Monday, November 21, 2016

How to Stop Your Horse From Swapping Leads

Learn some tips to keep your horse from swapping his canter leads.

By Kim Williams

Q: I compete in the Adult Amateur hunter division with my 12-year-old Trakehner/Morgan-cross gelding. He places well consistently, but when he swaps his lead in the front it keeps us out of the top ribbons. The swap usually happens off the left lead on a long gallop to a single fence. He will swap leads in front only on the stride before takeoff. Also, when he comes around a turn into a line on the left lead, he will usually hold the lead over the first jump and land on his right lead down the line. He is sound and has regular chiropractic checkups and massages. Please help!


A: It’s perfectly normal for a horse to approach a jump on one lead and land on the opposite lead. However, swapping leads in front, or cross-cantering, is considered a fault in the hunter ring and judges will penalize it as such—some more heavily than others. It can happen for a variety of reasons. In general, when a horse cross-canters in the approach to a jump, he is probably trying to shift his weight away from some source of pain or weakness in his body in preparation for the takeoff. This is a moment that requires a great deal of power, both from the front and hind legs, so your horse may be swapping leads in an effort to transfer the physical burden onto a stronger or more reliable leg.

It sounds like you are diligent about his health and wellness, but it would be worth investigating possible medical sources of the problem a little further. Ask your veterinarian to examine him thoroughly to determine if he is hurting somewhere in his body or legs. The problem could be anything from hoof pain to a sore back, hock or sacroiliac joint.

Also check your saddle fit carefully. (If you don’t know how to do this, ask an experienced horseperson for help or consult an expert saddle fitter.) Is it sitting too low on your horse’s withers? Is it pinching his shoulders? Any discomfort could be contributing to this problem.

If you can’t find a physical cause for the cross-cantering, it might simply result from one-sidedness. Just like humans, many horses have a weak side and a strong side. Your horse may just prefer to take off over jumps from his strong side.

Once you’ve ruled out any source of discomfort, begin to correct the habit by focusing on straightness. In order to produce a good jumping effort, your horse must be straight in his body on takeoff, over the jump and on landing. His weaker side will grow stronger as he becomes straighter in his body, making him less prone to cross-canter.

In your schooling at home, place two ground poles perpendicular to a jump, one on the takeoff side and the other on the landing side. Roll them a few feet to the right of center, close enough to the track that they’ll get your horse’s attention but not so close that he risks stepping on them. This will help to keep him straight before and after the fence. (Note: If you try this exercise at a show, be sure the ground poles are placed at least 9 feet from the jump, per U.S. Equestrian Federation schooling rules.)

Another helpful exercise is to initiate a turn in the air, asking your horse to land on his weaker lead. In this case, ask him to turn left and land on his left lead. Take the exercise one step further by practicing making fairly small circles (about 30 meters in diameter) over the jump, so that he is continuously turning left. This will help to strengthen his weak lead and discourage the swap to his preferred lead.

Practicing over a Swedish oxer will force your horse to center himself in the middle of the jump and keep his body straight in the air. To build one, start with a square oxer set at your normal jumping height. Then lower one front rail jump cup by a few holes. Raise the other front rail jump cup by the same number of holes. Do the same with the back rail, only lowering and raising the opposite cups, so that it is higher on the side that is lower in the front and lower on the side that is higher in the front.

How you address this problem in the show ring depends on your ability level. If you are a novice rider, you may be tempted to pull on the left rein to prevent the lead swap. But this will just make your horse bulge his body to the right even more, creating a more likely cross-canter scenario. It may sound counterintuitive, but you need to pull on the right rein to straighten his body and maintain the lead. Think of your horse’s body as a curved banana, with his head and haunches positioned to the left of the rest of his body. To straighten him, you need to transform the banana into a pencil by pulling on your right rein. Meanwhile, keep your own body very centered over the middle of the saddle and close your outside leg (your right leg, in this case) slightly behind the girth to discourage his body from bulging to the right.

More advanced riders should use the same technique. In addition, they can ride the track strategically to discourage the swap. For example, if there is a left turn to a fence, you could overshoot the turn slightly and then aim to jump at a slight right-to-left angle. This will prevent your horse from shifting his weight in the approach and will thus help to hold the lead.

Hunter/jumper/equitation trainer Kim Williams began her career competing as an amateur owner. She won many top hunter and jumper awards in the U.S. and Europe, including the grand prix in Reims, France, in 1987. Her most successful partner was an Argentinean Thoroughbred named Whadyasay!, with whom she won multiple Amateur Owner Hunter grand championships at top horse shows in the 1980s. Kim turned professional in the early 1990s and founded her full-service show barn, Willow Wood. Now based on a 50-acre farm she leases from Dr. and Mrs. Richard Nessif in Woodbine, Maryland, she prepares adults, juniors, pony and equitation riders for local and rated competitions.

Kim and one of her students, Lindsay Smith, were featured in the 2006 Animal Planet series, “Horse Power: Road to the Maclay.” Kim has also guided her three daughters, Emily, Hannah and Ellie, to successful starts in the show ring.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Secret Lives - Apple

Apple the Morgan

by Pam Gleason

On Saturday, April 23, Lizotte’s Applelonia, a 14.3 hand Morgan mare known to her friends as Apple, celebrated her 30th birthday at a party thrown for her by her owner, Ellie Joos. There were apples, of course, and carrots and carrot cake in the shape of a horseshoe baked by Ellen Hawkins. There were party favors to take home, and a crowd of about a dozen human celebrants who gathered around a picnic table at Billy and Shirl Tronoski’s Chime Ridge Stables in Aiken, where Apple lives. Chit Chat, Apple’s Thoroughbred friend (and Ellie’s other horse) was on hand. Apple herself, dressed up in a party hat with pink ribbons in her mane, took part in all the festivities, clearly enjoying the attention. She had the air of knowing that she deserved it.

Apple came into Ellie’s life 22 years ago as an overweight 8 year- old who had recently had a foal. A lovely dark chestnut born and raised in Vermont, she was most notable for her kind disposition and her willing and eager character.

“My horse had bucked me off for the last time,” says Ellie, who lived in New Jersey at the time. “My boyfriend Bill –now my husband – said it was either the horse or him, so I found a new home for that horse with a more experienced rider and began the quest for my next horse.”

Bill happened to have a friend in the textile industry who knew Apple, and suggested that she would be the perfect match for Ellie because she was sweet and kind and would help restore her rider’s confidence. And so, sight unseen, Ellie bought Apple and had her shipped from Vermont down to the New Jersey stable where Ellie had boarded her last horse.

“As she exited the horse van, I thought ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ remembers Ellie. “Having had a baby the year before, she still looked pregnant, and she was sluggish from the trip. After a few days rest, my trainer, Cindy Canace – who was appalled that I brought this horse down from Vermont sight unseen – and I began to train her. Although she had been backed, she did not know how to steer very well and could barely pick up the left lead canter.”

But despite this unpromising beginning, Apple would soon prove herself to be invaluable. Her outstanding attribute was her desire to please.

“It wasn’t long before I realized that no matter what we asked of her, she was going to try her heart out to give it to us,” says Ellie. “This little mare, only 14.3 hands, was going to prove to us that she was worth it. My trainer at the time was training several horses of her own and remarked that the difference between her one horse and my mare was that if she asked her horse to do something, the mare would go out of her way to do otherwise. If she asked my horse to do something, Apple would try hard to understand and to do it.”

In the following years, Ellie and Apple trained in dressage and went trail riding. Ellie was never into showing, but she felt that the dressage training would bring out the best in her “little horse that could.”

“She loved attention and especially loved going out on trails,” says Ellie. “And best of all, she loved the grandkids and nephews that learned to ride her. She was patient and gentle, never took a wrong step when the kids were on her on the lunge line, learning balance and developing a steady seat, legs, and kind hands on the reins. The kids adored her and could not have had a better learning experience than on this sweet mare.”

When Apple was in her late teens, she began to develop a subtle lameness. “It was nothing serious, just a noticeable misstep here and there. After a number of months with various treatments and rest, I consulted a vet that was known as a lameness specialist in the area. She was diagnosed with articular ringbone in her front right leg. We began daily joint supplements and pain medications to keep her comfortable and this greatly helped,” says Ellie.

Since Apple was no longer up to dressage, Ellie got Chit Chat so she could keep riding and training. Apple continued giving pony rides, riding lessons and trail rides to Ellie and Bill’s grandchildren. In 2013, Ellie and Bill moved down to Aiken. Apple and Chit Chat followed them a month later, and have been installed at Chime Ridge Stable ever since.

“When she was first here, I was still riding her and had engaged the services of Amber Lee to help ride Chit Chat,” says Ellie. “We would ride together around the property of Chime Ridge Stables, and we would switch horses and Amber would ride her as well.”

When Apple was 28, she started stumbling when she was ridden, and so was completely retired. Today, she lives a life of leisure at Chime Ridge, where she has her own stall and is turned out regularly with Chit Chat. Always an easy keeper (“the kind of horse that will inhale grass and gain 100 pounds”) Apple is still in good flesh, though the dip in her back and her many grey hairs betray her age. She is happy, enjoying life, especially getting treats and attention from Ellie and hanging out with Chit Chat.

“The two horses are very close and scream for each other when one is taken away,” says Ellie. “They spend each day outside grazing and come into their stalls early afternoon for lunch. I usually go to the barn late afternoon to take them out for grooming and riding.

“In the 22 years that Apple has been in my life, I never went off her when I was seriously riding her,” continues Ellie. “She was always very careful with her steps and very steady when the kids rode her and they all loved her. She is truly worth her weight in gold.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.