In the wild, a horse has to travel across all sorts of terrain steep hills, running water, stony tracks or boggy pastures. But not all domesticated horses are familiar with such changing landscapes and a good rider knows how to help.
Up and down hills
Hill work can be demanding – even for a fairly fit pony – and, as a rider, you must use your common-sense about the kind of climbs you ask your pony to attempt. On any ascent, you should lean forward in the saddle and keep no more than a light contact with the pony’s mouth. Similarly, for a gentle downward incline, just lean back slightly. On a steeper slope, position your weight further back and try to help the pony keep his footing. If you feel your balance going, don’t hang on to the reins: use the front of the saddle to steady yourself. Many ponies are quite happy when going uphill but are very wary of coming back down again. Watch what is happening – especially if you are approaching the top of a short, steep bank. A pony may decide that, rather than risk slipping, the best answer is to jump straight off – and an inattentive rider can easily get left behind!
Downhill on roads
Riding downhill on roads is a different matter. Think about the steepness of the hill and the condition of the road surface. Worn roads tend to become slippery and it is unsafe to go any faster than a walk.
Worn shoes on slippery roads double the danger so make sure that there is plenty of ‘tread’ on your pony’s shoes. If you have to do a lot of roadwork, you may want to have road studs fitted to them. Ask for expert advice first: studs can unbalance a horse and so lead to leg problems later on.
Hill tracks are often stony so, although ponies are usually very sure-footed, keep to a walk to avoid the risk of unnecessary injury.
Once you’ve ridden along such a path, stop your pony, dismount and check his feet to see no stones have lodged in his hooves. You may find you need a hoof pick – so always carry one just in case! When you get home, check your pony’s hooves again and make sure he has not injured his legs.
Streams, rivers and lakes
Before you ride alongside -or across a stream or river, find out whether it is safe to do so. Shallow waters can suddenly flow into deep pools and broad, fiat river beds may be covered with slippery pebbles.
The approach is also important. Do you have to go down a slippery, stony bank or through a shady stretch of woodland? Ponies dislike going from light into shade. If there are tray be shafts of sunlight filtering through, making patches of light and dark on the water.
Such a scene may be appealing to the rider but very frightening to the pony. If you have a nervous pony – especially one who is naturally suspicious of water – the best way to overcome his fear is to take a companion who can ride with you and lead the way.
You should also watch out for warning signs from a pony who enjoys being in water and may be tempted to roll in it. If he starts to splash or paw at the water surface, get his head up with quick, firm jerks on the reins then sit up and kick on – otherwise he will probably take an untimely dip!
Puddles and mud
Puddles on tracks or roads are not usually a problem, but try to keep to the dry parts of the road as the water may conceal a pothole or broken paving stones – both of which could seriously hurt your pony.
After heavy rain, the countryside can become very boggy. Badly poached or muddy tracks are generally closed by landowners. Even if you have permission to ride on grassland or around the borders of crop fields, you should respect the land and avoid churning it up for no good reason.
From your pony’s point of view, heavy ground places extra strain on his muscles, tendons and joints. Before you go over a boggy field, ask yourself if you are being unfair to your pony. The fitter he is, the better he is able to cope, but you must be aware that problems could crop up.
Boggy ground is also the chief culprit for pulling off shoes, even newly fitted ones, and a loose shoe can easily cause injury to the foot or opposite leg.
Fun by the seaside
If you are lucky enough to live near the sea, you have a wonderful ‘all-weather’ area, excellent for training or schooling. If you don’t, not to worry – why not consider a horse riding holiday. Destinations like France and Portugal are increasingly popular locations for riders, with many travel agents offering horse riding packages including flight and accommodation. So the next time your other half goes away on a lads stag do to Albufeira, get yourself down to the travel agents and find a horse riding holiday nearby!
Racehorse trainers use miles of sandy beach as gallops, and the sand close beside the water’s edge, where the water is shallow, provides just the right kind of going for horses who are used to racing on turf.
As with other terrain, you must know your beach, particularly the height and time of the tides, and whether any part becomes cut off or covered at high tide. Find out how the sand differs over the beach: whether it becomes deep and soft, perhaps at the bottom of sand dunes, or whether there are large flat areas of rock covered by shallow sand.
Consider other beach users, and ride there only when you can be sure you are not creating a nuisance. On the other hand, look out for litter that beach users leave behind – broken bottles, can ring-pulls and sharp tin – which could hurt your pony.
On any kind of different going, be considerate – to your pony and to other land users. Before you ask your pony to take you through deep, boggy fields or soft sand, think how your legs might feel if you got off and walked. Sometimes, in difficult conditions, or to give your pony a rest, you could do just that and lead your pony beside you.