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.

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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.

Gulp.

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. 

My New Secret Weapon 

I don’t clean my tack on a daily basis, but when I do sit down to clean it I like to do a thorough job. At one yard I go to, I swear there are tack cleaning fairies, because the tack is always immaculate.

I always notice that Matt’s tack always feels very clean, even if it hasn’t been cleaned for a week. It also never feels clogged up with products. No matter what I do, my tack never feels quite so soft and supple.

So when I was getting organised for the champs I casually hinted to Mum that I’d be cleaning tack on Friday evening when she arrived … and if she wanted to help she was more than welcome.

She came prepared. And boy does she go the whole hog.

First of all we took the tack apart and wiped it over with a damp, sponge. Then we sprayed each piece of leather with Belvoir Step 1 tack cleaning spray. Mum thinks this is good at degreasing the tack and I was surprised at the benefits of it.

I used to use the spray tack cleaners, but I then converted to good old saddle soap and elbow grease, which I felt cleaned the leather more deeply than the spray. But perhaps that’s because the spray encourages you to cut corners…

Anyway, next we applied the saddle soap and elbow grease. 

Finally, came Mum’s secret weapon. She brought out this tin of Belvoir leather balsalm.


We applied it fairly liberally to all the tack (I had to stop her getting carried away on the reins) and after a few minutes wiped any excess off and gave it a buff.

Voila! The tack felt soft, supple and very clean. Even better, Mum forgot to take the balsalm home!

Tonight I finally got around to strip cleaning Otis’s tack; yes I know it’s been a few weeks but work, Easter holidays and life got in the way. I skipped the tack spray step as I didn’t have any, but I have to say that the tack feels much better than the last time I stripped and oiled it. I’ll have to do his jumping tack next which, despite being thoroughly cleaned in September and sitting in the office all winter, doesn’t feel that great. 

So when you run out of saddle soap and pop to the tack shop, try the balsalm and see how you get on with it. I’ll definitely keep using it.

Under Pressure 

I did many walk road hacks last week as it seemed to be physio week at the yard, and on one of them my friend accompanied me on her loan horse.

As we mooched through the village, moaning about the driver who had undertaken us as the horses spooked, our conversation turned to horses and claustrophobia.

She told me that since she’s taken this horse on she has loosened his nose and by two holes and his flash by three. As a result she’s finding that he is less resistant and more consistent to the rein contact, and isn’t fixing his brachiocephalic muscle against the hand, which is causing him to carry himself more correctly. He has largely stopped snatching his reins and twitching his head whilst being worked.

From this we moved on to how horses are, by nature, claustrophobic animals – they are prey animals so need space to flee from predators. Hiding in a cave won’t allow them to use their long legs and speed to outwit the predator; they will have to fight.

We have domesticated horses and expect them to face their fears on a daily basis: live in small paddocks, stay in stables, wear constricting rugs and tack. But where does this leave us?

With behaviour problems, of course. Like my friend’s horse, they could develop a little vice, which in the grand scheme of things is not life changing, but it will limit their ability to succeed in competitions.

Last year for example, Mum bought Matt a larger browband and found that he was immediately more relaxed and not shaking his head so much – the pressure around the base of his ears had gone.

We all know horses who don’t like travelling in partitions, or small dark stables, and it’s not surprising given the contrast to their natural habitat, but we continue to force these situations on them. Most horses accept and adapt, but one mare I ride hasn’t. She won’t stay in a stable, and whilst she tolerated travelling in Otis’s trailer without the partition, she panicked when put in a lorry and had the partition closed. Additionally, when you ride her in the school on a long, loose rein she meanders past jump blocks, swaying nettles, without fear but as soon as she feels constricted with the rein contact, however light, she begins spooking at anything and everything. It takes a very sympathetic hand to be able to take the contact but not cause her to feel closed in. She is getting better though, so I only hope that frequent work with a light contact will teach her not to fear it. 

I would love to put her in a paddock with a very large field shelter so that she could gradually learn not to fear smaller spaces, because her level of claustrophobia actually limits her life – she has to live out in all weathers and she can’t go out competing. I don’t know what has happened in her past, but it does make you wonder.

Have you ever been riding a horse who is getting upright and tense, so you shorten the reins and pull, trying to slow them down or stop the jogging? Then someone says “drop the reins” and as soon as you do so the horse stops jigging? By holding on tight, which is our natural reaction, we are adding to the horse’s fear because he feels he cannot flee, and must fight the predator.

It was a really good conversation to have, and makes you reassess everything about your horse’s lifestyle, just to make sure that you aren’t causing him any claustrophobia – by having tack too tight, or holding on very tight to the headcollar when leading him in, or even riding in a constricting style. See if you can think of any changes to make!

A Change of Tack

I`m not a huge fan of changing tack; wearing a particular type of bit because everyone else is, or having coloured stirrups because all showjumpers have them, or having a martingale because you`re jumping, when your horse doesn`t need one. But there is a huge variety of tack out th

But recently I made a change to that tack of one of the mares I school. She can be behind the leg yet also has quite a lot of attitude so she`s not the easiest to ride. However, once on your side and focused she can work very nicely. I usually begin each session by trotting and cantering on a light but consistent contact (she`s far more resistant to the hand if she works on a long rein initially, so I like to make sure she`s aware of the rein and hand from the beginning) and I use upwards transitions to get her off the leg and moving forwards.

Now that her work is coming together and feeling more consistent I`ve been fine tuning aspects of her way of going and most recently been working on the quality of the transitions.

The downward transitions are her real weakness because she tends to tip onto her forehand, and forget about her hindquarters, which means that she can`t push off into an active gait, which puts her onto the forehand and so the cycle repeats itself.

Now I`m sure you are wondering what this has to do with tack? Quite a lot really. I played around with the transition walk to halt, adjusting the weight of my aids to try to improve her. I found having a light seat encouraged her to keep her hindlegs underneath her a bit more, the leg lifted her up to the halt, but regardless of how little hand I used she still set her brachiocephalic muscle, gaped her mouth wide, and started twisting her head to gaze around her. Once I`d established that her behaviour wasn`t anything to do with my hands, I started wondering what I could do to correct her as it seemed to be an evasion.

I insisted on her softening her neck, standing straight, and relaxing her jaw before any upwards transitions, and I also changed her noseband from a flash to a grackle. I seemed to me that she needed to have a bit of pressure from the noseband slightly higher up her jaw because she just worked against the flash strap and subsequently has stretched it.

The next time I rode I fitted a grackle to her. The expression on her face was a picture. I warmed her up as normal and then started asking for some transitions. As she made the downward transition she tried to evade by gaping wide her mouth, only to feel pressure high up on her jaw. She immediately stopped, shocked, and halted for the first time in a relaxed way. After a moment I praised her and we set off again. All I worked on that day was the consistency of the transitions; I expected her to use her back, stay soft to the contact, stand as close to square as possible, and move off with an active hind leg. It seemed to really work with her, I think that because the pressure was higher up on her jaw it stopped the beginnings of the gape, which the flash hadn`t been able to.

Now that the progressive downward transitions were becoming more established I introduced some direct transitions. I`d already done a bit of work with direct upwards transitions to get her using her hindquarters, but now they felt a lot better because the initial starting position was much improved. I also found the direct downwards transitions improved her progressive downwards transitions as she became more balanced. With the evasion stopped she is less likely to tense her underneck muscles and stays much straighter – although it does have a lot to do with whatever is going on (blinkers next?!).

The grackle noseband is right for this mare, and hopefully she`ll continue to make progress in her way of going with it. It is not restrictive in any way, but seems to encourage her to stay relaxed and not to fight any rein aids.

It did make me think though, that there is a definite skill involved in knowing which pieces of tack will help you as a trainer improve and educate the horse rather than masking the problem. A lot of people put flash nosebands on horses to stop them opening their mouth, but in reality a horse could be opening his mouth for a multitude of other reasons – bit is too big, hands are too harsh, he is unbalanced, his teeth or mouth are sore – and a good trainer will consider all the other options or potential reasons before going for a quick-fix.