Tack Trouble

Today I saw an interesting article doing the rounds on social media. You can have a peruse here.

Over a cup of tea I had a read of the article and all the comments from keyboard warriors. It made interesting reading for sure.

Now, I’m going to digress from the topic of the article, which is about a tack malfunction, onto the subject of tack in general.

As one commenter typed, I’m not a “tack nazi” and completely understand that some horses cannot be ridden in the classical snaffle and cavesson bridle. But I do think that as riders we should aim to have tack that is minimal so it doesn’t hinder the horse, and so that the tack clearly and precisely relays our aids to the horse. Regardless of the level of horse or rider, as I know some will say “well you try riding at 3* level”, well all I can say is that Michael Jung went around Badminton cross country in a snaffle so we can all aspire to be like him.

Anyway, the big issue I had with the horse’s tack in question was the amount of conflicting tack and how much clutter there was on the horse.

I feel that everyone should put more consideration into the reasons why they want to put a piece of tack on a horse, and the mechanics behind said piece of tack. And not use it because their horse “looks pretty in that bridle” or because everyone else is using that noseband.

For example, a gag works on poll pressure, so you wouldn’t use it on a horse who is sensitive over the poll, or one who already raises his head.

Of course, some horses haven’t read the manual and work well with tack that theoretically shouldn’t suit them. But I’m talking in general.

Then, I think tack should compliment each other. For example, if you have a cutaway headpiece to reduce poll pressure, as in the article above, then it doesn’t make sense (in my humble opinion) to fit a tight browband which puts pressure around the ears and pulls the headpiece forwards. Nor would I put a bit which works on the poll on a bridle which is cutaway so it doesn’t touch the poll …

Tack has come on hugely in the last twenty years, and companies like Fairfax have done scientific research on the effects of tack on horse stride length, muscle tension, etc. So we can make more informed decisions on what we use on our horses. There is also far more choice. Which means that if a piece of tack, for example a bit, doesn’t suit your horse you can find an alternative. A lot of companies even do trial periods on tack which can be a more cost effective alternative if you’re trying out a variety of items.

The horse in this article is wearing two breast plates and a running martingale, which shows that the saddle slips back when jumping. Which is a common complaint with fit eventers. Off the top of my head. I can think of half a dozen breast plates or breast girths which work on different ways, and suit different builds of horse, so if I was looking after this horse I’d be tempted to try different styles, and incorporate the running martingale, in order to find the breast plate which bear suits this particular horse. So the saddle is stabilised and there is less clutter on the horse, which can potentially hinder their movement.

I don’t mind what bit or tack riders use within reason, but I do think it’s important to consider why you are using this piece of equipment, and bear in mind that less is more so that communication between horse and rider is not hindered by straps sitting on top of each other, or pressure points caused by multiple straps. Tack should enhance a horse’s performance, not hinder it.

Returning to the article in question. Perhaps the rider has found the best combination of tack for this horse, and he’s certainly thinking outside the box, but in that case could he not work with a bridle maker to make a bespoke bridle which is less cluttered or confusing? For both horse and observer!

Without becoming a keyboard warrior or slating others, I think this article serves as a reminder to everyone to think carefully about their tackroom choices; bearing in mind how tack fits a horse and how it works because their comfort and wellbeing is our top priority.

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Lance, Sword, Revolver

Yesterday we went to Windsor Horse Show, and for the second time watched a really fun, lighthearted equine competition that even the non horsey can enjoy. Yep, I’m talking about the long suffering husbands. But they’ll enjoy watching this because it involves weapons!

I’ve only ever seen Lance, Sword, Revolver competitions at Windsor, but I’m sure there must be others around the country.

Run by the British Tentpegging Association (I’ll move onto tent pegging later), this competition is a course where competitors are marked for each element and then receive a style mark, and the highest score wins. I’m not sure of the exact scoring details, but that is the main gist.

Each competitor goes one at a time, starting with the sword section. They have to jump a small brush fence, attack a dummy on their right with the sword, striking as close to the red circle (heart) as possible. Then jump a second brush and attack another dummy, this time on their left and leaving the sword embedded in the dummy.

Next, they draw their revolver and jump a brush on the other side of the arena, firing at a balloon attached to the right of the jump. Then they have to pop a balloon on the ground, before jumping the fourth brush and popping the balloon to the left of the fence.

Once the gun is holstered (I’m using the husband’s terminology here so I assume it’s correct, based on his xbox weapons experience) correctly, the competitors pick up a lance and collect two rings from a pair of gallows (the diameter of the rings is a couple of inches) before picking up a peg from the ground.

Sounds easy, but don’t forget these riders perform the whole course in canter or gallop.

Here’s a video demonstration from YouTube to help my explanation.

Obviously the sword, lance, revolver competition has roots in the cavalry, but the tent pegging association has made the competition accessible to civilians, and they compete against the military. Yesterday, the top three places were held by civilians. What I really liked about the competition yesterday was that it is open to any horse. The winner was an Appaloosa who had quite an erratic jump and was very quick. There was also an ex polo pony, chosen I guess for his ability to neck rein and agility. Then there was also an Irish draught, and the military competitors had ex racers, thoroughbreds and warmbloods.

In the arena afterwards was the tentpegging competition, of which the lance, sword, revolver competitors had also entered. In this riders have the lance and try to pick up the peg from the ground. I know at one point the peg became narrower, but other than that I’m not sure how they judged it.

Anyway, spurred on by this interest, I did some research online about this unusual discipline. The British Tentpegging Association was formed in the 1990s, so is relatively immature in the competitive sphere, but there are hopes that it will soon be recognised by the FEI. The association looks after both civilians and officers, and Great Britain is the only country in which officers have to compete in uniform.

In a nutshell, tentpegging originated 2500 years ago in Asian armies, where lancers used tent pegs as make shift targets in camp to demonstrate and practice their expertise. Tentpegging as a competition and public entertainment first appeared in the Victorian era, with competition rules becoming well established by the First World War, and the Sword, Lance, Revolver competition was also developed. Then as the number of mounted units in the forces has decreased since the Second World War, civilians were encouraged to participate and compete, which led to the founding of the Association.

I’ve found an in-depth article about the history of tentpegging, which you can peruse here. I also did some reading on the British Tentpegging Association website.

I’d like to see more of this sport, as everyone can appreciate it and there’s a definite skill involved. I can also see it appealing to a number of riders, and it might also encourage more boys to continue riding into their teenage years and adulthood.

The Girl on the Dancing Horse – a Book Review

One Monday evening in March my Mum and a friend had booked tickets to go to a book signing by Charlotte Dujardin, to promote her new autobiography “The Girl On The Dancing Horse”. Unfortunately for my Mum, her granddaughter decided to arrive the day before so she never got to go.

This week I’ve had the chance to read the book, so thought I’d share my thoughts.

The first thing that struck me about the book is that it’s very readable. You can pick it up and read two pages, or you can settle down for an hour and just as easily read a few chapters.

It’s very much written as the words come out of Charlotte’s mouth. Or how I would imagine they’d come out of her mouth as you chat over a cup of tea and slice of cake.

The first couple of chapters set the scene of Charlotte’s childhood in enough detail, without telling you about her third cousin once removed. It’s all relevant; talking about her ponies and showing days with a couple of anecdotes added for good measure.

The book is very honest. Charlotte is quite critical of showing and it’s politics, which I’m fully aware of and was why I never fully enjoyed it as a teenager, despite the educational benefits of it for young horses and riders. However it’s good to see her voicing this opinion and being honest.

The book spends a lot of time explaining how Charlotte transitioned from showing into dressage and started with Carl Hester. Quite a few big names are dropped, but not in a bad way, they just make the story clearer. If you knew nothing about dressage then the names could start to get confusing. But then again, if you knew nothing about dressage would you pick up this book? Most probably not!

Dressage terms are used frequently, so if you aren’t au fait with dressage movements, levels or terms then you may need to put the book aside and consult Google. The good thing being that, as I said earlier, the book is easy to pick up and put down.

Probably the main reason people will choose this book off a bookshelf is to learn more about Valegro himself. And there’s a lot of the book devoted to his and Charlotte’s career together. This section is very matter of fact; it must be hard to find the balance between accepting compliments and acknowledging world records without coming across as egotistical or arrogant. I think Charlotte has managed this really well. She describes her experiences and emotions simply, and uses the facts and figures to illustrate their successes.

There’s also a side of the book which brings up criticisms of herself, by her trainers and herself, which highlights why she is successful – because she is so driven to achieve perfection – and also doesn’t make light of the negative effects of suddenly being thrown into the media spotlight and the pressure of being at the top, pressure to prove she’s not just a one trick pony (excuse the pun), as well as competition nerves and how to deal with them. Which is important for us “normals” to know, I think. That being a top professional rider has both its highs and lows.

The Girl On The Dancing Horse is definitely one of the best biographical books I’ve read, as it balances professional life with childhood and personal experiences whilst keeping relevant to the reason we equestrians picked the book up in the first place – to discover the Charlotte and Valegro story.

Riding On Grass

Eventing season is finally kicking off, although with the ground conditions it’s been difficult to get any work done out of the arena.

This means that horses have lost out on valuable fittening work, hence why some eventers have pulled out of Badminton this year. There’s now far more centres with arena cross country facilities so whilst you may not be able to physically go cross country schooling you can at least practice the technicality aspect over a variety of cross country fences.

Dressage and showjumping you can practice all winter in the arena, but there’s a difference between riding on a surface, and riding on grass, so it’s important to get some practice in before an event.

Let’s look at the differences between riding on the flat and over jumps on grass compared to on an artificial surface.

Firstly, unless you are riding on a bowling green, no grass arena is going to be perfectly flat, and practice is needed so that you and your horse can ride as accurately and correctly on a slope as you do in the arena. The lack of fences can also make it harder to ride a straight line or accurate circles too. Which means practice. Count your strides on a twenty metre circle in the arena and then use this number to check you’re riding the correct sized circle out in the open.

Grass is more slippery than artificial surfaces, especially if it’s long, wet or you have the pleasure of an 8am dressage test on dewy grass. In which case it’s worth investing in studs, and then practice using them and working out the best size and shape of stud that suits your horse in different conditions.

A showjumping course will be more spread out than one on a surface. This is because on grass you need to take a wider turn to stay balanced. Again, you need to practice jumping on a slope, especially combinations, which may catch you out in the ring.

The biggest learning curve transitioning from riding in a ménage to riding on grass is developing the ability adjust your riding for the conditions, and for your horse to learn to keep his balance and rideability in different conditions – whether it’s hard going, deep going or slippery. As a rider you need to assess the terrain: are any transitions in the test on a downhill? Try and mimic the transition in your warm up so you get the feel for how you need to prepare and support your horse through them. Depending on how long the grass is and how wet it is, you may need to ride larger turns on the showjumping course than the optimum line, so you’ll need to take into account the time allowed as well as your horse’s canter and ability to keep their footing in these conditions. Sometimes the ground itself can be less than ideal, especially if you’re jumping towards the end of a wet day, so you’ll need to be able to circumnavigate divots and furrows without being put off your game. Learning how to ride on grass is only really learnt by practice. So take every opportunity you can to ride in the open fields, even when the conditions are not our ideal.

The other big factor you have to contend with when riding in the open is the added excitability of your horse. Many horses suffer from open-space-itis which means they jog in the walk, have a quicker showjumping canter and are generally a bit hotter. The best thing to do is to practice on grass to reduce the novelty – although the first time schooling on grass is always more exciting. Spend the first session establishing manners. A calm, relaxed walk. A steady canter. Walking towards home rather than galloping. Jumping a fence then coming back to the rider. Then another relaxed walk. By ensuring that your horse doesn’t think an open space means a flat out gallop you will have a more rideable horse and get more enjoyment as a result. And be consistent: expect them to listen to you all the time and then they will.

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.

Equine Massage

One of my clients has recently started studying to be an equine masseuse. Not physiotherapy or osteopathy or anything, but straight forward muscle massage.

Firstly, what’s the benefit of having your horse massaged? Well, do you enjoy a massage? I would have thought the answer would be yes!

in short, a massage eases any post workout aches in the muscles, helps dissipate any lactic acid, can help ease anxiety related tension, improve circulation, help to move lymphatic fluid around the system, reduces stiffness and swelling after working hard, improves muscle tone, prevents adhesions and stretches connective tissue. As well as the fact that it is mentally relaxing.

A lot of owners, especially with competition horses, have regular visits from chiropractors and the like to ensure that there are no skeletal problems like a dropped pelvis, but I think the benefits of a general post work massage is often overlooked. I mean, if you’ve been to an event then the next day you usually give the horse off or a gentle walk and then the next couple of days is light hacking, so you appreciate the physical recovery time needed by the horse. But a general massage could enhance this recovery, or at least speed up the recovery time. If you think about it in human terms then after working in the garden on the first spring like day of the year nothing is better than a back massage from your other half … hint hint!

An article posted by my client last week made me realise that actually a massage would have benefits for horses for reasons I hadn’t thought of. We all know that horses have very sensitive skin as they can feel a fly land anywhere on their bodies. This has implications if you think about tack, and not in the obvious ways. Obviously a badly fitting tack puts pressure on the back muscles and creates muscle tension, leading to a change in the gait and stresses the rest of their body. But did you know that if a horse wears a fly veil then the pressure caused around the headpiece and browband can cause asymmetry in the knee joint movement? So a general massage in conjunction with tack fitting and tack improvement will reduce the tension in those pressure points, which will correct and improve other areas of the body, which we don’t automatically connect together. You can read her blog here.

So what are the other benefits of an equine massage? Let’s look more closely at the circulatory benefits to begin with. A massage increases circulation to all body parts, which increases the oxygen and nutrients taken in by cells and improves the functions of the cells. Which means better removal of waste products, including lactic acid and carbon dioxide. It means cells are more efficient so a horse will perform at a better level and be less prone to tying up and stiffness. The lymphatic system works in conjunction with the circulatory system, so the more efficient circulatory system will improve lymphatic drainage, so reducing the likelihood of legs becoming filled.

The benefit of massage which we’re all aware of, is the muscular benefits. Knots of muscle fibres are physically broken down and realigned, which means they can contract more efficiently so improving athletic performance. Straightened muscles are of a better quality so are less likely to tear, or put undue stress on surrounding connective tissue and joints. Additionally, these muscles will be more efficient as they aren’t working against their own resistance so the body will work more efficiently; using less energy to reach optimum performance.

In the same way that we feel relaxed and stress free after a massage, horses will have the same experience. You often see it when the chiropractor is at work; horses will yawn or chew when an area of tension is released. Being mentally stressed affects performance; yes a certain degree of stress will enhance performance but too much stress will have a negative impact, which means that actually you want to create as positive an environment for a horse as possible so that they are able to perform to their best for you.

All this research made me realise that whilst it’s great for a horse to be physically checked out by chiropractors and there will be massage benefits from this visit, if you have a naturally tense horse or one who does a lot of travelling to competitions then it would be worth investing in regular massages for them, particularly after an important competition, when they may be physically and mentally fatigued. This should leave a horse in better health – less prone to injury or catching diseases. Which means more fun time for you both! A relaxed horse is a happier horse, so they’ll be more willing to work for you and perform better.

I’ve signed Phoenix up to be a case study when I start riding her, and it will be interesting to see the effects of a massage particularly after she’s been to her first off site clinics or competitions. Judging by last weekend her behaviour will be faultless, but she will be mentally fatigued by the experience and multiple new stimuli and as we want her to enjoy getting out and about, ensuring that we “reset” her at home afterwards will mean that she is more likely to enjoy the experiences.

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.

A Week in Social Media

Has anyone seen the furore on social media this week about “that dressage test”?

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, there was a video of a US rider performing an Intermediare II test which received a huge amount of interest. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a pretty video. There have been two main responses online.

Firstly, there are the keyboard warriors criticising the riding and quality of the test. To me, the video shows a rider who is out of her depth. She found sitting to the extended trot difficult (not that I can blame her) and the movements lacked finesse. The horse looked like a schoolmaster, who knew his job but unfortunately he did spend the majority of the time behind the bit on the verge of rolkur – which is a sensitive subject at the moment.

So it wasn’t the best example of an Intermediare test. But there’s still no need to publicly insult the rider, although part of me thinks that by competing above her ability and at a live streamed competition she is opening herself up for criticism.

It would be interesting to know the full story. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. But it’s useful to know the circumstances that the photo (or video) was taken in. How long has she had this horse? How long has she been competing? Does she have a trainer? Does she suffer from competition nerves? A new partnership is likely to have some rough edges in their first competition. And someone who is competing at their first national competition, or at a new level, is likely to be nervous so will make mistakes with their riding. Do they have a trainer and has the trainer encouraged this rider to enter this test, or is it all off the rider’s own back?

The next criticism that I read was about the US dressage system. Apparently there’s no entry requirements to ride at the higher levels in the US. Which, in my opinion, leads to a lowering of standards and allows riders to take short cuts in their training. Then there’s the fact that the judges were quite generous in their marking. However, the judges are marking the horse’s performance and to give the horse it’s due, he tried his best and did all movements asked of him. It’s just a shame that their competition results aren’t a true reflection of the test. The video does highlight a flaw in the dressage world in that judges don’t (or can’t) take it account the effect a rider has on the horse’s performance. Perhaps the competitive world could learn something from this. My friend and I were discussing how equitation tests, which judge the rider as well as the horse, would improve the standard of riding. Unfortunately though, those riders who are striving to improve would enter these classes and the riders who need the feedback and are complacent in their ability wouldn’t enter. Which doesn’t solve the problem.

The last criticism I saw, concerned the welfare of the horse. The rider’s aids were less than subtle, and she did get frustrated with the way the test went and unfortunately took it out on the horse. To me, the social media criticism in this area was most justified and I would be appalled if any of my clients (or I!) behaved like this to their horse at any time as it’s just bad horsemanship.

I think that covers the negative comments with regard to the video. In my humble opinion, whilst no one should criticise without being constructive or having a good level of understanding and education to verify their point of view (and unfortunately a lot of keyboard warriors just bash out insults without a moment of thought), there is a lot to be learnt from the video. Not just from the rider’s perspective, but also from the dressage world’s.

The other side of the debate, was all about bullying. These comments were largely defensive to the rider, saying that the rider should be praised for furthering herself. Yes, I agree, anyone who wants to improve their riding and ability should be supported and encouraged. And the thoughtless insults shouldn’t be endorsed.

I do think, however, that there is a flaw in the way this rider is is going about furthering herself. She’s got the horse power, and done the right thing in getting a horse who can teach her the movements. But I do wonder if she’s getting the right support behind her. Surely she would have been better off competing at a lower level and establishing their partnership, whilst practising the movements at home before going to such a high profile competition. Then, when competition nerves kick in they still perform to a decent level. So perhaps the issue lies with the trainer, for not enforcing the basic building blocks and for pushing her client beyond her current ability in a public environment. Which ultimately will shatter her confidence because the video has gone viral and received less than complimentary comments.

The equestrian world has been shown at it’s worst this week – I’m not going to link to the debates, but a little surfing online will get you there. There are those who have critiqued this rider for the sake of it, and those who have criticised the wider picture in an attempt to improve our little society. But equally, there have been those who have played the anti-bullying card and ended up defending some of the poorest aspects of the equine world. I don’t know who’s right, but I do think everyone can learn something from watching the video and reading up on the situation as a whole.