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!

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Four Faults

I’ve got a little anecdote to cheer you up on a dreary Friday.

You know those lovely properties with long drives and electric gates? Well it’s not a problem entering, you just hop out and type in the code then the gates open and you drive out. When you leave, the gate sensors recognise you’re a car a open automatically.

However, when you’re on a horse, it’s a different story. For some gates I’ve had a little key fob which I just press to open the gates. Some I just get on after going through the gates. For others I have to rely on being let out and then just get off to key in the code and get back in. One horse I walk right up to the keypad, lean down to enter the number, and hope no cars roar up behind us on the road!

Last week, I saw the nanny in the house before I went to tack up one of the horses I ride out. I asked her if she could let me out when I had gotten onto the drive. Or avenue, as it it lined with trees. However, as I was tacking up I decided to swap the stirrups over as I hadn’t been able to get them just right. This took me a few minutes and as I let myself out of the stable block onto the drive, I could see the large iron gates were already open.

The horse I was riding is lovely, but on the way out on hacks his mind does tend to be on his stable and dinner. When we’ve had a trot and canter he’s up for it. Anyway, we ambled down the drive and, when we reached two thirds of the way down, the gates slowly started to creak shut!

With a couple of pony club style kicks, we broke into joggy trot, closing in on the gates… as they closed just in front of our nose!

“That’ll be four faults for a refusal!” shouts this voice behind me, accompanied with a laugh. Two gardeners had put down their tools to watch me race to the gates! The rather portly one, still laughing, made his way slowly to the large iron gates. Of course, he couldn’t open them from the inside but somehow (and I repeat somehow) he squeezed between the wall which the gates are affixed to, and the wooden fence bordering the property, and went round to the other side of the gates, and typed in the code to let me out. And let himself back in in the process.

I’m glad I provided them with a couple of laughs, but I’m also very glad they were there because I don’t think I could face the embarrassment of going back to the house to ask to be let out!

Hopefully soon I’ll have authorised access to open the gates from my phone, which will make life far less complicated. First world problems, eh?

Continued Professional Development

In order to be part of the BHS coaches scheme, and have insurance, there are numerous hoops we have to jump through: such as child protection and first aid courses every couple of years. Which is why I was off relearning about CPR, defibrillators, and recovery positions today.

I’ve just seen an important announcement from the BHS this evening, saying that from January 2019 all accredited coaches must attend one CPD course a year. CPD stands for Continual Professional Development, and the idea of them is to encourage instructors to show an interest in expanding their knowledge, following advances within the industry, and to improve their skills. We used to have to do them every couple of years, and I think it is good to continue to expand your knowledge, even in your field of expertise. After all, you never stop learning.

Yet, I’m not sure that annual CPD courses will go down well with many coaches. For a number of reasons.

The BHS pays for our first aid and child protection courses, but we have to fund the CPD courses. These usually cost in the region of £60, but vary according to the type of training, and the trainer taking the course. Now most coaches are freelancers. Which mean that we don’t just take a day off to go to a CPD course; we have to rearrange our work onto different days (so long as the client can accommodate this) or lose out on that work. Which means that not only are we spending £60 on going on the course, we are also losing a day’s wages. Let’s say that you lose sux hours work in a riding school to go to the course. That’s a minimum of £60 wages you don’t receive. This is a minimum based on hourly rates which I’ve seen around the country. If you are self employed and lost a day’s work you are likely to be £100 out of pocket.

Additionally, a lot of the CPD courses aren’t local, and involve an hours commute. This brings in motor expenses of the best part of £10 each way.

It’s becoming expensive isn’t it? Not only are we spending in the region of £80 on attending the course, but we are losing out on wages in the region of £80.

I’m not saying that we don’t want to attend such courses, as we all like to learn, but I wonder if there’s a better way to do this. One that is more affordable, and more easier fitted into our busy working lives. For example, I go to relevant CPD days every couple of years, to tick the boxes for my APC (Accredited Professional Coaches) membership, but on a weekly basis I read articles, books, magazines, and talk to friends in the industry to share ideas and experiences. None of which technically counts as CPD, but all very much improve my knowledge and allow me to give the best lessons I can to my clients.

The variety of courses which count as BHS CPD days has increased over the last couple of years. Two years ago I struggled to find a course which was relevant to my level of training (as an AI looking to become an II) and less than two hours drive away. Now, courses like the Horses Inside Out day that I attended count. This means that we can expand our professional knowledge in a sideways fashion – looking at equine biomechanics, saddlery, and rider psychology for example, rather than purely coaching.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but perhaps CPD should be assessed with a variety of options, so that coaches are encouraged to develop their knowledge whilst being flexible to their busy working lives.

My thoughts are that over a calendar year a coach needs to amass a certain number of CPD credits. For example, a full day course could be worth 60 CPD credits, which is enough for each year. Then there could be a selection of shorter courses, or online webinars (perhaps similar to the evening talks by Gillian Higgins running in 2019 of which attending three talks counts as a CPD update) which could be worth 20 credits each. These evening talks would be on a variety of topics; lorinery, saddle fitting, dental health, vet talks, alternative therapies.

Having cheaper evening talks would be more doable for many coaches, as the cost of training is split over the year, and it’s flexible to their working week. With a variety of different subjects to choose from, you are more likely to inspire and motivate coaches to attend and learn. They will also not be losing so much work to attend an evening talk for a couple of hours so it is not as financially crippling.

I guess there would be a bit more paperwork in order to keep track of a coach’s CPD credits, but if the system is simple enough of three evening talks being the equivalent to one all day course, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of it, and I think the majority of coaches would prefer shorter CPD sessions to the intensive full day courses.

Having looked quickly at the BHS website I couldn’t see a CPD day which is at an appropriate level to my qualifications, in the south of England, so I will just have to hope that something else is organised which is of interest to me and that my professional life will benefit from. I’ll keep looking, and hoping that the BHS works out how to implement this new ruling without upsetting too many coaches.

A Centre Line Exercise

At the moment I’m focusing on Phoenix’s canter, in particular stopping her hindquarters drifting out on the canter transitions, so earlier this week we used a centre line exercise to help improve the strength of her hindlegs, balance and straightness. It’s an exercise which is harder than it looks, so build it up slowly.

Canter is an asymmetric gait, being three beat, which can lead to horses becoming crooked in the canter, or relying on the fence line to prop them up. Cantering a straight line down either the three quarter lines or the centre line, will show you if your horse is crooked or relies on the fence. If they’re crooked, you’ll drift off the line and if they rely on the fence, then the quality of the canter will decrease and they’ll fall into trot. In order to be able to use this centre line exercise to full effect, it’s worth perfecting cantering straight lines in a consistent rhythm on both reins first.

When cantering the outside hindleg is the propulsion leg, yet in trot the inside hind is the propulsion limb. Which is a reason why it’s quite difficult for horses to ride rapid sequences of trot and canter transitions; they’re having to change their propulsion leg and change their balance between left and right, which utilises their abdominals and tests their balance.

Bearing this fact in mind, you should start to understand how the following exercise helps improve the canter transitions and impulsion in the canter.

On the right rein, pick up right canter and then turn down the centre line at A. Between D and X, circle right. If you’re unlucky enough to have a 20x40m school this is a harder element than in a wider school because your circles are smaller. Maximise your space on this circle to help keep your horse as balanced as possible.

After the circle ride a few straight strides of canter. After X ride a transition to trot – without wobbling off the centre line – and before G ride a ten metre circle left. This circle needs to be smaller than the canter circle in order to be effective. At C, track right.

So, in right canter the left hind leg is the propulsive limb, so if a horse is a bit crooked in the canter, or slightly on the forehand than they will lose the energy from the left hindleg in the downwards transition – it won’t be as an efficient propulsive – and find it difficult to trot a left circle, where that limb is on the inside and propelling then forwards. The exercise improves the straightness in the canter, keeps that hindlimb engaged throughout, and so improves the quality of the gaits.

Ride the exercise a few times on each rein, and you should start to feel the difference in the upwards transition because the horse’s propulsive limb is acting towards their centre of gravity and they are straighter. So long as they stay straighter, and stronger in the canter they will be able to make the transition to trot and stay balanced on the trot circle, which can get progressively closer to the downwards transition to become more of a balance test.

I could feel Phoenix thinking, and staying much more with me in the downward transition, being less inclined to drop slightly onto her forehand, and she definitely stayed a bit straighter when I went up to canter. Interestingly, I did this exercise with a much more established horse a couple of days later and he really struggled. He’s a big moving horse, and tends to drift through his outside shoulder in canter and avoids stepping under with his hindlegs so throws himself into a big trot on the forehand in the downwards transition and so finds it difficult to circle almost immediately, and ends up falling in. I’ll be taking it back a step with him this week to improve the basics before putting this exercise back together again.

Feeding Breakfasts

One of the biggest logistical things I’ve noticed on DIY livery yard’s in the winter is the fact that everyone’s morning routine varies according to what time they start work. Which means that it can be quite stressful for horses waiting for breakfast or turnout.

Many yards I’ve observed have a rule that the first person on the yard feeds the entire yard. Which reduces the stress in horses when their neighbour is being fed and they aren’t. However, in order for this system to work several things need to be taken into account.

Firstly, feeding breakfasts needs to be done as quickly as possible. After all, the first person on the yard doesn’t want to spend fifteen minutes trying to feed the hungry horses, because they’ve got to go to work too. So every livery owner needs to prepare their feeds the night before and leave them dampened or soaked ready to be fed straightaway.

Secondly, feeds need to be stored so that they’re readily available for the half asleep early risers, clearly labelled, yet not left on the yard for cheeky ponies to help themselves when their small owner’s backs are turned, or left to encourage vermin.

Thirdly, everyone needs to know what time breakfast is. After all, there’s nothing worse than turning up for a quick pre-work ride only to find your horse has only just had breakfast. One way to reduce this risk is to give your horse a smaller ration in the morning, and their main hard feed in the evening if you usually ride in the mornings. And vice versa if you ride in the evening so you don’t have to wait as long in the cold and dark while they cool down and eat their tea.

Some yards leave feed buckets outside stables, covered with plastic covers. Which has the risk of attracting vermin, and being eaten by horses not tied up securely. Plus on windy days the covers blow across the yard. Other yards leave feeds in boxes outside stables, which can be time consuming opening any locks and lids.

I’ve spent a long time pondering the most effective way of implementing a “first one feeds” system and recently came across the best solution yet.

On the yard is a metal dustbin with a securely fastened lid, which is vermin and naughty pony proof. If the yard is bigger, then there is one bin per row of stables. Each horse is given a breakfast bucket, which is of a generous size to accommodate the larger feeds of the thoroughbreds, has two handles, and most importantly they are stackable. The yard provides these buckets so they can ensure that they are the correct dimensions. Each horse’s name is written on in very big, thick, black letters so the buckets can be easily identified in the half lit, early hours.

When livery owners make up feeds they fully prepare breakfast (damp or soak the feed) and put them into the bins, one on top of the other. Then when the first person arrives on the yard they go to the bin and take out the stack of buckets and then walk along the row feeding each horse. A super speedy way of satisfying hungry horses early in the morning without waking the neighbours, or on a Saturday morning when recovering from a heavy Friday night.

The only way that this system could be improved, in my opinion, is by the buckets being stacked in order; so you give the top bucket to the first horse, second to the next, and so on. However, with everyone coming at different times during the day, there would be a lot of lifting buckets in and out of the bin, and there being a high risk of a mistake being made when restacking, you’d need to check the names on the buckets as well, just in case.

What other systems do DIY yards employ to make feeding breakfasts a painless task? I’d be interested to know of a better system than this.

Clippers One, Phoenix Nil

A month ago I blogged about how I was desensitising Phoenix to the trimmers in preparation for clipping her. Which you can read here.

Well, here’s a little update.

A couple of Mondays ago, I got out the real thing. Phoenix jumped as I turned them on, but let me put them on her shoulder. “Stuff it” I thought, let’s give it a go.

Let’s just say it didn’t go to plan. I managed to do half a bib clip, only getting halfway up her neck before she got increasingly upset. I admitted defeat. For the moment, anyway, and I went off to come up with Plan B.

I decided to try Sedalin to take the edge off Phoenix, so that Saturday morning I brought her in and gave her the Sedalin. Have you seen the carrot trick to disguise a wormer? Well you need a carrot with a very large diameter … and a horse who is not as clever as Phoenix! I think I got enough down her, as I factored in spittage.

What I didn’t foresee, however, was the yard getting busier and Phoenix furiously fighting the sedative effects. After forty minutes, with a fully awake horse, I decided I might as well use it as a further desensitising exercise.

Once I’d got the clippers against her shoulder again, I realised that Phoenix didn’t actually mind the clippers at all behind her shoulders. With nothing to lose, I started clipping her shoulder and body.

She actually stood very well for me to clip her barrel and hindquarters, and by casually sweeping up her neck with the clippers I managed to remove the bulk of the coat on her neck.

But there was no way I could tidy up her neck without risking hogging her, or take off her beard. I had three choices; style it out as a new clip, get the vet to properly sedate her, or try twitching her.

Once the twitch was on, it was like magic. Well, once I’d turned the clippers on and my friend managed to hold both lead rope and twitch as Phoenix jumped at the noise, that is. She stood calmly while I finished clipping her neck and then, because she was being so good, I took half her face off quickly as well.

It’s not my best clip, but I certainly took more hair off than I expected, and overall I think it was a positive experience for her. Hopefully she’s feeling the benefit when being ridden now. In a month’s time I’ll reclip her, hopefully neaten up my lines and get right inside her armpits, and she’ll accept the process more. I’m not a huge fan of using the twitch for long periods, but if it distracts her enough for ten minutes that I can safely finish her clip, then I’ll use it. Hopefully next time I clip her, she’ll tolerate the clippers going slightly further up her neck.

An Accuracy Grid

One of the horses I teach with has a tendency to drift slightly through grids. It’s not noticeable over single fences, and has vastly improved through doubles, so I wanted to test his rider’s accuracy to ensure she wasn’t allowing him to drift around courses.

I began with setting up a two stride double, with tramlines to focus both horse and rider on straightness. We kept the fences as cross poles too, to help them get central.

Once they were riding through the fences comfortably, I began to ask the questions. One stride before the first cross, I added a skinny fence. With no short poles, I had to use a barrel. This meant that the pony might back off the skinny jump, as well as trying to dodge round it. However, as it was the first fence in the grid my rider could set them up in a controlled, balanced canter and focus on her accuracy and the cross poles would follow naturally.

As predicted, the pony backed off the barrel fence, chipping in a little stride, so his rider had to ride positively to prevent him squeezing in three strides between the cross poles. They repeated it a few more times until the pony stopped backing off and felt more confident.

Next, I added a second skinny barrel jump at the end of the grid, one canter stride away from the second cross pole. As this question came up rapidly after the cross jump my rider couldn’t have a lapse in concentration through the grid or else her horse will have either drifted past the skinny, or will chip in a second stride. She also needed to pick up on any slight deviation from straight.

They jumped the first three fences neatly, straight, and on the correct stride. However, they drifted slightly right through the grid which gave the horse the perfect opportunity to slip past the last jump. The next time, my rider corrected their line throughout the grid, by opening her left rein and using her right leg. Because the horse was less able to circumnavigate the skinny fence he chipped in a stride, so disrupting the flow of the grid.

To overcome this, my rider had to recover quicker from the cross poles, and ride forwards and positively to the barrel fence to give her horse the confidence to take the distance on one stride. It took a few tries, and they only managed it from one canter lead, which suggests we have work to do on their weaker canter lead. Which fills my next couple of lesson plans!

Adding a skinny into a grid keeps horse and rider switched on, and ensures the rider doesn’t become a passenger once they’ve entered the grid of fences. It highlights any drifting by horse or rider, and by working on both canter leads you can see if there’s any asymmetry. For example, if a horse is stronger with their right hind leg then they will push more with that limb over the fence so the horse will always drift left over jumps. However, this horse drifts fractionally right in right canter but drifts significantly right in left canter, suggesting that the cause of his drift comes from the fact his body is crooked to the left, which is exaggerated in left canter so drifting becomes more apparent.

The grid can be made harder by removing the tramlines and converting the cross poles into uprights to make it harder for horse and rider to stay on their line. You can then remove the wings from the barrel jumps to make it easier for the horse to run out. If you can negotiate that in a fluid and confident manner then you know you’re riding straight and accurately!

Moving Yards

Moving yards is almost as bad as moving house, isn’t it? I can’t say it’s something I’d undertake lightly.

However, having recently done it so that Phoenix is at a yard with winter-friendly facilities because she’s now in more work and I need the ability to ride after bedtime if needs be.

I’ve come up with some, well I like to think of them as, helpful tips.

  • Use the opportunity to have a big sort out of your things. Take rugs to be cleaned. Ask yourself if you really need that ancient whip with a wobbly end. When Otis moved to his retirement field and I was effectively horseless, I had a good clear out and sold things I definitely wouldn’t need or use again. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve gone through what was left in my garage with Phoenix in mind. For example, does that stable rug of Otis’s fit her? Will that saddle rack fit over her new stable door? So I’ve had quite a sort out. I’ll accumulate more, I’m sure, but it’s nice to have a declutter.
  • Organise your things in the yard into boxes so that moving is simple, and you’re not making endless trips to the car with forgotten haynets or spare stirrup leathers. Plus you’re less likely to forget anything.
  • Plan your move so that you can be around for any teething issues. We decided to move Phoenix on a Friday so that the new yard was quiet when she arrived, and I was around over the weekend to provide a familiar face and meet all her needs should she be unsettled.
  • Check the isolation procedure, if the new yard has one. A lot of yards require worming on arrival, so ensure you’ve got a wormer or have a recent worm egg count result. Some yards require horses to be stabled for forty eight hours in isolation on arrival. If your horse would find this particularly stressful; perhaps they’re young and never been stabled, or they struggle with separation anxiety, I would definitely recommend speaking to the new yard to see if anything can be done to reduce your horse’s stress.
  • Plan your moving day so you have plenty of time to observe your horse settling in. We moved all of my things to the new yard first thing in the morning, dumped it in Phoenix’s stable, and then went to pick her up. Then I unpacked and organised my things while she settled in the field. Once I was finished, she’d been there an hour and quite content. Then I went back to the yard later in the afternoon to check her again before dark.
  • Plan a couple of quiet days while your horse settles in. They may not seem outwardly disturbed, but internally there’s a lot of new things to process; new equines, new field, new yard environment. This may result in them lacking in a sleep because they aren’t fully comfortable in their surroundings so don’t have sufficient R.E.M. sleep, as I blogged a couple of weeks ago. I definitely found that Phoenix tired more easily when I rode her the first day, so I kept it short and sweet, being much more of an introduction to the new arena than anything else. I’ve found that Phoenix is very settled in the field, but slightly more anxious in her unfamiliar stable, so on the first day she just had her feed in there and spent a very short time in there. Then the following day slightly longer, all the time with hay. Gradually I’ve left her there for longer, and then yesterday she spent a couple of hours in there until being turned out, seeming farm more relaxed about the situation.
  • In the first few days I would be guided by your horse. Just ride them according to how they feel, or have a gentle hack in company so they can begin to take in their new surroundings. Some horses may benefit over the first couple of days or just being introduced to their new routine, so coming in and spending a few minutes being groomed in their new stable, having a hard feed in there and just generally absorbing their new environment. I think how well a horse takes to a yard move depends on their age (if they’ve had experience of a stable then they’re less phased by a new stable), their experience (if they’ve done a lot of competing then they are used to different environments and possibly staying overnight at competitions and camps), and their temperament – some horses just accept change more readily than others.
  • Although not always possible, I would definitely look at moving yards and keeping my horse’s general routine the same for at least a couple of weeks. For example, they’ll find it more stressful moving from living out twenty four hours a day to living in with daytime turnout only. Either move so that they can continue living out at the new yard for a couple of weeks, or begin bringing them in overnight at the old yard during the run up to them moving.
  • Introducing horses into fields is always the political, and delicate situation. Definitely speak to the new yard and the field mates, neighbours in individual turnout setups and those in the herd in group turnouts. If there’s a known leader to the herd, who can be quite bossy, (or even if your own horse is dominant!) having your horse on individual turnout adjacent to the herd field for a few days can help the horses introduce themselves, and then put the new horse in with the dominant horse for a couple of days, and then run the herd together. The horses will run, they will bite, and they will kick out while they establish their new pecking order.
  • You can help reduce the running round effect when a horse enters a new field. Phoenix went into a field on her own for the first few days, with neighbours either side, so upon her arrival I gave her a hard feed and then turned her out with a pile of hay in the field. If there’s plenty of grass that’s not necessary. The idea was that she wasn’t starving, and would quickly settle to eat some hay. She barely looked at her neighbours but took to the hay before happily wandering around the field, replete and unlikely to run around in excitement.
  • After a few days on individual turnout, Phoenix was joined by another horse. To integrate them I ensured Phoenix had had her hard feed and hay ration in the field, and the other horse was likewise fed, so that when the two were introduced hunger wouldn’t cause any arguments and they could concentrate on being friends. We also put out plenty of small piles of hay. Unfortunately Phoenix decided that all the hay was for her, especially that which came with the new horse. So the following day we gave them some time apart to ensure that they both ate sufficient hay, and then used my less exciting bale of hay in the field which seemed to help settle them. It usually takes a week or so for a new herd to establish their pecking order, but it’s beneficial for all if you make temporary accommodations to reduce the likelihood of any going hungry or getting hurt.
  • Take enough hay with you to the new yard so that your horse won’t be put off eating new hay whilst also being slightly stressed by the move. Then you can introduce the new yard’s hay over the course of a couple of days. Obviously with the greedy horses and ponies this isn’t so much of an issue!
  • Be aware that your horse may be unpredictable for the first few weeks as they settle in, so keep things quiet and be aware that the tractor on the new yard is scary because your horse isn’t as confident yet in their new surroundings.

Wonky Poles

I came across this exercise a few weeks ago, which is a great variant on usual trot poles. It’s good for adding an extra level of difficulty to trot poles, keeping a horse thinking about the exercise, and checks both them and their rider’s ability to ride a straight line. Especially useful for green horses, it improves proprioception.

Begin by trotting over a series of trotting poles laid parallel, approximately four foot six inches apart. Adjust the poles to suit your horse’s stride. Once your horse is confident, balanced and negotiating the poles straight and easily, you can begin to put him on his toes.

You should be trotting over the centre of the trotting poles, and the horse should increase their cadence over the poles and increase their impulsion. With the poles parallel, the horse can see either end of the poles as they trot over it. This helps the horse judge where the centre of the pole is, which is where they need to lift their feet over. Remember horses have that blind spot just in front of them, with a small amount of binocular vision, so rely on their peripheral vision, which is monocular. The binocular field of vision is where they gauge depth perception, which is vital for negotiating poles and fences.

Now your horse is happy with parallel trot poles, angle them so that they form a zig zag pattern. The centre of each pole should still be four foot six inches apart (or whatever distance best suits your horse). An easy way to create the zig zag pattern is to hold the pole in the middle, and lift and swing it so that it is then at an angle.

Usually, when first trotted over the zig zag poles, a horse will lower his head, pause, and increase their cadence. As long as you ride the centre of the poles, the distance is correct for the horse, but the zig zag position of the poles will make them think about where they’re putting their feet.

Going back to their vision. The ends of the poles are in their monocular vision, and they aren’t level. One eye will see the ends of two poles close together, and the other eye will see two pole ends together further forward in their field of monocular vision. Therefore it is not immediately obvious to them where the centre of the poles are, which is the part they’re stepping over. This means they need to engage the binocular vision to gauge the position of the centre of the poles. So they pause, lower their head to look carefully at the poles, and then lift their feet high to give the poles plenty of space just in case.

This means that the horse is working his body harder, so improving his balance, coordination, impulsion, rhythm and proprioception. It’s a good variation of trotting poles for those horses who get bored, or need to do a lot of pole work for rehab, and can be made physically more demanding by increasing the number of poles.

I don’t think this pole arrangement would work as raised poles, but they would work as canter poles, with the centre of the poles approximately nine feet apart.

Herd Dynamics

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently with different clients who are finding that their horses are very tired and lethargic when they bring them in. One mare keeps falling asleep on the yard!

We discussed the management side of things. The change in the weather as we head into winter can mean that some horses start to get a bit chilly at night, and the change in the nutritional level of the grass can mean some horses start to get a bit hungry. Both these reasons can cause horses to become a bit flat in their personality.

An increase in workload can also make a horse become a bit flat as they improve their fitness.

None of these reasons really explained why the two horses were lacking enthusiasm for life. Both had recently had their saddles checked and were sound so pain was unlikely to be causing the tiredness.

Then we realised what it was. Both horses, at different yards and different times over the last month, had moved fields. One mare had moved in with two other mares who, whilst not bullies, were definitely above her in the pecking order and hassled her in the field. The other had just moved in with quite a dominant gelding, who was a little territorial over his hay, and generally pushed them about a bit.

As a result of this new herd dynamics, neither horse was resting properly. They might snatch ten minutes here and there, but they’d constantly have one eye open in case their field buddies came over.

Horses devote between five and seven hours a day to resting. They can achieve slow wave sleep whilst standing up, but must lie down to enter the REM phase of sleep, which is the restorative phase of sleep. A horse can become sleep deprived if they don’t have at least thirty minutes of recumbency to fulfil their R.E.M. requirements.

I found a really interesting study by Kentucky Equine Research which found that horses at the lower end of the pecking order could suffer from sleep deprivation. Check it out in the link above.

I suggested to my clients that they tried giving their horses a bit of down time. Perhaps bringing them in to their stable for a few hours so they could get some rest, or separating them in the field if they were more likely to rest in the field than in the stable. Since then the mare has been moved into an individual paddock adjacent to the others and seems to have picked up a bit. Well, she’s not falling asleep on the yard any more!

As horses spend so much of their time in the field it’s worth ensuring that the herd dynamics are right. It’s easy to see a dominant horse when you’re giving hay in the field or when they have a new patch of grass, but the small nudging and hassling of the bottom of the pack is easy to overlook. Take some time to observe the herd to see the subtle social dynamics which are occurring, which could have an impact on your horse’s health and well being. Then you can take appropriate measures to help ensure all the horses are able to rest sufficiently.