The Making of a Child’s Pony

I’ve got an interesting project at the moment, helping a lady back her miniature Shetland. I’ve had quite a lot of experience with young horses and ponies, but to be honest, they’ve all been of a size that a teenager or adult can ride. Preparing a small pony for a ridden career is a whole new thing.

Firstly, safety is paramount. Ponies need to be adaptable and accepting of their riders making noise, flapping, and bouncing around. Particularly the smaller ones as they are more likely to have the younger children who can be more erratic in behaviour and less aware of the consequences of their behaviour or a pony’s natural instincts. With this in mind, this poor Shetland pony has been subjected to flapping bags, loud noises, gymkhana equipment and anything you can think of that might spook a horse. We want him to be as bombproof and confident as he can be, before hem meets children.

The pony has done lots of long reining and lunging to get him used to the tack and voice aids, as well as being led in hand, around the arena and along the lane. It’s important that he has good manners when being led and lunged, as he will be predominantly ridden by beginners so needs to be used to working on the lead rein.

We made a dummy rider, dressed in bright clothes, and attached it to the saddle and led the pony round so he got used to having this “thing” on his back, just on the peripheral of his vision. After a few goes with that, weight was introduced in the form of a bag of feed. As he took all of this in his stride, we then needed to source a jockey.

The rider I was looking for needed to be small and light enough for a miniature Shetland, yet old enough to be competent and confident off the lead rein, take instructions, and be calm and relaxed whilst on board. Oh, and to take things in their stride, such as the pony quickening when he doesn’t understand, or not obeying the aids immediately as he learns the ropes.

Amazingly, I found said child. She belonged to a friend of mine, and both were happy to give it a go. So we planned a bootcamp for the Shetland to get him started.

On day one, he was long reined and then lunged quickly to ensure he wasn’t feeling fresh, and then we started leaning over him. I took the time to explain to his rider exactly how and why we were doing each step, and what I wanted her to do. Backing a horse is a good learning curve for a child, but many won’t have seen the process before so they need clear explanations.

Firstly, I got her to lean over the little pony so he felt her weight and saw her jumping up and down next to him. Apart from taking a step to balance, he stood stationary, so after a couple of lean overs, we walked him a few steps with her leaning over. Again, totally unfazed, so we repeated once more before mounting her.

I decided against stirrups as they’d have been level with his knees and I felt it would be easier to drag his rider off if she didn’t have stirrups. After explaining how I wanted her to lean over and then swing her right leg over his back whilst keeping her upper body close to his neck until she was sat in the saddle and could slowly sit up, she got on.

We spent the rest of the session walking the Shetland round, with his rider just sitting and holding the grab strap, legs long, nice and relaxed, as he found his balance with a rider. The leader controlled him as he was used to those aids; just starting and stopping him, whilst one of us walked on each side of him, just in case we needed to grab our little rider.

The next day, we repeated the procedure except that we only leant over once before mounting, as he accepted it all happily. After a walk, I unknotted the reins and explained to his rider how she should hold a light rein contact so that he could get used to the feeling in his mouth, and then we began to add in the aids. He already responds to the voice, so we used these to help him understand the introduction of the leg and hand with some turns across the arena. I had his rider apply a light aid, and then if he didn’t react, apply it slightly more strongly, so that we didn’t scare him, but her aids were effective. It took a few tries for her to build the confidence to give a firm squeeze of her leg to get him responding to her, but I’d much rather start with less and build it up than her give a classic pony club kick and the Shetland leap forwards.

At the end of this session we did the shortest of trots, for both horse and rider to take away and reflect on. The pony was very willing, but wobbled in the way that all babies do.

The Shetland had the following day off, as we don’t want him to get used to being worked daily, or for him to get stale and tired. The fourth day of bootcamp, we mounted with just one lean over, but I don’t think this step is necessary from now on as he seems very quiet. And we had stirrups! After walking round, doing some stopping and starting, and turns around poles and changes of rein, we had a bash at the trot. We started with only a few steps, but built it up as the pony began to feel more confident with his balance. I’m conscious that the Shetland isn’t particularly strong in his back, so three trots was sufficient for them both. We finished the session by walking along the lane.

Bootcamp over, I was really pleased with how adaptable the pony was as he took everything in his stride. His rider did a fab job of doing nothing initially, and then slowly introducing each step. The plan for the next few weeks is for him to be ridden twice a week, and lunged or long reined between, building the riding up so that he feels stronger, straighter, and more balanced in trot, and his rider is controlling him rather than the leader. We’ll take them off the lead when they’re ready, even if it’s just a o get the pony used to walking without an adult by his head. Bearing in mind that he will be a children’s pony, we won’t be focusing on speed or the finer arts of riding, but continue to get him bombproof by his rider shifting her weight, leaning forwards, backwards, sidewards, and doing games such as bending, dropping beanbags; whatever silly things they can think of to do. Getting him used to Pony Club-esque activities will give him a good grounding in preparation for younger, more inexperienced riders. The trot and circles will come in time, as will riding him off the lead, but at the moment it needs to be fun for everyone.

Forage Intake

When packing for this weekend’s riding club camp I spent more time than normal planning how I was going to manage Phoenix; being stabled and ensuring she ate enough forage mainly.

Usually, I’d just plan to bring plenty of their usual hay or haylage, a daily hard feed, and plan to hand graze a couple of times a day. However, after her stresses over the winter, I was keen to avoid upsetting her gut. Particularly as she’s been far more relaxed since living out all the time.

I filled three haynets with hay from home, the same as she’d have if she had to come in for any length of time, such as for the farrier. I then bought a small bale of haylage, the same brand I’d used in spring when she wasn’t eating much overnight. I then packed a large bag of low calorie chaff.

My plan was to mix the hay and haylage, topping her up throughout the day, as I suspected she would leave the hay if she could. Then I would hand graze her three times, if not more, for at least half an hour each time. Phoenix is only used to one feed a day so I didn’t divide it up, so I planned to give her a bucket of chaff a couple of times a day, which would hopefully line her stomach if she was off her haynet.

I wasn’t really sure how she’d react to a big change, so I wanted to be prepared with numerous options.

We arrived on Friday morning, and I had a lesson almost immediately upon arrival. In the fifteen minutes she was first in her stable, she was calm and taking it all in her stride, nibbling on her mixed haynet. She was lovely to ride, and very focused so afterwards I left her quietly in the stable for an hour before handgrazing her at lunchtime.

There has recently been articles published trying to raise the public’s awareness of the colic risk of hand grazing at stay-away shows. The grass is almost certainly going to be a different composition of grasses, herbs etc, and there is a risk of it upsetting your horse’s digestive tract. It’s not really something I am being too concerned about because I think the articles are more aimed at high level competition horses who may spend several hours being held out to graze at a big competition. I can’t see that me letting Phoenix munch some grass for a few minutes at the end of a low key competition or at camp is going to cause colic; the amount she will ingest is a small percentage of her daily intake, and the psychological benefits for her outweigh the risks.

After lunch on Friday she was happy chilling in her stable and had eaten a reasonable amount of her haynet prior to our afternoon lesson, so I was happy that she wouldn’t be working on an empty stomach. Then in the early evening I hand grazed her again before giving her her bucket feed at 6pm and topping up her haynet with haylage. Before I went to bed I gave her a bucket of dampened chaff, and she has one ready for breakfast.

Phoenix seems to have taken camp in her stride, and seems settled, so I’m not too concerned that she will go off her food in stress. I will continue with my hand grazing schedule, adding in a breakfast session today, and see how I think she is later as to whether she needs chaff last thing at night, or if I think she is content eating her net of haylage and hay.

I had her weighed on Friday too, as it’s useful to have a record for travelling and worming, and I was pleased that she came in just shy of my estimation of 500kgs at 495kgs. She was given a body score of 6, but as she’s now coming to the end of the spring grass in her field and is only really carrying fat on her neck, I’m happy with her condition.

I’m hoping that this weekend helps us bond further, and already I feel us coming together more in the ridden work, both of Fridays sessions complemented our regular lessons. Phoenix is being as loving as she knows how by nickering to me whenever I come round the corner, which shows how she has bonded with me, even if she isn’t forthcoming with physical cuddles like Otis!

Bring on today’s cross country!

Getting In The Zone

I go to Pilates every Monday evening and I’ve come to realise recently that the biggest impact it has on my day to day life, apart from the increased proprioception, is the time away from daily hassles of life – unreplied emails or texts, half finished conversations, plans for the next day. Aided by the calming music my mind sifts through the day and files everything away while I stretch, balance and do all other Pilates positions so I leave there feeling much more in control of life – and usually half asleep from the relaxation work at the end. It’s a good way to start the week.

Recently we’ve been beginning Pilates with some mindfulness; learning to deflect the day’s thoughts and focusing on ourselves alone. We all use horses to relax and unwind, but I’ve been thinking more and more about how important it is to get into the right frame of mind for riding. Perhaps you achieve it during the ten minutes grooming your horse; siphoning off worries, thoughts, ideas and shelving them for afterwards. Or perhaps it’s talking to your friend or instructor during the warm up. Whatever your job or lifestyle, it’s so beneficial to your riding to learn how to close the door on life. You will be calmer, more receptive to teaching, have a more positive influence on your horse, who in turn will work better because there is less tension and more focus coming from you. Something for all of us to consider when we arrive at the yard, and definitely something for me to consider at the beginning of lessons when I’m assessing my client and finalising my lesson plan.

This got me thinking about teachability traits. What makes a client easy to teach?

Yes, they need to be interested, enthusiastic, receptive to explanations and corrections – all of the obvious characteristics. But one of the underestimated traits which makes my job so much easier is realism.

I think its important for riders to have realistic goals and ambitions; I find realistic riders are more self assured and positive with their riding. Knowing your capabilities also has a safety implications. Not because you are less bold, or even nervous, in your riding, but because you don’t outface either you or your horse and are more likely to assess the question thoroughly. I find riders who are comfortable with their abilities and limitations are more open with their instructor about their goals and their feelings about a planned exercise; which enables their instructor to best support them, particularly when stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Being realistic about your riding goals and ability doesn’t equate to self-deprication. That’s important to remember. Part of being realistic as a rider is being able to reflect accurately on something, be it a dressage test, showjumping round, or simply a schooling exercise, and then coming to a realistic evaluation ready to try again.

My pet hate when teaching is when a rider blames the horse; “she didn’t respond to my aids”. Ok, they may not have, but why haven’t they responded?

Is it because they’re unable to perform that exercise, in which case why and how can we enable them?

Did they not understand the aids? So how can we teach them so that they do?

Or did you as a rider give mixed or conflicting messages?

The final option is very often the one riders consider last. After all, it’s their failing, and we all know it’s so much easier to blame others than ourselves. Of course occasionally it is purely an error from the horse; a distraction outside the arena, a bit of excitement causing them to rush. But the approach I like my riders to take is the observation, followed by the assessment of what they did and felt, and then how they think they should ride next time to improve.

For example, statements such as:

  • We drifted round the turn but I dropped my outside rein so let him out through the shoulder. I’ll ride a better turn.
  • I think I applied the right aids, but she didn’t do it. Can you remind me what I should be doing?
  • We lost the impulsion on the approach and I didn’t react quickly enough, I’ll hold the canter together more next time.
  • He didn’t respond to my transition aids, how can I prepare him better next time?
  • She feels very strong today, what am I doing, and how can I help her stop rushing and pulling?

Of course it’s not always the rider’s fault (remember, realism isn’t self-deprication), but a teachable rider is one who acknowledges imperfection, but most importantly wants to know how they can improve before they expect their horse to improve.

This way of evaluating takes a while to teach, but I’m so pleased to see my long term clients evolving from giving simple observations in response to my questions (e.g. “how does he feel to the rein contact?”) to telling me their errors (“I forgot to use my right leg”) before I’ve asked, and making suggestions to how they can improve the next attempt (“can I try a shorter approach to see if that helps me keep the canter balanced?). This also means my riders are becoming more independent, and more confident with their assessments which means I’m doing my job well!

So remember, one of the main traits I like to see in riders is a realistic approach to their riding goals coupled with the realism that their horse is not a robot and any failings to perform can be corrected by the rider improving their own performance.

Lameness Diagnosis?

It’s incredibly frustrating when your horse “isn’t quite right”, which is what one of my clients is going through at the moment. There are a couple of avenues that we are exploring, but this takes time.

You end up talking about this mystery not-quite-rightness to anyone who will listen, and invariably you run of the mill suggestions, which of course you considered on Day One. But hopefully one day, someone will make a suggestion that you haven’t thought of and you can investigate its potential.

This happened to me last November. I was tacking up a client’s horse when another livery whom I knew from sight was riding in the arena next to me. I wasn’t paying particular attention except for the fact she seemed to be faffing. Trotting, then walking, then changing the rein and trotting again. So I asked if she was okay.

The rider launched into this story about how her horse had been slightly lame on and off all summer and she’d had the vet, physio, saddler, dentist and no one could shed any light on the problem.

The horse was fractionally lame, and the rider really noticed it as a reluctance to go downhill with pottery steps. After four or five days, the horse was fine for another few weeks.

I asked when was she shod. I wasn’t about to slate her farrier; as far as I could tell the mare was shod well. She had been shod the week before, and had been slightly lame last weekend.

With a bit of deduction, we worked out that the farrier had been on Wednesday, and the mare had next been ridden on the Saturday. Which suggested to me that the lameness could be due to the farrier or her feet.

My only real suggestion was that the farrier was taking the mare’s hooves a little too short for her liking so the shoes felt uncomfortable for a few days. Looking at the feet, the toes didn’t look too short, or that they’d been dumped, but I know that some horses have more sensitive feet – thinner hoof wall, sensitive laminae closer to the edge of the hoof, etc. Tight shoes could cause short strides and a reluctance to go forwards. I wasn’t sure if it would cause a reluctance down hills.

The lady went off with this suggestion and looked in her diary. Each lameness period coincided with new shoes. So she rang her farrier and talked to him.

The next time I saw her she updated me on her investigations, and said the farrier had taken on board her thoughts about the shoes and they were going to put the mare onto a seven weekly shoe cycle, and leave her with slightly longer toes.

Since then, the mare has been sound: full of energy, jumping confidently, and winning competitions.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert in horse lameness or farriery. I based my suggestion on the fact that I’ve previously seen a horse shod badly (the toes were dumped and the shoe was too small for the foot) who became reluctant to go forwards and became pottery in her stride. This is why it can be so useful to talk to others about your horse’s not-quite-rightness. They may have seen a similar situation and be able to point you in the right direction so that with the help of the right professional your horse becomes sound.

Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.

Bow Tie

I’m feeling like I’m neglecting my blogs a bit at the moment, but life seems to be taken up with work, chasing the toddler, birthday parties, hen parties, parental invasions, car services and then this week Demi Dressage judging. Which means that when all of that is done I find I need to sit in a slightly vegetative state in order to recover and prepare for the next day. Which means my to do list grows exponentially!

Here’s a quick exercise I picked up last week, which is great for focusing horse and rider, improving balance and suppleness, as well as tuning the horse in to the leg aids so that they become more manoeuvrable and accepting of the aids. I’ve used it with clients as a warm up and a way of focusing a distracted horse, with a rehab horse to improve his suppleness, and with Phoenix to help her accept the aids and improve her balance when changing the bend.

Called the Bow Tie, it can be ridden in walk and trot, so you can layer it as appropriate for the current level of ability. With the rehab horse I expanded the exercise to give him more time to change his bend and not push him out of his flexibility comfort zone.

Ride along the long side of the arena, let’s say we’re on the left rein. At K, ride a 10m demi-volte, returning to the track on the right rein at E. At E, ride a right 10m circle. Continue on the right rein to H, where you ride another 10m demi-volte and return to the track at E ready to ride a left 10m circle. And repeat.

The demi-voltes to circles provide a quick change of bend, so requires a lot of balance and strength from the horse. Using the 10m circles and half circles requires more flexibility from them, so makes the exercise harder than if they were on a serpentine or figure of eight. Going from a curve to a straight line requires a degree of balance yet also gives the horse a slight reprieve from the circles so doesn’t put too much pressure on them mentally.

I made the exercise larger by using a 60m arena and riding 15m circles and demi voltes, but you can adjust the exercise to best suit you and your horse. I’ve found it a really useful and adaptable exercise so will definitely be bringing it out of my toolbox frequently from now on.

Below is a sketch of half of the bow tie, it gets confusing to draw the second demi volte and circle on, but it should give you an idea.

Bug Bears

We all have bug bears don’t we; little things which cause us far more agitation than they should. Well, I’ve worked out my equestrian bug bear, and that is stirrups. Or more specifically, inappropriate stirrups.

There are so many designs of stirrups available now that I think it’s easy to lose sense of the safety aspect of stirrups, as we try to match stirrup treads to saddle cloths or follow the latest fashion.

I hate seeing children riding in non-safety stirrups. We always had stirrups with peacock rubber on the outside, which pop off with the slightest pressure. Sure, that can be annoying when a child has little control over their lower leg and foot, but it’s of paramount importance when they tumble off the side as their foot comes straight out of the stirrup and they won’t be dragged along by the pony.

The Pony Club I teach for insist on all children having this type of stirrup, but I do think it’s a shame this level of safety hasn’t reached the general population. In my opinion, it should be mandatory for riding schools to use these stirrups on ponies. If kids want to be matchy matchy then you can buy coloured stirrup treads for the stirrups. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a traditionalist.

These stirrups only have one metal side, so aren’t that strong, the same as free-jumps. Which means they aren’t an appropriate design for adults and teenagers as they can bend with the downward force exerted on the stirrup when doing rising trot or cross country position. Instead, you can buy bent leg irons, which have a forward facing curve on the outer side of the stirrup, so allowing your foot to easily come out of the stirrup. I have these on my jump saddle, and can’t imagine going cross country without some form of safety stirrup. It always amazes me that I don’t see more of this style amongst leisure riders.

There are so many different designs of adult stirrups now; lightweight, flexible types, and of course different styles of safety stirrups. And of course they have their benefits, but there’s still safety factors to consider. Stirrup irons need to be the correct size for your foot so that you have the best chance of losing your stirrups in a fall or accident. Even stirrups which claim to be safety ones cannot work effectively if they are too small for your foot. To check that your stirrup iron is the correct width for your foot place your boot-clad foot into the iron and there should be half an inch either side of your boot. Any less and you risk your boot getting jammed. It’s worth remembering that yard boots tend to be chunkier than jodhpur boots so if you swap between the two types of boots you should ensure the stirrups are wide enough for both types of boots.

Unfortunately, it’s something I see all too often. Chunky boots jammed into too narrow stirrup irons, and riders using stirrups that are not strong enough for their weight. There’s a reason free-jumps have a weight limit! Who wants a stirrup to break halfway round a course?! It probably does irk me more than it should do, but I think it’s such a simple thing to get right which makes the difference between a fall and a serious injury. And surely our safety is more important than the latest fashion?

Changing the Approach

A quality of a good jumping horse is having an adjustable canter. So they can adjust the length of their stride in order to fit in a whole number of strides between two jumping elements so that they can jump comfortably. This may mean shortening the canter, or lengthening it.

So when you’re walking courses, and planning your lines to jumps, you want to bear in mind your horse’s length of canter stride. But when you’re working through an exercise at home, do you ever find that no matter what you do you just can’t meet the first element well?

Of course, you can look at adjusting the canter. But we are working with our all-rounder leisure horses, who may or may not be jumping supremos. So we have limitations as to how adjustable their canter is.

Let me put it another way; a top class showjumper has numerous gears to their canter. Let’s say working canter is gear five, and they have a range of canters between one and nine. They can jump out of each gear. Our average horse has a working canter of five too, but only a range between four and seven, per se, that they can comfortably jump out of.

When you consider your approach to an exercise, think about the quality and the gear to your canter, but also consider the distance of your approach. If you have adjusted your canter on the approach, but you still meet the first element half a stride too far or too close to it, then start playing around with the distance of your approach.

You don’t want to push the horse out of their jumping canter, but by riding a slightly inner line than previously, you may well find you meet the exercise in a better place. It may be that you need to ride a wider line, so giving your horse an extra three foot of room to play with as they approach the jump.

You need to be careful at this point, that you don’t just let your horse fall in on turns or cut corners. You are still riding your set line and balanced turns and canter. You are still approaching the fences in the middle and straight, not jumping off a curve or at an angle.

Quite a lot recently I’ve discussed with clients the benefits of changing the distance of their turn onto a line of jumps or poles rather than trying to adjust the canter outside of the horse’s comfort zone.

Left Anchors

I’ve done a few lessons this last week, strangely enough, correcting various riders on their hand position. And particularly, their left hand.

I’m not sure why it seems that so many riders are fixing their left hands down; I can only suggest that society’s bias towards right handedness causes people to use their left hand to stabilise themselves whilst their right hand does the dexterity work.

Anyway, I’ve had several riders this week who ride with their left hand held further back than the right, and low to the wither, like an anchor. This positioning has more impact on a horse’s way of going than many people realise, which is why I’ve been drumming on about it so much.

Let’s take a closer look at the effect of anchoring your left hand down.

On the left rein, you usually find the horse bends more easily and you find it easier to ride round the turns. Having the left rein fixed onto the wither creates left bend in the horse’s neck, which is why it can seem like they are going better in this direction, but when you pay attention to the hindquarters they usually are not following left curves. Riders who fix their left hand usually use this rein to steer, and so their right leg is less effective at pushing the horse left.

This becomes a cycle in that the horse doesn’t respond to the right leg so the rider is more inclined to rescue the situation by pulling their left rein, which means the horse becomes less responsive or understanding of the outside aids.

The left rein needs to be improved by reducing the amount of left bend. I usually ask the rider to take up more contact with the right rein and to raise their left and carry it further forwards. So it feels like it’s much further forwards than the right rein (then they become level) and then to focus on the right leg turning the horse round each turn and the left rein merely indicating.

I quite often ride squares or diamonds with riders who fix their inside rein as it focuses them on their outside aids and encourages them to ride their horse with a straighter neck. I also experiment with counter flexion to increase their awareness of how their horse tends to give too much inside bend in the neck.

On the right rein, an anchored left hand gives a more stable outside rein which I find the horse tends to prefer and they definitely look more settled, but if there is too much anchorage in the left rein it will encourage the horse to look to the outside and to fall onto the inside shoulder and so fall in. They will find it harder to produce right bend, purely because they are restricted. When working on the right rein I encourage my riders to soften the left arm to allow the horse to look right. Then I get them to focus on using the right leg to keep their horse out round the track, on circles etc. Most riders in this scenario fall into the trap of pulling even more with the left rein to try and pull their horse back out to the track. So I do some leg yielding exercises to improve the horse’s response to the right leg and to change my rider’s thinking so they are riding from inside leg into outside rein, rather than using their hand first. This usually triggers an epiphany moment, when they feel the horse begin to give right bend because the right hind is coming under their body more and to feel more balanced.

Some horses try to rush off when the left anchor is released, which is understandable as effectively the handbrake is being taken off. I often suggest the rider half halts with the right rein, even though it is the inside one, because it stops them anchoring the left rein back down, and also encourages the right hand to be a stabilising rein which has huge benefits on the left rein.

After working each rein independently, I then incorporate serpentines and figures of eight to help the rider feel the improved straightness and symmetry in their horse, and for them to tune in to the actions of their hands, when they are the outside and the inside rein.

By now, most riders are beginning to understand the consequences of fixing their left rein down, and with a few gentle reminders here and there, they are beginning to carry their hands and are more even in the contact. Sometimes it’s a matter of practice to retrain their muscle memory.

Correcting the left hand position improves the horse’s way of going, and usually the effect is instantaneous, but as an instructor I then need to work out why the left hand feels the need to fix down so much. Is it related to their confidence? Their balance?

The majority of the time, riders who anchor their left rein sit to the left. Which of course means they’re encouraging their horse to give left bend and will find it harder to apply their right leg. Both of which are symptoms of the situation I described earlier.

Chicken or Egg?

This leads me nicely onto my next teaching subject: working without stirrups and focusing the rider on sitting evenly on their seat bones and the correct aids. Hopefully in a couple of lessons both rider and horse will be working straighter, more correctly, and more symmetrically, which means the rest of their ridden work will improve.

Our Journey

I thought I should give you a little update on how Phoenix and I have been getting on.

Phoenix has settled into her summer routine and is definitely happier living out all the time. Her body language is much more relaxed. She did spend the first week up to her knees in grass and in full season, flirting with the boys next door which didn’t give me full confidence that her summer routine would sort her out.

Out hacking, she seems to have regained her previous confidence and feels much happier exploring the woods. I’ve been playing around with leg yield and shoulder in whilst out because she’s so much more accepting of my aids to change her balance and body position. I’ve been using our hacks to relax Phoenix and to strengthen our relationship. I was very pleased with her earlier this week when out on a hack we met a large articulated lorry. We were at the front of our little group and the lorry was very intimidating; I could feel Phoenix trying really hard to be brave, resisting her instinct to turn tail and flee, barely flinching as the lorry roared past. Meanwhile our equine friend behind us jumped sideways into a ditch!

Schooling has still been a bit of a challenge. I tried a different tack for my last lesson, by taking Phoenix for an hours hack before our lesson. My aim was to relax her and to warm her up outside the arena, perhaps taking the edge off her too in the process. She is a naturally fit horse and runs off adrenaline so there’s no way I can tire her out physically. We did seem to have a bit of a breakthrough then, with her starting off working in a much more relaxed fashion on the left rein, only getting uptight when we began working on the right rein. Small steps.

I feel that Phoenix is challenging my leadership in the initial trot transition of any session; trying to scoot off and get tense when I apply the aids. As soon as I get the first trot she becomes more amenable. Since having the conversation with her that she will trot, and I am still on top giving the aids, she has been less challenging in each schooling session. I think it’s just a test that I need to be aware of, and ensure she doesn’t get ideas above her station in that area.

I also think that she isn’t happy when her body is manipulated into a position that she’s not comfortable with. For example, when she sets herself into left bend (akin to our foetal position) and I try to straighten her or ask for right bend, she tries to scoot off in a little panic. It’s like she’s afraid of moving outside her comfort zone. During our last two lessons, and subsequent schooling sessions she has stopped trying to run away so much from my questions so much, now tensing and stopping to think, before trying to answer my question. So in that respect I am pleased, although I still feel we have a long way to go.

Each schooling session I start in walk on both reins; circles, leg yield, shoulder in. Then begin trotting on the left rein, establishing the rhythm and balance, and waiting for her to relax a bit. Then I change the rein in a “whoops, oh dear we’re on the right rein” sort of way. Ride some circles and movements to eek her out of her left bend and into right bend (or at least straight!). When she gives I ride for a couple more strides before rewarding her by going back onto the left rein. My aim is to spend more time on the right rein, get less of a panic over the change of bend, and less time on the left rein. I do think this behaviour stems from the winter when she was sore and right bend was difficult.

In trying not to get bogged down in our schooling woes, last week we went on a sponsored ride to Windsor. We rode around the Queen’s back garden and had a great day. Phoenix’s behaviour was great, she wasn’t sure what to make of the hundreds of deer who decided to cross our path, but took everything in her stride. She jumped well, and didn’t gallop off when a trio in front of us did. And I hate to say it, but she still had plenty of energy at the end of ten miles! As always, she loaded and travelled like a dream.

Next weekend we’re going showjump schooling, and I’ve signed us up for a showjumping competition in July, as well as riding club camp in a couple of weeks time.

There is a livery space at our yard for a mare, who would join Phoenix’s field to make a herd of three. I’m hoping we get one soon as whilst she’s very happy with her field companion, I do wonder if she needs bossing around in the field, or the dynamics diluting. She’s not a particularly dominant mare, last year she was number two out of six, so I do wonder if her leadership duties are causing a distraction – either by making her less submissive to being ridden, or by causing her to focus less or to be anxious about leaving her domain.

Who knows. All I know is that Phoenix is an enigma.