Groundwork: the How – Part II

See Groundwork: the How – Part I for the basics:

  • correct aids from the ground
  • positioning and body posture
  • correct leading from the ground
  • curves and bends, halts and rein-backs in hand
  • help your horse pick up more weight in the hindquarters, step under, round its back and develop strength by pushing forward from behind

A word on gentleness

“But in so far as the perfection of an art lies in the knowledge of where to begin, I am very well advised in this regard, to teach the horse his first lessons, since he finds them the most difficult, in searching for a way in which to work his mind, rather than his thighs and shanks, while being careful not to annoy him, if possible, and not to rob him of his gentleness: since it is to the horse as the blossom is to the fruit, which, once withered, never returns. By the same token, if their gentleness is lost, one can restore it only with difficulty in light horses with fiery temperaments and not at all in German horses. It never fails that someone who does not work with consideration either destroys his horse’s gentleness or teaches him incorrigible vices.”

– Antoine de Pluvinel, “L’instruction du Roy”

“Perfection of an art” might not be the goal for you – that’s one for us dressage lovers, “work his mind … and not to rob him of his gentleness” SHOULD really be the goal for any horse owner though, regardless of your discipline or riding level.

Who on earth would knowingly and willingly rob a creature so fine, proud and intelligent of their gentleness?
And even riders who are so presumptuous in expecting their horses to function for the purpose they had purchased them for, would not want to create lifeless riding robots with no expression (would lose you points in competition) or teaching their horses “incorrigible vices” and thus make them potentially dangerous (and monetarily worthless).

Last time we discussed how groundwork can and should be fun for you and your horse. Your horse should do the equivalent of a grin when you come around the barn corner with your cavesson or neckrope for a change. “Yay, we’re gonna have some fun!”

Groundwork for me is often exercising by play, ideally for both of you.

So, there really is no need NOT to be gentle and considerate, not to “work his mind” and interest him in new stuff. And while playing together, almost perchance you are exercising your horse, making it more limber, stronger and better balanced.

Now, of course, you need to know what exercises to incorporate in your playtime, and how these exercises are done correctly for them to best benefit your horsey.

Once I’ve been through the basics with a new horse for a couple of days and all the leading, walking, halting, bending and backing up together works well, I like to suggest a shoulder-in to them. Most horses understand the exercise really fast and it can be taught in a fun and engaging way with a goodie for the bend or out on a county road walk, by using the grass strip on the side of the road to measure the tracks.

Back in riding school when I was little, the instructors would let you do leg yields for years before you even learnt that there was such a thing as “shoulder-in”, but I’ve noticed that horses get easily confused by the whole crossing-my-legs-while-walking-sideways thing – funnily geldings more so than mares, in my experience.
This is why I start out by teaching the shoulder-in. Not just because it ensures me almost instant gratification for the horse I work with as they just love getting new stuff right, I also consider it the single most useful exercise in dressage, universally useful and beneficial for any type or breed or age of horse.

The Shoulder-In

This is a movement on two tracks, meaning forehand and quarters are traveling on two different tracks. The hind on the outside track and the front on a slightly more inside track (when looking at the movement in the arena).

The horses neck is bent slightly to the inside, the bend traveling all the way through the horse, or actually only up to about the lumbosacral area, as the hips stay square on the outer track and the hindlegs travel straight forward.

A short excursion into the horse’s anatomy on “bend”:

First of all: forget about ever hearing of “costal bend” – the horse cannot flex its costal vertebraes! This is a myth perpetuated in riding schools everywhere.

So what is “bend”?
The horse can bend its neck vertebraes very well – we know that.
It can also bend the last few costal vertebraes (floating ribs area) and the first few lumbal vertebraes, however they aren’t as flexible as the neck. And then, of course, its tail is very flexible.

This means that “bend” can only occur in the neck, flank and tail.
Most costal vertrebraes and the sacrum are immobile!

How to begin the shoulder-in:

 

positioning
Your positioning at the shoulder is vital here as you can correct the weight distribution to the outside fore by touching the shoulder, use the whip to continue a good forwards movement and maintain an easy neck bend with your outside hand on the cavesson.

The rider achieves this by positioning the horses shoulders inside the arena, enough to create 3 instead of only 2 lines with his horses legs – so from the front you’ll see from outside to inside:

  • line 1: outer hind leg on the outside
  • line 2: outer front leg + inner hind leg following, still on the outside track
  • line 3: inner front leg, on the second track
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The camera angle isn’t ideal, but you can clearly see Wesley’s left hind tracking the right fore in the shoulder-in to the left. From the front you would see his four legs in three lines.

Always be careful not to bend the neck further than your horse can hold the bend, this will result in the outside shoulder “popping out”, you might want to start practicing along a fence to avoid this. It isn’t that a pronounced neck bend of 30° – 45° would be in any way harmful to the horse, it’s just that many horses need to find their way there gradually as they become more flexible to bend without losing balance or compensate.

The only thing that can be done wrong here and would not be beneficial is to shorten the neck and overflex the poll. I try to keep the poll up throughout my work, but if they need to stretch down and out a little in between that’s no biggie at all.

I watch out for a nicely shaped and relaxed neck, top muscles active and extending / telescoping the neck forward, lower parts nice and wobbly – the poll flexion isn’t important yet.

The benefits of this exercise:

  • You will increase your horse’s mobility by asking it to maintain bend
  • You will improve the way it carries its neck and head by asking to telescope (cavesson really helps here)
  • You can improve straightness by doing this regularly on both sides, alternatively stretching one side while bending the other
  • Your horse’s balance will improve as you keep asking it to shift weight to the outside fore
  • You can strengthen the inside hind as it bears more load by asking it to step under
  • Your horse will learn to become soft on the inside reign
  • He/She will develop more reach and shoulder freedom as the inside fore is kept free with the weight off it
  • Your horse and you will both feel motivated by this exercise as it is quickly understood and therefore can be used in any situation (a horses confidence is boosted by exercises it knows and can execute well), e.g. in a scary situation out on the trail

With the shoulder-in, riding or working from the ground becomes a vital part of your horse’s physiotherapy. Dressage, after all, is meant to be in service of the horse – it is not the horse that is in service to dressage.

The leg yield

This exercise isn’t part of classical dressage training, many even think it has no gymnastic value whatsoever – mostly argued based on the missing bend.

As said before, I also think it is one of these inventions of riding teachers to drive their beginners crazy with – the shoulder-in is much easier for horse and rider!

There’s however horses who easily cross their legs and even find joy in it, and when you carefully look at this sequence you can see how it requires:

  • shifting of weight from side to side
  • balance and overall weight distribution
  • movement of adductors and abductors
  • and it mobilises the spine (up, down, sideways)

Most horses this exercise also helps into a good long stretch:

You can also see Wesley cheating a bit by not crossing as much behind, bear in mind this old boy is 26 – but he hugely enjoys showing off how well he can go sideways!

Overbend and Falling-In

Anybody who has ever ridden a horse on the circle line knows this:

There’s a “hollow” and a “stiff” side – the “natural crookedness” of horses.
Basically rider code lingo for imbalance. Great example of how NOT to do it shown here:

Now that’s MUCH better, nicely balanced with light legs and correct bend:20170715_171335_00320170715_171335_004

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To make the best use of gymnastic exercises, it is crucial you know which one is your horse’s hollow side. There’s about a 50/50 chance, so it’s not true that most horses are hollow to the left. Medicine isn’t sure yet what the ultimate reason for a foal to be crooked is, but common consensus currently lies with its position in the womb.
Over the years this natural tendency becomes more and more apparent, and if not correctly spotted and the horse not trained accordingly, the result will be a rather crooked horse.

Let’s take this lovely little lady as an example:

Felina is an Arabian Fullblood mare in her twenties (no point in using perfectly balanced high-school horses here), so a “real horse” that anyone may have in their barn.

She’s never had much training as she spent a long time carrying beginners around country trails, she was a working horse.
About 2 months ago, I’ve started working with her once a week in-hand  and now occasionally from the saddle too.
Her lovely new owner takes her mainly on fun trail rides and occasionally works her from the ground.

Felina is quite crooked and hollow to the right.
This means she will offer to bend to the right very well, even over-bend on occasion and popping out the left shoulder.

On the circle to the left she cannot maintain the bend correctly, and after about half a round will fall onto the inside shoulder, bend her neck to the outside and there’s no coming back from that by pulling on the inside rein and kicking the barrel to the outside.

With a horse that is hollow to the right, we will see the following effects to varying degrees:

  • shortened, tense and potentially sore muscles on the right side of the neck
  • an overloaded left shoulder and foreleg
  • the withers sink to the left
  • a weaker right hind-leg, often falling in

A horse that is hollow to the left will have the same issues on the opposite sides.

Whenever training a horse, this knowledge is what will make your training useful and beneficial to your horse’s health.

So what can we do?

You can start out each day by doing carrot stretches as described in one of my previous posts.

Start on the “stiff side”, move to the hollow side, repeat on the stiff side. Do this before your ride, after mounting from the saddle and afterwards. See how long you can hold the stretches and gradually prolong them.

Before you start working together, you can give your horse a good neck rub – use your bare fingers instead of a brush and get the blood flowing. Brush your fingers gently from the base of the neck upward towards the poll. You can also try to gently lift the skin and roll it up and down. A horse that is hollow to the right will require more loosening and warming of the right side of the neck.
Continue the rubbing session on the left-hand shoulder, then move the horse’s weight onto the right shoulder by pushing on the withers in order to release the muscles you are massaging.

Circle work for straightness

When teaching something new, always start out on the easier / the hollow side.

When your horse is used to the exercise, start out any bending work on the stiff side first – this way a repetition of three will ensure you bend the stiff side more than the hollow side.

We work Felina on a wide 20m circle in hand on the left-hand side.
Here I need to watch out for many things simultaneously:

  1. bending the neck inwards without compressing the poll
  2. moving her weight onto the outside shoulder (right shoulder)
  3. engaging her hind to step under to avoid the haunches turning outwards

Number 1 is easily accomplished by the use of the cavesson, it gives correct Stellung without compressing the poll and shortening the neck.

Number 2 is the trickiest but also the most important part. With some it’ll be enough to use the inside hand on the shoulder blade to avoid the inside shoulder from falling in, with Felina the neck rope, used the same way as a neck rein is used in all working equitation disciplines, works very well as she will naturally lean away from the touch on her neck.

Number 3 is a combination of two different aids: with the whip pointed backwards I will already encourage her to use her hind in a more forwards fashion.
Once she gets used to point 1 and 2, I can also use the aids on her nose (or with a bit on the mouth) with a distinct upwards attitude as well as my upper body mirroring the upwards “growth” to relief her shoulders, allow her to “grow in the withers” and distribute more weight on her quarters.
This will in turn stabilise the quarters as they now bear more weight.

shoulder in 1
The cavesson bends her in, the neckring pushes her weight out and the whip engages the hind. By use of a “mini shoulder-in” on the circle I can work on her “stiff” side.

Please bear in mind that the shifting of weight backward by an upward motion of the hand, classical dressage speaks of the “arrêt” ordemi-arrêt“, also known as the infamous “half halt”, will only work with horses that have already learned to telescope their neck and use their top-line muscles.
And secondly, that every “arrêt” must be followed by a “descent de mains“, the subsequent lowering of the hands once the horse shows the first inkling of cooperation.

Another way of helping horses that throw themselves on the forehand is to use a “wrap”, literally a polo wrap around their body – touching chest and lower neck as well as wrapping around the hind just below the Tuber ischiadicum, aka seatbone.

The slight rub when they move will help to adjust their posture, similar to physio taping.

Of course, correctly executed reinbacks are also a great way of distributing weight.

If you think all of this sounds “French” to you, then by all means – work on correcting lateral balance – and leave weight distribution from front to back to a later chapter. Never ask too much at once and make sure you have understood what you are trying to achieve before teaching your horse, whatever it might be.

Now we have discussed how to work the horse on the circle line on the stiff side, in this case the left. Lets continue our work on the hollow side, the right-hand side.

counter-bend balancing
Rebalancing the horse by use of counter-bend on the right-hand circle, her naturally hollow side.

Since your horse already offers ample neck bend to the right, we will not ask it to train contracting the muscles of the right even more. Instead we’ll ask it to bend to the outside of the circle, on a counter-bend. This way you will also insure that the haunches don’t fall in, a common occurrence. And you keep the weight on the lesser-used right shoulder.

Once both of these exercises work well and are fully understood by the horse, you can combine them on a big figure of eight, by moving from circle to circle.

 

And remember to have fun together! May the two of you always train in harmony.

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Groundwork: the How – part I

I started out my previous post on groundwork with “the Why”: your horse’s health.

A short excursion into my recent “Pony Fitness Training” members will show you what I mean:

There’s the young little, nervous mare with a history of rather bad back pains due to too aprupt in-saddle training combined with a weakly muscled constitution and an ill-fitting saddle.

There’s the obese Haflinger with a history of problems in the lumbosacral area, weak back-stabilising muscles combined with immense pull caused by a huge belly plus earth’s gravity. Her previous saddle was too long and put additional pressure on the lumbar area (saddle fit seems a theme here, maybe for a future post…).

I’ve just started work with a gentle-natured Arabian mare who’s of a certain age already and struggles with lung issues – not exactly easy to build muscle mass.

And then there’s the super-opinionated alpha mare who’s strong and knows it, but – now also past the 20 – started developing issues with her legs, a swollen tendon sheath in one back leg and a suspiciously looking superficial flexor tendon in the opposite front leg. Possibly aided ailments by her strong believe that relaxation leads to her and her herd being devoured by tigers, instantly. This is not an exaggeration, the lady’s neck, withers and shoulder areas are rock-hard and bending on a 20m circle is advanced yoga to her.

Of course, there’s also my 26-year-old, 177cm tall ex-show jumper, Wesley. Still around, alive and kicking!
Anyone who knows retired jumpers and/or very tall oldies, knows your troubles are with the legs: Degenerative arthritis in hocks lead to dragging toes and altered protraction with a lateral curve instead of taking the leg straight to the front. This altered movement pattern leads to a chronic irritation of the tendon sheaths. A problem in a hindleg will, over time, lead to another, compensatory issue in the opposite front leg and so on…

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You can guess where I’m going with this, the above mentioned list of “fitness club members” can all greatly benefit from in-hand work, with some – at times – it might even be required to only do groundwork for a while before mounting them again.

This might be rather clear for the back-issue candidates – no need for much medical training to understand that the weight of saddle and rider might not be the best idea until they’re better again.
But this also goes for the weak lungs and especially for the troublesome legs. See, most horses I know aren’t very well balanced – and by a horse’s balance it’s important to regard all 4 dimensions: front to back as well as side to side. Secondly, and let’s face it, none of us are truly balanced, fantastically fine riders that never disturb our horses when mounted and never throw them off-balance. No, riding is a lifelong process of learning and improving.

And what happens if I have a chubby horse that is hollow on the right and poorly balanced? It will throw its weight onto the outside, in this case left front leg whenever going into a right-hand bend, drifting to the outside of the bend. Now add a rider that might be just a tad crooked or stiff in the hips, maybe with a quite long upper body. The two ride into their right-hand 10m volte at the trot, the chubby horse with all of its own, plus the rider’s weight on the front left leg might still not break anything – now think of the same mechanics when going into a left-hand volte… see the problem?

I study physiotherapy for horses next to my job(s), so of course, I see a lot more issues than most owners would, and I hope this helps me in becoming a better trainer and help owners adjust their training routines, workload and assessment of their own horses.

And to help you become a better fitness trainer for your horsey, I’d like to go into some practical pointers and exercises on “the How” of groundwork.
In my teaching horse owners the basics, I came to the conclusion that many riders are quite willing to improve their horses’ health by working with them from the ground, but very often don’t quite know how to go about it.

So, let’s start out as if you’ve never even led a horse:

First of all, I try and practice leading. Yes, leading a horse – by a lead line, neck holder or its mane if you guys can communicate really well.

And I don’t mean the pulling-the-donkey-after-you to the practice area kind of leading. Sure, when horses are unsure or scared, they are allowed to hide a little behind their human. But this is a working exercise in an arena or paddock your horse knows well.
Practice walking together in the partner position, meaning shoulder-on-shoulder.

This has the advantage that you can see your horse’s face, eyes and ears, make sure you don’t accidentally over-bend the poll and neck (happens a lot!) and can easily reach the girth area or shoulder with your hand and the hindquarters with your whip.

I always recommend working with a whip, this way you can ensure your horse works from back to front, steps under properly and it can be very useful for giving directions and signals your horse understands well. It really is just an elongation of your arms, or when used as a driving aid as a replacement for your seat and leg aids.

Now, your position and body language are crucial here. You want to carry yourself upright and controlled, think “ballerina” – your horse will mirror you, so don’t slump and drag your feet in the sand.

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Tina wiggled her whip a bit pointing backwards, Sue immediately picks up her hindlegs more and stretches her neck into contact, while lifting her back and withers: “uphill”

Your position should be similar to when mounted: your shoulders aligned with the horse’s and your gaze always in the direction you are travelling.

Try it out: walk your horse that way, you might need to drive a little with the whip from behind to get your horse shoulder-on-shoulder with you. Good.
Now, try and turn towards your horse. Did your horse turn to you?

What’s super-important with all of your groundwork exercises: change sides regularly, as your horse will naturally always bend towards you.

For session one of your little groundwork course, you practice the basics:

Leading in partner position on both sides and both hands, meaning when walking right-hand-side, you walk at the right shoulder of your horse – when walking left-hand-side, you walk at the left shoulder of your horse.
First along the side of the arena with many long straights, then you can gradually go on to practice the 20m circle and eventually some 10m – 6m voltes together.
Here you are already working on your horses balance and bend, when driving correctly from behind you also help it with it’s front-back balance by motivating it to step under and rise a little out of its shoulders.

When this works well, you can start adding stops and starts. Be patient here and try and use minimum aids with everything you ask. Only when breathing out, slowing down and planting your feet in the ground doesn’t cue your partner to halt with you, can you use some helping pointers.
Next time you ask for the halt, just position your whip parallel in front of its chest. Make sure you stay with your hips, shoulders and eyes in the direction of travel, no turning to your horse. Use your body and voice cues.

And then praise, a lot! Praise for every try of understanding you, soon your horse will think groundwork sessions are super-fun!

When halts and starts work well (make sure never to pull your horse forward, drive from behind and use your body’s energy, stance and upper-body positioning to signal “walk”), you might add a few steps backward.
Practice this first on the straight, with a wall or fence on one side. Most horses already move backward when you lean your upper body back, no need to pull on the lead line – and if they are a bit “slow”, just tuck on it lightly, then loosen as soon as they move back only a fraction. Release is instant praise!
Should this not work because your horse is exceptionally opposed to going backward, you can wiggle your whip in front of its chest a little to indicate a backward movement.

Now, try combining it all in quick sequences, walk a few curves and bends, halt every now and then (remember to prepare well by breathing out and using your voice), then go backwards together (you are still facing forward, leaning back a little), and then move forward again by driving the hind.

This will help your horse pick up more weight in the hindquarters, step under, round its back and develop strength by pushing forward from behind.

You can refine all of this by adding hand and / or whip signals to your little dance.
For example:

  • hand up or whip vertical means “halt”

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  • hand or whip signalling a “back movement” means “please move backwards with me”

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  • moving hand and /or whip energetically from back to front means “let’s run /move”
  • pointing to one side or the other indicates a bend or curve in that direction

 

Always end your sessions with something the horse already knows well, so it can feel good about itself and you have a reason to praise it before calling it a day.

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Well done, guys! You are on the right track!

 

Next time:

  • correcting over-bend on the circle
  • my horse falls inside the bend with its inner shoulder!?
  • helping with bad posture, aka. the dreaded “on-the-forehand”
  • trot-walk transitions and shoulder-in from the ground

Release your poll first, human!

You probably all know this situation: You are riding in the arena, practising something or other and it’s just not working quite right today. Then someone steps in and you stop for a brief conversation. A few minutes later, you pick up the reins and, all of a sudden, everything works smoothly. You experience one of these glorious moments when you and your horse become one, almost like a centaur (a picture I like to use when trying to convey this feeling to my students).
I borrowed this analogy from Klaus Balkenhohl, a German veteran dressage rider and star instructor. He uses this situation to explain how the horse regenerates its muscles in this break and how important it is to drop the reins every now and then and grant it a break.

I’d like to look at this situation from the viewpoint of the rider: What happens to your body when you are interrupted by a friendly conversation?
That’s right, you relax! And when we are relaxed, our horses are happy.

Look at this happy horse stretching forward-downward, marching relaxed and motivated round the arena with my friend Clarissa (who, not expecting too much from her first ride in a dressage saddle, is nice and relaxed herself):

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Five minutes later, I sat on the same horse in the same arena and then something happened to me that many riders struggle with: I fell into performance mode!
Even though I try and not do it, it still happens sometimes, this silly idea of having to show a perfect performance. The result: nothing worked!
My perfectly relaxed, happy and warmed-up horse tensed up and wasn’t cooperating with anything, not even his favourites: extended trot and half-passes.
Why? Because I mounted and immediately started giving aids, probably way to intense and I didn’t give him or myself time to loosen up and find a connection.

This is why it’s always better to warm-up your horses yourself!

Quite recently one of my riding students made me aware of something called “The Alexander Technique”. She told me about this course she had attended and the instructor helped her understand some fundamental issues in her posture, particularly when sitting or riding and how these issues interfered with her seat and aids. I was intrigued.

So I started reading and watching youtube videos, the way I usually research anything that might help me in my own riding and especially with my teaching others.

What I learned is that many postural problems come from the fact that we unknowingly refuse to let go of our own tensions, which leads to sore muscles and all sorts of pains.

The Alexander Technique follows three major principles: Observe, Inhibit, Direct.
So I tried to apply it to my sitting at a desk, lugging moving boxes (oh yes, we moved to the country side last week!) and, of course, to riding. Here’s the results of my self-experiment:

  1. Observing habits I displayed when mounting, sitting, driving and giving aids. And boy, there’s a lot of unwanted stuff there! A forward rolling right shoulder, a tensed up left shoulder, a shortened and backward-drawn neck, a crooked right waist – as a result a stretched-out left hip, …
  2. Inhibiting these unwanted tensions was harder. So I tried to stretch out my neck, up up and forward to loosen the muscles at the base of my scull – my “poll” if you will. I squared out my shoulders and balanced my hips and waist. And generally made sure every step of the ride not to curl or tense up in any way. Easy said…
  3. Directing I interpreted as a prolonged idea of what I was trying to fix in step two – basically a general sense of up, building an image in my mind that I was much taller than I though, but also much more relaxed than I am.

It’ll be a long way to really creating a new posture and body image altogether, but I will continue to work on myself, having added a mirror to my office and maybe asking some folks I go trail-riding with to tell me when I forget to be tall and relaxed.

For any of you interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique (that isn’t my personal interpretation), here’s a link to plenty of resources: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/

“The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the way nature intended.”

Even though I know – and teach – that you need a clear mind and a fit body for riding, I still struggle with it sometimes.
I tell students to meditate in the car after a stressful day in the office before even walking to the stable and to do breathing exercises in the saddle before starting warm-up. All this to quieten the mind and be in the “now”, that’s where you horse is all the time: in the present!

But then, there’s also the physical aspect of tension.
Horses have this immediate calming effect on me, they work like Valium to me. I arrive, put my boots on, walk over, get breathed on by one of the horses and I have forgotten about the aggravating call earlier, the overdue project deadline and time itself. I can make the switch to “now” in an instant when with horses… but my body can’t let go of it all that fast. The aforementioned call still sits in tight shoulders, the project deadline in a tense back – and since my mind has forgotten about it all, I need reminding to ease up my body.

And this is important, to actually look at yourself and notice what’s hurting. It’s important for your well-being, as much as your horse’s. You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon that a horse you ride regularly will start mirroring your physical problems: a sore right shoulder won’t take long to transfer to your horse – and then your training needs adjustment because the horse is crooked! I wonder how often this happens…

A much better way would be to try and avoid this altogether, by taking better care of yourself – get that shoulder checked out! You might require a visit to an Osteopath or some physical therapy – if you are overall tense and sore (like after moving house), maybe treat yourself to a massage, a hot bath or a sauna to loosen up before thinking about riding again.

There’s plenty of fun to be had outside the saddle. Here’s Wesley inspecting a scary loop, having a hard think if the goodie is worth walking through it or not…

It’s time for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and I am looking forward to watching the Dressage Gran Prix tonight.
But when I am watching tonight, I will not only watch for the perfect seats of the riders, the amazing moves of the horses (and my ever-present criticism of noses behind the vertical – this needs changing in this beautiful sport!), but I will also watch out for tall and relaxed postures, for how the riders carry their heads, shoulders, arms and hands – and hopefully take something away for my own arena work.

So, dear riders – whatever way you ride and whatever goal you might pursue with your riding – remember to relax your own poll first! Your horses will thank you.

A spa day for your horsey

Remember the last time you treated yourself to some good thorough pampering?

Maybe you went to a spa hotel and spent the day swimming, resting, being massaged and doing some yoga, pilates or meditation – or you ran yourself a nice hot bath at home, read a book and had a nice cup of tea with it.

Why do we do this?
Because it is important for body and mind to properly relax every now and then, it keeps us healthy and sane.
This gets even more important for sports people, and our horses definitely are sports people!

Sports horses get pampered regularly, of course, they have baths and solariums after, they have regular appointments with their physiotherapists and osteopaths and most importantly, they get gymnasticised well.

Of course, this is not really practical or financially doable for many pleasure riders.

If you are, however, interested in alleviating your buddy from tensions and supporting your training with treatments, there are many things you can do yourself without having to worry about harming your horse.

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These practices are, of course, in no way a replacement for your vet and schooled osteopath if there’s severe physical problems or injuries.

I myself have been reading lots of books, articles and blogs about alternative treatments for horses such as massage, the Masterson Method, TTouch and stretching techniques and have developed my own little layman’s routine to release tensions and improve flexibility in my old horse as well as the ones’ I work with for my clients.

It’s a mixture of Jim Masterson’s Meridian technique to diagnose soreness and tension, Linda Tellington’s TTouch, several traditional massage methods as well as stretches and lifts I do with the horses.

(Since autumn 2016 I’ve been studying to become a physiotherapist and osteopath for horses myself, so watch this space. More tips to come…)

This in combination with specific ground training exercises to make the horses more limber and supple and dressage exercises according to the “Gymnasium of the Horse” – adapted to riding without a bit or spores, makes for well-rounded, relaxed and strong horses that are well balanced on their legs and have a strong neck, back and hindquarters in order to carry their riders even to a very old age.

First of all, you’ll want to have a good look at your horse:

  • Does it stand square on all four legs or does it lean forward with its front legs tilted?
    Hint: Your horse should stand balanced and square with all four legs perpendicular to the ground.
  • Does it favour one leg frequently? (Compare some pics on your phone)
  • Are its jaws relaxed or tight?
  • Does it clench its lower lip or is it hanging relaxed?
  • Is its neck relaxed and soft with strong muscles along the topline or is there unwanted muscle on the underside?
  • Is its skin easy to move around when rubbing it or are there tense areas?
  • Does it shy away or push against the light touch of your hand anywhere?
  • Does your horse walk relaxed and with rhythm or is it rather stiff, does it take short steps?
  • Does it step underneath its belly well and flex its hips and knee joints in its hind legs?
  • Does it bend well in each direction? Which one is better?
  • Does it fall onto its inside foreleg when you walk it into a tight circle line?
  • How does it carry its tail? Is it tight and up or tight and down or relaxed?
  • Check how it moves on the lunge, get someone else to lunge it and watch from the outside with some distance. This is what it should look like:

Wellenbewegung-pferd

As a second step I use the Masterson Bladder Meridian technique to diagnose tensions, this way horses often release their tensions simply by concentrating on the sore spot and letting go themselves. This is clearly visible by chewing and licking, snorting, shifting weight from leg to leg, shuddering or even yawning. Because your horse has to work with you doing this, make sure its in a calm place without food or other distractions.

Here’s where you can find Jim Masterson’s video instructions on how to do this: https://www.mastersonmethod.com/training-videos.html

After going along the entire meridian from poll to hinlegs, leaving my hand at the spots where the horse shows it has a problem until it releases visibly, I continue going back to the sore spots from front to back and massaging them. The only important thing here is to start with soft rubbing and only increasing intensity if the horse doesn’t push back or evade, meaning its relaxed and letting you massage the knots out. Usually, after doing this a few times they get the hang of it and even direct you towards the soreness.

Its quite useful to start massaging a spot by using the TTouch method as it loosens up the tense area and prepares the horse for more invasive massaging.

Wesley is quite used to his spa days by now and relaxes quickly – in these pictures you can see his soft eyes, relaxed jaw and lower lip, the lazy ears and the fact that he lowers his neck so I don’t need a ladder…

… five seconds before taking these pictures he yawned 5 times in a row – wouldn’t let us catch him on camera though!

My stretch and release routine

Once he’s soft and relaxed I do some full-body stretches with him. These stretches I do every day while grooming before a ride or in the arena before I get on – a great way of establishing a connection and prepare for work together. And I see how he’s feeling today.

Neck stretches or carrot stretches:

  • Vertical stretch
    vertical stretch
    With this stretch you can mimic an intense forward downward movement. Best to use is a piece of carrot that you dangle in front of your horse nose to encourage it into a forward extension, then slowly move it down to the ground and inbetween its front hooves, hold it for a few seconds, then let it take it.
    Lengthen time of holding each time until your horse can hold the position for 20 seconds.
  • Lateral – left and right
    lateral stretch
    This one requires the same procedure, but with you standing next to its shoulder, encouraging it to wrap its long extended neck around you. A healthy horse should be able to reach its flank without moving its body.
    Go as far as it can, lengthening the stretches and hold times before it gets the piece of carrot each time, until it can hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

 

Leg releases and stretches:

With the legs, I work diagonally – i.e. left front, right back, right front, left back. These help your horse to get a better sense of balance and it squares itself out. Take care that your head and toes are out of reach, there might be some resistance in the beginning.

  • Front leg release (after Jim Masterson)
    With this one you can release your horse’s shoulder – most horses hold a lot of tension there and you can encourage them to let go. Its important to hold the leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is backwards-downwards.
    You should see the shoulder dropping.
  • Front leg stretch
    This stretches your horses leg, shoulder and back muscles and ligaments – all horses really enjoy this one once they’ve gotten the hang of it and cease resistance. It is important to have the leg joints stretched through. Do not to force it, you will clearly feel a little push and release when your horse lets go and lets the stretch happen. Should your horse move backwards, stop and have someone help him into a forward movement by gentle pulling the halter forward and down while you are stretching its leg.
  • Back leg release (after Jim Masterson)
    This release technique helps your horse to let go tension in the lumbar region, hip, knee and hock joints – when done correctly this greatly relaxes your horse.
    Watch out to hold the hind leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is downward – some soft wriggling might help. You want your horse to show signs of relaxation, lower its hip and croup towards this side and loosely put the hoof on its toe.
  • Back leg stretch backward
    This way you can stretch your buddies belly, stifle, front muscles of the hind quarter and back. You pull the relaxed leg backwards, around the hight of its hocks until it gives and stretches back. Make sure not to stand directly behind when you pull, it can happen that a nerve makes the leg push back rapidly.

 

  • Back leg stretch forward
    After the hind leg is relaxed, you can gently pull the hoof underneath its belly. The movement is forward, close to the ground – towards the corresponding front leg. The toe should hang loose and the stretch is complete when the horse releases the heel to the ground. You might want to help by slightly lifting the toe up with a finger – just make sure to get your fingers out before it hits the ground!
  • Hip opener – left and right

    Stand behind your horses left back leg, gently push your right hand underneath its tail and feel with the base of your thumb (pointing up) until you find a good handhold – the Ischium (No 17 in the image below) joint between the pelvis and femur.

Horse_anatomy_posterior_view

Then you start pushing gently, increasing up until you have your entire weight against it. The horse will push back. Hold it for 10 – 20 seconds, then release relatively suddenly. Not too suddenly if your horse is new to it, it might fall over! Repeat on the other side.

  • These exercises can be complemented by belly and back lifts that strengthen your horse’s core muscles – if you aren’t familiar with those, there’s lots of instructions on how to properly do those on youtube.

I can only recommend to make this little stretch and release routine part of your grooming or exercise session every time – you will soon notice how your horse enjoys it and it improves flexibility and blood circulation in the muscles you are trying to build.

Have fun with your horse!

 

 

An ode to the the mature horse

… or the folly of buying youngsters.

Growing up in equestrian sports stables, I took it as a given – almost an unwritten rule – that less experienced riders, leisure riders and especially beginners start out on a mature horse, a so-called “school master”, and only very good riders who were naturally calm leadership personalities would start and train a young horse.
It was unthinkable even for a passable rider to buy a young horse…

Nowadays I’ve noticed a lot of okay leisure riders and even beginners are buying young, sometimes even green horses. Sure, sometimes a horse just comes along, they are rescued or inherited or somehow fall into their owner’s lap – that’s not the ones I’m talking about, I’m talking about the conscious decision to buy a green 3-year old.

In my new world of open-paddock herd stables and trail riding I meet many riders who would probably be a lot happier in their hobby with a mature horse, rather than the youngster they are often struggling with.

Training a young horse requires not only skill, but also infinite patience, true and natural calmness and quite a bit of fearlessness at times.

Should you be thinking of buying a young horse, ask yourself:

  • Am I really skilled enough for the job? Can I gymnasticise a horse enough in hand, on the lunge and later under saddle so it will be strong enough to carry me for many years to come?
  • Am I a patient and calm person? Can I explain the same point over and over again without getting angry? Will I lose my temper at inexplicable jumpiness or lack of concentration?
  • Am I brave enough? Can I handle the occasional bucking, dashing and jumping?

I know I talk about Wesley a lot, my apologies should I bore you with it, but even my human partner knows that this horse is the love of my life, as it had been for my mother before me. People around me know I can’t help and (to be perfectly honest) love to brag about him.
He is such a good boy, so motivated and he’s managed to rekindle the little flame I was hardly aware of over the 6 years I hadn’t sat on horseback, in fact he turned it into a raging fire.
The fire of passion, a fiercely burning love for these graceful, proud and sensitive animals.

After breaking Wesley out of retirement and having him like my own horse (I can hear my mum protesting here: “but he’s MY precious!”) for the past two years, it now burns inside again with an almost child-like intensity.

I have this old boy to thank for that.

rain protection.jpg

He makes me laugh when he starts completely overacting because I seemingly don’t get the hint that he would much prefer to munch on that patch of grass before we start doing anything, as if I were not only dumb but also deaf and blind.

He actually figured out to get the entire stable to work for him.
There’s Gundi, our stable’s good soul, he directs her to whatever location he’d like to take this morning’s hay, preferably away from the others so he can eat in peace and quiet.
Then there’s Gaby, his best buddy’s human, who he swindles whenever she looks his way, complaining he hasn’t had any oats at all for ages – so long until she gives in and feeds him, too.

This one works with almost anyone. Why?

Because he’s such a good communicator! In his long life with humans he’s figured us out and knows how to get his point across, even to us insensitive and obviously slightly challenged beings on two legs. He simply shouts a bit louder at us.

And that’s my point exactly. An older horse can bridge the communication gap human and horse inevitably encounter and will do so, because it has worked in his favour in the past.

A young horse still isn’t sure what to think of us and all these things we ask of him, he has no idea, why we don’t seem to understand if he’s trying to say, “I can’t concentrate any more.”, “I miss my herd.”, “I am tired.” or “My teeth are growing and my mouth hurts.” – and of course, there is the famous “Oh look, a butterfly!”.

butterly.jpg

That same butterfly will be serenely ignored by an older horse who is currently on the job with his human.

Now, let me define what I mean by “young” and “older” for you:
When I say “young” horse I am talking about anything up to 6 or 7 years old, a mature horse would be between 8 and 14years old – that’s when horses are usually the most expensive because they are fully trained and have usually quieted down enough to make for easy companions.

In the sports world, a 10 – 12year old horse would probably be at the peak of its performance years and therefore the most valuable.

An older horse, and this depends heavily on size, breed and work load, will be around 17 – 20+. Many horses can be ridden well into their twenties, we share our stable with a 34year old Icelandic pony who is still happy to go on trail rides.

20160430_132047
Our oldest senior Bangsi at 34 (Happy Birthday!) still enjoys going on rides.

A well cared-for horse will live up to 25 – 35 years, usually the smaller – the longer they live.

Sure, old horses get some common health issues such as arthritis in the legs rather often, but that’s not a “no riding” diagnosis at all (unless your horse shows arthritis in the back). In fact, an arthritic horse needs regular exercise to keep him from pain. They do need a little longer for their warm-up phase, however, 20 – 30 minutes of walking will loosen them up and then they’ll be as fresh as they used to be.

Another common issue in an older horse – usually north of 20 – is that their hearts aren’t as strong any more and that they dehydrate easily. Both issues show themselves on hot days, which means to let them rest that day and not ride or taking them on a round in the cool of the early morning hours instead. For the weakened heart there’s herbs that can help, for example hawthorn or rose hip and your vet has ways to supplement your older buddy.

An older horse needs to get its teeth checked (and with some also filed) each year and with some oldies digestion gets less efficient and they might need to eat more hay simply because they also eat slower. You might need to start feeding fatteners, such as corn.

And what can definitely be said is that there’s a lot of brushing with an oldie in winter! Their coats get thick and shaggy and they take longer to shed it in spring.

After the warning, here come the benefits of an older horse:

What’s probably the biggest advantage is that older horses are more gentle and sensitive towards others, especially us humans and they know how to figure us out.
A horse with some grey showing around their eyes will be calmer and much more reliable out in the country. This makes them predestined for beginners, fearful riders or junior riders.
All oldies I know are great with children, they watch out for them when the little ones groom them, they are patient under saddle with their light-weight riders and they don’t mind the noise and general hubbub that comes with kids.

IMG-20160106-WA0001
With some, like Wesley, I suspect they really love all the attention they get from children.

Out of their prime ex-athletes come cheap and superbly trained. It is a privilege to sit on a well-ridden horse, even if you mostly go out on trail rides. You will notice how much easier it is to manoeuvre them, change gaits and speed or stop them when necessary. And for the rider who is looking to improve his/her riding skills, those old schoolmasters will make you better at giving your aids at the right time and with the right dosage.

An older horse will give its all just to show he still wants to be picked up for a ride, I notice this often, not only with my oldie, but with all of them. The ones that don’t get picked any more would still try to smuggle themselves out with us or volunteer to do stretching exercises when I do them with Wesley in the paddock. They actually queue up!

A horse is made to move and even when they’re older and stiffer, they still want to stretch their legs, get some exercise and most importantly some intellectual stimuli. The joy of movement, pride in work and a sense of being important doesn’t go away.
It is a shame that so many ex-competition horses just get put away on some meadow when they could have a fun second career as a leisure horse with someone who gives them the attention they deserve.

A horse that has passed their 20th birthday isn’t necessarily “old” yet, in fact, a horse that has been kept and exercised well all its life will still be strong and athletic.

Maestoso_Basowizza_&_Oberbereiter_Hausberger

At Vienna riding school they start their horses at 4 or 5 years old, then slowly but systematically train them to become the top-performers we see showing the famous “airs above the ground”.
Their Lippizaner stallions are only fully trained at 10 years old – the starting point of their pro career and do not reach retirement age before they are 25 – 28.
After they move back to their birthplace in the Austrian Alps, many still get ridden then.

I can only recommend an older horse, spending time with an animal that has been trained superbly, can communicate effortlessly with you and is absolutely bullet-proof is an absolute joy and a privilege every single day.

There’s so much older horses can teach us, they become so-called schoolmasters and subtely train us to be better riders and better horse-people in general. They have the grace and understanding to forgive mistakes their riders make, something a young horse simply can’t – it doesn’t even know you just made a mistake.

An older horse is not only wise, but also confident and patient with their human – and in the end, isn’t that what we all want from our equestrian companions?

To recap: For most beginners and many pleasure riders (the ones I’ve met anyway) the best buying age of their companion would be 15 years of age. Don’t listen to people that tell you a horse is only worth anything under the age of 15, in fact that’s when they get really good!

 

Horsefriendly gear

These recommendations are my personal opinion, formed by experience and my own research, I’m not paid or encouraged to endorse any kind of tack or gear.

I wrote this article because I often get asked what kind of saddle or bridle I can recommend or why my horse wears hoof boots instead of shoes. There seems to be a lot of insecurity about what kind of tack to use and even well-meaning horse owners often ride on ill-fitting saddles or use 10 inch shanks – often just because the horse came with it.

Riding equipment:

Bitless bridles

There’s many options & recommendations on bitless bridles. When I got thinking about switching my riding from the classical bit I grew up using to something that would be fairer on my horse I was overwhelmed by all the articles, books, studies and recommendations by several “natural horsemanship” trainers…
So, I did what I do and started my own research. Reading books and articles on the bio-mechanic of horses, their nerve system and bone structure and I realised that putting anything on their heads is pretty fierce already since the head’s bone and nerve structure is very delicate and not protected by layers of muscle or thick skin.

Horse_nervous_system_labelledOn the other hand, I maintain that we have the bigger brain and with it comes responsibility – No. 1 to keep them save.
See, Wesley doesn’t mind crossing busy roads when they’re between him and his home. So, as much as I detest the word “control”, I do need a certain amount of it over a 600 kg horse to keep him save from harm. What a dilemma!

Here’s my compromise with myself: On walkies and doing groundwork we mostly go out only with a neckring only or work in liberty in the arena. With his head free and no consequence of pain whatsoever. When I ride, I use a bridle – but no more bits. Ever!

Here’s what I came up with on my research of bitless options:

Dr. Cook bitless bridle

This option is a bit more sophisticated than most bitless bridles as it offers the rider aids to ask for lateral movements and bends similar to a snaffle bit, it definitely requires a very soft hand as it acts on the horses nose as well as on the sides of the head.

Dr. Cook bridles are probably not suitable for young horses as the way the aids address the horses head may lead to claustrophobia.

Vienna riding cavesson

The bitless option for anybody and any horse.

This cavesson has been the tack of choice for dressage training since the 16th century and it’s still used for the training of all stallions in the famous Spanish Riding School at Vienna.

Unfortunately, it had been forgotten as a riding bridle among mainstream dressage lovers for a very long time. Growing up I would only see it used for lunging horses with correct “Stellung” (head positioning). I’m glad to see it coming back to the riding arenas, as it is the safest, most precise, fair and useful headstall I have come across.
Would I start a horse today, I wouldn’t think twice about what to use for it.

soft leather cavesson

Buy one without metal in the nose band (except for the D-rings, of course) and make sure the chin strap works the way it should, which is much lower on the horse jaw, savely on the fleshy bit of its cheeks, and secures it in place without moving around on your horses head and causing unpleasant rubbing.

What’s great about this bridle, among its many advantages, is that you don’t need to change tack to lunge or work from the ground – it’s ideally suited for all purposes: groundwork, lunging (using the middle ring), as well as riding – using the front side D-rings to attach the reins. This way you have a much more direct connection with your horses head and can cleary ask it to turn, halt and position its head.

Sidepull and Hackamore?

I don’t like sidepulls much because they move around on the horses head too much. So if you ride with a bit of contact or want to ask for bends or sideways movements, this isn’t the choice for you. I can also not recommend sidepulls for young horses or those who tend to be very forward as you have very little choice but to heavily pull on their noses. This bridle is often praised as the softest way to ride, but I have seen it used brutally many a time.

Now, hackamores are a whole different ballgame. Simply said, with two levers on your horse’s nose it doesn’t take much strength to break it. This bridle might be very useful with forward-upward horses, but it only belongs in the hands of pros. Just as the bosal (basically the Western version of a hackamore) it is there to hardly be used.

 

Boots & gaiters

Now I’m a big fan of leaving horses barefoot, because it usually improves the health of their hooves and they can move more naturally. And to be honest, most horses only need protection while being ridden on stony paths or in the arena.
However, I strongly recommend speaking with your farrier before making any decision or taking off their shoes if they are already wearing some. Often it’s good to get two opinions.

Hoof boots vs. traditional hoof shoes:

  • better shock-absorption for the hoof and the entire skeleton
  • sense of touch is preserved, metal shoes take a lot of that away
  • only used when needed, your horse is probably fine barefoot most of the time
  • cheaper in the long run… good boots are ca. 200 € a pair, hold for 8 – 12 months

What to look out for when buying:

There’s great hoof-boot makers out there, companies from Norway, the USA and Spain leading the field with extensive research being done to support the leisure as well as the sports horse in their natural movement.

 

Don’t buy used ones, with the wear and tear you won’t have them long.

Measure your horse’s hooves properly a few days after they had a pedicure, there’s lots of instructions on how to do this on the internet. There’s even some tests you can take that ask you questions about the form, size and irregularities, such as shortened heels or flares to find the types of shoes that fit your horse just right.
Some farriers even specialise in this and have models to try out, ask them next time!

Wesley, for example, has huge hooves that are regular, round and with short heels.

Gaiters

I will always ride my horses with gaiters on their front legs to protect their tendons. It can easily happen that a horse steps into its own front legs from behind or hits himself with a front hoof – this is especially dangerous with horses that wear traditional shoes.
And when you think about it, gaiters (I like the hard-shell ones) don’t cost much, are very durable and it takes seconds to put them on. So what’s to think about?

Saddle:

What needs to be said about saddles in general, irrelevant of style and type, is that its the connection point between your horse’s back and your seat and therefore the single most important piece of equipment used in horseback riding. As a horse’s back is highly sensitive and by far not as strong as many people believe, we need to make sure it fits perfectly.

A good saddler will not only measure the back, take a mould and consult you thoroughly on your options, but they will also lend you a saddle for a few days to test it out. This way you can find out if you, and most importantly, your horse feel comfortable with it.

Western vs. English

Now, I come from traditional English riding and therefore use English saddles for dressage as well as jumping and trail riding. I prefer them because they are very light, force you to assume an upright and correct seat and do not impair my horses movement in the shoulder and lumbar region.

english-saddle-diagram

Here’s where I beg to differ with Western riders, even though I have no premonitions whatsoever on what kind of riding style you prefer. I’ll just say it straight: I don’t like your sofa-like, heavy saddles!
They are probably great for herding cattle, I don’t know – never tried it myself, after all that is what they were made for: working cattle on the prairies of North America.

In the foothills of the Bavarian Alps where we are located I still have to come across someone who actually puts this saddle with its practical horn for lassoing to its intended use. What I usually see is leisure riders in cowboy saddles.

Here’s a list of disadvantages of the Western saddle:

  • They are immensely heavy, adding to the rider’s weight.
  • The sheer size impairs the horse’s shoulder movement.
  • They are often too long in the back and hinder free movement.
  • The girth is antiquated with a thin leather strap, no elastic parts.
  • The seat is usually huge and riders who do not have an independent and upright seat yet slide around in it a lot, which throws the horse off-balance constantly.
  • Since these saddles do not offer the padding, called panels, they need to be used with very thick saddle pads which create a huge distance between seat and horseback.
  • The very large flaps and stirrup leathers also create distance and prevent instant feedback and light riding aids.

Treeless Saddles

More and more often in recent times I come across great treeless saddles. What used to be the last resort for horses with “difficult” backs, large shoulders, high withers or very round barrels, now seems to be a viable option even for competitive sports riders. There’s many saddle brands nowadays where the naked eye couldn’t even make out if it was treeless or not. They exist for classical, baroque, english, western, endurance sports.

Had I not the privilege of riding my old boy on tailor-made saddles, especially made to fit his high withers, I would have already gone treeless by now. I really like the idea of having a saddle that fits virtually any horse and by its ergonomic shape does not hinder it in any movement – what’s more: they are super-light!

Here’s a list of advantages of treeless saddles:

  • They move perfectly with the horse’s back.
  • No pressure points, no pain.
  • Fits even “difficult” backs.
  • Facilitates close contact to the horse.
  • Can be used on different horses.
  • They accommodate for changing shape that occur with seasons, growth, training and age.

What to look out for when buying a treeless saddle:
Look to saddle-makers who can demonstrate long term research and commitment.
Like with all types of saddles there’s poor saddle making upstarts, you can usually spot them because the price is too good to be true – even when considering that a good treeless saddle is probably still considerably less than a quality English or Western saddle.


And again: don’t buy before you try – at least a few days.

Bareback Pads

Bareback pads are a great way to improve your feeling for rhythm and analyse your horse’s movement, they improve seat, balance and consciousness.
In the Spanish riding schools a rider’s training begins with 6 months on the lunge without a saddle to train for an independent, balanced seat.

However, I think the saddle is THE necessary connection point between horse and rider – as we both haven’t been made for bareback riding, it protects the horse’s back from our seatbones. Another problem with bareback riding (pad or no) is the lack of stirrups, which not only provide us with extra security in the saddle in a dangerous situation, but also help us alleviate our horses’ backs by posting to the trot or galloping over the meadows in a light (or hunt) seat.

So, I recommend riding without a saddle as often as possible – just a few minutes if you aren’t used to it, since it is so useful a training element to achieve and independent seat and the art of fine riding.

Saddle Pads

Pads are a great way to protect your horses back because they act as shock-absorbers, however I would only use a pad when needed, and then as thin as possible. Their disadvantage is that they increase the distance between rider and horseback.
A well-fitting saddle on a healthy horse is enough for a good and pain-free ride.

I use a 5 mm perforated gel pad between a thin saddlecloth and my English dressage or show jumping saddles. Those fluffy lamb skin pads look nice and cuddly, but they are way too thick to properly fit underneath a fitting saddle. Everything else is meant for chairs!

Lunging:

As promised before, I’ll do a post about lunging soon. It’s such a versatile art of training horses and much has gone wrong in round pens and riding halls with lunging horses.

What to use: The Viannese Cavesson 
Alternatively, just use a neck rope or lunge tied loosely around the neck. This only works for well-balanced horses that don’t fall into or drag out of the lunging circle though.

The cavesson is best suited for lunging, since it does not disturb the forward motion by tugging backwards as lunging on a stable halter does. It provides a natural and simple way of asking for correct “Stellung” (head positioning) which then is followed by a nice, natural bend inwards. Always look out for a light inside front shoulder. If your horse puts its weight on this shoulder, it cannot move freely and its posture will deteriorate even further.
This is the point where I wished more people learned how to lunge correctly, read a book, online articles or best, get a good trainer who understands the horse’s biomechanic.

Why no side-reins for lunging? Why no bit?

Don’t. Just don’t! This is where I quit being diplomatic. Just don’t even think about it.

Your horse is better off not leaving the stable at all if you do this. It’s lazy, unnecessary and counter-productive to any training. It will hurt your horse, lead to bad posture, creates front-heavy brutes and accelerates natural wear-and-tear manifold.

Forcing horses into unnatural postures is completely futile! There’s no short cuts to an open, swinging back with active, pushing hindlegs that take on weight, lower the croup and free up the front shoulders to actively reach high and wide, supporting a high, arched and proud head and neck position with lifted withers and rib cage or allowing them to stretch their necks deep and forward to open up a back that might be tense and relax.

Wellenbewegung-pferd

The Whip

I’m sure nobody reading this blog needs explaining that whips aren’t for whipping. But what are they for?

I use the whip for groundwork, lunging, sometimes for riding and with young or pushy horses even when leading. For me it is an extension of my arms, it helps me, for example, to give signals to front and hindquarters simultaneously. The great thing about working with horses from the ground is their amazing field of vision, your horse has no trouble seeing and understanding what you are indicating with your hand, voice and body posture standing by its shoulder and at the same time processing what you are signalling to its hind legs with the whip.

The whip is also a great way to engage hind legs while riding, just a tap – even a movement is enough to say “chop, chop – pick up your legs, buddy”, it can be useful as a barrier with personal space debates or as an attention grabber (just wiggling it around to regain attention). Asking for bends while lunging or working in hand is easy as a horse will automatically bend around an object pointed at its flanks, it also helps with adjusting tempo or switching gaits on the lunge.

I like to use a longish dressage whip (110 – 120 cm) for everything, but will soon try out a touchier whip (bit longer with a tassel or short cord attached) to ask for lateral movements towards me – as this is a bit difficult to point out this request to a huge horse.
I find jumping crops too short and lunging whips too long to be useful.

Walkies & Groundwork:

Neck rope, Stable halter and rope halter

I do most of my groundwork at liberty and I go for walks with only a neck rope or lunge tied loosely around Wesley’s neck most of the time. I use the stable halter for when the vet is coming, I need him to be still for something or when he gets a bit too difficult to handle around the fresh, young grass in spring when he’s still not allowed out on the meadows (finally he’s been out since Thursday!).
I do not like to engage in tag-of-war games, since 50 kg vs. 600 kg is simply an unfair match.

I’ve recently asked a “natural horsemanship” trainer why he uses rope halters with all his pupils. He explained to me it’s just a “sharper” version of the stable halter and helps his pupils make their (often young) horses finer. Well, at least this gentleman isn’t lying to himself here…

You might have noticed by now, I’m not a fan of the rope halter. I think they are brutal.
Even though the aforementioned gentleman made me realise I use the stable halter just the same way – to make my horse lighter and more attentive again, just for short periods of time before going back to a simple neck rope.

I get the motivation to use them though. Too many light women (and men) get pulled around by their front-heavy and brutish horses left and right and they are sick of it.

Well, I could write an entire book about the fact, that a horse becomes (or ideally stays) light by way of correct and fine training, not by putting on sharper tack…

But for now I can only recommend the following for those being pulled around and desperate enough to use a not only sharp but also dangerous (they don’t break in panic situations as stable halters do) rope halter: use a Viennese cavesson and a dressage whip when leading, walking or ground training your horse. Or even better: train at liberty!
It’s very effective and you can work on giving lighter and lighter aids – combined with praise, your horse will soon become nimble.

walk with me
Win back your horse’s nimbleness by use of liberty work. It’ll do wonders!

After all this talk about equipment, here’s a question for you, the horse-owner:

Can you go out with a neck ring or just a lunge rope around the neck?

Try it out: Leave all the tack at home and go exploring together, it’ll be fun!

 

horse health food

Yes, I’m not kidding!

A healthy diet is not only important for us, but also very much so for our four-legged buddies.

I often get the feeling that many horse-owners don’t know what their horse needs in its diet and just buy whatever looks like a fancy muesli mix.

First of all, what a normal and healthy horse really needs is ample water, unrestricted straw and hay, some grass and maybe  some of them a few scoops of oats.

Horses are grazing animals, which means they spend most of their day munching on something. They have to! If a horse is deprived of hay or grass for too long it can cause digestive problems, a notable decrease in performance and even dangerous colics.

Daily hay ration: 10 – 15 kg (depending on the size of your horse)

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This article is about feeding horses, but then I so often see people stuffing their already fat and under-trained ponies and horses with mueslies, apples and other stuff they certainly don’t need. So, whenever you think about buying feed for your horse or thinking about changing its diet, ask yourself: does he/she really need this?
Over-feeding is not horse-love, it’s animal cruelty.

Another word of caution must be said about horses with special requirements, such as horses with hay allergies, summer itch or laminities (often seen in ponies, Icelandic horses and Haflingers). Please make sure to discuss every aspect of their diets with your vet, even ask about how to regulate grazing times on the meadows and what their stable bedding should be like!

To prevent the development of such ailments in your horse, always make sure your horse isn’t being oversupplied with proteins. Do your horse the favour and never give them more than what is recommended to feed per 100 kg of horse-weight, ask your vet if you don’t know what your horse might weigh.

Now, this is a little list of feeds and supplements for a healthy horse diet. The order is decreasing with importance and/or frequency of feeding those items:

herbs

I’m a big fan of herbs. They are mild, natural but effective supplements to balance your horse’s diet and help it with ailments it might have.

There’s many different herbs and herb mixtures to help with the change of fur, hooves, lungs and respiratory problems, joints, muscles, nervosity and many other things.

Our 25-year old tall, slightly skinny and arthritic ex-athlete gets these herbs:

For his heart:

  • hawthorn
  • rosehip

For his arthritis:

  • dried ginger
  • devil’s claw (or grapple plant)

Those two I need to switch every few weeks. Read up on your herbs, don’t feed them blind!

2x / year a little detox for 6 weeks each:

  • milk thistle herb (to help detox his liver)
  • goldenrod (to help detox his kidneys)

There’s lots of different herbs for different requirements. Some can be fed long-term, others only for a short period of time. It’s always important to be sure about the exact amount (yes, I weigh Wesley’s 36 grams/day of each herb).

If you don’t know too much about herbs and what amounts and periods to feed them, make sure to ask your vet or an equine health practitioner, such as your Osteopath.

In case you live in Germany, I can only recommend my herb supplier – they are super-fast, have subscription options with mixtures depending on the season, and an in-house horse health expert who will advise you via email or phone: www.deganius.de

carrots, parsnips and beetroot

dinner for two

A great and healthy treat for all kinds of horses.
Can be fed up to 1 kg per day and regulates digestion as well as increasing appetite.
For horses with bad teeth or “senior” jaws, you might want to chop up the carrots into small, mouth-sized pieces.

mineral feed

  • yeast
  • chalk
  • salt

Mineral mixes are generally something I’d recommend feeding. But be aware of what your horse might be missing in its daily hay and grass supply. Speak to your farmer or vet.

The prepared mineral mix I feed (only 2x/week – we have very fat meadows) consist of:
Calcium carbonate, monocalcium phosphate, sodium chloride, wheat germ, wheat flour, wheat bran, brewer’s yeast, Magnesium oxide, soya oil

oils

  • linseed oil
    The perfect supplement for a shiny coat & strong hooves. I feed it during fur-changing season.
  • mixed-seed oil or sunflower oil
    This is good for coat and digestion, I feed it the rest of the year since my old boy doesn’t utilise his food very well any more and tends to get skinny.
  • Marigold and plantain oil help with itchy skin.

Oils are especially useful when the seasons are turning and they are shedding or growing their winter fur. Don’t feed oils to overweight horses though!

mueslies and other stuff

I much prefer mixing hay cubes, corn cubes or flakes (only for light horses or skinny old ones!) and squeezed oats myself. The cubes need a while to soak – but then I’m rarely out there for less than an hour. This is also much cheaper than ready-made mueslies are.

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Yummy, yummy mess!

If you really feel you need to feed pre-mixed muesli or when time is of the essence, then buy grain-free and molasses-free muesli.
I’m assuming here, you don’t happen to have a horse in the stable that gets heavily trained every single day and goes to tournaments every weekend.
If you do, then make sure they also get the following:

supplements for athletes

  • electrolytes (especially when they have been sweating a lot)
  • grains (in addition to oats)
    Only needed with underweight horses or real athletes, not for leisure horses.

apples and bananas

Feed apples and bananas sparingly and not too frequently, as a high-sugar diet can cause many health issues in your horse.
An apple before a training session might perk your buddy up, though!