With the arrival of some summer weather (finally), ginger pony and I have been very busy lately trying his hoof at any and every opportunity that has come our way. Dressage will always be my true equestrian love, but having a go at bits and pieces of other disciplines has great benefits for any partnership. In the same way as human athletes benefit from cross-training in other sports to train different muscle groups and increase flexibility, our horses benefit from a bit of variety in their lives.
Flatwork schooling is our main focus, but if I try to school more than twice in a week Ginge is very quick to make his boredom clear. A bored ginger pony does not make for a productive session, so I’m keen to avoid this where possible. An easy way to engage his brain is to get out the coloured poles – a technique that our instructor often uses when it looks like he’s about to start throwing his toys out of the pram. Polework (even just with poles on the ground) has a number of benefits for us: firstly, it encourages Ginge to engage his brain and really think about where he puts his feet; slightly raising the poles gets him to pick up his feet, use his core and work properly over his back; and, on days when we have our brave pants on, the tiny fences we jump have helped muscle up his hindquarters. Specific to Ginge, being a trotter, is also the fact that polework has helped teach him to canter in an arena – the poles give him something else to focus on and he often naturally transitions to canter instead of getting worked up about it as he has in the past during a simple flatwork session. All these things help improve our dressage scores as they have helped develop muscle and balance (for both of us), which in turn improve straightness and accuracy, and help with transitions within the pace as we have improved our control over stride length.
Another common boredom buster is hacking out. There’s nothing better than spending a couple of hours exploring the countryside with good friends. It is a great chance to relax (and catch up on a bit of yard gossip), but it definitely isn’t a day off! Hacking is a great way to build fitness, especially if you’ve got plenty of hills and off road stretches for a bit of speed work! It is also a great way to teach your horse to cope with the unexpected: walkers, dogs, cyclists, vehicles, all kinds of terrifying wildlife and horse eating inanimate objects (not to mention different coloured bits of road – the horror!) could pop up at any moment. Once your horse gets used to all these hazards, it can make attending competitions a bit less of a dramatic experience. Flower pots, white boards and arena mirrors are nothing when you’ve already handled inflatable Christmas decorations and summer fete bunting! It also teaches your horse to trust and look to you in scary situations, which can only improve their focus in the arena.
Combining both of these: the fun ride – possibly one of the maddest events of the equestrian summer calendar, but also a lot of fun. Miles of off-road riding, in a location you may not usually have access to, with jumps and photographers everywhere. Fun rides are not for the fainthearted though! They can be very busy and unfortunately not everyone is particularly considerate when it comes to passing slower, young or more nervous horses out on the ride. We arrived early to get round before most of the crowds as we were accompanying a friend with a youngster. This paid off, but there were still plenty over-taking us at speed and we saw a few falls and one very dramatic loose horse, bridle free, galloping for home. Our boys were very sensible and we’ve returned home with rosettes, great photos (courtesy of XC Photos), happy memories and, let’s be honest, the confidence to handle any dressage warm-up arena with ease!
Perhaps more unusually, Ginge recently tried his hoof at some Working Equitation obstacles. Originating from Portugal, WE is frequented by Lusitano and PRE owners, so I heard of it as our yard owner competes on her stunning stallion. The obstacles are a real test of horsemanship and team work. It means dealing with “scary” obstacles and tests control and accuracy of commands with tests of lateral work, control of paces, obedience and balance. I started by showing Ginge all the obstacles from the ground and explaining what was expected of us. Examples include: gymkhana style weaving, a rope “gate”, walking into a corridor to ring a bell before reversing out and crossing a “bridge” (which in our case was just a wooden board, but still makes the “scary” noises). We then tackled all these things mounted, varying the paces when he gained confidence. A great test of our partnership and my ability to explain how to tackle obstacles! I think Ginge even enjoyed himself.
I doubt we will be entering an showjumping, cross-country, endurance or working equitation competitions any time soon, but we will definitely keep trying other disciplines. Having all these experiences together stops us getting stale in the school and feeds back into our dressage sessions benefiting us enormously! Happy ponies = happy owners, so get on out there and so what you can learn from the rest of the equestrian world!