If we would have been on the team, Charlotte’s and my horses with Alan would have been on a plane with other European competition horses competing in Japan.
Covid 19 put an end to that – so the horses and the lorry have been given a nice easy time, but the same can’t be said for my team who work here!
At the start of lockdown, we all had to make the decision to isolate as a yard. Alan and my girls Sadie, Chloe and Lucy who work here had to live on the yard and not go anywhere or see their families – and still work hard keeping the horses comfortable. Charlotte lives just down the road so was able to be part of our “bubble”.
Luckily the beautiful weather helped, our fields dried out and we could put a few of the younger horses to live out in small groups and the top horses were kept ticking over in light stretching work, lunging and hand walks and hacks around the field.
It was actually perfect timing to have all the work done on our arenas.
We decided to have two brand new Martin Collins arena surfaces installed. I want the best for my horses and after talking to the team at Martin Collins we opted for Ecotrack in the indoor arena and Activ-track for the outdoor.
Not only did we have the surfaces replaced but the outdoor needed the drainage, membrane and all new wooden kickboards replacing (protecting my beautiful box hedging).
The indoor was in place within two days and we took the opportunity of working the horses outdoors on the grass arena I created in one of the parkland paddocks.
The reason I had two different types of surface?
It’s widely accepted that it’s much better for horses to work on different surfaces where possible, so their joints/ligaments are all put under different situations which helps strengthen them. Having ridden on the wonderful surfaces at Olympia, Royal Windsor and Hickstead, the choice of Ecotrack was made for the indoor. It really is hardwearing, no dust, needs little maintenance and the high wax content ensures durability for the high level of traffic, whilst cushioning the horse’s movement.
Activ-track was the outdoor choice. It is also waxed and won’t freeze in the winter but allows for more drainage and has a “looser” ride. As our area get very wet with two rivers next to us, we needed to make sure that drainage was exceptional.
The indoor is a bright surface so makes the arena look huge and the outdoor isn’t as bright, so you don’t get too much glare when it’s sunny.
Our horses are now back in full work, although the top-level ones are doing more athletic exercise rather than running through the GP movements all the time – they know how to do them so they just need to be kept fit.
We have some fantastic youngsters Sadie has been riding and they have benefitted in training without the stress of competition, but now we are hoping to get them out to some local shows as competitions are beginning again.
I have taken over the ride on one of Charlotte’s horses, En Vogue. He is nearly ready for international Grand Prix, so perhaps he will be my ride at Tokyo next year if it goes ahead, watch this space.
It’s nice to have role reversal, Charlotte as the owner and me as the rider!!
Riding the young horse – basics for the dressage arena
As we have all had time to work on our training at home during this summer of lockdown, here are some basics that you can work on with your horses at home.
Nice and easy
We start all of our sessions moving the horse around in an easy loose manner helping him to warm up. It helps the horse to relax mentally and physically and this type of work is what makes a dressage horse really supple for the more demanding movements later on. But even if you aren’t a ‘dressage ride’ this is a really good way to warm up any horse. Think about getting a rhythm that suits the natural paces, don’t push your horse out of its natural movement or you cause an imbalance which then leads to tension and tightness. Rhythm is really important in a dressage horse.
Can any horse compete in dressage and what should you look for in your own horse.
The walk should have a decent overtrack (where the hind hoof lands in front of the footprint left by the foreleg) and in the canter, look for a horse that steps well underneath his body with a quality three beat.
Temperament is the most important thing of all and while I like my horses to be sharp and forward thinking, they have to be trainable.
For riders who are less experienced or use their horses to compete in other disciplines such as showing or riding club activities it isn’t about having the best moving horse in the world. But if they are to do some form of dressage they need to have the right brain for it or you could be fighting a losing battle.
Some of our young horses can be quite challenging when first ridden and unseat my riders quite a few times. That’s quite common when they are very young and often the naughtier babies are the better ones later on! I tend to turn the sharper ones out in the field 24/7 it definitely helps them to stay calmer in their work and I believe it makes them stronger, too. I always remember what my vet once told me: ‘If you want to keep a horse sound, keep it moving’.
“Buying a young horse is always a bit of a lottery and I had no idea that Valegro and Uthopia would be future gold medallists when I first saw them. They were just lovely young horses but we didn’t pay a lot of money for them as youngsters. We don’t have rich owners spending a fortune on horses for us, but what we do have is a tried and tested training system that works and helps to produce superstars of the future.”
A typical young horse training session
I like to keep young horses’ training sessions short, but there are lots of important considerations to make when schooling a youngster.
- Straightness. If you have mirrors, it can help you to see whether your horse is straight or not, but an experienced friend on the ground is helpful if mirrors aren’t present. Basically, you want to see that the horse’s head is in front of the chest and that the hind footprints are following the tracks of the forefeet, whether you’re working on a circle or in a straight line. Movements such as leg-yield and shoulder-fore are good straightening exercises, which we use a lot with the young horses.
- Transitions. I am a firm believer in the use of plenty of transitions in my training, not only do they teach the horse to take more weight onto the hindleg, but they improve obedience and suppleness, too.
- Changing the outline. As a dressage rider, you should be able to stretch the horse’s head and neck down at any point during a schooling session, you want the horse to carry itself, rather than relying on the rider’s hands for support, and if you can do this, you know you’re getting it right. We tend to pick the horses up for a few minutes and then allow them to stretch again, so that they get used to working in a more uphill frame and then stretch again. As they become stronger, they will become more able to maintain a correct uphill outline for longer, but in the early days stretching is the most important thing of all. I find that this exercise applies to all horse’s dressage or otherwise. It’s a bit like warming up and stretching as any athlete will know.
- Repetition. Horses like humans learn from repetition, so riders need to repeat exercises over and over until the horse learns how to do it. While a lot of riders won’t have the need for flying changes – many of them will so a few words about teaching flying changes! A lot of riders tend to make a big issue out of them, but I tend to treat them a bit like a show jumper and just quietly pop from one leg to the other until they understand the concept. The last thing you want to do is upset the horse into thinking that flying changes are something to worry about.
- Keep it short and sweet. Young horses only need to do about 20 minutes in the school. They need time to mature physically and mentally, so we tend to keep sessions short until they are stronger. That’s the best way to keep a horse sound through its career and you’ll find your horse is much happier as you train up the levels, too. So, if you have had some really good work after 15 minutes finish there and if it takes a bit longer one day, then that’s how it is. You can’t stick to an exact time limit with horses.
In summary keep dressage training simple. Don’t over complicate things and try to make your training black and white, so that the horse understands what you are asking. Also, make sure you get the right help with your training so that your young horse gets the best start in life. Remember, these early lessons are the essential foundations for a promising future.”