Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC
Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Jumping With a Solid Lower Leg

I recently came across an article written by a very famous showjumper.  The article appeared to be instructional with exercises to help a rider achieve a still and effective lower leg when jumping.  Once I read it, however, I was sort of disappointed.  It definitely emphasized the importance of having a secure lower leg over fences and correct angles in your leg joints, but didn't tell you HOW to get a secure leg or WHY those angles are important.  Additionally it felt a bit like a product placement ad for his sponsor's stirrups.  

I do understand it's important and necessary for sponsored riders to publicly recognize their backers - that is often the only way one can afford to compete for a living.  However, I was hoping for a more thorough analysis of the hows and whys of leg position when jumping.  Since I left the article feeling as though I was promised a root beer float but only allowed to eat the foam, I decided I'd rewrite the article the way I would have wanted the information to be presented.

 Achieving a Still and Effective Lower Leg

In riding, regardless of discipline, the lower leg is an important part of a rider's equitation for several reasons.  Because gravity is the rule on planet Earth, and the lower leg is the bottom most part of the body, the foot is like the anchor.  With jumping photos, I will often "erase" the horse, and determine whether the rider could still stand upright on the ground without an equine beneath them.  If the answer is yes, the lower leg is in the right place.  When in the saddle, stirrups are "the ground" and should be directly beneath the rider for stability.  Riders also have a bundle of nerves in the foot located approximately by the base of your big toe ball (this can vary slightly from person to person) which gives you information about where the ground/stirrup/your foot is and whether you can use it as a base of support.

If the brain is insufficiently aware of where the foot is in space (called proprioception for all the geeks out there), we see all kinds of issues like pinching with the knee (which makes the lower leg swing backwards over the jump and forwards on the flat), throwing the upper body forward or "jumping ahead of the horse", and losing stirrups.  This leads us to the question:  How do you get your body to pay attention to where your foot is?  

Often as adults we have patterns of movement in our bodies that make it difficult to place our lower leg where it ought to be.  If I sit in a chair all day at a desk, when I get into the saddle my body will want to put my leg out in front of me to recreate the "normal" sensation of being in a chair.  There are many ways to approach changing this.  One way is to tap on the bottom of your foot before you ride.  Before getting on, if you sit on the mounting block and take a few moments to tap on the bottom of your foot with a braced finger or flat palm, you can effectively "wake up" the nerve bundle there by applying this physical stimulus.  After the tapping, get into the saddle and take a moment to place your stirrup under the nerve bundle in your foot, so that you are really aware of the stirrup.  Then go for a walk a few times around the arena, just noticing your feet.

Often riders will say that their foot feels heavier, or that the stirrup feels more pronounced, or that the stirrup leathers are too short.  The sensations vary, but most of the time the rider does have a better feeling of where their foot is in space because the brain is now more aware of the foot through that nerve bundle.

The Ankle, Knee, and Hip

The joints of the leg are the rider's shock absorbers.  That means ankles, knees, and hips all must be moving in order to save strain on the lower back, neck, and shoulders.  An exercise to check that your shock absorbers are working can again be done at the mounting block before you get on.  Stand on the bottom step of the block, and with both feet at the same time, gently hop off the block onto the ground.  

Notice how you landed, were you tipped forwards with weight in your toes?  Did your knees bend on landing or stay braced?  Did your hip angle close when your feet touched the ground, sending your butt backwards and your head forwards?  If you have sand in your riding area perhaps step out of your landing footprints and notice what parts of your feet made the deepest impression.  Climb back up on the lowest step and hop off again.  Did anything change?  Repeat this several times until you feel you're landing in the middle of your foot, and all your shock absorbers, ankles, knees, hips, are moving sufficiently to absorb the impact.

The Ankle

I have several different exercises specific to the ankle.  While mounted, take your feet out of the stirrups.  Draw imaginary circles with your feet, to get your ankles moving.  Then wiggle your toes inside your boots, like you were playing the piano.  Place your feet back in the stirrups, and make the circles again, keeping your foot in the stirrup.  Play with lowering and lifting your heels, and notice what feels the most relaxed to you.  Usually this is with the foot fairly level in the stirrup, to a slightly lower heel than toe.  You don't want to brace up on your toes with your heel high for safety reasons, that position makes it easier to get your foot caught in the stirrup and no one wants to get dragged!  However you don't want to brace with your heel shoved down, because then you don't have the mobility to absorb motion with your ankle.

This is a good place to talk about stirrups.  What are the best kind of stirrups?  The ones in which you are most comfortable.  Some people like the plastic composite stirrups with a wide base as shown in the above photo, others prefer traditional metal irons with a narrow rubber pad as shown below.  The horse industry has come up with an infinite number of combinations of features for stirrups, you can find everything from colors and safety release features to varying pads with different angles and types of grip.  Some stirrups offset the hole at the top to change the angle at which the stirrup hangs relative to the saddle.  Generally I've found that people with sore joints, either ankles, knees, or hips, are bracing and don't have sufficient mobility.  Sometimes changing the style of stirrup will help the rider to relax and stop bracing, in which case that stirrup is the best one for that rider.  Sometime all that's needed is to do some exercises to soften the joints and allow them to function as shock absorbers.

The Knee

Knees can be tricky, and they can are incredibly important.  They must be mobile to fulfill their shock absorbing mission, and they work best when not clamped to the saddle.  If a rider pinches the saddle with their knees, it creates a pivot point that will nearly always toss a rider forwards over the horse's neck and have the lower leg swing backwards when jumping.  To address this, I will often tell riders to point their toes away from the horse.  This makes their knees pull away from the saddle, and transfers the weight back down into the lower leg rather than creating tension in the knee and inner thigh muscles.  In some disciplines this is frowned upon as the toes are "supposed" to point forwards, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The Hip

Hips are often not where we expect them to be.  When someone says to put your hands on your hips, you aren't actually putting your hands on your hip joints.  To locate the actual joint, lift one leg and put your fingertips in front of your body into the crease that was created in the front of your pants.  That's actually where the joint itself is located.  So when you jump, you want to fold from there, not collapse at your belly.  There is forwards/backwards motion in the hip joints, as well as rotation.  

Getting back to the question of where one's toes should point, you can get your toes to point forwards without compromising ankle or knee mobility, by rotating your hips.  If you place one hand under the back of your thigh, and lift that hamstring leg muscle away from your body, you'll find that your thigh bone (or femur for the geeks) rotates forwards, which then results in your toes pointing forwards.  Voila'!  Correct equitation without creating tension in the shock absorbers.  A way to know if you've got it right is to look down the seam of your pants.  The seam along your thigh should be perpendicular to the ground, like an arrow pointing down.

Putting It All Together

Most of these exercises can be done as part of your warmup, during your initial walk around the arena or as you begin your ride.  It always surprises me how much more springy my horse is when I've taken the time to warm up my shock absorbers before asking my body (or the horse's body) do to something athletic.

Once you've played with some of these exercises which address specific joints, you can put the new way of riding to the test with some jumping exercises that will combine all the pieces.  Something that you can practice to create a stable lower leg are gymnastics such as cavalletti, done in two point position.  Can you stay in two point, keeping your shock absorbers loose, while going over a series of ground poles at the walk?  Raised poles at the trot?  Cantering over a series of bounces?  Try changing what you focus on through the gymnastic.  Think about landing in your feet after each jump, just like when you landed after hopping off the mounting block.  Think about having bouncy ankles, or playing the piano with your toes, or pointing your knees away from the saddle.  Which of these help you to feel more stable through the gymnastic?  When you find a concept or visual that helps you, use it!  Not all of the exercises will work for all people, but it's worth the energy investment to find something that is helpful to you.

These exercises, or some combination of them, should help you with creating a stable lower leg and better overall equitation.  Why do they work?  The answer is almost always, "Because the horse will do with his body whatever I do with mine".  Humans and horses are made of the same parts, except that horses don't have a collar bone.  If you are standing on the ground and bend at the waist, you are then in the same anatomical position as a horse on all fours.

If your leg joints are moving, your weight is shifted back in your seat, and you are sitting with your shoulders squared over your hips in the saddle, the horse will do the same.  He will bend the joints of his hind legs (called engagement for the geeks out there), which makes his haunches lower causing him to shift his weight there, and then his front end will lift. 

With so many different things to consider, so many different exercises to try, and so many options in stirrups, no wonder a basic article about the lower leg in jumping may seem a bit superficial.  Hopefully there is something within this in-depth article that you might try which could help your lower leg position.  Remember that it's not essential to do everything, but to try something.  And often the secret to good riding is not Try Harder, but Try Different.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Val is Available!

Val was a ham and totally worked it for the camera for her glamour shots!  Some horses are more photogenic than others, and this one really enjoyed her time in the spotlight.

Val is a 16 year old Holsteiner mare, owned by the same person since she was a two year old so we know all of her history, and has been in training since December 2020.  She's 16h tall and is a solid training level dressage horse.  She understands voice commands and has been riding out of the arena in the fields both with other horses and by herself.  She does spook and take off occasionally when riding alone in the back 40, but it's simple to bring her back to the walk and that's the only drawback to riding her out alone.  She does have a loose stifle on her right hind, which improves with consistent cavalletti and pole work.  Her ideal home would be someone who enjoys a big stride on a horse who has more whoa than go in the arena, and who enjoys cross-training with riding out of the arena as well.

Val is offered at $7500

Please contact Kim for more details at bitofhoneytraining@gmail.com or 970-231-9999

Jasi took some riding photos as well.  Val has a quality walk, trot, canter, and whoa, and her stride length gets better all the time.

I do want to take a moment and compare her "before" and "after" photos.  It's really impressive to me what correct riding does for a horse's physique.  Val originally arrived as a bit of a pasture potato - she hadn't been in regular work at all.  With just a couple months of forward riding and lots of walking up and down hills in the back forty her muscling has developed really nicely.

Here is her "before":

and here is "after"

 Hooray for hill work!

Maggie is Available!

The newest member of the Bit of Honey herd is Maggie, a now six year old mare who is started under saddle but still green.  She is 15h measured with a stick and a level, and is really quiet.  Her "big spook" is to raise her head three inches and give you the side-eye.  She is here in training to learn to be a pleasure riding horse and to learn how to do some low level jumping.  She will be an excellent all-around horse, happy to work in the arena or head out on the trails in either english or western tack.  Maggie will be here in training until sold.

Maggie recently had a sarcoid removed from her left shoulder, which is healing up well.  There should be no issues with it going forwards.  While she is green, she is quiet, safe, and friendly. 

Maggie is offered at $5000, price to increase with training.  For more information or to schedule a time to come meet Maggie contact Kim at bitofhoneytraining@gmail.com or 970-231-9999

Before coming to Bit of Honey Maggie had about thirty days of training with a western trainer and learned basic walk/trot/canter/whoa and riding out in fields.  Since she's been here we've worked on getting some extra weight on her, as well as teaching her that things are done a little differently here.  

We've done lots of ground work to teach her to think through obstacles.  The loudest obstacles are definitely the dogs, but she's gotten used to them whether they are just running around with her or if they are barking and being obnoxious.  She also is well behaved for the vet, farrier, bathing, and stands tied nicely.

While riding in the arena Maggie has gotten really good about standing at the mounting block to be mounted from either her right or her left side.  She's relaxed and laid back about walking around the arena once she's investigated all the new jump locations.  (Maggie has been pretty sure those jump standards walk around at night since they are in a new place every time she goes to the arena, but she never sees them moving...)  Her trot is quite smooth and her rhythm is developing nicely.  She is comfortable walking and trotting over ground poles and cross rails under saddle.

 In January we got a little video of her working.  Maggie is such a pleasure to have around!


 Here is more recent video of Maggie, at the walk, trot, and canter, on April 3, 2021


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Getting Back to Work Through Snow Drifts

The snow drifts are melting quickly, but the ones that were super tall, like the nearly 12' ones around the round pen, are taking a while to diminish.  Because of where they're located, we can't get to the arena by our normal route along the paddock fenceline.  Earlier this week I decided to attempt a drift crossing and check out the rest of the property from horseback, so Raven was my horse of choice.  She's super handy and maneuverable, and very surefooted so even if we encountered some icy spots I could trust her to get through and stay upright.  

It was treacherous enough that I didn't take any video or photos, but we did investigate the large drifts in the back forty with the dogs.  Rizzo was hilarious, she would rocket along as fast as her little legs would take her, then she would suddenly tuck all her feet close to her body, and slide a huge distance on her side!  It's not typically what you'd imagine when one uses the term Sled Dog, but she did it several times on the drifts in the fields, and she also did it to slide down the plowed heaps of snow around the garage.  She sure knows how to have fun!

I also put a ride on Dewey this week, but to get to the arena we had to go around the north side of the barn, over the snowdrift by Beauty's pen, around the back of the house and along the west fence line, circling back around the far side of the arena and in the gate.  The first time I did this route with Raven and she had to actually jump the first drift!  By the time I did it with Dewey it was significantly smaller.


Once in the arena we had good footing in that it wasn't slick at all.  There was standing water and snow drifts to ride through, but I used them to our advantage in getting Dewey to take larger steps and use his back more under saddle.  If I could get that "water trot" from him all the time I'd be very happy!

I thought the reflection in the standing water was cool, too.


Eventually we'll have just sand in the arena again, but in the meantime it was great water training for the horses!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Spring Shedding

Spring is definitely coming - Raven shed a LOT of fur this week!  I captured a photo of it on the floor of the barn, and then realized Rizzo was recommending the use of this shedding tool instead.


Because she's my most surefooted horse, Raven and I explored the property bareback this week to assess the snow situation.  Later in the week I found this photo of a horse-drawn snow roller that packed the roads for easier sleigh passage in Vermont prior to automobiles.

I feel like I should show this to my horses so they can appreciate how good they have it!

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

March 2021 Blizzard

We had an impressive blizzard this weekend!  We probably got two feet of snow, but with the 40mph wind it blew into drifts anywhere from 4' to 12' tall depending on where you go around the property.  

I tried to go out to take care of horses, but quickly discovered that I had to cross drifts that were not passable in mere muck boots.  I post-holed it a couple times, and if I tried to push myself up with my hand, then my arm sunk into the snow.  There I laid, pondering how I was to extricate myself from the giant drift.  I ended up putting weight on my side, and essentially dancing The Worm as I wiggled around doing a full shoulder shimmy.  That packed the snow enough that I was able to climb out.  Meanwhile, I had both dogs on a leash, and they were jumping into the snow, and promptly disappearing as the snow was much deeper than they were tall.  It was good that they were on leashes, since I had to tug them out of the drift so they could hop another stride forward.  

This first foray into the great white barnyard made it clear that I needed to find my snowshoes, and find them before the next feeding.  I dug around in the garage, and managed to locate them with our camping stuff.  They made getting around infinitely easier, as I'd sink approximately six inches into the snow with the snowshoes on, rather than up to my hips.  I stomped a bit of a path with the snowshoes, and then even the dogs could get around well enough in my packed snow path.  Rizzo with her short hair wasn't super happy about being outside doing  barn chores, but at least she had her dog blanket on.  Pascal with his longer coat was perfectly pleased to be having an adventure.

The horses handled the storm well.  I'm always amazed at how tough they are compared to us humans.  Some warm mash for everyone and scooping feet of snow out of the water tanks and they were just fine.  I did have to do the horse blanket shuffle a few times as I traded wet ones out for dry.  

After I removed soaked and frozen blankets, I had to determine where I'd put them to hang and dry.  With the storm continuing to rage outside, I decided to toss them over the wall of the stall in the barn so they could hang there.  I grossly underestimated the strength needed to heave wet frozen heavyweight blankets over a stall wall.  My first toss resulted in the entire blanket falling short of the wall, with ice and snow from the blanket cascading down over me and into my coat.  I managed to unearth myself from the cold fabric, and got myself a stool.  With the extra height I could then get the blankets up and draped over the wall.

Before the power went out I watched a bunch of muppet movies as the storm rolled in.  Because of this I had some images of Kermit fresh in my mind and I did have a chuckle when I got Silver all bundled up.  His hood is a bit big for him, so when I got him dressed he looked quite a bit like evil Kermit from a muppet movie.   

We did lose power for about a day and a half.  It was ok in the house, we had stocked up on bottled water in milk jugs so we had enough to drink.  The house is insulated well enough that we didn't get too cold, just down to the 50s inside.  Thankfully the horses' water tanks had all been topped off before the storm hit, so even though I didn't have running water outside either with the power out, the horses all had enough to drink.  It was awfully nice to have a hot shower once the power came back on, though!

After the storm ended I went for a walk in my snowshoes around the property with the dogs to take photos.  Highboy as usual wanted to steal the show.

The dogs enjoyed walking around after the storm.  Most of the drifts had a crust on top that they could stand on.  The magnitude of the drifts was truly impressive.

The drifts across the driveway were taller than our subaru. 

Around the back side of the barn the snow drifted conveniently, leaving me a path to get to Beauty and Sloane's paddock.

Once I got to Beauty and Sloane's pen I saw the drift inside it.  It was taller than the horses, so they couldn't get to their water or hay.  I put hay and some buckets of water in their loafing shed, and photographed the drift from standing on top of it.  If the horses had been able to climb it they could have walked over the fence right out of the pen.

The arena had impressive drifts on the North side.  They were tall enough that the panel fencing along the wall was entirely buried.

Oddly with the wind blowing as it did, the outdoor portion of the arena doesn't have much snow in it, but the indoor has several inches.

I think the most impressive drifts were around the round pen.  I was standing on a 12' drift inside of Daisy's paddock when I took this first shot of the outside of the round pen.

I was walking towards the round pen from the arena when I got this panorama of the drift outside the round pen:

I took this panorama of the inside of the round pen and the drifts that are as tall as the walls.

These next shots are of the west gate into the round pen - totally blocked with snow nearly as high as the wall.  It will likely be a while before we're using it!

The picnic table was buried.

This was Darby and Appy's loafing shed.  I was impressed with how the snow blanketed the building.  It seemed to seal up any drafts, and both of the old folks were quite comfortable in their shed as the storm blew all around them.

This was the west pasture shed, farthest away from the house.  The snow drifted halfway up the height of it.  I don't have any horses living in this pasture right now, but it's good to know they would have had protection!

We did naively attempt to plow the driveway with my ancient lemon of a tractor.  It was a futile attempt, the tractor was totally unable to lift snow that heavy without losing traction and spinning the back tires.  I got it unstuck and returned it to the garage, deciding we would just have to wait for the snow to melt and feeling grateful we had plenty of food and water despite the power being out.

This is the view looking out the side door of our garage, the trash can is buried in the drift.

 This is the view of the garage side door once Owen had dug it out:

Later in the day we got a phone call from a super generous neighbor.  He had a much heavier tractor and asked if we needed to be plowed out.  He then came over in the evening and spent a couple hours creating a path for us to get a vehicle out of the driveway.  We are incredibly grateful and will be sending thank you cookies forthwith.

And for perspective, this was the drift in the back of the house, which continued all the way through Beauty and Sloane's paddock, and halfway into the big paddock on the south side of the barn. It's not an optical illusion, the drift really is about as tall as Owen.

 This was a very impressive storm.  I'm so thankful all the animals weathered it well, and I have a renewed appreciation for electric power as well as running water.  Considering we have lived here for 6.5 years and this is the first time we've had something of this magnitude, I think we're pretty lucky.  We've had big snow drifts before, but this is a new level.  It reminds me a bit of growing up in Massachusetts.  I do remember one winter there when we had enough snow that we had to toss my younger sister out the window so she could dig out the front door and we could leave the house.  

Keeping in mind that there is an overhang over the front door here in Colorado, this was our front door this weekend:

All's well that ends well, and now we do have a fun story and incredible pictures to document our spring blizzard adventure!