Falling In or Falling Out

After a few days in Wales giving Matt and Mum boot camp, and introducing him to his new jockey, I’ve plenty of blog material.

Let’s start with my Mum’s favourite phrase of the week – “is he falling in?”

Firstly, what can you see if a horse is “falling in”? When lunging, which is probably the easiest way to see, the circle gets smaller, ends up with a straight side, and the lunge line is slack. When riding you’ll find they cut corners, of drift onto the inner track. It’s a common problem with ponies who are being a bit cheeky and lazy, and taking the short cut.

What do you feel when a horse “falls in”? I always feel that it’s like driving a car with a flat tyre: the horse is loading their inside shoulder and may well go stiff and tense on the inside of their neck. With a horse who falls in you constantly feel like you are riding a motorbike.

Why does a horse “fall in”? It’s usually lack of suppleness and balance, so instead of curving through their whole body on a turn and staying balanced, they don’t flex through their barrel and so lose their balance on turns.

How do you correct a horse who “falls in”? Take them back to basics. A lot of novices pull the outside rein, causing the horse to turn their head to the outside but still continue to lean on the inside shoulder. Masking the symptoms but not solving the problem. The problem is usually a lack of straightness and a lack of suppleness.

I take it back to basics: check the saddle is straight, check the rider is sitting centrally. Using the long side, I get them to focus on being straight, and then we check that they aren’t using too much inside rein on the turns which will encourage the horse to fall in. After correcting their turning aids, I get the rider to apply their inside leg through turns to give the horse a pillar to bend around. Sometimes a rider over rides a turn, which causes a horse to turn too sharply and lose their balance, so I check that the correct amount of aids is being applied.

By now, we can see if the rider was encouraging the horse to fall in, or if it’s a stiffness or crookedness issue in the horse. So I turn my attention to improving the horse’s way of going. Activating the inside hind leg and getting the horse to unload the inside shoulder, can be done with some leg yielding. Either spiralling out on a circle, or leg yielding from the three quarter line to the track. Once the horse feels more even, and less like they’ve got a flat tyre, it’s back to normal suppling school movements to improve their flexibility and balance.

If a horse and/or rider is crooked and has a tendency to fall in on one rein then odds are they will fall out on the other rein. Falling out is most noticeable on the lunge, when you feel the lunge line being pulled through your hands as you’re pulled off your pivot point. When you’re riding in the school, falling out can be disguised with a fence line, which acts as a support for the horse and is a damage limitation tool.

A horse who falls out, drifts through their outside shoulder, tending to take any turns a little wide. Sometimes you feel like you aren’t going to make it round the turn, or that they’re like steering a canal boat.

Again, I start by straightening up the rider and increasing their awareness of straightness and ensuring they’re using the correct aids. Then, we begin to improve the horse. Initially it’s about gaining control of the outside shoulder, so shoulder in is very useful, as is a little bit of leg yield from the track to the three quarter line. Once the horse is bringing their outside shoulder around the turns and responding to the outside leg aid, they just need their overall suppleness improving through circles and serpentines.

Let’s take Matt as our prime example. When I sat on him on Sunday I could feel that he was loading his left shoulder; falling in on the left rein and falling out on the right rein. Mum is booking physio for him now that he’s doing more schooling, and to be honest it was a minor asymmetry between the two reins. On the left rein, I did some leg yielding to the right, just a couple of strides in circles, straight lines, etc. And then on the right rein I rode some shoulder fore on straight lines and circles. Then he got his act together, realised I meant business and started carrying himself more. Because each hind leg was then stepping under more actively he could propel himself forwards more efficiently, and his abdominals had to lift, so his topline engaged and he put himself in an outline.

I’ve given Mum homework of some groundwork exercises which will help get his hindlegs stepping under in the turns, and she can do some leg yielding with him to help. Once she’s cracked the straightness element … which I’m afraid to say, is in Part 2!

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Phoenix’s First Party

Last weekend I took Phoenix for her first dressage competition. She’s worked well when we’ve had lessons at other venues so I felt the time was right to get some competition feedback. Plus, the venue was only a few minutes from the yard, so it would have been rude not to.

Our canter is still a bit rushed and unbalanced so I decided to enter the Intro test, and then the Prelim as I thought she would benefit from seeing the arena and white boards twice in quick succession. I felt I should disregard the canter movements in as much as if I got the correct lead, maintained canter on the circle and trotted at the right place it would be an achievement. But I shouldn’t lose sleep over those movements and subsequent low marks.

Phoenix warmed up in the large indoor arena, complete with mirrors and numerous other horses, beautifully. She was relaxed and focused on me. When she relaxes she allows me to bend her with my legs so we did plenty of circles and she felt really settled. I’d put a green ribbon in her tail as she’s still a bit worried by other horses, especially if they canter up behind her or the rider is carrying a schooling whip. I also wanted to hint to the judge that she was new to this game!

When we were called for our first test I had to be led into the arena as Phoenix was busy gawping at a couple of signs, the judge’s car, everything. I walked and trotted her round until the bell; we were mainly using the inner track and were cautiously eyeing up the white boards and shadows from some overhanging trees. Thankfully though, once she’d passed each “monster” she paid less attention to it. Which shows that she just needs her horizons widening.

I was fairly happy with the test. She was tense for most of it, but not as tense as she can be as I could still apply my leg, but we had moments that felt fabulous – on par with her best work at home. Her trot circles were 50% beautiful and 50% tense. She did relax more towards the end of the test and I was really pleased with her walk work, and she showed that she was settling into work by stretching down in our free walk.

My score sheet was very positive. The judge marked in an encouraging way, saying what a lovely horse she was with so much potential. We just need to eradicate the moments of tension. There was quite a range of marks: from 8s for my walk circles, halt and rider collectives, to 5.5 for a walk-trot transition. All the comments were what I expected, and in line with her stage of training, and I definitely felt that I hadn’t produced our best work. But we will I’m sure when she’s got a few competitions under her belt.

Anyway, I was really pleased with a score of 73%, which was enough for first place!

The second test was better. It was a complicated prelim with lots going on, but Phoenix was less looky around the arena – she didn’t need to be led in this time – and overall I felt she was tense for less of the time. Our canter didn’t score highly; I was pleased with the left rein but the right she was falling in, looking at the reflection on the judge’s car, so did a great motorbike impression. Again, there was a range of marks and her walk scored 8s again. The trot work was predominantly 7s and 7.5s, depending on if she lost her rhythm.

I left them: happy with how Phoenix had performed, and confident in how to improve her way of going for future tests. I felt she’d had a positive experience at her first competition. I didn’t expect, however, to win the prelim test with a score of 70%!

Out of the restricted sections now, we’re going to have a nice week of hacking before getting back into the swing of things. Practising steadying and relaxing the trot after canter work (Phoenix likes to keep cantering once we’ve done it once!), and working on those transitions, especially the halt, to begin with. Then we’ll find another competition to go to, for more experience.

Hacking To Shows

Yesterday I took Phoenix to her first competition (blog to follow) but I hacked there. It would’ve been rude not to; the venue was a ten minute walk away from our yard.

Anyway, it brought back memories so I sent a request to Mum to dig through the archives to find some photos from when we used to hack to shows.

It was strange getting changed at the yard, tacking up and feeling very posh hacking along the road. It did save on the warm up though, and it was a lovely way to cool Phoenix down afterwards. Not that either of us cooled down much in this heatwave!

I met my groom/photographer/chauffeur/babysitter there with water (or milk) for all of us before cracking on with the competition.

Years ago very few of us had trailers so we would either hack to shows or club together and hire a lorry. Our first show we took 9 ponies in a huge livestock lorry. They travelled in threes with a partition separating the trios – it’s a good job they all got on well! It was great fun everyone going together because you always had a group of supporters and there were plenty of Mums to do up gaiters at the last minute or older teenagers to give you ringside advice.

I remember at one show I was taking a friend’s pony and I wanted to do the 2’9″ jumping class. But Mum wouldn’t let me as it was “too big” (even though my jumping had improved massively since riding this mare) so my friend, who was a bit older, just slipped into the secretary’s tent and entered me for it!

Mum usually took on the role of Yard Mum, filling the car up with haynets, tweed jackets, grooming kits, water butts and buckets, headcollars, and rugs if rain threatened. She would meet us at the venue and we’d find somewhere to tie up (Mum would’ve brought baling twine too) for the day. We would be there for the first classes and then stay as long as we could, usually hacking home in smaller groups as our classes finished. We usually did the Mountain and Moorland, a working hunter class, and at least one showjumping class. Sometimes we did five classes! There was usually a clash which would involve one of us dashing between arenas to inform the judge that someone would be late.

It was a long day, but always a lot of fun!

Here are two photos from 2003 when three of us hacked five miles to a show. I think it was the first show that I hacked to. We left the yard at 7am, show shirts and jodhs under our jeans and jumpers; headcollars over our bridles like trekking ponies. Our Mothers drove behind. We arrived at the venue just after 8am, only to find that we were the first to arrive and the farmer hadn’t even taken the sheep out of the field! So after phoning the secretary and waiting for the sheep to be removed we tied up on a fence line and let the ponies graze until the show began. I’m on the grey, Partner, who I had on loan. I lovesd that pony! Initially I couldn’t jump him as he’d just run out but after two of the older girls shouting at me in the cross country field I manned up and got bossy! The smaller bay is Billy, who was my favourite riding school pony. Last I knew he was still going strong in the riding school. The bigger bay is Dan, who I loved to ride a couple of years later. He was considered unrideable and the older girls spent a whole summer breaking him in. He had an almighty buck in him though – I came off him several times that way.

These photos were taken in 2004, when eight of us hacked to a show. I think the most that ever went was twelve, which certainly filled the lanes! Although, when we hacked into town for the Boxing Day Meet there was closer to twenty of us!

Squiggle, the large grey, and his best friend Bisto, the large dark bay, led the group. I never liked riding Squiggle, who lived up to his name and was very wiggly to ride. I rode him a lot when I was backing Matt. Now, I’d like to see what tune I could get out of him with more experience but he’s in the field in the sky. I loved riding Bisto, who was a horse as opposed to a pony and you had to ride like a grown up! She did make my triceps ache though, I remember.

I’m behind on the chestnut mare, Llynos, who was a friend’s pony and a lovely jumper. She really built my confidence up while I was backing Matt. Next to me is Aries, who was slightly crazy but I loved to jump him when I was about fifteen/sixteen. He used to trot or canter sideways very slowly towards a fence and then you’d straighten up and he’d gallop over the jump, before you had to collect him and go sideways to the next fence. He was the first pony I jumped 3′ on. When his owner was at university I used to ride him weekly and got a lot of enjoyment out of getting him straight when jumping or doing trotting poles!

Behind us is a black pony, Jack, who was very sensitive. The first time I rode him was when Partner was lame and the yard was on lockdown with strangles. I didn’t want to ride boring old Gypsy in my lesson so jumped at the chance when my friend offered me Jack. Last I knew, he was enjoying his retirement in the field behind her house, in his early thirties. He is Dan’s half brother.

Next to Jack is Geraint, the chestnut. He is Llynos’ half brother and was such a thug! He was best friends with Matt and used to follow me down the field when I caught, before barging past me at the gate. To ride, he was very bargy and just used to run through the hand. Again, now I’d like to see how I got on with him. He could go nicely on the flat and when he coordinated his legs he could jump pretty well too.

You can see Dan behind Geraint, and to his left just the black nose of Bubbles is showing. She was Jack’s Mum and quite crazy to ride. In a similar way to Aries, she’d gallop over jumps. She could jump the moon though, and had a dead mouth. We were forever trying out different (strong) bits in an attempt to slow her down. When excited, she used to jog on the spot and she had the most uncomfortable saddle! Like sitting on a brick – you can only imagine the moans when she was jig jogging along! I first rode her when the yard had strangles too. This was before Partner went lame – Mum had offered him for school use so lessons could continue and in return I got to ride Bubbles. Partner’s rider booted him into canter and promptly fell off if I remember correctly.

The other side of Dan is a dun, Sandeman. I didn’t ride him until I was fifteen or sixteen. Again, he was a horse not a pony. Very forwards, and frequently bounced one stride doubles. At one show, he jumped out the ring! Mum always remembers when I hacked him with her and I refused to let him gallop up the canter track. She says he looked like a charger. I won that battle! He’s another horse I’d like to try again now I’ve got more experience.

Finally, was little Jet, who still looks great in his twenties. Mum and I loaned him when I was eight and he was very tolerant, especially as he was only young at the time. I don’t think my feet passed his saddle flaps! Mum’s friend loaned and eventually bought him – he’s a real all rounder and tried his best at everything!

Somehow I’ve digressed from the main point of this blog, but memory lane has been very therapeutic!

Hacking to competitions is rarely done now – definitely a sign of the “good old days” but I have many happy memories of hacking excitedly at dawn to shows, cheering each other on all day then wearily traipsing back. Usually too tired for talk, but reliving each moment before turning our attentions to our sore bums and the bath we would have when we got home.

Coping With The Heat

How is everyone managing during Britain’s 2018 heatwave? We’ve been doing horses and any outdoor jobs in the morning and evening; hiding from the heat during the day because it’s too hot for anyone, let alone babies.

In general, horses in the UK seem to find it difficult to adapt to the heat. Partly because it’s so infrequent and comes along suddenly, and partly because a lot of horses are colder blooded, native types with thick, dense fur.

So with the hot weather, comes a few routine changes. I for one have been riding later in the evening. In my pre-baby life, I’d have been up with the larks riding in the cool. Schooling sessions become shorter or non existent. I did a lesson yesterday morning which consisted of about fifteen minutes in trot, split over the lesson, and the rest in walk. It was a good opportunity to practice lateral work without stirrups and nit pick on my rider’s aids. Hacks become much more appealing, don’t they? Any woods provide some shade and there’s usually more of a cool breeze. I read last week that horses feel the heat more than we do so it’s important to consider them when deciding to ride.

Some people prefer to have their horses stabled during the day in summer, and turned out overnight when it’s cooler and there are less flies about. For me, it depends on the horse and their field. People underestimate the shade that trees provide. I found this out a couple of weeks ago at a wake. The back garden of the house we were at had several large trees on one side and a sunny patio on the other. Sitting on the grass under the trees I was lovely and cool while those sat at the patio table with a parasol up were still boiling hot. So if your horse’s field has trees to provide shade and they aren’t bothered by the flies I would personally prefer them to stay out where they can move around and benefit from any breeze (which also deters the flying pests) that’s about. It’s also worth considering your stables. Wooden ones can become ovens whilst stone barns stay lovely and cool.

Wash them off liberally. Yes they may not have worked up a sweat walking around the woods, but they’ll still be grateful for a shower. There is the age old argument about how to cool off horses properly. The way I see it, the majority of the time horse owners aren’t dealing with a horse on the verge of hyperthermia and heat exhaustion (this week excepted) so hosing them and allowing the cooling process of evaporation to cool them down is sufficient. This week though, you may want to opt for continuous hosing and sweat scraping to bring down their core body temperature quicker.

Then of course is ensuring they’re hydrated. Horses will drink more in hot weather, much like us humans, so making sure they have plenty of clean water available is paramount. Ideally the water wants to be cool so that it is more appealing to the horse and refreshing. Standing water buckets need to be in the shade, but be aware of flies congregating around them. Self filling troughs are very often cooler despite being in the full sun because they’re continuously topped up with cold water from the underground pipes as the horses drink.

When a horse starts to get dehydrated they also stop wanting a drink, which obviously compounds the problem. What’s the evolutionary benefit to this, I wonder? It’s far better to never let them get thirsty in the first place. Adding salt to their diets, in feeds or with a lick, encourages them to drink. It may also be worth having a feed such as Allen and Page’s Fast Fibre which has very little calorific value but needs soaking for ten minutes before feeding. Adding that to their bucket feed, or even substituting that for part of their hay ration will help keep them hydrated. Some horses like their bucket feed to be sloshy so that’s a good way of giving them more water. You can add electrolytes to their feed too which aids hydration.

With this intense heat we’re having, there’s also the risk of sunburn. For both humans and equines! I heard a few weeks ago about a horse who had been clipped. I think he was a predominantly white coloured. But over the next couple of days his back got sunburnt due to the coat no longer protecting his pink skin. That’s a good reason to use a quality UV-proof fly rug, only half clip or indeed not clip at all! The UV-proof fly masks with nose nets are great at protecting white noses, and using factor 50 suncream helps prevent sunburn – don’t forget to use it on yourself too! I’d also be wary of white legs, particularly on fine coated horses as these could also suffer from sunburn.

Finally, check they aren’t overheating in any rugs. A lot of fly rugs are very breathable and thin, but sweet itch rugs tend to be of a thicker material. It might be worth using a lightweight fly rug on a sweet itch horse during the day, and sacrificing it if they start a scratching session and them staying cooler rather than them getting too hot in a sweet itch rug.

It is also worth reading up on the signs of equine heatstroke and be prepared to call the vet if you think your horse is suffering from it. Here are the symptoms:

-Weakness

-Increased temperature

-High respiratory and heart rate

-Lethargy

-Dehydration

-Dry mucous membranes in the mouth – they should be pink and have a slimy feel to them. To check the mucous membranes, press your finger on the gums and they should turn white with pressure. Once you have released your finger they should return to a normal pink colour.

Improving Balance Around Corners

I saw an exercise online last week and modified it slightly to help a client who’s pony tends to motorbike around corners.

Using one corner of the school, I laid out three trotting poles on the track. There was 4’6″ between the centre of each pole, which also conveniently also lay on the track my rider had made.

We worked on both reins with the poles laid flat until they were trotting around the corner easily, making the distance between each pole comfortably. Initially, the pony found it difficult to bend and increase her cadence so drifted through the outside shoulder. My rider had to use her outside rein and leg to support her pony through the turn and maintain the support for longer as they came out of the turn. She also found that if she used her inside rein and had too much bend through the neck, they drifted out more and found the exercise harder. So it was a good way of reminding my rider of the correct rein aids and contact.

Next I built up the trot poles into cavaletti, however I only raised the inside of each pole. This was to discourage the pair from falling in around the corner and to improve the activity and strength of the inside hind leg.

As the pony had to put in more effort over the raised poles she started to drift out around the corner, but the fence helped my rider correct this and as the bend developed through her whole body so she began to find it easier and stayed more balanced throughout.

With the abdominals now switched on the trot improved generally and the mare had a good stretch over her topline.

We moved on to riding a canter transition just after the poles to start working the canter. The more active trot helped the transitions have more energy and the subsequent trot was looser so their trot poles improved further.

Now finished with the trotting poles, I converted them to canter poles and after cantering through once started to raise them. This pony tends to motorbike more in canter, so the raised poles were even more beneficial at improving her balance and bend through the corners. They also stopped my rider leaning in!

The canter became stronger, balanced and more three time because the inside hind leg had become more supple and was stepping under the body more.

I was really pleased with the improvement in the quality of the trot and canter due to the trot poles, and my rider could feel how much more balanced they were around the corners which is great for developing her feel. She’ll now know when she gets it right and can strive to replicate the feeling.

I wanted to see how the poles on the corner helped their jump, so I walked two canter strides away from the third pole and put up an upright. As expected, the mare backed off the first time, but from then on she jumped it beautifully. The poles kept her really balanced and her hocks engaged so that the bascule was neat and my rider could feel the lift through the shoulders, and generally felt that the jump was more scopey and powerful. I then reversed the exercise so they could do it on the other rein. Hopefully this exercise will help them create better corners around a jumping course and with time ride tighter turns whilst staying balanced which will help them stay clear whilst against the clock. I just wish I’d taken a photo of the exercise!

Self Trimming

A while ago now I went with a friend to view a horse. While we were doing the initial overview, prodding and poking, I asked the seller when the (barefoot) horse had last seen the farrier. I was told that she preferred to let her horses self trim. This rang alarm bells for me when I considered the size of the medial flare of the horse’s hoof. It could easily cause a brushing injury to the opposite limb. Were there issues in that opposite limb? Was the horse a nightmare for the farrier so it was easier to let her “self trim”? Yes I know, I’m playing devils advocate, but that’s sometimes needed when viewing horses.

Since then I’ve heard the term self trimming with increasing frequency. So I resolved to ask my farriers.

Horses have worn shoes for thousands of years, from leather pads used by the Romans to today’s iron shoes, but increasingly there is a movement saying that shoes are unnatural and we shouldn’t use them because of the damage they cause to the growth and strength of the hoof capsule whilst protecting the sole of the foot. I don’t disagree; shoes can cause damage but ultimately we have created an artificial environment for horses which means we may have to artificially intervene in order for the horse to be comfortable and to function to the best of their ability.

For example, humans now keep horses in smaller paddocks, ask them to trot and canter increasingly smaller circles, and jump higher and wider. In the wild horses roam over many miles of varying terrain, trot and canter in straight lines and only jump when necessary to avoid danger. Factor in our breeding which focuses on certain traits (for example speed in thoroughbreds) at the cost of other traits (again, in thoroughbreds, the quality of their feet) and humans are causing many of the problems we see today, be they conformational or due to injury. Which means that it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help our horses.

So let’s return to the barefoot versus shoeing debate. Scientific advancements and a greater understanding of the equine body does mean that we should rethink shoeing – the materials, technique, frequency etc – and the development of hoof boots are providing us with excellent alternative options. Although hoof boots do make me think we are going a full circle and returning to the leather pads used by the Romans and ancient Asians, albeit a little less crudely. So with this move away from shoeing horses, we naturally gravitate towards the barefoot approach.

Yes, it seems like the easy option – no lost shoes on competition morning, smaller farrier bills – but I don’t think it is necessarily the easy way out. A barefoot horse still needs their feet checking on a daily basis and having the correct diet to help them grow strong hoof. I think that keeping a horse barefoot is great so long as they are comfortable and able to carry out their work. It’s awful seeing horses struggling to walk across gravel. But ultimately if they can’t manage then it’s our responsibility to do something about it, be it through a change in their diet or by shoeing.

Moving on to self trimming. What is it? Now, it has two interpretations. To the innocent bystander, it is not interfering with the natural growth and shape of the foot, and through work letting the horse wear their feet down naturally. Minimum intervention, if you like. Which is fine. But, just like any athlete looks after their legs and feet, we should still look after our horse’s. A foot expert will notice any changes in hoof quality, spot abscesses, and still with minimal intervention, help the horse’s hooves grow in the best direction for that horse. For example, removing excessive flairing and encouraging the hoof wall to grow downwards as opposed to out to the side. Or vice versa if the horse has boxy feet. In the same way that occupational therapists help correct human’s gait. They teach you correct foot placement, use insteps to stop you walking on the outsides of your feet, and especially with children aid skeletal growth so that they are stronger and less prone to wear and tear. I’m going to direct you to a Michael McIntyre joke about learning to walk correctly now. Go on, have a laugh while you watch it and come back after to finish reading.

Anyway, whilst keeping things as natural as possible, regularly having your horse checked or trimmed by a farrier will help prevent problems developing. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people who go down the “self trimming” route see it as just letting a horse sort themselves out. Which would be fine if the horse had perfect conformation and lived over a variety of terrains, but as I said earlier, humans intervening with natural selection are responsible for less than good conformation in some horses so they need to help them where possible, so it’s important for barefoot horses to still see the farrier on a regular basis even if it’s just the condition of the feet that is checked, or as in Phoenix’s case a fortnight ago, only a tiny bit of shaping to rebalance them and encourage the hooves to grow in the preferred direction. I think also, that when a farrier is called out to a barefoot horse he feels obligated to trim so that the owner feels something has been done. But if the horse’s hooves have worn down through work then taking any more hoof off will only cause problems, so in that case maybe farriers should feel more able to say to an owner, “his feet look great, they’re in excellent condition but I won’t take any off because that may make him foot sore… shall we rebook for next month?”

Whilst talking to my farrier, he said that he views his job as assisting the horse. So he takes into account conformation, strength of the hoof horn, workload, management routine, and does as much or as little to the feet as each horse requires to make their job easier and them more comfortable.

The next interpretation of self trimming, is I guess, a more detailed and natural way of looking after horses feet, but is probably more time consuming and potentially more expensive than initially appears. The best place to read up about it is here – Rockley Farm website . Self trimming is still about minimal intervention and letting the horse’s hooves respond to their environment. Which means that a horse who has low mileage grows foot at a slower rate than one who does a lot of hacking and needs more hoof growth because they wear them down quicker. It’s also about providing a variety of surfaces for the horses. I get lost on the physiological benefits, but working on both hard and soft ground helps stimulate correct hoof density and growth. I think! It helps improve proprioception anyway, so horses will become sounder and have less variation in their stride length over different surfaces.

So self trimming is really about providing a variety of surfaces to best stimulate healthy hoof growth, either during turnout or by in hand exercise. Which again, is great. But you need the facilities! There are very few livery yards which even allow you to do a track system, let alone have different surfaces in their fields, and the surrounding area may not have suitable surfaces for encouraging self trimming. So this interpretation of self trimming may be leaving the hooves up to the horses, but it requires a lot of time invested by their handler in stimulating hoof growth, which just may not be possible for horse owners with full time jobs, family commitments, who also want to ride!

I think it will be really interesting to see how the barefoot movement develops, as I certainly think it has benefits. Before embarking on that journey though, amateur horse owners need to be aware of the need to provide a balanced diet to encourage healthy hoof growth, the fact that we keep horses in unnatural environments so don’t allow them to roam for miles over varied terrain and surfaces which help them to regulate their hoof growth, and that we work them on artificial surfaces which can be very abrasive. The idea of self trimming is great, but the realities of being able to follow a program such as Rockley is more time consuming than many are led to believe, so I think you have to meet halfway. Go barefoot if your horse can tolerate it; use your farrier’s guidance and expertise especially if they don’t take much off when they trim; use different surfaces that you have available but don’t be surprised if small trims or tidy ups are needed because their conformation or living circumstances require it.

Tack Trouble

Today I saw an interesting article doing the rounds on social media. You can have a peruse here.

Over a cup of tea I had a read of the article and all the comments from keyboard warriors. It made interesting reading for sure.

Now, I’m going to digress from the topic of the article, which is about a tack malfunction, onto the subject of tack in general.

As one commenter typed, I’m not a “tack nazi” and completely understand that some horses cannot be ridden in the classical snaffle and cavesson bridle. But I do think that as riders we should aim to have tack that is minimal so it doesn’t hinder the horse, and so that the tack clearly and precisely relays our aids to the horse. Regardless of the level of horse or rider, as I know some will say “well you try riding at 3* level”, well all I can say is that Michael Jung went around Badminton cross country in a snaffle so we can all aspire to be like him.

Anyway, the big issue I had with the horse’s tack in question was the amount of conflicting tack and how much clutter there was on the horse.

I feel that everyone should put more consideration into the reasons why they want to put a piece of tack on a horse, and the mechanics behind said piece of tack. And not use it because their horse “looks pretty in that bridle” or because everyone else is using that noseband.

For example, a gag works on poll pressure, so you wouldn’t use it on a horse who is sensitive over the poll, or one who already raises his head.

Of course, some horses haven’t read the manual and work well with tack that theoretically shouldn’t suit them. But I’m talking in general.

Then, I think tack should compliment each other. For example, if you have a cutaway headpiece to reduce poll pressure, as in the article above, then it doesn’t make sense (in my humble opinion) to fit a tight browband which puts pressure around the ears and pulls the headpiece forwards. Nor would I put a bit which works on the poll on a bridle which is cutaway so it doesn’t touch the poll …

Tack has come on hugely in the last twenty years, and companies like Fairfax have done scientific research on the effects of tack on horse stride length, muscle tension, etc. So we can make more informed decisions on what we use on our horses. There is also far more choice. Which means that if a piece of tack, for example a bit, doesn’t suit your horse you can find an alternative. A lot of companies even do trial periods on tack which can be a more cost effective alternative if you’re trying out a variety of items.

The horse in this article is wearing two breast plates and a running martingale, which shows that the saddle slips back when jumping. Which is a common complaint with fit eventers. Off the top of my head. I can think of half a dozen breast plates or breast girths which work on different ways, and suit different builds of horse, so if I was looking after this horse I’d be tempted to try different styles, and incorporate the running martingale, in order to find the breast plate which bear suits this particular horse. So the saddle is stabilised and there is less clutter on the horse, which can potentially hinder their movement.

I don’t mind what bit or tack riders use within reason, but I do think it’s important to consider why you are using this piece of equipment, and bear in mind that less is more so that communication between horse and rider is not hindered by straps sitting on top of each other, or pressure points caused by multiple straps. Tack should enhance a horse’s performance, not hinder it.

Returning to the article in question. Perhaps the rider has found the best combination of tack for this horse, and he’s certainly thinking outside the box, but in that case could he not work with a bridle maker to make a bespoke bridle which is less cluttered or confusing? For both horse and observer!

Without becoming a keyboard warrior or slating others, I think this article serves as a reminder to everyone to think carefully about their tackroom choices; bearing in mind how tack fits a horse and how it works because their comfort and wellbeing is our top priority.

Suppleness Bootcamp

Fed up with the same comments on her dressage sheets regarding lack of suppleness, one of my clients is sending her mare to a suppleness bootcamp.

She’s been working on suppleness for a while, but with school, jumping, winter weather, and general life, her pony’s flexibility has improved, but not as much as I’d like so the only way is to make it our sole focus.

There are a couple of things they can change in their daily routine which will have a positive impact over a couple of weeks.

Firstly, I suggested they fit carrot stretches into their day. I do Phoenix’s on the way to the field, usually just outside the gate, but having a regular slot means I don’t forget the carrots or to do them. Just a couple of stretches every day will make all the difference.

Secondly, my rider needs to get into the mindset of circles. It’s very easy to troll around the arena putting in a circle at A. Then another at C, and so on. So I challenged my rider to ride five different sized circles on each lap of the school. I also want her to begin to use four loop serpentines and demi voltes to change the rein.

The joints of a horse, or any animal for that matter, are stabilised by tendons, ligaments and muscles, all of which work in different directions. If a horse is lacking suppleness it is usually because the muscles in one direction around a joint are tight and contracted. For example, if a horse finds it hard to move their leg forwards it’s because the muscles at the back (involved in moving the limb backwards) aren’t relaxing for whatever reason. If a horse has damaged the muscle then they’ll be lame, but it’s it’s just muscle tension then they’ll lack suppleness. Does this make sense? So as well as the muscles on the opposite side of the limb affecting movement, the muscles either side will too. Which means that in order to create a truly supple horse you not only have to work on the forwards and backwards movement, but also the adduction and abduction of their limbs.

I devised a bit of a course for this pair, which would work all areas of the pony’s body and hopefully by improving the movement in each direction the mare would start to swing over her back more, become more connected and ultimately more supple.

On one three quarter line I laid out five trotting poles. Over the course of the session I raised them into cavaletti. The poles encouraged the mare to lengthen her stride slightly and then to improve her cadence by lifting each limb higher. Increasing cadence requires more flexion at the shoulder and hip; both areas which when tight can limit suppleness.

Then at A they had to ride a circle. This was partly to give them time to prepare for the next three quarter line, but also to get both rider and horse turning on the circle. Their circle was fifteen metres but it could be made smaller to increase the difficulty level. I had my rider thinking about the inside hindleg on the circle, and making sure there was a uniform bend through her pony’s body, and minimal inside rein being used!

Down the next three quarter line I had them leg yield towards the track to improve adduction and abduction, which releases the lateral muscles. Again, we focused on feeling the inside hind leg coming under and pushing them over, rather than the outside shoulder dragging them across.

After a few goes on each rein, I was thrilled to see the mare taking her head out and stretching from the base of her neck as her length of stride increases and she floated along, swinging over her back. They had a good trot whilst stretching. And they really stretched; far more than I’ve seen them do before.

We’ve been improving their canter to step up to novice dressage, so repeated the exercises in canter. Again, working the limbs a little bit in each direction improved the stride length and overall quality of the gait.

For me, the pair showed real improvement, and the mare did some super stretching, showing that she’s really worked her muscles hard. I want to continue along this theme over the next few weeks, adding in some shoulder in type of exercises as well as varieties of polework so we’re improving the mare’s flexibility in all directions.

Learning the Seat Aids

When kids learn to ride it’s very much about the reins steering and stopping while the leg kicks to say go. I understand why kids are taught this way: cognitively they can’t comprehend multiple aids simultaneously or the concept of the seat, and they often aren’t strong enough to apply the aids and to get a response from their pony given that most of the time the ratio between child and pony is greater than between adult and horse. I think there is also an element that in the riding school environment many kids take up riding for a year before moving onto the next fad, and you’re more likely to retain their business by them seeing results. Don’t let me go off on a tangent about cutting corners to accomplish said results …

This means that at some point, a child has to learn to ride like an adult, and learn about the finesse of the seat and leg aids. Their equitation world is turned on it’s head as they come to terms with this. Unfortunately though, the majority of ponies only respond to the childish aids of stop, start, steer.

Picking the right time to introduce this whole new world to a young rider can be difficult. They have to be at an age that they’ll understand these concepts, and they have to be able to apply the aids and get a response – this depends on the pony being responsive and the child being strong enough to engage their leg and seat.

Recently, one of my young clients has progressed onto another of my client’s old ponies. This gem of a pony was schooled very well by a little girl who loved dressage, so he is fully aware of the correct aids, even if he hasn’t had to use them recently. And my young rider is a great thinker, and has a good natural feel, so I feel will be able to understand the adult aids. Once she’d ridden him a few times and got used to his bigger strides and more eager walk, I decided it was time.

After they’d warmed up in trot with some circles and changes of rein I asked my rider how her turns felt. Where she was predominantly asking with her inside rein, her pony fell in and she said the turns felt sharp and sudden. Which I thought was a good analogy.

I explained that we were going to start riding more like adults and start using aids that no one else could see. She liked the idea of this, so in walk I first asked her to put a little bit of weight into her inside seat bone at the corners as she turned her body in the direction she was moving. I told her I didn’t want to see her leaning, it was just a little bit of weight.

After riding a few corners like this I asked her to do less with her inside rein. She felt her turns were less sudden.

Next, I added a second stage. Putting the outside leg on to push her pony around the turns. She did this so effectively that her pony almost pirouetted! So we added the inside leg.

At each corner I gave her the direction “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” so she applied each aid consecutively. Which she did and their turns got smoother. Still in walk, we started circling. Her inside hand was barely moving now, just coming into effect if her pony was drifting out on the circle. Their circles got rounder and bigger, as before they tended to be ten metre circles rather than fifteen metres and more of a semi circle shape.

After a change of rein and practicing the turning aids on the other rein, we progressed to trotting circles and changes of rein focusing on the “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” aids.

I think my rider really benefited from seeing an immediate result from applying these new aids, and could feel how much more balanced her pony was around the turns when she wasn’t using her inside rein to turn.

The big question, at the end of the lesson, was for her to ride a smooth serpentine, which requires coordination to change her inside and outside. Apart from the loops not being that even in size, I was pleased with how fluid the movement was.

For me, the biggest proof was the following lesson after we’d revised the new aids and were doing some balance exercises with her hands. Holding onto her reins with her outside hand, she was circling her inside arm whilst trotting large. However, because the arena is so long we’d only been using half. As she reached E, she turned her body (still circling), applied the inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg, and made a beautiful turn across the school. This really brought home to her how she doesn’t need to use her reins to steer, and hopefully consolidated what we’d learnt.