How Institutionalised Are We?

29 Oct

This summer I started teaching at Pony Clubs and it was the first time I`d really taught outside of an arena. Well, we used dressage letters, but it was in a big open field. I was quite impressed with how good the ponies were. I guess, they are used to the procedure and are in a big group, so will be more settled. Most of these kids would also compete, so the ponies would go out to shows and be used to working on grass.

When you think about it really, how many times as an aspiring rider, particularly in a riding school, do we ride outside the four fences of an arena. You may go on hacks regularly. But lets face it these are quite regimented – we canter up this hill … we trot along this path. Yes, it`s all weather dependent, but the horses know which gait is required on each route, particularly if you have limited hacking.

In the school riding school clients can be quite regimented, with their instructors telling them where to go and at what speed. I like to introduce independent riding fairly early – sometimes it`s a simple statement “change the rein however you like”, or “start riding some 20m circles at different points of the school”, but I like it to progress so that the riders are more aware of others in lessons or of how the movements help their horse warm up and improve their way of going. Last week I even used the long arena, which threw a few clients off balance as they had to work out how circles fitted into the longer arena.

When we were younger we used to have cross country lessons in the field and I can remember the first few cross country lessons I pretty much trotted around the edge of the warm up area, following the horse in front. As I grew in confidence I began to ride the odd circle, which progressed to more circles and even included the odd transition! It was good for us because we had to think for ourselves, and not rely on letters and fences to help. The horses were much more forward going in the cross country field, and it added a new dimension to riding – suddenly my kick along dobbin was a fire breathing dragon!

Now I enjoy riding in the school completely ignoring the letters and track – this is best done in our 60m x 40m arena as there is plenty of space, but it mimics riding in an open space when the ground isn`t suitable. Riding in a field, or warming up at competitions in a field, is also great because you engage the feeling part of your brain, to feel what is right rather than compare it to the track or letter or fence. I think it improves your awareness of your horse and how correctly they are moving.

At what point does riding in an open space become easy? I guess it depends on your terrain and horse, as well as your ability. As a rider you need to think about the effects of the terrain (don`t have that first canter on the downhill side!) or the location of a tree stump, which could be a useful focal point for spiralling circles, and which areas tend to stay the driest. The horse needs to not get overly excited when given a large field to work in, and the less spooky the better, as there is much more wildlife to jump out at you. They need to be sure footed, but that improves with practice. The rider needs to be careful that they still keep their horse focused, by riding various school movements and keeping the pony on their toes, particularly if the pony is thinking about their next canter opportunity. The biggest problem I find is that the first time people ride in a field the horse is overly excited, and the rider overly nervous, which is usually a recipe for disaster. Each time they leave the arena the rider should grow in confidence, and the horse learn what level of excitement is acceptable.

Even the most sedate riding school horse will find fifth gear when schooled in a field. The lack of boundaries and the excitement of a potential canter will put them on their toes and they will become more sensitive to the leg and less attentive. I do think it takes a special sort of horse or pony to be quietly schooled in a large open space.

Really, if you look back at the horse world, fifty years ago everyone had horses in the field behind their house and rode round one corner of it, rarely setting foot in a ménage. This was the norm, so horses tended to be quieter and more relaxed about the procedure, while riders were more used to using environmental markers to ride around and subsequently were more in control. Now horses, particularly riding school horses, go into the arena for an hour a day and drilled in school movements. They see a field and associate it with a good canter or a round of cross country, so become excitable.

It makes you wonder how much our dressage would improve if we schooled regularly on grass. The horses wouldn`t lean on the fence, they would be more sure footed, fresher when they go back into the arena, and more interested in their work, which subsequently produces better work and hopefully improving marks!

Does that mean that when looking at keeping a horse we shouldn`t worry about an arena? It would be a lot cheaper if we didn`t. But what happens if you lose your nerve? Or you are riding again after giving your horse a few weeks off? Or what about winter, when the ground is sodden. Years ago, there was ample land so you could pick a fresh, unpoached area every week, but now there is such pressure on land to be utilised this isn`t a viable option. For those happy hackers or fair weather riders who rarely ride in winter, facilities don`t need to be all-weather, twenty-four-seven. However, I still think it is a good idea to ask around and find out where the nearest arena is to your horse`s field, be it a livery yard or a rich neighbour, and make an arrangement that if necessary you can hire it. This then gives you and your horse the option of riding in a school for a change. You can then use the arena to fine tune your dressage test, or for a lesson or to lunge your horse.

Going back to the title of this blog. I think a lot of horse riders, particularly in the UK, are institutionalised. They are most confident riding in an arena, with a horse who knows their boundaries and doesn`t push their rider. With the recent focus on good bridleways, more people are hacking out and getting used to riding in the open, but there is very little time spent riding a horse in a proactive, focused way in the open. I think this means that riders are less confident in controlling their horse in an open space, which could be detrimental to the safety of both, or the enjoyment of the ride as a whole. I`m not saying let`s forget about arenas and let the foxes dig holes in them, but I think it would be nice if livery yards or riding schools had a grass arena or regularly took lessons outside of the ménage. Obviously this is weather dependent, and we all know how reliable the British summer is!

Winter Grasscare

28 Oct

Are your paddocks all ready for winter?

I think ours is. We’re still doing a bit of strip grazing, making sure we’re collecting the fallen leaves from the fresh grass before we give it to the boys. This makes sure they eat all the grass efficiently. We also need to be careful of the tree line as there are a few sycamores there and we want to avoid the ingestion of seeds. As soon as the frost falls any fungus will be killed. Unfortunately the frost will also kill any nutrition left in the grass, which means we need to try and graze as much grass as possible before it is wasted.

Once the frost has come then the electric fence will be moved to section off the wettest part of the field, which is near the front gate. We will then use the back gate, which is currently being rested so that it isn’t too poached.

Last week we set up the Feeding Station – this rather glamorous name refers to four builders sacks secured along the fence line, with a breeze block weighing each one down. This means they won’t blow around when empty and are easier to fill. To help keep the horse’s feet out the mud and reduce poaching, there is also a rubber mat for the horses to stand on when eating. In theory. Of course, being horses they usually still stand in the mud!

So the feeding station is prepped and the hay bale has been ordered. The tarpaulin has been repaired (Otis may have done an impression of a giraffe last winter and chewed a hole in the tarpaulin trying to nibble at hay).

I think the field is ready for winter; the usual check of trees and fence is ongoing, and the water trough is cleaned out regularly. The pipe to our trough is almost above ground, so unfortunately easily freezes. There isn’t much we can do about that, except hope for a mild winter and have water containers at the ready.

We’re quite lucky in that our field has two lines of shelter, so by using the back half of the field the horses are protected by the worst of the weather. They can also eat their hay out of the wind.

Monsters in Hedges

26 Oct

I’ve been doing a lot of solo hacking with Llani at the moment. Three months ago his first hack with me and a friend consisted of us climbing the verges and spinning around in fear, so the fact he walked out through the village last week on his own, just glancing around at the various houses, is a fantastic improvement.

He is a fair weather horse, however, and when it is windy he is much more wary and nervous, but this week the weather was a typical autumnal breeze so I thought it would be a good test for Llani.

We stuck to an easy route, staying on the estate, so that he was confident in his surroundings and could get used to a bit of wind blowing leaves around.

Walking smartly down the track, Llani was looking around him warily. Then, we came across a water bowser.

According to Llani, this bowser wasn’t supposed to be there. He stopped, snorted, and after a minute of watching it he decided it wasn’t going to move so he would overcome his fear and walk past it. Not long ago Llani would have turned tail and fled, so I was pleased that he was taking in the situation and then mastering his fear.

Breathing heavily, and tense, he kept close to the hedge, keeping as much distance between himself and the monster as possible, and edged past the bowser. I reassured him as we went but suddenly, the leaves rustled and the sound of hooves in the field behind the hedge caused Llani to whip round and canter off, slipping slightly on his due-for-reshoeing feet. Ducking under a branch, I managed to get him to stop. He was trembling with fear.

Flipping typical, I thought. He starts overcoming his fear and behaving like a confident, mature riding horse and something trivial frightens the hell out of him.

I think half the problem was that Llani’s attention was solely focused on the bowser monster, that the rustling leaves against his skin and the horses in the field who were frightened by the moving hedge, frightened the life out of him. Unfortunately, he then associated the bowser with the monster, instead of safely negotiating it and putting it under the Safe Objects column of life.

Llani snorted and tried to run away from the bowser when I took him back down the lane, but I managed to get him to stop and study it until a pedestrian came along and, ignoring Llani, walked between him and he monster. Comforted, Llani edged past the bowser, making sure he didn’t touch the hedge on his other side!

I gave him a big pat and he soon relaxed. The rest of the hack was trouble free; he was unfazed by the haylage wrappers blowing in the breeze and he didn’t give the horses playing in nearby fields a second glance.

I suppose the bowser incident was educational for Llani, but sometimes I wish he wouldn’t over react so much!


25 Oct

I taught a young boy this week on a monster of a pony, who he has been persevering with for a few weeks.

This pony is in the riding school and needs a special sort of rider. He`s only 12 hands high, but I have been known to squash him when he is particularly petulant, but his riders need to be on the bigger side for him and be very confident and assertive.

Initially, when a new rider asks him to trot on he swishes his tail and slows his walk down. So they get bossy and use their leg with a sharp tap with the whip. And the pony responds by cantering off before slowing right down and repeating the procedure. The key here is to play the pony at his own game and make him canter until he stops messing around and trots nicely. Then you have to be on the ball and predict any napping or change of rhythm to keep that cheeky pony going. To mix things up, he can throw in a cheeky buck too.

Having said all that, if the kids can ride from their seat this pony produces some lovely medium trot, and he has a fab pop in him when jumping. The trouble with him is that he needs a very talented little rider to get the best out of him, and will take the proverbial out of anyone more novice.

So this young boy I have been teaching has been riding this monkey of a pony for the last three lessons. Last week he sat a cheeky buck in the canter but ended up jumping a little grid in canter with that perfect canter stride between each element, so I felt he was getting the measure of the pony. Much to my surprise this week, he opted to ride the naughty pony instead of the riding school favourite.

The long arena was set out, which gave me a good opportunity to introduce the new letters and for him to practice his school movements in different places. The five loop serpentine was particularly entertaining. It was great for the pony though, as he wasn`t sure where he was going and subsequently listened more to his rider. The warm up was looking promising when we moved onto canter.

This pony can canter on the spot, pinging his back legs in such a way that it unbalances his riders, It`s not bucking, more engagement of the hindquarters. He also has a big movement in his neck whilst cantering and usually gets pulled in the mouth. So I told my rider to encourage the bigger striding canter, instead of the pogo stick imitation.

It wasn`t pretty the first try – the pony cantered on the spot, shaking his head because my client hung on tightly to the reins, We slowed the lesson down for a moment and discussed how to make the canter better. I told my rider to trust his pony a little bit more, to have slightly longer reins and think of them being elastic. He was to sit tall and push the pony with his seat and leg to a bigger striding canter. I told him not to worry if it felt a little fast at first.

I explained that the pony, as mischievous as he is, expected his riders to pull him in the mouth in canter so anticipated it by shaking his head. My rider`s job was to keep his hands quiet and still, allow the pony to shake his head until he realised that this particular rider had nice hands and wouldn`t hassle his mouth. Off they went.

As they went into canter the pony tossed his head, and my rider sat perfectly still, encouraging the pony forwards without hassle and after cantering the long side, the pony dropped his nose and lifted his back into a large striding canter, with a very active hind end. After that, every canter was lovely and it was great to see the pony moving more freely and wanting to go forwards, with his ears pricked.

Once we`d cantered on both reins I started putting out a double. They cantered comfortably through the poles and then over the jumps, fitting in two two balanced canter strides. We finished with a placing pole to a cross, followed by two canter strides and a spread, of about two foot high. My rider`s lower leg position was looking much more secure, and he started to understand the principle of riding the approach, between and after the grid to maintain the rhythm.

I was really pleased with how my rider is handling this cheeky monkey, and how he has persevered to get the best results from the pony; but also with how well the pony responded and seemed to enjoy his workout. I think the variety of the long arena helped keep them both on their toes, and opening up the canter engaged the pony so that he could jump out of a good rhythm with lots of energy. It gave his rider a much more comfortable ride, and he didn`t end up scrambling over the jump.

Clipping The Ponies

22 Oct

We made a difficult decision earlier this week to clip one of my little clients pony. He`s a Welsh pony who grows a very thick fluffy coat. So thick in fact, that if he comes in at 9am and stands in his stable all day the outer layer of his coat is still wet. On the inside, he`s toasty warm!

It must be a double layer, akin to the arctic animals, which means that he never feels the cold and the water doesn`t penetrate his skin. Unfortunately for his owner though, it means that it is physically impossible to manage him. He gets too hot with even a lightweight rug on, which means he gets wet and muddy. The coat takes forever to dry which means it`s hard for his little rider to ride him with the darker nights. Then he gets warm when ridden, and so risks getting a chill because the sweat can`t evaporate.

Really I should have clipped this little pony a month ago, when the winter coat started growing and he formed this second layer of fluff. But we know now for next year. Clipping him earlier would mean that he is better protected against the elements as his coat would have started to grow, but for now he`s got a medium weight on to keep him snug.

When clipping a child`s pony you always have to think about the fact that kids often stand around chatting, or giggling, and the ponies backs can get cold. Sometimes a hunter clip can make them a little fresh with the wind and the rain. You also want ponies to live out as much as possible to keep their energy levels at normal, which is helped by clipping the minimum. With this pony I considered a blanket or chaser, but as the hair on his back is so thick it wouldn’t have helped the drying him off factor. Again, had we clipped him in September a blanket clip would suffice now. Anyway, his Mum has her own horse so is very knowledgeable and will keep him warm without him overheating, sheltered and well fed, without him getting over excitable.

Finally; here are some before and after photos. The first one doesn`t do justice to how reminiscent of a polar bear he was. Imagine, he blunted my sharp clipper blades on the first side!



Do They Ever Know Us?

21 Oct

A riding school client asked me a couple of weeks ago how often they needed to ride for the horses to know who they were.

I didn’t really have an answer to her question but have thought about since.

Horses get to know us if we are part of their routine and life. For example, when I was feeding a friends horse when he was away I was welcomed warmly after the second day. But then, I’m already a familiar face to this horse.

Otis recognises, whether he chooses to acknowledge them or not; me, my uncle, and field family. He usually looks out of his stable when our neighbour arrives. But I think that’s because he wants treats! He hears my car coming and whinnies loudly when he’s stabled in winter.

Back to my clients question. I think if you regularly interact with a horse in a similar manner, e.g. feeding them, then they will recognise you. It also depends on how many people they interact with daily, as to whether you become familiar or not.

I school a horse once a week and he definitely knows me by sight now. But he is cared for by one person every other day of the week. He may not canter across the field to me, but I’m happy with the fact I can call him and he looks up. Another client I teach only rides her friends horse once a week, but she says that he recognises her if she walks past his field. He also hears her footsteps as she approaches his stable.

A pony at my yard whinnies constantly when he sees his owner’s Mum on the yard until she gives him hay. He doesn’t make a sound when she’s not there, which proves what a clever little monkey he is!

I think the riding school horses are a completely different kettle of fish. For starters, they have four or five members of staff care for them daily, plus two or more clients that they see for a limited period once a week or fortnight. As a client, I think you need to be particularly memorable for them to remember you because there are very few constant individuals in their lives.

So I think horses do recognise you, or rather recognise an association that you bring; be it chief feeder, or the one who takes them on fun hacks, or even the one who drills them hard in the school (that’s when you can’t catch them in the field!), but the extent to which they will respond to you depends on how many people they see on a regular basis and how consistent your routine is with them.

Setting Their Neck

19 Oct

Since getting Llani to move forwards and stretch over his back and generally becoming more supple I have moved on to focusing on his transitions.

Unfortunately, Llani doesn`t like this idea. Last week, about halfway through our schooling session I brought him back to walk to ride some walk-halt transitions. I rode him forwards in the walk with a relaxed frame and then half-halted before asking him to halt.

This is where we disagreed. Llani halted the first time, for about three seconds before setting his neck and walking off. So I repeated the transition again. But Llani just set his neck as I half halted and carried on, oblivious. I asked a couple more times and eventually he responded, albeit reluctantly. So I addressed the walk and settled him again before repeating the transition. As soon as I asked he tensed his brachiocephalic and leant against my hand. Frustrated, I lent forward and tapped his poll sharply. Surprised, he stopped immediately.

I gave him a little pat, and then repeated the transition. Sometimes Llani responded well, but needed more encouragement to stay stationary for longer than he wanted, and sometimes he hollowed and gazed into the distance but so long as he listened to my aids he was rewarded.

I did a bit of research about how to improve the transitions, and today we had a better session.

Some suggestions were that I should work Llani on circles and introduce more lateral work so that his neck was relaxed and he was focused on other work before riding the transition. Others said to adjust the timing of my aids so that we were both better balanced and he was carrying more weight in his hindquarters and would step under in the transition and stay soft in the neck. I was also told to ride more transitions on circles. Dutifully, I followed these directives today, and found that leg yielding on a circle into a transition was really helpful. I have to be careful not to do the exercise too many times in a similar environment because Llani soon starts to predict it and halts for a maximum of two seconds before rushing away, so I rode travers or shoulder in before a transition, which really helped.

Interestingly, his trot-walk transitions are fluent and he stays relaxed and focused. Going up the transitions, today Llani went forwards more, instead of coming up and back at me (which was getting rather tiresome) and they are becoming more consisten. I was particularly pleased with his canter transitions as they were more relaxed and less of an imitation of a pogo stick. All I have done here is to ride them on a very quiet, allowing contact and when he doesn`t step forward I ride him back down the gaits and try again.

Llani is definitely improving in his way of going as he is more forwards, in a longer and more relaxed outline, keeping a very consistent rhythm and is much more supple. He is beginning to understand lateral work more, which I think is improving his suppleness. He is also accepting the leg a more and today I had some good strides of medium trot today with him pushing from his hindquarters, as opposed to pulling from his shoulders and falling out of balance as he did previously. He is also learning to walk on a long rein, although when I let him stretch in trot he stops and tries to find my hand, worried about being on his own! I`m looking forward to his first dressage competition in a couple of weeks time, and getting a baseline to monitor his progress.

Jockey Style!

17 Oct

Today I taught two little girls for the last time. One of them is emigrating to New Zealand and the other will continue with her lessons after she’s been on holiday with her family for a fortnight.

I had a think about what to do that was fun and still educational, and after doing a bit of reorganisation I managed to get both of their favourite ponies for the lesson.

We warmed up as usual, keeping them busy with various school movements so they couldn’t giggle too much and they would stop talking for a moment. I wish!

Soon we had cantered on both reins confidently with secure positions – it’s hard to believe that twelve months ago they were nervous in trot and had palpitations at the mere mention of canter. Around the ponies on the ground they would shriek and recoil rapidly. Now, they’re all over them. Scrambling on, leading, untacking, grooming, and picking out feet. They even canter over little jumps!

I decided for a bit of fun, and to help strengthen their lower legs, we would ride jockey style. Now I remember doing this on wet miserable winter days with ten of us nose to tail in the indoor arena. Then we used to have to put stirrups up by ten holes, but today I only raised the girls’ stirrups by four holes. Before they started giggling, I made them go into their jumping position, and exaggerated it slightly so they looked more like jockeys. Then they set off in walk before going up into trot. They weren’t allowed to rise, but had to hover, keeping their lower leg stable. I had them work on both reins, riding circles (don’t worry, they did have little walk breaks) whilst hovering to the trot.

Then, one of the girls let her toes point down line a ballerina and tried to do a nosedive, hugging her ponies neck as he continued trotting round oblivious to her peril. I didn’t think she’d make it, when her heels touched the cantle, but amazingly she pushed herself back into the saddle. I reprimanded her whilst laughing, and reminded her about the importance of heavy heels before we carried on. Afterwards they looked a lot stronger and stable in their jumping position so hopefully they’ll both take that away with them.

We finished the lesson with a race – around the world in both directions with hands out to the side, followed by half scissors both sides and then full scissors front and back. They were pretty nifty! Then they asked to lead the ponies back to the yard instead of riding them, so we did that before saying our goodbyes.

What is Contact?

15 Oct

My thoughts for this blog first surfaced a couple of weeks ago when two Mum`s said two conflicting things.
One said “Of course, Jenny didn`t know anything about outline but the horse she rode just did it on his own. But I`m glad you haven`t taught her that.”

The other said “Wendy needs to improve her pony`s outline.”

So we`ll take a quick look at each case study and I`ll try to explain whether outline and contact should be taught to these girls. From personal experience I know that being taught outline without the knowledge about the hind legs, impulsion, engagement and other terminology leads to a “handy” rider who is obsessed by head carriage, which is something the dressage world is trying to eradicate.

Looking at Wendy first. I`ve not been teaching her long and have focused on improving her seat and making it more independent, so that her arms, which tend to be stiff, don`t fly around too much. She`s improving, but because she tends to have stiff arms and her pony tends to lean against any tension in the rein I`ve not brought her attention to bringing her horse into an outline, but rather generating a more correct way of going – rhythm and suppleness – to encourage the mare to step under with her hind legs and lift through her back naturally, so she puts herself onto a contact and into an outline. From my rider I want her to have still, relaxed arms so the pony wants to work with them, not against them. When I rode this pony I found that suppling her on circles and with travers unlocks her back much more than getting into a fight with her. Obviously as I am twice her usual rider`s size (maybe not that much!) I was more effective with my leg.

My aim with Wendy is to develop her seat and leg aids, whilst encouraging her to stay soft yet consistent with her hands so that she forms a nice rein connection to her pony`s mouth. It won`t take long, but I don`t think the focus should be on the neck with this pony, rather the suppleness of her, and as she and Wendy build the correct muscle and posture she will carry herself in a smart outline.

Moving onto case study two – Jenny. She rides a smart, if slightly overweight, Haflinger who has a well set-on neck. She has very soft, light hands as she is afraid of hurting er pony`s mouth. I`ve worked her hard over the last two years on sitting trot and having an independent seat with correct aids, but as her pony carries himself quite nicely I`ve focused on rhythm and balance. He tends to run away from the leg and can get quite strong when he runs, so we`ve also worked on acceptance of the aids. Which has led up towards lateral work. This has been interesting because, while she is perfectly capable of riding leg yield, her ignorance of the importance of rein contact has caused a stumbling block. She often creates the correct contact and balance unconsciously but as it is almost accidental, it can be inconsistent. So today I took a step back and asked her what she understood by the term “contact”.

Her first response was the hand position – thumbs on top, elbows by your side, carrying the hands … reins of equal length, hands level in all dimensions… Then we struck gold!
“Consistent feel down the reins” she said. I nodded; I tell my rider`s that they should be able to feel the pony`s mouth at the end of the reins, but not feel like they are pulling. It is a connection, and too slack a rein creates lots of “white noise” which means it is harder to communicate between horse and rider. Too tight a rein is restrictive and negative for the horse. Jenny is pretty good here, but I would say that her hand is fractionally too light which means she loses the connection minutely whilst riding. It also means that her pony trots round happily in his own little world, but not fully engaged and focused on her.

I explained to Jenny that she wants to think about riding more from leg to hand. So her rein contact is still light, but she needs to start feeling her pony take the contact forwards, and feel like her is leading a bit more. He`s not in control, but if they were walking down the street he`d be the man holding the woman`s hand (in Victorian times anyway) We started in walk, picking up the rein contact, and shortening her reins by about an inch, and then i encouraged her to apply more leg but not to let her pony jog, so she needed to try riding with the handbrake on fractionally. So she pushes her pony from her leg, into her hand, and then forwards. The forwards part is important as she is releasing him forwards in a controlled manner. It`s a bit like doing a hill start I guess. You have to feel the bite of the clutch before taking the handbrake off. It didn`t take long for my rider to begin to feel that change in her pony, so we moved onto trot.

It was really satisfying work; as soon as Jenny thought about her contact correctly her pony took the contact forward, lightened in his stride and lifted over his back more. At first it was inconsistent from both. After all, their muscles needed waking up! But as we progressed through the hour the moment became seconds, and Jenny began to feel the improvement. We worked on circles and she soon found that by having her pony between leg and hand she could affect the shape of the circle, and leg yield in and out successfully. Even the leg yield down the long side was better! I told her to push from her inside leg to her outside rein (which previously had been slightly slack) and then allow over. Before she pushed with her inside leg, but allowed him to run through her outside rein so they rushed to the track.

Even in the canter she was starting to balance him even more than usual (the rushing has already improved greatly) but when she engages her tummy muscles a bit more and sits on him as opposed to hovering he produces a much better canter anyway.

Basically today was just introducing Jenny to the purpose of her rein contact as a more advanced rider. She already unconsciously does it intermittently, but hopefully by focusing her on this aspect of riding their general work will go up a level and we can move onto more complicated exercises and movements. I still haven`t mentioned outline to her, but told her when her pony is working more correctly and engaging, so that she learns the correct feeling and how to create it correctly and not become fixated on the head carriage.

Teaching Diagonals

13 Oct

This afternoon I taught one of my youngest clients about trot diagonals.

At only five years old, she has a very good, strong position, and rides in trot without stirrups and hands confidently with very good balance. In canter she sometimes holds on, but being so very small I’ll permit that. We do quite a lot of pole work, jumping position, and small jumps. I don’t want to increase the height of the jumps too much as a “pop” by her pony would unseat her little body. If only I could put her on a stretching rack so she was a little bit bigger to be able to be more effective. Last time we did little jumps I had her counting trot strides between the poles – to help her realise when she needed to go into her jumping position, and increase her awareness of her pony’s strides.

Back to today’s lesson. We already ride 10m and 20m circles, serpentines and changes of rein competently so I decided to introduce trot diagonals inn the most basic way. Initially, I explained that we go up and down in trot as our ponies move their legs. She nodded in agreement, so we started trotting and trying to look at her pony’s shoulders. This is usually the hardest part, when riders associate the movement of their body with the movement of the horse’s shoulder. Once she could see the shoulder moving we had a little walk break and I explained the next step.

I told her that it is easier for the pony to go around the school if we are standing up as the outside shoulder moves forward, which is the correct diagonal. I tried really hard to keep my terminology consistent – correct and incorrect, outside and inside, as opposed to wrong and right, or left and right. I then told her that to change her trot diagonal from incorrect to correct then she had to go UP-DOWN-DOWN-UP and then back to her normal rising trot. Now we needed to practice changing the diagonals, so we went into rising trot and when I told her she had to change her diagonal. The only problem we had then was that she kept going up-down-down-up-down-down-up until I told her to do normal rising trot!

We had another break and a change of rein, where I explained that we now needed to look at the other front leg. She went into trot and then started rising, and we looked to see if she was on the correct diagonal. If she couldn’t work it out I called out everytime the outside foreleg went forwards. She soon clicked when she was right. Unfortunately for me she automatically rises on the correct diagonal! It shows a lot of feel though, even if it is unconscious feel. Once we’d established if she was correct or incorrect we changed her diagonal until she was correct.

I interspersed this with some sitting trot and changes of rein, so that she could practise this. If she couldn’t work it out I called out the foreleg movement. I think it would also help her to have tape alone her grey pony’s shoulders to help her see the movement in his short strides. Maybe I’ll try that next week.

We took a little break and did some work without stirrups and made some positional corrections before returning to some work on her trot diagonals and finally finishing with some canter work.

I was pleased that my young client understood the concept of diagonals, even if it still a little bit wooly. Her mum is geared up to remind her of them when she next rides to further reinforce the idea. Next week I can recap and remind her of them when she’s riding round and changing the rein. Hopefully she will retain most of the information and I haven’t overloaded her brain!


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