Phoenix’s First Party

Last weekend I took Phoenix for her first dressage competition. She’s worked well when we’ve had lessons at other venues so I felt the time was right to get some competition feedback. Plus, the venue was only a few minutes from the yard, so it would have been rude not to.

Our canter is still a bit rushed and unbalanced so I decided to enter the Intro test, and then the Prelim as I thought she would benefit from seeing the arena and white boards twice in quick succession. I felt I should disregard the canter movements in as much as if I got the correct lead, maintained canter on the circle and trotted at the right place it would be an achievement. But I shouldn’t lose sleep over those movements and subsequent low marks.

Phoenix warmed up in the large indoor arena, complete with mirrors and numerous other horses, beautifully. She was relaxed and focused on me. When she relaxes she allows me to bend her with my legs so we did plenty of circles and she felt really settled. I’d put a green ribbon in her tail as she’s still a bit worried by other horses, especially if they canter up behind her or the rider is carrying a schooling whip. I also wanted to hint to the judge that she was new to this game!

When we were called for our first test I had to be led into the arena as Phoenix was busy gawping at a couple of signs, the judge’s car, everything. I walked and trotted her round until the bell; we were mainly using the inner track and were cautiously eyeing up the white boards and shadows from some overhanging trees. Thankfully though, once she’d passed each “monster” she paid less attention to it. Which shows that she just needs her horizons widening.

I was fairly happy with the test. She was tense for most of it, but not as tense as she can be as I could still apply my leg, but we had moments that felt fabulous – on par with her best work at home. Her trot circles were 50% beautiful and 50% tense. She did relax more towards the end of the test and I was really pleased with her walk work, and she showed that she was settling into work by stretching down in our free walk.

My score sheet was very positive. The judge marked in an encouraging way, saying what a lovely horse she was with so much potential. We just need to eradicate the moments of tension. There was quite a range of marks: from 8s for my walk circles, halt and rider collectives, to 5.5 for a walk-trot transition. All the comments were what I expected, and in line with her stage of training, and I definitely felt that I hadn’t produced our best work. But we will I’m sure when she’s got a few competitions under her belt.

Anyway, I was really pleased with a score of 73%, which was enough for first place!

The second test was better. It was a complicated prelim with lots going on, but Phoenix was less looky around the arena – she didn’t need to be led in this time – and overall I felt she was tense for less of the time. Our canter didn’t score highly; I was pleased with the left rein but the right she was falling in, looking at the reflection on the judge’s car, so did a great motorbike impression. Again, there was a range of marks and her walk scored 8s again. The trot work was predominantly 7s and 7.5s, depending on if she lost her rhythm.

I left them: happy with how Phoenix had performed, and confident in how to improve her way of going for future tests. I felt she’d had a positive experience at her first competition. I didn’t expect, however, to win the prelim test with a score of 70%!

Out of the restricted sections now, we’re going to have a nice week of hacking before getting back into the swing of things. Practising steadying and relaxing the trot after canter work (Phoenix likes to keep cantering once we’ve done it once!), and working on those transitions, especially the halt, to begin with. Then we’ll find another competition to go to, for more experience.

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Hacking To Shows

Yesterday I took Phoenix to her first competition (blog to follow) but I hacked there. It would’ve been rude not to; the venue was a ten minute walk away from our yard.

Anyway, it brought back memories so I sent a request to Mum to dig through the archives to find some photos from when we used to hack to shows.

It was strange getting changed at the yard, tacking up and feeling very posh hacking along the road. It did save on the warm up though, and it was a lovely way to cool Phoenix down afterwards. Not that either of us cooled down much in this heatwave!

I met my groom/photographer/chauffeur/babysitter there with water (or milk) for all of us before cracking on with the competition.

Years ago very few of us had trailers so we would either hack to shows or club together and hire a lorry. Our first show we took 9 ponies in a huge livestock lorry. They travelled in threes with a partition separating the trios – it’s a good job they all got on well! It was great fun everyone going together because you always had a group of supporters and there were plenty of Mums to do up gaiters at the last minute or older teenagers to give you ringside advice.

I remember at one show I was taking a friend’s pony and I wanted to do the 2’9″ jumping class. But Mum wouldn’t let me as it was “too big” (even though my jumping had improved massively since riding this mare) so my friend, who was a bit older, just slipped into the secretary’s tent and entered me for it!

Mum usually took on the role of Yard Mum, filling the car up with haynets, tweed jackets, grooming kits, water butts and buckets, headcollars, and rugs if rain threatened. She would meet us at the venue and we’d find somewhere to tie up (Mum would’ve brought baling twine too) for the day. We would be there for the first classes and then stay as long as we could, usually hacking home in smaller groups as our classes finished. We usually did the Mountain and Moorland, a working hunter class, and at least one showjumping class. Sometimes we did five classes! There was usually a clash which would involve one of us dashing between arenas to inform the judge that someone would be late.

It was a long day, but always a lot of fun!

Here are two photos from 2003 when three of us hacked five miles to a show. I think it was the first show that I hacked to. We left the yard at 7am, show shirts and jodhs under our jeans and jumpers; headcollars over our bridles like trekking ponies. Our Mothers drove behind. We arrived at the venue just after 8am, only to find that we were the first to arrive and the farmer hadn’t even taken the sheep out of the field! So after phoning the secretary and waiting for the sheep to be removed we tied up on a fence line and let the ponies graze until the show began. I’m on the grey, Partner, who I had on loan. I lovesd that pony! Initially I couldn’t jump him as he’d just run out but after two of the older girls shouting at me in the cross country field I manned up and got bossy! The smaller bay is Billy, who was my favourite riding school pony. Last I knew he was still going strong in the riding school. The bigger bay is Dan, who I loved to ride a couple of years later. He was considered unrideable and the older girls spent a whole summer breaking him in. He had an almighty buck in him though – I came off him several times that way.

These photos were taken in 2004, when eight of us hacked to a show. I think the most that ever went was twelve, which certainly filled the lanes! Although, when we hacked into town for the Boxing Day Meet there was closer to twenty of us!

Squiggle, the large grey, and his best friend Bisto, the large dark bay, led the group. I never liked riding Squiggle, who lived up to his name and was very wiggly to ride. I rode him a lot when I was backing Matt. Now, I’d like to see what tune I could get out of him with more experience but he’s in the field in the sky. I loved riding Bisto, who was a horse as opposed to a pony and you had to ride like a grown up! She did make my triceps ache though, I remember.

I’m behind on the chestnut mare, Llynos, who was a friend’s pony and a lovely jumper. She really built my confidence up while I was backing Matt. Next to me is Aries, who was slightly crazy but I loved to jump him when I was about fifteen/sixteen. He used to trot or canter sideways very slowly towards a fence and then you’d straighten up and he’d gallop over the jump, before you had to collect him and go sideways to the next fence. He was the first pony I jumped 3′ on. When his owner was at university I used to ride him weekly and got a lot of enjoyment out of getting him straight when jumping or doing trotting poles!

Behind us is a black pony, Jack, who was very sensitive. The first time I rode him was when Partner was lame and the yard was on lockdown with strangles. I didn’t want to ride boring old Gypsy in my lesson so jumped at the chance when my friend offered me Jack. Last I knew, he was enjoying his retirement in the field behind her house, in his early thirties. He is Dan’s half brother.

Next to Jack is Geraint, the chestnut. He is Llynos’ half brother and was such a thug! He was best friends with Matt and used to follow me down the field when I caught, before barging past me at the gate. To ride, he was very bargy and just used to run through the hand. Again, now I’d like to see how I got on with him. He could go nicely on the flat and when he coordinated his legs he could jump pretty well too.

You can see Dan behind Geraint, and to his left just the black nose of Bubbles is showing. She was Jack’s Mum and quite crazy to ride. In a similar way to Aries, she’d gallop over jumps. She could jump the moon though, and had a dead mouth. We were forever trying out different (strong) bits in an attempt to slow her down. When excited, she used to jog on the spot and she had the most uncomfortable saddle! Like sitting on a brick – you can only imagine the moans when she was jig jogging along! I first rode her when the yard had strangles too. This was before Partner went lame – Mum had offered him for school use so lessons could continue and in return I got to ride Bubbles. Partner’s rider booted him into canter and promptly fell off if I remember correctly.

The other side of Dan is a dun, Sandeman. I didn’t ride him until I was fifteen or sixteen. Again, he was a horse not a pony. Very forwards, and frequently bounced one stride doubles. At one show, he jumped out the ring! Mum always remembers when I hacked him with her and I refused to let him gallop up the canter track. She says he looked like a charger. I won that battle! He’s another horse I’d like to try again now I’ve got more experience.

Finally, was little Jet, who still looks great in his twenties. Mum and I loaned him when I was eight and he was very tolerant, especially as he was only young at the time. I don’t think my feet passed his saddle flaps! Mum’s friend loaned and eventually bought him – he’s a real all rounder and tried his best at everything!

Somehow I’ve digressed from the main point of this blog, but memory lane has been very therapeutic!

Hacking to competitions is rarely done now – definitely a sign of the “good old days” but I have many happy memories of hacking excitedly at dawn to shows, cheering each other on all day then wearily traipsing back. Usually too tired for talk, but reliving each moment before turning our attentions to our sore bums and the bath we would have when we got home.

Tack Trouble

Today I saw an interesting article doing the rounds on social media. You can have a peruse here.

Over a cup of tea I had a read of the article and all the comments from keyboard warriors. It made interesting reading for sure.

Now, I’m going to digress from the topic of the article, which is about a tack malfunction, onto the subject of tack in general.

As one commenter typed, I’m not a “tack nazi” and completely understand that some horses cannot be ridden in the classical snaffle and cavesson bridle. But I do think that as riders we should aim to have tack that is minimal so it doesn’t hinder the horse, and so that the tack clearly and precisely relays our aids to the horse. Regardless of the level of horse or rider, as I know some will say “well you try riding at 3* level”, well all I can say is that Michael Jung went around Badminton cross country in a snaffle so we can all aspire to be like him.

Anyway, the big issue I had with the horse’s tack in question was the amount of conflicting tack and how much clutter there was on the horse.

I feel that everyone should put more consideration into the reasons why they want to put a piece of tack on a horse, and the mechanics behind said piece of tack. And not use it because their horse “looks pretty in that bridle” or because everyone else is using that noseband.

For example, a gag works on poll pressure, so you wouldn’t use it on a horse who is sensitive over the poll, or one who already raises his head.

Of course, some horses haven’t read the manual and work well with tack that theoretically shouldn’t suit them. But I’m talking in general.

Then, I think tack should compliment each other. For example, if you have a cutaway headpiece to reduce poll pressure, as in the article above, then it doesn’t make sense (in my humble opinion) to fit a tight browband which puts pressure around the ears and pulls the headpiece forwards. Nor would I put a bit which works on the poll on a bridle which is cutaway so it doesn’t touch the poll …

Tack has come on hugely in the last twenty years, and companies like Fairfax have done scientific research on the effects of tack on horse stride length, muscle tension, etc. So we can make more informed decisions on what we use on our horses. There is also far more choice. Which means that if a piece of tack, for example a bit, doesn’t suit your horse you can find an alternative. A lot of companies even do trial periods on tack which can be a more cost effective alternative if you’re trying out a variety of items.

The horse in this article is wearing two breast plates and a running martingale, which shows that the saddle slips back when jumping. Which is a common complaint with fit eventers. Off the top of my head. I can think of half a dozen breast plates or breast girths which work on different ways, and suit different builds of horse, so if I was looking after this horse I’d be tempted to try different styles, and incorporate the running martingale, in order to find the breast plate which bear suits this particular horse. So the saddle is stabilised and there is less clutter on the horse, which can potentially hinder their movement.

I don’t mind what bit or tack riders use within reason, but I do think it’s important to consider why you are using this piece of equipment, and bear in mind that less is more so that communication between horse and rider is not hindered by straps sitting on top of each other, or pressure points caused by multiple straps. Tack should enhance a horse’s performance, not hinder it.

Returning to the article in question. Perhaps the rider has found the best combination of tack for this horse, and he’s certainly thinking outside the box, but in that case could he not work with a bridle maker to make a bespoke bridle which is less cluttered or confusing? For both horse and observer!

Without becoming a keyboard warrior or slating others, I think this article serves as a reminder to everyone to think carefully about their tackroom choices; bearing in mind how tack fits a horse and how it works because their comfort and wellbeing is our top priority.

Lance, Sword, Revolver

Yesterday we went to Windsor Horse Show, and for the second time watched a really fun, lighthearted equine competition that even the non horsey can enjoy. Yep, I’m talking about the long suffering husbands. But they’ll enjoy watching this because it involves weapons!

I’ve only ever seen Lance, Sword, Revolver competitions at Windsor, but I’m sure there must be others around the country.

Run by the British Tentpegging Association (I’ll move onto tent pegging later), this competition is a course where competitors are marked for each element and then receive a style mark, and the highest score wins. I’m not sure of the exact scoring details, but that is the main gist.

Each competitor goes one at a time, starting with the sword section. They have to jump a small brush fence, attack a dummy on their right with the sword, striking as close to the red circle (heart) as possible. Then jump a second brush and attack another dummy, this time on their left and leaving the sword embedded in the dummy.

Next, they draw their revolver and jump a brush on the other side of the arena, firing at a balloon attached to the right of the jump. Then they have to pop a balloon on the ground, before jumping the fourth brush and popping the balloon to the left of the fence.

Once the gun is holstered (I’m using the husband’s terminology here so I assume it’s correct, based on his xbox weapons experience) correctly, the competitors pick up a lance and collect two rings from a pair of gallows (the diameter of the rings is a couple of inches) before picking up a peg from the ground.

Sounds easy, but don’t forget these riders perform the whole course in canter or gallop.

Here’s a video demonstration from YouTube to help my explanation.

Obviously the sword, lance, revolver competition has roots in the cavalry, but the tent pegging association has made the competition accessible to civilians, and they compete against the military. Yesterday, the top three places were held by civilians. What I really liked about the competition yesterday was that it is open to any horse. The winner was an Appaloosa who had quite an erratic jump and was very quick. There was also an ex polo pony, chosen I guess for his ability to neck rein and agility. Then there was also an Irish draught, and the military competitors had ex racers, thoroughbreds and warmbloods.

In the arena afterwards was the tentpegging competition, of which the lance, sword, revolver competitors had also entered. In this riders have the lance and try to pick up the peg from the ground. I know at one point the peg became narrower, but other than that I’m not sure how they judged it.

Anyway, spurred on by this interest, I did some research online about this unusual discipline. The British Tentpegging Association was formed in the 1990s, so is relatively immature in the competitive sphere, but there are hopes that it will soon be recognised by the FEI. The association looks after both civilians and officers, and Great Britain is the only country in which officers have to compete in uniform.

In a nutshell, tentpegging originated 2500 years ago in Asian armies, where lancers used tent pegs as make shift targets in camp to demonstrate and practice their expertise. Tentpegging as a competition and public entertainment first appeared in the Victorian era, with competition rules becoming well established by the First World War, and the Sword, Lance, Revolver competition was also developed. Then as the number of mounted units in the forces has decreased since the Second World War, civilians were encouraged to participate and compete, which led to the founding of the Association.

I’ve found an in-depth article about the history of tentpegging, which you can peruse here. I also did some reading on the British Tentpegging Association website.

I’d like to see more of this sport, as everyone can appreciate it and there’s a definite skill involved. I can also see it appealing to a number of riders, and it might also encourage more boys to continue riding into their teenage years and adulthood.

The Girl on the Dancing Horse – a Book Review

One Monday evening in March my Mum and a friend had booked tickets to go to a book signing by Charlotte Dujardin, to promote her new autobiography “The Girl On The Dancing Horse”. Unfortunately for my Mum, her granddaughter decided to arrive the day before so she never got to go.

This week I’ve had the chance to read the book, so thought I’d share my thoughts.

The first thing that struck me about the book is that it’s very readable. You can pick it up and read two pages, or you can settle down for an hour and just as easily read a few chapters.

It’s very much written as the words come out of Charlotte’s mouth. Or how I would imagine they’d come out of her mouth as you chat over a cup of tea and slice of cake.

The first couple of chapters set the scene of Charlotte’s childhood in enough detail, without telling you about her third cousin once removed. It’s all relevant; talking about her ponies and showing days with a couple of anecdotes added for good measure.

The book is very honest. Charlotte is quite critical of showing and it’s politics, which I’m fully aware of and was why I never fully enjoyed it as a teenager, despite the educational benefits of it for young horses and riders. However it’s good to see her voicing this opinion and being honest.

The book spends a lot of time explaining how Charlotte transitioned from showing into dressage and started with Carl Hester. Quite a few big names are dropped, but not in a bad way, they just make the story clearer. If you knew nothing about dressage then the names could start to get confusing. But then again, if you knew nothing about dressage would you pick up this book? Most probably not!

Dressage terms are used frequently, so if you aren’t au fait with dressage movements, levels or terms then you may need to put the book aside and consult Google. The good thing being that, as I said earlier, the book is easy to pick up and put down.

Probably the main reason people will choose this book off a bookshelf is to learn more about Valegro himself. And there’s a lot of the book devoted to his and Charlotte’s career together. This section is very matter of fact; it must be hard to find the balance between accepting compliments and acknowledging world records without coming across as egotistical or arrogant. I think Charlotte has managed this really well. She describes her experiences and emotions simply, and uses the facts and figures to illustrate their successes.

There’s also a side of the book which brings up criticisms of herself, by her trainers and herself, which highlights why she is successful – because she is so driven to achieve perfection – and also doesn’t make light of the negative effects of suddenly being thrown into the media spotlight and the pressure of being at the top, pressure to prove she’s not just a one trick pony (excuse the pun), as well as competition nerves and how to deal with them. Which is important for us “normals” to know, I think. That being a top professional rider has both its highs and lows.

The Girl On The Dancing Horse is definitely one of the best biographical books I’ve read, as it balances professional life with childhood and personal experiences whilst keeping relevant to the reason we equestrians picked the book up in the first place – to discover the Charlotte and Valegro story.

9 Steps to Happy Travelling

Taking your horse out and about, be it to competitions or sponsored rides, can be daunting. Especially if you’re going on your own. I’m helping a friend get out and about with her mare, so I’ve devised this program to get them out and about confidently.

  1. Get confident with the empty box or trailer. If you passed your driving test after 1997 you’ll need to take the trailer test to tow a horse trailer and ensure you have the correct license for the weight lorry you’ll be driving. Practice hitching up the trailer and reversing it in particular, but it’s a good idea to have a couple of dry runs with the empty vehicle.
  2. Introduce your horse to their mode of transport. I’m not a huge fan of endlessly practising loading, but having a trial load, especially with a young or unknown horse can be useful so that you’re best prepared to load them when you want to venture off the yard. It may be that you need to leave ample time, or it may be that you need to adopt a particular technique or approach to ensure a smooth loading process. You’ll also need to introduce travel boots so that your horse is happy to walk in them.
  3. With a friend who is familiar to your horse and knowledgeable about travelling horses. for moral support, find and book a local venue. For my friend, we found a quiet yard five miles from her yard with an arena she could hire. She was familiar with the route and the journey was short and straightforward. Once you arrive at the venue, have a ride in the arena. Depending on your confidence as a rider, it might be better to book a lesson so that your instructor can help create a calm environment and dispel any worries. Don’t feel that the lesson or ride has to be earth shatteringly good; you’re not looking for your best performance, you’re looking for you and your horse to be relaxed and listening to each other. It’s also a valuable time to get to know how your horse behaves away from home – is he more forward going? Is he tense? Is he spooking? Or is he taking it all in his stride? Then after your ride, load up and go home.
  4. Fairly soon after, perhaps a week later so you keep building your momentum and confidence, do exactly the same outing. Keep repeating this with your friend and/or instructor until you’re confident and feel competent.
  5. The next step, is to travel without your friend. Load up yourself and arrange to meet them there, or for them to follow you in their car if you’d rather. Once at the venue, you still have their support and help.
  6. Next, instead of having a lesson, just ride on your own. Again, you’re slowly taking away the support of people on the ground and becoming more independent. You have to think for yourself about the new environment and potential hazards, and instil confidence in your horse. Depending on the venue, you could ride in another arena, or use one of their on site hacking routes.
  7. Next, go without your friend. So you travel, ride, and travel back solo. I’d do it at a time when my friend could be on standby – at the end of the phone and ready to drive over in case of a confidence wobble or loading issue.
  8. Go to a different venue. Do research the route thoroughly so you don’t need to worry about getting lost as well as towing or driving the horsebox, and you’ll need to check for any low bridges or weight limits. You may need to take a step back and go to the new venue with a friend, especially if the journey is longer and involves the motorway or busy junctions, but continue going to a variety of venues until you’re confident about how your horse will react, and confident about riding in different places, and most importantly confident about driving there and back.
  9. Reward yourself by entering a competition or sponsored ride. Go with a riding partner for company, and most importantly have fun!

Now obviously you don’t have to go through every step if you don’t need to. For example if you’ve towed a trailer before you won’t need to spend very long getting your eye in, and if you’re a competent rider then you may not want a lesson at the venue, you may be more interested in using the fine to ride a course of unknown fences or run through a dressage test. However, for those of you who have never, or only infrequently travelled with your horse I hope this guide will help you tackle travelling so that you make the most of riding opportunities this summer.

Riding On Grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoenix’s Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.