A horse can produce 7 – 8 tons of manure every year. Add to that the wheelbarrow of bedding that goes to the muck heap with the manure and it can become a pretty big problem to deal with.
One option to disposing of all this waste is Vermicompost. This is employing hundreds of earthworms to come in and eat their way through your muckheap, turning it into valuable compost. For once worms can be a good thing!
The worms used are very different to the internal parasites that horse owners work so hard to banish. There are 1800 species of earthworm. The most commonly used for Vermicompost is Eisenia Fetida, more often known as the compost worm, manure worm, red worm or red wiggler. These worms have the added advantage of rapid reproduction, meaning they’ll keep up with your ever increasing muck heap.
Why bother to introduce worms? They’ll produce vastly superior compost. You can then use it to fertilise your fields and garden (grow carrots for your horse) or sell to supplement your feed bill.
There are also disadvantages of vermicomposting. Although it reduces your muck heap faster, it does require more labour then the traditional composting methods.
The depth of the muck heap must not be greater then 1m, otherwise the heap will compact too much – these worms like to be near the surface. This means that you’ll need a greater surface area to spread your heap out, rather then stacking it higher.
The worms are happy anywhere between freezing and 35 degrees C. If it gets colder you’ll need to ensure enough fresh manure to keep the heat up. The reverse is also true. Fresh manure in large amounts can heat up to much. If there are a lot of horses producing large amounts of manure, you need to allow it to compost to a lower heat before introducing the worms.
Worms breathe through their skin. Just like humans they need air to breathe. If the bedding they worm lives in gets to dry, their skin gets dry and they die. This makes them vulnerable to drought.
The main disadvantage to this scheme is that you need money to buy the worms. You’ll pay around £20 per kg of worms. Experts recommend a 1 to 1 ratio – 1kg of worms to 1kg of food. But remember, worms are rapid reproducers and will double their population in 90 days. So you can start out small and let them take care of their numbers to a certain degree.
If you go ahead and give vermicomposting a go, remember the 5 essentials that your new partners will need to stay healthy and happy.
Hospitable living conditions. Comfortable bedding.
Constant supply of food. They’ll each eat at least half of their own body weight every day, sometimes up to their full body weight.
Moisture – 50% moisture by weight.
This means that the muck heap mustn’t be tightly packed. Allow air in for the worms to breathe.
Protection from extremes in temperature.
The worms bedding material mustn’t compact too tightly. Horse manure and straw are one of the best materials for worms. The manure makes a good feed, the straw allows aeration. Shredded paper included into the mixture makes it even more ideal. The paper is more absorbent and so will ensure that the muck heap retains enough moisture.
Some people are concerned with the effects of deworming medicine on the earthworms in the compost. Generally the thought is that it’s safe. In metabolising the drug, the horse’s system breaks it down and 95% of it is absorbed. However, it’s recommended as better to be safe and not use the manure for one week following deworming. This manure should be composted as usual, away from the earthworms.
With the use of the earthworms, your muck heap will reduce dramatically within 2 – 3 months. The worms remove all smell from the compost, speed up the process and provide you with a useful additional income.
There is often confusion about what is meant by the different types of horse. It is not a complicated subject, just something that needs a little thought followed by going out and actually looking around at horses. A showing show is an ideal place, where horses are competing against others of the same type and you can develop an eye similar to the judge.
A hack’s purpose was to be seen and make his rider look stylish. As the gentry would ride through Hyde Park on a Sunday morning, they wanted to see and be seen and their hack was the horse to do it on. Think of driving a Porsche or Ferrari as the modern day version. The hack should have impeccable manners, be light and pleasurable to ride and beautiful to look at.
Hunter’s are meant to be able to cope with a day following hounds. If we think of cars again, think tough 4 x 4 Landrovers. They must be sure footed, sensible, have endless stamina and be up to carrying the weight of their riders. They are a heavier more substantial type then the hack. Working hunters must be clean (blemish / scar free), bold jumpers with courage and dependability. The diameter of the bone directly beneath the horse’s knee is measured, and that is described as the amount of bone that a horse has. A hunter will have more bone then a hack, meaning more substance and capable of carrying more weight.
Riding horses, or riding club horses are somewhere in between hacks and hunters. They’d be your typical family car. Not as flashy as the hack, lighter in bone then the hunter, they are useful general purpose horses. For the show ring they still need to be good looking, well schooled and a pleasure to ride.
Cobs are the transit vans of the horse world. Traditionally, one day your cob would be pulling the plough in the field, hunting the next and taking the family to church on a Sunday in the trap. They are often described as big horses on pony legs. They must be safe, sensible and easy to keep and ride.
Horses are also divided into hot, warm or cold bloods. This has nothing to do with temperature but type and temperament.
Originally there were hot bloods and cold bloods. Hot blooded horses were found in the warmer countries and deserts. These include Arabs, Barbs and later, Thoroughbreds. These horses are light in bone, fine skinned and dainty. They move fast, have quick reactions and are often more nervous then their cold blooded peers. Their light frames require little effort to move at speed over distances, fine coats allow heat loss and small, hard hooves are light and manoeuvrable on hard ground. Their lack of bulk makes them light on their feet to reduce concussion when there is little give in the ground.
Cold blooded horses are the other extreme. The Shire and Clydesdale would be good examples. They are heavier in their bodies with great strength and stamina. The colder climates where they developed meant thicker coats, great shaggy manes and tails and “feathers” on the lower legs. Big hooves gave a greater weight bearing surface for their heavier bodies and meant they could travel on top of mud rather then sinking into it.
The warmblood is a relatively modern cross of the two. Its purpose is to combine the quick athletic lightness of the Thoroughbred with the strength, stamina and (generally) more personable temperament of the cold blood. This type of horse is the most commonly used in high level equestrian sport.
A very long time ago – 20 years now – I was adamant that all this alternative stuff just didn’t work. If you were sick, go to the doctor and get proper pills. Homeopathy, Reiki, black box – all that stuff? Really? So. I was young, convinced that I was right and that these quacks didn’t have a clue…
Now, I had a horse, called CP. CP was a thoroughbred, had raced fairly well, and who I had wanted since a friend bought him on the yearling sales, pre racing. I had followed his career and when he was retired, put my hand up, saying yes please. Now, CP was a little ball of tension and stress. The first time I took him to a dressage competition, he held his breath for the first half of his test, took a massive gulp of air when he was at C, as far from the judges as he could be, and then did the second half of his test on that one gulp. At the end of the test, the judge gave him some nice comments, but said – please tell him to breathe? He wouldn’t put weight on. Wouldn’t really relax in his stable, wouldn’t settle and swing along in his work. Now, in racing they are deliberately kept fit and trim, not carrying any excess fat, and being young they are slight in build. Because they are always stabled and fed vast amounts of food, they tend to be on alert and ready to run, but CP didn’t let down (change) when he came to a riding yard, kept all his racing ways. He was obliging enough to do what was asked, and seemed to enjoy his jumping, but was always in a hurry. He was stabled in the middle of a block of six stables, and on coming out of his door, we could turn right or left to get out of the yard complex. Given the choice, he would always turn left. Why? Because, at the end of the block on the left side, there was a big flower bed, and in that bed were Geraniums, and CP’s biggest love in life, was stopping to smell those Geraniums. He would get there, lower his head, push the flowers around a bit so they would release more smell, close his eyes and pull in great lungful’s of Geranium aroma. If let him do that, we could cope a lot easier with our schooling sessions, being a little more calm. If I made him turn right, or didn’t give him long enough with his flowers, we were anxious. Now, when he did this, I would laugh at him, and think he was wasting time, but much, much later learned that Geranium oil is used as a calmer, natural relaxant, mood enhancer, emotion balancer – coincidence? Well I don’t believe in coincidence so I think not. The interesting thing with CP though was still to come…
The owner of the livery yard where CP was stabled believed strongly in a local Homeopath who treated horses. You carefully cut a chunk of their tail hair, letting it fall into an envelope so that it was not touched by your own delicate hand, and take it to this lady. You would say nothing about the horse, she would wave her pendulum over the envelope and tell you what magical concoctions would cure whatever ailed him. Ridiculous. Who on earth falls for that? Let’s say, I wasn’t a fan. So, she convinced me that we needed to take CP’s hair along for testing, and to get help for his issues. I reluctantly agreed – nothing to lose, but really? Duly cut his hair, took along the little envelope and watched the pendulum swing back and forth. Well…. Yes, she could give me this and that for his stress (uh, no one told you that he was stressed??? But then, you have probably seen him out and about) and this and that would help his appetite (again – seeing him at shows, she would know he was a little light…). This and that would help his brittle feet (he was chestnut with four bright white shiny socks and hooves, of course they were weak and brittle, also obvious)… And yet, she professed to have never seen him? Hmmm…. But, the underlying problem was way too much copper in his system.
Now here was her downfall…. The paddocks had been analysed to see what nutrients needed adding, and there was, if anything, a slight lack of copper. So, he wasn’t getting it in his grazing. There was no added copper in his feed. And the water pipes were PVC so no copper pipes. He lived with other horses, grazed with them, ate what they ate, drank the same water, and no one else tested positive for too much copper. She was clearly a fraud. Yay for logic. I took away my little packets of hocus pocus medicine and gave it to him – I had paid for it after all, and reluctantly admitted that he showed a slight improvement within about three days. Coincidence again. Also, after a few days (hey, I am a slow thinker and learner…) was collecting his tack from the tack room to get him ready to work. When I really looked at his bridle, and his uhhh…. Grabbed his bridle, jogged up to the house, went bursting into the office… Look, look at CP’s bridle. Yard owner looks up – uh, yes, that is a bridle, CP’s bridle in fact. Yes, but look at his bit… His lovely, shiny bit, the one that was new and bought especially for him, in a nice shape for comfort and a nice warm metal for happiness – nice shiny, new COPPER, now dull from where he had had it sitting in his mouth, slowly absorbing the copper through his gums. Yes, well.
I changed his bit, put him into stainless steel and yes, he was always a bit of an Energiser bunny and never completely relaxed, but the change in him was enormous. He started to eat up all his food, gained weight, would put his head down to graze, lost the wild eyes and started to horse – to enjoy and be content. And his hooves improved too. Now, the big thing all sceptics say about homeopathy is that it is all the placebo effect. I have two problems here – firstly, I didn’t believe it would work – in fact I believed 100% that it wouldn’t work. And secondly, he didn’t know any different, so wasn’t up to belief it would work. Now, let’s say that the only change was in him being calmer to ride. That could be placebo. If I believed strongly enough that he would be calmer, I would have ridden him very subtly differently, and they can adjust to that. But I didn’t believe it, and his appetite improved? And the quality of the horn in his hooves? Placebo? How?
OK, fast forward a couple of years, in which I didn’t really think about it again. I was still very young, and a non believer….
I had been away travelling for a good few months and had just got back home. Was pottering away, doing odd bits of work, one of which was backing a young Thoroughbred filly, before she went to the track for race training. She was very sweet and obliging, had been brought up well and was relaxed and happy and everything was swinging along…. I was on her trotting around the lunge pen just thinking about how tomorrow I would take her out to the big paddock and trot her around the edge – when she launched herself through the air. After a few circuits of rodeo, gravity took an effect… It wasn’t the falling that did the damage, but the landing onto a teak railway sleeper fencing post. What happened next is a story in itself, but to make it short, the next day I was laid up in bed with a pelvis broken in three places. Now, the orthopaedic surgeon had said there was nothing to do – no pins, no op, no traction, no cast, just go away and lie flat for 8 weeks. I was to go back for a check-up at 6 weeks, but with a long weekend stuck in the middle, it would be 5 ½ weeks, but don’t expect to be up and about sooner than 8 weeks. Well, it was a long 5 ½ weeks and I was maybe not the most well behaved, ideal patient, but I did spend the majority of my time flat. Or at least on crutches….
The day after the spectacular dismount, the filly’s owner came bearing chocolate, and…. A pendulum. Turns out she did a load of natural healing and homeopathy. Did I mind? Well, got nothing to lose right? Now any good that CP’s magically cured copper overload had done to homeopathy’s cause had long since evaporated (I did admit to being a slow learner) so, again, no preconceived placebo affect… I duly took my pillules, rice paper and drops at the appointed time on the required day. Had nothing better to do after all, and at 5 ½ weeks, hopped and wheelchaired back to my hospital bed. Slightly concerned at the dressing down I would be getting for being a slightly wayward patient (me? Never, not really…) The nurses did the x-ray, all was set for learned Dr to come and dispense doctoring. He tootled in, looked at the old x-ray, looked at the new x-ray. Looked at the old x-ray, looked at the new x-ray. Looked at the old x-ray, looked at the new x-ray. Looked at the date on his watch. Looked at the old x-ray, looked at the new x-ray. Looked at me, finally. Raise your feet off the bed – keeping your knees straight, lift from the hip. Yup, can. OK, you are fixed, you may go. Signed off, don’t come back. But, I uhhhh, have a broken pelvis? No, you don’t. Uhh, ya, fall off a horse, remember? Yes, well, you must have some magical healing ability, because all three fractures have gone. Fixed, healed. Barely a mark left. If you can raise your feet, you’re good to go. Can I ride? Of course.
I walked out (well yes, ok, I bounced, spun and tootled out) and hopped straight onto the first horse I found. Congratulating myself for my magical healing properties, and then thinking that maybe, possibly all those doses of pillules, rice paper and drops may have cut my healing down by 2 ½ weeks? Possibly? I did start to think that maybe, just maybe there was actually something in all of this hocus pocus….
A thought hit me in the shower – yes, that is where thoughts tend to wait for me – and I think I need to share. Lessons come in all sorts of places and it’s pretty cool really.
So, my thoughts – in no particular order…
We do indeed have a time clock in our brain. I have been staring blankly at my laptop for about four days, getting nothing done, and now, just after 11pm, I have to write this. Now. Tomorrow is too late. I’d love to be nocturnal. I am, pretty much, but it would work better in a more socially appropriate time / job situation. Not many people want riding lessons at midnight. But – lesson 1 – listen to your body and time clock, do things as and when it suits. If you (or your horse) work better in the evening, go for it. And if you are having a brain fog day – go for a hack, don’t stare blankly at your version of my laptop…
–If you are passionate about something you do, it will rear its head in all manner of situations… I mean really, what kind of a nerdy horse brain turns an outing to London into a teaching tool – uh, yeah, me… Be open to when a new thought will hit you…
– Take time out for play. I had an awesome day last week – met up with a friend I hadn’t seen for ages, tootled into London and just bumbled along doing whatever. A mental health day. Which helped my current brain fog. Don’t go around and around and arena – take your horse for a gallop up the track – you know you both want to – really you do! This also opens up new ideas – my friend said to me that I should write more… Now, look where she got me…
– Set up a challenge. Our challenge – go from one side of London to the other on Marathon day without seeing in men in tight lycra chasing each other down the roads… And other then one runner in the afternoon and a few trickling home through Euston late night, we achieved out goal.
– No matter how well you think you know something – you don’t. I thought I had a fair knowledge of London and you know what – I don’t. I spent most of Sunday saying I don’t know where we are right now… Even if it is a subject you thought you knew, approach it from a new angle. Think like a beginner. What have you missed – where could you explore new territory. Maybe you have been missing out on Little Venice all this time – who knew???
– Everything big and shiny has a back side… London zoo – we (well, I) think Lions and Tigers, big, flashy, ooooh…. Walking round their back-perimeter fence, there are signs saying don’t disturb our natural green land – we are looking after our hedgehogs, the second biggest colony in the region. Everyone has the little stuff they should be paying attention too…. Next time you watch that pro rider trotting up the centre line, and you are thinking about the majestic head in front, have a thought that maybe the jockey up there is thinking about what is rustling in the undergrowth… (And really, any serious rider should be far more concerned with what is happening behind and under him than the flashy head carriage out in front). We compare our day to day practice, rehearsal, behind the scenes reel with our hero riders starring moment – of course they aren’t matching. Do sweat the small stuff, that is where the magic has to begin… The hedgehogs are just as important as the tigers.
– Everything can be reinvented. We started the gastronomic aspect of our tour with good ol’ Mr Whippy ice cream, but ventured along to the Nitro stuff that the hipsters have come up with – and damn but it’s good… I grew up (way back when I was a girl…) when a pony was lucky to own a jute rug for nights and a New Zealand rug for days… Now look at how their wardrobes have exploded? And think of the plain old, standard bridle… Who, and how could that ever be changed – enter Mr Micklem. Even (or maybe especially) if you “have always done it this way”, don’t be afraid to explore and try something new. A lot of people are wary of having a different lesson, or can’t get their heads around a new thought or concept. But you know what? If the hipsters hadn’t put ice cream base into dry ice, we wouldn’t have nitro ice cream, and that wouldn’t be much good…
(we are rattling through these…) – Stuff that was considered rubbish or utilitarian can have a profound affect. Strolling the canals, the backways, the tradesman entrances through London, where the gentry wouldn’t have been seen, is the stuff that has to be there but isn’t interesting. And you know what, its stunning, useful and makes you happy. Until recently, when doctors did autopsy’s, they threw out all the connective tissue rubbish to get to the good stuff, rather like bypassing the canals to get to the interesting things. Only recently have they gone Oh My Word, the connective tissues (fascia) IS the good stuff – who knew? Don’t disregard the simple things with your horse… Groom and tack him up gently and with respect to have him enter the arena calmly. Insist on him standing still for mounting to help your ridden halts. Even better, do some ground work before you get on. Leading him into the arena is more about just getting where you are going, it’s an integral part of the journey…
– Re-purpose. So, when a public loo is no longer needed what do you do, fill it in? Dig it up? Rip it out? Or, turn it into a cocktail bar. Truly. Think outside the box – that box was only a cage all along, a self-imposed cage at that. Your horse doesn’t like jumping? So, teach him dressage instead… His saddle isn’t fitting and the saddler can’t come for a week? Do ground work, or how about riding him bareback. Use your imagination – again, if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got… What can you do differently today?
– Laughing is always the answer. My friend, who was my amazing guide on the “Avoid London Runners in an Adult Fashion Tour” has a pretty stressful job, but she can laugh about it. And you know what – sometimes I have days that it’s a case of laugh or cry… But laugh. Laughing makes you breathe, it makes your horse happy too. (Or really suspicions, which could be bad…). Don’t take it all too seriously …..
You’ve brushed and polished your horse and still can’t get that shine that you want on his coat. One tip that really works to pack more punch into your grooming session is Hot Clothing. This is really wonderful for clipped horses but can be of some help with longer coats to.
Hot Clothing lifts grease ands scurf from the coat. It helps to remove sweat marks, opens the pores, leaves the horse warm and comfortable after exercise and gets a great shine. Most horses seem to see it as a massage and drift off to sleep. It helps reduce the amount of heavy brushing needed to keep the hard working horse clean.
Get a bucket of very hot water. Not boiling but think really hot bath water. Pop two clothes in the bucket to heat up – tea towels or hand towels work well. Wring one of the clothes out well and start rubbing the horse over with it. Rub back and forth against the coat, and up and down the grain, ending with the last stroke along the lie of the hair. Move over the whole of the horse’s body, alternating the two clothes so one is in the bucket warming up as the other one is working over the horse. Have a jug of hot water on standby so that you can top up the bucket as it cools. Work from behind the horse’s ears, down the neck, across the body, under the belly, across the quarters and down the legs. Most horses also love to have their face gently wiped. Untie the end of the headcollar lead rope so that if the horse pulls back there is slack in it and the horse won’t panic.
In very cold weather, hot cloth the horse in quarters so that he isn’t left standing uncovered and cold. Fold his rug in half so it is covering his quarters. Hot cloth the left shoulder, then the right. Fold the rug over the shoulders and hot cloth either side of the quarters. Make sure most of the water is wrung out of the towel so that the horse doesn’t get overly wet.
You can use plain water but this doesn’t get as good as a result as adding something to it. Opinions vary as to what is best to add. Whatever you use, test it out on a small patch of your horse to check for any adverse reaction. The most common addition is Dettol or Savlon. This helps with any unseen nicks or scrapes, can ease irritations and most people are happy with the smell. Other ideas are vinegar; Mark Todd’s Relax and Rewind Competition Wash, soda crystals, surgical spirit, baby oil, lavender wash, a spot of no rinse shampoo, and Hibiscrub. They all have their advantages and it really depends on what you and your horse prefer.
Once you have finished using the hot water on the body, use a water brush to “lay” the mane. This is simply wetting the top line of mane hair down the whole length of the neck to encourage it to lie flat. Dampen the top of the tail and if it is pulled, put a tail bandage on for a couple of hours. Finally scrub each hoof, both underneath and around the wall. Keep your thumb in the bulb of the heel to protect this sensitive area from over keen brushing and becoming to water-logged.
Something that has been on my mind recently – what are you prepared to pay? Not quite the question you may think. Often, we ask people, what are your goals? For me, in the teaching industry, what are the goals you have for your riding and your horse? I’m thinking a better question would be, what are you prepared to go through? Let me explain what I mean…
A friend wanted to be a dancer. She liked the idea of performing on stage – of taking lead roles and strutting her stuff. The accolades, the feel of achievement after performing a difficult routine, the nicely aching muscles of a hard work out. She was pretty good, but she would chat about what it would be like when she was at the top of her game. Maybe she got flu – she would miss a few practices. Then, she was invited away for a weekend, so she would miss a few more. Being on point in her ballet shoes rubbed her toes, so she’d skip a couple of days. Then, she really wanted that dessert that she knew would make her costume tight, but hey, what is one dessert, right? She wanted the outcome, but she really didn’t want the cost, and when it came to the crunch, she wasn’t prepared to pay the bill of hours, blood, sweat and tears. She’d be stressed about missing a class, but the temptation of that morning lie in was just too great. Nothing wrong with that – just the cost of her imagined goal was too expensive. When she finally passed on that goal – when her dancing became a hobby and other goals grew bigger, she became happier, more relaxed and actually a better dancer, even though she was now sticking at a lower level. The cost, for her, was simply too high.
Another of my friends is a fantastic singer. Really, she gives you goosebumps. But, she was sitting back saying she wasn’t sure it would be something to follow – the hours of practicing, the no smoking, no drinking or partying, the days of no speaking if you need to rest your voice. The long hours of restriction, working, travel, commitment. She, hesitatingly, applied to music schools, got accepted, trained and is now getting great roles as a professional opera singer – and she is quite phenomenal. She wanted her goals so much that she is prepared to pay the costs in her time, effort and sometimes discomfort. For her, following her dreams is worth the cost, she is willing to pay whatever it takes. But, she really understood the cost, which is why she hesitated – she went into it with her eyes very definitely wide open.
The difference between these two – the dancer wanted the outcome, the singer has learnt to cope with (and even relish) the journey. The same is with everything – the people who only have the end goal in sight often struggle, the people who embrace the cost of the journey – those are the ones who get to their dream.
So, to riders. I often hear riders say – I want to….. (Insert dream here – ride grand prix dressage or jumping, event 3 star, train piaffe, win an endurance race etc). Sadly, those are often the very riders who don’t get there. When they are asked to ride the tricky horse, they baulk. When told to take away their stirrups they sigh. When the alarm clock goes off, they hit the snooze button. And when those really cute shoes are on sale, the extra training session gets cancelled. The riders I get excited about are the ones who say – I want to feel my horse’s back lift, I want my lateral work to improve, I want to feel how getting myself fitter will help my endurance horse cover greater distances quicker. These riders are the ones ready to embrace the challenge. It is the rider who enjoys the 5am alarm clock (or least, doesn’t hit snooze) and roll out of bed to chase the dawn with their horse, and (reasonably) cheerfully mucks out the stables, who enjoys the process, the drilling, the blisters, falls and tears, who is more likely to get there. The road to top level equestrian pursuits is not an easy one, and the person who doesn’t enjoy, or least accept each and every step is going to be very hard pushed to stick to it. Often they are the ones who come up with excuses – yes, but, my knee hurts…. There is nothing wrong in riding your horse to the best that you can, and enjoying it at every level without hitting top grade. Happy hackers often apologise when they come for lessons, saying I am sorry, I only hack…. And I ask, why apologise? You are riding for pleasure, to enjoy your horse, to enjoy the challenge of having a non-human friend, I salute those riders who are not saying – I have to get to top level…. Each person has a slightly different goal and slightly different acceptance of the cost to get there. If we were all the same, what a boring world it would be.
So, again, my question to you as a rider – not what is your end goal. But how much are you willing to pay?
Steering is one of the most difficult tasks for young riders to learn. Some children battle with spatial awareness even on their own feet, never mind when having to judge a pony’s four legs and long length too.
The most common mistakes a rider can make are leaning forward or backward; pulling the steering hand too far away from the pony’s neck; bringing both hands over the pony’s neck and bringing the opposite hand above the turning hand as if using a steering wheel.
Another problem facing many young riders is not knowing right from left. This can be helped in one of three ways. It is possible to find gloves with large L and R on the back, the only drawback being that some riders then rotate their wrists to read the letters on the back. The second option is to buy two pairs of gloves in different colours, and mix the pairs up. The rider then wears odd gloves and turns towards red or blue rather then left or right. The third option is to take this idea further, and is generally the most successful option. This involves buying two pairs of reins in different colours and making odd pairs, as with the gloves. So the rider uses the yellow rein or the green rein to go where they need to.
Imagining that they are riding the pony through a giant water slide into a swimming pool often helps children to understand about using their outside leg into the turn – the outside edge of the water chute pushes them around the turn rather than the inside edge pulling them.
There are lots of games and exercises to help with steering practice. The most common is bending poles. Put several markers, cones or jump uprights (without pole cups) in a straight line, about 6 – 10 metres apart. The rider then has to slalom their way through the poles with touching any, passing to the right, left and right of each. Often the easiest way to explain this is to talk about how a snake moves across the ground, in a smooth, easy pattern of looping semi circles. They don’t jerk or make sharp corners, just flow gently around. Practice the poles in walk and later in trot.
Another exercise is to place markers at random spots on the inner track all around the arena, about 1 metre in from the fence. Everytime the rider gets to a marker they ride a small circle around it. This is fun with several riders working in open order rather than in a ride. They circle around each marker but at the same time they must be looking up and around at the other riders so that they don’t crash. Be careful here of having a pony in the lesson who kicks. If the steering fails, it can bring ponies close together.
Confident riders are often asking to start jumping even before they can trot, while for nervous riders, the thought that they have jumped creates confidence. The next exercise can persuade both types of riders that they have worked towards jumping even though it’s practicing steering. Place a single pole, painted in coloured stripes, just off the track. 5 coloured stripes are ideal – a typical show jumping pole. Begin with the riders steering over the coloured stripe in the centre, then the stripes immediately to the right and left on centre, before trying the stripes on the outer edges. The stripe on the outside edge is generally the most difficult since most ponies will bulge out with their outside shoulder. See if the child can work out which is the most difficult stripe to do, and why. Once it can be done in walk on both reins, attempt it in trot and later in canter. Again, ask the rider to work out which is the better rein, and at what speed they have the most control. By asking questions of the rider, they begin to develop feel and start becoming thinking riders.
When teaching child riders the emphasis needs to be on a safe, fun lesson. If all they are allowed to do is walk or trot round and round the outside track of the arena they are going to get bored and stop learning. Any distraction is more interesting. Once you have a safe pony, wearing correct tack and an enclosed area with good footing, it’s time to think about how you are going to keep lessons interesting.
A useful exercise as part of your warm up is to walk around the edge of the arena, halting at each letter. The instructor can be as near the pony as is necessary but the rider should be the one asking the pony to halt and then walk on again. This will encourage them to think about how they are asking, but also about when they ask. The halt aid should be given so that the rider is level with the letter and can touch it while the pony stands still. If the pony stops too early, the rider needs to work out how much leg they need to use to ask the pony to take one or two steps forward but not march off past the letter. If the pony stops too late, either the rider can ask the pony to walk a small circle to try again or the instructor can help push the pony back.
Once the pony has halted, ask the child to reach over and touch the letter, saying aloud what the letter is. They can then give a word that begins with that letter. The list is endless but it’s fun to stick with a theme. This could be something at the stables, (A for apples which ponies love, F for foal, B for bay etc.), friend’s names, types of animals, countries, or even words used in a project at school. (Dinosaurs are difficult!) At each letter, the rider repeats the whole list, making it a memory game. The idea is to do a complete circuit of the arena, remembering all eight or twelve words, depending on whether it is a 20x40m or 20x60m arena.
After choosing a word and reciting the list, the rider then gets to practice asking the pony to walk forward, getting a quick reaction and keeping him straight as he moves off. Too light an aid and the pony won’t move; too heavy and he’ll shoot off. Many wise old schoolmasters cut the corners, so when asking their pony to walk forward after K, H, M and F, riders need to be clear with their steering into the corner if they want to get to A and C.
During this game, the instructor can remind the child about simple things to correct their position on the pony. The whole game will take approx five minutes during which the basics of stop, go and turn have been revised from the last lesson.
It can also be useful to teach the young rider about the letters. Many riders don’t realise that the letters used are the same all over the world. If you start using the letters from the early lessons, riders become aware of them. Giving each letter a word, shows which letters are used in the arena, but riders also need to learn the order in which they come.
The easiest method is acronyms. Make up a sentence using the arena letters as the first letter of each word, in the correct order. These can be simple – Fat Bay Mare, My Big Feet. Or a longer sentence to use the entire arena – All King Edward’s Horses Can Make Big Fences.
X is usually remembered if you show that all the lines pass through it – the centre line, long and short diagonals and E to B. X marks the spot on the treasure map where the lines all cross.
Following on from lessons using arena letters, make up a dressage test using props to help the rider remember the test and make the test fun to ride. The only two limitations are the instructor’s imagination and the pony’s ability to deal with strange things. Whatever you decide to use, practice with the pony in-hand before trying anything new or possibly scary with a little rider on board. If the pony is uncertain about something, don’t do it. The test can be as simple or as difficult as you choose. The following is a sample test.
Enter at A and continue walking to X. Halt inside a box of jumping poles and count to 5.
Between X and C, cross over the blue plastic river.
C Turn right towards the stables / field / car park.
M Trot down the fence, past B to F.
F Walk. Between F and A pick up the big teddy bear and let him ride in front of the
K Turn across the diagonal and ride straight to M. At M put Teddy on the fence.
C Ride a circle, passing through the jumping pole box that was over X.
C Halt next to a helper who will hold the pony. Take your feet out of your stirrups and
do “Around the World”. Feet back in the stirrups and pick up the reins. Carry on in
H Halt and pick up an item of the grooming kit. Say what it is and show how you’d
use it on your pony. Put it down. Continue at walk.
A Turn up the middle. Halt in the box over X. Salute.
The variations are endless, only dependant on the riders lever of experience, and the patience of the pony. Other ideas could include
A small jump
Line of bending poles
Riding with the reins in one hand
Picking up a piece of “washing” off a line and putting it back on another line
Dismounting, leading and mounting
10m circles around cones / boxes / markers
Picking up a polo mallet (or broom) and knocking a ball along the ground the next marker
Filling a plastic cup with water from a bucket and carrying it without spilling any
By starting and stopping each activity at a maker, the rider is practicing accurate dressage test riding.
Once the riders are happily doing “utility dressage”, make the tests harder by increasing the numbers of movements, the difficulty or the speed in which the movements come upon them. Riders in group lesson can have a competition if a non-biased “judge” is available.
Teaching child riders presents a whole different range of challenges compared to teaching adults. Concentration does not come as well and so lessons need to be fun, interesting and simple enough to be obtainable without being boringly easy.
When teaching very young children to ride, the hardest thing is to keep their attention. The easiest way to do this is to keep the lesson moving, constantly changing what you are doing. Use various exercises and games to do this. These also teach the child, as they concentrate on the task at hand, they naturally develop balance, co-ordination and confidence.
Begin very simply, by asking the rider to let go of the saddle / neck strap with one hand. Give them tasks to do with this hand – hand on their head, shoulder, tummy, knee, toes. Hand on the toe is most difficult, very few children are immediately confident enough to lean down and touch their toes. Then ask them to touch the opposite knee and toes. (Right hand to left knee / toes). Lean forward and touch the pony’s ears, you may need to help by turning the pony’s head towards them or asking the pony to lift their head up. Lean back and touch the tail. (Check that the pony doesn’t buck). Then test the rider’s knowledge by asking them to touch the saddle, stirrups and reins. When they are confident with one hand, repeat with the other hand or move on to using both hands. All of this can be done at halt initially or in walk with a leader.
Move on to riding without stirrups. At first just ask the rider to take one foot out of the stirrup and put it back, without using hands or eyes to help. They must rather just wiggle their toes in their boots, move the toe of the boot until they feel where the stirrup is and slide their foot back in. This is a very important exercise rather then just a game. If they are confident and quick about finding a stirrup in halt and walk then when they are trotting or cantering alone later and lose a stirrup, they won’t panic.
While they are walking without stirrups, give them exercises to do. A simple one is to pretend that the pony is a bicycle. Rather then squeezing / kicking with their legs they need to pedal, bringing alternate legs up, round and down. The up part should be high, knee close to the pommel, the down part really stretching the leg long. This develops co-ordination, strength and confidence.
Pretending their pony is an elephant is great for thigh and core muscles but can be tough so should be introduced slowly. The rider rests their hands on the pommel but shouldn’t actively press against them. Both legs are raised, up and away from the saddle so that only the rider’s two seat bones are in contact, the leg in riding position but several centimetres away from the saddle. The knee is kept bent, the heel is down. The most common “cheat” is that the rider leans too far backwards, remind them to stay straight.
Try the arm exercises again, this time without the security of having stirrups. The rider stays upright and still purely through balance and core muscles.
Most young children love to play Simon Says. Work through a list of instructions, E.g., touch your nose, touch the pony’s ears, take you foot out the stirrup, put your foot in the stirrup, both feet out and pedal etc. Every command that starts with “Simon Says” should be followed. Simon says put your hands on your head, the child puts their hands on their head. When Simon says isn’t used before a command, the child ignores it and continues with the last instruction. If they do something that Simon didn’t say, they are out. This is more fun with more then one child but it can be played with just the instructor.
Child riders learn as much playing on ponies as having a formal lesson. When they are out, thinking about things other then how they are riding, they just get on with it and actually ride. They get their ponies stopping, going and turning, they discover balance, they look up and around their surroundings and often they become braver.
A good way of getting children out of an arena and thinking of other things is by having a treasure hunt. First, make sure all the ponies are safe and solid outside. Preferably don’t use any pony not totally quiet, or put any more forward going pony on a lead rein. Then decide the type of treasure hunt that you want to have.
A hidden treasure hunt
If you are limited with space, time or ability of riders, this is the sensible hunt to have. Decide what you are going to be hunting for, and hide things in a contained area. This could be themed to the time of year, e.g., Easter Egg hunt, Halloween Candy hunt, Carrots for Your Valentine Pony hunt, Christmas Tinsel hunt. If the hunt is during a lesson it could be a hunt made up with questions. These could include; something metal horses can wear on their hooves; something long and orange that ponies like to eat; something used to make ponies clean; something farmers use to tie up the bales of hay our ponies eat. It could be a complete grooming kit or plaiting kit and the better the rider hunts and finds objects, the better they can get the grooming / plaiting done. One that is always popular is to hunt for a black outlined colouring-in picture and the pencils to colour it. The more pencils they find, the more brightly coloured the picture can be.
A list hunt
This type of hunt is suitable if you have lots of space, trustworthy ponies and more experienced riders. Ponies can go on the lead rein, either with fit, enthusiastic runners or led from a sensible horse. The riders must go out in pairs for safety. Try to pair up more experienced, solid sensible riders with less experienced or dare-devil riders. Unless they are very experienced, restrict the pace to walk or trot. The more adult helpers available to act as stewards the better.
Look around the area and think about what could realistically be found by the riders. These could include
5 types of wild flower
5 types of tree leaf
5 types of grass
3 different coloured stones
An empty birds nest (emphasize not in use)
An old horse shoe
A horse’s bit, other then the one your pony is wearing (if you are in a yard)
Something your pony likes (tests imagination, they could come back with mud!)
Some sheep’s wool (caught on wire fence)
A shell (if close to the beach)
Check girths, stirrups and hard hats, remind riders of the safety or walk / trot rules. Send all the pairs out together or at staggered times. The winning pair will collect all the items in the fastest time. If the list is long or some of the items are tricky to find, a time limit can be used. This way you’ll get all your riders back within your time allowed. The winning pair in this case would be those who find the most treasures on the list.
A sound hunt.
As with the list hunt, this requires lots of space and quite experienced riders. Think of 5 or 6 sounds that would carry well and will be reasonably easy to hear. Someone making realistic bird sounds could go unnoticed. Musical instruments work well if you have access to people who can play them. Otherwise whistles, drumming on a saucepan, mobile phone ringing, a hunting horn, car hooter or siren all work well. Allocate one sound per person and hide them around the area that you are playing in, out of sight of each other.
Give each pair of riders a card. They must hear a sound that they think is on the hunt and track down where it is coming from. The person making the sound then marks their card. The quickest pair of riders to fill their card with marks from each sound person wins.
The most important thing with this kind of hunt id having the right venue – ideally you want forest, hills, banks, places where the sound makers can hide and the riders cannot see each other. A flat, barren area where you are constantly in sight of each other won’t work.
A paper trail.
The final type of treasure hunt, is to lay a trail, and have the ride go out as a group, following a route, rather like a real hunt. There are several ways of marking the trail, but remember that whatever you use needs to be collected up / tidied after the ride. This could be a literal paper trail, which will be very difficult to clean up. A simpler way is to use some form of marker, maybe a small ribbon tied in branches, plastic cones, cardboard arrows etc, put in less obvious places along the route to encourage the riders to keep their eyes open and look for clues. Clean up becomes easier if you know that 20 arrows were placed, and where they were put. Again, you need safe ponies, or fit leaders who will walk or run alongside.
It is important for children to get out and about, to learn to ride their ponies over different ground, up and down hills, learning balance but also staying interested in what they are doing.