One Year On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space!

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Tight Nosebands

So I’m a little late to the party with this topic, but I didn’t have time to read, digest, mull over, and think about the Open Letter to World Horse Welfare on the 26th November 2018. When I did have time, I’d lost the article and didn’t have time to find it and blog about it.

But voila, here it is. Hopefully it was worth the wait.

Firstly, I’m going to direct you to the original article, that is the Open Letter, which was shared on social media last week. The link will take you to the renowned Dr David Marlin’s Page (you can thank me later Sir, for your sudden influx in popularity) where you can read the article.

The World Horse Welfare recently covered the delicate yet very current topic of noseband tightness in sports horses. The letter is basically correcting a few misquotes and clarifying statements, but let’s start with the subject of tight nosebands.

I think the equestrian world has become conscious of the issue about how tight a noseband should or could be in the last couple of years, especially as more and more bridles are moving away from the traditional fit and more down the micklem route, highlighting the importance of avoiding facial nerves. I think this has had more of an impact on the amateur riders. The leisure riders. The riding club level riders. These are the people who’s horse is their best friend, a member of their family (go on, admit it you’re signing those Christmas cards love from, then a list of human and fur members. In order of preference, with the human child at the end? Yep, you know you do!). These horse owners want what’s best for their horse. They read magazines, articles online, chat to friends and on forums learning about new equipment and advances within equestrianism. They then buy or trial said item and are converted. Yet I’m disappointed in that the professional world is slightly behind the times. Think about it, not that long ago in Horse and Hound they covered a story about a racehorse (Wenyerreadyfreddie) who races in a micklem bridle. Everyone was aghast. How many professional riders do you see in non traditional tack, even that which is FEI legal? Very few. Charlotte Dujardin rides in either a cavesson or a flash noseband snaffle bridle and the lower levels. Not that I am saying that she has over tight nosebands, I’m just using her as an example to the fact that the higher echelons in our sport are very much traditionalists. A quick look at eventing and showjumping royalty shows a similar trend towards flash and grackle nosebands.

So my first question, is why is there such a difference in tack preference between amateur, lesser qualified riders, and professional, top level riders? We’re all privy to the same information on scientific research, so why are leisure horse owners seemingly so much more open minded to tack, and especially nosebands, which differ from tradition. Of course, if your horse works at their best in it’s traditional noseband then there’s no need to change things, but you can’t tell me that not a single horse on a professional’s yard would benefit from a bridle which reduces pressure either around the nose or poll. Perhaps they need to take a leaf out of Nicky Henderson’s book and experiment to find a happier horse.

One piece of research showed a positive correlation between the tightness of nosebands and the number of oral lesions in competition horses in their post performance tack check. I can quite believe this, but I think it would be a more substantial piece of evidence if a wider range of horses were considered, such as leisure and riding school horses, along with information on their usual tack and its fit (some horses may be ridden in a snaffle for the majority of their training, just wearing a double bridle for test preparation and the competition), their age, and frequency and type of work. After all, competition horses tend to be more highly strung, sensitive, and given the pressures of the competition environment possibly more at risk of developing mouth ulcers, or lesions. As with any piece of research, including the recent stats about Oxbridge being socially exclusive, stats can be skewed and need to be read with open eyes.

The letter also addresses the lack of standards in sample size and getting a cross section of equines from all disciplines, levels of competition or ridden work so that it accurately represents the equine population. This will only change if we, as readers, question research and the quality of their samples, and demand higher standards in equine research.

The crux of the letter, and the most important subject to reflect upon, is what appears to be the World Horse Welfare’s reluctance to accept the taper gauge, which is a standard measure used at competition tack checks, to ensure fairness to all competitors. After all, we fit cavesson nosebands with a two finger gap between that and the horse’s nose. But the width of two fingers on a petite woman is significantly smaller than that of a tall, strong man.

You can view the taper gauge here.

Claims were made that the taper gauge was involved in an incident where a horse got loose at a top international competition, but these were found to be misleading. As far as I can see, from my reading, competitions could do with a quiet area for tack checks, and to somehow try to reduce the tension in the environment while they’re being done. That would hopefully reduce the risk of a horse panicking and bolting, as in the example in the letter. Perhaps more time needs to be devoted to tack checks so they are less hurried, and grooms can remove fly veils with less haste so are less likely to dislodge the actual bridle. Or the tack check is in a small enclosure, so a loose horse doesn’t pose a risk to the rest of the competition. I don’t know the logic in organising this level of competition, but I believe it’s an area which can be improved.

Returning to the subject of taper gauges. In order to fairly measure the tightness of nosebands you must have an objective and standard method. Of course, some horses will take a dislike to a green thing near their head, but in my opinion it is the duty of the owner or rider to introduce the gauge at home, so that the horse is used to the measuring procedure. After all, they can be purchased for a mere ten pounds. Combine this desensitisation process with tack check stewards being trained to safely approach and use the gauge to minimise risk to all involved, and the necessary post competition tack checks should be safe and fair to all competitors.

As with everything in the media, there are ulterior motives and deception, which have certainly been highlighted by this Open Letter from the ISES, so whilst equestrian sport is moving in the right direction in terms of equine welfare, we still have a lot to do to persuade the powers that be to move from their antiquated pedestals and embrace the changes.

Four Faults

I’ve got a little anecdote to cheer you up on a dreary Friday.

You know those lovely properties with long drives and electric gates? Well it’s not a problem entering, you just hop out and type in the code then the gates open and you drive out. When you leave, the gate sensors recognise you’re a car a open automatically.

However, when you’re on a horse, it’s a different story. For some gates I’ve had a little key fob which I just press to open the gates. Some I just get on after going through the gates. For others I have to rely on being let out and then just get off to key in the code and get back in. One horse I walk right up to the keypad, lean down to enter the number, and hope no cars roar up behind us on the road!

Last week, I saw the nanny in the house before I went to tack up one of the horses I ride out. I asked her if she could let me out when I had gotten onto the drive. Or avenue, as it it lined with trees. However, as I was tacking up I decided to swap the stirrups over as I hadn’t been able to get them just right. This took me a few minutes and as I let myself out of the stable block onto the drive, I could see the large iron gates were already open.

The horse I was riding is lovely, but on the way out on hacks his mind does tend to be on his stable and dinner. When we’ve had a trot and canter he’s up for it. Anyway, we ambled down the drive and, when we reached two thirds of the way down, the gates slowly started to creak shut!

With a couple of pony club style kicks, we broke into joggy trot, closing in on the gates… as they closed just in front of our nose!

“That’ll be four faults for a refusal!” shouts this voice behind me, accompanied with a laugh. Two gardeners had put down their tools to watch me race to the gates! The rather portly one, still laughing, made his way slowly to the large iron gates. Of course, he couldn’t open them from the inside but somehow (and I repeat somehow) he squeezed between the wall which the gates are affixed to, and the wooden fence bordering the property, and went round to the other side of the gates, and typed in the code to let me out. And let himself back in in the process.

I’m glad I provided them with a couple of laughs, but I’m also very glad they were there because I don’t think I could face the embarrassment of going back to the house to ask to be let out!

Hopefully soon I’ll have authorised access to open the gates from my phone, which will make life far less complicated. First world problems, eh?

Continued Professional Development

In order to be part of the BHS coaches scheme, and have insurance, there are numerous hoops we have to jump through: such as child protection and first aid courses every couple of years. Which is why I was off relearning about CPR, defibrillators, and recovery positions today.

I’ve just seen an important announcement from the BHS this evening, saying that from January 2019 all accredited coaches must attend one CPD course a year. CPD stands for Continual Professional Development, and the idea of them is to encourage instructors to show an interest in expanding their knowledge, following advances within the industry, and to improve their skills. We used to have to do them every couple of years, and I think it is good to continue to expand your knowledge, even in your field of expertise. After all, you never stop learning.

Yet, I’m not sure that annual CPD courses will go down well with many coaches. For a number of reasons.

The BHS pays for our first aid and child protection courses, but we have to fund the CPD courses. These usually cost in the region of £60, but vary according to the type of training, and the trainer taking the course. Now most coaches are freelancers. Which mean that we don’t just take a day off to go to a CPD course; we have to rearrange our work onto different days (so long as the client can accommodate this) or lose out on that work. Which means that not only are we spending £60 on going on the course, we are also losing a day’s wages. Let’s say that you lose sux hours work in a riding school to go to the course. That’s a minimum of £60 wages you don’t receive. This is a minimum based on hourly rates which I’ve seen around the country. If you are self employed and lost a day’s work you are likely to be £100 out of pocket.

Additionally, a lot of the CPD courses aren’t local, and involve an hours commute. This brings in motor expenses of the best part of £10 each way.

It’s becoming expensive isn’t it? Not only are we spending in the region of £80 on attending the course, but we are losing out on wages in the region of £80.

I’m not saying that we don’t want to attend such courses, as we all like to learn, but I wonder if there’s a better way to do this. One that is more affordable, and more easier fitted into our busy working lives. For example, I go to relevant CPD days every couple of years, to tick the boxes for my APC (Accredited Professional Coaches) membership, but on a weekly basis I read articles, books, magazines, and talk to friends in the industry to share ideas and experiences. None of which technically counts as CPD, but all very much improve my knowledge and allow me to give the best lessons I can to my clients.

The variety of courses which count as BHS CPD days has increased over the last couple of years. Two years ago I struggled to find a course which was relevant to my level of training (as an AI looking to become an II) and less than two hours drive away. Now, courses like the Horses Inside Out day that I attended count. This means that we can expand our professional knowledge in a sideways fashion – looking at equine biomechanics, saddlery, and rider psychology for example, rather than purely coaching.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but perhaps CPD should be assessed with a variety of options, so that coaches are encouraged to develop their knowledge whilst being flexible to their busy working lives.

My thoughts are that over a calendar year a coach needs to amass a certain number of CPD credits. For example, a full day course could be worth 60 CPD credits, which is enough for each year. Then there could be a selection of shorter courses, or online webinars (perhaps similar to the evening talks by Gillian Higgins running in 2019 of which attending three talks counts as a CPD update) which could be worth 20 credits each. These evening talks would be on a variety of topics; lorinery, saddle fitting, dental health, vet talks, alternative therapies.

Having cheaper evening talks would be more doable for many coaches, as the cost of training is split over the year, and it’s flexible to their working week. With a variety of different subjects to choose from, you are more likely to inspire and motivate coaches to attend and learn. They will also not be losing so much work to attend an evening talk for a couple of hours so it is not as financially crippling.

I guess there would be a bit more paperwork in order to keep track of a coach’s CPD credits, but if the system is simple enough of three evening talks being the equivalent to one all day course, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of it, and I think the majority of coaches would prefer shorter CPD sessions to the intensive full day courses.

Having looked quickly at the BHS website I couldn’t see a CPD day which is at an appropriate level to my qualifications, in the south of England, so I will just have to hope that something else is organised which is of interest to me and that my professional life will benefit from. I’ll keep looking, and hoping that the BHS works out how to implement this new ruling without upsetting too many coaches.

A Centre Line Exercise

At the moment I’m focusing on Phoenix’s canter, in particular stopping her hindquarters drifting out on the canter transitions, so earlier this week we used a centre line exercise to help improve the strength of her hindlegs, balance and straightness. It’s an exercise which is harder than it looks, so build it up slowly.

Canter is an asymmetric gait, being three beat, which can lead to horses becoming crooked in the canter, or relying on the fence line to prop them up. Cantering a straight line down either the three quarter lines or the centre line, will show you if your horse is crooked or relies on the fence. If they’re crooked, you’ll drift off the line and if they rely on the fence, then the quality of the canter will decrease and they’ll fall into trot. In order to be able to use this centre line exercise to full effect, it’s worth perfecting cantering straight lines in a consistent rhythm on both reins first.

When cantering the outside hindleg is the propulsion leg, yet in trot the inside hind is the propulsion limb. Which is a reason why it’s quite difficult for horses to ride rapid sequences of trot and canter transitions; they’re having to change their propulsion leg and change their balance between left and right, which utilises their abdominals and tests their balance.

Bearing this fact in mind, you should start to understand how the following exercise helps improve the canter transitions and impulsion in the canter.

On the right rein, pick up right canter and then turn down the centre line at A. Between D and X, circle right. If you’re unlucky enough to have a 20x40m school this is a harder element than in a wider school because your circles are smaller. Maximise your space on this circle to help keep your horse as balanced as possible.

After the circle ride a few straight strides of canter. After X ride a transition to trot – without wobbling off the centre line – and before G ride a ten metre circle left. This circle needs to be smaller than the canter circle in order to be effective. At C, track right.

So, in right canter the left hind leg is the propulsive limb, so if a horse is a bit crooked in the canter, or slightly on the forehand than they will lose the energy from the left hindleg in the downwards transition – it won’t be as an efficient propulsive – and find it difficult to trot a left circle, where that limb is on the inside and propelling then forwards. The exercise improves the straightness in the canter, keeps that hindlimb engaged throughout, and so improves the quality of the gaits.

Ride the exercise a few times on each rein, and you should start to feel the difference in the upwards transition because the horse’s propulsive limb is acting towards their centre of gravity and they are straighter. So long as they stay straighter, and stronger in the canter they will be able to make the transition to trot and stay balanced on the trot circle, which can get progressively closer to the downwards transition to become more of a balance test.

I could feel Phoenix thinking, and staying much more with me in the downward transition, being less inclined to drop slightly onto her forehand, and she definitely stayed a bit straighter when I went up to canter. Interestingly, I did this exercise with a much more established horse a couple of days later and he really struggled. He’s a big moving horse, and tends to drift through his outside shoulder in canter and avoids stepping under with his hindlegs so throws himself into a big trot on the forehand in the downwards transition and so finds it difficult to circle almost immediately, and ends up falling in. I’ll be taking it back a step with him this week to improve the basics before putting this exercise back together again.

A Scale of 1 to 10

I’ve been playing around with transitions within the gaits recently, to improve my riders’ feel, to increase the subtlety of their aids, to improve the balance of their horse and the quality of the gait, and to focus the horse on its rider.

It’s quite a useful warm up exercise so once you’ve loosened up horse and rider, settled their brains and they’ve settled into a trot rhythm, you can begin. It’s equally useful in the canter work too.

The trot a horse and rider are currently in is gauged as a 5. It’s important that the horse’s natural, or most comfortable stride length is in the middle of the scale. Which means that you can’t really compare the 5 trot of one horse, with the 5 trot of another. Especially if they are at different levels of training, as they have different levels of strength and balance. This also means that the 5 trot for one horse will change over time, as they get stronger and are more able to take their weight onto their hindquarters so the trot will naturally collect and become more elevated.

Anyway, I digress. I tell my riders that they need to think of their trot as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Valegro’s piaffe and 10 being Totilas’ extended trot. And no, spellcheck I did not mean the extended trot belonging to a tortilla…

Obviously none of the horses I teach are capable of a 1 trot or a 10 trot, but having a picture of the two extremes can really help a rider understand the exercise and its aims.

So, from their 5 trot, I ask the rider to try and create a smaller trot; a 4 trot. Depending on the level of rider and horse, their 4 trot may only be minutely more collected than their 5 trot, or it may be a significant change. They may only be able to maintain their 4 trot for two strides, or I might expect them to hold it for the length of the long side of the arena. Once the transitions between a 4 trot and a 5 trot have become fluid and subtle, we move on to transitioning between a 5 trot and a 6 trot. Again, only adjusting the horse’s trot within his capabilities, and only maintaining it for as long as he is able. When established, the fun begins and we play around between the three numbers of trot.

Because we’re talking about a sliding scale of trot, it then becomes easy for me to direct the rider. For example, “let’s see some 6 trot down the long side … back to 5 … how about a 4 trot on a 20m circle…”. Within a short space of time we can work through dozens of transitions because numbers are so quick to say and easily comprehended.

I can then begin to help them with their understanding of the various trots – collected, working, medium and extended. For example, if they haven’t really lengthened the trot strides into a 6 trot, a lot of people understand the line “ooh that’s only a 5.5, can you squeeze him all the way into the 6 trot?” rather than a description of stride length, cadence and tracking up. And when they’re more accomplished at this exercise and we’re moving towards Novice level dressage, we can utilise the 3 and 7 trots on our scale and we can then label a 7 trot as medium trot.

I find that using this scale of trots improves a rider’s feel for their horse’s balance, and encourages them to ride progressively between the various trots. In Novice level, the judge is looking for a progressive transition from working trot into lengthened strides. At Elementary level, the transition from working to medium need to be more direct. So with a Novice horse and rider, we’d think of riding from a 5 trot, into a 6 trot for a couple of strides, and then into a 7 trot, before back to a 6 trot and then a 5 trot at the end of the movement. With an Elementary horse, we’d be aiming to ride from a 5 trot straight into a 7 trot and back again. We can also use this theory for their canter work, and then with the Elementary horse, the collected gaits.

When riding transitions within the gaits, riders suddenly have to become more discreet and subtle with their aids so that they don’t unbalance their horse, or ride into a different gait. To shorten their trot, they need to begin to use their seat and not rely so much on the rein half halt as that is too strong and they risk falling into walk. The rider also becomes more aware of the need to apply some leg, even in a downward transition. To lengthen the gait, the rider becomes more aware of the need to maintain a steady rein contact when applying the leg and seat to push the horse on. Overall, I find riding micro transitions refines a rider’s aids, and the horse becomes more attuned to them so is more responsive. Along with improving their feel for maintaining the tempo, the rider becomes more aware of the activity in the hindquarters, and of their horse’s balance, both in their ability to maintain that particular trot and their weight distribution between hindquarters and forehand. This leads to an unconsciously ridden, better quality working trot.

Feeding Breakfasts

One of the biggest logistical things I’ve noticed on DIY livery yard’s in the winter is the fact that everyone’s morning routine varies according to what time they start work. Which means that it can be quite stressful for horses waiting for breakfast or turnout.

Many yards I’ve observed have a rule that the first person on the yard feeds the entire yard. Which reduces the stress in horses when their neighbour is being fed and they aren’t. However, in order for this system to work several things need to be taken into account.

Firstly, feeding breakfasts needs to be done as quickly as possible. After all, the first person on the yard doesn’t want to spend fifteen minutes trying to feed the hungry horses, because they’ve got to go to work too. So every livery owner needs to prepare their feeds the night before and leave them dampened or soaked ready to be fed straightaway.

Secondly, feeds need to be stored so that they’re readily available for the half asleep early risers, clearly labelled, yet not left on the yard for cheeky ponies to help themselves when their small owner’s backs are turned, or left to encourage vermin.

Thirdly, everyone needs to know what time breakfast is. After all, there’s nothing worse than turning up for a quick pre-work ride only to find your horse has only just had breakfast. One way to reduce this risk is to give your horse a smaller ration in the morning, and their main hard feed in the evening if you usually ride in the mornings. And vice versa if you ride in the evening so you don’t have to wait as long in the cold and dark while they cool down and eat their tea.

Some yards leave feed buckets outside stables, covered with plastic covers. Which has the risk of attracting vermin, and being eaten by horses not tied up securely. Plus on windy days the covers blow across the yard. Other yards leave feeds in boxes outside stables, which can be time consuming opening any locks and lids.

I’ve spent a long time pondering the most effective way of implementing a “first one feeds” system and recently came across the best solution yet.

On the yard is a metal dustbin with a securely fastened lid, which is vermin and naughty pony proof. If the yard is bigger, then there is one bin per row of stables. Each horse is given a breakfast bucket, which is of a generous size to accommodate the larger feeds of the thoroughbreds, has two handles, and most importantly they are stackable. The yard provides these buckets so they can ensure that they are the correct dimensions. Each horse’s name is written on in very big, thick, black letters so the buckets can be easily identified in the half lit, early hours.

When livery owners make up feeds they fully prepare breakfast (damp or soak the feed) and put them into the bins, one on top of the other. Then when the first person arrives on the yard they go to the bin and take out the stack of buckets and then walk along the row feeding each horse. A super speedy way of satisfying hungry horses early in the morning without waking the neighbours, or on a Saturday morning when recovering from a heavy Friday night.

The only way that this system could be improved, in my opinion, is by the buckets being stacked in order; so you give the top bucket to the first horse, second to the next, and so on. However, with everyone coming at different times during the day, there would be a lot of lifting buckets in and out of the bin, and there being a high risk of a mistake being made when restacking, you’d need to check the names on the buckets as well, just in case.

What other systems do DIY yards employ to make feeding breakfasts a painless task? I’d be interested to know of a better system than this.

This Week’s Circle Exercise

Phoenix and I did a really useful exercise in our dressage lesson this week, which I subsequently used for some lucky clients and found it to be really useful.

In trot, ride a twenty metre circle at A on the left rein. Once the circle is established, at X ride a ten metre circle on the right rein, before continuing on the larger, left circle. Repeat a few times and then on the other rein.

The horse needs to stay balanced through the change of rein and onto the smaller circle, so you’re looking for the rhythm to stay consistent. This is a good suppling exercise for your warm up, but is also useful for checking your aids because if you use too much inside rein your horse will lurch onto their inside shoulder through the change of bend.

Now that the exercise is familiar in trot, it’s time to add in the all important canter transition. As you exit the ten metre circle, and rejoin the twenty metre one, ask for canter. You should find you get a very active, snappy transition with a good quality canter.

Now here’s the reason why.

Let’s say we’re asking for left canter. In the strike off, the right hind leg steps first, and then the diagonal pair of left hind and right fore steps forward before the left fore and then the moment of suspension. The right ten metre circle engages the right hind leg, as it’s the inside one, so when you return to the left lead the right hind leg is under the horse’s body, and then they really utilise it during the strike off, which is why canter feels so much more powerful and correct.

All of the horses and riders I used this for had a straighter transition and had a cleaner change of gait, and were less likely to drift into the canter so it was a more established three beats. Riding the transition after a change of bend and away from the fence line also meant that the riders had to be clear with their aids and the horse responsive to them.

Improving Joint Stability

Remember I went to the Horses Inside Out conference in September? I’ve recently used yet another exercise that I picked up from that informative day, to help improve stability and flexibility.

At the conference, we learnt that whilst it’s important to improve the flexibility of our horses it’s also important to consider joint stability. If we only focus on our horse’s suppleness in one direction then the joints lose stability because the muscles around the joint in the other directions are weaker, which makes the horse more prone to injury from hyperflexion.

By working horses in a variety of ways and directions we improve the strength and range of movement of their limbs. Lateral work is perhaps the most obvious way of increasing a joint’s range of movement.

In the horse’s legs, it is only the shoulder and hip joints which are capable of adduction and abduction of the limbs, so this is the area of focus in lateral work.

The idea of this exercise, which can be done ridden or inhand, is for the horse to move their legs forwards and sideways with each stride. Having a pole to negotiate ensures each foot is moved cleanly. For the horse to abduct a limb it requires balance, and core stability. A bit like the balance exercises we do in Pilates. This week we did one which involves standing on one leg and sending opposite hand and foot diagonally out, akin to doing the jive. With our eyes closed! But it hurts the outside of your thighs!

Lay out a line of three or four poles, end to end in the middle of the arena. Walk your horse towards the end of the first pole, so that the pole is on their left. Then ask your horse to walk forwards and to the left so that their left foreleg steps over the pole first. Their left hindleg is the first of the hindlimbs to step over the pole. That part is very important!

So the left limb bends as it’s lifted and then the abductor muscles at the shoulder and hip lift the limb away from the horse’s body before replacing it to the ground. The abducting requires abdominal strength and balance in order to keep the rhythm of the walk. Once the horse has crossed the pole you can ask them to step right across the next pole.

If they find it difficult, then the horse will turn their body so that the limb furthest away from the pole will step over first (if the pole is on their left, the right leg crosses first), which means the horse isn’t actually doing any abducting of their limbs, and are almost serpentining over the poles.

You can place more demands on your horse by getting them to cross the pole more frequently, say after three walk steps. This requires more balance, strength and joint stability. You can also raise the poles by using potties or cavaletti cubes. Below is a video of the exercise when I tried it with Phoenix. I could only raise my poles by jump blocks so had to accommodate them in the exercise. Hopefully it is clear enough to give you an idea of how to do it. Next time, we’ll be trying more poles and using cavaletti cubes to raise them.

I’ve used it recently in a couple of lessons with horses coming back into work, or who are a bit tight over their backs, and when they’ve been trotted afterwards, their riders’ have felt the improvement in their way of going as they’ve all looked looser over their backs and swinging more in their stride.

An Accuracy Grid

One of the horses I teach with has a tendency to drift slightly through grids. It’s not noticeable over single fences, and has vastly improved through doubles, so I wanted to test his rider’s accuracy to ensure she wasn’t allowing him to drift around courses.

I began with setting up a two stride double, with tramlines to focus both horse and rider on straightness. We kept the fences as cross poles too, to help them get central.

Once they were riding through the fences comfortably, I began to ask the questions. One stride before the first cross, I added a skinny fence. With no short poles, I had to use a barrel. This meant that the pony might back off the skinny jump, as well as trying to dodge round it. However, as it was the first fence in the grid my rider could set them up in a controlled, balanced canter and focus on her accuracy and the cross poles would follow naturally.

As predicted, the pony backed off the barrel fence, chipping in a little stride, so his rider had to ride positively to prevent him squeezing in three strides between the cross poles. They repeated it a few more times until the pony stopped backing off and felt more confident.

Next, I added a second skinny barrel jump at the end of the grid, one canter stride away from the second cross pole. As this question came up rapidly after the cross jump my rider couldn’t have a lapse in concentration through the grid or else her horse will have either drifted past the skinny, or will chip in a second stride. She also needed to pick up on any slight deviation from straight.

They jumped the first three fences neatly, straight, and on the correct stride. However, they drifted slightly right through the grid which gave the horse the perfect opportunity to slip past the last jump. The next time, my rider corrected their line throughout the grid, by opening her left rein and using her right leg. Because the horse was less able to circumnavigate the skinny fence he chipped in a stride, so disrupting the flow of the grid.

To overcome this, my rider had to recover quicker from the cross poles, and ride forwards and positively to the barrel fence to give her horse the confidence to take the distance on one stride. It took a few tries, and they only managed it from one canter lead, which suggests we have work to do on their weaker canter lead. Which fills my next couple of lesson plans!

Adding a skinny into a grid keeps horse and rider switched on, and ensures the rider doesn’t become a passenger once they’ve entered the grid of fences. It highlights any drifting by horse or rider, and by working on both canter leads you can see if there’s any asymmetry. For example, if a horse is stronger with their right hind leg then they will push more with that limb over the fence so the horse will always drift left over jumps. However, this horse drifts fractionally right in right canter but drifts significantly right in left canter, suggesting that the cause of his drift comes from the fact his body is crooked to the left, which is exaggerated in left canter so drifting becomes more apparent.

The grid can be made harder by removing the tramlines and converting the cross poles into uprights to make it harder for horse and rider to stay on their line. You can then remove the wings from the barrel jumps to make it easier for the horse to run out. If you can negotiate that in a fluid and confident manner then you know you’re riding straight and accurately!