing results. Don’t let me go off on a tangent about cutting corners to accomplish said results …

This means that at some point, a child has to learn to ride like an adult, and learn about the finesse of the seat and leg aids. Their equitation world is turned on it’s head as they come to terms with this. Unfortunately though, the majority of ponies only respond to the childish aids of stop, start, steer.

Picking the right time to introduce this whole new world to a young rider can be difficult. They have to be at an age that they’ll understand these concepts, and they have to be able to apply the aids and get a response – this depends on the pony being responsive and the child being strong enough to engage their leg and seat.

Recently, one of my young clients has progressed onto another of my client’s old ponies. This gem of a pony was schooled very well by a little girl who loved dressage, so he is fully aware of the correct aids, even if he hasn’t had to use them recently. And my young rider is a great thinker, and has a good natural feel, so I feel will be able to understand the adult aids. Once she’d ridden him a few times and got used to his bigger strides and more eager walk, I decided it was time.

After they’d warmed up in trot with some circles and changes of rein I asked my rider how her turns felt. Where she was predominantly asking with her inside rein, her pony fell in and she said the turns felt sharp and sudden. Which I thought was a good analogy.

I explained that we were going to start riding more like adults and start using aids that no one else could see. She liked the idea of this, so in walk I first asked her to put a little bit of weight into her inside seat bone at the corners as she turned her body in the direction she was moving. I told her I didn’t want to see her leaning, it was just a little bit of weight.

After riding a few corners like this I asked her to do less with her inside rein. She felt her turns were less sudden.

Next, I added a second stage. Putting the outside leg on to push her pony around the turns. She did this so effectively that her pony almost pirouetted! So we added the inside leg.

At each corner I gave her the direction “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” so she applied each aid consecutively. Which she did and their turns got smoother. Still in walk, we started circling. Her inside hand was barely moving now, just coming into effect if her pony was drifting out on the circle. Their circles got rounder and bigger, as before they tended to be ten metre circles rather than fifteen metres and more of a semi circle shape.

After a change of rein and practicing the turning aids on the other rein, we progressed to trotting circles and changes of rein focusing on the “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” aids.

I think my rider really benefited from seeing an immediate result from applying these new aids, and could feel how much more balanced her pony was around the turns when she wasn’t using her inside rein to turn.

The big question, at the end of the lesson, was for her to ride a smooth serpentine, which requires coordination to change her inside and outside. Apart from the loops not being that even in size, I was pleased with how fluid the movement was.

For me, the biggest proof was the following lesson after we’d revised the new aids and were doing some balance exercises with her hands. Holding onto her reins with her outside hand, she was circling her inside arm whilst trotting large. However, because the arena is so long we’d only been using half. As she reached E, she turned her body (still circling), applied the inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg, and made a beautiful turn across the school. This really brought home to her how she doesn’t need to use her reins to steer, and hopefully consolidated what we’d learnt.

Chestnut Mares – Fact or Fiction?

Everyone groans when you mention chestnut mares. I saw someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of years today and we were updating each other on our equines. When I mentioned that Phoenix was a mare, she groaned. And when I mentioned that she was chestnut, she groaned again.

It really does seem like chestnut mares are all tarnished with the same brush, and widely regarded as melodramatic, emotional, high maintenance sociopaths.

So tonight, I thought I’d look into it.

Firstly, I guess is the fact that mares are considered harder to handle than geldings. You know the saying …

Tell a gelding. Ask a stallion. Discuss it with a mare.

Geldings are usually the most docile to handle because they have the least hormones affecting their mood. Mares have their ovulation cycle which causes a fluctuation in hormone levels, which can cause them to become more emotional and affect their behaviour. Exactly the same as with humans females! And just like with humans, some mares are more affected by their oestrus cycle than others.

So mares can be more sensitive and delicate to handle than geldings, but this applies to all shades of mare, but to what extent depends on the individual and their hormone levels.

Next up, is the chestnut aspect. I did have to look this up. One gene, the extension locus, determines whether a horse is chestnut, black or bay by altering the production of black versus red pigment. The gene has no influence on temperament at all.

There are a number of other coat colours that are a modified version of chestnut which we don’t associate with quirkiness – strawberry roan, palomino, cremello, skewbalds. These colours are all identical at a genetic level, at the extension locus to chestnut horses. And the extension locus is the only thing which makes a solid chestnut horse different to a black or bay in the first place.

This means that there is no genetic reason for a chestnut horse to be more sensitive than other colours. I read a saying in my research, which seemed very apt.

A good horse has no colour,

Perhaps it is our prejudice of redheads being volatile that is projected onto chestnut horse, which causes us to behave differently towards them and to expect then to be more flighty?

Then I remembered an article I read a couple of years ago about skin colour and sensitivity. It is said, although I can’t find any scientific research, that chestnut horses have thinner skin so are more prone to tack sores and more affected by flies and skin problems, such as rain scald. I’d like to see more convincing evidence rather than just observations before making a conclusion.

In my experience with Phoenix, the chestnut mare adage doesn’t hold true. She doesn’t seem to suffer mood fluctuations due to her hormones, nor do I feel that I have to negotiate work with her any more than other horses. I don’t think she’d like to be told what to do like a gelding, but that’s not really the approach I take to riding anyway. I would say that she does seem to have sensitive skin, much preferring the soft body brush rather than a dandy brush, even on her woolly hindquarters. Her summer coat is far thinner and finer than Otis’s, which could be colour-related genetics, or just her individuality. Either way, I don’t think she, or any chestnut mare, deserves the reputation that equestrians give them. Prejudiced handlers have a set of expectations from chestnut mares which can cause them to be put in situations where they will behave unfavourably, and shape their behaviour to meet their expectations which creates a self fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately I think it is a case of a couple of hormonal, temperamental mares, perhaps with very sensitive skin which causes tension or pain, who just happened to be chestnut, creating a bad name of chestnut mares everywhere. So yes, buy a chestnut mare, but remember to have your eyes open to their sensibilities,

Phoenix’s Lesson

On Saturday we took Phoenix for our first dressage lesson. It went very smoothly, with her walking straight onto the trailer, travelling well and being perfectly behaved during the lesson, impressing our trainer. She behaved like an old hand, not being distracted by her surroundings, working beautifully and trying her hardest in the new exercises and then showing a definite improvement by the end. A very successful outing.

I thought I’d share our lesson exercises with you and why we used them.

Just like humans, horses have a degree of asymmetry. Using school movements to improve their suppleness and flexibility helps them develop even muscle tone, and creates a straighter, more symmetrical horse who is less likely to injure themselves because their limbs are sharing the workload. I won’t say evenly because although each limb may be taking 25% of the workload at prelim level, at Grand Prix level the hindlimbs are taking more of the horse’s weight and subsequently the workload, than the forelimbs. But Phoenix is still at prelim level so we will keep things simple.

One of the first things I noticed when riding Phoenix was that she likes to load her left shoulder, which is her way of compensating for having a lazy right hind. Not in a bad way, but in the same way that the left hand of a right handed person is slightly weaker than their right hand. I’ve been working on encouraging Phoenix to carry herself straighter and by working her evenly on both reins to ensure her muscles develop evenly. I introduced some leg yield on a circle last week as she now understands the idea of moving away from the leg rather than going faster.

I should also point out that when my masseuse friend assessed Phoenix for her case study she noted that the left side of her wither was slightly more developed than the right. You can see the slight asymmetry in the photo below.

Back to our lesson. After warming up by getting Phoenix to stretch in walk, which she’s really getting the hang of, and then a trot on both reins. My trainer agreed that leg yield was the right route to go down to help engage the right hind leg and take the weight from the left shoulder.

On the right rein I began walking a twenty metre circle, making sure there wasn’t too much bend through Phoenix’s neck. When a horse loads one shoulder they tend to jackknife their body and over bend and the base of the neck and not bend at all through their barrel. This leads to lose of the outside rein and a tendency to compensate by pulling on the inside rein. Anyway, we spiralled in on the circle before leg yielding her out. In leg yield the inside hindleg steps under and towards the centre of the body to lift and push the horse sideways. By leg yielding to the left, Phoenix has to engage her right hindleg. I could feel the push as it came into effect and the walk became lighter, and more through. Now because the leg yield on the circle can allow a horse to drift through the outside shoulder as much as being pushed by the inside hindleg we repeated the exercise but with counter flexion which would make Phoenix use her right hind even more so, and make sure that her left shoulder wasn’t working too hard. To create the counter flexion I Mel my body turning to the right, towards the circle and used my outside rein to encourage Phoenix to look slightly left. There was a little bit of left leg here too. This time as we leg yielded out on the circle I felt that Phoenix understood the exercise more and used her right hindleg more purposefully. Once I’d finished the exercise we had a little trot to feel how much straighter and more balanced the trot now felt.

Moving onto the left rein. As I spiralled in in this direction I had to make sure Phoenix maintained left bend and didn’t fall onto her left shoulder and then when I leg yielded out we cheated a bit. The first time I let her drift a little through the right shoulder, so as to help level out her shoulders. It’s easier said than done to ride a movement badly when you know how to ride it correctly! The second time we did it more correctly. Letting her drift is a short term activity to help bring her off her left shoulder, and I only need to do it if she’s finding the movement hard. Whilst on the big circle on the left rein I then leg yielded her to the left on the circle. This sounds strange, but basically I kept Phoenix in slight right bend and pushed her hindquarters to the left, and slightly to the middle of the circle. This was to allow Phoenix to rediscover her right hindleg. The subsequent trot was beautiful! Very light and balanced, and each hindleg stepping under nicely.

After another walk break and stretch during which we discussed the canter, we had a look at it. Obviously Phoenix is green in the canter, so I use our lunging sessions to allow her to find her balance in the transitions and the canter itself. I find that her canter on the lunge is quite steady and looking more balanced. But under saddle she is rushing, uptight and setting her neck against me. One factor is the fact that Phoenix is having to learn to canter with my weight, but I had noticed that she was less strong when I jumped her last week. I already had a theory, but my trainer confirmed it. As I ask Phoenix to canter and she runs a little in the transition I automatically half halt and try to hold her together, as I would with Otis. Phoenix doesn’t like and isn’t ready for the interference so just leans against my hand as she finds it harder to find her canter balance. When I jump my mindset is slightly different so I allow a bigger canter and so she finds her own balance and carries herself. I needed someone on the ground reminding me to relax my hands. Which he did and after a dozen strides of each canter Phoenix was feeling more balanced and I felt like we were working together more.

As Phoenix assumes that after canter work comes more canter work we had a trot to finish. This started with rushed, choppy strides but once she realised trot was the name of the game she relaxed and gave a lovely balanced trot whilst stretching her neck down nicely.

We’ve got plenty to work on over the next few weeks but I was very pleased with how Phoenix performed. Perhaps it’s time to look out for a local dressage competition!