The World Equestrian Games

Has everyone been following the WEG competitions this last week? If I’m honest, I’ve not watched any, but plan to do a marathon catch up over the weekend. I have however, been following it all online.

I do have a couple of opinions about it to voice though.

Given that it’s the championship for eight of the FEI disciplines – combined driving, dressage, endurance riding, para-equestrian, eventing, showjumping, reining and vaulting – I have to say that there is disappointing media coverage on the non-Olympic sports.

Horse and Hound have dutifully written up about Team GB’s personal best in the reining, but that’s nothing compared to their social media posts about the dressage and event horses who passed their respective trot ups, and detailed analyses of each performance.

You can watch every discipline on FEI TV, but all other channels, such as BBC, Eurosport, H&C, provide extensive coverage of dressage, eventing and showjumping, with minimal coverage of the other disciplines. I hope Clare Balding references each discipline in her highlights show at the games.

I’m sure there’s financial reasons for not televising the disciplines where we aren’t so dominant, but equally with so much online TV available I’m sure with just a bit of promotion on social media, equine enthusiasts will be more aware of all the disciplines and be able to watch them. You never know, if a young rider watches, for example, the vaulting competition, that may encourage them to take up the sport as it combines their love of horses with their love of gymnastics. Which of course only benefits equestrianism as a whole.

My other question, or rather thought, about the WEG is why on earth are they holding it in North Carolina during hurricane season?

Unlike the Olympics, which are held circa the first two weeks of August, the WEG can be held at any time during the year. In 2014, the Games were held at the beginning of August in Normandy. So when Tryon was given the bid, why did they choose the hottest, most humid time of year to hold the Games? You only have to google the climate in North Carolina to see that it is extremely hot – red on the colour scale – from June until October. Then consider the North Atlantic hurricane season, which peaks from the end of August right through September.

As far as I understand it, there wasn’t a huge amount of interest, or funding to hold the WEG. Initially, it was given to Bromont, Canada in 2014 but then they pulled out due to not being able to secure financial support so in 2016 Tryon was announced as host. Ok, so they haven’t had that long to prepare for 68 nations and almost 700 horses to descend on them. Which may have led to them choosing the latter part of the year.

But surely if horse welfare is at the top of the FEI’s agenda, they would have come up with alternative plans. Either to use an alternate venue, or delay the Games to the early part of 2019. I honestly don’t think any of the athletes would have minded it being 4 1/2 years between WEG if it would have improved the competition environment. I applaud the owners of the Irish show jumper who refused to send their horse halfway across the world into potentially catastrophic conditions.

This leads me onto the debacle of the endurance event. First of all there was a false start, and then the race was disbanded due to the weather conditions. Imagine all that preparation, flying across the world, to participate in a failed, badly organised event. Then we hear that an endurance horse has been euthanised due to kidney failure from severe dehydration. What else has gone on behind the scenes that we don’t know about? How many horses and riders suffered from heat stroke and had to be hospitalised?

This morning, I woke to the news that the eventing showjumping and the dressage freestyle have been postponed due to Hurricane Florence hitting on Sunday. I know no one could have predicted the magnitude of Hurricane Florence, but given the fact that September always has at least one major hurricane hit the North American coast, we could’ve placed some bets.

I haven’t even touched on the outrage when it was revealed that the grooms accommodation consisted of dormitory style tents. Which is rather reminiscent of a scout jamboree. And doesn’t give the grooms the best chance of doing their job to the high standards the athletes expect and require. Let alone the fact that it’s hurricane season and let’s face it, those tents aren’t going to withstand the first gusts of Hurricane Florence! I know the infrastructure was only just finished in time for the beginning of the Games, so corners will have been cut somewhere but it seems the poor grooms suffered. I have also heard there were problems with arrival process and that feed and gear were confiscated and lost upon arrival, which hasn’t made it into mainstream media yet.

I think a lot of equestrians are, quite rightfully, upset with the WEG/FEI and the Tryon organisers for several bad decisions, and for not prioritising athlete welfare. Apparently the discipline sponsors offered to relocate the event at their own expense because they were so concerned about equine welfare, but the FEI insisted on continuing with Plan A.

So then I wonder if perhaps the equestrian championships aren’t better being held individually, or in small groups. I mean, each discipline has different requirements so in order to accommodate all of them a lot of money and work is needed by a host. Which perhaps leads to a lack of interest in hosting the WEG as a whole. If it was broken down again, so dressage and para-dressage was held on one week, at one suitable venue, and eventing at another time and place you’d have far more willing hosts because it’s not such a massive undertaking so is more viable, and the championships could be held at the time of year most suitable for that discipline. Which would lead to better horse welfare, happier athletes, happier spectators, and hopefully more successful championships.

I think it’s a case of watching this space, and seeing the fallout that the Tryon WEG has on the FEI as a body, and in the future format of the WEG and championships because we, as equestrians, have a duty to our horses to learn from this fiasco.

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Phoenix’s Progress

It’s been a few weeks since I updated you on Phoenix.

We did very well at our first competition, so I decided to keep the ball rolling and enter another dressage competition at the same venue three weeks later. The blips in our first competition were due to her competition inexperience so I felt she needed her horizons broadened.

The second competition had far better trot work: more consistent and relaxed but unfortunately the canter work didn’t reflect her recent canter work at home. I was really disappointed about that, but then had to remember that we scored highly for the transitions, an area I’d really been focusing on. After all, it’s one big learning curve for her.

Since then, we’ve had a a quiet couple of weeks. It’s continued to be scorching hot and the ground hard, so hacks have been mainly walk with the odd trot in the woods where the ground is softer with mulch. I’ve been hacking in the jump saddle to help her acclimatise to it, as she wasn’t convinced by my change in balance when it was first fitted to her. Now, I’m pleased to say, she’s as comfortable in that as she is in the dressage saddle.

Phoenix has really proven herself to be excellent to hack; she took some persuasion to cross the narrow byway bridge a few weeks ago, but now she’s got it sussed and confidently leads over it. Last week she waited at traffic lights and walked through some roadworks without batting an eye. I feel that our relationship has become stronger so I can push her out of her boundaries and she trusts me more. When the ground softens I’ll be able to test her in an open field, and go on a sponsored ride, which whilst I’m disappointed I’ve not been able to have a good canter out on a hack I know that this foundation work is excellent for both her manners and our relationship.

I’ve taken the opportunity to introduce lateral work on our walk hacks, zigzagging along the road and field. Phoenix is definitely understanding the idea of sideways, and is maintaining her rhythm and balance as she leg yields in walk nicely.

Unfortunately the sand arena has become very dry and deep. Sand is usually a good surface to work on, but when it’s dry it is very hard work for the horses. This means, especially when it’s very hot, I’ve been doing a lot of walk work in the school and riding field. Transitioning between free walk and medium walk, working on getting more of a stretch. Halt transitions, and decreasing circle sizes. Yesterday I was playing around with turn around the haunches and turn around the forehand, as well as some leg yielding on the slope. Recently, I’ve done very little canter work, pole work and jumping in the school as I don’t want to risk her legs as she develops muscle and tendon strength. After all, she’s building new muscle and fitness which she’s never had before so I don’t want to make it harder for her.

Last week Phoenix had the week off because I was teaching at Pony Club camp, but when I rode on Saturday we picked up exactly where we’d left off. Having a horse who didn’t need a full daily workout was one of my main criteria, and this is the first time she’s had a week’s holiday, so I was really pleased she’d proven herself to me in this way.

The following day we hired a showjumping course. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t jumped her for eight weeks, Phoenix jumped everything perfectly. We didn’t jump too high because of the heat and her lack of jumping fitness, but she ignored the fillers, and jumped more solid fences, and less inviting fences than before.

Hopefully with this week’s rain I can start doing more pole work and jumping at home with Phoenix, as I really want to get back to improving the canter and jumping. But the weeks of walk and trot work hasn’t been wasted as we’re closer to perfecting the core basics, which will help all her future work.

This week Phoenix also had a massage. I felt she’d been tight for a couple of weeks. A combination of working harder, increased muscles, and the ground conditions I think. Anyway, she thoroughly enjoyed her masssge, which found some tight spots in her shoulders (which have bulked out a lot) and over her hindquarters, which is just because she’s using them more and has bigger muscles there.

I’ve not got any more competitions lined up. You never know, the ground might improve enough for us to go cross country schooling! But I’m keeping my eye out for some clear round showjumping as I feel that now she’s ready to jump some small courses in more of a show environment. If I can’t find anywhere, then I’ll hire the showjumping course again. Then I think in September we’ll try another dressage competition when hopefully our canter won’t let us down!

Phoenix is still barefoot, and coping really well. My farrier was pleased with her feet when he last visited, only needing to shape them slightly. I feel she’s really changed shape as her fitness has improved, so I’m keeping an eye on the saddle fits and making sure that as soon as I feel any tightness in her ridden work I get her massaged so she is most comfortable and able to perform to her best.

Whips

I guess it is a consequence of Ollie Townsend’s infamous whip use at Badminton but there is now a group of leading equestrians doing some research on whip use in equestrian sport.

If you have chance, do the survey – https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/whipuse

I completed it last week, and it made me stop and think about whips. We take them for granted, and many rider’s use them but do they know why they’re carrying them?

I’m not against carrying or using a whip; for many horses the act of carrying one improves their attentiveness and respect of the rider’s aids – particularly cheeky ponies!

I always tell clients that the whip is a secondary aid, therefore it’s used after other aids, and it is used to back up the leg aids. For the beginner or novice rider, if their horse ignores the leg aid twice, I then recommend the whip is tapped firmly behind the leg. Some riders prefer to have 3 leg aids, some only one – each to their own as long as they’re consistent. For children, often a whip is a useful accessory to prevent them flapping their legs around like windmills as their pony is often more switched on. I encourage my little riders to think about when they want to carry the whip. For example, they may want it for flat work when the pony is switched off, but once they’re jumping choose to drop it because the pony is more forwards and it’s more clutter for their hands when going back and forth into jumping position. If I find a child to be a bit whip-happy, I will happily take their whip away until they’re riding more correctly and politely.

I think it’s so important to understand and respect the whip. After all, horses can feel a fly land on their body, so will be acutely aware of even the lightest touch of the whip.

The survey asked some questions about what you use a whip for, and had some options that I hadn’t thought of. Firstly, is the obvious use that I’ve described above – to back up the leg aid. Usually to help a horse go forwards, but also to help them move sideways.

Secondly, when working the horse in hand. Does this include lunging? But yes, when working a horse in hand a whip is the extension of your arm so you can manoeuvre the horse laterally as well as improving the activity of the hindquarters by touching the hocks with the whip to encourage more flexion. To an extent, you can carry one when leading a horse. I would have thought you’d only want to carry one if you had a horse who dawdled and dragged behind you. By encouraging a more forwards walk with a flick by the hindquarters, you can lead from the shoulder, where you’re far safer. But using a whip in this situation is only temporary as it’s no longer needed once the horse has been taught to lead correctly, and I do find that horses then stop walking straight, as they bow their bodies away from the whip, so it isn’t a long term solution.

Thirdly, to make the horse focus on their job. Well, yes you could argue that a child on an idle pony carrying their whip is using the whip to improve the pony’s work ethic. I don’t agree that tapping a horse when they’re losing concentration helps. You’re better off improving your schooling tactics to prevent the horse becoming distracted. I’ve also seen horses who have been on their line to a jump, been momentarily distracted but when the rider taps them with the whip they change their rhythm, lose their line, and don’t jump as well as if the rider had just used the voice, leg or hand to regain their horse’s attention.

The survey also asked if carrying a whip made you feel more confident. I had never associated carrying a whip with feeling confident. I’d be interested to know what other people’s responses were to that question. I can sort of see how people, especially those who view equitation as the rider dominating the horse, feel more confident carrying a whip.

It also made me think about when I carry a whip. If riding a new or unknown horse would I automatically pick one up? I don’t think so. I’d either discuss with the owner as to whether I needed one, take one to the ménage in case I needed it (then forget it and leave it there for a week or two …) or go without, sweat buckets and vow to carry one next time!

I think picking up a whip is about knowing the horse. Will it benefit your work to carry one? Will it help keep you safe – for example preventing a horse from napping on a hack? Or will the horse be tense because you’re carrying one and they’re a bit whip-shy? And maybe most importantly, are you likely to misuse the whip either by forgetting the leg aids or by getting cross with your horse?

I look forwards to reading about their findings on the general populations understanding of using a whip, why and when people choose to carry one, their knowledge of competition rules regarding whips, and whether these rules need changing to protect horses.

Improving Balance Around Corners

I saw an exercise online last week and modified it slightly to help a client who’s pony tends to motorbike around corners.

Using one corner of the school, I laid out three trotting poles on the track. There was 4’6″ between the centre of each pole, which also conveniently also lay on the track my rider had made.

We worked on both reins with the poles laid flat until they were trotting around the corner easily, making the distance between each pole comfortably. Initially, the pony found it difficult to bend and increase her cadence so drifted through the outside shoulder. My rider had to use her outside rein and leg to support her pony through the turn and maintain the support for longer as they came out of the turn. She also found that if she used her inside rein and had too much bend through the neck, they drifted out more and found the exercise harder. So it was a good way of reminding my rider of the correct rein aids and contact.

Next I built up the trot poles into cavaletti, however I only raised the inside of each pole. This was to discourage the pair from falling in around the corner and to improve the activity and strength of the inside hind leg.

As the pony had to put in more effort over the raised poles she started to drift out around the corner, but the fence helped my rider correct this and as the bend developed through her whole body so she began to find it easier and stayed more balanced throughout.

With the abdominals now switched on the trot improved generally and the mare had a good stretch over her topline.

We moved on to riding a canter transition just after the poles to start working the canter. The more active trot helped the transitions have more energy and the subsequent trot was looser so their trot poles improved further.

Now finished with the trotting poles, I converted them to canter poles and after cantering through once started to raise them. This pony tends to motorbike more in canter, so the raised poles were even more beneficial at improving her balance and bend through the corners. They also stopped my rider leaning in!

The canter became stronger, balanced and more three time because the inside hind leg had become more supple and was stepping under the body more.

I was really pleased with the improvement in the quality of the trot and canter due to the trot poles, and my rider could feel how much more balanced they were around the corners which is great for developing her feel. She’ll now know when she gets it right and can strive to replicate the feeling.

I wanted to see how the poles on the corner helped their jump, so I walked two canter strides away from the third pole and put up an upright. As expected, the mare backed off the first time, but from then on she jumped it beautifully. The poles kept her really balanced and her hocks engaged so that the bascule was neat and my rider could feel the lift through the shoulders, and generally felt that the jump was more scopey and powerful. I then reversed the exercise so they could do it on the other rein. Hopefully this exercise will help them create better corners around a jumping course and with time ride tighter turns whilst staying balanced which will help them stay clear whilst against the clock. I just wish I’d taken a photo of the exercise!

A Cross Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking Up Their Feet

Sometimes horses can get a little complacent when jumping and become a bit untidy with their legs, either knocking poles or only just scrabbling over the fence.

To quickly remind a horse that they need to be smarter with picking up their feet over fences; tucking them up neatly and quickly, I like to work them over bounces.

Last week I wanted to combine the bounces for this purpose, with also reminding one mare to sit on her hocks more in the canter. Equally, I wanted her teenage rider to see the benefits of improving in this area for jumping larger fences.

On the three quarter line I set up three bounce fences. The first and third were only a foot high, but the middle bounce was about 80cm. The focus of these three jumps was the centre one, but the first fence improves the cadence in the canter so the bascule over the middle jump is cleaner and more efficient. Then the last fence encourages the horse to sit up and focus on landing, and not to run away on the forehand.

After working through the bounces on each rein, I added in the final oxer across the diagonal. I put this up to 95cm initially but then rapidly raised it to over 1m. The bounces set up the canter so all my rider had to do was maintain it round the corner to the oxer.

This mare can sometimes back off bigger fences, or give a wiggle on the approach (sometimes changing her canter lead too) so it’s not the smoothest or most confidence giving of rides, but the first time they rode the whole exercise at the bigger height (managing to keep left canter, which is her weaker jumping canter) the approach was smoother and the canter more balanced. Which lead to a whopping jump! I think the mare thought it was 1.10m, because she gave it plenty of air and was very neat with her legs over it.

Typically, I only got the second attempt on camera, in which they lost the left canter but when my rider corrected the lead they still had a better quality canter and approach to the jump. The mare looked more confident on the approach and didn’t back off in the slightest or try to change her lead.

The bounces make a very simple warm up exercise prior to jumping a course and has almost instant results because the bounces tell the horse how to canter which can help teach the rider what the canter should feel like.

An Intensive Grid

I gave a couple of horses and riders a good gymnastic workout a few weeks ago.

It was a grid of 3 bounces, followed by one stride to an upright and then two strides to an oxer.

The three bounces encourage the horse to be neat with their legs and quick over the fences, and he needs to be gymnastically very supple and fit to be able to do the three bounces successfully.

However, after the third jump, the horse needs to travel with a good length canter stride in order to reach the bigger upright. If a horse finds the bounces physically challenging then they tend to struggle to make the distance to the upright, and end up chipping in. Then, the horse has a larger oxer to negotiate, when they are starting to tire. The upright jump requires a similar shapes bascule as the bounces, but the oxer requires the horse to take off slightly further away and make a longer bascule so that the horse clears both the front and back rail of the oxer. The change in bascule over the fence is physically demanding of the horse, so requires a high degree of suppleness and gymnastic ability.

However, because the bounce fences have improved the quality of the bascule and encouraged the horse to engage their abdominals and “round” the canter strides so improving their cadence the horse will usually make a more correct shape over the larger two fences and feel more confident over the bigger jumps. The pony in the video below is only 14hh and before Christmas found 80cm jumps tricky, and frequently chipped in before jumps, but the oxer here is just over 1m and he cleared it comfortably and confidently, as well as keeping a very good, positive canter throughout the exercise. If anything, he makes the jump look small.

I did this exercise with a horse who tends to get very long in the canter while jumping. The bounces improved his technique and made him shorten his canter, which meant that over the last two fences he didn’t get so close and had enough time to tuck up his forelegs.

In a smaller arena a few days later, I took out the upright fence in order to fit the grid in, which actually made the exercise a bit harder because there was no gradual lengthening to the canter and bascule. Instead, the 14.2hh horse has to go from a short, neat pop over the bounces to a longer, bigger fence which involves a bigger adjustment to their body so requires more suppleness. This little horse managed the exercise really well, and due to the bounces improving her canter she cleared 1.10m in a very neat and confident way.

Breastplate Research

Recently some scientific studies have been published which discuss the negative impact on a horse’s jump.

Fairfax, who are famous for their pioneering girths which gave British riders an advantage at the 2012 Olympics, have published the research describing how a breastplate shortens the shape a horse makes over the fence, so that they land more steeply thus putting more stress on their joints. You can read about it in more detail Here.

Obviously Fairfax have developed a breastplate which is far superior to all others on the market. At a price, of course. Now, unless you are planning on remortgaging your house to purchase this ultimate breastplate, let’s have a look at what other options there are.

Breastplates are used to help stabilise the saddle and stop it slipping back. They’re most commonly seen on eventers, who due to their high level of fitness are rather streamlined, almost herring gutted, which encourages the saddle to slide towards the croup.

If your saddle slips backwards the first port of call is to get it checked. It may be that the make of the saddle isn’t best suited to your horse’s conformation, but equally changing the girth may have an impact on the movement of the saddle. You can also use gel pads or non slip pads under the saddle which can help stabilise the saddle. Phoenix came with such a pad, so when I get the saddler out I’ll make sure I take that with me so the saddler can assess if I’ll need it with my saddles and take it into account when he fits the saddle.

I think with any piece of tack, you only want to use what you need. So if your saddle stays still when you’re jumping or going cross country then don’t weigh yourselves down with a breastplate. The same goes for martingales for that matter.

There are a few options with regard to designs of breastplates and breastgirths, and I think it’s so important to consider the horse’s conformation when choosing one.

I tend to feel that if your horse needs a martingale then it’s a good idea to combine that with a breastplate in order to reduce clutter, but otherwise I’d look at breastgirths.

Horses with large shoulders tend to have trouble with saddles sliding back, but the ironic thing is that large shoulders tend to make fitting breastplates difficult. Which was exactly the problem I had with Otis. Initially, I had a hunting breastplate which worked well when he was a youngster, but as we started jumping bigger and getting more serious, I found that the hunting breastplate wasn’t so effective at preventing his saddle from sliding backwards and it encouraged the saddle to sit a bit low at the front.

From there, I tried the V-check breastplate, hoping that the elastic would provide more freedom through his shoulders, but the angle that the straps came up from the centre of his body caused the saddle to drop at the front again, which I think made it harder for him to use his shoulders over jumps and when galloping.

As I needed the breastplate to have a more gentle angle, I looked at a five point breastplate. This one I was most happy with. The sheepskin pads and girth attachments helped reduce the downwards pressure at the pommel, so I felt there was less pressure near his sternum and point of shoulders.

As well as the research done by Fairfax about breastplates affecting jumping, I think it would be more interesting to use the biomechanics technology to see the effect that different styles of breastplates and breastgirths on horses of a variety of stamps – for example, warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and cobs – has on their jumping and where the pressure points are. After all, it would be lovely to be able to had a breastplate which only puts pressure on the horse when needed, but we can’t all justify the price tag, and indeed not all horses are super fit eventers. However it would be great to educate the average horse owner in the pros and cons of different style pieces of tack so that we can do best by our horses.

To Boot Or Not To Boot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sticking to Your Line

One of my clients proudly told me of a jump exercise he’d successfully done in one of his school riding lessons. I’d seen it doing the rounds on social media but hadn’t got as far as utilising it. I had a different exercise in mind for his lesson that day, but at the end I moved the jumps so he could demonstrate the exercise.

Today, however, I decided to use it for another client. This pony is quite crooked, although getting straighter, so this exercise would be a real test for him and his rider. On the flat my rider rode lots of counter flexion on the left rein to stabilise her outside rein and to maintain control over the outside shoulder, which the pony tends to drift through. Getting him straighter meant that his hindlegs were more effective at propelling him along, leading to a more uphill canter and to my satisfaction, the pony reaching forwards to the contact and maintaining his nose on the vertical; stopping him tucking behind the bridle is another area that we’ve been working on.

I laid out three fences, two canter strides apart at the middle of the poles. However, each jump was angled at slightly less than forty-five degrees in alternate directions. A bit like a zig-zag.

Starting with poles on the floor, pony and rider cantered through off each rein, focusing on staying central to the poles and keeping a forwards canter throughout. When he’s unsure, this pony tends to chip in in front of a fence, so providing him with angles to jump will also test his confidence.

My rider couldn’t feel any real difference between the canter leads when the poles were on the ground. Her pony took her into the exercise nicely, maintained the rhythm and stayed straight. I suspected that the right rein might be easier to maintain straightness, but it was nice to see no discernible difference with the poles.

I built the first fence as a cross pole and they jumped it normally first of all, so approaching perpendicular to the jump. This was to make sure the pony was in jumping mode and that he was approaching in a confident, balanced canter with plenty of impulsion. He was really on the ball, almost taking a long stride, so next up they rode straight through the exercise with the first fence as a cross.

The cross guided both pony and rider, and they negotiated it from either rein competently, still staying straight throughout.

We built the second jump, and then the third, which was when the difficulty started to show. Because the pony had to make more of an effort over the jump he was more likely to drift, particularly coming off the left rein.

By now my rider could feel that she was having to work harder on the left rein to keep her pony straight. This was partly due to the fact that he drifts through the right shoulder, the left canter is weaker, and I angled the first fence to encourage the pony to drift right. Not that I’m mean or anything!

Now that we’d identified the weakness in the exercise we spent some time on the left rein. Firstly, my rider had to ride a squarer turn onto the exercise to ensure her pony started straight. Then as she jumped the first fence she had to open the left rein and close the right leg to maintain her line. The exercise was lined up so that the letter F was in the centre of the fences, to give my rider a visual marker. For anyone wondering over the logistics of the letter F and the location of three fences, it was a 60x40m school and we worked on the long side!

I also placed a guide pole between the first two jumps to help the pony land straight and reach the second fence in the middle rather than at higher right side. After a few goes through the exercise it was flowing nicely. The distances almost looked short because the pony was maintaining such a nice, forward canter and making a good bascule over each fence. Where they were staying straight, he didn’t change canter leads, and they had a good takeoff point for each fence.

To finish the lesson, I made the three jumps uprights, which took away their visual aid, and where the pony had to put in more effort, we’d see if he really was carrying himself straighter, or else he may revert to drifting. If he did drift, then the distance would get longer so he’d find he had to stretch for the second fence.

They jumped it beautifully off both reins. The pony made such a good shape over the fence and looked very confident. My rider noticed that she needed to be slightly quicker to sit up between the fences to help correct any drift, but otherwise they were very straight and made the exercise look easy.

The exercise can be made harder by reducing the number of strides between the fences, and making the angles more acute. However, don’t be too quick to up the difficulty level because it’s surprising how the angled fences will highlight a horse lacking confidence and prone to running out, or drifting over fences, and a rider who doesn’t commit to their line and ride positively down it.

Below is the demonstration video from another client. If I’m going to be really picky, he over shot the centre line which set them up for a slight wiggle through the exercise. But through riding his line and keeping a lid on the canter, this rider managed to limit the effect of overshooting the corner very well.