Using Observations

I had a client riding her Mum’s horse this week, who she hasn’t ridden very often, and hasn’t jumped her for a long time. 

I think she was slightly nervous when we began jumping, a bit worried about the unknown. So we had a discussion about how to create her own set of expectations for riding the unknown.

When you go to ride a different horse, perhaps when viewing to buy, you invariably see it ridden beforehand. By considering your observations, you know what to expect. They may not live up to these expectations, but at least you are more prepared.

In the case of this rider, I asked her what she’d seen, or noticed, when her Mum jumped. She pondered for a minute, until I gave her some hints. Eventually my rider said that the horse she was riding doesn’t rush into fences, sometimes backs off fences and usually chips in a stride. She didn’t think she drifted left or right though.

I totally agreed. The mare is very different to my rider’s usual mount in that she is steady towards fences and prefers to get in too deep. So with the knowledge of the mare’s tendencies, or preferences, we developed a plan for riding the fence. My rider decided that she needed to create a really energetic canter, and have her leg ready to maintain the energy if the mare backed off the fence, and also to keep the handbrake off and be very positive to discourage the last minute chip-in. 

They set off. The canter was energetic, and they had a straight approach. Because my rider was prepared, she was ready to counteract the slight reluctance as the mare calculated the fence. The result was a very rhythmical, positive approach so they had the perfect take off point.

We continued building a grid, and they jumped beautifully. I was very pleased with how quickly my rider adapted to her ride and how she read and reacted to the mare’s canter approach to best support her.

Which led me to thinking. How much can you learn about a horse and their way of going from watching? 

Firstly, you can gauge the horse’s behaviour; are they spooking at a particular area of the school? Do they have their head up and focused in the distance? Are they tense or relaxed?

Then you can look at the way they are going. If the rider is having to use a lot of leg, or has a lax rein contact. This tells you the responsiveness to the leg aids and the level of tension, or likelihood of the horse rushing. Does the horse have a long stride, or is it high-stepping? Do they track up? If they have an active stride, or a short stride, they will feel quite bouncy when you ride. Although this doesn’t help you ride, it helps prepare you for how they will feel.

Although horses are influenced by their riders, by watching a horse working, you can start to make educated guesses as to which rein is easier for the horse, whether they have a tendency to drift left or right, and if there’s any crookedness in their body. This knowledge will make you more aware of any discrepancies between the horse’s reins and then you will be quicker to support and correct them. Having an educated guess as to what to expect will also make you more confident when you get on board too.

So if you know what to look for, and can begin to piece together how a horse looks from the ground, then they are familiar when you first sit on board and you can quickly adapt to them and start to influence their way of going. Of course, sometimes they can surprise you. It’s quite a skill, but try watching some horses at your yard and see if you can work out how they might feel to ride – if you’re lucky you might even get the chance to experience them.

All About Control

I did this pole exercise earlier this week to get my clients thinking about their level of control.

When I laid out the exercise I could see a level of complacency in the simplicity of the exercise. However, looks can be deceiving!

The exercise started with two poles as tram lines, to focus on straightness. A couple of strides away, there were three trotting poles. A couple of strides after that was another set of tramlines. After another couple of strides, were three canter poles.


The aim of the exercise was to make a good, accurate turn to the tramlines (this highlights any cheaters who drift around corners) and create a balanced, elevated trot over the poles before riding a canter transition in the next tramlines. This ensures the horse doesn’t drift through the transition and illustrates any preference over canter leads. The transition needs to be immediate and active so that the canter is of good enough quality for the poles. The aim is to improve the quality of the canter transition, the accuracy of the rider’s preparation and execution, and for the rider to very quickly be able to change it if it isn’t good enough for the poles. 

By turning into the exercise from both reins you can see which way is weaker. One horse I did this with tends to drift around corners on the left rein, so his shoulders didn’t turn enough to meet the tramlines and thus he struggled to start the exercise straight. When his shoulders were turned sufficiently, he compensated by swinging his haunches out. Of which is going to be worked on next week!

The trotting poles looked after themselves, so the next question was the canter transition. With straightness enforced, horses can initially run through the transition to make it easier but once horse and rider get the feel of it the hindquarters should be more active through the transition and the shoulders lift. As the canter poles are almost immediately after, the rider has to be quick to balance the canter so the horse either has enough energy for the poles, or hasn’t flattened the canter so they won’t make the poles.

Once my riders had mastered this exercise, and the ponies improving their canter, we turned it around. They had to approach in canter, canter over the poles and between the tramlines, make a trot transition ready for the trot poles. This was the tricky part!

The canter poles were fine, and the first tramlines helped create a very straight canter. However, the ponies got a bit onward and it took my riders by surprise that they couldn’t bring them back to trot in time. First of all, I got them to prepare for the transition earlier. Even whilst going over the poles they needed to be preparing. This helps create impulsion because they had to find the balance between maintaining enough energy for the poles, without generating too much speed. 

Next up, my riders needed to think about how they ride the transition. They were jamming on the handbrake, so the ponies just beared down on the rein. They needed a series of half halts, to keep their core engaged and upper body tall, with heels dropped in order to be more effective in the downwards transition. And be committed to achieving that transition – just because they love their pony doesn’t mean that their pony is allowed to ignore their aids.

Of course, once they have achieved the downwards transition, and quietly asserted their authority their pony will be far more obliging next time. 

This means that our on the cross country course they are more able to bring their ponies back to a more collected canter in preparation for a skinny, ditch, corner, or any other tricky fence, without losing the energy and the pony’s desire to jump.

All in all, an exercise of multiple levels, which improves accuracy and control, as well as improving straightness and quality of the gaits – particularly if the poles are then raised. 

Rising Prices

There’s been a lot in the news recently about the pay cap on public sector workers, particularly firefighters after the recent Grenfell tragedy. 

I’m not going to get involved with it as politics isn’t my strong point, but with the cost of basic living always rising it makes sense that wages have to follow the trend.

Which brings me onto equine businesses and changing prices. Business rates recently rocketed, hitting livery yards hardest. But unfortunately for them, you cannot raise livery prices in line with this because the rest of the country’s economy hasn’t changed in a similar fashion.

I always think that in order to raise your prices, be it livery, forage, lessons, facility hire, you need to be able to justify it. Take me, for example, now I have a higher teaching qualification I think I can justifiably increase lesson prices. If you are investing in new facilities or updating current ones then there is also room to increase fees. 

Unfortunately there are a lot of hidden costs in the equine industry, which is why things are generally expensive. For me, hidden costs include petrol, insurance, PPE, website costs, professional development. For yards, hidden costs can include ongoing maintenance, insurance, business rates, staff wages, machinery maintenance. So when there’s a sharp increase in one of the hidden costs it can make clients feel that price hikes are unfair. But you can be honest, and without going into specifics, tell them that the reason you are having to put up your fees is, for example, because of the increase in your insurance premium. Or whatever the reason is. I think that when people know why they are being charged more they are more accepting of the situation. Which ultimately leads to happier clients and a more respected business.

I also think that if a price rise is imminent then it’s also worth checking that your standards haven’t slipped. You can’t justifiably increase your fees if you continue to be late to lessons, or if the standard of service is deteriorating. That’s when people will get unhappy and start grumbling. People need to feel that they get value for money, and if they feel that they currently get good value for money then they will be more accepting of increased fees.

I’ve been giving my prices a lot of thought recently, particularly with my ITT exam. They haven’t changed since I set up my business three years ago. Well, last year I increased my clipping fees to stay in line with others, and because I had a new pair of clippers. Which means I can do a better job. 

But how do you go about changing price lists without disrupting your business? I always think client loyalty should be rewarded, and you have to balance out whether you are better keeping your prices the same and having a client have weekly lessons, or by putting your prices up and meaning that they then have fortnightly lessons. So long as you can fill that space then financially you haven’t lost out. But it’s a risk you take. Halving the number of lessons someone has is also detrimental to their education which may be catastrophic if they’re a nervous rider or on a green horse. So out of loyalty and respect for your clients it’s worth bearing that in mind. If you are a livery yard and put up prices then you risk owners doing favours for each other rather than using your services, which could affect your income.

There is also a question of how much to raise prices by. I always think there should be notice given to price changes of at least a month to allow families to budget. I also don’t think you should raise prices drastically, for example more than 10%. It’s a far softer blow to have two incremental price rises over three years than a large jump, which will upset the apple cart and risk the stability of your business. Plus, you don’t want to look greedy!

Equestrianism is already seen as elitist, so making yourself unavoidable to the amateur rider only does a disservice to the sport.

I think it’s also worth considering just changing the prices of one area of the business. So if facilities have changed, or equipment improved then you could justifiably increase prices for that area. Going back to my ITT exam; a higher teaching qualification could mean I’m better off just increasing lesson prices, and leaving schooling fees as they are. Which would only affect a portion of my business, meaning it’s probably more affordable for clients and less of a business risk to me. As a livery yard, if you have invested in new jumps or a cross country field then you could justifiably increase hire fees.

There’s lots of different elements to consider, and various ways to make the pill easier to swallow. I’ve altered my price list on my website for new clients, but am not changing current client prices at the moment. I do think all businesses should think carefully about the ways and means of changing fees. Which have to change as inflation, wages and living costs rise, but it should be done sensitively so that the business carries on running smoothly and clients continue to be satisfied with the quality of service they receive.

A Neurectomy

A neurectomy, or de-nerving operation, was offered to Otis a few months ago. Since then, it has been on my list of blog subjects, but has never made it to the top. But now here it is.

Neurectomies are sensitive subjects for a number of reasons. The procedure involves severing the problematic nerve leaving the horse pain free. This sounds great, but it`s solving the symptom of the problem, and not the root cause. I remember learning about different psychological treatments in psychology A-level and there was always a big debate about which methods simply covered up the problem and which got to the root cause. Similarly, with physical problems there are true symptoms, such as a broken leg, but also additional symptoms caused by walking with a limp, If you only solve the additional symptoms they`re just going to reoccur because the leg is still broken.

I`m going off on a tangent. Neurectomies are most commonly performed on horses suffering from navicular.

To me, a neurectomy is just stopping the horse feeling pain in the foot, and if they can`t feel the pain will continue to walk or use the limb incorrectly, which will cause problems in other areas of their body. Which will surely cause soundness issues down the line.

Horses can usually return to their normal workload after the surgery… but is it ethical to keep working a horse who has a numb foot? And like I said earlier, if they can`t feel that foot are they more likely to injure it by knocking it against jumps or in the field, and what other strains does it put on their body? I think it`s different if you are going to retire them, and just want them to live out their days pain free.

Onto the cons … although surgery has a higher success rate now due to technological and scientific advances, the nerve will regrow within a couple of years, leaving you in exactly the same position as before. And you can`t repeat the procedure.

Careful management and shoeing routines are needed to prevent further problems as the horse can`t feel his leg, so if he has a foot imbalance it will stress other connective tissue within the hoof capsule. Also, with a de-nerved foot they cannot feel the pain of a foot abscess, which could lead to you not treating it in time and them getting a bone infection.

Neurectomies aren`t traceable, which means that if the horse changes hands their new vet will not be able to identify that they’ve had this procedure, which can lead to mismanagement, or competing illegally.

This procedure seems complicated and has numerous potential complications, with varying success rates. I found an article in Dressage Today that explained it in a fairly non-biased way – check it out here.

I also found a video – watch it here – which was interesting, and augmented my view that it is a last-ditch resort.

In my personal view, I`d want to try every other viable option before a neurectomy because I don’t think it`s fair to expect a horse to be an athlete without the feeling in his foot, and the risk of complications or it being unsuccessful are a heavy weight to balance.

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Hydrotherapy

Last month I did some practice teaching at a yard which is also a rehab yard, and they have a water treadmill. The seed was sown, but I didn`t get any further than thinking it would be interesting to see a horse using the treadmill. Then a couple of weeks ago, a friend told me that she had been with another friend to use one at a new rehab centre, very locally to us. The types of horses the treadmill helps sounded similar to Otis, so she thought she`d share the knowledge with me.

As this rehab centre was a lot closer to me, and they had an introduction offer, I thought it would be interesting to take Otis along. It wouldn`t do him any harm, and it would be very interesting from my point of view. So I gave them a ring and booked him in.

I was telling my physio guru about the water treadmill, and she thought it was an excellent idea. She also told me that there had been a study that showed no difference between the effects of the treadmill between horses who travelled to use it, and those who were on a rehab livery programme. i.e. travelling to and from hydrotherapy didn`t reduce its positive effect. Which, to be honest, hadn`t even crossed my mind. But always good to know.

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Otis travelled as well as ever, and waited patiently whilst I filled out the relevant forms. Then he was introduced to the treadmill.

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Always the sceptic, and possibly because I was behind him, not leading him towards it, Otis had a good look at the strange contraption. However, as with most males, the way to his heart is through his stomach so a few pony nuts did the trick. I was really impressed with the quiet, patient approach. Otis was given as much time as he needed to take in the machine. Once he had stepped onto it, he was walked straight through the tunnel and around to go onto it again. The second time he was much more confident, and walked straight on.

This time, because he stood quite contentedly on the treadmill, the front door was shut. And then the back door.

I think by then Otis was more interested in delving into the lady`s pocket. He was effectively cross tied, with me holding a rope on his right, and an assistant holding the rope to his left. This is to help keep him straight because apparently a lot of horses practically bounce from wall to wall the first time they use the treadmill.

The treadmill was turned on, and with a look of surprise Otis started walking. It moved at quite a pace so it took him a few minutes to find his rhythm and to stay in sync with it. But the nice thing was, there was no rush. The treadmill was noisy, but everyone was calm and reassuring him.

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There were two cameras to look at; one was above Otis, so you could see how straight he was walking, and see if there was any asymmetry in his back movement. The second was at hoof-level, and showed his stride pattern – the length and cadence. While he was getting into the swing of it, I had a good look at both cameras.

Next, the water was gradually let in. He didn`t change his pace and didn’t seem overly worried about the splashing around. The water rose until it was just above his fetlocks. I think you can adjust the depth of the water according to horse fitness as deeper water creates more drag so means they have to work harder. A couple of times Otis slacked off a bit, and ended up closer to the back of the treadmill, but a little encouragement and he caught up again.

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Watching the cameras now, I could see his stride had gotten longer and he was flexing his joints more to lift his legs higher out of the water. The water splashing on his belly also caused him to use his abdominal muscles too.

Water treadmills are increasingly popular with horses on rehab programmes because it allows you to increase their workload without stressing their joints or jarring their limbs.

I`m not sure how long Otis was walking in water for, probably about fifteen minutes. When it came to finishing, the water was drained out and the treadmill slowed until it stopped. After some treats for Otis, the front door was opened and he was led out. You could see his walk had improved already, and he almost looked a little run up from where he had been using his abdominals – a bit like me after a Pilates class!

His legs were washed off with the hose and then disinfectant sprayed over his legs. Just as a preventative measure as other horses use the treadmill. Of course, Otis stood perfectly still while he was being washed … none of the dancing around that he does with me!

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I haven`t booked to take him back yet as we`re having a hiccough with his rehab … I`ll tell you more when I’m emotionally strong enough. But once he`s back on track I will definitely be booking him in for some more as you could see an immediate benefit. Plus, I was eyeing up the vibrating weighbridge-looking thingy which is supposed to be good for healing collateral ligament damage.

Here is a video of Otis on the treadmill

My Introduction To Parelli

Some people advocate Parelli, others resent it. It’s had good press, it’s had bad press. Whatever. Each to their own. I’m not going to go into depth here – do some reading and develop your own opinion.

Anyway, I’ve never really had anything to do with Parelli, nor have I had a need to try it with my horses.  But when I went to do a practice lunge lesson with a riding club member last week I was horrified, embarrassed, whatever you want to say, that I couldn’t get the horse to lunge when I warmed her up.

“Oh, she’s Parelli trained” announced her owner as an explanation. That still didn’t help me, so she gave me a quick lesson on lunging the Parelli way.

Firstly, she explained that my belly button should be pointing in the direction I want the horse to go. So to send a horse forwards, turn to look (and point your belly button) in that direction. When you face the horse, they think you are wanting them to reverse. Which was the problem I was having. 

You can also fling your rein arm in the direction you want them to go, thus giving a clearer instruction. Once I’d got the hang of this then it did make a bit of sense and the mare responded well.

To slow a horse the Parelli way, you either put the whip out in front of their body, or waggle the lunge line. I found this part trickier, until I accidentally said the word “Good” at which point the mare stopped dead! Apparently that’s a cue word for the end of the session and tit bit time.

Parelli people also don’t use many words, as this lady told me. They expect to say go, and then say nothing until they want the horse to do something different. Which when we’re riding is something we should aim for so our aids remain subtle and clear, but most of us use a dialogue when lunging to either settle the horse, or to regulate their gait. 

The whip is also often used instead of the voice to get a horse to move off. Smack it on the ground behind the horse twice, and they should move forwards until told otherwise. This is more to do with the obedience aspect of Parelli, so apart from being told about it I didn’t use this technique.

Regardless of my views on Parelli, it was actually an interesting learning experience because it means I have another trick up my sleeve if I ever come across a horse who “won’t” lunge – I may just be talking the wrong language to them. 

Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 

Tickling Their Bellies

Whilst chatting to someone this week, they told me that one of the benefits of a water treadmill (more on this another day) is that the water splashes up onto a horse’s belly, which causes them to tense and engage their abdominals.

Thinking about it, when I’ve been waist deep in the sea, or another cold body of water, and tried walking around splashes invariably land on my torso, and I’ve felt my stomach clench in anticipation or dislike. It must be the same for horses.

Then today I was hacking one of the big horses. He can sometimes be a bit lazy in his posture, and I find him very big to correct, or support him. We were going around the mown edge of a field and it suddenly occurred to me that I had heard a long time ago that long grass tickling a horse’s belly can be useful in engaging their abdominals.

So I gave it a go; we ventured off the path and did some walk and trot in the long grass, that came up to my stirrup irons. He definitely seemed to float more, and I could feel his body working harder. He was exhausted by the time we had trotted halfway up the hill, and I was surprised by just how much of a workout it was for him, whilst being comparatively easy for me.


We can’t always use long grass to do our training for us because of the time of year, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind when I’m hacking at the moment. Plus we saw so much wildlife around – the swallows swooping around as we walked, and the deer that challenged us to a stare off, and the fox hiding in the woods, as well as the bird of prey that flapped frantically to hover over us in the middle of a vortex when I turned him out.

Carrot Stretching

How many of you use carrot stretches with your horse?

I used to do them a lot with Otis, but I`m afraid I don’t do them as much as I should now. He`s still nice and flexible though – at least judging by the way he balances on three legs to scratch his poll with his hind leg!

Anyway, why do we make our horses contort their bodies just to reach a carrot?

Well, in the same way that we stretch our muscles before exercise, stretching a horse can help release any tension, strengthen muscle fibres, and increase the flexibility of muscles. I also find it really interesting to see how symmetrical a horse is. Sometimes it`s very enlightening to perform carrot stretches, as you will find that one side is far more restrictive than the other. Carrot stretches are dynamic or active, in the sense that the horse is the one doing the stretching as opposed to a human creating a stretch by pulling on a limb. They are useful because they can be done when a horse is cold, so you can do it when you bring your horse into his stable for the night, in the field, before riding, and it will still be beneficial, and not cause them to strain anything.

Carrot stretches are useful tools in conditioning horses as you can teach them to stretch and strengthen more specific muscles than when riding or lunging, and you can also trigger the release of some tighter, bad muscles (like the brachiocephalic muscles on either side of the underneath of the neck – yeah, you know the ones!)

Quite often physiotherapists or vets will recommend particular carrot stretches  to help the rehabilitation of a horse, or to help prevent re-injury.

Below are a couple of carrot stretches that you may want to get your teeth  into. Remember, it make take a few attempts for your horse to understand so be patient and don`t expect them to be able to do the full stretch.

Stretch to point of hip

With the horse standing square, or as close to square as he naturally goes, slowly use the carrot to guide his nose around towards his point of hip. When he reaches his furthest point, hold it for a few seconds before rewarding him with the treat. Make sure you perform this on both sides. This stretch stretches the shoulder, neck and intercostal muscles on the opposite side of the body and strengthens those muscles on the side he is turning towards.

Stretch to the side of the forefoot

Again, with the horse standing square-ish, get him to follow the treat down to the outside of his front hoof, without bending his knee. This slight abduction stretches the muscles in front of and behind the scapula on the opposite side and strengthens those muscles on the near side.

Stretch to the girthline

Now it is important that this stretch is brief, and a stretch as opposed to Rolkur. G get the horse to follow the treat down between his front knees towards his girth. Otis loves this stretch, and has been known to take his nose so far between his legs he somehow touches his tummy! This stretch causes the abdominal muscles to engage and is very good for stretching the nuchal ligament and the entire topline. The horse should not lift, or bend a leg in order to perform the stretch. The longissimus dorsi muscle, lumbar muscles, gluteals and nuchal ligament are all stretched, whilst the abdominal and chest muscles are strengthened.

Let me know how you get on; if your horse is more flexible than you thought, asymmetric, or just greedy!

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