The End of an Era

It’s been creeping up on me for a while; I’ve caught myself thinking “I want to do that with my next horse” or “I’d like a horse good at that”.

But about a month ago I watched Otis in the field and resigned myself to the fact that he won’t come sound. Maybe he’ll be a happy hacker, but really I needed to face facts. The main thing though, is that he’s happy in his field with his buddies and I can afford to keep him there indefinitely. He’s not suffering, just a bit limpy, and otherwise in good health. I then broached the subject that next year I would like to get another horse. It’s all very well riding other people’s horses, but when you’ve experienced the bond with your own, and enjoy the satisfaction of training and competing, it’s not the same. I know I’ve lost some motivation through not having my own horse or reason to improve my ability. Yes, next year we’ll have our own two-legged project, but I like to keep busy and I know that not having my own horse will cause me to go insane. Thankfully, my lovely husband readily agreed to my light at the end of the tunnel.

I allowed myself a couple of hacks to think about what I want and need from a horse. I was quite specific.

  • A native or hardy breed, or part bred.
  • Height wasn’t really an issue; I’m lucky enough that I can ride anything between 14.2hh and 16.2hh, but I’d prefer to stay below 16hh.
  • I enjoy training a horse, so I wanted something I could take further. But not a real youngster as I wouldn’t have the time to devote to backing a baby. It would also be nice to have a horse who has already been shown the basics, perhaps five or six, that I could quite quickly start taking out to clinics or little competitions.
  • They needed to be trainable. I enjoy learning and training, so need a horse who does likewise. Whether their forte is jumping or dressage, I didn’t mind.
  • Temperament is paramount now. I want something which can have a week off yet still behave. One that I can tie up on the yard, leave to check on the baby, and not worry they will cause havoc. Likewise, in the future the horse needs to be sensible so I can juggle a child with them. I know full well that horses can be unpredictable but certain temperaments are more reliable than others.
  • I want them to be reliable. My free time will be limited and I want to know I can ride and enjoy my ride, not battle hormones or a bad mood.
  • I’d like them to be sensible to hack because when we get a pony I’m going to want to ride and lead: whether my child is riding or I’m exercising the pony.

Even as I thought of my list, I knew I was setting a rather stringent criteria and would be lucky to find anything which remotely fitted the bill.

Anyway, we weren’t looking yet so I filed my list away at the back of my brain.

Only a couple of days later I came across this advert on Facebook. Let me tell you the vital stats:

  • 6 years old.
  • Chestnut.
  • Mare.
  • Welsh Section D – more to the point, a half sister to Otis.
  • 15.2hh
  • Backed as a five year old and sold to a lady who had a friend ride her lightly – mainly hacking – from June 2016 to May 2017. Since then she’s been lunged and led out on hacks a couple of times a week.
  • Being sold because of owner’s ill health, and the fact she’s currently wasted.

On face value, most of my boxes were ticked. Just six months too early. I was really intrigued, but had an argument with myself as to whether I was being sentimental with the Otis link, or whether it was worth investigating further because of the other factors. My Mum told me that I should look, because otherwise I’d always wonder “what if” and upon seeing her she may be immediately unsuitable. I did a bit of research on the internet and social media, and actually found the original advert from April 2016, which I remembered seeing at the time and commenting “oh she looks nice”.

With the one condition that I don’t ride her (the whole six nearly seven months pregnant thing) I went with a friend to see her.

The mare was nicely put together with clean, straight limbs (although the photos below make her look splay legged!), a more traditional stamp of Welsh than my Welsh Warmblood Otis, and stood quietly while I examined her. I was told that she could be quite nervous, and when her owner bought her she was difficult to catch. I wouldn’t say she was really nervous from what I saw, but she was definitely cautious of new people. She wasn’t jumpy, just intrigued by things. I was also told that she wasn’t mareish – my first important question.

We watched her being lunged. She can be a bit fresh initially, but it was nothing compared to what I’m used to. She had a lovely movement, and after ten minutes she looked very relaxed and calm, so I asked my friend if she fancied sitting on.

This was my big question. Because if I’m not allowed to ride until the spring then if she was sensible after eight months of not being ridden then there wouldn’t be a problem in April. The owner thought the mare would be fine, and my friend is more than capable.

Starting off on the lunge, my friend had a walk and trot, went over some trotting poles. The mare hasn’t really done any jumping but poles don’t cause a problem. She looked very balanced in trot, and hasn’t done much canter work. Then we took her out around the village on her own. She was perfect with the cars and cyclists, more interested in what was going on in the driveways, and she looked very relaxed. Really, we couldn’t have asked any more of her.

Over the next week I battled with myself as to whether this mare really ticked all the boxes, if I trusted my friend’s judgement of her under saddle. Was I being sentimental because she was related to Otis, or did I believe his lovely temperament ran in the paternal side of his family? Was the price right, and worth me keeping her over the winter. Could I justify paying more livery fees when I was about to go on maternity leave? What would I do with her over the winter – would getting to know her, doing some lunging to introduce jumping and cantering keep us both occupied? She was a mare, a chestnut one no less. My last mare was a grey called Filly when I was ten! This was unknown territory.

After doing some budgeting and working out finances, I decided to go for it. I needed a basic livery yard which ultimately provided grass livery, ad lib hay in the field, and would be able to check her when I’m otherwise occupied in March. Timing is never right in life, and it did seem like it was meant to be – as far as I can tell, she meets my criteria; the price was within budget and she was local.

Yesterday, we went to pick her up. She had never travelled in a trailer, but loaded slowly but surely, and remained very calm all the journey. We turned her out into the small herd of mares, and within ten minutes she was grazing happily.

You can see the introduction here.

Today, she was very content in the field and let me catch her after sniffing me thoroughly.

I gave her a quick groom, getting to know her and checked for any injuries from her field initiation. She was alert to the surroundings, but stood fairly still. Then I put the bridle on and took her to the arena. The surface was a bit crusty with frost but I wanted a “before video” and to introduce her to the arena. She was very good – the video for your perusal is Here – and you can see that she moves very nicely, although my lunging leaves a bit to be desired. We’ll have a look at canter next week when the ground is better and she’s more settled. You’ll see in the video on the right rein, that she stops and turns in to be. Behind, just out of shot, someone had come round the corner with a saddle which she stopped to look at. Overall, she was a bit tense and lacked focus, but given the fact she’s at a new yard and with a new owner, I don’t think she did anything wrong, and if that’s going to be the extent of her behaviour at new places then I’m more than happy.

From what I can tell so far, I think we’ll be slow to build a relationship because I still feel like I’m cheating on Otis, and she is an introvert. But I also think we’ll get on well and have lots of fun together.

Oh yes, I haven’t told you her name. She came with the name Dolly, but I’ve known lots of Dolly’s, and I didn’t really feel that it suited her. After some thought, I came up with Phoenix. For her fiery colour, and for new beginnings.

After all, it is the end of an era and the beginning of another.


Lunge Work

I thought I’d explain how to work a horse on the lunge in a way that’s more interesting and complex than the usual walk, trot and canter. Even though periods of straightforward work like this is useful to building fitness, balance, posture and muscle tone.

This exercise helps engage the inside hind leg, improves suppleness and gets them pushing up in the subsequent upward transition.

After I’ve warmed the horse up, and put them in side reins in trot I’ll usually start adding this exercise. They need to be in the right frame of mind, so sometimes I canter to make sure they aren’t too energetic or overly responsive to my aids and body language. One mare I lunge needs to be quite physically tired before she’s open to some mental questions, otherwise she just leaps around!

From trot, I bring the horse forwards to walk and spiral them in. To do this, shorten the lunge line steadily and keep the tension in it so that, along with some little half halts, they start to bring their forehand in. The lunge whip stops the hindquarters falling in by pointing quietly at the hock. I find raising it and almost pushing it towards them, helps keep the hindquarters in the correct place. If the horse falls in too quickly, I use the same technique with the whip at the shoulder. This is why you want them to be accepting of your aids because they need to step quietly away from the whip as opposed to doing a Scooby-Doo moment and leaping in the air at the smallest movement.

Sometimes I’ll repeat the spiralling in element of this exercise until I’m sure they’ve completely understood it, and are looking supple enough for the next stage.

With the horse walking on a ten metre circle I start asking for some shoulder in. In a similar way to how I asked them to spiral in, I’ll half halt down the lunge line whilst pushing the whip towards their inside hind. The whip is mimicking the inside leg and is a bit more active than when I spiralled in. After all, we want the inside hindleg to step under the body.

Once the horse has walked three or four strides like this, I release the tension in the lunge line to allow them to straighten up, and then ask them to trot on. Usually this transition is very active and the trot is very springy as they’re working nicely from behind and using their backs well.

Some horses will trot off instead of stepping under, so it’s important to keep the whip movements minimal and the contact down the lunge line enough that you can quickly correct them. They soon start to get the idea, especially if you use your voice to ask them to trot on, rather than waving the whip at them.

Asking for shoulder in will highlight any stiffness or asymmetry. It will also encourage more inside bend, but if the side reins are the correct length then they will soon support the outside shoulder. One mare I’ve been lunging is significantly stiffer in this exercise on the left rein.

It can be frustrating because one week she may be stiffer and more resistant than the previous. Incidentally, who do you blame when training doesn’t go quite right? Your horse? Or yourself? The correct answer is yourself! Try to work out why they aren’t doing the exercise like they did last week: are you asking differently? Are they sore from yesterday’s workout? Did they find it too hard last time so are more reluctant? Have you done the same preparation work, or tried to go from step two to step five? Are they in the right frame of mind and warmed up sufficiently?

So yes, this mare has days when she’s forgotten how to bend her neck to the left and when I ask for shoulder in she falls in through the left shoulder, looking out on the circle, and instead of using her lazy left hind leg she brings her shoulder to me. So I end up backing away out of her way without realising and she escapes doing the exercise.

To overcome this, I’ve been focusing on improving her bend and riding shoulder in under saddle to help her suppleness. Then in hand I’ve been clipping on my reins to the lunge bridle and flexing her left and right. She’ll turn her head all the way to the right without taking a step, but she’ll avoid bending to the left by shifting her hindquarters right. I think there’s also an element of losing her balance here. So I do some stretches like this, and then try to get her to walk and flex her head left and right. Again, she struggles with bending left. I also ask for some turn on the forehand to get her stepping under with her left hind leg without loading the left shoulder.

Usually after this in hand work she remembers that she can bend to the left and we get a much better attempt at the shoulder in. Moving her up into trot is helping strengthen that left hind leg too.

Whilst trotting on the left rein she can be reluctant to give a true bend, but today she seemed to understand more that the whip flicking towards her left hind leg meant it was to come under her body more and that extra effort gave her left bend and then she gave a beautiful, floaty trot, pinging along effortlessly. She also began to track up better and improved the activity of her hindquarters.

The Bungee Lunging Aid

Apologies for the slightly neglected blog this week. It’s half term so everything is a bit topsy turvy. I do have some good topics to discuss with you once my brain has had a chance to stop and catch up with itself – probably the weekend.

However, to cheer you up, I thought I’d write a short (ish) post about a new lunging gadget I’ve been using this last couple of weeks.

I’ve been lunging a mare, who has her own collection of problems, whilst her owner is injured. The mare regularly has back treatment, but due to her owner being off games there was a bit of a delay between physio sessions and unfortunately this mare became very sore throughout her back.

I had been lunging her in long side reins to encourage her to stretch forwards into the contact, and using transitions to help improve the trot and get her swinging over her back more. Which she was starting to do.

When the physio came to see this mare, she found that she was very tight and sore at the base of her neck and around her shoulders. When watching her on the lunge the physio noted that she was very flat in her movement around the withers.

The physio recommended that we used either a bungee or a chambon to lunge, rather than a Pessoa or side reins. I think the physio felt there was a risk of the mare being “tied in” in the side reins, but she hadn’t seen me using them. I’ve used a bungee a few years ago, but I’ve always felt that they make a horse go too deep.

A bungee is a strong elastic cord with a clip at each end. It runs from the withers around the barrel and under the elbow, before coming up between the front legs and attaching either side of the bit. It can be shortened at the wither if necessary. It works by applying downward pressure on alternate sides of the bit as the horse moves each leg. When they have lowered their head sufficiently there is no pressure, but still movement on the bit.

Anyway, I clipped the bungee on after warming the mare up. My first instinct was that it was very tight, despite being on the longest setting. Once clipped up there was quite a lot of tension in the bungee and the mare looked very much tied in. I had my reservations, but asked the mare to walk on. After a few strides, she lowered her head, releasing the pressure, and looked more comfortable.

In the trot, she looked like she was really stretching around her shoulders and over the course of two or three lunge sessions, she began to go more forwards and lengthen her stride so she was tracking up. Her hindquarters are still swinging as they were, and yesterday I felt I could see more activity around her withers and trapezius muscles, which suggest that she’s starting to use that area of her body better. I’ve also found her more responsive to me driving her forwards into a more active trot, which isn’t really demonstrated in the video because I don’t have enough hands to video and lunge effectively!

I think for this mare the bungee has been very useful in getting her to stretch over her wither and neck, but I’m not convinced it should be used as a long term training aid because she looks a little too deep to me, and I’d want to make sure she was stretching her neck out a bit more, rather than curling it down and towards her knees.

So yes, I was pleasantly surprised at how effective the bungee has been at showing the mare how to stretch, and I think another horse I work with might benefit from using it a couple of times. However, I would be careful to which horses I use it for because there are a couple of down sides to it. When first fitted it is tight, and I can see some horses panicking with the pressure. When they are trotting there is quite a lot of see-sawing on the mouth, so again I wouldn’t want to use it on a horse with a very sensitive mouth. I also noticed that the bungee can catch on their chestnuts as they move, which exaggerates the movement on the mouth and could cause a sensitive horse to panic. I checked this mare’s chestnuts, thinking that as a cob they may be quite large, but they were flush with her leg and not overly knobbly.

I think I’d be willing to use the bungee with other horses with the physio or vet’s advice, but I would be very wary as to making sure I knew the horse was of the accepting nature that they wouldn’t panic when they felt the pressure. Like any gadget I think the bungee has the potential to be misused. An equi-ami or Pessoa has a similar effect but I think you could introduce the idea of stretching over the neck with one of the other gadgets in a more step-by-step way which would benefit those horses who don’t respond well to pressure.

It will be interesting to see what the physio thinks the next time she sees this mare, and also how she feels next time she’s ridden.

My Introduction To Parelli

Some people advocate Parelli, others resent it. It’s had good press, it’s had bad press. Whatever. Each to their own. I’m not going to go into depth here – do some reading and develop your own opinion.

Anyway, I’ve never really had anything to do with Parelli, nor have I had a need to try it with my horses.  But when I went to do a practice lunge lesson with a riding club member last week I was horrified, embarrassed, whatever you want to say, that I couldn’t get the horse to lunge when I warmed her up.

“Oh, she’s Parelli trained” announced her owner as an explanation. That still didn’t help me, so she gave me a quick lesson on lunging the Parelli way.

Firstly, she explained that my belly button should be pointing in the direction I want the horse to go. So to send a horse forwards, turn to look (and point your belly button) in that direction. When you face the horse, they think you are wanting them to reverse. Which was the problem I was having. 

You can also fling your rein arm in the direction you want them to go, thus giving a clearer instruction. Once I’d got the hang of this then it did make a bit of sense and the mare responded well.

To slow a horse the Parelli way, you either put the whip out in front of their body, or waggle the lunge line. I found this part trickier, until I accidentally said the word “Good” at which point the mare stopped dead! Apparently that’s a cue word for the end of the session and tit bit time.

Parelli people also don’t use many words, as this lady told me. They expect to say go, and then say nothing until they want the horse to do something different. Which when we’re riding is something we should aim for so our aids remain subtle and clear, but most of us use a dialogue when lunging to either settle the horse, or to regulate their gait. 

The whip is also often used instead of the voice to get a horse to move off. Smack it on the ground behind the horse twice, and they should move forwards until told otherwise. This is more to do with the obedience aspect of Parelli, so apart from being told about it I didn’t use this technique.

Regardless of my views on Parelli, it was actually an interesting learning experience because it means I have another trick up my sleeve if I ever come across a horse who “won’t” lunge – I may just be talking the wrong language to them. 

Learn To Lunge

How old can you be to learn to lunge properly? In one of my clients’ case, seven is the answer.

After falling over and cutting her knee at school she couldn’t put jodhpurs on over her large patch which stemmed the bleeding, so we decided that I would lunge the pony, who needed exercise anyway, and once he had settled, she would have a go.

I lunged him, working on getting him into right canter as he seems to have an aversion to it at the moment, and after my little client had watched for a bit she came into the middle to try.

Holding all the lunging equipment can be tricky with adult hands, so I gave her bits at a time. Firstly, I showed her how to hold the lunge line, correctly looped up. Then she led her pony out onto the circle to start the lunging. I held to whip and kept him walking, whilst she made sure she was standing in the middle and he had enough lunge line. 

Once we’d established a bigger circle and the lunge line was still organised, she used her little voice while I gave a wiggle of the whip to ask him to trot.

We spent quite a while practicing trotting on the lunge, with her noticing him slowing down and reacting to it. Making sure she was standing still, pivoting and facing her pony’s shoulder. Then I handed her the whip so she was in complete control. I stood behind, obviously, ready to help her if needed because she’s only tiny! 

Then we changed the rein, which involved correctly gathering up the lunge line, and swapping the lunge line on his bit. I started off holding the whip again, and on this rein the pony was a bit faster so I explained how to use the lunge line to steady him. Once he’d settled, she carried the whip again.

Since she was getting the hang of all the equipment, I laid out three trotting poles, and we then had a go at trotting over the poles. This was tricky for me because I had to subtly position the pony to go over the poles whilst telling my little client where to move to! The first time, the pony cantered over the last pole, pulling my client forwards a couple of steps. I guess it’s like me holding the end of the lunge line when the half Shire canters off when I’m lunging him. Anyway, the rest of the poles went smoothly and I even left her alone in the middle for a few moments whilst I adjusted the poles.

After doing the poles in both directions, I asked if we should try cantering. She was game, so we changed the rein onto his good canter lead. By now I was just holding the whip while she did it all.  We moved him onto a bigger circle and then asked for canter. Once he was cantering, she took hold of the whip and started controlling him with her little voice.

By the end, most impressively, her lunge line was as organised as it was at  the start! I thought she did really well, and seemed to understand how to use the equipment and the purpose of lunging is. I wouldn’t leave her to lunge solo, with no one in the middle to assist if there was a problem, but she is definitely well on her way to being able to lunge confidently and safely! 

Gadgets and Gizmos

Twenty years ago draw reins, market harboroughs, and other gadgets were all the rage, causing uneducated riders to tie their horse’s heads to their chests. Now word is slowly spreading that horses need to be worked from the hindquarters forwards, and need freedom in the head and neck, with the nose on the vertical. And a new type of gadget has evolved.

There are hundreds of lunging gadgets on the market today – the Pessoa, the Whittaker training aid, the equi-ami, to name a few. All of them have a strap that goes from the roller around the hindquarters, encouraging them to step under and push themselves forwards. Then there is some gizmo that runs from the roller, to the bit and then back to the roller in various positions according to the horse’s level of training. 

Now I’ve used both the Pessoa and the equi-ami with success on horses, but I do worry that in the wrong hands horses are still being tied down, but instead of head to chest it is now chest to bum.

Let’s look at how these gadgets work, because they are all very similar. The horse is encouraged to push from behind, step under with the hind leg, lift their abdominal muscles, lift their back and wither,  and the under neck muscles relaxed. It’s that upside down bowl, or a strung bow that we all strive for.

However, problems can occur if these gadgets are too tight for the horse. The horse feels the pressure from the back strap, but if their tummy and topline aren’t developed enough they can’t engage sufficiently and as they lift their head to find their balance the gadget puts pressure on their mouth. Often causing horses to lift their head even higher, or stop travelling forwards. Some will stop and rear.

In this situation, the best thing is to back off. Loosen all straps so the horse has more leeway to find their balance and they are encouraged to work correctly, rather than being forced to. When the pressure is reduced the horse will be happier and more relaxed, so is more likely to learn from the gadget. Once the horse has muscled up and developed the correct muscles it may be that the gadget needs adjusting because the horse is moving away from the long and low frame and towards a more collected frame, however it is so detrimental to their bodies to try and run before they can walk and expect them to move in a collected outline.

This happened to me this week. I lunged a horse, who has used the equi-ami before, and he started off nicely, stretching his topline and swinging over his back. But then I don’t know what happened, maybe he had a mis-step, but he lifted his head to balance himself. The equi-aid put pressure on his mouth and he felt trapped. He stopped, lifted his head and all in all looked uncomfortable. So I loosened the gadget until it was too loose, and then took him back a step and just walked until he’d relaxed. Then he trotted for the rest of the session happily, working really well. I don’t think I had the gadget too tight, but I think his tolerance of pressure is low. Perhaps to do with something in his history? I cantered him without the gadget, even though last time he’d accepted the gadget in trot and canter, there’s no point this time because he’s obviously not quite as comfortable with it.

I dare say a lesser knowledgable or experienced rider or owner would have kept on lunging, creating a tense horse who accommodated the gadget by holding tension and not coming through from behind. Said horse could become shut down, learned helplessness I think it’s called, and allow themselves to be tied in from nose to tail.

When I use the Pessoa on any horse I am always on the lookout for them becoming overbent, and cheating the gadget. If they do then I’ll change the setting, lengthen the ropes, or take it away for a bit.

I like using the gadgets when needed to help guide the horse into the correct frame, but as soon as they start getting over bent or going behind the vertical I change it. But it’s important to remember that gadgets are for pointing the horse in the right direct, not fixing them in place, and when instructors or trainers recommend their use they should make sure the owner understands how these gadgets work otherwise we could recreate the problem we had two decades of horses being over bent and working incorrectly.

A good test of whether a horse knows and understands how to carry themselves is to lunge them “naked” and see if they find their own balance and self carriage.

Lunge Lessons

They`re one of my favourite lessons to have, or teach, but they are quite a rare occurrence. For some reasons people are reluctant to embark on a position-focused lunge lesson. They are physically demanding, much more than people expect, and because you are limited to a circle and focused on rider position some find it boring. Which is possibly why there is so little take up for lunge lessons.

Beginners, who often benefit most from spending time focusing on their position, are often the hardest to persuade to have lunge lessons, whilst those more advanced often don`t have quiet, sensible enough horses to have a productive lunge lesson.

At college we had lunging every Tuesday after lunch, and the Stage two students warmed the horses up on the lunge before the PTT students took over and taught a Stage two student on the lunge. I loved this, although one snowy day I was the only Stage two student in so had three lunge lessons in one day!

For the ITT exam I need to give a lunge lesson, so have been recruiting willing volunteers from the riding club. Lucky for me, I have a few victims, I mean, volunteers, and now to prepare a variety of exercises so I am armed to improve whatever position faults are thrown at me.

I always start a lunge lesson by assessing the rider`s position, and prioritising areas to work on. Getting them to demonstrate sitting trot tells me if they are likely to be confident going without stirrups, and I can get a general feel of their confidence so I can pitch the exercises to their level. After all, there`s no point saying to a nervous rider, “today we`re going to work without stirrups and reins.” Which will make they not only worried, but also inadequate. So I would be better saying, “let`s begin by working without stirrups.” I also usually run through the ideal riding position, and ask the rider which areas they feel are their weakest.

Arm Exercises

So long as riders are happy to go without reins, you can do a variety of exercises to improve the independence and stability of the arms and hands.

Keeping one hand on the pommel of the saddle, and the other hand hanging like a pendulum by your side, whilst rising to the trot will activate your core muscles and stop you using your arms (however little) to help your rising. You can progress to having both hands hanging by your side, thus stopping reliance on the rein contact, and helping you sit up taller.

Pretending to hold the reins is a useful exercise in correctly the position of the hands. So many riders carry their hands too low and back by the saddle. I ask my riders to feel that they have half a dozen helium balloons tied to their wrists, lifting their hands so they threaten to fly away. To stop your hands disappearing into space, your elbows are anchored to your sides. For many, it takes a few minutes to acclimatise themselves to this new hand position, and the feeling that they aren`t restricting the horse in any way. Taking back the reins, they want to keep the feeling of lightness and positivity in the rein contact.

One arm at a time, and potentially both together at a later stage, in walk and then trot (possibly even canter) swing your arm in big circles. Start with forwards circles, slowly as to not strain any muscles. Then move onto backwards circles. This opens the chest, encourages the shoulders to come down the back and the collarbones to open. The rider usually then has a better upper body position.

Upper Body Exercises

Beginning at the top of the upper body, is checking that the head is sitting centrally on the body and the rider is looking straight ahead. Turning the head slowly left and right, or lifting the chin up and then down to the chest, can help loosen any of these muscles and relieve tension if needed.

Rolling the shoulders up and back can have a similar effect to the arm circling exercise above. If a rider carries tension in their shoulders, then getting them to lift their shoulders to their ears and drop them whilst exhaling can “blow away” the tension. This is one of my favourite Pilates warm up exercises! This is best done in walk.

Holding both hands out to the side, turn the upper body at the waist so the rider is looking into the circle, and then out onto the circle. Be aware of any changes to the seat bones in this exercise. The rider should feel the muscles on their sides working. This movement can push insecure riders out of their comfort zone as they are moving out of their usual position so require more balance. If they are happy doing this is walk I sometimes give it a go in sitting trot to test their balance. The kids calls it the helicopter exercise.

Once the upper body is looking more correct I try to improve my rider`s proprioception, and ask them to imagine that they have headlights on their hip bones, points of shoulder, and chest. These lights should ideally point forwards. As they ride round the circle on each rein, get them to focus on the lights showing them the way. This stops riders collapsing one side, and encourages them to turn their body around the bend. Imagine the spine is the centre of the carousel and the body is rotating around it.

Seat Exercises

Ideally, riders want to sit squarely on their seat bones, but so many pitch forwards. I ask riders to shift their pelvis around in halt and walk until they’re aware of any asymmetry and their seat bones. Then we look at rocking themselves back, so they are sitting on “the back of” their seat bones whilst keeping their upper body tall.

Taking the feet out of the stirrups and then drawing the knees up to the pommel of the saddle, will put the rider onto the correct part of the seat bones, and this should become obvious to them. Slowly let the legs down without shifting off the seat bones. Repeating this gets the leg muscles loosening. If your rider is quite competent then bringing the knees away from pommel tests their balance and stretches the hip flexors. This is tough though, so be gentle!

Sitting trot is the most effective way to improve the seat, and if a rider is comfortable, then work them without stirrups. If they aren’t, do short bursts of sitting trot with stirrups taking rising before the position slips. The rider should soon be able to sit well to the trot for long periods.

Leg Exercises

Swinging the whole leg, from the hip, will open the hip flexors and help the rider lengthen the leg to create that elusive vertical line.

If a rider has stiff ankles then rotating the foot without the lower leg swinging will relieve tension here. 

The knees up and away exercise above, is really useful if a rider tends to grip with their knee and turn their leg in, thus blocking the horse at the shoulder. After opening at the hip the rider is more able to drape their leg around the horse’s barrel.

Keeping stirrups, for a rider who has an insecure lower leg, getting them to stand up in their stirrups and keep their balance in walk, and later trot, will help stabilise and strengthen the lower leg position. To further test their balance, they could hold their arms out.

I like to keep exercises simple, so my rider can devote their attention to how their body feels, not on what they should be doing. Then you can build the complexity according to how the rider is coping (and indeed the horse to these weird goings on on his back), so you’re less likely to cause an injury, but continue to build their confidence and ability. Getting riders to ride with their eyes closed can enhance their feeling and use of other senses, and also test their balance. If they are a novice rider, you could test their feel for trot diagonals and canter leads, and awareness of foot falls, which takes the pressure away from working without stirrups. There’s a whole plethora of exercises to improve the basics for all riders, which creates the building blocks for the more technical and exciting exercises, whilst also making these exercises easier and more achievable for the rider.


Learning Styles

We all know that there are different learning styles for people – visual, aural, verbal and kinaesthetic – but do horses have different learning styles?

I enjoy working with horses, and learning what makes them tick so I can get the most out of them.

Some horses can be shown a new movement, they do it, and then you can perfect it for the rest of the session. Others need to stop and study the question, before  attempting it. Others get stressed over a new concept and need to be drip-fed the concept.

I`ve worked with one interesting cob recently, and it`s been quite insightful as to how his brain ticks. Now I feel like I can tailor lessons so his rider gets the most out of them.

We`ve had problems with the rideability of the arena, given the weather conditions, so instead of ridden lessons we`ve done some in hand work. When they bought him last year and tried lunging him, he just turned to face them, not understanding. Now, however, was the perfect time to teach him.

When we first tried to lunge him a few months ago he did trot out on a circle, but was quite tense about the whole thing and stopped at the first opportunity to stop and face me. This time, we decided to take it back a step.

Seeing as the horse was clueless about lunging, I presumed that he had been long reined in the breaking in process, so just after Christmas we took the long reins up to the frozen arena, and attempted to long rein.

This, the horse understood. He set off straight away, walking purposefully and responsive to the reins and my voice. We had a play with the long reins, walking circles and changes of rein. He was very happy with this arrangement, so towards the end of the lesson I stood to the side, and we made a step towards double lunging.

The horse had accepted these baby steps, so we started the next lesson with the long reins but rapidly moved onto the double lunging. I needed a lot out outside rein to keep the horse out on the circle, so this lesson was spent teaching the horse that he needed to subscribe a circle around me, without stopping, and without turning in. Through the session the outside rein was needed less, and became the emergency “Quick, he`s turning in – stop!” so that he learnt there was no point trying to turn in. Again, this was baby steps but we both felt that the horse was less anxious and understood the concept.

The following week we progressed to double lunging but with the outside rein becoming obsolete. We didn`t do too much because there was a feeble attempt at snow on the ground. We finished that session with some in hand turn on the forehand.

Last week we started when we had finished the week before, and when the outside rein was obsolete again we tried lunging with just one rein attached to the cavesson. One of us needed to start him out on the circle, but once he was walking, with the lunger in quite a driving position, he walked a circle around us quite happily. The lunger had to be on red alert to notice the slight falter in his stride that preceeded him turning to face them, but he definitely seemed to understand the concept of lunging. This horse seems to be quite sensitive, and although appears confident; he seems to lack confidence in new things. The idea needs to be introduced, and then left for him to mull over before trying the exercise again.

Changing the rein will take some practice, but now that the weather is warming up it will be interesting to introduce trot on the lunge.

We saw this learning style in this horse when we introduced turn on the forehand to teach him to move away from the leg. Under saddle the first time, he got very tense and tried to run through the bridle. However, after a couple of tries in hand he seems to be happier with the movement, so again I’m looking forwards to revisiting this exercise under saddle. I`ll introduce all new concepts in this trickle feeding way, and I think it will greatly help his education.

Can you think of any horses who have slightly quirky learning styles, and how would you manage this?


Matt’s Diary – Week 8

Time flies, I’ve been here two months already and this week has certainly been a busy one.


It was wet and horrible this morning, but still Young Mum dragged me out of my stable to be lunged. She gets the day off, so why can’t I? We were lucky, we only got drizzled on. The new Pessoa is still annoying Young Mum as its slides loose. She says when it gets dirty from the grease of my coat the sliders won’t slide. I gave her a look: what dirt on my coat?! Afterwards the dreaded hood was brought out. I was to stay clean until tomorrow apparently.

Then in all that pouring rain, Young Mum decided to rearrange Otis’s fencing. She’s worried he’ll be silly and lose his shoes. I wasn’t impressed that he got to graze the nice grass outside our fields while she worked. Anyway, Otis and I had a nice day grazing in our fields. I told Otis not to mess around and lose a shoe, after all I need him to come into work so I can go back to my semi-retirement in Wales.


The Chauffeur, fresh from his visit to Wales, was on duty this morning. He told me Old Mum sends her love. Thankfully not a sloppy kiss ‘cos they’re just embarrassing. He did tell me off when I nudged him. Young Mum’s orders apparently. She says it’s a horrid habit and I need to quit by the time I go home. We’ll see … I just like to affectionately put people in their place.

Young Mum came up in the afternoon and removed the hideous hood, grooming me to within an inch of my life, ready for… oops I nearly said. It’s a secret. I won’t say anymore, but I was really good.


The usual dressage workout at dawn this morning; I showed off my medium trot to a passing lady, and Young Mum made me do all these complicated spirals and circles. She wanted to practice before teaching someone. I feel like a guinea pig!


We were turned out bright and early this morning. I do like being first out of the stables. It’s horrid watching everyone else leave me behind.

To our surprise, The Chauffeur turned up in the afternoon. Apparently Young Mum was practicing her teaching at a swanky yard with automatic field gates! How the other half live…


Another dawn dressage session learning the movements for the next competitions. Due to my outstanding performance last time, I’ve been put on the champion team – all past winners. I think Young Mum is feeling the pressure, but I told her it was easy for her, she just sits there!

Afterwards, she brought Otis out his stable and got back on me. I thought we were going to the field. But apparently we were going along the road.

You see, every day Young Mum takes Otis away from me, for a few minutes. I don’t know where they go. Otis smugly says it’s a secret. So I think he’s been having extra food or cuddles. I resent this, so I make sure I whinny as loudly as possible while they’re away so they don’t forget about me.

To my disgust, we walked along the road, not even as far as the postbox, before turning around.

“Is this it?” I ask Otis incredulously. The highlight of his day is going for a walk. Like a silly dog!

Otis told me that this might become a regular occurrence. As his walks get longer, I might be needed as a pack donkey to carry Young Mum. It’s okay, I suppose, but it is annoying how Otis rests his head on my bum.


More lunging for me this morning. It was hard work, mainly because I’d forgotten how to stretch my neck, but I did try hard. I wanted to go straight into the field after. It was too nice a day to waste any more time indoors.

However, to save the hearing of the other liveries, Young Mum took me with her and Otis on foot. I wasn’t impressed. I wanted the field. And I’d already done my workout! So I made sure we marched as quickly as possible so that we got to our fields as soon as we could.

That evening, I didn’t neigh to Otis when he left for his walk. I didn’t want to do that silly route again!


As in keeping with previous days, today was my day off. It was freezing cold, so I was glad I wear two rugs.

We waited impatiently to come in at 4pm, and Otis did his walking while I made a start on dinner.

But when they got back, Young Mum brought me out the stable and started brushing me. “Oh no, I thought. I’m not being ridden. It’s dark and cold!”

She had other ideas though, and soon started clipping me. I admit, I did need a haircut. But I didn’t need scalping.

Which is what she had in mind.

She clipped all of my face off! Thankfully she left the forelock for me to hide behind. Then she took off my body. And then she started doing something with my legs. Apparently the normal style makes me look like I have leg warmers on.

So she tried this new technique she’d seen; blending. Now, I’m not sure I’m happy being the guinea pig for this. In fact, I hope my hair grows back very quickly!

The first leg makes me look ridiculous. The second not so bad… the third one she was getting the hang of it… but I don’t know what happened to the fourth.

I think Young Mum has some practising to do, preferably on Otis, before she offers this in a clipping package. She got the right idea, and I think it would look good… but hopefully she can tidy it up with her trimmers next week so I don’t look too ridiculous.

The best part of tonight though? I got to put on my snazzy purple rug. It shows up the mud beautifully, so I shall enjoy wearing it in tomorrow. It’s a shame she made me wear that stupid hood though!