Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Positive, Neutral and Negative Riders

I heard an interesting analogy last week, which I thought I would share with you as it’s a good attitude to have each time you go to ride your horse.

There are three types of rider: those who have a positive effect on their horse, those who have a neutral effect, and those who have a negative effect on their horse.

It doesn’t sound very nice really, does it, saying that you have a negative or detrimental effect on your horse. But we all started off as negative riders. When we were bumbling around with clumsy steering aids and heavy rising, those riding school horses tolerated us and accepted our mistakes as we learnt. But this comes at a cost. The horse’s way of going will deteriorate over time by them losing topline muscles and learning to compensate by working in a hollow manner; they may lose the level of impulsion and cadence to their gaits.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and have control over your aids, and can maintain your balance you begin to become a neutral rider. That means that the time you spend riding your horse (assuming you are appropriately matched) won’t cause their way of going to deteriorate, yet you also won’t improve their level of schooling.

Finally, there is the positive rider. These are more experienced riders who can enhance the horse’s way of going; teach them new movements or fine tune their current skills.

Throughout our riding careers you can find yourself as all three types of rider at some point. If you are overhorsed, you may be a negative rider for the short term but with the right help you can improve your skills so that you become a neutral rider. You may find yourself riding a young or green horse, in which case you need to be a positive rider to further their education.

As a rider, horse owner and horse lover, you should want to do the best by your horse, and that means that on a bad day you want to have a neutral effect on your horse – perhaps you’ve had a busy day at work and just need to hack or lightly school. But every other day, you are a positive rider, and enhancing your horse with every ride. Be that by improving a certain movement, building their self confidence, or by riding exercises to improve their muscle tone.

It’s a good ambition to have, regardless of whether you want to ride an advanced medium test, event internationally, or hack confidently or enter your local riding club competitions; you should aim to be a positive rider for the benefit of your horse.

Adults Riding

This subject has come up a couple of times recently, and whilst it’s often joked about, I don’t think it’s taken seriously enough from a coaching perspective.

At some point in your riding career – whether it’s a weekly riding lesson or a competitive full time hobby – you will transfer from a child rider to an adult rider. From this, I mean your attitude towards your riding changes slightly.

Children in general tend to be unaware of the potential consequences of riding. Of course, if they fall off then they may have a confidence knock or an injury, but it’s usually short lived – once the bruise has faded or they’ve experienced the canter again successfully, they’re happy – out of sight, out of mind so to speak. There are some exceptions of course. Adults on the other hand, are much more aware of the consequences of something going wrong whilst riding, and are always conscious of the risks.

For example, if you break an arm and can’t drive how can you go to work; who’s going to pay the bills; and who’s going to look after the children and pets?

As a teenager or young adult you slowly become independent: moving out into your own house, getting a job, running your own car. It’s about now that you realise what risks you take with your riding. It doesn’t mean you’re going to stop, or loose your nerve, but it does mean that you double check the ground before having a gallop on a hack. You’ll build yourself up through the heights more steadily in a jumping lesson. You’re more likely to stop on a good note rather than try the next level and risk it going wrong. And if you haven’t done a particular exercise for a while you are more cautious when trying it. I’ve often been told by clients, who are by all means competent, that they are feeling nervous because they’ve not ridden for a week. So continuity is important for adult riders, and if they haven’t ridden for a little while the lesson should be more of a revision session, rather than the opportunity to teach something new.

I think this subject needs discussing when training coaches, especially the young, fresh faced ones who are yet to make this transition or have a confidence knock at all. After all, they need to understand that adult riders have a slightly different agenda to their young counterparts and lesson plans need to reflect the cautionary approach adult riders can have, and the fact their riding ambitions are as much about enjoying themselves and staying safe than going fast or jumping high. Preparation for competitions, and long term lesson goals should take the continuity factor into account and allow time to build things back up if there’s a riding break scheduled.

Adults joke that they don’t bounce anymore, and it’s true. Bruises last longer and stiffness lingers. So it’s understandable that you want to minimise injuries. There are also physical changes such as arthritis, past injuries, acquired weaknesses which can make adults feel more vulnerable when riding. I think it’s important that adult riders acknowledge the fact that their riding ambitions and confidences have changed compared to when they were younger, and to make adjustments to lessons and riding plans to take this into account. It’s worth checking that you are most comfortable with your tack and protective equipment. Perhaps you want to start hacking in a body protector, or having a neck strap. Either way, it’s important to do what you need to do to be happy.

I think as you get older, the relationship you have with your horse becomes paramount. As an owner, you may be less inclined to ride friends’ horses if yours is off work, and it takes longer to build a bond with a horse and develop that trust. It might be that the horse you bought as a teenager is no longer the horse you want to ride as an adult, in which case have an honest conversation with yourself. And if you’re buying a new horse, be truthful about what you would have liked – that palomino feisty horse all teenagers dream of – and what you need now.

I was asked last week if my riding had changed since motherhood. It’s an interesting question, and I don’t think mine is necessarily an easy answer. Yes, it has changed over the last couple of years – I’m preferring the training aspect and the dressage foundation work. But I think this has as much to do with losing Otis as my riding partner than becoming pregnant. I loved eventing Otis. But I think that’s because I had such a strong bond with him and trusted him with my life. After he went lame I didn’t have the desire to ride other horses to the same level. So my riding changed slightly then. It’s not to say I’d have never returned to what I was doing with him, it’s just that I wasn’t ready at that time or had the horsepower and then things happened.

Motherhood definitely changes your approach to riding; in the early days your body is still recovering from the beating it received during labour and you’re rebuilding your previous strength and fitness. Added to the fact that the little bundle of joy on the side of the arena is totally dependent on you, you are definitely less of a risk taker. Now, my riding ambitions and my reason for riding has changed. Firstly, I’m in less of a hurry to perfect things because I don’t need the pressure on top of learning to juggle family, baby and work. Secondly, I’m more interested in riding as a break from motherhood. That hour when I can forget about how many teeth are coming through, whether there’s a pair of dry, clean tights on the washing line for the morning, and if she’ll eat the courgette I’ve made for dinner. Thirdly, I’m building my relationship with Phoenix. And I want to get it right, so I’m crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. I think, had I still been riding Otis when I became pregnant I’d be back up to what we were doing, perhaps doing fewer competitions, focusing on dressage, or sticking to jumping 90s which were well within our comfort zone rather than feeling the need to push ourselves.

I’ve had similar conversations with several clients recently: some say they’ve lost their nerve, some say they just don’t want to jump that big anymore, others find excuses not to ride out of their comfort zone. And it’s fine. It’s no biggie. No one is telling you you have to jump that big, or gallop that fast. And if they are, they aren’t your friend! Focus on what you, the adult, wants to get out of riding – take away the pressure – and chat to your friends and instructor to work out the best strategy to keep you in the saddle and smiling.

Demi Dressage

I’ve blogged about it before, but I get so frustrated with the lack of child friendly dressage tests. So many British Dressage and Pony Club tests have movements above a young rider’s comprehension. Then the judge’s feedback goes over their little heads, and I feel that they don’t really benefit in any way, shape or form. Which means, unfortunately that dressage is less popular amongst young riders (with the exception of that Scottish girl who scored 93% or something outrageous. See this week’s Horse and Hound for more details).

So when a friend approached me a few months ago with the idea of running online dressage competitions with tests written for children, and focusing on using a language that they understand and using appropriate school movements (for example, many children can canter, but are unable to canter a circle at E, or pick up canter over X). And of course, promoting fun, with feedback that they understand.

Understandably, I jumped at the chance to be involved, and so Demi Dressage was born. My involvement is fairly basic; I double check the tests as they are written, and then judge the entrants at the end of the month.

There are five levels, which I think covers children of all abilities, and provides them with the groundings to enter a prelim test at the top level. And yes, I have shamelessly copied the description of the levels from the website!

  • GREEN – for riders who are riding independently in walk, and starting to become confident in trot off the lead. Tests will mostly be in walk, potentially with some very very easy movements in trot, and may include some fun mounted exercises. School movements will be very simple. (Approx expected age 4-6 years – but all ages are welcome!)

  • YELLOW – for riders who are relatively competent in walk and trot but are not yet cantering on their own. Tests will be exclusively in walk and trot, they may include some fun mounted exercises or easy movements without stirrups. School movements will be simple to execute. (Approx. expected age 6-8 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow tests may be run in the same class as Yellow-Plus tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • YELLOW-PLUS – these are Yellow tests that are slightly longer, with more trotting, for riders who are not confident to canter but are able to ride slightly more demanding school movements in walk and trot (Approx. expected age 7-10 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow-Plus tests may be run in the same class as Yellow tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • BLUE – for riders who are competent in walk and trot, and learning to canter independently. Tests will predominantly be walk and trot with some very simple canter work. School movements will build on those introduced in the earlier levels, and possibly include some fun mounted exercises. (Approx expected age 7-11 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome!)

  • RED – for older or more experienced riders getting close to progressing to BD Intro and Prelim level tests. Tests will feature walk, trot and canter, possibly some mounted exercises including work without stirrups, and school movements will start to become more complicated in line with those found in BD Prelim tests. (Approx expected age 10-13 years – but younger entrants are very welcome!)

For the Christmas competition we had a two year old on the lead rein doing the yellow test! I found it lovely to see the wide array of ponies and children entering, and all seeming to have fun. Two competitors who really stood out were brother and sister on their family pony. The sister rode off the lead rein, videoed by Mum and with the test called by Dad. The brother was led by Dad, had his sister calling for the first half of the test, and Mum videoing, with the baby strapped to her chest, and calling the second half of the test when sister got bored (Mum, I salute your multi-tasking abilities!). Anyway, it was really nice to see the competition as such a family affair.

Kids love getting rosettes, regardless of colour (I certainly remember the disappointment when I came home empty handed), so Demi Dressage feels it’s important that every competitor receives a rosette. Each class has rosettes to 6th place, every other child gets a special rosette, and there are extras each month for “Best Fancy Dress” or anything else which we feel needs applauding.

We had great fun judging the videos, making sure we were fair, provided positive and constructive comments, focused on where the children were in their riding, and gave feedback which the children understood. I tried to give each child something to focus on next time, as well as saying what I was impressed with. For example, “try to ride from letter to letter to help improve your accuracy marks”, or “practice your sitting trot to help with your canter transitions”. I was really pleased to hear back from one parent that she was very impressed with the feedback her children had received as it was exactly what they were working on at the time and not “dressage jargon”.

With the focus on making dressage fun for the kids, we’ve put in movements such as Around The World and Half Scissors, going over or between poles, and in March there’s going to be a special one-off Prix Caprilli competition. It will run slightly differently, with only three classes (lead rein, walk and trot, walk,trot and canter) and be open to under sixteens, instead of the usual age limit of thirteen. Rosettes will go to tenth place, and there are prizes to be won! Then in April there will be monthly competitions which will run as an accumulator series, and a champion awarded in September. With a sash! And prizes for all the runners up!

There’s another Demi Dressage competition coming up in February, timed to coincide with the school half terms, and I’m looking forward to judging this test! A lot of kids take a break from riding in the winter, so the test is nice and short to encourage them to get back into it even if it’s just for a week, and involves some fun elements such as Around The World, and dropping carrots on the snowman’s nose. Intrigued? Well borrow a pony and get entering! I would if I could …

So if you have a child, or know of one, who would enjoy this, please introduce them to Demi Dressage and spread the word for this fantastic fledgling of a business. Their Facebook page can be found here!

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.

How To Be a Good Groom

It happens to everyone at some point, you get asked, or you could ask someone, if you can tag along to a competition with them. It’s a high honour, but how do you become an invaluable member of their team – a good groom?

First of all, find out what time you’re leaving the yard – and don’t gasp when you hear how early it is! Make sure you arrive in plenty of time, and it’s always good to ask them if they need any help before leaving. You don’t have to be an ace plaiter, or be able to do a do a tail bandage, you can be just as useful mucking out their stable or to-ing and fro-ing to the lorry with all their bits and pieces.

Be prepared to help with directions to the venue. It might be reading aloud instructions, tapping into satnav, or keeping an eye out for signs. But when you have pre-competition nerves, have a loaded lorry to drive, every bit of help is invaluable.

At the competition, you need to be ready to do anything your friend needs so show willing and offer. They may want you to run to the secretary with their passport, or stay with their horse while they walk the course. It may be tacking up, or putting on boots. If you aren’t sure how to do something, or if you’ve done it right, ask them to double check or show you on the first leg. After all, you’re learning too, and all riders would rather double check than have a tack malfunction halfway round a course!

While they warm up park yourself in an inconspicuous place, but within shouting distance so you can easily help adjust a girth or take an exercise blanket or coat from them. This is when nerves usually kick in, even if they don’t look it, so it’s important to be positive in your conversations. Don’t say “oh doesn’t that horse look good?” Or “Wow that was an awesome round!” Instead tell them they look very smart, relaxed, working well, or whatever adjective you can think of! The last thing that they want to hear before they go in is some encouragement, so even though they aren’t looking their best, just tell them to enjoy themselves, have fun, and good luck.

Videos provide great feedback, so offer to film their test, or round. Ask them where they want you to stand if you aren’t sure of the best place.

The first thing a competitor wants to hear when they’ve finished is “well done” or “that looked great”. Even if it went disastrously wrong, by you being positive they won’t beat themselves up too much. If they are a bit upset just focus on looking after their horse, give them space to reflect, and let the emotions die down. They’ll start talking when they’re ready. For example, they may not have got the clear round they’d hoped for, but after the initial disappointment has faded, you can help them find the positives, such as the fact that they may have refused the water, but they negotiated the plank more successfully than their last competition.

As before, help them untack and brush off their horse, again asking if you aren’t sure what to do. Then the most important job of the day, is to eat! Offer to go to the burger van or to go get a hot drink. A lot of people can’t eat when they’re nervous and when caught up in the hustle and bustle of the day it’s easy to forget to eat and suddenly get hunger pangs on the way home. So your job is to remind them to replenish their energy. Especially after a cross country round!

Once back at the yard don’t jump into your car to go home, even though you’re tired. Make sure you offer to turn out, unload the lorry, clean it out, or any other job your friend needs to do. After all, they’re just as tired as you!

Basically, the honour of accompanying a friend to a competition means being at their beck and call for a few hours whilst cheering them on and being very supportive. However, it is a lot of fun and you do learn a lot about riding and competing from watching other riders, as well as asking your friend a multitude of questions after they’ve competed!

One Year On

Last weekend marked one year since I bought Phoenix so I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on our journey together so far.

Initially, I didn’t think there has been a huge change in her physically. I mean, she’s put on muscle, but she’s not grown taller or bulked out like a youngster does. If anything, she’s a leaner frame, and less barrel shaped. Having said that, due to the fact she’s now fully clipped and had her mane pulled, she’s almost unrecognisable to the bystander.

So what have we achieved in the last twelve months? Quite a lot really I think.

To begin with, she’s done some travelling to clinics, competitions and lessons, and has progressed from cautiously edging up the trailer ramp, to almost running me over in her excitement to get loaded. She travels quietly and calmly, and has excellent manners both in the trailer and away from home.

I did quite a lot of groundwork for the first four months with Phoenix. Initially, she couldn’t canter on the lunge, and was quite unbalanced. Here’s two photos to compare the changes in her trot from the lunge. Her trot now is more uphill, and whilst the photos don’t really illustrate it very well her hindquarters are more engaged so her trot has a slower tempo whilst maintaining the same level of energy. Her back and topline also looks much stronger now. Now on the lunge she’s proficient at raised poles, canter and is developing a range of trots in preparation for Novice level.

Phoenix had been introduced to poles before I bought her, but hadn’t really done any jumping. I started with some jumps on the lunge, and since then she’s really taken to it. I only jump a couple of times a month, but she’s now confident with fillers and showjumps up to 85cm, enjoying it and showing a good technique. I had a jump lesson a couple of weeks ago, where we had very positive feedback and she jumped very well, growing in confidence over the related distances and fillers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any photos because it was pouring with rain. She’s also been cross country schooling, which again was a positive experience for her. Next year, my plan is to build on her competition experience over showjumps, and to do more cross country with her, on sponsored rides and training, in preparation for a hunter trial in the autumn. Weather dependent, of course!

In her ridden flatwork, Phoenix has gone from being a bit tucked in in her head and neck, and with quite a choppy trot, to carrying herself in a longer frame, in self carriage and with more impulsion from behind. Unfortunately there aren’t any recent ridden photos – I’m sure you’ll see some soon. She’s been to some dressage competitions, and definitely has the talent to succeed here. Marks have been high, with some low due to her greenness, and excited anticipation. This is an area we’re currently working on. She’s rather fresh at the moment, but after ten minutes work will settle into a lovely trot and work beautifully. Then I walk and give her a breather. Unfortunately, she then anticipates canter so it takes another ten minutes to re-establish the trot. On a positive note, the canter to trot transition is much calmer and more balanced, so we are getting there slowly! I’m looking forwards to cracking this as then we can move up a level and develop her lateral work, because the moments of good work are really good! She’s teaching me a lot, as I’ve never ridden a horse where I have to sit quite so quietly and have such minuscule aids. The slightest aid can get a huge reaction, so I’m on a learning curve (especially while she’s so lively) to stay relaxed whilst sitting quietly, and trying to remember not to back off my aids when she gets tense or scoots off as that makes her even more sensitive to the aids. For example, when she tries to rush in the trot it’s tempting to sit even more lightly. But that means I can’t use my seat without her acting like I’ve electrocuted her. I have to remember to keep sitting into her and trust that she will relax in a few strides. Then I can use my seat to half halt effectively.

Other experiences that Phoenix has had, and accepted, over this last year, are clipping, babies, pushchairs, massages and bareback riding. Clipping is still quite a stressful experience for her, but everything else she’s taken to like a fish to water.

Phoenix had done a fair bit of hacking before coming to me, and I don’t get her out as much as I’d like, but she’s brought the fun back into hacking for me. I hadn’t realised how on edge hacking spooky horses had made me last year. Now, I’m finding our hacks very relaxing and fun, either in company or on our own, especially as she’s so well mannered in open fields and is rock solid on roads. I’m looking forwards to doing some sponsored rides next year, especially as Otis had a lifetime ban for his continuous airs above the ground on these rides.

Looking back, I think we’ve made a solid start to our relationship and journey together. We’ve made a good start to all areas of leisure riding, and whilst we may not be perfect yet, a solid foundation is being built, so that hopefully we have a successful competitive career, whilst having a lot of fun. Phoenix is everything I wanted from my next horse, so I’m glad I took the gamble and bought her without trying her myself and before I was supposed to be purchasing. I’m really excited to see what the future brings for us.

Watch this space!

Tight Nosebands

So I’m a little late to the party with this topic, but I didn’t have time to read, digest, mull over, and think about the Open Letter to World Horse Welfare on the 26th November 2018. When I did have time, I’d lost the article and didn’t have time to find it and blog about it.

But voila, here it is. Hopefully it was worth the wait.

Firstly, I’m going to direct you to the original article, that is the Open Letter, which was shared on social media last week. The link will take you to the renowned Dr David Marlin’s Page (you can thank me later Sir, for your sudden influx in popularity) where you can read the article.

The World Horse Welfare recently covered the delicate yet very current topic of noseband tightness in sports horses. The letter is basically correcting a few misquotes and clarifying statements, but let’s start with the subject of tight nosebands.

I think the equestrian world has become conscious of the issue about how tight a noseband should or could be in the last couple of years, especially as more and more bridles are moving away from the traditional fit and more down the micklem route, highlighting the importance of avoiding facial nerves. I think this has had more of an impact on the amateur riders. The leisure riders. The riding club level riders. These are the people who’s horse is their best friend, a member of their family (go on, admit it you’re signing those Christmas cards love from, then a list of human and fur members. In order of preference, with the human child at the end? Yep, you know you do!). These horse owners want what’s best for their horse. They read magazines, articles online, chat to friends and on forums learning about new equipment and advances within equestrianism. They then buy or trial said item and are converted. Yet I’m disappointed in that the professional world is slightly behind the times. Think about it, not that long ago in Horse and Hound they covered a story about a racehorse (Wenyerreadyfreddie) who races in a micklem bridle. Everyone was aghast. How many professional riders do you see in non traditional tack, even that which is FEI legal? Very few. Charlotte Dujardin rides in either a cavesson or a flash noseband snaffle bridle and the lower levels. Not that I am saying that she has over tight nosebands, I’m just using her as an example to the fact that the higher echelons in our sport are very much traditionalists. A quick look at eventing and showjumping royalty shows a similar trend towards flash and grackle nosebands.

So my first question, is why is there such a difference in tack preference between amateur, lesser qualified riders, and professional, top level riders? We’re all privy to the same information on scientific research, so why are leisure horse owners seemingly so much more open minded to tack, and especially nosebands, which differ from tradition. Of course, if your horse works at their best in it’s traditional noseband then there’s no need to change things, but you can’t tell me that not a single horse on a professional’s yard would benefit from a bridle which reduces pressure either around the nose or poll. Perhaps they need to take a leaf out of Nicky Henderson’s book and experiment to find a happier horse.

One piece of research showed a positive correlation between the tightness of nosebands and the number of oral lesions in competition horses in their post performance tack check. I can quite believe this, but I think it would be a more substantial piece of evidence if a wider range of horses were considered, such as leisure and riding school horses, along with information on their usual tack and its fit (some horses may be ridden in a snaffle for the majority of their training, just wearing a double bridle for test preparation and the competition), their age, and frequency and type of work. After all, competition horses tend to be more highly strung, sensitive, and given the pressures of the competition environment possibly more at risk of developing mouth ulcers, or lesions. As with any piece of research, including the recent stats about Oxbridge being socially exclusive, stats can be skewed and need to be read with open eyes.

The letter also addresses the lack of standards in sample size and getting a cross section of equines from all disciplines, levels of competition or ridden work so that it accurately represents the equine population. This will only change if we, as readers, question research and the quality of their samples, and demand higher standards in equine research.

The crux of the letter, and the most important subject to reflect upon, is what appears to be the World Horse Welfare’s reluctance to accept the taper gauge, which is a standard measure used at competition tack checks, to ensure fairness to all competitors. After all, we fit cavesson nosebands with a two finger gap between that and the horse’s nose. But the width of two fingers on a petite woman is significantly smaller than that of a tall, strong man.

You can view the taper gauge here.

Claims were made that the taper gauge was involved in an incident where a horse got loose at a top international competition, but these were found to be misleading. As far as I can see, from my reading, competitions could do with a quiet area for tack checks, and to somehow try to reduce the tension in the environment while they’re being done. That would hopefully reduce the risk of a horse panicking and bolting, as in the example in the letter. Perhaps more time needs to be devoted to tack checks so they are less hurried, and grooms can remove fly veils with less haste so are less likely to dislodge the actual bridle. Or the tack check is in a small enclosure, so a loose horse doesn’t pose a risk to the rest of the competition. I don’t know the logic in organising this level of competition, but I believe it’s an area which can be improved.

Returning to the subject of taper gauges. In order to fairly measure the tightness of nosebands you must have an objective and standard method. Of course, some horses will take a dislike to a green thing near their head, but in my opinion it is the duty of the owner or rider to introduce the gauge at home, so that the horse is used to the measuring procedure. After all, they can be purchased for a mere ten pounds. Combine this desensitisation process with tack check stewards being trained to safely approach and use the gauge to minimise risk to all involved, and the necessary post competition tack checks should be safe and fair to all competitors.

As with everything in the media, there are ulterior motives and deception, which have certainly been highlighted by this Open Letter from the ISES, so whilst equestrian sport is moving in the right direction in terms of equine welfare, we still have a lot to do to persuade the powers that be to move from their antiquated pedestals and embrace the changes.

New Passport Regulations

The Welsh Pony and Cob Society have been ahead of the game for years in terms of having a record of equines. Years ago you used to get stud books published every few years which were an index of all registered animals. I remember the glee of us girls when we found a horse we knew if the stud books. Now of course, it’s all online. I’ve also always like the fact the genealogy is usually fairly complete. Together with the stud prefixes you could easily identify your pony’s relations. Which is very exciting!

Of course years ago, the WPCS relied on owners registering their animal for the status it brought, the ability to show at county level, and the advertising it did for their breeding. Then, from 2004 all owned horses were required to have a passport, which resulted in many older horses receiving blue passports from The Donkey Sanctuary – which was a bit of a knock to their ego, I’m sure.

However, many breeders who (and I’m going to make a sweeping statement here) bred from mares with questionable breeding/temperament/soundness because they had no other use for the mare did not bother to passport foals until they were sold as yearlings, two, three or four year olds (I can only assume that is because there is a risk of a horse dying before it reaching adulthood and if that happens then time and money has not been wasted on passporting them). So the concept of all equines having passports and reducing the overbreeding of horses didn’t really work, and was difficult to monitor.

Then in 2009 this law was strengthened in that all foals born after 1st July 2009 had to have a microchip and passport within 6 months of birth or by 31st December of that year, whichever was soonest. Any horses applying for new passports (those who had slipped through the previous net) had to be given a microchip too.

This makes passporting horses more expensive, which I think deters responsible horse owners from breeding with their mare, but it still didn’t stop those who breed casually. Even the £1000 fine per unpassported animal didn’t deter many, as the UK still has a massive overpopulation of equines.

Now, as a proud owner of a mare, I find myself wondering would I ever breed from Phoenix. I highly doubt it, although I don’t think she’d make a bad brood mare as her conformation, movement and manners are all great. I just don’t think I’d want to risk putting her through it (because there’s always a risk) for an unknown result. When I could just go to the Brightwells sale in October at Builth Wells and view hundreds of weanlings and take my pick there. If I so desired to have one so young. Anyway, for now she has to concentrate on her ridden career.

As the passport and microchipping laws haven’t really had the desired effect, and with all the different passport issuing bodies (each breed society issues passports for their breed, plus the cross breed passports you also have) it’s very difficult to regulate. At competitions you can monitor passports, but given the number of equines stood in fields, you are only seeing a small, and very biased, sample of the equine population.

From 1st October 2018, it has become compulsory for all equines to have a microchip, as well as a passport. Owners have until October 2020 to ensure this is done. In addition to the microchip, all equine details will be stored on the Central Equine Database (CED).

Luckily for most of us, the passport issuing bodies are still the main point of contact for change in ownership, change or address, or death. They will update the CED.

We can only hope that having all equine details in one area will mean that disease outbreaks can be controlled and reduced, and stolen animals found and identified quicker as hopefully the middle man has been sacked.

Thankfully, DEFRA does admit that in order for this new law to be effective, it does require owners to be responsible and play their part.

Unfortunately though, I think there are too many numerous-horse owners (even at riding schools) where the paperwork and cost involved in microchipping all their older animals makes it very unlikely that they will follow through with it unless necessity requires it. Perhaps there is a window here for passport issuing bodies and vets to provide discounted microchipping and passporting rates to encourage multiple horse owners to step into line.

I’m still not sure how it’s going to be regulated, because so many horses stay in their field or are only ridden at home. Competition horses, particularly affiliated ones, will be fine, but the geriatric companions will go under the radar.

It is a positive that vets can check the microchip and positively identify a horse and treat accordingly, even if the passport isn’t present. Where do you keep yours? Technically, it should be at the yard but I for one am not keen on giving the yard owner my actual physical passport. I’d prefer to give them a photocopy. I don’t take my passports to the yard daily either, so getting there and having to call the vet for an emergency means that either I’ve got to leave my horse and go and get the passport, or send someone to dig around the office to find where I’ve secreted them away. The CED is a definite positive from this angle.

I like to think that being able to trace horses to owners makes them accountable for welfare issues or abandonment, but in order for that to happen they need to have chipped their horse in the first place. And if you’re a candidate for neglecting your animal, are you going to bother getting them chipped, and updating existing passports? I’m yet to be convinced.

In the meantime, go to The Equine Register and enter your horse’s microchip number to check that they are on the CED. Phoenix’s is as she was born after 2009, but Otis’s isn’t on there. He had a microchip inserted five years ago, and was registered with an animal microchip database as recommended by the vet, but the CED only takes information from passport issuing bodies, and Otis’s chip has not been linked to his passport. I’m sure this has happened to numerous others who tried to get ahead of the game years ago. So it’s definitely worth checking out. You can guess what my job tomorrow morning is!

The World Equestrian Games

Has everyone been following the WEG competitions this last week? If I’m honest, I’ve not watched any, but plan to do a marathon catch up over the weekend. I have however, been following it all online.

I do have a couple of opinions about it to voice though.

Given that it’s the championship for eight of the FEI disciplines – combined driving, dressage, endurance riding, para-equestrian, eventing, showjumping, reining and vaulting – I have to say that there is disappointing media coverage on the non-Olympic sports.

Horse and Hound have dutifully written up about Team GB’s personal best in the reining, but that’s nothing compared to their social media posts about the dressage and event horses who passed their respective trot ups, and detailed analyses of each performance.

You can watch every discipline on FEI TV, but all other channels, such as BBC, Eurosport, H&C, provide extensive coverage of dressage, eventing and showjumping, with minimal coverage of the other disciplines. I hope Clare Balding references each discipline in her highlights show at the games.

I’m sure there’s financial reasons for not televising the disciplines where we aren’t so dominant, but equally with so much online TV available I’m sure with just a bit of promotion on social media, equine enthusiasts will be more aware of all the disciplines and be able to watch them. You never know, if a young rider watches, for example, the vaulting competition, that may encourage them to take up the sport as it combines their love of horses with their love of gymnastics. Which of course only benefits equestrianism as a whole.

My other question, or rather thought, about the WEG is why on earth are they holding it in North Carolina during hurricane season?

Unlike the Olympics, which are held circa the first two weeks of August, the WEG can be held at any time during the year. In 2014, the Games were held at the beginning of August in Normandy. So when Tryon was given the bid, why did they choose the hottest, most humid time of year to hold the Games? You only have to google the climate in North Carolina to see that it is extremely hot – red on the colour scale – from June until October. Then consider the North Atlantic hurricane season, which peaks from the end of August right through September.

As far as I understand it, there wasn’t a huge amount of interest, or funding to hold the WEG. Initially, it was given to Bromont, Canada in 2014 but then they pulled out due to not being able to secure financial support so in 2016 Tryon was announced as host. Ok, so they haven’t had that long to prepare for 68 nations and almost 700 horses to descend on them. Which may have led to them choosing the latter part of the year.

But surely if horse welfare is at the top of the FEI’s agenda, they would have come up with alternative plans. Either to use an alternate venue, or delay the Games to the early part of 2019. I honestly don’t think any of the athletes would have minded it being 4 1/2 years between WEG if it would have improved the competition environment. I applaud the owners of the Irish show jumper who refused to send their horse halfway across the world into potentially catastrophic conditions.

This leads me onto the debacle of the endurance event. First of all there was a false start, and then the race was disbanded due to the weather conditions. Imagine all that preparation, flying across the world, to participate in a failed, badly organised event. Then we hear that an endurance horse has been euthanised due to kidney failure from severe dehydration. What else has gone on behind the scenes that we don’t know about? How many horses and riders suffered from heat stroke and had to be hospitalised?

This morning, I woke to the news that the eventing showjumping and the dressage freestyle have been postponed due to Hurricane Florence hitting on Sunday. I know no one could have predicted the magnitude of Hurricane Florence, but given the fact that September always has at least one major hurricane hit the North American coast, we could’ve placed some bets.

I haven’t even touched on the outrage when it was revealed that the grooms accommodation consisted of dormitory style tents. Which is rather reminiscent of a scout jamboree. And doesn’t give the grooms the best chance of doing their job to the high standards the athletes expect and require. Let alone the fact that it’s hurricane season and let’s face it, those tents aren’t going to withstand the first gusts of Hurricane Florence! I know the infrastructure was only just finished in time for the beginning of the Games, so corners will have been cut somewhere but it seems the poor grooms suffered. I have also heard there were problems with arrival process and that feed and gear were confiscated and lost upon arrival, which hasn’t made it into mainstream media yet.

I think a lot of equestrians are, quite rightfully, upset with the WEG/FEI and the Tryon organisers for several bad decisions, and for not prioritising athlete welfare. Apparently the discipline sponsors offered to relocate the event at their own expense because they were so concerned about equine welfare, but the FEI insisted on continuing with Plan A.

So then I wonder if perhaps the equestrian championships aren’t better being held individually, or in small groups. I mean, each discipline has different requirements so in order to accommodate all of them a lot of money and work is needed by a host. Which perhaps leads to a lack of interest in hosting the WEG as a whole. If it was broken down again, so dressage and para-dressage was held on one week, at one suitable venue, and eventing at another time and place you’d have far more willing hosts because it’s not such a massive undertaking so is more viable, and the championships could be held at the time of year most suitable for that discipline. Which would lead to better horse welfare, happier athletes, happier spectators, and hopefully more successful championships.

I think it’s a case of watching this space, and seeing the fallout that the Tryon WEG has on the FEI as a body, and in the future format of the WEG and championships because we, as equestrians, have a duty to our horses to learn from this fiasco.