To Boot Or Not To Boot?

Another subject request from a client was on the topic of booting. Should you put boots on or not?

To me, boots have done a bit of a full circle. At least twice. Years ago, nobody would have used any form of leg protection at all. Didn’t Black Beauty scar his knees in a fall? Then bandages were introduced, but they’d only have been used by the elite – they’re tricky to put on correctly and are dangerous if they come undone. Especially on the hunt field or cross country course.

Then the basic brushing boot came onto the market, which soon became popular amongst all as it was affordable and easy to use. These became more elaborate with sheepskin and various fancy fastenings. And we all became a little obsessed with protecting our horses against any knock or cut, and boots were used to turn out competition horses in the field as well as when ridden.

Then along came the scientists, who found that boots heat the leg up, which makes the tendons more liable to injury – Here’s a really interesting article about the pros and cons of boots from a scientific perspective.

So then owners started to move away slightly from boots. But we still have that urge to protect our horse’s legs. Which has left us in a bit of a quandary and susceptible to the marketing ploys of all the scientifically researched boots which require you to take out a second mortgage to purchase them.

I joke, but after perusing the Premier Equine spring catalogue and dreaming of winning the lottery, protective boots have become very complicated areas.

Back to my client’s original question. To boot or not to boot?

I think ultimately it requires you to be sensible. Take precautions, use good quality equipment, but also allow horses to be horses.

Firstly, have a look at your horse’s conformation and way of going. Are they at risk of overreaching because they’re short-coupled? Are they young and unbalanced? Do they move straight, or is there a swing to their limbs? Are they “out of one hole” and narrow chested? All of which increases their risk of inflicting damage upon themselves, by one limb knocking the other. Do they have shoes? A shod foot will do more injury than a barefoot. And studs will do more damage than a plain shoe.

If your horse answers yes to any of the above questions then I’d be more inclined to use protective boots.

Next, what are you doing with your horse? A gentle hack, or prelim/novice level flatwork has a lower risk of injuries than cross country or interval training. The BHS taught me to put brushing boots on to lunge because the risk of injury is higher when the horse is working on a circle. Whether they still advocate this, I’m not sure, but it’s a valid point. Equally. I would consider the horse’s energy levels – is he fresh and likely to throw in a couple of spooks or bucks which may cause injury?

Another point to consider is how hardy is your horse? A thin skinned, clipped Thoroughbred will knock themselves and blood will start gushing, whilst a well feathered cob has more natural protection. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, so get to know your horse.

Does your horse have a previous injury? For example, if they’ve previously done a tendon, or have an old scar on their leg, then you may want to consider booting them for supportive reasons as much as protective reasons.

Otis wore boots as a matter of course. I always put brushing boots on him; simple, basic ones. Mainly because I think I always did, so we were both used to it. Then he frequently pulled shoes off, so he wore overreach boots when ridden and when in a herd, he wore them in the field. On his own, he is fairly sensible about it all. His hind legs are quite close together, and when he was shod behind the inside of his shoe used to catch the inside of the other coronet band, so that he lost his feathers in that area. So I put sausage boots on his back legs, which I’m not one hundred percent convinced that they solved the problem, but they definitely reduced the effect. Upon reflection, I think overreach boots would have been a better alternative.

With Matt, I didn’t put brushing boots on him in everyday riding, and Mum doesn’t either. However, when I took him on some sponsored rides last year I did put brushing boots on him for protection over the solid fences.

With Phoenix I’ve not yet used boots on her. She’s barefoot and straight moving, so I’m not worried too much about overreaching or knocks, especially while she’s in such light work. Plus the fields are so muddy that I would struggle to get her legs clean enough to put boots on, so risking damage to her legs from abrasions due to pieces of grit being caught between the boot and her leg. Once I start jumping her properly I’ll definitely put boots on her, to protect her from knocks as she learns what to do with her body. But I think I may be more relaxed with her than with Otis, and just put boots on when I feel she needs protection. Once she’s learning lateral work then she’ll need protection as she gets used to crossing her legs over.

So to answer my client’s question, I think it’s important to take precaution with our horse’s legs to avoid injury from knocks, abrasions or cuts. But it’s equally important to try to prevent soft tissue injury by fittening your horse sufficiently because the jury is out as to how supportive boots actually are. And don’t feel that you have to use boots all the time: work out when you think your horse will most benefit from them and which types of boots (tendon boots, brushing boots, fetlock boots, etc) will best serve the purpose.

Then of course is the mind boggling question of which boots should you use. After all, they come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Basic boots are usually neoprene, which are lightweight so won’t have too much of a warming effect on the horse’s legs or weigh them down as they move. However, neoprene does soak up water so will become heavy and possibly hinder the horse after the water element on a cross country course.

Some boots have sheepskin inner, which were in fashion twenty years ago, but as the sheepskin warms the limbs up excessively they dropped out of fashion. Plus they’re so difficult to clean! However, sheepskin is better for sensitive skinned horses, and creates more even pressure around the leg so avoids rubs and pressure points. I saw some sheepskin boots in the Premier Equine catalogue which states that the sheepskin uses “airtechnology” to prevent the leg overheating. I’d like to see an independent study on the heat of legs and different materials of boots to see what materials are best.

Then there are more specialist boots, for example for fast work and cross country. These advocate their cooling technology. The ones I saw have vents which allow air to flow under the boot when the horse is moving. Together with technological advances, these boots have become very hard wearing and tough without getting heavy. Heavy boots will impede a horse’s movement and performance.

In all, despite the fact that we now know there are limitations and side effects of using protective boots for horses, technology has allowed boots to be developed which aim to enhance performance, prevent overheating, and provide protection to the limbs. So we shouldn’t be put off from using boots when necessary. However, I think I would choose when I used boots, and only use the level of protection that I required – so if a horse doesn’t need overreach boots then don’t use them, and don’t use specialist cross country boots for flatwork in the school – because the very nature of putting boots into limbs, or bandages for that matter, alters the way a horse uses their body. Then I would also minimise the length of time a horse spent wearing them.

On a side note, have you seen the research done on barefoot (human) runners and the difference in the way the foot absorbs impact when bare as opposed to when wearing trainers? It’s really interesting how the toes spread out and work independently to balance the body when unrestricted.


Keeping the Lower Leg Still

The other week I was trying to focus one of my riders on their lower leg over fences, and how it likes to swing backwards. But he was more interested in jumping bigger/higher/more exciting so I made limited progress. However, he went out competing over the weekend and saw some photos of him jumping and was horrified by his lower leg.

Great – so I had his attention!

In his last lesson I came armed with string. After a short warm up, in the indoor because of the unfriendly February weather, getting my rider to be really aware of what his legs were doing as he trotted round, I brought out the string.

I tied the inside of his stirrup iron to his girth. There’s still a bit of movement, but the resistance of the string makes the rider aware of their leg movements. This means that we can train their muscles to remain in the correct place whilst supporting his legs to help him learn the slightly different rise or slightly different feel in his balance.

Through the lesson we did rising and sitting trot, worked in light seat, and then worked the canter in sitting and light seat.

The string on his stirrups made my rider more aware of how his leg wanted to swing, but because the string stabilised the position of his lower leg, my rider could turn his attention to adjusting the height of his shoulders, how far back his bottom had gone to the cantle, and position of his hands. Thus allowing him to find the right balance.

I made some other tweaks, like getting him to carry his hands, and not hollowing the lower back as he went into his light seat. He also had to have softer knees so that the weight stayed in his foot, with the heel slightly lower than his toe and the leg stable. He started to understand how this new position would enable him to ride a whole cross country course like this without tiring, and how he could still use his calves to ride his pony towards a fence without losing balance.

At the end of the lesson I removed the string and we ran through light seat in trot and canter to see if his legs were remaining in the correct place and if he felt balanced. His homework over the next few weeks is to keep practicing maintaining the lower leg position, and hopefully by practicing on the flat and when hacking it will become second nature when he’s jumping.

Today, I got a video from him asking me to critique his position over a fence! It looked much better, he wasn’t in front of his pony over the fence and they looked much more balanced, as you can see in the rather blurry still from the video below.

I always think that when I jumping position, the rider should look as though they would stay squatting and not topple over if their horse has been removed from under them. If the lower leg swings back then a rider will topple face first, akin to superman gone wrong! I have high hopes that this rider will correct his position and strengthen it over the next few weeks because he’s understood the importance of it in helping his pony jump neatly and in balance, and in helping him recover quickly after a fence so that he can rebalance his pony and ride the next turn on the course.

Just Your Average Wednesday Morning

Sometimes I wonder if people should be allowed in the countryside. Those walkers who jump in hedges to hide as horses approach, or those drivers who speed round country lanes terrorising the wildlife, dog walkers, runners and horse riders.

Then I think that maybe there should be a test you have to do. And that maybe what I assume to be common sense is, well, uncommon.

This morning I set off on my ride and lead hack with two very well mannered geldings. I crossed the road and at the bottom of the lane was a stopped car, with a well dressed, middle aged lady and gentleman standing outside.

“There’s a cow out” I’m told by the lady, pointing to the young cow that was grazing on the side of the lane.

Meanwhile, a dozen other young cows lurked threateningly close to the wide open gate, tempted to go join their mate.

“It’s all very odd,” said that lady. “The gate was wide open and the chain isn’t around it.” Meanwhile, her husband is running after the cow, which is obviously running away from him up the lane …

We have to bear in mind here, that the couple have already driven past the calf before they stopped the car.

“Well let’s shut the gate for a start.” I say, looking at the woman. “Before any of the others make a run for it.”

She quakes in her high heels and mutters something about it being very strange.

The man comes back, puffing and panting, telling me he can’t catch the cow. So I suggest that he gets round the other side of it and then herds it down to where the car and I are blocking the road. He shakes his head and tells me it’s impossible.

Well, let’s face it, it isn’t. I was slightly frustrated at having two horses in my hands. There’s no way they’d have held them for me to go and herd the cow, and to be honest, I didn’t think I could climb back on, “in my condition”.

I hoped a car would arrive at the top of the lane to save the day, but when one didn’t, I told the couple to shut the gate (it was still wide open) and then to go to the nearest farm and tell them a cow was out. I wasn’t sure who they belonged to, but figured the nearest farmer would know and be able to help.

They looked very doubtful, so I tried to explain that the cow was unlikely to leave the lane and his friends on the other side of the fence so he’d be reasonably safe.

The man gingerly stepped over the mud to close the gates. They were two large five bar gates, which meet in the middle and are usually chained shut. The man pulled them two and then started walking away.

Job done. Well, not really because the gates weren’t actually closed.

“Perhaps there’s some string (I thought the term baling twine might confuse them) on the gate opposite so you can tie the gate shut? Then the cows won’t push through.” The gate opposite was to an empty field, so I knew it wouldn’t matter if that gate wasn’t as well secured.

The man did as I told, and I think with great relief, they both scuttled back to the car and drove off. I however, still needed to get past the escapee with two horses!

I managed to quietly sneak past the cow, who was quite happy mowing the verge, but it did lead me to wondering how or when do you learn to manage a problem like that. And how do you teach common sense? Even if you were terrified of cows, wouldn’t you at least securely close the gate immediately to prevent further escapes before contacting someone who may be able to help.

I still stand that there should be some sort of test before people are allowed to move to the country side.


10 Years of Otis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Good Walk

I thought I’d already done a blog post about the qualities of a good walk, but it appears that I haven’t.

So here goes, with the help of my little helper of course.

The walk gait consists of four beats, with each leg moving individually. The sequence goes like this: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore.

The stride wants to be of an even length, relaxed, flowing and steady. Each leg should flex at the fetlock and knee/hock well, and be purposeful in stride. I often tell young clients to imagine their pony is walking out of maths on a Friday afternoon rather than into maths on a Monday morning. Yep, you’re imagining those teenagers dragging their toes on a Monday and skipping out of school on a Friday!

The hind legs should be placed in front of the prints left by the fore feet, which is called over tracking. I’ve just read that over tracking enables the horse to absorb shock from the hard ground better. A horse who over tracks is also lighter on the forehand, so is more likely to get concussive injuries on the forelegs and less likely to work correctly and develop the correct muscles.

The average speed of a horse’s walk is four miles per hour, and it should feel relaxed, with the back swinging with each stride. The head and neck swings with each step of the foreleg, which is why many say don’t use side reins for too long in walk, because it restricts the natural swing of the horse.

When walking, as with all gaits, the horse should move straight. This means that each leg is pointing towards the direction of movement so propels the horse forward in the most efficient manner.

The frame of the horse should be slightly poll low, rather than poll high because then there is less tension over the back and the horse will stay more relaxed.

The walk is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve. Carl Hester always looks for a horse with a good walk and canter, as training will improve the trot. But why is the walk the hardest gait to improve?

It’s the slowest and has the least natural energy, and if a rider is too eager to input the energy they will throw the horse out of the four beat rhythm, causing a choppy stride and tension in the body. Which then causes them to inhibit the natural movement of the head and neck by holding too tight with the hands in an attempt to control the new energy. If a horse is pushed out of their four bear rhythm they are liable to start pacing. This is a two beat gait where the lateral feet step forwards simultaneously. Often, riders feel they’ve got an energetic walk as their horse begins to pace because they are covering the ground quicker, but as the four beat rhythm has been lost it is heavily criticised in dressage tests.

A horse who is hurried out of their natural rhythm, will be out of balance. This means that subsequent transitions aren’t balanced. They will struggle to halt squarely, or to push off into a balanced and correct trot or canter.

Horse can also be allowed to dawdle, which is when they’re allowed to drag their toes. Here, they usually still have a four beat gait, but the cadence and length of stride has deteriorated. Consequently, horses are more likely to use their forehand in the transitions and to be stiff through their body.

Next up, let’s see how we can improve the walk. I find the best way to teach a horse to walk with more purposefulness and energy, is to use hacks because a horse is naturally more forwards out of the arena. Then you can focus on channelling the extra energy into quality steps without the horse rushing. Steep hills will encourage the horse to use their hindquarters more efficiently and strengthen their muscles. When they walk correctly up a steep hill you can really feel the back lift and the hindlegs engage.

Other exercises involve collecting and extending the walk, which improves their balance and coordination, but you want to stay focused on their rhythm and only make small adjustments so that they still over track and keep the four beats.

Polework can help increase the horse’s cadence, and circle work will improve their suppleness which will increase their range of movement within each limb so their stride quality will improve.

I also think it’s important to be consistent in what you expect from a horse’s walk. Even when giving them a break mid-session, or cooling them down at the end, you should insist of the purposefulness of the walk, and maintaining the correct rhythm as so often both rider and horse switch off at these times. When the horse knows they have to walk actively and correctly at all times it becomes easier for the rider to influence because there is more natural energy to work with.


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.


Exploring New Places

One of the horses I ride has moved yards, and I’ve had the fun of exploring the local area. This sounds a bit weird, but I do so much hacking around one village, the postman always stops to chat (usually when it’s raining) and tells me about his holiday to Majorca. A change of scenery is always welcome!

Anyway, the first time I went to the new yard I kept a close look out on my journey for bridleway signs or woods with potential tracks. That day we went left out of the yard to a large field with a bridleway around the edge. It’s actually a really nice track that is fairly flat so it will be a good work out when I get to know the ground conditions because we can get some long trots and canters to get her fit. I think I can go further afield from this track, but I want to get to know the area first.

The next time I went right out of the yard, and did a predominately road hack. Keeping the active walk, with a bit of terrain, made her work surprisingly hard, and I came across a few byway and bridleway signs en route. I’m always checking my watch when exploring new territory so I can gauge distances and begin to put routes together and know an approximate duration. I’d like to say I use a compass to keep my bearings, but I’m not that Famous Five, and have a fairly good sense of direction. Plus Google maps on my phone …

After I’ve got my bearings around the immediate area I get out the Ordnance Survey map to see if there are any other tracks that I’ve missed, or ones just beyond the boundary I’ve explored. Then I feel more confident going further afield.

It seems the routes I’ve found so far haven’t been used recently. I had to duck under some pretty low branches, squeeze between the hedges and brambles. Regular use soon pushes back the undergrowth, so hopefully the routes will get easier.

Last week I found an overgrown bridleway which started off overlooking the road and fields before turning into a valley. It felt a bit like Gandalf and Shadowfax traversing Middle Earth as we explored this track. Then we found a fallen tree and couldn’t get past so had to turn around.

We then went the other way along the bridle way until I found a hole in the hedge leading to a large field. It was irresistible, so we headed out and went for a trot and canter around the edge. I think I was accidentally on a footpath – judging by the arrows I could see. At the top of the field I found a bench. It struck me as a bit odd. A wooden bench at the top of a field. But then I clocked the view. And I could totally understand why a bench was there. It was beautiful. The valley dropped away in front of me, hedges lining the view. It must have been someone’s favourite spot to sit back and enjoy the British countryside. Unfortunately the mare was too fidgety for me to take a photo – next time! I think it will actually look more picturesque in a few weeks when the leaves turn orange.

We continued around the edge of the field, definitely on a footpath by now, but I kept close to the hedge so we didn’t damage the crop. Then we squeezed through another gap in the hedge back onto the bridleway and went home the way we came.

It was a really nice hack, and now I know where to go and what the ground is like we can have more trots or canters en route and perhaps venture further along the bridleway.

While I was riding, I was thinking of our hacks at home. Maybe it was the lack of mobile phones, or indeed their signal, but we had names for all our hacks. The Wildings, which was a bridleway through a stream and surrounded by old trees. Wern Ddu, which circumnavigated the local golf course. The West, which went through fields and past the drive of the said house before going back along the lanes. The Pink House, which went past a pink house which has been painted white for the last decade. Bryn-Y-Gwenin, which went through a nearby village. Crow fields… which I was never quite sure how it got it’s name. When we left the yard we told others which hack we were doing, so they knew how long we’d be out and where we’d be if they needed to come and find us. None of the hacks I go on now have names. We just use vague directions – such as going to the woods, or round the village. At each location there are several routes.

Having a new area to explore makes me realise how lucky I am to get to explore so many parts of the UK on horseback and how we take our countryside, and the byways and bridleways, for granted.


Slightly Defeated

I took one of the horses for a hack earlier this week and had a slightly bittersweet time. It's been a couple of weeks since our last hack, and she's not the bravest of souls. But I was disappointed when she flat point refused to go past a monster that has been there for weeks.

The track is very familiar, and she had been past this dumped feed sack, full of weeds, a few times. However, last week's rain had flattened the bag. I guess the weeds have also started to decompose too. So the bag was less visible; invisible until we were level with it.

As she spotted it she stopped politely, and reversed in the most beautiful rein back (far straighter than our attempts in the arena). Once we'd stopped, I asked her to walk on. She did until she got to the same point, and then she reversed in a more committed manner, refusing to walk on.

We had a quiet battle for several minutes, where I coaxed her in shoulder in towards the bag, and she would calmly rein back. There's no point getting angry at her, I did bring out the stern voice because forty strides of rein back really is excessive! But this mare was adamant that she was not going past the monster.

Getting her as close to it, and standing still, as possible I gave her a small pat. After all, we were approaching the monster and not turning tail. I dismounted and led her past the monster. Of course she didn't bat an eyelid, and stood perfectly for me to clamber back on from a nearby bank.

I felt like a bit of a failure. Disappointed in myself. After all, I'm training her, and I've not managed to train her to unquestioningly do as asked. Dismounting on a hack always makes me feel this way.

But then my logical brain kicked in. What is the situation from the horse's point of view?

Horses are followers, and they accept their riders as the herd leader, or at least higher up the hierarchy. So they gain confidence from them. In the wild, if they come across something unknown, the leader or dominant horse will approach first, with the submissive ones seconds behind.

This horse didn't want to go past the monster, but when I (the leader in our relationship) took the lead, and went between her and the bag, she instantly felt safe. After all, I was protecting her.

I still felt that my training was lacking slightly because I hadn't given her enough confidence from on board to pass the bag, but I was mollified later in our hack when we had another monster.

We needed to cross the road, but a large banner had been put up on the opposite side. That was scary. Added together with the large puddle on the side of the road, it took my a few attempts to cross the road. In the end, I turned her away from the banner, so she could concentrate on negotiating the large puddle. Which she did happily. Then I double backed along the road and entered the woods calmly next to the banner. All very calm really.

I should stop beating myself up really. Not long ago, this mare wouldn't have passed the bag with me leading without snorting and prancing past. And she would never have walked within touching distance of a large, white flapping banner without kicking up a fuss. So she's definitely growing in confidence.

Surely the point of training a horse is to develop the relationship and rapport that means they will do anything you ask calmly and happily. Therefore, surely the ultimate test of good horsemanship is the ability to bond with a horse, who has a very strong flight instinct, and to face their fears is the total opposite of their character, so that you can ride them past monsters and in new situations with them calm and relaxed?

So I'm not quite there, because I had to dismount and show her that the bag wouldn't eat me, but we are definitely making progress because her reactions to scary situations and less extreme, and more "I'm not sure about this… I'm a bit worried" rather than the "oh my god it's gonna kill me!" response that we used to get.


Day One of Pony Club Camp

Today was the first day of Pony Club Camp, and I realised that in order to successfully teach and enjoy Pony Club you have to change your attitude.

When you teach clients on a weekly, permanent basis, you have long term goals and iron out any faults immediately as you try to mould your riders. You get to know both horse and rider very well and can plan lessons well in advance.

At Pony Club, you have a group of unknown children and ponies for a short term basis. The aim of the rallies or camp is to have fun, improve, and to stay safe. In that order! As instructors, we're told to give these kids the best week of their summer holiday.

My ride this year are seven years old, most having done junior camp before. So they have some independence, but still need their parents for help tacking up etc. They all have their own ponies, and varying number of lessons through the year so they won't all follow the classic BHS plan of "when a rider can ride sitting trot without stirrups they can learn to canter" or any other recommended stepping stones. These kids will love jumping, be confident, but not necessarily have a good command over the basic position, which can lead to some hairy moments. But you have to learn to close one eye and let it go.

I have a bit of a proven method now for getting started with Pony Club now. My first session today was Handy Pony. This rarely fills the whole allocated session, so I took the opportunity to have a thorough assessment of them all.

As a guide, you want to order them biggest pony to smallest, which gives you a starting point. Staying in walk and with a couple of questions, you can soon assess whether your lead file is suitably qualified – they have to be able to maintain trot, steer reasonably, understand basic school movements. While they're walking I can usually tweak the order too. If one little pony strides out well, or one rider has the tendency to daydream and get too close, or if one can't keep their pony up with the rest of the ride.

Once I'm happy with my order, I'll organise the first trot. I send them in pairs, or possibly threes, making sure the fresh ponies or weaker riders have bottoms to follow. Then of course, I have to find the right place for them to have a trot – just in case a fresh pony or keen child gets carried away. And the ponies are always fresh in the first session on grass! I try and pick a short stretch, or a uphill slope, with a clear marker where they should be walking again.

So I sent my six riders off in pairs, fairly successfully. At least, I'd managed to put the more able riders at the front of each pair so it didn't matter that one rider set off with long reins, or one pony cantered two strides before trotting. This is another Pony Club technique – learn to quickly shout "shorten your reins" and to stay calm while the pony speeds off!

After a couple of pair trots we trotted all together, which is actually very stressful because there is invariable corners cut, ponies getting too close, ponies walking, and overtaking attempts. But I count it as a success when we have the whole ride trotting for a couple of minutes at a time. Little things! If I'm feeling brave, and can find a nice short space to canter, then I'll do that individually with them too.

This is also the time to wear the ponies out, keep them trotting so they won't be so fresh for the Handy Pony part. For the riders, I work out the one think that I need to improve; what will keep them having fun, improve them, and keep them safe? After all, I've only got a short space of time, and by the time we've learnt dressage tests, musical rides, hacked, jumped and done stable management there's not that much chance to work on basic improvements.

Often there are general position pointers for everyone; heels down, look up, shoulders back, shorter reins. But I always try to find a specific area for each child so that they take something away from camp. So for example, one of my riders this week needs her stirrups dropping a few holes and needs to learn to sit up tall. I've already dropped her stirrups a couple of holes and explained to her the importance of not leaning forward to help keep her in the saddle (especially when her pony lowers his head into canter!), so by the end of the week I want her to be more aware of when she leans forwards and to be riding with longer stirrups. Another rider is very gung-ho and her trot gets faster and faster, so I want her to learn to keep a better rhythm. Another rider is slightly behind the movement with her hands in her lap, so I'm going to get her more in sync with her pony. Another gets a beautiful extended trot from his pony instead of canter, so we're going to work on those transitions. One stands up in her stirrups in downward transitions.

By giving each rider a little goal, I feel that they will finish camp having improved their riding, whilst not taking away any of the enjoyment (because let's face it, I would love to drill them without stirrups for an hour a day) and these tweaks will keep them safe. For example, sitting up straighter with normal length stirrups will make her less likely to fall off over a jump; riding a downward transition correctly improves her level of control; getting a canter transition on cue means he'll negotiate the dressage test more successfully.

I also feel better with a specific aim for each rider, and it helps me plan my warm up. For example, my warm up for dressage included practising downward transitions so that one rider didn't feel picked on, but it improved her as well as giving the rest of the ride something to think about. Tomorrow, we will discuss and practice canter transitions to help the rider who struggles with that. Then we may do some sitting trot for the rider who leans forward. They will all benefit from the exercises, but some will take more away from each one than others.

I think my kids did very well today; we had some good attempts at the dressage test, a very successful Handy Pony session, and we managed to spend longer trotting as a ride by the afternoon, as well as lots of smiles and laughter. Tomorrow we've got showjumping, mounted games and musical ride practice.


Only a Short One …

This is only a short post because I’m tired from dressage camp and still have a lot of unpacking and organising to do.

Dressage camp was at a large centre with an excellent cross country course so yesterday afternoon a friend and I went for a leg stretch around the cross country course; walking through the water and generally building up the bravery of the horses. 

The Diva, that I was riding, started off by mincing through the water, and shying ten foot from, with eyes on stalks, the ornamental camel, but with time he was trotting confidently through water and even gave the camel a kiss!

This morning we decided to actually go cross country. Yes, I know it’s a dressage camp, but it would have been rude not to given that the facilities were there. The ground is exceptionally hard at the moment, so I decided to only do little fences, and concentrate on the ones around the water and on all surface tracks. The aim being to give the horses a break from dressage, to have fun, and to build their confidence around the water and with steps and ditches. 

Which we did. There was a lovely selection of small fences around the water complexes and on the tracks. The horses felt great and The Diva even jumped into the water and cantered up a step the other side very happily.

Afterwards, we were talking to the owner of the centre and he had some gems of knowledge to share.

Currently he is trying to put people off from coming cross country schooling because the ground is so hard, but he thinks they’re busier now than when the ground conditions were ideal. Perhaps not good business sense, but good horse sense.

He went on to say that the main test in eventing is the width of the fences. Most horses can jump the height required, but few can jump the width required. Take for example, at BE100 the maximum height is 1m, but the maximum spread at the bottom is 1.8m, and 1.1m spread at the top of the fence. Here comes the facts. When jumping on hard ground, horses are more likely to jump with a steep bascule, i.e. up and down with very little distance covered. On landing, they don’t like putting their forefeet down first or opening up at the shoulder and thus loading their heels, so they tend to land steeply.

This obviously doesn’t have such an effect over little fences, but if you consider the competition rider training on hard ground then they will be changing their horse’s jumping technique which will mean they aren’t as economical with their gallop as they shorten their stride, and will lose time as they aren’t jumping the spreads out of a flowing stride. Additionally, they may lose confidence with the spread fences because they don’t want to take a longer bascule, or they associate it with jarred limbs.

So whilst it’s never been advised to do a lot of jumping on hard ground because of concussion risks, it’s interesting to know how it affects the mechanics of jumping and goes to show that it could actually be more detrimental to your competition performance by training over hard ground than by substituting it for some other training on a surface.