String Vests

We went out for dinner last night with friends, and I have to wonder what other diners thought as they heard us discussing the credentials of string vests.

Can everyone remember the old fashioned cooler rugs? Which were basically a string mesh? Copied closely on the string vests worn by the working class in the 1960s.

I can remember a friend of mine having one for her pony. We were about eight. Even then I couldn’t understand how the rug worked to prevent a horse getting a chill as he dried off after a bath or hard workout. It was more hole than string. Of course, now I know that my friend was missing a vital piece of the jigsaw – the top rug that trapped the air to the horse’s body.

The science behind it is simple, and it must work otherwise humans wouldn’t have worn string vests for as long as they did.

The mesh creates pockets of air, which when a top rug is applied, are trapped between the horse’s skin and rug. As the sweat or water on their skin evaporates it transfers heat from the skin to the air pockets. Air is an insulator, so heat is trapped close to the horse’s skin, thus preventing them developing a chill, which they would if cold air was next to their skin.

Modern day fabrics, going back to humans, are just glorified string vests but the weave is closer together. Sweat is channeled out through the holes, and the remaining fibres trap the warm air next to your skin. Modern fabrics combine the string vest with a top layer, which means that these types of clothing are fully functional without the need for the top layer.

Thankfully for us equestrians, who perhaps don’t always understand the science and forget the importance of the top rug, the manmade fabrics that are so popular with athletes, are also available as cooler rugs for our horses.

I was surprised, when I did a bit of research, about the fact string rugs are still available to buy. But I guess it’s because we equestrians evolve slowly, and really if you’re listening to the logic behind them then it is sound – and why change from something that works?

Does anyone still have a string cooler rug? Perhaps stashed away in the garage. Or perhaps you still use them regularly?

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.

The Number One Rule of Feeding

What's the number one rule of feeding? Which one do you place the most importance on?

For me, it has to be that horses should be fed little and often. It applies to horses of all sizes and workload, and can lead to a whole host of health issues if they do not have food moving through their digestive tract.

Horses have evolved to graze for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, therefore they are trickle eaters. Having small amounts of fibre at each stage of their gut helps regulate peristalsis which reduces the likelihood of colic, prevents stomach acid splashing up the lining of their stomach acid, causing ulcers, and means that they are most efficient at digesting their food and extracting the nutrients.

Even obese or laminitis horses require almost constant access to fibre. However, they should have fibre with very little nutritional value, such as soaked hay or straw. Unfortunately, too many people starve laminitis horses, which can lead to them developing stomach ulcers.

I also feel that there is a psychological benefit to a horse or pony having a semi-full tummy all the time. You know how ratty you and I get when we're late home and dinner is subsequently late. And we can reason why we're hungry, and when our next meal will be. Horses can't, so it stands to reason that when they are hungry they are more likely to bicker between themselves, and to be less tolerant of us – nipping whilst being tacked up, fidgeting whilst being groomed, for example. I think a lot of bad behaviour on the ground stems from horses being uncomfortable in their digestive system. Sometimes they're a bit gassy and bloated, but more often than not they're hungry. If they were to develop stomach ulcers, this also leads to negative reactions when their girth area is touched, which some people believe is naughtiness.

Horses and ponies who are starved for periods of time, or had their grazing restricted with a grazing muzzle for example, have been shown to gorge themselves, managing to take in as much grass in the short time they are unrestricted than the longer period that their intake is limited. Which is why it is recommended that ponies who need a muzzle wear it in the paddock during the day, but are stabled with a quota of soaked hay overnight, to prevent the gorging behaviour.

My reason for bringing up this subject is that last week I was involved in taking a young client to Pony Club Camp, which gave me a parental insight into the week.

I was disappointed to learn that the ponies did not need a haynet during the day. They were to be tied up in the barn; ridden for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, with a two hour lunch break in between. During this week the ponies would be working far harder than in their usual day to day lives, but their anatomy is not designed for them to go without food from 9am until 4.30pm. Yes, there is a risk of bickering in the pony lines with food, but surely if every pony had a small haynet and were tied at a correct length of lead rein, far enough apart, there would be less of a problem than when they're hungry and irritable. I would have also thought that they would perform better in the afternoon session because they were happier and had more energy.

Each evening, the pony I was involved with went out into his paddock and gorged, so he was bloated the next morning. This can't be good for his digestive system!

I felt it to be quite ironic that the children are taught correct pony management, and there is both a mini and a big badge all about the rules of feeding. At some point the children are going to realise that they aren't following the rules of feeding, and will question it. This leads to a mental internal battle, and unfortunately a lack of respect for their instructors and mentors. Which is a shame.

I think it's a case of "do as I say, and not as I do", which I don't think is the right attitude for any educational environment, and one that I certainly didn't appreciate when growing up.

Some Good Advice

I've bought myself a new book, to expand my horizons and further my knowledge, about ground work. It's called Schooling Exercises in-hand and, from my brief flick through it seems to explain how to execute lateral movements from the ground well.

In the introductory chapter, however, is a verse by Rudolph Binding which I thought was worth sharing.

The horse is your mirror.

It never flatters you.

It reflects your mood.

It also mirrors your changes.

Never get annoyed with your horse,

For you can just as well get annoyed with your mirror.

In a nutshell, this verse means that you should never allow negative emotions to surface when around your horse because the horse will recognise the tension and negative energy so will perform badly. Likewise, having a positive frame of mind and positive body language will subconsciously praise and reward the horse, leading to him performing better.

Self-control. One lesson that horses teach us, as well as the ability to recognise when you are not in the right frame to work your horse and instead treat him to a good grooming session or go for a relaxing hack.

Let’s Talk About Laminitis

Laminitis is mostly associated with spring, and sudden flushes of lush grass, but recently I've heard of a few cases which have been triggered by other causes. Which led me to thinking that a blog post to educate my readers would be very useful.

The most common cause of laminitis in the U.K. is caused by obesity and overeating. Horse owners can be naive, and a lack of knowledge, peer pressure, pressure from feed companies, and unsuitably rich grazing can cause laminitis. Native ponies, who are the most common victims, evolved on sparse landscapes, so can actually live off far less than we realise.

Another cause of laminitis is toxaemia. This is when a systemic disease where the body is poisoned or infected (such as sepsis), such as pneumonia or post colic surgery, triggers laminitis. Unfortunately, in this case the laminitis won't improve until the disease is treated successfully.

Trauma, or mechanical, laminitis is caused by a physical external factor. That may be fast work on hard ground, or prolonged jumping on hard ground. Incorrect shoeing, or incorrect or prolonged poulticing can put pressure on the sole, which can lead to the laminae separating. Unfortunately I've have to mention to a couple of clients recently that I'm not happy with the way their horse is shoe because the hoof-pastern axis has been altered so I fear it is putting pressure on the tendons, ligaments, joints and tissue within the hood capsule.

If a horse has a non-weight bearing lameness they will shift their extra weight onto the opposite limb, so putting more pressure down the leg and risking laminitis. I knew a horse who had fractured his forearm, and was in a Robert Jones bandage for eight weeks in cross ties. There was talk at the time of the risk of stress laminitis in his good foreleg, but thankfully he was okay.

Iatrogenic laminitis is when corticosteroids are used to treat a horse, perhaps as injections for arthritis or tablets for viruses, and trigger laminitis as a side effect. If you've ever had your horse injected with steroids the vet should have told you very clearly that there is a risk of laminitis. This may mean that alternative medication is seeked, particularly if your horse is already prone to laminitis.

Most recently, experts have started linking laminitis to Cushings, or PPID. This sort of laminitis is linked to a hormone imbalance caused by a tumour on the pituitary gland. Many older horses develop PPID, which is why when a horse gets older you should become aware of the risk of laminitis and adjust your management routine and feed accordingly, because even horses who are just on the brink of having PPID could succumb to laminitis for no obvious reason. I recently heard of one older horse, who doesn't have any clinical signs of Cushings, developing laminitis as a result of being given steroid tablets for a cough. Now whether the laminitis was brought on by the steroids, although I'm pretty sure he'd have had steroids before in his life, or whether he was more susceptible because of his age and hormonal imbalance, you can only hazard a guess. Either way, it must be a very frustrating position to be in.

The final trigger of laminitis is stress. That is, overworking an unfit horse, undertaking long journeys in extreme weather conditions. I'm not quite sure how laminitis is triggered, but I guess that the stress causes too much ACTH to be produced which then upsets the hormonal balance, as with a Cushings horse, and then it is that which causes the laminae to become inflamed and to separate.

The experts still aren't sure how laminitis really occurs, but I'm sure new research and scientific advancements means that we'll get the answers soon and so be able to successfully prevent laminitis across the whole population.

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.

The Crest Flip

We discussed the crest flip at dressage camp, and last week the following video came up on my social media.

The Crest Flip Demonstration

Now, camp seems a long time ago, but I'll endeavour to remember what we discussed.

The horse I was riding finds it difficult to connect through his body, back to front, and where he "cheats" and just holds his neck, he had developed an enlarged muscle one third of the way down his neck – where the trapezius inserts. We worked on releasing this knot of muscle by getting him to flex his head and neck, so releasing the muscles in his jaw and neck.

From above, I could see that an inch section of his mane insisted on falling left, which was where the tension was held.

When I managed to release those muscles, I was rewarded with that inch of mane flipping over to the right, to join the rest of his mane.

I had never heard of the Crest Flip before, but I've been keeping my eyes peeled for it on other horses.

When is it Too Early?

When you learn to ride, and a lot of your time riding as a child, is focused on you. Are you sat correctly, are your reins short enough, are you balanced. But at what point should you start to be taught about the horse's way of going?

Last week my Pony Clubbers swapped rides for one lesson, and I asked them to describe the new pony they were riding. I didn't expect references to the Scales of Training or much technicality, but I was interested to see what their thoughts were:

  • "Faster walk"
  • "Bouncier trot"
  • "Longer steps"
  • "Slow" and, my personal favourite,
  • "She makes my bum wiggle round the saddle".

Just having an awareness that different ponies feel different to ride improves kids as riders because they'll be more sensitive if they ride new ponies, and think about how much leg they apply, or ride some walk-halt transitions to get a feel for the pony before heading off into trot. It will also make them appreciate aspects of their own pony, and unintentionally help them improve them. Perhaps if they ride a lazy pony and then experience a more forward thinking pony, then they will become more efficient, and more receptive to advice, with their aids on their pony so that it becomes more off the leg.

Sometimes with beginner riders you need to slow their physical progress a bit; to allow them to build up stamina, or muscle. Or to give them more experience in each gait. We all know people who try to run before they can walk. This is when I think it's really useful to introduce an awareness for the horse's way of going and to begin to improve it. I've just started teaching this teenage boy on his Mum's cob. He learnt as a child so our first lesson was all about finding the long lost muscles and reintroducing concepts like steering and trot diagonals.

However today, I didn't want to push him much more physically, by working without stirrups or cantering, because I felt he needed to improve his fitness or else he won't enjoy riding because of the associated fatigue.

Last lesson we worked on the correct aids for transitions, so today I asked him to think about how the mare felt in the transition, and where the power was coming from. He soon identified, although he didn't know the correct terminology, that she was on the forehand.

Just be tweaking the way he rode the upwards transitions, i.e. Having fractionally more positive rein contact to feel that he was containing the energy, he began to feel that she was pushing herself into trot from her hindquarters more.

Then we started to pay more attention on whether the trot felt horizontal, downhill or uphill. Were the shoulders level, lower or higher, than the hindquarters. Soon my rider was really aware of the balance of the mare in the trot, and as it changed on turns and circles. Once this awareness has developed you can use simple transitions and basic school movements to improve the horse's balance and the rider can begin to think for themselves about how the horse is moving and hopefully start to act upon their feelings.

We worked on some transitions within the trot to help improve my rider's feel for the trot. There wasn't much change, but it was enough for him to feel the mare fall into and out of balance, and by the end of the lesson she was working beautifully; staying nicely balanced, off her forehand, and seeking the contact forwards and down so her topline was engaged. Which just goes to show that with a quiet, balanced position and told the basics about how a horse should move, even a novice rider can improve a horse's way of going, which can only be of benefit to the horse. It's never too early to start thinking about the other member of the partnership.

The Spirit of Pony Club

This last week, the essence of Pony Club has really become apparent.

The kids adored their ponies, smothering them in hugs, kisses and praise. They've all improved their riding, and confidence. Most notably, the fact that they all galloped up the hill competently. With shrieks of laughter and face- splitting grins.

But I think my proudest moment of the week, and one which really showed how important the supportive spirit of Pony Club is.

We were doing the Handy Pony competition on Friday, where the children are timed round an obstacle course. One of my riders has an ex-driving pony, who wouldn't go near the flags or poles. So at the beginning of our competition, I said to the rest of the ride "because Corky doesn't like Handy Pony very much, would anyone be willing to let Freddie ride their pony for his round?"

Instantly, all their hands shot in the air as they generously offered their ponies to their friend. I was slightly taken aback, and initially slightly concerned Freddie would choose a sharp pony, but he chose the reliable camp-pro, and did the Handy Pony with minimal assistance, whilst having great fun.

I was very proud of the whole ride in the way that they supported each other, and how willing they all were to help each other out and give each other a good experience. After all, this is the reason we go to Pony Club, isn't it?

Pony Club Dressage

It was our dressage competition this afternoon at Pony Club, and the children and ponies were beautifully turned out – diamanté plaiting bands, sparkly quarter marks, big cheesy grins. The lot.

I have to say, that they all did me proud. They all stayed in the arena, cantered in the right place, and had some semblance of circles. I was very proud of all of them!

For a bunch of seven year olds, this test was pretty tricky. And I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Pony Club. There's a PC walk and trot test, which is pretty slow and sedate, and once kids can canter fairly competently they need pushing, as well as inspiring to take flatwork a bit more seriously. Now, my kids can all ask for canter at a corner, trot at a marker, and stay fairly balanced. So I didn't want them to do the walk trot test.

The alternative Pony Club test we had, however, is the grassroots test. This is quite a steep jump from the walk and trot test. Let me list some of the movements – I know the test well enough after having read it numerous times for six riders and judged another five on it.

  • 15 m circle on both reins at E and B in trot.
  • Half 20m circle between E and H to between M and B in free walk on a long rein.
  • Trot K to X then X to G. Halt at G.

This is pretty tough isn't it?! The rest of the test was fairly straightforward with centre lines, canter large, change of rein E-B, transitions at and between markers. How many of you reading this would be able to ride an accurate 15m circle? Or a half 20m circle between markers?

I had quite a lot of trouble getting my little riders' heads around the test. The circles were either too big or too small. Or sausage shaped. And the half circle was more of a straight line. The fact they navigated it at all in the correct gait was an impressive achievement to me.

This test is actually used at the regional dressage and eventing championships, so I understand that it needs to be challenging.

But what I'd quite like to see from the Pony Club is a set of training dressage tests, aimed at kids. Which are designed to encourage them into dressage. When a test is complicated and they don't score highly, they lose interest. Surely, it would be in equestrian's best interest to have a selection of tests which are prelim level, but clearly understood by children, and focusing on building their confidence, knowledge, attention to detail, and the basic flatwork building points. If the layout of the test is less complicated for them to think about, they will be able to focus instead on riding into their corners, sitting up tall, and keeping their pony in a rhythm.

Movements such as 20m circles, simple changes of rein, progressive transitions, serpentines. Nothing tricky, but everything encouraging. Then perhaps more Pony Clubs would run small competitions and rallies, particularly aimed at the younger members, and children would become more enthused by dressage, instead of it being seen as the "boring bit".

I just think that making simple dressage tests that do include canter, would stop dressage seem like such a daunting prospect for the little ones, and thus strike an interest as well as improving their riding.