Something To Get My Teeth Into …

Every so often I teach a lesson that is really rewarding. Whether it is because I’ve done mental gymnastics to work out how best to explain a concept, or had to do some research, or the satisfaction when a client “gets it”.

I had one of those lessons this week, and came away tired, but buzzing. 

One of my teenage clients has recently stepped up a level with her jumping, but they’ve had a couple of hiccoughs, which we’ve been trying to iron out.

Last week, we worked on the rein contact because a stride or so before the jump my rider was dropping the contact and getting in front of her pony. Which was causing him to refuse. But by the end of last week’s lesson she was waiting until the fence to fold and maintaining the contact nicely. Oh and she was also using the snaffle ring of the Dutch gag to minimise the effect of the loss of contact on the pony so that he didn’t lose confidence. 

Then over the weekend she had a pony club rally and got very muddled with the comments that instructor made. I’m not going into who’s right and wrong, but everyone has different ways of explaining principles and it can sometimes be overwhelming for young people to process. 

So armed with the knowledge that I needed to untangle my young rider’s  mind, I spent a couple of days thinking about it all.

She had been told that she was holding her horse back into the fence, but she was getting confused with our work on maintaining a contact, waiting for the fence, and her pony taking her to the fence.

Coincidentally, I’d read an article by Lucinda Green recently which discussed keeping 75% of the horse in front of you on the approach to a cross country fence so that you are behind the movement and in a safer position. It occurred to me that this explanation might be beneficial for this rider to help her understand not to get in front of her pony before the fence.

While she warmed up, I asked her to  think about how much of her pony was in front of her. She started feeling there was 50% in front of her, but by sitting on her bum, closing the leg and pushing the hindquarters into her much improved, steady contact she began to feel there was 75% of her pony in front of her. She found this useful to get her position correct, and to feel that her pony was taking her forwards.

I discussed with my rider the feedback from the rally, and her thoughts on her riding last week, at the rally and today, and we came to the conclusion that my rider had forgotten to close the leg towards the fence and ride positively (because I think we have been focusing on her keeping a consistent contact and not getting in front of the movement) and whilst I may have picked up on this because I know how my rider ticks, her past riding, and the pony; the rally instructor focused on the wrong aspect for my client. Not the wrong thing necessarily, but the phrase and explanation didn’t make sense to my rider at her current level of understanding. It’s also tricky because the pony behaves differently at home than away, so issues that I may not observe can occur. We’re planning an outing with me soon, so I can help my rider at a competition.

With the explanations untangled and my rider clearer in her head, we began jumping the course I had built.

As crosses and uprights at 90cm my rider flew around the course, her rein contact was steady, she kept herself upright and her pony took her into the fences nicely because she wasn’t getting in front of him. 

At this point, they were both looking confident and comfortable. So out of interest, I raised the fences to see if this changed anything. 

Now I had to get my thinking cap on, because things started to fall apart. The pony was keen, getting quicker to the fences and now I could see how my rider was holding him back. Perhaps she was worried he was going too fast to jump, or worried he would put in a sudden stop, or the jumps worried her because they were bigger, I’m not 100% sure why. The trouble is that the pony is keen so if you don’t steady him at some point whilst jumping a course he will get too fast and unbalanced which could cause other issues. It’s a fine balancing act, and one which has got out of proportion.

I reminded my rider of a principle we’ve covered many times. It’s her job to create an energetic, balanced canter and straight approach, but her pony’s job to get over the jump. That means the last three strides were his, and his alone. She remembered and understood this, so I stood in front of the jump and walked away until she told me where she relinquished control over the canter. Marking that place, I then strode out three canter strides. My rider’s point was significantly closer to the jump than the three strides I had walked. Partnered with the fact that a bigger fence has a take off point further away, my rider began to understand that she was trying to dictate the canter for too long, thus inhibiting the way her pony jumped. 

I think this is a fairly recent development, possibly due to their knock in confidence. We now jumped the course, focusing on organising the canter, and releasing the pony in sufficient time to allow him to organise himself over the jump. It was looking much better, and my rider understood everything we’d discussed and could feel how much better her pony was jumping. And how happier he felt.

But we had another problem now. In related distances, my rider was taking a steady, but still trying to slow the canter in those critical three strides prior to the next fence.  

I videoed her, and then we watched the video so my rider could clearly see where she should have released, and how she was trying to steady. I explained to her how she needs to land and try to rebalance her pony, but if she hasn’t managed to, or even if she has, it is vitally important that she releases and let’s her pony do his job. 

This worked. Okay, it was still fast through the related distances but by releasing the control over the canter in sufficient time, the pony still jumped easily and nicely. 

My rider understood everything we discussed, and could see what she needed to do to best help her pony, who after all wants to jump. Now it’s just retraining her eye and getting her to trust that he will fly the jump if she releases the handbrake before the fence. Her position was much more secure by the end, and the contact was steady, so we have resolved the getting in front of her pony issue. This means that I’ll give her some brakes next time and drop the reins down a ring on the Dutch gag, because I feel she can keep the contact consistent now, and I would like her to feel that she has some control around a course. 

We’ll spend the next few weeks focusing on when she’s in charge of the canter and when she needs to relinquish control to her pony.

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