My Toothpaste Analogy 

Sometimes it’s hard for a rider, especially a young rider, to understand the feel required on the approach to a fence: the difference between the horse taking you into a fence and rushing to the fence.

 Last week I came up with an analogy, which will come into force this week – you have been warned, clients!

When you’re riding a horse you want to feel that they’re taking you into a fence, in front of the leg. If they aren’t, then there tends to be two outcomes. 

Which can be likened to a tube of toothpaste.

Imagine a tube of toothpaste, fairly full, with the lid off. Now, clap your hand down on the toothpaste and watch the paste spurt out. This is the equivalent to giving a horse a big kick a few strides away from the fence. Some horses don’t mind this, and would prefer the definite feel of commitment and “let’s go” from the rider. Others get pushed out of rhythm and put off their stride and can cause a refusal.

Let’s go back to the toothpaste scenario. This time, you’re going to push gently with your fingers, akin to squeezing with the leg. The paste smoothly glides out of the nozzle. This is the equivalent of the horse feeling reassured by the rider’s commitment to the jump and moving in front of the leg; perhaps a slight lengthen of stride but ultimately engagement of the hindquarters to give the canter a bit more power whilst maintaining the rhythm and the horse’s stride. Then the horse feels confident to jump the fence.

When approaching a fence you want the horse to feel that they’re taking you into the fence, and if you feel them back off it’s important to reassure them without putting them off their stride. So don’t spurt the toothpaste otherwise they may start to doubt themselves and refuse. 

Singing A Tune

I had a challenge and a half this week, which definitely got me rummaging around my tool box for solutions.

I have a young rider who suffers from first-jump-itis. She flies through grids, and any related distances but as soon as I put a course together she falls apart.

In her first lesson this week, a bit later in the evening because of the heat, I built a course as she warmed up on the flat. Then I warmed her up over a cross pole then upright, and then started putting a couple of the lines of my course together. The jumps were well within their comfort zone and she was riding well. We had the odd dodgy jump when she was a bit restrictive with her hands (something we’ve been working on) but her lines between fences was superb. 

Once she’d jumped nearly all of them, bar a couple of island fences, I explained the course. And it went wrong. She had a stop at the first one and promptly slid out the side door. Remounted, she rode it again successfully and the rest of the course got better – it flowed more and she looked more comfortable as she went through.

I upped some of the jumps; still within her comfort zone – especially the first one and she did it again. The first jump was still an issue so once they’d ridden the course with a sticky first jump I suggested we did the course one last time, to crack the first-jump-itis. After all, she’d jumped it a few times now and I think repetition was needed to stop her overthinking it. They had a good breather and then off they went. 

And it all went wrong. The pony stopped, she fell off, then she over rode and got in front of the movement, and then her pony started anticipating and stopping even when she gave him a fair approach. Then she froze and pulled with her hands into the fence. Even lowering the jump didn’t help.

Then of course we’re in this vicious cycle where everyone gets hot and bothered. So I told them to have a walk break and moved onto another fence, and made that a little cross. They stumbled over it and I could see my rider was just in a panic.

I’ve said before, that teenagers can be tricky if there’s an external problem or if they’re a bit hormonal or whatever, it can be hard to solve a problem. Thankfully I know this rider very well, so jokingly checked there were no boy problems, or anything else she wanted to tell me. There wasn’t, so I told her to serenade me the next time she jumped. She laughed despite herself, and moaned that she wasn’t very good at singing. But just her laughter caused her to relax a bit and break the tension. 

She went again, and on the approach to the cross pole started singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They instantly improved, relaxing and she had the handbrake off so her pony sorted the jump out himself. I made her repeat it a couple more times, singing loudly. 

Then I made it an upright and continued with the singing approach, finding it made her breathing more even and meant my rider sat more like a passenger, which she needed to do so that she didn’t interfere with her pony’s jumping.

That went smoothly so as she landed  I told her to maintain the canter and approach the original jump. Unfortunately getting them up and running didn’t mean that they negotiated the problem jump. Usually breaking the cycle and establishing a flow helps overcome psychological refusals. But I noticed my rider stopped singing on the approach, and freezing her body.

I took the jump right down and got them singing and trotting, then cantering, over it until they’d done the original fence. The important part was that she continued singing and stayed relaxed. As soon as they’d succeeded we finished the lesson … to be continued tomorrow.

I mulled over the conundrum overnight, and the following day realised that it’s been very hot this week and the adults I teach bring their own water to lessons. Parents bring water for their kids in their lessons. I don’t take water with me unless I have multiple lessons because I just end up leaving it in arenas. But this young rider had come down to her lesson alone – Dad was poo picking (how well trained!) – so her performance was probably affected in the last third of the lesson because of thirst or heat. I had a gap in my diary just before her lesson and was feeling quite thirsty myself so headed to Costa and bought two iced fruit coolers, assuming my rider wouldn’t have a drink.

She seemed very pleased with the drink, and I think it definitely helped her having frequent slurps through the lesson. I changed the course slightly to make a three jump grid, which I kept as little crosses and got her jumping through in a relaxed and positive way to warm up. I also got her to jump the grid with one arm out to the side, just to highlight how tense her arms get on the approach, particularly when she’s worried. This also built her pony’s confidence back up.

With the grid going well I then used it as the first element on a course. This was to help her establish the rhythm and get into the zone before continuing on to the courses. I still made her sing loudly, and I was pleased to hear her doing it on her own accord. With her breathing and being more relaxed, and me reminding her to release her hands on the approach, the lines flowed a bit smoother. 

We had a couple of minor blips but overall a much more positive session. They jumped the grid then onto the course a couple of times successfully and then I called it a day. I felt it was more important to finish on a good note than to change the course in any way and ask any more questions. After all, there were a few little things for them both to go away and reflect on. 

Lessons to learn are for me to double check everyone brings water or refreshments to lessons in hot weather. To use grids the next couple of lessons to establish my rider’s rhythm and get her in the zone. To make her sing to every jump because each time she stopped singing she had a more frantic approach and not such a good take off or bascule. I’m also tempted to do some lunging without reins, and more grids without reins so that I stop her using the handbrake. Then hopefully we can break the cycle and they get back on top of their game. 

Improving Their Jump

The ideal bascule, which makes jumping effortless and lengthens their athletic life expectancy, as well as making them successful in the competition ring, is when a horse folds his forelegs neatly underneath him, rounds his back, lengthens and lowers the neck, and then follows through with tidy hindlegs. 

Various faults occur, either by poor training, poor technique, lack of confidence, or poor conformation. One interesting jumping fault I’ve recently experienced, and haven’t really come across it before, is the slither technique.

Have you seen it? It’s when the forelegs get left behind and the horse literally jumps with his front legs under his belly.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how best to work on overcoming this fault, but as ever reverted to flatwork.

Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps.

The horse in question is rather large, with long legs. Like a super model! So the flatwork focused on engaging his hindquarters, getting him to lighten his forehand and bring his engine underneath him. Smaller circles and shoulder in have all improved his balance, and the canter has improved dramatically. He can now shorten and lengthen the canter strides without losing his balance and his hindquarters are doing more work than his shoulders.

Horses tend to slither over jumps when related distances are too short, which given this horse’s size puts him at a disadvantage. At every competition he will find distances a bit short. Which is why it’s so important that his canter is adjustable. It does mean for me that I have to be generous with my grid distances with him so that he learns, and develops the right muscles, to bascule correctly. Then once he is stronger and more adjustable in the canter we can start to teach him to work with the slightly shorter distances, that he would find in a competition environment.

Once a horse is starting to get the hang of basculing correctly the gridwork becomes invaluable. Having a quick succession of jumps, one or two strides apart improves the horse’s gymnastic ability because they have to extend and flex their joints in quick succession.

Over the last few months this horse has really improved and the slithering only happens when he gets too deep into fences. I’m enjoying seeing him going out competing with his owner now, and having more success.

The other factor that can cause horses to slither over jumps is when they are a bit slow to pick up their forehand and to lift the shoulder over jumps. Which caused me to use an A-frame with this particular horse the other week. A placing pole meant he didn’t get too close, and the A-frame really got him lifting his forelegs and tucking them up neatly. His owner could feel the difference in the bascule from the saddle – his back rounded underneath her over the fence.

Our next move is to try a line of bounces because this will make him pick up his feet quickly, and improve the muscle memory, which will mean that if he does get a bit deep into a jump he will be able to get himself out of trouble. Previously when I’ve done raised pole and bounce work with him he’s found it really difficult to organise his legs and keep his balance, which invariably means I have to get on and off a lot to adjust poles!

Just by using a combination of different exercises, you can make massive improvements to a horse’s technique and build the correct muscles. Recently, because this particular horse was jumping so well on a lesson, we did a bit of a Chase-Me-Charlie. I wanted to build the horse’s confidence a bit and see the extent of his scope, but I knew a single upright would be very difficult for him as he would have to pick up his forelegs very quickly; he’s much better in his technique but our high jumps needed to complement previous work, and not let him revert to slithering. So I build an oxer. The front rail wasn’t very high, perhaps 70cm, and there was a clear ground line. The back rail of the oxer, which wasn’t that wide, started at 90cm. As he cleared it comfortably I notched it up, and up, to an impressive 120cm. He cleared it easily, whilst still jumping correctly! I was so pleased!

Now we need to increase the height of the general exercises to build his muscles and confidence, whilst still using his body correctly and efficiently. Then they will definitely notice a difference at competitions! 

Quit While You’re Ahead

I’m forever telling my clients that “we’ll leave it there for today” or “that’s a good note to finish on today” when they ride an exercise well. Then they leave the lesson on a high, will remember that feeling and feel motivated to continue their hard work. It’s also a reward for the horse when they have performed well.

Unfortunately for me, I forgot my own advice last week.

I ride a mare who is very bold over jumps, but doesn’t have much respect for them and often loses her technique as she rushes. I’ve worked on slowing her down, stopping her rushing away, and used poles to teach her to flex and round her back. But she still wasn’t rounding her back over jumps, carrying her head up with a stag-like technique. So I did some research and found that putting water trays under a fence is commonly used to get the horse to lower their neck and look down. Alternatively, a pole placed diagonally across an oxer has the same effect.

I didn’t have any trays, so I tried the pole technique. We started off low, and I felt the mare really thought about the question as she was much steadier in her approach and made an improved shape over the over. I did it a few times from both canter reins, making sure she didn’t drift right as she likes to. 

Once she felt confident with the set up I made it a bit bigger and fractionally wider. Again, she was focusing nicely on it and working well. I could feel her back flexing more underneath me as we jumped.

I’d done the jump off both reins, but decided to do it once more from the right, her weaker rein. Just to overcome that little wobble she did in the air. She approached with a really balanced canter, hocks underneath her, straight and focused.

Then I don’t know what happened. I think she thought about chipping in, but changed her mind. Which meant she didn’t pick up as well as she had been – probably a bit of complacency there too because they were only coloured poles, and the fact it was near the end of our session. Which led to her catching her front legs on the front rail, ploughing through the fence, going onto her knees, face planting the arena surface, and ejecting me out the front door. Not that I had any option really; there was nothing in front of me!

We scrambled to our feet and checked no one had seen, before I took a closer look at the mare. There was nothing visibly wrong, she just looked surprised. Once I’d tidied up the poles, I made a small cross and remounted. I gave her a trot and canter round to make sure she felt ok. Which she did, so I popped her over the cross pole. She jumped it very neatly, and we ended on a good note.

I’m really annoyed at myself for doing the jump “one last time” because she had done it 90% perfect before and I should have accepted that and moved on. The plus points are that apart from bruised egos, neither of us were hurt, and hopefully the mare will remember that coloured poles need respect as much as cross country fences and will continue to jump neatly with a better bascule so she doesn’t do a repeat performance. 

No Escape Routes

I taught a guinea pig rider over the weekend, a completely unknown combination to test my ability to assess and teach new people with no preparation, and we definitely had a breakthrough. With new, or unknown combinations, you often make tweaks and see the beginning of improvements, but rarely do you have a game changer of a lesson. That comes later when several tweaks come together in a dot-to-dot fashion.

My rider was a young teenager on her almost outgrown Welsh section B. The pony apparently had a phobia of fillers and didn’t jump more that 2’6″ at most.

After watching them warm up on the flat I felt that the pony was doing an excellent impression of a llama – nose up and out as he pranced along. But his rider had poker straight arms, which wasn’t helping the situation. Almost as soon as we’d corrected the hand carriage the pony relaxed his neck and became a bit softer in his frame. 

We moved into jumping, and the pony looked fairly scopey to me, albeit a bit erratic on the approach. So I focused my rider’s attention on the quality of the canter and not letting the pony back off towards fences. We worked on still softening the hands and arms on the approach, with quiet, positive legs.

Once they’d jumped a few and it was flowing well, I brought in the fillers. The two fillers were just at the side of the fence, with space to jump in the centre. Then I asked my rider how she was going to ride towards the filler jump. She said a few taps with the stick and fast. I asked her to demonstrate, so I could prove my point later.

After a refusal (a dive out to the right), they popped it easily and I brought them in to discuss how we could progress.

I felt that the pony was more than capable but was a typical pony and would take the easy route if possible. Which meant that it was down to his rider to ride him so that the only, and easiest, route was over the jump. Firstly, approaching a bit slower would give her more control and hopefully more time to prevent a run out. In order to give the pony just one direction to go in, the leg needs to be hugging him ready to apply pressure if he backs off the fence. The reins need to channel him straight without discouraging him from going forwards. I got my rider to imagine the reins were train tracks, hands quite close together and carried above the wither. The legs can help tunnel the pony along the tracks; e.g. If he drifts left, close the left leg and left rein to the shoulder. Basically the legs and hands had to block the alternative, sideways, routes. Finally, the seat needed to support the legs in driving the pony forwards. 

Put all together, the rider is quietly and positively giving the pony no alternative but to jump over the fence. We put the theory into practice, and they flew! Every single jump, regardless of filler or not, had a more positive and rhythmical approach and a better take off point and bascule. The whole course flowed nicely.

To test them thoroughly, I asked them to jump the narrow, white gate fence in the arena. It was full up 2’6″ and spooky, but my rider applied the aids and the pony refused by stopping on the final stride. This was fine; I explained to my rider that he was no longer running around the jump as his previous refusals had been, because her legs and reins were more effective. He had, however, exploited a weakness. She had just been a little lax with the seat, as she anticipated the take off. On the second attempt, they flew it easily!

They made a huge improvement through the lesson, and I think the rider understood the content and felt more confident in her pony’s ability. Hopefully they can apply this technique of shutting all exit routes in a quiet way, whilst clearly offering going forwards over the jump as the only option, the pony will stop thinking about how to evade the jump and just get on with it! It’s just a shame now that I can’t help them continue their journey, because they look like they’re going to have a lot of fun! 

Something To Get My Teeth Into …

Every so often I teach a lesson that is really rewarding. Whether it is because I’ve done mental gymnastics to work out how best to explain a concept, or had to do some research, or the satisfaction when a client “gets it”.

I had one of those lessons this week, and came away tired, but buzzing. 

One of my teenage clients has recently stepped up a level with her jumping, but they’ve had a couple of hiccoughs, which we’ve been trying to iron out.

Last week, we worked on the rein contact because a stride or so before the jump my rider was dropping the contact and getting in front of her pony. Which was causing him to refuse. But by the end of last week’s lesson she was waiting until the fence to fold and maintaining the contact nicely. Oh and she was also using the snaffle ring of the Dutch gag to minimise the effect of the loss of contact on the pony so that he didn’t lose confidence. 

Then over the weekend she had a pony club rally and got very muddled with the comments that instructor made. I’m not going into who’s right and wrong, but everyone has different ways of explaining principles and it can sometimes be overwhelming for young people to process. 

So armed with the knowledge that I needed to untangle my young rider’s  mind, I spent a couple of days thinking about it all.

She had been told that she was holding her horse back into the fence, but she was getting confused with our work on maintaining a contact, waiting for the fence, and her pony taking her to the fence.

Coincidentally, I’d read an article by Lucinda Green recently which discussed keeping 75% of the horse in front of you on the approach to a cross country fence so that you are behind the movement and in a safer position. It occurred to me that this explanation might be beneficial for this rider to help her understand not to get in front of her pony before the fence.

While she warmed up, I asked her to  think about how much of her pony was in front of her. She started feeling there was 50% in front of her, but by sitting on her bum, closing the leg and pushing the hindquarters into her much improved, steady contact she began to feel there was 75% of her pony in front of her. She found this useful to get her position correct, and to feel that her pony was taking her forwards.

I discussed with my rider the feedback from the rally, and her thoughts on her riding last week, at the rally and today, and we came to the conclusion that my rider had forgotten to close the leg towards the fence and ride positively (because I think we have been focusing on her keeping a consistent contact and not getting in front of the movement) and whilst I may have picked up on this because I know how my rider ticks, her past riding, and the pony; the rally instructor focused on the wrong aspect for my client. Not the wrong thing necessarily, but the phrase and explanation didn’t make sense to my rider at her current level of understanding. It’s also tricky because the pony behaves differently at home than away, so issues that I may not observe can occur. We’re planning an outing with me soon, so I can help my rider at a competition.

With the explanations untangled and my rider clearer in her head, we began jumping the course I had built.

As crosses and uprights at 90cm my rider flew around the course, her rein contact was steady, she kept herself upright and her pony took her into the fences nicely because she wasn’t getting in front of him. 

At this point, they were both looking confident and comfortable. So out of interest, I raised the fences to see if this changed anything. 

Now I had to get my thinking cap on, because things started to fall apart. The pony was keen, getting quicker to the fences and now I could see how my rider was holding him back. Perhaps she was worried he was going too fast to jump, or worried he would put in a sudden stop, or the jumps worried her because they were bigger, I’m not 100% sure why. The trouble is that the pony is keen so if you don’t steady him at some point whilst jumping a course he will get too fast and unbalanced which could cause other issues. It’s a fine balancing act, and one which has got out of proportion.

I reminded my rider of a principle we’ve covered many times. It’s her job to create an energetic, balanced canter and straight approach, but her pony’s job to get over the jump. That means the last three strides were his, and his alone. She remembered and understood this, so I stood in front of the jump and walked away until she told me where she relinquished control over the canter. Marking that place, I then strode out three canter strides. My rider’s point was significantly closer to the jump than the three strides I had walked. Partnered with the fact that a bigger fence has a take off point further away, my rider began to understand that she was trying to dictate the canter for too long, thus inhibiting the way her pony jumped. 

I think this is a fairly recent development, possibly due to their knock in confidence. We now jumped the course, focusing on organising the canter, and releasing the pony in sufficient time to allow him to organise himself over the jump. It was looking much better, and my rider understood everything we’d discussed and could feel how much better her pony was jumping. And how happier he felt.

But we had another problem now. In related distances, my rider was taking a steady, but still trying to slow the canter in those critical three strides prior to the next fence.  

I videoed her, and then we watched the video so my rider could clearly see where she should have released, and how she was trying to steady. I explained to her how she needs to land and try to rebalance her pony, but if she hasn’t managed to, or even if she has, it is vitally important that she releases and let’s her pony do his job. 

This worked. Okay, it was still fast through the related distances but by releasing the control over the canter in sufficient time, the pony still jumped easily and nicely. 

My rider understood everything we discussed, and could see what she needed to do to best help her pony, who after all wants to jump. Now it’s just retraining her eye and getting her to trust that he will fly the jump if she releases the handbrake before the fence. Her position was much more secure by the end, and the contact was steady, so we have resolved the getting in front of her pony issue. This means that I’ll give her some brakes next time and drop the reins down a ring on the Dutch gag, because I feel she can keep the contact consistent now, and I would like her to feel that she has some control around a course. 

We’ll spend the next few weeks focusing on when she’s in charge of the canter and when she needs to relinquish control to her pony.

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.

Making Molehills Out Of Mountains 

I realised a couple of days ago that it’s been a while since I’ve done a lesson based blog. It’s not for the lack of teaching, I think rather just the busyness of holidays and revision has made in depth blogs rather less appealing. 

But one of this week’s jump lessons has quite a useful exercise in it.

We’ve been working a lot with this horse on improving the quality of his canter as he is such a long horse and he’s finally getting the idea of shortening his stride and taking his weight onto his hindquarters. This is really noticeable in the jumping because he’s not losing the quality of the canter around corners which is improving his take offs.

A couple of months ago I did some bounces with him and his jockey. It didn’t go that well because I think my rider got overwhelmed with the concept of bounces and over rode them. So I returned to some gridwork and other jumping exercises.

I decided this week to try again with bounces. But as I know this rider will focus on them and make a mountain out of a molehill I planned to just incorporate the bounce into a grid. I wanted the grid to make her horse think, to highlight  the improvement in his canter, as well as to work on their gymnastic ability.

I laid out four poles. Between the first and second was 12′ to make a bounce; 36′ between the second and third for two canter strides; and 24′ between the last two for one canter stride.

We worked over the poles in both directions in a slightly lengthened canter to accommodate the distance (which was built for jumping) until my rider relaxed into the exercise and loosened her hips so that she folded slightly over each pole to not inhibit her horse.

Next, I built the last fence as a cross and had them ride the grid a few times. Once they were in the grid, the poles flowed fine, but my rider was still focusing on the first pole and bounce. 

Repetition is key and reminding my rider to ride towards the jump at the end, and to look up not down at the poles meant that they negotiated the grid more comfortably.

We raised the cross pole to an upright and then made the third pole to an upright. I wanted the bounce poles to just become normal, part of the furniture so to speak, before I raised them.

Once the grid with the third and fourth fence up was flowing nicely I put the second element up as a teeny fence. The last two fences were around the 75cm mark, but the second fence was more like 50cm. They popped through it a couple of times until my rider looked more relaxed, and then I made the first bounce a 50cm upright. They were deliberately small so my rider wasn’t phased by height and so they felt more like exaggerated canter strides. Then once she’d stopped overthinking them I could raise them a bit.

The first couple of times my rider looked down and they met the first fence erratically, but the two strides after the bounce allowed both horse and rider to sort themselves out – the main reason I put two canter strides in here. 

When my rider created a balanced canter, rode the corner and closed the leg a couple of strides out, they met the bounce on a perfect stride, and had an excellent run through the grid. Her horse thinking about every fence, picking his feet up well and not rushing – he can sometimes get flat through grids which is why the one stride distance was after the two stride distance. When they’re more confident we could do a similar grid in reverse. My rider was also starting to see each stride and stay in balance over each element.

To finish, we had the bounce fences a bit bigger, and the last fence at 90cm, to test the horse’s proprioception, rider’s balance and for the bounces to be more influential and challenging.

They negotiated the grid perfectly; the bounce was no longer playing on my rider’s mind, which meant she just created the quality canter and allowed her horse to meet the fence appropriately. Where she was more relaxed over the fences she went with the movement of the horse more, which caused the grid to flow nicely. The horse wasn’t rushing the grid, and was jumping each element carefully and steadily, which was lovely to watch. 

I’d like to use more bounces with this pair to strengthen the hindquarters of this horse and to help improve his agility and quickness that he lifts the forehand and bends the forelegs over fences because I feel that is a weakness in his technique. Hopefully now my rider is less concerned about bounces we can incorporate them into other exercises and then see an improvement in the horse’s jump technique.