Phoenix’s Lesson

On Saturday we took Phoenix for our first dressage lesson. It went very smoothly, with her walking straight onto the trailer, travelling well and being perfectly behaved during the lesson, impressing our trainer. She behaved like an old hand, not being distracted by her surroundings, working beautifully and trying her hardest in the new exercises and then showing a definite improvement by the end. A very successful outing.

I thought I’d share our lesson exercises with you and why we used them.

Just like humans, horses have a degree of asymmetry. Using school movements to improve their suppleness and flexibility helps them develop even muscle tone, and creates a straighter, more symmetrical horse who is less likely to injure themselves because their limbs are sharing the workload. I won’t say evenly because although each limb may be taking 25% of the workload at prelim level, at Grand Prix level the hindlimbs are taking more of the horse’s weight and subsequently the workload, than the forelimbs. But Phoenix is still at prelim level so we will keep things simple.

One of the first things I noticed when riding Phoenix was that she likes to load her left shoulder, which is her way of compensating for having a lazy right hind. Not in a bad way, but in the same way that the left hand of a right handed person is slightly weaker than their right hand. I’ve been working on encouraging Phoenix to carry herself straighter and by working her evenly on both reins to ensure her muscles develop evenly. I introduced some leg yield on a circle last week as she now understands the idea of moving away from the leg rather than going faster.

I should also point out that when my masseuse friend assessed Phoenix for her case study she noted that the left side of her wither was slightly more developed than the right. You can see the slight asymmetry in the photo below.

Back to our lesson. After warming up by getting Phoenix to stretch in walk, which she’s really getting the hang of, and then a trot on both reins. My trainer agreed that leg yield was the right route to go down to help engage the right hind leg and take the weight from the left shoulder.

On the right rein I began walking a twenty metre circle, making sure there wasn’t too much bend through Phoenix’s neck. When a horse loads one shoulder they tend to jackknife their body and over bend and the base of the neck and not bend at all through their barrel. This leads to lose of the outside rein and a tendency to compensate by pulling on the inside rein. Anyway, we spiralled in on the circle before leg yielding her out. In leg yield the inside hindleg steps under and towards the centre of the body to lift and push the horse sideways. By leg yielding to the left, Phoenix has to engage her right hindleg. I could feel the push as it came into effect and the walk became lighter, and more through. Now because the leg yield on the circle can allow a horse to drift through the outside shoulder as much as being pushed by the inside hindleg we repeated the exercise but with counter flexion which would make Phoenix use her right hind even more so, and make sure that her left shoulder wasn’t working too hard. To create the counter flexion I Mel my body turning to the right, towards the circle and used my outside rein to encourage Phoenix to look slightly left. There was a little bit of left leg here too. This time as we leg yielded out on the circle I felt that Phoenix understood the exercise more and used her right hindleg more purposefully. Once I’d finished the exercise we had a little trot to feel how much straighter and more balanced the trot now felt.

Moving onto the left rein. As I spiralled in in this direction I had to make sure Phoenix maintained left bend and didn’t fall onto her left shoulder and then when I leg yielded out we cheated a bit. The first time I let her drift a little through the right shoulder, so as to help level out her shoulders. It’s easier said than done to ride a movement badly when you know how to ride it correctly! The second time we did it more correctly. Letting her drift is a short term activity to help bring her off her left shoulder, and I only need to do it if she’s finding the movement hard. Whilst on the big circle on the left rein I then leg yielded her to the left on the circle. This sounds strange, but basically I kept Phoenix in slight right bend and pushed her hindquarters to the left, and slightly to the middle of the circle. This was to allow Phoenix to rediscover her right hindleg. The subsequent trot was beautiful! Very light and balanced, and each hindleg stepping under nicely.

After another walk break and stretch during which we discussed the canter, we had a look at it. Obviously Phoenix is green in the canter, so I use our lunging sessions to allow her to find her balance in the transitions and the canter itself. I find that her canter on the lunge is quite steady and looking more balanced. But under saddle she is rushing, uptight and setting her neck against me. One factor is the fact that Phoenix is having to learn to canter with my weight, but I had noticed that she was less strong when I jumped her last week. I already had a theory, but my trainer confirmed it. As I ask Phoenix to canter and she runs a little in the transition I automatically half halt and try to hold her together, as I would with Otis. Phoenix doesn’t like and isn’t ready for the interference so just leans against my hand as she finds it harder to find her canter balance. When I jump my mindset is slightly different so I allow a bigger canter and so she finds her own balance and carries herself. I needed someone on the ground reminding me to relax my hands. Which he did and after a dozen strides of each canter Phoenix was feeling more balanced and I felt like we were working together more.

As Phoenix assumes that after canter work comes more canter work we had a trot to finish. This started with rushed, choppy strides but once she realised trot was the name of the game she relaxed and gave a lovely balanced trot whilst stretching her neck down nicely.

We’ve got plenty to work on over the next few weeks but I was very pleased with how Phoenix performed. Perhaps it’s time to look out for a local dressage competition!

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Lance, Sword, Revolver

Yesterday we went to Windsor Horse Show, and for the second time watched a really fun, lighthearted equine competition that even the non horsey can enjoy. Yep, I’m talking about the long suffering husbands. But they’ll enjoy watching this because it involves weapons!

I’ve only ever seen Lance, Sword, Revolver competitions at Windsor, but I’m sure there must be others around the country.

Run by the British Tentpegging Association (I’ll move onto tent pegging later), this competition is a course where competitors are marked for each element and then receive a style mark, and the highest score wins. I’m not sure of the exact scoring details, but that is the main gist.

Each competitor goes one at a time, starting with the sword section. They have to jump a small brush fence, attack a dummy on their right with the sword, striking as close to the red circle (heart) as possible. Then jump a second brush and attack another dummy, this time on their left and leaving the sword embedded in the dummy.

Next, they draw their revolver and jump a brush on the other side of the arena, firing at a balloon attached to the right of the jump. Then they have to pop a balloon on the ground, before jumping the fourth brush and popping the balloon to the left of the fence.

Once the gun is holstered (I’m using the husband’s terminology here so I assume it’s correct, based on his xbox weapons experience) correctly, the competitors pick up a lance and collect two rings from a pair of gallows (the diameter of the rings is a couple of inches) before picking up a peg from the ground.

Sounds easy, but don’t forget these riders perform the whole course in canter or gallop.

Here’s a video demonstration from YouTube to help my explanation.

Obviously the sword, lance, revolver competition has roots in the cavalry, but the tent pegging association has made the competition accessible to civilians, and they compete against the military. Yesterday, the top three places were held by civilians. What I really liked about the competition yesterday was that it is open to any horse. The winner was an Appaloosa who had quite an erratic jump and was very quick. There was also an ex polo pony, chosen I guess for his ability to neck rein and agility. Then there was also an Irish draught, and the military competitors had ex racers, thoroughbreds and warmbloods.

In the arena afterwards was the tentpegging competition, of which the lance, sword, revolver competitors had also entered. In this riders have the lance and try to pick up the peg from the ground. I know at one point the peg became narrower, but other than that I’m not sure how they judged it.

Anyway, spurred on by this interest, I did some research online about this unusual discipline. The British Tentpegging Association was formed in the 1990s, so is relatively immature in the competitive sphere, but there are hopes that it will soon be recognised by the FEI. The association looks after both civilians and officers, and Great Britain is the only country in which officers have to compete in uniform.

In a nutshell, tentpegging originated 2500 years ago in Asian armies, where lancers used tent pegs as make shift targets in camp to demonstrate and practice their expertise. Tentpegging as a competition and public entertainment first appeared in the Victorian era, with competition rules becoming well established by the First World War, and the Sword, Lance, Revolver competition was also developed. Then as the number of mounted units in the forces has decreased since the Second World War, civilians were encouraged to participate and compete, which led to the founding of the Association.

I’ve found an in-depth article about the history of tentpegging, which you can peruse here. I also did some reading on the British Tentpegging Association website.

I’d like to see more of this sport, as everyone can appreciate it and there’s a definite skill involved. I can also see it appealing to a number of riders, and it might also encourage more boys to continue riding into their teenage years and adulthood.

Phoenix’s Progress

Yesterday marked two weeks since I first rode Phoenix so I thought I’d give you a little update.

The first couple of days she was a bit tense when I first mounted but soon relaxed after walking around. The first week I stuck to walk and trot for about twenty minutes in the school, focusing on her transitions and suppleness. She quickly began to bend nicely through her rib cage on the walk circles and changed the bend on serpentines and Demi-voltes smoothly.

Phoenix will always have the tendency to get a bit deep in her frame so all my work at the moment is focusing on getting her to take the contact out so her nose is on the vertical, not behind. I’m also spending a lot of time at the end encouraging Phoenix to take a long rein in the walk.

After initially fidgeting in the halt, she settled and stood square and still before I turned my attention to getting her to smoothly go into and out of the halt. She still has the tendency to halt abruptly but I’m finding the balance between how much leg I can use to prevent this.

Our trot work is much along the same lines: getting the consistency of her rhythm, improving her suppleness and straightness. It’s still taking three or four strides to establish the bend on each rein but plenty of figure of eights and serpentines are rapidly improving this.

Last week my friend who’s training to be an equine masseuse came to assess Phoenix to be one of her case studies. Finding very little wrong with her, Phoenix did have a couple of tight spots and thoroughly enjoyed her massage. It will be interesting to follow my friend’s findings when she comes next time and Phoenix has done some harder work.

The next time I schooled Phoenix I felt she was straighter, not swinging her hindquarters to the right on the left rein anymore. She felt more even and was bending better on each rein. It was in this session that we had our first canter. Phoenix’s canter is becoming more balanced on the lunge and she knows the voice aids for canter, so I used the voice and leg aids. We had a couple of extended trots as she tried to oblige but found it different with my weight and the saddle. However, once she ran into canter the first time I could balance the canter fairly easily and then she had it sussed. We did a handful of canters on both reins, and each time I felt Phoenix was understanding the aids and finding it easier. She’s such a trier, and wants please. She’s a quick learner and only needs to be shown something once, so I have high hopes for her education.

I also took Phoenix for a hack last weekend. I knew she had always been a steadfast and reliable hack horse, but as she hadn’t left the yard for four months I found a steady escort and half expected a shy or two. But she was perfect! She went in front and behind, past all the traffic perfectly, and took everything in her stride. She felt very relaxed and calm throughout, which means hacking is going to be very enjoyable.

I’ll continue in this vein, hacking when I can get a babysitter and escort, and focusing on the walk and trot with the aim of hopefully entering an Intro dressage test in the next couple of months. We’ll keep having a canter, sticking to allowing her to find her balance and canter rhythm, but that will come in time and I won’t rush her.

I watched some footage of yesterday’s session and I feel Phoenix is becoming much more consistent in the walk and trot, and working more correctly. There were moments in the canter where she’s more three time and coming off the forehand which is pleasing to see.

Yesterday I also had a revolutionary moment too. I didn’t want to stop riding her. I’d have carried on forever, I was enjoying teaching, feeling her oblige, and dreaming of the next few steps and then trying to not get carried away! I will admit that a fortnight ago when I first sat on her I had a bit of a meltdown. I think it was the combination of postnatal hormones and the fact that riding her brought home the fact that I really have turned over the page and closed the chapter on riding Otis. Which is still a hard pill to swallow. However, today I had a belated birthday present from one of my closest friends and it’s made everything fall into place. My gift was a tie pin of Otis’s tail hair – so that he’s always with Phoenix and I when we compete.

The Next Step

This week the saddler came to fit my saddles to Phoenix. I knew she was wider than Otis … but I didn’t expect her to be that much wider!

Otis had the wide gullet bar in both his saddles, and Phoenix needs the extra extra wide bar! Which unfortunately the saddler didn’t have, because he so rarely needs it. Anyway, he adjusted my dressage saddle as best he could so that it wouldn’t ride forwards up her neck and then watched me ride in it. It’s not perfect, but at least I can start riding and change the gullet bar when it arrives. And of course, Phoenix will change shape as she gets fitter and muscles up so will need her saddle checking in a couple of months time anyway.

She was very good considering it has been four months since she’d been sat on. Her back was up initially when I got on, but after being led around for a minute she relaxed.

With the saddler I only did a few minutes, but today I got to have a proper play.

Phoenix is very sensitive to the leg, although we need to develop her reaction to the leg so that I can ask her to bend around the inside leg instead of sidestepping. When I was cooling her down at the end she was starting to bend around my inside leg so I’m sure that will come quickly, especially as I will be doing slow and steady while the saddle isn’t a perfect fit and while I improve my fitness. The trot feels active but not as bouncy as Otis’s – which is a relief while I rediscover my stomach muscles! Her transitions are fairly balanced, and she responds well to the seat. I just need to make sure the downward transitions aren’t too sudden.

I felt she had a good natural rhythm, occasionally faltering but that’s not surprising considering that she’s learning to balance my weight as well as hers. In terms of suppleness we need to work on getting her to bend through her rib cage, but that will come as she better understands my leg aids. She was more wiggly than I expected, swinging her hindquarters to the right. As she gets more supple and balanced on turns she’ll be less wiggly, which is quite normal for green horses.

Phoenix feels uphill to ride, and she felt more consistent to the contact then I was expecting. She puts herself onto the bit but can go behind the vertical so I expected her to be lighter and slightly behind the bridle, particularly as she’s not had any pressure on her mouth for months.

From our short ride yesterday I’ve devised a plan for Phoenix’s ridden work. I want to aim to ride her three times a week and lunge her once, but it’s open to change, depending on the weather and babysitters. We’ll stick to walk and trot initially, with canter work on the lunge, and focus on transitions with general school movements and encouraging her to work in a long and low frame, and encouraging her nose to stay on or in front of the vertical. As her balance through the transitions and in her frame improves so will the quality of her walk and trot. Of course, this work can be done on hacks too. We have a large field to ride round, which will provide variation to the arena as well.

Today I spent twenty minutes in the school on walk circles and serpentines getting Phoenix to bend and she was starting to bend well. Then we did some transitions into trot with lots of circles and changes of rein. I felt Phoenix was in a slightly longer frame and taking her neck out a bit more. Then to finish we did some halt transitions, more suppling work in walk and then had a try of walking on a long rein. She stretched down before going behind the bridle and causing the reins to go loose, and her walk slowed down as she drifted into the middle of the school. This is quite normal for green horses, because they’ve lost the guidance and security of the rein contact, but we’ll keep working on it until she’s confident in stretching and walking purposefully.

I’ll keep you updated! But it’s very exciting to have a project to work on again, especially one who’s so keen to learn!

A Cross Exercise

I discovered this fun exercise a couple of weeks ago, which has numerous benefits for horse and rider, despite one of my riders declaring the exercise to be “easy” … this was before he’d attempted it!

If you’re following the arrows on the diagram you need to approach the first jump on the left canter lead. Reverse the direction of the arrows for right canter.

I kept the jumps as crosses because with uprights it’s very easy for riders to allow their horses to jump off centre if the circle lacks roundness so we lose the accuracy of the exercise.

This exercise is very good for establishing the rhythm to a course, as the horse cannot rush before or after each fence because the circle slows them and balances the canter.

The circle is also very good for improving the quality of the canter as the horse cannot flatten and lose the three beats on the approach to a fence. Which leads to a better bascule.

If a horse has the tendency to lock on and take a long stride to a fence then this exercise is useful for showing a rider the importance of not encouraging a long jump because the circle afterwards is particularly difficult. It also helps encourage a rider to see a closer take off point. This was what tripped up my rider who declared the exercise as “easy”. His pony tends to lock on, take a long jump over a fence and land flat. The circles made my rider realise that he can’t let his pony get so long as he wouldn’t be able to ride the circle afterwards. On courses, this often happens and they miss the next turn and subsequent fence.

In order for this exercise to flow smoothly, the rider needs to maintain the correct canter lead, which may involve them asking for the canter lead over each fence, especially if the horse favours one particular canter lead. This makes the rider more aware of their body language over and after a jump. The rider needs to plan the circle, but not be too quick on riding it on landing otherwise they’ll finish the circle too close to the centre of the cross of poles and have to jump the side of the fence. Equally, being a bit slow after the fence to respond leads to very large circle and the canter can be allowed to stay a bit long and flat.

I had another rider counting out loud as she rode this exercise to help her keep the rhythm. She was focusing too much on riding a dressage standard circle, and upsetting her horse’s jumping rhythm so he was getting tense and then jumping awkwardly. After a few goes at counting the canter rhythm improved as she rode with more subtle aids so had smoother turns, and they met each fence on the perfect stride, so the whole sequence flowed beautifully.

Grabbing the inside rein will prevent the circle being round, and the horse being balanced, so it’s also important to ride the outside of the horse around the turn in order to finish the circle well and not have a dodgy jump.

The horse’s suppleness will improve as a result of this exercise, which will help on jump offs, because the horse and rider can then ride short yet balanced approaches to fences, and make quick turns on landing which will shave off precious seconds.

Give the exercise a go, I think it’s easy to be complacent about the exercise, but in order to do it well there are lots of little elements to perfect.

Riding Diamonds

I was sharing the arena with another instructor a couple of weeks ago and she was using the diamond exercise. I’ve used it before to good effect, but it had fallen off my radar. However, I could think of a couple of clients and horses who would benefit from this exercise.

Best done in a 20x40m arena so you have fence markers to help focus the rider’s eye.

Instead of riding a 20m circle at A, imagine you are riding a 20m diamond. A is one corner, X is another, and there are two more just on the fence line, ten metres from the corner – sometimes a bit of tape is needed to mark this as they are four metres away from K and F.

Starting in walk, ride a straight line from point to point. Just before each corner collect the walk slightly, and then ensuring you are using the outside aids, push the outside shoulder around the turn. The horse will naturally slow and lose impulsion so ride positively out of the corner.

Riding a diamond improves a rider’s awareness of the outside aids and increases control over the outside shoulder as well as reducing their reliance on the inside rein. It highlights any crookedness in a horse, for example a horse will find it harder to move around a right rein corner if they are naturally a right banana. Moving around each corner will encourage the horse to take more weight onto their hindquarters and to bring the inside hindleg under their body more, all helping to strengthen the limbs and improve the quality of the gaits.

After riding a couple of diamonds, you should start to feel the hind legs stepping under more purposefully.

You can then progress to riding the exercise in trot and canter. I find that the biggest improvement is often seen in canter, where the inside hindleg becomes more active and improves the three beat rhythm. As the straightness improves the canter gains elevation and impulsion as the hindlegs work directly on the horse’s centre of gravity so the forehand lightens and the canter feels more effortless.

Some examples of horses and riders who have benefited from this exercise over the last week are as follows:

  • One pony drifts through his right shoulder and his rider has a mobile right hand, so riding this exercise, particularly on the left rein, focused my rider on her wobbly outside rein and helped straighten her pony. The difference was particularly noticeable in the canter work.
  • Another mare likes to push through the outside rein and triggers her rider to use the inside rein, so the diamonds were most beneficial to her at the very beginning of her warm up to establish the outside aids and ensure the mare is respecting her rider’s aids so that the rest of their workout is more productive as the mare is more focused on her rider.
  • Another mare is very lazy with her hindquarters, and transitions have a limited effect on engaging her hindquarters when she begins a session by being behind the leg because she wriggles through the shoulder, so riding the diamonds help engage her hindquarters and maintain the straightness because in an attempt to evade using her hindquarters the mare jackknifes through the shoulder. Then we can use a combination of transitions and other school movements to help get the mare off the forehand.

Exaggerating Half Halts

I think we take it for granted sometimes as riders, how much we do subconsciously and automatically.

When you’re learning the process is as follows:

  • Verbally given an instruction
  • Think about how to carry out the instruction
  • Act out the instruction.

As you gain experience and knowledge, the first step and the second step merge together. You may not be told specifically what to do but you will think about what you need to do. For example, instead of being told by an instructor to put your leg on as a pony backs off a fence you will feel the pony back off and decide for yourself to put the leg on.

Then of course, it becomes innate and you will automatically put the leg on when a pony backs off a fence without consciously thinking about applying the aids.

As a rider, I think I sometimes forget how many half halts, or micro transitions, I make in order to maintain a horse’s rhythm and balance around the school. Sometimes they’re barely noticeable, just an engagement of my core or shifting my weight back slightly, buts it’s all innate.

I’ve been working with a client and her young horse over the winter. He’s been well educated in long reins and on the lunge but he’s a big boy and recently he’s started bearing down on the hand in trot. We’ve focused on establishing the trot rhythm and basic school movements – progressive transitions and circles etc. He’s coming along well, but I was starting to get concerned with how the horse was leaning on his rider’s hands and throwing his head down. Where he’s a big horse, he was also causing her to pitch forwards slightly.

Then I realised that my rider probably isn’t doing enough half halting, or rebalancing, of her young horse. Either she wasn’t picking up on the first sign of him losing his balance so was acting too late, or the half halts weren’t being effective either from her or in the fact the young horse didn’t understand them.

We discussed the fact that when the horse threw his head forwards he was loading his forehand, and whilst it’s understandable that he’s not very strong because he’s a baby, we couldn’t allow leaning on the contact to become a habit. Especially with 18hh worth of horse!

I explained that we were going to exaggerate the half halts, or rebalancing aids, to make it crystal clear to the horse that he needs to come off the forehand and carry himself. It’s important that the hand stays steady but light, and when a horse leans on you it’s a natural reflex to tighten the arms and hold back – like a tug of war.

I got my rider to work her horse in trot, and as soon as she felt him start to bear down on the hand she needed to ride a downwards transition to walk. It’s still a positive transition, in that she was asking with the seat and leg as well as the hand, but the act of going into walk shifted the horse’s weight back towards his hindquarters. After a couple of strides of a good quality walk, it was back into trot. Again, in the upwards transition she was aiming for it to be correct and for him to push up into trot with his hind legs.

We did some circles, changes of rein, and serpentines adding in the rebalancing transitions every time the horse started to drop onto the forehand. After a few minutes the difference was surprising. Whilst not collected by any means because he’s a baby and developing his muscles, he found self carriage. To be picky, he was above the bridle but he was tracking up, looked lighter in front, and was still to the contact. And more importantly, staying consistent in his trot rhythm and looking more balanced.

Now that he’d discovered self carriage, my rider could adjust her position, to ensure she wasn’t slightly pitched forwards (which tends to happen when a horse leans on the hands). This meant that she was more balanced, which only served to help her horse stay in balance – a win win situation.

Then we progressed to riding half halts in the more traditional sense – subtly. Where the horse was in self carriage his rider could engage her core and use very discreet aids, and the horse understood more, and found it easier to react and correct himself.

From this, my rider now needs to develop her internal metronome and become more aware of slight loss of balance in her horse’s way of going. Then she can discreetly rebalance him and he will find it easier to respond to the corrections. If he has a day when he is really bearing down on the hands then repeating the transition exercise will help him rediscover self carriage. After all, he has self carriage on the lunge, but that’s without the weight of a rider or their independent balance to worry about.

It’s tricky to teach the feeling of rhythm and balance, and for a rider to learn when and how much to correct, because with a green horse you may be making subtle corrections every other stride, but once a rider develops this innate process they will be able to apply it to all areas of their riding and be able to improve the way of going of any horse that they sit on.

The Two Loop Serpentine

There’s a movement that comes up frequently in both prelim and novice dressage tests which I really like. I like how is seems comparatively straightforward, but in order to score well you need to perfect several elements. I also like how it can be used to develop horse and rider in terms of rhythm, suppleness and balance.

It’s effectively a two loop serpentine, but is described in tests as “C half twenty metre circle right to X. X half twenty metre circle left to A.” Or starting at A, or on the left rein.

At prelim level, the movement is carried out in working trot. The judge is looking for the circles to be of an even size, so checking suppleness. For the trot to stay in a consistent rhythm, and for the change of bend to be smooth and balanced.

Initially when I use this exercise with riders, I get them to spend several strides over X changing the bend. A common mistake is that people lurch from the right circle to the left circle at X, which inevitably means the second circle lacks quality. By ensuring that the change of bend is balanced over a few straight strides we improve the suppleness of the horse, and the rider learns to prepare and execute the change of bend fluently, as well as riding accurately over X. Then we reduce the number of straight strides over X as the horse becomes more balanced and understands the exercise until the change of bend is done in literally two strides or less, and the horse passes over X as so often riders miss it because they haven’t ridden an accurate first half circle.

The next step in this exercise is when a test asks for one horses length in walk over X. This means that you have to factor in a transition before and after the change of bend, thus further testing the horse’s balance and suppleness. One horse’s length is 3-5 strides of walk, and the transitions need to be clear so that the walk is a definite four beats. It’s common for the horse to jog in anticipation of trotting again so the judge will mark lower for a loss of clarity in the walk.

Again, when introducing the walk steps to the movement I break it up. We go back to having quite a long straight stretch over X, and initially aim for half a dozen walk strides. This enables the rider to prepare each transition, and to separate each element. Coming off the half circle, they ride the downwards transition, and then change the bend, then ride the upward transition before going onto the second half circle. It’s key to keep the horse in front of the leg, so as soon as the horse is staying balanced into walk with a smooth change of bend, we reduce the number of walk steps. By slowly condensing the movement the horse and rider will be more able to ride it succinctly and fluidly. When practising this movement for a test I’ll quite often vary the number of walk steps so that the horse doesn’t anticipate the upward transition and tense up.

At Novice level, canter is introduced to this movement. In order to change the rein trot is required over X. Here, it is more noticeable if the rider doesn’t establish the new bend because the horse risks striking off onto the wrong lead.

In a similar way to introducing the walk transition, I get my rider to break down the elements and take their time changing the bend and preparing each transition. As the horse’s balance and rider’s preparation improves we reduce the number of trot strides, still focusing on the rhythm of the trot in case the horse tenses or rushes. Eventually, the transitions and change of bend happen almost simultaneously. Only needing one horse’s length of trot over X means that the rider has to be accurate in their transition: there’s no point riding the downward transition too early so you either have more trot strides or you pick up the new canter lead before X. Neither of which are looked favourably on by judges.

So what appears to be quite a simple movement actually requires a lot of preparation and accuracy from the rider. From the horse, they need to be responsive to the aids, supple and balanced through the changes of bend and transition. I think it’s quite a useful movement for assessing a horse’s way of going as well as to check the rider’s understanding of the different aspects of the exercise.

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!