Transitions

Here’s another useful exercise I picked up from Horses Inside Out last month. The purpose of doing it at the demo was for us to observe the action of the hindlimbs on the painted horses through transitions. However, I felt it would be a very useful warm up exercise for a number of my clients. So I put it to good use last week.

I find that sometimes half halts can be ineffective, either the rider isn’t asking correctly or the horse is choosing to be ignorant, and this exercise sharpens a rider’s aids and the horse’s mind.

From a good, balanced trot, ride forward to walk to five strides then ride forwards to trot. This checks that the rider is thinking of changing the sequence of their horse’s legs rather than slowing down because if you lose energy into walk, you can’t ride the upwards transition accurately. At this point, I usually correct any issues with the aids and repeating the five walk strides until the downwards transition is fluent, maintaining energy, and the upward transition is prompt.

Gradually, you reduce the number of walk strides from five, to four, to three, two and eventually just one. Repeat each level until it feels harmonious and you can feel a bit of activation in the hindquarters. Some horses only need to go down to three walk strides for it to be effective, and you’re better off stopping there than having fewer walk strides of a poorer quality.

In a downward transition, the hind leg steps under the horse’s body with the joints flexing more. This means they take their weight off their forehand and then push themselves up into a lighter, floatier trot. If you ever get the chance to see this exercise performed by a painted horse, have a look because it’s far more illustrative than my words.

Back to my clients and their progression through this exercise. The lazier horses soon woke us and came more off the aids, developing a far superior walk because they hadn’t switched off to their rider. The riders were more alert and not collapsing into walk and likewise switching off. For the whizzier horse’s we put in circles and changes of rein to stop them anticipating the exercise so much. These riders learnt to refine their aids so the transitions were less sudden and tense.

All of my riders found it hard to get the precise number of steps – the upward transitions all included at least one stride of walk between asking and executing it. They had to think and ride faster.

The transitions helped those horses who were ignorant to the balancing effect of a half halt because there was no grey area. It was black and white. Their riders could feel the effect of an exaggerated half halt – especially when there was only one stride of walk, which meant that they had a clearer idea in their head about the desired effect of a half halt was. It also taught them to ride with more leg, and to put the downwards and upwards aids together quicker.

After using this exercise, all the horses had a better quality trot, were more connected because of the action of the hindquarters, and came off their forehand and worked over their backs into an outline. I found that the rider’s feel had improved and they were then using half halts more easily, subtly and more effectively. I felt that their understanding of a half halt had improved by riding the extreme version.

Try it yourself in your next warm up, and see the effect it has.

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Right Footed? Or Left Footed?

One of the interesting topics that was discussed at the Horses Inside Out day that I attended, was the subject of right footed, or left footedness.

The horses limbs work in diagonal pairs, which means that if they’re dominant with one hindlimb it will have a knock on effect on the forelegs and the horse’s straightness. The reason for this asymmetry? Perhaps an old injury, or simply the same reason you or I are right or left handed.

Watching your horse working on both reins, you may be able to identify their stronger hind leg from their preferred rein, or stride length (especially over trot poles). You may also be able to feel the hindleg which is pushing more when you’re riding. Try changing your trot diagonal in a straight line and see if one feels stronger than the other. Some horses have such a preference to one diagonal pair that they will always throw the rider up on to that diagonal.

If your horse is left footed, with a stronger left hind leg, then their right shoulder will be more developed. On the left rein, the trot will feel better as the dominant hindleg is on the inside so better able to step under and take the horse’s weight before propelling them forward.

However, in the canter the outside hindleg is the first leg in the canter sequence so with a stronger left hindleg with have a more correct and stronger right canter.

This is where things can get confusing. If a horse is trotting on the right rein, with a stronger right hindleg then they often drift through their left shoulder. This is for one of two reasons: the rider isn’t using enough outside rein to support the outside of the horse’s body, and the horse hasn’t got sufficient strength and balance to use their inside hindleg to it’s full potential.

Earlier this week I used some poles to help my clients get a greater feel and understanding of their horse’s stronger diagonal pair.

I used trot poles to an apex to make them aware if their horse drifted as they trotted over the poles. Poles make a horse lift their limbs higher which tests their balance and highlights any difference in limb strength as the stronger hindleg will push more, so the horse will drift away from that leg. For example, a horse with a stronger left hindleg will drift to the right.

With some horses it was immediately obvious with the poles in the direction that they tended to drift in. For others, I had to raise the poles and exaggerate the trot strides to get the horse to drift so that my rider could better understand the biomechanics of their horse. Then we worked on riding the horse straight, and in future lessons will work on strengthening their weaker diagonal pair.

Another exercise I did was using tramlines for canter transitions. The tramlines kept the horse straight through the upward transition. This makes the transition more active and uphill. Now, remember what I was saying earlier about the outside hindleg being the strike off leg?

I got my riders to ask for different canter leads through the tramlines and compare the transitions.

The pony who has a stronger left hindleg (and has a better right rein canter) produced a far improved left canter transition because the pony had to engage his right hind leg in the transition. His rider could feel the difference in the quality of the left canter as a result of a more active and straight transition.

The horse with the stronger right hindleg pretty much refused to give right canter between the poles because she couldn’t use her weaker left hindleg without compromising on her straightness. She has issues with straightness anyway, which we’re working on, but it was really useful for her rider to see and feel the difference between the two canter leads when the horse is straight.

Using visual aids such as poles can really drive home a point to riders and help them get the feeling of the correct way of going which helps them reproduce it in future. Next time you ride, have a feel for your horse’s preferred diagonal pair, and use tramlines and poles to help you improve their straightness and then you can tailor your schooling sessions to build up the strength in their weaker diagonal pair.

Winter Riding

It may still be warm here in the UK, but the nights are drawing in. I’ve had to cash in my evening hack, leaving Daddy to do bedtime, for Pilates class.

There was an article in Horse and Hound recently claiming that horses don’t need to be trained daily, and it is more effective to train every third day. Which has obvious benefits in that the horse doesn’t get stale, and there is less wear and tear on their joints.

This doesn’t mean that we should only ride twice a week, as that won’t help the nationwide crisis of equine obesity. We just need to ensure that we’re providing variety in our work and not drilling our horses, despite really wanting to nail that particular exercise.

Yet winter is on the horizon, with dark nights and limited turnout. This means that for most owners, who work full time, they’re restricted to the arena for the majority of the week.

So how can we continue to get the best out of our horses without over training them during the winter?

Firstly, despite the weather it’s important to maximise turnout as much as possible, and to feed low energy forage and hard feed so that you don’t need to canter round in circles for half an hour to get a sensible horse to work with, and you’ll stay safer on hacks.

Set aside hacking days on the weekend; it’s a great excuse for a longer hack with friends! If you’re lucky enough to have the option of flexi-time, it might be a good idea to adjust your working day so you can have a mid week hack, even if it’s only a short one. Exercise outside the arena is always beneficial for both horse and rider.

Depending on your horse’s exercise requirements you then need to plan some arena sessions for the dark evenings.

I always think one session a week should be unridden. You can do a variety of lunging, in hand work, or long reining. Unridden work should always complement your ridden work, so don’t just let your horse troll round the arena in a hollow frame at the end of a slack lunge line. Use in hand work to improve their suppleness and their understanding of lateral work, and lunging to get them working long and low to develop their topline without the weight of the tack and rider.

One session should be poles or jumping, or perhaps two. You may be a dressage rider, but pole work provides variety to the flat work, improves their cadence and gets the horse to engage their core. There are hundreds of pole layouts which you can use to work on different areas of your schooling. For example, today I arranged some poles to improve cadence and engagement by trotting over the poles, lengthening the trot by trotting over different points of the poles, and worked between the poles to improve straightness. The net result was a switched on pony and rider, both working really well. For those who like to get off the ground, there are plenty of exercises which can be laid out in the school and jumped at any height.

The flatwork sessions should have a different theme so that you are using a variety of different muscles and not over stressing particular areas. For example, if you are working at prelim level, one flatwork session could focus on transitions between halt, walk and trot, with a short time focusing on the canter. Another session could focus on the canter school movements. Another session looking at lateral work in walk. By focusing on different areas in your training your horse is more likely to stay interested in their work, and less likely to strain anything.

I think it’s also important to remember that exercise during the week is a break from the stable for the horse, and a chance to stretch his legs. He doesn’t need to be worked into a sweat each time you ride. If you’ve taxed his brain in walk then he’ll be as tired as if he’d trotted for half an hour.

Hopefully you’ve now got some ideas for implementing an exercise regime through winter to give your horse plenty of variety, and interest, whilst still improving their level of training, burning calories and keeping them happy. After all, schools no longer teach by drilling pupils in their multiplication tables – they’re more dynamic in their teaching – so why should we drill our horses in their work?

New Passport Regulations

The Welsh Pony and Cob Society have been ahead of the game for years in terms of having a record of equines. Years ago you used to get stud books published every few years which were an index of all registered animals. I remember the glee of us girls when we found a horse we knew if the stud books. Now of course, it’s all online. I’ve also always like the fact the genealogy is usually fairly complete. Together with the stud prefixes you could easily identify your pony’s relations. Which is very exciting!

Of course years ago, the WPCS relied on owners registering their animal for the status it brought, the ability to show at county level, and the advertising it did for their breeding. Then, from 2004 all owned horses were required to have a passport, which resulted in many older horses receiving blue passports from The Donkey Sanctuary – which was a bit of a knock to their ego, I’m sure.

However, many breeders who (and I’m going to make a sweeping statement here) bred from mares with questionable breeding/temperament/soundness because they had no other use for the mare did not bother to passport foals until they were sold as yearlings, two, three or four year olds (I can only assume that is because there is a risk of a horse dying before it reaching adulthood and if that happens then time and money has not been wasted on passporting them). So the concept of all equines having passports and reducing the overbreeding of horses didn’t really work, and was difficult to monitor.

Then in 2009 this law was strengthened in that all foals born after 1st July 2009 had to have a microchip and passport within 6 months of birth or by 31st December of that year, whichever was soonest. Any horses applying for new passports (those who had slipped through the previous net) had to be given a microchip too.

This makes passporting horses more expensive, which I think deters responsible horse owners from breeding with their mare, but it still didn’t stop those who breed casually. Even the £1000 fine per unpassported animal didn’t deter many, as the UK still has a massive overpopulation of equines.

Now, as a proud owner of a mare, I find myself wondering would I ever breed from Phoenix. I highly doubt it, although I don’t think she’d make a bad brood mare as her conformation, movement and manners are all great. I just don’t think I’d want to risk putting her through it (because there’s always a risk) for an unknown result. When I could just go to the Brightwells sale in October at Builth Wells and view hundreds of weanlings and take my pick there. If I so desired to have one so young. Anyway, for now she has to concentrate on her ridden career.

As the passport and microchipping laws haven’t really had the desired effect, and with all the different passport issuing bodies (each breed society issues passports for their breed, plus the cross breed passports you also have) it’s very difficult to regulate. At competitions you can monitor passports, but given the number of equines stood in fields, you are only seeing a small, and very biased, sample of the equine population.

From 1st October 2018, it has become compulsory for all equines to have a microchip, as well as a passport. Owners have until October 2020 to ensure this is done. In addition to the microchip, all equine details will be stored on the Central Equine Database (CED).

Luckily for most of us, the passport issuing bodies are still the main point of contact for change in ownership, change or address, or death. They will update the CED.

We can only hope that having all equine details in one area will mean that disease outbreaks can be controlled and reduced, and stolen animals found and identified quicker as hopefully the middle man has been sacked.

Thankfully, DEFRA does admit that in order for this new law to be effective, it does require owners to be responsible and play their part.

Unfortunately though, I think there are too many numerous-horse owners (even at riding schools) where the paperwork and cost involved in microchipping all their older animals makes it very unlikely that they will follow through with it unless necessity requires it. Perhaps there is a window here for passport issuing bodies and vets to provide discounted microchipping and passporting rates to encourage multiple horse owners to step into line.

I’m still not sure how it’s going to be regulated, because so many horses stay in their field or are only ridden at home. Competition horses, particularly affiliated ones, will be fine, but the geriatric companions will go under the radar.

It is a positive that vets can check the microchip and positively identify a horse and treat accordingly, even if the passport isn’t present. Where do you keep yours? Technically, it should be at the yard but I for one am not keen on giving the yard owner my actual physical passport. I’d prefer to give them a photocopy. I don’t take my passports to the yard daily either, so getting there and having to call the vet for an emergency means that either I’ve got to leave my horse and go and get the passport, or send someone to dig around the office to find where I’ve secreted them away. The CED is a definite positive from this angle.

I like to think that being able to trace horses to owners makes them accountable for welfare issues or abandonment, but in order for that to happen they need to have chipped their horse in the first place. And if you’re a candidate for neglecting your animal, are you going to bother getting them chipped, and updating existing passports? I’m yet to be convinced.

In the meantime, go to The Equine Register and enter your horse’s microchip number to check that they are on the CED. Phoenix’s is as she was born after 2009, but Otis’s isn’t on there. He had a microchip inserted five years ago, and was registered with an animal microchip database as recommended by the vet, but the CED only takes information from passport issuing bodies, and Otis’s chip has not been linked to his passport. I’m sure this has happened to numerous others who tried to get ahead of the game years ago. So it’s definitely worth checking out. You can guess what my job tomorrow morning is!

Corner Poles

If you look at any arena you’ll see that the corners are built up, with a little track marking a quarter circle. Partly this is because it’s difficult to get into the corner with the harrow, but also it’s because us riders are a bit lazy and cut off the corners. Plus a lot of horses lack the balance to ride a dressage worthy corner, so cut them off as well. I remember getting out traffic cones and getting the kids to ride around them if the ponies and riders were getting too lazy. I also remember being a teenager and helping with lessons and having to pretend to be a traffic cone – my toes curled as the ponies scraped past me!

Recently, most of my clients have been working on improving their ability to ride corners by using poles.

Either using two poles to make a right angle on the inner track of the arena, or using one pole perpendicular to the fence on the long side, I created a right angle.

The aim is not to ride a square corner, as a lot of horses will struggle to do that. The aim is to ride a corner in balance.

Too many riders ride off the inside rein, especially when faced with an unfenced corner – such as in a grass dressage arena – as their horse is less likely to turn themselves. This results in horses falling onto the inside shoulder and jack knifing through their bodies.

Starting in walk, I asked my riders to walk the corner thinking about their aids and what they were doing. Then I asked them to think about what the horse was doing in the next corner.

We then revised the aids for turning; inside rein indicates the direction of movement, inside leg asks the horse to bend around it, outside rein supports the outside shoulder and guides it round the turn, outside leg pushed the horse round the turn. Rider is sat fractionally more on their inside seat bone and upper body turns around the corner. I had to remind some riders that they weren’t driving a car, and that the inside rein shouldn’t get heavier than the outside.

I challenged them to ride the corner of poles with as little inside rein as possible – some of this was a case of mind over matter as their hands tended to get involved before they’d even realised!

We then checked they were using their outside aids, and already they could all feel their horses staying in a better balance, and were straighter. When horses work with their bodies straight they create two parallel tracks, like train tracks. Even on circles. If a horse over bends on a turn, they’re like a train about to derail, shooting out the side door of the turn. By increasing my riders awareness of and ability to use the outside aids they could keep their horse on the tracks.

To some, it felt like their horse was too straight, and indeed some horses showed elements of counter bend. But, as I learnt on my Horses Inside Out day, with flexibility you have to have stability. If a horse bends too easily in one direction then by removing the bend and riding them akin to a plank of wood, they become more stable and balanced, and then you can slowly add in degrees of bend until you have the correct amount.

After riding the corners in walk on both reins we proceeded to trot, which tended to exaggerate any problems.

For a couple of riders, their horse moved around the corner and then some on one rein, so we focused on riding straight out of the corner a stride earlier and ensuring the outside rein and inside leg were supporting the horse so he could travel straight along the track. This tended to happen on the horse’s bendiest rein.

On the other rein (the stiffer rein), and especially noticeable when there was no fence line to guide horse and rider, the horses tended to go 90% of the way around the corner before drifting out of the corner with the outside shoulder. By focusing on riding the outside shoulder fully around the turn my riders soon solved this issue.

By correcting the way the riders rode the corners the horses soon started to stay soft and balanced. The inside hind leg was coming underneath them and they were using it to propel themselves along, rather than escaping through the outside shoulder and losing energy and momentum. The trot became more energetic because of the improved steps and balance. The horse can also move more economically as they’re straighter so their hindlegs work towards their centre of gravity.

For the more advanced riders, we repeated the exercise in canter, but for all of them we took the improved way of riding turns onto circles so they could feel the improvement in their horse’s way of going.

Below is a clip taken from one of the lessons. Here we were focusing on using the outside aids and keeping the mare straighter as she has a history of crookedness. You can see how they maintained the trot throughout the corner, not losing energy or balance. We can increase the bend through her whole body once they’ve established this straightness.

Incredibly helpful for improving your use of the outside aids, it also gets the horse working correctly without any fiddling and yanking, because once the inside hindleg is going where it should be and taking the weight of the horse they will start to tighten their abdominal muscles and round their backs and necks correctly.

WOW Saddles – Wow or Woah?

Firstly, apologies for the quiet blog this week, the piece I wrote on Thursday seems to have disappeared into the ether… I will retrieve it. But in the meantime, here’s today’s post.

Last weekend I enjoyed a very informative day at a Horses Inside Out seminar. So much to take in, I felt like I’d just had a full day of A-level exams! Anyway, I have lots of new knowledge to impart to my clients, and some subjects to discuss on here too. Where to start?

How about with the warm up act, a lecture from the WOW saddle man.

Have you heard of WOW saddles? In fear of you getting bogged down in their blurb, here’s a link to their website , but I’ll surmise it for you here. WOW saddles are based on the flair system of flocking saddles with pockets of air instead of traditional wool, and each style of saddle has a number of different options, such as tree shape, stirrup bar position, knee roll position, which enables horse and rider individuality to be taken into account. Possibly an easier method of creating bespoke saddles than the traditional way? Imagine it to be like going into IKEA and building your own wardrobe from the different options available to you.

This seems like a pretty good approach to saddle fitting. But it is unfortunately outside the budget of the majority of horse owners, and doesn’t lead to a second hand market.

Next, let’s discuss the flair system. By using air to flock a saddle you can make small adjustments easily, and adjust the saddle while it is on the horse and the rider is mounted. Sounds great. I’m led to wonder, however; how often do the air bags need “pumping up” and do they have a limited life expectancy? Do owners “top up” the air themselves? And what is the effect of putting in too much air? Or indeed, riding when they’re flat?

I’m no saddler, but as far as I understand, flocking with traditional wool puts a solid (albeit with tiny air pockets) into the panels of the saddle until the saddle is balanced and fits the horse. Over time, the flocking settles down, compresses, and moulds to the horse’s shape. You’ve seen the dips in your favourite sofa from where you always snuggle up. Saddlers add flocking if necessary when they check the saddle fit, and if there’s any dense bits of flocking, or if the flocking is old and ineffective (take a feel of those ancient stubben saddles on the top rack in the tack room) they can remove all the flocking and replace it with new. I digress. I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, that wool flocking settles around the shape of the horse to a certain extent. Which enables saddles to be close contact and for riders to really feel their horse’s movement.

Air is a gas, and if you squash a gas, the particles migrate to other areas, which causes an increase in density of the particles, which increases pressure. Here’s a little animation for you.

So when a rider applies pressure to the air flocked saddle, when they sit on it, they’re increasing the pressure in the panels. And if they aren’t sat in a balanced manner, they’ll increase pressure in different areas of the panel, potentially causing sore spots on the horse. Equally, the pressure in the panels is just as likely to send energy up through the rider’s seat, causing back pain, and creating an unstable seat for them to balance on. I’m trying, but failing, to find the research online I heard about yesterday, which says that air flocked saddles are of no real benefit compared to wool flocked saddles, and can even have worse pressure points. If you know the paper I’m talking about, please send it over!

The concept of flocking saddles with air I’m yet to be convinced by. From what I’ve heard, it’s like marmite. Some horses love the freedom it gives over their backs, some hate the unstableness of the saddle. Some riders love sitting on an air bed, others hate the reduction in feel. I’d suggest doing your own research because the jury is still out on this.

Moving on to the main subject of the lecture I heard. Fitting saddles. The lecture began with a quick overview of how the horse’s shoulders develop with work, and he gave us a couple of visual checks to do to see which areas of your horse are more developed than others … more on this another day when I’ve got some photos to accompany my words.

WOW saddles design or fit the saddle to the horse, in terms of the physical body of the saddle, anyway, and when the rider sits on the saddle is adjusted asymmetrically. The company claims that by adjusting the saddle asymmetrically the horse will become straighter. I sat on one of the saddles on a wooden horse and had it “fitted” to me. As with the majority of riders, I sit slightly to the right, which means that my left seat bone is slightly closer to the midline of the horse. The lecturer told us that this means my right leg hangs long and loose, whilst my left leg draws up to hold me on because I feel like I’m going to slide right all the time. This causes my left shoulder to drop and go behind my body. In terms of the way the horse goes, the right hind is stronger as it’s having to compensate for me sitting off centre, which leads to a stronger left shoulder, and a better bend on the right rein and better quality trot because the stronger hind leg is on the inside. The left canter has more power because the right hind (the strongest) is the propulsion leg, but the horse is more likely to fall in during left canter because he gives you right bend more easily.

Now with all these lefts and rights it’s really confusing. But I’ve sat down and thought about it all, and the chain reaction makes sense if you sit to the right. Obviously it all happens in reverse if you sit to the left. I was disappointed that before sitting on the saddle my posture wasn’t assessed at all as then he’d know that my right shoulder is tighter and carried higher than my left as a result of an old injury and muscle tension rather than a consequence of my sitting to the right on the saddle.

This is where there is a point of contention. WOW saddles focus on sitting the rider asymmetrically in order to help the horse go straight. But what came first? The chicken or the egg? Do horses make riders crooked or do riders make horses crooked? It can definitely be a vicious cycle, and I’m always telling my clients that if they’re giving their horse chiropractic treatment then they should also have some too. In my opinion, WOW saddles are only treating the symptom and not the cause. I think WOW saddlers also assume that the horse is straight at birth and it is our asymmetric riding which causes any problems. Domestication does favour doing things from the left hand side, but surely good training ensures the horse is comfortable being approached, led, tacked up and mounted from both sides?

Of course, you need to break the vicious cycle of horse and rider crookedness. To me, this can be done by working the horse from the ground more, ensuring you’re working them evenly, educating the rider’s eye, feel and understanding of biomechanics, Pilates (equine and human), and using regular physio treatments to help make horse and rider as symmetrical as possible. Yes, no one (human or equine) is born perfectly symmetrical. One hand/leg is always dominant, and bone length can differ. But you can become ambidextrous. Those lefties years ago had to adapt and write with their right hand for fear of being burnt at the stake for being a witch/the devil. Now we know it’s not a sin to be left handed, but equally we also know that by using both sides of our body to the same extent we build even muscle tone and are less likely to over stress and injure one area.

So surely before making adaptations to our riding lives we should look at solving the underlying problem, and not the symptom?

You hear of horses coming back from injury who need to have their saddles temporarily altered, perhaps with a shimmy on one side to compensate for muscle atrophy because of the injury. And the rider will work on various strengthening exercises to build up this area, and the saddler will then be able to remove the shimmy once the muscle has developed. The use of the shimmy, or asymmetric flocking will reduce any saddle slide and hopefully stop pressure points developing elsewhere. For example, if the saddle slides left, then there is the potential for soreness to develop on the right side of the thoracic spine. Which creates another problem. So saddlers do fit saddles asymmetrically to a horse in order to not cause further problems, but they’re fitting the saddle asymmetrically so that it is a level surface for the rider, and is less likely to slip to one side. A bit like if you have one foot bigger than the other. You buy a pair of shoes to fit the bigger foot and fill the other shoe so that the smaller foot is comfortable. Then you’re more likely to walk evenly and without causing an injury.

So where have we got to? I’m as confused about the whole concept as anyone else. But to me the concept of fitting the saddle to the rider’s asymmetry reinforces the idea that it is ok to ride crooked and to not look after your own body. Yes you need to fit the saddle to the horse, whether that’s asymmetric because they have an underdeveloped trapezius, or not. But it doesn’t make sense to me to put a rider on an uneven saddle; just like it’s uncomfortable walking in shoes with heels of different heights, and causes soreness in one leg. Furthermore I’m yet to be convinced by using air to flock saddles as research and rider feedback is so divided. Perhaps the WOW method has a place in rehab work, but I don’t think it is the long term answer. Or at least, if it is, maybe we shouldn’t be riding that horse?

I have to give it to the WOW saddle man, he gives a persuasive lecture, but I would urge riders to think about the underlying reasons for a lack of straightness in themselves and their horse and look at working on overcoming this through physiotherapy and exercise as surely it’s better all round to be as close to straight as possible.

To Rug Or Not To Rug?

There are posts all over social media about over rugging horses as it’s that time of year when it’s pretty chilly at night, but lovely and warm during the day.

I’m holding out while we have fine weather this week, and leaving Phoenix naked. Sure I’m sure she’s a bit chilly in the very middle of the night, but she’s got plenty of fur, and is after all a tough native. But the rest of the time she’s plenty warm enough. She can move around her field to keep warm, or shelter by the hedgeline. With the baby to manage, it is easier to not have to worry about her being too hot in the day with a rug on if I can’t get there early enough.

Here’s a guide which has been doing the rounds recently, and I think will surprise many owners with the rugging advice.

My Mum and I had a discussion about what are light weights or zero fill rugs and their individual merits.

Rain sheets, with no filling, are in our opinion only useful for warm, wet summer days when convenience is important. Such as a competition or it’s raining and you need your horse to be dry to ride. If you were to use them in the autumn, when the horses have grown a thick coat you are just flattening the hairs, which prevents the horse raising the coat and trapping a layer of air next to the skin to act as an insulator and keep them warm. This is called the pilomotor reflex, and is the same reason we get goosebumps when we’re cold.

At least a lightweight rug compensates for flattening the coat by providing warmth via the filling. It’s worth considering when thinking about what rug to put on your horse, as they will probably be better off naked than with a zero fill rug on chilly autumn days.

When looking to the guide for help it’s worth remembering the following points:

  • Older horses or ones with arthritis will need thicker rugs as they feel the cold more.
  • Horses that tend to drop off weight suddenly will benefit from having their rug on a little earlier than their friend who holds their weight.
  • If your horse has previously been rugged up to the nines they will need to acclimatise to your more minimalist rug approach, so you may need to rug more than you thought for the first couple of autumns.
  • Some horses just feel the cold more than others.
  • The guide refers to fully clipped, or hunter clipped horses, when they state “clipped”, so if your horse is only partially clipped you may not need to rug up as much as the guide says. It may be more of a case of using a rug with a neck rather than a heavier fill of rug.
  • Depending on your horse’s breed, they may grow a much denser coat than others, so may need less rugging than a finer coated counterpart.

All in all, we as horse owners need to ensure we aren’t over rugging horses to ensure they are less at risk of colic due to being too hot, the obese and laminitic ones lose weight over the winter so they’re less at risk in the spring and their hormone levels reset themselves.

Problem Solving Polework

Logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords. I love all sorts of puzzles, and one of my favourite things when teaching is working out what exercise suits a horse or rider, and why. Why have they developed that way of going, and how can we improve it? Where is there weakness and how do we hone in on it?

So with one of my young clients, who’s really forged a great relationship with her new pony over the summer, I wanted to get her brain going. She’s a very thoughtful rider, with good feel, so I wanted to get her to deduce their weak points. I find that if a rider feels and understands the weak area then they are more motivated to improve it, and will focus more of their energy into practicing and self-correcting, which leaves me with more lesson time to focus on more exciting things.

In our lessons we’ve discussed the stages of training; rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion, but now she has more of a feel for a steady and consistent contact, and an understanding of the correct way a horse propels themselves forwards I wanted to re-address suppleness.

Whilst she warmed herself up with the criteria of working evenly on each rein, using circles of various sizes, serpentines and shallow loops, I set up four pole exercises. I should probably add that she’s only nine years old.

The first exercise we did was the S-bend, often seen in TREC competitions. All they had to do was walk through the path through the poles without touching or stepping over the poles. I’ve seen an agile Belgian Draft horse do this perfectly, so a 12.2hh pony has no excuse!

They had a few attempts to wiggle their way through, but in all but one time the pony stepped over the pole with a hindleg. There were a couple of teaching points such as looking up, and not down at the turn. It’s important to use the outside aids to turn as when she forgot about her outside rein (outside leg worked well) and overused the inside rein the pony was more likely to step over a pole. We ended the exercise with a discussion about whether one direction was easier for the pony than the other. She correctly identified that turning left was harder for him.

We moved on to a trio of trotting poles on a curve. On each rein, they aimed to trot over the centre of each pole. We also tried making the trot shorter striding and trotting over the poles closer to the centre of the circle.

As anticipated, the clever pony trotted a straight line over the poles, so I positioned myself to help guide my rider’s eye, and encouraged her to keep riding positively around the turn. As soon as they managed to trot the poles on the curve she could feel the increased activity of the inside hindleg. Again, I asked her which rein was easier, and she again said the right.

Next up was the house exercise. We began by focusing on straightness through the middle of the trot poles and trotting over the apex of the triangle.

Initially my rider was turning too close to the poles so started off drifting over the first pole. She also felt the exaggerated step her pony did over apex, and she had to maintain the active trot she got over the poles before the apex which will hopefully help her generate and maintain a more energetic trot on the flat.

Next, we worked on trotting over the centre of the trotting poles and then riding a curve to the centre of either of the angled (purple in the picture) poles. It took a couple of tries to perfect each turn: getting straight for the poles, using her outside aids to turn and not losing momentum. And of course I had to position myself to help guide them. Perhaps I need to invest in some cones for when I do similar exercises with bigger horses!

At the end, I asked my rider two questions.

“Which way did your pony find hardest?”

And “which way did you find hardest?”

Correctly, she replied that her pony found going left hardest, but she found it harder to ride right.

I was really impressed with her summation, and it meant that I could begin to explain why. The pony is older, I think having had a busy working life or perhaps an old injury has caused some stiffness which has led to the pony favouring the right rein. There’s not a huge amount we can do about it except ensure we work him evenly on both reins and sympathetically to his weaker area.

For my rider though, we can definitely help. I’m always reminding her to keep her left thumb on top, and to imagine her left elbow being Velcro-ed to her side. She’s right hand dominant, so when she turns right her left rein, the outside one, doesn’t support her pony’s outside shoulder and so, despite it being his easier rein, he drifts through the left shoulder. We need to focus on her using her outside aids, and building an awareness for what her left hand is doing. Or not doing. But I know some exercises which will help, and now she understands the implications of her weak rein I believe she will be more focused on correcting and improving herself.

To finish the lesson, I wanted to give my rider a feel for an elevated trot and to get her feeling a perfect straight line, so I introduced her to the grid of poles.

Firstly, they trotted on the lower poles, with the raised poles acting as tramlines to help pony and rider stay straight throughout the poles – no drifting! My rider could feel both hindlegs pushing evenly over the poles and felt the straightness in his head, neck and shoulders.

Finally, they worked over the raised poles. The pony really picked his feet up, giving my rider a lovely feel of an elevated trot, which again will help her create more impulsion in her flat work as she’s had a feel for the extreme.

In all, a really good lesson which I felt taught my little rider a lot about both her and her pony, which will enable me to put together some exercises on both the flat and over jumps which will improve the pair of them, and more to the point, my rider will understand why we’re doing them.

Equi-Spa

At the end of the summer I was approached by an American company, Equi-Spa, asking if I’d trial and review some of their grooming products.

Always up for trying new things, I had a look on their website to see why they differed from other grooming products before accepting their offer and very quickly a parcel arrived in the post for Phoenix.

In the box we’re three sprays: Orchid Oil Gloss, Peppermint Summer Protection, and Fairy Tails Spray.

I’m a great believer in elbow grease for keeping a shine on coats, so always use the body brush enthusiastically. However, I had felt in August the Phoenix’s coat wasn’t shining as I’d like. Her summer coat was fading and been bleached by our intense summer, and the first symptoms of a winter coat were appearing, which always makes coats look dull. If a product can help improve coats during the change, then they must be worth investing in.

First of all, I used the Peppermint Summer Protection. This is a pest repellent which uses only natural plant extracts. Having a baby in the vicinity, I don’t like using fly sprays full of chemicals, so this appealed to me. In all honesty, I couldn’t tell you the effectiveness of it as a fly spray at the moment: we weren’t particularly bothered by flies when I used it, but we are getting towards the end of fly season and don’t have those irritating zooming little black flies at the moment, which do irritate Phoenix. The spray does smell pepperminty and fresh, which can only be a good thing. The biggest impact I found from using the spray regularly, was the improvement to her coat. The spray leaves a residue which makes the coat slightly slippery (so I avoided over using it on the saddle area, just in case) which means dirt doesn’t stick to her, so she comes in cleaner and any mud is easily flicked off. Which is great for September, when the showers, warm weather, and coat change lead to plenty of rolling. Phoenix’s coat also developed a lovely shine to it, which many people complimented me on.

I really liked the spray bottle as by twisting the nozzle you could adjust the mistiness of the spray, meaning you waste less. However, the spray is quite loud and if you have a diva like Phoenix who dislikes sprays (you’d have thought she’d have gotten used to it by now, having been sprayed daily since April) it can be fun and games applying it. I did think it was worth the dancing though, as her coat looks and feels great even though she’s between coats.

The other two sprays (which arrived with black tape around to prevent leakage during transport, which I felt was a great just-in-case idea and doesn’t reflect the quality of the sprays in any way) are both mane and tail sprays. Again, the spray bottles are good quality and have a locking device so they don’t accidentally go off in your grooming kit. I also liked the tall, narrow bottle shape so it’s easier to keep them upright in your grooming kit. They stream the liquid out instead of spraying, so Phoenix was a fan, and I felt wastage was minimised.

The Fairy Tails spray is a non-toxic detangler –

Formulated with botanical extracts, pure essential oils, minerals and amino acids to detangle, manage and enhance manes and tails naturally!

– and I felt that a few squirts through the tail was all that was needed to make brushing it easy. Perhaps I should be trying this on my notoriously tangled hair? Phoenix doesn’t have the thick, lustrous mane associated with Welsh Cobs so whilst brushing it through is fairly quick I like to minimise what I pull out, especially when she’s already got a short patch from last winter’s rug and some more missing from an altercation with a hawthorn hedge. This spray does mean my brush flies through, and I’m hoping it means any hawthorn branches do too! There’s no smell with this spray, and the effects do seem to last. So many detanglers claim to last for weeks, but in my experience they need to be reapplied every day.

The second tail spray smells divine! It’s the Orchid Oil Gloss detangler, and again is non toxic.

Formulated with premium coconut and orchid oil extract, pure essential oils, minerals and amino acids to detangle, manage and enhance manes and tails naturally!

I felt this spray was superior to the other, as it really gave Phoenix’s tail a shine. Chestnut tails are a lovely mix of colours – highlights many ladies lust after – but they do lack the shine of a black tail.

The Orchid Oil Gloss also stayed in the tail for a few days which meant that brushing through her tail took moments.

All in all, I was impressed with the quality of all three products and the positive effect they had on Phoenix’s coat at a time of year when it is not looking it’s best as she prepares for winter. I look forward to continuing to use the detanglers over the next couple of months and hopefully see the improvement in her mane as it grows out, although looking back at the photos I think it needs a bit of a tidy up. Like owner, like horse! I’ll probably use the peppermint spray infrequently over the winter to condition her coat, but it will be good to further trial it in the spring when the flies reappear. I particularly like the fact the sprays are all natural and chemical-free, which can only benefit Phoenix, me and the environment. As well as the grooming products I tried there are some for hoof protection, udder/sheath cleaning, muscle care, sweet itch relief, and skin/coat care. They’re all natural products and look to complement each other in the care of working horses.

If you want to find out more about Equi-Spa and their various products then here is their website – www.equispa.com – with an online shop, and there are also links to lots of welfare and management articles too, which make for interesting reading.