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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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!

A Staircase

I did this little gymnastic exercise with a pony and rider last week. The pony has a strong shoulder and on the penultimate stride to fences drops his forehand, which isn’t a huge problem at the lower levels, but now the jumps have started getting bigger we’ve noticed he isn’t jumping so cleanly. When the pony drops onto his forehand, he unbalances his rider so he collapses through his core and gets in front of the movement.

I’ve done a lot of grid and pole exercises with the pair to help break this habit. Last week’s exercise built on the bounce grid from last week.

I laid out four canter poles, nine foot apart, and had the boys cantering steadily over the poles, checking that they maintained their rhythm and didn’t rush. Because we’re working on the pony not dropping his forehand in front of the fence I’ve been using short distances with them. This encourages the pony to stay uphill in the canter and to sit on his hindquarters, which helps improve their jumping technique.

With the canter starting to improve just over the poles I made the last pole into an upright, about a foot high. So it was more of a raised pole, but because I hadn’t adjusted the distance the pony had to adjust his canter in order to increase his bascule over the raised pole.

Next, I made the third pole into a foot high upright, and raised the fourth pole to about two foot high.

We progressively increased the heights of the poles until the second pole was eighteen inches high, the third pole roughly two foot three and the fourth pole approximately two foot nine.

The first pole acted as a placing pole, still nine foot from the second pole. I didn’t need to alter the distance between the second and third poles, but I did lengthen the distance between the third and fourth jumps so that it was a generous ten foot. This is closer to a bounce distance, and the pony needed more space between the bigger fences.

The purpose of this exercise is to improve the pony’s front leg technique, so he tucks his forelegs up quicker and more neatly. It stops that dropping feeling before a fence, so the pony is utilising his hindquarters, and his rider gets a better feel for a good jump.

The exercise itself is physically demanding, but it helped the pony get used to jumping with his hindquarters underneath him. It also ensured that his didn’t land to heavily on his shoulders, which meant he landed more lightly and so the overall quality of the canter improved as it became more uphill.

A slightly easier version of the staircase, which I used with a different client, has one canter stride between each jump, rather than being a bounce. It still got the horse thinking, cantering more uphill and picking up neatly over each fence.

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.

Two Years

It’s been two years since the vet told me Otis would never jump again, and a year since I stopped fighting and admitted his retirement. I’ve stopped choking up about it now, and am just glad to see him a few times a week in the field; happy, healthy (except for the dodgy foot), and enjoying equine company. Things happen for a reason, and if my riding time was cut short with Otis, it was so that I got to meet Phoenix.

I saw her advertised as a five year old two and a half years ago. If I’d had the gift of foresight perhaps I’d have bought her then. But I wouldn’t have been able to devote as much time to either her or Otis, nor had my time with Matt and won the dressage championships. Things happen for a reason, but I’m very happy with how well Phoenix is fitting in with my lifestyle and how she is everything I wanted from my next horse but highly doubted I’d find.

After almost a week off over the bank holiday weekend, she was foot perfect in the arena, producing some of her best trot work. I can feel the improvements in her every day and she tries so hard to please. The following evening she and I went for a lovely peaceful hack on our own, and it began to feel like hacking Otis. At one. Except for the levades before a canter. You don’t need to learn that Phoenix!

Then yesterday we boxed up for some showjumping practice. She didn’t even hesitate as we walked up the trailer ramp, and travelled perfectly. Once there, she was a total pleasure to unload and tack up, then waited patiently while the baby had her food.

Last time, Phoenix had been very wary of the water tray and I hadn’t made an issue of it, so this time I led her over it a few times before mounting and walking over it. Once I’d ridden over it twice, she understood. She cantered over it as part of the course, and maintained this confidence when I made it into a jump.

With the other fences, I build an array of sizes and for the first time placed fillers under some jumps. After a couple of warm up fences I took her round akin to a competition. She felt confident and calm; was very rideable around turns and followed my lines. She had a couple down but that was due to babyness – her canter isn’t that established so she can’t adjust it to reach the fence perfectly, and then needs some practice in getting herself out of trouble.

The double took a couple of tries to perfect. I needed to adapt my riding as I kept forgetting I didn’t have the power in the canter. She needed to travel more than I initially thought. But she tried, and put in a long jump over the second element until I got my act together.

I wanted a horse who was well behaved to take out, and she definitely is. She’s patient with the baby; waits quietly on the yard if I have to go and feed or change her. Doesn’t spook at the pushchair, and ignores the crying. To handle, she’s perfect; I’d happily let a child groom or lead her. With assistance of course! And most of all, I feel like I have a relationship with her. She trusts me, and I know exactly what makes her tick, and how to instil confidence in me.

I just feel very lucky that I’ve had ten years of education with Otis, and learnt so much from him, whilst enjoying every minute, and now I can take my knowledge and impart it to such a worthy successor.

Change of Perspective

More and more I find myself looking at horse riding and equestrianism from a parent’s perspective.

I think there will be a lot of pressure on Mallory to learn to ride. People will presume that she loves horses and is good at riding because I do it for a living. I’m determined not to push her into horse riding. Of course, she’s already having plenty of exposure to horses and already smiles in pleasure when one breathes gently over her. She strokes their noses and wraps her fingers around their manes. I sit her on them, but I fully intend to be led by her. If she wants to have a ride then I will arrange it, and happily teach and encourage her. If she is serious about learning to ride then that’s the road we’ll take.

The way I see it, if Mallory is into horses then we’ll have plenty of mother-daughter time. If she doesn’t, she can have father-daughter time while I have pony time on my own!

Let’s assume she does take up horse riding. What do I want her to achieve with this hobby?

It would be fantastic if she was the next Nicola Wilson, Charlotte Dujardin or Jessica Mendoza. And if so we’ll support her on her competitive journey. But if not, she’ll be just like the rest of us.

I want horses to teach her respect for others. To care for an animal and the responsibility which comes with it. I want her to benefit from the exercise involved in caring for horses and riding; to get the fresh air and keep fit. I want her to find a best friend in an equine, to help keep her sane during her crazy teenage years when she won’t want me so much. Horses will also allow Mallory to meet and socialise with people from all walks of life: and the ability to strike up a conversation with anybody is a very useful skill.

I don’t mind whether Mallory wants to jump bigger and wider than is good for my heart, or wants to piaffe down the centre line. She can choose to compete, to ride for pleasure, to hack, or to jump. But most importantly I want her to be confident and enjoy herself. And I think that’s my job as a parent: to nurture her (hopeful) love of horses and enable her to enjoy them in the same way I do. If she’s happy, confident, understanding and respectful to horses, and achieves her own aims – be they cantering across fields or competing under the GB flag – then I think I’ll have succeeded as a parent.

Kids and Grids

As we know, I love gridwork. I do find it’s not introduced to children early enough in their jumping education though. Obviously you can’t or don’t need to build a long, complicated, all singing and dancing grid for those learning to jump, but a simple grid can help develop a child’s feel for a good jump, build their confidence, and develop their feel for their jumping position.

I find that children have less understanding of and ability to ride the different types of canter, and creating and maintaining a quality canter on the approach to fences, so a grid in this situation has to be built bespoke to the pony and adjusted through the lesson.

I start with three canter poles, with one pony stride between. The pony I did this with last week has quite a short striding canter, and stays very steady over poles, so I laid the poles out five of my strides apart. That’s about fifteen foot. They cantered easily through the poles, with my little jockey focusing on keeping straight and keeping the canter going through the poles.

Then I made the first fence into a little cross, and rolled out the following two poles so they were sixteen foot apart because the act of popping over the little cross pole opens up the pony’s canter and he needed more space between the poles.

Once they were confident and consistent through this setup, I rolled the second pole out slightly more and then made it into another jump. Then I corrected the third pole so it was still sixteen foot away from the second fence. Each time the pair went through the grid I checked the pony’s take off and landing points to see if he needed the distances lengthening. I didn’t want my rider to have to try to adjust the canter, I wanted the pony to easily negotiate the grid and make a good shape over the jumps to improve my rider’s feel.

I put the third jump up so we had three crosses, about seventeen foot apart, and then spent some time working on my rider’s position. It took a couple of attempts for her to find the rhythm of folding and sitting up quick enough for the series of jumps, and then we checked she was giving with her hands and not restricting his neck over jumps. Even if the first jump was taken a bit long or short, my rider soon began to see their take off point and stayed much more balanced throughout. So the grid was helping improve her balance, eye for a stride, and confidence over the fences. Prior to riding this grid, she’d got left behind over bigger jumps and hadn’t always looked in sync with her pony.

One at a time I turned the second and third jump into uprights, and raised the cross slightly. As each fence got bigger, from 45cm to 60cm, I tweaked the distances so that the pony met every jump well out of his canter, and my rider didn’t have to change the canter.

This little rider worries with upright and spread fences, so I used the grid to introduce these fence shapes. With the third fence moved out slightly further, I made an inviting spread with a cross at the front and a back rail. The grid ensured she met the jump well, and I hoped that having a good experience over an oxer would increase her confidence.

The pair finished with the grid below; the back rail of the oxer was 60cm. Easily the biggest she’s ever jumped, and she stayed balanced during the bigger bascule. They got a little close to the first jump, which meant they were a little close to the second too. I could have the distances slightly wider, but I didn’t want them to take a long one over the first fence and then either chip in for the second fence or take a very long jump. When we next do a grid I aim to get them jumping closer to 70cm, so the distances will be closer to the textbook 21 feet. However, I will let the pony dictate the distances as my little rider is less able to adjust the canter if things don’t go to plan.

Grids for beginners, even if they’re barely more than poles on the floor, are understated. So long as the instructor adapts the distances so the horse or pony can jump them out of their comfortable canter, it’s a great opportunity for a rider to develop their jumping position, balance and feel.

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.

Keeping Fences Low

With Pony Club Camp last week and the ground being incredibly hard this summer, there was a lot of talk amongst the instructors (which didn’t necessarily relate to me and my six year old riders) about how to keep the fences low in the jumping sessions. After all, there is a huge trend towards people (and not just the children) judging how good a rider someone is based on how high they can jump. I would much rather see a horse and rider jump a lower height safely, stylishly and confidently than “keeping up with the Joneses” and have an accident, lose confidence, and have an ugly round. Besides, none of us question Charlotte Dujardin’s riding ability and she rarely jumps.

Anyway, one exercise I did a few weeks ago was a relevant option for keeping the fences low yet still still testing the rider’s ability.

The exercise started with a cross pole at X which I had my rider jump on a steep angle from both reins. This tested that they could ride their line and the pony wasn’t trying to run out through the open side.

Then I set up a skinny fence, one canter stride away from the cross, on the line they’d been jumping. The skinny was an upright, with a plain pole, so had very little visual clues to help the rider stay on their line.

This particular pony always runs to the left so the double was first set up to be ridden from the right rein. My rider carried his whip in the right rein so if his pony drifted to the right he could use it on the shoulder to help stay on their line.

It was a tricky exercise because although the cross was a nice, encouraging fence, having only one stride to the skinny meant that the pair had to prepare properly, and set themselves up accurately to the combination as there was no time to do any repair work between jumps. In all honesty, I was surprised when they succeeded the first time and jumped the skinny very accurately and stylishly.

After riding the line a couple of times I rearranged the exercise so that they jumped it off the left rein. This would be their harder rein, because the rider has a weaker left leg and the pony tends to drift through his left shoulder which, combined with the fact the pony is encouraged to veer left through the double, means it is more problematic.

The first time they drifted left, then my rider really applied his left leg and the whip on the pony’s left shoulder. Which unfortunately meant that the pony overcompensated and ran out to the right.

So I used some poles to help guide the rider and pony. The tramlines were leant against the jump wings so that they ran diagonally down to the ground. This meant they clarified the question to the pony and helped funnel him towards the skinny. After a couple of times where they jumped the guide pole rather than the skinny they successfully rode the double. As soon as they cracked the line and stayed straight as an arrow, the double was a perfect canter stride and the pony made it look effortless. When they wobbled off their line, however fractionally, the distance between the fences became longer so the pony squeezed in an extra stride to the skinny.

This exercise really tested both horse and rider without being very high, because the rider had to have a good eye and be able to ride their line, and the pony had to be on the aids. In Pony Club jumping sessions, a course could be set up with lots of tricky lines and combinations which encourage accurate riding rather than jumping big and fast. After all, lots of jumping on hard ground will damage the horse’s legs.

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.