An excellent question posed by one of my clients recently, which I thought was worthy of a blog post.
For her school work, she wanted to know why we have trot diagonals and why we lay so much importance on them.
Firstly, it’s my biggest bug bear I think, when riders are ignorant of their trot diagonals – the ability to rise with unconscious autonomy and their age or ability to understand are the only exceptions. I just feel that by taking note of the little details of riding, such as trot diagonals, leads to a better learning focus and eye for details which can make all the difference in a dressage test. For example, if you overlook the incorrect diagonal, are you going to ride accurate school movements and strive to improve them?
The legs move in diagonal pairs in trot, so when you are on the correct diagonal the outside foreleg and inside hindleg are stepping forwards as you rise out of the saddle. Before I continue, I should clarify that this is the UK trot diagonals, and shouldn’t be confused with other countries (e.g. France, Russia) standards, which is reverse to ours … I won’t complicate matters!
For novice riders, who are yet to develop their feel I teach them to look at the movement of the forelegs. I use the outside limb because I think it’s easier to see the leg stepping forwards, but I know some instructors get riders to look for the inside foreleg moving forwards when the rider is sitting. I’ve not yet discovered the benefit of teaching this method but if someone would care to enlighten me that would be lovely. Once riders have developed their feel I introduce the idea of feeling what the legs are doing, in particular the inside hindleg so they no longer have to look down to check their trot diagonal.
Back to the original question.
As I said earlier, when on the correct diagonal the rider is rising when the inside hindleg and outside foreleg are stepping forwards. This means their weight is off the horse’s back with enables the horse to bring their inside hindleg further under their body, so increasing impulsion and encouraging the horse to engage their abdominals and lift their back, which all helps the horse work efficiently and correctly. The inside hind leg also bears more weight on a turn, so enabling it to step further under the horse’s body and relieving it of the rider’s weight until the leg hits the ground will allow the inside hip to drop slightly and for weight to be transferred into that limb.
Riding on the correct diagonal also helps the horse balance, and I find it helps them find the correct bend. In part, I think the upward swing of the rise by the rider helps the rider turn their body in the direction of the bend or turn. But whether that’s because the rider is using the propulsion from the inside hindleg, I’m not sure. Either way, there is a noticeable difference between a horse’s bend and balance when ridden on a circle on the correct and incorrect diagonal. I’ve heard that research has been done into the biomechanics of the effect of trot diagonals, which found that the stride length of a horse is longer when ridden on the correct diagonal, which would fit in with the improved balance theory.
It’s important to use the trot diagonals evenly – which is easier in the arena when you work evenly on both reins, but even happy hackers should be aware of changing their diagonals frequently on their hacks. If a horse is always ridden on the left diagonal – left foreleg and right hindleg stepping forwards in the rise phase – then the back muscles, particularly behind the saddle will develop asymmetrically. The left hindleg has to work harder to push forwards because the rider is in the sit phase, therefore the muscles become stronger and less supple. Have you ever ridden a horse in a straight line, and started off in sitting trot and found that the horse always “pushes” you up on one diagonal? This is because the horse has asymmetric muscles and gait, so needs work to correct the imbalance.
I discovered this fun exercise a couple of weeks ago, which has numerous benefits for horse and rider, despite one of my riders declaring the exercise to be “easy” … this was before he’d attempted it!
If you’re following the arrows on the diagram you need to approach the first jump on the left canter lead. Reverse the direction of the arrows for right canter.
I kept the jumps as crosses because with uprights it’s very easy for riders to allow their horses to jump off centre if the circle lacks roundness so we lose the accuracy of the exercise.
This exercise is very good for establishing the rhythm to a course, as the horse cannot rush before or after each fence because the circle slows them and balances the canter.
The circle is also very good for improving the quality of the canter as the horse cannot flatten and lose the three beats on the approach to a fence. Which leads to a better bascule.
If a horse has the tendency to lock on and take a long stride to a fence then this exercise is useful for showing a rider the importance of not encouraging a long jump because the circle afterwards is particularly difficult. It also helps encourage a rider to see a closer take off point. This was what tripped up my rider who declared the exercise as “easy”. His pony tends to lock on, take a long jump over a fence and land flat. The circles made my rider realise that he can’t let his pony get so long as he wouldn’t be able to ride the circle afterwards. On courses, this often happens and they miss the next turn and subsequent fence.
In order for this exercise to flow smoothly, the rider needs to maintain the correct canter lead, which may involve them asking for the canter lead over each fence, especially if the horse favours one particular canter lead. This makes the rider more aware of their body language over and after a jump. The rider needs to plan the circle, but not be too quick on riding it on landing otherwise they’ll finish the circle too close to the centre of the cross of poles and have to jump the side of the fence. Equally, being a bit slow after the fence to respond leads to very large circle and the canter can be allowed to stay a bit long and flat.
I had another rider counting out loud as she rode this exercise to help her keep the rhythm. She was focusing too much on riding a dressage standard circle, and upsetting her horse’s jumping rhythm so he was getting tense and then jumping awkwardly. After a few goes at counting the canter rhythm improved as she rode with more subtle aids so had smoother turns, and they met each fence on the perfect stride, so the whole sequence flowed beautifully.
Grabbing the inside rein will prevent the circle being round, and the horse being balanced, so it’s also important to ride the outside of the horse around the turn in order to finish the circle well and not have a dodgy jump.
The horse’s suppleness will improve as a result of this exercise, which will help on jump offs, because the horse and rider can then ride short yet balanced approaches to fences, and make quick turns on landing which will shave off precious seconds.
Give the exercise a go, I think it’s easy to be complacent about the exercise, but in order to do it well there are lots of little elements to perfect.
One of my client’s poor pony is suffering from white line disease. We think it’s been a long time brewing because each time the pony has been trimmed by the farrier he’s been footsore for a few days. Anyway, what seemed to be an abscess a couple of months ago didn’t clear up and then the vet diagnosed white line disease. A new farrier later, and he’s making progress. Unfortunately, due to the rate of growth in the hoof, any problems with the hoof wall takes months to recover.
I don’t know much about white line disease, so I’ve done some reading up on it. When you pick up the foot, you can see the white line where there sole meets the outer hoof wall. Damage to this area allows fungus and bacteria to get between the sole and hoof wall, which causes them to separate. Infection then spreads up the hoof towards the coronet band, destroying the hoof wall and making the horse very lame. White line disease usually affects the toe and quarters of the hoof. As the hoof deteriorates it takes on a chalky, crumbly, soft, white texture.
There are numerous different types of fungi which can be involved in white line disease, which makes treatment harder, especially as some spores cannot be eradicated, which means that some types of white line disease cannot he treated, only managed.
Because the hoof wall is made of dead cells, like our finger nails, the damaged area cannot regrow as skin would around a wound. Instead new, healthy hoof has to grow down from the coronet band which can take up to six months. Which is why you can see ridges on hoof walls following a change in diet or health.
White line disease sets in if the hoof wall is weakened, or if the hoof wall starts to separate from the laminae due to poor trimming and balancing of the foot. It begins with small cavities in the hoof wall, or seedy toe, which a good farrier should pick up on and take appropriate steps to prevent the disease spreading.
Farriers will shoe horses with white line disease with bevelled shoes to bring the breakover point further under the foot which takes the pressure off the toe area, and supports the compromised area. Shod horses are more likely to develop white line disease because of the mechanical pressure of the metal shoe against the hoof wall can literally tear the hoof wall away from the foot.
Treatment of white line disease involves removing the infected hoof wall, and then keeping the area as clean as possible. Horses usually need box rest, especially if lame, and to keep the foot as clean as possible, using an iodine or alternative solution. Once healing is established and the ground conditions are favourable – dry and mud free – the horse can begin light work because movement improves circulation and increase hoof growth.
There is a risk of laminitis developing as a secondary infection if a lot of the hoof wall is debrided and the bones of the hoof are less supposed so the laminae becomes detached. By supporting the bars and frog of the shoe you can reduce the risk of laminitis developing.
Caught early, white line disease is easily managed, but in more severe cases special shoes, boots or cast are needed for several months in order to provide enough support to the structure of the hoof while the healthy hoof grows down. Farriers measure the lesion upon treatment so that the next time they trim the foot they can establish if the rate of hoof growth is exceeding the tearing of the hoof wall. If this is the case then the hoof will recover as long as it’s kept free from further infection by keeping it disinfected, dry and open to the air to discourage the fungi from thriving.
You can try to prevent the onset of white line disease by feeding biotin containing supplements to improve the quality of the hoof wall, and having the hooves trimmed and well-balanced regularly. The farrier should keep an eye on old nail holes, old abscess sites and quarter cracks. Other than that, good hoof hygiene and care is paramount at preventing white line disease, and catching it early. Horses kept in a more artificial environment – stabled with less turnout – and those in extreme conditions (very wet or very arid) are often more prone to developing white line disease.
Sometimes horses can get a little complacent when jumping and become a bit untidy with their legs, either knocking poles or only just scrabbling over the fence.
To quickly remind a horse that they need to be smarter with picking up their feet over fences; tucking them up neatly and quickly, I like to work them over bounces.
Last week I wanted to combine the bounces for this purpose, with also reminding one mare to sit on her hocks more in the canter. Equally, I wanted her teenage rider to see the benefits of improving in this area for jumping larger fences.
On the three quarter line I set up three bounce fences. The first and third were only a foot high, but the middle bounce was about 80cm. The focus of these three jumps was the centre one, but the first fence improves the cadence in the canter so the bascule over the middle jump is cleaner and more efficient. Then the last fence encourages the horse to sit up and focus on landing, and not to run away on the forehand.
After working through the bounces on each rein, I added in the final oxer across the diagonal. I put this up to 95cm initially but then rapidly raised it to over 1m. The bounces set up the canter so all my rider had to do was maintain it round the corner to the oxer.
This mare can sometimes back off bigger fences, or give a wiggle on the approach (sometimes changing her canter lead too) so it’s not the smoothest or most confidence giving of rides, but the first time they rode the whole exercise at the bigger height (managing to keep left canter, which is her weaker jumping canter) the approach was smoother and the canter more balanced. Which lead to a whopping jump! I think the mare thought it was 1.10m, because she gave it plenty of air and was very neat with her legs over it.
Typically, I only got the second attempt on camera, in which they lost the left canter but when my rider corrected the lead they still had a better quality canter and approach to the jump. The mare looked more confident on the approach and didn’t back off in the slightest or try to change her lead.
The bounces make a very simple warm up exercise prior to jumping a course and has almost instant results because the bounces tell the horse how to canter which can help teach the rider what the canter should feel like.
I gave a couple of horses and riders a good gymnastic workout a few weeks ago.
It was a grid of 3 bounces, followed by one stride to an upright and then two strides to an oxer.
The three bounces encourage the horse to be neat with their legs and quick over the fences, and he needs to be gymnastically very supple and fit to be able to do the three bounces successfully.
However, after the third jump, the horse needs to travel with a good length canter stride in order to reach the bigger upright. If a horse finds the bounces physically challenging then they tend to struggle to make the distance to the upright, and end up chipping in. Then, the horse has a larger oxer to negotiate, when they are starting to tire. The upright jump requires a similar shapes bascule as the bounces, but the oxer requires the horse to take off slightly further away and make a longer bascule so that the horse clears both the front and back rail of the oxer. The change in bascule over the fence is physically demanding of the horse, so requires a high degree of suppleness and gymnastic ability.
However, because the bounce fences have improved the quality of the bascule and encouraged the horse to engage their abdominals and “round” the canter strides so improving their cadence the horse will usually make a more correct shape over the larger two fences and feel more confident over the bigger jumps. The pony in the video below is only 14hh and before Christmas found 80cm jumps tricky, and frequently chipped in before jumps, but the oxer here is just over 1m and he cleared it comfortably and confidently, as well as keeping a very good, positive canter throughout the exercise. If anything, he makes the jump look small.
I did this exercise with a horse who tends to get very long in the canter while jumping. The bounces improved his technique and made him shorten his canter, which meant that over the last two fences he didn’t get so close and had enough time to tuck up his forelegs.
In a smaller arena a few days later, I took out the upright fence in order to fit the grid in, which actually made the exercise a bit harder because there was no gradual lengthening to the canter and bascule. Instead, the 14.2hh horse has to go from a short, neat pop over the bounces to a longer, bigger fence which involves a bigger adjustment to their body so requires more suppleness. This little horse managed the exercise really well, and due to the bounces improving her canter she cleared 1.10m in a very neat and confident way.
Recently some scientific studies have been published which discuss the negative impact on a horse’s jump.
Fairfax, who are famous for their pioneering girths which gave British riders an advantage at the 2012 Olympics, have published the research describing how a breastplate shortens the shape a horse makes over the fence, so that they land more steeply thus putting more stress on their joints. You can read about it in more detail Here.
Obviously Fairfax have developed a breastplate which is far superior to all others on the market. At a price, of course. Now, unless you are planning on remortgaging your house to purchase this ultimate breastplate, let’s have a look at what other options there are.
Breastplates are used to help stabilise the saddle and stop it slipping back. They’re most commonly seen on eventers, who due to their high level of fitness are rather streamlined, almost herring gutted, which encourages the saddle to slide towards the croup.
If your saddle slips backwards the first port of call is to get it checked. It may be that the make of the saddle isn’t best suited to your horse’s conformation, but equally changing the girth may have an impact on the movement of the saddle. You can also use gel pads or non slip pads under the saddle which can help stabilise the saddle. Phoenix came with such a pad, so when I get the saddler out I’ll make sure I take that with me so the saddler can assess if I’ll need it with my saddles and take it into account when he fits the saddle.
I think with any piece of tack, you only want to use what you need. So if your saddle stays still when you’re jumping or going cross country then don’t weigh yourselves down with a breastplate. The same goes for martingales for that matter.
There are a few options with regard to designs of breastplates and breastgirths, and I think it’s so important to consider the horse’s conformation when choosing one.
I tend to feel that if your horse needs a martingale then it’s a good idea to combine that with a breastplate in order to reduce clutter, but otherwise I’d look at breastgirths.
Horses with large shoulders tend to have trouble with saddles sliding back, but the ironic thing is that large shoulders tend to make fitting breastplates difficult. Which was exactly the problem I had with Otis. Initially, I had a hunting breastplate which worked well when he was a youngster, but as we started jumping bigger and getting more serious, I found that the hunting breastplate wasn’t so effective at preventing his saddle from sliding backwards and it encouraged the saddle to sit a bit low at the front.
From there, I tried the V-check breastplate, hoping that the elastic would provide more freedom through his shoulders, but the angle that the straps came up from the centre of his body caused the saddle to drop at the front again, which I think made it harder for him to use his shoulders over jumps and when galloping.
As I needed the breastplate to have a more gentle angle, I looked at a five point breastplate. This one I was most happy with. The sheepskin pads and girth attachments helped reduce the downwards pressure at the pommel, so I felt there was less pressure near his sternum and point of shoulders.
As well as the research done by Fairfax about breastplates affecting jumping, I think it would be more interesting to use the biomechanics technology to see the effect that different styles of breastplates and breastgirths on horses of a variety of stamps – for example, warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and cobs – has on their jumping and where the pressure points are. After all, it would be lovely to be able to had a breastplate which only puts pressure on the horse when needed, but we can’t all justify the price tag, and indeed not all horses are super fit eventers. However it would be great to educate the average horse owner in the pros and cons of different style pieces of tack so that we can do best by our horses.
I was sharing the arena with another instructor a couple of weeks ago and she was using the diamond exercise. I’ve used it before to good effect, but it had fallen off my radar. However, I could think of a couple of clients and horses who would benefit from this exercise.
Best done in a 20x40m arena so you have fence markers to help focus the rider’s eye.
Instead of riding a 20m circle at A, imagine you are riding a 20m diamond. A is one corner, X is another, and there are two more just on the fence line, ten metres from the corner – sometimes a bit of tape is needed to mark this as they are four metres away from K and F.
Starting in walk, ride a straight line from point to point. Just before each corner collect the walk slightly, and then ensuring you are using the outside aids, push the outside shoulder around the turn. The horse will naturally slow and lose impulsion so ride positively out of the corner.
Riding a diamond improves a rider’s awareness of the outside aids and increases control over the outside shoulder as well as reducing their reliance on the inside rein. It highlights any crookedness in a horse, for example a horse will find it harder to move around a right rein corner if they are naturally a right banana. Moving around each corner will encourage the horse to take more weight onto their hindquarters and to bring the inside hindleg under their body more, all helping to strengthen the limbs and improve the quality of the gaits.
After riding a couple of diamonds, you should start to feel the hind legs stepping under more purposefully.
You can then progress to riding the exercise in trot and canter. I find that the biggest improvement is often seen in canter, where the inside hindleg becomes more active and improves the three beat rhythm. As the straightness improves the canter gains elevation and impulsion as the hindlegs work directly on the horse’s centre of gravity so the forehand lightens and the canter feels more effortless.
Some examples of horses and riders who have benefited from this exercise over the last week are as follows:
- One pony drifts through his right shoulder and his rider has a mobile right hand, so riding this exercise, particularly on the left rein, focused my rider on her wobbly outside rein and helped straighten her pony. The difference was particularly noticeable in the canter work.
- Another mare likes to push through the outside rein and triggers her rider to use the inside rein, so the diamonds were most beneficial to her at the very beginning of her warm up to establish the outside aids and ensure the mare is respecting her rider’s aids so that the rest of their workout is more productive as the mare is more focused on her rider.
- Another mare is very lazy with her hindquarters, and transitions have a limited effect on engaging her hindquarters when she begins a session by being behind the leg because she wriggles through the shoulder, so riding the diamonds help engage her hindquarters and maintain the straightness because in an attempt to evade using her hindquarters the mare jackknifes through the shoulder. Then we can use a combination of transitions and other school movements to help get the mare off the forehand.
I think we take it for granted sometimes as riders, how much we do subconsciously and automatically.
When you’re learning the process is as follows:
- Verbally given an instruction
- Think about how to carry out the instruction
- Act out the instruction.
As you gain experience and knowledge, the first step and the second step merge together. You may not be told specifically what to do but you will think about what you need to do. For example, instead of being told by an instructor to put your leg on as a pony backs off a fence you will feel the pony back off and decide for yourself to put the leg on.
Then of course, it becomes innate and you will automatically put the leg on when a pony backs off a fence without consciously thinking about applying the aids.
As a rider, I think I sometimes forget how many half halts, or micro transitions, I make in order to maintain a horse’s rhythm and balance around the school. Sometimes they’re barely noticeable, just an engagement of my core or shifting my weight back slightly, buts it’s all innate.
I’ve been working with a client and her young horse over the winter. He’s been well educated in long reins and on the lunge but he’s a big boy and recently he’s started bearing down on the hand in trot. We’ve focused on establishing the trot rhythm and basic school movements – progressive transitions and circles etc. He’s coming along well, but I was starting to get concerned with how the horse was leaning on his rider’s hands and throwing his head down. Where he’s a big horse, he was also causing her to pitch forwards slightly.
Then I realised that my rider probably isn’t doing enough half halting, or rebalancing, of her young horse. Either she wasn’t picking up on the first sign of him losing his balance so was acting too late, or the half halts weren’t being effective either from her or in the fact the young horse didn’t understand them.
We discussed the fact that when the horse threw his head forwards he was loading his forehand, and whilst it’s understandable that he’s not very strong because he’s a baby, we couldn’t allow leaning on the contact to become a habit. Especially with 18hh worth of horse!
I explained that we were going to exaggerate the half halts, or rebalancing aids, to make it crystal clear to the horse that he needs to come off the forehand and carry himself. It’s important that the hand stays steady but light, and when a horse leans on you it’s a natural reflex to tighten the arms and hold back – like a tug of war.
I got my rider to work her horse in trot, and as soon as she felt him start to bear down on the hand she needed to ride a downwards transition to walk. It’s still a positive transition, in that she was asking with the seat and leg as well as the hand, but the act of going into walk shifted the horse’s weight back towards his hindquarters. After a couple of strides of a good quality walk, it was back into trot. Again, in the upwards transition she was aiming for it to be correct and for him to push up into trot with his hind legs.
We did some circles, changes of rein, and serpentines adding in the rebalancing transitions every time the horse started to drop onto the forehand. After a few minutes the difference was surprising. Whilst not collected by any means because he’s a baby and developing his muscles, he found self carriage. To be picky, he was above the bridle but he was tracking up, looked lighter in front, and was still to the contact. And more importantly, staying consistent in his trot rhythm and looking more balanced.
Now that he’d discovered self carriage, my rider could adjust her position, to ensure she wasn’t slightly pitched forwards (which tends to happen when a horse leans on the hands). This meant that she was more balanced, which only served to help her horse stay in balance – a win win situation.
Then we progressed to riding half halts in the more traditional sense – subtly. Where the horse was in self carriage his rider could engage her core and use very discreet aids, and the horse understood more, and found it easier to react and correct himself.
From this, my rider now needs to develop her internal metronome and become more aware of slight loss of balance in her horse’s way of going. Then she can discreetly rebalance him and he will find it easier to respond to the corrections. If he has a day when he is really bearing down on the hands then repeating the transition exercise will help him rediscover self carriage. After all, he has self carriage on the lunge, but that’s without the weight of a rider or their independent balance to worry about.
It’s tricky to teach the feeling of rhythm and balance, and for a rider to learn when and how much to correct, because with a green horse you may be making subtle corrections every other stride, but once a rider develops this innate process they will be able to apply it to all areas of their riding and be able to improve the way of going of any horse that they sit on.