String Vests

We went out for dinner last night with friends, and I have to wonder what other diners thought as they heard us discussing the credentials of string vests.

Can everyone remember the old fashioned cooler rugs? Which were basically a string mesh? Copied closely on the string vests worn by the working class in the 1960s.

I can remember a friend of mine having one for her pony. We were about eight. Even then I couldn’t understand how the rug worked to prevent a horse getting a chill as he dried off after a bath or hard workout. It was more hole than string. Of course, now I know that my friend was missing a vital piece of the jigsaw – the top rug that trapped the air to the horse’s body.

The science behind it is simple, and it must work otherwise humans wouldn’t have worn string vests for as long as they did.

The mesh creates pockets of air, which when a top rug is applied, are trapped between the horse’s skin and rug. As the sweat or water on their skin evaporates it transfers heat from the skin to the air pockets. Air is an insulator, so heat is trapped close to the horse’s skin, thus preventing them developing a chill, which they would if cold air was next to their skin.

Modern day fabrics, going back to humans, are just glorified string vests but the weave is closer together. Sweat is channeled out through the holes, and the remaining fibres trap the warm air next to your skin. Modern fabrics combine the string vest with a top layer, which means that these types of clothing are fully functional without the need for the top layer.

Thankfully for us equestrians, who perhaps don’t always understand the science and forget the importance of the top rug, the manmade fabrics that are so popular with athletes, are also available as cooler rugs for our horses.

I was surprised, when I did a bit of research, about the fact string rugs are still available to buy. But I guess it’s because we equestrians evolve slowly, and really if you’re listening to the logic behind them then it is sound – and why change from something that works?

Does anyone still have a string cooler rug? Perhaps stashed away in the garage. Or perhaps you still use them regularly?

A Long Overdue Update on Matt

Matt’s story has all been very quiet since he fractured his stifle and had a trip to hospital, but last week he had his second lot of X-rays so I thought you might like to hear how he’s getting on.

I think I said in my original post – Which you can read here – that Matt was never very good at being stabled, particularly if his neighbours have been turned out and it’s a nice day. Middle of winter with all his mates in and he’s perfectly content.

Mum got organised whilst Matt was in hospital and ordered a calming feed, which seemed to have every calming herb under the sun in it. Matt’s been on this since he arrived home, and after a couple of days did start to settle down. Now he either got used to his new routine or the feed for into his system – who knows! Anyway, we’re sticking with the feed because it’s not worth taking the risk of him becoming stressed again.

Like I said, it took him a couple of days to settle into the routine, but he was still quite fragile, and easily upset when he saw other horses. He’s been in his usual stable, which is at the end of a barn, so he can’t see a huge amount. Textbook guidelines for box resting horses say that horses will be happiest in a quiet corner of the yard where they have activity to observe. However I think this is a case of knowing the horse, and doing what’s best for them. Matt doesn’t like seeing horses leaving him, so putting him out on the yard where he sees them coming in and out from the field will only cause him to box walk frantically, so I think the right decision was made to stop him seeing too much.

Obviously without visual stimulation to occupy him, there’s a higher risk of stable vices developing but Mum and her friends have been quite ingenuous in providing in-stable entertainment for Matt. Thankfully he’s never been prone to getting overweight, so he can have ad lib hay to graze through the day. Carrots have been hidden in his hay to encourage him to forage and eat. Matt also seems to like hazel twigs hung up, and soon strips them of all their leaves.

Between his long grooming sessions, clicker training, hanging likits and treat balls, his days are surprisingly busy. He also has a constant companion now because another horse is on box rest, which is also helping to settle both geldings.

Six weeks after his injury, Matt had more X-rays. This was to check the healing progress, and to see if he can start being walked out in week eight.

There was good news and bad news. Firstly, the fracture is healing well. Unfortunately, the fracture was worse than the original X-rays showed. Due to the large haematoma over the fracture site initially, the X-ray showed some faint lines spreading from the fracture. The vet wasn’t sure if they were diffractions from the haematoma, but on last week’s X-rays it’s clear that they were hairline fractures. This means that Matt’s box rest has been extended by a month, and he will have more X-rays in four weeks time, to see if he can start being walked in hand at twelve weeks. It’s a shame, but it could be worse and now the box rest routine is established it’s straightforward to extend it.

The first X-ray is from the time of the injury, and was taken at the surgery with the large X-ray plate on the outside of his leg, and the second image was taken six weeks post injury, but with the plate held between his legs as the portable X-ray machine was used at the yard. Hopefully you can see the fracture site clearly.

Matt has also had his shoes carefully removed because the fracture is stable enough that his leg can be flexed enough for the farrier to remove his shoes but he will stay barefoot now until he is ready to go out.

An Instructor’s Paperwork

I seem to have an overlap this week of various clients going on holiday, which means I'm a bit quieter with work. Not too quiet, but together with it being holiday time, I have a few early finishes. Which means I've had chance to attack that never ending pile of paperwork on my desk. As well as do those mundane tasks like booking the car in for a service, or going to the dentist. When I'm not being distracted by the cat wanting cuddles of course!

For a non office job, it's amazing how much paperwork I have to do, so I thought I'd give you a bit of an insight into the loopholes I have to jump through in order to teach my lovely clients.

My first job was chasing up my BHS membership and insurance. My membership expired in June, but no renewal came through so I rang them at the time and was told that there was a computer glitch but my insurance was still valid because my monthly payment was still going through. But last week I realised I still hadn't received my pack, which also means that my profile on the BHS website is out of date.

Whilst doing this, I was told that my DBS certificate was out of date … which I was fairly sure wasn't. So after a thorough hunt in the office I found that my certificate was renewed last year. This criminal record check has no expiry date, but it's recommended that it's redone every three years. I've now updated the BHS with the current certificate.

Next up, is my Safeguarding certificate, which lasts for three years. Thankfully I can do this course online, but I had to ring the BHS to apply for it. I'll probably do that tomorrow afternoon.

Whilst I was checking all my certificates I've made a note of the expiry of my first aid certificate – there's another fifteen months on that – and my Continual Professional Development days. I have to do a separate one for the BHS and for Pony Club, because it would be far too simple to have one CPD day that applies to both! The BHS courses have to be done every two years, and the Pony Club ones every three years. I need to do a BHS CPD day before April next year, but have another two years before my Pony Club one expires.

Really, just keeping track of all my certificates and insurance requirements (without any of the above by insurance is invalid) is a full time job. Mainly because they have different validity durations and expire at different times of the year!

The above paperwork and courses are all specific to being an instructor; most professions will have CPD requirements or other certifications in order for professionals to keep up to date with knowledge, changing procedures, and developments within the industry. But all self employed individuals have generic paperwork to keep, which is usually done on weekends or late at night, after the day job is done.

All receipts have to be kept to prove expenses, be it new jodhpurs, petrol or a new riding hat. One of my jobs for another evening is collating all my receipts and making sure they're all logged in my cash flow spreadsheet.

Talking of cash flow spreadsheets, it's also vital that I keep a diary, logging all lessons, methods of payment and amount paid. I try to update my spreadsheet weekly because otherwise it can get confusing cross checking with my bank statements, and it means that I don't overlook a payment. It's amazing how easy it is to put a cash payment into one of your coat pockets and two days later forget who it came from! I don't tend to do invoices, but I can remember the joint family effort we had trying to price up and complete all 200 invoices that my Dad's shop had to send out at the end of every month. It can be a big job at the end of the month, which is why I like to keep on top of the accounts each week.

Self employed individuals also have to fill out self-assessment tax forms in January, and pay tax bills at the end of January and July. Obviously we've all just paid a tax bill, so I don't have to worry about that quite yet, but I do need to file away the HMRC letters and do a quick forecast for January's bill so that I put enough aside for that. Accounts, receipts, diaries and all other proof of your business earnings have to be stored for a minimum of three years. I think I've got three years worth, or will have by Christmas, so I will need to get organised soon to double check that everything is in order and then put it into a storage box in the loft.

It's easy to overlook the office side of running your own business, especially if you have a practical mind and find academic work tedious and difficult, but it's important to bear it in mind if you're planning on starting your own business because keeping on top of the paperwork, and having a filing system of some sorts makes life far easier and less stressful in the long run. It's also important to factor in time into your diary for doing the paperwork. I have been known, when it's mounted up, to take an afternoon out of my diary to commit to sorting through the paperwork, otherwise it's easy to leave it for another day when you're tired or would rather watch TV.

The Number One Rule of Feeding

What's the number one rule of feeding? Which one do you place the most importance on?

For me, it has to be that horses should be fed little and often. It applies to horses of all sizes and workload, and can lead to a whole host of health issues if they do not have food moving through their digestive tract.

Horses have evolved to graze for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, therefore they are trickle eaters. Having small amounts of fibre at each stage of their gut helps regulate peristalsis which reduces the likelihood of colic, prevents stomach acid splashing up the lining of their stomach acid, causing ulcers, and means that they are most efficient at digesting their food and extracting the nutrients.

Even obese or laminitis horses require almost constant access to fibre. However, they should have fibre with very little nutritional value, such as soaked hay or straw. Unfortunately, too many people starve laminitis horses, which can lead to them developing stomach ulcers.

I also feel that there is a psychological benefit to a horse or pony having a semi-full tummy all the time. You know how ratty you and I get when we're late home and dinner is subsequently late. And we can reason why we're hungry, and when our next meal will be. Horses can't, so it stands to reason that when they are hungry they are more likely to bicker between themselves, and to be less tolerant of us – nipping whilst being tacked up, fidgeting whilst being groomed, for example. I think a lot of bad behaviour on the ground stems from horses being uncomfortable in their digestive system. Sometimes they're a bit gassy and bloated, but more often than not they're hungry. If they were to develop stomach ulcers, this also leads to negative reactions when their girth area is touched, which some people believe is naughtiness.

Horses and ponies who are starved for periods of time, or had their grazing restricted with a grazing muzzle for example, have been shown to gorge themselves, managing to take in as much grass in the short time they are unrestricted than the longer period that their intake is limited. Which is why it is recommended that ponies who need a muzzle wear it in the paddock during the day, but are stabled with a quota of soaked hay overnight, to prevent the gorging behaviour.

My reason for bringing up this subject is that last week I was involved in taking a young client to Pony Club Camp, which gave me a parental insight into the week.

I was disappointed to learn that the ponies did not need a haynet during the day. They were to be tied up in the barn; ridden for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, with a two hour lunch break in between. During this week the ponies would be working far harder than in their usual day to day lives, but their anatomy is not designed for them to go without food from 9am until 4.30pm. Yes, there is a risk of bickering in the pony lines with food, but surely if every pony had a small haynet and were tied at a correct length of lead rein, far enough apart, there would be less of a problem than when they're hungry and irritable. I would have also thought that they would perform better in the afternoon session because they were happier and had more energy.

Each evening, the pony I was involved with went out into his paddock and gorged, so he was bloated the next morning. This can't be good for his digestive system!

I felt it to be quite ironic that the children are taught correct pony management, and there is both a mini and a big badge all about the rules of feeding. At some point the children are going to realise that they aren't following the rules of feeding, and will question it. This leads to a mental internal battle, and unfortunately a lack of respect for their instructors and mentors. Which is a shame.

I think it's a case of "do as I say, and not as I do", which I don't think is the right attitude for any educational environment, and one that I certainly didn't appreciate when growing up.

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.

Some Good Advice

I've bought myself a new book, to expand my horizons and further my knowledge, about ground work. It's called Schooling Exercises in-hand and, from my brief flick through it seems to explain how to execute lateral movements from the ground well.

In the introductory chapter, however, is a verse by Rudolph Binding which I thought was worth sharing.

The horse is your mirror.

It never flatters you.

It reflects your mood.

It also mirrors your changes.

Never get annoyed with your horse,

For you can just as well get annoyed with your mirror.

In a nutshell, this verse means that you should never allow negative emotions to surface when around your horse because the horse will recognise the tension and negative energy so will perform badly. Likewise, having a positive frame of mind and positive body language will subconsciously praise and reward the horse, leading to him performing better.

Self-control. One lesson that horses teach us, as well as the ability to recognise when you are not in the right frame to work your horse and instead treat him to a good grooming session or go for a relaxing hack.

Otis’s New Life

I thought that today, after my quick visit to Otis, that you may like to know how he's getting on.

He moved into his new field (definitely bigger than a paddock) nearly a month ago and after a settling in period, seems to be very content.

When he first moved there were the four other boys who made up the core of the herd. Plus an unsettled youngster who had been evicted from the stables to do some growing up before going back into work. I fully anticipated some running around in the first twenty four hours, and would've put money on Otis losing a shoe. Which he duly did. The youngster attached himself to Otis, who I think got fed up of having a stalker after a couple of days.

Anyway, a week later, a new shoe on, the youngster gone, and I was getting used to the idea that I didn't have to get up and go see him every morning. Then we had another upset: the boys were joined by another horse. This one was quite dominant, and together with the other dominant gelding, changed the dynamics of the herd.

After a couple of days, I went to see Otis and came back quite distraught. His fly rug had been ripped in their antics and where he'd been naked he was covered in fly bites. He'd lost his fly mask and had a cut in his ear, which looked very sore and I was worried it would get infected, as one has before. Then he'd lost another shoe and had a cut on his cannon bone. On his hind pasterns there were a series of little scans. He'd been in the wars.

At that point, I was seriously worried that I'd made the wrong decision. I'd expected some settling in antics, but had thought that a stable herd of veteran boys wouldn't involve much careering around.

I had his shoe put back on, treated the fly bites and put on his spare fly rug. Thankfully his rug was repairable, so that went off to the menders. I dug out another fly mask with ears, but he wouldn't let me treat his ear cut. So I had to hope that covering it up would be enough to help it heal. Thankfully, that seems to have been enough. The cut on his cannon bone was clean so I just left it, and hoped that it would be the only one.

I did some thinking about the scabs on his hind. Someone said it could be mites. Which obviously worried me. But, whilst walking around the field shoe-hunting I noticed there were patches of small thistles. They were pastern height, but very prickly because the field was topped earlier this year. As Otis has white socks and isn't used to thistles, I wondered if that was causing the scabs. So I treated the scabs with purple spray the next time I visited him. These seem to be getting better too, which makes me hopeful that they aren't mites.

The last ten days or so, I feel like I've turned a corner. The herd is back to it's core of five, and they all seem very peaceful. There's been no more lost shoes or injuries, and his rug and fly mask are still intact. Otis always whinnies to see me, and happily comes over for his tablet disguised carrot. I pick his feet out, fly spray him, check him all over and have a hug. He seems to radiate contentedness and I feel so much happier knowing that he's happy, and so each time I see him I feel more at peace with my decision for him over the next few months.

Let’s Talk About Laminitis

Laminitis is mostly associated with spring, and sudden flushes of lush grass, but recently I've heard of a few cases which have been triggered by other causes. Which led me to thinking that a blog post to educate my readers would be very useful.

The most common cause of laminitis in the U.K. is caused by obesity and overeating. Horse owners can be naive, and a lack of knowledge, peer pressure, pressure from feed companies, and unsuitably rich grazing can cause laminitis. Native ponies, who are the most common victims, evolved on sparse landscapes, so can actually live off far less than we realise.

Another cause of laminitis is toxaemia. This is when a systemic disease where the body is poisoned or infected (such as sepsis), such as pneumonia or post colic surgery, triggers laminitis. Unfortunately, in this case the laminitis won't improve until the disease is treated successfully.

Trauma, or mechanical, laminitis is caused by a physical external factor. That may be fast work on hard ground, or prolonged jumping on hard ground. Incorrect shoeing, or incorrect or prolonged poulticing can put pressure on the sole, which can lead to the laminae separating. Unfortunately I've have to mention to a couple of clients recently that I'm not happy with the way their horse is shoe because the hoof-pastern axis has been altered so I fear it is putting pressure on the tendons, ligaments, joints and tissue within the hood capsule.

If a horse has a non-weight bearing lameness they will shift their extra weight onto the opposite limb, so putting more pressure down the leg and risking laminitis. I knew a horse who had fractured his forearm, and was in a Robert Jones bandage for eight weeks in cross ties. There was talk at the time of the risk of stress laminitis in his good foreleg, but thankfully he was okay.

Iatrogenic laminitis is when corticosteroids are used to treat a horse, perhaps as injections for arthritis or tablets for viruses, and trigger laminitis as a side effect. If you've ever had your horse injected with steroids the vet should have told you very clearly that there is a risk of laminitis. This may mean that alternative medication is seeked, particularly if your horse is already prone to laminitis.

Most recently, experts have started linking laminitis to Cushings, or PPID. This sort of laminitis is linked to a hormone imbalance caused by a tumour on the pituitary gland. Many older horses develop PPID, which is why when a horse gets older you should become aware of the risk of laminitis and adjust your management routine and feed accordingly, because even horses who are just on the brink of having PPID could succumb to laminitis for no obvious reason. I recently heard of one older horse, who doesn't have any clinical signs of Cushings, developing laminitis as a result of being given steroid tablets for a cough. Now whether the laminitis was brought on by the steroids, although I'm pretty sure he'd have had steroids before in his life, or whether he was more susceptible because of his age and hormonal imbalance, you can only hazard a guess. Either way, it must be a very frustrating position to be in.

The final trigger of laminitis is stress. That is, overworking an unfit horse, undertaking long journeys in extreme weather conditions. I'm not quite sure how laminitis is triggered, but I guess that the stress causes too much ACTH to be produced which then upsets the hormonal balance, as with a Cushings horse, and then it is that which causes the laminae to become inflamed and to separate.

The experts still aren't sure how laminitis really occurs, but I'm sure new research and scientific advancements means that we'll get the answers soon and so be able to successfully prevent laminitis across the whole population.

Changing the Bascule

Every horse and pony is put together differently, which results in a different technique when jumping. For example, some have a very uphill canter and engaged hindleg which allows them to jump with quite a steep bascule – like a pogo stick. Others, who have more of a horizontal gait, will prefer to take off a bit further away from the jump so their bascule is longer and flatter.

I don't think you should try to change a horse's jump technique too drastically, because you're then working against their physical capacity. However, it is always worth trying to enhance their ability and develop the muscles that will allow them to jump more effortlessly.

One of my clients has a pony who tends to get long in the canter on the approach to jumps and so has a very long, flat bascule. He is tidy with his legs, so the shape his body makes isn't a problem, but when he jumps off a long stride he lands long and flat, so it is tricky for my rider to rebalance themselves, or even turn for the next fence! My aim was to improve my rider's feel for a better balanced canter and teach him to hold the canter together on the approach to fences, which will help their landing and getaway.

The last couple of lessons we've used our warm up time to get a feel for lengthening and shortening the trot and canter. The purpose of working on lengthened strides was to teach my rider the difference between balanced, lengthened gaits and rushing or running onto the forehand. After all, they will need to lengthen the canter in jump offs and on the cross country course. We focused on my rider using his seat to encourage the bigger strides, and feeling that he still had a rein contact throughout.

Next, we turned to shortening the strides, or squashing the pony together to give it a non-technical term. It wasn't all about pulling the reins, but rather a series of half halts with the outside rein and a stiller seat. Oh, and lots of tummy muscles! Over the last few weeks, my rider has really started to get a feel for a smaller striding, bouncier trot and canter.

Now we have to link the flatwork to the jumping. Half of the issue comes from my rider not holding the canter together on the approach, and half of the issue comes from the pony preferring to jump long and flat. So I built a series of three bounce fences, which will encourage the pony to jump in a steeper bascule, and to get a little closer to the fence, as well as to be a little more careful and calculating about his jumping.

We used cross poles initially, and my rider held the canter together in a much more balanced fashion until a couple of strides away from the fence, and even then he didn't fire his pony to the jump. Where the jump wasn't that big, I think my rider felt happier keeping the steadier, smaller canter until the jump.

After they'd jumped a few times we discussed how the grid felt. One time, as my rider correctly identified, they met the first fence on a long stride so had a flat jump then the pony had to really adjust his body in order to negotiate the second and third element correctly. When they had a closer take off point, the grid flowed much better and each bascule was more even.

Their getaway from the jumps was improving because my rider could just sit up and rebalance the canter, instead of having a flat, fast canter and the pony on the forehand, which is far harder to correct. The pony was also more willing to come back to his rider. We also put in a 15m circle after the grid to ensure my rider carried on riding after the jumps, and didn't collapse in a heap after. This also helped the pony rebalance and refocus.

We progressed to uprights, which are more demanding for the pony because he has to pick up his forelegs quicker, and make an even steeper bascule. The first time, they tapped each fence as the pony was a little slow in tucking up, but the second time my rider could feel his pony rounding his back more, and they jumped through soundlessly as the pony was quicker with his legs.

My next challenge is to get my rider riding courses in a steadier fashion (I am of course battling against that boy, gung-ho mentality), taking his time to rebalance his canter between jumps so that his pony approaches in a more uphill canter, which will enable them to jump bigger more successfully and effortlessly. By being more consistent in their canter on the flat and when jumping will also help the pony strengthen these muscles, which will further improve his bascule and technique.

I am really pleased with how this young rider is taking on board all the technical information I'm giving him about how horses jump, and I hope that his understanding of our reasons for doing these exercises will mean he does his homework and will be consistent in how he rides, and what he expects from his pony.