Gearing up for Spring

4 Mar

Its lighter later, your horse is full of energy, and its finally getting warmer. Its time for more riding! However, we tend to overlook the details when it comes to gearing back up for competition season, or for some of us, just friendlier riding conditions and more saddle time.

Remember SAFETY! And not just in that you don’t just hop on your horse after 2 or 3 months off and go. Make sure your tack isn’t weather cracked. Spring is the perfect time to give everything a thorough inspection as you clean it. Make sure your horse’s feet are trimmed. One of the biggest bummers of spring time is mud season, and mud season softens the hooves, making them more prone to thrush and peeling. As shedding comes to an end, sterilize your brushes. A lot of horses tend to get bacterial skin issues as spring approaches, and even throughout spring, and you don’t want that stuff hanging out on your grooming supplies. A bleach solution is a great tool to have around for spraying down hoof picks if your horse is having a bout of thrush. This is also a good time of year to think about upgrading helmets or protective vests as you will be riding more often and anything outdated is less likely to protect you to its fullest potential.

Many of us hit the gym during the winter or are lucky enough to keep our horses going a bit, but we must also remember that although we may be raring to go, our horses are most likely out of shape. Clipping during the spring is a good idea, as it prevents overheating and overlooking any skin problems hiding under thick coats. As your horse goes back into work, its important to remember to start slow. Its never a good idea to try to pick up where you left off last fall if you haven’t been consistently working your horse over the winter. It will leave your horse sore and you feeling dissatisfied. After a few solid days of lunging and ground work, I always recommend lots of walking as you get your horse back in work under saddle. I try to keep it around a 70/30 split (walking-trotting) over a half-hour session for horses who have sat for a good part of winter. Really take the time to feel your horses body from the saddle as he is working for any tension or stiffness. Spend a week increasing your trot intervals until you are able to ride a solid 45 minutes, 20 of which would be at walk, and the rest for trot work (this can and should include some transitions), before re-introducing the canter. Revisit the importance of straightness and moving off of leg pressure at the walk, including gentle leg-yielding, circles, and transitions. Building up slowly will help prevent lameness and sourness in your horse.

I hope everyone has had a great winter, and I am sure we are all equally excited about welcoming spring back!




Choosing the Right Bit for Your Horse

2 Dec

A lot of my training projects come in with problems stopping, turning, accepting the bit, or keeping a steady headset. There’s no doubt heavy hands can cause these problems, but what about the bit? If your horse’s mouth isn’t comfortable, he’s not going to be as willing to follow rein cues or accept the bit. This can lead to a lot of different training issues.

Before running off to the tack shop and buying whatever you assume would work best for your horse, take into consideration the level of training in both you as a rider and also your horse. Ideally, you will use the mildest bit your horse will respond to correctly. You will also need to know the size of bit you’re going to need and the shape of your horse’s mouth. there are bit sizers available at most tack shops. If you dont have access to a formal bit sizer, a wooden or plastic stick (that will not shatter if your horse bites it) will work as well. You’re measuring from corner to corner of the mouth right where the bit lies, and whatever that measurement is, that is the size of bit you will need.

I like to train younger horses in something simple like a double jointed D-ring snaffle. They work great for starting a younger horse or when you’re a horse with plenty of “woah.”  Remember, the thicker the cannons of the bit, the milder it is for your horse. Most  horses can go in a snaffle for the majority of their career.

For horses with turning problems, I have always referred to a full-cheek snaffle. The full-cheek gives the “push-pull” action a clearer signal, for instance if you’re turning right and use the right rein as a turning aid, the left side of the bit will have a pushing action on the horse’s cheek, which will make the turning aid more accurate and easy to understand for your horse. I have also seen this bit help horses accept the outside rein as a stabilizing rein for circling and turning.

For a horse that is having trouble accepting the bit and understanding proper head and neck position for dressage, I resort to a triple-jointed loose ring snaffle, preferrably with wider cannons. Most horses are more willing to accept the connection of the riders hands to the bit when the bit rests in a more connected fashion against the tongue, which will allow him to flex his neck and lift his back, achieving collection.

I use Myler bits on horses that get their tongue over the bit. The reason a horse does this is because he’s uncomfortable in the mouth. The Myler bits drastically decrease tongue pressure on a horse’s mouth, which will make him more comfortable and as a result, less likely to get his tongue over the bit. If I still am having a problem after swapping to a more ergonomic bit, I have his mouth examined by an equine dentist to see if there’s anything else making him uncomfortable.

Finally, for horses with stopping problems, I always make sure he’s comfortable in the mouth. If an equine dentist or a vet clears him of any painful mouth disorders, I start the process of retraining the horse to accept the rein aids. This is a lengthy process, but putting a horse that fights rein aids in a more and more severe bit will create more issues. Nine times out of 10, the issue is a training issue and not a bit issue. I will discuss how to fix a hard-mouthed horse in an upcoming post.

Happy Riding! and Happy Holidays.

30 Nov

I’m hoping to better assist you all by learning a bit about what you would like to know more about. I will post more on the subjects you suggest. Also feel free to comment with suggestions. Thanks everyone!

A Guide to Stride Adjustment

30 Nov

Lots of riders have problems with adjusting their horse’s stride properly before a fence. Most of the problems I see are due to the lack of distance judgement on behalf of the rider, which makes for a lack of confidence and tension in the horse. Sometimes, however, the rider sees the striding correctly and cannot get their horse to adjust correctly before the jump. This can cause major problems in combinations and with large fences.

First off, you will need to determine how well your horse does with lengthening and shortening his stride on the flat. After a good warmup, begin asking your horse to shorten and lengthen the stride. To shorten the stride, use a slowing seat (sit deeply and rock the seat bones back to slow your horse), and a slight hand to encourage your horse to slow the stride. Try to keep as much impulsion as you can however, as energy is important when approaching a fence. To help with this, simply hug your horse’s ribcage gently with your lower leg. To lengthen the stride, use a driving seat (push your horse forward with your seat and stay light in the saddle), a strong leg, and a following hand. Keep the contact even through both reins but be sure to release the hands forward with your horse’s neck. Practice this at both trot and canter. If your horse is just learning and happens to break his stride, calmly ask him to go back into whatever gait you are working in and repeat the process more gently.  If your horse is resistant, repeat the excercise several times until he becomes fluent and will lengthen and shorten his stride whenever you ask him to do so.

The next step is to take some ground poles and begin to practice seeing your horse’s natural stride. This is important because you will get a feel for how much ground your horse’s natural stride covers and help you to decide whether you will need to adjust the stride when you’re jumping. Place 2 ground poles 4 strides apart (a normal stride length is 12 feet, so 48 feet should give plenty of room for the 4 strides) and at canter, approach and ride over the ground poles. Count the strides between the poles, and also from 3 strides out, count down to the first pole. For example, “3,2,1,pole, 1,2,3, etc” See how well you do with estimating the amount of strides before getting to the pole.

After mastering the ability to count down strides before a pole, you will then be ready to start modifying the amount of strides between the pole. Try shortening the stride between the poles. After landing from your first pole, using the tips listed above to help shorten the stride, aim for 5 strides between the 2 poles. Remember that your approach also needs to be slow with a close “spot” as the farther the spot for takeoff is, the farther the landing spot is. Ideally, a horse jumps in an arch with equal takeoff and landing points relative to the obstacle. Next, try lengthening the stride between the 2 poles. Try 3 strides between them. Remember to approach at a faster speed and ride forward as soon as your horse lands. Also, never get driving your horse forward so much that you end up jumping before your horse (getting into a 2-point prematurely). Continue to play with your strides between the poles to see how many strides you can fit between them. Most of the time, you can shorten strides more than you can lengthen them.

Finally, you will be ready to set up some fences. Practice the same series of exercises described above with the ground poles over fences. Remember with a higher fence, you will need to take into consideration that your horse will be less adjustable with the hight of the fences because of the inevitable distance your horse will take up when he lands. Good luck and Happy Riding!

The Importance of Riding Straight

29 Nov

Lots of riders don’t realize they’re riding crooked until they get the luxury of riding in front of a mirror, or if they’re used to riding only one horse, riding an unfamiliar horse and feeling the imbalance of their bodies. The most important thing to remember about this is; a crooked rider makes a crooked, one-sided horse.  This can cause problems with lead changes, lateral work, and in severe cases, the inability to ride off the rail of the arena in a straight line. If you can feel your horse drifting left and right, leaning on one rein, having trouble with his leads, etc, then one of your issues could be that you are inhibiting your horses balance by riding crooked.

So how do you tell if you aren’t riding straight? The most effective way – a pair of experienced eyes on the ground. A good instructor can tell where your body may not be in proper alignment, for instance if one shoulder is lower than the other, if your hands are uneven, or if you’re having a problem bearing equal amounts of weight into the stirrups. If you’re working by yourself, try these tips:

* As you’re riding, be conscious of where your hands are, is one hand continually lower than the other? If so, concentrate on riding with the low hand even with the hand aligned with your horse’s bit or slightly above, and stretch your ribcage during your warmups. Most of the time, a low hand will also cause the shoulder on that side to droop oe slouch as well. Take your low side and raise your hand up over your head. feel how this broadens the ribcage and lifts the shoulder. When you return your hand to normal position, keep the shoulder back and square.  This should help reposition your hand.

* Be conscious of the amount of weight distributed into your stirrups. Does one leg feel heavier than the other? A great fix for this is to take whichever foot you have less pressure in the stirrup on, and take that stirrup away. work at walk, trot, and canter leaving the “light” leg out of the stirrup. This will help you develop a “feel” for needing more weight in that stirrup. I recommend doing this for a couple of weeks at warmup.

* How is your head and neck positioned? Most of us lean our head to one side while lungeing, but this is definitely a no-no if you want to become a straighter rider. Practice looking ahead between your horse’s ears. Keep your ear in line with your shoulder. Remember that your entire body’s alignment starts at your head and neck.

 Here are some very effective exercises to do with your horse to help you become a straighter rider.

* Riding without stirrups. This immensely helps balance you and helps you develop a better feel in your seat. Remember, when riding without stirrups, to not perch your upper body forward. Instead, relax your lower back and seat to absorb your horse’s movement.

* While riding without stirrups, take both feet and place them behind the saddle, leaving only your thigh to balance with. This will also reposition your seat so you are sitting very deep into the saddle. Practice at a walk first, then at trot and canter. One word of caution! Some horses will be more apt to buck during this excercise, so please use extra caution as your horse will need to get used to this as well.

* Ride off of the rail by about 4 feet on the long side of the arena. Remember, if your riding is crooked or your horse is used to a crooked rider, this will take a while to perfect. Riding off the rail like this enables you to remember how important your outside hand and leg is in keeping your horse balanced and how much most people rely on the rail to keep their horse from falling to the outside.

Don’t Abandon Your Horse This Winter!

28 Nov

Another subject I feel is very important is the winter months here in the northeast, or in fact ANYWEHRE with snow, is how to make the most out of the blustery, snowy months, when sometimes riding cannot be an option. Many riders without an indoor hang up the whole idea of riding and being around their horses for the winter, simply because theyre at a loss of what to do with their horse. This is upsetting to me. I have always encouraged my students to spend time with their horses, even if they may not be able to ride.

How much snow is too much snow for a ride? My answer depends on the consistency of the snow. Powdery snow can easily be ridden through even as high as your horse’s knees. As long as you are absolutely positive there is no ice under the snow. “Snowman snow” or the snow that binds together easily can pose a real problem for winter riding. Unless your horse is equipped with borium poppers all around, its almost guaranteed your horse will get snowballs built up in his feet, which can damage his tendons and cause slipping. One way around this with some horses is to apply vaseline to the soles of the hoof, which may prevent snow from balling up in the hoof. If you plan on testing a snow-covered arena with easily packing snow, be sure to bring a hoofpick in case the hooves do become filled with snow, and also put splint boots on your horse to prevent tendon injuries. One tip for making sticky snow into safer footing is to pack it before riding on it, for example, by driving a snowmobile over it. Crusty snow, or any footing that could be icy is too dangerous to chance riding on. The dangers of your horse slipping and falling on the ice and injuring himself or you is too risky. I discourage this even if your horse is wearing studded shoes, as the protection the studs offer varies with the angle at which your horse is stepping as well as the amount of downward force per hoof.

So…..What to do if you cannot ride? Devote your time with your horse to working on things that, during the show/busy season, you didnt quite have time to perfect. Does your horse stand quietly to be clipped? Does he pick up his feet respectfully when asked? Does he move his hind end over on the cross ties when asked? Is he sensitive to the touch in any areas that he needs to become desensitized to? Other ideas include massage, carrot stretches (for those who haven’t done these, I will post about it) or a good detailed grooming session. 

If you have limited outside space that is safe to work in but not quite large enough to ride in, why not practice some in-hand work, leg-yields from the ground, disengaging your horse’s hind end or his shoulder, and improving his overall sensitivity to ground cues? And if its possible, why not park your trailer in a safe place and practice safe loading and unloading?

For those who are burdened by the winter weather, I hope this helps give some ideas on how to continue spending quality time with your horse. Post below with any other suggestions or questions on the article and I will be happy to respond!

Finding the Right Instructor

28 Nov

I wanted to touch on this subject mostly because so many people first starting out in the horse industry dont know how to get their foot in the door or where to go for reliable advice on which barn or instructor will fit their needs. I’ve compiled some information that should hopefully help you choose a safe, fun envirnonment to learn in, regardless of your location, abilities, or discipline.

Most barns will welcome a potential client for a meet-and-greet session with the barn owner and instructor/trainer. This is a good time to get a “feel” for the atmosphere of the facility. Some things to consider:

* How are the horses being treated? Do they all look healthy, well groomed, and well cared for?

* Are younger or inexperienced students accompanied by a knowledgeable horse person or instructor at all times?

* Are the barn staff, trainers, and instructors respectful, courteous, and confident around the horses and riders at the barn?

* Are there helmets available for use if you do not own your own helmet?

If you’re going to be trucking in with your own horse, you may want to take into extra consideration the cleanliness of the stalls and stall isle, any potential safety hazards to your horse, and the footing in the arena. You should also ask the staff if they require proof of vaccines and a negative coggins for all truck ins. If they dont, there are potential hazards for your horse.

Ideally, the barn you choose for your lessons should be tidy and safe, with a knowledgeale staff and instructor, and at the same time be a fun and inviting atmosphere. Best of luck finding a place to ignite your passion of horses, and feel free to contact me or comment on this subject if there are any questions! Happy riding!