I was asked the other day on my opinion on sharers, which is becoming a more and more popular option for horse owners. So here are my thoughts.

I’ve seen sharing arrangements which work really well for all parties, and I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong with the sharer fleeing at the first cold wind of winter or the first sign of lameness and the horse owner picking up the pieces.

For the horse owner, having a sharer can help reduce the workload of horse ownership; a sharer can make a financial contribution, help keep your horse exercised and fit, and help out with yard chores. Which can give you a lie in, or a day off from horses. It can help you maintain a healthy horse-family-work balance.

For the sharer, it’s an opportunity to forge a strong bond with a horse which you can’t do in a riding school environment, usually at a fraction of the cost. You get the horse ownership experience without the full time or financial commitment, which can work really well for those with young families or students.

Unfortunately though, I repeatedly see adverts on social media of young people who are basically looking for free rides in return for mucking out. Yes, I understand that financially they may not be able to afford riding lessons, but I worry that their naivety of riding unsupervised, plus the fact privately owned horses often have more get-up-and-go than riding school horses, poses a huge risk to the horse owner.

I still think that sharing arrangements can be a good solution for horse owners, it needs to be entered into carefully and with both eyes open.

Firstly, you need to decide why you want or need a sharer. Is it to help you exercise your horse as they can be too fizzy for you? Is it to give you a horse free day a couple of times a week? Is it to help cover your livery bill? Some share arrangements exchange riding for money whilst others exchange riding for chores. When advertising for a share you need to be very clear with what you expect in return.

Regardless of your sharing currency, there are a few hoops to jump through to help set up a successful share.

Firstly, insurance. You will have your own insurance, but you need to check that your horse is covered with other riders, or that other riders are covered. A good option is to get a sharer to take out BHS Gold membership as this will cover both them and your horse on the ground and in the saddle.

Assess their riding. Have them ride your horse under your supervision a few times, and doing all that they will want to do. So watch them school, pop a fence, and hack. They don’t need to be brilliant, but your horse shouldn’t be offended by their riding. Find out their riding goals, as it is really beneficial to have complementary aims. For example, if you like hacking and the sharer wants to do dressage this can provide variety for your horse. If you don’t like jumping then a sharer who does can be beneficial to your horse’s mental well being and fitness. However, regardless of what you both want to do, you need to have a similar approach to riding. For example, you don’t want to spend your days working your horse in a long and low frame to get them working over their back and relaxed, only for your sharer to undo all hard your work by pinning their heads in or galloping wildly round the countryside. I would strongly encourage sharers to have regular lessons, ideally with the same coach as the horse’s owner so that you can be sure you’re both singing off the same sheet, even if it’s at different levels.

The horse owner should watch how the potential sharer acts on the ground, whether they’re confident around horses and know their hoof pick from their body brush. Even if they’re straight out of a riding school and know very little, they can still learn. It’s worth the owner spending a few sessions with the sharer to help them build confidence on the ground and to set the owner’s mind at rest that their horse will be well cared for. Again, from an owner’s perspective, make sure you’re happy with the standard that the chores are done to when assessing the sharer. They can have room to learn, but you don’t want them doing a poor job and then you playing catch up the following day. It is also worth checking that the sharer is happy with any other horses they may have to deal with. For example, if your horse is in a field with one other then the sharer may well have to feed or hay both horses on their days, so they need to be happy with this, and the owner’s of the other horse does too.

I would also be careful of sharers who are fresh from the riding school as they often don’t foresee how time consuming the looking after aspect of horse care is, especially when they’re fumbling with tools or buckles, so can either shirk their duties and just chuck the tack on with a careless glance over the horse, or lose interest after a week. As an owner, your horse is your first priority and you want them to feel as loved by their sharer as they do by you. It’s definitely worth investing the time in training up a sharer so that they’re happy, your horse is happy, and you can then enjoy your horse free time without worrying.

Draw up a contract. This may seem formal, but it’s a useful reference point if anything goes wrong. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated but should contain the following subjects:

  • Insurance
  • Number of days and which days the sharer has use of the horse. The arrangement for flexibility or additional days (such as school holidays). How much warning needs to be given for changing days.
  • The chores or payment the sharer needs to provide in return for riding, and how often. Some sharers pay weekly, others monthly, some in advance and others in arrears. Some sharers have to do the chores for the entire day that they are riding the horse on, so for example turn out and muck out in the morning, and bringing in in the evening. Others just the jobs when they’re there to ride.
  • What the sharer can and cannot do with the horse. It may be that the horse has physical limitations (for example, an old injury which means they can’t be jumped too high or more than once a week) or that the owner doesn’t feel the sharer is competent enough to hack alone. However, there may be a clause that the sharer can compete or attend clinics with the approval of the owner.
  • What happens in the event of the horse going lame. Unfortunately I’ve seen many sharers up and go when the horse is injured and needs a period of box rest, leaving the owner high and dry. It may be that the sharer has such a bond with the horse that they want to continue caring for them without the benefit of riding, or the owner may have another horse the sharer can ride.
  • The notice period for terminating the contract. This may be a natural end because of the sharer outgrowing the horse, or changing jobs or moving house (or yard) but in order to end on a good note, it is more respectful to forewarn the owner.
  • Who is responsible for livery services? If for example, the sharer has to have the horse turned out on one their days, who foots the bill at the end of the month? Who is responsible for cleaning or repairing tack?

Of course, creating a sharing agreement is far more complicated than it initially seems, but having a good starting point for discussion helps both the horse owner and sharer work out what they want from, and what they can bring to, a sharing arrangement which will then hopefully have the horse’s welfare at its heart and makes for a lasting friendship between owner and sharer.


The Rules of Feeding

It crossed my mind the other day how much feeding horses has changed even over the relatively short time I have been working with horses. Does this mean that the rules of feeding we learn so diligently by rote need modernising, or have they stood the test of time?

Let’s go through them one at a time.

  1. Feed according to size, age, body weight, type, temperament, time of year, level of work, level of rider. With all the modern complete feeds on the market I think it is easier to choose, and trial, a feed that will suit your horse and then feed it in the correct quantity. For example, you can buy feeds specifically designed for laminitics, veterans, excitable horses, endurance, stud, and any other factor you can think of. However, there is still a huge (excuse the pun) problem of horses being overfed. I feel this is more due to the quantity they are given, their grazing being too rich, and owners being unable to distinguish between healthy and overweight animals rather than the type of feed being unsuitable for them though.
  1. Feed little and often. This rule comes from wise observations of horses in their natural state, and as the digestive tract of a horse has not changed in the last century we can be sure that this rule is as relevant today as it was when the rules were first drawn up.
  2. Always feed good quality food. Just the same that we wouldn’t eat poor quality food, feeding poor quality food can lead to respiratory or digestive disorders as well as being a false economy as the horse will drop weight and under perform. Since the early 2000s the EU has passed many regulations on the quality of equine feeds, which I think makes it far harder to purchase low quality food.
  3. Feed plenty of bulk. This rule is based on the observation of a horse’s natural diet, and as I said before they haven’t changed physiologically in recent years we should still feed plenty of bulk. The knowledge of the average leisure rider has improved vastly so whilst this rule is no less important, it is done more autonomically. Additionally, the complete feeds that you now buy instead of having to mix various straight feeds, are all based on a mainly fibrous diet.
  4. Do not make any sudden changes to the type of food being fed. Again, as this rule is based on the horse’s physiology, so is still relevant today. I think the feeds on today’s market does mean that there is less change in a horse’s diet over the course of a year though. Because the off the shelf feed bags are complete feeds within themselves, a horse’s base diet stays the same throughout the year, it may just change in volume between seasons, or it may be supplemented during competition season in order to keep the horse’s performance levels up. When I was young I can distinctly remember our ponies diets changing quite radically between winter and summer. Matt always had to have the oats removed once he started living in, and barley added from September to help keep the weight on him. Nowadays, he has the same type of feed all through the year, but the ratio is adjusted if he needs to gain weight.
  1. Always use clean utensils and bowls. We don’t eat off dirty plates so why should our horses use dirty bowls? The move towards plastic feed buckets in recent years rather than the rubber ones does mean it’s easier to keep them cleaner to a higher standard. And of course you can write names onto plastic buckets more easily, which reduces the risk of cross contamination of illnesses and medicine. I think perhaps the importance of preventing horses getting the wrong medicine, or banned substances in their feed, has increased in recently years with the FEI having more stringent rules surrounding medicines in competition, and the fact there are more non-professional riders competing at the highest levels and under rules. Also more leisure horses are fed drugs for maintenance, such as Bute or prascend, which increases the risk of competition horses being exposed to the drugs.
  2. Feed at regular times daily. Horses are creatures of habit so thrive on routine, but equally having a frequent feed routine helps to keep the digestive system flowing. This helps reduce stress, which is linked to gastric ulcers. There seems to be more cases of ulcers nowadays, but whether that’s because of better diagnostic techniques and understanding of the equine body. Or whether horses have more stressful lives – in terms of routine, competitions, environment – yes, I know that’s a can of worms! So the rule is old and still relevant, but has the reasoning behind the rule changed slightly as our demands on the horse changed?
  3. Feed something succulent every day. This rule is to provide horses with variety to the diet and to provide extra vitamins. Now that complete feeds are scientifically balanced to provide the correct quantities of vitamins and minerals are carrots, parsnips, salt licks as necessary?
  1. Water before feeding. This comes from when horses were predominantly kept in stalls not loose boxes (think of Black Beauty) so didn’t have access to water all the time. This rule has changed in the revised textbooks to “provide a clean, fresh supply of water at all times”. So yes, it has been modernised!
  2. Feed a hard feed at least an hour before exercise and longer before more demanding work. Just like we don’t swim an hour after eating to ensure blood is not diverted and away from the digestive system to working muscles leaving us with undigested food banging around our insides, it’s still not advisable to feed a horse just before riding. However, I do believe this rule needs expanding as now we are beginning to understand the importance of having a little bit of fibre (e.g. hay or chaff) in our horses stomachs when we ride to soak up excess gastric acid and help prevent the development of ulcers. Most people now give their horse a small haynet or a scoop of chaff while they are grooming for this reason.

In all, the rules of feeding are staying with the times and not becoming outdated, which is good news for us oldies! Are there any rules which could be added or expanded to, to make sure they’re more relevant to today’s stable management routines and the feed available on the market?

Another rule I can think of, which is fairly common sense, but still important with the numerous feeds that require soaking prior to feeding, is to follow the preparation instructions of compound feeds. The rules from the BHS textbook I looked at also did not mention about dampening feeds, which is vitally important in preventing horses bolting their food and getting choke.

I’d be interested on a nutritionist’s opinion on the original rules of feeding and their relevance to modern feeds.

Jumping Straight

I was in a nit-picky mood last week, so focused one client and her horse on their straightness when jumping. Before Christmas I’d noticed a slight drift over the fence to the right. It was very subtle, and only noticeable if you were stood facing them and looking for it. I’d established that they always went right, and I’d also noticed that the drift was more pronounced in combinations.

I built a grid of three bounces, followed by one canter stride and then a fence. As the drift became more pronounced with multiple fences I hoped that the bounces would highlight this to my rider, and also allow us to strengthen the horse so that she found individual fences or doubles easier and so stayed straight.

Between the last bounce and the jump I laid two parallel poles to make tramlines. This was to refocus my rider after the bounces so that she was definitely central and straight on that canter stride. We worked over the grid with the poles on the floor from both reins, and they were straight as a die. But that wasn’t surprising because the horse is fit and balanced on the flat. The drifting only occurs as she has to put effort into a jump and she pushes asymmetrically from her hindlegs.

Next I built the last fence into a high cross. This was to focus their eye on the middle, and to reduce the drift over the fence. Because the bounce poles were still on the ground their approach was straight, and the tramlines prevented a drift in the last stride. So we added in the bounces one by one.

With all three bounces up we started to see the drift occur. One time they knocked the right hand pole, which is a very visual clue as to the direction and timing of the drifting. They could jump two bounces and stay central, but upon landing on the third my rider had to open her left hand and close the right leg to maintain their line.

Next, I made the cross pole higher and then raised the bounces, which could trigger more drifting, but with careful riding my rider managed to hold her line. She had to keep her left rein slightly open, right rein close to the shoulder, and right leg at the ready to correct any drifting, whilst ensuring she kept her weight even down each leg so that she wasn’t encouraging her horse to drift.

We isolated the drifting to the right as the last stride and over the bigger jump, so I made an A-frame. An A-frame is an upright jump with two slanting poles from the floor to the centre of the jump, making an “A” shape. They can improve a horse’s technique as well as accuracy, but I didn’t want the mare to change her bascule but rather focus on the straightness so I didn’t put the slanting poles too close together or sitting higher than the horizontal pole.

We worked through the grid from both reins, and as you can see in the video below the pair are very straight over the bounces, with a minimal drift right to the upright. However, I think this was partly due to them getting their line to the bounces fractionally left as they actually jump the A-frame centrally. Which means it’s time for me to nit-pick their approaches to jumps!

Turn On The Forehand Exercise

This is a useful exercise I’ve been using a lot recently with much success.

Trot along the three quarter line and in the second half make a transition to halt. This could be a direct or a progressive one, depending on your horse’s level of training, but the halt needs to be balanced. From halt, ride a turn on the forehand towards the track and proceed immediately into trot. Repeat on the next three quarter line, which will be a turn on the forehand in the opposite direction.

This has several benefits, as well as being an unusual change of rein. The turn on the forehand engaged the inside hindleg, which has benefits for the trot on the new rein.

Turning on the forehand improves the suppleness of the hindquarters of the horse, which means that they push up into trot more correctly.

With horses who tend to rush leg yield and other lateral work, turn on the forehand focuses on the sideways movement only. Which can lead to improved lateral work later on as they understand that they can move away from the leg in a sideways fashion, not just forwards.

Working on the three quarter line reduces their reliance on the fence line, so is a good test of straightness in the trot and through the transitions.

Turn on the forehand is useful for horses who get a bit tight and tense through their neck and shoulders, and is useful for introducing the concept of the rider positioning the neck and shoulders, which is required for shoulder in.

I’ve found this exercise to be really helpful in creating a straighter, more active and balanced trot. One client has a horse who rushes in leg yield and struggles with straightness anyway, so we used this exercise to encourage the mare to think sideways more than forwards, and it had the added benefit of the mare pushing into a more active trot, and as she then came “through” her body and connected the front end to the back end, she began to straighten herself out which combined with the other exercises really improved their trot work.

Due to the improved trot after the turn on the forehand, putting in a canter transition at the next corner can be really useful in improving the canter strike off, and usually results in a more balanced canter immediately. This is where I have found the benefit to be for Phoenix.

There is a similar exercise on a square, where you ride a quarter turn on the forehand at each corner, but the corners can come up very quickly and both horse and rider can get in a pickle. I think I prefer my exercise as it gives you more time to prepare for the next turn. As well as the fact that a half turn on the forehand is more challenging than a quarter turn!

How To Be a Good Groom

It happens to everyone at some point, you get asked, or you could ask someone, if you can tag along to a competition with them. It’s a high honour, but how do you become an invaluable member of their team – a good groom?

First of all, find out what time you’re leaving the yard – and don’t gasp when you hear how early it is! Make sure you arrive in plenty of time, and it’s always good to ask them if they need any help before leaving. You don’t have to be an ace plaiter, or be able to do a do a tail bandage, you can be just as useful mucking out their stable or to-ing and fro-ing to the lorry with all their bits and pieces.

Be prepared to help with directions to the venue. It might be reading aloud instructions, tapping into satnav, or keeping an eye out for signs. But when you have pre-competition nerves, have a loaded lorry to drive, every bit of help is invaluable.

At the competition, you need to be ready to do anything your friend needs so show willing and offer. They may want you to run to the secretary with their passport, or stay with their horse while they walk the course. It may be tacking up, or putting on boots. If you aren’t sure how to do something, or if you’ve done it right, ask them to double check or show you on the first leg. After all, you’re learning too, and all riders would rather double check than have a tack malfunction halfway round a course!

While they warm up park yourself in an inconspicuous place, but within shouting distance so you can easily help adjust a girth or take an exercise blanket or coat from them. This is when nerves usually kick in, even if they don’t look it, so it’s important to be positive in your conversations. Don’t say “oh doesn’t that horse look good?” Or “Wow that was an awesome round!” Instead tell them they look very smart, relaxed, working well, or whatever adjective you can think of! The last thing that they want to hear before they go in is some encouragement, so even though they aren’t looking their best, just tell them to enjoy themselves, have fun, and good luck.

Videos provide great feedback, so offer to film their test, or round. Ask them where they want you to stand if you aren’t sure of the best place.

The first thing a competitor wants to hear when they’ve finished is “well done” or “that looked great”. Even if it went disastrously wrong, by you being positive they won’t beat themselves up too much. If they are a bit upset just focus on looking after their horse, give them space to reflect, and let the emotions die down. They’ll start talking when they’re ready. For example, they may not have got the clear round they’d hoped for, but after the initial disappointment has faded, you can help them find the positives, such as the fact that they may have refused the water, but they negotiated the plank more successfully than their last competition.

As before, help them untack and brush off their horse, again asking if you aren’t sure what to do. Then the most important job of the day, is to eat! Offer to go to the burger van or to go get a hot drink. A lot of people can’t eat when they’re nervous and when caught up in the hustle and bustle of the day it’s easy to forget to eat and suddenly get hunger pangs on the way home. So your job is to remind them to replenish their energy. Especially after a cross country round!

Once back at the yard don’t jump into your car to go home, even though you’re tired. Make sure you offer to turn out, unload the lorry, clean it out, or any other job your friend needs to do. After all, they’re just as tired as you!

Basically, the honour of accompanying a friend to a competition means being at their beck and call for a few hours whilst cheering them on and being very supportive. However, it is a lot of fun and you do learn a lot about riding and competing from watching other riders, as well as asking your friend a multitude of questions after they’ve competed!

Another Canter Exercise

You may remember a few weeks ago I told you of a canter exercise is been doing with a lot of the horses I ride and teach with. It does require a wider than normal arena though, which means a few readers can’t utilise the exercise. So I have a variation on it, which can be done in a 20x40m ménage.

In left canter, ride the diagonal line F to H. Between F and X ride a left circle in canter, of approximately 15m. Over X ride a transition to trot. Then trot a right circle between X and H, also of about 15m. I won’t repeat myself in the benefit of the trot circle on the opposite rein to the canter circle, you can read the full explanation in the original canter post (see link above).

You can however, begin to build on this basic exercise once you have mastered it on both diagonal lines.

Step two, is to pick up canter after the trot circle, so in the example above this would be right canter.

The trot circle gives both you and your horse time to prepare for the new canter lead, whilst asking for a strike off in the middle of the arena tests your horse’s balance and understanding of the aids in order for them not to drift through the transition and to ensure they pick up the correct lead.

Step three is picking up canter before the circle. Which means instead of a trot circle it is a canter circle. Less time between the two leads teaches obedience, focus on the rider, and further improves their balance.

Step four. Reduce the number of trot strides over the letter X. This is great preparation for novice dressage tests, which commonly have a change of canter lead through trot.

Step five for those of you looking towards elementary level dressage; change the canter lead with a simple change. This requires more engagement from behind and for the horse to have a more established and elevated canter in order for them to not fall onto their forehand in the downwards transition which then prevents them from being able to push directly from walk back into canter. Bonus points if you can execute a flying change over X.

At the moment Phoenix is only working on step three. The first circle is feeling very balanced, she’s staying straight through both the downward and upward transitions and I can feel her really pushing back up into canter from her hindquarters. However, the second canter circle is still feeling a bit rushed and she drops onto her inside shoulder. Whilst her canter transitions are improving, we need to work on establishing her canter rhythm quicker so that she can stay balanced around the second circle. Once she’s established on the second circle, I’ll begin working towards step four and introducing direct transitions.