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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.

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!

Jump Jockeys

I had a fun lesson yesterday with two kids. Obviously being after school it’s dark when they ride, so my repertoire of jump exercises is being tested as I find ones which make them and the ponies think whilst not being too big, and ones which aren’t too spacious so doesn’t use the darker side of the school.

Last week I decided that I wanted to get the jumps flowing for my riders. One has a speedy pony so where he was over folding, and now is using his shoulders and upper body as brakes is now getting left behind, so it’s a fine balance that we need to rediscover; the other tries to micromanage and pins her horse down with her hands so restricts his jumping and then it doesn’t flow or look harmonious.

The obvious choice of exercise was without hands. Thankfully, we had the arena to ourselves so I didn’t need to worry about the increased speed by the end of the exercise as they had plenty of time and space to gather reins back and circle to bring the ponies back under control.

Once they’d popped through the grid of three cross poles on both reins I told them to knot their reins.

“Oh no!”

“No way!”

“He’s going to go so fast!”

“I don’t like not having control” (this came from the dressage dive, who I keep telling to think of being a little messy when she rides because then her pony relaxes and she gets better jumps)

Reins knotted, I sent them straight through the grid with both hands out to the side. I told them to let go of the reins over the first jump, to try and keep some semblance of control on the approach, and then to circle until they brought the canter back to trot.

The first rider, where he’s been consciously not over folding has been a little slow giving with his hands over the fence, so has been getting slightly choppy bascules. This exercise allowed us to work on finding the fine balance between not over folding and encouraging the pony to accelerate and flatten the canter on landing and still allowing him to use himself properly over the fence. After a few tries this rider was starting to get the feeling of the right balance, and when we took back the reins the pair looked much better.

My second rider, by not holding onto the reins, gave her pony a much nicer ride through the grid, which enabled him to jump more freely and rebuilt his confidence because I don’t think he was that happy with being micromanaged. It also taught his rider that he does know his job, and the fences can flow. Which built her confidence because she had more faith in her pony and in her jumping ability. She was able to replicate this afterwards when she had her reins again.

Both of these riders managed to achieve this relatively quickly, so I decided to try out another exercise.

For the boy, it was more just having fun. End of term-itis is kicking in so I wanted the focus to be more on fun. For the girl, I wanted her to sit lighter after fences because her tendency to sit up quickly, which she needs to do a bit of in order to stop her pony getting too fast, comes with her also sitting heavily into the saddle which I think upsets his sensitive soul.

So I put their stirrups up eight and ten holes respectively.

There was quite a lot of banter by now: the boy in his jump saddle was quite happy and set off to trot and canter in jockey position. His core is a bit weaker so he did sneak in a few little rises, but I didn’t want to put his stirrups up too high so his balance wasn’t disturbed. I removed the knee blocks from my other rider’s dressage saddle, and she found it slightly easier then to ride light seat, but the high cantle stopped her really crouching low over the wither. She did start to find her balance on the flat, and I thought her pony looked a bit freer over his back with her out the saddle too.

Then they popped through the grid a few times in both directions, working on keeping their seat light yet still folding, or at least differentiation between their position on the flat and over the fence. The key here is to have a strong core, and to adjust the upper body without sitting heavily into the saddle or losing your balance. I’m a big believer in using the upper body after a fence to rebalance the canter and reorganise, yet both kids are still finding the balance between sitting right up after a fence to discourage their ponies from accelerating away and sitting deep into the saddle so their bums are driving the ponies forwards. With short stirrups it’s hard to drive!

The ponies started to soften over the fences, and use their backs a bit more. Where we’d worked without reins you could see that my riders were less reliant on them for either brakes or balance.

I was planning on leaving the lesson there, but they were keen to try no reins and jockey stirrups. I should have said no, and finished when we did, but I thought I’d run with their keenness.

The girl did it very well, and was pleased with herself. I think she had a lot to consider from the lesson and knows now that her pony is more than capable, but she needs to learn to take off her dressage hat and put on her showjumping one, which is a little bit more relaxed and laissez-faire. Unfortunately, my other rider bounced off over the last fence. Squashed pride and end of term-itis meant this was a bit sore, but he remounted and popped through the grid with jockey stirrups and reins. When I debriefed him after I think he understood that it was just a wobble due to lack of core stability (despite the no reins work, when he had the short stirrups he was giving with his hands but leaning on them as he folded over the jumps, showing that there’s more work needed to get him really secure over fences) and balance, rather than him or his pony doing wrong. I think he took a lot away from the lesson and I look forwards to hearing about his jockey riding on the gallops next week!

Riding like a jockey is so helpful at improving balance, and strengthening the core and thigh muscles. I think going to the extremes of a light seat will help my young riders learn to sit lightly whilst keeping their shoulders back on the approach and getaway of fences, which will hopefully help courses flow and for them to influence the quality of the canter without getting heavy in the hand and blocking their ponies shoulders from jumping. You can see in the first picture below, that the jockey is limiting the speed by his position and shifting his upper body back, and in the second image he is opening up the canter. For my two riders, they want to try to imitate the first picture on the approach and the second picture over fences to really help their ponies out.

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.

The Chair Seat

A friend and I discussed this particular rider fault the other day, and it’s something I’ve touched on recently in a couple of lessons so it’s time for a blog post.

The ideal rider position has a vertical line from ear through the shoulder and hip, to the heel. The chair seat deviates from this because the vertical line is lost by the lower leg creeping forwards. When you look from the side, the rider’s outline is akin to if they were sat in a chair.

So why is the chair position frowned upon?

It’s most problematic in the rising trot. If you look at the ideal position, when you rise to the trot the lower leg stays under the body, and the rider can control their upper body so that they sit back into the centre of the saddle and immediately push themselves back out of the saddle. This means that the rider is quieter in their body language, more in control of their body and therefore more effective and precise with their aids. They are also more balanced, which means they are less likely to hinder the movement of the horse or be unbalanced by sudden movements.

Now think about the chair position, and imagine there’s a line going through the centre of the rider’s body, head to toe. If it were on a clock face the time would be 1.35, whereas the ideal position the line is vertical. Now as the rider rises from their chair position the lower leg swings back to balance the rider, who’s upper body comes forward. This means that the 1.35 line gets closer to the vertical when the rider is at the highest point of the rise. And swings back to the 1.35 position in the sit phase.

This means that the rider tends to sit down heavily onto the horse’s back, and towards the back of the saddle and the weaker part of the back. This heavy sit can damage the horse’s back, cause pain and unbalance them.

Collapsing into the saddle makes it harder for the rider to rise back up from the saddle. Which means they are hindering the horse’s movement further.

Ultimately in the chair position, the rider is less in control of their body so gives less effective aids, whilst also hindering the movement of the horse, and is more likely to be unbalanced by sudden movements.

So riding in a chair position makes it harder to influence the horse effectively because the crashing down movement of the sit discourages the horse from moving forwards, and the lower leg being further forward means it’s harder to apply the leg aid. Where the rider is sat on the back of the saddle they then find it harder to use their seat aid. Unfortunately this means that the horse is less inclined to move forwards and becomes “behind the leg” and lazy. This then causes the rider to try harder with the leg aids, which reinforces the chair position, and the lack of impulsion causes the rider to sit heavily back into the saddle, again reinforcing the chair position.

How do riders end up in the chair position? For young children, it’s often when they’ve been taught rising trot before they are strong enough, as the lack of strength in their legs and core means they need to swing their body up into the rise. The best way to overcome this is to make sure the saddle is the right size for the rider, and the stirrups the correct length so that the rider’s body is supported in the correct position. Then making sure the pony isn’t too lazy, so excessive leg aids aren’t needed. And then it’s just time needed to develop the correct muscles. One of my little riders falls back into the chair position every so often, and I find a useful analogy for her is that she imagines she’s sitting onto a pin cushion so she wants to sit as lightly as possible so she doesn’t get a sore bum!

For other riders, the chair position develops from a lack of core muscles and fitness, so improving their general fitness and not overdoing the trot work will help, whilst also working in sitting trot and without stirrups to improve their core muscles.

Along with a lack of fitness, riding a lazy horse when you don’t have the strength in your seat and legs means a rider’s position is compromised in order for them to make their aids more effective.

Sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause the chair position: if the saddle is lower at the cantle then the rider almost has to rise uphill, which encourages the lower leg to swing. If a rider has a chair seat despite work on trying to improve it, and the horse being quite forwards it’s worth making sure the saddle fits both horse and the rider’s anatomy.

The chair position and a lazy horse makes a vicious circle, which is hard to get out of because the horse doesn’t want to move forwards with a “heavy” rider, and then the rider moves into the chair position as they try in earnest to persuade the horse to move.

To break the cycle, having the horse schooled by a stronger rider to remind them that they can travel forwards easily, and the rider improving their core muscles and position by riding a more forwards thinking horse. I recently lunged a client on her horse for two purposes. One, the horse doesn’t seem to understand the idea of lunging so we hope that having a rider on board will help teach him to stay out in the circle. Two, I can work on keeping the horse trotting forwards so his rider can really concentrate on her position and maintaining the vertical line throughout her rising. When she was more adept at keeping this position she took over from me, and found that her horse was more willing when she was sitting more lightly into the saddle and staying more balanced. Hopefully they can build on this in the next few weeks.

Girthing Myths

I saw this little article last night – All about girths – which highlights how important it is to keep yourself up to date with scientific developments within the equine industry.

I can remember when elasticated girths first appeared. They were the bees knees. Then there was a phase which said elastic should be on both sides so that the tension is even.

There has been the warning for a few years that you should be careful not to over tighten elastic girths, but it was interesting to learn that it makes the saddle more unstable. More controversial then, are those anti-slip girths designed for barrel shaped cobs, which have a rubbery anti-slip pad on the girth, and elastic on both sides!

I didn’t know that girth tension varies with pace: although it makes logical sense because the different footfall sequences will affect the horse’s body. If you lift one arm up, for example, your barrel shifts to maintain balance and muscles around your rib cage contract in order to enable you to move your arm, so this follows through that the horses’ barrel will be similarly affected. In canter, their breathing is also in sync with the stride, so that could help explain the variation in girth tension whilst cantering.

Girths are now much more ergonomically shaped, cutting back away from the elbows, so I guess manufacturers are already aware of the pressure points.

I’ve heard plenty of times that girths shouldn’t be overtightened. And it’s easy to get carried away with rotund ponies prone to saddle slippage, but I wasn’t aware that it affected athletic performance other than the horse being uncomfortable – try running in too small a trainers, or like me still squeezing into your jodhpurs – and unable to take deep breaths that over tight girths compromised a horse’s performance.

I’m not really sure how the average horse owner assesses the tension in their girths, in order to be as close to the ideal 10kgs as possible. I would say that 10kgs doesn’t sound very much though!

I think it’s fairly obvious that men create more girth tension than women. It’s a fact, feminist or not, that men are usually stronger than women, and if you take into account their usually increased height, you can see quite easily how they can crank the girth up.

Even in my limited history of being around horses, which scarily enough is twenty years now, technology and research has made huge advances in tack and the way horses and riders are taught. It’s actually exciting, in a geeky way, to see how our knowledge and understanding changes in the next decade, and the impact this will have on all areas of the sport.

Centaur Biomechanics does a lot of research in this area. It’s a fairly local company to me, and once I’ve swallowed the price of a lesson, I’d be really interested in having a biomechanics session to really see how straight I am as a rider. I’m just off to Google some biomechanics books to add to my Christmas list … I’ll be needing some bedtime reading in the New Year!

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.