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Riding can often require a range of skills and owning horses is a massive responsibility. This is our resource to help you get the most from your passion with regular updates to deal with topical ...

Bits, Bitting and Mouthpieces

With such a wide range of bits on the market, choosing the right one for your horse can sometimes be difficult. Having a vague idea of what style mouthpieces your horse would suit and the types of action he might like is the first step in the right direction of finding a bit to suit both you and him. Before you begin choosing a bit it is essential that your horse is up to date with his dentistry. It is recommended that your horse has his teeth checked and rasped by a qualified equine dentist once every 6 months, so if your horse isn’t up to date, address this issue before trying new bits. Even a bit that would ordinarily be perfect for your horse can appear not to be if he is in any discomfort, and the ‘need’ for a bit change due to strong or bad behaviour can be eliminated through having your horse’s teeth checked. Mouthpieces When looking at bits, it helps to know the types of mouthpieces that would suit your horse. To do this you need to assess your horse's mouth conformation and check how fleshy your horse’s tongue is and how much space he has in his mouth. Cobs, Irish Draught Crosses, Dutch Warmbloods and Welsh types have large tongues, making thick mouthpieces uncomfortable for them as they have little space in their mouth anyway, so although thin mouthpieces are usually considered harsher, in the case of fleshy tongued equines they can sometimes be kinder. For soft mouthed horses that have enough space, thicker bits are preferable as they distribute any pressure over a larger area. The next thing to think about in relation to mouthpieces is what type of joint, if any, you need. Single jointed bits act on the bars of the horse’s mouth and the corners of the lips depending on how the horse carries his head, as well as having a ‘nutcracker’ action when pulled as it flexes in the middle and squeezes both sides into the lower jaw. Double jointed bits or French links are milder than the single jointed bit as they lie across the tongue and only act on the bars of the mouth and corners of the lips. This type of mouthpiece has no ‘nutcracker’ action. Straight bar bits have no joint and act predominantly on the tongue and bars of the mouth. If the bit is ported, this can alleviate tongue pressure and put more pressure on the bars of the mouth. Waterford mouth pieces are like a thick snaffle with lots of joints, which wrap around the tongue and can prevent horses from leaning on the bit; however they can also prevent them from taking a contact and working into the bridle, and can be quite harsh. Twisted mouth pieces are harsh and should only be used with light hands as they can damage the mouth if you aren’t careful. For horses with a low roof of mouth, single jointed bits can be painful as they can jab the roof of the mouth when used. It is common for these horses to be ridden in a flash strap to stop them opening their mouth which they do to avoid the discomfort and evade the bits action, however a better solution would be to use a double jointed or French link mouthpiece, or a straight bar bit. Ported bits are good for horses with fleshy tongues who don’t like jointed bits as they allow room for the tongue whilst still having the straight bar action, however straight bar bits can confuse the horse and aren’t very clear due to their lack of flexibility and the lack of ability for both sides to work independently. This doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a try though; some horses appear to like their action. The next thing to consider is the type of material your horse would suit for his mouthpiece. This isn’t something that can be easily determined without testing the different types of materials with your horse. As a vague guideline, horses who salivate normally and aren’t too strong in the mouth can suit most materials, such as stainless steel, rubber and sweet iron. Horses who have especially sensitive mouths or who don’t like the feeling of cold metal being put in their mouth may prefer a warmer metal such as copper or a rubber or happy mouth bit. Strong horses whose mouths are dry and insensitive can be encouraged to salivate and therefore become more sensitive by using metals such as sweet iron and copper, or by having a mouthpiece with rollers on it to encourage them to move it around more and therefore not fix their jaw against you. Overall this stage of bitting is down to experimentation as no one can tell you the sort of metal your horse will like. Types of bits and their action When it comes to what sort of bit and action your horse will suit, it is important to consider how strong your horse is and the situations your horse will use the bit in. For example, you may be fine schooling in a snaffle, but for hacking or jumping your horse may become extremely strong and require something more to aid control. Always use the mildest action that you can get away with in the situation whilst remaining safe and in control. The snaffle bit is considered the kindest bit as there is no poll or curbs pressure, it just works on the mouth. There are fixed ring snaffles which are considered standard and are very mild. For slightly stronger horses or those who lean on the bit, a loose ring snaffle may help stop this as when they try to take hold of it, the rings move. Hanging cheek snaffles suit some horses as they suspend the bit in their mouth and leave more room for their tongue. D ring snaffles give slightly more cheek pressure and can aid in turning as well as preventing the bit from pulling through the mouth, the same as a full cheek snaffle can. Snaffles are good to school in as they teach the horse to listen to a soft bit and a contact can be taken easily without creating other unwanted pressures. If a stronger bit is needed, a Pelham may be the way to go. This bit has 2 actions, it can be used as a snaffle on the top ring and has a second, bottom ring at the end of a shank which acts with poll pressure to bring the head down and curb pressure from a curb chain to stop the horse evading the bit. This can be found with any mouthpiece, and is useful if used with double reins for horses that will listen to a snaffle most of the time but do need a stronger action occasionally. This use is however taken away if roundings are used as the rider can’t decide to use the snaffle or curb rein independently, but both are used all the time. It is also useful for showing and classes where it is correct to use a double bridle or Pelham. The Kimblewick is quite a strong bit with a square cheek piece, curb chain attachment, and bit rings with slots allowing for different degrees of poll pressure to be used depending on how low you attach your reins, with more pressure being used the lower you attach them. This is a single rein bit meaning you can’t have different degrees of pressure on the bit like you can with a double reined Pelham but are always on the harsh setting. Some horses like its action and if used gently this bit can be highly effective. Gag bits can be harsh bits if used in the wrong hands, but can be effective when used correctly. The snaffle gag bit is used with double reins, one on the ring and one on the gag pieces running up to the head piece. This bit raises the head when the gag pieces are pulled as the bit lifts in the horse’s mouth. This should be considered carefully before using as it can cause horses to rear. However, if your horse is particularly strong, so long as the snaffle ring is the most predominantly used and the gag reins only used when the undesirable behaviour is displayed, this bit can work well. The Dutch gag or bubble bit works by applying leverage pressure to the horse’s poll and brings the head down, despite other gag bits working to bring the head up. When used with double reins this can be very effective as the snaffle rein works exactly like a hanging cheek snaffle and is mild, and then when you need the extra control, the bottom rein can give you this. These are most commonly seen being used with a single rein on one of the lower rings, however this puts constant pressure on the horse and there is no release reward as you would get with double reins. A double bridle is most commonly seen in dressage on horses of a level where extra collection and refinement is needed. This consists of two bits, the bradoon acting similarly to the snaffle and the curb bit applying poll pressure and curb pressure. This bit can also be used in the show ring or when jumping for extra control and refinement of aids. Finally, there is the bitless bridle. This can come in many forms, such as a Hackamore or Scawbrig bitless bridle, which both use facial pressure to control the horse. This can be a good alternative for horses with damaged or super sensitive mouths, or a variation for horses that are strong when bitted as it is uses different pressure areas and has no effect on hard mouths. Overall, it really is up to the rider as to how they think the horse has accepted the bit, but as long as the horse is listening to it and respecting it without too much force from the rider, and he isn’t backing away from it or evading, you’re probably onto a winner. And remember, a bit is only as harsh as the hands on the end of it, a novice rider with rough hands can make the mildest snaffle harsh, the same as a quiet handed rider can make harsh bits seem soft in comparison.

Training Aids and How To Use Them

The light, warm summer weather encourages most of us to swap the confines of the sand paddock for long hacks and beach rides. When your leisure time starts to be restricted by lack of light or suitable weather conditions, these fun rides can be more difficult to fit in to your schedule. Having the motivation to ride in the arena again can be difficult, therefore think of the schooling as a way to keep both you and your horse fit, supple and healthy. It may help to plan a schedule that works towards a long term goal for you and your horse, and then you feel you are getting something worthwhile from your training sessions. Most horses will benefit from a structured programme that helps to re-establish the basic principles of obedience and submission. There is no substitute for good schooling but sometimes a little extra help is needed to encourage your horse to use his himself correctly. Training aids can assist you with achieving a round outline and self carriage, but it is important to know how to use each one correctly as they can cause more problems if used by inexperienced riders or possibly injure the horse.  Draw Reins are a simple and commonly used training aid which attach to the horse’s girth then pass through the bit (from the outside to the inside) to the rider’s hands. These are a strong gadget which should only ever be used by experienced riders and are unsuitable and unsafe for jumping in. They can be an extremely severe training aid if used wrongly and can force the horse into an incorrect and short outline, where rather than flexing at the poll and relaxing onto the bit, he ends up flexing at the 4th vertebra and curling himself back from the bit. If used gently and at a length where they only come into action if the horse raises his head, they can be beneficial to the horses head carriage. It is advised that only experienced riders and riders under instructors’ supervision use them, and they are not used for long periods of time. A similar training aid to Draw Reins is the Market Harborough which attaches via a breastplate and has 2 lines coming from the centre, passing through the bit on either side (from the outside to the inside) and attaching to specialised reins with 3 D rings on either side, spaced at regular intervals from the bit. The lines then clip to these D rings, with the rings closest to the bit being the mildest setting and the ones furthest away the strongest. Ideally the reins should be set so the head is carried slightly above the vertical so a correct head carriage encouraged. They should only come into action if the head comes above the desired position, and are good for use on strong horses as they come into action when a horse pulls or throws his head. This training aid is unsuitable for jumping in, and like Draw Reins it is advisable to use them in the presence of an instructor. The Chambon is an aid for use when lunging and has 2 reins which clip to the girth or roller between the front legs, come up and through rings on a special headpiece and then run down and clip to the bit on either side. This should be fitted loosely at first and the horse allowed to work on a large circle in a natural trot so he can get used to the poll pressure and raising of the bit when he lifts his head above a certain point. Once he has accepted and understood that the pressure is released when he relaxes down, the aid can be tightened gradually until you have the desired level of neck and head carriage. Again, this aid is unsuitable for jumping in. An advancement on the Chambon is the De Gogue which is quite a gentle training aid and can be lunged or ridden in. It consists of 2 reins which attach to a girth or roller between the horses front legs, go up to the padded headpiece and through the ring attachments, down alongside the cheek pieces, through the bit and then either attach to the end of the reins if riding or back down between the front legs if lunging. At first until you and your horse are used to this aid, it is advisable to ride with double reins, one set fixed to the bit and the other to the De Gogue rein. This rein encourages the head and neck to be down and relaxed, putting mild pressure on the poll and bit if the head is lifted above the desired position and releasing this pressure when the horse relaxes and works correctly. This is another aid that is unsuitable for jumping in and should also be used by experienced riders and in the presence of an instructor. One of the most advanced and highly recommended training aids is the Pessoa. This works on both the back and front end of the horse with a ‘pulley’ type system; a soft strap passes behind the back legs, this attaches to a rope which is fixed up to the roller, with another rope passing from the back strap through a clip attached to the bit. This then can be attached on 3 settings, either through the front legs achieving a long and low setting, suitable for use on all horses but especially those just starting out with a Pessoa. The second setting fastens to the side ring of a roller to bring the head slightly higher and encourage more back lift, and the final option attaches up to the top ring of the roller to bring the advanced and well muscled horse into more of a dressage outline. For most horses, the last setting puts too much strain on them and could end up causing muscle and skeletal injuries and stress, so it is advisable to work the horse up gently from the lowest setting to the middle setting. This aid should not be ridden or jumped in and should only be lunged in for very short periods of time, about 5 minutes on each rein as it can be very strenuous for the horse. Overall none of these aids will work properly and safely without good basic schooling being practised alongside them, and should only be used after reading their instructions. Remember, these shouldn’t be seen as a quick fix to tuck your horses head in, outlines start from the back and work their way forwards! Used correctly though, they can be a positive addition to a schooling session and help your horse understand better how to use his hind quarters to work correctly and comfortably over his back and neck. A horse in pain or discomfort won’t want to work properly, is likely to ‘giraffe’ along and is often naughty so always remember to check your horses saddle fit, teeth and back before looking to training aids for help. With the help of these and good schooling, a happy comfortable horse should quickly learn how to use himself properly and you’ll look like a dressage queen/king in no time!

Horse Boots for Travel and Exercise

There is a wide range of leg protection available for your horse, but it can be difficult to know which if any is best suited to your horse's needs. Although many horses do not need any extra support for the level of exercise they do, boots can offer protection from accidents that can happen to anyone. It is extremely important to ensure any boot or bandage fits correctly so it can't rub or slip on the horse's leg. Brushing boots are an excellent all round boot, they offer minimal support to the leg but are perfect for horses with a close action or times when the horse may move his legs too closely together. The striking pads offer protection to the horse's vulnerable fetlock joints, this can be especially useful for young horses who haven't perfected their balance under the saddle. Brushing boots are an excellent boot also for lunging, the constant bend that the horse is working on can mean he catches one leg with the opposite hoof. Teaching and riding lateral work is also a time when it is advisable to provide extra protection to your horse's lower legs. Confusion in aids and resistance can result in the horse striking himself as he moves, the use of brushing boots again on all four legs can protect against painful knocks and grazes. Competition boots offer support or protection and sometimes both to a horse's legs whilst jumping or competing. The most popular boots for show jumping are tendon boots, these offer protection and support to the tendons but still allow the horse to feel the pole if he knocks a fence. Eventing tends to require more protection for a greater proportion of the horse's lower leg. Sports Medicine Boots and Eventing Boots are a popular choice by many riders to support their horse's legs. Although not allowed in competition, dressage horses are usually schooled in bandages as their riders often believe these provide better support and protection than boots. Some horses have a tendency to over reach with their hind legs, meaning they can inflict injuries on themselves by striking their coronet band with their hind foot. To prevent this you can fit over reach boots to offer protection to the vulnerable area. These boots come in many styles, the cheapest being pull on rubber but these can be difficult to put on and have a tendency to invert rendering them useless. More technical styles are also available ranging from velcro fastening rubber to carbon reinforced, anatomically designed boots. Horse's legs are particularly vulnerable whilst travelling, they can easily knock themselves in the loading process or during transportation. It is essential therefore that we use some form of protection to the lower legs to guard against injury. Travel boots provide a quick and easy padded covering to the horse's legs, usually from above the horse's knee to below the coronet band. They usually have a tough outer fabric to prevent tears and a reinforced bottom section to give extra protection to the heel and coronet area. Most travel boots have wide velcro straps making them easy to put on and remove. Some people feel that travel bandages offer better protection and support to their horse's legs so use padding secured by bandages. Care must always be taken to ensure there is no uneven pressure on the legs and that they are firmly secured so the bandages can't become unravelled during travelling. Whilst providing your horse's legs with extra protection is always a good idea you must consider whether your chosen boots are appropriate to your horse's needs and most importantly that they fit correctly. No boots should be left on for a prolonged period of time and care should be taken to remove dirt and grease by regular brushing or washing. Any signs of wear or damage should be swiftly identified and repaired to prevent accidents or injury.

Protect your horse from flies

Its time to prepare for summer and the flies that come with it! We all love to tack up our horses and head out for a relaxing hack when the sun starts to shine after a long, cold winter but it seems flies and midges also love to follow us and our horses wherever we go. The flying insects at best can be a nuisance but at their worst they can result in utter misery for your horse. Don't despair though, there are lots of ways you can repel these pests and make your horse more comfortable and happy throughout the summer months. There are lots of products available on the market to help alleviate the irritation from insects and repel them from landing on your horse's skin. Fly sprays and repellent wipes are a good start to helping reduce the amount your horse suffers from flies. There are also physical barriers, in the form of rugs, masks and nets which actually stop the fly from landing on your horse's skin. A fly sheet will help to protect your horse, there is a large range of styles available and they range in price depending on coverage and the level of protection your horse needs. Basic fly rugs are often made from a nylon mesh and fit in the same way a summer sheet would, these offer general protection from flies by creating a barrier between your horse's skin and the flies. The soft mesh will allow your horse to stay cool in the summer and won't hold water if there is any rain. More specialised fly rugs are also available which often give more coverage and some even have insect repellent treatments impregnated into the material to help further repel unwanted flies. Deciding what kind of rug you buy depends on your budget and your horse's needs. Bear in mind that these types of rugs are all a mesh type fabric so they do tear more easily than a turnout rug, although the mesh material does make them easy to repair yourself. Some horses suffer more than most through the summer, sometimes developing sweet itch, which is an allergic reaction to the saliva in the bite of a species of midge called Culicoides. Horses who suffer from this condition can significantly harm themselves as they scratch to try to alleviate the irritation caused by the bite. Although there is no absolute cure to this condition, there are several treatments which can offer the horse some relief. Try to limit the horse's exposure to the midge, stabling one hour each side of sunrise and sunset, as this is the time when flies are most active. Kill the flies that are attacking the horse using insecticides that contain pyrethrins or pyrethroids. Prevent the horse from itching; specially designed sweet itch rugs stop the fly landing on the horse's skin. This will mean the horse won't scratch as much as the irritation will be less. Following these preventative measures should help to relieve your horse's symptoms, whether it be sweet itch or just flies in general. Some supplements, garlic, for example, are known for their fly repellent qualities but these don't always help all horses. Try to keep muck heaps to a minimum and situate well away from any areas that your horses spend much time. A clean yard and horse will always mean that there are less flies in the area so regularly bath your horse and disinfect as much of your stable as possible.

Horse Conformation

A horse with good conformation should be the aim of every person who intends to breed a foal. Breeding from a stallion or mare with anything more than minor faults in their conformation should be avoided. Correct conformation enables the horse to carry out the work required by humans with the least amount of stress on their bodies and joints. They will be less prone to lameness and give a more comfortable ride. Assessing whether a horse has perfect conformation can be a difficult task, but it is in every horse lovers interest to be able to ascertain an overall impression of good conformation in a horse used for general riding activites. Initially look at the horse as a 'whole', does he look like he has been built in proportion? There should be no one part of the horse's body which looks too be greatly over or under sized in relation to any other. The horse should have an alert expression with bright, wide set eyes, the neck should be proportional to the body and a convex arch between the withers and poll. Look for a good, sloping shoulder as this will give the horse a longer, flowing stride, the horse should also have well defined shoulders which form a widening V down into the shoulder. The chest area should be MEDIUM WIDTH allowing plenty of heart room and allowing the fore legs to be far enough apart to prevent brushing.The fore legs should run in a vertical, straight line from the top of the leg down to the foot, whether looked at from the front or the side. The horse should have a deep body, allowing plenty of room for the heart and lungs, the back should be of medium length to carry the rider's weight comfortably and without strain. Well rounded quarters and broad hips provide power and allow the horse to move forward with good impulsion. The horse's hind legs should be formed so it is possible to visualise a straight line running from the point of buttock, through the point of hock, down to the fetlock and the ground. The forelegs should be straight from the top of the leg to the foot when looked at from the front, and also from the top of the leg to the fetlock when viewed from the side. The forearm should have well developed muscles, and be longer than the leg below the knee. The leg below the knee is preferably fairly short as this minimises the strain on the ligaments and tendons. The knees should be in proportion with the rest of the leg, they should be broad, flat and deep as this then gives enough room for the attachment of tendons and ligaments. Cannon bones should be short and straight, this again allows room for tendons and ligaments meaning they are less liekly to become strained. The fetlock should appear flat rather than round, any lumps are usually a sign of work, age or brushing. Pasterns should be neither too long or too short; long, sloping pasterns give a springy ride but can be liable to strains. Short, upright pasterns tend to be strong but give a bumpy ride, this extra concussion can cause lameness. With the horse's hind legs it should be possible to draw an imaginary straight line from the point of buttock, through the point of hock down to the fetlock joint. The hocks should be fairly large in size, with a flat, clean point at the back of the joint. Any lumps or swellings are a sign of injury. Sickle shaped hocks have a more acute angle to the hocks. Hocks out behind can indicate that the horse is a good jumper but they will struggle to gallop or perform dressage well. Straight hocks will often give a horse the ability to perform dressage well but there is less leverage for jumping. Some horses with straight hocks can suffer from a slipped stifle especially at a young age. The hind quarters when viewed from behind should give the appearance of being rounded with plenty of mucle providing power. If the hind legs are placed too far apart the horse may be limited in its length of stride, in rare cases this can lead to increased concussion and ringbone. Hind limbs that are close together can be underdeveloped, making them weak and prone to strains, the closeness can also cause brushing injuries. Bowed hocks have the points of hock wide apart, the toes are turned out and the foot is likely to screw as it comes into contact with the ground. This conformation can lead to bone spavins, bog spavins ot thoroughpin. A horse with cow hocks is often a good jumper but is liable to brush, the points of hock come close together, and the toes are turned out. When assessing conformation it is essential to judge the horse as a whole and develop an 'eye for a horse'. Try to look at many different types and breeds of horse to compare the variations. Remember there is no such thing as perfect conformation, but you should avoid any serious deviations from the 'norm' as they can lead to excess strain and injury. For more information about the finer points of equine conformation, we recommend the Threshold Picture Guide #19: 'Conformation'.