Essays

How often do you hear an owner complaining that their horse is not quite themselves? Maybe he is napping, rushing, bucking, refusing, one sided, rearing, hard to bridle, cold backed, spooky and generally uncooperative. Maybe he has mood swings, is difficult to load, gets excited in company. The list of 'complaints' goes on and on.


The majority of horse owners are hardworking, caring, responsible individuals who always try and do their best for their horse's welfare. They provide their horses with a comfortable stable, good food, daily turnout, work them regularly, book regular dental checks, protect them from  flu and tetanus, employ the farrier on a regular basis. They generally have a saddle fitter check their saddle and most owners/ riders invest in some sort of regular ridden tuition...yet many horses still do not reach peak performance and are hindered by 'off days'. Why?


We have to accept that the horse is not designed to be ridden! No matter how much investment is directed at his physical and mental welfare, we are never going to escape the fact that evolution is far too slow a process to turn Equus caballus into the ultimate human transporter. Therefore we need to work with the structure nature has provided us with and try our best to minimise physical and psychological damage by providing our horse with a controlled living and working environment. We not only have to consider how is mental well being is affected by human intervention, but we also need to be aware of how environment and exercise alters the equine physiology.


Lots has been written about horse welfare by mimicking the natural living and feeding patterns of the horse; 'trickle' feeding ad lib bulk, feeding according to the work load, always providing turnout- even in the depth of winter, regular exercise etc. etc. etc. But how many riders really understand the anatomy, physiology, biomechanics and psychology of the horse when it comes to following a structured work pattern? How many owners are aware that ignorance in these areas are prime causes of equine pain, dysfunction and degeneration?


We probably understand more about the effects of exercise on human athletes and ourselves than we do about how exercise affects our equine partners. After all we can generally relate to how a fellow human might be feeling because we probably feel the same. For example,  on a two mile jog,we can empathize with our fellow runners protestations and pleas to slow down and take a rest because our own  muscles are burning, our own heart is pounding and we are also gasping for breath! How many people recognise these same signs of fatigue in the horse? Of course these signs will follow a much more subtle route; the horse is designed to 'grin and bear it' for as long as he can to avoid being picked off the outskirts of the herd by hungry predators. Often, by the time our horse shows outward signs of fatigue and deterioration, he has used up all his compensatory reserves. How many times do you hear an instructor shouting at a young rider, 'legs legs legs' at the end of an hour long lesson because the pony has started refusing? The same pony that has probably spent five days out of seven idling his time away in his paddock to be ridden hard for two days over the weekend. How many times do we hear trainers advising us to resort to spurs to encourage a lazy horse, or to tighten up nosebands or martingales in a bid to control an overzealous ride? These can all be subtle signs that the horse is either misunderstanding the rider, or is mentally or physically struggling to carry out the work or moves asked of him.


An unfit, unbalanced or overweight rider will always interfere with the balance, understanding and athletic ability of the horse. A rider who is still mastering the controls must accept that any horse he rides will not perform to his best. Contrary to popular belief, the experienced 'school master' will not teach a novice rider how to ride- he will just help that rider along the way because generally he has been conditioned to switch off and ignore many of the 'fluffed' cues. It is up to us as riders to become more aware of our own bodies, our own fitness and physiology and how we communicate with our horse, because only when we can in all honesty say, 'I got everything absolutely right' can we start to blame our horse if things don't go according to plan....


As an Equine Physio, the majority of issues I see are rider and schooling related. I firmly believe that there is no worth to any physio treating your horse unless they have a thorough understanding of the physiological effects of schooling and exercise, either ridden or from the ground, plus an understanding of how many soft tissue problems, gait anomalies and sometimes even lameness, are a result of bad schooling or badly fitting tack. I recently saw a horse who could not trot. He just shuffled. There was no obvious sign of lameness. The vets had found nothing untoward but this issue had been progressively worsening over two  years. I am lucky to be able to actually get up and ride the horses I treat; Up I jumped and immediately was struck by the fact that the treeless saddle he was wearing was interfering with the mobility and range of motion of his shoulders. I asked for a change off saddle and within a few minutes the horse had relaxed into a better gait and generally felt freer and happier. I revisited two weeks later and was amazed at how normal the horse was! He will be coming to me for a couple of weeks schooling to cement the gait synergy by corrective schooling. Poor chap! Two years in a badly fitted saddle and a rider who didn't like to school!


The key to success of any treatment  is being able to implement a well structured exercise rehabilitation programme after treatment. Your physio also needs to be able to identify rider related issues. Unless the rider is capable of implementing any rehab programme effectively, there is no point prescribing it!


Because I have spent the whole of my riding life (from the age of 8 to 48) riding every sort of horse and pony imaginable, and most of my professional life involved in starting, schooling, re- training and rehabilitating horses and ponies with physical, physiological and psychological issues, as well as training and teaching riders of all ages and abilities, and competing to a high standard, I have had the good fortune to be able to study well over 2000 equines in all disciplines and work with probably as many riders. It has been a massive learning curve and remains so!


Before qualifying as an Equine physio, most of the techniques I used to return the horses that passed through my yard to peak fitness, revolved around corrective schooling regimes. Progressive conditioning and fitness programmes combined with a controlled and structured living environment, help progressively increase physiological function, gradually condition soft tissue, improve cardiovascular fitness, improve muscular flexibility and strength, promote proprioception, build confidence, and ultimately lead to a happy, healthy and functioning equine athlete. These schooling techniques are now combined with physiotherapy modalities such as PEMF, Therapeutic Ultrasound, Phototherapy, massage, stretches etc.


I am happy to help you and your horse along the road to success and happiness and am always available for physio assessments, schooling help and advice and tuition. I offer a comprehensive livery package to suit your horse's needs (schooling/ re hab/ holiday livery only) - just give me a call on 07900 887527 or email me at info@tadcasteranimalphysio.com or find me on Facebook under Karina Hawkridge Equine Physio.

"My horses are not my slaves, they are my friends." –Dr Reiner Klimke, Olympic Gold Medallist 
Teach your horse to respond calmly and correctly, and he will be your friend forever'' –Jim Wofford


In his book “The Twisted Truth of Modern Dressage”, Philippe Karl, a former rider/trainer at the famous Cadre Noir French riding school criticises some trends of modern dressage, such as overflexed horses, a lack of true classical collection and  the use of excessively tight nosebands. Any of these topics would form a fascinating basis for an article, but as I have always had an aversion to anything tight where horses are concerned (and I know that it is one of Karina’s pet hates!) I decided to research and write about the tight noseband issue.


Historically, nosebands were introduced for different reasons in different cultures, including as an attachment point for a standing martingale, as a means to tie up the horse without having to use the bit, for extra safety on the battleground and also purely for aesthetic reasons. The most common reason seems to have been as a way of stabilizing the bit in the horse’s mouth. Currently, the noseband is often used to keep the horse's mouth closed and to eliminate the possibility of the horse opening his mouth against this pressure, forcing it to accept the bit. This was not its original, intended purpose.


The anatomy of the horses head is complex. It has very little padding or covering as it has no large scale muscle or fat deposits. The bone and nerves are just below the surface and directly against the bone of the skull creating a lighter structure but an easily damaged one. The noseband fits two to three fingers down from the cheekbone. If fitted incorrectly, a sharp yank can easily injure the fragile nasal bones or tissue. When pulled tightly, a noseband creates a lot of pressure, which happens to compress the area where the infraorbital nerve comes out of the infraorbital foramen. This nerve supplies sensory perception of the nose. If pressure is put on a nerve then it can be assumed that it could either cause pain or a lack of sensation.


Not only can a noseband potentially hurt or damage a horse, but it can also have a profound effect on its ability to work properly.
Monty Roberts has commented on the trend of using tight nosebands and believes that “this technique is quite unsuccessful as a substitute for good hands, time and horseman-like training techniques that encourage a cooperative mouth rather than force a cooperative mouth.” 


In his book ‘Tug of War’, Gerd Heuschmann noted that, “Nosebands of any type must not be adjusted too tightly, without exception. The jaw must remain mobile and breathing unimpeded, otherwise tension will build that transfers to the entire body. Riding with hands that are too hard, and continuously influencing the horse with overly strong rein aids have a negative effect on the horse’s entire body.” 


To discover what Roberts and Heuschmann mean by these observations and to discover how tight nosebands can have a detrimental effect on the way a horse works it is necessary to look further into anatomy and physiology. The horse produces a large amount of saliva while wearing a bit. It is essential for the horse to swallow all the saliva to enable him to breathe properly and to do so, he must move his tongue. When he swallows, the tongue goes to the roof of the mouth. The act of swallowing allows the horse to accept the bit and to chomp softly, which in turn produces the relaxed jaw that enables good contact and soft control through the reins.


A tight noseband can lock the jaw joint, which makes it impossible for the horse to swallow comfortably whilst working. Muscle structures connect the tongue to the rest of the horse’s body, so effectively this alters the motion through the entire spine to the tip of the tail. When there is tension in the tongue, there is tension all the way down the sternum and the shoulder along the bottom of the neck, when the goal is actually relaxation. Once there is tension in the sternum, a horse cannot raise its back and use its core muscles. This means that the horse cannot become properly engaged. If a horse cannot relax its jaw, it will have problems with proper head carriage, and the rider may then try to force the horse into position by pulling back on the reins or using artificial leverage devices.


Article 401 of the International Equestrian Federation rule book states, "By virtue of a lively impulsion and suppleness of the joints, free from the paralyzing effects of resistance, the horse obeys willingly and without hesitation and responds to the various aids calmly and with precision, displaying a natural and harmonious balance both physically and mentally." Is a horse wearing an overly tight noseband really free from the paralyzing effects of resistance? As riders can we truly be proud of our art when the way our nosebands are adjusted causes discomfort to our beloved equines? 


The British Dressage Rulebook is very clear on the subject; “Nosebands must not cause discomfort”.  But what is comfortable for the horse? How tight is too tight? A noseband needs to be correctly fitted to the head of the horse and its conformation, including both bone structure and the mouth. Control comes from the correct application of pressure and comfort while the bit is in use.


Different nosebands should be fitted according to their purpose, but all must allow a certain amount of slack, depending slightly on the size of the rider’s hand and the size of the horse:
• French or plain cavesson: The headpiece should be adjusted so that the noseband sits roughly equidistant between the prominent cheek bone and the horse's lips. Around the nose and jaw, this cavesson should be fitted so that, depending on the size of the horse and the size of the rider's hand, two fingers can be easily inserted between the noseband and the top of the nose. Cavessons should preferably be at least 2cm thick to help spread the pressure over a larger area and the addition of padding provides more comfort for the horse.
• Drop: These nosebands do not have to be pulled tightly to be effective. A drop should be fitted on the nasal bone, with the strap and buckle fastening below the bit in the chin groove. Care should be taken not to allow the top part to rest below the nasal bone - if it presses on the soft tissue below this bone it can impede breathing. In general, a drop noseband is fitted so that at least one finger can be placed between the front and the nasal bone.
• Flash: The upper cavesson has to be adjusted a little tighter than a plain cavesson to prevent it from being pulled down towards the end of the muzzle by the lower flash strap. The lower flash strap runs below the bit and under the chin groove. It is buckled so the remainder of the strap points downwards.
• Crank: Some believe that a crank should be extremely tight, to prevent the horse from opening or crossing its jaws. However, the traditional adjustment is more suitable and at least one finger should be able to pass between the noseband and the horse at any point.


Going back to the British Dressage Rulebook, the bridles and nosebands that are allowed are as follows:
Preliminary and Novice Standard: Ordinary snaffle bridle
Elementary to Advanced Standard: Ordinary snaffle or double bridle
It is obligatory to use a noseband. Either a drop, flash or cavesson noseband must be used with a snaffle bridle. A cavesson noseband only must be used with a double bridle.Drop nosebands and flash straps must lie in the chin groove. Grackle nosebands are permitted for eventing.
So, nosebands are compulsory, but would it not be fascinating at GP to have to ride part of the test in a snaffle with no noseband at all? This would certainly show up any suspect training. It is a very good feature of Interdressage that you are allowed to compete without one!


The old adage that ‘less is more’ has never been truer than when choosing equestrian equipment. In the words of Anders Gernandt, a Swedish Olympic rider and commentator; ‘When a rider shows up with lots of gear on the head of the horse the equipment says a lot more about the rider than the horse’.

Balance and the correct way of going. C+ and beyond with Hilary Wakefield. 
Northallerton Equestrian Centre. May 28th 2014.


After attending an enlightening and informative talk by Hilary Wakefield as part of the pony club accreditation scheme, it was refreshing to hear someone talk about simple basics such as straightness, balance, subtlety and lightness.


Hillary pointed out that as pony club instructors it is our duty to nurture riders from the very start of their career all the way through to A test and beyond. We need to recognise the influence we have on impressionable youngsters and young adults and it is vital that we all have a uniformity in the way we teach, with the welfare of both horse and rider always in mind. 'As pony club instructors and coaches, it is our responsibility to teach and explain that the correct way of going is paramount to the welfare and well being of the ponies and horses we are lucky enough to help' (Hilary Wakefield, Instructors workshop notes).


As an instructor we need to ask our riders to consider the challenges we impose on our horses and ponies in order for them to carry us safely, in a multitude of disciplines, without injury. It is a useful starting point to educate youngsters about basic anatomy and biomechanics and encourage an acceptance that the horse is not designed to carry the weight of the rider. Hilary advised that each time we coach a group of riders, especially from C+ level and above, it is vital that we instruct them regarding the following concepts:


·         What the horse has to do with the hind legs and back in order to carry the weight of a rider efficiently.
·         How the horse needs to use his head and neck (for balance) when ridden.
·         The effect a rider's balance/ imbalance may have on the above.
·         The changes that may happen to the horse's posture and soundness if he is forced into a false outline, especially with an  unbalanced rider.


The perception of what constitutes 'an outline' was briefly addressed with a general consensus that if asked to judge pony club dressage, less emphasise should be placed on head and neck positioning and greater emphasis on straightness, rhythm and balance, to try and reduce the temptation for riders (and some trainers) to manually position the head and neck, forcing their horse to work in a shortened and fixed outline, often behind the contact, or with cervical flexion shifted from the poll to further down the neck,  thus compromising lightness,  ease of movement, straightness, balance, flexibility and rhythm.


The 'scale of training' concept was also touched on, with a brief discussion to clarify that rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection, although represented on the pyramid with 'rhythm' forming the base and 'collection' the pinnacle of training, are all very closely interlinked. 'Collection' should not be ignored at lower levels of instruction just because it appears at the top of the scale, but should be integrated throughout our training sessions as it is closely interlinked with every element beneath it. A very simple example of early collection being making a transition from canter to trot: The rider needs to balance the canter before a trot transition can be made correctly, therefore an element of collection is required for the forehand to lighten with a shift of weight and balance to the hind quarters.


Hilary also quickly touched on the subject of tack, emphasising the need to explain that riding in a simple snaffle is the pinnacle of good training. Rather than instructors advising a stronger bit, (other than for younger riders on strong ponies), it is better to spend time working towards developing a training programme which perfects their riding skills and which promotes a well balanced and responsive horse. It is important to explain that a snaffle needs to be worn for dressage and therefore it is important to help our students attain a level of riding that enables them to attend a rally in a dressage legal bit. Nosebands were also a cause for concern, especially ill fitting flash nosebands that sit on the sensitive nasal cartilage, and 'crank' nosebands which are often tightened to such a degree that limits the intake of air, often leading to discomfort and exhaustion. Mouths should not be clamped shut; the welfare of the horse must always remain at the forefront of our teaching. The fit and balance of saddles was also addressed and we were all urged to check that saddles are correctly fitted and well balanced to help the rider attain balance and centrality.


Before moving into the indoor school we were asked to consider the importance of engagement by executing a simple exercise;  Standing behind our chairs with our hands on the back with and our legs stretched out behind us, we were asked to try and lift the chair off the floor without moving our legs closer to the chair. Very hard! We were then advised to move our legs closer to the chair and try lifting. So much easier! Although not a true representation of our quadrupedic friends' anatomy and biomechanics, this simple exercise elegantly demonstrated  the need for engagement of the quarters before the forehand can  lighten and lift. Asking the forehand to lighten by trying to manually position the head without engagement will most certainly lead to physiological and psychological problems!


Five riders gave up their evening to help demonstrate a 'back to basics' programme that we could all follow when teaching riders of all levels. The riders ranged from C test level to riders working towards B test with one rider who was not a pony club member. Here is a brief resume of subjects covered in this simple, but engaging lesson from Hilary:


The riders were asked to;


·         Take a moment to check the saddle sits centrally and balanced by looking at the pommel and checking it lines up with the middle of the withers. (The only time a saddle will slip is if the horse is asymmetric, the rider is unbalanced or the saddle is badly flocked.)
·         Check you are sitting straight and balanced by feeling that the weight in each seat bone is even and that the weight into each stirrup is equal. Your stirrups should be equal lengths.
·         Check you are sitting straight and balanced by making sure that the centre of your breast bone lines up with the centre of your horse by lining it up with your horse's crest and the middle of your pommel (checking your horse and saddle are straight first.)
·         Now check that your pelvis is soft and relaxed and that it gently follows the movement of your horse in all paces.
·         Check you are looking straight ahead- that you are sitting softly with a relaxed rather than a hollow back.
·         Check your head is sitting straight and square on your shoulders with no tendency for it to tip one way or the other.
·         Remember in rising trot you need to allow your body position slightly forwards to avoid riding behind the movement and interfering with the rhythm and balance of your horse.


At this point we were all asked to sit on the very edge of our seat in an upright posture and try standing up straight- it was quite hard!- We were then asked to sit on the very edge of our seats- lean slightly forwards then stand up- much easier!


The riders were then asked to:


·         Check that the weight into each hand is the same- and that your hand is always forward and allowing, that your thumbs are on top and remember that your hands should remain approximately the width of your horse's mouth apart. Check there is a soft bend in your elbows.
·         Check there is a little weight into your heels and that your legs are softly closed around your horse- but not gripping. Any tendency to grip with the knees or thighs will block the lateral swing of the rib cage.
·         Check that your contact is light, communicative and elastic and that your leg is working the horse rhythmically forwards into a consistent contact to maintain a connected outline but check also that your hand remains 'allowing' without any tendency to fix or restrict. (a fixed hand may indicate tension through the rider's back and shoulders.)


As the tempo increased or the pace changed, our riders were asked to maintain relaxation through their back and pelvis to allow fluidity to their movement- even in sitting trot!


Hilary is a great proponent of a light and balanced seat. She asked the riders to imagine that there was prickly holly in their joddies and in order to avoid discomfort they should rise and sit very softly and gently! She explained that by maintaining a soft, light seat promotes freedom to the steps and a softer back.


 Our riders were then asked to ride a right rein circle whist re-checking the lightness of their contact, the fluidity of their pelvis, softness to their seat and back and the symmetry and balance of their positions. Instead of using inside rein and inside leg, our riders were asked only to use their body by subtly turning their tummy buttons to the right to correctly position their pelvis in the direction of the circle. The size of the circle was then reduced- again not by leg or hand but by turning their tummy button more to the right. This same method was employed to increase the size of the circle with a reversal of the aids and was repeated on the left rein and in all paces. Hilary explained that by turning their tummy button in the direction you wish to go, places the pelvis in the optimum place to naturally and instinctively apply inside leg on the girth whilst the outside leg comes back a little allowing a natural lateral swing of the rib cage without compromising straightness and balance on circles and turns.


As the pace changed to canter, our riders were reminded to  retain a light seat- (Hilary advised 'go back to pretending there is holly down your joddies'), keep the hand soft and relaxed and ensure the pelvis gently follows the horse's movement to maintain softness through the horse's back and freedom to the steps.


The lesson finished with a resume of the concepts discussed and a lively question and answer session.


One rider struggled with the concept of a light seat, a relaxed pelvis and soft, allowing hands and when asked how to deal with a rider who is unwilling to implement an instructors advice, Hilary responded philosophically by saying that we must never alienate or discourage by being overly critical; we want these riders to continue attending pony club; whilst they keep coming back we have more chance of helping them and their horses and ponies. This was a very good 'take home' ending to a fabulous evening.


Thank you Area 3 for organising this Instructors workshop with special thanks to Hilary Wakefield, Robert Blane and the wonderful group of young riders who made this evening possible. I am sure we are all looking forward to the next one.