The Rider's Position




The rider's position in the saddle can surely be considered one of the most vital building blocks in the art of riding a horse. For art it surely must be, as much as science! A perfect position does not always mean a perfect rider, and likewise, a rider with a few shortcomings may get more out of a given horse than even their most correct counterpart. However, this said, there is no substitute for a correct, solid seat, and this should be the aim of every rider. Even Olympic riders are constantly working on their positions in the saddle.

South African riding schools seem to be famous for not paying enough attention to their pupils' seats. There are too many Riding Schools that will overlook major faults in their riders, claiming that their pupils are there to have fun, not to be drilled. This is a very short-sighted opinion, because, how could any horse be having fun with an unbalanced, ill-positioned rider on its back?

Riders seem to be lunged less and less these days; perhaps because life is getting too fast and expensive - fitting 10 riders into one hour is more economically profitable than only one rider in one hour. Perhaps our average instructors are simply not educated enough in order to lunge a rider to improve position. Riders also seem to do everything in their power to escape the dreaded "let's work on that position" type of lesson, claiming that it is too hard work.

Surely the reaching of perfection should be every rider's aim? I feel that we should return to the basics - position is everything. I hope this article will inspire riders to take a fresh look at their own positions and that they will make a concerted effort to correct them.

No one is perfect all the time, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all try?

Why is a Correct Position So Important?

People spend hundreds of thousands of Rands on the attainment of a correct seat, it must, therefore, be important! This is, after all, what riding lessons are all about - the achievement of the perfect seat, so that a perfect union can be formed with the horse. Well, perhaps in a perfect world!

Many people will disagree with this statement. They claim that trust is enough - a willing or a forced horse alike will do anything in its power to perform for its rider, this is probably true. But as "humane" riders, shouldn't we be doing everything in our power to make things easy for our horses? Sitting correctly allows the rider to control key areas of the horse's body and communicate with him effectively. The mouth, head, neck and forehand are controlled by the hands; the ribcage and hindquarter will respond to the legs; the horse's back is influenced by the rider's seat and back. The rider should be able to control these areas and communicate with each part of the horse independently. A good example of a rider who cannot use his/her position effectively is similar to that of a driver who cannot control the brakes, gears, clutch and accelerator of a motorcar. He/she may advertently crunch the gears, press the acceleration instead of the brake, or leave the handbrake on whilst driving! The result? DISASTER!

Riding in an incorrect position will also encourage injury and behavioral problems in the horse. The horse will be forced to compensate, often to the detriment of muscles, movement and tempers! Fatigued muscles may tear; tired limbs may stumble - in short, injury is inevitable.
Riding in a correct position is pleasing to the eye and a correct rider can be spotted from miles away, and is a pleasure to watch. Horses usually bloom under correct positions.

The Correct Position

Before a complete description of the correct seat is attempted, the rider should take note that,
like the brakes, gears, accelerator and clutch of a car, the components of the seat are interrelated. They all work together and may reflect vital clues as to what the rider may be having trouble with. A rider with a poor, unbalanced seat position will never achieve the correct leg position, thus his/her leg aids cannot possibly be correct. Tense shoulders will usually lead to poor hand placement and a nodding head is always a sign of tension in the body. Another important point to take note of, is the fact that your position in the saddle will always be similar to your normal position on the ground. Also, your body shape may dictate your riding position, to a certain extent. It is fruitless to fight nature!

Important for the instructor to be aware of certain conditions that may affect the rider's position: examples of these are scoliosis, kyphosis and other lumbar disorders. It is no use yelling out at a pupil to "sit up straight" if they have a kyphosis of the spine. You will only create tension, discomfort and even pain in the rider. The rider should be shown how to compensate for his shortcomings.

The correct seat is the fruit of HARD WORK!


The seat is often considered as the basis or foundation of the rider's position. The seat comprises of two major parts - 50% the rider and 50% the horse, but both portions are the responsibility of the rider. The sad fact needs to be stated that unless the rider is capable of causing his horse to carry him on an engaged, elastic back, a good seat cannot be cultivated. In other words, only the combined correctness of the rider's seat and position, elastically balanced upon the supple, forward motion of the horse, can consummate true unity.


The rider must sit straight down into the deepest part of the saddle.
Sit mainly on the seat bones, but partially supported by the pelvic structure. (pubic crest)
Equal weight placed on both seat bones.
Sit squarely in the saddle. (ie: don't collapse the hips)
Hips must be parallel to the horse's hips at all times.
Buttock muscles must be open and relaxed, together with relaxed hip joints and thighs.
Think of spreading your seat over the saddle to cover as much of it as possible.


The shoulders should be held level, with the shoulder blades flat.
The rider's front line should be as long as possible, without hollowing the back.("D" shaped)


A correct leg position will allow the rider to sit clearly on both seat bones.
The legs should hang down naturally, relaxed like two strands of wet spaghetti! They gain the necessary elasticity by stretching through the heels.
The thigh must be completely turned inwards from the hip joint. This does not mean grip with the thighs! They should remain relaxed with the thigh muscle hanging relaxed against the saddle.
Upper leg to the knee should remain quite strongly pointed to the ground. (ie: think of pushing your knees straight down to lengthen the front of the thigh)
The rider should never sit on his/her thighs.


When observed from the side, the heel should be on a vertical line, running through the center of the head, shoulder and hip. This is because leg aids are given more effectively from this position and the rider is better able to find good balance.
The lower leg should be well turned inwards, ie, aids are given with the inner aspect of the calf.
The foot should run almost parallel to the horse's sides. This prevents:

A loose, flapping lower leg
Sitting on the thighs
Clamping with the lower legs
Digging at the horse with the heels

Together with a relaxed ankle joint, the heel should just be the lower point on the rider.
The legs should relax into the stirrups. Too much weight into the heels creates tension in the calf and ankle, preventing the absorption of movement of the horse. This is only advised in the case of the cross-country rider, who needs extra weight in to shorter stirrups for added security.
Stirrup placed squarely on the ball of the foot.
When viewed from behind, the rider's feet should be level.
The lower leg is always in light contact with the horse's sides. It breathes with the horse!
No tapping of the legs.
Knees should be dosed firmly, but not squeezing or gripping into the saddle.


The arms should hang from relaxed, yet drawn back shoulders.
The upper arms should lie lightly at the rider's sides.
The lower arm and fist should form a straight line across the reins from bit to elbow. The hand and forearm should become an integral part of the leather.
Both the wrist and elbow should always remain supple and relaxed. The wrist should not be broken inwards or outwards.
The back of the hand and forearm should form a smooth, continuous line.
Hands should remain level at all times. (unless specified for a specified movement)


Both fists should be held at the same height.
Wrists should be held vertically, with the thumbs uppermost. (like holding two mugs in the hands) in this position, the hand is the most sensitive and articulate, although there are some experts, especially amongst the showjumping fraternity who remain that the hands may tilt very slightly inwards.
The hand should be held perfectly quiet in relation to the horse's mouth. "The hands stand still but move anyway" (E. van Neindorff) It should be feeling, not fiddling about and never hard or unfriendly.
Should be able to move hands independently of body.
The fists should be carried in front of the rider, and should be carried about a fist's breadth apart and above the saddle.
The crop is held firmly in the hand and rests lightly across the thigh - avoid "tapping".
Fingers should remmn "closed" around the reins so that a consistent contact can be maintained.


Head should be held upright, looking up and "through horses ears" only then can the weight of the entire upper body fall correctly onto the seat.
Do not tip head in/out when working on bends or circles - collapses waist.
Keep the chin lightly drawn in.
Carry the head quietly - no nodding - look up.


It may seem strange to include breathing in a description of the rider's position and the correct
seat, but this is often a forgotten area of riding. How you breathe may be far more important than you think. Irregular breathing, especially the extreme holding of your breath causes tension and stiffness in your body which wil1 be conveyed to your horse, and which will tire you out. Try to relax and keep your breathing deep, even and regular. Being aware of your breathing may help you understand where you are tense and when you are relaxed during your ride. This will help you identify and resolve your problem.


The rider should note that the basic rules of a correct position never change, they only become modified as the various disciplines demand. The riders position (esp. of the thigh) constitute a weight bearing, shock absorbing surface. In effect, the body forms a tilted "W".

A long "W" will have little spring and weight bearing surface, but if you were to close the angles, you would get a more compact weight distribution. That is why stirrups get shortened prior to jumping - not so that the rider can lift the buttocks.


The seat lightens in the saddle, so that the rider "hovers" rather than sitting squarely in it. This takes weight off horses back. Not only is this seat used for jumping or going cross country, it is also useful for schooling a young horse in the canter or one with a tense back. It is all too common to see a rider standing in the stirrups or with the buttocks in the air, collapsed over the horse's withers, which simply puts weight onto the forehand and encourages the lower leg to creep back. Correct and efficient leg aids cannot be given.




CAUSE: Often riders with this problem are sitting on the back rims of the seat bones. The waist collapses, the shoulders are rounded and the lower legs and arms shoot forwards in an attempt to regain balance. This problem can sometimes be predisposed by saddle design or stirrups that are too long.

EFFECT ON HORSE/ RIDER: This type of seat puts undue pressure on the horse's spine, leaving the rider behind the movement. It also makes the effective use of the rider's leg aids virtually impossible. The rider no longer sits in the deepest part of the saddle, but instead
is pushed backwards towards the cantle. The rider's balance and absorption of the horse's movement will be adversely affected.

CORRECTION: Lunging the rider will cause an improvement if he/she is shown how to "sit down" on the seat bones and "grow up out of the saddle". Suppling the pelvis by using mounted or dismounted exercises may also help. The rider should imagine a string coming out of the head and someone pulling up on it!
If the saddle seems to be causing a problem, change it!


CAUSE: This occurs when the rider tips forwards onto the front of the pelvis, causing the upper body to collapse and the lower leg to shoot back. Often this problem is caused by too short stirrups or by a lack of balance and tone in the core of the rider's body.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: The fork seat shifts weight onto the horse's forehand, making it difficult to engage the hindquarters or carry the forehand correctly. It can also have the effect of having the horse hollow its back and raise the head. Often in an attempt to sit p straight, the rider will pull the shoulders back without correcting the alignment of the pelvis. This results in a hollow back, which only serves to worsen the situation. Many modern deep seated Dressage saddles have this effect on riders. Also, many aspiring riders suffer from bad lower back pain after riding - often because they are sitting on a fork seat and their backs hollow as they try to sit back, causing the pain.

CORRECTION: Again, the rider should be taken back to the lunge ring and should be shown how to rock back off the front of the pelvis down onto the seat bones. It often helps to instruct the rider to "suck the belly-button in towards the spinal column". This has the effect of tightening the stomach muscles, pulling the chest up into the correct position. The stirrups may be lengthened by a hole or two, and exercises should be introduced to strengthen the stomach muscles, waist and the pelvis. Work without stirrups is a must. Again, the image of a puppet on a string should be utilised. It may be worth a try to experiment with the fit of the saddle to the rider, although in general purpose saddles, it is not often that the saddle design causes a fork seat. It is more common for it to influence a chair seat.


CAUSE: Unbalanced riders will. often "drop a hip" in order to regain their balance when turning corners or performing various schooling exercises. Sometimes uneven stirrups or a loosely fitting saddle that has slipped over slightly to one side of the horse's back causes the problem. All humans have a stronger side, just like horses do, and this sometimes causes the rider to 'push' harder into one stirrup than into the other, resulting in a collapsed waist. Often the rider will only be able to feel one seat bone and not the other.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: Collapsing the hip causes the rider to twist his/her body. Notice the photo. The rider has collapsed her hip, and this has caused her to twist through her body and rise on the left, collapsing to the right. Notice how this seat is affecting the horse's balance and straightness - the rider is tipping the horse onto his right front leg and is forcing him to carry more weight on the left hind leg, twisting his quarter out. This rider may experience some difficulty in getting the horse to canter on a right lead, as he will be unable to get his near hind leg underneath his body sufficiently for a correct strike-off. The horse will also build up a musculature to compensate for the imbalance and this will result in unbalanced movement and development. Often when the rider problem is resolved, the horse will still feell'wrong" because he has not yet built up the correct musculature.

CORRECTION: Often, placing padding into the seat of the rider's pants on the raised hip side, will correct the allignment of the hips, levelling the rider out under the horse. This will improve the horse's way of going so that he can build up the correct musculature while the rider works on correcting their position. Check the rider's legs - in the case of this problem, often the rider has one leg longer than the other. The rider needs to become aware of his/her seat bones and deliberately force more weight into the 'lacking' side's stirrup until the seat bones can be evenly felt. (Beware of tipping the opposite hip!)

Riding with mirrors or a friend to nag you may also help. It is worth checking the alignment of the saddle on the horse's back, as well as checking the stirrups. The ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE, which was developed by an Australian actor and recitor, FM Alexander, offers a unique method for increasing the rider's awareness of human balance and co-ordination. The Alexander Technique demonstrates that we have the ability to maintain our upright balance if we so choose. It may be of great benefit for the unbalanced rider.



CAUSE: Tension in the shoulders manifests itself in various ways, some of which are:

- Rigid arms and set elbows
- Stiff, "poking" head
- Chin pulled in
- Uneven shoulder position
- Slouching the shoulders
- Erratic rein contact
- Often results in tipping the upper body forwards

It is often caused by fear or nervous feelings in the rider, or is the reflection of natural stress that is part of our daily existence. An insecure position will cause tension in the shoulders. Also, riders trying too hard will often tense up the upper body in an effort to 'sit better'. This has the opposite effect and will cause tension.

EFFECT ON THE HORSE / RIDER: This type of problem causes a stiff, rigid and often erratic contact, which upsets and confuses the horse. It will also encourage a fork seat, tipping the horse onto his forehand and thereby causing the associated problems. (see previous notes)

CORRECTION: The nervous rider should be encouraged to gain confidence. This could be done by lunging the rider with the help of a calm, dependable and comfortable schoolmaster. The level of difficulty of work expected of the rider may need to be decreased. Exercises on the lunge may improve the seat and making the rider sing or hum whilst riding may also help. Conversation with the rider will help to relax the jaw and neck.



CAUSE: One of the most common riding school commands, blurted out at an alarming rate must surely be, "PUSH DOWN THOSE HEELS" ! A rider who is insecure or unbalanced in the saddle will naturally tend to curl up into a ball - a natural human reaction to any situation that is dangerous or insecure. The rider is unable to relax throughout the body, naturally pushing down weight into the heels. Often, the tense, gripping rider is unable to "open" his/her seat-consequently, the seat bones are pushed out of the saddle. A rather precarious situation indeed! This problem is also often caused by too long stirrups. Novice riders commonly suffer from this problem until they have gained a better centred seat and core.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: The most common scenario must be the novice rider who is riding the fresh, naughty horse. The rider tenses, gripping with the calves and knees in an
attempt to stay on board, forcing the heels up and the vicious cycle begins. The horse reads all this information as "GO FASTER" because this is how he has been trained - especially if he was a racehorse at one time - weight off the back, combined with firm squeezing from the calves = GO! His only reaction therefore, must be to speed up, which sends the already panic­ stricken rider into even more of a clinging frenzy, gripping even more. The horse continues to speed up or may become frustrated by the rider's confusing aids - reins say stop, legs and seat say go. And thus, the cycle continues until the partnership part ways!
Riders who use their heels to give leg aids, instead of the inner aspect of their lower legs, will often display raised heels. Novice or inexperienced riders usually show this position until they feel more secure in the saddle. Heels coming up means that the seat is lifted out of the saddle and is insecure.

CORRECTIONS: One of the more basic 'cures' for this fault is simply clocking up more mileage in the saddle. It may be a good idea to first check the stirrups, as this problem is often accentuated by stirrups that are too long. Lunge the rider, especially without stirrups to form a more secure position in the saddle. Because this problem often occurs with nervous riders on strong, frisky horses, a change of mount may be advised. Riders need to be encouraged to relax in the saddle, and an image that may work is if the rider is told to imagine that they are a hot, sticky blob of toffee that has just been dripped into the saddle. They should imagine themselves running, as it were, down the sides of their horses! Relaxation of the hips, thighs, buttocks, calves and shoulders is the main aim of this rehabilitation. The rider should be trying to deepen the seat. If the horse is not responsive to the leg, more schooling of the horse is needed so that the rider's leg can be used properly. Nagging with the heel will not help matters.


CAUSE: Sometimes this problem is caused by inferior saddle design, as well as stirrups that are too short. Usually, this problem is as a result of a poor angle of rotation of the femur as it leaves the hip joint. Instead of a very slight inward rotation of the femur, it rotates outwards, opening the knees and thus automatical1y turning out the toes. Open knees are often accompanied by a chair seat, and the inner thigh does not lie flat against the saddle, but in effect, the rider "sits on the thighs".

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: In this position, the rider is unable to give accurate or effective. The heels are used to give leg commands, and much more leg aid is required to have the desired effect on the horse. The rider is also unable to utilise a deep, effective seat and the horse will often hollow its back and not engage the hindquarter - often trailing the hindlimbs.

CORRECTION: Work on the lunge should be used to supple the hips and thighs, and it can be useful for the instructor to draw the thigh muscle out from underneath the femur by hand. A clever exercise, often employed in the 'good old days' was to place a slip of paper between the knee and saddle. Woes betide the rider whose piece of paper fell out!



CAUSE: With the reins too long, the aids become clumsy and inaccurate. The rider becomes forced to bring the arms behind the vertical, with the hands too close to the body. ("working into the belly button") This is often the result of open fingers on the reins, that allow them to slip through; wet, slippery reins that will slide through the fingers no matter what; and sometimes this is a psychological problem in that the rider is afraid to take up a contact for fear of hurting the horse's mouth.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER:Any horse will become very confused and irritated by this extremely long contact, although I daresay, some riding school ponies seem to rejoice at the sudden release of all control! The rider becomes unbalanced and ineffective and any kind of work by the horse will be rendered

CORRECTION: If a change of reins or gloves is not the solution, the rider should return to work on the lunge to improve the position of the hands, arms, and shoulders. Work without reins is advised. Another useful way to remind the rider of the "correct" rein position is to attach brightly coloured elastics or tape to the reins, at an acceptable length. (Plaiting elastics work very well) The rider is then encouraged to keep that specific length of rein, and this exercise often makes the rider much more aware of the problem and they will make an added effort to correct it.


CAUSE: Often this problem is caused by tension in the shoulders (see previous notes) or arms. These riders may be compensating for an imbalance elsewhere or they are trying too hard to force a 'correct position'. Nervous or tense riders that have had a bad experience will
also often be very tense in the wrists and arms.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: The hands are stiff and heavy and are unable to 'give', so they tend to bounce about and do not follow the movement of the horse's head. Because of this, contact comes and goes in jerky movements, which ultimately deadens the horse's mouth. Initially, the horse will fight the rider's contact by raising the head, hollowing the back and trailing the hind legs, as well as shaking the head and "snatching" at the reins. Many horses will open their mouths and become "pullers". After a while, the horse's mouth will simply go dead and it will need reschooling to become responsive to the bit again. (As well as a change in rider!)

CORRECTION: Lunge work will improve the situation, as well as suppling exercises, especially in the shoulders, arms and wrists to "soften" the arms. This problem usually has an underlying cause; often an unbalanced seat or tension in the hips. This type of rider also often displays a clenched jaw - talking, singing and general relaxation therapy may help.


CAUSE: The elbows that grip into the sides, are stuck outwards or pushed out, in front of the body, lack all elasticity and shock absorption. They are often caused by tension in the neck and shoulders, an unbalanced position or a forced and tense position. Elbows stuck out in front could also be caused by reins that are too short. Often a problem in the lower back and pelvis area is reflected in the elbows. A rider who has a hollow and tense lower back, is very likely to stick the elbows out to the sides or push them out in front of the vertical in order to regain his/her balance.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: The hands cannot be light and responsive if the elbows are out of line with the rest of the body. Elbows that are gripped into the sides lose all elasticity. Stuck outwards, they bring the reins off the neck, breaking the bit-hand-elbow line. Pushed out in front of the rider, the weight of the arms tip the whole body forwards. The horse is likely to
object to this type of contact by raising his head, as well as hollowing his back, grinding his teeth and opening the mouth. The horse will also be reluctant to work through from behind. An inconsistent or hard contact also causes a horse to lose confidence in the rider, the bit in the mouth and causes endless problems with the scooling from that point on.

CORRECTION: The rider should, once again be returned to the lunge, where time should be spent working without the reins. The rider should be made conscious of his/her elbows resting lightly against the sides. A good idea for a rider who has stiff, rigid arms with the elbows pushed out in front is to give him/her two mugs (plastic please!) to hold instead of the reins. To add to the challenge, water can be added to the mugs ... needless to say, any bouncing around will immediately be felt by all - horse included! Pony may want to wear his bathing suit for this one!


CAUSE: There are three main deviations in the correct wrist position. These are:

Broken or limp wrists
Where the thumbs are uppermost but the wrists are flexed outwards and the fingers tend to face the sky.

Puppy dog wrists
The opposite of limp wrists, where the wrists are turned inwards, so that the thumbs are pointing towards the withers - knuckles in front.

Flat, piano playing wrists
Where the hands are turned right over, knuckles on top.

Often these problems are caused by limp, droopy wrists, or an excess of tension in the forearm - especially puppy dog wrists.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: An of the above-mentioned problems will cause bit evasion such as pulling, fixing the jaw, grinding the teeth, head shaking or nodding, "snatching" at the reins, being above the bit and ineffective control of direction. In other words, the horse will not easily understand the finer bit commands.

Broken wrists lead to sharp pulls on the reins without any precision, so the horse will struggle with correct canter leads, lateral movement or changes in direction.
Wrists turned inwards over the withers encourage clumsy, yet severe "nutcracker" actions on the reins.

Flat wrists make the hands heavy, stiff and inefficient and as this problem is often in conjunction with stiff elbows, these riders tend to have "bouncy" hands that do not absorb the movement of the horse.

CORRECTION: Work on the lunge is advised for these riders and they can also ride holding mugs in the hands. Another useful exercise is to place a short riding crop between the thumb and forefinger of both hands, so that it forms a bridge over the withers. This automatically places the hands in the correct position. A strap fixed to the front of the saddle will help te rider steady the hands in the correct position, as well as allowing the horse to gain confidence in a steady, level contact.



CAUSE: This is a very common problem amongst riders who frequently work on their own or who have little instruction. In an effort to "see" what their horses are doing, these riders continually stare down at their horse's necks or at the ground. Some riders also seem to be afraid to look away from their horses, perhaps they are scared that their horses may vanish if
they were to blink an eye?! This is especially so when jumping - many riders won't look at their fence until they are right in front of it - if they get there at all!

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: The head is immensely heavy - weighing many kgs ­and when it is dropped in front of the perpendicular, it often takes the neck and shoulders with it! The rider becomes slouched, and the horse's forehand will become very heavy, causing him to run along on it. The horse becomes "runny", and true engagement of the hindquarters will not be possible. Riders who look down often develop a type of 'tunnel vision' - not being aware of the arena around them or the perspective of school figures or the fences being jumped. Riders cannot ride good lines into fences when they are looking down and may mess up striding and lines.

CORRECTION: A useful exercise for the rider who continually looks down is if the instructor raises a hand with a certain number of fingers during a lesson. The rider should then call out how many fingers are being raised. The rider could also find certain landmarks such as trees or arena markers to ride towards. This can be a very irritating and difficult habit to cure. Riding with mirrors will help greatly, as the rider will be able to lookinto the mirror to make corrections, not down at the horse.


CAUSE: The "nodding head syndrome" is becoming an all too familiar sight amongst the dressage and showing fraternity! Riders are encouraged to sit "easy and comfortably", which transpires to be nothing more than a drooping of the head and shoulders and collapsing the waist. In this position, the rider's head nods as a result of a loss of body tone and balance with less control of the horse's forehand. Alternatively, tension in the hips and waist causes the body to transfer shock absorbing to the head and neck. Instead of absorbing movement with the ankles and lower back, it travels to the head, and there it is released, resulting in a nodding head.

EFFECT ON HORSE / RIDER: Although there is no direct negative effect on the horse, nodding the head is unsightly and is a side effect of a deeper problem. The main fault here is a "reversed shock absorbing system".

CORRECTION: Lunging the rider should be used to loosen the lower back and ankles so that they can absorb the movement of the horse. Stretches should be attempted to counteract stiffness in these areas.


The rider's position in the saddle, as we have seen, can play a much more vital role in the way that the horse goes than many riders think. Many people do not pay enough attention to this vital area and as a result, the horse cannot perform to his biomechanical best. They do not realise that in order to improve their horses, they must first improve their own positions in the saddle.

I trust this write-up will encourage and inspire rider's to go out there and work on their own positions int he saddle!

"Practise the fugue constantly, tenaciously, until you are tired of the subject and until your hand is so firm and so sure that you can bend the notes to your will... let us look at he past: it will be a step forward." Guiseppe Verdi

Crib Biting in Horses

Crib biting can be described as the action whereby a horse grasps a solid object with his teeth, arches the neck and draws in an amount of air into the cranial oesophagus, although it is not actually swallowed. This type of behavior is often referred to as a stereotypic behavior – an action which is “repetitive and invariant with no obvious goal or function” and can be indicative of a situation in which the animal lacks a certain degree of control over its environment. Stereotypic animal behaviors have been compared to obsessive-compulsive disorder and disorders involving similar repetitive or compulsive behaviors in humans. As Freud described compulsive behavior, "the patient is impelled to perform actions which not only afford him no pleasure but from which he is powerless to desist."

Over 15% of domesticated horses have been reported to exhibit what are commonly termed ‘stereotypies’. Furthermore, 5% of all domestic horses exhibit crib-biting behaviour. Four behaviours are most commonly described as stereotypic in the horse: weaving, an obvious repetitive lateral swaying movement of the head, neck, forequarters and sometimes hindquarters; box walking, circular route tracing within the stable; crib-biting, grasping and windsucking, a similar behaviour in which no object is grasped before the characteristic grunt is made. Because of their similarity, the latter two behaviours are commonly classed together in many studies. The old adage that an animal develops this type of behaviour due to boredom has been shown to be both too generalized and not entirely scientifically correct. There are, in fact, multiple causes for this type of behaviour and studies are ongoing to try to find a trend in causative factors.

There seems to be a strong link between diet and the development of crib-biting, especially in the young horse. Young horses that are fed a high grain, low roughage diet seem to be more at risk for developing this behaviour. Studies have also been done to try and establish whether young horses with ulcers are more prone to crib-bite, the theory being that the action of crib-biting produces more saliva and thus an attempt to buffer the acidity in the stomach. Although it has not been proven conclusively, there is definitely a link between the stomach condition of foals and crib biting. It is thought that the high grain diet fed to young horses will cause increased acidity in the stomach, causing the ulceration and cribbing behaviour. Interestingly, in a study where antacids were fed to a group of adult crib-biters, there was no significant improvement in behaviour. This may be because the behaviour is so entrenched and the endorphin release addiction is established. Wood chewing has also frequently led to the development of crib-biting according to some scientists, thus again exploring the link between a possible lack of roughage and the development of the behaviour. Interestingly, in studies done where various treatment options were tested, the use of straw bedding had a remarkable influence on the reduced cribbing of those horses tested. The conclusion made was that the bedding was being eaten by the horses, thus increasing their roughage intake and amount of chewing being done. Another theory explores the fact that a young horse, being weaned too early and possibly separated from its mother, still has the natural urge to suckle, and will begin chewing at objects to fulfill that need, leading to the cribbing behaviour.

What we do know is that these types of repetitive behaviours cause a release of endorphins in the body, which have a natural sedative and pleasurable effect. The release of the ‘feel good’ endorphins and resulting increase in serotonin levels (much like the pleasure we derive from chocolate!) becomes addictive and the behaviour is thus reinforced until it becomes addictive. Studies have been done on the use of opiate antagonist drugs (for example naloxone) to prevent the uptake of the ‘feel good hormones’ and thus reduce the effect of the behavior have shown very promising results. In one study, Naloxone significantly reduced crib-biting by 84 per cent, with minimal side effects (some noted were some passage of semifluid fecal material, intermittent penile relaxation, and mild sedation. Treated horses responded normally to external stimuli, retained their appetites, and performed appropriately when ridden. Sedation wore off during the course of prolonged infusions.) More work must be done in this field in order to understand its efficacy and study any potential side effects of the treatment. Horses that weave, another stereotypical behaviour) show no improvement when given the drug. In dogs and cats, these types of drugs are being used with great success, along with improvements in management and other therapies to treat compulsive disorders. Stress seems to be a contributing factor to the condition, and often a stereotypic behaviour is the horse’s only way of responding to a situation in which he feels a lack of control or uncertainty.

Epidemiological research has revealed that the provision of low quantities of forage and minimal opportunities for social contact are also associated with a higher reported prevalence of stereotypic behaviour.

The treatment of this condition is multi-factoral. There have been multiple studies on the effect of various attempts to alleviate the condition. Information is contained below which indicates some of the treatments that have been suggested and their effects (note that this is for behaviours across the board):

“Management changes for the control of equine stereotypic behaviour and their reported success, (data from McBride and Long, 2001)”

Reduced time in stable
49.3% prevalence
75.1% success rate reported

Stable toys
12.3 % prevalence
44.7% success rate reported

Increased exercise
1.4% prevalence
100.0% success rate reported

Regular change of horse’s stable
9.6% prevalence
70.1% success rate reported

Increased social contact
9.6% prevalence
70.1% success rate reported

Exercise before other horses
5.5% prevalence
100.0% success rate reported

Feed before other horses
4.1% prevalence
100.0% success rate reported

Increased hay ration
6.8% prevalence
60.3% success rate reported

More varied view from stable
2.7% prevalence
50.0% success rate reported

Use of stable chain instead of a solid door
1.4% prevalence
100.0% success rate reported

Increased size of stable
5.5% prevalence
100.0% success rate reported

Other treatment options have been suggested as follows:

- Cribbing collars

- Reducing the number of surfaces that the horse has to chew onto (by means of options such as electric fencing, grilles, painting surfaces with foul tasting substances)

- Complementary Therapies:

1. Flower remedies –

Use no more than five remedies in combination and dose with five drops twice daily.
· St John's wort, which will help relieve depression and stress - particularly environmental stress.
· Garlic and echinacea, which strengthen the immune system, often weakened by stress.
· Honeysuckle, which helps the horse let go of the past and relieves 'homesickness'.
· Walnut, to help a horse adjust to new surroundings.
· Agrimony, for anxiety.
· Valerian, for stress.
· Snapdragon, specifically for crib biting.
2. Homoeopathic treatments –

Homoeopathic treatments can be given either as tablets or powders twice daily. The ideal potency to use is 30c.

For crib biting, try:
· Lycopodium, for nervy horses who show digestive troubles and where boredom is the suspected cause.
· Argentum nitricum, where the horse seems agitated.
· Sepia, particularly for mares where irritability is a feature.
· Chamomile, to help calm a restless or irritable horse.

3. Aromatherapy -

Massaging the diluted oil blends around the outer ear, cheek and poll areas can help with a wide range of behavioural problems. These include difficulty in loading, crib biting, windsucking, spooking, fear, anxiety and anger arising from past trauma or abuse. In some cases, results will be seen immediately; in others, a course of treatment has to be carried out over several days.

SEDATIVE: lavender, marjoram, neroli, orange
ANALGESIC (relieves pain): clove, ginger, lavender, peppermint

- Administration of Antacid (especially in young horses)
- Administration of Probiotic

The unfortunate situation is that often the horse will continue the behaviour well into adulthood and wil never truly be ‘cured’. The biggest challenge facing the cribber is the excessive wearing down of teeth in the mouth because of the constant gripping on objects. This leads to poor mastication of food and related digestive problems, often leading to loss of condition or even possibly colic in some individuals that may be predisposed. Often the animal will not or cannot ingest enough food to maintain an acceptable body condition, in which case alternative caloric sources like fats and oils should be introduced to the diet. Regular check-ups by an Equine Dentist are vital in maintaining the crib-biter.

There is no easy answer to this problem and I am sure it will always be around, however armed with knowledge, the horse owner will be able to make educated changes to the horse’s management that will hopefully prevent and possibly alleviate the problem of crib-biting.

Horse Won't Lie Down!


We're having a huge problem with a TB mare that refuses to lie down and sleep. She stands, goes into a very deep sleep and then her legs will buckle underneath her. This usually results in her jumping up or trying to regain her balance. She ends up with bumping her face against walls or trees or bashing her front legs with the back legs. We've had the vet out and he tested her heart rate which is normal. Is there anything that can be done to help her? Please any suggestions will be discussed with the vet and tried.


Your mare`s problems have two components that will need to be addressed in order to find a solution. The first aspect is to try to find and remedy the cause of her refusing to lie down while sleeping. The second part to the solution is to try to protect her from injury when she does not lie down and thus collapses.

The first thing to understand is how the horse actually sleeps. The horse is a prey animal, and has thus evolved to spend most of their time sleeping while standing up. This means that they can flee quicker when a predator attacks. The horse will go into a lighter sleep while standing up, and when going into a deep sleep, horses will often lie down. The actual amount of time spent sleeping during the day is about four to fifteen hours, spread over the day and night, although the actual time spent in deep sleep can be as little as an hour or two every couple of days. Typically, when a horse is not getting any deep sleep (although sleep deprivation is rare in horses) they will go into deep sleep while standing up and their legs will buckle, just as you have described. Often horses will also fall into a deep sleep when being `pampered` by their owners, such as a horse I knew that would always fall over when his tail was being brushed by his owner! He loved it!

The most important criteria for the horse to lie down is safety. A horse will not lie down to fall into a deep sleep unless he feels it is safe to do so. Nervous, tense horses will often not lie down, as well as horses kept in stressful environments. Studies have shown that horses in the wild sleep a lot more than horses kept in stables. This is because in the wild, horses have learned to use a `buddy` system - a few horses will sleep and the rest will stand around and `guard` them. A horse that is kept in a more social environment will often be more relaxed and will also adopt this system. If the horse is alone and in an environment where there is stress or ant doubt about safety, she will not lie down to sleep. There are many reasons why a horse will perceive it is not safe - dogs, cats or rats in the yard, a neighbour that is constantly picking on and fighting with the horse, any kind of mistreatment or abuse, noise, a high amount of human traffic constantly moving through the yard, etc. Try to observe the mare and figure out if there are any stressors in her environment. She may be trying to tell you she is unhappy or scared of something in her environment. Something to try if you do suspect that she is nervous or high-strung, is one of the many natural products out there that will help her calm down a little. Contact your nearest equine homeopath or try something like Calmequin or E-Z Calm Powder sold at most good Tack stores (there are also other great products out there so go shop around).

Another important factor to take into account is the stable itself. If it is too small, has too little bedding or is too hot or cold, the horse will not want to lie down. Make sure that the stable is big enough for the mare. Also make sure that there is enough clean bedding for her to lie down on. A thick bed of shavings (at least 30 to 40 cm deep) will work very well, and a thick bed of clean, washed river sand is also great for a horse who will not lie down, and will minimise damage to the horse should she fall down. Make sure that the horse is not too hot, and is not standing in a draught or under a leaky roof. The minimum size stable I would use for this horse (assuming she is a 16hh TB of medium built) is at least 3.7m x 3.7m, or bigger if possible. This will not only entice her to lie down, but will go a long way in preventing damage should she fall down. I would even try to build a little paddock for her leading out from her stable so that she goes in and out as she wishes. (Be aware of the additional risk of African Horse Sickness if you are letting your horse out of the stable at night!) Cover the floor with a thick layer of river sand.

Another important reason why a horse will not lie down is pain and discomfort. Horses with arthritis, injuries, and sore backs and necks will often not lie down, because they find it very difficult to get down or back up. I would work closely with your veterinarian in this matter and give her a very thorough checkup for any kind of pain. I would definitely get a second opinion and also perhaps make use of a qualified equine physiotherapist. (As your Vet has already checked her over for any heart problems, and has not found anything, I would exclude that as a cause.) Older horses often suffer from arthritis and stiff joints, and will not lie down. Muscle stiffness following exercise will also cause the horse not to lie down. There are many physical issues that would cause her not to lie down, so speak to your veterinarian and other related equine healthcare specialists.

The second part to your solution is to make sure that should she still refuse to lie down, and fall, that she is protected from possible injury. This should be done by doing the following:

- Bandaging her legs at night, but make sure you know how to do it correctly, as incorrectly applied bandages will cause more damage than her falls will - ask your vet or another knowledgeable person to help you, and ALWAYS use padding under the bandages! Sponge, pads or cotton wool works really well.

- Keeping her outside in a safe paddock during as much of the day as possible, with one or two other friendly horses if possible - check for bullying (safe = not sharp objects, deep soft floor, shade and constant food source like teff or grazing).

- Make sure that the interior of the stable has no sharp edges or places where she could hook or bash herself - rubber matting correctly installed over all sharp corners and edges works well if done properly. Make sure her water bucket has no handles or places where she could get a leg stuck should she fall onto it - same goes for feed buckets.

- As mentioned before, make sure that she has extra deep and soft bedding so that she does not step through onto the floor beneath. Bank it up a little around the wall to help even more.

- I have even found that playing classical music softly in the yard during the day relaxes the horses that are kept inside - try it!

I hope these suggestions help you out. If you can protect her while she suffers from this problem, while you are trying to find the cause of the problem, you will surely make progress with her. Working closely with your vet is a great idea to exclude all possible physical causes of this problem.

Ponies Naughty?


Somebody told me that smaller pony geldings are more likely to be difficult to handle than mares of similar height. As I am currently looking for a placid 13 to 14hh mount, I'd hate to make a mistake re gender. The only mare we ever had was an elderly 11hh nursemaid who taught my kids to ride, our bigger horses have always been geldings, which we prefer. Please advise.


What a very interesting question!

When it comes to choosing the right horse, I generally like to look at other factors first, rather than base my decision on gender. The reason for this is that you may miss out on some really good ponies because they were not the sex you were looking for. Saying that smaller pony geldings are naughtier is sort of like saying blonde have more fun! That all depends on the blonde!

What I would suggest is that you leave your options open and look at as many ponies as you can. That will give you a good feel for what is out there. A few questions that will help you narrow your ideal pony options BEFORE you look at anything are things like:

- how important are looks and training? (will the pony need to compete)
- under what conditions will the pony be living?
- what kind of temperament am I looking for?
- how important is age?
- what is my price range?
- how much time can I spend on training and who will be helping me?
- what vices will I be able to live with, if any?

Narrow your options down and make a physical list of what you are looking for. In that way, you will know when a pony does not fit the criteria immediately, without letting your emotions get the better of you when horse-hunting.

Remember that the older a pony is the more life experience it normally has, which can make it safer for smaller children - or vice versa! A pony that has a proven track record with kids might be a safer buy than a youngster that still has to prove himself. A youngster on the other hand, is a cleaner slate on which to write - if you have the knowledge and experience to do so, and has not had the disadvantage of being spoiled by the many bums that have been on his back!

Regarding the differences in gender - each one has its own pro`s and con`s and each individual is so different, it would be difficult to generalise! I have found mares to be slightly more strong willed and dominant initially, but if you can win them over, they will give you 100% more than any gelding! When a mare gives you her heart it really is forever, and she will look after you until the end. You will have to contend with hormones though, like all women, and some mares are very moody when in season, others are not. Mares can also be a little sensitive about being touched behind, and may kick out - especially when coming into season, although each mare is different. (That would be something to check when looking at a prospective pony)

Geldings on the other hand seem to know that you are in charge - they are always pretty much the same and what you see is what you get. Of course there are little terrors out there that will push every button and get away with all sorts of mischief, but generally speaking they are more even keeled than mares.

Also remember that dynamite really does come in small packages - so the smaller the pony, the more spark! Little ponies can be devils, just like some of the kids who ride them, so be careful when making your choice. I would rather generalise and say that ponies are a lot naughtier than horses!

I would look at each prospect individually and would find the pony that best suits your needs. Never exclude a pony based on gender - a good horse is a good horse!

New Horse Upset Others


I have a 25yo gelding who was always a bit spoiled but we had many good years together and he was my best friend. A year ago we moved to a new property and I adopted an orphan filly. He took her under his wing but his whole character changed and now he seems to hate me. He often snorts loudly seemingly in disgust and his body language is standoffish showing me no respect. Do you have any advice? It is very upsetting and I am worried the filly learns this behaviour. She already mimics his snorting. For the first time in his life he has lost condition since I have started chasing them away from the house where they are pesty, demanding, rude and obnoxious. I yell at them and run at them but I feel like they are laughing at me. I used to be confident with horses and even worked mustering cattle but these terrible two seem to have it all over me. They are driving me crazy. I don't want to but am considering getting rid of them both even old 'faithful. I just don't want it to be like this.


It appears that the new kid on the block has really upset the apple cart, as it were!

This type of behaviour is not at all uncommon when a new horse is introduced, but I think with the right management you may just be able to improve the situation.

Firstly, I must tell you that I think you should enlist the help of some sort of expert in equine behaviour in your area - be it a horse whisperer, Parelli trainer, qualified riding instructor or a equine behaviourist. They will be able to see the situation in its entirety and will be able to make specific recommendations that will help you through the process that lies ahead, as well as give you the moral support you desperately need at this stage. Two little bullies can very intimidating to anyone, and your reaction to the situation is quite normal.

People very often assume that because a Stallion has been gelded, he will lose all of his "natural behaviour", as it were, and that he will behave himself like a good little human, not a horse. It is wise to remember that your gelding will still have some of the same drives and instincts that he did as a stallion, but may not be able to act on them by covering and mating with a mare. (Although there are many geldings that are able to achieve an erection and cover a mare quite successfully, although obviously there will be no pregnancy resulting!) This may lead a gelding to express himself in other ways, like the snorting and excitability that you have noticed, or even aggression. His overriding instinct is to protect.

In groupings where the there is not a `natural` mix of stallion and mares, there is often not the same level of social integration as would normally be found, for instance, in a harem group. Because there is no fixed social structure, there is very often an increase in petty aggression, and the group will often struggle to settle into some kind of hierarchy. Lower status individuals may be repeatedly harassed even though they offer no challenge to the more aggressive higher status animals. The cause of this harassment is usually linked to resource levels, like food, space and water. To complicate the group further, mares will also often assert physical dominance over geldings, because there is no hormonal or physical clue of potency.

Your gelding has crowned himself as the animal of highest status, and the filly is now his entire `harem`. Be very careful not to assume that he sees you as another horse in his herd - I do not think horses are stupid enough to think we are horses! (They will bond with us and interact with us, but I do not think they perceive us as horses). He now sees you as the outside threat, and his natural instinct to protect `his herd` has kicked in! You are the carnivore! This does not mean that he hates you or is ungrateful for the years you have spent together - he is just acting out on his natural instincts! This problem will probably be compounded and complicated when the filly comes into season. The filly has identified your gelding as the herd leader, and is taking her cues from him. Your other problem is that because the filly is an orphan, she has not had a mother who has taught her about normal horse and herd behaviour.

She is like a sponge, and is soaking up the education she is getting from your gelding. Where she would probably have formed a bond with you if she was alone with you, she has now bonded with your gelding.

What you are going to have to do (with the help of your expert) is to adjust the herd dynamic. Your gelding will have to understand that you are still in charge and that you are safe, and that you are not going to threaten his filly or him. Your filly is going to need plenty of socializing and attention from you, so that she learns acceptable behaviour from you. I would even suggest that if you have a neighbor with a mare, that you keep her with that mare for a few months. The mare will hopefully immediately assert dominance and will `teach her horsey manners`. You need to behave like a head mare or a protective stallion most importantly by regular and predictable training and socializing, and by displaying utter confidence and calmness.

Do not shy away from your horses, especially your gelding - if anything spend more time with him, riding or lunging him, or even leading him in hand on walks. The Parelli training method ( may very well be a very good thing for you to try with him, because it will reinforce your leadership in a fun, interesting way. Spend time with the filly too - take her for walks, teach her to stand quietly and groom her, pick up her feet, and so on, so that she learns that she has to interact positively with you too.

At worst, if there is no improvement, you may have to move or remove one of your horses, and you will probably find that the behaviour stops. (Although I would really try to fix it first!)

The most important thing is to stay calm, be consistent with your training and to be as confident as you can.

I wish you the best of luck - please remember to find someone confident to help you!

Stable Floors and Bedding

We have a smallish riding school just outside Rawsonville in the Cape Winelands. Currently we don't have stables; it is so hot, I'm sure the horses dont mind to stand outside. We are planning our stables now; we want them to be ready before winter hits. At my previous premises we had cement floors and covered it with sawdust. The problem is that is takes very long to clean it out properly and the availability of the actual sawdust. I want to know if there is an alternative to have a cement floor in my stables. Dr Marianne Thompson (well known breeder), who lives close by says that the hard floor is not that good for the joints. Can I keep the ground floor? Maybe the use of sand? I don't really know. I want whats best for my horses but obviously I cant afford to spend too much money. I know in many European countries they use rubber mats, but I can imagine that being a bit expensive. Please can you help.


The question of flooring/bedding is a very personal choice, and of course depends very much on what is available in your area. When using cement flooring, bedding becomes very important because it is very bad for the horse to lie down on the hard floor - they end up with capped hocks, capped elbows and stiff sore muscles if they are left on a hard floor. Some horses will refuse to lie down and sleep on an uncomfortable floor and that leads to all sorts of other problems! As a rule, I always walk through the yard early in the morning - if the floor is peeking through through the bedding, it is not thick enough. That rule applies to whatever bedding you decide to use on your cement floor.

A very good option is to leave your floors bare, making sure they are level, well-compacted and free of rocks, etc and to cover that with a very thick layer of riversand. The costs of the riversand are quite a bit more than just laying the cement floor, but the advantage is that the sand only needs topping up once or twice per year (depending on how well you look after it!). The horses find it very comfortable, and it is very good for a horse or pony recovering from laminitis. A good tip here is to drop the floor slightly, so that you do not lose as much sand when the horse goes in and out or when it rains or the wind blows, etc. The biggest problem with this type of natural floor is that it is very difficult to disinfect and keep very germ-free. This is very important to remember when using the stables for mares to foal down in! Also, should it rain a lot, water will start to seep up into the stables and bedding - a big problem if you are using shavings! You could do a bit of preparation of the surface first, adding a drainage layer, etc, but this will also push up the price of your setup! If you require more detail on how to prepare your flooring to prevent water becoming a problem, let me know! Cleaning this type of floor is quick- a strong shavings fork to pick out droppings, and a turn over with a garden fork to loosen the sand - which should be wet a little with water first to keep dust levels down. Do note that natural floors tend to hold a lot more urine, and can smell very strongly of ammonia after a while, which also attracts more flies.

You are correct in assuming that rubber flooring can become very expensive. You will still need some kind bedding, like shavings, although you will be able to use less. A rubber floor is easier to keep disinfected and clean. Fitting the floor correctly is very important, as an incorrectly fitted floor will loosen and start to pull up and become a mess very quickly. In the States, we had rubber flooring, which we covered with a bedding made from ground egg-boxes, which worked beautifully, as well as being super quick to muck out - 2 people mucked out the entire barn of about 30 horses in about 20 minutes! I have not encountered this type of bedding here in SA, but even shavings would probably have been this quick to clean.

What I would suggest is that if you keep your natural floors (well compacted), and add a layer of coarse, clean sand (like washed riversand) to it, depending on the cost in your area. Do not use a fine sand (like plaster sand) because it is very dusty, and gets the horses really dirty, plus it compacts very quickly. Keep your first layer as thick as you can, because it will compact a little as the horses stand and lie down on it. This will also mean that you can go a little longer before topping up. Using a shavings fork to pick up droppings means that you will lose less sand when mucking out. When using sand as a bedding, it is very important that horses are not fed from the ground as they can develop sand colic. I like to build in teff and concentrate feding troughs which works very well and there is not waste at all. Just make sure that your stable is slightly bigger to accomodate the extra structures.

Whatever you decide to do, your floors should have the following characteristics:

- must be easy on your horse`s legs - have some `spring` to it
- must be dry
- must not retain odors (or as little as possible)
- must be non-slip
- must be durable (esp around the door, where horses will stand or paw)
- low maintenance
- must be easy to clean (which is why I will only ever use straw bedding in a medical situation, like foaling down or with open wounds)
- must be obtainable and affordable

A great tip in the hot weather is to purchase a few ceiling fans and install them in your stables - only if you can get them high enough or if you have a barn type setup, put them down the walkway. This keeps the stables cool and fly free and of course makes a great place for you to hide out on a hot afternoon! It REALLY makes a huge difference. It also helps when your ventilation is not as good as it could be. In very hot weather my horses actually preferred coming in during the heat of day to stand under the fans and munch teff!

Please let me know if you need any more assistance - I would be delighted to help you with more information should you require it. There are so many factors to take into consideration when building a stable complex, I could go on for pages and pages!

Building Arenas in Cape


We are currently investigating building a grass jumping arena, sand jumping arena and a sand dressage arena. We live in the Western Cape and all three areas are currently soft white sand. We currently water and roll the arena's as much as possible. Please could you give me advice as to how we should go about constructing the arena's as well as the applicable sizes of each.


There are some factors to take into account before you start work on your arenas. Firstly, budget is very important. Arena`s can be VERY costly to build if you are doing it properly, although you can get away with less if you are building the arenas for your own private use. If you are planning to host shows, the design and cost factor changes dramatically. The other factor to consider is the maintenance of your arenas. There will be some cost involved here too, depending on the use of the arenas.

1. Dimensions:

Dressage Arena: (measure the working surface - not the fence or wall!) 60m x 20m, or 40m x 20m for children and lower grades.

Sand Jumping Arena: This depends very much on the intended use, but I would recommend a size of 60m x 80m as a minimum

Grass Jumping Arena: Once again, this depends very much on the intended use, but I would recommend a size of 60m x 80m, or bigger, if you have the space. Also remember, you may have to reserve your grass arena for shows only, as daily riding on the grass by a few horses will damage it.

2. Construction:

Building your arena can be as simple or as complex as you decide. If you are going for the cheapest, easiest building methods and materials, it can be as simple as dumping a layer of sand on a marked out area. The cheaper you go, the more problems you may end up having - the basic rules are : correct size for purpose and marked if needed; must be level (2% slant for water drainage); must be even (no rocks, stones, holes etc); must drain well; must be springy but not deep; must be well maintained. If you follow those tips, you can improvise as much as possible and still have a great riding surface. The most basic way to build an arena is to simply grade your surface level, add a thin layer of coarse salt to kill any weeds/grass that may still come up and cover that with about 20cm of river sand, making sure there is some kind of barrier/border that will keep the sand in. The sand will seem thick at first, but will level out and compact with use. You could also use a combination of river sand and either rubber chips, wood chips (not shavings) or potash. Using old bedding and shavings in your arena will make it boggy and very slippery when wet, so I would not recommend that. If you are building a wall around your arena as a barrier, leave a few drainage points (holes in the wall) so that water can run off.

Your biggest problem with this construction is drainage. To prevent drainage problems, it is correct to first lay down a compacted drainage layer (gravel/potash and optionally plastic pipes with holes in them) to ensure that surface water will run out of the arena. Your drainage layer should be very well compacted, so that it does not loosen and come up with use. You will also have to ensure that you maintain your upper layer well. Drainage is a very big problem overseas where temperatures reach below freezing, and arenas then freeze over and cannot be used. I think it is less of a problem here, provided you prepared your surface well and remember your 2% slope and drainage holes, as well as keeping your arenas well maintained.

A grass arena is going to take you a little longer to set up and will require more maintenance. Your best bet is to contact a specialist like Superlawn who will be able to assist you with the planting of your arena. (Have a look at their website, as they have plenty of tips and examples of planting out that will be of help too) I would suggest the use of Gulf Green (Cynodon dactylon X Cynodon transvaalensis) which is a grass developed by Superlawn that covers very quickly (faster than Kikuyu) and is drought resistant; Sea Green (Cynodon dactylon) which is slightly coarser and very well adapted to salty conditions; or even Buffalo Grass (Stenophrum secundatum) which is a hardy perennial. What you will need to keep in mind is that the arena will need irrigation and feeding, so make sure that you plan for this. Mowing is also very important. Depending on the amount of traffic, I would not advise using your grass arena regularly at least until the grass is well established or grazing horses on it when damp - they will rip it up in no time at all.

Things you will also need to keep in mind are that your arena will have to be fenced with a proper gate that is easy to open and close from horseback. Especially if you are teaching beginners - when they fall, you do not want the horse to go galloping full speed off to its stable! It can be dangerous for the horse and rider. There is nothing worse than a poor beginner trying to keep a pony inside the arena, whilst the pony is keenly trying to trot off to his stable - it holds the lesson up and really breaks their confidence! Fencing your sand arenas also means that you are able to use them to turn horses out for periods of time when the weather is wet and you are not able to turn them out in their paddocks.

I would also suggest that you visit as many yards in your area as you can to get ideas and to see what works and what does not!

3. Maintenance

Your arena will always need to be kept slightly damp to keep it soft and dust free. (some people install irrigation systems next to the arenas, which is great to use) It will also need harrowing regularly to lift it and prevent compaction and leveling too. Weeds and grass may come up from time to time - these can be treated with weed killer and/or plenty of coarse salt. Once per year you may need to add more surface to your arenas to keep them deep enough.

Grass arenas need feeding (with something like LAN) and the occasional top dressing and regular watering and mowing.

I really hope this helps - I have included a list of contacts that should be able to advise you or give you some ideas:

1. Equine Methods - (Arena Construction) Gareth 0826884869
2. Cushion Ride - (Arena Surface) Gavin 083 326 4455
3. Rubber Flakes - Caryn 083 455 8868

Also check the following sites for more ideas: (some ideas perhaps on surfaces) especially

Young Horse and Bitting


I have a four year old mare who is nice to school but rushes forward and holds her head too low - she is very difficult to get of the forehand and is especially low in canter. She is also beginning to find her own strength and out hacking she can be strong. I currently ride her in a loose ring french link snaffle and was wondering if you had any suggestions of where to go from here. I am wary that the wrong bit will encourage head lower and back her off too much.


The first thing you have to remember is that your mare is still very young. She is still finding her balance and needs to strengthen up and mature a lot before she is going to be able to work in a correct frame. The work you put into her now is going to affect her way of going for the rest of her life, so if you do it slowly and right, you are going to have a wonderful horse in years to come.

The first thing I would do is to put her onto a very intensive lunging program. Please get the assistance of someone qualified in your area to make sure you are doing it right, as chasing her in circles for 20 min is going to have no effect on her way of going. She needs to learn to halt, walk, trot and canter on the lunge. I would use very loose, high fitted side reins on her, as a Chambon or De Gouge will probably encourage her to work even lower, which we do not really want at this stage. Keep the side reins really loose to start with, and remember that the most important thing at this stage is to work her up from behind, making sure she is tracking through well behind (simply put, her hind foot is being placed on top of or well in front of her front foot). She will find her own frame as long as you are working her well forward and balanced, and you should be doing plenty of up and downward transitions with her on the lunge. This will improve her balance and get her using those hindquarters. I cannot emphasize enough the value of a correct lunge program - most riders I have taught will tell me `yes` when asked `Does your horse lunge properly?

I can tell you that 9 out of 10 of those horses are not being lunged well at all, and are simply being chased around on a circle for 20 minutes. Doing plenty of trot-canter-trot transitions on the lunge will teach your horse to balance herself and get up off her forehand. You can also use pole work on the ground to get her to lengthen and shorten her frame, as well as flex her inside hind leg. Please find someone who knows what they are doing to help you!

When riding, I would suggest that you use a leather strap fixed to the front D-rings of your saddle. What this will do is to set your hand and quieten it. Your mare will learn that she can go up, down, left or right and your contact will not change. If you keep her moving forwards you will find that she will slowly realise that it is more comfortable for her, and less hard work, to work steady in front and to carry her own head and neck. The most important thing is that you keep pushing her forward into your contact and keep her moving forward. Do lots of transitions and correct bends with changes of bend to lift her up in front. Lateral work, if done correctly, will help her too. Make sure as well that your position in the saddle is not making things worse! Have a friend who rides well look at your position and tell you what you are doing in the saddle, or even better, have someone video you while you ride - it is often very sobering to see what you are doing in the saddle!

I would not change her bit at this stage, as she will not learn to carry herself correctly until she is stronger in the muscles that count. Always remember that self carriage is the result of the body carrying itself correctly, not the nose being dragged in or out or wherever you think it should go. Working correctly starts behind in the engine, goes through the lifted back, and the head and neck will pop themselves into place with no trouble at all. (Head position is a side effect of the rest of the body working correctly!)

Working outside is great for her development too - lots of up and down hill work will also teach her to carry herself better. If she does get a little strong outside, take her back to walk or trot or tire her out on some hill work! Try to stay relaxed when you are out with her and try to be as patient with her as you can.

Remember, she is young and still learning what to do. You will need patience, someone really knowledgeable to help you and lots of time to help her work better. Take it slow and never be afraid to go right down to the basics!

Tack and Feedrooms

This question was received on HJ from Julie from Australia:

Hi, I found your website by accident last night and I've really enjoyed reading your articles. You've helped me diagonised why my thoroughbred is not putting on weight (even though he is retired) and some helpful hints for weight gain. I'm about to set up my own home with a brand new American style barn and I'm looking for great tips for the organisation of the tackroom and feed area. Keep up the great work!


The best thing about setting up your own place from scratch is that you get to do it right from the word go! There are a few basic principles to take into account, and then you can adapt the rest to suit your lifestyle.

A really great website that will give you some ideas and plans to look at is:

I assume you have given the barn itself some serious thought, and have planned your stalls, ventilation and overall design already. Spending a little more money and effort on your stable yard means that your horses will live just that much more comfortably and if you ever wanted to let out a stable or two as income, you will be able to easily. It will also increase the re-sell value of your property. One does not need the most expensive trimmings and fittings, but always make it neat and safe and sturdy. If you fit your doors, gates, hooks etc well the first time around, they last much longer, stay safe and you will avoid that all too commonly seen sight where everything is held together by bits of wire and baling twine!

When it comes to tack and feed rooms for a small setup, like you are doing at your place, then I would suggest that you position your tack room in the middle of your barn. This makes it easier for you to carry things to and from the tack room, and keeps all of your equipment central.

If you have the space, you could position your feed room in the middle of the barn too. This also means less walking and heavy lifting. I would however suggest that you keep your roughage and bedding (hay, teff, alfalfa, etc) in a smaller building separate from the stables. This decreases the fire risk and keeps dust levels down in the building. It also makes loading and unloading your hay and bedding much easier and less messy.

As an idea, the Stables open onto small paddocks, giving the horse freedom to wander in and out of his stable at will, and greatly reduces stress and boredom.

The Feed Room is a smaller separate building with easy access on a strong concrete slab for suppliers to get their trucks in and out and it makes loading much easier. Bedding can also be stored in the feed room, as can the hard food. Feed bins are best made from concrete and or steel to keep rodents and moisture out. I have used thick rubber bins too with great success - make sure that you are easily able to wash and disinfect your feed bins! Storage containers that can be moved outside are best. Remember to store feed on wooden pallets and not directly on the floor - this keeps moisture out, improves ventilation and allows your stable cat easy access to rodents! Keep everything slightly away from the walls to let cats have easy access too. I like to use a large garage door that rolls up and down for the feed room, as it allows easy access and is easy to open/close. A blackboard on the wall (even blackboard paint directly on the wall) is great for keeping a list of feeds and other instructions for each horse. Don`t be tempted to go too small on the feed room, as you might want to keep your tool here too, or build another smaller storage area for your tools.

The tack room should be airy and dry. I have placed it in the centre of the barn, which makes for less walking carrying heavy tack. Make sure that you have some storage cupboards for all your bits and pieces - it keeps the yard neater. Bridle hooks are placed against the wall. Saddle racks, I have found, should be bolted right through the wall if you are using that type of rack, as there is nothing worse than your expensive saddle landing on the floor because the rack came out of the wall. Make sure the bolts and nuts and plates are smoothed down and that there are no sharp edges - of course that goes for everything in the building. Your tack room can be adapted to your taste, and you might want to put in a couch or kettle for coffee, etc, depending on how much time you are spending in the yard! A small fridge for storing medication is also a good idea. Also make provision for equipment to clean tack with, (something to keep saddle on when cleaning).

I like to keep a hook near each stable for each horse`s grooming kit, just make sure that the horse cannot reach it! (Some kind of railing is recommended on the top of the door to prevent this) Halters are neater if they are all hanging together - some hooks placed at each end of the doorway will suffice.

A prep area can be placed opposite the tackroom. This is where you will be able to groom, bathe, tack up, clip, etc. Cross ties are not very popular here in SA, and people prefer to use a crush, or just have the groom hold their horses. I have used cross ties extensively overseas and really like them because you can safely secure your horse but still have great access to all body parts. (This makes clipping and bathing so much easier!) It is very important that you construct it well and that it is strong enough to handle the stresses that might be placed on it. Using thick rubber ties is also great, as the horse can still pull but will not panic as much as with a solid rope or chain tie.

Your area should be well lit, have water access (hose pipe) and electrical points at a safe place. (i.e. make sure horse can`t get at it). A rubber floor is a must, as is good drainage. An area like this is invaluable, because it means you are not limited to light and dry conditions to work with your horses. It makes veterinary attention easier too. I always recommend a water heater in the building, as it means that you have access to warm water at all times - great for baths and hosing down after exercise, as well as washing dirty numnahs. Hot and cold therapy can also be done easier, and I have found horses don`t quite object to a warm bath as much as to a cold one! Great for show prep in winter too!

Ceiling fans in the walkway roof are one of the best ways to keep your barn well ventilated, reduce flies, mosquitoes and midges in the building and keeps the barn cool. It is fantastic, and I will never keep a horse again without it! Make sure that your roof is high enough so that the fans do not hang low. Never hang them above a stable. This is a super way to keep midges out of stables here in Africa which reduces the chance of the horse getting bitten and getting AHS. (African Horse Sickness). It really works.

The final thing you should be looking at is fire control. Having your feed storage area separate from your main building is already a huge way of reducing fire hazards. I also always have a strict no smoking policy in and around the building, as well as no smoking signs up. Fire hoses should be put up at each end of the barn, and you should have a definite plan worked out in the case of a fire breaking out.

I am not sure what else you would like to know, but feel free to ask as many questions as you like! More dimensions on sites that you may find helpful:

Help with Horse Kicking Out!

Thank you very much for your question. I have found that sensitivity in the hind legs and kicking out is a very common problem with mares. To understand why your mare is behaving in this way, you need to understand how nature has `wired` her!

A mare in the wild essentially fulfills two roles - she is either there to have foals and enlarge the herd or she is also an alpha mare and is also partly responsible for the rest of the herd. The herd stallion will `tease` each mare to see whether she is ready to be covered or not, and he does this by gently nibbling at her hind end... A mare that is pregnant or is not receptive to the stallion will let him know immediately by squealing and kicking out. A mare that is in heat will also squeal and may even kick out, but will become less so as she is ready to be covered. A mare with a foal at foot needs to protect her foal from the herd stallion and other mares, and she uses physical language to do that - biting, kicking and charging. So what I am trying to tell you is that a mare communicates with her hind legs! Stallions, and to a lesser degree, geldings, tend to communicate with their mouths (biting) and forelegs (striking out) but mares are more likely to kick out behind. Also, your mare is wired to strike out behind if she is uncomfortable with any physical contact with her hind end. Understanding this will help you see that she is just sticking to the way nature has programmed her and that you should not be getting impatient or losing your temper with her, instead you should be teaching her to feel more comfortable with you handling her hind legs. If your mare is kicking out a lot in her stable, she is most likely doing so in response to the attention she is getting from her neighbour! If you can move her to spot where she only has one horse next to her, and then you pick that horse carefully, (try a few and see who she is happy to be next to) you may find that the kicking will get less.

If she is kicking the door with her front legs, especially at food times, you will need to do one of two things - remove the door or prevent her getting to it, or you must protect her legs. Removing the door and replacing it with a chain, pole or some other type of non-solid structure will mean that she has nothing to bang against. You may have to consider some type of boot protection for her legs plus padding the door with rubber if you are unable to remove it.

When handling her hind legs, I would like to make the following suggestions:

You will need to slowly desensitize her to being handled behind. I would suggest that you spend as much time with her rubbing her all over with a soft cloth, picking up her front legs, rewarding her for allowing you to do so. Please wear a riding hat or some form of head protection - never ever take a chance with a horse that might kick. I have been kicked in the head by a mare`s hind legs while working on her front legs and let me tell you it was so quick I did not see it coming! If I was 2 cm to the left she would have killed me for sure. Have someone hold her head or give her a teff net to munch on if it relaxes her. Start in front and wherever you know she does not mind being handled. Gradually move your way to where she does not like being touched, all the while keeping calm, gentle and talking to her. The aim is to touch and retreat before she actually gives you a negative response, reward her for that and repeat. If she actually kicks out or moves away, then you have gone too far. You will notice that each time you will be able to rub her more and more. Once she is happy with you rubbing her all over and is comfortable with that, you can gently ask her to lift a hind leg, then put it down gently and reward her. Do not lift her leg too high, don`t drop her foot if she lifts it very quickly and don`t put her in an uncomfortable position. Watch her body language and that will guide you. If she does get very difficult, go back to the front legs and start all over again. Keep the sessions short, do not carry on if she gets very difficult - rather take her for a walk in hand, bring her back and start again.

I must stress that working with a horse in this manner can be VERY DANGEROUS and that you should NEVER risk your own safety! Use protective gear if you must, refer her to a qualified person who can help you, and never be scared to ask for help. If you are not 100% sure of what you are doing, rather do not take the risk. Even a soft blow from behind can be enough to kill you, so please do be safe first! Even though you do say she does not usually kick, I can promise you that under the right circumstances the biggest plod can become a maniac! Whenever I work with any mare I always remember that it is in their nature to communicate with their hind legs! Never take your focus off her for a second.
When working with any horse, always remember to use repetition, patience, consistency and confidence - horses respect that!
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