Our Story

This isn’t easy to write, but it’s taken me long enough to stop being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand. This is the missing piece to Phoenix’s story of the last few months.

You may remember in January that she started shooting off in canter in the arena, which I discovered was caused by muscle adhesions and tightness in her left hind so she had a course of physio therapy. In April, this limb got a clean bill of health.

In February I was working on Phoenix’s walk and trot in the arena, and cantering in straight lines out on hacks. Until her left hind was sorted, I didn’t really want to canter her in the arena.

Phoenix’s uncontrolled right canters in the arena in January had unnerved me a bit. I’ll be honest. Whilst I could ride the eight laps of fast, uncontrolled canter calmly round the arena, I didn’t enjoy it. So I decided that I would ensure she wasn’t in any pain before readdressing the canter, and just focus on improving her trot, work the canter on the lunge so that she was calm and balanced throughout the transition. We were enjoying our hacks, and she was behaving perfectly.

Then it happened. I took her for a hack one afternoon. We were on our own, and I decided to trot across the patch of grass which cuts off a junction. That trot turned into canter, which turned into a flat out gallop. She jumped the ditch onto the road, turned left. Slipped over, and we parted company.

Ok, so I wasn’t particularly hurt. A couple of grazes and bruises, but nothing a hot bath won’t cure. But I was gutted. I felt betrayed. A bit like if you overhear a friend talking behind your back. It hurts much more than a stranger saying the same words. I think Phoenix scared herself too. I wish I knew what had triggered her bolt. But she definitely changed towards me after that incident. I led her home, lunged her hard and then got back on.

The rest of that week I beat myself up. Why was I being so pathetic? We had a tumultuous week weatherwise, with constant gales, so each day I weighed up the pros and cons of riding. And inevitably chickened out each day. I was tense and worried, and she was equally stressed out.

When the weather settled, a whole week later, I got back on and hacked round the block with a friend. It took both me and Phoenix most of the hack to relax. The next day I went in the arena, but I was so worked up about it I ended up getting another friend to lunge me to get the first trot, and then just stand there talking about the weather to me as a distraction.

I felt so disappointed in myself. My riding of clients’ horses on the other hand was feeling better and I was getting good results. But I couldn’t ride my own horse without stressing out.

It was about this time I began investigating Phoenix’s nutrition, and the possibility of ulcers. And decided to come up with a rescue plan for myself.

Firstly, what I’d tell my clients, I took the pressure off myself.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that it had to be me who solved this problem. There was no point getting someone else to ride her because that wouldn’t stop my qualms, and given Phoenix’s current mental state she wasn’t trusting of anyone. And as a friend said, she is actually very attached to me. You can see by the way she watches me and follows me round.

Someone described her as a cat pony. Which is totally true! Phoenix is affectionate, but on her terms and can be a bit aloof. Which I think makes it harder to build a relationship. You can’t kiss and make up, so to speak.

So I was sorting out Phoenix’s diet, she was having regular physio sessions, saddles had been checked, and I was focusing on spending more time grooming and just being with Phoenix so that we became friends again. I worked her on the lunge, and she was behaving perfectly here.

I decided to box over to my instructor to have some lessons to remove any environmental stimuli. I needed some advice to overcome Phoenix’s tension in the school, and to develop some tactics to stop her scooting off. After all, every time she scooted off I tensed, and that made her more jumpy. It was a vicious circle.

The hacks were getting back on track: we’ve been out alone again, and she’s been on her best behaviour ever since.

I hoped that a change of arena would help reset our flatwork. It seemed to work, and after two lessons we had a short canter on both reins. In the third lesson, the canter was beautifully calm and balanced, like it was at Christmas. I felt like we were back on track.

Just before the second lesson, Phoenix had had the all clear from the physio, and as I couldn’t find any physical excuses for her to be stressed about cantering I decided to take her on a sponsored ride. I hoped the long canters would build some muscle, and she had plenty of time to find her rhythm and balance. And of course she would realise that it didn’t hurt. She was phenomenal, and I was euphoric. We were friends again!

Since the sponsored ride I felt like we’ve been on an up; we had a great third lesson at my instructor’s. I still wasn’t getting the same level of relaxation at home, and was sticking to walk and trot. But then I think we are both aware that that particular arena is where she’s misbehaved.

This takes us up to last weekend. I was feeling happier, getting better work from Phoenix and we were making progress. I was schooling last Saturday and getting the best trot work I’ve had for a long time, just doing a last circle when Phoenix had what can only be described as a panic attack. Halfway round the circle she shot into canter, heading towards the corner of the arena. I pulled her round and we cantered a few panicked circles and she started putting her head down. But I pulled her up, then dismounted because she felt like she was about to explode. Her back was up, the saddle had shifted forwards. What caused what, who knows. Once deflated and with the saddle adjusted, I got back on and we had a tense trot. I was pretty disappointed, as I should’ve finished a circle before!

On Sunday I had a very disappointing ride. Phoenix was scooting off each time I asked for trot, and wouldn’t relax in walk. She behaved perfectly on the lunge, but her jumping and scooting made me jumpy so the vicious cycle was back (I did observe her to be in season too). I wrote it off, but wasn’t happy as I was going cross country schooling the following day!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get in the cross country field, but Phoenix was again, phenomenal. She jumped everything I asked her to, and felt incredibly bold and rideable!

It’s like a rollercoaster at the moment. Phoenix behaves so well out of the arena, but we’ve taken a few steps back again inside the boards. She’s living out now and whilst she has plenty of fresh grass, she seems happier so hopefully the nutrition and management side settles down now. I think that whilst she’s had some issues over the winter (left hind and not eating enough forage) Phoenix has started to try it on. Her scooting off was initially from discomfort, but she is now doing it to get out of work. So I’ve got my work cut out being consistent in the arena and teaching her that she’s not going to get away with not working. She’s trying to be in control in the arena. Out of her comfort zone on hacks or cross country, she’s happy for me to take control and is submissive.

This weekend is being spent repeating the lessons of last week and trotting with a softer neck, and relaxing through her body. Hopefully a few days of this and proud Phoenix will back down and submit to me in the arena. Then we can get our competing again!

I’ve signed us up for riding club camp in June too, so I’ve got a goal, a focus, and I shall keep plugging away; keeping consistent, putting the boundaries in place, and waiting for Phoenix to settle back down. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, the good days are fantastic, I just need to iron out the bad days, but hopefully now things will start to come together.

Perfecting The Approach To Jumps

I’ve had two clients recently working on perfecting their approach to jumps. They’ve had similar lesson formats, and both have had positive results from it.

One rider found that they kept “missing” the first jump to grids or on courses. With placing poles, and once in combinations, they fly the fences perfectly. So I brought her attention to their approach to jumps. We’re looking for a positive, active, balanced canter. And we’re looking for it to be consistent throughout the approach. The pony was backing off, losing power, on the approach to jumps. But only for a stride, or even just half a stride. It was only when we studied the approach that the slight loss of impulsion became apparent.

We then looked at my rider. She was riding a little reactively. So her pony backed off and a stride later, my rider closed her leg and rode him forwards. We needed to get rid of this delay because that slight loss of impulsion was enough to disrupt their take off point. By drawing my rider’s attention to this, she began to notice as her pony dropped impulsion quicker, and then reacted quicker. This meant that the canter stayed more consistent before the jump, and the maintained energy meant they hit their take off point perfectly.

This week I constructed a 90cm oxer in the middle of the arena, and asked them to jump it. The canter approach was rhythmical, and when I saw the pony think about backing off, his rider applied her aids and managed to maintain the consistency of the canter, so they jumped it brilliantly. And repeatedly did so as I increased it to just over a metre high.

My other rider has a rather fresh pony at the moment (spring grass has a lot to answer for!) and she started approaching fences in a kangaroo fashion, and then jumping erratically. I think this is caused by the pony being a bit more spooky, and looking at jumps more because she’s full of the joys of spring. However, the kangaroo approach to fences makes it harder for my rider, and then they lose their synchronicity.

We addressed the consistency of the canter, and I told my rider to micromanage the canter, so that she reduced the kangaroo effect, to smooth out the canter. She already rides well towards a fence, using her seat and legs to keep her pony up in front of her and taking her forwards, with a steady, quiet hand, so it was just a matter of her being a bit quicker to react to any changes to the canter. Be it quickening or slowing down. As soon as the canter was ironed out the jumps started to flow more. The spooks and looks at any jumps were minimised and then the mare started to focus on the job in hand.

The girls put this to the test last weekend at an eventers challenge, and the result was very positive. A much more flowing round and some stylish jumps so I’m very pleased.

It’s amazing the difference a couple of seconds in rider reactivity makes, and the resulting consistency in a horse’s canter to the jumps.

Mounting Manners

What are your expectations of your horse while you mount?

Everyone seems to have varying opinions on how a horse should behave when their rider is climbing aboard.

Being aware of normal mounting behaviour for your horse means you should be alerted to any changes and what he is trying to tell you.

I’ve known some horses who begin to fuss at the mounting block when they’re sore somewhere. One client’s horse was very fidgety during mounting although behaved well whilst ridden, but when examined by a physio found to be very sore in his back. Now that he’s been sorted, he’s a total gentleman to mount!

Some disciplines, such as racing, mount on the move, so it is ridiculous to expect an ex-racer to stand still to be mounted without some considerable retraining. So it’s worth assessing how the horse is used to being mounted before you first ride them – even if they’re used to one particular mounting block – so that you start on a positive note. You can then start to adapt this procedure to best suit you.

I expect a horse to stand by the mounting block without twisting away or fidgeting. A horse who usually stands quietly at the block, and suddenly starts fussing is telling you something, so it’s worth being aware of their body language. Unless of course you’re somewhere exciting, such as a sponsored ride, when your horse might be a little more of their toes.

I remember at a riding school I used to work at, there was a large rider (just physically tall and broad as opposed to overweight) and he used to ride this horse who struggled to carry him. As the rider mounted, the horse would groan and literally buckle. I hated it.

Some people like their horses to stand stock still whilst they mount, and yes this is ideal but I don’t mind a horse taking a step or two as the rider mounts. After all, of a heavy lump was getting on your back, however gracefully, it is fully acceptable that you may need to adjust your balance. This is particularly important when working with youngsters. You can encourage them to stand square, but ultimately if they need to step forwards in order to keep their balance then they should be allowed to so that mounting does not become an issue. If a horse does walk forwards as I mount, I just quietly pull them up and we pause. Over a period of time I accept fewer forward steps, and a longer halt. They’ll learn to stand in a way that means they can accept a rider’s weight easily soon enough, and understand that they wait until the rider is ready to walk on.

What I don’t like when getting on a horse though, is for their back to come up or for them to scoot off. Cold backed used to be the term for this, but I think with better understanding of the equine back and better fitting saddles, there is a reduction in “cold backed horses” and those showing these signs are generally trying to tell you something is wrong. Of course, some are just sensitive so like you to sit down lightly, but these ones usually stand calmly when you hover momentarily whilst mounting.

If a horse does show either of these signs then I want help mounting, so that it becomes less stressful for all involved, and we can start to retrain them to get positive associations to mounting, whilst investigating possible causes such as the saddle not fitting or them needing some form of physiotherapy or chiropractic treatment. If you’re convinced that the tension associated with mounting is from pain whilst ridden then I would get that sorted first, but I would simultaneously spend time wearing the saddle (not me – the horse!), and standing by the mounting block while you faff around doing stirrups, girths, climbing the steps, patting their back, sides, rump, saddle, to just help reduce the fear and desensitise them to an extent to the whole process. Then hopefully the horse will be in a better frame of mind about mounting, which combined with being more comfortable, should lead to better mounting manners.

Teaching a horse mounting manners takes time and consistency, and is often overlooked in the grand scheme of getting on and riding so that you can return quickly to your hectic life.

Phoenix’s First Sponsored Ride

Phoenix and I have had a tumultuous few months; tight left gluteals and hamstrings followed by some internal stress bubbling over on her part (possibly caused by adapting to living in at night through winter) but we are getting it back together, and with some nutrition advice – more on that another day – I am better prepared for next winter so I can help her adjust. Phoenix internalises her worries so seems calm and in control, until it fizzes up and she pops. Not that dissimilar to how I handle things …

Anyway, with her having longer turn out, a clean bill of health from the physio, and a positive flat lesson last week, I decided very last minute that we both needed to have some fun, and entered us for a sponsored ride.

Some of you may remember that Otis had a reputation for doing airs above the ground for a solid two hours at his last fun ride. Before I handed him a life time ban. Matt had restored the fun part into fun rides a couple of years ago, but as Phoenix was a sponsored ride virgin, I was unsure how she’d take to it.

Anyway, in typical Phoenix style she loaded and travelled like a dream. I always feel very smug as we load her because she never falters. I unloaded her, tacked up then let her graze while we waited for our friends to arrive. Despite many sponsored ride veterans leaping around in anticipation, Phoenix felt remarkably calm and unfazed by her surroundings. It was by far the busiest place she’s ever been to.

Once our friends were ready, with horses she’d never met before, she let me mount and walked calmly down to the start, ignoring our cavorting friend behind us.

We set off in a working trot; she was a little tense and choppy to begin with but soon settled and opened up her stride as we crossed two fields.

We then pushed into canter, and it was forwards yet calm. We were leading, and it was very organised. No one overtook as we didn’t want any horses to get their racing heads on. My friend then drew away onto a line of small tyres. I followed. They were about 2’3″, but Phoenix leapt them confidently, doubling the height.

We did a couple more, sticking to the smaller options while she was over jumping. Considering her limited cross country experience and the fact she’s not really jumped since Christmas, I found her to be bold and basculing nicely. I think the physio has helped her utilise her back muscles more.

Unfortunately after a few jumps I felt Phoenix was chasing her friend in front, and not giving due consideration to the jumps, so I put her in front for a couple. Which made her sit up and think a little.

After a nice, long walk with fabulous Watership Down scenery, where she was calm and relaxed, we rode another line of jumps. This time, she stayed listening to me, and jumped like she was on springs! She’s so light in the forehand when she jumps, it felt phenomenal!

Another long walk to recover, and I was really pleased with how she coped by other horses cantering past, and being in such close proximity to her new friends.

We jumped another line of fences on the way home, and I couldn’t have been prouder! She took barrels, tyres, logs, hanging logs, all in her stride. She felt relaxed, confident, and very happy. I was on cloud nine. The last few months were forgotten and I could feel the talent, willingness, and unison that is Phoenix. She was perfectly behaved, and took everything on board sensibly – I was very proud of her performance.

Unfortunately, the official photos were over early jumps where she was still a little exuberant and whilst I’d have loved to commemorate our first sponsored ride together, there will be many others and far better photos I’m sure. I hope! Now though, I’m looking forwards to our next big adventure in May, and in the meantime we’ll get practising our dancing again.

Jumping A Cross

I saw this jump exercise on social media a couple of weeks ago, so two poor unsuspecting clients got to test it out for me.

The exercise consists of one jump block in the centre of the school with four upright jumps coming out at right angles.

There are two exercises to ride here. The first one is a test of suppleness, and will improve the horse’s jump because the canter is kept quite collected and there’s a short approach. You do however, need a wide arena – say thirty metres wide.

For this exercise, you are riding a circle to the outside after every jump. Let me explain, with the help of the diagram below. Jump the first upright off the right canter lead. Upon landing ride a right circle of approximately fifteen metres. The size of the circle shouldn’t be too small that your horse loses his balance and falls into trot, but it shouldn’t be too big that you have half a dozen straight strides before the next fence.

After the circle, jump the second upright, and repeat the circle right. Continue until you’ve jumped all four fences at least once. Because it’s a circular exercise I would recommend doing at least four, but if the fourth one goes wrong then do a fifth to finish on a positive note.

This exercise needs repeating on both reins, and will highlight any discrepancies in the quality of your horse’s canters, as well as any stiffness. The horse is encouraged to just pop over the fence, with quite a short landing and take off distance, which means that their hocks are working very hard and they will be pushing over the jump with their hindquarters so the jump will feel like more of a ping and easier for them. The circle will help them engage the hindquarters, and collect that canter, which is really helpful for horses who like to charge and rush their jumps.

My riders could feel the difference in their horse’s jump after doing the exercise, and I hope that they will be able to remember and recreate the canter next lesson so that the horses can better push over the fences, which will be more noticeable over larger jumps.

The second exercise with this layout, is a test of accuracy. You aim to jump the central block. The two poles nearest you will help draw both you and your horse to the centre, but because the jump looks strange, either or both may back off.

My first rider, and I’ll show you the video in a moment – don’t scroll down! – rode accurately to the jump getting very central, but her horse took a stride out and almost jumped them into orbit! The next time, my rider insisted on keeping the canter more collected for an extra stride, so the jump was still high, but not as long, and more controlled. This is good practice for skinny fences, because you don’t want your horse to over jump, as you’ll need to regroup before the next fence, which can only be a couple of strides away in a combination. This rider knows now how to better tackle skinny fences she meets out on course.

My other rider, having seen video evidence of this catapulting attempt, was a little nervous about how her horse would tackle this obstacle. But he has more sense than she gives him credit for, and they jumped it accurately and neatly the first time. The video below is of the second attempt, when my rider was a little more relaxed and positive on the approach so didn’t get left behind.

A really fun exercise; the suppling exercise can be done as poles on the floor or smaller jumps if more appropriate to the horse and rider’s level of training. And the accuracy test adds a challenge to any confident pair.

Riding a Course

I taught a Pony Club rally the other day, which can be a challenge because there will be a variety of ages and abilities within each group, plus the fact that the instructor will inevitably have some unknown ponies and riders.

This club has the totally brilliant idea of having club coats with the child’s name on, so all I had to do was wait until they’d trotted past me to be reminded of their name! I always spend a couple of minutes asking the children how their riding is going – if they’ve managed to ride much through the winter, if they’re feeling confident, and how big they’ve been jumping. Even the ones that I saw last summer, I need to check how much progress they’ve made.

I find the best approach to pony club rallies is to find a lesson theme that can be layered according to what you see on the day, and each rider can hopefully take something away from the lesson.

I decided for this occasion, to work on the approach and getaway from jumps. Children and ponies are renowned for cutting corners so hopefully they would all have something to work on, and I could easily teach different levels within the same lesson.

I set up a short course of jumps, which formed a basic figure of eight. It was fairly tight as the arena wasn’t huge, but that played to my advantage.

I warmed up horses and riders as a ride in trot and cantered then individually before working on their jumping position over some poles.

Then I got the children to ride around the course as poles on the ground, focusing on demonstrating their jumping position and riding good lines to each jump.

As predicted, a few corners were cut and some jumps were done on the angle. So I explained, whilst walking the course, the path my riders should be taking. For the younger children, physical cues are important, and for the older children a physical object to go around helps increase their satisfaction in completing a task. It also proves that a rider and pony has ridden the correct line.

So I positioned some plastic jump blocks at pivotal turns on the course, and got the children to ride the course with their improved lines before putting the jumps up one by one. I put one block after the last jump, to send the riders into the corner as they all wanted to canter to the rear of the ride, but winged it round the corner so atrociously after such a beautifully ridden course, I had to do something about it!

Lead rein riders benefit from this exercise in that they learn the correct approach and getaway to fences whilst building confidence with little cross poles. By putting up the jumps slowly they won’t be fazed by a whole course of jumps.

Riders just off the lead rein benefit from having obstacles to steer round as it can make them more determined to try steering, and they learn to ride the correct lines whilst still being able to focus on the jumps.

For more competent riders, you can talk about the horse’s balance around the turns and when the ponies should be trotting or cantering, as well as canter leads.

To add in a further level of complication, I made one jump a skinny. This was a good test for the complacent riders who just aimed and fired, and for the confident ones who didn’t think they needed to get straight, realised the consequences when the jump became harder.

Overall, I had two good teaching sessions, with something for each child to work on, and hopefully practice at home.

Riding Away

I’ve done a few lessons recently where I’ve been focusing on how my riders finish their school movements and ride away from a fence. The way you ride out of a circle sets you up for the next movement in your dressage test, and how you ride away from a jump affects your approach to the next fence.

With one rider, I worked on her landing, how she rode away from each fence and the speed in which she recovered: rebalancing the canter, checking she’s on the necessary canter lead and riding the turn after the jump. The quicker she can recover from a jump, the more time she’ll have to set up for the next fence. In jump of scenarios, a quicker recovery could mean that you can ride a tighter turn and shave precious seconds of your time. I used a very twisty course with lots of short approaches and getaways from fences to help my rider become more aware of the knock on effect of not preparing her getaway, or waiting until she’s landed and cantered a stride before thinking about her next jump.

On the dressage side of things, it is important to think about how you ride out of a school movement as finishing in a rushed, tense mess means that you will start your next movement in a rushed, tense mess, so you cannot execute that movement to the best of your ability.

The levels of dressage test takes recovery and preparation for each movement into account: at prelim level each movement is separated by some simple travelling around the arena. These filler movements allow you to rebalance yourself and your horse after a botched circle or transition so that you can do your best on the next movement. At elementary level, transitions, circles and school movements come up much quicker, meaning the rider has to plan how they finish a movement so that they are quickly set up for the next movement.

A very useful exercise for highlighting the importance of riding out of a movement is one of my favourite sequences to ride and teach with at the moment.

On the left rein, ride leg yield left from the letter F towards the centre line. After the EB line, halt and ride a turn on the forehand in a clockwise direction. Proceed in walk, leg yielding left back to the track. It seems pretty straightforward, but it’s important to break down the sequence even more. After the first leg yield, you need to ride a few strides in a straight line before halting. This is so that the horse halts in a balanced way, with their weight evenly distributed so that they can easily execute the turn on the forehand and don’t lurch sideways falling through their shoulder. It’s also important to halt, and have that moment of immobility, before asking your horse to turn on the forehand. Otherwise they will begin to fuss in a normal halt, anticipating a turn. This causes no end of problems down the centre line in your dressage tests!

After the turn on the forehand, pause. Again to let your horse process what they’ve just done and to rebalance themselves into a halt. Now, you should get a balanced, active transition to walk, and after a couple of straight strides, you can begin leg yielding back to the track. The straight strides ensure your horse is most able to moves sideways by using the inside hindleg to push across, rather than pulling across with the outside shoulder. On reaching the track, you right straight again, with their weight evenly over each side of their body. Then you can move up into trot or canter, and really feel the benefit of the lateral sequence you’ve just done.

Can you see how important those little breaks between each movement are? Each horse, depending on their level of training will need different lengths of time between each movement. An established schoolmaster will be able to go from leg yield to halt with only a stride of straight. A green horse, may need four strides to rebalance themselves after the leg yield. In training, it is better to give an extra stride, or second in the halt, before asking for the next movement so that your horse is more likely to do it correctly and to the best of their ability.

Next time you ride, have a think about how you’re coming out of a jump, or school movement, and see if it can be improved so that the trot you exited the circle with us as rhythmical and balanced as the trot you entered it. Then you can begin to think about how quickly you are ready to do another school movement. Could you do something at the next dressage letter, for example? When jumping, think about could you have ridden that turn between two fences if there was one less canter stride until the second – so a relates distance of four strides instead of five?

Jumping Manners

Last week I jumped a horse for a client. He’s new to her, and as she hasn’t jumped for a long time, I was given the job of putting him through his paces.

This horse is a keen and experienced jumper, but he can be a bit bargy on the ground so I wanted to establish the rules whilst jumping so that his rider would be confident and in control when she begins jumping.

I constructed a grid of three jumps, with one canter stride between. Starting with poles on the ground, I used these as part of my warm up. I trotted over them in both directions. Predictably, he rushed and tried to canter through the grid. So I made him halt. And then walk the rest of the grid. After doing this a couple of times he trotted sweetly over the grid in a lovely balanced rhythm.

I feel this is important as a rider lacking confidence when jumping needs to be able choose the pace they approach in. They may choose to trot into a cross pole for the first couple of times, then progress to cantering over it. When the jump becomes bigger, or an upright, they may decide to trot into it the first time. To help give the rider confidence, they need to know they will approach the jump at their chosen pace.

After I’d trotted the poles in both directions, with the horse staying steady and rhythmical throughout, I did the same in canter. When a grid is set up, the distances between poles on the ground is often awkward for horses. Because they don’t have the jumps the distance between the poles is about one and a half canter strides instead of one. If you think about the way a horse jumps they take off and land further away from a jump than they would over a pole on the ground. So you either have to extend the canter to get one long stride, or collect it to get two strides between the poles. Keeping with the plan of improving control, and not letting the horse rush the jumps, I collected the canter for two strides, to which he obliged.

Next, I put up the third jump to a little cross and we trotted the grid a couple of times, until I felt the horse settle at my chosen tempo. Then we cantered it, getting two canter strides between the first and second pole. The more jumps we did, the less the horse tried to rush, and the more easily I could dictate our approach.

I built the grid up to three crosses, alternating our approach from both reins and in trot or canter to ensure that the horse stayed with me and didn’t take over on the approach. He still tried to take over half a dozen strides away from the first jump, but a little half halt on my part and he listened to me. A couple of strides before the jump, I allowed him to take over so that he met the fence at a good take off point. After all, I didn’t want to put him off jumping!

Over the next few weeks, I plan to do more pole work and grids, keeping the focus on maintaining the rhythm, improving his suppleness and balance. And teaching him to be polite and wait for his rider to choose the approach. He’s a keen jumper, so he will give his rider a lot of confidence when they start jumping, so long as she feels in control throughout. I think we’ll have lots of fun getting these two off the ground!

Circles Within A Grid

Sometimes horses can lock on to fences quite strongly, and not always at the rider’s choice. Many times I remember coming round a corner on the showjumping course and Otis locking onto the wrong fence and we had to have serious words to take his eye off that one and to focus on the correct jump. Additionally, horses can get a bit fast and flat through a course.

To improve a horse’s responsiveness to the aids while jumping, to stop them rushing and flattening their canter through combinations, and to improve their bascule by encouraging them to sit on their hocks with a more collected and round canter, I built this grid earlier this week.

The grid was positioned on the three quarter line, and consisted of three cross poles, two canter strides apart. The jumps don’t want to be particularly large.

Once my horse and rider had cantered over the poles on the floor and the crosses on each rein, we started to get a bit more technical. The horse was getting a bit fast and flat as they travelled through the grid. Not unrideable, but her technique over the jumps had deteriorated by the third cross pole.

I asked my rider to jump fences one and two, then ride a circle to approach fence two again, before jumping the third fence. I left the size of the circle up to them, but they were limited to a maximum of 15m due to the size of the arena. The first time, my rider really had to pull her horse out of the grid and onto the circle. By the second half of the circle the canter had returned to its usual balanced self, and the second time over the second fence was much neater and less rushed.

We repeated this a couple of times in both directions so that the circle was round, fluid, and the canter consistent. Initially, my rider was landing then riding onto the circle, but by getting her to prepare whilst in the air, her horse expected a turn on landing so reacted quicker to her aids. I explained to her that landing and changing their direction of course felt to the horse like a change of mind, which can knock their confidence if they think the rider doesn’t want to jump and possibly lead to run outs. If my rider jumps the second fence the first time planning to turn away onto the circle then she’s already set their course, and if the horse doesn’t react or resists then the horse is in the wrong, and learns that they need to listen to the rider continuously. This makes the grid less confusing to the horse – the rider has set the course from the beginning and there are no moments when the horse can interpret a change of mind from the rider.

The next step, was to ride a circle after each jump, which meant that each fence was jumped twice. The first time, the pair had a little argument for the first circle, but as my rider was riding for the circle earlier, it was a smaller period of resistance and she managed to rebalance her canter quickly. The canter stayed much more rhythmical throughout the grid, and the mare made a cleaner shape over each fence.

We repeated this on both reins, to work the canters evenly, and then I got them to just ride straight through the grid. Whereas before we’d used this exercise, the horse was making the distance between the second and third fence look small (due to her flatter, longer striding canter), this time the distances looked the same as the canter stayed consistent.

I next raised all the fences to 90cm uprights, and had them jump through the grid on both reins. Their bascules were neater, and the grid didn’t feel as rushed.

I’d like to do this exercise, or a similar one, in the near future with this pair, but focusing more on improving the canter and riding smaller circles to bring the hocks underneath her, which will help them ping over the larger fences.

Sharers

I was asked the other day on my opinion on sharers, which is becoming a more and more popular option for horse owners. So here are my thoughts.

I’ve seen sharing arrangements which work really well for all parties, and I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong with the sharer fleeing at the first cold wind of winter or the first sign of lameness and the horse owner picking up the pieces.

For the horse owner, having a sharer can help reduce the workload of horse ownership; a sharer can make a financial contribution, help keep your horse exercised and fit, and help out with yard chores. Which can give you a lie in, or a day off from horses. It can help you maintain a healthy horse-family-work balance.

For the sharer, it’s an opportunity to forge a strong bond with a horse which you can’t do in a riding school environment, usually at a fraction of the cost. You get the horse ownership experience without the full time or financial commitment, which can work really well for those with young families or students.

Unfortunately though, I repeatedly see adverts on social media of young people who are basically looking for free rides in return for mucking out. Yes, I understand that financially they may not be able to afford riding lessons, but I worry that their naivety of riding unsupervised, plus the fact privately owned horses often have more get-up-and-go than riding school horses, poses a huge risk to the horse owner.

I still think that sharing arrangements can be a good solution for horse owners, it needs to be entered into carefully and with both eyes open.

Firstly, you need to decide why you want or need a sharer. Is it to help you exercise your horse as they can be too fizzy for you? Is it to give you a horse free day a couple of times a week? Is it to help cover your livery bill? Some share arrangements exchange riding for money whilst others exchange riding for chores. When advertising for a share you need to be very clear with what you expect in return.

Regardless of your sharing currency, there are a few hoops to jump through to help set up a successful share.

Firstly, insurance. You will have your own insurance, but you need to check that your horse is covered with other riders, or that other riders are covered. A good option is to get a sharer to take out BHS Gold membership as this will cover both them and your horse on the ground and in the saddle.

Assess their riding. Have them ride your horse under your supervision a few times, and doing all that they will want to do. So watch them school, pop a fence, and hack. They don’t need to be brilliant, but your horse shouldn’t be offended by their riding. Find out their riding goals, as it is really beneficial to have complementary aims. For example, if you like hacking and the sharer wants to do dressage this can provide variety for your horse. If you don’t like jumping then a sharer who does can be beneficial to your horse’s mental well being and fitness. However, regardless of what you both want to do, you need to have a similar approach to riding. For example, you don’t want to spend your days working your horse in a long and low frame to get them working over their back and relaxed, only for your sharer to undo all hard your work by pinning their heads in or galloping wildly round the countryside. I would strongly encourage sharers to have regular lessons, ideally with the same coach as the horse’s owner so that you can be sure you’re both singing off the same sheet, even if it’s at different levels.

The horse owner should watch how the potential sharer acts on the ground, whether they’re confident around horses and know their hoof pick from their body brush. Even if they’re straight out of a riding school and know very little, they can still learn. It’s worth the owner spending a few sessions with the sharer to help them build confidence on the ground and to set the owner’s mind at rest that their horse will be well cared for. Again, from an owner’s perspective, make sure you’re happy with the standard that the chores are done to when assessing the sharer. They can have room to learn, but you don’t want them doing a poor job and then you playing catch up the following day. It is also worth checking that the sharer is happy with any other horses they may have to deal with. For example, if your horse is in a field with one other then the sharer may well have to feed or hay both horses on their days, so they need to be happy with this, and the owner’s of the other horse does too.

I would also be careful of sharers who are fresh from the riding school as they often don’t foresee how time consuming the looking after aspect of horse care is, especially when they’re fumbling with tools or buckles, so can either shirk their duties and just chuck the tack on with a careless glance over the horse, or lose interest after a week. As an owner, your horse is your first priority and you want them to feel as loved by their sharer as they do by you. It’s definitely worth investing the time in training up a sharer so that they’re happy, your horse is happy, and you can then enjoy your horse free time without worrying.

Draw up a contract. This may seem formal, but it’s a useful reference point if anything goes wrong. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated but should contain the following subjects:

  • Insurance
  • Number of days and which days the sharer has use of the horse. The arrangement for flexibility or additional days (such as school holidays). How much warning needs to be given for changing days.
  • The chores or payment the sharer needs to provide in return for riding, and how often. Some sharers pay weekly, others monthly, some in advance and others in arrears. Some sharers have to do the chores for the entire day that they are riding the horse on, so for example turn out and muck out in the morning, and bringing in in the evening. Others just the jobs when they’re there to ride.
  • What the sharer can and cannot do with the horse. It may be that the horse has physical limitations (for example, an old injury which means they can’t be jumped too high or more than once a week) or that the owner doesn’t feel the sharer is competent enough to hack alone. However, there may be a clause that the sharer can compete or attend clinics with the approval of the owner.
  • What happens in the event of the horse going lame. Unfortunately I’ve seen many sharers up and go when the horse is injured and needs a period of box rest, leaving the owner high and dry. It may be that the sharer has such a bond with the horse that they want to continue caring for them without the benefit of riding, or the owner may have another horse the sharer can ride.
  • The notice period for terminating the contract. This may be a natural end because of the sharer outgrowing the horse, or changing jobs or moving house (or yard) but in order to end on a good note, it is more respectful to forewarn the owner.
  • Who is responsible for livery services? If for example, the sharer has to have the horse turned out on one their days, who foots the bill at the end of the month? Who is responsible for cleaning or repairing tack?

Of course, creating a sharing agreement is far more complicated than it initially seems, but having a good starting point for discussion helps both the horse owner and sharer work out what they want from, and what they can bring to, a sharing arrangement which will then hopefully have the horse’s welfare at its heart and makes for a lasting friendship between owner and sharer.