All posts by Karen

Week 8? Get ready for lessons!

Private Lessons start back next week -assuming Covid numbers don’t change drastically. So time to get yourself back ready to be under my watchful eye! Rider fitness is something you can work on from the comfort of your own home, even when the weather is icky outside. Even a few minutes a day can help you become a more athletic and competent equestrian.

I have two exercises I like to do to maintain some semblance of muscle tone and body awareness for riding:

  1. Plank Exercise. THIS article explains the plank as well as other core exercises specific for equestrians. The core is the center of your body control and balance. Having a strong core helps to protect your back from damage, keep your hands and legs independent from the motion in your body/horse, and gives you controlled strength. Even though I have spaghetti arms, I can still stop a strong horse because I have core awareness.
  2. Rider Squats. I learned this one in physio, and I do find it useful and applicable to riding:
    • Stand with your feel shoulder width (or slightly wider) apart, feet pointing straight ahead.  Keep your knees above your feet so it is like you are straddling a very narrow horse.
    • Focus on the weight in your feet and feel that the weight is evenly dispersed over the ball and heel of your foot.
    • Keeping your body upright, slowly bend your knees as much as you can without letting your heel come up, and without the weight dispersement in your feet changing (this is important!)
    • Now gently bend at the waist until you are inclined forward (think two point or skiing downhill). Still keep your feet flat on the ground and even weight at the ball of your foot and heel! Hold that position for a count of 5, and then bring your body back to vertical. Repeat five times, all the while ensuring you keep your weight evenly in your feet and that your knees stay positioned above your feel (lower leg should be vertical).
    • You can add difficulty by holding weights in your hands.
    • IF you are having difficulties, try to remember the key is to use your core and to keep muscle control. When standing up you need to still have tension in the muscles you use to bend and vice versa.

Being able to stay balanced while shifting from “sitting” to “two-point” is key to reducing how much you interfere with your horse’s balance on the flat and when jumping!

Give these exercises a try and I think you will see improvements in your riding and body awareness!


Blanket tips!

Some blanket adjustment tips! An improperly adjusted blanket can be unsafe, uncomfortable, or not as warm as it could be. Here are some tips to making your blanket as safe and suitable as possible!

  1. Always make sure your horse is safely controlled when you adjust, add, or remove a blanket. Doing blanket changes or adjustments to a loose horse can be very unsafe! All it takes is a spook, strong wind, or even a little static shock to have disastrous consequences.
  2. Front closures. My preference is to do up the front first, and undo it last, but this is just my preference as I know Pony Club teaches the opposite! I prefer this as I don’t want the blanket sliding back around their legs if things go wrong!
  3. If your blanket uses clips on the front, always make sure the clip is clipped so the open side is against the horse, otherwise you run the risk of the clip accidentally becoming clipped to the fence or another horse! Yes, the risk is minor, but better to be safe!vs
  4.  When doing up belly band straps, have them adjusted so that they are of equal tightness when the blanket is straight. You should be able to snuggly fit a fist sideways under the straps. Any tighter and they will be too tight when your horse lays down or if he takes a deep breath. Any looser and you run the risk of a leg getting caught in the  blanket OR of the wind pulling the blanket up off his back like a parachute (brrr!).
  5.  Leg straps: A blanket either needs a tail strap OR TWO leg straps. One is not enough! It is important to only use leg straps that are in good condition. Leg straps that have lost their stretch aren’t going to do as good a job.  Leg straps can be crossed, but I prefer the link method. Both methods keep the straps from rubbing the legs, but the link method pulls back against the blanket rather than away, and is less likely to damage the blanket. Try to ensure they are adjusted equally – they look uneven in this photos as I have his tail and blanket pulled out of the way to one side. Always make sure  any  clips  are  closed  properly  as  well:  dirty  or  old  clips  don’t  always  close  properly  on  their  own.
  6. Before taking the blanket off, it is a good idea to do the leg straps back up to the blanket, so the loose straps aren’t going to swing around and hit the horse when putting the blanket back on! This also keeps the leg straps from dangling on the ground when the blanket is hung up.7.  If your leg straps are regularly coming undone, replace them! They aren’t expensive, and it isn’t worth the risk to your horse, your blanket or to the person who tries to fix them to keep old straps in use.

Week 7 – brrr!

Well, we are now on week 7 of no lessons. And it’s cold. Very very cold. I realize it is hard for me to come up with ride ideas as I feel out of touch with how you and your horses are all doing, so over the next two weeks I will try to come out and supervise some of you ride. Supervision (basically me watching you ride, but not telling you what to do, or charging) IS allowed under the current rules.

This you may want supervision to do: jump a small jump? Lateral work? You decide. I will try to write some helpful tips on lateral work this week.  If you want to arrange some supervision, sent me a message ahead of time!

Please keep in mind how cold it is though! Horses have very large muscles that take a lot longer to cool down than our puny human muscles, and putting a horse out into the cold before their muscle have cooled would be unkind.

Some ideas for cold weather riding: Spend more time warming up at slower gaits (walk, and a relaxed trot), doing easy/loopy serpentines and circles. Do transitions and take lots of cool down breaks. Cantering heats up a horse more than walk or trot, so consider cantering earlier in your ride, and then doing trot work, and finishing with some walk work. Things you can do at the walk: turn on the forehand, shoulder in, haunches in, side pass, rein back, walk poles drop and pick you your stirrups, neck reining, and ?

If you haven’t cooled down from your ride, then chances are your horse won’t have either, so leave lots of time for grooming/cooling down after your ride.

Alternatively, stick to doing some ground work! Will your horse for forward and back off of light aids? can you get him to do a turn on the forehand or side pass? Will he stay standing while you walk away? Ground work is a great cold weather activity!

Stay warm everyone!

Week 5 – break the boredom!

If your horse is like mine, they are starting to get a little tired of the ice and general boredom that comes with winter. If you find you need to help get your horse’s attention back, or just want to help limber them up, AND work on your spatial awareness, then this first TROT exercise is for you.

Quite simply, you are trying to do a four loop serpentine from A to C, staying between the quarter-lines. From quarter-line to quarter-line is 10 meters, so you should be able to fit four 10 meter half circle loops and should be done a few meters BEFORE you get to the opposite end.

With Scotch, I expect a certain degree of collection and balance, so I am using half halts to prepare for the change in bend, a bump with the inside leg to create the new bend, and outside leg and rein to shape her turn.

With Midas, I am making sure I come in with a reasonable trot, and then just looking and turning with my reins close together, but with very little help from my leg, as I don’t want to overwhelm him. I am not as worried about correct bend, but I am making sure he is flexing (looking) the correct direction. If needed, I can always complete the circle rather than moving on to the next loop.

I am using this to keep them thinking on their balance without overwhelming them, as a way to help them focus and use their body with more symmetry.

It’s also a good way to get a feel for a 10 meter circle and to see if your left and right turns match is size and feel, without being overly repetitive.

This second exercise is more challenging. I have three poles set up at the C end, on a circle. Can you get the same number of strides between the poles to the left as you can to the right? I can you get the same number twice in a row or does your control and bend change as you go? If it changes, remember to half halt and rebalance!

To up the difficulty, add in small circles over the poles: if you circle over the pole, do you still get the same number of strides on the arc as you did without the circle? This is a good way to see if you are loosing balance and/or power on small turns, and to help you remember to LOOK where you are going.


Week 4!

This is hopefully the last week without lessons! For this week, I am hoping everyone works on getting a solid position in preparation for starting back over fences!

My favorite trot exercise is the “up, down, down” posting trot exercise. Sit two like you are changing your diagonal, and then up for one, sit two, up for one, and repeat. You may find it helps to stay more forward with your upper body, and only lightly touch down for your down phase. Try to think about how you feel in the down phase once you find your balance in this exercise, and then see if you feel the same when you change your diagonal…you should!

You can also mix it up with the “up, up, down” posting trot where you more or less hold your two point for two steps, and then touch down for one. This can really help ensure you maintain tension in your concentric and eccentric muscles in your legs, and your core muscles, to ensure you keep control of your position ALL THE TIME.

A similar exercise at the canter just involves switching from two point to sitting and back to two point every so many strides. Try to use the different positions effectively: sit when you need more control, and two point when you want (or are able) to let your horse have some freedom. Again, make sure you maintain tension in your leg and core muscles to control both positions in the canter.

Want to up the difficulty? Do these exercises with one arm stretched above your head or pulled behind your back!

I am ready to start tentatively booking lessons starting on the 11th. Text me your preferred times, or we can start filling in the lesson board. I think we should assume we still have to maintain a limited number of people at the barn, so until we hear otherwise we will continue using the booking calendar.  Lessons will be able to have up to two people, as I feel some horses/riders may be better off with a buddy, and we need to be safe!

Week 3 – Winter Break exercises

If your horse is like mine, they are perhaps a little more excitable this week for some reason! So this week, please just make sure to stay safe!

This week’s exercises is very simple, and all about control. Canter a pole and halt on your line of travel.

You can do this on a straight line, or on an arc/circle.

With Scotch, the tricky part was convincing her the pole was not exciting, but the halt was easy and correct (albeit, not always stationary). As she struggled to be straight to the pole, I did some counter canter or counter flexion to help with straightness.

With Midas, he tends to lose some balance at poles, so I didn’t rush to ask him to halt, I stayed off his back in two point on the way there, over, and a couple strides after before asking for the halt. With him, I just wanted to get the halt before we hit the end of the arena, and I upped the difficulty by changing from a more collected canter/short distance, and a hand gallop/forward distance, while still getting the halt before the end of the arena.

Have fun and stay safe!

Week 2 – Winter Break Exercise

Week #2

Midas’ Challenge!

Midas’s challenge this week is an equitation challenge! Set up some trot poles and ride them at posting trot, then two point and then sitting trot. Are you able to do all three with your horse maintaining the same spacing? Next try at a canter in a half seat, two point and sitting!

How to set poles:

Trot poles should be set between 3 feet (collected trot) and 4.5 feet (working trot). For a good average pole spacing, take one large step between the poles.

Canter poles should be set at 9 feet. This is about three people steps between poles!

If you aren’t sure, you can set them on a bit of an arc and ride the inside, middle or outside of the arc and see what rides the best for your horse.

Why? A rider should aim to be effective, while not inadvertently interfering with their horse, or throwing them off balance.

Trouble Shooting:

  • If you find your horse is getting quicker or “chipping” to the poles, then you are likely throwing them off balance as you change your position. Try to remember that it is your CORE that should control your position (not your lower back!) and that you need to control how quickly you adjust your position using both eccentric and concentric muscles (push and pull muscles).
  • If you find your horse’s stride is getting longer when you change your position, you are likely allowing your horse to lengthen its neck which will result in a longer stride. Remember you can lengthen and shorter your reins to maintain contact.
  • If you find your horse’s stride is getting shorter when you change position – sit, then you are likely interfering with your horse’s back. This could mean your reins have gotten too short, or that you are blocking your horse’s back with a stiff seat. You need to absorb your horse’s back motion by tightening your core (damn that core again!), and “lifting” your horse’s back with your seat bones.


Scotch’s Challenge!

This one sounds easy, but give it a try!

Walk up to a pole (on your horse), collect it’s walk, and try halting your horse with only one leg over a pole.

Why? This is a simple test of the “whoa” response. A horse that locks its jaw or otherwise braces/hesitates before listing to the rein pressure won’t be able to resist taking the second step over the pole.

You might notice your horse always steps over with the same leg, usually a right dominant horse will step over with their left leg first.

Trouble Shooting:  If your horse insists on stepping over with the second leg, you don’t have a prompt rein response. Work on the prompt response on a circle with some inside flexion, and by lifting up. Accelerate the pressure from a light to strong response with an immediate softening when you get the whoa. Remember that even though we are working on JUST the rein response, you still want to sit up and not throw your horse off balance.




Week 1 – Winter Break Exercises

Looking for motivation/ideas during our four week break? Each week I will post exercises to try if you wish!

This week, try riding with your reins in one hand. Riding with your reins in one hand has a few benefits: it helps you test how much you rely on your inside rein (and forces you to use other aids), and it allows you to do some equitation exercises!

Midas’ Challenge: Try riding a pole pattern/course with your reins in one hand.

  • Try to alternate which hand you use to hold the reins. Do you find it harder with one hand than the other? Working on your weak side can help your overall riding symmetry!
  • Try to do the pattern with your “free” arm stretched over your head. This helps put your upper body in “neutral” and can help with both a hollow or rounded posture.
  • Try to do it posting and in two point!

Scotch’s Challenge: Try riding a circle at walk, trot and canter, with your reins in one hand.

    • Spiral in and out of the circle, increase bend and decreasing stride length to spiral in, and decreasing bend and increasing stride to spiral out.
    • Alternatively, you can spiral in and out by using leg yield aids to push the horse in on the circle (with a mild outside flexion), or leg yield out with the inside flexion.
  • Try a figure: are your two circles the same size?
    Pro Tips:

    Remember to look where you are going with your shoulders.

    The slower you go, the easier it should be, so if you are having trouble, SLOW DOWN.

    Remember to rebalance your horse often: an unbalanced horse will be on his forehand, and will fall in and out through its shoulders.

    Resist crossing your hand hard over the neck: if you have to use a strong rein of opposition (outside rein), you are just throwing your horse off balance to the inside. Revisit the basics: are you looking where you are going? Are you making sure your horse is going at a balanced and comfortable pace? Are you helping your horse bend with your inside leg at the girth, and turn with your outside leg gently pressing behind the girth into the turn?



Effective Rewards

Rewards are a common tool when training/riding a horse. The technical name for rewards used for training is Positive Reinforcement, meaning you are adding a stimulus to create a positive association with an action so the horse wants to remember and repeat the action.

For a reward to be effective, it has to be understood and appreciated by the recipient. Saying “Good Boy” if the horse hasn’t yet been taught what it means, offering it a treat it doesn’t like, or giving it a big neck slap, might not be understood to be a reward to the horse, making it ineffective as a positive reinforcement tool. It doesn’t matter that you MEAN to reward the horse, it only matters that the horse interprets the action as a reward.

Imagine you are on a horse you have never ridden and you give the horse a neck slap as a reward. If the horse hasn’t been taught that a neck slap is a reward then the horse might misinterpret the slap as a punishment. In this case your INTENT means nothing to the horse: you may have meant to reward the horse, but did so in a way that this horse found uncomfortable.

A reward could be a trained reward such as a verbal “Good Boy” or clicker sound, or an inherently understood reward such as a neck rub/scratch or a food reward.

Unlike Negative Reinforcement which should be used with each command to keep a horse from getting dull, rewards lose their effectiveness if used for responses that are already well established, or if the reward is given so much it is no longer special. The most effective way to use rewards is to offer them consistently when first training a new behaviour, but then to taper them off as the new behaviour becomes consistent.

Keep in mind that when training a horse Positive Reinforcement isn’t a required training method, but if you wish to use it, use it sparingly enough that the horse feels motivated to try for the reward. If the horse knows it will get a carrot for letting you pick up its left front foot for the hundredth time, the carrot will become an EXPECTATION rather than a reward!

For a nervous horse, or a horse that has a poor work ethic (sour)however, I will reward smaller moments to help create a more positive association with work, keeping bigger rewards for bigger progress.

A reward also has to be given in a timely manner so that the reward is associated with the action you want the equine to remember and recreate.

I am trying to teach Izzy to do a quiet flying lead change. She already knows what “Good Girl” means, so when she achieves a good lead change I immediately remove aids (negative reinforcement) say “GOOD GIRL” (positive reinforcement) and then “WHOA” and then she gets a cookie  (stronger positive reinforcement) and a break. Even though the big reward is after the WHOA command, because Izzy does not get a reward after a typical whoa, and because she received the “Good Girl” reward  immediately, I feel she is able to make the connection between the last big command (the lead change) and the reward.

20160909_152843   Izzy getting her cookie

Another key with rewards is to only use them to reward moments you want the horse to remember and to recreate. All too often I see a rider using positive reinforcement as a way to try to calm a horse or to thank it for getting past its fear response without dumping its rider. Unfortunately the bigger a deal you make about a traumatic event, the more the horse will remember it, and if you create a positive association with a spook, then you run the risk that the horse will think you are rewarding the spook! Really, the best response I find to be to a traumatic event is as little a response as possible: help the horse refocus and do something well so neither horse nor rider dwell on the exciting moment.

It’s like with little kids: if a little kid swears and everyone laughs, that kid is going to keep swearing at all sorts of awkward moments as it was positively inforced to swear. If everyone had just ignored the child, it would be less likely to repeat the behaviour.


– Rewards need to be UNDERSTOOD and ENJOYED by the recipient. It isn’t just the thought that counts!

– Rewards need to be used in a TIMELY manner, and SPARINGLY enough that they have meaning and importance.

-Rewards are used to encourage the horse to REMEMBER and RECREATE the response.

I do like using Positive Reinforcement as rewards tend to make both the giver and the recipient feel good, but because they are quite effective, rewards need to be used carefully to ensure they don’t teach the wrong thing!

Verbal Rewards & the Chatty Rider

Anyone who has ridden with me for very long knows that I do not understand the neck slap as a reward for a horse. How is a horse to know that being hit is sometimes a punishment and sometimes a reward? I mean you wouldn’t slap a toddler on the back as reward for taking its first steps would you? (and if you would, perhaps you should reconsider becoming a parent).

I am a much bigger fan of the neck/wither scratch, or of just giving the horse a break from any commands. I am even a fan of the occasional treat reward while riding, and Izzy knows that when I tap her shoulder she should turn her head to receive a small cookie. The easiest reward however, is voice. A reward you can give at the precise time without stopping what you are doing. Clicker training is based on the idea of using a unique sound as a way to offer immediate reward, but are WORDS an effective reward for the horse?

(I do not think verbal rewards are the same as a clicker training click, as clicker trainers usually use a unique, non-verbal sound, and use it ONLY when training or reinforcing the sound).

Back when I used to start horses, the first thing I would teach them is a positive association with the word “GOOD” by offering treats or scratches at the same time as I used the word. Next I would teach them “WHOA”, and progress from there with other voice commands such as “STAND”, “WALK ON”, “OVER”, “BACK”, and “TROT ON”. It is typically of most training programs to introduce verbal commands, and verbal commands seem to be quickly processed and understood by horses.

It was eventually an apparent pattern that all the horses I trained would come to think that “GOOD” meant to stop, and I would have to untrain that reaction. The horse was quick to understand that words were cues, and it would seemingly try to figure out what command was wanted with the word “GOOD”, and as this was initially said in conjunction with an enforcing reward at the halt, the horse reasonably thought that “GOOD” meant “WHOA” .

For some reason, for all those years, it didn’t occur to me that the horse thinking that “GOOD” was a command might mean it was not an effective reward, and beyond that it might mean we need to be more careful with how we use our voice around our horses in general.

If horses are taught early that words can be commands, then it is probably stressful for the horse if it has to constantly listen to its rider talk and filter for real commands within the chatter. Voice commands are likely more effective when they are not mixed with random chatter. For this reason you will rarely hear me chat while I am doing more than walking on a loose rein, the exception being when I am talking through what I am doing to help teaching. I am quiet when I ride my horses, so they snap to attention when I do speak and they aren’t constantly trying to pick through my words for commands. (You may hear me humming when I am riding a very tense horse, but that is all for my own nerves.)

Horses are smart enough to recognize tone, so riders typically help the horse pick out commands by using a stronger tone when they issue a verbal command to their horse. Even this comes with issues when rider uses words the horse doesn’t understand in the same command tone such as “STOP PULLING” or “IF YOU WOULD JUST LISTEN” or “WILL YOU GET GOING”. Not only are these words the horse is unlikely to know, but I don’t think anyone has ever found success teaching a horse even simple sentences. The horse however, likely picks up that the tone is a command, but doesn’t understand the meaning, so it would make sense that this would potentially be stressful for the horse.

While horses understand words to be commands, people find words comforting and they find words EASY, so usually when you hear someone giving a horse a complicated command using words, it is unlikely they actually think the horse understands, and far more likely because they have become frustrated, nervous, or have met something that is beyond their skill level. Sometimes it also seems like people try to excuse losing their temper by using words to explain why they have gotten aggressive in their riding…not that they think the horse understands at all.

Verbal reward, and even other forms of praise often seem like it is more the rider congratulating themselves rather than actually wanting the horse to feel the praise. You see this most often when the rider manages to hang on during a buck or a dirty stop.

The best analogy I could think of to explain why I question the benefit of a verbal reward would be to imagine you were captured by aliens and you couldn’t understand their language, but you started to pick up that when they said “BLURG” you got food, and when they said “TRUFF” they pushed you down and you learned that this meant sit. Not obeying meant a correction of some sort. In the same way that horses learn verbal commands, you manage to learn a few words.

Imagine how exhausting it would be to have to listen to the random chatter of the aliens to try to pick up the few words you knew so you could avoid the correction? “ouiuoiubjnbkhounts, xcmboughjghv, vcvtTRUFFpoiopkbbiiysoubky”.

Imagine how stressful it would be if they started saying words you didn’t know, but in the tone you came to understand as being a command tone? “OIIIHGGBBKREEROUGHJBNMERRE”.

This is likely even more of an issue for horses as their species isn’t overly vocal in general: usually adult horses only “talk” to each other in stressful situations. Horses potentially have an inherent instinct to PAY ATTENTION to vocalizations.

Do I think verbally rewarding a horse is wrong? Not at all, but I don’t think it is a very effective reward, and should not replace effective rewards such as a neck rub/scratch, a cookie, or the best reward of all: giving the horse a break. Do I think talking to a horse is a good way to calm a nervous horse? Only in that it can be very effective in calming the rider, and possibly in distracting a looky horse, but only if the rider does not use a commanding tone. With horses though, I think the less you say, the more they hear. And if you are a chatty rider, then I think expecting the horse to respond to verbal commands or verbal praise is unfair to the horse, and might just be causing them undue stress.


But of course, this is just my opinion.