Phoenix’s First Sponsored Ride

Phoenix and I have had a tumultuous few months; tight left gluteals and hamstrings followed by some internal stress bubbling over on her part (possibly caused by adapting to living in at night through winter) but we are getting it back together, and with some nutrition advice – more on that another day – I am better prepared for next winter so I can help her adjust. Phoenix internalises her worries so seems calm and in control, until it fizzes up and she pops. Not that dissimilar to how I handle things …

Anyway, with her having longer turn out, a clean bill of health from the physio, and a positive flat lesson last week, I decided very last minute that we both needed to have some fun, and entered us for a sponsored ride.

Some of you may remember that Otis had a reputation for doing airs above the ground for a solid two hours at his last fun ride. Before I handed him a life time ban. Matt had restored the fun part into fun rides a couple of years ago, but as Phoenix was a sponsored ride virgin, I was unsure how she’d take to it.

Anyway, in typical Phoenix style she loaded and travelled like a dream. I always feel very smug as we load her because she never falters. I unloaded her, tacked up then let her graze while we waited for our friends to arrive. Despite many sponsored ride veterans leaping around in anticipation, Phoenix felt remarkably calm and unfazed by her surroundings. It was by far the busiest place she’s ever been to.

Once our friends were ready, with horses she’d never met before, she let me mount and walked calmly down to the start, ignoring our cavorting friend behind us.

We set off in a working trot; she was a little tense and choppy to begin with but soon settled and opened up her stride as we crossed two fields.

We then pushed into canter, and it was forwards yet calm. We were leading, and it was very organised. No one overtook as we didn’t want any horses to get their racing heads on. My friend then drew away onto a line of small tyres. I followed. They were about 2’3″, but Phoenix leapt them confidently, doubling the height.

We did a couple more, sticking to the smaller options while she was over jumping. Considering her limited cross country experience and the fact she’s not really jumped since Christmas, I found her to be bold and basculing nicely. I think the physio has helped her utilise her back muscles more.

Unfortunately after a few jumps I felt Phoenix was chasing her friend in front, and not giving due consideration to the jumps, so I put her in front for a couple. Which made her sit up and think a little.

After a nice, long walk with fabulous Watership Down scenery, where she was calm and relaxed, we rode another line of jumps. This time, she stayed listening to me, and jumped like she was on springs! She’s so light in the forehand when she jumps, it felt phenomenal!

Another long walk to recover, and I was really pleased with how she coped by other horses cantering past, and being in such close proximity to her new friends.

We jumped another line of fences on the way home, and I couldn’t have been prouder! She took barrels, tyres, logs, hanging logs, all in her stride. She felt relaxed, confident, and very happy. I was on cloud nine. The last few months were forgotten and I could feel the talent, willingness, and unison that is Phoenix. She was perfectly behaved, and took everything on board sensibly – I was very proud of her performance.

Unfortunately, the official photos were over early jumps where she was still a little exuberant and whilst I’d have loved to commemorate our first sponsored ride together, there will be many others and far better photos I’m sure. I hope! Now though, I’m looking forwards to our next big adventure in May, and in the meantime we’ll get practising our dancing again.

Four Faults

I’ve got a little anecdote to cheer you up on a dreary Friday.

You know those lovely properties with long drives and electric gates? Well it’s not a problem entering, you just hop out and type in the code then the gates open and you drive out. When you leave, the gate sensors recognise you’re a car a open automatically.

However, when you’re on a horse, it’s a different story. For some gates I’ve had a little key fob which I just press to open the gates. Some I just get on after going through the gates. For others I have to rely on being let out and then just get off to key in the code and get back in. One horse I walk right up to the keypad, lean down to enter the number, and hope no cars roar up behind us on the road!

Last week, I saw the nanny in the house before I went to tack up one of the horses I ride out. I asked her if she could let me out when I had gotten onto the drive. Or avenue, as it it lined with trees. However, as I was tacking up I decided to swap the stirrups over as I hadn’t been able to get them just right. This took me a few minutes and as I let myself out of the stable block onto the drive, I could see the large iron gates were already open.

The horse I was riding is lovely, but on the way out on hacks his mind does tend to be on his stable and dinner. When we’ve had a trot and canter he’s up for it. Anyway, we ambled down the drive and, when we reached two thirds of the way down, the gates slowly started to creak shut!

With a couple of pony club style kicks, we broke into joggy trot, closing in on the gates… as they closed just in front of our nose!

“That’ll be four faults for a refusal!” shouts this voice behind me, accompanied with a laugh. Two gardeners had put down their tools to watch me race to the gates! The rather portly one, still laughing, made his way slowly to the large iron gates. Of course, he couldn’t open them from the inside but somehow (and I repeat somehow) he squeezed between the wall which the gates are affixed to, and the wooden fence bordering the property, and went round to the other side of the gates, and typed in the code to let me out. And let himself back in in the process.

I’m glad I provided them with a couple of laughs, but I’m also very glad they were there because I don’t think I could face the embarrassment of going back to the house to ask to be let out!

Hopefully soon I’ll have authorised access to open the gates from my phone, which will make life far less complicated. First world problems, eh?

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.

Riding in The Field

Today`s post is a continuum from my last post, How Institutionalised Are We?, purely by chance.

It was the following morning, so Thursday, when I went to teach my first client at 10am. I was beaten to the yard by another instructor who started teaching in the arena. We could have shared, but adjacent to the arena is a nice flat paddock, which happened to be empty, so I asked my client if she wanted to test her pony in the field.

She agreed, because she`s always up for a challenge! Her share pony is a Haflinger, who is very sensitive to the leg and has a little bit of a reputation for being naughty. He`s the sweetest, most trying horse in the world though, so I feel that his past behaviour is a fear reaction. For example, he doesn`t cope very well with the rider losing their balance, so when he was jumping and his rider got left behind, his natural reaction is to run. To cut a long story short, this little horse now has the reputation for bolting after jumps.

He doesn’t, I`ve seen him jumped by my client very calmly and quietly.

Back to my story. Given this pony`s reputation my client and her Mum have slowly introduced new things to him, so he walks around the field to cool off happily and goes out quietly round the lanes with other horses. It`s been great that they are so patient with him and let him acclimatise and process everything, only moving on when he`s happy.

We began the lesson by walking out the arena we would use. I suggested my client found an object, such as the windows of the nearby house, to focus on to help establish a straight line for the track of our arena. She kept the horse walking positively forwards in a good rhythm until she had familiarised herself with her path. I told her to still think about riding a straight line, followed by the corner, and then the straight line so that her horse learnt to not to drift around the field in a lackadaisical way.

With a good walk on both reins I also talked about riding circles to her, saying the in order to keep her horse`s focus she needed to be busy, and not ride around our track too many times. She struggled for a moment to establish the size of her 20m circles, but once she mastered them at either end of the field we moved up into trot.

Her pony got rather excited, and tried trotting in a rushed rhythm on the forehand, so we did circles, serpentines and transitions to get his attention. He was funny as he went through the longer grass because he quickened his trot and lifted his knees high! I had my rider balance and steady him before the longer grass, but be consistent as she rode through the patch so he learnt not to rush and got used to the grass tickling his cannon bones.

In the field was a shallow dip, which I told my rider to use to her advantage. It didn`t do her horse any harm to trot down and out of it, he had to think about his balance and it kept his focus on where they were going and the ground beneath him. He is footsure, but it was nice to see him balancing himself and it was good for my rider`s balance too.

We have been working on keeping a consistent rein contact and getting the horse between her leg and hand, so the field was a useful way to test her, as she didn`t have the walls to help control her horse`s outside shoulder. We struggled for a while, but the feeling soon clicked. Once her rein contact was correct and her horse listened to the leg for the school movements he lifted his back and started working in an outline.

He was working really well, so I brought them back to walk for a quick breather, before getting my rider to start riding travers. We started on a circle, pushing the quarters in a little bit and then down the straight side of the school. To my delight, she got a response. Her horse thought about the question and then tried moving away from her outside leg. When the balance of aids was wrong, she got a bit of leg yield, but soon they had slight travers in trot on both reins, down the straight side of the field. Both were working really hard and we were running out of time, so I brought the lesson to a close, getting my rider to trot on a long rein around the field.

It was great to test this horse and rider combination; and it did prove my point of the last blog post that taking it slowly in the field and being insistent on the way the horse goes results in a more relaxed, consistent, active way. I didn`t canter; not because I doubted their ability, but because they were going do nicely I didn`t want to upset either of them and cause us to end on a bad note. My rider now has a positive experience of riding in an open space to build upon, and when she`s ready we will canter, which will really help her control of her horse when she hacks out with others.

A Hack Horse?

Yesterday at Horse of The Year Show we watched the Hack championship. If I’m really honest, I didn’t really understand how Hack classes are judged, and the championship horses were very similar. Dark bay thoroughbred type, fine horses who looked light in their movement and comfortable to ride. I got the impression that you could happily ride the Hack Champion for a couple of hours over good ground. I’m not sure I would want to hunt them or anything as they looked a bit delicate!

So I had a quick look online tonight to find out a bit more of the definition of a Hack Horse and the related classes.

Here are the links I found;

http://www.theshowring.info/Hacks.htm
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show_hack
http://britishshowhorse.org

What? No Saddle?

A friend of mine owns an elderly cob who suffers from arthritis. He`s under a strict routine of being ridden in walk on all sorts of terrain and gradient to help keep him mobile.

To economise on time and maximise his riding time, my friend takes the bridle and a pad to the field and rides his cob from the field bareback. As he`s only walking it`s not uncomfortable and they go for miles.

So a couple of days ago my friend had a to pop to the farm next door to run an errand, so decided that his hack would take him off the estate for a change and he would stop by the farm on his way back.

Marching merrily through the woods he suddenly became aware that a woman was waving frantically at him and trying to catch up with him. Concerned, he stopped.

“Oh excuse me!” she panted, “You`ve forgotten your saddle!”

Hiding a smirk, my friend looked down beneath him and clapped a hand over his mouth.
“So I have!” he exclaimed “I thought something felt different!”

As if anyone could forget something as bulky as a saddle!

Riding on the Road

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/10732779/Motorists-confusion-over-how-to-pass-a-horse.html

I wasn’t surprised to read the above article. I can’t count, not even using my toes as well as my fingers, how many times drivers have passed me and my horse in a dangerous manner.

So I’ve drawn up a list of crimes.

Crime number one
Turning off your engine, and waiting until the horse and rider have just squeezed past before turning the key and watching in surprise as the horse skitters forwards.

Crime number two
Passing a group of riders in two stages by slotting in between two horse and riders while another car passes on the other side of the road.

Crime number three
Yes, I know it isn’t really your fault, but surely you can do something to stop your air brakes going off right as the horse is level with them?

Crime number four
This happened to me last week. Letting your children slam their faces against the windows as the horse passes thus sending him into reverse and causing him to sit down in the ditch.

Crime number five
Shouting abuse about horse riders as you pass; beeping your horn, or revving your engine.

Crime number six
Stopping half a mile away from the horse and rider, turn off your engine and sit there tapping your fingers while we amble down the hill to pass you. We don’t bite, and the road is double width, so you could have approached a bit nearer before stopping.

Crime number seven
Having things dangling off your exhaust or other underneath parts of your car so it rattles along. Or even hanging a flag out the window to flap towards the horses as you drive by.

Crime number eight
Trailing behind horses, who cannot move in any more and it is just bad luck you’re going round a bend so can’t overtake. Thank you for waiting, but putting your bumper within an inch of my horse’s tail will not make me get round the corner any quicker!

Crime number nine
Parking across the entrance to a byway, lane, or bridle way so that the horse and riders who will invariably come that way, cannot get through easily so end up squeezing close to your shiny new Audi and leaving a spur scratch as a token of their appreciation.

Crime number ten
Riding your motorcycle or quad bike or any other terrain vehicle at 100mph down the bridle way on a Saturday afternoon.

Three Wheels on my Wagon

Horses always do things at the most inconvenient times don`t they?

I got my horse in Friday evening only to find he`s mislaid a shoe somewhere in his field. I am not impressed!
So I text my ever lovely farrier and beg him to pop over if he`s in my area at the beginning of the week. He`s usually at our yard on Thursdays, which is a long time of not riding and a fair length of time to lose fitness. I remembered to apologise to my farrier for it being a Friday and saying that I permit him to ignore me until Monday so that I don`t upset his weekend. I`ll leave that for when I have a competition the weekend my horse pulls his shoe…

So what will replace my riding over the weekend? I guess thankfully it wasn`t competition weekend, and I haven`t arranged a lesson or hack with friends or anything. I`ll probably take the opportunity to give him a thorough groom and trim him up. I might even lunge him in the soft sand school as he hasn`t taken any foot off with the shoe. Or if it`s nice weather, perhaps a bath! All in all, it seems like it will be a pamper weekend, and I might even get the opportunity to sort out the shed or clean my tack or put away the winter rugs …

“The Next Go Kart Ride”

This is a hot topic for debate and my boss is regularly saying “We`re not the next go kart ride at two o clock”. She is, of course, complaining about those clients who come for a hack but just want the fastest horse and to have lots of gallops.

I`m sure you all know someone like that.

What has triggered this blog was the following conversation I had with an irregular client yesterday.
“My wife and I would like to book a hack tomorrow.”
“Yes of course; we haven`t seen you two for a while. Is tomorrow morning okay?”
“I think so. I suppose as it`s so wet the hacks are mainly roadwork?”
“Well the woods are pretty waterlogged still. We`re walking through them, but yes, it`s mainly roadwork.”
“What about the gallops? Can we go on the gallops?”
“I doubt it, it`s quite boggy there.”
“Oh. Well I like to ride something fast, and my wife wants something a bit steadier but still up for a gallop.”

We have a couple of clients like this; they want to go as fast as they can, with no regard for their horse`s safety or well being, and are completely ignorant to the instructors attempts at educating the riders. Ironically, when they get back they say something like “Oh my horse was tripping a lot today” … that might be because you were making him jog down the hill, or you tried to canter through the mud …

As can only be expected, this attitude leads to dangerous behaviour, such as overtaking the lead file, or giving the horse a big kick in the guts at the entrance of the field and subsequently taking the hack for an unpermitted gallop.

How do you educate these sort of people? They must have a level of empathy for other creatures in order to survive, I know that one of them has even got pets. But the empathy level obviously doesn`t counterbalance their level of enjoyment. I`ve tried on many occasions to explain my attitude to hacking and why I choose to go which route and at what pace, but it falls on deaf ears. Once two riders complained that they hadn`t cantered on their hack. It was 10am on a frosty winters day, with patches of ice – we avoided the roads and stuck to tracks and woods in walk with a bit of trot. A bit boring yes, but ultimately safe and the horses came back sound and uninjured.

I`ve made a list of some questions that “Happy Hackers” should consider when going out for a hack.

So what makes a hack enjoyable? Why do you choose to go for a weekly hack as opposed to a lesson?
Personally, I love hacking; I love exploring the countryside and finding new routes, going out with friends and having a good catch up, letting the horses socialise, and improve their confidence and ability to navigate different terrains. I think that`s the main reason last weekend my horse confidently negotiated down and up a ditch, avoided saplings and then down a steep slope to avoid a large fallen tree, with very little encouragement from me. Of course, I like to let our hair down and have a canter in the fields or pop over a few logs so long as everyone I`m with is happy to do so and the ground is suitable. It`s also great for fattening and building stamina. I`d much rather have a steadier hack but a sound horse for longer than an adrenaline rush and then have to care for an injured equine.

What is the correct etiquette for hacking?
On roads, you should try and stay in single file. Obviously if you have a young or green horse then it may be necessary to go side by side. Ensure you extend courtesy to drivers or other road users so that correct behaviour is repeated in future encounters. You can trot on the road, so long as it`s safe, but most people advise against prolonged or fast trots as it can cause concussion injuries. I quite like finding a fairly steep hill and trotting steadily up there; it works the hindquarters without the speed, and the risk of concussion injuries. I found an excellent grass track a month ago on a hack which was perfectly straight. No, I did not go in a flat out gallop along it, but rather used the opportunity to practice my medium and extended trot. I could build it up slowly and maintain it for longer, which led to a fabulous, balanced extended trot.
When riding as a large group a competent rider should be at the back to keep up the stragglers and ensure everyone is okay. Lead file should regularly check behind and inform everyone of a change in gait or direction, or of any vehicles or spooky objects coming up. The golden rule is no one overtakes the front horse.
I am strongly against repeatedly cantering in a field, as the horses begin to anticipate, which can be dangerous in poor conditions or with a more novice ride. Take for instance, last weekend I had a competent hack but we got to the large field on the way home and one mare bolted. She saw the field and knew it was normally a canter spot. Whilst in mid-gallop the mare spooked slightly and my rider fell off. Ouch. I always make my horse wait until I say, even if it means we trot half the field, or even the full length just to make sure he`s not in control.

How do you know the ground is suitable for fast work?
Boggy or muddy ground makes cantering, galloping or jumping more difficult for the horse. It`s the same as if we were running in mud. The mud sucking on the horse`s limbs puts extra strain on the tendons and ligaments of the horse, and also risks them pulling a shoe or injuring themselves by over reaching as they can`t get the front foot out the way in time.
On the other hand, in the middle of summer the ground can be harder than concrete. This isn`t great for fast work either as your horse can develop concussion injuries, such as splints, or bruise their soles.
As well as the weather factor, you should consider the actual ground you would be cantering on. In woods there is always the risk of tree roots or animal holes (I came across a huge badger hole the other week in the woods. I`m sure that if a horse put their foot down they would break their leg). You should avoid fast work down hills as it unbalances the horse and puts him onto his forehand. Some land can be very flinty or rocky, which can cause bruising to the soles of the horse, possibly leading on to infections and abscesses.

I think that if riders consider these questions whilst hacking out they and their horses will benefit. Anyway, if you`re going hell for leather you won`t see that family of deer grazing in the field, or the view from the top of the field, looking down over the village. Equitation is about more than just riding as fast as possible or winning the competition, it`s about enjoyment of both parties, and having a bond with your horse, be it your own or your favourite at the riding school.

A Point to Ponder

This is just a quick question, open to everyone – please comment with your thoughts below.

Last week one of the riding school geldings had a visit from the chiropractor, only to find he had a dropped pelvis on the right side. Following instructions, he was turned out so he didn`t stiffen up and had the weekend to chill out and Monday I asked a colleague to take him for a walk hack. Round the block, so to speak.

He took him through the woods and back across the fields.

Now, my question is, what is the best sort of terrain to bring a horse back into work? I don`t mean from an serious injury, but after having treatment of some sort or a bit of time off.

I would have taken the horse in question along the road or firm track. My theory being that if he`s just had his back manipulated then you want to minimise the risk of him slipping and tweaking himself again. Obviously hard roads have other implications for other injuries, and I`m sure wet woods may have be beneficial for some rehabilitation.

Over to you guys, I want feedback!