Back to basics…

Starting again, often means going back to basics. You might groan internally at the thought of going back to simply practicing walk to trot transitions, but those basics are the building blocks for everything that follows after. If you can’t ride a nice, smooth, responsive walk to trot transition how will you be able to ride a good trot to canter transition? If you can’t ride a good square halt, will you be able to independently move your horses’ legs in lateral work?

If you have started your horse again, you might feel as though you have slithered all the way down the snakes to the very beginning of the game, but those basics are imperative. Time spent on the basics, make the advanced work so much easier. Anything we build up from houses to horses rely on good foundations.

This time we have all experienced, this period of retreat has enabled many of us to go back to basics. It has allowed us the time to start over, to remember things we had forgotten about. Though it may have been uncomfortable, and unpleasant for some people, for others it has given them the time to reconnect, to go back to basics.

Sometimes we over-complicate our lives by forgetting about the basics, and we can do the same with our horses. For both of us, the basics are important. After all there is no use learning Mandarin, if you have forgotten how to kind. It is fantastic is your horse can do a flying change, but it is really of no use, if you can’t do a good canter transition in the first place.

Tricks are impressive, we all get blown away by a flashy trot or a person who can speak 10 languages. But in reality the transition that gets one into the flashy trot is more important than the flashiness. And speaking 10 languages is of no use if you can’t be kind in any of them…

Spring…it’s coming!

I just love Spring, and its nearly here! You can feel it in the air, despite the cold, that the sun is just starting to peep around the corner, the days are rapidly lengthening, galloping forwards into summer. It is wonderful!

But before you go out and saddle up and ride over the mountains for hours, leaving both you your horse aching and limping the next day, take a moment. Over the winter we spend more time indoors, sat down, wrapped up in layers of clothes. We don’t stretch (other to reach for more chocolate or the television remote) we huddle. We curl our shoulders against the wind as we haul sodden rugs across badly lit yards. We shrink our heads downwards to try and cradle some tiny remnant of warmth in our bodies. Then out comes the sun, and ta-dah! We throw our arms out wide, stretch and wonder why everything hurts…

Take it slowly, unfurl yourself from your winter ball, begin doing some stretches every day. This is for both you and your horse, there is no use one of you being all fit and supple is the other is creaky and stiff. Simple stretching exercises will help to get your muscles working again.

Build up your exercise gradually. Don’t suddenly go out for hours, I know it is tempting in the sun to savour every last moment but injuring either yourself or your horse will be far more frustrating than limiting yourself to one canter up that glorious sunny field.

Get your horse checked over by a trusted professional. The winter can be hard on horses, alternating between wet slippery fields and standing in stables, it is all too easy for them to slip or twist. Having your horse checked over before you start increasing their work load will help to prevent problems from manifesting. Likewise make sure that their saddle has been checked, their teeth have been checked. Ensure your worming and vaccinations are all up to date, so that you know that you are all good to go!

Spending some time taking it slowly in the early Spring, will help to keep you and your horse healthy and well, and make sure that you can enjoy all that the summer has to offer. Don’t go mad! Build everything slowly and steadily and you will have a wonderful time this year with your horse!

Little by little…

…one walks far. I love this Peruvian proverb, it seems so apt for the modern day and everything that we do. I have seen it on a necklace, that’s on the wish list!

It fits so perfectly with everything. Want to compete your horse in a dressage test when it won’t even trot?  Approach it one step at a time, rather than sitting down and giving up. Work on the walk, practice your trot transition. Aim for one nice trot stride, come back to walk and then praise. Gradually that one nice trot stride will become a whole long side, gradually you will be able to maintain a whole circuit. In time, you will be able to add in a canter transition and repeat the whole exercise. Next you simply take your horse somewhere else and practice doing it in a different environment. And, then you are ready to compete.

Everything is possible. Your filthy, muddy, hairy pony in the field can be transformed into a gleaming show pony. Your terrible puppy that chews and runs round you can be transformed into an obedient well-trained dog. Your incredibly long list of things to do, can be broken down into small parts, which you can tick off.

Remember a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Every rider you admire or look up to had to learn rising trot, no-one was born knowing how to make a horse Piaffe. You can do anything that you want to do, you can learn to be good at anything. Everything simply requires the building blocks of learning. If you try and make your hairy pony do a half-pass it probably won’t, but if you teach it to leg yield, and then a few steps of shoulder-in and then build onto that some quarters-in, suddenly a few steps of half-pass are going to be there, and before you know it, you will be half-passing happily from one side of the school and back again.

Nervous? Do more groundwork!

When I remember competing as a child, my primary emotion is one of anxiety. Even now I can feel my heart race, my stomach chewing over on itself, and my mouth sticky with fear. I was a nervous child, an anxious competitor and my horse was bargy on the ground. My anxiety around competitions would kick in the day before, as I contemplated the day ahead. Every part of the day was a source of anxiety from the grooming, the plaiting, the loading, the tacking up, the mounting, to the actual test. Such was the behaviour of my horse that the entire day became a mountain to overcome. My mother would on occasion trail round the show ground until she found a strong man to help with my horse.

As an adult, I now look back on that scenario with slight disbelief. No-one ever suggested that I could improve my horse’s behaviour on the ground, my trainers were focused on my ridden results, my mother simply accepted that that was how the horse behaved, and as a child I didn’t realise that I could strongly influence his behaviour. As an adult, I would take young horses to shows and spend most the day teaching them to stand quietly in the car park, the collecting ring, and only once I had taught them that lesson in however many trips it took, would I ever compete them.

In hindsight, there was so much we could have done. Teaching him to stand at the end of a 12ft line quietly, would probably have massively helped the problem. Or asking an instructor or professional for help. Confidence on the ground would have helped me with my anxiety turning the show days into ones filled with fun rather than panic.

Feeling confident on the ground gives one a “safe place” to return to. If you are scared on the ground as well as while mounted, the only position of safety is when the day is over, and experiencing that level of anxiety for a whole day has a severe impact on your adrenal system. If you are already at the limit of your capabilities for processing your adrenalin, you are then going to struggle when your levels are topped up by standard competition nerves.

By teaching our horses to behave on the ground and by increasing our own confidence on the ground, we build a better foundation for our ridden work. If we are confident on the ground, and we become worried whilst riding, we can always dismount and regain our confidence, but if we are fearful on the ground, how can we expect to be confident on our horse? All good things are built on good foundations, from houses to horses…. make sure the foundations of your relationship with your horse are good, so that you can turn your anxiety into anticipation and your panic into pleasure.

Some people have all the luck…

…no really, they do!

You meet people who just seem lucky, the horse they pick wins, their raffle tickets comes up first, their card hand bristles with great cards, while yours is full of nondescript 3s and 4s.

I noticed the other day whilst playing scrabble with my grandfather that every handful of letters he picked out were consistently full of high scoring fantastic letters. Every hand, without fail. My hand had the usual mix of indifferent letters with the occasional good ones thrown in.

It’s such a great metaphor for life. Some people simply do have great luck, what they do with it is up to them. Most people have average luck. But in scrabble if you play well it is possible to beat the person with the great set of letters, not every time, but it is possible.

So when you see the lucky girl at the show, with the amazing horse and the seemingly effortless life, remember you can also do well. You can have trained harder, you can have spent more time with your horse, so that you know instinctively that they are going to struggle with the flag in the corner, so you are going to need extra bend coming into that corner to prevent a spook.

My dressage cobs could on a good day beat flighty warmbloods simply by steadily carrying out their tests and being well trained. So, we may not have all the luck, but if we do the most we can with the luck we are given, we can achieve anything!

And remember even the lucky have bad days, and every so often I can beat my grandfather at scrabble and my satisfaction is always increased by knowing that I have beaten him with a less strong hand than his hand.

My horse won’t canter on the left lead…

Your horse can only communicate his distress or discomfort to you via his behaviour. It is very unlikely that he is being “naughty” by not cantering on the left lead when he will do so on the right lead. Horses, in general, do not wake up in the morning thinking of ways to wind you up.

If your horse cannot canter on either leg, then he is most likely confused about the canter aid, and will need more training in order to help him to understand. But if he can canter on one leg but not the other, the problem is most likely to be physical.

Our horses, like us, can be stronger on one side than the other, so it is easier to pick up one canter than the other. Or there could be weakness or pain that is preventing him from picking up the correct lead.

Equally, it is worth checking with yourself that you are asking for the canter aid in the correct way on both reins and are not inadvertently confusing him.

Start by watching your horse walk and trot away and towards you in hand, and see if you can see any difference in movement between the right and the left side. Carrot stretches to both the left and right are a good way to see any imbalance between the two sides, making sure you stay safe while performing them. It can be advisable to seek professional advice, either a physiotherapist or similar, will be able to assess and treat your horse. They should be able to offer exercises to help you and your horse.

Once you are confidence that your horse is physically able to carry out what you are asking, you should find that he is happy to canter on both leads. There may be some initial reluctance as your horse may remember that it used to be uncomfortable, but this should soon pass, as he realises that he is now capable of cantering on the left and the right.

The Art of Learning

I love learning. I find it endlessly fascinating to find out about things that interest me and to read and to share what I have learnt with others. I like the whole process and that moment when things click into place. But that moment can sometimes come from an unexpected source. Sometimes the best things that I have learnt are ideas or ways of being that I can transfer across from one to scenario to another. So I use tips for how to deal with a toddler on my puppy, and tips for how to house train my puppy on my husband…

I was reflecting the other day on the conversation that always occurs around Monty Roberts. People will always say; my horse won’t … but on being asked if they thought it would do it for Monty, the answer was usually “yes.” This is the training aspect of Understanding Horse Performance; Brain, Pain, or Training that we refer to, and one of the questions that we ask is “will your horse do what is asked if someone else asks him?” This is not saying that you are bad, or not good, just that you might not have progressed as far in your learning as another individual. If the answer to this is yes, then it is simply a case of training yourself, before you train the horse.

I saw this scenario beautifully illustrated in a dog training class the other day. A lady with a collie said she couldn’t groom her dog, it wouldn’t let her. She handed the dog over to the trainer. 30 seconds later I turned back to see the dog sitting patiently while the dog trainer groomed it. It was a classic “Monty Moment”. It was such a clear example of how we get ourselves in a muddle. She was convinced she couldn’t do it, so therefore the dog couldn’t do it. Once the professional had shown the dog what was required, he could then train the owner to do it. Once she had seen him do it, she knew she could do it.

So remember to ask for help, and take every opportunity to learn something from someone else.

5 top tips for hacking

Hacking should be a deeply relaxing, pleasurably activity to do with your horse. Enjoying the beautiful countryside in the company of your four-legged friend can be the perfect way to start or end your day, or indeed spend your whole weekend doing! It conjures up feelings of freedom and unity with your horse. It removes us from the trials of everyday life – the bills, your boss, your housework!

However, as with everything, hacking comes with a price. Other than the very fortunate amongst us, we will all invariably have to venture onto the roads in order to access the delights of off-road hacking. The problem with the roads is to do with speed. Everything has become faster, our phones, our computers, our cars…Barely a day goes by without some horror story in the press of accidents involving horses on the road. If we read them all we would never put a foot in the stirrup!

So what should we do? Never hack? Resign ourselves to the arena? The problem with this is, hacking is brilliant for both our own and our horses’ mental states, even top class competition yards regularly hack their horses to allow them a chance to unwind. You may not want to simply trot in a circle for 30 minutes after a whole day sat in the office. However if you take sensible precautions hacking can still be relaxing and rewarding.

Top five tips for hacking:

1: Be sensible. Riding is risky, but you can reduce the risk by making sensible decisions. Should you hack your 4 year old alone on a windy evening? – no, wait till the conditions are right and you have an older horse to go hacking with.

2: Make sure your horse will follow basic commands. Ensure your horse will stand when asked, will move easily forwards and will take a few steps sideways. If you are unsure how to teach your horse to move sideways ask your instructor. A few lateral steps can move you quickly from the middle of the road to the side.

3: Teach your horse to stand while you mount and dismount. If your horse is nappy, or scared, it can be safer to simply dismount and lead your horse past the obstacle. This is not allowing the horse to win, it is teaching the horse that you are to be trusted. Please make sure you can find somewhere safe to remount once you have passed the obstacle.

4: Stay alert. Do not use your mobile phone while riding. Do not ride on the buckle. Listen to the traffic, you can often hear how fast a car is coming long before you can see it. Wear hi-viz gear to ensure you are highly visible to other road users.

5: Be courteous. If someone slows down for you make the effort to thank them. A smile and a nod of the head is all it takes. If you don’t that car driver will remember that the next time they meet a horse and could be less likely to slow down. We all use the roads, we cannot expect courtesy from others if we do not behave accordingly.

 

Stay safe and make the most of the British Summer!

 

Phone sensor predicts when Thoroughbreds will go lame

By guest blogger, Sue Palmer

I couldn’t help it, the title of the article caught my eye!

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0262407910614273?via%3Dihub

I don’t have full access to this article, which was published in 2010, but the basic premise is that attaching accelerometers to a horses neck could provide early warning of lameness.  I’d add that learning to listen to the horse more carefully, understand his behaviours, and become more aware of the feel of his movement, would all help.  Although the title could be taken as a bit of a joke, I do actually believe that using technology where it is useful is an excellent idea, and the reality is that if technology could provide early warning of lameness (i.e. if it could predict when a horse was just a little bit lame, rather than waiting until it’s hopping lame), then further more serious injury could in many cases be prevented.  It’s all very well to suggest that we listen to our horse, get to know him better, etc.  But as the saying goes, ‘common sense isn’t all that common’, and there’s a huge pressure to somehow develop ‘common sense’ around horses within a short time of owning your own, which in my mind is impossible unless you have been around horses for many years beforehand.  It’s impossible to know what ‘normal’ is if you only get to see / feel your own horse, or perhaps yours and a couple of friend’s horses, and that’s why it’s important to gather a team of experts (vet, physio, farrier, equine dental technician, saddler, nutritionist) around your horse to advise you.  When I was 32yrs old I studied for my Masters in Veterinary Physiotherapy at the Royal Veterinary College.  I had been riding since I was 3yrs old, working with horses since I was 12yrs old, and competing all my life.  And yet I still struggled to ‘see’ the asymmetries (sub clinical lamenesses) that others could apparently see.  I’ve developed this skill over the years watching literally thousands of horses move.  And even now I find it easier to trust my findings from ‘feel’ than from vision.  So actually I’m a great believer in the technology that has been and is being developed around measuring lameness in horses.  As a great friend once said, ‘If I can make it easier or better for my horse by ‘cheating’, then why wouldn’t I cheat?!’.

 

Many vets now have technology that helps them to assess lameness in the horse, and if you’re interested in applying the techniques to your own horse, why not give your local vets a call and ask them about it?

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Why we need good foundations…

By Lizzie Hopkinson

One of my favorite quotes is a Hemingway quote: “we are all broken, it’s how the light gets in.”

When we experience setbacks we can feel as though everything that we have worked towards and built up was all pointless. But often setbacks show us where we have gone awry in our building up. Often the foundations are simply not good enough to support the work as we move forwards and the cracks start to appear.

Sometimes you need those cracks to appear to show you where the problems are so that you can address them and move on in a stronger fashion.

For example many horses struggle to stand still at the end of a rope quietly in their own space. You might not think this matters, you never need your horse to do this, but so many problems that we experience with our horses come back to this basic skill.

Many loading problems are not loading problems, but are simply groundwork or handling problems. Often by breaking the problem back down into its foundations we can resolve it at a basic level before moving forwards again.

So if something is going wrong as you try and ask more, such as moving up a height in jumping, or trying to work up a level in dressage, don’t regard it as failure. See it, rather, as an opportunity to take your training back down to the basics and see where the problem lies. It is easier at the lower levels to work round problems rather than resolve them. But problems, like molehills, have a habit of popping up again at inconvenient times.

So the next time you begin to struggle, go back to basics. Can your horse stand in his own space? Can you get on without him moving? Can you move one leg at a time? Keep working through the basics and you will find the weakness in your foundations. Fix that, and you will fix the problem higher up.