Breastplate Research

Recently some scientific studies have been published which discuss the negative impact on a horse’s jump.

Fairfax, who are famous for their pioneering girths which gave British riders an advantage at the 2012 Olympics, have published the research describing how a breastplate shortens the shape a horse makes over the fence, so that they land more steeply thus putting more stress on their joints. You can read about it in more detail Here.

Obviously Fairfax have developed a breastplate which is far superior to all others on the market. At a price, of course. Now, unless you are planning on remortgaging your house to purchase this ultimate breastplate, let’s have a look at what other options there are.

Breastplates are used to help stabilise the saddle and stop it slipping back. They’re most commonly seen on eventers, who due to their high level of fitness are rather streamlined, almost herring gutted, which encourages the saddle to slide towards the croup.

If your saddle slips backwards the first port of call is to get it checked. It may be that the make of the saddle isn’t best suited to your horse’s conformation, but equally changing the girth may have an impact on the movement of the saddle. You can also use gel pads or non slip pads under the saddle which can help stabilise the saddle. Phoenix came with such a pad, so when I get the saddler out I’ll make sure I take that with me so the saddler can assess if I’ll need it with my saddles and take it into account when he fits the saddle.

I think with any piece of tack, you only want to use what you need. So if your saddle stays still when you’re jumping or going cross country then don’t weigh yourselves down with a breastplate. The same goes for martingales for that matter.

There are a few options with regard to designs of breastplates and breastgirths, and I think it’s so important to consider the horse’s conformation when choosing one.

I tend to feel that if your horse needs a martingale then it’s a good idea to combine that with a breastplate in order to reduce clutter, but otherwise I’d look at breastgirths.

Horses with large shoulders tend to have trouble with saddles sliding back, but the ironic thing is that large shoulders tend to make fitting breastplates difficult. Which was exactly the problem I had with Otis. Initially, I had a hunting breastplate which worked well when he was a youngster, but as we started jumping bigger and getting more serious, I found that the hunting breastplate wasn’t so effective at preventing his saddle from sliding backwards and it encouraged the saddle to sit a bit low at the front.

From there, I tried the V-check breastplate, hoping that the elastic would provide more freedom through his shoulders, but the angle that the straps came up from the centre of his body caused the saddle to drop at the front again, which I think made it harder for him to use his shoulders over jumps and when galloping.

As I needed the breastplate to have a more gentle angle, I looked at a five point breastplate. This one I was most happy with. The sheepskin pads and girth attachments helped reduce the downwards pressure at the pommel, so I felt there was less pressure near his sternum and point of shoulders.

As well as the research done by Fairfax about breastplates affecting jumping, I think it would be more interesting to use the biomechanics technology to see the effect that different styles of breastplates and breastgirths on horses of a variety of stamps – for example, warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and cobs – has on their jumping and where the pressure points are. After all, it would be lovely to be able to had a breastplate which only puts pressure on the horse when needed, but we can’t all justify the price tag, and indeed not all horses are super fit eventers. However it would be great to educate the average horse owner in the pros and cons of different style pieces of tack so that we can do best by our horses.


The Two Loop Serpentine

There’s a movement that comes up frequently in both prelim and novice dressage tests which I really like. I like how is seems comparatively straightforward, but in order to score well you need to perfect several elements. I also like how it can be used to develop horse and rider in terms of rhythm, suppleness and balance.

It’s effectively a two loop serpentine, but is described in tests as “C half twenty metre circle right to X. X half twenty metre circle left to A.” Or starting at A, or on the left rein.

At prelim level, the movement is carried out in working trot. The judge is looking for the circles to be of an even size, so checking suppleness. For the trot to stay in a consistent rhythm, and for the change of bend to be smooth and balanced.

Initially when I use this exercise with riders, I get them to spend several strides over X changing the bend. A common mistake is that people lurch from the right circle to the left circle at X, which inevitably means the second circle lacks quality. By ensuring that the change of bend is balanced over a few straight strides we improve the suppleness of the horse, and the rider learns to prepare and execute the change of bend fluently, as well as riding accurately over X. Then we reduce the number of straight strides over X as the horse becomes more balanced and understands the exercise until the change of bend is done in literally two strides or less, and the horse passes over X as so often riders miss it because they haven’t ridden an accurate first half circle.

The next step in this exercise is when a test asks for one horses length in walk over X. This means that you have to factor in a transition before and after the change of bend, thus further testing the horse’s balance and suppleness. One horse’s length is 3-5 strides of walk, and the transitions need to be clear so that the walk is a definite four beats. It’s common for the horse to jog in anticipation of trotting again so the judge will mark lower for a loss of clarity in the walk.

Again, when introducing the walk steps to the movement I break it up. We go back to having quite a long straight stretch over X, and initially aim for half a dozen walk strides. This enables the rider to prepare each transition, and to separate each element. Coming off the half circle, they ride the downwards transition, and then change the bend, then ride the upward transition before going onto the second half circle. It’s key to keep the horse in front of the leg, so as soon as the horse is staying balanced into walk with a smooth change of bend, we reduce the number of walk steps. By slowly condensing the movement the horse and rider will be more able to ride it succinctly and fluidly. When practising this movement for a test I’ll quite often vary the number of walk steps so that the horse doesn’t anticipate the upward transition and tense up.

At Novice level, canter is introduced to this movement. In order to change the rein trot is required over X. Here, it is more noticeable if the rider doesn’t establish the new bend because the horse risks striking off onto the wrong lead.

In a similar way to introducing the walk transition, I get my rider to break down the elements and take their time changing the bend and preparing each transition. As the horse’s balance and rider’s preparation improves we reduce the number of trot strides, still focusing on the rhythm of the trot in case the horse tenses or rushes. Eventually, the transitions and change of bend happen almost simultaneously. Only needing one horse’s length of trot over X means that the rider has to be accurate in their transition: there’s no point riding the downward transition too early so you either have more trot strides or you pick up the new canter lead before X. Neither of which are looked favourably on by judges.

So what appears to be quite a simple movement actually requires a lot of preparation and accuracy from the rider. From the horse, they need to be responsive to the aids, supple and balanced through the changes of bend and transition. I think it’s quite a useful movement for assessing a horse’s way of going as well as to check the rider’s understanding of the different aspects of the exercise.

To Boot Or Not To Boot?

Another subject request from a client was on the topic of booting. Should you put boots on or not?

To me, boots have done a bit of a full circle. At least twice. Years ago, nobody would have used any form of leg protection at all. Didn’t Black Beauty scar his knees in a fall? Then bandages were introduced, but they’d only have been used by the elite – they’re tricky to put on correctly and are dangerous if they come undone. Especially on the hunt field or cross country course.

Then the basic brushing boot came onto the market, which soon became popular amongst all as it was affordable and easy to use. These became more elaborate with sheepskin and various fancy fastenings. And we all became a little obsessed with protecting our horses against any knock or cut, and boots were used to turn out competition horses in the field as well as when ridden.

Then along came the scientists, who found that boots heat the leg up, which makes the tendons more liable to injury – Here’s a really interesting article about the pros and cons of boots from a scientific perspective.

So then owners started to move away slightly from boots. But we still have that urge to protect our horse’s legs. Which has left us in a bit of a quandary and susceptible to the marketing ploys of all the scientifically researched boots which require you to take out a second mortgage to purchase them.

I joke, but after perusing the Premier Equine spring catalogue and dreaming of winning the lottery, protective boots have become very complicated areas.

Back to my client’s original question. To boot or not to boot?

I think ultimately it requires you to be sensible. Take precautions, use good quality equipment, but also allow horses to be horses.

Firstly, have a look at your horse’s conformation and way of going. Are they at risk of overreaching because they’re short-coupled? Are they young and unbalanced? Do they move straight, or is there a swing to their limbs? Are they “out of one hole” and narrow chested? All of which increases their risk of inflicting damage upon themselves, by one limb knocking the other. Do they have shoes? A shod foot will do more injury than a barefoot. And studs will do more damage than a plain shoe.

If your horse answers yes to any of the above questions then I’d be more inclined to use protective boots.

Next, what are you doing with your horse? A gentle hack, or prelim/novice level flatwork has a lower risk of injuries than cross country or interval training. The BHS taught me to put brushing boots on to lunge because the risk of injury is higher when the horse is working on a circle. Whether they still advocate this, I’m not sure, but it’s a valid point. Equally. I would consider the horse’s energy levels – is he fresh and likely to throw in a couple of spooks or bucks which may cause injury?

Another point to consider is how hardy is your horse? A thin skinned, clipped Thoroughbred will knock themselves and blood will start gushing, whilst a well feathered cob has more natural protection. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, so get to know your horse.

Does your horse have a previous injury? For example, if they’ve previously done a tendon, or have an old scar on their leg, then you may want to consider booting them for supportive reasons as much as protective reasons.

Otis wore boots as a matter of course. I always put brushing boots on him; simple, basic ones. Mainly because I think I always did, so we were both used to it. Then he frequently pulled shoes off, so he wore overreach boots when ridden and when in a herd, he wore them in the field. On his own, he is fairly sensible about it all. His hind legs are quite close together, and when he was shod behind the inside of his shoe used to catch the inside of the other coronet band, so that he lost his feathers in that area. So I put sausage boots on his back legs, which I’m not one hundred percent convinced that they solved the problem, but they definitely reduced the effect. Upon reflection, I think overreach boots would have been a better alternative.

With Matt, I didn’t put brushing boots on him in everyday riding, and Mum doesn’t either. However, when I took him on some sponsored rides last year I did put brushing boots on him for protection over the solid fences.

With Phoenix I’ve not yet used boots on her. She’s barefoot and straight moving, so I’m not worried too much about overreaching or knocks, especially while she’s in such light work. Plus the fields are so muddy that I would struggle to get her legs clean enough to put boots on, so risking damage to her legs from abrasions due to pieces of grit being caught between the boot and her leg. Once I start jumping her properly I’ll definitely put boots on her, to protect her from knocks as she learns what to do with her body. But I think I may be more relaxed with her than with Otis, and just put boots on when I feel she needs protection. Once she’s learning lateral work then she’ll need protection as she gets used to crossing her legs over.

So to answer my client’s question, I think it’s important to take precaution with our horse’s legs to avoid injury from knocks, abrasions or cuts. But it’s equally important to try to prevent soft tissue injury by fittening your horse sufficiently because the jury is out as to how supportive boots actually are. And don’t feel that you have to use boots all the time: work out when you think your horse will most benefit from them and which types of boots (tendon boots, brushing boots, fetlock boots, etc) will best serve the purpose.

Then of course is the mind boggling question of which boots should you use. After all, they come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Basic boots are usually neoprene, which are lightweight so won’t have too much of a warming effect on the horse’s legs or weigh them down as they move. However, neoprene does soak up water so will become heavy and possibly hinder the horse after the water element on a cross country course.

Some boots have sheepskin inner, which were in fashion twenty years ago, but as the sheepskin warms the limbs up excessively they dropped out of fashion. Plus they’re so difficult to clean! However, sheepskin is better for sensitive skinned horses, and creates more even pressure around the leg so avoids rubs and pressure points. I saw some sheepskin boots in the Premier Equine catalogue which states that the sheepskin uses “airtechnology” to prevent the leg overheating. I’d like to see an independent study on the heat of legs and different materials of boots to see what materials are best.

Then there are more specialist boots, for example for fast work and cross country. These advocate their cooling technology. The ones I saw have vents which allow air to flow under the boot when the horse is moving. Together with technological advances, these boots have become very hard wearing and tough without getting heavy. Heavy boots will impede a horse’s movement and performance.

In all, despite the fact that we now know there are limitations and side effects of using protective boots for horses, technology has allowed boots to be developed which aim to enhance performance, prevent overheating, and provide protection to the limbs. So we shouldn’t be put off from using boots when necessary. However, I think I would choose when I used boots, and only use the level of protection that I required – so if a horse doesn’t need overreach boots then don’t use them, and don’t use specialist cross country boots for flatwork in the school – because the very nature of putting boots into limbs, or bandages for that matter, alters the way a horse uses their body. Then I would also minimise the length of time a horse spent wearing them.

On a side note, have you seen the research done on barefoot (human) runners and the difference in the way the foot absorbs impact when bare as opposed to when wearing trainers? It’s really interesting how the toes spread out and work independently to balance the body when unrestricted.


A Week in Social Media

Has anyone seen the furore on social media this week about “that dressage test”?

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, there was a video of a US rider performing an Intermediare II test which received a huge amount of interest. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a pretty video. There have been two main responses online.

Firstly, there are the keyboard warriors criticising the riding and quality of the test. To me, the video shows a rider who is out of her depth. She found sitting to the extended trot difficult (not that I can blame her) and the movements lacked finesse. The horse looked like a schoolmaster, who knew his job but unfortunately he did spend the majority of the time behind the bit on the verge of rolkur – which is a sensitive subject at the moment.

So it wasn’t the best example of an Intermediare test. But there’s still no need to publicly insult the rider, although part of me thinks that by competing above her ability and at a live streamed competition she is opening herself up for criticism.

It would be interesting to know the full story. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. But it’s useful to know the circumstances that the photo (or video) was taken in. How long has she had this horse? How long has she been competing? Does she have a trainer? Does she suffer from competition nerves? A new partnership is likely to have some rough edges in their first competition. And someone who is competing at their first national competition, or at a new level, is likely to be nervous so will make mistakes with their riding. Do they have a trainer and has the trainer encouraged this rider to enter this test, or is it all off the rider’s own back?

The next criticism that I read was about the US dressage system. Apparently there’s no entry requirements to ride at the higher levels in the US. Which, in my opinion, leads to a lowering of standards and allows riders to take short cuts in their training. Then there’s the fact that the judges were quite generous in their marking. However, the judges are marking the horse’s performance and to give the horse it’s due, he tried his best and did all movements asked of him. It’s just a shame that their competition results aren’t a true reflection of the test. The video does highlight a flaw in the dressage world in that judges don’t (or can’t) take it account the effect a rider has on the horse’s performance. Perhaps the competitive world could learn something from this. My friend and I were discussing how equitation tests, which judge the rider as well as the horse, would improve the standard of riding. Unfortunately though, those riders who are striving to improve would enter these classes and the riders who need the feedback and are complacent in their ability wouldn’t enter. Which doesn’t solve the problem.

The last criticism I saw, concerned the welfare of the horse. The rider’s aids were less than subtle, and she did get frustrated with the way the test went and unfortunately took it out on the horse. To me, the social media criticism in this area was most justified and I would be appalled if any of my clients (or I!) behaved like this to their horse at any time as it’s just bad horsemanship.

I think that covers the negative comments with regard to the video. In my humble opinion, whilst no one should criticise without being constructive or having a good level of understanding and education to verify their point of view (and unfortunately a lot of keyboard warriors just bash out insults without a moment of thought), there is a lot to be learnt from the video. Not just from the rider’s perspective, but also from the dressage world’s.

The other side of the debate, was all about bullying. These comments were largely defensive to the rider, saying that the rider should be praised for furthering herself. Yes, I agree, anyone who wants to improve their riding and ability should be supported and encouraged. And the thoughtless insults shouldn’t be endorsed.

I do think, however, that there is a flaw in the way this rider is is going about furthering herself. She’s got the horse power, and done the right thing in getting a horse who can teach her the movements. But I do wonder if she’s getting the right support behind her. Surely she would have been better off competing at a lower level and establishing their partnership, whilst practising the movements at home before going to such a high profile competition. Then, when competition nerves kick in they still perform to a decent level. So perhaps the issue lies with the trainer, for not enforcing the basic building blocks and for pushing her client beyond her current ability in a public environment. Which ultimately will shatter her confidence because the video has gone viral and received less than complimentary comments.

The equestrian world has been shown at it’s worst this week – I’m not going to link to the debates, but a little surfing online will get you there. There are those who have critiqued this rider for the sake of it, and those who have criticised the wider picture in an attempt to improve our little society. But equally, there have been those who have played the anti-bullying card and ended up defending some of the poorest aspects of the equine world. I don’t know who’s right, but I do think everyone can learn something from watching the video and reading up on the situation as a whole.


Quick Knot

Just before Christmas I was approached by a company called Quick Knot, asking me to do a feature about their product on my blog. Well here it is.

Equination is a Dutch based company, which specialises in bringing innovative products into the equestrian market. Personally I hadn’t heard of them before, but I had heard of variations of the product they asked me to blog about. As I had no experience of using their product I felt inadequate to provide a balanced review on it, so I asked if I could try it myself before writing this blog.My little parcel arrived around New Years, but with life getting in the way, it wasn’t until yesterday that I tried out the Quick Knot.I am someone who appreciates well presented plaits, and know how easy it is to do an average job or to let your horse’s conformation down.If I have to plait I much prefer using a needle and thread; yes it’s more time consuming and takes more skill, but I hate the top knot effect of plaits that have been rolled up with bands. They can easily flop forwards and if you have a horse with a weak topline they can accentuate the lack of muscle. Additionally, I’ve known them be shaken loose moments before a show class, or rubbed out at some point during the day.When I plaited Otis (before I embraced the native-ness and he matured enough to look like one) I always sewed them in. It took longer, but I knew they’d be in for the day as they were so secure and he was a terror for shaking them out. The downside was using the unpicker (never go near them with scissors unless you want to risk lopping off a whole plait) to rootle our and cut the thread in enough places that the plait could be unraveled.Now, the Quick Knot, which was launched in the UK in December 2017, claims to achieve professional looking plaits in seconds. To me, I want the Quick Knot plaits to rival that of the sewn plaits. I wasn’t really sure what to expect this patented tool to look like when I opened up the box. If I’m honest, it rather looked like a deformed paper clip. But I’m sure you’ve seen how paper clips can be modelled into all sorts by young, bored schoolchildren.I read the instructions carefully, and whilst the Quick Knot claims to banish elastic bands from the plaiting scene, I’m afraid that’s a slight overstatement. You still need plaiting bands to secure the end of the plait. It is true that you can’t see the bands in the finished result, and there is no sign of a needle or thread.To begin, you want to divide the mane up as usual and plait each section tightly, securing them at the end with an elastic band. I folded the tips of the mane up into the band (not very well this time, I admit) so that they wouldn’t stick out of the final rolled plait.Once the mane has been plaited, which could be done the night before, it’s a simple case of rolling up the plaits. This is another downside of using a needle and thread; you have to do it all at once, which can mean an early show class becomes a very early alarm call!I did watch a video demonstration on YouTube before trying the Quick Knot which was very useful in helping visualise the process – Which you can check out here.To use the Quick Knot, you roll the plait up tightly, and push the Quick Knot through the roll from the back so that the long point comes out the other side. Then fold the long pin around the plait.Now, I was very impressed with the result. There is a bit of a knack, so I feel my technique would improve with a bit of practice. I felt that these plaits enhanced the mare’s topline, and looked far better that the elastic bands technique.My guinea pig for the Quick Knot was rather fidgety(feeling she should be in the field rather than being faffed with) which actually gave me quite a realistic experience of preparing an excited horse for a competition. I found using the Quick Knot for each plait was very easy to do and it was easy to do one and then settle the horse before doing another. There was never a needle swinging from the rolled plait, or the plait popping out of it’s half wrapped band.In the photo above the end two plaits are elastic bands and the middle have the Quick Knot fastening them. I think you’ll agree that the middle two look much better than then elastic ones, particularly the second one, when I had had a trial run. To undo the plaits was fairly straightforward and quick. You just straighten out the long pin, and then pull out the Quick Knot. The gadget itself can be straightened out and I assume used a few times. Which means that a pack of 100 would last you a couple of seasons, similar to a pack of plaiting bands.So would I recommend using the Quick Knot? Well the final result is significantly better than elastic bands and the time taken to plait is significantly less than with a needle and thread, with similar results. I think it would make the plaiting procedure far quicker and less painless for a fresh horse and hurried groom. So yes, I think I would opt to use the Quick Knot in the future.Now for a bit of blurb from the makers themselves.

Before arriving in the United Kingdom, Quick Knot had been launched in The Netherlands and Australia with huge success, selling over more than 2 million clips in just three months. It has now been nominated for ‘Product of the year’ in The Netherlands and inventors Erwin Samuels and Frank van Helvert have been blown over by its success. Quick Knot was created by pure trial and error when they were trying to produce better plaits for their own horses.

“We’ve been thinking about a product like Quick Knot for years” said Frank van Helvert, Quick Knot’s co-owner. “A year ago we decided to really make it happen and come up with a solution that would make (the time consuming) plaiting with needle and thread a thing of the past. After testing all different kinds of techniques, types of metal and models on more than 1200 manes, we finally found the perfect shape for the clip and started production. We now offer 2 sizes, ‘normal’ for regular manes and ‘XL’ for thick manes, in 3 different colours so for every horse a Quick Knot.”

Prominent UK riders like Becky Moody, Annie Cowan and Hannah Biggs have already embraced the new way of plaiting and can’t imagine using needle & thread or elastic bands again. ”Quick Knot has revolutionised how I plait, so simple yet effective for all types of horses!” as Annie Cowan quoted.

Quick Knot is now available online at and will be available at local and online equestrian retailers soon.


My Rosettes

A few weeks ago I blogged about potential ways of storing my rosettes now that they have been evicted from the picture rail of our smallest bedroom – Which you can read about here.

Anyway, I thought you’d be interested in my solution.

For the majority, I decided that jars would be the best option; so I asked my parents to have a look in their Aladdin’s Cave for any large jars with large necks. Unfortunately, the large neck part caused a problem and they could only provide an old chemistry jar with a homemade wooden lid. I managed to fill this jar with a couple of years worth of rosettes and some medals that I’d also won at the time.

After some research online, I popped to IKEA and bought two more jars. These have very wide necks and cork lids, but aren’t particularly tall. Anyway, they were sufficient for the rest of my “normal” rosettes.

I’m quite pleased with the result, and can place them around the house as I wish, and in a few years time I’ll be able to get them out and show them to my little person, who will hopefully enjoy reflecting on them with me.

I’m going to keep an eye out for suitable jars, perhaps in charity shops or Granny’s Aladdin’s Cave.

Next up, were my special rosettes. Namely Otis’s fancy rosette and sash for winning a Dressage Series. And of course Matt’s collection from the Dressage Championships. A friend gave me the idea of a memory box, so off I went to Hobbycraft to buy the biggest box frames they had. Then I spent a happy New Year’s Eve arranging, sewing, and sticking the rosettes and sashes into the frame.

With Otis’s, I took a Dressage photo I had from the time to add to the frame, and I think it looks pretty cool. In hindsight, I should have flattened the sash before framing it, but our heavy books were already flattening out an elephant poster print for the nursery. This arrangement of the sash shows the event and the year, so needs no other explanation.

Matt’s collection was more tricky. Really, the frame wasn’t big enough for two sashes and two large rosettes. Because we had a specific journey together, I also wanted to put his qualifier rosettes in the display too, and there was no way I could have fitted a photo in too. But I have plenty of photos of him and I won’t forget our championship story. I can put a label on the back of the frame stating the event, horse and year, for anyone else’s information.

It took me a while to find an arrangement I was happy with, and didn’t look too “busy”. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the writing on the sash into the picture, but that’s partly because of the amount of writing and the size of the font. As the rosettes state it anyway, I think that’s sufficient.

I’m pleased with the outcomes of both displays: a rectangular box frame might’ve been better for Matt’s sashes, but without going down the (expensive) specially made frame route, this looks great.

I used some small foam stickers to attach the rosettes to the backing card, and discreetly stitched the sashes into their shapes before using the foam stickers to secure them. The tails of the rosettes were folded behind the backing card. The idea is that I can take them out in the future and they are still intact.

What do you think of them?


Low, Deep and Round

It was good to see this statement from the BHS bigwigs about the importance of seeing the full picture before castigating riders.

Yes I know, rolkur is an issue and should not be permitted or encouraged in anyway. But so often you see photos of professionals, dressage riders in particular, being slated because the horse is behind the vertical or tight in the neck.

We’ve all had those horrendous photos taken, where you’re making a face, or look fat because it’s the wrong angle or whatever other sensitive issue you may have. A photo is a moment in time and can just as easily show off a horse at their worst, than at their best. I just wish the keyboard warriors would firstly accept that professionals competing at a high standard, such as Olympia, deserve some respect and are probably significantly better horsemen than the said warriors. Also, keyboard warriors should look at the whole situation and use their own brain to analyse whether the horse is being incorrectly ridden, or if the photo captured them at the wrong moment.

The media can also be to blame. A negative photo that is sensationalised sells magazines far more than a standard photo of good riding.

I remember being told that the head and neck are the last thing to fall into place when training a horse. I think I blogged recently about it … Not so much about the subject itself, but rather how the frame of a horse will alter through training.

Anyway, I always teach my clients about riding to the steady contact and working on what the hind legs and body are doing, rather than the head. Then the head takes care of itself. Sometimes I’ll say that the horse is dropping behind the vertical, or their poll is getting too low, but we then correct them by putting in some impulsion, or correcting the hand carriage. Whatever needs to be done to help the horse regain self carriage.

I have a couple of clients who, with a photo taken at the wrong moment would have a horse behind the vertical. And it’s most definitely not from them being restrictive with their hands and riding badly. One pony gets tense and finds it hard to maintain a consistent contact, so tucks his nose back, looking behind the bit and tight in the neck. Once he’s found the contact, his rider just squeezes the legs to encourage him to step out towards the contact and then he lengthens his neck and corrects his head.

Another horse often goes poll low, and that’s where she lacks impulsion and is conformationally built a bit on the forehand. As soon as she starts to drop down and onto the forehand we ride some transitions and input impulsion to activate her hindquarters so she comes up off the forehand, creating a much prettier and more correct picture.

The youngster I’m working with at the moment spends most of his time above the bridle, but we are focusing on rhythm to the trot, steering and suppling him, and ensuring he holds a steady and even rein contact. His head carriage, whilst more accepted than being behind the vertical, will improve as he establishes his balance and learns to maintain it.

The weak horse in the blog I’ve linked to, is now much stronger, and is starting to carry herself better, and is learning to stretch in the trot, and free walk on a long rein, so presents a far more correct frame, but when she gets tired, or loses her balance she still has moments of dropping behind the vertical as she momentarily balances on her rider’s hand before carrying herself again.

I think it’s so important for coaches to understand, and to explain to riders the importance or the studying the whole package of riding, and how the horse’s stage of training and physical appearance will affect their ability to carry their nose on the vertical with their poll at the highest point, before judging others and when planning their own training and improvement.


10 Years of Otis

Today marks the ten year anniversary of bringing Otis home. It’s been a journey of mainly ups, but he’s given me so much. I know I’ve changed as a rider in the last ten years as a result of him, and it’s him who motivates me to learn more and further my career.

So I thought I’d treat you all to a selection of photos through the years. Apologies if there’s a photo overload!

Otis in 2007 or early 2008. A baby anyway! He was always very grown up around the yard and apart from tending to walk through you (personal space issues) his manners on the ground were very good. He used to see me coming up the field and march purposely over, bottom lip swinging. I’d catch Matt, and Otis would walk down between us, trying to get as close to me as possible. Once at the gate, I used to let him down to the yard and he’d walk straight to his stable and either go in, or wait outside, depending on whether the door was open.

As a four year old, Otis was very gangly – as you can see in the first two photos, but that winter he really filled out and matured. I was an apprentice then so got a lot of help with schooling him.

Otis had his showing debut with a friend of mine. The yard I trained at did “novice showing shows” twice a year which was really popular with the helpers and liveries. Not at all interested in it, I remember the autumn one when I first started working there. One helper had spent days if not weeks preening her ex-polo mare. And was gutted to be placed last in every class. I remember feeling so sorry for her because she’d put in so much effort, and it was only the mare’s old injuries and conformation – curb, thoroughpin etc – which let them down. So I offered Otis to her in the spring show. I can’t remember if they did the next two or three shows together, but they won or got placed in everything and she had a fab time.

Over the winter I’d done a lot of prelim and novice dressage with him, winning a photo shoot – see photo above – and we won the dressage rider of the year, so got a nice big sash, rosette and trophy. I can’t find the photo of that though.

My photos aren’t as well chronicled after age five (don’t expect any baby albums!) and it’s harder to tell how old Otis is in them, but here are some memories.

The August Otis was five we did our first one day event, getting second place. I remember being very surprised but pleased. It was our second attempt to get to one because the one before Otis had decided to scratch his ear whilst tied up and got rope burn around his hind fetlock – don’t ask … So I went on a friend’s pony, who is never ridden before!

We carried on with the novice dressage and did more jumping, which he loves.

We usually did well: being placed at dressage competitions and usually getting clear cross country, decent dressage and an unlucky showjump eventing. I did achieve my goal of being successful at elementary dressage and BE100, so I’m really proud of him for getting that far. Particular competitions that stand out were jumping clear at Hickstead, and completing the Blenheim eventers challenge for the riding club, but equally I remember a dressage judge getting out her car to tell me how much she liked Otis. The little comments and compliments, as well as his endless patience waiting on the trailer made competing really enjoyable.

The less said about sponsored rides the better. The more he did and the older he got, the more he would prance around, waving his hind feet ten foot in the air. I’m sure my friend will always remember our ride around Highclere, where Otis did airs above the ground for two hours. He sat back on his hindquarters, lifted the front in a levade, jumped forward, and kicked out his hind legs. The Spanish Riding School would’ve been impressed. I wasn’t quite so impressed when he did it going downhill! Needless to say, he loved hacking on his own or with a couple of others. So long as he was at the front!

On the ground, I don’t think Otis could’ve been anymore perfect. He’s incredibly patient, loves attention, fab to shoe, clip, vet, dentist, everyone, and is great in company. Although he will look slightly miffed if he hears me teaching and not working him! I think one of the best things about him is that he just goes with the flow, and doesn’t get wound up about coming in early or late, or having a field friend or not. So long as he has the odd polo and plenty of cuddles, he’s happy!

Ten years has flown by, and whilst the last eighteen months hasn’t been what I wanted, I value every lesson he’s taught me and have enjoyed every second of our journey together. I might not ride him again, who knows, but he’s given me so much and now he can enjoy time with his field buddies, listening to the baby (maybe he’ll understand when he sees her), crunching endless apples, and being there when I need him to let me escape from the world. Happy ten years Otis Motis!


Storing Rosettes

I’ve got a bit of a dilemma at the moment. My office is currently being turned back into a bedroom for bump, so I’m having to find new homes for everything. But what do I do with all my rosettes?

I’m reluctant to box them up because of the associated memories, but equally I don’t think they should stay strung up along the wall. Or maybe I should leave them to start encouraging the competitive spirit and eagerness to ride …

When I was younger I did a variety of things with rosettes. Hung them up on the wooden beams in my bedroom, hung them on the top of my curtains (pencil pleats, but they were forever falling off), and then finally I had a bamboo blind on the back of my door – which had two panes of glass so let a lot of light into my room. On a side note, I just remembered my teenage brother smashing one patterned pane in anger… and we were in so much trouble because the panes were a hundred year old so replacements weren’t exactly easy to find. I hung the rosettes on this, which I always liked, and it served the job of keeping the light from the landing out of my room.

How does everyone store their rosettes and sashes? I’ve seen cushions made from them, but I’m not sure I like that idea – it gets confusing as to what the ribbon is for. And I like being able to reminisce. All of my rosettes have the date, horse, competition level, location, and score scribbled on the back to help trigger memories.

After a quick google, I found a lot of cushions, wall hangers (which is fine for a small number), and glass jars.

Ideas on a postcard please, so I can get organised. The more creative or quirky, the better. And if anyone has any photos that would be even better!


Cross Country Gears

I had a fun cross country lesson this week, and what we worked on really seems to have fallen into place with my rider and his pony.

Let me give you a bit of background. He’s had his pony for seven months, so is rapidly growing into him, and they have the most adorable relationship. Don’t tell him I said that! But it is, it’s so lovely seeing a boy who loves his pony this much. Anyway, he does everything with him, and so far doesn’t seem to be afraid of doing anything on him – you can imagine the “can I jump that?” As he points to a Novice brush fence!

However, before I’ll let them get too gung ho (we’ll leave that for the hunting field) and ambitious, I want to teach a bit more of the technicalities of jumping.

A few weeks ago we went cross country schooling and had some problems with the steps in particular. So with this in mind, we planned some cross country sessions for half term. And used the in between lessons to work on core muscles, position towards a jump, developing his seat aids, and getting him more aware of the variations in his trot and canter and subtly altering them.

Last week we went cross country schooling and we had a mixed afternoon. We began to improve his riding towards steps – he was no longer racing towards them, and was sitting up for longer on his approach. They jumped the trakhener and some rather large, straightforward fences confidently. With the water complex we had an issue of racing towards a small fence and creating so much splash his pony couldn’t calculate the jump. Then we had a problem in the water. A long, over confident leap up a step then caused a refusal in the water which led to an unfortunate dunking for my rider.

This week I was adamant that I was going to sort this out so that next season the boys didn’t start with a phobia of steps.

The pony is very bold, but tends to get long and fast on the approach to jumps, often preferring to take off half a stride too early than get closer and make a steeper bascule. His rider, because he’s a growing boy and still maturing, plus still growing into his pony, tends to collapse a bit through his core and over ride the last couple of strides to each fence. Which encourages and enables his pony to go long and then take a long stride to a fence. Which causes problems at technical fences because his pony either takes a long stride or can run out.

So how to make my client realise and understand how to maintain a more balanced canter towards these technical fences? After all, being a boy you can’t overload him with information. Last week, I’d tell him to sit up and hold the canter towards the fence, which meant he forgot to ride positively with the leg. So the next time I’d say to remember the leg, and he forgot to sit up towards the jump! We needed a simpler set of instructions which encompassed all aspects of his riding.

Then it came to me; use the gear changing analogy. He likes driving and has a go-kart, and if we put numbers to the gears it will be easy for me to instruct on the approach and a short directive for my client to take in. After all, it tied in well with our lesson the other week on transitions within the trot and canter using the seat and a scale of one to ten to identify the size of the gait.

We warmed up in the field, using transitions and shortening and lengthening the canter. We had a check of the braking system to make sure it was enough that the pony didn’t get strong and pull my rider forwards yet wasn’t too severe. Then I had my rider warm up over four simple fences in a fairly straight line, looking at the canter staying very rhythmical and balanced throughout. Which meant my rider had to tone down his riding so his half halts and squeezes of the leg were enough to steady or encourage the pony without affecting the canter. The second time they did the exercise it flowed beautifully.

My rider could tell me how smooth the canter was, and I told him this was fifth gear. And I wanted him to remember how this had felt. Any simple, straightforward jump could be ridden from fifth gear.

Then we did another course, with mainly simple logs, but there was one jump on entry to the water. I let my client have a try, after all he’d jumped a similar fence last week. They jumped the first few fences nicely in fifth gear, but approached the water in fifth gear. His pony caught sight of the water behind the jump and put the brakes on. I reminded my rider that when jumping light to dark, or into water the approach needed to be steadier to give his pony time to read the question and answer it. I suggested he tried approaching the water jump in fourth gear. Then they flew it. So we repeated the course, really focusing on the gear change.

Just by using the term “fourth gear” instead of “steady the canter and sit up” meant I could efficiently get the message across and my rider put the whole set of aids together automatically – sat up and used his core and didn’t flap the last few strides. Whereas before he’d follow one instruction but forgot the other instruction.

We moved on to the steps complex, and talked through the gears for each jump: fourth gear for the fence going into the water, third gear for the steps uphill, fifth gear for the log out of the water, and third gear for the steps downhill.

The first course was pretty well faultless, but I did feel the uphill steps could have been better by my rider riding forwards between the two steps to keep the momentum going. So they repeated the course, and it looked fabulous! Apart from the loss of stirrup between jumps, of course.

As the steps were looking much more straightforward to them, I took the pressure off them and we did another “fun” course, which included a double of larger houses and a trakhener, with a couple of twists and turns to keep my rider`s brain ticking over. Fourth gear was required for the trakhener so his pony could take in the question, and any jumps with turns very close after were also a fourth gear. Unfortunately, the pony got a bit strong on this course and they took the houses in sixth gear, so their bascule was long and flat, clipping the roof. My rider could feel that the canter was a bit too fast and out of control, so we did another similar course with the houses, focusing on maintaining fifth gear. That time they jumped the houses in a much more controlled and stylish manner.

It was good to see this time, that I could send my rider quite far away from me – within sight but out of earshot – and when he had a problem with a skinny due to his approach and collapsing forwards as he overrode on the last couple of strides, my rider had to solve the problem himself. He changed his whip over, steadied the canter back to third gear and sat on his bum. Afterwards, we talked about how to solve that particular problem so that he was more confident in the way that he had handled it and so would do the same next time. Which he did.

To finish the lesson, we returned to the big water complex, which was where they had their dunking last time. We didn`t have any problems with the splashing fence out of the water like last week, which was great. By slowing the canter into third gear, the splashes of water didn’t obscure the pony`s view of the jump and he was much happier popping over it. It was much of repeating the concept of changing gears to ensure my client was feeling more confident about adjusting the canter, and making sure his pony was responsive to the aid. We did the steps out of the water and had a little blip when they both thought too much about last week; in the last course the first step was a little long, but it’s that fine line between the pony feeling confident and taking his rider into the steps and his rider being able to bottle the energy and maintain third gear. Which will get easier as he grows and gets stronger. I was being very picky though. However, the boys jumped the bigger step perfectly, and the rest of the course flowed really nicely.

We did try to do a bigger step, with a small blue brush on top, which caused a few problems but we soon established that the pony was actually cautious about the blue brush rather than the step itself, so we left that fence after a couple of attempts – that will be next year`s challenge!

I feel that everything started to come together in this session, and instead of just jumping bigger and faster, the two of them were thinking about the way they rode the fences and starting to think for themselves out on course. The idea of gears really struck a chord with this client, and he seemed able to coordinate his rein, seat and leg aids when thinking of the gears rather than being overloaded with specific corrections or instructions. When he walks courses in future we`ll just have to label each jump with the gear that he needs. Over the winter I want to develop his core stability and his knowledge and ability to extend and collect his gaits as well as improving his pony`s ability to maintain a more collected canter towards fences and jump in a less point-to-point fashion. Then I think they`ll sail around BE80s.