Competition & Events

    Top exercises to improve rider fitness

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    Fitness is a key component of riding, but even very fit people are not necessarily ‘riding-fit’. Being able to run a half marathon doesn’t mean you’ll be able to jump on a horse and go, because riding uses different muscle groups in your body. The best way to get riding-fit is obviously to spend as much time in the saddle as possible and get into good habits early, but there are exercises you can do, both on and off a horse, which will help to improve both rider fitness, and your technique.

    The parts of your body you need to work on for riding are in your core, your legs and your feet, your upper body, and your back; aerobic fitness also helps. Your abdominal muscles give you balance and poise, while your legs also help with your seat and your centre of gravity, and are a huge part of how you communicate with your horse. Developing upper body strength will help with your seat, while overall aerobic fitness contributes to your endurance.

    Fitness exercises off the horse

    Happily, being involved with horses already gives you a certain level of fitness: all that grooming, mucking out and carrying water buckets is great physical work. However, some more specific exercises will help you tone just the bits you need.

    Pilates is a fantastic way of developing your core, strengthening your back and opening up your shoulders. There are holds, like the plank, which are easy to do at home, but if you’re starting out, it’s worth getting basic instruction. There are countless free online tutorials for pilates and yoga, but you can do yourself some real damage if you get it wrong, so it’s worth investing in a few classes to avoid mistakes.

    The same goes for weight training or muscle work: personal trainers in any gym will be happy to show you how to exercise safely, whether you’re using their equipment or planning on using your own kit at home (you can do a surprising amount of training without having to use lots of fancy equipment).

    A few easy exercises to help with riding fitness include:

    Core strength

    Hip adductor exercises are great to build up strength in your thighs and involve sitting up straight with your legs apart and squeezing a ball between your upper thighs. Sit ups are also good for developing core strength,

    Legs

    It seems like a strange part of the body to work on but your calves and your ankles are crucial for a good riding technique and need to be as strong as possible. Ankle circles are an easy exercise that you can do these both on or off the horse: just rotate each ankle in turn fully round in sets of ten or fifteen. Calf stretches are a great way to help you keep your heels down in the stirrups. Just stand on the bottom step of a stair on the balls of your feet and slowly stretch your calf muscles by pushing your heels down. Don’t go too far and be careful not to bounce: this can cause the muscle to tear.

    Aerobics

    Improve your aerobic fitness by walking, running, swimming, cycling or taking a class at your gym. Swimming complements riding well: it stretches out stiff muscles and it’s excellent for developing your back muscles, which stop you tipping forward in the saddle.

    Stretch, stretch, stretch

    Stretching is an important way to start and finish any exercise to protect your muscles, tendons, and ligaments by reducing their susceptibility to injury.

    Exercises on your horse

    The range of exercises you can do while in the saddle is vast, and each move will help different riders with specific requirements. Ideally, an instructor who knows you can recommend which will best help you personally but below are some general all-round exercises.

    Try standing straight up in the saddle and driving your heel down. You are aiming for a straight line in your body from your shoulder to your hip to your heel. Start while your horse is stationary, and as your strength improves you will be able to do this when he moves.

    The most helpful on-board exercise to improve riding and fitness has to be riding without stirrups. It encourages you to find a deeper position in the saddle, it makes you work on your balance and it sets you straight, as well as developing your core strength. Just lift your stirrups up and cross them over the pommel to keep them out of the way while you work — you can do this at walk, trot or canter.

    Practising a two-point seat is also a good exercise to develop strength in your legs. Holding onto the neckstrap if you need to, you sink your weight into your heels and keep contact with the horse from the two points of your legs while you lift your bottom slightly out of the saddle; try not to tip forward.

    Also try mixing up your posting rhythms: instead of ‘up, down, up, down’ while you’re trotting, try ‘down, up, up’ where you post down, then stay up in the air for two beats. The challenge is to keep your lower leg and your upper body in place, and not to lose the rhythm — easier said than done!

    Read more on rider fitness

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    How to keep your horse happy and safe in the stable

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    Home is where the heart is. Your horse no doubt feels the same way about his stable as you do about the four walls you inhabit. He loves it because his box, the place where he eats, sleeps and whiles away many hours, makes him feel happy and secure — or at least it should. However, you may be unaware that certain things can cause him to become stressed and insecure, while hidden dangers lurk that can lead injury and, on rare occasions, death. Here are nine top tips to keep your horse happy in the stable.

    Size matters

    You may think that your new livery yard guarantees value for money, but if your horse is a 17.2hh giant and they are offering him accommodation measuring 2x2m (we might be exaggerating here, but you get the picture), then think again. He will not only struggle to move and turn around, but he could become cast (stuck) when trying to get up. This could all end badly as his legs strike the walls causing cuts, bruises or far worse.

    Turn away from the prevailing winds

    Is his stable positioned so that in windy conditions it feels like Hurricane Frank is within? While good ventilation is essential, especially in warm weather, a box that is too draughty and cold may, in the long term, cause your horse to develop low-grade health problems. Sit in your study when it is a breezy -10 degrees outside, open the window and see what that feels like first hand.

    Avoid clutter

    We’ve all seen pictures of unfortunate horses living in places that look like Steptoe’s yard. Just because your livery yard owner lacks space and thinks that your mount will be fine sharing his box with a couple of lawn mowers, a quad bike and 25 bales of moldy straw, he won’t be. Even the most docile of horses needs a space clear of clutter. And that applies to rugs draped over doors, too.

    Always muck out

    Letting your horse stand in weeks’ worth of urine and dung is just plain cruel. Muck him out daily, replenish the stable with clean, dust-free bedding and don’t stint on the volume or your horse will end up lying on a cold floor. Ideally, if finances allow, install rubber matting. If the urine is pooling on the floor you have a drainage issue so seek advice.

    Be haynet-safe

    One of the most common mistakes made by new horse owners is to hang a haynet too close to the floor. Your horse’s feet can easily become tangled in its mesh. Bear in mind this might be when he is rolling and his feet are high in the air, so ensure that the net is out of reach. Consider buying one with smaller holes, or think about other means of feeding, such as from the floor — how a horse grazes naturally — possibly via a feeder that prevents wastage.

    Ensure your horse is not lonely….

    You no doubt have a circle of friends, and just as you love to socialise, your horse will be happier if he can gaze out of his door and see some friendly equines faces.

    …and keep him entertained

    A stabled horse won’t be happy if he is left to his own devices for hours on end, so ensure that he has regular turnout and/or work, that you interact with him regularly via grooming and stick to a feeding regime. Use stable toys to prevent boredom.

    Provide water

    Ensure that he has access to water at all times.

    Prevent fire

    Don’t smoke in your horse’s stable, check that your yard’s electrics are well maintained, keep fire extinguishers serviced and have an escape plan in place. There have been well documented fatal stable and barn fires and you can never be too vigilant — a few years ago, top event rider Boyd Martin lost six horses in an horrific fire apparently caused by an electrical fault.

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    Celebrating One for Arthur’s victory at Warwick

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    Bring out the bunting, crack open the sparkling wine, hold the front page! Do not adjust your digital devices, you are reading correctly when we celebrate loud and heartily our winner in last week’s blog — One for Arthur.

    The eight-year-old was a glorious winner of Saturday’s Classic Chase at Warwick and Lucinda Russell is the new pin-up in my non-existent teenage bedroom thanks to her shrewd handling of my new favourite horse.

    I’m sorry for those of you who might have backed the horse, were it not for my usual 7 lb penalty, but my sympathies end there and I’ve already reinvested some of my not-so-meagre winnings (he was 14/1 for goodness sake!) as I dream of Grand National glory in a few months’ time.

    The dream is on and I am thinking of retiring my tipping boots — for good reasons this time around.

    Kempton plans: The key folk don’t want it

    I feared that I would return to the issue of Kempton and the past week has done little to dilute my rage at the Jockey Club’s plans.

    A couple of fresh arguments – almost absurdly simple – need to be aired. Firstly, the council aren’t keen on new housing. I may need to repeat that, such is the significance of the content: here we have a London council who are actively turning down the opportunity to build new houses at a time when the national housing shortage is at epidemic levels. Is this not a clue in itself that the motivation behind the Kempton sale could have a lot more to do with greed than with an attempt to make a meaningful improvement?

    My second observation is perhaps a bit more sinister and my fear is that monies raised will very quickly filter into prize money which, although important to many, is wholly at odds with the charter by which the Jockey Club is supposed to be bound.

    We have been asked to believe that the proposed bulldozing of Kempton is for the greater good of the wider group, when the building of a needless all-weather track in Newmarket seems almost blatantly designed to get more media-rights money out of bookmakers.

    It feels like financial greed is being put ahead of the soul of the sport, and I am no less angry about the proposals this week than I was last week.

    Grab the popcorn for the politics

    Racing has all but certainly secured itself a 10% rate for payments from bookies on their offshore bets, thanks to Tracey Crouch’s efforts to reform the Levy.

    Racing has good reason to feel self-congratulatory and, to an outsider,it appears that their efforts in and around Westminster have been more successful than those of the bookies, who sought to highlight the ever-escalating costs they pay to a sport that doesn’t appear to be growing rapidly.

    What happens next will be interesting: will the bookies lick their wounds and channel their energies into a legal challenge? Will racing be able to heal the wounds created by the highly controversial ABP project? Will racing seize on its apparent position of authority and further tighten the screws on a bookmaking industry facing unprecedented attacks?

    January isn’t the most exciting month of the year for on track escapades, so happily we have the sport’s politicians to keep us entertained.

    Un de Cold

    I wrote last month about the battling qualities of Un De Sceaux after his gutsy win in the Tingle Creek.

    This weekend he lines up as an odds-on shot in the Clarence House which – to my mind – lacks appeal in its current graded guise.

    At time of writing, we have no more than seven runners and Sire De Grugy is the latest horse to forfeit his place in the race.

    UDS ought to win more easily than he did at Sandown, but will we learn a great deal that we don’t already know as the build up to Cheltenham continues? I fear not.

    Sunshine forever

    Did somebody somewhere say that I was thinking about quitting tipping and betting? Don’t believe a word of it.

    The big handicap hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday sees Heartbreak City seek to follow up his heroics in the Ebor and at Galway (and oh so nearly in the Melbourne Cup). On ratings he is a shoo-in but anyone tempted to take 5/2 in a multi-runner field is braver than me.

    I’ll risk a few quid each-way on After Rain, who was a bit unlucky in Ireland over Christmas and looks treated to go well. After all, we are all only as good as our last race and I’m king for a day!

    Good luck!

    Image: close-up of the Warwick racecourse, by Amanda Slater via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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    How to catch your horse in the field

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    Some horses, particularly those you have formed a bond with over time, will be easy to catch in a field. They might even walk up to you, aware that your pockets contain treats, and bow their head helpfully as you put on their headcollar. Others, though, can resent the fact that they need to leave their field, their companions and their tasty grass and at the first sign of a human entering their paddock they will move off in the opposite direction.

    So how should you catch your horse, and what do you need to be aware of to stay safe during the process?

    Be subtle

    The golden rule of catching any horse is never to look it in the eye. Bow your head, all the time keeping the horse in your sights, but don’t ‘eyeball’ him. In the wild, a horse would regard a human as a predator, so do everything gently and in an un-pressured way.

    Walk, don’t march

    Never march up to a horse aggressively but walk in a confident and relaxed manner. If he turns in the opposite direction as you get closer, slow your walk considerably. Approach him on the side he is used to being handled from.

    Have a handy bribe

    Offer a titbit with an outstretched hand, but again without looking your horse in the eye.

    Make good use of the headcollar

    If he is tricky to catch it might be a good idea to leave on a headcollar. If so, very gently get hold of the back of the noseband and attach the leadrope before you let him have the titbit. Never make sudden movements which could startle the horse and cause him to rear or gallop off. If you are dealing with a particularly volatile horse, don’t clip the rope, but slide it over the back of the noseband and lead him with both ends — that way if he does pull away and you can’t hold on, the rope will slip off safely.

    If the horse isn’t wearing a halter, to catch him carefully slide the rope around his neck, hold both ends securely under his neck and gently put on the headcollar — then give him the titbit. Stand on his left side, never in front, as you put on the halter.

    Take your time

    If your horse is particularly reluctant to be caught, spend time going out to the field, giving him a titbit, putting on the headcollar, leading him around with no pressure and then letting him go again. Alternatively, try just giving him a rub with the headcollar (not even putting it on), a tasty reward and then leaving the field. He will soon understand that being approached and caught isn’t anything to be afraid of — especially when a tasty carrot or apple is involved. By doing this you are helping to defuse the predator/prey relationship.

    Consider some Parelli techniques

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    You could take this approach further and try the Parelli method of rubbing the end of the lead rope over the horse’s body for enjoyment, before tossing it over his body so that he loses fear of it. See www.parelli.com for further stages of the process.

    Use reverse psychology

    Also try turning away from your horse when he turns from you. If you have food in your hand, especially something that he can see, he will probably relent and come looking for it. It may sound unlikely but it really does work.

    Try, and try again

    If you’re really struggling to catch your horse, go away for half an hour and return again, employing the same method explained above. He may now be in a more cooperative frame of mind.

    Don’t act like a predator

    Never chase a horse you are trying to catch, use aggressive behaviour, corner him or hit out at him — you will only make a bad situation even worse. If nothing seems to work, consult your trainer.

    …and put safety first

    Remember, always wear a safety helmet when catching a horse. Accidents can and do happen in the field.

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    World’s best horse breeds: Akhal-Teke

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    In 1956, The Queen was gifted an unusual horse by Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the then Soviet Union — a bright golden-dun stallion named Melekush. The story goes that the royal grooms tried to clean off what they thought was an unnatural polish, but Melekush glowed even more after washing.

    He was an Akhal-Teke, a breed that is known for its iridescent metallic sheen. The breed name comes from the long oasis in the foothills of the Kopet-Dag Mountains called Akhal, which is now part of Turkmenistan. The “Teke” is for the Turkmen tribe, a nomadic people who inhabited the oasis and raised these exotic horses.

    akhal-teke horseThough the exact age of the breed is unknown, it is thought to be an ancient one, perhaps even older than the Arabian. Some believe that the “Byerley Turk” — one of the progenitors of the modern Thoroughbred — may have been an Akhal-Teke. It is thought to be the oldest surviving cultured equine breed and, while its blood has influenced the development of several modern horse breeds, its own unique features have remained largely undiluted for centuries.

    Certainly, its location kept the breed pure — historic movement of peoples through Central Asia, whether for raids on other tribes or for trading with them, tended to bypass the Akhal oasis, which is sheltered by mountains to the south, the Caspian Sea to the West and the fearsome Karakum desert to the north. It was this desert, which covers most of Turkmenistan, that made the Akhal-Teke the hardy creature it is. It had to withstand extreme heat: Karakum is the hottest desert in Central Asia — dry, stinging cold and drought.

    With little grazing available for most of the year, the Turkmene horse had to survive on meagre rations, mostly grains mixed with mutton fat supplied by its masters and fed by hand. To this day the breed has an affinity with its human handlers.

    Like the Arab, it excels in endurance riding, but an eight-year-old black Akhal-Teke stallion named Absent won individual dressage gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, individual and team bronze in the 1964 Tokyo Games and team gold in Mexico in 1968.

    Images: Akhal-Teke stallions, both by Artur Baboev, CC BY-SA 3.0;

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    Dismay at Kempton Park closure plans

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    Well nobody saw it coming, did they? The news Jockey Club Racecourses hope to bulldoze Kempton Park to make way for housing and raise funds for – amongst other things – an all-weather track in Newmarket came as a shock. And as shocks go, it was seismic.

    In truth, it is difficult to call to mind any infrastructure news of this magnitude for very many years within our sport. Writing a blog, I have the liberty to avoid being fair to all sides, but, for the record, I’ll point to JCR’s attempted assurance that this decision will help safeguard the sport and allow necessary investment elsewhere. Also, the list of projects is not without merit – developments and improvements across their estate. There, I’ve done it.

    On the other side of the fence (no fences on the all-weather, of course) are those of us who are dismayed by the planned desecration of one of racing’s most cherished locations. Where to even begin?

    We know all about the King George on Boxing Day which is now – bizarrely – pencilled in to take place at Sandown. You might as well race the Tour de France on a beach, such are the wildly different requirements at Sandown for a horse in the mid-season showpiece. It wouldn’t be the King George in essence, only in name – and a bedrock of the racing season would be savagely destroyed in a wrecking ball.

    Ultimately, however, this move exposes the very real suspicion held by many of us that National Hunt racing is the poor relation of its wealthier relative on the Flat. The commercial bigwigs who run the sport have a duty – a royal charter, indeed – to protect the heritage and interest of racing (both key codes!) and yet this decision smacks of quite the opposite.

    Kempton is steeped in history – both Flat and Jumps — but to my mind much more of the latter; it was part of our childhood, it is wonderfully accessible for recreational punters, it is wonderfully fair as a flat track where hard luck tales are minimal. And yet it is being sacrificed on the altar of commercial short-termism, packaged up as investment.

    Why on earth we need an all-weather track in wealthy Newmarket is beyond me, with Chelmsford barely an hour away. Sometimes, racing gives us enough reasons in a day to bamboozle us for a year and I, for one, am deeply concerned about the Kempton news. I’ve a sense of foreboding that this is a theme I will need to return to.

    Thanks for the memories

    Last Saturday, we enjoyed the Veteran’s Chase at Sandown won by Pete The Feat (no, of course I didn’t tip it), which prompted the most wonderful scenes of celebration imaginable and more in tune with a Grand National win in Spring than a dreary day in January.

    After the race, beaten favourite Dynaste was retired by trainer David Pipe. Dynaste once did me a favour when landing the Ryanair a few years ago. Since then, I’ve done my brains on the horse but I still adore him.

    On his last couple of starts, he seems to have fallen out of love with the jumping game but it would take more than a few sulky runs for me ever to fall out of love with him.
    Here was a chiselled old battler, grey in colour (it always helps, doesn’t it) and heart on his sleeve. He had a following, a bit like Cue Card, and he captured the imagination in an irrational, emotive and almost unjustified way.

    Therein lies the beauty of jump racing, surely? Our heroes don’t have to win to warm our hearts, they just need to appeal to that core sense of effort and bravery that we envy. Dynaste did it in spades and while my bank manager won’t miss him, I certainly will.

    Let’s cherish these veterans and every time we see them let’s cheer them like Pete The Feat’s connections.

    All change on the opening day

    Looking ahead to the Cheltenham Festival, we’re facing a rather peculiar situation on the opening day. For the last few years, the narrative has been absurdly obvious: Willie Mullins has had the hotpot in all the big races. Min, Douvan, Faugheen, Annie Power, Vautour, Vroum Vroum Mag. Up the hill they come, down come the roars, sweaty go the bookies and all but one win. It’s been an easy script to follow.

    This year, however, it all looks a whole lot murkier and, dare I suggest, a bit more intriguing. Mullins doesn’t have a Supreme hotpot by the looks of things, nor does he have the Arkle favourite and the Champion Hurdle market is – quite simply – a bit of a mess: Faugheen and Annie Power top the lists but I’d be surprised if anyone knows which, if either, of them are likely to show up.

    It all conspires to make us work a little bit harder, think a little more openly and it allows us to dream that there is still some punting value to be had for the first time in a long time.

    Arthur to knock me off the wagon

    I’m siding with Lucinda Russell’s One For Arthur in Saturday’s big betting race, the Classic Chase at Warwick. Far from disgraced in the Becher last time out, the ground will be no problem and the trip will be very welcome.

    The penalty of my antepost support will almost certainly be a hindrance but as I struggle through dry January, victory for the wonderfully named stayer is highly likely to see me hit the Guinness on Saturday night. In truth, I’m looking for an excuse as this has been the longest month of all time!

    Image: Boxing Day 2016 at Kempton Park, by Michimaya via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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