Applying Equine Bio-mechanics in Training

We have all seen the Pammy Hutton and Heather Moffat campaign to petition the FEI to act against the practice of Rollkur and too tight nose bands. If not, Alanna Clarke has written this excellent blog for Tottie Clothing on the subject recently which is worth a read. Pammy and Heather run a Facebook group as part of the campaign and to educate riders and trainers where they recently shared a video by Equitopia on the Padmavideo YouTube channel about equine bio-mechanics and self-carriage, which can be found here. Equitopia are a Californian outfit that strive to educate riders and help them to work in harmony with their horses and provide their beloved four-legged friends with happy and healthy lives. They provide free lectures and resources on a variety of subjects like correctly fitting tack and horse health as well as applying classical training techniques when schooling.

This video appealed to me as I find the study of equine bio-mechanics fascinating. The application of modern science and understanding of bio-mechanics to the classical training foundations explains why the scales of training are so important and how training our horses to be balanced, as well as being balanced ourselves, helps them to do their jobs comfortably and happily while minimising the risk of injury. Just as you wouldn’t put your body through an exercise class without thinking about proper form to avoid injury, it is our responsibility as riders to train our horses in the safest way to carry themselves. Rollkur is a cruel technique that has come about as a quick fix way to create the effect that a horse is engaged and working in an outline. As with any quick fix, it is not the answer. The giving and retaking of the reins in many dressage tests is a test of self-carriage and proof that the horse has been trained to carry and balance themselves and not been forced into the illusion of roundness.

Having both watched this video recently, my mother-in-law/trainer decided to give the lessons learnt a try on Ginge and I in a recent training session. We put the emphasis on impulsion and straightness. The plan was to work on having Ginge working forward and from my inside leg into outside hand to maintain the straightness and balance. Nothing ground-breaking, but actually very effective. We started by essentially banning the use of my inside hand. In the past of relied on it as a guide rein, but today it was banned completely. This prevented me potentially pulling him round on a circle and causing him to fall onto the forehand and inside shoulder and encouraged me to use my seat to direct him. This change of technique also forced me to improve my position to support him better. The results were surprisingly sudden – Ginge is a sensitive soul so tiny changes to my riding make a big difference to him. Focusing lower down the scales of training on straightness rather than worrying too much about engagement resulted in the best outline we’ve ever worked in, an actively engaged hind leg and even a move towards cracking our canter problem. Proof if ever it was needed that “quick fix” is not the answer and giving our horses time and the tools to find the most comfortable way of going provides the greatest results in the long run. And, if the scientists are to be believed, it also means a reduced chance of injury down the line. Win-win as far as I’m concerned. I’d definitely recommend watching the video linked above and considering what pointers you can takeaway in your own schooling!

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Dogs at Equestrian Events

As horse owners we tend to be animal lovers. I don’t know the actual statistics on how many horse owners also have dogs (or indeed any other animal), but in my experience it is quite a high proportion of us. I’m sure that we’ve all had the dream of hacking out with our faithful canine happily trotting alongside, but sadly the reality often is that horses and dogs aren’t always the best of friends. According to the British Horse Society, there has been a great increase in reports of dog attacks on horses recently and I have definitely noticed increased controversy around our canine companions attending equestrian events. I attended both Withington Manor Horse Trials and Gatcombe Festival of Eventing as a spectator this year and at both events there was chaos at least once when a loose dog chased a combination on the cross country phase. This has resulted in a few calls for dogs to be banned from attending equestrian events for everyone’s safety. Olivia Wilmot talked to Horse and Hound about her anger after being chased by a dog at Gatcombe last year, she may not have been hurt but it is hardly optimum competing conditions. Others argue that a few incidents like this shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for the hundreds of well behaved dogs and their responsible owners who attend these events safely every year. Luckily, I didn’t see anyone actually get hurt, but even one accident would be one too many!

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From personal experience, as the owner of a rescued Jack Russell Terrier, I’ve been working hard to teach my dog about responsible behaviour around horses. I still wouldn’t trust him off the lead around them, but he’s basically fine now on the yard and when he sees them hacking while we’re walking. Poor, tolerant Ginge has been brilliant during the desensitisation process. He has come with us on walks and I’ve hacked round the field with my partner leading the dog nearby – we’ve done a fairly good job at convincing him that horses are extremely boring and not worth barking at.

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I still prefer not taking him to equestrian events though and generally speaking I just don’t do it. I was talked into giving him a try at attending Gatcombe this year, I had tickets for my birthday and everyone we would normally have left him with was away. His best doggy friend, Barney, was coming along too and we hoped they would just be quiet together. Honestly, I won’t be taking him again. I’m not sure it was an enjoyable outing for either of us. It turns out, despite all our hard work and training there are two things that are just too much for my tiny dog to cope with: clapping and horses galloping. You can expect both of these things at an event and he handled it as many terriers would – with a lot of barking. As a result, I spent the whole day consoling or attempting to discipline the dog (neither worked) and did a lot of laps of the car park or shopping areas to steer clear of the horses and riders. I saw very little eventing and came home exhausted with a headache. Not an experience I plan on repeating.

There were plenty of dogs there, including terriers, who behaved perfectly all day of course. I may be banning my own dog from attending equestrian events, but I don’t think this needs to apply to all dogs. It just needs us as dog owners to act responsibly and decide the best course of action as individuals to make sure everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience. As much as we love to have them with us everywhere, sometimes the best choice for everyone is to leave them behind with a responsible adult. I was disappointed to miss out on the action at Gatcombe to retreat to a safe place with the dog, but I was more comfortable leaving and missing out than stressing him out and taking the risk of causing an accident on the course. I think we’ll be sticking to our quiet country walks in future – I hope other people make responsible choices about what suits their pooches too.

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In the ribbons: dressage diva motivation

Ginge and I have had a brilliant end to the summer and it was just the boost we needed after a manic season and a brief setback due to rider injury. He can definitely be a grumpy beast at times when we’re training, but when it counted this month he really pulled it out of the bag! Our horses can be so tuned in to us as riders that I’m sure they know when they are on show and their performance really counts.

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The first test for us this month was a return to Dressage Anywhere. I love the DA concept, it is perfect for people who don’t have their own transport and for people who are a bit nervous or those with young or inexperienced horses. I think ginge and I tick most of those boxes so it’s ideal. The best bit is all the judges are BD listed, so you know you are getting consistent and top quality judging. We definitely aren’t brave enough to head out to any affiliated competition yet, but this way we have top quality judges in the comfort of our own home! We tried DA once before and our comments then had given us plenty to work on. Well, it looks like our hard work paid off: our second try at DA saw us score 69.35% at Intro B and come 9th in a massive class of 71! Our first time on the scoreboard and I couldn’t be more thrilled, it’s a real validation of our hard work and the bond we’ve built as a team. We also submitted our first ever Prelim test, after some encouragement from other DA members. Prelim 7 is quite a nice test and I felt like we had managed OK despite one or two rider errors and a questionable second transition to canter. I was so nervous submitting the entry, but to my surprise we scored a respectable 63.41%! The judge’s comments were very positive and particularly complimentary about our trot work (it’s no secret that our canter still needs work). We even managed a championship qualifying score, so we have no choice but to enter both prelim and intro again this month in hope of the magic second qualifying score.

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With the incredible confidence boost of our DA performance in our pocket, we were given the offer of a lift to a local show hosted by the Stroud Pony Club. We jumped at the chance and entered Prelim 2 and the 60cm Open ShowJumping. Dressage was first up and meant an early start. I’m not the best at plaiting whenever I do it, but Ginge was particularly unimpressed by my efforts at 5:30am. Despite our dodgy plaiting, the horrendous weather and crippling nerves on my part, our very soggy dressage test impressed the judges for another scoreboard finish with 2nd place and a mighty 70.5%. It’s probably fair to say the scoring was generous compared with official BD scoring, but we had lovely comments and some points to work on nonetheless. Feelings at the yard about generous scoring are mixed. The dressage divas label it false encouragement and criticise it as setting people up for disappointment if they take these scores as the nod to go affiliated. Other grass roots riders have said they think it’s nice and what’s the harm in a little encouragement – do you really want to mark strictly at pony club level and potentially put kids off dressage for life? I think there’s merit to both arguments, I’ve come out of the experience still realistic about our chances at scoring 70% at any affiliated competition and since the scoring was generous across the board the placing remains valid, so it doesn’t feel like there’s any harm done. We also have a beautiful photo in the house now, courtesy of Top Shots Photography (apologies to the lovely photographer we nearly crushed while spooking at the white boards)!

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As a bit of fun, since we were at the show for the day anyway, we also entered the 60cm Showjumping class. Our round was entertaining to say the least. I think we were the only horse in a class of ponies and jumped out of trot as the slippery grass was worrying us. However, my darling dressage boy managed to leave almost all the fences standing and bravely tackled his first ever wall and TWO doubles, which he normally finds too stressful. We managed only 4 faults and qualified for the jump off! Sadly, I had no idea we were in the jump off, so no rosette there for us. I thought that was for clear rounds only and the weather meant I couldn’t hear the announcements! All a learning experience, next time we brave leaving the ground we’ll pay attention in case we have a jump off to attend!

Onward into September: we’ve still got plenty to work on, but this confidence boost is welcome motivation as we get schooling ready for the winter season. Here’s hoping we’ll get a few more lifts and outings, but you’ll be seeing us on Dressage Anywhere either way!