A report on the IH Equine Trainers Conference

The 2019 Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Trainers meeting was an early IH highlight of the year.  With In-House lectures and everyone sharing information there were many brilliant insights.  One of our lectures was from Suffolk IH Trainer and Monty Roberts tour member, Bridget Colston, on the subject of equestrian bit fitting.  Bridget has written a brilliant article on this in the Summer Issue of the IH Magazine.  Note: to IH Members – check into the IH members section on the website and you have access to all the former IH magazines.   My sister’s horse, Jack, has already benefitted from a bit fitting with IH Student, GP and a leading member of the Bit Fit team, James Cooling.

I didn’t expect to be introduced to so many new ideas from the talk.   I’m obviously behind on equine mouths because it’s only this year I heard that horses can have fillings and root canal operations. I thought it was a joke at first!  We need to be open minded as to how ‘new findings’ have been arrived at (that they are not just a great marketing idea) but we also need to bear in mind that not everything that works is suitable for a science trial. Certainly in this case though, Bridget’s lecture and listening to James Cooling has convinced me to look into learning more about Pie’s mouth beyond normal equine dentistry and get a Bit Fitter to see him and film the session to put on the IH Members web pages.  From a rider’s point of view he has a ‘lovely mouth’, but does he feel he could be more comfortable?

A gathering of IH Trainers

Another of our guest lecturers was IH Trainer and Cambridge Junior Fellow Researcher, Dr Rosie Jones-McVey on ‘A Tale of Two Virtues, Bravery, Care and Ethical Dilemma of Narrative Mind Reading’ on how we feel we have to choose a stance when describing our horses behaviour and our reactions to it.  Are we brave?  Or are we caring?  It seems most of us horse owner don’t believe you can be both.  A fascinating subject as always from Rosie and you can see details of Rosie and Dr Veronica Fowlers ground breaking new two day course on our website – Discovering you and your horse course.

Ian Vandenberghe who hosted the event at Hartsop Farm also added words of wisdom throughout the day and gave a demonstration of how loose jumping can help horses look for a stride and find their own balance.

His advice included

  • Walk the horse through in hand at first, so they can see where they are going
  • Select your track, at least at first (as they progress you can change the rein):
    • Towards an open area or
    • Towards the stables or
    • Towards the door
  • Set the striding according to the horse.
  • Use heavier poles as there needs to be consequences.  If the poles are too light they learn to knock them down
  • Try and set up in different locations too, especially if you expect a youngster to travel and take part in competitions.
  • Use two people to help guide and encourage the horse.  This also means less stopping and starting and gets things going right from the start. 
  • When they are jumping look at the shape they are making as they jump and how they are using their bodies. How high do they lift their knees?  Which leg are they landing on?
  • Sessions should be relaxed and last approximately 10 mins, with 8 or so jumping efforts. The horse will tell you how much to do and how high to go.
  • Loose jumping is used a lot on the continent from yearlings onwards and top trainers including racehorse trainer in the UK use loose schooling to teach and improve horses’ jumping.
  • Ian talked of one trainer who uses loose schooling particularly well with children’s ponies that have had all the latest gadgets stuck on them in an attempt to control them. The trainer does lots of loose jumping with them to let them see the stride and relax and this actually starts to slow them down. He then puts the child back on, with the pony in a headcollar, and the improvement is clear to see.  (Please make sure you have experienced help before trying this at home!)

Ian also did another excellent talk and demonstration on standing and trotting horses up to be shown for horse sales or horse show judging.  A racehorse is traditionally looked at from the left (near) side and all 4 legs need to be viewed with the head fairy low and the mane going on the opposite side.  Show horses are viewed from both sides as well as from the directly in front and behind and need to be moved appropriately.  Our showing specialist, Daisy Smith of How Very Horsey has a video of this on the IH Members forum as it’s much easier to see this demonstrated.

There really is quite an art to these things, for instance, with the Hackneys, Arabs and Welsh cobs the tradition is that they should stand stretched out and slightly hollow backed with the heads up.  While with a Shire, which Jake Harris demonstrated on the day, the handler stands with his hand underneath the horse’s chin with the horse’s head held high, and the rope dropped down to the floor.  The front feet can be left fairly square while the back feet should be very close together with the toes slightly turned out because the judges like the hocks to be pretty much touching.  Ian told us the old saying for the breed was that the front legs should go in two furrows and the back legs in one when ploughing.

Sandra Williams (see this issues IH Trainer Spotlight) did a very useful presentation on ‘New Equipment and Items to Make Life Easier.  Sandra runs regular Horse Agility courses which my sister’s horse Jack has attended to prepare him for the hustle and bustle of the show ring.  Other RTs are putting together Be Brave and similar clinics which are so useful to horse owners of all ages and horses of all sizes

Joey aged 3 learning horse agility with Sandra Williams
Joey aged 3 having a go at Horse Agility

Sandra’s ‘How To’ included How to make an arch for ‘walking under’ practice.  Items needed are

  • A waste pipe from your local DIY store
  • 4 short lengths of smaller diameter pipe (which you may need to cut down yourself)
  • 3 lengths of wider diameter pipe (more if you want to leave obstacles such as dangling pool noodles attached to one, have another plain one and another with fly curtains on)
  • 2 x 90 degree elbows for the smaller diameter pipes
  • Put together the 90 degree bend on the smaller size of pipe and then they can just slot in to the larger pipes forming the cross bar and vertical posts
  • This structure can stand in road cones weighted with sand
  • It’s a very cheap option, costing approximately £25 for the arch

Sandra also added that reusable cable ties are now on the market at about £8 for 75 – so you can now save money as well as help save the planet!

As IH Trainers shared their individual experiences during the day there were a couple of interesting themes came up including the value of long lining and the importance of creating the relationship with the horse before asking them to do anything that would require them to trust us.  Even though we might know these things, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded through different IH Trainers experiences. For instance, with long lining, it can be an easier start for an anxious or aggressive (which is often because of fear) horse, as it keeps the human out of their space while they gain confidence in being moved.  Sandra Williams said how she found this makes for a more gentle horse when you come back to the front end to lead. Suzanne Halsey had also had a recent experience of how it made a tricky horse so much easier to handle in general.  This particular horse only having one eye.

s to gaining the relationship before approaching obstacles and eventually loading a horse into a horsebox, perhaps we haven’t been getting the message out well enough that, yes, the Dually Halter is a really useful tool, but if you are pulling for more than even 20 seconds and there is no reaction from a horse, a change of tactics is needed and sooner rather than later.  I know it’s simple to say, and less easy to remember at those critical moments but ‘if something isn’t working don’t keep doing it!’

Gain the horse’s trust with groundwork exercises and use effusive wither or mane scratching for praise – really get your nails in and see how the horse’s mouth and head position changes!  Let the horse touch a scary obstacle with his nose to start with, praise, and then let him be influenced by your confidence, working up to more difficult things in very small steps. Give the horse time to process.  If there is no reaction when you ask from the front of the horse it’s time to go back to easy exercises and work your way up the scales again and find ways to make it easier for the horse to get it right.  Paddy Gracey contributed with innovative ideas he’s come up with when at people’s yards.  If using panels behind a horse is an option this is definitely preferable to pulling on a horse’s head until he completely switches off.  We reminded ourselves loading a horse is not a battle of ‘us against the horse’ it’s a partnership, where we’re saying to the horse ‘come on we can do this together Buddy’.

Other methods of horsemanship were discussed, when we see good things they become part of Intelligent Horsemanship and we also need to be aware of as many different ways as possible so we can understand what might be motivating a horse’s behaviour.  For instance, when horses are struck from behind with a whip before we got to them, you can expect to see fairly violent, dangerous kicking out.  Nowadays though, there are more sophisticated ‘whip tapping’ methods that can go wrong and you’ll see a horse approach the horsebox and do fairly low, irritated kicking as they are expecting the whip.

A method that caught me out last year was on a Loading the Less Easy Horse course and we had a horse that really warned us off with her teeth if we went to reward her with a scratch on her wither.  Fortunately Rosie was able to enlighten us as she had already experienced this at a yard she’s been to where three bad loaders all had the same strange reaction.  They had been taught to come forward with the handler standing directly in front of them and they had tried to have the horse come forward from ‘tapping’ on the wither.  This hadn’t got them to actually load, what Rosie found when she work with these horses to load them is they had all got agitated when a human went to touch the wither area.  I was a bit incredulous to be honest.  I felt a bit silly asking the owner whether she had been hitting her horse on the wither to get him to come forward.  ‘Yes that’s right a friend showed me but it didn’t work for my horse’ she said.  As I mentioned before we’re all learning new things all the time!

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