A Daunting Task

I taught a very daunting lesson earlier this week with a guinea pig rider.

She entered the arena with a rather snazzy looking Spanish horse, bedecked in a double bridle. 

The rider was very confident, as she was legged up onto the jogging mare. I made the necessary enquiries to tick the box:

  • What’s the rider’s name, riding experience, qualifications, medical history.
  • What’s the horse’s name, experience, history and medical history.
  • What was the horse and rider relationship.

This girl was a Stage IV rider and this was her new horse, recently come over from Spain. It could do all the lateral movements but didn’t have a competition record.

Gulp.

What on earth should I teach them?!

I admit, I felt slightly out of my depth. I take a while to get into my groove, especially with confident riders because I get a bit intimidated. The horse was also a far higher calibre than I’ve taught before.

I started the session by watching them warm up. It gave me time to think. The trot was choppy and short striding; the canter was bouncy and tense and this rider said that whilst the horse didn’t feel like she was going to bolt, she was strong. The mare tried to evade the contact by tucking her nose to her chest. The rider had a good balanced position, and secure lower leg. If I’m going to be really picky, she was a bit collapsed in her upper body, and had a tendency to fix her hands.

I had a plan. Despite the horse’s high level of training, there were some basic elements that we could improve. Equally though, the mare was hot and quick thinking, so needed to be kept mentally stimulated. 

I explained to my rider that I felt we should work on relaxing the mare, and getting her to take the contact forwards, instead of tucking behind the bridle. As the mare was a busy type, I suggested we used leg yield to get the mare stepping under with her inside hind leg and taking the contact forwards. Our focus being on the neck staying long and the mare relaxing.

We started in walk, and immediately it was obvious that the mare is very talented with an extravagant crossover. She easily leg yielded from the three-quarter line to the track. However, as with any big mover, she had the tendency to escape from her rider – in the leg yield the rider tends to lose her outside shoulder. 

Once we moved into the trot the loss of the outside shoulder was more noticeable, so I brought my riders   attention to her outside rein contact, making sure it prevented too much inside flexion and supported the outside shoulder. Then I highlighted how she was pinning her inside rein by the wither, so encouraging the mare to turn to the inside and fall through the outside shoulder. As soon as that hand was carried forwards the leg yield improved because they were straight. Then we turned our attention to keeping the trot rhythm consistent through the movement.

After working on both reins I felt there was a slight improvement; the rider was more in tune with the horse, who was starting to lengthen her neck and was moving laterally in a more relaxed manner.

I didn’t want to work on the canter – no need to over complicate matters – so we moved on to zig zag leg yielding. This was to ensure the mare wasn’t anticipating going from the three-quarter line to the track, and was responsive to the riders outside leg. The rider also had to make more subtle aids and change her position slowly as she changed direction so as to help maintain their balance. We talked about which direction was easier: the left leg yield was more extravagant but felt less controlled, than the right which had less crossing but was straighter and with no rushing. 

By the end of the session I felt the mare was much improved, with a longer trot stride, and more relaxed and consistent in her frame. I did mention to her rider about trying her in just a snaffle bridle to establish a consistent contact, and to get the horse seeking it more, but I think as it’s early days in their relationship it might be an exercise for the future. This rider gave me positive feedback, and seemed to understand the lesson concept and reasoning behind it, so hopefully I’ve helped her. 

Now that I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and managed to survive I actually reflect on that lesson in a positive light, and would quite like to teach this pair in the future.

Building Expression

I was schooling a horse recently who has very correct and established paces, but isn’t the biggest mover so often has average marks in a dressage test as he lacks the “wow” factor. So I had a play at building some expression into his work.

Once I’d warmed him up long and low, stretching over his back, and had done some lateral work, I opened him up into some medium trot. He lengthened nicely from behind, but he could have given more.

I was riding in a large arena, and you need to have one which is more that 20m wide in order to ride this exercise.

In trot, establish shoulder in at the beginning of the long side. Halfway along, ride out of the shoulder in onto a 45 degree turn, so you effectively cut the corner off, and ask some medium trot. When you reach the short side, approximately halfway along, stay on the same rein in working trot. 

The shoulder in collects the horse, gets their inside hind leg underneath them and taking their weight. Which means it’s in a better position to push forwards to medium trot. The turn onto the diagonal line ensures they don’t fall out of the outside shoulder as you ride out of shoulder in and ask for medium trot. Staying on the same rein after the medium trot makes the exercise simpler as they don’t need to change bend, so keep their balance easier and maintain the impulsion into working trot.

The result is a more extravagant and powerful medium trot and an expressive working trot, which is still rhythmical and balanced, yet would earn more marks in a dressage test. 

It’s a fun exercise, so try putting it together next time you ride and see if you can feel the improvement in their general way of going as a result.

Inputting Impulsion

With one of my young riders we’re slowly working through the scales of training; getting her to understand, apply and improve her pony. Rhythm and suppleness have improved, and she has now grasped the feel of a good contact, and knows how to ride her pony into the contact when he hollows and comes above the bit.

So our next phase is to improve and increase their impulsion. I always explain to clients that basically impulsion is energy without speed; when energy is the purposefulness, or desire to go forwards. 

But it can be tricky for riders to generate the impulsion without losing the first two stages – rhythm and suppleness. 

When I asked my client for some suggestions to generate some impulsion into the trot, she replied by telling me that when she uses her leg to put in some energy her pony gets faster. Which didn’t really answer my question, but was a valid observation. I explained why her pony, who is a jumping machine, thought leg meant faster and how he pulls himself forwards, instead of using his hindquarters.

She still hadn’t worked out how to improve her pony’s impulsion, so I brought in a bit of maths.

If she adds energy to her horse but also gets speed, then she should use this to help improve the amount of energy he has in his gait. Then, when the energy is established, she can take away the speed. Once the speed is taken away, she is left with impulsion.

Then my rider suggested she could use medium trot to create impulsion. I agreed, and off she went.

Along the long sides of the school she focused on putting energy into the trot; feeling her pony use his hindquarters, and not losing the rhythm. Then as she approached the short side, she had to take away the speed. By the time she’d done a few transitions she could feel the improvement in the trot, so we added in circles to practice maintaining the impulsion for longer. 

Now she’s got the feeling of a more purposeful trot we can focus on maintaining this level of impulsion for longer periods, and then maintaining it on circles and school movements, checking that the rhythm and suppleness aren’t inhibited. 

Working through the scales of training is like peeling an onion; each time you introduce another level, or increase the difficulty, then you need to revisit the previous levels to ensure total understanding by horse and rider, and to make sure the horse continues to work correctly and to  improve. After all, if one of the building blocks starts to erode as you move up the levels and you don’t fix it then the whole thing falls down. 

Directly or Indirectly?

I started explaining to one of the kids this week about the direct and indirect aids. They sometimes get lost in translation and are easily confused. I’ve read many woolly explanations, but by far this one is the clearest – Holistic equitation.

When you first learn to ride, and most kids continue to do so, you learn that the inside rein steers the horse in the direction you want, and the outside leg pushes them there. Or words to that effect.

The rein used in this instance is the direct rein. Put simply, it is brought backwards to encourage the horse to turn in the direction of the pressure. Holistic Equitation explain the mechanics of this well: the direct rein causes the weight to go to the inside foreleg and the hindquarters to pivot out, like a motorcycle round a corner.

However, once a rider is co-ordinated and reaches a certain level of understanding, it’s time to introduce the indirect rein. This is the outside bend of the horse. Wikipedia describes it as pulling back but I don’t think that’s correct – perhaps not going forward is a more correct way of thinking of it. The indirect rein can close to the outside shoulder, towards the horse’s centre of gravity without crossing the wither, and is used to regulate the amount of neck bend, to support the outside shoulder and is vital for performing lateral movements. The indirect rein transfers the weight to the centre of the horse’s body and into the opposite hind leg (the inside hind). The shoulders then pivot around the weighted hind leg, like a skier doing a slalom. 

I introduced this concept to a young rider this week because she’d fallen into the classic trap of pulling her inside rein, letting the outside hand go forwards as she turned, which let the pony twist his neck and drift through the outside shoulder. Her pony now exploits this on the left rein. As the left hand comes back he curls his neck so the right hand goes forward, and he drops his shoulder to turn right on the last quarter of the circle.

I kept the concept simple as she’s only young, and did some work on keeping her hands as a pair and creating an awareness of where they were. Then I focused her attention on using more outside leg and less inside rein, which kept her pony straighter. And stopped her actively giving the outside rein away. 

I don’t think she’s quite ready, physically or mentally, to fully grasp how to use her reins directly or indirectly, but I hope that the seeds are sown so that she’s aware of how to control her pony’s outside shoulder, and stop him drifting out and then dropping his shoulder to turn right. As soon as my rider kept her indirect rein, and kept her upper body tall, her pony trotted the circles perfectly! Once this is mastered, all school movements will become straight forward and her pony will oblige readily.

 Often I think the indirect aids aren’t introduced, in a simple level, early enough in a rider’s education which means that they are always more reliant on the direct rein and will always struggle with the finer movements at any dressage level as their horse will come out of a movement unbalanced and develop bad habits and a poor way of going which puts them at a higher risk of injury.

Moulding Them

I had fun earlier this week whilst schooling a horse, putting into practice some tips I’d read in a Carl Hester article.

Carl described the benefits of working a horse in a frame he finds difficult. For example, try to lengthen the frame of a short-coupled horse, or to condense the frame of a long horse. He also talked about how a trainable horse was one who allowed you to manipulate his and position him however you like. For example, riding collected gaits in a long frame.

So I thought I’d give this a go. One of the horses I ride is a long horse, and I’ve been really focusing on developing his top line recently. There’s now neck muscle, which I’m really pleased about, but as he has a long neck we need to keep building his strength.

Have you ever thought about why a weak horse will carry their head up, brachiocephalic muscle working, and neck short? It’s all to do with levers – I knew maths A-level would come in useful one day! 

The head is heavy, so carrying it at the end of the neck, as in the long and low frame, is harder for a horse because the back and abdominals have to work harder to balance the head. A bit like the fact that if you lift a box up and carry it close to your body it’s much easier than if you held the box at arms length. If you want more of a mathematical explanation then the internet is your best friend, and there are hundreds of video explanations, which are far better than my rusty decade-old knowledge. 

Back to horses. A horse with a weak topline will shorten their neck, brace the underside muscles and hold it higher to save their back muscles from working. Which is what this long horse I ride used to do. All hacks consist of him lengthening his neck, and lowering his head. I know it’s taxing for him because usually about three quarters of the way round, he’ll start throwing his head around to evade working. Our schooling has been predominantly long and low based, and I’m pleased with how easily he is managing this now. 

Due to his long neck and body, it’s actually harder for him to develop the necessary muscles to hold himself in the long and low position because the muscles are longer than in a short coupled horse, so take longer to strengthen. But he’s got it in the walk and working trot, for sure.

I’ve been moving onto developing the medium and collected trot with him. Shortening his stride length is harder for him, and I felt a couple of weeks ago that he was getting tight in his neck and blocking over his back: hindering the progress I’d made with building his topline. This is where Carl Hester came in. This week I established working trot in a long and low frame, before playing around at shortening and lengthening his neck and frame whilst maintaining the rhythm and balance of his working trot. 

Once he’d got the idea of this, I put him back into a long and low frame before asking him to shorten his strides. Because I’d already shown him how to position his head and neck where I wanted to in a trot he was comfortable in, whenever he got tight and shortened his neck with the collected strides I could lengthen his frame without losing the collection. 

We played around with this for a while, and I could feel his back staying engaged and him becoming more malleable so I could position him precisely. Obviously it was baby steps of shortening, but at least now he’s doing it correctly and maintaining impulsion and “throughness” so I can build on it over the next few weeks. 

After a little break, I turned to the canter. He can get very long in the canter so I’ve been working on balancing it, getting his hindlegs underneath him a bit more and generally shortening his frame a bit so that he can canter a 15 or 20m circle rather than a 30 or 35m circle! However, he needs to release his brachiocephalic muscle in the canter, which will allow the gait to become more uphill and rideable. 

Once he was trotting in a long and low frame I asked for canter. His head came up initially but slowly I managed to get him to drop his nose slightly  and soften his neck whilst using my seat to maintain the steadier canter. 

This one is work in progress, but the idea of being able to shorten or lengthen the neck whilst almost doing the opposite with the body will make the horse more trainable, supple, strong and balanced. Give it a go next time you’re schooling and you’ll be surprised at how hard they have to work to collect the trot whilst balancing the lever that is their neck. I’m hoping that by practising, this horse will build his trapezius muscle, have better posture, and have a more toned barrel because of his abdominals being toned. Which all reduces the chance of him injuring himself.

Riding Deep

When people talk about riding a horse deep, you (or at least I) immediately start thinking of rolkur. But rolkur is the extreme.

Let’s start by talking about what is riding a horse deep. A deep frame is when the horse’s nose is pointing towards the knees, the neck rounded and the topline stretched, and poll no longer the highest point. There’s a fine line between being deep and being hyper flexed, i.e. Rolkur – I saw an explanation that stated that rolkur is when the nose is towards the chest, rather than knee, for a prolonged length of time. The important thing when observing or riding a horse in a deep frame is that the hindquarters are still pushing through actively and they are not behind the contact with a short, tight neck.

So why do we ride horses deep? Rolkur is the sin of all sins, but often competition riders warming up will ride a horse deeply for a few minutes, treading along the delicate line. Firstly, I guess it is a good stretch for the topline muscles, and putting a horse deep for a few strides will improve the horse’s way of going when you revert to the classical position, of poll being the highest point and nose on the vertical as the back muscles are more released so are lifted and more supple.

Secondly, if you have a spooky horse, riding them round and deep can improve your control and prevent them spooking as you can position them more easily into shoulder in. Then once they’ve settled to work you can encourage them to lift the poll.

Some horses naturally put themselves in a deep frame. I think this can be partly due to conformation, and partly due to past training. One horse I ride is very spooky so I tend to have her a little bit deep when warming her up so I get some decent work, rather than numerous sideways jumps. Once she’s settled to work and her focus is on me I start to encourage her to lengthen her neck into a longer and lower position. This tests her balance quite a lot because the head and neck count for a significant percentage of the horse’s weight, and just like it’s harder to carry a weight out away from your body, it’s harder for them to carry their heads further away from their body. I’m sure a mathematician could provide a lecture about levers here, but I’ll leave that to them. So in this case, being able to adjust her frame makes her more rideable.

If you’re riding a horse that likes to put themselves a bit deep, how do you encourage them into the classical position of their nose on the vertical? Firstly, a horse can go over bent if the hand is too restrictive, or if they are not coming through from the hindquarters. So check that your reins aren’t too short or your hands heavy. Then do some transitions to help activate the hindquarters and improve their suppleness over their back, keeping your attention on the feeling underneath the saddle rather than how the front end looks.

Once these corrections have been made then you can turn your attention to actively correcting the horse as they tuck their neck in. When you feel the neck tucking in and the nose dropping, keep your legs long and wrap them around the barrel, to lift the horse up and to encourage them to engage their abdominals. Feel that your pushing the horse from the leg into the hand and as the horse moves into the contact, allow the hand to move up the neck to encourage the horse to lengthen his neck as he seeks the contact. This doesn’t want to be a big movement because the horse needs to find the contact so they don’t lose confidence in your empty promises. Keeping your shoulders up will also help the horse by not overloading the forehand. 

These corrections to their balance is very subtle and should be done as frequently as the horse tucks behind the contact and gets deep. Then hopefully they will learn and strengthen this new frame. Lunging in side reins is also quite useful so long as the side reins are slightly on the long side and you actively get the hindquarters pushing forwards, otherwise you risk tying the horse’s head in. You always want to encourage the horse to be stretching forwards towards the contact.

The aim of correcting a horse who likes to work deeply is to encourage them to lengthen the neck out, but as I said earlier it’s hard for them so build it up by tiny increments and remember that they will tire quickly. Matt has a tendency to get a bit deep, when he stops tracking up and forgets to push with his hind legs, but just closing the leg and letting my hands inch forwards puts him back into the classical frame with his nose on the vertical and gets his back swinging nicely again.

We had this issue, if that’s the correct word, on a lesson earlier this week when one of the mares I was teaching with decided to demonstrate hyperflexion. Her rider wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I think the mare was evading using her back (which is tight, and work in progress) by curling her neck to her chest. While I desperately hoped no one thought I was encouraging this behaviour, I asked my rider to squeeze with her legs and then allow with the hand when the mare lifted her head and neck. A “good girl” when she’s corrected herself and hopefully as the mare gets more supple and stronger in her back she will find it easier to carry herself properly and we’ll see less of her curling her neck down.

Giving and Retaking Reins

I did this lesson a few weeks ago. Time flies as I wanted to blog about it almost immediately but I haven’t gotten around to it until now.

I feel that giving and retaking of reins is often overlooked, yet it appeased in most dresssage test. But it can be a really useful tool if a rider has tight arms or carries tension in the shoulders. Likewise, if they tend to over ride and focus too much on what’s going on in front of them then it can be a good “resetting “exercise to rebalance the rider’s mind and balance of their aids. For a horse who relies heavily on the hand, giving and retaking the reins teaches them some independence, and can encourage self-carriage. It can also prevent them getting too tight and resistant in the neck, and thus improve the overall gait because the back softens to connect the hindquarters to the forehand.

Once the riders had warmed up I ran through the plan for the lesson. Initially in the trot they would give the inside rein on the long side of the arena. There should be no change in the horse’s trot; the rhythm and balance shouldn’t change. The outside fence supports the horse so they shouldn’t wobble off the track. We worked on the rider’s giving the rein away slowly and then retaking it carefully so that no tension was created in the horse’s neck or change in the horse’s way of going. It took a couple of attempts, but soon the horses were staying consistent in their frame. Then we progressed to giving away the inside rein for a few strides on circles: this proves how much the rider relies on the inside rein on circles, and it emphasises the importance of the leg and seat aids. It’s amazing how distorted the circle becomes when you take away the inside rein! Again, we developed this from giving the rein away for only two strides until the rider’s could give that rein for the majority of the circle. When giving away the inside rein on circles you can also check that the outside rein isn’t working too hard; if it is, the horse will go into counter flexion and the rider needs to soften the feel down the outside rein and use their leg and seat to encourage inside bend.

It took a few repetitions of this exercise on both reins until the trot stayed perfectly balanced with or without the inside rein. The next obvious step was to give away both reins. We started giving the reins away for three strides on the long side, and I soon noticed that my riders had more relaxed arms and a softer rein contact, which had a positive effect on the horses; they were less tight in the neck and and more accepting of the rein contact. 

Giving the reins away on a circle put more focus on the leg aids, and after doing it in both directions a rider should be able to identify their stronger side, and the horse’s easier rein. 

By now the horses were tracking up nicely, working over their backs and in self carriage. The rider’s were also less reliant on their hands and more focused on their horse’s way of going as a whole, and not just the front end. I also found that because the emphasis was on giving and retaking the reins without altering the horses’ way of going, my riders had more sensitive hands, making smaller, more subtle aids.

Towards the end of the lesson we tried giving the inside rein away in canter. Again, initially just down the long side but progressing to giving it away on circles. The first couple of attempts caused the horses to run onto the forehand and lose their balance, so the riders had to establish the canter and then half halt prior to very slowly giving away the inside rein. Initially they only needed to give an inch or so, so as to not upset the horses’ balance, but with practice the giving can become more pronounced. This movement first appears at elementary level, so is definitely one to work on over the next few months.

I was really pleased with how the horses became more rhythmical in their work; they were less reliant on the rider for balance so their internal rhythm took over. They were also more relaxed, their necks softer and so the back was relaxed and the hindquarters started to connect to the forehand. Then of course, I could see them swinging over their backs. The riders on the other hand, had softer arms, kept the hands stiller and were more subtle with the rein aids, as well as using their legs and seat aids more effectively. Altogether, a much more harmonious picture which I think any dressage judge would appreciate and subsequently reward.

Right Horse, Wrong Job

Sometimes you meet a horse, and it’s immediately obvious that they’re in the wrong job. Or have been, and you just feel for them. Well I do, and I feel sorry for them that they’ve been so misunderstood and unhappy.

I met a new client recently with her new loan horse. He’s owned by a lady who hires horses out for hunting, but is now spending the summer (and longer if I have any say in the matter) in a one to one loan home. I really like this horse, but I feel he is so much more suited to a private home. This isn’t to say I don’t agree with hiring out hunters, it’s just to say that I don’t think it suits this little horse.

Let me tell you a bit about him. He’s a Welsh cross… possibly with a bit of Shire in him as he’s a bit heavier than a pure Welsh Cob and has a common head. But he’s sensitive. And tense. We spent the first lesson getting him used to the idea than life doesn’t go at one hundred miles an hour, and that the leg can be applied without him tensing and accelerating. He’s a quick learner, and keen to please because by the end of that session his trot had slowed, the stride was longer, and his neck had lengthened as he became less tense. Transitions between walk and trot were really useful for getting him less reactive to the leg, and for his new rider to find the right buttons. The aim was for him to move up into a steady trot rather than race for half a dozen strides. Then we wanted the downward transitions to come more from the seat so he didn’t tense his neck and lift his head up.

We worked on the same principles in the canter, and now it’s just down to repetition and practice. He’ll always be a bit of a pocket rocket, but I can’t help but feel that being hired out to strangers must have been very stressful for him as he’s so sensitive to the aids and having riders of different shapes, sizes and abilities will have confused and worried him.

As a hireling, he can jump. But again, it’s a bit panicked and rushed.  He seems very worried by poles, and his instinctive response is to rush and overjump them – in case there are crocodiles waiting to leap out at him obviously. This causes it’s own problems because the rider gets unbalanced and left behind over the poles, thus scaring the horse even more. 

When we’ve jumped in lessons we’ve just begun by walking and trotting over the poles very quietly and calmly, repeating it with praise after until he stops rushing. Then we’ve built it up to a small cross pole, and repeated the exercise. We’ve kept it very calm, with positivity, and repetition so the horse understands the question, starts to trust his rider, and slows down. Last lesson he started by over jumping, leaping like a deer, and not basculing at all, but gradually as he slowed down a bend started to come over his back. Once he stops rushing after the fence we’ll link it to another one, and so build him up slowly.

Unfortunately I think it’s going to be a long, slow process of this horse learning that his rider is his and his alone, and that she can be trusted not to pull him in the mouth or crash down in the saddle – which now fits him so should help. Once he learns to trust her I think he will relax and be less tense in his response to the aids, which will enable us to work on getting him to stretch over his back on the flat, thus releasing the right muscles and endorphins, which will further reduce his levels of tension. Then hopefully, with a less tense body, he will be able to move and jump more correctly and thus find it more comfortable.

After I’ve taught this pair I always seem to go away wondering what this horse would have been like if he’d only had a private home. He’s quite bold, honest and willing to please, but easily upset (he often has a bit of a worried look in his eye) and I think if he’d had positive experiences with just one rider he would be more confident tackling the unknown, and far less inclined to rush – personally I think a few too many riders have socked him in the mouth, or been left behind over fences so now he runs away from potential physical pain as much as anything. Part of me thinks that hiring him can’t have been hugely enjoyable because although I think you’d have jumped everything with the pack, you would have felt slightly out of control the whole time. But then, I’ve always been a rider who likes to have a bond with the horse I’m riding. 

I love working with these quirky sorts of horses; getting to know them, working out what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them. And then seeing them improve. I really hope that the one on one effect starts to help this horse, so he can let go of his worries and go out and have fun with his loaner. It will be interesting to see how he develops over the summer, and I hope he doesn’t go back to be a hireling over the winter because it’s a job he’s just not suited to, and I think he’d be happier staying where he is.

Next lesson I want to see if we can build on his suppleness on the flat, whilst encouraging him to stretch his neck forwards and down an inch or so, to start lengthening the muscles of his topline and releasing over his sacro-iliac. I’d like to link two fences together, but there will be no pressure to do so before he slows and relaxes into the jumping. 

To Ride Or Not To Ride?

The cat is out the bag, and I can finally blog about this subject. For weeks I’ve sat deciding on a blog subject, and this always came to mind. But my lips were sealed and I couldn’t write.

Should you ride whilst pregnant? Do you ride whilst pregnant? 

And before anyone gets any ideas, it is not me I’m talking about!

I know a few horsey women who are pregnant or have been pregnant in the last year, so it’s a topic that has been covered, dissected and rebuilt.

Once you find out you’re pregnant you don’t tell anyone, just in case. No one can tell by looking at you. But you feel different and you’re more aware of your body and risks you’re taking. So what do you do?

I know some people who have found out and immediately given up riding. It’s personal choice, and I guess if you aren’t comfortable with the situation then the best thing is to stand back. However, for many women horse riding is the drug that enables us to function at work and at home, so it’s a big ask to give it up.

One of my clients told me she was pregnant a couple of weeks after I’d given her a gridwork lesson and whopped the fences up high. She knew in the lesson she was expecting, but I think if I knew I wouldn’t have jumped her so high. 

Another client told me, to explain potential “wimping out” situations, and the knowledge definitely made me back off the lesson plan. But over the next few weeks I got used to the idea and I think she did too and started to relax back into riding, and now we’re up to speed and jumping normally. I do think it’s important that an instructor knows about your pregnancy so they can adapt lessons, and are aware if you need first aid. 

Having not been through this myself, I’m no expert, but I have heard that whilst falling off is to be avoided (I’m sure doctors think we purposefully hit the deck!) it isn’t really a problem until you start to show. Oh, and you shouldn’t fall off onto hard ground or at speed. Or have the horse fall onto you – seriously, do you think we ask for this to happen?

So I guess what you do depends on how confident or safe you feel with your horse. And your riding may change during those nine months to accommodate your physiological changes. 

I’ve known a couple of women who have ridden throughout their pregnancy, but the last couple of months were steady hacks in dressage saddles (apparently more accommodating that jump saddles). These women also didn’t have a large bump, which was the reason a client of mine stopped riding.

Some say that the horse’s behaviour changes towards you when you’re expecting a baby. I guess that you smell different because of hormones, and perhaps they can hear the heartbeat? Geldings seem to get really cuddly and gentle around pregnant women. I think mares can be hit or miss. Someone I know rode her mare before she knew she was pregnant and the mare tried to throw her off. It was like she had a vendetta against her. But when they knew the reason it made sense. Interestingly, the mare in question has always had problems with her seasons and has since had her ovaries removed – would her behaviour be any different around a pregnant woman now? 

I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to stop riding immediately, or to stop any of your usual activities because your body would need to adjust to that as well as what’s growing inside. By losing fitness and muscle tone you could cause other issues, such as fluid retention and less fatigue. But you can start to pick and choose which equestrian jobs you do. For example, skipping out may be fine, but you don’t want to be lugging heavy wheelbarrows around. Someone I know skipped out each day until the baby arrived, but left the stacked wheelbarrow on the yard for her husband to empty on the weekends. She also clipped and regularly groomed all the way through.

This has led me to wonder whether you can compete whilst pregnant. Mary King competed at Pau in 1995 whilst five and a half months pregnant. There was uproar at the time, but I don’t think it did Emily any harm – except perhaps giving her an unfair advantage over her peers in that she’d already jumped a four star course by the time she was born?

I have seen a heavily pregnant woman competing at a riding club dressage competition, but there must be rules to cover everyone’s backs.

I looked it up and the FEI do permit it, however you have to inform the medical team and it’s very much down to your doctor to give you permission – here is their statement about it. 

I’ve also been told, on a hack with a pregnant friend with a story I’ve sworn never to reveal; that once you start to show, it upsets your balance, which makes riding trickier. Which is also worth bearing in mind for anyone planning to ride whilst expecting. I guess the size of the bump and it’s effect on your balance is the main limiting factor in the length of time into your pregnancy that you can ride.

All in all, should you ride whilst pregnant or not? It’s all down to personal choice, really. I guess the most important thing is to listen to your body and your gut instinct. Just do what feels comfortable and make sure your horse is happy with the situation too. I’m not one for sitting still, yet I don’t think I would be going round Badminton, but dressage and hacking would certainly be on the cards. 

For a bit of light reading, Horse and Hound did this amusing article about the problems encountered riding whilst pregnant.