Improving Their Jump

The ideal bascule, which makes jumping effortless and lengthens their athletic life expectancy, as well as making them successful in the competition ring, is when a horse folds his forelegs neatly underneath him, rounds his back, lengthens and lowers the neck, and then follows through with tidy hindlegs. 

Various faults occur, either by poor training, poor technique, lack of confidence, or poor conformation. One interesting jumping fault I’ve recently experienced, and haven’t really come across it before, is the slither technique.

Have you seen it? It’s when the forelegs get left behind and the horse literally jumps with his front legs under his belly.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how best to work on overcoming this fault, but as ever reverted to flatwork.

Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps.

The horse in question is rather large, with long legs. Like a super model! So the flatwork focused on engaging his hindquarters, getting him to lighten his forehand and bring his engine underneath him. Smaller circles and shoulder in have all improved his balance, and the canter has improved dramatically. He can now shorten and lengthen the canter strides without losing his balance and his hindquarters are doing more work than his shoulders.

Horses tend to slither over jumps when related distances are too short, which given this horse’s size puts him at a disadvantage. At every competition he will find distances a bit short. Which is why it’s so important that his canter is adjustable. It does mean for me that I have to be generous with my grid distances with him so that he learns, and develops the right muscles, to bascule correctly. Then once he is stronger and more adjustable in the canter we can start to teach him to work with the slightly shorter distances, that he would find in a competition environment.

Once a horse is starting to get the hang of basculing correctly the gridwork becomes invaluable. Having a quick succession of jumps, one or two strides apart improves the horse’s gymnastic ability because they have to extend and flex their joints in quick succession.

Over the last few months this horse has really improved and the slithering only happens when he gets too deep into fences. I’m enjoying seeing him going out competing with his owner now, and having more success.

The other factor that can cause horses to slither over jumps is when they are a bit slow to pick up their forehand and to lift the shoulder over jumps. Which caused me to use an A-frame with this particular horse the other week. A placing pole meant he didn’t get too close, and the A-frame really got him lifting his forelegs and tucking them up neatly. His owner could feel the difference in the bascule from the saddle – his back rounded underneath her over the fence.

Our next move is to try a line of bounces because this will make him pick up his feet quickly, and improve the muscle memory, which will mean that if he does get a bit deep into a jump he will be able to get himself out of trouble. Previously when I’ve done raised pole and bounce work with him he’s found it really difficult to organise his legs and keep his balance, which invariably means I have to get on and off a lot to adjust poles!

Just by using a combination of different exercises, you can make massive improvements to a horse’s technique and build the correct muscles. Recently, because this particular horse was jumping so well on a lesson, we did a bit of a Chase-Me-Charlie. I wanted to build the horse’s confidence a bit and see the extent of his scope, but I knew a single upright would be very difficult for him as he would have to pick up his forelegs very quickly; he’s much better in his technique but our high jumps needed to complement previous work, and not let him revert to slithering. So I build an oxer. The front rail wasn’t very high, perhaps 70cm, and there was a clear ground line. The back rail of the oxer, which wasn’t that wide, started at 90cm. As he cleared it comfortably I notched it up, and up, to an impressive 120cm. He cleared it easily, whilst still jumping correctly! I was so pleased!

Now we need to increase the height of the general exercises to build his muscles and confidence, whilst still using his body correctly and efficiently. Then they will definitely notice a difference at competitions! 

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Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 

Moulding Them

I had fun earlier this week whilst schooling a horse, putting into practice some tips I’d read in a Carl Hester article.

Carl described the benefits of working a horse in a frame he finds difficult. For example, try to lengthen the frame of a short-coupled horse, or to condense the frame of a long horse. He also talked about how a trainable horse was one who allowed you to manipulate his and position him however you like. For example, riding collected gaits in a long frame.

So I thought I’d give this a go. One of the horses I ride is a long horse, and I’ve been really focusing on developing his top line recently. There’s now neck muscle, which I’m really pleased about, but as he has a long neck we need to keep building his strength.

Have you ever thought about why a weak horse will carry their head up, brachiocephalic muscle working, and neck short? It’s all to do with levers – I knew maths A-level would come in useful one day! 

The head is heavy, so carrying it at the end of the neck, as in the long and low frame, is harder for a horse because the back and abdominals have to work harder to balance the head. A bit like the fact that if you lift a box up and carry it close to your body it’s much easier than if you held the box at arms length. If you want more of a mathematical explanation then the internet is your best friend, and there are hundreds of video explanations, which are far better than my rusty decade-old knowledge. 

Back to horses. A horse with a weak topline will shorten their neck, brace the underside muscles and hold it higher to save their back muscles from working. Which is what this long horse I ride used to do. All hacks consist of him lengthening his neck, and lowering his head. I know it’s taxing for him because usually about three quarters of the way round, he’ll start throwing his head around to evade working. Our schooling has been predominantly long and low based, and I’m pleased with how easily he is managing this now. 

Due to his long neck and body, it’s actually harder for him to develop the necessary muscles to hold himself in the long and low position because the muscles are longer than in a short coupled horse, so take longer to strengthen. But he’s got it in the walk and working trot, for sure.

I’ve been moving onto developing the medium and collected trot with him. Shortening his stride length is harder for him, and I felt a couple of weeks ago that he was getting tight in his neck and blocking over his back: hindering the progress I’d made with building his topline. This is where Carl Hester came in. This week I established working trot in a long and low frame, before playing around at shortening and lengthening his neck and frame whilst maintaining the rhythm and balance of his working trot. 

Once he’d got the idea of this, I put him back into a long and low frame before asking him to shorten his strides. Because I’d already shown him how to position his head and neck where I wanted to in a trot he was comfortable in, whenever he got tight and shortened his neck with the collected strides I could lengthen his frame without losing the collection. 

We played around with this for a while, and I could feel his back staying engaged and him becoming more malleable so I could position him precisely. Obviously it was baby steps of shortening, but at least now he’s doing it correctly and maintaining impulsion and “throughness” so I can build on it over the next few weeks. 

After a little break, I turned to the canter. He can get very long in the canter so I’ve been working on balancing it, getting his hindlegs underneath him a bit more and generally shortening his frame a bit so that he can canter a 15 or 20m circle rather than a 30 or 35m circle! However, he needs to release his brachiocephalic muscle in the canter, which will allow the gait to become more uphill and rideable. 

Once he was trotting in a long and low frame I asked for canter. His head came up initially but slowly I managed to get him to drop his nose slightly  and soften his neck whilst using my seat to maintain the steadier canter. 

This one is work in progress, but the idea of being able to shorten or lengthen the neck whilst almost doing the opposite with the body will make the horse more trainable, supple, strong and balanced. Give it a go next time you’re schooling and you’ll be surprised at how hard they have to work to collect the trot whilst balancing the lever that is their neck. I’m hoping that by practising, this horse will build his trapezius muscle, have better posture, and have a more toned barrel because of his abdominals being toned. Which all reduces the chance of him injuring himself.

Neck Conformation 

We all know what an ideal neck looks like… Just think of Valegro and his delicate arching neck.

  

But necks can be long, short, upside down, ewe, swan, and upright. Sometimes poor muscle development hides a well set on neck, and likewise good muscle development can enhance an average neck.

The ideal neck is about one third of the horse’s length, and of a comparable length to the length of their legs. A long neck can be weak because it is difficult to build up the long muscles and the horse can fatigue quicker because they carry more weight on the forehand. Long necks, which can make it hard to balance the horse in the arena, are common in Thoroughbreds, and particularly suited to jumping and galloping as they can alter the level of their head more to counterbalance the action of the hindlegs, without quick changes of direction. A shorter neck appears more bulky and muscular, but flexibility is usually unaffected, and the horse’s stride length similarly unaffected. These horses may find it harder to jump large fences or galloping, but find changing direction quite easy. Draft horses usually have short, muscular necks to help pull the carts.

 A ewe neck is an upside down neck, with an overly developed sternocephalic and brachiocephalic muscles, and an under developed crest. This can be due to poor skeletal conformation, or poor muscle development so very often riding a horse correctly, in a long and low frame so that their trapezius, rhomboid and splenius muscles are strengthened will improve the appearance of an average neck. As these muscles grow, the crest will become more defined and the under neck muscles will atrophy due to not being used as much. Then the horse looks less ewe-necked. If a horse has an ewe neck then they find it harder to engage the hindquarters and collect in the gaits and transitions, often becoming sore in their back. Ewe necks can develop if a horse spends a lot of time with his head in the air; stargazing or eating from a hay rack.

  
A swan neck, which is not as pretty as you envisage, is when the neck is set on at a high upwards angle, often on an upright shoulder, and then curves at the top, leaving the nose on the vertical, but no muscle in front of the wither and an over developed brachiocephalic muscle. These horses usually have a short, choppy stride and ride quite small. One of my least favourite horses to ride in the riding school that I trained at was 16.2hh but had an almost vertical shoulder, a stride to rival a 12hh pony, and a swan neck. I hated riding him! He felt so short, tense, and I never liked the feeling that I was about to be head butted. To jump he was even more uncomfortable as he didn’t lengthen his neck to use his back and shoulders. I think once I managed to ride him in a long and low frame, but unfortunately for him he would have needed that sort of work every day for a decade to undo all the “wrong muscle”. Swan necks are partly conformational, due to the angle of the cervical vertebrae, but correct work can enhance and improve the top line and teach them to lengthen their neck to the best of their ability. One horse I ride at the moment has the tendency to go swan necked, but I’m finding that he is quick to learn to carry himself in a longer frame, which will build the muscle in his trapezius and hopefully create a full crest. He finds it very hard though as his head is heavier when carried further away from his body – think about levers and how they work. Hopefully with time he will find it easier and I will feel the improvement in the flatwork.

Researching for this article I read a description of a “knife edge” neck, which is one purely lacking muscle from both the top and bottom. I guess this will be see more in horses of a poorer condition score, or young horses not yet learnt to carry themselves.

I’ve only really discussed the basics of the shape of the neck, let alone the importance of how is comes out of the chest and this impact, but horses can’t help the way they’re  put together, it is our job as riders to teach them to use their neck to the best of their ability, be it encouraging them to lower the nose, or stretch out their neck at the base, or even flexing through the jaw so that they aren’t braced against the bridle and tense through the brachiocephalic and back. It is easy to enhance the appearance and function of the neck so that the horse moves freer, can utilise their back end, can stay in rhythm and balance, and can jump economically.

  

A Roach Back

I went to look at a potential horse with a friend last week with a view to buy.

He was an ex eventer in his teens and I was impressed with how clean his limbs were. However, my main concern was that he was significantly roach-backed.

My friend hadn`t heard of a roach back before, and I said that it may not affect him in terms of the work she would do with him, but she should research the conformation fault and try to get a history of his back before buying him, should she want to, of course!

A roach backed horse is one with a very straight spine, or with one that bows upwards, as shown below.

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A roach back is usually more of an unsightly fault, rather than one which affects the horses way of going. The spine of a horse with a roach back is less flexible than those with a normal curvature, so they may be limited in their jumping ability or how easily they can engage their hindquarters.

Whilst a roach back can be caused by a trauma to the spine, it also has been found to be hereditary. If the defect has been caused by a trauma, it could be related to calcification of the spine and in this case there will be pain and hind limb lameness.

As this horse we saw had had a successful career at low level eventing I don`t think his roach back would have interfered with the light workload of hacking and schooling my friend had intended for him, but it would have meant that she would need to be very careful with his saddle fit and have his back checked regularly to ensure that the upward curve didn`t cause any problems as he got older.

Unfortunately he had a second viewing by some other people a couple of days later and he was subsequently unavailable for my friend. Fingers crossed the next one we see is The One!

Horse Quotes

“So here is what horsemen, on color, have thought.

A bay is hardy, a chestnut is fast

And you can’t kill a buckskin: he’ll last and last

A grey is gentle, a sorrel is hot

A dun is a horse you’ll be happy you bought.

White eyes are flighty, white feet may crack

While some won’t rely on the feet of a black.

Some pintos are lucky, like the medicine hat,

But all horsemen agree the best color is fat.”

– Anonymous

I found this saying online and thought it was quite interesting. We all know chestnuts, particularly mares, are flighty but the old wives take about the colour of the feet is purely fictional.

Four white socks keep him not a day, three white socks send him far away, two white socks give him to a friend, one white sock keep him to his end

I was wondering if anyone had any other sayings to add, or whether they think a “good horse is never the wrong colour”.

Equine Colours

In the hope of not boring you all, I`d like to bring a little bit about equine colours to the table. I was making notes for this Horse Ownership course, and after listing the usual black, bay, chestnut, piebald, skewbald I thought I`d better check for any rare colours.

To cut a long story short I found a site about equine genetics, which touched on cream dilution, my personal favourite silver dapple as well as many others.

The gene which attracted my attention was the Rabicano gene. This gene causes limited roaning pattern in a specific pattern on a horse, and is usually characterised by the “skunk tail” effect, which is when the top of the tail has white hairs. I know one horse who has this feature – Otis.
He`s always had the white tip to his tail, and I`ve always said he`s almost a bay roan due to the speckling of white hairs over his body. So I continue reading this article, only to find that another feature of a horse with the Rabicano gene is sporadic white hairs around the flank and abdomen. Furthermore, the skin of rabicano`s can be mottled with pink, particularly around the abdomen and groin. Guess what! The soft skin of Otis`s abdomen and hind legs is mottled pink, and this gene explains why his barrel is more flecked with white than his neck and legs.

I found this fascinating, as it explains a lot about Otis`s looks.
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Upon further reading I found that horses can carry both rabicano and roan genes, but rabicano colouring is rarely extensive enough to be confused with the roan colouring. Additionally, horses can carry the rabicano gene and the sabino gene. The sabino gene causes extensive white markings on the legs and belly (commonly seen in Shire horses) Horses which carry the sabino gene usually have white lip and chin markings. Funnily enough, Otis has a white lip and chin. Now I`m not saying he`s also got the sabino gene as his white markings are fairly conservative, but it`s a definite possibility.

It`s a complex and fascinating topic, equine genetics, so I`d be interested in reading a beginners guide to equine genetics. If there is such a thing of course!

Bend Or Spots

I was doing some background research for the Horse Ownership course I`m planning, and was creating a set of crib notes for Horse Colours and Markings.

Yes I know, they`re easy and we should know all about them, but I don`t want my mind to go blank.

Anyway, in the markings section of the website I was reading it had the heading non-white markings. “Oh yes, ermine marks” I thought, jotting that down. I scanned the list and came across “Bend Or Spots”.

WHAT?

I have never heard of Bend Or Spots, so naturally I clicked the link. It was very interesting. Named after the chestnut Thoroughbred Bend Or, these are dark spots found randomly on the coat, which occur predominantly on palominos and chestnuts.

Then it dawned on me, I had seen a Bend Or spot. One of the riding school mares (a palomino) has a large dark spot on her quarters. I`ve always wondered what caused it and put it down to her weirdness (believe me, she`s crazy!) or a previous injury.

These spots are very rare and it doesn`t appear to be related to other spotting factors, but as Bend Or`s progeny have them there may be a genetic factor. Sometimes they appear at birth or come a few years later. The spots are random in situation and size, some as big as an outstretched hand!

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The Myth About Adjustable Saddles

An article came up on my newsfeed during the week about the problems of adjustable saddles.
Seeing as I am a recent convert to changeable gullets I had a minor panic. What lies are people telling me now?

Upon investigating further, I realised my panic was for no reason. The article was describing how people have taken the idea of an adjustable saddle too literally. They assume that by having a variety of gullet bars the saddle will fit every single horse on the yard; be it a thoroughbred or gypsy cob.

Now, correct me if I`m wrong, but I`ve always assumed that shopping for saddles is like clothes shopping; each make has a slightly different body shape in mind. For that reason I would never shop in New Look. My legs aren`t long and skinny enough. Similarly, I wouldn`t even contemplate a high withered saddle for my chubby cob. Research gets you so far; you can shortlist the saddles which are likely to suit your horse, and then find a local saddler who stocks and sells these makes. Within your short list you will be surprised at how different makes fit slightly differently. I was adamant, when looking for a dressage saddle, that Otis would need the cob dressage style, due to the fact most other makes were too wide. As it happens, my saddler was correct and brought a standard dressage saddle with a wide bar. Now I think Otis is wide … but a wide bar is only in the middle of the range of gullet bars available – I can`t even imagine sitting on a horse who has an XXW bar in! I guess it is best compared to a barrel.

Back to the subject of adjustable saddles; this article went on to say that these saddles are useful as they can be adjusted as a maturing horse puts on condition, or a horse becomes fit and more muscular, however the saddle should be fitted to the horse initially; to make sure it is the correct length and won`t damage the lumbar area of the back, and that the panels suit the frame of the horse – Apollo is quite narrow in the lumbar area so his saddle has wider panels to provide a flatter seat for the saddle and to support his frame better. For that reason I wouldn`t dream of putting a wide gullet bar in and expecting the saddle to fit Otis, who is particularly wide in the lumbar area.

From what I can see adjustable saddles just require being used with common sense; they`re very useful for developing horses as you aren`t constantly forking out for new tack, but each horse should have their own saddle fitted so that they are most able to work correctly and fulfil their potential without damaging their body.

Firing

For some reason today whilst driving to the yard the image of an ex-polo pony’s leg popped into my mind. His leg, along with many other lumps and bumps, has a series of circle shaped scars in two parallel lines.

He had been pin-fired. I had seen the legs of an ex-racer who had been pin-fired and heard the derogatory comments made by my college lecturers at the time.

As I drove home I realised that firing, both pin and bar, is a fairly archaic process and I’m sure many younger equestrians wouldn’t know what it is.

The process of firing tendons is used on a horse with a chronic injury, such as a curb or bowed tendon. A red hot probe is used to burn, or cauterise, the tendon to cause an acute injury with serious inflammation. Unlike other injuries, this cauterisation produces serum which flushes the site of injury without degenerating the site of injury. It is thought that this accelerates the healing process due to an increase in blood flow to the injury site.

The big negative of firing a horse is that they need six months to a year to recover, but the hope is that they can perform to their potential for longer. Racehorses are the usual victims, as the firing causes scarring or for white hair to grow which is aesthetically displeasing to those in the showing or performance world.

Bar firing has been banned in the UK, but it has been known for horses to be exported to Ireland to be treated as many trainers felt that other therapies weren’t as effective. With the development of stem cell therapy firing has become much more uncommon.

I’m not an expert on the process of firing tendons, but it has been described to me as barbaric and hideous. From my research I’ve found that the process itself appears to have helped healing and not caused further problems in the future, but the main reason it is viewed as an inhumane process is that many trainers fired young horses as a preventative measure in the hope that it would strengthen the legs and stop them developing splints. Of course the development of other therapies and the advances of science help to prove or disprove treatment theories.