Problem Solving Polework

Logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords. I love all sorts of puzzles, and one of my favourite things when teaching is working out what exercise suits a horse or rider, and why. Why have they developed that way of going, and how can we improve it? Where is there weakness and how do we hone in on it?

So with one of my young clients, who’s really forged a great relationship with her new pony over the summer, I wanted to get her brain going. She’s a very thoughtful rider, with good feel, so I wanted to get her to deduce their weak points. I find that if a rider feels and understands the weak area then they are more motivated to improve it, and will focus more of their energy into practicing and self-correcting, which leaves me with more lesson time to focus on more exciting things.

In our lessons we’ve discussed the stages of training; rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion, but now she has more of a feel for a steady and consistent contact, and an understanding of the correct way a horse propels themselves forwards I wanted to re-address suppleness.

Whilst she warmed herself up with the criteria of working evenly on each rein, using circles of various sizes, serpentines and shallow loops, I set up four pole exercises. I should probably add that she’s only nine years old.

The first exercise we did was the S-bend, often seen in TREC competitions. All they had to do was walk through the path through the poles without touching or stepping over the poles. I’ve seen an agile Belgian Draft horse do this perfectly, so a 12.2hh pony has no excuse!

They had a few attempts to wiggle their way through, but in all but one time the pony stepped over the pole with a hindleg. There were a couple of teaching points such as looking up, and not down at the turn. It’s important to use the outside aids to turn as when she forgot about her outside rein (outside leg worked well) and overused the inside rein the pony was more likely to step over a pole. We ended the exercise with a discussion about whether one direction was easier for the pony than the other. She correctly identified that turning left was harder for him.

We moved on to a trio of trotting poles on a curve. On each rein, they aimed to trot over the centre of each pole. We also tried making the trot shorter striding and trotting over the poles closer to the centre of the circle.

As anticipated, the clever pony trotted a straight line over the poles, so I positioned myself to help guide my rider’s eye, and encouraged her to keep riding positively around the turn. As soon as they managed to trot the poles on the curve she could feel the increased activity of the inside hindleg. Again, I asked her which rein was easier, and she again said the right.

Next up was the house exercise. We began by focusing on straightness through the middle of the trot poles and trotting over the apex of the triangle.

Initially my rider was turning too close to the poles so started off drifting over the first pole. She also felt the exaggerated step her pony did over apex, and she had to maintain the active trot she got over the poles before the apex which will hopefully help her generate and maintain a more energetic trot on the flat.

Next, we worked on trotting over the centre of the trotting poles and then riding a curve to the centre of either of the angled (purple in the picture) poles. It took a couple of tries to perfect each turn: getting straight for the poles, using her outside aids to turn and not losing momentum. And of course I had to position myself to help guide them. Perhaps I need to invest in some cones for when I do similar exercises with bigger horses!

At the end, I asked my rider two questions.

“Which way did your pony find hardest?”

And “which way did you find hardest?”

Correctly, she replied that her pony found going left hardest, but she found it harder to ride right.

I was really impressed with her summation, and it meant that I could begin to explain why. The pony is older, I think having had a busy working life or perhaps an old injury has caused some stiffness which has led to the pony favouring the right rein. There’s not a huge amount we can do about it except ensure we work him evenly on both reins and sympathetically to his weaker area.

For my rider though, we can definitely help. I’m always reminding her to keep her left thumb on top, and to imagine her left elbow being Velcro-ed to her side. She’s right hand dominant, so when she turns right her left rein, the outside one, doesn’t support her pony’s outside shoulder and so, despite it being his easier rein, he drifts through the left shoulder. We need to focus on her using her outside aids, and building an awareness for what her left hand is doing. Or not doing. But I know some exercises which will help, and now she understands the implications of her weak rein I believe she will be more focused on correcting and improving herself.

To finish the lesson, I wanted to give my rider a feel for an elevated trot and to get her feeling a perfect straight line, so I introduced her to the grid of poles.

Firstly, they trotted on the lower poles, with the raised poles acting as tramlines to help pony and rider stay straight throughout the poles – no drifting! My rider could feel both hindlegs pushing evenly over the poles and felt the straightness in his head, neck and shoulders.

Finally, they worked over the raised poles. The pony really picked his feet up, giving my rider a lovely feel of an elevated trot, which again will help her create more impulsion in her flat work as she’s had a feel for the extreme.

In all, a really good lesson which I felt taught my little rider a lot about both her and her pony, which will enable me to put together some exercises on both the flat and over jumps which will improve the pair of them, and more to the point, my rider will understand why we’re doing them.

Advertisements

The World Equestrian Games

Has everyone been following the WEG competitions this last week? If I’m honest, I’ve not watched any, but plan to do a marathon catch up over the weekend. I have however, been following it all online.

I do have a couple of opinions about it to voice though.

Given that it’s the championship for eight of the FEI disciplines – combined driving, dressage, endurance riding, para-equestrian, eventing, showjumping, reining and vaulting – I have to say that there is disappointing media coverage on the non-Olympic sports.

Horse and Hound have dutifully written up about Team GB’s personal best in the reining, but that’s nothing compared to their social media posts about the dressage and event horses who passed their respective trot ups, and detailed analyses of each performance.

You can watch every discipline on FEI TV, but all other channels, such as BBC, Eurosport, H&C, provide extensive coverage of dressage, eventing and showjumping, with minimal coverage of the other disciplines. I hope Clare Balding references each discipline in her highlights show at the games.

I’m sure there’s financial reasons for not televising the disciplines where we aren’t so dominant, but equally with so much online TV available I’m sure with just a bit of promotion on social media, equine enthusiasts will be more aware of all the disciplines and be able to watch them. You never know, if a young rider watches, for example, the vaulting competition, that may encourage them to take up the sport as it combines their love of horses with their love of gymnastics. Which of course only benefits equestrianism as a whole.

My other question, or rather thought, about the WEG is why on earth are they holding it in North Carolina during hurricane season?

Unlike the Olympics, which are held circa the first two weeks of August, the WEG can be held at any time during the year. In 2014, the Games were held at the beginning of August in Normandy. So when Tryon was given the bid, why did they choose the hottest, most humid time of year to hold the Games? You only have to google the climate in North Carolina to see that it is extremely hot – red on the colour scale – from June until October. Then consider the North Atlantic hurricane season, which peaks from the end of August right through September.

As far as I understand it, there wasn’t a huge amount of interest, or funding to hold the WEG. Initially, it was given to Bromont, Canada in 2014 but then they pulled out due to not being able to secure financial support so in 2016 Tryon was announced as host. Ok, so they haven’t had that long to prepare for 68 nations and almost 700 horses to descend on them. Which may have led to them choosing the latter part of the year.

But surely if horse welfare is at the top of the FEI’s agenda, they would have come up with alternative plans. Either to use an alternate venue, or delay the Games to the early part of 2019. I honestly don’t think any of the athletes would have minded it being 4 1/2 years between WEG if it would have improved the competition environment. I applaud the owners of the Irish show jumper who refused to send their horse halfway across the world into potentially catastrophic conditions.

This leads me onto the debacle of the endurance event. First of all there was a false start, and then the race was disbanded due to the weather conditions. Imagine all that preparation, flying across the world, to participate in a failed, badly organised event. Then we hear that an endurance horse has been euthanised due to kidney failure from severe dehydration. What else has gone on behind the scenes that we don’t know about? How many horses and riders suffered from heat stroke and had to be hospitalised?

This morning, I woke to the news that the eventing showjumping and the dressage freestyle have been postponed due to Hurricane Florence hitting on Sunday. I know no one could have predicted the magnitude of Hurricane Florence, but given the fact that September always has at least one major hurricane hit the North American coast, we could’ve placed some bets.

I haven’t even touched on the outrage when it was revealed that the grooms accommodation consisted of dormitory style tents. Which is rather reminiscent of a scout jamboree. And doesn’t give the grooms the best chance of doing their job to the high standards the athletes expect and require. Let alone the fact that it’s hurricane season and let’s face it, those tents aren’t going to withstand the first gusts of Hurricane Florence! I know the infrastructure was only just finished in time for the beginning of the Games, so corners will have been cut somewhere but it seems the poor grooms suffered. I have also heard there were problems with arrival process and that feed and gear were confiscated and lost upon arrival, which hasn’t made it into mainstream media yet.

I think a lot of equestrians are, quite rightfully, upset with the WEG/FEI and the Tryon organisers for several bad decisions, and for not prioritising athlete welfare. Apparently the discipline sponsors offered to relocate the event at their own expense because they were so concerned about equine welfare, but the FEI insisted on continuing with Plan A.

So then I wonder if perhaps the equestrian championships aren’t better being held individually, or in small groups. I mean, each discipline has different requirements so in order to accommodate all of them a lot of money and work is needed by a host. Which perhaps leads to a lack of interest in hosting the WEG as a whole. If it was broken down again, so dressage and para-dressage was held on one week, at one suitable venue, and eventing at another time and place you’d have far more willing hosts because it’s not such a massive undertaking so is more viable, and the championships could be held at the time of year most suitable for that discipline. Which would lead to better horse welfare, happier athletes, happier spectators, and hopefully more successful championships.

I think it’s a case of watching this space, and seeing the fallout that the Tryon WEG has on the FEI as a body, and in the future format of the WEG and championships because we, as equestrians, have a duty to our horses to learn from this fiasco.

Two Years

It’s been two years since the vet told me Otis would never jump again, and a year since I stopped fighting and admitted his retirement. I’ve stopped choking up about it now, and am just glad to see him a few times a week in the field; happy, healthy (except for the dodgy foot), and enjoying equine company. Things happen for a reason, and if my riding time was cut short with Otis, it was so that I got to meet Phoenix.

I saw her advertised as a five year old two and a half years ago. If I’d had the gift of foresight perhaps I’d have bought her then. But I wouldn’t have been able to devote as much time to either her or Otis, nor had my time with Matt and won the dressage championships. Things happen for a reason, but I’m very happy with how well Phoenix is fitting in with my lifestyle and how she is everything I wanted from my next horse but highly doubted I’d find.

After almost a week off over the bank holiday weekend, she was foot perfect in the arena, producing some of her best trot work. I can feel the improvements in her every day and she tries so hard to please. The following evening she and I went for a lovely peaceful hack on our own, and it began to feel like hacking Otis. At one. Except for the levades before a canter. You don’t need to learn that Phoenix!

Then yesterday we boxed up for some showjumping practice. She didn’t even hesitate as we walked up the trailer ramp, and travelled perfectly. Once there, she was a total pleasure to unload and tack up, then waited patiently while the baby had her food.

Last time, Phoenix had been very wary of the water tray and I hadn’t made an issue of it, so this time I led her over it a few times before mounting and walking over it. Once I’d ridden over it twice, she understood. She cantered over it as part of the course, and maintained this confidence when I made it into a jump.

With the other fences, I build an array of sizes and for the first time placed fillers under some jumps. After a couple of warm up fences I took her round akin to a competition. She felt confident and calm; was very rideable around turns and followed my lines. She had a couple down but that was due to babyness – her canter isn’t that established so she can’t adjust it to reach the fence perfectly, and then needs some practice in getting herself out of trouble.

The double took a couple of tries to perfect. I needed to adapt my riding as I kept forgetting I didn’t have the power in the canter. She needed to travel more than I initially thought. But she tried, and put in a long jump over the second element until I got my act together.

I wanted a horse who was well behaved to take out, and she definitely is. She’s patient with the baby; waits quietly on the yard if I have to go and feed or change her. Doesn’t spook at the pushchair, and ignores the crying. To handle, she’s perfect; I’d happily let a child groom or lead her. With assistance of course! And most of all, I feel like I have a relationship with her. She trusts me, and I know exactly what makes her tick, and how to instil confidence in me.

I just feel very lucky that I’ve had ten years of education with Otis, and learnt so much from him, whilst enjoying every minute, and now I can take my knowledge and impart it to such a worthy successor.

Change of Perspective

More and more I find myself looking at horse riding and equestrianism from a parent’s perspective.

I think there will be a lot of pressure on Mallory to learn to ride. People will presume that she loves horses and is good at riding because I do it for a living. I’m determined not to push her into horse riding. Of course, she’s already having plenty of exposure to horses and already smiles in pleasure when one breathes gently over her. She strokes their noses and wraps her fingers around their manes. I sit her on them, but I fully intend to be led by her. If she wants to have a ride then I will arrange it, and happily teach and encourage her. If she is serious about learning to ride then that’s the road we’ll take.

The way I see it, if Mallory is into horses then we’ll have plenty of mother-daughter time. If she doesn’t, she can have father-daughter time while I have pony time on my own!

Let’s assume she does take up horse riding. What do I want her to achieve with this hobby?

It would be fantastic if she was the next Nicola Wilson, Charlotte Dujardin or Jessica Mendoza. And if so we’ll support her on her competitive journey. But if not, she’ll be just like the rest of us.

I want horses to teach her respect for others. To care for an animal and the responsibility which comes with it. I want her to benefit from the exercise involved in caring for horses and riding; to get the fresh air and keep fit. I want her to find a best friend in an equine, to help keep her sane during her crazy teenage years when she won’t want me so much. Horses will also allow Mallory to meet and socialise with people from all walks of life: and the ability to strike up a conversation with anybody is a very useful skill.

I don’t mind whether Mallory wants to jump bigger and wider than is good for my heart, or wants to piaffe down the centre line. She can choose to compete, to ride for pleasure, to hack, or to jump. But most importantly I want her to be confident and enjoy herself. And I think that’s my job as a parent: to nurture her (hopeful) love of horses and enable her to enjoy them in the same way I do. If she’s happy, confident, understanding and respectful to horses, and achieves her own aims – be they cantering across fields or competing under the GB flag – then I think I’ll have succeeded as a parent.

Kids and Grids

As we know, I love gridwork. I do find it’s not introduced to children early enough in their jumping education though. Obviously you can’t or don’t need to build a long, complicated, all singing and dancing grid for those learning to jump, but a simple grid can help develop a child’s feel for a good jump, build their confidence, and develop their feel for their jumping position.

I find that children have less understanding of and ability to ride the different types of canter, and creating and maintaining a quality canter on the approach to fences, so a grid in this situation has to be built bespoke to the pony and adjusted through the lesson.

I start with three canter poles, with one pony stride between. The pony I did this with last week has quite a short striding canter, and stays very steady over poles, so I laid the poles out five of my strides apart. That’s about fifteen foot. They cantered easily through the poles, with my little jockey focusing on keeping straight and keeping the canter going through the poles.

Then I made the first fence into a little cross, and rolled out the following two poles so they were sixteen foot apart because the act of popping over the little cross pole opens up the pony’s canter and he needed more space between the poles.

Once they were confident and consistent through this setup, I rolled the second pole out slightly more and then made it into another jump. Then I corrected the third pole so it was still sixteen foot away from the second fence. Each time the pair went through the grid I checked the pony’s take off and landing points to see if he needed the distances lengthening. I didn’t want my rider to have to try to adjust the canter, I wanted the pony to easily negotiate the grid and make a good shape over the jumps to improve my rider’s feel.

I put the third jump up so we had three crosses, about seventeen foot apart, and then spent some time working on my rider’s position. It took a couple of attempts for her to find the rhythm of folding and sitting up quick enough for the series of jumps, and then we checked she was giving with her hands and not restricting his neck over jumps. Even if the first jump was taken a bit long or short, my rider soon began to see their take off point and stayed much more balanced throughout. So the grid was helping improve her balance, eye for a stride, and confidence over the fences. Prior to riding this grid, she’d got left behind over bigger jumps and hadn’t always looked in sync with her pony.

One at a time I turned the second and third jump into uprights, and raised the cross slightly. As each fence got bigger, from 45cm to 60cm, I tweaked the distances so that the pony met every jump well out of his canter, and my rider didn’t have to change the canter.

This little rider worries with upright and spread fences, so I used the grid to introduce these fence shapes. With the third fence moved out slightly further, I made an inviting spread with a cross at the front and a back rail. The grid ensured she met the jump well, and I hoped that having a good experience over an oxer would increase her confidence.

The pair finished with the grid below; the back rail of the oxer was 60cm. Easily the biggest she’s ever jumped, and she stayed balanced during the bigger bascule. They got a little close to the first jump, which meant they were a little close to the second too. I could have the distances slightly wider, but I didn’t want them to take a long one over the first fence and then either chip in for the second fence or take a very long jump. When we next do a grid I aim to get them jumping closer to 70cm, so the distances will be closer to the textbook 21 feet. However, I will let the pony dictate the distances as my little rider is less able to adjust the canter if things don’t go to plan.

Grids for beginners, even if they’re barely more than poles on the floor, are understated. So long as the instructor adapts the distances so the horse or pony can jump them out of their comfortable canter, it’s a great opportunity for a rider to develop their jumping position, balance and feel.

Phoenix’s Progress

It’s been a few weeks since I updated you on Phoenix.

We did very well at our first competition, so I decided to keep the ball rolling and enter another dressage competition at the same venue three weeks later. The blips in our first competition were due to her competition inexperience so I felt she needed her horizons broadened.

The second competition had far better trot work: more consistent and relaxed but unfortunately the canter work didn’t reflect her recent canter work at home. I was really disappointed about that, but then had to remember that we scored highly for the transitions, an area I’d really been focusing on. After all, it’s one big learning curve for her.

Since then, we’ve had a a quiet couple of weeks. It’s continued to be scorching hot and the ground hard, so hacks have been mainly walk with the odd trot in the woods where the ground is softer with mulch. I’ve been hacking in the jump saddle to help her acclimatise to it, as she wasn’t convinced by my change in balance when it was first fitted to her. Now, I’m pleased to say, she’s as comfortable in that as she is in the dressage saddle.

Phoenix has really proven herself to be excellent to hack; she took some persuasion to cross the narrow byway bridge a few weeks ago, but now she’s got it sussed and confidently leads over it. Last week she waited at traffic lights and walked through some roadworks without batting an eye. I feel that our relationship has become stronger so I can push her out of her boundaries and she trusts me more. When the ground softens I’ll be able to test her in an open field, and go on a sponsored ride, which whilst I’m disappointed I’ve not been able to have a good canter out on a hack I know that this foundation work is excellent for both her manners and our relationship.

I’ve taken the opportunity to introduce lateral work on our walk hacks, zigzagging along the road and field. Phoenix is definitely understanding the idea of sideways, and is maintaining her rhythm and balance as she leg yields in walk nicely.

Unfortunately the sand arena has become very dry and deep. Sand is usually a good surface to work on, but when it’s dry it is very hard work for the horses. This means, especially when it’s very hot, I’ve been doing a lot of walk work in the school and riding field. Transitioning between free walk and medium walk, working on getting more of a stretch. Halt transitions, and decreasing circle sizes. Yesterday I was playing around with turn around the haunches and turn around the forehand, as well as some leg yielding on the slope. Recently, I’ve done very little canter work, pole work and jumping in the school as I don’t want to risk her legs as she develops muscle and tendon strength. After all, she’s building new muscle and fitness which she’s never had before so I don’t want to make it harder for her.

Last week Phoenix had the week off because I was teaching at Pony Club camp, but when I rode on Saturday we picked up exactly where we’d left off. Having a horse who didn’t need a full daily workout was one of my main criteria, and this is the first time she’s had a week’s holiday, so I was really pleased she’d proven herself to me in this way.

The following day we hired a showjumping course. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t jumped her for eight weeks, Phoenix jumped everything perfectly. We didn’t jump too high because of the heat and her lack of jumping fitness, but she ignored the fillers, and jumped more solid fences, and less inviting fences than before.

Hopefully with this week’s rain I can start doing more pole work and jumping at home with Phoenix, as I really want to get back to improving the canter and jumping. But the weeks of walk and trot work hasn’t been wasted as we’re closer to perfecting the core basics, which will help all her future work.

This week Phoenix also had a massage. I felt she’d been tight for a couple of weeks. A combination of working harder, increased muscles, and the ground conditions I think. Anyway, she thoroughly enjoyed her masssge, which found some tight spots in her shoulders (which have bulked out a lot) and over her hindquarters, which is just because she’s using them more and has bigger muscles there.

I’ve not got any more competitions lined up. You never know, the ground might improve enough for us to go cross country schooling! But I’m keeping my eye out for some clear round showjumping as I feel that now she’s ready to jump some small courses in more of a show environment. If I can’t find anywhere, then I’ll hire the showjumping course again. Then I think in September we’ll try another dressage competition when hopefully our canter won’t let us down!

Phoenix is still barefoot, and coping really well. My farrier was pleased with her feet when he last visited, only needing to shape them slightly. I feel she’s really changed shape as her fitness has improved, so I’m keeping an eye on the saddle fits and making sure that as soon as I feel any tightness in her ridden work I get her massaged so she is most comfortable and able to perform to her best.

Keeping Fences Low

With Pony Club Camp last week and the ground being incredibly hard this summer, there was a lot of talk amongst the instructors (which didn’t necessarily relate to me and my six year old riders) about how to keep the fences low in the jumping sessions. After all, there is a huge trend towards people (and not just the children) judging how good a rider someone is based on how high they can jump. I would much rather see a horse and rider jump a lower height safely, stylishly and confidently than “keeping up with the Joneses” and have an accident, lose confidence, and have an ugly round. Besides, none of us question Charlotte Dujardin’s riding ability and she rarely jumps.

Anyway, one exercise I did a few weeks ago was a relevant option for keeping the fences low yet still still testing the rider’s ability.

The exercise started with a cross pole at X which I had my rider jump on a steep angle from both reins. This tested that they could ride their line and the pony wasn’t trying to run out through the open side.

Then I set up a skinny fence, one canter stride away from the cross, on the line they’d been jumping. The skinny was an upright, with a plain pole, so had very little visual clues to help the rider stay on their line.

This particular pony always runs to the left so the double was first set up to be ridden from the right rein. My rider carried his whip in the right rein so if his pony drifted to the right he could use it on the shoulder to help stay on their line.

It was a tricky exercise because although the cross was a nice, encouraging fence, having only one stride to the skinny meant that the pair had to prepare properly, and set themselves up accurately to the combination as there was no time to do any repair work between jumps. In all honesty, I was surprised when they succeeded the first time and jumped the skinny very accurately and stylishly.

After riding the line a couple of times I rearranged the exercise so that they jumped it off the left rein. This would be their harder rein, because the rider has a weaker left leg and the pony tends to drift through his left shoulder which, combined with the fact the pony is encouraged to veer left through the double, means it is more problematic.

The first time they drifted left, then my rider really applied his left leg and the whip on the pony’s left shoulder. Which unfortunately meant that the pony overcompensated and ran out to the right.

So I used some poles to help guide the rider and pony. The tramlines were leant against the jump wings so that they ran diagonally down to the ground. This meant they clarified the question to the pony and helped funnel him towards the skinny. After a couple of times where they jumped the guide pole rather than the skinny they successfully rode the double. As soon as they cracked the line and stayed straight as an arrow, the double was a perfect canter stride and the pony made it look effortless. When they wobbled off their line, however fractionally, the distance between the fences became longer so the pony squeezed in an extra stride to the skinny.

This exercise really tested both horse and rider without being very high, because the rider had to have a good eye and be able to ride their line, and the pony had to be on the aids. In Pony Club jumping sessions, a course could be set up with lots of tricky lines and combinations which encourage accurate riding rather than jumping big and fast. After all, lots of jumping on hard ground will damage the horse’s legs.

Whips

I guess it is a consequence of Ollie Townsend’s infamous whip use at Badminton but there is now a group of leading equestrians doing some research on whip use in equestrian sport.

If you have chance, do the survey – https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/whipuse

I completed it last week, and it made me stop and think about whips. We take them for granted, and many rider’s use them but do they know why they’re carrying them?

I’m not against carrying or using a whip; for many horses the act of carrying one improves their attentiveness and respect of the rider’s aids – particularly cheeky ponies!

I always tell clients that the whip is a secondary aid, therefore it’s used after other aids, and it is used to back up the leg aids. For the beginner or novice rider, if their horse ignores the leg aid twice, I then recommend the whip is tapped firmly behind the leg. Some riders prefer to have 3 leg aids, some only one – each to their own as long as they’re consistent. For children, often a whip is a useful accessory to prevent them flapping their legs around like windmills as their pony is often more switched on. I encourage my little riders to think about when they want to carry the whip. For example, they may want it for flat work when the pony is switched off, but once they’re jumping choose to drop it because the pony is more forwards and it’s more clutter for their hands when going back and forth into jumping position. If I find a child to be a bit whip-happy, I will happily take their whip away until they’re riding more correctly and politely.

I think it’s so important to understand and respect the whip. After all, horses can feel a fly land on their body, so will be acutely aware of even the lightest touch of the whip.

The survey asked some questions about what you use a whip for, and had some options that I hadn’t thought of. Firstly, is the obvious use that I’ve described above – to back up the leg aid. Usually to help a horse go forwards, but also to help them move sideways.

Secondly, when working the horse in hand. Does this include lunging? But yes, when working a horse in hand a whip is the extension of your arm so you can manoeuvre the horse laterally as well as improving the activity of the hindquarters by touching the hocks with the whip to encourage more flexion. To an extent, you can carry one when leading a horse. I would have thought you’d only want to carry one if you had a horse who dawdled and dragged behind you. By encouraging a more forwards walk with a flick by the hindquarters, you can lead from the shoulder, where you’re far safer. But using a whip in this situation is only temporary as it’s no longer needed once the horse has been taught to lead correctly, and I do find that horses then stop walking straight, as they bow their bodies away from the whip, so it isn’t a long term solution.

Thirdly, to make the horse focus on their job. Well, yes you could argue that a child on an idle pony carrying their whip is using the whip to improve the pony’s work ethic. I don’t agree that tapping a horse when they’re losing concentration helps. You’re better off improving your schooling tactics to prevent the horse becoming distracted. I’ve also seen horses who have been on their line to a jump, been momentarily distracted but when the rider taps them with the whip they change their rhythm, lose their line, and don’t jump as well as if the rider had just used the voice, leg or hand to regain their horse’s attention.

The survey also asked if carrying a whip made you feel more confident. I had never associated carrying a whip with feeling confident. I’d be interested to know what other people’s responses were to that question. I can sort of see how people, especially those who view equitation as the rider dominating the horse, feel more confident carrying a whip.

It also made me think about when I carry a whip. If riding a new or unknown horse would I automatically pick one up? I don’t think so. I’d either discuss with the owner as to whether I needed one, take one to the ménage in case I needed it (then forget it and leave it there for a week or two …) or go without, sweat buckets and vow to carry one next time!

I think picking up a whip is about knowing the horse. Will it benefit your work to carry one? Will it help keep you safe – for example preventing a horse from napping on a hack? Or will the horse be tense because you’re carrying one and they’re a bit whip-shy? And maybe most importantly, are you likely to misuse the whip either by forgetting the leg aids or by getting cross with your horse?

I look forwards to reading about their findings on the general populations understanding of using a whip, why and when people choose to carry one, their knowledge of competition rules regarding whips, and whether these rules need changing to protect horses.

A Grid of Skinnies

I built this grid the other day to help with improving the rider’s eye for straightness, their accuracy in the turns and ability to ride a line. and to test the horse’s straightness over fences. It also builds a horse’s confidence over narrow fences.

The first jump was of normal width, with jump wings to give the horse plenty of guidance to the fence. I laid a pair of poles perpendicular to the first fence, which along with the inviting cross shape focused both horse and rider on the centre of the fence, which would hopefully give them the best chance of going straight over the skinnies.

One canter stride away, I made a skinny fence with some blocks as the wings. Initially I put it as a cross to keep horse and rider central. With a green horse, I would use jump wings to discourage the horse from running out, but this horse and rider combination are competent with narrow fences. This fence later became an upright, which meant there was no discernible wings to the fence because the blocks were level with the height of the fence, so increasing the difficulty.

Then, another canter stride from the second element, I placed a barrel on it’s side. I put two upright barrels as wings here, and then once the pair had negotiated the grid successfully I made the final fence an oxer by putting a short pole and two wings behind the barrels. Alternatively, I could have removed the barrel wings, but as this caused them some problems a couple of weeks ago, I’m leaving that option for another week.

I built the grid up slowly, fence by fence in order to keep them confident. If at any point, one of the skinny fences had caused a problem, or the horse was drifting over the fences, I’d have got out some guide poles. Initially, I’d have laid the poles so they formed a funnel, one end on the jump wing and one on the floor, to help encourage the horse to stay straight and jump the skinny fence. Then these poles can be laid on the floor so they are still helping the horse, but he becomes less reliant on them. Then finally, jump the fence without the guide poles.

This grid can be made more complicated by using bounces, converting the first fence into an upright and removing the tramlines at the beginning. I can also make the skinny fences narrower … watch this space!

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.