It’s heartening to see the ways in which horse owners cope in these strange times. I’m so sorry for those unable to see their horses, but the overwhelming feeling is that we must plan, be positive and encourage each other as much as possible.
Riding schools and livery yards face enormous challenges, and the determination and initiative some businesses show is inspiring. I’m determined to stay positive, not least for the sake of the staff with us in self-isolation and for the clients trusting me to look after their horses.
We’re taking the chance to stand back, see how riders and horses are progressing and work on improvements. We’re still riding because riding – albeit with restrictions, such as not backing youngsters – seemed the best way to maintain morale.
So everyone has more lessons and is learning more training techniques. My head girl has learnt to ride side-saddle and, thanks to my daughter-in-law, we have a yard WhatsApp group so owners can keep in touch with us and keep track of how their horses are getting on. Trying to keep everyone positive helps me do just that!
We’re thinking not of the show season we’ve lost, but of the one we’re preparing for. If you can ride – with due respect to those who choose not to or can’t, because we all have individual circumstances as well as work and family situations – you have seven days a week to train your horses, mostly in lovely weather.
Horses are more relaxed than in those cold pre-season days, and mixing up their work keeps them happy.
I’m doing pole work with all my horses and enjoy thinking up different exercises, some of which I’ve shared on my Facebook page. They don’t have to be complicated and help keep you and your horse focused.
A simple guide pole can help you ride deeper into a corner and differentiate a corner from a circle. Another favourite is using poles as guidelines for a shallow loop, activating the horse’s hindleg and encouraging him to bend correctly. Poles can be used to improve rhythm and stride length, improve transitions – in fact, improve everything.
More time and less pressure to be competition-ready can be a bonus. When I was 17 and training with Ruth McMullen, I wanted to run before I could walk. Ruth, who trained many riders to reach top level eventing and showing, told me I tried too hard and, eventually, I understood.
Progress and improvement don’t go at a set pace, so take the time you need rather than the time you think you should need. Similarly, one of the fascinations of training horses is finding out their individual preferences.
It’s important to have training principles, but combining those with the way a horse reacts to you works best for me.
For example, some horses take confidence if you ride from the start with more definite seat aids, while others need you to sit lightly and build communication gradually. More established horses, who have become accustomed to a particular style, might prefer a different one. Either way, take time to listen to your horse.
We’re very lucky that we can hack safely around the farm and are adding that to pole work and lungeing or long-reining. My mantra is to lunge in a relaxed pace and to restrict sessions to 15 to 20 minutes. Spending any longer on a 15 to 20 metre circle isn’t good for a horse’s joints.
Good luck, stay safe and let’s support each other, even if only via social media. And yes, let’s be kind when feelings run high even if we disagree on some issues. That’s more important now than we could ever have imagined.
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 April 2020