A tiny tack change makes a big difference

I know there’s a lot of controversy out there about the use of different tack, “gadgets” or training aids and people can come down really strongly on both sides of the fence. Some people are all for them, others feel that they can be useful as long as they’re in the right hands for the right reason and others seem to really hate them. I’m probably in the middle ground, as long as the training methods aren’t causing the horse physical harm or suffering and the use is justified and reasonable then I’m happy to let people do what works for them. What works for us personally though is usually the minimalist approach. Some may feel this accounts for the slow and steady nature of our progress, but I think Ginge and I are pretty happy overall taking things steady and letting him work things out in his own time.

This post is going to act as a bit of a case study that shows why, for us, simple seems to be best for my boy’s sensitive soul. About six months ago, one of our trainers suggested I try Ginge in a grackle noseband, I was sceptical at first as someone suggested a flash once and the resulting meltdown from him was torture. However, I was assured that they are now BD legal and came out favourably in tests by Centaur Biomechanics in terms of pressure points and affects on performance, so I decided to give it a go. The initial results were favourable, I was getting better head carriage and increased focus and control so I decided to stick with it.

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The first sign for me that something wasn’t right with the set up was a new recurring comment from the Dressage Anywhere judges that they didn’t feel he was going forward enough. This might explain why I felt more in control, since we were slower, but not going forward isn’t something that we’d ever struggled with before. If anything the issue was always long frame and bumbling along too quickly on the forehand. To the experienced rider, this may have been enough on its own to hint something needed to change. It’s the head carriage was neater and less on the forehand, but the sudden lack of desire to move forward is probably a classic sign of a gadget fixing a symptom but not doing anything to improve the fundamental cause.

The thing that got me to really consider the fact that the grackle wasn’t working for Ginge was out hacking. For months it had been fine, as far as I recall but maybe I hadn’t been hacking as much as usual. The new problem was pretty hard to ignore: after about 45mins – 1 hour of riding, any walk work resulted in fairly constant and almost violent head shaking. Now, he has always been cheeky and tried to snatch the reins when he decides we’re done – but this was much more extreme. At our new yard we do quite a lot of hacking, so the issue was really beginning to worry me and in the end I decided to ditch the grackle to see if the problem solved itself.

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So, here we are back in the plain noseband. I’m not going to pretend it has been a miracle cure. When I first swapped noseband, I was faced with a monster in the school! He spooked in both directions over nothing at all, I’m fairly sure in an attempt to test out my reduced head control. He also careered around the arena massively on the forehand in an out of control steam train impression that I would be embarrassed to present to a judge – although at least he was going forward! However, the head shaking has stopped and he is noticeably less argumentative about being tacked up. He is back to happily presenting his head for the bridle instead of attempting to make a break for it before I can do up the noseband.

Six weeks off from competition and taking the schooling back to basics with transitions and knowing where our brakes are and we’re nearly ready to face the judges again. He is lifting back up off the forehand again and the extra hacking, hillwork and speedwork means he is gaining that all important strength behind to balance and support himself. I am having to learn to gain his co-operation rather than control him with simple tricks like distracting him with lateral work when he starts sulking. I have also taken up PiYo (slightly intense Pilates – Yoga combo) in an effort to strengthen my core to make sure I’m sitting up properly instead of collapsing forwards with him when he drops onto the forehand.

Obviously, I’m hoping that next time we face the judges we get comments that reflect our hardwork and changes. The main thing really though, is that my beautiful boy is happy again and we’re working together rather than under duress!

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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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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!

Variety is the spice of life!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

Handing Over the Reins

Recently, for the first time in around two years I let someone else ride my horse. I have been avoiding it for a number of reasons:

Firstly, there was the safety concern: when I first met Ginge asking him for anything more than walk in the school came with the risk of a bucking spree down the side of the arena. It is a risk you chose to take when they are yours and you know that *touch wood* you normally manage to stay on, but a different matter when you are asking someone else to take that risk. He was “that horse” who caused trainers to say “I am not getting on that” and once “I am way too valuable to have that horse cause me an injury” (I think he was at least half joking). Thankfully, this more dangerous phase of our partnership is now over!

Secondly, once progress began, there was the common worry that someone else could undo all the hard work and set you back by weeks or months by confusing or upsetting him in some way (easily done when you have a ginger on your hands).

Finally, there was the slightly selfish concern that we had reached a point where my own limitations as a rider were holding him back and that if someone else got on he would magically look incredible and be able to do everything.

The decision to cast aside these doubts turned out to be a great one. I had found myself in a position where Ginge was starting to really focus and turn a corner on the schooling front, but I was about to be away for more of the next 5 weeks than I would be around. Ordinarily, Ginge would just have the time off, but I really did not want him to have 5 weeks off when he was finally starting to work so well. I bit the bullet and a cast of 3 friends and trainers stepped in to keep him ticking over while I was away. The result was a confidence boost for me, a mini boot camp for him and massively improved lessons with both our trainers since we have returned.

The confidence boost came in a number of ways: the proud mum feeling from other people actually enjoying riding him; the knowledge that our ongoing struggles are not purely my fault; and the subsequent feeling that I have actually done a pretty good job producing him and should be less hard on myself. Not that long ago people used to refuse to ride him and now we get compliments for his willing and positive attitude. Everyone marvelled at his giant trot and my friend was thrilled to be on a horse who actually understood leg yield, definitely feeling like a proud mum.

The mini boot camp also really helped us both. I love my pony, but we both know sometimes he can decide for us both that he has worked hard enough and I will let him get away with it. I make a lot of excuses for him, when really we are at a point where he is ready to answer some real questions. My trainers are both of an understanding nature and know there are things he genuinely finds hard, but they are also not as soft as I am so he had a real work out and had his boundaries tested. As a result he felt amazing when I finally got back on and showed us both what he is capable of – definitely the push I need to start asking a bit more from him! This has been particularly useful over poles as learning together is not always the best for our team confidence, so an experienced and confident eventer riding him has really helped him approach fences with a positive feeling.

Since I returned from my trips we have had lessons with both trainers and the quality of them (whilst they were always great before) has really improved. Now they have both ridden him they have more insight into how he feels and what makes him tick, so it is easier for them to give advice and tips that are really tailored to him. There have been a few sentences beginning “when I was riding him…”; although luckily for my ego they have also both confirmed he is not an easy ride!

I am still very careful about who I let ride my horse – he is the most important thing in my world after all – but I can definitely see the benefits of handing the reins to the right person every now and then. I am even considering an actual trip to boot camp for him when I get married and head off on honeymoon later this year.

Ginge, of course, still thinks he should just have a holiday though.

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