Avoid the most common mistakes

We don't instinctively know how to be perfect horse owners - we learn through education and occasional trial and error. Read on to discover how to avoid making the most common mistakes

1. Feeding incorrectly

It’s not surprising equine nutritionists see lots of horses who aren’t being fed correctly. The most common mistake is not feeding the correct amount because you’re not really sure how big your horse is.

“Find out what your horse weighs by using a weightape and condition scoring,” says Katie Williams, equine products manager at Dengie. “Then you’ll know if he’s too fat, too thin, or just right and you can decide what feed is most appropriate. Call different feed companies for advice to see which type of diet will suit your horse best – there are different ways to get the same result.

“Find out exactly how much to feed and pay attention to the details on the back of the feed bag. Feed by weight, not bulk, so weigh feed rather than measure it – a scoop of nuts is a different weight to a scoop of fibre.

“Feed can also help with performance and behaviour issues. If your horse has too much fizz, or lacks stamina, you can help by changing his feed.”

Check out our "Feeding For..." advice where you can find out what feed suits your horse...

2. Using the wrong tack

If you’re having problems with your horse, check your tack isn’t to blame. Jeffries’ Dave Darley has plenty of advice.

“Start with sensible tack – go for a snaffle bit and cavesson noseband and don’t change a bit because certain people use them or they look good. You may have to pay more for the best quality tack, but if you buy cheap, you can end up buying twice.

“Have your saddle and bridle fitted by a qualified master saddler – bridles can come in components and you’re likely to get a better fit than with off-the-peg. Have your saddle professionally fitted, maintain it, and have it regularly checked.

“Don’t expect tack from one horse to fit another, and if you’re buying a new horse, find out what tack he’s been ridden in before. Clean your tack with a natural, fat-based dressing, but never saturate new tack in oil. Finally, research the tack you want to use, and make sure you know how to recognise quality. There’s a useful video atwww.corporatedvd.co.uk/jeffries.htm where you can see how much work goes into well-made leatherwork.”

3. Failing to ask for help

We’ve all experienced horsey doldrums, but are you suffering in silence when you could be getting help?

“We’ve all been there, pros and amateurs alike,” says Sandie Chambers, sports psychologist with Humans and Equines. “Many riders spend time on their riding and their horse’s condition but neglect the mental side of things.

“A sports psychologist will help you take control of your mind and use it to your advantage, rather than let it destroy your confidence and limit your beliefs. They will set goals to achieve a specific well-formed outcome. We can also help make unconscious reactions more positive – for example, changing competition nerves for competition excitement.

“Sports psychologists have a bagful of strategies and techniques to help you ride better and achieve the results you want.”

4. Comparing yourself to others

If you’re struggling to progress in your competing, or at home, it can be frustrating to see your friends overtake you. But comparing yourself to other riders can be demoralising.

Young eventer Emily Llewellyn has won individual and team gold at the Young Rider European Championships, and understands the pressures riders put themselves under.

“In the past I’ve had things go wrong and felt like it’s the end of the world. What you have to do is look at riders who are beating you and break down their performance. Examine how they’re riding, why they’re winning and ask, what things are they doing right? Can you emulate them? Compare yourself to riders the same age and standard as yourself, and don’t be afraid to make friends.

“Remember, riding isn’t a race to get to the highest level as quickly as possible – stand outside the situation and get some perspective. Perspective, along with a balanced, level-headed attitude, has helped me, and should help you, too.”

5. Having the wrong routine for the horse

Horses thrive on routine. Eventer Kate Walls, who runs a competition and rehabilitation livery yard in Lincolnshire, explains that problems including weight loss, tension and bad behaviour can result if a horse is kept in the wrong routine.

“A good yard should follow the golden rules – it shouldn’t be too noisy and there should be an established daily routine of feeding, turnout and exercise, determined by the horse’s needs and not the owner’s.

“Make sure your routine provides enough exercise for your horse to do the job you want him to do – you can event up to around Novice level on an hour’s work a day but, above that, you should add hill work and fast work to increase fitness. On the other hand, if your horse is a veteran, or very young, he shouldn’t have too heavy a workload. And always ask for help if you need it. If you’re keeping your horse on a routine that makes you struggle because of lack of time, it’s worth considering moving to a more inclusive livery package, for your own sake as well as your horse’s.”

6. Wasting money

We’ve all popped into the tackshop ‘just for a look’ and come out laden with goodies. But do any of them really help our horses? The answer is ‘no’, according to Grand Prix dressage rider Lucinda McAlpine, whose horses are all barefoot, and live out 24/7 without rugs.

“I believe horses need three things – free-roaming movement, grazing and a social life. Spend your time and money on finding a yard with access to those. You don’t need rugs – the horse generates heat himself and his coat is better than any rug. You don’t need the same tack as top riders, just whatever is comfortable for your horse – mine are all ridden in rubber snaffles.

“Don’t waste your money on gadgets that promise miracle results. I maintain you don’t need to spend lots of money on farriery either. My horses are all barefoot and just need their feet trimmed.”

7. Not having proper lessons

Patrick Print, FBHS and chairman of the BHS, travels the world teaching both riders and other instructors, and maintains “lessons are crucial for developing your position and a deep, secure seat. Learning to ride well is learning to ride safely. An accredited BHS instructor will be insured, have first aid training, and a child protection certificate. Some people go to a famous rider for lessons but an exceptional rider isn’t necessarily a good teacher.”

He adds that a good instructor “should evaluate you and discuss any problems. Avoid anyone who makes you feel discouraged, demoralised, or spends all their time on their mobile phone. Also avoid someone who’s constantly getting on your horse – they should be able to work from the ground. They should also be able to teach any level of rider and talk to you in plain English you understand.”

Visit www.bhs.org.uk to find a BHS instructor in your area.

8. Neglecting proper farriery

Your farrier might be one of the most important people to be involved with your horse – that’s the view of expert farrier Haydn Price.

“I believe there are no boundaries to the ways in which your farrier can help your horse. It can be tempting to try to stretch your money by having your horse shod less often, but this can lead to soft tissue injuries like corns and, ultimately, vet bills. Farriery is crucial to your horse’s health and welfare, and it matters at every level, even just for pleasure riders.

“However, don’t feel you have to go along with whatever farrier already visits your yard. Find someone who takes the time to listen to problems you might be having and communicates with you well. A good way to choose a farrier is to ask how quickly they can replace a shoe – if it’s a week, that’s too long. If it’s 24 hours, that’s what you’re looking for, even if you have to spend a few more pounds for their services.”

9. Blaming the horse

It’s a familiar feeling – that red-faced, frustrated seething, as yet again you ask, why won’t he do what I want? It’s a feeling Intelligent Horsemanship guru Kelly Marks helps riders work through.

“Imagine yourself before a jury,” she says. “In front of them, you manage to prove that, though you’re doing everything right, the horse is still not doing what you want, so everyone agrees it’s not your fault. What then? Will your horse apologise?

“Let’s say my horse isn’t changing leads and I’m absolutely sure I’m doing everything clearly and precisely. Here’s what to check: Is he in physical discomfort? Have I got the basics in place – can he perform every step up to the requested movement calmly and precisely? Has he sufficient motivation to perform the action – what’s in it for him? Is my frustration causing the horse to be stressed and confused?

“By taking responsibility, you claim the power and put yourself in a stronger position to think through the changes to get the results you want.”

10. Neglecting rider fitness

The fitter and more balanced you are, the better your horse will be able to perform. It’s something that rider fitness expert Jon Pitts sees in his work with members of the equestrian Team GB.

“Your weight is a significant load to the horse, so if you have some to lose, increase your exercise and follow a sensible diet. Riders need good balance, too, quick reaction times and good pelvic stability.

“Don't be a hero and ignore an injury to yourself. If you’re in pain, you’ll compensate and create an imbalance that will affect your horse, causing him to perform less well. Seeing a physio can be a good idea, especially one who understands riding.

“And pay attention to everyday things like mucking out – lift properly and use your body correctly.”