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19Jun 14

Your horse as a body-builder

Your horse as a body builder

The process of guiding your horse through its career is not always a smooth one. We are learning as the horse is learning so mistakes will be made. My philosophy has always been: as long as we are not purposely torturing our horse and doing everything we can to overcome the obstacles, our horses will forgive us.

In the wild horses are busy looking for food, water, shade or shelter and can’t always find it. It is freedom but tough. Predators are another serious issue. When our horse lives with us it has none of those problems (I hope!). Fresh water every day, a field shelter or a stable with plenty of bedding and probably more food than necessary. In order to have that cushy life they have to do one hour of work for us six days a week, with the odd uncomfortable moment because we get it wrong.

One of the things we must take quite seriously, though, is muscle soreness. We ourselves complain, after a serious flatwork session or even a long old hack, about barely being able to walk. We often forget that our horse will probably feel the same. Our horse needs to be treated like an athlete, just like for example a body-builder.

It is very important to be able to detect whether the horse is muscle sore and find out why. Is it because of the correct exercises and it will settle down with a long walk, have you overdone it and need more days with light work to overcome the stiffness or is it a balance problem between you and your horse which needs attention?

As the horse moves from being an inexperienced and undeveloped youngster to the higher levels dressage, show-jumping, eventing or any other equine sport the changes in its body are enormous. Here are two interesting examples.

Years ago, when fairly inexperienced but really keen, I was visiting a top dressage yard. As I was wandering around the stables when most horses were having a nap after their midday feed they all seemed to be asleep kind of `on the bit’ but in a completely relaxed state. So far all the horses I had seen asleep were dangling their head way down. By the time I produced my first horse to Prix St. Georges she slept the same way. I realised, it is all muscle!

Not too long ago I was lunging a very good horse for a client. I have lunged him once a week for just over a year, as he was a bit of a challenge for his owner, at times. At the end of the session I asked her to come and have a look at the side reins. I wanted to show her on the horse the difference in length of the side reins between now and a year ago: three inches. Also they now were attached nearly on the withers. During that process he has developed a keen interest in his job instead of pulling tricks to avoid a bit of sweat. We monitored this development like hawks.

A sore horse just does not enjoy its work and also, it is cruel and can create serious injuries.



12Jun 14

Nursing the soul of your friend: the horse , part 2

Horse and bicycle

Remember your first experience on your little bike? It seemed impossible to keep it upright. Because the instinct of our horse tells him to not fall over, it can give us a false sense of balance, something a bike can not do for us. A wrong balance is also a balance. Often riders want to girth up very tight so the saddle stays in the middle. It is probably already an indication that the rider is not `in the middle’. This is very uncomfortable for the horse, and makes it impossible to be balanced and therefore go on the bit correctly. First things first. During his clinics top trainer Conrad Schumacher, from Germany, kept emphasizing the importance of lunging lessons for riders. It should not be considered boring or a waste of money to have lessons `just’ to improve your seat and balance. It is the foundation of the physical relationship between you and your horse, which gives you both a chance to enjoy the process of improvement.

The comparison of horse and bike has another side to it which is at least as important. Our horse feels; our horse feels loved or appreciated or our horse feels rejected or misunderstood. This can make him very insecure. Just like a child he will react by rebelling, or worse, become depressed. It is your responsibility to not let this happen. You want a partnership, not a tortured slave.

Draw-reins and lunging whip

It is not easy to find a trainer who is not only capable but also suits your personality. There are many competent and knowledgeable trainers but some are very business like, some are very patient, others have a sense of humour that is not yours. It is your money and your choice. Once you have found someone that you and your horse are happy with and trust, show some commitment, and do not change too often. You and your horse will benefit from a more long term relationship with your trainer, working through the dips together and enjoying the highs. At the end of the day it is your choice, though, and if your gut feeling tells you it is not working, be brave and discuss it.

There is always the odd witch-doctor about. Worse, a qualified trainer who still believes in draw reins in a pair of unpractised hands and a lunging whip under the tail. Be aware and dare to say: no, I am not willing to do this to my horse. And always keep on nursing the soul of your friend, the horse. He will pay you back, big time.


Next week: problems during dressage tests



05Jun 14

Nursing the body and soul of our friend: the horse, part 1

Enjoy the challenge

When the dressage or jumping `bug’ has settled nicely under our skin, we can’t wait to be able to do that pirouette or have the fastest time around our first jump-of. Soon we will find out we have entered the world of one of the most time consuming and often frustrating hobby’s, possible. Time consuming: yes, but frustrating: no. Replace the word frustrating with the word challenge and that will redefine your mental approach. Consider it a little miracle every time it works and let your horse know how much you value his desire to try and please you. Only then the much desired partnership will flourish.



If horses could say `ouch’ we would be ashamed of ourselves. Also, if our horse was a bicycle it would probably fall over.

This obviously needs explaining. First the `ouch’ bit. Nearly every rider has, at some point during his or her career, dealt with, what seemed to be, a disobedient horse. Of course there are horses with very little or no work ethic. However, unfortunately, most horses are the victim of their misunderstanding riders who are desperately and endlessly repeating all kinds of exercises, which put an enormous amount of unnecessary strain on body and soul of our beloved animal. Especially at the time of access to the internet and all kinds of DVD’s available it makes so much more sense to not do all that unnecessary mileage, but instead first learn by watching capable and experienced riders perform all those beautiful movements or jump those tricky grids the correct way. A doctor in training will have to watch his mentor many times before he can take the scalpel in his own hand in order to take your appendix out.

Professional trainers are the first ones to admit that they improved also their own skills and not just those of their pupils because they are continually watching and therefore learning.

It is a shame that so much horse `disobedience’ is interpreted as not genuine behaviour with all measures taken. We have to accept that by limiting our own learning process we limit the fun we are meant to have with our horse, and sometimes even their lifespan.


Preparation for tomorrow

Part of the problem is of course our own insecurity during the learning process of horse training. It is a fine line between blaming yourself and doing something positive about it and getting frustrated (ego? What ego!). When this situation occurs it really works to make halt, take a deep breath, and walk on a long rein while thinking about where it went wrong, which more often than not will give the answer why it went wrong. If it can’t be solved today, think of something you can do well, together, and finish up on that. Anything better than a last minute fight which ruins the whole session. Dr. Reiner Klimke, possibly our best dressage rider, ever, made some fantastic training video’s in the eighties. After every single session he finished by saying: `And that... was a good preparation for tomorrow.’

Comfort zone

It is extremely important for neither you or your horse to be out of your comfort zone for too long. On the other hand, if you never push yourself you will not improve. By spending the time with your horse listening and trying to understand its behaviour, rather than imposing unnecessary pressure you will learn to understand how long your horse can be out of its comfort zone without panicking. As soon as you have learnt that, you will know for how long and how much pressure you can put on with a productive result.

This is really all about the horse learning to trust submission. Submission is scary when, as a horse, you feel you can not trust and depend on your rider to keep you safe. This is when ill behaviour, which generally starts with looking for ghosts outside the arena, begins. If not taken seriously this can turn into napping, rearing, you name it. And there you have the ring sour horse.

Rather sow the seed than brainwash

Muscle memory is a word that pops up everywhere, these days. Whether learning a new song at choir practice or having treatment after an injury. Also horses have muscle memory .

It is important to realize when your horse is secure at the level you are working at, the time has come to give him a new little challenge. Nothing worse than a bored horse as impulse disappears or, just as with too much submission, shying occurs, depending on your horse’s character.

Often, though, the tendency is to wait too long with something new. However, once brave enough to take that little step into the deep, the only way forward seems to be endless repetition until both rider and horse are overheated and exhausted . Recognize yourself? Don’t worry, it’s never too late to change.

When the time has come for something new, plan it at the end of a shortish but productive session so the horse is mentally in a good place. Not too tired and able to absorb a little more. Think through the process of how to approach your horse with the new exercise, not just from the technical point of view, but also in a way that suits its character best. Setting it up so the horse becomes interested rather than scared out of its wits is the road to success. It does not matter if initially the exercise is not executed to perfection: just sow the seed, and after one or two attempts it is time for both of you to leave it be and think about it. For him it means that next time he will recognize the exercise without already having learnt to hate it. For you, if it went well, that glorious feeling of achievement and if it didn’t go so well time to work through your frustrations without your horse and think how to do it differently next time.



Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

About Liz Barclay

Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.


My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.