The End of an Era

It’s been creeping up on me for a while; I’ve caught myself thinking “I want to do that with my next horse” or “I’d like a horse good at that”.

But about a month ago I watched Otis in the field and resigned myself to the fact that he won’t come sound. Maybe he’ll be a happy hacker, but really I needed to face facts. The main thing though, is that he’s happy in his field with his buddies and I can afford to keep him there indefinitely. He’s not suffering, just a bit limpy, and otherwise in good health. I then broached the subject that next year I would like to get another horse. It’s all very well riding other people’s horses, but when you’ve experienced the bond with your own, and enjoy the satisfaction of training and competing, it’s not the same. I know I’ve lost some motivation through not having my own horse or reason to improve my ability. Yes, next year we’ll have our own two-legged project, but I like to keep busy and I know that not having my own horse will cause me to go insane. Thankfully, my lovely husband readily agreed to my light at the end of the tunnel.

I allowed myself a couple of hacks to think about what I want and need from a horse. I was quite specific.

  • A native or hardy breed, or part bred.
  • Height wasn’t really an issue; I’m lucky enough that I can ride anything between 14.2hh and 16.2hh, but I’d prefer to stay below 16hh.
  • I enjoy training a horse, so I wanted something I could take further. But not a real youngster as I wouldn’t have the time to devote to backing a baby. It would also be nice to have a horse who has already been shown the basics, perhaps five or six, that I could quite quickly start taking out to clinics or little competitions.
  • They needed to be trainable. I enjoy learning and training, so need a horse who does likewise. Whether their forte is jumping or dressage, I didn’t mind.
  • Temperament is paramount now. I want something which can have a week off yet still behave. One that I can tie up on the yard, leave to check on the baby, and not worry they will cause havoc. Likewise, in the future the horse needs to be sensible so I can juggle a child with them. I know full well that horses can be unpredictable but certain temperaments are more reliable than others.
  • I want them to be reliable. My free time will be limited and I want to know I can ride and enjoy my ride, not battle hormones or a bad mood.
  • I’d like them to be sensible to hack because when we get a pony I’m going to want to ride and lead: whether my child is riding or I’m exercising the pony.

Even as I thought of my list, I knew I was setting a rather stringent criteria and would be lucky to find anything which remotely fitted the bill.

Anyway, we weren’t looking yet so I filed my list away at the back of my brain.

Only a couple of days later I came across this advert on Facebook. Let me tell you the vital stats:

  • 6 years old.
  • Chestnut.
  • Mare.
  • Welsh Section D – more to the point, a half sister to Otis.
  • 15.2hh
  • Backed as a five year old and sold to a lady who had a friend ride her lightly – mainly hacking – from June 2016 to May 2017. Since then she’s been lunged and led out on hacks a couple of times a week.
  • Being sold because of owner’s ill health, and the fact she’s currently wasted.

On face value, most of my boxes were ticked. Just six months too early. I was really intrigued, but had an argument with myself as to whether I was being sentimental with the Otis link, or whether it was worth investigating further because of the other factors. My Mum told me that I should look, because otherwise I’d always wonder “what if” and upon seeing her she may be immediately unsuitable. I did a bit of research on the internet and social media, and actually found the original advert from April 2016, which I remembered seeing at the time and commenting “oh she looks nice”.

With the one condition that I don’t ride her (the whole six nearly seven months pregnant thing) I went with a friend to see her.

The mare was nicely put together with clean, straight limbs (although the photos below make her look splay legged!), a more traditional stamp of Welsh than my Welsh Warmblood Otis, and stood quietly while I examined her. I was told that she could be quite nervous, and when her owner bought her she was difficult to catch. I wouldn’t say she was really nervous from what I saw, but she was definitely cautious of new people. She wasn’t jumpy, just intrigued by things. I was also told that she wasn’t mareish – my first important question.

We watched her being lunged. She can be a bit fresh initially, but it was nothing compared to what I’m used to. She had a lovely movement, and after ten minutes she looked very relaxed and calm, so I asked my friend if she fancied sitting on.

This was my big question. Because if I’m not allowed to ride until the spring then if she was sensible after eight months of not being ridden then there wouldn’t be a problem in April. The owner thought the mare would be fine, and my friend is more than capable.

Starting off on the lunge, my friend had a walk and trot, went over some trotting poles. The mare hasn’t really done any jumping but poles don’t cause a problem. She looked very balanced in trot, and hasn’t done much canter work. Then we took her out around the village on her own. She was perfect with the cars and cyclists, more interested in what was going on in the driveways, and she looked very relaxed. Really, we couldn’t have asked any more of her.

Over the next week I battled with myself as to whether this mare really ticked all the boxes, if I trusted my friend’s judgement of her under saddle. Was I being sentimental because she was related to Otis, or did I believe his lovely temperament ran in the paternal side of his family? Was the price right, and worth me keeping her over the winter. Could I justify paying more livery fees when I was about to go on maternity leave? What would I do with her over the winter – would getting to know her, doing some lunging to introduce jumping and cantering keep us both occupied? She was a mare, a chestnut one no less. My last mare was a grey called Filly when I was ten! This was unknown territory.

After doing some budgeting and working out finances, I decided to go for it. I needed a basic livery yard which ultimately provided grass livery, ad lib hay in the field, and would be able to check her when I’m otherwise occupied in March. Timing is never right in life, and it did seem like it was meant to be – as far as I can tell, she meets my criteria; the price was within budget and she was local.

Yesterday, we went to pick her up. She had never travelled in a trailer, but loaded slowly but surely, and remained very calm all the journey. We turned her out into the small herd of mares, and within ten minutes she was grazing happily.

You can see the introduction here.

Today, she was very content in the field and let me catch her after sniffing me thoroughly.

I gave her a quick groom, getting to know her and checked for any injuries from her field initiation. She was alert to the surroundings, but stood fairly still. Then I put the bridle on and took her to the arena. The surface was a bit crusty with frost but I wanted a “before video” and to introduce her to the arena. She was very good – the video for your perusal is Here – and you can see that she moves very nicely, although my lunging leaves a bit to be desired. We’ll have a look at canter next week when the ground is better and she’s more settled. You’ll see in the video on the right rein, that she stops and turns in to be. Behind, just out of shot, someone had come round the corner with a saddle which she stopped to look at. Overall, she was a bit tense and lacked focus, but given the fact she’s at a new yard and with a new owner, I don’t think she did anything wrong, and if that’s going to be the extent of her behaviour at new places then I’m more than happy.

From what I can tell so far, I think we’ll be slow to build a relationship because I still feel like I’m cheating on Otis, and she is an introvert. But I also think we’ll get on well and have lots of fun together.

Oh yes, I haven’t told you her name. She came with the name Dolly, but I’ve known lots of Dolly’s, and I didn’t really feel that it suited her. After some thought, I came up with Phoenix. For her fiery colour, and for new beginnings.

After all, it is the end of an era and the beginning of another.

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An Old Exercise

When I was a kid riding in my weekly group lessons we had a couple of exercises that were performed during our warm up on an almost weekly basis. The BHS don’t encourage it, but when I think back on it I realise that they actually had a lot of benefits for us.

The first exercise was that we’d be trotting round, either rising or sitting, and the command “inside/outside foot out of your stirrup iron”. We’d have to continue exactly what we were doing but minus a stirrup. After a couple of minutes, we’d take it back and repeat with the other foot.

The benefits? Not one of us lost our balance if we ever accidentally lost a stirrup and we could get our foot back in in a nanosecond. How many riders today can do that? This means on a hack, showjumping round, cross country, we weren’t put off our stride by a loss of stirrup.

Secondly, which is the big reason I brought it up today, is that we were pretty symmetrical in the saddle as a result. If you have a leg that is particularly dominant then, even when sitting centrally you rely on that leg to help you rise and to support your body. When that foot is taken from the stirrup, suddenly it’s down to your weaker or lazy leg to support you, which makes rising harder. The rise sequence is more fragile and often not as high.

Yesterday I used this with a client who is coming back from a leg injury. We’ve done a lot in walk without stirrups ensuring she’s sat evenly on her seat bones, but now that we’re progressing to trot work we need to make sure that her weaker leg is working and building strength, otherwise we counteract her physiotherapy sessions. I’ve also done this with riders who sit crooked or have one leg that is far more dominant than the other. In walk, we checked seat bone symmetry and then removed the weaker leg from the stirrup, making sure the seat bones don’t change, and then went up into sitting and rising trot. This is fairly straightforward for most riders because they have their stronger leg stabilising them in the rise. Then we go back to walk and swap legs. This is usually the wake up call. For riders who are unaware (and therefore not really taking in my position lecture) they can see the asymmetry in their body because rising trot is almost impossible for them. For yesterday’s rider, it was more about waking her weaker leg up to the fact it couldn’t drift through life aimlessly and helping her rediscover the muscles. We did short bursts of rising trot a couple of times without her dominant leg until she felt that her weak leg was working better.

When we retook the stirrups back and did another seat bone check, my rider already felt more even, and whilst in the trot her injured leg was still erring on the lazy side, there was definitely an improvement to be seen. She could feel the muscles working harder and her rises felt more level and stronger. Hopefully by using this exercise she’ll be able to strengthen her riding muscles as symmetrically as possible.

If you rely heavily on your stirrups to rise, then going without one foot will cause you to lean your upper body one way, which makes you feel like you’re going to fall off. When the weaker leg is in the stirrup the rider tends to take their shoulders across to that side, so curving their spine. This isn’t the purpose of the exercise; the rider should feel they stay above the horse’s spine but the important part is that they can’t feel a difference between their rising ability with one foot in the stirrup rather than the other, after all the rising comes from the core and thigh muscles rather than the lower leg, but when the lower leg is in the correct position and still it supports the upper body in the rise. I can still remember the lightbulb moment I had when I was little and I managed to rise with one stirrup without feeling that I was going to slide off the side. That’s when I started using the correct muscles and became generally less reliant on stirrups.

I find that trotting without a stirrup to be the easiest way to explain to a rider that they are crooked; after all, crooked becomes the new straight after a while. As soon as a rider is aware of their asymmetry they are more likely to make a conscious effort to straighten themselves up and engage their weaker side.

We also used to do a lot of trotting, sitting and rising, without either stirrup. They’d dangle by the girths, which the BHS hates, but none of our ponies batted an eye when stirrups were lost and banged around for a moment, and the lesson progressed much more quickly by not stopping a ride of eight children to help cross and uncross their stirrups. The BHS also isn’t a fan of rising without stirrups but I find short periods of it can be really beneficial to helping riders find the correct muscles. You do need to be careful that they don’t grip with the knee, but careful observation and explanation soon overcomes this. Again, removing and replacing feet whilst trotting really helped our balance.

Give these exercises a go when you’re next warming up, and it may well be an eye opener about how much you rely on your stirrups for security and to keep you central in the saddle. Let me know how you get on!

A Clipping Challenge

I had to clip a horse this week who’s quite tricky to do. I can’t fault her in that she stands still the whole time. Though she does try to eat the clippers when I’m doing her chin and she can fidget for her face.

The problem I have with her is that she’s very sensitive to heat, and as soon as the blades start to get warm she gets heat lines across her body.

So it’s a bit of a race against time for me, to start on her neck and then do the fiddly bits around her ears before progressing to her body and trying to get as much done as possible before the blades heat up.

I’ve got Lister Legend clippers, which are professional grade and, touch wood, they work well for me, but I do find their blades tend to get hot.

With this heat sensitive horse, I use fresh blades and oil them well before I start. Oh, I also make sure the air filter is as clean as possible and brush out the head so that there’s no possible excuse of friction or poor air flow. I probably over oil the clippers, in an attempt to keep the temperature down. When they do get hot, I turn them off and leave them touching to cool concrete for a few minutes. Sometimes I take the blades apart to cool both blades quicker. Then, oiled up, I go again. Usually I manage to finish the full clip with the minimal of heat lines, and they disappear within a couple of hours. It does make it harder to see if I’ve missed any hairs, and can also make my clip look uneven, which is really embarrassing. However, the owner is aware of her mare’s sensitivity and I can always go back if I have missed anything.

It got me thinking though, is this a common problem; what are other people’s techniques to keeping blades cool; and has any research been done on the temperatures of blades whilst clipping?

My first port of call was Google, and it does seem that Lister clippers can let the blades get hotter than other manufacturers. Which is a shame, because otherwise they’re a very good set of clippers.

Suggestions of preventing blades from overheating include:

  • Using the correct oil for the blades rather than sprays, which tend to dry out the blades and increase the friction. I only use the R30 oil that Lister recommends.
  • Oil the blades frequently whilst clipping. I could do it more often, but do try to do it more frequently. It’s just easy to get carried away finishing off an area or perfecting a line.
  • Check you’ve got the correct tension on the blades. Lister recommends tightening the screw as far as possible and then unscrewing it one and a half turns. Which I do, but perhaps next time I’ll have a play around with the tension while the blades are running and see if I can hear a difference in the running of the blades.
  • Poorly sharpened blades or blunt blades can also cause overheating. I use a good, well-renowned company and blades only do a couple of full clips or half a dozen half clips, being sent away for sharpening before they even show signs of being blunt.
  • Having the correct type of blade for a horse’s coat will mean the clippers cut more effortlessly so will be less likely to get hot. I have a collection of fine and normal blades, which suit the majority of horses that I clip. The cobs, Cushings sufferers, and heavy coated horses have normal blades, and I also have some coarse blades for any manes or feathers that I have to do.

Others also leave them to cool or take them apart to expose as much metal as possible to the cooler air. I think the only real thing I could improve on is the tension. But then, as the rest of the horses I clip don’t react in the same way as the mare this week I have to presume that she is particularly sensitive to temperature.

I couldn’t find any research about the temperature of blades and different clippers whilst clipping. I guess it will only be independent researchers who do such an experiment, but if anything is done it would be interesting to see the results, and whether different makes of clippers are better and keeping the heat at bay.

Let me know if you come across any research! In the meantime, hopefully these ideas will help you keep your clipper blades cool.

Outwitting the Schoolmaster

This morning I did a riding club clinic, and as always really enjoyed it. It was great to see some new faces, and to see a few pennies drop as rider and horse had lightbulb moments.

One combination, who I’d never met before are new to each other so still finding out each other’s buttons. The horse loves jumping and is pretty experienced, but tends to lock on to fences and rush them, which doesn’t unnerve his rider particularly but makes her reluctant to take him out competing or anything.

I watched her warm up over the poles, and on the left rein the horse was far more biddable, but on the left rein he bounced and plunged around in anticipation.

There were two tactics I wanted to work on. It can be really hard with a horse who anticipates an exercise because it can get worse with repetition, yet as a rider you may need to repeat the exercise to learn.

The first thing I got this rider to do was to change how she approached the exercise. Trot or canter a circle, or several circles until the horse came round the corner and didn’t anticipate going down the grid. I got the rider to vary the number of circles, and where she asked for canter, so that the horse had to focus on what his rider wanted.

Over the poles they started to improve. One time they missed the first pole because the horse wasn’t off the aids so didn’t pick up canter on command. But the next time he was much more responsive to her aids. We also alternated which direction they approached the grid to help keep the exercise different.

We continued with this tactic of changing the approach so that the horse couldn’t anticipate too much. I also suggested that if the horse came round the corner quietly, there was no need to circle. She could also ride a shorter approach, or ride a calm trot-walk-trot transition on the circle to vary things.

We built up the grid fairly rapidly, only repeating each stage the minimal number of times, and changing the rein on each attempt.

Now, I wanted my rider to change her riding tactics. The horse is forward going towards the jumps, so his rider needs to try to limit the speed. However, if you just use the hand to check the speed it’s quite confrontational and can frustrate a forwards horse. It can also be quite harsh, like tapping the brakes in the car, which can lead to an erratic canter and potential bouncing around. With the hands pinning down on the wither the horse can feel trapped, as well as the fact it’s then harder for him to jump.

I told my rider to use her upper body to check and half half the horse rather than her hand. So in the approach, she needed to sit up and back, which actually kept the horse’s shoulder free so he didn’t feel so restricted. Then over the fences she needed to fold slightly less (after all, the jumps were small) and sit right up and back between them so that her body weight and seat acted as a brake instead of the hand. This means it’s more gradual and less confrontational. The horse almost thinks that it’s his idea to go slower through the grid. If necessary, then the rider could apply a light rein aid to help bring the canter back.

By putting these two tactics into place the grid started to flow and, still being slightly forwards it was a calmer picture and horse and rider looked in harmony.

The other piece of advice that I gave this rider was to change the shape of the jump frequently. When I changed some of the grid from crosses to uprights the horse backed off the fences slightly. So making the fences slightly bigger, adding in oxers, and fillers will help reduce the speed because the horse starts to look and think about what he is jumping.

It’s hard work for a rider to keep a clever horse thinking and preventing them anticipating, but hopefully this rider has a few tricks up her sleeve now that she can keep the horse focused on her throughout the approach and she can subtly influence his way of going without getting into an argument which will keep the canter calmer and more relaxed. Then hopefully they will enjoy jumping more and venture out cross country next spring.

Improving The Contact

I’ve been working on establishing a stable and secure rein contact with a client and her pony recently. They’re making good progress, but it’s an interesting journey.

When I first met them there was no contact. The pony was short and tight in the neck, truly behind the bridle, and spent his whole time chewing on the bit and moving his head, seeking a contact. His rider had reins that were slightly too long and hands that were a bit too mobile as she sought to find a contact.

Although the contact is the third stage of training in the German scales, I felt that in order to improve the suppleness and rhythm of the pony he needed to have some sort of contact to guide him and support his frame. So we focused on this initially.

In their first lesson I worked on shortening the rein, so my rider began to be able to feel the bit in the pony’s mouth. As she shortened the reins, we discussed them staying even in length and weight and the importance of her using her leg and seat to push (or drive, if you like) her pony towards the contact so that he reached out towards it instead of waving his head around looking for security.

I wasn’t too concerned about the position of the pony’s head initially, he tends to be behind the vertical. After all, once he is travelling forwards and seeking the bit into a more stable contact we can begin to encourage him to stretch and use his topline correctly.

I also did a bit of nagging to my rider to remind her to stabilise her hands. We discussed how the ideal contact is still and stable, and in order to teach her pony to be still to the contact she needed to provide a stable contact, a still hand, and wait for the pony to find it and learn that it is going to stay consistent.

They’ve been working really hard on this concept, and my rider is keeping her hands far stiller and her pony is having more and more moments “on the contact” so to speak.

Now that the contact is beginning to come, we moved on to looking at the rhythm and suppleness. The pony is a little bit backward thinking so we worked on transitions and getting the balance between the leg and seat encouraging forward motion, and there being a contact that isn’t restricting the forwardness yet is stable enough for the pony. I think this is where the lack of contact developed: in her focus to get her pony going forwards, my rider threw away the contact. However, I think the lack of contact knocked the confidence of the pony so he was less inclined to go off the leg, thus creating a circle.

The pony soon started going from the leg into the contact and covered the ground a bit more because his stride started to lengthen.

In terms of suppleness, we worked on the reins staying more even on turns and circles – so the inside hand doesn’t come back and the outside hand going forward – and then we were encouraging the pony to bend through his body, not just his neck. With the stability of the contact the pony will learn to use himself correctly and step under with his inside hind leg and take the weight of his body on it instead of falling out through the outside shoulder.

As the suppleness starts to improve, we began to address straightness. On the left rein, my rider is more supple and as she turns her body, her right hand shoots forward, thus losing the outside rein. Then the pony jack-knifes and drifts round the turns. Returning to the feeling of an even contact, and ensuring she provides stability in the rein for her pony to seek support from, they began to ride better left turns and stayed in balance.

The straightness will come in time, but just by supporting the outside shoulder a bit more, my rider’s steady rein contact encouraged the pony to use himself more correctly and by ensuring he works evenly on both reins his muscles will develop evenly and then the crookedness will start to dissipate.

In their latest lesson, I could see that things were coming together. The reins are a better length, the rhythm is improving and the stride lengthening with the pony thinking in a more forwards way. The two reins are beginning to look more even as the suppleness and straightness improves. Towards the end of the lesson I decided to introduce the next step.

The pony, whilst he is starting to use himself more correctly, he is still short and tight in the neck. This means that his brachiocephalic muscle is engaged, and he’s not “through” over his back. This means that energy doesn’t flow forwards from his hindquarters through his body and his abdominals and back muscles are switched off.

Encouraging the pony to stretch his neck out and down, will mean that he has to utilise his abdominals and back muscles to keep his balance. Then, he will start to lighten in his way of going and feel lighter, and feel more effortless. Once the trot felt forwards, and the contact still, I got my rider to lengthen her arms – not her reins – whilst closing the leg to push the pony towards this contact, which is slowly creeping out in front of him. A bit like a carrot on a stick! It’s important that my rider didn’t lose the contact though, so her arms had to lengthen by micro millimetres because if the pony lost the contact he would slow down and start fussing in his mouth.

It’s a very delicate balance, but one which needs introducing sooner rather than later, and only when they’ve established a steady contact in their schooling session. If the pony stops reaching for the contact then the elbows need to be bent to shorten the arms and recreate the steady contact within the pony’s comfort zone.

We had moments when the pony began to stretch his neck out, and then his frame softened and my rider could feel more movement under the saddle as well as a lighter, longer stride.

Over the next few weeks I’m aiming for the rein contact to become completely consistent, and for the rhythm, suppleness, balance, straightness to come together. Then as the pony gets stronger and more confident in his way of going we can increase the length of his neck and improve his topline more.

Money Saving Expert

After a weekend of tidying up finances – car insurances, phone bills etc – I got thinking of how you can save money, or at least make your money go further, with horses. Who we all know think that we have orchards of money trees.

Here’s a few things that I’ve come up with.

  • Buy in bulk. Last year I bought a pallet of wood pellets in September, at a cheaper price, and kept them in my garage. I took up a few bags to store at the yard every couple of weeks. If I’d ordered a couple of pallets I’d have gotten a better deal. So it’s definitely worth buying bedding and feed in bulk, perhaps share an order with a friend or two in order to qualify for any discounts.
  • Share jobs with friends. Instead of paying livery services, get a rota with friends that you turn each other’s horses out, or dish out breakfasts, which means that as well as saving some money and time, you also save petrol and time in traveling to the yard.
  • Pick the correct livery deal for your lifestyle. If you need more help than favours you can ask, it may be better to be on a part livery yard rather than a DIY yard and paying for individual services. Also, it’s worth weighing up the distance between the yard and your house. If you’re on a part livery deal and only need to travel to the yard once a day then commuting an extra mile or two, to a yard that has a lower monthly charge, may be more cost effective than staying at a yard closer to home yet more expensive.
  • Don’t get too materialistic. It’s really easy to see a new rug, or saddle cloth, and think “oh he’d look nice in that”, or “that will match his boots” … how many saddle cloths do you really need? On a day to day basis, two per saddle is sufficient that you can wash one, or let it dry, and still have one to ride with. Of course, a competition saddle cloth is needed if you compete. In terms of rugs, it’s most cost effective to go with one make of rug and have a turnout rug, with a detachable neck, and liners to increase the thickness of the rug. Two turnouts is probably sensible in case one gets ripped, or it rains heavily. But if the liners are interchangeable between the rugs then you can easily make rugs as warm as necessary without having a huge wardrobe, thus keeping costs down.
  • Plan your purchases so that you know what you need and then you can buy off season, or take advantage of any sales. Like any sales, you do need to check that you are getting a deal.
  • Join forces with friends, and book dentist, physio, saddler appointments to get any discounts, or to save on call out fees.
  • Whilst talking of call out fees, think about when you are going to call the vet. Many vets have zone days, where you can have vaccinations and routine checkups with no call out fee. Apart from the obvious emergencies, sometimes you can end up in a predicament, “do I call the vet?” Or “does this wound need antibiotics?”. At this point, it’s worth speaking to other liveries, or ringing the vet. For example, if you’ve started treating a wound, but it doesn’t seem to be healing as quickly as you’d like, then ask if anyone else is having the vet that day or the following day and if so, it’s worth speaking to the vet to see if you can combine visits. Sometimes it isn’t, because of the welfare of the horse. Likewise if you need a follow up vet visit, a week after treatment for example, then tie in with someone who’s having the vet out in six or eight days time to just save the call out fees.
  • Don’t be afraid of looking for second hand equipment. Often people purchase bits and pieces, yet they don’t fit their horse or don’t suit them. Which means you can pick up quality items at reasonable costs.
  • Work out what jobs you can do yourself, and what jobs need doing professionally. For example, can you wash your saddle cloths and boots yourself by hand and save precious pennies. Some lightweight rugs, like fly rugs or coolers, can go in your washing machine (just pick a day that the other half isn’t around!)
  • Don’t go for the cheapest farrier, or scrimp of saddler visits because it’s far cheaper to prevent a problem than to correct one. Instead, look for the perks like a good manner with your horse or a quick call out time to replace a lost shoe.
  • Shop around for insurances, just as you’d check out the tack sales to make sure you’re getting value for money.
  • Lessons can be expensive, but necessary (of course I’m going to say that!) but riding club clinics are usually good value for money, and if you have a friend who has similar riding aims to you then semi private lessons can reduce your outgoings. Buying lessons in bulk sometimes gives you a discount. Either you get a free lesson, or each lesson is slightly discounted.

So whilst horses are an expensive hobby, there are definitely ways of making your money go further whilst still providing your horse with all their needs.

10 Years of Otis

Today marks the ten year anniversary of bringing Otis home. It’s been a journey of mainly ups, but he’s given me so much. I know I’ve changed as a rider in the last ten years as a result of him, and it’s him who motivates me to learn more and further my career.

So I thought I’d treat you all to a selection of photos through the years. Apologies if there’s a photo overload!

Otis in 2007 or early 2008. A baby anyway! He was always very grown up around the yard and apart from tending to walk through you (personal space issues) his manners on the ground were very good. He used to see me coming up the field and march purposely over, bottom lip swinging. I’d catch Matt, and Otis would walk down between us, trying to get as close to me as possible. Once at the gate, I used to let him down to the yard and he’d walk straight to his stable and either go in, or wait outside, depending on whether the door was open.

As a four year old, Otis was very gangly – as you can see in the first two photos, but that winter he really filled out and matured. I was an apprentice then so got a lot of help with schooling him.

Otis had his showing debut with a friend of mine. The yard I trained at did “novice showing shows” twice a year which was really popular with the helpers and liveries. Not at all interested in it, I remember the autumn one when I first started working there. One helper had spent days if not weeks preening her ex-polo mare. And was gutted to be placed last in every class. I remember feeling so sorry for her because she’d put in so much effort, and it was only the mare’s old injuries and conformation – curb, thoroughpin etc – which let them down. So I offered Otis to her in the spring show. I can’t remember if they did the next two or three shows together, but they won or got placed in everything and she had a fab time.

Over the winter I’d done a lot of prelim and novice dressage with him, winning a photo shoot – see photo above – and we won the dressage rider of the year, so got a nice big sash, rosette and trophy. I can’t find the photo of that though.

My photos aren’t as well chronicled after age five (don’t expect any baby albums!) and it’s harder to tell how old Otis is in them, but here are some memories.

The August Otis was five we did our first one day event, getting second place. I remember being very surprised but pleased. It was our second attempt to get to one because the one before Otis had decided to scratch his ear whilst tied up and got rope burn around his hind fetlock – don’t ask … So I went on a friend’s pony, who is never ridden before!

We carried on with the novice dressage and did more jumping, which he loves.

We usually did well: being placed at dressage competitions and usually getting clear cross country, decent dressage and an unlucky showjump eventing. I did achieve my goal of being successful at elementary dressage and BE100, so I’m really proud of him for getting that far. Particular competitions that stand out were jumping clear at Hickstead, and completing the Blenheim eventers challenge for the riding club, but equally I remember a dressage judge getting out her car to tell me how much she liked Otis. The little comments and compliments, as well as his endless patience waiting on the trailer made competing really enjoyable.

The less said about sponsored rides the better. The more he did and the older he got, the more he would prance around, waving his hind feet ten foot in the air. I’m sure my friend will always remember our ride around Highclere, where Otis did airs above the ground for two hours. He sat back on his hindquarters, lifted the front in a levade, jumped forward, and kicked out his hind legs. The Spanish Riding School would’ve been impressed. I wasn’t quite so impressed when he did it going downhill! Needless to say, he loved hacking on his own or with a couple of others. So long as he was at the front!

On the ground, I don’t think Otis could’ve been anymore perfect. He’s incredibly patient, loves attention, fab to shoe, clip, vet, dentist, everyone, and is great in company. Although he will look slightly miffed if he hears me teaching and not working him! I think one of the best things about him is that he just goes with the flow, and doesn’t get wound up about coming in early or late, or having a field friend or not. So long as he has the odd polo and plenty of cuddles, he’s happy!

Ten years has flown by, and whilst the last eighteen months hasn’t been what I wanted, I value every lesson he’s taught me and have enjoyed every second of our journey together. I might not ride him again, who knows, but he’s given me so much and now he can enjoy time with his field buddies, listening to the baby (maybe he’ll understand when he sees her), crunching endless apples, and being there when I need him to let me escape from the world. Happy ten years Otis Motis!

Shallow Loop Grids

A friend in the riding club told me about this exercise and I have unashamedly borrowed it a few times this week, and really like it for a number of reasons.

I’ve had to adapt the exercise to fit within the confines of the arenas I’ve been using, but the original exercise is a grid of five jumps set out in a straight line, with two canter strides between each fence. Cross poles will ensure a combination don’t cheat and jump fences off centre, as well as helping guide their eye.

Once you’re warmed up over the fences in a straight line the idea of the exercise is to jump alternate fences with a shallow loop in between.

The first time I used this exercise I had three fences along the centre line. Once the straight grid was flowing nicely my rider came off the right rein and jumped number one, before bearing round to the right to shallow loop around fence two and jumping fence three. Turn right on landing and canter across the diagonal, jumping fence two the opposite way at an angle to change the canter lead and rein. Then we rode the same exercise from the left rein with a left shallow loop. This exercise followed on nicely from last week’s work on asking for a change of canter lead over fences, and being aware of the lead between fences.

This mare is not the most supple of horses, and whilst she can do canter shallow loops on the flat, when jumping she quite often changes her canter lead in front just before a fence if asked for fractional counter canter. Going disunited so close to a fence means that she’s not in the best balance and is more at risk of jumping awkwardly or having a pole down.

When they rode the shallow loops the mare changed in front and the canter deteriorated. I got my rider to focus on keeping position right (for right shallow loops, left for left loops) and sit up and balance the canter between the fences, making sure she wasn’t bringing the inside (of the horse’s bend, outside on the shallow loop) leg back as they angled back towards fence three.

There of course, my rider had to be clear with her aids that she wanted a change over the fence across the diagonal.

It took a few attempts to bring the exercise together, but once they got the idea the canter stayed much more balanced and then the actual jumps improved. The mare’s suppleness improved hugely. The mare had to really listen to her rider, who had to think about how she positioned herself over fences. My rider began to see how being able to ride counter canter for gentle turns on a course, or when she didn’t have time to change her lead through trot would give her a smoother ride, save some precious seconds in a jump off, and hopefully leave all the fences up.

The next time I used this exercise I managed to fit four fences in the school, and the exercise ran like this: from right rein jump fence one, shallow loop to the right, jump fence three, go to the left of fence four and turn back on yourself, jump fence four the opposite way, shallow loop to the right to jump fence two the opposite way. This course needed to be ridden from both reins in order to have left and right shallow loops.

These riders were a dressage diva, and I wanted her to focus on smoothly cantering between the fences and not micro-managing. When she micro-manages her horse gets tense and short in the canter, so I like her to focus on her lines and staying soft in the hand. Obviously her horse is very able to perform flying changes, but I challenged her to maintain the canter lead he was on upon landing after a fence. This meant that sometimes he needed counter canter and sometimes he didn’t depending on whether he changed over the fence. I didn’t want my rider to think too much about being perfect on the shallow loops, but rather get her to go with the flow and not upset her horse’s balance. By the end she wasn’t overriding and had much better shaped jumps because the canter was working canter, not collected, and more relaxed.

For her younger brother, who’s the jumper of the family, I wanted him to ride smoother turns between fences. He has a tendency to grab the inside rein and so unbalance his pony and get a jack knife turn. Interestingly, every time this rider used his inside rein, the canter got long and flat and the pony change lead in front. I didn’t want to complicate the actual jump by getting this young rider to ask for a particular lead over the fence, but rather to ride his lines accurately and keep the canter balanced by sitting up and using his outside aids to turn. As soon as he didn’t use his inside hand his shallow loops flowed really nicely and he met the jumps in a better place. He could feel the smoothness is the exercise then.

This exercise is really useful at teaching a rider to think and plan ahead; to ride accurate lines and smooth turns. For the horse is it brilliant at suppling them, making sure their listening to the rider and don’t lock on to the grid. There’s not enough time to change canter leads so it’s about riding what you have in that moment of time and keeping the horse balanced so they have the best possible chance of jumping well. It also helps with riding lines and quick turns for jump offs.

Definitely an exercise to remember as it’s a bit of fun, can be broken down to different levels to accommodate a variety of horse and rider abilities and has huge benefits for course jumping.

Riding Subtly

I taught a gridwork clinic over the weekend and had a nice variety of horses and riders to challenge me.

I felt I made the biggest improvement with one young horse. I’ve seen him a few times over the last year and whilst his dressage has come along nicely, he took a while to be persuaded to jump. Some days, he would be fine, but if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction he wouldn’t even go over a pole.

So his owner has been focusing purely on getting him to jump consistently, using grids and courses and going to different venues. So she’s been riding quietly and positively, and in this clinic he took everything in his stride, not backing off the poles or fences at all.

Watching them through the grid (jump, 1 stride, jump, 2 strides) a couple of times I felt that he was looking confident, but getting a bit long in the canter so the distances became a bit short for him. I also thought that his bascule was akin to a steeplechaser, and in order to increase the height of the fences we needed to improve his technique.

However, being the sensitive soul that he is, you couldn’t just collect the canter up and hold him together more because he might take that as negative riding and throw in the towel. Neither could you give him A-frames or make changes to the jump to get him to back off and alter his bascule so that he jumps up a bit steeper and uses his hindquarters better.

I suggested to my rider that we started to discreetly affect her horse’s way of going through the grid. We don’t want to make a huge change and put him off his stride, so without taking a half halt or using the rein in any way that may be interpreted by the horse as a negative aid, I told my rider to fold less over the fences and to make sure she really sat up and back between the jumps. So we were hinting to the horse about how he should jump, without telling him and getting into an argument, and then he would believe that this new technique was his idea all along and do it happily – really, it’s the same way as getting husbands to do anything!

The jumps were well within his comfort zone, cross poles at about 75cm, and being fairly small she didn’t feel she really needed to fold over the fences. The first time they tried it there wasn’t much difference, but I could see her horse working out how best to balance himself with her sat in a slightly different position. He still jumped fairly fast, and long over the fences so I sent them again.

This time, his bascule changed. Over the fences he lifted his shoulder more which enabled him to take off at a steeper angle. He also got two nice canter strides between jumps two and three, with the distance looking perfect. His rider could feel the impact her riding had had, so we continued developing the grid with this in mind.

They finished jumping the grid of an 80cm cross pole, 80cm upright and then 80cm square oxer. They looked to be spending more time through the grid, so it was less hurried, and he met each fence at the ideal take off point with the distances looking perfect. His bascule over the oxer was particularly altered, with his forelegs tucking up to his tummy nicely and his back and shoulders rounding nicely to look like a clean, scopey technique.

Hopefully by subtly making improvements in this way, he’ll continue to develop his confidence jumping and will get stronger and more able to clear bigger fences. I just wish I’d taken some before and after videos for comparison.

Filling the Gaps

Do you ever watch someone doing an activity and think “oh if they just did this and that it would be finished quicker/look better/be so much easier”. Apparently this is something that happens on a daily basis with children learning to tie shoelaces, get dressed, eat dinner etc so I’ve got this to look forwards to.

I try to step back and bite my tongue until I’m asked for help or advice. Over the last few months I’ve seen a girl and pony riding regularly while I’ve been working. And it was one of those situations where I knew exactly what I would teach them, and what exercises I’d use if they were to have a lesson with me. It wasn’t so much that it was going wrong for the pair of them, I just knew how to make them better. Now, you can’t (well, I can’t) just walk up to someone and demand they have lessons with you just to satisfy your yearning to impart knowledge. I didn’t stand and stare while they rode – that’s rude – but inquired to how they were getting on and showed an interest in their progress. So making myself approachable if she wanted lessons or advice but without being overbearing.

Then, to my delight, she mentioned having some lessons and we got talking about their jumping. I think I mentioned one thing I’d work on with them, and she booked a lesson. Now of course the pressure is on to deliver!

They had their first lesson last week and from my observations I felt that the pony was a bit behind the leg, didn’t have a steady contact to work into, and because he was then thinking backwards all the time he had the tendency to chip in at fences. The basics and his way of going were there, just bad habits were hiding them.

On the flat, I asked my rider to shorten her reins significantly so she could feel his mouth lightly, and to feel like her seat and legs were driving her pony into the contact, and then feel that he was taking her hand forwards as he moved. As soon as the contact was offered, he took it, stretching his neck out a bit and lengthening his stride. Immediately he started using his hindquarters and using his back. Most of our flatwork in this session was focused on establishing the contact. When the pony was taking the contact forwards, my riders hands stayed still, but when the reins were slack she was fussing to find the connection while her pony also fumbled for it.

We worked on feeling that the trot and canter were bigger striding, and had more energy. She needed to use her aids more effectively and the pony needed to react to them. However, now he had the security of the hand he was far happier going more forwards. I also did a check of her outside aids on circles to help the pony stay straight and balanced. As soon as the outside rein supported his shoulder he maintained the impulsion better. Which will pay off when riding a course if fences.

I didn’t want to overload them, and make too many tweaks that they wouldn’t remember or be able to practice them, so we applied the new flatwork to jumping a simple grid.

14.2hh ponies can be tricky to stride out distances for: if they’re a bit stuffy or backwards thinking they tend to need a pony stride count, whereas if they are more excitable or scopey then they prefer the horse stride. As I’ve said earlier, this pony tended to chip in, so I built the distance short, for a pony, and decided that as his confidence and strength improved I could lengthen the distances to him. I didn’t want him to feel that he couldn’t make the distance and so encourage him to chip in. I also put out a placing pole to get him to the correct take off point at the first fence.

We worked on the turn and approach, feeling that the pony was really taking his rider towards the grid, and that she wasn’t dropping the contact nor letting him hide behind it. I told her to feel that she had 80% of her pony in front of her at all times. This brought her shoulders back and made her use her seat and legs to improve the canter. With the placing pole, they were soon flying through the grid of about 75cm. The height was enough for him to focus on the fences, but not to make life too hard for him. After all, I wanted to build his confidence at taking off a bit earlier and to build his strength so it’s best to keep the heights within his comfort zone. The grid was also training my rider’s eye so that she rode for the better stride, rather than expecting the chip in at the last minute. A couple of times the pony took off correctly but my rider expected him to put in another stride, so it was a learning curve for her as much as him. When I took the placing pole away they found it harder to meet the first fence correctly, but what I liked was that the pony was now meeting the subsequent fences perfectly, almost making the distance look short.

I left my rider with the correct feeling of the length of stride, and contact so she could practice and improve their consistency.

In their next lesson, the flatwork started off far better than the start of the first lesson, and we used transitions to start getting the pony off the leg, and kept focusing on keeping the contact consistent, so that the transitions became more balanced and the gaits more forward thinking.

We talked about generating the impulsion in the trot and canter. When my rider rode an upwards transition I got her to think of riding into the medium gait, and once she had this speed and energy, she could half halt and balance the gait back to a working gait so that she had impulsion, i.e. energy without the speed.

This time I built a grid of three bounces and then an oxer one stride afterwards. The aim is to build the pony’s hindquarters and to get them both riding forwards towards the fences. They met the first fence much more consistently and negotiated the bounces perfectly each time. I half expected the pony to try to fit a stride in, but I think the flatwork was paying off. They jumped the oxer nicely too, making a better shape over the fence too.

We’ll continue working on their flatwork, developing their balance on circles as well as direct transitions which will help their turns on courses, as well as improving his hindleg strength and getting the pony more responsive to the leg aids, so that when he backs off a fence his rider can get them out of trouble. Then we’ll move on from jumping grids to putting courses together.