Riding Camp

In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.

My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.

Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.

I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.

Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.

I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!

I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.

Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …

On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.

It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).

I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!

The Toughest Week

I’ve decided that this week is the toughest week of the year for equestrians. It’s a glumpy week – gloomy and makes you down in the dumps.

When I was on my first aid course on Monday a lot of the freelance instructors berating the weather and how depressing they found this time of year. 

Although I don’t share the same level of depression, I can see where they’re coming from. It’s less than a week until the shortest day and if you’re anything like me you’re fighting a losing battle against darkness. The days are dark and gloomy. Yesterday was heavy fog and it never got light – at midday I felt as though it was nearer to three pm. Thankfully today was bright and sunny, which lightened the mood of all on the yard.

This time of year the wet and mud is also dragging us down. You try taking one step forwards and sliding half a step back across the field. The novelty wears thin after a while. Rugs are wet, heavy and muddy, and before Christmas it seems never ending. As soon as I reach the other side of Christmas I feel more positive; spring is coming!

Regardless of your job I think this week is tough: kids are on their final week of the school term and either ratty with tiredness or excited with the concept of Christmas. Or a combination of the two. Meanwhile adults are on the final push with work, desperately looking towards their time off over the festive season whilst also internally panicking about how many presents are left to buy or cards that need to be written. 

In psychology A-level we studied SAD, which describes a depression that is linked to winter months. You can see why: if you’re an outdoor person then limited time spent outdoors is bound to affect your mood, but I also think that there is a correlation between levels if vitamin D and depression. Fewer hours of sunlight equals less vitamin D in the body, which causes a lower mood. Which in theory means that I am in the best position not to get SAD because I’m outdoors so am generating vitamin D all the time.

What other struggles is everyone having at this time of year? And does anyone suffer from SAD?

Riding One-Handed

I`ve started teaching a Mum on her daughter`s pony. She used to ride years ago, so is a bit rusty and we`ve started from scratch really, but last week we had a really productive lesson.

Now it`s common knowledge amongst equestrians that ponies are harder to ride than horses; they tend to know all the tricks in the books, are naughty, strong-willed, and cheeky. However, some think that because a pony is smaller they are easier to ride. Yes, to a certain extent, if you yourself are small. But to ride a pony that is too small for you (say a tall teenager on a 13.2hh) actually requires a lot of balance because there is less support underneath you and a shorter, bouncier movement; and the ratio of your weight to the pony is greater so an unbalance of yourself will have a greater impact on the pony`s sense of balance and subsequent way of going.

This is the problem I am encountering with this client. In the perfect world she would be riding a 15.2hh horse; but as the world is not perfect, we have to make do with a 14.2hh. However, it does mean that if my rider falters in her trot, such as her shoulders tipping forwards, then the pony`s rhythm changes as she overloads his shoulders.

There is a combination of building up my rider`s fitness; muscle and balance, which takes time. But there is also the fact that my rider needs to learn how to control her body, and make smaller, slower adjustments and more subtle aids so that she does not upset the balance of her horse, because he is a bit on the small side.

At the moment, the biggest area that needs work on are the aids for turning. There are a couple of bad habits to iron out, such as dropping the inside shoulder and using too much inside rein, which cause the pony to fall onto his inside shoulder and into walk. Even after revising the correct leg and seat aids, we were still losing balance on turns across the school. Which I felt was because of my rider using too big a movements (such as turning to look around the turn too much, or too quickly).

So I decided to take the reins away. As much as I could, at least. My rider put both reins into her outside hand and just hung her inside by her side. We did some trotting working on my rider being less reliant on her hands and arms to help rise – she holds tension in her wrist too, so as soon as she starts to panic or feel insecure her wrist fixes and the arm gets stiff. When she wasn`t holding her reins the arm stuck out towards me in the centre of the arena, highlighting the tension. This alone was useful as she became aware of it and her could focus on the correct muscles working.

Anyway, this soon became easier so I introduced turns. I wanted my rider to turn across the arena, from one long side to the other. Roughly aiming to ride E to B, but it didn`t matter if it wasn’t precise at the moment. In walk it wasn`t too difficult, and the pony moved off the track after a couple of strides, and the rider instantly felt how much smoother the turn back onto the track was. Then we trotted. The first time, she dropped her inside shoulder and the pony slowed to a walk, but not as suddenly as when she`d had her reins. The second time she imagined being a carousel; her vertical spine rotated so that the outside of her body moved forwards and the inside of the body moved back, instead of leaning in like a motorcyclist. This was much better. The pony stayed in trot and made a good curve off and onto the track. My rider could feel her seat, legs and the rest of her body working correctly, as well as how they both stayed in balance.

Once we practiced this a few times I allowed her to take her reins back to ride some more turns. They were much better – more fluent, more subtle, and much more balanced. Of course we then had to repeat the exercise on the other rein.

We finished the lesson by riding figures of eight using the diagonal lines; aiming to stay in trot, not turn too sharply, and ride balanced turns. Compared to our initial changes of rein at the beginning of the lesson, my rider was in better control of her body and had more subtle aids which meant that she didn`t upset the balance of her pony and they maintained trot.

I want to do more one-handed riding with clients as I feel it really focuses them on their seat and leg aids and makes them less reliant on their hands (inside hand especially) for controlling their horse.

Riding in Winter

This weekend, when the cold north wind blew and the clear skies sent temperatures plummeting,  really sorted the wheat from the chaff in terms of riders.

Luckily for me, all my riders wrapped up warmly, meaning that I had to do the same! So with the thermals fresh from their summer hiding place, an extra jumper and coat on, I braved the cold.

A couple of weeks ago I had a showjumping lesson myself, and was given an ear piece so that I could hear my coach over the gusty breeze. After yesterday, I`m considering purchasing one for myself. It`s a very strange feeling, hearing someone`s voice right in your ear as you canter towards a jump. I guess that we subconsciously get used to having our own bubble when we ride, which is occasionally pierced by shouted instructions, so having the feeling that your instructor is sat on your shoulder takes some getting used to. I think the one I used in my lesson was one way, which meant that I still had to shout in response to any questions. Well, I hope it was one way, otherwise I`ve deafened my poor coach!

Something for Santa to bring me anyway.

With the first cold snap of the year, it reminded me of the numerous occasions in the riding school when a small child would turn up for their lesson in a t-shirt and waterproof jacket, shivering with cold. I never knew what parents were thinking, not making them to wear a jumper, gloves, and thick coat. I think my Mum was pretty switched on about going outside in winter, as I remember being chilly, but never frozen. I did have a huge puffy gilet that was mustard yellow. Fairly hideous I`m sure, but it did the job of keeping me snug. It`s much easier to take off a layer halfway through a lesson because you`re too warm then to warm yourself up before you ride.

I can also remember children being told to put an extra pair of socks on for their lessons, and the next week they would still complain of cold feet … upon questioning them we would find out that they had eight pairs of socks on and somehow managed to cram their foot inside their riding boot, thus cutting off the circulation because they were so tight!

Personally, I find a thin pair of socks and then a thick thermal pair, from the ski shop, are sufficient, and means most boots still go on. I am a big fan of my neoprene wellies which also help keep my feet dry.

During my first winter as an apprentice I discovered a series of circular bruises on the outside of my thighs, which after a couple of days became painful and raised bumps. After googling them, we discovered that they are chilblains. Not very attractive, believe me! The wind is the main culprit, so I try to always wear full length chaps over my jodhs, and fingers crossed, I`ve been chilblain free for the last couple of years.

What else do I have in my winter wardrobe? A good selection of coats in varying sizes so that in the depths of winter I can get away with one thermal layer, one tshirt, a thin hoody, a normal hoody, a gilet, and two coats! I`ve had some funny looks when I`ve tried on a size fourteen jacket, when I`m clearly closer to a ten!

Gloves. That is another important part of the wardrobe. I like to warm mine as I drive between yards on the car dashboard, but it can be difficult to find gloves that leave your fingers warm, yet dextrous. When teaching I use thick, thermal gloves; but when on the yard I have my own invention. Thermal motorbike undergloves, are really tough (I always put holes in the tips of my gloves) yet are fairly thin, so I can still change rugs and tack up whilst wearing them. But to give me a bit more heat I wear fingerless gloves over the top of these thin thermal gloves. I find my hands stay dry, and snug, and I`m not forever taking them off to fasten a buckle, dropping them in a puddle in the meantime.

Instead of a hat, I usually wear a fleecy headband, which keeps my temples warm and is really useful in windy environments as it stops any headaches. I also wear a snood thing around my neck (it`s basically a fleecy tube) in place of a scarf – much less likely to get caught on anything, and does the job of keeping my neck and chin warm!

Hopefully you`ll find these few tips for getting dressed for going to the yard in winter useful, but don`t be surprised if your car ends up looking like a wardrobe with spare gloves, jumpers and coats scattered around – and don`t forget the spare outfit in case you get caught in a monsoon like I did on Tuesday!

The best thing about dressing up for winter is that come spring, when you venture out in just a tshirt and jumper, everyone exclaims about how much weight you`ve lost!

The 4 o`Clock Club

I think I just taught the perfect lesson.

Well, perhaps not perfect, but when you consider that both seven year old girls were screaming wrecks two months ago who fainted at the word “canter”, I think they`re doing a very good job.

You may remember my posts from Christmas time about how I dreaded this lesson every week, and how the kids were always falling off … Today I only had the two younger ones on it, riding their favourite ponies, and perhaps my favourite ponies too. We started with them each reluctantly holding a whip. I didn`t intend to get them to use it, but they should get used to holding a short crop and changing hands, as well as the fact it always encourages the ponies to be more forward going.

They stayed in closed order, and I risked parking my bum on the mounting block in the corner of the school to give them more independence. They walked an erratic three loop serpentine (it had about eight loops in!) so we practiced that before trotting. They sat very nicely, told me if they were on the correct or incorrect diagonal, rode some decent circles and good serpentines on both reins, in rising and sitting trot with and without stirrups. A passing livery even commented on how nicely they both rode!

Our warm up finished trotting over some trotting poles in jumping position, practicing straightness and keeping the trot throughout the poles. I was pleased with the smaller girl who was very persistent and managed to get Mr Shortcut, her pony, to go right into the corners.

Then we got to the canter part. I was feeling hopeful as they`d already asked if they could canter today. I ran with both girls for the first time, and they let go of the front of their saddles. When I set off with the first rider she said to me “Shall I let go?”

“Yes” I said, “you did last time didn`t you?” Off we went. I gave the cue for canter and my little rider wasn`t holding on. Suddenly, she dropped her reins!

“Woah, hold on!” I cried immediately slowing down. “You`re meant to keep hold of your reins but let go of your saddle, silly.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot!” she said, grinning away.

The next time both of them went alone to canter. This meant we got a few more canters in as I didn`t get puffed out. Both girls were grinning away and starting to look secure in the canter.

Then we moved on to a little jump. Only a tiny cross pole, so that they were feeling like they were making progress. For some reason the bigger pony took a dislike to the sunlight on the white pole so that rider had to be really accurate with her steering and put her leg on. A lot to do when you still have to think about jumping position! Mr Shortcut, unsurprisingly, wouldn`t trot until heading straight towards the fence, and did a sharp left hander almost straight after. His rider soon got the measure of him and steered him straight after the fence all the way to the track.

We built up the cross pole until it was about a foot in the centre; the bigger pony took quite a jump (not enough to unseat, but he put in a bit of effort) and cantered away from the jump! His rider was chuffed with herself. Even Mr Shortcut had to make an effort over that cross so his rider felt the shape of the jump as she folded.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lesson, and both girls seemed incredibly confident and happy throughout. No nerves showed, and I think they`re bringing all their skills together, so I can start making the flatwork a bit harder and try doing a double or little course of jumps next time.