A Variety of Bounces

I wanted to get a couple of the horses and riders I teach to improve their reactivity over fences so I put together a grid to get them thinking.

I laid out five poles, ten feet apart (we were working on grass, up a hill and neither horse has a huge length of stride so I reduced the usual bounce distance of twelve feet) and then walked two shortish canter strides to another pole. That was 30 feet to anyone going to replicate the exercise, 36 feet if you’re on a flat surface or have a bigger striding horse.

We warmed up by cantering up over the poles. Both horses managed to make the distances with a slightly more forwards canter. Checking for straightness as we went over them.

Then I built up the first fence as a cavaletti, so about eighteen inches from the ground. Then the third and fifth poles. The idea of these small fences was to improve the quality of the canter, and to give it a bit more jump.

Next, I raised the second pole, then the fourth, to just bigger than the cavaletti poles. Once the horses had popped through the grid comfortably, really using their hindquarters, and rounding their backs over the poles.

This alone is a great suppling exercise, but I wanted to improve the horses’ bascule. So I progressively raised the second and fourth jumps so they were double the height of the cavaletti. In order to negotiate these higher bounces the horses had to shorten their bodies, take off at a steeper angle and tuck their forelegs neatly and quickly to their chest.

Finally, I put up the last jump at about 80cm. The bounce fences encourages the horses to shorten their canter stride because they are making air, so to speak. Then they have to lengthen the canter stride and almost go slightly flatter in order to get the two strides to the final fence. A lot of horses find it difficult to adjust between these two canters so take off too far away from the final fence.

For a fairly straightforward exercise, the horses had to think about the fences. Pay enough attention to the smaller bounces that they didn’t tangle their legs up, but not over jump the smaller fences. The horse in the video b is very clean with his front legs, and this exercise made him tuck them up quicker than normal, which will help get him out of trouble if he gets in too deep to a fence. The other horse in the lesson can dangle his forelegs a bit, so alternating the height of the fences gets him thinking about his technique.

For the rider, it’s a good test of balance because their jump position varies between the smaller fences and the bigger fences. Which also serves to improve their position and lower leg stability.

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Tackling Steps Cross Country

At a recent cross country lesson I did we had some fun going up and down some steps at the water’s edge, so I thought it was a good topic for discussion.

Steps are always seen at the higher level competitions, but increasingly are being seen in miniature form at grassroots and training venues.

Usually there’s either one or two steps, and they can either be a step up onto a mound, where there’s another jump and a gentle decline, or vice Verda, or they are set into the side of a hill, so making use of the terrain.

Firstly, let’s take a look at going up steps, because it’s easier for both horse and rider, and usually the first direction tried.

The horse needs to approach with plenty of energy, after all they are going uphill, but the canter (or trot if it’s a green horse and small step) needs to be heading towards collected, so that the weight is off the forehand and the hindquarters are engaged, ready to push the body up the step. The rider wants to be sat up, so that they are looking up the steps and their weight is off the horse’s shoulders. As they jump up the steps, the body should fold forwards, without collapsing onto the neck, hands forward to give the horse plenty of rein because they will need to stretch their neck out to balance. If the heels are down and the weight is in the foot then the rider won’t load the shoulders. A common problem when going up steps is gripping with the knee, so as they fold into their jumping position the lower leg swings back and the rider’s weight tips onto the horse’s withers, so unbalancing the horse and making his job difficult. I always find that you need to stay forward longer than you think over steps, because if you sit up too quickly the hindlegs will find it harder to mount the step.

When introducing horses and riders to steps I always like to find the smallest one and trot then canter up the single step until both are looking confident and understand the concept. With steps you can definitely feel when it has gone right, so often it’s a matter of waiting until it clicks with the rider.

Lots of training venues have a variety of steps, which are really useful for progressively building a horse and rider’s confidence and experience. Once the small step is mastered, and perhaps put into a short course, I like to add in a second step. Usually you can find a small pair of steps. With a pair of steps, the rider needs to be very flexible and balanced, to be able to fold up each step without impacting on the horse’s way of going. The horse needs to be thinking forwards, especially between the two steps so they don’t lose their momentum and end up scrabbling up the second step. As the rider feels the hindlegs climb the step, they want to close the leg to encourage a positive canter stride so they reach the second step at a suitable take off point.

Once two small steps are mastered, you can start to jump up bigger steps. This is physically quite demanding on a horse, so you’re almost better off doing smaller steps a couple more times and keep them feeling confident and not too fatigued.

Next up, is the rider scarer of jumping down steps. Again, start small, and with a single step.

Approach the step steadily, but with positive energy, allowing the horse plenty of time to look and assess the question. Don’t look down the step, drop your weight into your heels as you close the leg to encourage the horse to go down the step. The horse’s weight shifts backwards as they step off the edge, so lean back and allow the reins to slip through your fingers so the horse can lengthen his neck down the step. Lengthening the reins is important to stop the rider being jerked forwards and landing up the neck. Again, a lot of riders don’t stay back for long enough so it’s important to encourage novice riders not to rush to sit up. The secret to staying balanced down steps is keeping the weight into the heel and the lower leg forward.

Some green horses tend to be a bit over zealous and leap down the steps. I find that repetition, and making little deal of the steps usually solves the problem. Only when the horse steps calmly off the step do you want to start going down bigger steps, or multiple ones. Going down steps is a big confidence test for horses, and the rider needs to be quietly positive and stay balanced to give the horse a good experience.

The next step, excuse the pun, with steps is to incorporate them with water complexes. Firstly, stepping up out of water, and then dropping down into the water. The more steps you do, the more confident the horse and the rider become and they start treating steps like any other jump.

I was very lucky that Otis loved negotiating steps, and was very confident going up and down steps, and I loved doing sunken roads and step combinations with him. I spent a lot of time doing small steps, and each time I went cross country schooling I would warm up over small steps to build his confidence and remind him of them before incorporating them into courses so that neither of us thought twice about steps.

Exploring New Places

One of the horses I ride has moved yards, and I’ve had the fun of exploring the local area. This sounds a bit weird, but I do so much hacking around one village, the postman always stops to chat (usually when it’s raining) and tells me about his holiday to Majorca. A change of scenery is always welcome!

Anyway, the first time I went to the new yard I kept a close look out on my journey for bridleway signs or woods with potential tracks. That day we went left out of the yard to a large field with a bridleway around the edge. It’s actually a really nice track that is fairly flat so it will be a good work out when I get to know the ground conditions because we can get some long trots and canters to get her fit. I think I can go further afield from this track, but I want to get to know the area first.

The next time I went right out of the yard, and did a predominately road hack. Keeping the active walk, with a bit of terrain, made her work surprisingly hard, and I came across a few byway and bridleway signs en route. I’m always checking my watch when exploring new territory so I can gauge distances and begin to put routes together and know an approximate duration. I’d like to say I use a compass to keep my bearings, but I’m not that Famous Five, and have a fairly good sense of direction. Plus Google maps on my phone …

After I’ve got my bearings around the immediate area I get out the Ordnance Survey map to see if there are any other tracks that I’ve missed, or ones just beyond the boundary I’ve explored. Then I feel more confident going further afield.

It seems the routes I’ve found so far haven’t been used recently. I had to duck under some pretty low branches, squeeze between the hedges and brambles. Regular use soon pushes back the undergrowth, so hopefully the routes will get easier.

Last week I found an overgrown bridleway which started off overlooking the road and fields before turning into a valley. It felt a bit like Gandalf and Shadowfax traversing Middle Earth as we explored this track. Then we found a fallen tree and couldn’t get past so had to turn around.

We then went the other way along the bridle way until I found a hole in the hedge leading to a large field. It was irresistible, so we headed out and went for a trot and canter around the edge. I think I was accidentally on a footpath – judging by the arrows I could see. At the top of the field I found a bench. It struck me as a bit odd. A wooden bench at the top of a field. But then I clocked the view. And I could totally understand why a bench was there. It was beautiful. The valley dropped away in front of me, hedges lining the view. It must have been someone’s favourite spot to sit back and enjoy the British countryside. Unfortunately the mare was too fidgety for me to take a photo – next time! I think it will actually look more picturesque in a few weeks when the leaves turn orange.

We continued around the edge of the field, definitely on a footpath by now, but I kept close to the hedge so we didn’t damage the crop. Then we squeezed through another gap in the hedge back onto the bridleway and went home the way we came.

It was a really nice hack, and now I know where to go and what the ground is like we can have more trots or canters en route and perhaps venture further along the bridleway.

While I was riding, I was thinking of our hacks at home. Maybe it was the lack of mobile phones, or indeed their signal, but we had names for all our hacks. The Wildings, which was a bridleway through a stream and surrounded by old trees. Wern Ddu, which circumnavigated the local golf course. The West, which went through fields and past the drive of the said house before going back along the lanes. The Pink House, which went past a pink house which has been painted white for the last decade. Bryn-Y-Gwenin, which went through a nearby village. Crow fields… which I was never quite sure how it got it’s name. When we left the yard we told others which hack we were doing, so they knew how long we’d be out and where we’d be if they needed to come and find us. None of the hacks I go on now have names. We just use vague directions – such as going to the woods, or round the village. At each location there are several routes.

Having a new area to explore makes me realise how lucky I am to get to explore so many parts of the UK on horseback and how we take our countryside, and the byways and bridleways, for granted.

Managing Ponies

A friend and I were discussing how tricky it can be to manage ponies so that they stay well mannered and have an appropriate level of energy for their rider.
When we were teenagers helping at the local riding school we were always “squashing” the ponies. If the riding school ponies had had a quiet week, or put a toe out of line, then we rode them. Reminding them to stay round the edge of the arena, not to bomb off in canter, and to give them a more exciting work out – like bigger jumping or going cross country, for example. It meant that they were all very well behaved, and we teenagers had lots of fun!

The Rubber Curry Comb

I see an awful lot of children struggling with their ponies; in Pony Club, riding schools, everywhere.

Reflecting on this, I’ve formulated my plan for when I have ponies, if I have kids.

Ponies evolved to survive in the mountains, so need to be intelligent to survive. The problem is that when they aren’t psychologically challenged they become naughty. It becomes a full time job balancing their fitness level with job satisfaction and I think many parents under estimate the commitment needed by them, particularly if young children are involved.

I would have a suitable pony, probably about 11 hands for my small child but have one or two sharers for them so that four days of the week were occupied. I would have a share arrangement that included at least one riding lesson a week, so I could supervise the sharers to a certain degree, and I would also…

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Breaking The Rules

One of my big hang ups is riders not preparing their canter transitions. And most importantly, not sitting into canter.

I explain to all my clients why we sit; the horse is expected to move smoothly from a two beat trot to a three beat canter, and if we continue to rise in a two beat rhythm we are making it harder for the horse. You can complicate the explanation by discussing how the seat moves differently in canter and trot, but for the riders who tend to rise into canter the first explanation is sufficient.

Last week though, I had to break my own rule. I’ve been working on canter transitions with a client and her horse. They’ve improved, but we haven’t quite nailed them.

Initially, the mare hollowed into the transition and ignored the leg aids. The canter was quite lethargic for a few strides before she found her rhythm.

We’ve improved the mare’s overall suppleness over the last few months because I think one of the contributing factors to the poor transitions is tightness over her back preventing the hindleg coming through.

We’ve also worked my rider in sitting trot to improve her seat and to ensure she isn’t accidentally blocking the canter through the seat. Improving the seat has also improved the hand position, and there’s no longer a “snatch-back” in the upward transition. Which is a very common feature of riders who’s horses don’t readily pick up canter.

There’s also been a variety of exercises to improve their transitions including walk-canter, successive trot-canter-trot transitions, using circles to pick up canter as well as straight lines. The canter itself has improved through lengthening and shortening the strides, using poles and improving my rider’s feel and understanding of a balanced canter.

So after all these avenues have been explored, we are looking at a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing. Part of me wonders if it’s just habit from the mare to lift her head slightly and try to run into canter. Which means we need to break the cycle. Perhaps the mare needs to realise that her rider won’t get left behind, or have negative hands. Or she just needs to build up the muscle strength and memory to perform the balanced and correct canter transitions.

Last lesson, as I observed the canter transitions I realised that my rider is sitting to the trot, but almost sits slightly onto the cantle so when they strike off into canter, she’s just momentarily behind the movement. It’s not much, and there’s nothing wrong with her position or anything obvious, and might be just enough to prevent the mare coming through with the hindlegs into canter, which makes it quite tricky to spot and improve.

Feeling daring, because we were breaking the rules, I asked my rider to ride from rising trot into canter. The transition definitely flowed better and horse and rider looked to be in better sync with each other. We did a few more transitions like this and they definitely got more consistent and smoother with the mare rounding her back more into the canter, and pushing off with her hindlegs.

I’ve left my rider with the instructions to only to riding trot into canter this week, because I think by rising, or having a half seat as she goes into canter gets her weight off the mare’s back, which makes it easier for her to use her back muscles. I also think that the rising encourages a forward swing from my rider’s hips, which should help her sit with the movement, rather than behind, and to absorb the change of rhythm more easily. It’s a very subtle change of technique, and I’m hoping that this week’s practice of rising into the canter means that we find the final piece of the jigsaw next week – fingers crossed!

The Addiction

Why is one day eventing the ultimate competition for so many amateur equestrians? And what makes it so addictive?

I always think it’s the hardest competition to be successful in because you have to get three different disciplines, which require totally different skills, right on the same day. Which is tricky enough, but when you consider the external factors such as weather and ground conditions, both horse and rider fitness and frame of mind, preparation, large class sizes, as well as factors such as tack, shoes, and other equipment, you realise that success in eventing is actually a pretty tough call.

First up, is dressage. You can practice this a hundred times at home, learning it off by heart and perfecting the movements. But when you get to the event the dressage arenas are on grass, possibly with a gradient. Depending on the time of your test, the grass may be dewy, and there is usually more grass cover than the corner of the field that you practiced in at home which can make it slippery. There are usually three or four, if not more, arenas next to each other so horse and rider need to adapt not only to the ground conditions, but also to focus on each other and the test so that other competitors don’t distract them.

So whilst dressage can be the one you are most practiced for, it still has unknown factors to contend with. Although competition experience and knowing the venue can help minimise this.

Next up is showjumping. You can’t get much better than a clear inside the time, but it’s just as easy to have an unlucky rolled pole, so it’s important to practice jumping bigger than the competition height, and over courses on grass. As well as ironing out any blips such as a dislike of planks or water trays. Showjumping courses are usually on grass and can have a gradient, which adds to the complexity of the round.

Finally is the cross country, and don’t forget you have to remember the course that you walked yesterday or a 7am that morning before your dressage. Which can be problematic in itself. The cross country is undulating, likely to ask a few questions such as skinnies, jumping into dark, drops, water or steps. All of which can be practiced at home, but it’s a real test of horse and rider fitness as it’s the final phase of the day, and tests their confidence, ability, and relationship because there is fence after fence. No matter how hard you try cross country schooling, you will jump the trickier fences as part of short courses rather than linking the tricky ones together in a longer course. The competition fences are unknown too, which can make green horses or riders back off but this develops with experience and confidence.

There is also the time aspect of cross country too: the terrain and weather conditions can sap a horse’s energy which makes getting inside the time difficult, but there is also the rider’s awareness for how fast they are going, or should be going.

Just from this, you can see all the different elements you need to practice and perfect in order to be successful at a one day event. The horse needs to be relaxed and obedient, with a good level of schooling for the dressage. They have to be steady, with a careful technique showjumping, and then they have to be fit, fast and bold for the cross country phase. With all those different elements to work on, there’s a higher risk of one not being quite right on the day; be it over excitement in the dressage phase, an unlucky pole showjumping, a doubt in confidence over the tricky cross country fence, or fatigue setting in half way round. I think it’s the challenge of balancing the phases, and of getting them all right on the day which makes riders try, try and try again. And then when you do get that sought after placing, you value the rosette far more than any others you have!

What’s In Store For Us?

I had a bit of an epiphany earlier. Or rather a realisation of what’s to come.

Now the kids have gone back to school it’s quieter. Well, I’m not sure if it is quieter or if it just seems quieter as things get back into their normal groove. To fill my time, I decided last weekend that I would repaint the garage door frame. And next weekend the door. Of course, living in Britain the weather never helps us fulfil our plans, and it ended up being too wet to prep the frame over the weekend, so the job is dragging into this week.

I’ve just put on the first coat of gloss, and as I put everything away I realised that I had more paint on my hands than on the frame. It’s a talent worthy of Britain’s Got Talent really, that I can manage to make that much mess and make it to adulthood.

Anyway, as I was in the bathroom scrubbing the white gloss off my hands with a pumice stone, I suddenly remembered the time when I was seven.

I’m sure this story will still be etched crystal clear on my parents memory because it’s perfectly clear in my mind!

My Dad was painting the side door one March Sunday, while I cycled my bike up and down the drive. I loved my bike, it’s yellow and purple was my pride and joy. Dad was supervising me. Or perhaps I was supposed to be helping him. But if you know my Dad, you don’t want to help him painting because he’s very particular about not dipping your brush in too far, or not brushing the wrong way, etc etc.

Anyway, with a burst of inspiration, I asked if I could paint my hands. Dad said “yes, yes”. In hindsight, he most definitely wasn’t listening to me.

So I cycled over to the tin of white gloss and proceeded to dip both hands in it, all the way up to my wrists. So with hands that resembled Caspar’s, I proudly showed my Dad.

I think he took it pretty well, because I carried on cycling around while he finished painting, covering my bike handles in white.

Once he’d finished the side door, we went inside and tried washing my hands. Half a bottle of fairy liquid and my Dad’s best attempts with the pumice stone, and my hands were no longer thick with gloss, but rather a washed out, sticky off-white. My finger nails being edged with white.

The only problem? It was school picture day the next day!

Despite my parents’ best attempts, my hands were still off-white the next day, which is why one of my school photos has me with my arms cleverly folded to hide my hands.

Today, all I could wonder was what scrapes and predicaments am I going to see, be the rescuer, or have to prevent? And that’s just my husband, let alone the baby! Perhaps I’ll be starting a new blog to record it all!