Tag Archive: beginner rider

  1. How to banish winter boredom for stabled horses

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    The nights are interminably long and the days short and dismal; conditions are cold, wet, windy or icy. Winter brings with it weather to test even the hardiest Northern Hemisphere dweller and unless you have the luxury of ample land and year-round turnout, your horse is likely to be spending long hours stabled at this time of year.

    While you are sitting in front of a warm fire or sleeping under a cosy duvet, spare a thought for your horse, who, by being stabled for hours at a time, could be feeling pretty bored — and maybe a little depressed. Some horses develop vices when they are stabled for long periods, such as crib biting and wind sucking.

    So what can you do to help alleviate the tedium of long hours spent in a box, and maybe prevent a nasty habit developing?

    Ensure he has ample quarters

    Give him as large a stable as possible — maybe move him elsewhere if there is a larger box available.

    Two’s a company

    Horses are herd animals and generally enjoy company. Your equine partner will be happier if he can look over his door and see stablemates. If the box is big enough and your horse particularly lonely, would he be happier with a small companion in situ?

    Enjoy great outdoors

    Take him out as often as possible. If the conditions make riding unsafe, see if he can spend an hour turned out in the school or, if he is injured, take him for a walk in hand.

    Keep him busy munching

    Offer him plenty of forage in a haynet. While many experts believe that you should feed from the floor, a haynet with small holes will ensure that your horse will trickle feed and be kept occupied by munching for far longer.

    Let him play

    There are abundant stable toys on the market these days, some of them edible. You can also make your own, such as threading a rope through a ball, an apple, a swede, etc, and suspending it from a high point in the stable. Some horses love to play apple bobbing, and others enjoy kicking a ball around for amusement. Use your imagination to find something your horse loves — but ensure that it is safe.

    Have fun with minerals

    Place a lick in the stable — a slightly different concept from stable toys in that these provide a variety of minerals and nutrients, especially salt, which he may lack in his diet. By suspending the lick on a rope in the stable, you immediately have a toy and one of his ‘five a day’ rolled into one.

    Mirror, mirror on the wall….

    Some people claim that the installation of a mirror in a horse’s stable will work wonders and make him happier and calmer, as well as helping to reduce serious stable vices.

    Teach him tricks

    Horses are intelligent creatures and yours may really enjoy the challenge of learning something new — with a treat thrown in when he does things right of course.

    Spend time grooming him

    Most horses love a bit of pampering — and it will help to while away the time

    So now your horse is entertained, what about you?

    Winter is the time to snuggle up with a good book, by which we don’t mean 50 Shades, but more 50 ways to improve your riding. These dark months are the perfect time to indulge in a little equestrian homework when the mucking out and feeding are finished.

    To ensure that your fitness levels don’t take a hit, use the time wisely and join a gym, swim and sign up for a pilates class so that your core is no longer ineffective but strong and toned so that you will be beautifully stable in the saddle come the spring.

    Clear out and clean the tackroom; give some of that tired old tack a bit of a soaping to make it spring back to life and once all the hard work is done, crack open a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, put your feet up and relax. You deserve it.

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  2. Your essential guide to buying numnahs and saddlecloths

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    Should you use a numnah or saddlecloth? To answer that question, you first need to know what their function is, and the difference between them.

    Why use a numnah or a saddlecloth

    The main difference between a numnah and a saddlecloth is that the former is roughly the shape of the saddle, and the latter is generally square. They are used to protect your horse’s back, absorb its sweat and protect the underside of the saddle. They can also be used to modify slightly the saddle fit, but it is essential — for your horse’s comfort as well as your own — that the saddle fits him properly in the first place.

    Synthetic versus wool

    Saddlecloths are made from wool, cotton or synthetic material and come in various sizes and colours, single or double thickness. Numnahs are usually made of wool or a synthetic equivalent, and are available in full-pad or half-pad. Whichever you choose is mostly a matter of choice, but numnahs tend to be more suited to horses with high withers.

    Synthetic materials will, of course, be cheaper if you are on a tight budget, but wool will probably last longer, so may be more cost-effective in the long run. It also has wicking properties, which make it more comfortable for your horse and helps to regulate his body temperature.

    How to choose a numnah

    When buying a numnah, make sure it fits the size and style of the saddle, following the contours of the saddle flaps, and doesn’t alter the saddle’s fit. You should also check with the appropriate ruling body whether your choice is “legal” in competition. For example, white numnahs or saddlecloths tend to be generally more acceptable in dressage, particularly at the higher levels, although brown or black are also seen.

    For show jumping, pretty much anything goes! So you could choose your sponsor’s colours and branding, and use a saddlecloth rather than a numnah so that more of the cloth is on show. The same applies to the cross-country phase of eventing, though again white is usually used for the dressage phase.

    For showing, it’s best to use a numnah, with a half-pad, if you have to use something. Numnahs are more discreet, as they follow the lines of the saddle, and can be matched to the colour of your tack. The main horse societies make no mention of numnahs or saddlecloths in their current rulebooks, but if you are worried, do call the society concerned. However, because the saddle is going on to an immaculately turned-out and supremely clean horse, neither numnah nor saddlecloth may be necessary!

    Looking for a new numnah? Find a huge selection of numnahs and saddlecloths on the Derby House website.

    Image: Tack by Paul Arps via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  3. Your essential guide to jodhpurs and breeches

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    Need new equestrian clothing? Here’s some handy advice on how to find the best jods (or breeches) for you.

    Jodhpurs versus breeches

    If you are starting out, you may want to know the difference between jodhpurs and breeches — it is length and what kind of boots they are designed to be worn with. Jodhpurs finish at the ankle and usually worn with jodhpur boots and chaps, while breeches finish at mid-calf and should be worn with long boots.

    Knee pads and ‘sticky bums’

    Both types are made of stretch fabric, so they move with you as you ride rather than restrict you, which makes them move comfortable than jeans or any other kind of trousers. And they both have knee pads, either of the same fabric or a contrasting material, such as suede. The knee pads prevent rubbing and wearing, so that the garment will last longer, and they can help to improve your grip. It is also possible to buy the rather charmingly named “sticky bum” jods — they have a dressage seat (also called full seat) insert in a fabric that gives the rider added grip in the saddle. The dressage seat is available in breeches, too.

    Buy jods to fit your equestrian discipline

    Both come in a variety of fabrics, styles, colours and leg lengths, so there is a perfect pair for everybody, no matter what their shape. As to which type you choose, that depends to a degree on whether you intend to compete. For the show ring, you will need to wear long boots, so should invest in a pair of beige, yellow or white breeches — the showing society under whose rules you compete will specify colour.

    Simply for working on the yard and hacking out, darker colours are probably more practical and if you prefer to wear jodhpur boots, you can invest in a decent pair of full or half-chaps. The former cover the whole length of your legs, while the latter cover your lower leg up to the knee and prevent the stirrup leathers rubbing or pinching, protect your legs from scratches or catches when you are out and about, and help to keep your new jodhpurs clean.

    Above all, choose comfort

    Both jods and breeches are worth investing in because the more comfortable you are in the saddle, the more you will enjoy riding, and there are plenty of options to match your needs and your budget.

    How to choose the right jodhpurs for you

    Take a look at Derby House’s range of breeches and jodhpurs

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  4. How to buy jodhpurs and riding breeches

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    Like all clothing, jodhpurs and riding breeches come in a range of sizes and cuts, and it is important to find the one that best suits your body shape. If you are uncomfortable in the saddle and feel restricted, you are wearing the wrong trousers! The whole point of these garments is that they give you freedom of movement while you ride.

    Check your measurements

    So it’s worth shopping around, trying on a number of different makes and sizes to find your perfect fit. Try tack shops, speciality equestrian retailers, online stores, eBay and second-hand outlets. Make a note of your waist measurement and your inseam — measuring from the top of the inside of your thigh to your ankle — and take it with you when you shop. Sizes for women start from waist size 24in (roughly a UK size 8) and go up in two-inch increments — 26in, 28in, 30in and so on. Many makes now come in regular or long sizes, for those with endless legs.

    Regular versus low-rise

    You can also choose between a regular style or low-rise, which suit some riders, and some also come with a wider waistband, which many find more comfortable.
    You should also have some idea of budget before shopping, too, as it’s easy to get carried away. It can be helpful to have someone with you, an expert or just a friend who has bought riding wear before. And ask around — equestrian online forums can give you a wealth of advice.

    Try innovative fabrics for better comfort

    As well as different styles, try different fabrics too. Most have some stretch, such as Lycra, elastane or Spandex, and some are have “technical features”, for example breathable material that will keep you cool in the summer. You can also get Polartec-type microfibres for warmth in cold weather. Such special elements will, however, be reflected in the price.

    Read our essential guide to jodhpurs and breeches

    Take a look at Derby House’s range of breeches and jodhpurs

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  5. 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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  6. Lunging: 6 top tips to get it right

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    Lunging is a training tool with a multitude of benefits. It is the perfect way to calm a fizzy horse before the rider mounts, it helps to warm up cold muscles prior to a training session, enables young horses to be exercised without the weight of a rider on their backs, and it is the ideal way to reintroduce a horse to gentle work following injury or time off. It can help to improve flexibility and balance, rhythm and movement, as well as encourage the correct outline without using force. It is also an excellent aid for inexperienced riders who can hone their position and balance while their instructor controls the horse.

    “Get lunging wrong and you could put your horse and yourself in danger”

    It is only the perfect training tool, however, when the right equipment and environment are used. Get it wrong and you could be putting your horse and yourself in danger.

    1. Choose the right lunging equipment

    Don’t contemplate lunging unless you have the right tools for the job. This includes a cavesson, which has some similarities to a halter. The main difference is the heavy, padded noseband which comes with metal rings attached. The lunge line — another essential piece of equipment — fixes to a ring on the front.

    Additionally, you will need a lunge whip, a roller (or a saddle), a breastplate to stop them slipping backwards and brushing boots on all four legs to prevent injury from kicking. Remember, too, that the handler must wear a hard hat and gloves.

    2. Find out how to fit a cavesson

    The cavesson can integrate with a snaffle bit and bridle, with the bridle cheek pieces placed over the cavesson noseband. You may need to lengthen the bridle’s cheek pieces for fitting and remove the bridle’s own noseband, as well as the reins. Ensure that the cavesson noseband sits just below the horse’s cheek bones (a two-finger distance away) and all straps are done up firmly to stop the cavesson slipping round into the horse’s eyes.

    Fit side reins by slipping them under the girth straps and then attach the other end to the snaffle bit rings in a light contact while the horse is in a standing position.

    3. Pick the right lunging environment

    An enclosed school with a non-slip surface is the perfect place for lunging. However, a flat, dry field with no ruts would be suitable alternative. Bear in mind, that circling places stress on a horse’s limbs, so an undulating paddock with uneven ground is likely to cause injury, while lunging on wet grass is dangerous and can cause slips and falls.

    4. Learn how to lunge

    The horse should walk, trot and canter on both reins on a circle 20m from the handler, who stands with the lunge line in their left hand and the whip (pointed at the horse’s hind quarters) in their right, forming a triangle with the horse as the base and the trainer at the apex.

    The lunge line should be neither too tight nor too loose and the whip should never be used to hit the horse, but it should be flicked near his hocks to encourage forward movement. The perfect device to control the horse while lunging is the handler’s voice, which should be used to increase the pace and slow it down, with the whip only used to back up the voice in an unresponsive horse.

    Never wind the lunge line around your hand. If the horse panics and bolts it could drag you with it. Instead lay it in equal loops across the palm of your hand, close the hand to keep a contact and then open it to let out the lunge line when necessary.

    5. Find out how long to lung your horse

    Do not lunge a schooled horse for more than half an hour. Reduce this time significantly for an unfit horse or a youngster.

    6. Always consult the experts

    It is vital that you seek help from an accredited trainer and learn properly before you try lunging for the first time.

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  7. How to ride alone

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    Riding out with friends and hacking partners is always fun: you can grow your confidence, teach your horse to behave well in a group or pair and, of course, set the world to rights chatting. So why ride alone? Going with others can also make you distracted, whether you’re worrying about your horse’s behaviour or someone else’s; or simply because you’re having a top-class gossip.

    The really special part about riding out alone is that get to focus on your horse completely, which is great for bonding and getting to know each other better, as well as an opportunity for you to have some ‘me’ time.

    What to do before you ride alone

    Some horses are happier going solo, but most prefer to be in a group: horses are pack animals, after all. It completely depends on your ned’s temperament, and you might need to work up to riding out on your own.

    If he gets nervous without company, you will need to ease your horse into being alone on a hack. Taking the lead in a group ride when you’re out with friends is a great way to give him confidence. Once he’s fine in the lead, try riding out with a friend on foot or on a bike, sticking to familiar routes.

    How to set out

    Once you’re confident enough to try a short ride alone, then plan it for a day with a decent weather forecast, when you know you’ll have friends or family around to help if you need them. There ’s no shame in turning around and going back if things go badly, or catching up with some friends who are already riding out. The main thing is that you both remain safe and relaxed. Make sure you’re also confident in your road safety if you’re doing roadwork.

    Before you set out, let everyone know what time you plan to leave, and how long you’re going to be. Make sure your mobile is fully charged, and has your emergency information on it. Pick a short, familiar route with good phone reception — half an hour is plenty.

    Wear a back protector, and something bright so you’re easily seen. If loved ones tend to worry, there are even apps they can download which track your progress on a map.

    Just ride and relax

    Once you’re ready to go, just take a few breaths and try to relax as much as possible. Horses are sensitive to nerves, and if your steed senses you’re tense about something, he’ll tense up too.

    A few horses are loathe to leave the yard on their own, but you can always ask a friend to lead him out of the gate, just to get you successfully on your way.

    You’ll very soon learn to enjoy it! Riding out solo with your own horse is one of the greatest pleasures in life. You can take the time to really appreciate your surroundings, and you don’t have to go at anyone else’s pace — you can bumble along smelling the roses, or make it a zippy ride to tire a fizzy horse out; whatever suits you both best.

    As you get used to riding out à deux you can plan longer, more ambitious routes and explore new terrain, which is enormous fun. Just do remember: no matter how many times you’ve been out and how long you’ve been riding for, you must always tell someone where you’re going, when you’re leaving and when you intend to be back, and always take your mobile phone. Then, off you go — the world’s your oyster!

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  8. How to turn out your horse safely

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    Horses are big, powerful animals and they can just as easily cause injury when you are on the ground as when you are unlucky enough to be dislodged from the saddle. There are well-documented incidents of people being seriously injured when turning their horse out after exercise or being stabled.

    Because horses are flight animals, even the calmest one can be spooked when you are opening or shutting the gate or attempting to remove its headcollar. They can rear, bolt, swing around and knock you over or catch you with an exuberant kick. After all, they are excited to be going out into their field and to see their field companions again. It is, therefore, imperative to be aware of the correct procedures for turnout — all of which will help you to stay safe on the ground.

    Wear the right equipment

    Helmets and body protectors aren’t just for safety in the saddle. You should keep both on after your ride while you turn your horse out in his paddock. Additionally, make sure that you are wearing sturdy boots and gloves, so that should the horse try and pull away you will have more chance of maintaining a grip on the rope.

    Take him out in a headcollar, not a bridle

    This is because if your four-legged friend is in high spirits you may struggle to remove the reins, bridle and bit, leading to a potential accident if he gallops away with it half on, half off.

    Take only your horse to the paddock

    Don’t be tempted to carry buckets or take any other equipment with you.

    Turn out only one horse at a time

    If you have more than one that needs to go out to the field ask someone else for help.

    Be gate-savvy

    When you reach the gate, hold the rope in one hand and push the gate wide open with the other — it should be wide enough for you both to pass through at the same time. Don’t expect your horse to walk through a tiny opening — he could easily knock and injure himself on the gate or gate post. Don’t let him rush in ahead of you either. The whole process should be as calm and sedate as possible. It is important that gates are constantly maintained. One that is difficult to open will cause problems, especially if the horse is excitable and the handler inexperienced.

    Turn your horse around

    Once the horse is through the opening, turn him around to face you and the gate, so that he has his back to his field and companions. This will reduce the likelihood of him being able to kick you as he rushes away from you. Close the gate and keep a constant eye on the horse.

    Watch him go away

    Unfasten either the headcollar or rope (horses who are difficult to catch may wear a well-fitting headcollar in their field) and watch him go away from you.

    Close the gate properly

    Reverse back towards and through the gate, keeping your eye on the horse at all times. Shut the gate and secure it — some horses are incredible escape artists.

    Be careful if there are other horses in the field

    If you are on your own, don’t be tempted to turn your horse out into a field of inquisitive horses who are crowding around the gateway. Return to the yard and ask for experienced help.

    Bribe, bribe, bribe

    If your horse rushes towards his field, tries to gallop off when he’s in it or won’t stand at the gate, you will need to be inventive. Offer him a titbit which should encourage him to stand still — it may be bribery, but if it works don’t knock it. Alternatively, if he really is a handful, you may even need to ride him to the gate and untack him there. If his manners fail to improve he may need to be taken back to basics — ask your trainer to help you with this.

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  9. How to steer your horse

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    Steering a horse feels infinitely mysterious when you first start to learn to ride, but one day it just clicks, and you will forget all about how frustrating it all was at first. So don’t worry if it seems like there is a lot to think about: there is but you’ll nail it with practice and eventually you’ll find you just turn your horse without even thinking about it.

    However, it’s important to get into good habits while you’re starting out because bad ones are horribly difficult to break.

    Sit right

    When learning how to steer, one of your most important aides is your seat, which is determined by your seat bones, and your posture and position in the saddle. It takes core strength to develop your seat, and you should end up with some impressive muscles in new places if you’re doing it right!

    To turn the horse correctly, you begin from a balanced position in the saddle centred around your seat bones, with your weight evenly placed on both your feet, and contact established through the bit. You will then use a combination of your seat, your legs and a little bit of your hands to aski him to turn.

    Look where you want to go

    The first thing to do is to turn your head to look towards where you want to go (it’s a good rule to always keep your chin up and look ahead to where you are going) and fix your eyes on that point, whether it’s a tree or a marker in an arena. This is already a movement your horse can feel because it shifts your weight, and your shoulders will turn slightly. You then increase this slight shift by rotating your hips towards the direction you’re headed in, while holding your position.

    Use your legs

    Gently squeeze your outside leg just behind the girth and apply a small amount of pressure from your inside leg just on the girth (your ‘outside’ leg is the one on the outside of the turn you’re about to do, and the ‘inside’ leg is the leg he is turning around. This also applies to your reins, so when turning left ,your inside rein is the left one and your outside rein is the one on the right).

    Be gentle with the reins

    By now your horse will be quite clear about what is intended, but whether he obliges is, of course, up to him. You may also need to pull back gently on the inside rein to slightly turn his head in the right direction. Don’t yank his mouth, or make this move without first employing your seat and your legs. Once he has turned, you need to make sure that you straighten him up properly out of the turn, sitting back squarely in the centre of the saddle, looking straight ahead, and walking him forward exerting firm, even pressure with your legs.

    One caveat: do remember that some horses are more willing than others, which means one horse will indulge even amateurish attempts at commands as if you were Charlotte Dujardin, while others will pretend not to understand what you’re asking, even when you’re getting it right. Whenever possible, it really helps to learn on the same horse so you can get a consistent idea of how you’re improving.

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  10. How to keep your horse safe and happy in the field

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    Horses and the great outdoors go together like strawberries and cream. The two were made for each other. A field is your four-legged friend’s natural habitat — provided he has 1-1.5 acres to himself, according to the British Horse Society.

    Regular turnout in ample space will, in the majority of cases, keep him sane, calm and happy, but there are certain elements he will need in place to guarantee health and contentment. So what are the top 10 dos and don’ts of turnout?

    1. Choose good fencing

    Fences and gates should be sufficiently strong and secure. Wooden post and rail fencing is the ideal, while plastic is another alternative, but it may not be as long lasting as wood. Electric fencing will appeal to those on a tight budget who wish to use it to sub divide a field. It is versatile and can be moved around, but it shouldn’t be used as a boundary fence. Bear in mind that if your horse gets out and causes an accident, you may be found liable.

    2. Manage his pasture

    As your horse spends around 16 hours a day grazing, ensure that the pasture is well managed. Collect dung (which will help to control parasite burdens), control weedy areas, check for rabbit holes and badger setts and cross graze with other species of animals where possible to rejuvenate the grass.

    3. Watch out for weeds

    3, Be vigilant and keep a look out for poisonous plants, notably ragwort, and toxic hedgerows, such as privet, leylandii, broom, box and laurel.

    4. Provide shelter

    Your horse will need shelter to shield him from the wind, rain, sun and flies. High hedges or trees form natural barriers, while some horse owners prefer to erect field shelters.

    5. Rug him as necessary

    If conditions dictate, use a turnout rug, but avoid the trendy temptation to over-rug as it can affect a horse’s ability to regulate his own temperature.

    6. Give him friends

    If you know your horse gets on with others, turn him out in a group. Livery yards concerned about injuries generally err on the side of caution and segregate these days. For horses this is an unnatural way of living. Like humans, our four-legged friends benefit from the close companionship they once enjoyed in the wild. If you feel strongly about this you may need to look specifically for a yard that allows group turnout.

    7. Consider gender

    Some yards prefer single-sex turnout. Experts are divided on whether aggression is a character rather than a gender trait, but if your yard owner or trainer feels that your horse would be safer turned out with a horse of the same sex follow their advice.

    8. Make sure he’s well fed

    Grass generally loses its goodness during the winter, so a horse that is turned out may need supplementary feeding, such as a daily supply of hay or haylage, or even hard feed, depending on his breed and work levels. If you are unsure whether your horse is receiving the right level of nutrients, ask an expert or phone a feed helpline.

    9. Prevent colic and laminitis

    Don’t assume that abundant grass equals a happy horse. Rich spring grass can cause numerous problems, from laminitis, a debilitating foot disease, to colic, which in serious cases can be fatal. If you ate countless packets of chocolate biscuits you would pile on the pounds. If your horse has unlimited access to rich grass he, too, will become overweight, which is particularly true of native breeds. Buy a weigh tape to keep an eye on your horse’s waistline and restrict his grazing if necessary.

    10. Supply plenty of fresh water

    Ensure that your horse has access to fresh water. In winter you may need to break ice so that he can still drink. Also, be aware that troughs can become stagnant, so dip them out and scrub them clean regularly.

    Also see how to keep your horse safe and happy in the stables

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  11. How to improve your canter

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    Top riders make riding the canter, a three-beat pace with a moment of suspension, look effortless. With barely perceptible movements of their upper body, they go with the movement — a harmonious partnership of horse and rider.

    As we progress with our riding, we all try and emulate the professionals. However, the thought of pushing a horse into canter can cause tension in some riders, or may make them try too hard during the pace. Instead of achieving a soft, harmonious position, they over-work their upper body in a rowing movement or they over-emphasise moving their seat backwards and forwards in the saddle. If so, a few tips can help you improve your canter.

    Trot away

    Before you ask your horse for canter ensure that he is in an active trot, to which you will be softly sitting not rising.

    Watch your legs

    Tell the horse which leg you want him to lead on by keeping your inside leg on the girth and your outside leg just behind it.

    Stay in contact

    Keep rein contact as the horse makes the transition into canter.

    Sit up

    Once the horse is cantering your upper body needs to be erect, but not to the point of stiffness and don’t let any tension creep in. Nor should you allow yourself to collapse at the waist, thus slouching. Also be careful not to arch your lower back. This is where strong core muscles will pay dividends. In fact, working on your core stability goes hand in hand with improving your canter. If you have a weak core you will find achieving a good technique at this pace particularly difficult.

    Swing to the rhythm

    Keep your seat in contact with the saddle but at the same time swing your hips in time with the canter motion. Remember that basic position we looked at in an earlier article — the one where you can draw an imaginary line from your ear, through your shoulder, hip and heel? You will maintain this position through the canter provided the hips are swinging.

    Relax your legs

    Keep your leg long, the knee soft and the heel deep. If you allow any part of the leg to tense and grip your heels will rise and you will find yourself out of balance and probably minus a stirrup.

    Look between your horse’s ears

    Keep your head up and look where you are going.

    Once you have developed a good canter technique you will find that you will be able to ride using your seat with less reliance on the reins, with your hip swing either slowing or speeding up the pace or maintaining it at a consistent rhythm.

    That said, good technique isn’t all down to the rider. Sitting correctly to the canter will be infinitely easier on a well-schooled horse and much harder on one that’s ‘on the forehand’ (meaning that the horse’s weight is on his shoulders) because his high back end will push the rider out of the saddle, making sitting to the movement particularly tricky. If this is the case, work with your instructor to get your horse off the forehand.

    Image: horse cantering by Thowra UK via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  12. What you need to know about shoeing your horse

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    In an ideal world, a horse wouldn’t need to wear shoes—wild horses have coped perfectly well without shoes for millennia. Unfortunately, most modern horses have feet with different needs from their wild forebears. These days, any animal that is either regularly hacked out, doing prolonged work on hard ground or roadwork, or has sensitive feet will need to be shod for protective reasons.

    But does your horse need four shoes? Some owners choose to shoe only their horse’s front feet on the grounds that they’re more sensitive, but there are other things to consider: ‘Horses actually wear our their hind feet more quickly than in the front, so, although the front feet are more sensitive, there are very good reasons to be shod with a complete set, not least for balance reasons,’ explains Nottinghamshire farrier Dave Ward.

    Horses may also need shoes if their feet are growing unevenly, or to help to treat an illness like laminitis or navicular, and in this case your vet will advise you on the best course of action. Similarly, corrective shoeing can help with your horse’s conformation and going.

    If you are planning to get your horse shod, you need to find a registered, qualified farrier and a good place to start is the online registry. You can also ask your vet, or trusted people at your yard for good local recommendations.

    What does a farrier do?

    The job of a farrier is actually threefold: first, he keeps a watchful eye on the condition of your horse’s feet by looking out for any signs of ill health or disease; secondly, he keeps them trimmed to the optimum shape and length, cleans them thoroughly and cuts out excess hoof walls, dead sole and dead frog; thirdly he replaces worn-out shoes with new shoes. This is all with the ultimate aim of allowing the weight of the animal to be equally distributed, and to support the horse to move easily and comfortably during both work and play.

    A horse will typically not need his first set of shoes until he is around four years old—until then his feet are still developing (apart from racehorses, which are shod early for obvious reasons). After this, he’ll need to be seen every 6-8 weeks, for a trim and to be re-shod: any longer than that and gaps and cracks will appear in his hooves, and he will start to get uncomfortable.

    The farrier’s visit

    Before your farrier arrives, you should make sure that your horse is tied up, that he is standing on a dry, flat surface in a quiet place, and that he has clean, picked-out feet. In total, the visit should take about an hour, as the farrier takes off the old shoes, trims the feet and selects and fits the new shoes. Feel free to ask him any questions you might have while he’s working away.

    In between visits from your farrier, you should keep an eye on your horse’s shoes and feet as part of the routine of picking his feet out—it’s not unknown for a shoe to come loose. In these cases, it may be helpful for you to pull the shoe off yourself for your horse’s safety. You can ask your farrier to explain the best ways to do this: it’s quite straightforward and a great skill to have, as you can save your equine friend a good deal of discomfort.

    Image: Hooves and shoes, by S. Carter,
    CC BY-SA 2.0

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  13. Top tips to transport your horse in a trailer

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    Even if you don’t compete your horse there will be times during your partnership when he will need to be transported somewhere — maybe to the vets or to a new yard. All trips should be smooth, so careful driving at a sensible speed is essential. A bad experience could easily turn a fret-free traveller into a nervous one.
    Additionally, there are steps that you can take to minimise the risks of injury or illness during the drive.

    Plan for your journey

    • Allow enough time for your trip, especially if your horse is a reluctant loader. Trying to rush him when he doesn’t want to go up the ramp will get the journey off to a stressful start.
    • Ensure that you have your horse’s passport with you while in transit.
    • Plan for the unexpected. If your 4×4 or lorry breaks down, you will be glad of the extra layers you packed for yourself and your horse and also of that spare haynet and snack you remembered to put in the car.

    Keep your horse comfortable in the trailer

    • Ensure that all the partitions and the breast bar are safely secured before you set off on your journey.
    • Make sure that the horsebox/trailer has adequate ventilation.
    • Give your horse ample space, but not too much. If you remove the middle partition in a trailer, for example, he will have little to brace himself against around corners, increasing the likelihood that he may become unbalanced and fall over.
    • Kit him out in travel boots or bandages, a tail guard and a leather headcollar with a poll guard.
    • Carry a spare headcollar and rope in case of breakages.
    • In warm weather, avoid over-rugging as horses are best kept cool in transit. Equally, when it is cold, rug him appropriately so that he doesn’t become chilled.
    • Securely tie a haynet close to your horse so that he can eat in transit. It will help to alleviate the boredom of a long journey and may help to prevent a fretful traveller playing up.
    • Check on your horse and also offer him water during regular stops so that he doesn’t become dehydrated.
    • Stop every four hours or so to untie him so that he can put his head down. Horses who travel for hours with their heads up are more at risk of developing respiratory diseases.
    • If your horse is taken ill in transit or falls over and injures himself, stop as soon as you safely can and call your vet immediately.
    • Where possible stick to main roads, which are smoother than country routes.

    Image: Horse trailers by Roger H. Goun via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  14. Falling off your horse: how to prevent it and how to deal with it

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    The prospect of falling off is probably the scariest part of learning to ride, or getting back into riding, but the fact is you’re not really a proper rider until you’ve had a fall. There is a reason they say falling makes you a better rider — and, if you think about it, jump jockeys and event riders fall off all the time.

    This may sound mad but, if you’ve never fallen off, the best thing for your riding is to get it over with as soon as possible: the chances are you’ll pick yourself up and dust yourself off — all accompanied by the pleasant sensation that it actually wasn’t that bad after all.

    Of course, we don’t all want to be falling off our horses left, right and centre, just for the sake of it. Happily, there are lots of tips which can help to minimise the risk of falling, but if the worst comes to the worst and you realise you’re headed directly out of the front or side door, there are also some things you can do to minimise damage to yourself or your horse.

    How not to fall off your horse

    A good way of preventing a potential fall is to make sure that your horse has the right tack, fitted correctly. If he is uncomfortable, he’s much more likely to try and throw you off: a surprising amount of ‘difficult’ horses have been improved by just changing the fit or the components of their tack, from the bit to fit of the saddle.

    Once you’re on board, the best tips for staying put are to maintain your balance, and contact with the horse, and to remain alert. If you are familiar with the horse you are riding, you will know what makes him spook: some horses can’t bear plastic bags, and others hate lorries or even squirrels, and keeping a relaxed eye out for any potential hazards allows you to be prepared. However, if you do see something likely to make him jump, don’t tense up: stiffening in the saddle and gathering up the reins will only make him anticipate excitement.

    If a horse leaps upwards, or sideways, puts his head between his knees or performs an unexpected cat jump over a pole, the things which will keep you glued to the saddle are your balance and your centre of gravity. Hold on with your thighs, not onto the reins, keep the balls of your feet firmly in the stirrups, and try to remain calm. Whatever he’s up to won’t last long.

    How to fall off your horse

    If you are going to fall, whether you see it coming or you suddenly find yourself inexplicably flying through the air, try to relax rather than tense your body. Fight the instinct to put your arms out to break the fall; instead cross your arms with you elbows tucked in, and try to land on your shoulder and tuck yourself into a roll. Don’t hang onto the reins – your horse usually won’t go far – and try to roll out of his path. The chances are he will be as shaken up as you are (unless he’s a naughty pony up to his usual tricks).

    The most important thing to protect you is a properly fitted, brand new BHS-approved riding hat. It must be of an approved standard, which you can check on the BHS website, with a quality assurance mark on the inside. Ideally, it will be fitted by someone who has had appropriate BETA training. It is also essential that children wear body protectors when riding at all times to minimise any damage to their back or torso if they fall. These need to be fitted as carefully as hats, as they aren’t any use if they aren’t exactly the correct size — there are useful guidelines on the BETA website.

    When you’ve landed, feeling winded is quite normal. To check you’re unhurt, wiggle everything from your toes up, then very slowly sit up and then stand up, and finally go to reassure your horse and check that he is unhurt. Do remember that if you landed on your head or back, and your helmet or your body protector took a bash, either or both pieces of equipment may need to be replaced.

    It’s true that the best thing for you is to get straight back on — provided you haven’t done yourself any damage — so once you and your horse have your breath back it’s time to quietly mount up and calmly continue on your way. And give yourself a pat on the back: you’ve done it, and survived to tell the tale!

    If you are someone, or know someone, who is extremely nervous about falling or who has had a bad fall there are some good rider confidence courses, including the one at the centre for horseback combat.

    Image: horse spinning out from under his rider, by Louis via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  15. Understand your horse’s body language

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    Horses may not be able to talk, but if you study how they position or move their body, their head and their ears, as well as other parts of their anatomy, you will learn a lot about how they are feeling.

    Horse to horse, they are capable of plenty of communication. One will tell another that he is the boss in their relationship, or that he is frightened, or relaxed.

    Understanding a horse’s body language can make you a better rider, and it will certainly help you to handle them on the ground. When you are more aware of their ‘flight’ signals you will be better equipped to stay safe. So, how will your horse tell you how he feels?

    Happy

    If your horse’s head is lowered (neither high nor near the ground), his back is level, his muscles relaxed and his tail hanging normally, or maybe swishing gently, he is feeling chilled and content. He may even be resting a hind foot if he is standing still and not grazing. His ears are likely to be turned out to the side.

    Sleepy

    A truly relaxed horse will have its head even lower than a happy one. His eyelids may droop or close, his muscles are relaxed and in some the lower lip may sag. Talk to a relaxed horse on approach so as not to startle him.

    Alert

    Your horse’s ears are a perfect barometer of how alert he is. If his ears are forward and his head is up but not excessively high, he is tuning in to sights and sounds around him. An alert, interested horse may also hold his tail quite high. Alertness is also a sign of wellbeing. A sick or neglected horse will not be alert, but instead lethargic with a lowered head and a lack of interest in his surroundings.

    Nervous

    When your horse is anxious the most noticeable sign will be that he sticks his head in the air, while the muscles in his neck and other parts of his body will be tense too. His eyes are likely to be wide and his nostrils may be flared. He may even snort. His ears will probably be back, or flicking backwards and forwards. His tail is also likely to be tucked into his hindquarters.
    Beware a horse with this demeanour — he may be about to try and bolt or at the very least push you over as his ‘flight’ mechanism kicks in. If you climb into the saddle, you are likely to be in for a rough ride. It will be much safer to lunge him first to ensure that he is relaxed enough to ride.

    Stressed

    A horse who is stressed or annoyed is likely to have his ears pinned back. His tail will probably be swishing from side to side and he is likely to fling his head around and step from one side to another if he is tied up. A stressed horse may also strike out with a front foot or paw the ground in a show of impatience.

    Aggressive

    An aggressive horse looks quite similar to a stressed horse, particularly his ears, which are likely to be pinned back. He may lunge in an attempt to try and bite you if you are close to him on the ground. Also beware his hind end as he may attempt to kick. If you are riding a horse who becomes stressed or aggressive, check whether he is in pain from his tack — an ill fitting saddle maybe, or a girth that is pinching — and then eliminate bodily pain, such as a back issue or teeth problems.

    Your body language

    Beware the signs you give to your horse via your own demeanour. For example, a young or nervous horse will find a person’s stare unnerving, and will feel the same about someone striding towards him.

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  16. How to choose the right bedding for your horse

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    There are so many different types of bedding on the market that choosing the right one for you and your horse can be as difficult as deciding between a coiled spring, pocket spring, double spring, memory foam or latex mattress for your own good night’s sleep.

    Once upon a time, horse owners only had a choice of two products — straw and shavings — but with so many other products available today, you need to ask yourself some questions. What is your budget? Does your horse have breathing issues or allergies? Where will you dispose of dirty bedding? Are you planning a deep litter system, only completely cleaning out the stable periodically?

    Straw

    Let’s begin at the beginning with that traditional favourite — straw, which has been used as a horse bedding for generations. If you have plenty of storage room, an equal amount of space to dispose of the waste material and your horse isn’t allergic to it, straw could be the answer for you. It is inexpensive and readily available, plus you can even put some of the muck heap debris on your rose beds after it has rotted down.

    If you decide that this is your bedding of choice, you still have a further decision to make. Wheat, barley or oat? The latter is often golden in colour as well as fairly palatable and so what was a deep bed when you shut your horse up for the night could well have vanished by the morning.

    Barley straw is also fairly appealing in the food stakes, plus it can boast prickly ears that may cause skin irritations. Wheat straw, meanwhile, remains the most popular, being comfortable, warm and allowing free drainage.

    Always bear in mind, though, that sourcing good quality straw is crucial. Quality varies greatly between suppliers, and a poor product will put your horse in contact with high levels of dust and mould spores.
    These days you can buy chopped straw which has had the dust extracted, plus it has been treated to make it less tasty. It comes in wrapped bales. As it is processed, the cost is inevitably higher than buying untreated straw from your friendly local farmer.

    Wood shavings

    Wood shavings (which must be those produced for equine use) are soft and comfortable for the horse and easy to muck out with a special shavings fork — if you don’t use the right tool you could be there all morning.

    Initially, you will need several bags to make a deep bed in the stable. Thereafter you should be able to get by on about two per week. The good thing is that your horse won’t be tempted to eat these, but one of the negatives is that some brands can be dusty. Wood shavings are also less easy to dispose of than straw — rotting down can take a long time.

    Wood pellets

    Continuing with the wood theme, you could try wood pellets. Again, you will require several bags in the beginning to make up a suitable deep bed. Wood pellets are made from compacted sawdust, and they are generally dust free. To make a fluffy bed, water has to be added. Manufacturers generally claim that wood pellets are ‘super absorbent’. An added bonus is that wet and soiled bedding compacts together for ease of mucking out.

    Paper bedding

    No, we really can’t get away from wood when it comes to horse bedding. Paper bedding is a favourite in some yards because it contains no allergens or dust and is relatively inexpensive. Again you may need quite a few bales to create a deep bed, but once done that bed should be soft, absorbent and comfortable for the horse.

    Another perk is minimal waste and consequently a small muck heap. However, if you run a tight ship and don’t want to see small shredded pieces of paper or cardboard flying around your yard on the wind, then this bedding may not be for you.

    Hemp or flax

    If you haven’t been tempted by any of the above, then maybe hemp or flax bedding will be the answer. It has low dust and comes packaged in large plastic bags for ease of storage. Its popularity has soared in recent years.

    Horses shouldn’t eat hemp bedding as it can be harmful, but reported cases are rare. Compared to other bedding, though, it can seem expensive.

    Rubber matting

    Many yards now use rubber matting to prevent slipping and injuries in the stable. The initial financial outlay can be large, but for many horse owners the safety factors outweigh the costs.

    Even with rubber installed, you will still need to choose another bedding to create a deep bed on the top. Rubber matting needs to be cleaned regularly as urine can build up and become trapped underneath — unless you have installed rubber in a liquid form.

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  17. What you need to know about buying a horse trailer

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    You and your horse and are having plenty of fun together, so now you need to purchase a trailer to take him to competitions, riding club rallies and sponsored rides. But what do you buy and where do you look?

    If you have a healthy budget, the starting price of a new two-horse trailer will be in the region of £4,000. Your shiny new transporter will come with a 12-month warranty and if you have bought one made by a reputable manufacturer, you can be assured that it has been built to rigorous safety standards.

    But when we cannot afford the luxury of buying new, second-hand is the only option. If you know where to look and employ common sense you will be able to bag yourself a fantastic bargain.

    However, we have all read horror stories about horses falling through rotten floors of trailers or a ramp malfunctioning and injuring a user. So how do you minimise the risks to ensure that what you hook up to your 4×4 is totally safe?

    Firstly you can buy from a renowned dealer. Any reputable company is likely to have been reviewed online, so see what other customers say about its service. You will also be covered by the Consumer Rights Act (formerly the Sales of Goods Act 1979), which will enable you to return the trailer if a fault was missed at the time of purchase and if you believe that the trailer was not fit for purpose.

    The downside of buying through a dealer is that prices are likely to be higher than those being asked by a private seller. So, if you do buy privately, you will keep your bank manager happy, but you will have no protection should things go wrong. Therefore take an expert with you when you go to view. You should be inspecting:

    • The chassis, to check for signs of rust or damage

    • The body of the trailer, such as the roof for any holes, the doors to check the hinges and fastenings, or signs of repainting which may mask a problem

    • The floor for structural weakness by lifting any mats

    • The ramps for any kind of rot or structural weakness

    • The condition, pressure and tread on the tyres, including spares, plus the brakes

    • The electrics. When hitched to a vehicle are all the lights on the trailer working?

    Ask the seller to connect the trailer to a vehicle so that you can inspect the jockey wheel and then take the trailer for a test drive. Never buy before you try.

    While the majority of trailer sales are legitimate, there is always a risk of buying a stolen one. If this happens, even though you are the innocent party, you will be obliged to return it to the legal owner, potentially losing thousands of pounds in the process. Always ask to see proof of ownership documents and check the registration plate. If this is missing don’t buy the trailer.

    A couple of final points to bear in mind — will your horse fit in your new trailer? There is no point buying one designed for a 16.2hh if you have an imposing 17.3hh at home. And did you pass your driving test after 1 January 1997? If so, you will need to take an additional test before you can tow your new trailer (if it and the towing vehicle exceed 3,500kg).

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  18. Ten beginner horse riding mistakes to avoid

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    Riding is a wonderful pastime, but it is a complex activity and it is very easy to experience problems with one element or another when you are just starting out — after all, so many parts of your body are required to do new and alien things, often simultaneously.

    Although most professional riders wouldn’t admit to it, many carried their hands too high during their first couple of lessons, they couldn’t rise to the trot and their foot kept slipping through the stirrup in canter. Mistakes initially are only to be expected, and when they happen to you don’t be tempted to give up. Riding is all about persevering and correcting your mistakes through great instruction.

    We have listed the top 10 most common beginners errors, so that you can instantly be aware of what not to do when in the saddle, making life more harmonious for both you and your horse

    Clumsy hands

    By far the most common mistake in new riders is holding the reins the wrong way. The instinctive method invariably involves the rein entering a closed hand at the thumb end and exiting by the little finger with the fingers facing up. Once you’re a little more experienced, if you try to ride this way you realise that it just doesn’t work. Another frequently seen mistake is to hold the hand flat, fingers downwards, with the knuckles parallel to the ground. Both ways make it impossible to maintain a soft contact with the horse’s mouth. Carrying your hands too high is also uncomfortable for your mount.

    The abrupt halt

    There is nothing worse than a horse being pulled roughly in the mouth by a heavy handed rider and this is a particularly destructive common learner’s fault. No human is ever going to control a strong horse by brute force, so remember that a well schooled mount will stop on a light contact when the rider pushes with his legs up into his hands.

    Stiff arms

    Nerves often makes a novice rider particularly tense in the saddle and consequently their arms are stiff. They fail to think about keeping the elbows and wrists soft and ‘giving’ as the horse’s head moves.

    A bum steer

    If you are doing any of the above, your horse will wonder what is going on when you try to turn him in a different direction or ride a circle with a clumsy pull on the left or right rein. A common beginner’s mistake is to think that everything is done with the hands. It isn’t. Your horse will have been taught to turn using the hand and leg.

    Eyes down

    This might be an excellent tactic in bingo halls, but it doesn’t work in the saddle. To be in balance your head should be upright and straight, with your eyes looking ahead in the direction of travel.

    Forward going

    Many riders (and not necessarily novices) instinctively find their upper body leaning forward during times of stress, such as when their horse is about to up the pace or is startled. By avoiding this common fault and maintaining the correct upright position with the upper body, you will remain in better balance with your horse and will also have more chance of staying in the plate when things go wrong.

    Couch potato

    It might be great to lean back into a comfy sofa at home, but you shouldn’t do the same on your horse. Some beginners appear to think that sitting back on their seatbones is the perfect position. It isn’t. Ultimately, it is uncomfortable for the horse and for you.

    Legs eleven

    There’s that bingo theme again. But seriously, when you lean too far forward and too far back in the saddle, your lower leg — the driving force for your horse — will automatically end up in the wrong place, making it totally ineffectual.

    Grip for life

    During sitting trot it can be tempting to squeeze frantically with the knees in an attempt to hold yourself secure in the saddle. However, by doing so your lower leg is likely to creep back, your heel will probably come up and your toe face downwards and before you know it you’ll be sitting on the floor. Keep the knees long and loose during this pace.

    Heels up, toes down

    Of course, it’s supposed to be the other way around, but it is all too easy when you first climb into the saddle to point your toes towards terra firma as your heels reach for the sky — even when you aren’t attempting sitting trot. Concentrate instead on the opposite, ensuring that your toes are pointing forward too and not at some severe angle out to the side.

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  19. How to find the perfect bit for your horse

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    A quick glance through the rulebooks of the major showing societies reveal a rather mealy-mouthed (if you’ll pardon the pun) attitude to bitting. Although some state that bitless bridles are not permitted, most say that the use of harsh bits such as the Swales or Sam Marsh are “actively discouraged”. The pony societies recommend snaffles, but this is open to interpretation. So how can you choose the right bit?

    The most important thing when choosing a bit is to consider what is going to be most comfortable for your horse. The bit sits across the bars in the horse’s mouth — the bars are at the back of his jaw, behind his upper and lower teeth on each side. This is where you have “contact” with him, through the reins and the bit.

    The bit lies across — and therefore puts pressure on to — the horse’s tongue. If the bit is straight, the tongue absorbs some of the pressure so the horse will feel less pressure on the bars. Horses with big tongues may prefer a thinner bit — although thinner bits are thought to be more severe — as it will leave more room for the tongue. They may also be happier in a jointed bit because it relieves pressure on the tongue, but some dislike the “nut-cracker” action.

    It is best to start off with a snaffle (unless you have been advised otherwise) as these are the mildest bits. They have options of D-ring, O-ring or loose-ring, which is where the reins attach to the bit. A four-inch D-ring or full-ring is the most gentle as it has more contact with the side of the horse’s face; the smaller the ring, the sharper the bit.

    With snaffles in general, the more surface area of the bit that is touching the horse, the softer the bit. The same applies to the mouthpiece — the part that is actually in your horse’s mouth — the bigger its diameter, the softer it is. You also have the option of rubber or plastic mouthpieces, which can be kinder than plain metal.

    Whichever bit you choose, though, it’s crucial that it fits properly and it isn’t worn — sharp edges can rub or pinch. It should rest comfortably in the corners of the horse’s mouth without pinching and the rings should rest against his face without pressing into it. If you can see half an inch or more of the mouthpiece between his lips and the bit-rings, it is too long. This means it can slip sideways in his mouth and make him sore.

    It is always worth asking for help, from a knowledgeable friend or your trainer, and if you have access to a “bit bank” you can try several different bits to find which your horse is happiest with. You should make sure your horse has his teeth checked regularly too.

    And remember, always: any bit is only as gentle as the rider’s hands.

    Image: mouth close-up by Louis via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  20. Learning to canter: a guide for beginners

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    Once you have mastered a correct seat and then walking and trotting on horseback, the next step is obviously the canter. The experts —star dressage riders, eventers and show jumpers, for example — make it look so easy, harmoniously in tune with their horse as he executes this three-time pace.

    If you watch a horse cantering, you will see how he pushes himself forward with one hind leg, the right for example, while the other three are off the ground. During the second beat, his left hind and right front foot land together and then, in the third beat, his left front hits the ground as his right hind comes up. Finally, his left hind and right front foot rise off the ground, leaving the left front foot on the floor before there is a brief moment of suspension — all four feet in the air.

    But just how easy is it to ride this complicated sounding pace?

    If anything, it is a lot easier than trying to master the rising trot, but if you are a nervous beginner, the sudden feeling of power and speed which the canter will give you can be unnerving and will take a bit of getting used to. Don’t be put off in the early stages, though. Once mastered, the canter is an exhilarating pace that is guaranteed to give you a buzz.

    Let’s start cantering

    You should ask the horse to canter from sitting rather than rising trot, and squeeze gently with your legs. As he moves off into canter, sit tall — think of an imaginary line pulling you up through your head — and try to engage your core to provide some stability to your middle. Don’t lean too far forward as you ask the horse to up the pace or you will both be off balance. Don’t lean too far back either, or you will find yourself left behind by the movement. Your shoulders should stay in line with your hips and your heels in the classic position.

    Although, as a complete beginner, you shouldn’t worry too much about which leg your horse is using as a lead, it is useful to understand the technique as you progress. Therefore, if you are learning in a school and your horse is about to canter on a left circle, leading with his left foreleg, you should keep your own left leg on the girth, and your right (outside) leg behind it. This should be the leg you use to nudge or kick him forward. Open your left hand to encourage him to bend, but keep a good contact with the right.

    Improve your canter position

    As the horse canters, try not to bounce around in the saddle too much — thus making things particularly uncomfortable for both of you. Also be careful not to exaggerate the movement by rocking backwards and forwards. Instead sit deep into the saddle and ensure that there is some ‘give’ in your hips, so that they move forwards and backwards gently in harmony with the horse’s movement.

    As a beginner, it’s very easy to lose your stirrups in canter. This can happen because it’s often a natural reaction to tense and consequently shorten your leg to grip. Ensure that you have weight down in your stirrups, use your ankles as shock absorbers and your feet will stay firmly in place.

    As in walk and trot, keep your hands soft so that you can follow the movement, but if you wish to stop the horse, add some resistance, thus blocking the forward movement, sit deeper into the saddle, close your legs against the horse’s sides and one that is well schooled will slow to a trot for you.

    Ideally your horse should be equipped with a neck strap while you are learning to canter. If you feel insecure in the saddle — and many beginners do, so you won’t be alone — don’t be afraid to hold on to the strap or a piece of mane, especially if this stops you jabbing the horse in the mouth, which should be avoided at all costs.

    Persevere with the canter movement. Like the trot it may take time, but the rewards and the fun factor will be unending.

    Image: Cantering mare by Five Furlongs via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

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  21. How to trot your horse: a guide for beginners

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    Are you hot to trot? If you’re sitting correctly and feeling confident in walk, now is the time to gently up the pace — if your instructor thinks you are ready.

    But what should you expect?

    You may already have seen beginners bouncing around in the saddle, looking uncomfortable and totally out of harmony with the horse as he trots around the arena. Meanwhile, sporting superstars make it look a breeze as they rise and sit to this two-time pace.

    Rising vs sitting trot – what’s the difference?

    As a rider you have a choice. You can either opt for the rising or the sitting trot, but basically, once mastered, the former is a much more comfortable technique for rider and horse, so it is worth persevering and learning rising trot well.

    However, the trot is one of the most difficult paces to master, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t ‘get it’ straight away. It may take several lessons to feel confident at this pace.

    Be aware that what you have to attempt to do is rise as the horse moves one diagonal pair of legs forward (for example right foreleg and left hind leg) and sit to the opposite pair (left foreleg and right hind leg). You will find that the spring in the pace will help to propel you upwards anyway. When you are first learning to trot there is no need to worry which diagonal movements you rise and sit to — that knowledge will come as you progress and master the technique.

    Practice your trot

    It is a good idea to practice the movements while the horse is stationary. This will undoubtedly give you an advantage when you ask him to move forward into trot for the first time.

    You will need to keep your lower leg still, in the same correct position as you had for standing and walk, just swinging upwards and slightly forward with your hips and lower trunk, then sitting back down gently into the saddle in a continuous movement: up down, up down in a rhythm with no break in between.

    When you do this as the horse moves, ensure that you do not try too hard and exaggerate the upward movement — launching yourself out of the saddle in the process — which is a common mistake beginners make. Another familiar mistake is to lean the upper body forward or to hold the hands too high. There is no need for the hands to move from their original correct position, while the rider’s shoulders and head should stay nicely upright.

    Sit still in the saddle

    Sitting trot looks to be the easier technique — but it isn’t. When a horse trots, the movement is exceptionally bouncy and when a novice rider tries to sit to this, the tendency is to tense, grip harder with the legs. You will consequently find yourself thrown all over the place.

    The secret is to relax and sit deeply into the saddle. By relaxing, the rider can absorb the bounce into their torso. Remember, too, to breathe and use slow breaths as a means of improving relaxation.

    Kick on

    So now you are now equipped with the knowledge to trot, how do you move the horse forward into this fun pace? Basically, just as you squeezed with your lower leg to get him to walk forward, you do the same for the trot, although often the pressure needed will be more, and for some horses you will need a gentle kick.

    Off you go!

    Image: Trakehner in motion by Kathleen Conklin via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  22. Your essential guide to horse grooming

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    Grooming is a great way of bonding with your horse as well as checking his whole body daily for any signs of illness or harm.

    You’d normally groom your horse once a day. The aim is to make him clean and comfortable. How long you’ll spend grooming just depends on the state of the animal: it can take anything from a quick fifteen minutes to more than half an hour if he’s filthy.

    If your horse has been in his stable, he will be thankfully mud-free, but could have a few stains from lying on his droppings; if he’s been out in his field all night or day, he could be covered in either wet or dry mud, which is an entirely different proposition. There is no way around it — grooming is a physical pursuit and the more elbow grease you put in, the better the results will be.

    Most people enjoy grooming their horse or pony; those who suspect they might not would be well advised not to invest in a grey.

    You’ll soon develop your own grooming routine to suit you both, but the following guide should provide a good starting point.

    Basic horse grooming kit

    Plastic curry comb
    Metal curry comb
    Dandy brush
    Body brush
    Hoofpick
    Soft cloth
    Sponge
    Sweat scraper
    Horse soap/shampoo
    Bucket (for extreme circumstances)

    Basic horse grooming routine

    Make sure your horse is tied up safely in his stable or outside in the yard. As long as the animal is dry, begin with the plastic curry comb and draw circles quite firmly on his torso to release all the dirt caught under the coat.

    Then run over his body with the dandy brush, avoiding the legs and being gentle under his belly.  After the dandy brush has taken off most of the mud and dirt, you can sweep the body brush over the entire body including the legs, removing any dirt or dust with a vigorous rub. The metal curry comb is to take the hair off the body brush, not off your horse!

    A wet, muddy horse will require another approach altogether. You can let him dry off, which is easiest, but if you need to get going, you’d need to give him a proper wash with a bucket of water and some good soap or horse shampoo, either targeting patches of mud or just sloshing the whole bucket over him, if required (outside his stable to save the bedding). Rinse him down with water scraped off with a sweat scraper, then rub him dry with a towel.

    Use the hoofpick to pick out your horses’s feet before and after you ride. Standing with your back to his head, from the very top of the leg run your hand down to the hoof, feeling the leg all the way for any cuts or sensitivities.

    The horse should lift his hoof and hold it up. Cradle it in your left hand and pick it out with your right when you are to the right of him, and pick out with your left on the other side. Make sure you completely clean the inside of the hoof, including the frog (the triangle at the base), and move around the horse in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction, but try to be consistent every time so he knows what to expect.

    Clean your horse’s head with a soft rag and wipe the nose, eyes and mouth with a soft, wet cloth (some people use fragrance-free baby wipes).

    You can brush the mane and tail with a body brush – which is quite effective at removing dried mud – you’ll need to wash the tail with soap and water if it’s too muddy to get out with a brush.

    Image: Muddy horse by Jean, CC BY 2.0

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  23. Top ten dressage tips for beginners

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    Dressage horseKeen to have a go at dressage, but don’t know where to start? International rider Harriette Williams tells Julie Harding all you need to know to get you off to a flying start.

    1) Choose your dressage horse wisely

    When you are starting out in dressage, it’s important that you are paired with the right horse. Reliability is the key here. You need a horse that isn’t going to be too nervous, sharp or fizzy in the warm up or in the arena — after all, you want your first experience to be a happy, confidence-boosting occasion.

    In terms of size, you want a horse that is compact and not too big — he should fit you. He also needs three correct paces — a good walk where you can pick up a lot of easy marks, a correct and rhythmical trot and a rhythmical canter that doesn’t turn into an irregular four-time gait.

    2) Plan your dressage lessons

    You definitely don’t need to spend thousands of pounds on training when you are starting out in dressage, although you do need to have a basic understanding of what the judge will be looking for. That way, you can set your own personal goals.

    Your current instructor will no doubt be able to help you here. Once you have become hooked on dressage, you may then need to think about investing in lessons with a flatwork professional, but it all depends on what you are trying to achieve.

    3) Start with unaffiliated dressage

    Unaffiliated competitions are a great place to start if you are new to dressage. Such fixtures are generally low key and friendly and having a positive experience will boost your confidence. However, all venues are different and to familiarize your horse beforehand, especially if he lacks experience, it may be best to attend a clinic there or hire the arena for an hour or so.

    If you do well in the basic tests at unaffiliated level, that will give you an idea whether you are ready to progress to affiliated competitions. However, don’t have unrealistic goals for that, as the judging will be harsher.

    4) Choose quality dressage clothing

    If your horse is comfortable and can use itself in your current general purpose or jumping saddle then it may not be worth investing a lot of money in a dressage saddle for the time being. As you progress and do more flatwork, though, a dressage saddle will put you in a better position and will also give the horse more freedom to move through his shoulder.

    Another important item of tack is a well-fitting bridle, which, like everything else, should always be clean for the competition. I also use white brushing boots while my horses work in, but if your horse isn’t used to these, avoid putting them on for the first time at a competition.

    Buy the best-quality riding clothing for yourself that you can afford. A smart navy or black show jacket or a showing jacket that is neat and fits well will do the job nicely. Personally, I prefer white breeches, but others favour cream or beige. Gloves, plus a tie or a stock with a pin, finish off the look nicely. Your own personal presentation says a lot about the time and care you have invested in getting ready for this fixture. First impressions do count.

    5) Follow the British dressage rules

    There are several things that you aren’t allowed to have at a dressage competition, such as a martingale. Brushing boots, which can be used for warming up, should be removed once you have finished working in. You can ride your horse in a fly veil if the tests are held outside, but ensure that he has no ear plugs underneath.

    Bitting is a complex issue, so check BD’s rules if you are heading for an affiliated competition, or the show’s own rules for unaffiliated competitions. For a horse with no issues, my preferred bit is a thin, plain loose ring snaffle with a lozenge, which is kind on the mouth and well within the rules of any show.

    Be courteous at all times — even if you don’t agree with your dressage mark, the judge’s decision is final — and ensure that you are on time. If you arrive very late, you will probably be eliminated.

    6) Focus on three key aims

    Nerves at your first dressage competition are only natural, but a good way to alleviate these is to concentrate on a three-point plan — that’s three things you want to achieve in the warm up and three things you are aiming for in your test. If you have someone with you, get them to remind you about your three aims, which will help to keep your mind focused on yourself. It is all too easy to be distracted by horses around you who look to be going better than yours.

    7) Be prepared

    I pack my lorry the night before a competition. This gives me time to cope with the unexpected. I tick things off from a checklist as I put them in and I always pack spares, especially reins and stirrup leathers, which have a habit of breaking.

    I also make myself a timetable for the day itself so that I have a rough idea of when to feed my horse, plait him, what time to leave for the show, what time to get on at the venue and I even factor in a little quiet time for myself.

    8) Feed your horse for dressage success

    If your horse is used to a hard feed in the morning, make the effort to get up early and stick to this routine — he needs the fuel like you do — but allow enough time for him to digest the feed prior to the competition.

    Always use a hay-net while travelling. It helps to keep the horse calm. And on a hot day remember the electrolytes to rehydrate him if necessary.

    After the competition, I unload and unpack the lorry and then feed my horse. I will only wait a little longer if he’s a stressy traveller.

    9) How fit is your horse?

    A horse that is fit enough for a 30-minute schooling session has adequate fitness for a lower level dressage competition. Competing at the lower levels isn’t too strenuous for the horse and you certainly don’t want one that is so fit that he needs working in for at least an hour before he starts listening to you.

    10) How to warm up and cope in the arena

    • Focus on yourself not those around you.
    • If there are a lot of people in the warm up remember to pass left to left.
    • When walking around, always walk on the inside track to let others work their horse.
    • Think ahead — be aware of others around you, but don’t constantly stop your horse for them or your warm up will be badly affected.
    • If you school at home for 30 minutes, don’t do the same at the competition. By then, you will have a tired horse who will have peaked in the warm up and not in the arena.
    • Take your time. Too many people rush their test as though they are in a hurry to be somewhere else. Make the most of your time in the arena and show off. Don’t give marks away by rushing because of nervousness.
    • Relax and keep breathing.
    • Go in with a personal aim. It may simply be to get a great walk from your horse. Make your aim simple and then you won’t be disappointed.
    • Don’t panic when things go wrong. They will, but there is always the next movement — and another day.
    • Be proud that you are there and don’t feel outclassed. You have as much right to be there as anyone else.
    • Don’t let a disappointing mark affect your judgment if you felt that your horse performed well — marks are always subjective so go with your gut feeling.

    Image: dressage horse by Jean via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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  24. A beginner’s guide to riding and training aids

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    Although it does look at lot like telepathy is at work when you’re watching brilliant dressage riders, it’s actually precisely the opposite. Communicating with your horse is a physical pursuit and although he can pick up on your state of mind, the way you let him know what you’d like him to do is by physically asking him.

    Natural riding aids

    Your natural aids are all the bits of your own body you use to communicate with your horse. Of course, all horses are different: a well-trained schoolmaster will respond to the most minuscule shift in your seat, while an errant pony will pretend he hasn’t understood a very obvious command. You need to learn best practice from the very beginning and this involves using your hands, your legs and your seat all together.

    Hands

    Your hands are in physical contact with your horse’s mouth through the reins. HIs mouth is incredibly sensitive, and as such you need to be careful with how you use your hands as they can hurt the horse if you’re not careful.

    Legs

    Your legs wrap around a large portion of the horse’s body. From your thighs to your calves, ankles and heels, your legs are able to pass on an enormous amount of information, again, in combination with your hands and your seat. For instance if you’re going to ask for a change of pace from walk to trot, you gather up your reins, which tells the horse to expect something new, and then your legs and seat urge him forward.

    Seat

    Your seat is an incredibly powerful aid when you know how to use it properly. When you are learning to ride, you will first learn a neutral seat as the default way to sit but, once you’ve mastered this, you’ll be able to move on to shifting your seat as part of your riding technique. For instance, you will be able to shift a horse’s pace with your seat with practice.

    Voice

    Many horses respond to voice commands; they respond for the most part to the sound of the command rather than the word itself, although some horses do learn and respond to the words ‘walk’ ‘trot’ and ‘canter’, as well as, hopefully, ‘whoa there’! The voice is also used to calm.

    Artificial aids

    Crop

    A riding crop or stick is a long, thin aid which can be tapped against a horse’s shoulder or his hindquarters. It can be used as a back up when your natural aids are being ignored but shouldn’t be relied upon too heavily.

    Spurs

    Spurs are metal attachments which are fixed to your riding boots by the heel. They are used by experienced riders with particular horses which they know well, but for the majority of horse riding, spurs shouldn’t be required.

    Training aids

    Training young horses always involves lungeing, and it is also a very good way of continuing to develop they way your horse moves, his outline and his paces throughout his life. However, you have to be properly trained in lungeing to do any good; as with so many other horsey exploits, if you’re not doing it properly, you can cause real harm to the animal, so as a beginner, it is bes t to turn to someone who has lungeing experience.

    The main equipment you’ll need for lungeing are a cavesson for the horse’s head, and a lunge rein to attach to it, as well as a roller which goes around his belly; a breastplate can be used to prevent the roller from slipping. The lunge rein goes in your left hand and the right hand holds the lunge whip.

    This basic equipment is what most people would start out with, but there are a number of other bits and pieces people use in addition, depending on what they are working on with their horse.

    These include Side Reins, which get a horse used to contact through the reins, a Kincade Chambon which is used for encouraging a horse to lower his head; a Kincade DeGogue encourages a more rounded outline, or a Pessoa which is a system of ropes and pulleys used to encourage him to use his muscles properly.

    A Market Harborough works like a martingale and discourages the horse from raising his head too high, while Draw Reins can be used to help a horse to go forward while still keeping a good light contact with the rider.

    These are all specialist pieces of equipment for those confident in the art of lungeing and you will learn more about them as and when you come to need them.

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  25. Learning to ride a horse: how to walk and halt

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    You are sitting securely in the saddle and it’s time to move off in walk. Your riding instructor should already have you in the correct position — so that you can draw an imaginary line from your ear, through your shoulder, hip and heel. Basically this isn’t going to change very much once the horse is on the move.

    There is, however, often a tendency in novice or nervous new riders to lean forward once the horse is in motion. You should resist this urge and sit up straight, looking in the direction in which you wish to go.

    Breathe for relaxation

    Another common fault is to tense up, causing parts of the body to stiffen. To help alleviate this ensure that you take regular breaths, and focus both on your breathing and on certain parts of the body that you know are tense and make a conscious effort to relax them.

    Use your legs

    To get the horse to move off into walk, gently squeeze him with both calves or lower legs. In those with a tendency to be lazy — and you may find this necessary with particularly steady riding school horses — a small kick with both heels will be needed and (worse case scenario) confirmation of your aid with a tap of your whip behind your lower leg. Again, depending on your horse’s temperament, you may need to squeeze with your lower leg to ensure that he keeps up the momentum in walk unless he is particularly keen and ‘forward going’, in which case your legs can relax at his sides.

    If you are just learning to ride a horse, you will notice how much he moves underneath you once he begins to walk. There will be a temptation to mimic the movement, thus exaggerating it with your upper body. To prevent yourself doing this, sit deep into the saddle, allowing just a slight movement of your hips and stomach. Do this and you will be at one with your horse.

    What your arms should do

    Just as your body should slightly rock to the walk movement, so your elbows and arms should constantly ‘give’ with the reins to follow the horse’s head and neck movements. Continue holding the reins so that an imaginary line can be drawn from your elbow, through your wrist and hand all the way to the bit. An inflexible arm will mean that you will be putting unnecessary pressure on the horse’s mouth, which will be both uncomfortable and will send him the wrong signals.

    How to halt

    Horses don’t have a brake pedal and the aids you give your mount should be far more subtle than how you stop a car. Never tug forcefully on the reins or jab the horse in the mouth. Instead, squeeze with your legs, but stop ‘giving’ so much with your hands. The application of this small amount of pressure will be enough to halt a well behaved, well schooled horse.

    Don’t forget to check our top tips for new riders.

    Image: horse and rider by Five Furlongs via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

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  26. The beginner’s guide to eventing

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    Will Furlong, dual gold medallist at the recent Young Rider European Championships, shares with Julie Harding his top tips for preparing for your first horse trials

    1. The right horse

    Success in eventing is all about loaning or buying the right horse for the job. When you start out in eventing ensure that you are not over-horsed both in terms of size and temperament. When you view a horse, take along a knowledgeable friend or trainer, research the horse’s history and ask for references to ensure that he is a safe bet. Plump for an older, wiser mount who will help you to learn and gain confidence.

    2. The right equipment

    Both horse and rider need the correct equipment, which in the rider’s case includes a properly fitting hat and a body protector of the right standard. As standards change — hat standards have received extensive coverage in the equestrian press recently — find out what is required on the internet or ask at your local tack shop. Staff there will also ensure that your hat fits correctly. Helmets should be worn at all times at a competition, no matter how well you know your horse.

    Ensure that your horse’s saddle and bridle fit properly, and have a few bits in your tackroom so that you can find out what works when you go cross-country schooling. Horses can get more onward bound across country and you will probably find that you need a stronger bit. Generally only snaffles are allowed for the dressage, but check the rules before you go.

    If you wish to use studs, tell your farrier during your horse’s final shoeing so that he can leave stud holes. I recommend them for the jumping phases as they give the horse added stability. If you aren’t going to use them, practice on grass as much as possible beforehand.

    The majority of riders use boots or wraps to warm up for the dressage, but remember to take them off five minutes before you are due in the arena. For the showjumping a pair of front tendon boots is ideal, while back boots are not essential, unless your horse has a tendency to tap the rails. I use front and back boots for the cross-country, as well as overreach boots, to minimise the possibility of injury.

    3. A good trainer

    Working with a trainer in the lead up to a competition is advisable, even if you take part in group lessons. They will be able to give you some invaluable pointers. Take that trainer or an experienced friend to your first competition. You will be nervous and won’t know what to expect.

    4. Getting a horse fit

    How you get your horse fit for its first event depends on its breeding. Bear in mind that your first couple of unaffiliated events are not going to be that physically demanding, so your day-to-day work will probably suffice as a ‘get fitter’ regime. You certainly don’t need to take your horse up the gallops two times a week or he will become over-fit, hard to control and fizzy.

    Take him cross-country schooling to gauge his fitness. Note his breathing and that will give you an idea of how he will cope at a competition. For the more stocky type, trotting up hills is a good fittening method, or consider going to the gallops occasionally.

    5. Where do you start?

    I kicked off my riding career in the show ring, which was a wonderful grounding, but the hunting field is equally beneficial. Pony Club and riding club events give you a great foundation before you try affiliated, and, these days, I regularly attend unaffiliated horse trials with my younger horses. I would definitely recommend them for a first-time event rider. The atmosphere is calm, fun, friendly and relaxed and these events are the perfect stepping stone following on from general training.

    6. Get set for your first event

    Load the lorry the day before, using a checklist to ensure that nothing gets left behind. Time really does fly on the day itself and, if you are nervous, it is reassuring that you have everything ready in advance. Always take a few extras, such as a spare pair of breeches and a waterproof coat for yourself, as well as a rug for your horse in case the weather deteriorates.

    7. What to expect

    Give your horse a haynet to keep him occupied and tie him securely outside the lorry where he can see other horses. Ask one of your helpers to stay with him while you get used to your surroundings. Locate the dressage arenas, collect your number from the secretary’s tent and walk the cross-country course.

    8. Preparing for the dressage

    Work out a warm-up routine for all phases at home, write it down and consult it before you mount. Everything won’t go exactly to plan, but stick to it as closely as you can. At the competition an excitable horse will need a bit more working in than a chilled one. Trot your horse around the warm up for five minutes to give him a chance to get used to his surroundings. After that push him into canter and do some transitions. Try and stay relaxed, remember not to overwork your horse and give him little breaks, too, during your 20-minute warm up. Watch a couple of competitors riding their test before you go into the arena.

    9. Preparing for the show jumping

    Jump a cross pole and then a small upright a couple of times. Raise the height slightly before you pop over it again. Move on to the spread. Jump no more than eight times during your warm up. Don’t over jump your horse or jump bigger than you need to. This part is all about confidence.

    10. The cross-country

    I walk a course once at the lower levels. Switch off your phone, concentrate and note all the elements you will face, such as uneven terrain, steep hills, sharp turns and jumping from light into dark — and ride accordingly. Just before I go across country I run through all the fences in my head with the programme pictures in front of me.
    In the cross-country warm up give your horse one short gallop, and jump about three to five of the rustic fences. Don’t cook your horse. The aim here is to get him going forward and feeling confident.

    11. Countdown to ‘go’

    Leave the startbox as you mean to go on — in a smooth, rhythmic canter. During a rider’s first couple of cross-country experiences I wouldn’t recommend aiming for the optimum time. Build your confidence as a partnership then kick on when you feel ready.

    12. Aftercare

    Your horse will be hot after the cross-country, so walk him around the lorry park in hand to allow him to regain his breath and then wash him down on your return to the lorry. Later on, relive the three phases on video and learn from your mistakes. Practice and work on the weak elements, but give yourself and your horse plenty of praise for the things that went well.

    Image: cross-country fence by Pieter GeertsCC BY-SA 3.0

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  27. Your essential guide to horse feed

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    What do horses eat? What’s the best horse feed? Given the chance, any horse will graze for around 20 hours out of 24, or for at least 75% of his time. For millennia this has been his natural way of life — and for many horses and ponies it still is. Psychologically, they need to chew. So if you have the luxury of plenty of land and your horse is only in light work, he will no doubt be happier living out and being ridden from the field.

    However, over the years, the number of horses being kept permanently at grass has fallen dramatically. Livery yards lack the space for 24/7 turnout, while owners with limited land need to preserve their paddocks from over-grazing. All this means that the stabled horse’s diet may need to be supplemented with other types of forage and, depending on his type, age and workload, concentrates.

    What to feed

    If your horse is living out permanently and the quality of his grazing deteriorates at certain times of the year, you may have to supplement his rations with a low-calorie feed balancer and/or hay or haylage. If he is stabled, he should have constant access to this type of good quality forage.

    What type of forage you feed is largely down to personal preference and what best suits your horse, but haylage — grass that is semi-wilted and bagged — has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity in recent years, in part because it comes dust-free.

    If you have easy access to hay, this could be the answer, but bear in mind that meadow hay, made from permanent pasture, may lack the nutrients of seed hay, which is made from speciality grasses and is more suitable for horses in hard work.

    Many owners soak their horse’s hay. This not only reduces the nutrient content for overweight or laminitis-prone horses and ponies, but also prevents the horse breathing in the mould spores that can cause respiratory problems.

    If your horse’s workload increases to heavy, for example because he hunts regularly over the winter, you may need to introduce concentrates for energy, depending on his breed and temperament, but beware any feed that makes him ‘hot’ and tricky to ride.

    Starch-rich, energy-dense cereals and concentrates come in many forms — from oats to barley and maize. However, feeding these can be complicated. Meanwhile, specialist horse feed companies have invested millions of pounds developing compound feeds to suit various types of horses and ponies, from veterans, to pregnant mares and competition horses. A new horse owner, therefore, may want to consider buying a recommended, quality brand horse feed, both for a workload increase or if the horse has trouble maintaining condition. Bear in mind, though, that this will always be a more expensive option than simply feeding forage.

    There are also plenty of general supplements that can help maintain your horse’s health.

    When to feed your horse

    Besides the constant supply of forage, be regular with your horse’s concentrate feed. Horses are creatures of habit and like to be fed at the same time every day. Also, don’t be tempted to give a large feed 1-2 hours before strenuous, fast exercise and for at least an hour afterwards. Exercise can compromise digestive function, while a full stomach will press on the lungs during work, potentially affecting performance and health.

    How much should you feed your horse?

    As a general guideline, your horse should consume 2.5% of his bodyweight in food every day, a minimum of 1.5% being made up of grass, hay or haylage. For horses who are particularly good doers, as well as some ponies, especially native breeds, restricted grazing may be required or the quantity of the forage reduced — so offer oat straw, for example, in place of meadow hay.
    Little and often is the key if you are feeding concentrates.

    Always bear in mind that your horse has a tiny stomach relative to his size and if you offer too much cereal each time, the horse will fail to digest it properly, which could lead to serious health issues. So instead of one or two feeds a day, three or four smaller ones are likely to be more suitable. Also consider feeding forage prior to a bucket of concentrates, or mix in chaff to add bulk.

    It is worth bearing in mind that many horses are only regarded as being in light work even if they are being regularly schooled, hacked and taken to unaffiliated competitions. Their condition will need to be closely monitored, but if they are faring well on a forage-only diet then it should not be necessary to add concentrates.

    Why water is so vital

    Horses need water to survive, which is why it is essential that yours has round-the-clock access to clean, fresh drinking water, either via a trough in the field or in a bucket, which should be cleaned daily. If he doesn’t have this access, he will quickly become dehydrated with serious health consequences.

    Added extras

    Carrots and apples are the perfect treat, especially for a horse which is permanently stabled and lacks the water in his diet that grass can provide. Avoid sugary snacks that can rot the teeth.

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  28. How to ride a horse: 10 top tips for new riders

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    Learning how to ride a horse? Riding is fun, challenging, exhilarating and great for your fitness but, if you are new to this sport that could have you hooked for the rest of your life, there are a few pointers you would do well to follow.

    1. Invest in lessons

    This may sounds obvious, but there are so many things to learn when you first take up riding that a highly regarded, recommended trainer is a must. In the long run it will keep you safer and more secure in the saddle. A good, approved riding school should always match you with the right horse, ensuring that your initiation into the wonderful world of horses is a fabulous and stress-free experience.

    2. Master the basics

    Depending on your natural ability and balance, it can take weeks or months to master the basics of a good seat, plus mounting and dismounting, slowing and stopping, walking, trotting and cantering the horse — not to mention taking your first leap into the unknown over a fence. It will be false economy — and a compromise in safety — to think that you know everything after just a couple of lessons. Keep going back to the school until you have mastered an independent seat — which means keeping balanced in all paces without hanging onto the reins or gripping with your legs, so that you are able to use your seat, legs, hands and voice independently to communicate with your horse. Go slowly to build up confidence. The saying ‘don’t run before you can walk’ is particularly apt here. To stay safe in the saddle, take things at the right pace for you and never feel pressured into taking the next step if you don’t feel ready. Confidence can be lost in an instant and regaining it can be difficult — or, in some cases, impossible.

    3. Think outside the box

    Horses aren’t just for riding. If you are starting out at a riding centre, don’t just hand the horse back at the end of the lesson. Get involved with tacking up, untacking, grooming, rugging up and all the everyday tasks that go with horse ownership. Spending time with the horse on the ground is an essential way of building up trust and a partnership.

    4. Don’t stint on the safety gear

    Most riding schools hire hats for beginners, but once you know that this is your new serious hobby, ensure that you buy an approved hard hat, crash cap or skull cap which can be fitted at your local tack shop. The BHS offers excellent advice on helmets on its website. Lightweight body protectors have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and many riders are now using them for hacking and schooling. Additionally, wear a strong pair of boots with a small heel — definitely not trainers — when you start riding and later, when you know that you’re hooked, invest in a pair of jodhpur boots or long riding boots, plus a pair of gloves with non-slip palms. An additional safety item for the rider is a neck strap that is worn by the horse. Even leading professionals use one. It can prevent a fall in the event of the rider becoming unbalanced and it can also stop the horse being jabbed in the mouth.

    5. Be seen

    It’s great for both horse and rider to get out of the school and go for a hack, but if your ride involves the roads, a fluorescent vest is the bare minimum high-visibility clothing that you should wear. If your horse is quiet, on dismal winter days consider putting a fluorescent exercise sheet on him and high-viz leg wraps.

    6. Never over-horse yourself

    You’ve had the lessons and now plan to buy or loan a horse. Make sure that you choose one that is the right size, age and temperament for you. There is no point taking on a young horse if you are a riding rookie. Youngsters require time, patience and knowledge to educate them and can test even the most seasoned pro. Instead, find yourself a mount that has been ‘around the block’ and who will be able to teach you, rather than the other way around. Temperament is equally important. You are far better to begin with a horse who needs a bit of kicking rather than one who is sharp, feisty and impossible to stop.

    7. Never say no to advice

    Even if you no longer have riding lessons, don’t be afraid to ask someone more knowledgeable if you feel out of your depth. Quiz a riding school instructor, a horsey friend or a seasoned professional if you’re stuck. Generally, the horse world is friendly and most people will be happy to proffer advice.

    8. Stay safe on the ground

    Horses are basically prey animals, which helps to explain why they have a flight mechanism, as opposed to fight, when startled. Nasty accidents can and do happen in the field, especially if your horse is grazing with others, so always wear a hard hat and sturdy footwear when you go to catch or turn out, and read our top tips to stay safe around horses.

    9. Alternative therapy

    Any horse or pony, no matter what its size, is likely to be stronger than you, so handling with brute force will not win in the end. If you find that conventional methods, or your trainer’s help, do not work for your particular problem, consider a different approach and maybe look into natural horsemanship, which can benefit both horse and rider in certain circumstances.

    10. And finally…enjoy!

    Horse riding is supposed to be fun. Being at one with an animal is an extraordinary experience which is hard to describe to someone who has never tried it. Most horses will give their all to a sympathetic rider — but always remember to ask nicely.

    Image: Beauty in motion by Teresa Alexander-Arab via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

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  29. Learning to ride a horse: how to mount and sit in the saddle

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    Your horse is tacked up, you are wearing all the right safety equipment — notably a hard riding hat and proper riding boots — and now it’s time to mount.

    If this is your first time in the saddle or you have only just begun learning to ride, someone will need to hold the horse still for you. You risk an accident if your mount is so keen that he strides off just as you place your foot in the stirrup.

    Ask your helper to hold down the right stirrup, too, which will help to prevent the saddle from slipping.

    Before you mount, check that the length of both stirrups is correct, that the stirrups are down against the horse’s sides and that the girth is fastened properly. A girth that is too loose could cause the saddle to end up beneath the horse, with huge potential for a nasty accident.

    Try to avoid mounting from the ground as this puts strain on the horse’s back as well as the saddle. Instead get someone to give you a leg up or preferably use a safe, solid mounting block, which should be placed close to the horse’s left side (near side) — the traditional side for mounting.

    Place both reins in your left hand and keep enough of a contact to prevent the horse from moving off before you are ready. For stability, hold onto the neckstrap or a few strands of mane if you prefer.

    Face the back of the horse, hold the stirrup with your right hand and turn it clockwise before you place your foot in it. The ball of your foot should rest on the base of the stirrup iron.

    Push off the mounting block and transfer your weight into your left leg, which you should straighten as you raise your right one over the back of the horse smoothly in one movement.

    Always sit down gently, so that you don’t jar the horse’s back. Place your right foot in the right stirrup by turning that clockwise too.

    Sit straight

    When you are learning to ride a horse, sitting in the saddle for the first time can be a little nerve wracking, but try and relax or this will affect your position in a negative way.

    The position you are trying to achieve on the horse is that of someone standing with their knees slightly bent. Anyone looking at you should be able to draw an imaginary line down from your ear, through your shoulder, hip and heel.

    Keep your bent elbows in by your sides and position your hands so that another imaginary line can be drawn from your elbow, through your wrist and hand, all the way down to the horse’s bit. As the horse moves his head you have to be prepared to ‘give’ with your arm in order to maintain a constant light contact.

    An easy beginner’s mistake is to hold the reins upside down. The hand should be positioned with the thumbs uppermost with the reins entering the closed fingers between the small and ring fingers and exiting up by the thumb.

    Meanwhile, the ball of your foot should rest on the stirrup’s tread with your toes pointing forward.

    Sit in the lowest part of the saddle in a balanced way, ensuring that your weight is evenly distributed. Sit up straight, but not stiffly, look ahead through the horse’s ears and don’t be tempted to tilt your head down.

    You are now ready to ride!

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  30. What to expect from your first riding lesson

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    Don’t be surprised if you’re a little bit nervous before your first riding lesson. It’s normal, but there really is nothing to worry about. The main thing is you’ll find out how it feels to sit on a horse and perhaps understand a bit about how riders communicate with their mounts while on board.

    What to wear for your first riding lesson

    If you don’t have all the togs — and why on earth would you yet? — you can easily make do. Sturdy leggings work in place of jodhpurs, but don’t wear jeans: the inside seams will rub your legs raw. Take gloves with some grip and if you’re not borrowing boots when you’re there, wear something with flat soles and a chunky heel. You might not want to invest in a hat yet, and you can use one at the school until you get your own.

    On the day

    Make sure you arrive about 20 minutes before your lesson is due to begin. The riding school should already have asked your height and weight when they took your booking so they could match you with the right horse, but you will need to fill in a new rider form and find any items you need to borrow. If you need a riding hat, someone should be on hand to help you find one that fits perfectly.

    You may get to meet your horse before you mount up as part of the start of the lesson. Give it a pat, and you can ask a bit about its background if you’re interested. Those used for beginners are always steady, experienced rides so expect to meet a wise old owl of a horse who has taught generations of people the basics.

    Children will have their first lesson on a lead rein and adults on a lunge, which means the instructor will have control at all times. This will allow you to concentrate on what you are doing, as well as getting used to the feel of the horse.

    Emma Harford, an instructor at the Talland School of Equitation in Gloucestershire, explains the content of her typical first lesson: ‘We would usually teach the basic riding position, how to hold the reins, where to place your feet in the stirrups and how to go with the rhythm of the horse.’

    There is a lot to think about up there so don’t worry if it all feels a bit strange: with practice this will all become second nature. In the meantime, your instructor should be clear about what they’re asking you to do, and hopefully patient.

    It’s quite likely you’ll only walk in your first lesson, which will probably last half an hour or 45 minutes. Sometimes you might take a few steps of trot, just to find out how it feels, but don’t be in a rush to go faster and learn more paces. You will progress as soon as you’re ready.

    After your lesson

    Hopefully after you dismount you’ll feel tired, but pretty elated. Don’t worry if you have any questions at the end; it’s fine to ask anything that’s on your mind.

    Later that day, you might start to feel stiff; the chances are this is just the beginning and you’ll be twice as sore the following morning! If you were doing it right, you’ll have been exercising muscles you never knew you had.
    Despite any aches and pains, if you enjoyed yourself, it’s probably time to arrange your next lesson. You need regular practice to develop the skills your mind and body need to be a good rider. This stiffness can also feel pretty good: it’s a reminder that you’re on your way!

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  31. How to find the right riding lessons for you

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    It doesn’t matter whether you’re brand new to riding or you just want to brush up on some flatwork: if you’ve decided to take lessons, you’ll need to feel confident you are in good hands. There are poor quality teachers out there but they can be avoided.
    Firstly, you absolutely must make sure you go to a British Horse Society (BHS) or Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS)-approved riding school that has a good local reputation and BHS-qualified, registered instructors, so do your homework before you book in.

    Once you’ve located the right place, you need to visit and watch the instructors at work because they will all have different styles of teaching. Some will be gently encouraging and others will push you harder; have a think about which kind of approach you prefer, and make sure you get an instructor who will get the best out of you.

    You also need to decide between individual or group lessons, or a combination of the two. Individual lessons mean you get exclusive attention and make progress more quickly. Group lessons are cheaper and fun, and you can often benefit from the advice others receive but you’re also less likely to improve as fast.

    All beginners have individual lessons to start with. If it’s your first time, make sure the instructor is very clear about what they are asking you to do. If you finish the lesson feeling frustrated because you didn’t understand what was being asked of you, it’s not your fault and you might want to look for someone else to work with.

    Riders with previous experience will initially be assessed in an individual session when they start at a new school but can then move into group lessons if they wish. Groups can be useful for adults or children returning to lessons because they will be able to practice with a little bit of guidance, according to Emma Harford, an instructor at the Talland School of Equitation in Gloucestershire.

    If you already have experience, you may want to work on particular skills: perhaps you’ve always hacked out but want to work on some of the finer points of schooling or try some jumping. You will be able to discuss all this with your instructor once you’ve had your first couple of lessons and they should develop a programme tailored specifically to you.

    How much do horse riding lessons cost?

    Prices depend hugely on where you are in the country; learning in Liverpool is much cheaper than learning in London. A 60-minute private lesson for a child starts at around £30 and group lessons start at around £20. Adults will usually pay from £35 up to around £50 for a private 60-minute lesson and from £30 for group tuition.

    Expect to pay significantly more in London, where prices vary from just under £50 to well over £100 for an hour’s private lesson. As a rule, the further you are from the centre, the cheaper lessons will be, although this isn’t always the case.

    Both in London and elsewhere, some places have a membership programme which reduces prices for those who join. Other schools offer packages of lessons at a discounted price and it’s worth asking about a programme which will suit your budget — the thing about lessons is you need to keep having them!

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  32. How to find the best riding school for your needs

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    With an estimated 1,800 riding schools in Britain, how do you choose the right one? Obviously proximity helps: nobody wants to add a regular three-hour round trip to their weekend plans, but neither will the most convenient place necessarily be the best. A few pointers will help you find the perfect place for your particular needs.

    For starters, a riding school must have a licence, obtained from the local council, which does a basic inspection of the premises before they issue a permit. For more specific assurances that you’re going somewhere professional, however, you should try and find a yard that has been approved by the British Horse Society, the Association of British Riding Schools, or both.

    This gives you a guarantee that the school offers a high level of expertise, has great standards of health and safety and takes excellent care of their horses and ponies. As Chris Doran from the BHS approvals department points out: ‘The BHS sends inspectors who specifically look at the condition of the equipment and horses, and the proficiency of the staff.’

    Narrowing down your riding school options

    Once you’ve made a shortlist, you can ring the different riding schools to find out what kind of lessons are on the menu, how much they charge, whether they specialise in any particular discipline and what the facilities are like. You can also read reviews online, although this experience is a lot like TripAdvisor: opinions of a place can vary wildly.

    Some riding schools are huge operations with outdoor and indoor arenas, showjumps and cross country fences, as well as a wide range of horses with different abilities. Other, smaller places might have less posh kit, horses or facilities, but remember that size isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality.

    Before you start, it’s important to have a think about what you’d like to achieve: if you want to enjoy beautiful countryside on horseback, are there good bridleways nearby? Perhaps you’re eventually aiming to compete: do they offer advanced tuition? When you explain your goals, the instructors will be able to say how they can help.

    Visit your chosen riding school before committing

    When you’ve made your choice, you should pay a visit to the stables to get a feel for the place and hopefully watch a lesson in progress. Make sure you see one of the instructors who will be teaching at your level and also have a good look around to check that everything is clean and well-presented and the horses seem happy and relaxed.

    Your first visit may seem overwhelming. There will be a lot of people confidently sashaying around with tack and kit, and horses coming and going in every direction, but hopefully everyone will be friendly and welcoming. It helps if people don’t take themselves too seriously: you certainly shouldn’t be made to feel out of place if you don’t yet know the difference between a snaffle and a gag.

    Joining a riding school is enormous fun, and as long as you start somewhere which is accredited and where you feel comfortable with patient, professional instructors, you’ll be off to a flying start in no time.

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