The World Equestrian Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back To Work

September marked my return to work. It’s been six months, and although not a holiday as such, I do feel that I’ve had a good break and am refreshed.

Inevitably, I think you get stale in any job. Tired, and there’s an element of repetition. I have far more variation to my job, by teaching and riding a huge range of horses and riders, but despite this there are various common themes which you can end up repeating – we all know the stereotype instructor instructions! In fact, many people have placed bets on Mallory’s first words being one of my teaching phrases.

Anyway, during the long break I’ve only dabbled with the odd lesson – e.g. Pony Club, and Mum/Matt – to keep my eye in. As well as obviously training Phoenix and having the odd lesson myself as I totally believe that you never stop learning. Which is why we strive to find a random fact to share around the dinner table each evening. Mine today is that the collective noun for a group of bats is a cauldron.

I was surprised though, when planning my return to work how being away from the job had left me doubtful of my own abilities, and lacking in confidence. After all, my clients had survived six months without me … did they need me back? What if they’d moved on to a different coach? Would I be able to build my business back up again?

I then realised that I’m rather attached to the riders and horses I worked with. I almost harped back to twelve months ago. I think it’s because my favourite part of my job is seeing a horse-rider relationship develop, educating them both, and having that mentor relationship with my client. Being involved with planning their goals, helping them achieve them, and bursting with pride when the excitedly tell me what hurdle they’ve overcome as a result of my teaching, or when the penny drops in a lesson and they “get it”.

Despite this, I have felt like I’ve picked up the literal reins where I left off. I taught a lesson yesterday with a client I hadn’t seen since February and we picked up exactly where we’d left off. She’s been working hard and they’d continued to improve on the themes we’d been working on, but needed a couple of reminders and, most importantly, I felt like I’d slipped back into that favourite pair of shoes.

It’s been slow starting things off again and my diary looked strangely empty. But I want to steadily increase my workload and childminding hours so I find the right work-life-baby balance which works for us.

Now I’ve had my first few days, a bit like those going to new schools or colleges, I’m back in the rhythm of things and I need to remember that I have good qualifications, am experienced, and enjoy and thrive off my job, so will get busier in the next few weeks. New clients will come along, and the good ones will come back!

Creating The All Rounder

When you produce a horse for a leisure rider, an amateur as opposed to a professional, you want to ensure they are a jack of all trades (hopefully mastering one trade!) and have a wide range of experiences. Some may be obvious and occur every day, but others you might need to specifically aim to achieve.

How many of these things can your horse do?

Here’s a little list I put together. Of course it’s not complete, but they are the main points I would expect a leisure horse to be experienced in.

  • Be led from the ground with another horse. It sounds silly, but if you only catch one at a time, they may never experience this.
  • Be led from both the right and left sides. When walking along the road you should walk between the horse and the traffic, therefore for safety’s sake they should be confident being led from the off side.
  • Load well and travel with or without company. Ideally, you’d introduce a horse to a trailer, a small lorry, and a large lorry, using both rear and side loading, but this isn’t always viable.
  • Hack alone and in company. Go lead file, or backstop. Leave the company sensibly and return just as sensibly.
  • Open gates. It’s so easy to mount and dismount in the arena that we fall out of practice opening and closing gates, but equally it’s a simple task to add into your daily routine which is of paramount importance out hacking.
  • Stand still to mount from either side, to mount from the floor, to have a leg up. Oh and to stand still while you climb up a fence and clamber on at the edge of a canter field. With our awareness of the damage done to horse’s backs by mounting from the ground even the lithest of riders can’t do it. Yes, using a block is best but it’s good to have a fall back in case you have to dismount in the middle of a bowling green.
  • Pass all manner of traffic calmly; cars, vans, lorries, motorbikes, cyclists, tractors, diggers. A lot of horses have a phobia of one type of traffic, usually due to a bad experience, but it’s good to work towards desensitising them if possible.
  • Be ridden bareback. Perhaps you don’t intend on entering the bareback puissance, but you may have booked a photo shoot and photographers like to get you on board! That was why, to Phoenix’s surprise, she found herself being ridden saddleless on the weekend.
  • Be ridden in groups. For example, a group lesson or clinic, or worked in in a busy warm up arena.
  • Be led from a ridden horse, or lead a horse whilst being ridden. This is useful in an emergency, but you don’t want to learn how to do it then! Otis was very good at ride and lead, and hopefully Phoenix is for when I have a little pony to escort. I’m yet to test her out though.
  • Experience mirrors in an arena.
  • Stand with you, and be led round the arena while you poo pick, adjust jumps or pole distances without spooking, shying, or planting themselves right where you’re going to walk to measure the distance.
  • Experience a gymkhana. You don’t have to get competitive, but being able to lean down to pick things up or put them down can be useful. We have a cavalry team practice at the yard on a monthly basis, which we’re always invited to join in. The loud shouting, gung ho riding is too much for my instructor mind though!
  • Stand still while you go Round The World, or execute half or full scissors. Let you lie back onto their rump. Otis was very tolerant of this because when I was backing him I used to join in the “baby” lessons (in order to tick the riding in a group box) and being the big kid that I am, I used to get involved with these end of lesson exercises.
  • Behave for their various treatments: teeth, feet, massages, saddle fits, vaccinations, worming and clipping.
  • Let you put jackets on or take them off whilst on board.

Then of course there are some quirky ones, which remind you how very tolerant and kind natured your horse is.

  • Lead from a bike. One of my clients cycles and leads her daughter’s pony to exercise it.
  • Lead from a car. Not recommended. I did it a couple of weeks ago when I was very late and the field was at the end of the drive. You need good clutch control and a very well behaved horse!
  • Push a pushchair or wheelbarrow whilst leading. No one wants to take two trips to the field, so combine taking hay down or bringing poo back with catching and turning out. Pushing with a pushchair is an obvious necessity of mine.
  • Let your unhorsey other half catch/lead/rug up/anything else that you trust them to do, with the patience of a saint. Yes, we’ve all seen those memes on social media of rugs on inside out, and headcollars on upside down!
  • Visit your house, graze the back lawn, and not poo right by said unhorsey other half’s car driver’s door, or trample through their immaculate flowerbeds.
  • Let strangers and non horsey fans (usually friends and relatives) swarm over them, patting, shrieking, and generally acting in a non horsey manner, without snorting like a fire breathing dragon at them!
  • Permit you to buy and eat an ice cream from an ice cream van on their backs.
  • Worn fancy dress. As kids we used to have fancy dress competitions, but as adults our horses sometimes take us to weddings or proms.
  • Allow you and a friend to swap horses without dismounting.
  • Stand patiently whilst a small person sits on their back, tugs their mane, strokes their cheek, sticks fingers up their nostrils, and generally oversteps the personal space mark.

Over to you; what’s the weirdest or most unusual thing your horse has experienced? Or perhaps what is the oddest thing that they put up with? I want to see pictures too!

Two Years

It’s been two years since the vet told me Otis would never jump again, and a year since I stopped fighting and admitted his retirement. I’ve stopped choking up about it now, and am just glad to see him a few times a week in the field; happy, healthy (except for the dodgy foot), and enjoying equine company. Things happen for a reason, and if my riding time was cut short with Otis, it was so that I got to meet Phoenix.

I saw her advertised as a five year old two and a half years ago. If I’d had the gift of foresight perhaps I’d have bought her then. But I wouldn’t have been able to devote as much time to either her or Otis, nor had my time with Matt and won the dressage championships. Things happen for a reason, but I’m very happy with how well Phoenix is fitting in with my lifestyle and how she is everything I wanted from my next horse but highly doubted I’d find.

After almost a week off over the bank holiday weekend, she was foot perfect in the arena, producing some of her best trot work. I can feel the improvements in her every day and she tries so hard to please. The following evening she and I went for a lovely peaceful hack on our own, and it began to feel like hacking Otis. At one. Except for the levades before a canter. You don’t need to learn that Phoenix!

Then yesterday we boxed up for some showjumping practice. She didn’t even hesitate as we walked up the trailer ramp, and travelled perfectly. Once there, she was a total pleasure to unload and tack up, then waited patiently while the baby had her food.

Last time, Phoenix had been very wary of the water tray and I hadn’t made an issue of it, so this time I led her over it a few times before mounting and walking over it. Once I’d ridden over it twice, she understood. She cantered over it as part of the course, and maintained this confidence when I made it into a jump.

With the other fences, I build an array of sizes and for the first time placed fillers under some jumps. After a couple of warm up fences I took her round akin to a competition. She felt confident and calm; was very rideable around turns and followed my lines. She had a couple down but that was due to babyness – her canter isn’t that established so she can’t adjust it to reach the fence perfectly, and then needs some practice in getting herself out of trouble.

The double took a couple of tries to perfect. I needed to adapt my riding as I kept forgetting I didn’t have the power in the canter. She needed to travel more than I initially thought. But she tried, and put in a long jump over the second element until I got my act together.

I wanted a horse who was well behaved to take out, and she definitely is. She’s patient with the baby; waits quietly on the yard if I have to go and feed or change her. Doesn’t spook at the pushchair, and ignores the crying. To handle, she’s perfect; I’d happily let a child groom or lead her. With assistance of course! And most of all, I feel like I have a relationship with her. She trusts me, and I know exactly what makes her tick, and how to instil confidence in me.

I just feel very lucky that I’ve had ten years of education with Otis, and learnt so much from him, whilst enjoying every minute, and now I can take my knowledge and impart it to such a worthy successor.

Kids and Grids

As we know, I love gridwork. I do find it’s not introduced to children early enough in their jumping education though. Obviously you can’t or don’t need to build a long, complicated, all singing and dancing grid for those learning to jump, but a simple grid can help develop a child’s feel for a good jump, build their confidence, and develop their feel for their jumping position.

I find that children have less understanding of and ability to ride the different types of canter, and creating and maintaining a quality canter on the approach to fences, so a grid in this situation has to be built bespoke to the pony and adjusted through the lesson.

I start with three canter poles, with one pony stride between. The pony I did this with last week has quite a short striding canter, and stays very steady over poles, so I laid the poles out five of my strides apart. That’s about fifteen foot. They cantered easily through the poles, with my little jockey focusing on keeping straight and keeping the canter going through the poles.

Then I made the first fence into a little cross, and rolled out the following two poles so they were sixteen foot apart because the act of popping over the little cross pole opens up the pony’s canter and he needed more space between the poles.

Once they were confident and consistent through this setup, I rolled the second pole out slightly more and then made it into another jump. Then I corrected the third pole so it was still sixteen foot away from the second fence. Each time the pair went through the grid I checked the pony’s take off and landing points to see if he needed the distances lengthening. I didn’t want my rider to have to try to adjust the canter, I wanted the pony to easily negotiate the grid and make a good shape over the jumps to improve my rider’s feel.

I put the third jump up so we had three crosses, about seventeen foot apart, and then spent some time working on my rider’s position. It took a couple of attempts for her to find the rhythm of folding and sitting up quick enough for the series of jumps, and then we checked she was giving with her hands and not restricting his neck over jumps. Even if the first jump was taken a bit long or short, my rider soon began to see their take off point and stayed much more balanced throughout. So the grid was helping improve her balance, eye for a stride, and confidence over the fences. Prior to riding this grid, she’d got left behind over bigger jumps and hadn’t always looked in sync with her pony.

One at a time I turned the second and third jump into uprights, and raised the cross slightly. As each fence got bigger, from 45cm to 60cm, I tweaked the distances so that the pony met every jump well out of his canter, and my rider didn’t have to change the canter.

This little rider worries with upright and spread fences, so I used the grid to introduce these fence shapes. With the third fence moved out slightly further, I made an inviting spread with a cross at the front and a back rail. The grid ensured she met the jump well, and I hoped that having a good experience over an oxer would increase her confidence.

The pair finished with the grid below; the back rail of the oxer was 60cm. Easily the biggest she’s ever jumped, and she stayed balanced during the bigger bascule. They got a little close to the first jump, which meant they were a little close to the second too. I could have the distances slightly wider, but I didn’t want them to take a long one over the first fence and then either chip in for the second fence or take a very long jump. When we next do a grid I aim to get them jumping closer to 70cm, so the distances will be closer to the textbook 21 feet. However, I will let the pony dictate the distances as my little rider is less able to adjust the canter if things don’t go to plan.

Grids for beginners, even if they’re barely more than poles on the floor, are understated. So long as the instructor adapts the distances so the horse or pony can jump them out of their comfortable canter, it’s a great opportunity for a rider to develop their jumping position, balance and feel.

Linking Lunging to Ridden Work

Mum and Matt had boot camp again this weekend, and we spent some time improving Mum’s ability to relate lunging Matt to schooling him. I find it’s a common problem for horse owners. They have their ridden aims, but their lunge sessions rarely compliment them.

Let me explain.

Mum has been working on Matt’s trot; getting him to be more active behind, engaging his hindquarters and lightening his forehand, then maintaining self-carriage.

Mainly, we were working on her half halts to rebalance Matt. So when he drops on the forehand she half halts with the seat and outside rein whilst almost simultaneously closing the leg and driving him forwards.

We also worked on the concept of riding Matt from leg to hand. That means preparing Matt with a teeny half halt before using the leg and seat to send him forwards from the hindquarters up into her hand then to allow him forwards as he goes into the contact.

Matt is lazy and can drop behind the bridle very easily as he switches off, so it’s important for Mum to send him forwards into the contact. Yet as with many lazy horses, it’s easy to drop the contact so that there’s no hint of a brake on. Again, as with many lazy horses, Matt actually works more actively when he has the security of a light contact to give him confidence. So we spent a lot of time working on the concept of riding Matt between leg and hand, and riding him from behind, whilst keeping a steady contact.

After two sessions they were improving; Mum was straighter in her position and keeping more of a symmetrical, consistent contact; getting a more active trot by riding Matt from leg to hand in the transitions, and could feel Matt was less on the forehand, more engaged, and in self carriage, working over his back.

Mum lunges Matt frequently, but after saying last time I was in Wales that Matt “never goes like that” when she lunges him, I thought she needed a revision session to help.

Of course, Mum knows how to hold all the equipment and can lunge to exercise Matt, but now we need to move on to lunging to improve Matt.

Firstly, I explained how the lunge line is the lunge equivalent of the rein contact. You can half halt through it, monitor the tempo, and improve the balance of the horse.

The voice and lunge whip are the leg aid replacements when lunging. So by considering these aids in relation to ridden work, Mum managed to get Matt to work from behind and then go forwards into the contact by keeping the lunge line a bit tighter and utilising half halts before sending Matt forwards from the whip and voice, which meant that he effectively lunged from leg to hand. This meant that the Pessoa was helping to improve Matt. Unless a horse steps forward from behind and goes into the contact then the Pessoa is useless and they just work in a hollow fashion. Once Matt became more active with his hindquarters he lifted his withers and stretched over his back. Then by half halting and driving him forwards she could stop him dropping onto the forehand, and keep the trot consistent and in balance.

Once Mum had established the trot so that it was as good as her ridden trot work, we looked at improving it further. In the same way that she would when riding. I laid out some trotting poles and Mum sent Matt over them, focusing on keeping him straight, maintaining momentum, and him staying round and not hollowing over the poles. As when you ride, the poles improve the length of stride, cadence and engagement of the horse. When Mum’s more practiced lunging over poles and Matt is stronger she can lengthen the distance between the poles and raise them to further Matt’s suppleness and balance.

Using transitions on the lunge, between the gaits and within the gait, so long as Mum has a contact with the lunge line, will ensure Matt pushes from behind more, as well as helping improve his balance so he’s working over his top line and improves in consistency. I think it will also help improve her eye as she can see what a good trot looks like and equate that to what she feels in the saddle.

Matt tends to fall in on the right rein, and when she’s riding Mum has the naughty habit of pulling him out with the left (outside) rein. I nagged her about using the right leg to push him out rather than using her left hand. He does the same on the lunge, so I got Mum to push Matt back out on the lunge by waving the lunge whip at his shoulder. After doing this a couple of times, I noticed on the lunge that Matt was straighter on the right rein and maintaining the correct bend. Hopefully Mum will feel this reflected in her ridden work and she’ll find it easier to keep him straight on the right rein and will be less likely to resort to her bad habits.

By considering her ridden aims when lunging Matt, Mum should find that she can use her work with the Pessoa and on the ground to improve his way of going which will help Matt develop his topline and become consistent in both his work ethic and way of going.

The Best Fly Mask

Earlier this week one of Phoenix’s field friend’s owner asked me about her fly mask as she was very impressed with its stay-on-ability.

I bought both Otis and Phoenix the same mask in the spring, and I have to admit I have been pleased with my purchases.

It’s made by Shires, so is reasonably priced and good quality. The masks have light net ears, which both horses need. Otis has previously has a horrible ear abscess, and Phoenix was irritated by the little black flies in the spring so I like them both to have their ears protected. The masks also have nose nets. Not so important for Otis, but Phoenix has definitely benefited from having a UV net protecting her white muzzle from the strong summer sun. Shires also offer variations of the fly mask without ear covers or nose nets.

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The masks have shaped netting over the forehead and eyes, so it stays away from their eyes, which I think helps keep their eyes healthy and stops them getting gunky and sore. It definitely looks more comfortable than the flimsy fly masks. The only potential issue with this design is that if a fly or ten get under the mask they can cause havoc and really distress the horse. Which is why the edge needs to fit snugly around the poll, throatlash and jaw.

The best thing about the fly masks, however, is how well they stay on. At the risk of tempting fate, Otis has only lost his when he ripped the side. It’s elasticated around the poll and has two strong Velcro straps which for once are the correct length so that the mask sits snugly whilst the straps don’t overshoot the Velcro pad thus providing field mates with a fun handle to pull.

The downside to these masks, as with any, is that you have to keep a close eye that they don’t rub. With all masks I find the tips of Otis’s ears get sore unless I turn the ears inside out, remove the loose hair and scurf that’s built up in the tips, and also cut off any excess material. This one’s no different. I think it’s because his ears are so long! Because they’re snug fitting and have elastic around the poll you have to keep an eye out for rubs developing here too. Phoenix is currently having a break from her mask as she’s got a bit of a rub on her poll which I’d like to settle down before it causes any problems. Plus having a few overcast days is providing some relief from the endless smothering of sun cream I’ve been doing to her. But daily checking, readjusting the masks, and giving them time without them makes these negative points manageable, and the pros of the mask fitting and staying on without slipping far outweighs the cons.

To testify how popular these masks seem to be this year, when I looked at ordering a mask for Phoenix’s field friend, I was surprised to find that there’s only a handful available online and definitely none available if you need a cob size!

Falling In or Falling Out

After a few days in Wales giving Matt and Mum boot camp, and introducing him to his new jockey, I’ve plenty of blog material.

Let’s start with my Mum’s favourite phrase of the week – “is he falling in?”

Firstly, what can you see if a horse is “falling in”? When lunging, which is probably the easiest way to see, the circle gets smaller, ends up with a straight side, and the lunge line is slack. When riding you’ll find they cut corners, of drift onto the inner track. It’s a common problem with ponies who are being a bit cheeky and lazy, and taking the short cut.

What do you feel when a horse “falls in”? I always feel that it’s like driving a car with a flat tyre: the horse is loading their inside shoulder and may well go stiff and tense on the inside of their neck. With a horse who falls in you constantly feel like you are riding a motorbike.

Why does a horse “fall in”? It’s usually lack of suppleness and balance, so instead of curving through their whole body on a turn and staying balanced, they don’t flex through their barrel and so lose their balance on turns.

How do you correct a horse who “falls in”? Take them back to basics. A lot of novices pull the outside rein, causing the horse to turn their head to the outside but still continue to lean on the inside shoulder. Masking the symptoms but not solving the problem. The problem is usually a lack of straightness and a lack of suppleness.

I take it back to basics: check the saddle is straight, check the rider is sitting centrally. Using the long side, I get them to focus on being straight, and then we check that they aren’t using too much inside rein on the turns which will encourage the horse to fall in. After correcting their turning aids, I get the rider to apply their inside leg through turns to give the horse a pillar to bend around. Sometimes a rider over rides a turn, which causes a horse to turn too sharply and lose their balance, so I check that the correct amount of aids is being applied.

By now, we can see if the rider was encouraging the horse to fall in, or if it’s a stiffness or crookedness issue in the horse. So I turn my attention to improving the horse’s way of going. Activating the inside hind leg and getting the horse to unload the inside shoulder, can be done with some leg yielding. Either spiralling out on a circle, or leg yielding from the three quarter line to the track. Once the horse feels more even, and less like they’ve got a flat tyre, it’s back to normal suppling school movements to improve their flexibility and balance.

If a horse and/or rider is crooked and has a tendency to fall in on one rein then odds are they will fall out on the other rein. Falling out is most noticeable on the lunge, when you feel the lunge line being pulled through your hands as you’re pulled off your pivot point. When you’re riding in the school, falling out can be disguised with a fence line, which acts as a support for the horse and is a damage limitation tool.

A horse who falls out, drifts through their outside shoulder, tending to take any turns a little wide. Sometimes you feel like you aren’t going to make it round the turn, or that they’re like steering a canal boat.

Again, I start by straightening up the rider and increasing their awareness of straightness and ensuring they’re using the correct aids. Then, we begin to improve the horse. Initially it’s about gaining control of the outside shoulder, so shoulder in is very useful, as is a little bit of leg yield from the track to the three quarter line. Once the horse is bringing their outside shoulder around the turns and responding to the outside leg aid, they just need their overall suppleness improving through circles and serpentines.

Let’s take Matt as our prime example. When I sat on him on Sunday I could feel that he was loading his left shoulder; falling in on the left rein and falling out on the right rein. Mum is booking physio for him now that he’s doing more schooling, and to be honest it was a minor asymmetry between the two reins. On the left rein, I did some leg yielding to the right, just a couple of strides in circles, straight lines, etc. And then on the right rein I rode some shoulder fore on straight lines and circles. Then he got his act together, realised I meant business and started carrying himself more. Because each hind leg was then stepping under more actively he could propel himself forwards more efficiently, and his abdominals had to lift, so his topline engaged and he put himself in an outline.

I’ve given Mum homework of some groundwork exercises which will help get his hindlegs stepping under in the turns, and she can do some leg yielding with him to help. Once she’s cracked the straightness element … which I’m afraid to say, is in Part 2!

Phoenix’s First Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hacking To Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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