Eyes Closed!

Trot to canter transitions have been a sticky point for one of my clients and her pony. Both the trot and canter work has come on in leaps and bounds, but the upward transition is still sticky – like a smudge on a drawing.

I think it stems from when the pony was more on the forehand and my rider less of an adult rider and more of a child rider so had less finesse over the subtlety of her aids. After all, it’s a huge transition from child rider (leg means go, hand means stop) to an adult rider (leg and hand together mean go,stop,left or right!).

I decided that we would have a session taking apart the trot to canter transition, to see how and where it could be improved.

After warming up, I put them on the lunge. She rode a couple of canter transitions as normal, but thinking about what her body is doing.

Then, I took her reins away. As this rider asks for canter, her upper body gets quite active, yet is also stiff, which comes out in her arms. As her arms stiffen in the transition, so her pony raises her head and blocks through her back.

I had her relax her shoulders and arms and then ride some transitions on the lunge without her reins. This helped improve the transition by keeping the pair relaxed and in sync. Then the pony was more forwards. Having no reins, it was obvious to my rider as her hands came up and her arms stiffened.

Staying without reins, we moved on to looking at my rider’s seat aids. To help her tune in to what she could feel and what she was doing, I got her to close her eyes for the canter transition. This was enlightening, and once she’d recovered from the feeling of not being fully in control (hence why I was there at the end of the lunge line!) she could tell me a little about her seat aids.

I reminded her that during the trot to canter transition her hips have to go from an up-down motion to a circular one, akin to doing the hula hoop. She then focused on this movement of her seat through the next couple of transitions with her eyes closed.

We also checked the angle of her pelvis; sometimes she sits a little onto the front of her seatbones, and whilst I don’t want her collapsing her lower back, by tucking her tail between her legs and sitting towards the back of her seat bones, her seat became a more forward thinking aid, so encouraging the energy to flow up from the hindquarters and through to the front end.

The upwards transitions were looking better, but we were still missing something. I asked where her weight was distributed between seat bones and asked her to put a little more weight onto her inside seat bone as she transitioned from the up-down hip movement to the hula-hooping movement.

Voila!

They got it! The transition suddenly looked like the completed jigsaw, and lost any resistance from either party, and meant they could immediately get a balanced, relaxed and rideable canter rather than wasting a few strides.

I made them repeat the transitions with no reins and eyes closed a few times on both reins. I considered taking her stirrups away but decided to save her that torture, as I thought my rider might tense her seat without stirrups and so undo all our progress.

With her reins back, I unclipped them and we worked on the trot to canter transitions around the arena. Every so often, to draw her attention to her seat, I got my rider to close her eyes for the transition. This was only possible because we were in a standard arena on our own with a very well behaved pony!

The transitions gained in consistency and became much more fluid. We didn’t focus very much on the leg aids because the improvement to her seat aids made such a difference, but in a few weeks I’d like to progress to minimising the leg aids, but my rider needs to strengthen and get more awareness over her seat aids first before we reduce the support of the legs. I really enjoyed the challenge of fine-tuning the aids and discovering the element which isn’t quite perfect.

If ever there’s an “blemish” to your riding, taking it apart and putting it back together piece by piece until you find the weak links and then spending some time focusing on improving that area with pay dividends in not only improving your blemish, but also having a positive impact on other areas of your riding, and in the future too. It’s far better from a long term point of view to find the cause and treat it, rather than put a plaster over that area and cover it up because that plaster will trip you up later on!

Individual Journeys

One of the most important, and intuitive, characteristics of a teacher of any sort, is the ability to know how to to push their pupil out of their comfort zone so that they progress and develop their skills and confidence smoothly. This is particularly important with the more timid types of people as a knock to their confidence can halt their learning for a while and can make them reluctant to try new or harder lessons.

I’ve been working with one horse and rider over the last few months who have made me think outside the box. She came to me wanting help with her share horse; wanting to build up his muscles and to encourage him to work more correctly from behind, as well as build her confidence riding him.

I know this rider from when she was a teenager, and whilst perfectly competent she was never the most confident or gung-ho rider. But, with a good level of understanding and the knowledge of the importance of establishing the basics and tweaking the small details. I don’t mind this approach to riding, in fact I possibly prefer it to overconfidence, because I know the horse’s welfare is priority, and the rider never minds revising an exercise to help or reinforce a new lesson.

We began with addressing the horse’s crookedness, and as he’s become straighter he’s become more forward going, and his length of stride has increased. Once his engine is engaged he drops his nose, taking the contact forwards into an outline nicely. We’re getting this result quicker each session, and with more consistency, which is great.

However, with the horse’s medical injury and his age and conformation, I felt that the canter work would really help loosen him over the back and improve their trot work because some days he can just be very stuffy. Unfortunately, this is where I hit a block and had to get my thinking cap on.

Whilst my rider wanted to start the canter work, and is perfectly capable of cantering, she seemed to have developed a mental block with cantering her share horse. She gave all the correct aids to canter, but was only 80% committed to the transition, and so her horse did not oblige. Which led to the cycle of my rider asking, horse going to canter, then not quite cantering, unbalancing the rider with a big trot, and the rider losing faith in her ability. In the next transition attempt the horse is more hesitant to canter, so making my rider work harder.

I had a couple of sessions of warming my rider up so she had a lovely forwards trot and felt confident, and then broaching the subject of canter. With lots of verbal encouragement we managed a couple of strides of canter a few times, but I didn’t feel this was the most effective way for this duo to progress because too many times we ended up in the cycle mentioned above.

My rider hadn’t done much cantering for a while due to rehabbing her share horse, which combined with the fact he has quite a big, bouncy canter, and has been known to buck, was putting her at a disadvantage because she was out of practice and not confident in his behaviour or sitting to his stride. I sent her off to borrow a friend’s horse to practice cantering so that she’d find her canter seat.

Which she did, and felt perfectly happy cantering her friend’s horse, but when back on her share horse we still didn’t get canter. There was a mind block here, and I needed to work out how to break it down.

With a pony, you can lead them in canter, but there’s no way I can keep up with a 16hh thoroughbred cross! I asked my rider if she thought watching her horse canter would put her mind at ease. By watching him go into canter, with no bucks, and seeing the activity in his hindquarters, could help her realise that the big transition is just the way her horse moves, and he’s not being naughty. If you’re used to a short striding, minimalistic canter, then an active strike off can unbalance you and put you off.

My rider lunges this horse regularly and was happy with his transitions from the ground, so I narrowed the problem down to a saddle based issue.

Really, my rider just needed to canter, so she had got the first one under her belt, as there was no physical reason why she couldn’t. This is when it’s important to understand how your rider learns and what type of personality they have because different techniques at this stage can have a detrimental effect. For example, a confident rider might benefit from a bit of a push, lots of encouragement but thrown into the deep end so that they swim. But a timid rider might freeze if put in that position. Sometimes I’ve dared a young client to do something. This works for the competitive but slightly hesitant kids. For example, when asking them to let go with one hand when trotting, they may not want to but when faced with a challenge, they’ll often have a go. But this approach doesn’t work for the timid riders.

I suggested that I lunged her horse at the beginning of the next lesson. My thoughts were that I could assess her horse on the lunge as I could lunge her in canter. Alternatively, being warmed up on the lunge may help her horse become more supple so my rider could get used to a more active gait and be less unseated by the canter transition, and he may be more willing to canter from her aids.

The horse was much more active on the lunge and very well behaved in the canter, so with his rider mounted, I started lunging them in the trot. Initially, it was about getting her to relax and go with his bigger trot stride. Then we just talked about cantering; whether she’d rather be a passenger and I’d get her horse cantering, or whether she’d rather ride the transition. She opted for the latter, which was fine, I think being on the lunge distracted her from the canter transition. Or possibly she felt safer as she was connected to me.

The result was a few short canters on each rein, with me reinforcing her canter aids the first couple of times to make sure she got into canter. The canters were short, but each time my rider seemed happier about the process. She wasn’t tipping forwards so much, was breathing throughout the canter, and was giving with her hands.

By the end of the session, she was much more confident about the whole canter subject, so we’ve decided that every lesson for a few weeks will start on the lunge, doing a few canters, until both horse and rider are comfortable with the transitions and can maintain the canter for longer. I’m looking for my rider to be able to be able to sit a bit deeper in her saddle during the transition, and then to relax in her knee so that she doesn’t tip forwards when in canter, which will allow her to ride her horse forwards in the canter. But this comes with confidence, and for this rider I think this is the best approach to helping her on her equestrian journey. Hopefully she’ll either have a go at cantering one day whilst schooling, or she’ll ask me to remove the lunge line one lesson. Then in a couple of months struggling to canter will be a distant memory!

I always find it very satisfying when I work out how a horse and rider ticks, and which coaching methods will best help them achieve their goals.

One Year On

Last weekend marked one year since I bought Phoenix so I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on our journey together so far.

Initially, I didn’t think there has been a huge change in her physically. I mean, she’s put on muscle, but she’s not grown taller or bulked out like a youngster does. If anything, she’s a leaner frame, and less barrel shaped. Having said that, due to the fact she’s now fully clipped and had her mane pulled, she’s almost unrecognisable to the bystander.

So what have we achieved in the last twelve months? Quite a lot really I think.

To begin with, she’s done some travelling to clinics, competitions and lessons, and has progressed from cautiously edging up the trailer ramp, to almost running me over in her excitement to get loaded. She travels quietly and calmly, and has excellent manners both in the trailer and away from home.

I did quite a lot of groundwork for the first four months with Phoenix. Initially, she couldn’t canter on the lunge, and was quite unbalanced. Here’s two photos to compare the changes in her trot from the lunge. Her trot now is more uphill, and whilst the photos don’t really illustrate it very well her hindquarters are more engaged so her trot has a slower tempo whilst maintaining the same level of energy. Her back and topline also looks much stronger now. Now on the lunge she’s proficient at raised poles, canter and is developing a range of trots in preparation for Novice level.

Phoenix had been introduced to poles before I bought her, but hadn’t really done any jumping. I started with some jumps on the lunge, and since then she’s really taken to it. I only jump a couple of times a month, but she’s now confident with fillers and showjumps up to 85cm, enjoying it and showing a good technique. I had a jump lesson a couple of weeks ago, where we had very positive feedback and she jumped very well, growing in confidence over the related distances and fillers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any photos because it was pouring with rain. She’s also been cross country schooling, which again was a positive experience for her. Next year, my plan is to build on her competition experience over showjumps, and to do more cross country with her, on sponsored rides and training, in preparation for a hunter trial in the autumn. Weather dependent, of course!

In her ridden flatwork, Phoenix has gone from being a bit tucked in in her head and neck, and with quite a choppy trot, to carrying herself in a longer frame, in self carriage and with more impulsion from behind. Unfortunately there aren’t any recent ridden photos – I’m sure you’ll see some soon. She’s been to some dressage competitions, and definitely has the talent to succeed here. Marks have been high, with some low due to her greenness, and excited anticipation. This is an area we’re currently working on. She’s rather fresh at the moment, but after ten minutes work will settle into a lovely trot and work beautifully. Then I walk and give her a breather. Unfortunately, she then anticipates canter so it takes another ten minutes to re-establish the trot. On a positive note, the canter to trot transition is much calmer and more balanced, so we are getting there slowly! I’m looking forwards to cracking this as then we can move up a level and develop her lateral work, because the moments of good work are really good! She’s teaching me a lot, as I’ve never ridden a horse where I have to sit quite so quietly and have such minuscule aids. The slightest aid can get a huge reaction, so I’m on a learning curve (especially while she’s so lively) to stay relaxed whilst sitting quietly, and trying to remember not to back off my aids when she gets tense or scoots off as that makes her even more sensitive to the aids. For example, when she tries to rush in the trot it’s tempting to sit even more lightly. But that means I can’t use my seat without her acting like I’ve electrocuted her. I have to remember to keep sitting into her and trust that she will relax in a few strides. Then I can use my seat to half halt effectively.

Other experiences that Phoenix has had, and accepted, over this last year, are clipping, babies, pushchairs, massages and bareback riding. Clipping is still quite a stressful experience for her, but everything else she’s taken to like a fish to water.

Phoenix had done a fair bit of hacking before coming to me, and I don’t get her out as much as I’d like, but she’s brought the fun back into hacking for me. I hadn’t realised how on edge hacking spooky horses had made me last year. Now, I’m finding our hacks very relaxing and fun, either in company or on our own, especially as she’s so well mannered in open fields and is rock solid on roads. I’m looking forwards to doing some sponsored rides next year, especially as Otis had a lifetime ban for his continuous airs above the ground on these rides.

Looking back, I think we’ve made a solid start to our relationship and journey together. We’ve made a good start to all areas of leisure riding, and whilst we may not be perfect yet, a solid foundation is being built, so that hopefully we have a successful competitive career, whilst having a lot of fun. Phoenix is everything I wanted from my next horse, so I’m glad I took the gamble and bought her without trying her myself and before I was supposed to be purchasing. I’m really excited to see what the future brings for us.

Watch this space!

Linking Lunging to Ridden Work

Mum and Matt had boot camp again this weekend, and we spent some time improving Mum’s ability to relate lunging Matt to schooling him. I find it’s a common problem for horse owners. They have their ridden aims, but their lunge sessions rarely compliment them.

Let me explain.

Mum has been working on Matt’s trot; getting him to be more active behind, engaging his hindquarters and lightening his forehand, then maintaining self-carriage.

Mainly, we were working on her half halts to rebalance Matt. So when he drops on the forehand she half halts with the seat and outside rein whilst almost simultaneously closing the leg and driving him forwards.

We also worked on the concept of riding Matt from leg to hand. That means preparing Matt with a teeny half halt before using the leg and seat to send him forwards from the hindquarters up into her hand then to allow him forwards as he goes into the contact.

Matt is lazy and can drop behind the bridle very easily as he switches off, so it’s important for Mum to send him forwards into the contact. Yet as with many lazy horses, it’s easy to drop the contact so that there’s no hint of a brake on. Again, as with many lazy horses, Matt actually works more actively when he has the security of a light contact to give him confidence. So we spent a lot of time working on the concept of riding Matt between leg and hand, and riding him from behind, whilst keeping a steady contact.

After two sessions they were improving; Mum was straighter in her position and keeping more of a symmetrical, consistent contact; getting a more active trot by riding Matt from leg to hand in the transitions, and could feel Matt was less on the forehand, more engaged, and in self carriage, working over his back.

Mum lunges Matt frequently, but after saying last time I was in Wales that Matt “never goes like that” when she lunges him, I thought she needed a revision session to help.

Of course, Mum knows how to hold all the equipment and can lunge to exercise Matt, but now we need to move on to lunging to improve Matt.

Firstly, I explained how the lunge line is the lunge equivalent of the rein contact. You can half halt through it, monitor the tempo, and improve the balance of the horse.

The voice and lunge whip are the leg aid replacements when lunging. So by considering these aids in relation to ridden work, Mum managed to get Matt to work from behind and then go forwards into the contact by keeping the lunge line a bit tighter and utilising half halts before sending Matt forwards from the whip and voice, which meant that he effectively lunged from leg to hand. This meant that the Pessoa was helping to improve Matt. Unless a horse steps forward from behind and goes into the contact then the Pessoa is useless and they just work in a hollow fashion. Once Matt became more active with his hindquarters he lifted his withers and stretched over his back. Then by half halting and driving him forwards she could stop him dropping onto the forehand, and keep the trot consistent and in balance.

Once Mum had established the trot so that it was as good as her ridden trot work, we looked at improving it further. In the same way that she would when riding. I laid out some trotting poles and Mum sent Matt over them, focusing on keeping him straight, maintaining momentum, and him staying round and not hollowing over the poles. As when you ride, the poles improve the length of stride, cadence and engagement of the horse. When Mum’s more practiced lunging over poles and Matt is stronger she can lengthen the distance between the poles and raise them to further Matt’s suppleness and balance.

Using transitions on the lunge, between the gaits and within the gait, so long as Mum has a contact with the lunge line, will ensure Matt pushes from behind more, as well as helping improve his balance so he’s working over his top line and improves in consistency. I think it will also help improve her eye as she can see what a good trot looks like and equate that to what she feels in the saddle.

Matt tends to fall in on the right rein, and when she’s riding Mum has the naughty habit of pulling him out with the left (outside) rein. I nagged her about using the right leg to push him out rather than using her left hand. He does the same on the lunge, so I got Mum to push Matt back out on the lunge by waving the lunge whip at his shoulder. After doing this a couple of times, I noticed on the lunge that Matt was straighter on the right rein and maintaining the correct bend. Hopefully Mum will feel this reflected in her ridden work and she’ll find it easier to keep him straight on the right rein and will be less likely to resort to her bad habits.

By considering her ridden aims when lunging Matt, Mum should find that she can use her work with the Pessoa and on the ground to improve his way of going which will help Matt develop his topline and become consistent in both his work ethic and way of going.

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.

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.

Phoenix’s Progress

Time flies. I’ve just realised that it’s been almost three weeks since I last updated you on Phoenix and her ridden education.

She’s been hacking out alone weekly, and behaving brilliantly. I’ve her into the riding field to cool off after a schooling session and when the ground is a bit drier I’ll do some schooling out there with her, but she’s very relaxed in the open space which is great. I also need to take her on some faster hacks so I’m planning on going to a nearby cross country field in the next couple of weeks to have a play over some logs and see how she is after a couple of canters. Then I’ll have an idea of how she’ll find a sponsored ride and what preparations I need to make to give her an enjoyable experience on her first one.

Her flatwork is coming along nicely. She’s feeling more balanced in the trot and I was really pleased last week when she stretched and gave a lovely swing over her back in the trot at the end. It was the first time I’d felt such a release with her. She’s still running a bit into canter but I feel it’s partly my fault as I sometimes feel we’re talking two different languages. I think she prefers inside leg into canter whereas Otis liked a combination of both legs, but definitely the outside one behind the girth so I need to retrain myself a bit to help Phoenix.

The lunging sessions I’ve done have mainly focused on canter to help her find her balance without me to contend with, and she’s getting quite a little jump into canter now, so it’s time and practice to be able to replicate this under saddle. I did some jumping with her on the lunge a couple of weeks ago, getting it up to 90-95cm. She looked twice, but did it easily.

Then I followed this up the next weekend by jumping under saddle. She was great: we only did a few cross poles, working on approaching straight and rhythmically. She took me into the fences without being strong, and cleanly jumped all of them.

Then this week we progressed to a related distance. One pole was on the floor and four canter strides away was an upright – 80cm perhaps. I didn’t end up raising the pole to make two jumps because she was just getting to grips with negotiating the exercise without loosing her canter or wobbling off our line.

Last week Phoenix had the second of her massages as a case study for my friend. We found a very tight spot on the left side of her wither, which we think is because the saddle is a little on the narrow side – if you remember my saddler didn’t have the widest gullet so suggested I started riding and see how we got on as Phoenix will change shape anyway. As a result of the massage I’ve spoken to the saddler to organise refitting the saddles, and to perhaps fit my jumping saddle onto her.

Phoenix’s hamstrings and brachiocephalic were a bit tight too, but that’s due to an increase in work and is very typical rather than anything else, so she just enjoyed being loosened up. I was pleased that my friend noticed a big difference in the muscle of Phoenix’s neck; she’s developed quite a topline, and interestingly showed no sign of soreness in the top third, which is often tight with horses who “cheat” in the dressage arena and fix their heads in without working over their backs. Proof that Phoenix is working correctly!

This week she had her teeth rasped. I wasn’t sure when she was last done, but I decided to leave it until after the baby was born to give her chance to get to know me and for me to be fit enough to hold her if she fidgeted. She did fidget, but my dentist is very patient and just reassured her whilst following her around. They kept the session short and sweet, and we’ll rebook for six months time when they’ll spend a bit longer on her molars to perfect them as hopefully she’ll remember the positive experience she had this time round.

I’m really pleased with her weight as although not thin by any stretch of the imagination she has toned up nicely and her hindquarters are becoming more muscular and her tummy toned. She looks really well.

Next week we’ve got a dressage lesson booked, which will give Phoenix an experience of being ridden away from home, and then I’m hoping to plan a couple more trips out. Perhaps to a local dressage competition or to a jumping clinic to test her in a group environment.

To Boot Or Not To Boot?

Another subject request from a client was on the topic of booting. Should you put boots on or not?

To me, boots have done a bit of a full circle. At least twice. Years ago, nobody would have used any form of leg protection at all. Didn’t Black Beauty scar his knees in a fall? Then bandages were introduced, but they’d only have been used by the elite – they’re tricky to put on correctly and are dangerous if they come undone. Especially on the hunt field or cross country course.

Then the basic brushing boot came onto the market, which soon became popular amongst all as it was affordable and easy to use. These became more elaborate with sheepskin and various fancy fastenings. And we all became a little obsessed with protecting our horses against any knock or cut, and boots were used to turn out competition horses in the field as well as when ridden.

Then along came the scientists, who found that boots heat the leg up, which makes the tendons more liable to injury – Here’s a really interesting article about the pros and cons of boots from a scientific perspective.

So then owners started to move away slightly from boots. But we still have that urge to protect our horse’s legs. Which has left us in a bit of a quandary and susceptible to the marketing ploys of all the scientifically researched boots which require you to take out a second mortgage to purchase them.

I joke, but after perusing the Premier Equine spring catalogue and dreaming of winning the lottery, protective boots have become very complicated areas.

Back to my client’s original question. To boot or not to boot?

I think ultimately it requires you to be sensible. Take precautions, use good quality equipment, but also allow horses to be horses.

Firstly, have a look at your horse’s conformation and way of going. Are they at risk of overreaching because they’re short-coupled? Are they young and unbalanced? Do they move straight, or is there a swing to their limbs? Are they “out of one hole” and narrow chested? All of which increases their risk of inflicting damage upon themselves, by one limb knocking the other. Do they have shoes? A shod foot will do more injury than a barefoot. And studs will do more damage than a plain shoe.

If your horse answers yes to any of the above questions then I’d be more inclined to use protective boots.

Next, what are you doing with your horse? A gentle hack, or prelim/novice level flatwork has a lower risk of injuries than cross country or interval training. The BHS taught me to put brushing boots on to lunge because the risk of injury is higher when the horse is working on a circle. Whether they still advocate this, I’m not sure, but it’s a valid point. Equally. I would consider the horse’s energy levels – is he fresh and likely to throw in a couple of spooks or bucks which may cause injury?

Another point to consider is how hardy is your horse? A thin skinned, clipped Thoroughbred will knock themselves and blood will start gushing, whilst a well feathered cob has more natural protection. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, so get to know your horse.

Does your horse have a previous injury? For example, if they’ve previously done a tendon, or have an old scar on their leg, then you may want to consider booting them for supportive reasons as much as protective reasons.

Otis wore boots as a matter of course. I always put brushing boots on him; simple, basic ones. Mainly because I think I always did, so we were both used to it. Then he frequently pulled shoes off, so he wore overreach boots when ridden and when in a herd, he wore them in the field. On his own, he is fairly sensible about it all. His hind legs are quite close together, and when he was shod behind the inside of his shoe used to catch the inside of the other coronet band, so that he lost his feathers in that area. So I put sausage boots on his back legs, which I’m not one hundred percent convinced that they solved the problem, but they definitely reduced the effect. Upon reflection, I think overreach boots would have been a better alternative.

With Matt, I didn’t put brushing boots on him in everyday riding, and Mum doesn’t either. However, when I took him on some sponsored rides last year I did put brushing boots on him for protection over the solid fences.

With Phoenix I’ve not yet used boots on her. She’s barefoot and straight moving, so I’m not worried too much about overreaching or knocks, especially while she’s in such light work. Plus the fields are so muddy that I would struggle to get her legs clean enough to put boots on, so risking damage to her legs from abrasions due to pieces of grit being caught between the boot and her leg. Once I start jumping her properly I’ll definitely put boots on her, to protect her from knocks as she learns what to do with her body. But I think I may be more relaxed with her than with Otis, and just put boots on when I feel she needs protection. Once she’s learning lateral work then she’ll need protection as she gets used to crossing her legs over.

So to answer my client’s question, I think it’s important to take precaution with our horse’s legs to avoid injury from knocks, abrasions or cuts. But it’s equally important to try to prevent soft tissue injury by fittening your horse sufficiently because the jury is out as to how supportive boots actually are. And don’t feel that you have to use boots all the time: work out when you think your horse will most benefit from them and which types of boots (tendon boots, brushing boots, fetlock boots, etc) will best serve the purpose.

Then of course is the mind boggling question of which boots should you use. After all, they come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Basic boots are usually neoprene, which are lightweight so won’t have too much of a warming effect on the horse’s legs or weigh them down as they move. However, neoprene does soak up water so will become heavy and possibly hinder the horse after the water element on a cross country course.

Some boots have sheepskin inner, which were in fashion twenty years ago, but as the sheepskin warms the limbs up excessively they dropped out of fashion. Plus they’re so difficult to clean! However, sheepskin is better for sensitive skinned horses, and creates more even pressure around the leg so avoids rubs and pressure points. I saw some sheepskin boots in the Premier Equine catalogue which states that the sheepskin uses “airtechnology” to prevent the leg overheating. I’d like to see an independent study on the heat of legs and different materials of boots to see what materials are best.

Then there are more specialist boots, for example for fast work and cross country. These advocate their cooling technology. The ones I saw have vents which allow air to flow under the boot when the horse is moving. Together with technological advances, these boots have become very hard wearing and tough without getting heavy. Heavy boots will impede a horse’s movement and performance.

In all, despite the fact that we now know there are limitations and side effects of using protective boots for horses, technology has allowed boots to be developed which aim to enhance performance, prevent overheating, and provide protection to the limbs. So we shouldn’t be put off from using boots when necessary. However, I think I would choose when I used boots, and only use the level of protection that I required – so if a horse doesn’t need overreach boots then don’t use them, and don’t use specialist cross country boots for flatwork in the school – because the very nature of putting boots into limbs, or bandages for that matter, alters the way a horse uses their body. Then I would also minimise the length of time a horse spent wearing them.

On a side note, have you seen the research done on barefoot (human) runners and the difference in the way the foot absorbs impact when bare as opposed to when wearing trainers? It’s really interesting how the toes spread out and work independently to balance the body when unrestricted.

Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.

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In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!

Lunging Gadgets

I asked a couple of weeks ago for any requests for blog subjects, as I’m trying to write a few in preparation for having my hands full. Plus it’s a useful occupation whilst lying on the sofa and stops me googling too many inane questions about babies.

One request was a continuation of a conversation I’d had with a client about lunging aids. Or gadgets. How do you know which one your horse needs, or doesn’t need. Or if they need any at all.

I think I’ve said before, that whilst I feel lunging aids have a use and can be very beneficial to a horse, they can just as easily cause more harm than good by being adjusted incorrectly or with a poor lunging technique.

Firstly, when deciding on which lunging aid you’re going to try, I think it’s important to reflect on how the horse goes when ridden, and if there’s any issues there which need resolving before you start a lunging program, or indeed if there’s any area under saddle which would benefit from being worked on on the lunge. Then it’s useful to see the horse on the lunge, to make sure they understand the basic concept, and are relaxed and focused on the aids, before adding the complication of a gadget. Thirdly, speak to your instructor about it. They may have more experience of a lunging aid so be able to help you fit it and use it correctly, as well as advise to how often you should use it. Lunging, whilst a useful way to burn some extra calories, should supplement the ridden work. So if your horse will work long and low on their own accord on the lunge, find their balance and self carriage then you don’t need a gadget as such, just some exercises such as spiralling in or pole work to help improve their work under saddle. But for some horses, they need some help to point them in the right direction of self-carriage, balance and working long and low.

Finally, critique your own ability – easier said than done – about lunging. Are you able to influence the way a horse goes through body language? In which case do you actually need any more than a lunge cavesson to improve your horse’s way of going or would some lessons and good old practice suffice?

Lunging aids, such as a bungee or side reins, focus on the front of the horse so I feel that if you decide to go down that route then the lungee needs to be able to efficiently send the horse forwards from behind, and the horse respond appropriately without tensing or rushing, in order to use these gadgets correctly. A Pessoa, or Equi-Ami, or any other whole body gadget, will work on both the front and back ends, which so long as they are fitted correctly, require the lungee to do less technical work. Which may explain their popularity, in that they don’t need quite so much skill in order to see an improvement in your horse.

Here are a couple of examples of horses that I’ve lunged, and which lunging aid I’ve opted to use to help improve their way of going.

Firstly, is a pony who tends to drift through his right shoulder. When ridden straight, he’s fine, it’s just a technique he’s developed to make his life easier. Now in lessons, I’ve spent a lot of time straightening and evening out his riders rein contact (her left hand tends to fix whilst the right hand drifts forward constantly, so enabling the pony to go crooked). It’s a bit of a vicious circle in that neither are truly straight, so to help correct the pony, I suggested he was lunged in side reins. This would give him an even contact in his mouth, help teach him not to fall through the right shoulder, and improve his straightness because he would have to engage his left hindleg under his body. He also likes to tuck behind the bit, so his rider can see for herself how he starts to take the contact forwards when driven on from behind and straight. This will help her understand that she needs to use more leg and seat to push the pony into the contact, whilst stabilising the hands, and she will be able to visualise the results. Lunging in side reins once a week will help break the cycle because the pony will become straighter and then my rider will feel the effects of her wobbly right hand and more easily get the correct result when she corrects herself.

One mare that I lunge tends to get tight in her neck, and lock her back. She looks active enough, but it’s just the legs pedalling as fast as possible whilst the back stays as still as a duck serenely floating along the river. When you ride her she likes a contact, but it mustn’t be restrictive, and you must be riding her quietly from behind so that she goes forwards without getting tense. She’s the classic example of the benefit of riding from the back to the front of the horse, rather than pinning the front end in. Anyway, when using side reins, she stiffens her neck, lifts her head and goes behind the contact. Sending her on, when lunging, just makes her paddle quicker with the legs as she rushes. She needs more encouragement to release over her back and to drop her nose forwards and down. So I put her in the Pessoa. The strap behind her hindquarters sends her on from behind, without the lungee flapping and worrying the mare into tension. It mimics the “riding from the back to the front” adage. The clips to her bit and between her front legs should not be too tight, because she will just tense and contract her neck instead of seeking the contact forwards. These clips will also put pressure on her bit to encourage her to lower her head as that’s where she’ll feel the release of pressure. After lunging her a couple of times like this, she stopped getting tense when the Pessoa was attached, and immediately took herself into a long and low position, swinging nicely over her back. Teaching her to work over her back without the interference of a rider and their balance will pay huge dividends under saddle. After a couple of months lunging like this, I’d expect to see her stretching long and low in her warm up on the lunge, which then means you can lunge naked, which will encourage more self-carriage, or use a different technique or exercise to help strengthen another area of her body.

Another horse I’ve been working on is quite short coupled and easily over tracks. In fact, in walk his hind feet over step his the prints left by his forefeet by an easy two lengths. Under saddle, the horse can throw himself out through the outside shoulder to evade bending through his rib cage. He can get a bit tight under the saddle and at the base of the neck, so would benefit from stretching on the lunge. However, because he’s at risk of over reaching due to his conformation I think the Pessoa will hurry his hindquarters too much. No you don’t want to ride from hand to leg, but I think the lungee can influence the hindquarters sufficiently with this horse that his engine will work without the pressure of the back strap. I decided to use side reins, on a fairly long setting so that the horse is encouraged to lengthen his neck as he seeks the contact. The side reins also help prevent the horse evading through his shoulders. Then whilst lunging him I can work on sending him forwards so he works with the right amount of impulsion and then he will seek the contact of the side reins for himself and develop self carriage.

Another horse I teach with lacks impulsion and can be very lazy with her hindquarters. Whilst she uses crookedness to evade her rider’s aids, I feel that the first port of call with her on the lunge is to activate her hindquarters. In order that she doesn’t rush and shuffle off, but instead lengthens the stride and pushes with the hindlegs, the lungee needs to be able to maintain some tension down the lunge line whilst also using their body and the lunge whip to drive the mare forwards. This takes a bit of skill, so her owners actually need the help of a well fitting gadget around her hindquarters to support them in sending her forwards. For this reason I suggested they tried using the Pessoa. Perhaps once they’ve developed their skill and become more adept with the lunge line and whip, and the mare is more forwards, they could move on to the side reins to assist with the straightness and help establish the outside rein contact.

You may have noticed that I only really use the side reins or a Pessoa. I’ve experienced other gadgets, especially when lunging a horse in rehab for their owners but I’m not fully familiar with them or completely satisfied with the hows and why’s they work, so prefer to use a tool that I’m confident with, and then if it’s not having the effect I imagined it to, I’ll do more research into other options. Something about not being a jack of all trades and master of none!

When going down the route of lunging to improve your horse’s way of going I always advocate having a couple of lessons, to improve your technique, and to ensure the lunging aid is fitted correctly and is benefiting your horse, and what exercises you can do on the lunge. And if your instructor doesn’t know how the gadget you want to try works, then see if another instructor in your area does who can offer advice. Perhaps this is a gap in the market? To offer lunge clinics, which teach owners the correct basic technique, and also demonstrate the correct use and fitting of such lunging aids.