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Riding On Grass

Eventing season is finally kicking off, although with the ground conditions it’s been difficult to get any work done out of the arena.

This means that horses have lost out on valuable fittening work, hence why some eventers have pulled out of Badminton this year. There’s now far more centres with arena cross country facilities so whilst you may not be able to physically go cross country schooling you can at least practice the technicality aspect over a variety of cross country fences.

Dressage and showjumping you can practice all winter in the arena, but there’s a difference between riding on a surface, and riding on grass, so it’s important to get some practice in before an event.

Let’s look at the differences between riding on the flat and over jumps on grass compared to on an artificial surface.

Firstly, unless you are riding on a bowling green, no grass arena is going to be perfectly flat, and practice is needed so that you and your horse can ride as accurately and correctly on a slope as you do in the arena. The lack of fences can also make it harder to ride a straight line or accurate circles too. Which means practice. Count your strides on a twenty metre circle in the arena and then use this number to check you’re riding the correct sized circle out in the open.

Grass is more slippery than artificial surfaces, especially if it’s long, wet or you have the pleasure of an 8am dressage test on dewy grass. In which case it’s worth investing in studs, and then practice using them and working out the best size and shape of stud that suits your horse in different conditions.

A showjumping course will be more spread out than one on a surface. This is because on grass you need to take a wider turn to stay balanced. Again, you need to practice jumping on a slope, especially combinations, which may catch you out in the ring.

The biggest learning curve transitioning from riding in a ménage to riding on grass is developing the ability adjust your riding for the conditions, and for your horse to learn to keep his balance and rideability in different conditions – whether it’s hard going, deep going or slippery. As a rider you need to assess the terrain: are any transitions in the test on a downhill? Try and mimic the transition in your warm up so you get the feel for how you need to prepare and support your horse through them. Depending on how long the grass is and how wet it is, you may need to ride larger turns on the showjumping course than the optimum line, so you’ll need to take into account the time allowed as well as your horse’s canter and ability to keep their footing in these conditions. Sometimes the ground itself can be less than ideal, especially if you’re jumping towards the end of a wet day, so you’ll need to be able to circumnavigate divots and furrows without being put off your game. Learning how to ride on grass is only really learnt by practice. So take every opportunity you can to ride in the open fields, even when the conditions are not our ideal.

The other big factor you have to contend with when riding in the open is the added excitability of your horse. Many horses suffer from open-space-itis which means they jog in the walk, have a quicker showjumping canter and are generally a bit hotter. The best thing to do is to practice on grass to reduce the novelty – although the first time schooling on grass is always more exciting. Spend the first session establishing manners. A calm, relaxed walk. A steady canter. Walking towards home rather than galloping. Jumping a fence then coming back to the rider. Then another relaxed walk. By ensuring that your horse doesn’t think an open space means a flat out gallop you will have a more rideable horse and get more enjoyment as a result. And be consistent: expect them to listen to you all the time and then they will.

Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.

Phoenix’s Progress

Yesterday marked two weeks since I first rode Phoenix so I thought I’d give you a little update.

The first couple of days she was a bit tense when I first mounted but soon relaxed after walking around. The first week I stuck to walk and trot for about twenty minutes in the school, focusing on her transitions and suppleness. She quickly began to bend nicely through her rib cage on the walk circles and changed the bend on serpentines and Demi-voltes smoothly.

Phoenix will always have the tendency to get a bit deep in her frame so all my work at the moment is focusing on getting her to take the contact out so her nose is on the vertical, not behind. I’m also spending a lot of time at the end encouraging Phoenix to take a long rein in the walk.

After initially fidgeting in the halt, she settled and stood square and still before I turned my attention to getting her to smoothly go into and out of the halt. She still has the tendency to halt abruptly but I’m finding the balance between how much leg I can use to prevent this.

Our trot work is much along the same lines: getting the consistency of her rhythm, improving her suppleness and straightness. It’s still taking three or four strides to establish the bend on each rein but plenty of figure of eights and serpentines are rapidly improving this.

Last week my friend who’s training to be an equine masseuse came to assess Phoenix to be one of her case studies. Finding very little wrong with her, Phoenix did have a couple of tight spots and thoroughly enjoyed her massage. It will be interesting to follow my friend’s findings when she comes next time and Phoenix has done some harder work.

The next time I schooled Phoenix I felt she was straighter, not swinging her hindquarters to the right on the left rein anymore. She felt more even and was bending better on each rein. It was in this session that we had our first canter. Phoenix’s canter is becoming more balanced on the lunge and she knows the voice aids for canter, so I used the voice and leg aids. We had a couple of extended trots as she tried to oblige but found it different with my weight and the saddle. However, once she ran into canter the first time I could balance the canter fairly easily and then she had it sussed. We did a handful of canters on both reins, and each time I felt Phoenix was understanding the aids and finding it easier. She’s such a trier, and wants please. She’s a quick learner and only needs to be shown something once, so I have high hopes for her education.

I also took Phoenix for a hack last weekend. I knew she had always been a steadfast and reliable hack horse, but as she hadn’t left the yard for four months I found a steady escort and half expected a shy or two. But she was perfect! She went in front and behind, past all the traffic perfectly, and took everything in her stride. She felt very relaxed and calm throughout, which means hacking is going to be very enjoyable.

I’ll continue in this vein, hacking when I can get a babysitter and escort, and focusing on the walk and trot with the aim of hopefully entering an Intro dressage test in the next couple of months. We’ll keep having a canter, sticking to allowing her to find her balance and canter rhythm, but that will come in time and I won’t rush her.

I watched some footage of yesterday’s session and I feel Phoenix is becoming much more consistent in the walk and trot, and working more correctly. There were moments in the canter where she’s more three time and coming off the forehand which is pleasing to see.

Yesterday I also had a revolutionary moment too. I didn’t want to stop riding her. I’d have carried on forever, I was enjoying teaching, feeling her oblige, and dreaming of the next few steps and then trying to not get carried away! I will admit that a fortnight ago when I first sat on her I had a bit of a meltdown. I think it was the combination of postnatal hormones and the fact that riding her brought home the fact that I really have turned over the page and closed the chapter on riding Otis. Which is still a hard pill to swallow. However, today I had a belated birthday present from one of my closest friends and it’s made everything fall into place. My gift was a tie pin of Otis’s tail hair – so that he’s always with Phoenix and I when we compete.

Rugs Through The Ages

Probably the biggest change in the equine world in the last forty years – since the publication of my history book I blogged about last week – are rugs.

Today you can have a rug for any occasion – in the stable, in the field, to cool them down, to dry them off, to keep flies off, to travel – in three inch increments from miniature Shetland to ginormous Clydesdale and in every weight and denier you can imagine.

I won’t bore you with what’s currently on the market, you have Google for that, but let’s reminisce on the rugs of old.

In the old days there was one rug for each job, and if more warmth was required then an ordinary blanket was layered underneath. Of course few horses were clipped so many relied on their winter coats to keep warm.

Firstly, they had the renowned jute rugs. These were basically hessian rectangles which were put on stabled horses at night. You could also get them lined with wool for extra warmth. Jute rugs had a buckle at the chest, a fillet string under the tail, and were secured by a separate surcingle. There were only three size options; pony, cob and horse and the rugs were contoured for the withers and hindquarters.

In the daytime, you had the option of a wool rug – think of the traditional Newmarket rug – and was similar in cut to the jute rug with a separate surcingle, or cotton rug, called a summer sheet. This was more commonly seen at more affluent yards on freshly groomed horses.

Next up are waterproof rugs, aka New Zealand rugs. Akin to a canvas tent after a washout camping weekend, they were flared at the bottom to allow a greater range of movement. These were fastened by a leather buckle at the chest, two leather leg straps instead of a fillet string, and a surcingle which passed through a slit in the rug by the girth to prevent the rug gathering and restricting the forelegs.

Although these rugs were padded at the wither to stop chafing there must have been a high incidence of rug rubs and fistulous withers because the materials were coarse and the sizes limited to three basic ones.

Nowadays, rugs come in three inch increments, and have benefitted from technological advances in materials and manufacturing and design techniques. There are various styles to suit all shapes and sizes of equine and rugs come in all thicknesses to accommodate all aspects of the UK weather and all hardiness of horses.

Yard Storage

Is spring finally here? Until tomorrow it seems anyway. The last couple of days have been sunny and warm. The mud in the field has dried so that it’s like being in quicksand and you have to pull your foot up slowly, toes curled up, so that your welly is sucked out of the mud and you aren’t left with a soggy sock.

Anyway, yesterday one of the liveries was having a spring clean. All her rugs were out as she was putting lightweight rugs onto her horses and taking the thicker ones to be repaired and cleaned.

This prompted me that I’ve had a blog subject on my to-do list but never gotten around to doing it. And that is, storage of all your horsey gaff.

Most people don’t have a large garage or garden shed (a vacant one at least) in which to store their numerous rugs, spare boots, travelling equipment, body protectors etc, so they need some space at least at the yard. What options are available?

Most yards allow you to have a small storage box outside your stable, which is useful for everyday bits and bobs – grooming kits, riding hat, boots and whip for example. One stable Otis had had a corner cupboard which was incredibly useful and didn’t impinge on stable space either.

Then it’s a matter of storing rugs, feed, bedding, and the other less frequently used but still essential equine equipment. One yard I go to has a row of garden sheds. Each livery owner has their own shed. Obviously this takes up a lot of room, so would only be an option for bigger yards. However, in terms of security, it’s nice to know that your gear is under lock and key so won’t go walkabouts. I have to say it’s luxurious to have this much storage space.

Another yard I visit is an old farm which has been converted into a DIY livery yard. One building is used for storage. I think it must’ve housed pigs but it’s got a central walkway and low walled stone pens on each side, which is perfect for putting storage boxes in. Two or three liveries share each pen, which means each person’s stuff is kept fairly separate yet it’s all easily accessible. The only downside is that unless you can lock your storage box, things could be borrowed. But I like to think livery owners have all the paraphernalia they need so don’t need to borrow from others.

I’ve also seen large metal lorry containers put to good use. One yard has it as their tack room, and another has divided a container into lockers. Each wooden cupboard has two shelves and a door. I think this is a really good space saving solution, but it’s only really for essential every day items. With hindsight, with which everything can be improved, I think I would have larger lockers. Liveries can individually provide locks for their cupboard, but the container itself is pretty secure.

On a similar vein, I’ve seen part of a barn divided up like stalls, with wooden partitions, and each livery has their own area. This is more spacious than the container lockers but the security isn’t as good.

It’s hard to find the right balance of space and security for liveries, without becoming the equine equivalent of the Big Yellow Self Storage Company, especially when some people have far more rugs or tack than others. And for some people it is their only storage for horsey things because either they don’t have space in the garage, or their partner doesn’t want equestrian things taking over house space. I’m lucky in that my husband doesn’t really go into the garage … so he has no idea how much equine stuff is there. Not that he’d mind, of course.

I want to know, what storage solutions other yards have and how you, my readers rate each experience you’ve had.

Just like humans, some horses are quick – both athletically and mentally. They’re always alert, might be a bit spooky, fast, and quick in the air. Others take life at a slower pace; take things in their stride, don’t feel the need to gallop flat out in open fields.

Both have their merits, and whilst you’ll never make a sprinter out of a marathon runner, there are various things you can do to slow down a quick horse and speed up a steady horse.

Let’s talk about the steady horse.

A quieter, laid back horse has the confidence giving qualities most amateurs seek in a horse, but it can mean that you end up struggling to get the horse forwards; either in a dressage test or round a course of jumps. Which can end up being frustrating. Because you feel that you were carrying your horse around!

So what exercises will help?

Firstly, it’s important that the laid back horse still responds to the aids. This means you don’t end up nagging constantly, and he respects the leg. Transitions help here – use lots of transitions throughout schooling sessions and hacks, bearing in mind that you’re only going to ask him once. And he should and will react. This may mean the first couple of upward transitions need “loud” aids, perhaps aided by the voice, but as your horse begins to take you seriously you can ask with quieter aids until it’s one squeeze and he’s off. Be strict with yourself, and over a few sessions there will be an improvement.

Talking of transitions, they’re also useful for switching the brain on. It’s not that steady horses are stupid, but rather their brains work steadily like their body. Think of transitions as being the equivalent to mental maths. Direct and progressive transitions, along with lots of different school movements in quick succession will help to get this sort of horse thinking. He’ll be more focused on his rider and not thinking about the dinner waiting in his stable. As he starts thinking more he’ll be quicker to react to the aids too.

Fairly early on in a schooling session I would have a canter, then utilise walk to canter transitions to wake up this sort of horse. Depending on the horse, a hack before going into the arena may be beneficial as horses are often more alert and forwards out in the open.

I would also use poles to provide a very varied schooling session, and keep sessions short and to the point. You don’t want the steady horse to become bored or tired because then his rider has to do even more work! If fitness is an issue then use hacks to build it up; in company to make them more exciting for the horse.

With jumping, steady horses can often lack the agility needed for combinations or jump offs because, quite simply, it involves a lot of effort! Improving their gymnastic ability with grids will help get them a bit quicker at folding their legs up over fences and again help get their brain ticking a bit faster so that they’re better able to think on their feet through combinations and better able to get themselves out of trouble. When schooling on courses I’d also use some transitions to keep them thinking; for example, if you have a fair distance between two jumps then collect the canter after a fence, or even make a downwards transition, and then lengthen the canter before checking that they’re balanced towards the next fence. This keeps them listening to you so you can keep them in front of the leg before the fences.

In terms of managing a steady horse, a lot of owners want to input some energy. Traditionally, this is done with oats, but there are some many energy mixes available now it’s probably worth ringing an independent nutritionist and trialling feeds until you find the right energy level without any silliness added in. Some steady horses benefit from being kept in the night before a competition, or even just an hour before they’re ridden. So again it’s worth finding out the best routine and time of day to exercise your steady horse which will be the most energetic and productive.

I am by no means trying to convert the quiet horses into whizzy athletes, because I value, and think many more people should place emphasis on the reliable and trustworthy nature of the cooler blooded equines. But it is nice to know how to get the best out of them so it’s most enjoyable to the owners.

Taking Medication

Here’s a question for you all.

How do you trick your right-now-they’re-annoyingly-clever horse into taking tablets or medicine?

Be it hard tablets, powders or wormers, horses are very good at sniffing out the medication and eating around them or totally rejecting any attempts by you to administer it.

I’m sure those of you with such horses have a trick or two up your sleeve. I want to know them!

For hard tablets, I’ve bored a hole in a carrot or apple and given it to the unsuspecting horse.

Most horses accept powder medication in a tasty feed. Sugar beet is a favourite for mixing it in for those with a sensitive palate.

What are everyone else’s tricks?

The Next Step

This week the saddler came to fit my saddles to Phoenix. I knew she was wider than Otis … but I didn’t expect her to be that much wider!

Otis had the wide gullet bar in both his saddles, and Phoenix needs the extra extra wide bar! Which unfortunately the saddler didn’t have, because he so rarely needs it. Anyway, he adjusted my dressage saddle as best he could so that it wouldn’t ride forwards up her neck and then watched me ride in it. It’s not perfect, but at least I can start riding and change the gullet bar when it arrives. And of course, Phoenix will change shape as she gets fitter and muscles up so will need her saddle checking in a couple of months time anyway.

She was very good considering it has been four months since she’d been sat on. Her back was up initially when I got on, but after being led around for a minute she relaxed.

With the saddler I only did a few minutes, but today I got to have a proper play.

Phoenix is very sensitive to the leg, although we need to develop her reaction to the leg so that I can ask her to bend around the inside leg instead of sidestepping. When I was cooling her down at the end she was starting to bend around my inside leg so I’m sure that will come quickly, especially as I will be doing slow and steady while the saddle isn’t a perfect fit and while I improve my fitness. The trot feels active but not as bouncy as Otis’s – which is a relief while I rediscover my stomach muscles! Her transitions are fairly balanced, and she responds well to the seat. I just need to make sure the downward transitions aren’t too sudden.

I felt she had a good natural rhythm, occasionally faltering but that’s not surprising considering that she’s learning to balance my weight as well as hers. In terms of suppleness we need to work on getting her to bend through her rib cage, but that will come as she better understands my leg aids. She was more wiggly than I expected, swinging her hindquarters to the right. As she gets more supple and balanced on turns she’ll be less wiggly, which is quite normal for green horses.

Phoenix feels uphill to ride, and she felt more consistent to the contact then I was expecting. She puts herself onto the bit but can go behind the vertical so I expected her to be lighter and slightly behind the bridle, particularly as she’s not had any pressure on her mouth for months.

From our short ride yesterday I’ve devised a plan for Phoenix’s ridden work. I want to aim to ride her three times a week and lunge her once, but it’s open to change, depending on the weather and babysitters. We’ll stick to walk and trot initially, with canter work on the lunge, and focus on transitions with general school movements and encouraging her to work in a long and low frame, and encouraging her nose to stay on or in front of the vertical. As her balance through the transitions and in her frame improves so will the quality of her walk and trot. Of course, this work can be done on hacks too. We have a large field to ride round, which will provide variation to the arena as well.

Today I spent twenty minutes in the school on walk circles and serpentines getting Phoenix to bend and she was starting to bend well. Then we did some transitions into trot with lots of circles and changes of rein. I felt Phoenix was in a slightly longer frame and taking her neck out a bit more. Then to finish we did some halt transitions, more suppling work in walk and then had a try of walking on a long rein. She stretched down before going behind the bridle and causing the reins to go loose, and her walk slowed down as she drifted into the middle of the school. This is quite normal for green horses, because they’ve lost the guidance and security of the rein contact, but we’ll keep working on it until she’s confident in stretching and walking purposefully.

I’ll keep you updated! But it’s very exciting to have a project to work on again, especially one who’s so keen to learn!