Improving Balance Around Corners

I saw an exercise online last week and modified it slightly to help a client who’s pony tends to motorbike around corners.

Using one corner of the school, I laid out three trotting poles on the track. There was 4’6″ between the centre of each pole, which also conveniently also lay on the track my rider had made.

We worked on both reins with the poles laid flat until they were trotting around the corner easily, making the distance between each pole comfortably. Initially, the pony found it difficult to bend and increase her cadence so drifted through the outside shoulder. My rider had to use her outside rein and leg to support her pony through the turn and maintain the support for longer as they came out of the turn. She also found that if she used her inside rein and had too much bend through the neck, they drifted out more and found the exercise harder. So it was a good way of reminding my rider of the correct rein aids and contact.

Next I built up the trot poles into cavaletti, however I only raised the inside of each pole. This was to discourage the pair from falling in around the corner and to improve the activity and strength of the inside hind leg.

As the pony had to put in more effort over the raised poles she started to drift out around the corner, but the fence helped my rider correct this and as the bend developed through her whole body so she began to find it easier and stayed more balanced throughout.

With the abdominals now switched on the trot improved generally and the mare had a good stretch over her topline.

We moved on to riding a canter transition just after the poles to start working the canter. The more active trot helped the transitions have more energy and the subsequent trot was looser so their trot poles improved further.

Now finished with the trotting poles, I converted them to canter poles and after cantering through once started to raise them. This pony tends to motorbike more in canter, so the raised poles were even more beneficial at improving her balance and bend through the corners. They also stopped my rider leaning in!

The canter became stronger, balanced and more three time because the inside hind leg had become more supple and was stepping under the body more.

I was really pleased with the improvement in the quality of the trot and canter due to the trot poles, and my rider could feel how much more balanced they were around the corners which is great for developing her feel. She’ll now know when she gets it right and can strive to replicate the feeling.

I wanted to see how the poles on the corner helped their jump, so I walked two canter strides away from the third pole and put up an upright. As expected, the mare backed off the first time, but from then on she jumped it beautifully. The poles kept her really balanced and her hocks engaged so that the bascule was neat and my rider could feel the lift through the shoulders, and generally felt that the jump was more scopey and powerful. I then reversed the exercise so they could do it on the other rein. Hopefully this exercise will help them create better corners around a jumping course and with time ride tighter turns whilst staying balanced which will help them stay clear whilst against the clock. I just wish I’d taken a photo of the exercise!

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Self Trimming

A while ago now I went with a friend to view a horse. While we were doing the initial overview, prodding and poking, I asked the seller when the (barefoot) horse had last seen the farrier. I was told that she preferred to let her horses self trim. This rang alarm bells for me when I considered the size of the medial flare of the horse’s hoof. It could easily cause a brushing injury to the opposite limb. Were there issues in that opposite limb? Was the horse a nightmare for the farrier so it was easier to let her “self trim”? Yes I know, I’m playing devils advocate, but that’s sometimes needed when viewing horses.

Since then I’ve heard the term self trimming with increasing frequency. So I resolved to ask my farriers.

Horses have worn shoes for thousands of years, from leather pads used by the Romans to today’s iron shoes, but increasingly there is a movement saying that shoes are unnatural and we shouldn’t use them because of the damage they cause to the growth and strength of the hoof capsule whilst protecting the sole of the foot. I don’t disagree; shoes can cause damage but ultimately we have created an artificial environment for horses which means we may have to artificially intervene in order for the horse to be comfortable and to function to the best of their ability.

For example, humans now keep horses in smaller paddocks, ask them to trot and canter increasingly smaller circles, and jump higher and wider. In the wild horses roam over many miles of varying terrain, trot and canter in straight lines and only jump when necessary to avoid danger. Factor in our breeding which focuses on certain traits (for example speed in thoroughbreds) at the cost of other traits (again, in thoroughbreds, the quality of their feet) and humans are causing many of the problems we see today, be they conformational or due to injury. Which means that it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help our horses.

So let’s return to the barefoot versus shoeing debate. Scientific advancements and a greater understanding of the equine body does mean that we should rethink shoeing – the materials, technique, frequency etc – and the development of hoof boots are providing us with excellent alternative options. Although hoof boots do make me think we are going a full circle and returning to the leather pads used by the Romans and ancient Asians, albeit a little less crudely. So with this move away from shoeing horses, we naturally gravitate towards the barefoot approach.

Yes, it seems like the easy option – no lost shoes on competition morning, smaller farrier bills – but I don’t think it is necessarily the easy way out. A barefoot horse still needs their feet checking on a daily basis and having the correct diet to help them grow strong hoof. I think that keeping a horse barefoot is great so long as they are comfortable and able to carry out their work. It’s awful seeing horses struggling to walk across gravel. But ultimately if they can’t manage then it’s our responsibility to do something about it, be it through a change in their diet or by shoeing.

Moving on to self trimming. What is it? Now, it has two interpretations. To the innocent bystander, it is not interfering with the natural growth and shape of the foot, and through work letting the horse wear their feet down naturally. Minimum intervention, if you like. Which is fine. But, just like any athlete looks after their legs and feet, we should still look after our horse’s. A foot expert will notice any changes in hoof quality, spot abscesses, and still with minimal intervention, help the horse’s hooves grow in the best direction for that horse. For example, removing excessive flairing and encouraging the hoof wall to grow downwards as opposed to out to the side. Or vice versa if the horse has boxy feet. In the same way that occupational therapists help correct human’s gait. They teach you correct foot placement, use insteps to stop you walking on the outsides of your feet, and especially with children aid skeletal growth so that they are stronger and less prone to wear and tear. I’m going to direct you to a Michael McIntyre joke about learning to walk correctly now. Go on, have a laugh while you watch it and come back after to finish reading.

Anyway, whilst keeping things as natural as possible, regularly having your horse checked or trimmed by a farrier will help prevent problems developing. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people who go down the “self trimming” route see it as just letting a horse sort themselves out. Which would be fine if the horse had perfect conformation and lived over a variety of terrains, but as I said earlier, humans intervening with natural selection are responsible for less than good conformation in some horses so they need to help them where possible, so it’s important for barefoot horses to still see the farrier on a regular basis even if it’s just the condition of the feet that is checked, or as in Phoenix’s case a fortnight ago, only a tiny bit of shaping to rebalance them and encourage the hooves to grow in the preferred direction. I think also, that when a farrier is called out to a barefoot horse he feels obligated to trim so that the owner feels something has been done. But if the horse’s hooves have worn down through work then taking any more hoof off will only cause problems, so in that case maybe farriers should feel more able to say to an owner, “his feet look great, they’re in excellent condition but I won’t take any off because that may make him foot sore… shall we rebook for next month?”

Whilst talking to my farrier, he said that he views his job as assisting the horse. So he takes into account conformation, strength of the hoof horn, workload, management routine, and does as much or as little to the feet as each horse requires to make their job easier and them more comfortable.

The next interpretation of self trimming, is I guess, a more detailed and natural way of looking after horses feet, but is probably more time consuming and potentially more expensive than initially appears. The best place to read up about it is here – Rockley Farm website . Self trimming is still about minimal intervention and letting the horse’s hooves respond to their environment. Which means that a horse who has low mileage grows foot at a slower rate than one who does a lot of hacking and needs more hoof growth because they wear them down quicker. It’s also about providing a variety of surfaces for the horses. I get lost on the physiological benefits, but working on both hard and soft ground helps stimulate correct hoof density and growth. I think! It helps improve proprioception anyway, so horses will become sounder and have less variation in their stride length over different surfaces.

So self trimming is really about providing a variety of surfaces to best stimulate healthy hoof growth, either during turnout or by in hand exercise. Which again, is great. But you need the facilities! There are very few livery yards which even allow you to do a track system, let alone have different surfaces in their fields, and the surrounding area may not have suitable surfaces for encouraging self trimming. So this interpretation of self trimming may be leaving the hooves up to the horses, but it requires a lot of time invested by their handler in stimulating hoof growth, which just may not be possible for horse owners with full time jobs, family commitments, who also want to ride!

I think it will be really interesting to see how the barefoot movement develops, as I certainly think it has benefits. Before embarking on that journey though, amateur horse owners need to be aware of the need to provide a balanced diet to encourage healthy hoof growth, the fact that we keep horses in unnatural environments so don’t allow them to roam for miles over varied terrain and surfaces which help them to regulate their hoof growth, and that we work them on artificial surfaces which can be very abrasive. The idea of self trimming is great, but the realities of being able to follow a program such as Rockley is more time consuming than many are led to believe, so I think you have to meet halfway. Go barefoot if your horse can tolerate it; use your farrier’s guidance and expertise especially if they don’t take much off when they trim; use different surfaces that you have available but don’t be surprised if small trims or tidy ups are needed because their conformation or living circumstances require it.

Suppleness Bootcamp

Fed up with the same comments on her dressage sheets regarding lack of suppleness, one of my clients is sending her mare to a suppleness bootcamp.

She’s been working on suppleness for a while, but with school, jumping, winter weather, and general life, her pony’s flexibility has improved, but not as much as I’d like so the only way is to make it our sole focus.

There are a couple of things they can change in their daily routine which will have a positive impact over a couple of weeks.

Firstly, I suggested they fit carrot stretches into their day. I do Phoenix’s on the way to the field, usually just outside the gate, but having a regular slot means I don’t forget the carrots or to do them. Just a couple of stretches every day will make all the difference.

Secondly, my rider needs to get into the mindset of circles. It’s very easy to troll around the arena putting in a circle at A. Then another at C, and so on. So I challenged my rider to ride five different sized circles on each lap of the school. I also want her to begin to use four loop serpentines and demi voltes to change the rein.

The joints of a horse, or any animal for that matter, are stabilised by tendons, ligaments and muscles, all of which work in different directions. If a horse is lacking suppleness it is usually because the muscles in one direction around a joint are tight and contracted. For example, if a horse finds it hard to move their leg forwards it’s because the muscles at the back (involved in moving the limb backwards) aren’t relaxing for whatever reason. If a horse has damaged the muscle then they’ll be lame, but it’s it’s just muscle tension then they’ll lack suppleness. Does this make sense? So as well as the muscles on the opposite side of the limb affecting movement, the muscles either side will too. Which means that in order to create a truly supple horse you not only have to work on the forwards and backwards movement, but also the adduction and abduction of their limbs.

I devised a bit of a course for this pair, which would work all areas of the pony’s body and hopefully by improving the movement in each direction the mare would start to swing over her back more, become more connected and ultimately more supple.

On one three quarter line I laid out five trotting poles. Over the course of the session I raised them into cavaletti. The poles encouraged the mare to lengthen her stride slightly and then to improve her cadence by lifting each limb higher. Increasing cadence requires more flexion at the shoulder and hip; both areas which when tight can limit suppleness.

Then at A they had to ride a circle. This was partly to give them time to prepare for the next three quarter line, but also to get both rider and horse turning on the circle. Their circle was fifteen metres but it could be made smaller to increase the difficulty level. I had my rider thinking about the inside hindleg on the circle, and making sure there was a uniform bend through her pony’s body, and minimal inside rein being used!

Down the next three quarter line I had them leg yield towards the track to improve adduction and abduction, which releases the lateral muscles. Again, we focused on feeling the inside hind leg coming under and pushing them over, rather than the outside shoulder dragging them across.

After a few goes on each rein, I was thrilled to see the mare taking her head out and stretching from the base of her neck as her length of stride increases and she floated along, swinging over her back. They had a good trot whilst stretching. And they really stretched; far more than I’ve seen them do before.

We’ve been improving their canter to step up to novice dressage, so repeated the exercises in canter. Again, working the limbs a little bit in each direction improved the stride length and overall quality of the gait.

For me, the pair showed real improvement, and the mare did some super stretching, showing that she’s really worked her muscles hard. I want to continue along this theme over the next few weeks, adding in some shoulder in type of exercises as well as varieties of polework so we’re improving the mare’s flexibility in all directions.

Phoenix’s Lesson

On Saturday we took Phoenix for our first dressage lesson. It went very smoothly, with her walking straight onto the trailer, travelling well and being perfectly behaved during the lesson, impressing our trainer. She behaved like an old hand, not being distracted by her surroundings, working beautifully and trying her hardest in the new exercises and then showing a definite improvement by the end. A very successful outing.

I thought I’d share our lesson exercises with you and why we used them.

Just like humans, horses have a degree of asymmetry. Using school movements to improve their suppleness and flexibility helps them develop even muscle tone, and creates a straighter, more symmetrical horse who is less likely to injure themselves because their limbs are sharing the workload. I won’t say evenly because although each limb may be taking 25% of the workload at prelim level, at Grand Prix level the hindlimbs are taking more of the horse’s weight and subsequently the workload, than the forelimbs. But Phoenix is still at prelim level so we will keep things simple.

One of the first things I noticed when riding Phoenix was that she likes to load her left shoulder, which is her way of compensating for having a lazy right hind. Not in a bad way, but in the same way that the left hand of a right handed person is slightly weaker than their right hand. I’ve been working on encouraging Phoenix to carry herself straighter and by working her evenly on both reins to ensure her muscles develop evenly. I introduced some leg yield on a circle last week as she now understands the idea of moving away from the leg rather than going faster.

I should also point out that when my masseuse friend assessed Phoenix for her case study she noted that the left side of her wither was slightly more developed than the right. You can see the slight asymmetry in the photo below.

Back to our lesson. After warming up by getting Phoenix to stretch in walk, which she’s really getting the hang of, and then a trot on both reins. My trainer agreed that leg yield was the right route to go down to help engage the right hind leg and take the weight from the left shoulder.

On the right rein I began walking a twenty metre circle, making sure there wasn’t too much bend through Phoenix’s neck. When a horse loads one shoulder they tend to jackknife their body and over bend and the base of the neck and not bend at all through their barrel. This leads to lose of the outside rein and a tendency to compensate by pulling on the inside rein. Anyway, we spiralled in on the circle before leg yielding her out. In leg yield the inside hindleg steps under and towards the centre of the body to lift and push the horse sideways. By leg yielding to the left, Phoenix has to engage her right hindleg. I could feel the push as it came into effect and the walk became lighter, and more through. Now because the leg yield on the circle can allow a horse to drift through the outside shoulder as much as being pushed by the inside hindleg we repeated the exercise but with counter flexion which would make Phoenix use her right hind even more so, and make sure that her left shoulder wasn’t working too hard. To create the counter flexion I Mel my body turning to the right, towards the circle and used my outside rein to encourage Phoenix to look slightly left. There was a little bit of left leg here too. This time as we leg yielded out on the circle I felt that Phoenix understood the exercise more and used her right hindleg more purposefully. Once I’d finished the exercise we had a little trot to feel how much straighter and more balanced the trot now felt.

Moving onto the left rein. As I spiralled in in this direction I had to make sure Phoenix maintained left bend and didn’t fall onto her left shoulder and then when I leg yielded out we cheated a bit. The first time I let her drift a little through the right shoulder, so as to help level out her shoulders. It’s easier said than done to ride a movement badly when you know how to ride it correctly! The second time we did it more correctly. Letting her drift is a short term activity to help bring her off her left shoulder, and I only need to do it if she’s finding the movement hard. Whilst on the big circle on the left rein I then leg yielded her to the left on the circle. This sounds strange, but basically I kept Phoenix in slight right bend and pushed her hindquarters to the left, and slightly to the middle of the circle. This was to allow Phoenix to rediscover her right hindleg. The subsequent trot was beautiful! Very light and balanced, and each hindleg stepping under nicely.

After another walk break and stretch during which we discussed the canter, we had a look at it. Obviously Phoenix is green in the canter, so I use our lunging sessions to allow her to find her balance in the transitions and the canter itself. I find that her canter on the lunge is quite steady and looking more balanced. But under saddle she is rushing, uptight and setting her neck against me. One factor is the fact that Phoenix is having to learn to canter with my weight, but I had noticed that she was less strong when I jumped her last week. I already had a theory, but my trainer confirmed it. As I ask Phoenix to canter and she runs a little in the transition I automatically half halt and try to hold her together, as I would with Otis. Phoenix doesn’t like and isn’t ready for the interference so just leans against my hand as she finds it harder to find her canter balance. When I jump my mindset is slightly different so I allow a bigger canter and so she finds her own balance and carries herself. I needed someone on the ground reminding me to relax my hands. Which he did and after a dozen strides of each canter Phoenix was feeling more balanced and I felt like we were working together more.

As Phoenix assumes that after canter work comes more canter work we had a trot to finish. This started with rushed, choppy strides but once she realised trot was the name of the game she relaxed and gave a lovely balanced trot whilst stretching her neck down nicely.

We’ve got plenty to work on over the next few weeks but I was very pleased with how Phoenix performed. Perhaps it’s time to look out for a local dressage competition!

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.

Hooves and Soft Ground

This winter and spring have been incredibly wet, and the farriers plagued by lost shoes (I imagine metal detectorists will be getting very excited thinking that they’ve struck gold!) and abscesses.

Soft ground equals soft hooves, which has caused abscesses and horses who usually cope well barefoot becoming footsore.

Thankfully the ground is drying out and hooves are becoming harder – watch out for cracks now as the hooves change rapidly.

I’m going to go against the general consensus and say that the soft ground has actually been beneficial to Otis.

My farrier came out to trim his feet a couple of weeks ago (blame my two legged project for the delay in blogging) and found that the soft ground had allowed Otis’s heels to expand far more than usual, so his hooves are actually much better balanced and a good shape. Which should mean that he’s more comfortable in the side bone area, although I still don’t think he’ll come sound, but being more comfortable is always good!

You can compare this image to previous ones that I’ve taken over the last six months here. I feel that they’ve definitely improved, which makes me more determined to keep Phoenix barefoot as long as possible, and if she starts becoming uncomfortable I’m more inclined to investigate the hoof boot route first.

To conclude, I thought I’d share a photo of Otis meeting mini me, and being as gentle and loving as I expected.

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.

Phoenix’s Progress

Time flies. I’ve just realised that it’s been almost three weeks since I last updated you on Phoenix and her ridden education.

She’s been hacking out alone weekly, and behaving brilliantly. I’ve her into the riding field to cool off after a schooling session and when the ground is a bit drier I’ll do some schooling out there with her, but she’s very relaxed in the open space which is great. I also need to take her on some faster hacks so I’m planning on going to a nearby cross country field in the next couple of weeks to have a play over some logs and see how she is after a couple of canters. Then I’ll have an idea of how she’ll find a sponsored ride and what preparations I need to make to give her an enjoyable experience on her first one.

Her flatwork is coming along nicely. She’s feeling more balanced in the trot and I was really pleased last week when she stretched and gave a lovely swing over her back in the trot at the end. It was the first time I’d felt such a release with her. She’s still running a bit into canter but I feel it’s partly my fault as I sometimes feel we’re talking two different languages. I think she prefers inside leg into canter whereas Otis liked a combination of both legs, but definitely the outside one behind the girth so I need to retrain myself a bit to help Phoenix.

The lunging sessions I’ve done have mainly focused on canter to help her find her balance without me to contend with, and she’s getting quite a little jump into canter now, so it’s time and practice to be able to replicate this under saddle. I did some jumping with her on the lunge a couple of weeks ago, getting it up to 90-95cm. She looked twice, but did it easily.

Then I followed this up the next weekend by jumping under saddle. She was great: we only did a few cross poles, working on approaching straight and rhythmically. She took me into the fences without being strong, and cleanly jumped all of them.

Then this week we progressed to a related distance. One pole was on the floor and four canter strides away was an upright – 80cm perhaps. I didn’t end up raising the pole to make two jumps because she was just getting to grips with negotiating the exercise without loosing her canter or wobbling off our line.

Last week Phoenix had the second of her massages as a case study for my friend. We found a very tight spot on the left side of her wither, which we think is because the saddle is a little on the narrow side – if you remember my saddler didn’t have the widest gullet so suggested I started riding and see how we got on as Phoenix will change shape anyway. As a result of the massage I’ve spoken to the saddler to organise refitting the saddles, and to perhaps fit my jumping saddle onto her.

Phoenix’s hamstrings and brachiocephalic were a bit tight too, but that’s due to an increase in work and is very typical rather than anything else, so she just enjoyed being loosened up. I was pleased that my friend noticed a big difference in the muscle of Phoenix’s neck; she’s developed quite a topline, and interestingly showed no sign of soreness in the top third, which is often tight with horses who “cheat” in the dressage arena and fix their heads in without working over their backs. Proof that Phoenix is working correctly!

This week she had her teeth rasped. I wasn’t sure when she was last done, but I decided to leave it until after the baby was born to give her chance to get to know me and for me to be fit enough to hold her if she fidgeted. She did fidget, but my dentist is very patient and just reassured her whilst following her around. They kept the session short and sweet, and we’ll rebook for six months time when they’ll spend a bit longer on her molars to perfect them as hopefully she’ll remember the positive experience she had this time round.

I’m really pleased with her weight as although not thin by any stretch of the imagination she has toned up nicely and her hindquarters are becoming more muscular and her tummy toned. She looks really well.

Next week we’ve got a dressage lesson booked, which will give Phoenix an experience of being ridden away from home, and then I’m hoping to plan a couple more trips out. Perhaps to a local dressage competition or to a jumping clinic to test her in a group environment.

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.

Counting Circles

Now that ménages at livery yards tend to be bigger than the classic twenty by forty because it enables more riders to use the space simultaneously and there’s more scope for jumping exercises. The downside to this is that riders get used to bigger spaces and all of a sudden a twenty metre circle becomes a twenty three metre circle and then dressage scores slip due to inaccuracies.

This is particularly hard to explain to kids, but I’ve come up with a plan to help one of my boys.

I strode out a twenty metre circle so that my client could see the the 30m arena was making his circle too fat. Once he’d gotten his eye in on the size of the circle I asked him to count how many trot strides he got on the circle. He got twenty five.

I explained to my rider that he should use this number as a guide for his twenty metre circles, whether warming up at an event or in the dressage arena itself. Then he asked, and I was about to bring it up, if he should get twelve strides halfway around the circle. The answer is of course, yes. I kept it basic, we aren’t going to be adjusting the circle size by leg yielding in or out, but we used the twelve stride marker to see if one half of the circle is too small or too big. Interestingly, on the right rein all his circles had a smaller second half. So we worked on correcting this issue and continued practicing riding accurately sized circles at A, E, C and B.

We progressed this exercise into canter, and luckily for us, this pony also got twenty five canter strides on a twenty metre circle. So we perfected the circles at all points in the school. I still wasn’t that worried about how round they were, I was more interested in my rider developing his eye for the size of the circle, so that he can apply this logic to other arenas or when he’s competing.

A side effect of the counting meant that subconsciously my rider relaxed his arms. He has a tendency to pin his hands to the withers, but whilst counting he softened in his arms which meant his pony softened too and found it easier to bend and step under with the inside hind leg. Without realising, counting the improved their rhythm as well, so whilst I didn’t mention this aspect I’ll definitely be talking about counting to improve their rhythm another day, and then at a different time we can start to perfect the shape of the circle.

This counting exercise can be applied to different sized circles and also when looking at shortening and lengthening the strides, but I find it very useful for kids as it quantifies the goals and they can see a definite improvement, i.e. when they get the correct number of strides.