Breastplate Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To Boot Or Not To Boot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Their Tongue Over The Bit

I remember it happening a few times when we were younger, but I’m not sure if it’s the fact that we know how to fit bridles better or if it’s the fact that bits are more ergonomically shaped and with different types of joints, so it’s actually harder for tongues to get over the mouthpiece.

However, it did happen a few weeks ago while I was lunging, which led me to wondering how many people would recognise the signs of a horse getting their tongue over the bit and how to prevent it happening on a regular basis.

The horse I was working with was trotting around sweetly in side reins when he started fidgeting with his head, not really shaking it but it became more mobile. Then his tongue came out the side of his mouth a couple of times as he contorted it and he lost all impulsion as he hollowed. A bit of white lipstick appeared suddenly and by that time I was bringing him back to a walk to sort him out.

I unclipped the side reins and gave him a moment. After all, if he got his tongue over the bit, he may be able to wiggle it back under. Which he did. I had a close look at the bridle he was wearing and decided that the bit could potentially be sitting slightly low. So I put one cheek piece up a hole and then straightened the bit in his mouth. It looked to be sitting slightly better, with a fraction more of a smile at his lips, and as I didn’t want a repeat performance I left it like this. We set off, and he continued as if nothing had happened.

From the ground, it’s quite easy to see a horse in discomfort in his mouth because you can see the tongue moving around, and the head shaking. What are the symptoms though, when you’re riding?

Firstly, it feels like the horse comes behind the bit and very light in the hand. Their neck may feel tense and contract towards their body. You should also feel a lot of movement in the mouth – almost like chomping at the bit – and possibly some head shaking. They’ll lose focus on the exercise and hollow.

If you think your horse has their tongue over the bit then it’s important to dismount in case they start to panic. Immediately give them a loose rein and find somewhere safe to jump off. Once on the ground you can see if their tongue is above or below the bit, and if they’re able to resolve the problem. Undoing the noseband, especially if it’s a flash or grackle, is sometimes enough to enable the horse to correct the tongue. I’ve known people to put their fingers in the corner of the horse’s mouth and push the tongue down. Obviously the horse needs to be fairly calm for this otherwise you could get injured. Alternatively, and this relies on you being in a safe place (I.e. not on the side of the road) you can take the bridle off and then replace it. Undoing one cheek piece and letting the bit drop carefully in the horse’s mouth is also helpful in allowing the horse more space to sort their tongue out.

Putting the tongue over the bit is an evasion tactic, and often occurs in youngsters who are playing with the bit whilst being backed. It can also happen because the horse is physically uncomfortable, either because of the type of bit or because of pain in their mouth.

If a horse repeatedly gets their tongue over the bit or seems generally uncomfortable with the bit and bridle, it is worth getting an equine dentist to thoroughly examine the mouth. The molars may be sharp, or the cheeks, gums or tongue irritated by the sharp edges.

Unfortunately however, getting the tongue over the bit releases endorphins so a horse is tempted to recreate the situation and give him a buzz. Which can make it a difficult habit to break.

Then you need to assess the bridle and it’s fit. Is the bit in good condition – plastic coated bits often develop rough edges over time which can cause callouses on the tongue and cheeks. The type of mouthpiece is important to consider as horses with different mouth conformations will find different shaped bits more comfortable and a horse who is comfortable in the mouth will move their jaw and tongue less so will be less likely to get their tongue over the bit. Horses with fleshy lips and tongues will find thinner mouthpieces much more comfortable, whilst some horses dislike pressure on the tongue so prefer a ported mouthpiece or multi jointed mouthpiece. You could even consider bitless bridles.

A bit that is fitted too low in the mouth commonly causes the tongue to go over the bit because there is physically more space above the mouthpiece and the bit is more mobile so there is more scope for the tongue to move around as the horse tries to stabilise the bit why get can cause it to get into trouble.

A correctly adjusted bit should sit so that there are two wrinkles at each corner of the lips. I miss the traditional bridles where the cheek pieces can be adjusted independently and the headpiece can sit slightly off centre. For example, the bit can be at the perfect height for the horse with one cheek piece on the third hole and the other on the fourth hole. The plain leather headpiece can sit slightly asymmetrically but the horse is very comfortable. However, with padded and shaped headpieces the bit has to be adjusted evenly on both sides to maintain symmetry in the mouth. Which sometimes I feel affects your ability to find the perfect fit.

I think in years gone by one answer to horses getting their tongue over the bit was to tighten the noseband or apply a flash or grackle. However, now education has increased and we are more aware of facial nerves and the effect of overtight nosebands people are moving away from this answer, and trying to find the root cause as opposed to fixing the symptom.


Jump Jockeys

I had a fun lesson yesterday with two kids. Obviously being after school it’s dark when they ride, so my repertoire of jump exercises is being tested as I find ones which make them and the ponies think whilst not being too big, and ones which aren’t too spacious so doesn’t use the darker side of the school.

Last week I decided that I wanted to get the jumps flowing for my riders. One has a speedy pony so where he was over folding, and now is using his shoulders and upper body as brakes is now getting left behind, so it’s a fine balance that we need to rediscover; the other tries to micromanage and pins her horse down with her hands so restricts his jumping and then it doesn’t flow or look harmonious.

The obvious choice of exercise was without hands. Thankfully, we had the arena to ourselves so I didn’t need to worry about the increased speed by the end of the exercise as they had plenty of time and space to gather reins back and circle to bring the ponies back under control.

Once they’d popped through the grid of three cross poles on both reins I told them to knot their reins.

“Oh no!”

“No way!”

“He’s going to go so fast!”

“I don’t like not having control” (this came from the dressage dive, who I keep telling to think of being a little messy when she rides because then her pony relaxes and she gets better jumps)

Reins knotted, I sent them straight through the grid with both hands out to the side. I told them to let go of the reins over the first jump, to try and keep some semblance of control on the approach, and then to circle until they brought the canter back to trot.

The first rider, where he’s been consciously not over folding has been a little slow giving with his hands over the fence, so has been getting slightly choppy bascules. This exercise allowed us to work on finding the fine balance between not over folding and encouraging the pony to accelerate and flatten the canter on landing and still allowing him to use himself properly over the fence. After a few tries this rider was starting to get the feeling of the right balance, and when we took back the reins the pair looked much better.

My second rider, by not holding onto the reins, gave her pony a much nicer ride through the grid, which enabled him to jump more freely and rebuilt his confidence because I don’t think he was that happy with being micromanaged. It also taught his rider that he does know his job, and the fences can flow. Which built her confidence because she had more faith in her pony and in her jumping ability. She was able to replicate this afterwards when she had her reins again.

Both of these riders managed to achieve this relatively quickly, so I decided to try out another exercise.

For the boy, it was more just having fun. End of term-itis is kicking in so I wanted the focus to be more on fun. For the girl, I wanted her to sit lighter after fences because her tendency to sit up quickly, which she needs to do a bit of in order to stop her pony getting too fast, comes with her also sitting heavily into the saddle which I think upsets his sensitive soul.

So I put their stirrups up eight and ten holes respectively.

There was quite a lot of banter by now: the boy in his jump saddle was quite happy and set off to trot and canter in jockey position. His core is a bit weaker so he did sneak in a few little rises, but I didn’t want to put his stirrups up too high so his balance wasn’t disturbed. I removed the knee blocks from my other rider’s dressage saddle, and she found it slightly easier then to ride light seat, but the high cantle stopped her really crouching low over the wither. She did start to find her balance on the flat, and I thought her pony looked a bit freer over his back with her out the saddle too.

Then they popped through the grid a few times in both directions, working on keeping their seat light yet still folding, or at least differentiation between their position on the flat and over the fence. The key here is to have a strong core, and to adjust the upper body without sitting heavily into the saddle or losing your balance. I’m a big believer in using the upper body after a fence to rebalance the canter and reorganise, yet both kids are still finding the balance between sitting right up after a fence to discourage their ponies from accelerating away and sitting deep into the saddle so their bums are driving the ponies forwards. With short stirrups it’s hard to drive!

The ponies started to soften over the fences, and use their backs a bit more. Where we’d worked without reins you could see that my riders were less reliant on them for either brakes or balance.

I was planning on leaving the lesson there, but they were keen to try no reins and jockey stirrups. I should have said no, and finished when we did, but I thought I’d run with their keenness.

The girl did it very well, and was pleased with herself. I think she had a lot to consider from the lesson and knows now that her pony is more than capable, but she needs to learn to take off her dressage hat and put on her showjumping one, which is a little bit more relaxed and laissez-faire. Unfortunately, my other rider bounced off over the last fence. Squashed pride and end of term-itis meant this was a bit sore, but he remounted and popped through the grid with jockey stirrups and reins. When I debriefed him after I think he understood that it was just a wobble due to lack of core stability (despite the no reins work, when he had the short stirrups he was giving with his hands but leaning on them as he folded over the jumps, showing that there’s more work needed to get him really secure over fences) and balance, rather than him or his pony doing wrong. I think he took a lot away from the lesson and I look forwards to hearing about his jockey riding on the gallops next week!

Riding like a jockey is so helpful at improving balance, and strengthening the core and thigh muscles. I think going to the extremes of a light seat will help my young riders learn to sit lightly whilst keeping their shoulders back on the approach and getaway of fences, which will hopefully help courses flow and for them to influence the quality of the canter without getting heavy in the hand and blocking their ponies shoulders from jumping. You can see in the first picture below, that the jockey is limiting the speed by his position and shifting his upper body back, and in the second image he is opening up the canter. For my two riders, they want to try to imitate the first picture on the approach and the second picture over fences to really help their ponies out.


Girthing Myths

I saw this little article last night – All about girths – which highlights how important it is to keep yourself up to date with scientific developments within the equine industry.

I can remember when elasticated girths first appeared. They were the bees knees. Then there was a phase which said elastic should be on both sides so that the tension is even.

There has been the warning for a few years that you should be careful not to over tighten elastic girths, but it was interesting to learn that it makes the saddle more unstable. More controversial then, are those anti-slip girths designed for barrel shaped cobs, which have a rubbery anti-slip pad on the girth, and elastic on both sides!

I didn’t know that girth tension varies with pace: although it makes logical sense because the different footfall sequences will affect the horse’s body. If you lift one arm up, for example, your barrel shifts to maintain balance and muscles around your rib cage contract in order to enable you to move your arm, so this follows through that the horses’ barrel will be similarly affected. In canter, their breathing is also in sync with the stride, so that could help explain the variation in girth tension whilst cantering.

Girths are now much more ergonomically shaped, cutting back away from the elbows, so I guess manufacturers are already aware of the pressure points.

I’ve heard plenty of times that girths shouldn’t be overtightened. And it’s easy to get carried away with rotund ponies prone to saddle slippage, but I wasn’t aware that it affected athletic performance other than the horse being uncomfortable – try running in too small a trainers, or like me still squeezing into your jodhpurs – and unable to take deep breaths that over tight girths compromised a horse’s performance.

I’m not really sure how the average horse owner assesses the tension in their girths, in order to be as close to the ideal 10kgs as possible. I would say that 10kgs doesn’t sound very much though!

I think it’s fairly obvious that men create more girth tension than women. It’s a fact, feminist or not, that men are usually stronger than women, and if you take into account their usually increased height, you can see quite easily how they can crank the girth up.

Even in my limited history of being around horses, which scarily enough is twenty years now, technology and research has made huge advances in tack and the way horses and riders are taught. It’s actually exciting, in a geeky way, to see how our knowledge and understanding changes in the next decade, and the impact this will have on all areas of the sport.

Centaur Biomechanics does a lot of research in this area. It’s a fairly local company to me, and once I’ve swallowed the price of a lesson, I’d be really interested in having a biomechanics session to really see how straight I am as a rider. I’m just off to Google some biomechanics books to add to my Christmas list … I’ll be needing some bedtime reading in the New Year!


Increasing Knowledge

I remember reading an article by a BHS instructor which said that teaching Riding Club members was often more rewarding to teach than professionals because they are more receptive to different views and are well read in their areas of interest: be it dressage, a past injury of their horse, or join up.

When I was younger I remember we followed our instructor and yard owner’s instructions blindly. Probably mostly to do with the fact that we were kids. But if she told us to increase our hard feeds, or that our pony needed the farrier next week, or that we should put a martingale on, then we did it. She was usually right, but it didn’t lead to a huge amount of understanding. For example, why did she think our pony needed more feed? Or that they needed a martingale.

Now however, amateur horse owners keep their horses on a far more individual basis. They organise field maintenance, decide when to bring their horses in for the winter (all our ponies had to be living in by the first weekend of December but the ones which started to drop weight started living in earlier), and feed rations. As well as organising the farrier and dentist themselves – we had a farrier who came weekly and our ponies were done when we were told they needed doing.

As a result, horse owners now need to be more well read, and know how frequently to check teeth or shoes, and signs to look for that means the feed ration is too much or too little. This gives them more control over their horse’s lifestyle though.

However, information is more available to horse owners. Magazines, social media, the internet, books, webinars and DVDs all mean that information is at our finger tips. We are also more likely to see new products earlier, which can lead to owners following the fads.

It’s understandable that horse owners want to learn, because they have a vested interest in equines, and this is their hobby. And I like that attitude, it makes these people easier to teach. The ability for amateur horse owners to research new products, ring up feed companies for advice, and read reviews or celebrity interviews means that by the time an instructor is asked their opinion, the owner has already decided on the answer.

I have some clients who do some research, and then ask me for my opinion. Whilst others are more confident in their convictions. I think there’s a balance: horses haven’t read the textbook so whilst on paper it would appear that (A) is the answer, in actual fact (B) is a better option. And your instructor or yard owner may have experience of similar horses or have some “outside the box” suggestions which may work. So it’s useful to keep your instructor or yard manager on board with your horse’s management. Additionally, an experienced horse person may notice the earlier signs of weight loss, lameness, behaviour problems, or illness than a one horse owner will, so it’s important for them to feel that they can approach you with a concern if they’ve noticed a change in your horse.

From an instructor’s point of view, the fact that your clients are more knowledgeable and keen to learn puts a bit of pressure on you to continually enhance your own knowledge and continue to learn. Which ultimately can only be good for the industry because instructors strive to improve their performance and quality of lessons. Last week a client of mine had the physio to her mare, and was advised to use either a bungee or a chambon. So she asked me what my opinions were on either of the two gadgets and if I could help her fit and use one. Now, I’ve not used either gadget frequently, but I had to double check my knowledge so I could formulate a balanced, knowledgeable answer for this client.

Teaching is not just a test of your knowledge of schooling and riding, but you are invariably asked about all aspects of horse care, and I do like the challenge involved with advising owners on all sorts of topics, and also being kept on my toes with new developments within the sport.


Grass Reins

What are everyone’s thoughts on grass reins? Or daisy reins, or any other pony restraints? Which are competition-legal, and how should they be fitted?

Recently I saw a blog post on the BHS APC group, discussing grass reins, which got me thinking.

A child’s safety and confidence is paramount when teaching, so within reason, ponies should have tack that prevents misbehaviour. However, the purpose of grass reins, or daisy reins, is to increase the child’s control over the pony, not to force it into an outline or hinder the pony when they are working well.

In the first session on the first day of Pony Club Camp, I’m sure it was within the first five minutes, I requested some form of grass reins for a pony. We were riding on grass, and he kept nosediving for the grass. His rider looked nervous and sat leaning forwards, so every time the pony’s head went down she was almost unseated. I felt that it was counter productive for her to be struggling to hold his head up all week, and that a gadget would be the best support for my rider. The next session, the pony was wearing a daisy rein, and didn’t even attempt to put his head down. It was almost as though the mere presence of the daisy rein was enough to deter him, and my rider gained confidence through the week.

I was surprised to see, on the equipment list of a different pony club, that grass reins were listed underneath bridle and saddle. Are they really that common, and are they seen as an essential piece of equipment?

I’m all for using grass reins or daisy reins (side reins are sometimes seen too, but I think they’re becoming less popular because they sit at ankle height for many small children so there’s a risk of them getting their foot caught in a fall) if necessary, but I do like to see them only used when necessary. Perhaps only at rallies, or in group lessons, or on grass, when the pony is more inclined to be cheeky. I also like them fitted so that they don’t interfere with the pony’s way of going when he’s behaving. For example, the grass reins are slack until the pony snatches his head, either to graze, to try to unseat the rider, or to evade the wobbly hands. I hate seeing ponies with their heads tied in, particularly show ponies, and I think that sometimes having gadgets too restrictive causes other behavioural problems, such as the pony not going forwards or shaking their head.

Can you use grass reins for jumping? This was the question posed by one instructor. It seemed the general consensus, which I agree with, is that if the reins are fitted correctly, i.e. not restricting the pony’s head then they can be used for jumping because the height that kids who require grass reins should be jumping is not much more than raised trotting poles and the ponies don’t jump as such, rather make an exaggerated stride over them. I will add, that if a child is ready to start jumping bigger then their position should be secure enough that their hands don’t cause the pony to snatch on the reins (like many do when their mouths are used for balancing on) and their upper body secure enough that it isn’t pulled forward when the pony snatches, or they are strong enough in their core to prevent a pony from putting his head down to graze. So if a child is jumping more than a few inches whilst still wearing grass reins, either the grass reins need removing or the basics revised with the rider on the flat.

Another instructor asked what form or daisy reins or grass reins were permitted in competitions. Affiliated, none except for Pony Club mounted games, where the are fitted from the D-ring, through the bit ring, over the poll, and through the bit ring to the D ring on the opposite side. I guess in unaffiliated competitions it is at the judges discretion. You won’t see any gadgets in the show ring (the warm up is a different matter!) and probably not the dressage arena, but I think if I was judging kids on grass I’d permit correctly fitted daisy reins purely for safety reasons. In the showjumping arena, again the judge may permit it in the lead rein or mini classes for the reason that the ponies aren’t really jumping, and if it keeps a child safer then it can only be a good thing. After all, you want to encourage the little riders.

When fitting grass reins, you can either fit them so that they connect each side of the bit via the poll, as in the mounted games rules, or under the chin. I think I prefer going under the chin because a pony is more likely to snatch their head downwards, and putting pressure on the poll with the grass reins will accentuate that. However, when used with a single jointed bit, the nutcracker action may become too severe for some ponies. Which is why it’s worth experimenting with different types of gadgets, because there are hundreds of variations from the classic daisy rein or webbing grass rein, and their fitting options, to make sure that they only come into effect when the pony’s behaviour is deviating from acceptable, and that the pony doesn’t react in an untoward way to their action, nor is the fitting of the rest of the tack hindered – for example, I once saw a rotund pony wearing a daisy rein and crupper. The daisy rein caused the saddle to pitch forwards, so the crupper was needed to counteract this!


Shock Absorbers

I used this exercise a couple of times last week with various clients. It’s a bit of a brain teaser, but helps to improve the arm position.

We all know that there should be a straight line from the horse’s bit, through the wrist, to the elbow, which hangs below the shoulder. Easier said than done and many people ride with too straight an elbow.

The first client I introduced this concept to has very tense arms, and her go-to position is to lock her arms when she’s nervous. So we’ve done a lot of work on keeping the wrists soft and not braced, working on the lunge without reins, building her confidence so that she’s not as inclined to “hold on” with her hands.

So the overall picture is getting better, but because this rider has a tendency to lock and stiffen her arms, the elbows don’t act as shock absorbers and subsequently her rein contact and hand position isn’t very consistent.

Still looking hands are the ideal, but the only way to create the illusion of having still hands is to have them so that they follow every movement of the horse. In order to do this, the elbows need to absorb any movement. After all, holding something rigidly still gives the impression of a stream flowing around a large rock.

As we all know, jumping and landing with our knees straight causes a jarring feeling through our body, and the only way to avoid jarring yourself is to land with your knees bent slightly. Knees are hinge joints, the same as elbows, so in order for the elbows to be shock absorbers they must also have a bend to them.

For riders who struggle with carrying tension in their arms, it is important to introduce some movement to the arms. But obviously it needs to be controlled movement and to go with the movement of the horse and rider.

Take rising trot, beginning with the arms in the classically correct position. As you stand up out your stirrups, push your hands down; as you sit down, raise them up. It’s a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head but once you get it it’s fairly straightforward.

Initially the movement wants to be quite exaggerated, especially as it feels quite alien to the rider. But after riding it for a few circuits you will find that when the rider thinks of another exercise or movement they will stop actively opening and closing the elbow, but because the arm is relaxed and movement has been introduced the elbow will open and close slightly, thus acting as a shock absorber and giving the illusion that the hands are perfectly still. Then because the hands and arms are moving perfectly with the horse, the contact will remain consistent.

My client with tense arms understood the concept well and it was good to see the elbows starting to work properly after moving them as she rose, but we need more practice in getting her to move her arms so that she doesn’t rapidly adopt the locked arm look. 

I find this exercise is also useful for anyone who struggles to hold a consistent contact as it improves their feel and awareness of their hands and arms; and it’s also very good at relaxing riders who maybe need their brains focused on something rather than their environment. 


A Daunting Task

I taught a very daunting lesson earlier this week with a guinea pig rider.

She entered the arena with a rather snazzy looking Spanish horse, bedecked in a double bridle. 

The rider was very confident, as she was legged up onto the jogging mare. I made the necessary enquiries to tick the box:

  • What’s the rider’s name, riding experience, qualifications, medical history.
  • What’s the horse’s name, experience, history and medical history.
  • What was the horse and rider relationship.

This girl was a Stage IV rider and this was her new horse, recently come over from Spain. It could do all the lateral movements but didn’t have a competition record.


What on earth should I teach them?!

I admit, I felt slightly out of my depth. I take a while to get into my groove, especially with confident riders because I get a bit intimidated. The horse was also a far higher calibre than I’ve taught before.

I started the session by watching them warm up. It gave me time to think. The trot was choppy and short striding; the canter was bouncy and tense and this rider said that whilst the horse didn’t feel like she was going to bolt, she was strong. The mare tried to evade the contact by tucking her nose to her chest. The rider had a good balanced position, and secure lower leg. If I’m going to be really picky, she was a bit collapsed in her upper body, and had a tendency to fix her hands.

I had a plan. Despite the horse’s high level of training, there were some basic elements that we could improve. Equally though, the mare was hot and quick thinking, so needed to be kept mentally stimulated. 

I explained to my rider that I felt we should work on relaxing the mare, and getting her to take the contact forwards, instead of tucking behind the bridle. As the mare was a busy type, I suggested we used leg yield to get the mare stepping under with her inside hind leg and taking the contact forwards. Our focus being on the neck staying long and the mare relaxing.

We started in walk, and immediately it was obvious that the mare is very talented with an extravagant crossover. She easily leg yielded from the three-quarter line to the track. However, as with any big mover, she had the tendency to escape from her rider – in the leg yield the rider tends to lose her outside shoulder. 

Once we moved into the trot the loss of the outside shoulder was more noticeable, so I brought my riders   attention to her outside rein contact, making sure it prevented too much inside flexion and supported the outside shoulder. Then I highlighted how she was pinning her inside rein by the wither, so encouraging the mare to turn to the inside and fall through the outside shoulder. As soon as that hand was carried forwards the leg yield improved because they were straight. Then we turned our attention to keeping the trot rhythm consistent through the movement.

After working on both reins I felt there was a slight improvement; the rider was more in tune with the horse, who was starting to lengthen her neck and was moving laterally in a more relaxed manner.

I didn’t want to work on the canter – no need to over complicate matters – so we moved on to zig zag leg yielding. This was to ensure the mare wasn’t anticipating going from the three-quarter line to the track, and was responsive to the riders outside leg. The rider also had to make more subtle aids and change her position slowly as she changed direction so as to help maintain their balance. We talked about which direction was easier: the left leg yield was more extravagant but felt less controlled, than the right which had less crossing but was straighter and with no rushing. 

By the end of the session I felt the mare was much improved, with a longer trot stride, and more relaxed and consistent in her frame. I did mention to her rider about trying her in just a snaffle bridle to establish a consistent contact, and to get the horse seeking it more, but I think as it’s early days in their relationship it might be an exercise for the future. This rider gave me positive feedback, and seemed to understand the lesson concept and reasoning behind it, so hopefully I’ve helped her. 

Now that I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and managed to survive I actually reflect on that lesson in a positive light, and would quite like to teach this pair in the future.


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.