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Grass Reins

What are everyone’s thoughts on grass reins? Or daisy reins, or any other pony restraints? Which are competition-legal, and how should they be fitted?

Recently I saw a blog post on the BHS APC group, discussing grass reins, which got me thinking.

A child’s safety and confidence is paramount when teaching, so within reason, ponies should have tack that prevents misbehaviour. However, the purpose of grass reins, or daisy reins, is to increase the child’s control over the pony, not to force it into an outline or hinder the pony when they are working well.

In the first session on the first day of Pony Club Camp, I’m sure it was within the first five minutes, I requested some form of grass reins for a pony. We were riding on grass, and he kept nosediving for the grass. His rider looked nervous and sat leaning forwards, so every time the pony’s head went down she was almost unseated. I felt that it was counter productive for her to be struggling to hold his head up all week, and that a gadget would be the best support for my rider. The next session, the pony was wearing a daisy rein, and didn’t even attempt to put his head down. It was almost as though the mere presence of the daisy rein was enough to deter him, and my rider gained confidence through the week.

I was surprised to see, on the equipment list of a different pony club, that grass reins were listed underneath bridle and saddle. Are they really that common, and are they seen as an essential piece of equipment?

I’m all for using grass reins or daisy reins (side reins are sometimes seen too, but I think they’re becoming less popular because they sit at ankle height for many small children so there’s a risk of them getting their foot caught in a fall) if necessary, but I do like to see them only used when necessary. Perhaps only at rallies, or in group lessons, or on grass, when the pony is more inclined to be cheeky. I also like them fitted so that they don’t interfere with the pony’s way of going when he’s behaving. For example, the grass reins are slack until the pony snatches his head, either to graze, to try to unseat the rider, or to evade the wobbly hands. I hate seeing ponies with their heads tied in, particularly show ponies, and I think that sometimes having gadgets too restrictive causes other behavioural problems, such as the pony not going forwards or shaking their head.

Can you use grass reins for jumping? This was the question posed by one instructor. It seemed the general consensus, which I agree with, is that if the reins are fitted correctly, i.e. not restricting the pony’s head then they can be used for jumping because the height that kids who require grass reins should be jumping is not much more than raised trotting poles and the ponies don’t jump as such, rather make an exaggerated stride over them. I will add, that if a child is ready to start jumping bigger then their position should be secure enough that their hands don’t cause the pony to snatch on the reins (like many do when their mouths are used for balancing on) and their upper body secure enough that it isn’t pulled forward when the pony snatches, or they are strong enough in their core to prevent a pony from putting his head down to graze. So if a child is jumping more than a few inches whilst still wearing grass reins, either the grass reins need removing or the basics revised with the rider on the flat.

Another instructor asked what form or daisy reins or grass reins were permitted in competitions. Affiliated, none except for Pony Club mounted games, where the are fitted from the D-ring, through the bit ring, over the poll, and through the bit ring to the D ring on the opposite side. I guess in unaffiliated competitions it is at the judges discretion. You won’t see any gadgets in the show ring (the warm up is a different matter!) and probably not the dressage arena, but I think if I was judging kids on grass I’d permit correctly fitted daisy reins purely for safety reasons. In the showjumping arena, again the judge may permit it in the lead rein or mini classes for the reason that the ponies aren’t really jumping, and if it keeps a child safer then it can only be a good thing. After all, you want to encourage the little riders.

When fitting grass reins, you can either fit them so that they connect each side of the bit via the poll, as in the mounted games rules, or under the chin. I think I prefer going under the chin because a pony is more likely to snatch their head downwards, and putting pressure on the poll with the grass reins will accentuate that. However, when used with a single jointed bit, the nutcracker action may become too severe for some ponies. Which is why it’s worth experimenting with different types of gadgets, because there are hundreds of variations from the classic daisy rein or webbing grass rein, and their fitting options, to make sure that they only come into effect when the pony’s behaviour is deviating from acceptable, and that the pony doesn’t react in an untoward way to their action, nor is the fitting of the rest of the tack hindered – for example, I once saw a rotund pony wearing a daisy rein and crupper. The daisy rein caused the saddle to pitch forwards, so the crupper was needed to counteract this!

Starting Groundwork

I bought a book about schooling in hand a couple of weeks ago; the reason behind it is obvious now, and last week I started putting the theory to the test.

With the mare I lunged, who can be a bit stuffy and reluctant to use her hind legs efficiently, I warmed her up on the lunge in side reins, establishing the rhythm and getting her to trot with impulsion.

After a canter to help improve the impulsion and length of stride, I brought her back to walk and began playing with the inhand work.

Initially I just worked on getting the mare to halt and walk on when asked. It’s a simple concept, but it’s worth checking that you and the horse have a mutual understanding to begin with. It took a couple of goes for her to instantly stop when I stopped, and to wait until I walked on.

Next up, was some turn on the forehand. Once the mare was standing still, I stood near her near shoulders facing her quarters. I flexed her neck towards me with my left hand, and with the right hand tapped her left hind leg, just above the fetlock, lightly with the schooling whip whilst saying “round”. She lifted that leg in response to the tap and brought it slightly under her tummy.

Placing her hindleg under her body caused her to bring her right hind forwards and out, so swinging her quarters around her forehand. We’ve done this movement under saddle, so the mare is familiar with the procedure, but I felt it was important to work on things that she was confident with so that she could transition smoothly between work under saddle and work in hand.

As soon as I had a quarter turn on the forehand, we walked straight on and I patted her. We repeated the exercise a couple more times until she moved evenly and with bigger, more confident steps. Then I sent her out on the lunge in trot. The turn on the forehand had an instant effect, because the inside hind leg was more active in this trot.

After repeating turn on the forehand on the other rein, I kept her trotting on the lunge whilst spiralling her in and out. In a similar way to the turn on the forehand, the inside hind leg had to adduct to the body on the leg yield out, so improving the suppleness and strength of it.

With the mare looking a lot looser and working over her back, I decided to take a look at the rein back in hand. We do it under saddle, but this mare isn’t always very giving over her back as she steps back, so it would be interesting to see her rein back from the ground.

Because of her resistance to the rein back, I wanted to remove any rein aids. The lunge line was attached to the centre ring of the cavesson, so using that to help push her back will cause her to step back crookedly. Instead, I deviated from the book, and placed the schooling whip horizontally across her chest. Rocking the whip gently, so it pushed first her left shoulder then her right shoulder, so easily encouraging her to take symmetrical steps backwards. My right hand could tilt the whip so my left hand could keep the head straight. Because of the lack of pressure on her head, she relaxed into the movement and started shifting her weight onto her hindquarters and lifting her back as she went.

A quick trot on the lunge to find the forwards gear, and we tried again, this time she was more responsive to the pressure on her shoulders and took bigger strides backwards.

I wanted to progress to leg yielding against the wall, but when I started leading her, positioning myself by her shoulder, facing the quarters, left hand near the left side of her head and right holding the schooling whip, the mare rushed her walk and got tense. Obviously walking like this was strange to her, so I settled for just practicing the walk and halt transitions against the wall, with my body in the new position. When she accepts this and relaxes I’ll introduce the lateral work.

To finish the session, I did some walk on a small circle on the lunge, asking with the lunge whip for her haunches to move out on a bigger circle almost a shoulder in on the circle. So continuing the theme of the inside hind leg moving forwards and under the body. The side reins supported her shoulders so she couldn’t fall out through the outside shoulder. A few strides of this and then we had this fab, bouncy trot – she looked like she was floating! Again, I repeated this on the other rein before finishing our session.

I felt we’d covered a lot of different things, but as the movements are all in her repertoire, albeit under saddle, there wasn’t too much new information for her to process, just the concept of me standing on the ground. I could see how the in hand work improved her suppleness, which will help her ridden work.

And once I’ve read the next chapter, I’ll have a play at those exercises. You’ll have to wait for the next installment.

A Long Overdue Update on Matt

Matt’s story has all been very quiet since he fractured his stifle and had a trip to hospital, but last week he had his second lot of X-rays so I thought you might like to hear how he’s getting on.

I think I said in my original post – Which you can read here – that Matt was never very good at being stabled, particularly if his neighbours have been turned out and it’s a nice day. Middle of winter with all his mates in and he’s perfectly content.

Mum got organised whilst Matt was in hospital and ordered a calming feed, which seemed to have every calming herb under the sun in it. Matt’s been on this since he arrived home, and after a couple of days did start to settle down. Now he either got used to his new routine or the feed for into his system – who knows! Anyway, we’re sticking with the feed because it’s not worth taking the risk of him becoming stressed again.

Like I said, it took him a couple of days to settle into the routine, but he was still quite fragile, and easily upset when he saw other horses. He’s been in his usual stable, which is at the end of a barn, so he can’t see a huge amount. Textbook guidelines for box resting horses say that horses will be happiest in a quiet corner of the yard where they have activity to observe. However I think this is a case of knowing the horse, and doing what’s best for them. Matt doesn’t like seeing horses leaving him, so putting him out on the yard where he sees them coming in and out from the field will only cause him to box walk frantically, so I think the right decision was made to stop him seeing too much.

Obviously without visual stimulation to occupy him, there’s a higher risk of stable vices developing but Mum and her friends have been quite ingenuous in providing in-stable entertainment for Matt. Thankfully he’s never been prone to getting overweight, so he can have ad lib hay to graze through the day. Carrots have been hidden in his hay to encourage him to forage and eat. Matt also seems to like hazel twigs hung up, and soon strips them of all their leaves.

Between his long grooming sessions, clicker training, hanging likits and treat balls, his days are surprisingly busy. He also has a constant companion now because another horse is on box rest, which is also helping to settle both geldings.

Six weeks after his injury, Matt had more X-rays. This was to check the healing progress, and to see if he can start being walked out in week eight.

There was good news and bad news. Firstly, the fracture is healing well. Unfortunately, the fracture was worse than the original X-rays showed. Due to the large haematoma over the fracture site initially, the X-ray showed some faint lines spreading from the fracture. The vet wasn’t sure if they were diffractions from the haematoma, but on last week’s X-rays it’s clear that they were hairline fractures. This means that Matt’s box rest has been extended by a month, and he will have more X-rays in four weeks time, to see if he can start being walked in hand at twelve weeks. It’s a shame, but it could be worse and now the box rest routine is established it’s straightforward to extend it.

The first X-ray is from the time of the injury, and was taken at the surgery with the large X-ray plate on the outside of his leg, and the second image was taken six weeks post injury, but with the plate held between his legs as the portable X-ray machine was used at the yard. Hopefully you can see the fracture site clearly.

Matt has also had his shoes carefully removed because the fracture is stable enough that his leg can be flexed enough for the farrier to remove his shoes but he will stay barefoot now until he is ready to go out.

Changing the Bascule

Every horse and pony is put together differently, which results in a different technique when jumping. For example, some have a very uphill canter and engaged hindleg which allows them to jump with quite a steep bascule – like a pogo stick. Others, who have more of a horizontal gait, will prefer to take off a bit further away from the jump so their bascule is longer and flatter.

I don't think you should try to change a horse's jump technique too drastically, because you're then working against their physical capacity. However, it is always worth trying to enhance their ability and develop the muscles that will allow them to jump more effortlessly.

One of my clients has a pony who tends to get long in the canter on the approach to jumps and so has a very long, flat bascule. He is tidy with his legs, so the shape his body makes isn't a problem, but when he jumps off a long stride he lands long and flat, so it is tricky for my rider to rebalance themselves, or even turn for the next fence! My aim was to improve my rider's feel for a better balanced canter and teach him to hold the canter together on the approach to fences, which will help their landing and getaway.

The last couple of lessons we've used our warm up time to get a feel for lengthening and shortening the trot and canter. The purpose of working on lengthened strides was to teach my rider the difference between balanced, lengthened gaits and rushing or running onto the forehand. After all, they will need to lengthen the canter in jump offs and on the cross country course. We focused on my rider using his seat to encourage the bigger strides, and feeling that he still had a rein contact throughout.

Next, we turned to shortening the strides, or squashing the pony together to give it a non-technical term. It wasn't all about pulling the reins, but rather a series of half halts with the outside rein and a stiller seat. Oh, and lots of tummy muscles! Over the last few weeks, my rider has really started to get a feel for a smaller striding, bouncier trot and canter.

Now we have to link the flatwork to the jumping. Half of the issue comes from my rider not holding the canter together on the approach, and half of the issue comes from the pony preferring to jump long and flat. So I built a series of three bounce fences, which will encourage the pony to jump in a steeper bascule, and to get a little closer to the fence, as well as to be a little more careful and calculating about his jumping.

We used cross poles initially, and my rider held the canter together in a much more balanced fashion until a couple of strides away from the fence, and even then he didn't fire his pony to the jump. Where the jump wasn't that big, I think my rider felt happier keeping the steadier, smaller canter until the jump.

After they'd jumped a few times we discussed how the grid felt. One time, as my rider correctly identified, they met the first fence on a long stride so had a flat jump then the pony had to really adjust his body in order to negotiate the second and third element correctly. When they had a closer take off point, the grid flowed much better and each bascule was more even.

Their getaway from the jumps was improving because my rider could just sit up and rebalance the canter, instead of having a flat, fast canter and the pony on the forehand, which is far harder to correct. The pony was also more willing to come back to his rider. We also put in a 15m circle after the grid to ensure my rider carried on riding after the jumps, and didn't collapse in a heap after. This also helped the pony rebalance and refocus.

We progressed to uprights, which are more demanding for the pony because he has to pick up his forelegs quicker, and make an even steeper bascule. The first time, they tapped each fence as the pony was a little slow in tucking up, but the second time my rider could feel his pony rounding his back more, and they jumped through soundlessly as the pony was quicker with his legs.

My next challenge is to get my rider riding courses in a steadier fashion (I am of course battling against that boy, gung-ho mentality), taking his time to rebalance his canter between jumps so that his pony approaches in a more uphill canter, which will enable them to jump bigger more successfully and effortlessly. By being more consistent in their canter on the flat and when jumping will also help the pony strengthen these muscles, which will further improve his bascule and technique.

I am really pleased with how this young rider is taking on board all the technical information I'm giving him about how horses jump, and I hope that his understanding of our reasons for doing these exercises will mean he does his homework and will be consistent in how he rides, and what he expects from his pony.

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.