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Grumpy Old Bags – My Pet Hate: ‘Midair Amateur Dentistry’

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Me, almost getting caught out at home when Daisy misread a grid and took off a full stride early. I slipped my reins, gripped like crazy and managed not to sock her in the chops!

As one of my American friends said on Facebook the other day, “venting keeps us from wearing orange.” So, as I’m grumpy because my Event Season’s not started yet, it’s blowing a freezing hooley outside, and I haven’t won the lottery to be able to afford an indoor school, it’s venting time. Here is my most Pet of all Pet Hates.

It’s many decades since I learnt to jump, on long-suffering riding school ponies, but I clearly remember going down grids with no stirrups or reins (particularly no reins, often!) to teach me to stay on without using the reins, and that, when we were allowed to have our reins back, the ponies’ mouths were always utterly sacrosanct.
If you lost your balance or got left behind, you could grab mane, you could grab the pommel, or grip with your legs for grim death, or you could feel free to fall off and look stupid, but you did NOT pull on the reins, for fear of Mighty Wrath from the instructor, and probable excommunication from the lesson. Those ponies put up with enough, and were very good to even leave the ground at all, considering none of us had a flipping scooby-doo about anything other than pointing vaguely in the right direction and ‘giving it some welly’ (as I clearly remember someone yelling helpfully as I approached a fence.) Finesse was decidedly lacking, put it that way.

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A rather over-keen approach…

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and an instantly soft hand from OT, at Burghley. Photos by kind permission of Will Baxter









As I progressed to having a tiny bit more of a clue, and the fences got bigger and the horses got fancier and scopier (usually), the message stayed the same. GIVE forward with the hands. It wasn’t ‘crest release’ or ‘automatic release’ or anything with a fancy-schmanzy label, it was more like ‘do NOT sock the horse in the chops, whatever happens, you useless idiot’.

I know horses having fun jumping on adrenalin will often seem to ignore having their mouth pulled in midair, BUT I am positive that it is the first step to convincing them that taking off is possibly going to hurt, so maybe don’t bother, especially when the chips are down and things are going to require more than usual effort. Riding a ‘stopper’ is a horrible thing, whereas a horse that still loves to jump will usually take the fence on no matter what mistakes you’ve made on the way in, and not hold the errors against you next time, as long as you don’t sock it in its teeth as a reward for its honestly and generosity!

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Francis Whittington showing that a horse can be in perfect balance held on the leg, not the hands!

Of course, we see so many top riders with perfect balance and body control in midair, doing the perfect just-enough release, maintaining a beautiful elastic contact with the horse’s mouth, allowing it to stretch its neck as much as it wants to, without the slightest pull, easily ready to gather and rebalance on landing… but this is an ART. Lesser riders may think they are doing the same thing but the braced neck, hollow back, gaping mouth of the horse tell a very different story.

It seems to be something that a lot of trainers overlook nowadays, and I have no idea why. Convincing horses that jumping isn’t that much fun after all should be something to be studiously avoided, surely?! I’d much rather see a looseish rein that the horse can go into, than a tight rein that is not giving the horse any room to bascule and use its head and neck, or any confidence that it won’t get socked in the chops.

So my plea is, please, look at photos of yourself and your horse in action, and if your reins are tight in midair and your horse’s mouth is gaping open, it might have felt fine to you but it probably did not feel fine to the horse. It is possible to get the instinct to give with the hands honed until it is instantaneous. It’s really worth working at, for both your sakes.

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