Increasing Knowledge

I remember reading an article by a BHS instructor which said that teaching Riding Club members was often more rewarding to teach than professionals because they are more receptive to different views and are well read in their areas of interest: be it dressage, a past injury of their horse, or join up.

When I was younger I remember we followed our instructor and yard owner’s instructions blindly. Probably mostly to do with the fact that we were kids. But if she told us to increase our hard feeds, or that our pony needed the farrier next week, or that we should put a martingale on, then we did it. She was usually right, but it didn’t lead to a huge amount of understanding. For example, why did she think our pony needed more feed? Or that they needed a martingale.

Now however, amateur horse owners keep their horses on a far more individual basis. They organise field maintenance, decide when to bring their horses in for the winter (all our ponies had to be living in by the first weekend of December but the ones which started to drop weight started living in earlier), and feed rations. As well as organising the farrier and dentist themselves – we had a farrier who came weekly and our ponies were done when we were told they needed doing.

As a result, horse owners now need to be more well read, and know how frequently to check teeth or shoes, and signs to look for that means the feed ration is too much or too little. This gives them more control over their horse’s lifestyle though.

However, information is more available to horse owners. Magazines, social media, the internet, books, webinars and DVDs all mean that information is at our finger tips. We are also more likely to see new products earlier, which can lead to owners following the fads.

It’s understandable that horse owners want to learn, because they have a vested interest in equines, and this is their hobby. And I like that attitude, it makes these people easier to teach. The ability for amateur horse owners to research new products, ring up feed companies for advice, and read reviews or celebrity interviews means that by the time an instructor is asked their opinion, the owner has already decided on the answer.

I have some clients who do some research, and then ask me for my opinion. Whilst others are more confident in their convictions. I think there’s a balance: horses haven’t read the textbook so whilst on paper it would appear that (A) is the answer, in actual fact (B) is a better option. And your instructor or yard owner may have experience of similar horses or have some “outside the box” suggestions which may work. So it’s useful to keep your instructor or yard manager on board with your horse’s management. Additionally, an experienced horse person may notice the earlier signs of weight loss, lameness, behaviour problems, or illness than a one horse owner will, so it’s important for them to feel that they can approach you with a concern if they’ve noticed a change in your horse.

From an instructor’s point of view, the fact that your clients are more knowledgeable and keen to learn puts a bit of pressure on you to continually enhance your own knowledge and continue to learn. Which ultimately can only be good for the industry because instructors strive to improve their performance and quality of lessons. Last week a client of mine had the physio to her mare, and was advised to use either a bungee or a chambon. So she asked me what my opinions were on either of the two gadgets and if I could help her fit and use one. Now, I’ve not used either gadget frequently, but I had to double check my knowledge so I could formulate a balanced, knowledgeable answer for this client.

Teaching is not just a test of your knowledge of schooling and riding, but you are invariably asked about all aspects of horse care, and I do like the challenge involved with advising owners on all sorts of topics, and also being kept on my toes with new developments within the sport.

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Riding the Outside Shoulder Around

I’ve done some work with several clients this week about riding the outside shoulder around turns.

If a rider, like many novices and children, uses the inside rein to turn their horse then the horse will give too much bend through their neck, which opens up the outside shoulder. So when the inside hind leg comes under, instead of acting on the centre of the horse’s body and propelling them forwards, the inside hindleg works across the horse’s body, throwing their weight diagonally, out through the outside shoulder. This means that the horse moves less efficiently and has less power because energy isn’t flowing through the horse’s body back to front.

To the untrained eye, a horse giving an exaggerated neck bend can seem to be more supple than a horse who is slightly straighter through the body but engaging his hindquarters, yet the latter is working more efficiently and correctly.

Often, I believe, this trait comes from riders over using their inside rein, and horses being asked to ride too small a circle or too tight a turn before they are physically strong and balanced enough, so in order to negotiate the turn they fall through the outside shoulder as they go round.

Firstly, let’s look at how to prevent a horse falling out on turns and circles. The aids are the outside leg pushing the barrel around, and the outside rein maintaining the contact and preventing the neck from flexing. For a horse who is inclined to fall out, this rein has to be prepared to support the shoulder as the horse tries to fall out, then tries to work out how he should be moving. Often, this is where it goes wrong because the rider is not convinced enough in their application of the aids or strong enough in their core, that when the horse gets heavy in the outside hand they lengthen the arm to relieve the pressure. Which means the horse continues to fall through the outside shoulder. The inside rein on the turn opens, to tell the horse where they should be going. Think of this rein as an indicator, not an instigator. It is only suggesting to the horse which direction they need to go, not causing the movement itself. The inside leg prevents the horse falling in and also acts as the accelerator, keeping the impulsion of the gait. The rider’s body turns in the direction of movement, being careful not to throw the outside hand forward. The inside seat bone is loaded fractionally, and the outside shoulder and hip go forward.

So that’s how you should ride a turn. Be honest, do you always abide by these aids, or do you sometimes panic and think you aren’t going to make the turn so grab the inside rein? Or do you forget about the outside of your body? It’s very easily done, particularly when a horse tries to fall through the outside shoulder due to habit/old injury/previous poor schooling/evasion.

What exercises can be done to teach the rider to bring the outside shoulder around on turns, or to teach the horse to engage their inside hind leg through turns?

Firstly, I’ll often ask a rider to think about what’s going on underneath and behind them on circles while they warm up, this builds an awareness of the parts of the horse which are out of sight. Then they will more easily feel any improvement.

I like to use squares too, whether it’s just riding E-B or creating a square around the letter X. I’ll ask my rider to imagine that their horse is a plank of wood for a moment, and round each corner they are going to keep them as straight as possible. This stops them using so much inside rein and gets them using the outside aids. Once they are managing this and aren’t likely to fall back into old habits, we start introducing a bit of bend and softening the square into a circle. However, I get them to focus on creating a bend in the body, not the neck first – that comes naturally – so my rider thinks about the feel underneath them and uses the leg and seat to get a slight curve along the horse’s spine. Finally, I tell them to just allow the neck to bend in the direction of movement, which usually means that the horse gives just enough bend and the rider hasn’t lost the outside shoulder.

So this gets a rider feeling the difference between a uniform bend through the body, and a horse falling out through the outside shoulder. Hopefully they then apply the same aids on all circles and turns.

Now let’s look at the horse. Some horses are naturally crooked, so seem to bend easily in one direction and not so much in the other. One mare I teach sits in quarters right. We’ve done a lot of work building her rider’s awareness for the slight bend, and worked on improving the mare’s suppleness. In the trot my rider is getting more effective at using her outside aids and their circles are much improved, but the crookedness shows up most in the canter. Especially on the right rein. Both horse and rider have slight counter flexion, which added to the quarters sitting right means that circles tend to be more of an impression of a motorbike. So we’ve worked on my rider correcting her position and degree of turn, and then we asked the mare to look slightly to the outside in the canter before moving on to squarish circles, keeping the outside bend. To do this my rider had to keep her outside rein and exaggerate her outside leg. However, the mare soon started to move around the school with her outside shoulder coming round. After doing this a few times my rider could really feel the improvement in the canter – it was more active and where the mare was straighter it looked like the hindlegs were propelling her along better. Returning to usual circles in canter, my rider managed to prevent the mare curling her neck and falling through the outside shoulder whilst having a bit of inside bend. Now she was riding from her inside leg into her outside rein, which means she has much more control over the horse’s positioning through turns.

I’ve done similar work with another client, who’s cob falls out on right turns. This is more important for her with her jumping because when the cob drifts out through his left shoulder he loses power, which means he chips in or is more likely to know the fence down. As soon as his rider rode a square turn, off her outside aids and with slight counter flexion, they maintained the quality of the canter to the fence and met it on a much better stride. Next week, I’m planning on doing some more work on this right turn before fences to really establish my rider’s aids, and her horse’s technique and balance through the corner.

Other exercises I like to use with a horse who is reluctant to bring their outside shoulder around on turns are; shoulder in, shoulder in on turns, haunches out on turns, turn on the forehand. Anything really that gets them listening to the outside rein, encourages them to bring the inside hindleg under and towards the centre of their body and helps improve their general straightness.

Horse and Country TV did a useful video about the importance of bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, and you can see from my screen shots below, the difference between the first one (riding off the inside rein) and the second one (riding from the outside aids). If you can, see if you can find the full length video masterclass.

A Matt Update

I thought you were well overdue a Matt update. Particularly as I went to see him a fortnight ago. Don’t worry, Otis fans, there will be an update on him at the weekend.

Last time I updated you, in August, he had just had his second x-ray. The X-ray showed that his stifle was healing well, but the fracture was worse than initially thought so poor Matt’s box rest was extended by four weeks.

After a total of twelve weeks box rest, at the beginning of September, he had a third X-ray, which thankfully showed that the fracture has healed. Which means it’s onto phase two.

The X-ray showed that the bones were smooth, with no callouses from the healing process, but because the stifle is a very complicated joint, where numerous bones need to glide over each other, plus the fact that the new bone on the fracture site is less dense and strong than the rest of his skeleton, means that exercise needs to be introduced very slowly.

The vet instructed that Matt needs to be led out for 30-60 strides every day. He can be grazed in hand, and can be walked out twice a day so long as he remains sound.

Now there are two problems here. One, how far is 60 strides? The answer is not very far! It’s the distance from Matt’s stable to the yard gate and back again. Which means that there is very little grass for him to nibble at en route.

Secondly, leading Matt out is like leading a ticking bomb. I don’t know how suicide bombers stand the suspense. He walks quietly enough, but then jumps a mile at absolutely nothing. Or suddenly stands bolt upright. Or bucks. Which means that his walks need to be done when the yard is quiet.

Armed with his lunging bridle and stallion chain, Mum’s yard owner led him out the first time. Predictably, he wasn’t interested in grazing the meagre grass by the fence, and was more interested in the horses up the field. He did a bit of jumping around in anticipation, but the walk was over and done without a hitch.

The next day, Matt seemed a bit sore and stiff when he walked out. But whether that’s to do with the exercise and his body not being used to it, or the cavorting around, he was definitely a bit subdued.

When I was visiting Matt I was given the responsibility of walking him out, but he still didn’t seem very interested in grazing, so it was a short reprieve from his box rest. I did suggest to Mum, that to help break up his routine that she placed a bucket of dried grass (which he loves) or a lickit at the end of his walk so that he is more inclined to relax outside of his stable, and hopefully he’ll get used to the idea of spending time grazing. Then when the distance of his walk increases he’ll be quicker to settle to graze on the nicer grass.

Matt’s walks will get longer over the next couple of months, and then I guess it will be time to introduce limited turn out, once the stifle joint is functioning efficiently and the bone has matured.

In the meantime, it’s back to the stable, with his variety of treat balls, willow branches, jolly ball, and stretches using clicker training.

The Wild Horses of Kefalonia

Last week we were on holiday in Kefalonia. Now, my lovely husband decided to organise a surprise for me. However, he forgot two vital components.

1) it is impossible to keep secrets from me. I knew he was planning to propose at least a week before he actually did it. I’m also the person who took one look at all my carefully wrapped presents that he’d bought, and guessed them all instantly. Now he just tells me.

2) he’s rubbish at keeping secrets. When he was planning his proposal he kept asking me if I thought a particular place was romantic. Which may have led to point number one, if I hadn’t already guessed by the fact he spent eight hours shopping and only bought a pair of swim shorts. When he has other secrets he just dances around singing excitedly.

Anyway, I digress. In a nutshell, I had guessed the surprise before he even told me that he had a surprise.

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a mission this surprise, with a small success rate.

We were going to drive up to Kefalonia’s National Park to try and see the wild horses. Unfortunately though, the day we were going to drive up Mount Ainos was the foggiest morning, and after getting halfway up and being engulfed in cloud we decided to turn around and go back to the beach.

I did spot some horse droppings on the way home, so I had proof that they existed.

I had done some research about these wild horses, although there is very little online about them. But I thought I’d share it with you anyway.

There was a tradition amongst the locals in Kefalonia to keep there horses running free on the mountains. I guess in a similar fashion to the Exmoor or New Forest ponies. This kept keeping and feeding costs down. However, during and after the Second World War the horses were abandoned and have since become feral. The horses are hardy, very similar to the Pindos breed – which you can read up about here.

There used to be numerous herds of horses on Mount Ainos, but their numbers have decreased drastically over the last few years and now there is only one herd, of some fifteen individuals. There are concerns about the Ainos horses becoming extinct, particularly as they are believed to have evolved to become a separate breed to the Pindos pony, and may have different genetic material, which could make them invaluable for improving the quality of the recently degenerating Pindos breed. Which reminded me of the Carneddau pony, that is genetically different to the Welsh Section A.

There are plenty of accounts online by people who have hiked successfully to the monastery on Mount Ainos and spotted the wild horses, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be for us. It will be interesting to know if anything is done to help prevent the horses from becoming extinct, and if research is done to find out more about their genes, and whether they are a breed in their own right.

Meanwhile, here are another couple of shots of the stunning scenery we saw whilst touring the island.

Tug Of War

If a horse is strong; be it in the field, school, on the ground, jumping or cantering, a rider or handler’s natural reaction is to pull the reins or hold on tighter. This creates a static pull and unfortunately isn’t that effective.

For this post, we’re ignoring the rest of the aids and body language, because I feel that this area is often most misunderstood by novice riders.

Imagine you are trying to push someone over who’s bigger than you. If you just lean your body weight against them then they will adjust their centre of gravity and lean against you, thus making them more stable and harder to push over. This is exactly what happens if you pull statically on your reins, or the lead rein if you’re on the ground. The horse will lean against you akin to a tug of war. Because they are so much heavier (ten times is the suggested ratio) gravity works in their favour and ultimately you will lose.

Going back to pushing someone over. Tactically, it is much better to give a series of smaller pushes, so unbalancing them and preventing them securing their centre of gravity against you. Now back to the horse scenario. A series of squeezes/jerks/tugs, whatever you wish to call them, is more effective at directing the horse and monitoring their speed.

Think of it as a give and take, or squeeze and release. You maintain the contact, be it lead rope or reins, but use your hand to apply pressure, then as the horse responds (however marginal) you relax the fingers. Don’t push hands forward because that will allow the horse to rush again. The release rewards the horse for his slight reaction, and reapplying the pressure repeatedly stops them leaning against you and means that they maintain respect for the aids.

From a driving perspective, you want to imagine you’re slowing decreasing your speed. So from 60mph, to 55, to 50 and so on. If you squeeze the rein yet drop the contact between squeezes it’s like alternating between the brake and accelerator. Some horses, like when you’re driving downhill, need frequent taps on the brake (half halts) to stop them rushing out their rhythm.

It’s a hard thing to get your head around, especially when faced with a horse who doesn’t want to stop cantering across the field, because it’s an automatic reaction when self preservation kicks in, but ask your horse to steady in small increments with a series of half halts rather than trying to win a tug of war and bring them to an emergency halt. Practice in the school, in a simulated environment so that you feel more confident out hacking and in open spaces, as well as training your brain.

Non-Athletic Careers

Most of us have horses for the purpose of riding; be it hacking, jumping, eventing, dressage, racing, playing polo or mounted games. Driving is another area we use them for. It’s a very athletic lifestyle, but unfortunately there are a large number of horses who aren’t able to have athletic careers. Maybe they’ve been neglected so are too weak to take a rider, or their conformation means they are limited, or they’ve picked up an injury during their lives. Or perhaps they just don’t have a particularly trainable brain.

This led me to wondering what non-athletic jobs a horse could have. After all, there must be something!

The first non-athletic reason that springs to mind is of course, companionship. Many older horses, or outgrown ponies are kept on by their owners to provide company for their younger/bigger/faster replacements. These horses often live a very happy, contended lifestyle, living out most of the time but being stabled during the worst of the weather, supplied with hay and rugged when necessary, visited by the dentist, farrier and vet as and when needed. Another aspect of this companionship is when competition horses suffer from separation anxiety and need their companion (often a Shetland) to accompany them to competitions. Obviously this is a far more exciting life than just staying in the field, but often these companions make all the difference to the competition horse’s performance.

There’s been a big move recently, and a lot of research done, into the positive effects of autistic children being around animals. The Riding For the Disabled charity has been around for years and hundreds of people have seen and felt the psychological and physical benefits of being with horses. One recent piece of research found an improvement in the social behaviour of autistic children who rode or handled horses on a weekly basis.

Obviously Riding for the Disabled involves riding, but there’s been a recent move towards Therapy Centres. These are for disabled people, or those suffering from depression, loss, or other psychological problems. Sessions involve grooming, and bonding with a horse or pony, leading them around, or being around the horses in their stable and field. After all, how many of us feel better after a tough day just by going and having a cuddle with your horse?

So a kind, gentle natured horse who cannot be ridden for whatever reason, could have a very fulfilling life at a Therapy Centre, letting troubled people spend time with them and heal. I had a quick look online and there are a few small businesses who have herds of horses and specialise in unridden sessions to help clients overcome their problems and rebuild their confidence.

I then got a bit stumped for other ideas, but I heard of a lady’s horse who had various ailments and after lengthy investigation and treatment needed to be retired, so she gifted him to an equine hospital as a blood donor. When you think about it, it’s logical really, for hospitals to have small herds of horses, usually geldings, on site so that in an emergency they can be caught (one criteria is that the horses are easy to catch) and blood taken from them and given directly to the patient. I guess this would appeal to many owners in that difficult situation of having a healthy, unrideable horse. The donor herds live out except for very bad weather, and are under the close eye of a team of vets, so are going to be well looked after.

That’s a very useful non-athletic job for geldings. But what about mares? Well a lot of people say “oh I can always breed from her”. Well, not really because the UK doesn’t need to increase the equine population and if a mare has an untrainable character then it’s unwise to breed from her anyway. Some injuries/illnesses or conformational faults can be inherited or make carrying a foal hazardous to the mare. For example, if a mare has chronic forelimb lameness (perhaps only two tenths lame so doesn’t prevent her from being retired) then this will be exacerbated when she is carrying a foal and heavier, therefore it’s not very ethical to put her through that. Some maternal mares could be used as “nannies” and could help orphaned foals, or they could help keep herds of weanlings or youngsters in check until they are taken to be backed. After all, recent studies have shown that it is very much the dominant mare which leads a wild herd to water, grazing, shelter.

Horses who can’t be ridden definitely become limited in the purpose that they can be kept for: which can make it difficult for some people to justify keeping them, but if they’re happy living out in a herd, and comfortable in whatever ails them, then there are huge numbers of retirement establishments around the UK, but it’s equally interesting to see what other options are available for them, be it helping improve the quality of life of troubled humans such as therapy horses, or assisting in the care of other equines, such as being a blood donor.

Where Are Your Heels?

Twenty years, or more, so ago when you learnt to ride it was “heels down, toes up!” I was teaching a client, a mother who’s getting back into riding now her daughter has a pony, and we were discussing the old school methods in her lesson and how equitation has moved on.

Being repeatedly told to put your heels down causes the rider to force their heel down – creating very stretchy calf muscles – which causes tension through the back of the leg and up to the thigh and seat. It also causes the lower leg to swing forward so you lose the vertical shoulder-hip-heel line. Which means that in order to stay balanced in rising trot the knee will get tight.

Next time you sit on a horse, try forcing your heels down. Can you feel your lower leg slide forwards? Can you also feel your thighs change and almost lighten your seat? All of this combined with a tight knee will push the rider out of balance and make the seat less effective.

The opposite foot position of course, is when the calves are tight and the heel sits higher than the toe. This means the rider has their weight in their toes so their centre of gravity is pushed forward. If the horse stops or slows down or changes direction, they’re far more likely to become unseated. Tight calves can affect the tightness of the whole upper leg, in a similar way to when the heels are forced down. Both extremes of position put tension into the leg muscles. Which, in both situations negatively affects the effectiveness of the seat.

So what is thought of now to be the correct lower leg and foot positioning?

The leg should drape around the horse, from the hip, with minimal amount of tension through the muscles so the the seat and inner thigh can subtly control the movement of the horse. Now, the precise angling of the foot depends on the riders anatomy. The weight wants to be favouring the heel – imagine your sole is covered with marbles and you are angling your foot to encourage the marbles to roll towards your heel. But the heel should only be fractionally lower than the toe, so you are close to horizontal. This means the lower leg is more stable in the rising trot and is the best position to support your body weight.

For some people, who have long, supple calves, their heel will naturally drop much lower than the toe, but while doing so you want to keep the leg tension free. The majority of us are tight in our calves, which means our heels and toes tend to be fairly level. In this case, it is the jamming of heels down that compromises the relaxed and correct leg. If a rider is tight in the calf and it is jeopardising their riding ability then it’s best to try some calf stretches off the horse to relax and lengthen the calf muscles, which will help improve the lower leg, rather than trying to just push their heels lower than their toes.

I rarely spend time telling my riders to push their heels down; I’ll ask them to drop the weight into their heels if they look tight in the calf or their weight has pitched towards their toes. If they do have a real problem with the lower leg position then I find working without stirrups, or standing up out of their stirrups whilst trotting helps them shift the weight around their feet so they can find the leg position that keeps them in balance – this exercise stops the knee getting tight because they’ll fall onto the horses neck whilst the lower leg flies out behind, akin to superman, and if the heel is forced down they will fall back onto the cantle.

A Variety of Bounces

I wanted to get a couple of the horses and riders I teach to improve their reactivity over fences so I put together a grid to get them thinking.

I laid out five poles, ten feet apart (we were working on grass, up a hill and neither horse has a huge length of stride so I reduced the usual bounce distance of twelve feet) and then walked two shortish canter strides to another pole. That was 30 feet to anyone going to replicate the exercise, 36 feet if you’re on a flat surface or have a bigger striding horse.

We warmed up by cantering up over the poles. Both horses managed to make the distances with a slightly more forwards canter. Checking for straightness as we went over them.

Then I built up the first fence as a cavaletti, so about eighteen inches from the ground. Then the third and fifth poles. The idea of these small fences was to improve the quality of the canter, and to give it a bit more jump.

Next, I raised the second pole, then the fourth, to just bigger than the cavaletti poles. Once the horses had popped through the grid comfortably, really using their hindquarters, and rounding their backs over the poles.

This alone is a great suppling exercise, but I wanted to improve the horses’ bascule. So I progressively raised the second and fourth jumps so they were double the height of the cavaletti. In order to negotiate these higher bounces the horses had to shorten their bodies, take off at a steeper angle and tuck their forelegs neatly and quickly to their chest.

Finally, I put up the last jump at about 80cm. The bounce fences encourages the horses to shorten their canter stride because they are making air, so to speak. Then they have to lengthen the canter stride and almost go slightly flatter in order to get the two strides to the final fence. A lot of horses find it difficult to adjust between these two canters so take off too far away from the final fence.

For a fairly straightforward exercise, the horses had to think about the fences. Pay enough attention to the smaller bounces that they didn’t tangle their legs up, but not over jump the smaller fences. The horse in the video b is very clean with his front legs, and this exercise made him tuck them up quicker than normal, which will help get him out of trouble if he gets in too deep to a fence. The other horse in the lesson can dangle his forelegs a bit, so alternating the height of the fences gets him thinking about his technique.

For the rider, it’s a good test of balance because their jump position varies between the smaller fences and the bigger fences. Which also serves to improve their position and lower leg stability.

Tackling Steps Cross Country

At a recent cross country lesson I did we had some fun going up and down some steps at the water’s edge, so I thought it was a good topic for discussion.

Steps are always seen at the higher level competitions, but increasingly are being seen in miniature form at grassroots and training venues.

Usually there’s either one or two steps, and they can either be a step up onto a mound, where there’s another jump and a gentle decline, or vice Verda, or they are set into the side of a hill, so making use of the terrain.

Firstly, let’s take a look at going up steps, because it’s easier for both horse and rider, and usually the first direction tried.

The horse needs to approach with plenty of energy, after all they are going uphill, but the canter (or trot if it’s a green horse and small step) needs to be heading towards collected, so that the weight is off the forehand and the hindquarters are engaged, ready to push the body up the step. The rider wants to be sat up, so that they are looking up the steps and their weight is off the horse’s shoulders. As they jump up the steps, the body should fold forwards, without collapsing onto the neck, hands forward to give the horse plenty of rein because they will need to stretch their neck out to balance. If the heels are down and the weight is in the foot then the rider won’t load the shoulders. A common problem when going up steps is gripping with the knee, so as they fold into their jumping position the lower leg swings back and the rider’s weight tips onto the horse’s withers, so unbalancing the horse and making his job difficult. I always find that you need to stay forward longer than you think over steps, because if you sit up too quickly the hindlegs will find it harder to mount the step.

When introducing horses and riders to steps I always like to find the smallest one and trot then canter up the single step until both are looking confident and understand the concept. With steps you can definitely feel when it has gone right, so often it’s a matter of waiting until it clicks with the rider.

Lots of training venues have a variety of steps, which are really useful for progressively building a horse and rider’s confidence and experience. Once the small step is mastered, and perhaps put into a short course, I like to add in a second step. Usually you can find a small pair of steps. With a pair of steps, the rider needs to be very flexible and balanced, to be able to fold up each step without impacting on the horse’s way of going. The horse needs to be thinking forwards, especially between the two steps so they don’t lose their momentum and end up scrabbling up the second step. As the rider feels the hindlegs climb the step, they want to close the leg to encourage a positive canter stride so they reach the second step at a suitable take off point.

Once two small steps are mastered, you can start to jump up bigger steps. This is physically quite demanding on a horse, so you’re almost better off doing smaller steps a couple more times and keep them feeling confident and not too fatigued.

Next up, is the rider scarer of jumping down steps. Again, start small, and with a single step.

Approach the step steadily, but with positive energy, allowing the horse plenty of time to look and assess the question. Don’t look down the step, drop your weight into your heels as you close the leg to encourage the horse to go down the step. The horse’s weight shifts backwards as they step off the edge, so lean back and allow the reins to slip through your fingers so the horse can lengthen his neck down the step. Lengthening the reins is important to stop the rider being jerked forwards and landing up the neck. Again, a lot of riders don’t stay back for long enough so it’s important to encourage novice riders not to rush to sit up. The secret to staying balanced down steps is keeping the weight into the heel and the lower leg forward.

Some green horses tend to be a bit over zealous and leap down the steps. I find that repetition, and making little deal of the steps usually solves the problem. Only when the horse steps calmly off the step do you want to start going down bigger steps, or multiple ones. Going down steps is a big confidence test for horses, and the rider needs to be quietly positive and stay balanced to give the horse a good experience.

The next step, excuse the pun, with steps is to incorporate them with water complexes. Firstly, stepping up out of water, and then dropping down into the water. The more steps you do, the more confident the horse and the rider become and they start treating steps like any other jump.

I was very lucky that Otis loved negotiating steps, and was very confident going up and down steps, and I loved doing sunken roads and step combinations with him. I spent a lot of time doing small steps, and each time I went cross country schooling I would warm up over small steps to build his confidence and remind him of them before incorporating them into courses so that neither of us thought twice about steps.