One of my clients has a lovely pony who has a great, scopey jump. At only 14hh he easily pops 105cm, and we’ve been doing a lot of work improving his bascule, confidence and building muscle. They’re ready to go out and have fun at competitions… except for his diva-esque reaction to fillers.
After seeing his overly dramatic reaction to a little filler one lesson I’ve made it my goal to get them jumping fillers confidently.
The next lesson I got out a couple of props and laid out a combination in the school. I left the poles on the floor, and asked my rider to contemplate how she rode fillers. Was it different to how she approached plain jumps?
The answer was yes, she knew her pony would refuse and throw his toys out the pram so rode defensively and nervously. This means we have a vicious cycle: the pony lacks confidence with the fillers, his rider rides defensively but doesn’t fill the pony with confidence, so he stops, and then she expects him to stop next time.
We need to stop thinking of fillers as special, or different, and learn to ride them in exactly the same way as we ride plain fences. Which is easier said than done when you know there’s a high chance of your horse refusing them. I know, because Matt was exactly the same. He’d jump beautifully until there was a filler, and then I couldn’t get him less than ten foot to the fence.
I had this enlightening lesson on him at college, and realised that my approach was half the problem. So I repeated this lesson with my client and pony.
Throughout their warm up I had them trot and canter over the poles, with the fillers at either wing. I moved them progressively closer as both pony and rider started to ignore the fillers and relax so that they was just enough room for the pony to pass between.
Then I built the jumps up slowly, one by one, only changing one thing at a time, and focusing my rider on her riding positively and calmly to each fence as if the fillers weren’t there.
Soon they were jumping the fences confidently and in a flowing way, with no backing off or chipping in on take off. And they didn’t falter when I rearranged my props to make the jumps seem different.
The next few lessons I plan on getting different fillers out and building them up to jumping the fillers quicker and quicker until my rider doesn’t tense up with the thought of fillers, and the pony is more confident, and unfazed by their presence. Then we’ll have a trip to a schooling venue to practice jumping new fillers away from home and then they’re ready for competition.
I was hacking this week when we had a little accident which I thought was worth sharing in case anyone has a similar incident so that you know how to respond.
The two of us were hacking along a byway track, which is used regularly by cars and horses, when suddenly my friend’s pony staggered and started hopping along. The little mare tried to put her left fore to the floor, but couldn’t weightbear. As soon as she’d stopped trying to walk (I’d already stopped) my friend jumped off.
I could see her trembling with what I could only assume was pain. I genuinely thought she’d broken her leg or popped a tendon. My friend cradled the left fore and looked at the foot.
She told me there was a stick caught, so I hopped off too and had a look. It wasn’t a stick, it was a large nail. Embedded in the poor mare’s frog.
We decided to try and remove the nail as we needed to get her home, which was only five minutes away, and being a smooth nail we were likely to remove the whole thing.
I held the horses while my friend wiggled the nail out. Thankfully her pony knew we were helping and stood like an angel. The nail had blood on, and had penetrated the frog by about half a centimetre. You can see the darkened area at the tip of the nail on the photo below, which is dried blood.
Immediately the pony seemed more comfortable and was sound so we started walking home and discussed treating the wound.
As it was a puncture wound we want to keep it as clean as possible and avoid any infection, which can be very tricky to treat so I suggested flushing out the wound, applying some form of antiseptic – iodine spray for example – and dry poulticing the foot to keep it clean. We talked about turn out versus box rest and decided that whilst it was warm and dry it was much of a muchness as to which was more beneficial. Given that the mare doesn’t like staying in my friend preferred the idea of turning her out in a poultice.
Given that the foreign object was an old nail, I checked that the pony’s vaccinations were up to date, and I did suggest it would be worth ringing the vet for advice and to see what they recommend with regard to tetanus boosters. I know that with serious injuries they often give a booster as part of the course.
When we got back to the yard there was a farrier there, so my friend took her pony over for him to have a look at. After all, the foot is their area of expertise!
The farrier said that she was lucky; the nail had gone in at an angle so whilst it was still a puncture wound it hadn’t gone up into the foot. The lack of blood was a good thing as only the frog was damaged. And the nail had pierced the frog closer to the toe than the heel, which is preferable.
I think we had a lucky escape in that the mare is fully up to date with vaccinations, and with the location of the injury so hopefully after a few days rest and keeping the wound clean she’ll be back to her normal bouncy self!
I did send a few messages to local yards to warn them to be vigilant along that track in case there was more debris on the track to cause another injury as it had the potential to be so much worse.
Here’s a useful change of rein for you dressage divas. It incorporates shoulder fore as well as changes of bend, so is very useful for improving their balance and suppleness.
It can be ridden off either rein, but I’ll describe it beginning on the left rein.
At A, turn down the centre line and ride left shoulder fore to X. At X, ride a ten metre circle left before riding a ten metre circle right, and then continue down the centre line to C in right shoulder fore before turning right at C. If you turn off the right rein, ride right shoulder fore and the right circle first.
Shoulder fore, processing to shoulder in, on the centre line is trickier than riding it on the track because the horse has no support from the fence, so needs the rider’s support to keep them straight. Riding from shoulder fore onto the first circle will improve the inside hind leg engagement.
The second circle allows you to change your horse’s bend and help you set up the second shoulder fore.
The two circles effectively make up a figure of eight, and the quick change of bend helps improve the horse’s suppleness and balance as they have to shift their weight from the old inside hind to the new inside hind limb.
I enjoyed doing this exercise with Phoenix in my lesson this week, and could feel the benefits to her. Watch out clients as you’ll be having a go soon!
In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.
My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.
Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.
I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.
Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.
I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!
I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.
Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …
On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.
It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).
I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!
White lips in the ridden horse has always been seen as a sign that the horse is working well and has submitted to their rider. However, recently I’ve seen a couple of articles which has found that stressed horses lick their lips and produce white froth, and it is not linked to submissive behaviours.
As ever, our norms and beliefs are challenged as our knowledge increases.
I’ve done a bit of observational research with the horses I work with. Just observing whether they have white lips in consideration to how they have worked.
My thoughts began at Christmas, when I stopped and thought about the fact that Phoenix had a fairly dry mouth when I schooled her. There was a bit of moisture, but very little white. In terms of how she was going, I felt she was 80% committed to me; she did everything I asked but was not quite coming through from behind. Almost, but not quite. I was five pieces away from completing the 1000 piece jigsaw.
Then in March, when she was very tense whilst being ridden she foamed at the mouth like a rabid dog. However I didn’t feel she had been particularly submissive during our session. She’d been good in the sense that we’d contained her flight instinct and she had started to relax, but she was still very anxious. And I could see this in her body language – her eyes looked worried, she had her head up, muscles tensed, and generally a very alert stance. To me, this was far more suggestive of the theory that a stressed horse foams white at the mouth.
Over the last couple of months Phoenix has become happier in herself, with a softer, more relaxed stance. When working she’s improved dramatically in that she allows me to position her, accepts the aids, and is more relaxed in her work. She’s coming through from behind better and using her back more, as well as happy to walk on a long rein at the end to cool off. When I dismount, her head stays low, her eyes soft, and a little bit of white lipstick. She’s worked with me, submitted to my requests, and tried her hardest.
I’ve been watching other horses, whether I ride them or teach their rider, and I’ve noticed that there is definitely individual differences between horses. Some horses will have very white lips whilst the rest of their body language suggests they are relaxed and happy; others will only have moist mouths when working well for their rider.
Horses who aren’t asked to work to a contact or with a softer frame always had dry mouths. When more of a contact is taken up with these horses and they’re asked to soften into a frame they all get moist mouths because they’ve been chewing the bit and using their mouth, tongue and jaw muscles. By the time these horses are working from behind and using themselves correctly they usually have a little bit of white lipstick. The rest of their body language is accepting, relaxed, and submissive.
Some horses, who have a drier mouth than others and do appear to be working well, seem to be the ones who are a little fixed in their frame. Not from anything in particular that the rider has done, but they accept the contact and keep their mouths and necks as still as possible, which means they don’t create much saliva. This is perhaps just the way they have been trained or ridden, or it is potentially a stiffness in a muscle area which stops them using themselves to the best of their ability so they are holding themselves in a way which doesn’t enable them to mouth the bit.
The horses I see, often just working in the school around me if I’m honest, who have a lot of white around their mouths, and flecks along their neck, look anxious and tense. I don’t know these horses and their characters, but I think it’s interesting to see that even though the horse is obeying their rider’s aids and in theory doing everything correctly, their body language is tense and they foam at the mouth. They’re submissive on paper, but not happy about the submission – like the unrest in a population before a revolt.
So what exactly are we looking for? As I said before, I think there’s a huge variation between individuals, so it’s worth having a quick look each time you ride so you get to know what’s normal for your horse. I think that you want to see some moisture on the lips, which suggests movement of the jaw which can only be done if the horse is accepting the hand (a horse not accepting the hand at all will not produce any moisture, whilst a horse who is anxiously accepting the contact will excessively chomp at the bit and produce too much foam) and working from behind. Whether it’s just a darkening of the lips or white foam is dependent on that particular horse. But also study the rest of the horse’s body language – do they look happy and accepting at the end of a ride? A horse with very alert, or flighty, body language has not worked well for you, regardless of how much white foam is pouring from their mouth. I think it’s a useful clue, and a good way of gauging how much your horse gave to a session, but only when taking the rest of their body language into account. And with everything in life, we want to see white foam in moderation.
It’s such a tricky conundrum and varies so much on your current ability, your horse, your horse’s current level of training, your goals, how much time you can devote to your training, finances, as well as a multitude of other factors.
Regardless of how frequently you have lessons, I think it’s important to discuss this subject with your coach as invariably their lesson structure and plans will vary.
For example, I teach a young beginner rider who is lucky enough to have access to a Shetland belonging to a family member. This means that her parents have introduced her to being around ponies and she’s ridden along the lane. However, her parents cannot teach her so they want professional input. But finances and time dictates that she can only have a lesson once a month. It’s not ideal because bad habits can form quickly in beginner riders, but it’s a fact of life and I have to work with it. Of course, I’m still at the end of the phone if they have a question, and we can do extra lessons in the school holidays, but that forty-five minutes that I’m with them is vitally important.
This rider can ride a couple of times a week with her parents, so I spend the time I have with her laying the foundations of exercises, which can then be developed under the guide of her parents. For example, when she was learning her rising trot I focused on establishing the rhythm, and told her parents to ensure she holds the front of the saddle until she looked really competent, and then she could try trotting only holding on with one hand. The bending exercise I laid out for her we practiced in walk, with me focusing on teaching her the steering aids, whilst also explaining to her parents what they need to look for and remind her to do. Her homework was to move the cones closer together and then try trotting it. Her progress isn’t going to be as quick as someone who has weekly lessons, but by me giving her homework and including her parents in the teaching she should be able to improve between her lessons.
I have some clients who have weekly, biweekly, or fortnightly lessons. For some, they want all their time in the school to be structured, supportive, and improving them and their horse. Between lessons, they’d rather hack or lunge their horse. Others want regular lessons to help them step up a level, in which case lessons need to balance reviewing their past few rides, ironing out any glitches they’ve encountered, teaching a new exercise or two, and then leaving them with something to work on until their next lesson, and hopefully with a sense of achievement too.
It can be tricky to find the right balance for each individual horse and rider in terms of the amount of homework I give them, and how much improvement I should expect to see between lessons. I don’t really give specific pieces of homework, but rather encourage my riders to focus! on a particular aspect of their riding when I’m not around. It may be that I suggest more sitting trot work, or that they practice a certain exercise, or I remind them to be aware of a particular flaw so that they don’t regress between lessons and I can develop that area over a series of lessons. I like to think that I “hook” my riders into their lessons so that they look forwards to the next one, practice what they have learnt, and finish each lesson feeling motivated and on a riding high.
This has come up a couple of times this season, but unfortunately it keeps going to the bottom of my blog list.
So often when riders walk a course, especially eventing when there’s two courses to remember on top of a dressage test, they focus on remembering the order of the jumps and where they’re going. Sound familiar?
Inexperienced riders rarely pay enough attention to the tactical aspects of riding a course. Yes, they’ll think about which fences their horse may dislike, or the gear that they need to approach a jump in, but what about the factors on course which you can’t influence so easily?
Firstly, the ground and way of going. Yes, you can’t change the fact it’s rained and the ground is soft, almost deep. But when walking the course you want to take the ground conditions into account. It may mean you ride a wider turn so your horse is less likely to slip, or if you know your horse finds one type of going easier than others you adjust your riding to best suit them. For example, accept some time penalties and take a steadier canter to help your horse out. You also want to consider the running order. If you are running towards the end of the day you should be aware that the course could become churned up and deep in places. So adjust your lines to take this into account.
Terrain. Some events have more undulating terrain than others, but as you walk the course you should be looking at all the twists and turns of the ground, and plan your ride so that you take the route which will enable your horse to stay most balanced and rhythmical. For example, a jump may be positioned at the edge of a hollow, so depending on how your horse copes with downhill, you may want to ride a longer line to the jump to give them more time to rebalance the canter after the downhill slope. Whether you are jumping uphill or downhill will also affect how you ride the fence. Going uphill you may need to put your foot on the accelerator a bit more, particularly if it’s towards the end of the course. Going downhill, you’ll need to ride a smaller canter to help keep your horse balanced and off the forehand, which will affect their take off point. Incorporating the terrain into your tactics for riding the course can make all the difference to going clear or picking up penalties as your horse will be better placed to jump confidently and successfully.
The weather conditions. One of my lasting memories of eventing Otis is when we were going cross country at 4.30pm in September. Invariably we’d been delayed, so it was after 5pm, and I was galloping up the hill directly into the evening sun, with a large table at the top. God knows how I managed to get over it as I was very disorientated and nearly steered into the hedge, but Otis got me out of trouble, as always. I hadn’t clocked the impact of the setting sun on my ride, and after that event I was always much more considerate of where the sun would be when I would be jumping, rather than where it was when I walked the course. It’s the same with shadows; if a jump is under some trees, check where the shadows are going to be. It takes horses eyes longer than ours to adjust from light to dark, so again you’ll need to adjust your riding line or gear in order to give your horse the best chance of seeing and judging the question. Equally, if it’s raining or windy, you’ll firstly be questioning your sanity, and secondly, need to adjust your riding whether you’re cantering into the rain or wind, or away from it, as your horse will find it harder when against the weather so will need more positive riding from you.
My challenge to you is the next time you are at a competition, or cross country schooling, to start to take into account the weather conditions, terrain, ground, and shadows, as well as trying to remember the order of the jumps. You should start to feel that although you are making more micro adjustments to your canter, and riding less direct lines, your round will flow more and the jumping efforts seem easier.
I should thank Ben Hobday for this exercise, which my riders have found deceivingly tricky.
I laid out a square of poles of approximately twenty metres. Two poles made each square corner, and one pole on the centre of each side.
The purpose of this exercise was to improve the quality of the canter, but initially we worked in trot. Very often horses will turn their heads and necks in the direction of the circle, but their shoulders are still pointing out on the circle. Therefore they aren’t working straight through their body or engaging their hindquarters correctly.
The square highlights to the rider the lack of roundness to their circle, and how their horse has a tendency to drift out through the outside shoulder. I found the poles along the sides of the square most useful here as the horses almost bounced off them like the bumpers on a pinball machine. The poles brought the horse’s outside shoulder around on the circle so that they were pointing in the direction of movement, and the horse started to flex through their barrel.
We compared trot circles without the box to those inside the poles, and my riders could feel the improvement in their horse’s balance on the latter, with the inside hind leg more engaged and the horse lighter in the hand. I had my riders spiral in and out a few times so they could get the feeling of the evenness of their leg yielding; and because the trot was straighter and of a better quality the leg yield was more correct, with a better action from the inside hind.
Then we progressed to cantering a circle inside the square. All my riders noticed a huge difference to the quality of their canter as they progressed around the circle and their horse’s shoulders started to point in the direction of travel. The forehand lifted and the canter felt lighter. Initially, the canter lost some power as the horses strived to maintain their balance in this new frame but once the riders supported their horse more with the leg the impulsion returned. Most riders were shocked with his much outside leg they needed to ride the circles and the detrimental effect to their straightness of over-using the inside rein.
The square made a huge impact on the quality of the trot and canter for flatwork, but I decided to take Ben’s exercise a bit further and make it my own.
I put up a small upright on the corner of the square, and on the opposite side I built another small upright. On the left rein, I got my riders to jump into the box over the first upright and then canter a circle inside the box before jumping out over the second fence. The circle stops the horses locking on and improves their canter, getting them off the forehand, straighter through their body, and generating more impulsion. This means that the horse’s bascule improves over the second fence as the shoulders come up more easily and the horse pushes evenly from each hind leg so doesn’t twist or drift through the air. All my riders could feel the improvement to the jump, and after a few attempts the first fence improved in quality as well.
I played around with different arrangements of jumps, so the riders had to ride either half a circle, or more than a circle; the longer they spent on the circle, the more testing it was for the horse. Apologies for the rough sketches and my wobbly circles, but hopefully it’s enough to inspire you to try out the box of poles yourself to improve your canter on the flat and over jumps – enjoy!