Demi Dressage

I’ve blogged about it before, but I get so frustrated with the lack of child friendly dressage tests. So many British Dressage and Pony Club tests have movements above a young rider’s comprehension. Then the judge’s feedback goes over their little heads, and I feel that they don’t really benefit in any way, shape or form. Which means, unfortunately that dressage is less popular amongst young riders (with the exception of that Scottish girl who scored 93% or something outrageous. See this week’s Horse and Hound for more details).

So when a friend approached me a few months ago with the idea of running online dressage competitions with tests written for children, and focusing on using a language that they understand and using appropriate school movements (for example, many children can canter, but are unable to canter a circle at E, or pick up canter over X). And of course, promoting fun, with feedback that they understand.

Understandably, I jumped at the chance to be involved, and so Demi Dressage was born. My involvement is fairly basic; I double check the tests as they are written, and then judge the entrants at the end of the month.

There are five levels, which I think covers children of all abilities, and provides them with the groundings to enter a prelim test at the top level. And yes, I have shamelessly copied the description of the levels from the website!

  • GREEN – for riders who are riding independently in walk, and starting to become confident in trot off the lead. Tests will mostly be in walk, potentially with some very very easy movements in trot, and may include some fun mounted exercises. School movements will be very simple. (Approx expected age 4-6 years – but all ages are welcome!)

  • YELLOW – for riders who are relatively competent in walk and trot but are not yet cantering on their own. Tests will be exclusively in walk and trot, they may include some fun mounted exercises or easy movements without stirrups. School movements will be simple to execute. (Approx. expected age 6-8 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow tests may be run in the same class as Yellow-Plus tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • YELLOW-PLUS – these are Yellow tests that are slightly longer, with more trotting, for riders who are not confident to canter but are able to ride slightly more demanding school movements in walk and trot (Approx. expected age 7-10 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow-Plus tests may be run in the same class as Yellow tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • BLUE – for riders who are competent in walk and trot, and learning to canter independently. Tests will predominantly be walk and trot with some very simple canter work. School movements will build on those introduced in the earlier levels, and possibly include some fun mounted exercises. (Approx expected age 7-11 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome!)

  • RED – for older or more experienced riders getting close to progressing to BD Intro and Prelim level tests. Tests will feature walk, trot and canter, possibly some mounted exercises including work without stirrups, and school movements will start to become more complicated in line with those found in BD Prelim tests. (Approx expected age 10-13 years – but younger entrants are very welcome!)

For the Christmas competition we had a two year old on the lead rein doing the yellow test! I found it lovely to see the wide array of ponies and children entering, and all seeming to have fun. Two competitors who really stood out were brother and sister on their family pony. The sister rode off the lead rein, videoed by Mum and with the test called by Dad. The brother was led by Dad, had his sister calling for the first half of the test, and Mum videoing, with the baby strapped to her chest, and calling the second half of the test when sister got bored (Mum, I salute your multi-tasking abilities!). Anyway, it was really nice to see the competition as such a family affair.

Kids love getting rosettes, regardless of colour (I certainly remember the disappointment when I came home empty handed), so Demi Dressage feels it’s important that every competitor receives a rosette. Each class has rosettes to 6th place, every other child gets a special rosette, and there are extras each month for “Best Fancy Dress” or anything else which we feel needs applauding.

We had great fun judging the videos, making sure we were fair, provided positive and constructive comments, focused on where the children were in their riding, and gave feedback which the children understood. I tried to give each child something to focus on next time, as well as saying what I was impressed with. For example, “try to ride from letter to letter to help improve your accuracy marks”, or “practice your sitting trot to help with your canter transitions”. I was really pleased to hear back from one parent that she was very impressed with the feedback her children had received as it was exactly what they were working on at the time and not “dressage jargon”.

With the focus on making dressage fun for the kids, we’ve put in movements such as Around The World and Half Scissors, going over or between poles, and in March there’s going to be a special one-off Prix Caprilli competition. It will run slightly differently, with only three classes (lead rein, walk and trot, walk,trot and canter) and be open to under sixteens, instead of the usual age limit of thirteen. Rosettes will go to tenth place, and there are prizes to be won! Then in April there will be monthly competitions which will run as an accumulator series, and a champion awarded in September. With a sash! And prizes for all the runners up!

There’s another Demi Dressage competition coming up in February, timed to coincide with the school half terms, and I’m looking forward to judging this test! A lot of kids take a break from riding in the winter, so the test is nice and short to encourage them to get back into it even if it’s just for a week, and involves some fun elements such as Around The World, and dropping carrots on the snowman’s nose. Intrigued? Well borrow a pony and get entering! I would if I could …

So if you have a child, or know of one, who would enjoy this, please introduce them to Demi Dressage and spread the word for this fantastic fledgling of a business. Their Facebook page can be found here!

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Newton’s Cradle

I think I’ve blogged this analogy before, but not for some kind and it is one I’m secretly quite proud of.

The engine of the horse is in the hindquarters, and when the energy is created correctly it flows from the hind legs up over the back and out through the front legs.

Now think of a Newton’s cradle. The energy is created from the ball that is lifted away from the others. As it falls and hits the other balls, energy is transferred through those balls and the end ball moves up and away from the rest of the balls. Yes I know it falls back down, but don’t think about that. The horse’s hind legs are like that first ball, and the front legs like the last one. They only move because of the energy created in the hindquarters that is passed through the body. Of course, the better a horse is using their back and working correctly, the more energy that reaches the forelimbs.

Does that make any sense at all?

I find that this analogy is at its most useful when working on shoulder in. So often, I see horses taking themselves across the arena leading with their inside shoulder in a leg yield fashion.

In left leg yield, the right hind steps forward and adducts towards the body to propel the horse sideways. This leg is the first ball in the Newton’s Cradle. Then left foreleg and shoulder abduct away from the body in the direction of movement as a result of energy from the right hind leg being passed through the body. Like the last ball in the Newton’s Cradle.

Depending on the gait you are riding leg yield in, the sequence of the legs will vary, but ultimately by thinking of those two legs in relation to the Newton’s Cradle the rest of leg yield will fall into place and the horse will move across in a straighter, more balanced leg yield.

You can add the rider’s aids into this analogy too, if necessary. Returning to left leg yield; the right leg can be thought of as the first ball on the Newton’s Cradle, instigating the leg yield. Energy travels from this leg aid through the right hind leg, through the barrel of the horse’s body, and out through the left foreleg and the left rein opening to give that leg space to move across akin to the last ball on the Newton’s Cradle.

Hopefully, this analogy helps you understand the correct way a horse generates energy and propels themselves forward, which will improve your horse’s way of going.

Sharers

I was asked the other day on my opinion on sharers, which is becoming a more and more popular option for horse owners. So here are my thoughts.

I’ve seen sharing arrangements which work really well for all parties, and I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong with the sharer fleeing at the first cold wind of winter or the first sign of lameness and the horse owner picking up the pieces.

For the horse owner, having a sharer can help reduce the workload of horse ownership; a sharer can make a financial contribution, help keep your horse exercised and fit, and help out with yard chores. Which can give you a lie in, or a day off from horses. It can help you maintain a healthy horse-family-work balance.

For the sharer, it’s an opportunity to forge a strong bond with a horse which you can’t do in a riding school environment, usually at a fraction of the cost. You get the horse ownership experience without the full time or financial commitment, which can work really well for those with young families or students.

Unfortunately though, I repeatedly see adverts on social media of young people who are basically looking for free rides in return for mucking out. Yes, I understand that financially they may not be able to afford riding lessons, but I worry that their naivety of riding unsupervised, plus the fact privately owned horses often have more get-up-and-go than riding school horses, poses a huge risk to the horse owner.

I still think that sharing arrangements can be a good solution for horse owners, it needs to be entered into carefully and with both eyes open.

Firstly, you need to decide why you want or need a sharer. Is it to help you exercise your horse as they can be too fizzy for you? Is it to give you a horse free day a couple of times a week? Is it to help cover your livery bill? Some share arrangements exchange riding for money whilst others exchange riding for chores. When advertising for a share you need to be very clear with what you expect in return.

Regardless of your sharing currency, there are a few hoops to jump through to help set up a successful share.

Firstly, insurance. You will have your own insurance, but you need to check that your horse is covered with other riders, or that other riders are covered. A good option is to get a sharer to take out BHS Gold membership as this will cover both them and your horse on the ground and in the saddle.

Assess their riding. Have them ride your horse under your supervision a few times, and doing all that they will want to do. So watch them school, pop a fence, and hack. They don’t need to be brilliant, but your horse shouldn’t be offended by their riding. Find out their riding goals, as it is really beneficial to have complementary aims. For example, if you like hacking and the sharer wants to do dressage this can provide variety for your horse. If you don’t like jumping then a sharer who does can be beneficial to your horse’s mental well being and fitness. However, regardless of what you both want to do, you need to have a similar approach to riding. For example, you don’t want to spend your days working your horse in a long and low frame to get them working over their back and relaxed, only for your sharer to undo all hard your work by pinning their heads in or galloping wildly round the countryside. I would strongly encourage sharers to have regular lessons, ideally with the same coach as the horse’s owner so that you can be sure you’re both singing off the same sheet, even if it’s at different levels.

The horse owner should watch how the potential sharer acts on the ground, whether they’re confident around horses and know their hoof pick from their body brush. Even if they’re straight out of a riding school and know very little, they can still learn. It’s worth the owner spending a few sessions with the sharer to help them build confidence on the ground and to set the owner’s mind at rest that their horse will be well cared for. Again, from an owner’s perspective, make sure you’re happy with the standard that the chores are done to when assessing the sharer. They can have room to learn, but you don’t want them doing a poor job and then you playing catch up the following day. It is also worth checking that the sharer is happy with any other horses they may have to deal with. For example, if your horse is in a field with one other then the sharer may well have to feed or hay both horses on their days, so they need to be happy with this, and the owner’s of the other horse does too.

I would also be careful of sharers who are fresh from the riding school as they often don’t foresee how time consuming the looking after aspect of horse care is, especially when they’re fumbling with tools or buckles, so can either shirk their duties and just chuck the tack on with a careless glance over the horse, or lose interest after a week. As an owner, your horse is your first priority and you want them to feel as loved by their sharer as they do by you. It’s definitely worth investing the time in training up a sharer so that they’re happy, your horse is happy, and you can then enjoy your horse free time without worrying.

Draw up a contract. This may seem formal, but it’s a useful reference point if anything goes wrong. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated but should contain the following subjects:

  • Insurance
  • Number of days and which days the sharer has use of the horse. The arrangement for flexibility or additional days (such as school holidays). How much warning needs to be given for changing days.
  • The chores or payment the sharer needs to provide in return for riding, and how often. Some sharers pay weekly, others monthly, some in advance and others in arrears. Some sharers have to do the chores for the entire day that they are riding the horse on, so for example turn out and muck out in the morning, and bringing in in the evening. Others just the jobs when they’re there to ride.
  • What the sharer can and cannot do with the horse. It may be that the horse has physical limitations (for example, an old injury which means they can’t be jumped too high or more than once a week) or that the owner doesn’t feel the sharer is competent enough to hack alone. However, there may be a clause that the sharer can compete or attend clinics with the approval of the owner.
  • What happens in the event of the horse going lame. Unfortunately I’ve seen many sharers up and go when the horse is injured and needs a period of box rest, leaving the owner high and dry. It may be that the sharer has such a bond with the horse that they want to continue caring for them without the benefit of riding, or the owner may have another horse the sharer can ride.
  • The notice period for terminating the contract. This may be a natural end because of the sharer outgrowing the horse, or changing jobs or moving house (or yard) but in order to end on a good note, it is more respectful to forewarn the owner.
  • Who is responsible for livery services? If for example, the sharer has to have the horse turned out on one their days, who foots the bill at the end of the month? Who is responsible for cleaning or repairing tack?

Of course, creating a sharing agreement is far more complicated than it initially seems, but having a good starting point for discussion helps both the horse owner and sharer work out what they want from, and what they can bring to, a sharing arrangement which will then hopefully have the horse’s welfare at its heart and makes for a lasting friendship between owner and sharer.

Another Canter Exercise

You may remember a few weeks ago I told you of a canter exercise is been doing with a lot of the horses I ride and teach with. It does require a wider than normal arena though, which means a few readers can’t utilise the exercise. So I have a variation on it, which can be done in a 20x40m ménage.

In left canter, ride the diagonal line F to H. Between F and X ride a left circle in canter, of approximately 15m. Over X ride a transition to trot. Then trot a right circle between X and H, also of about 15m. I won’t repeat myself in the benefit of the trot circle on the opposite rein to the canter circle, you can read the full explanation in the original canter post (see link above).

You can however, begin to build on this basic exercise once you have mastered it on both diagonal lines.

Step two, is to pick up canter after the trot circle, so in the example above this would be right canter.

The trot circle gives both you and your horse time to prepare for the new canter lead, whilst asking for a strike off in the middle of the arena tests your horse’s balance and understanding of the aids in order for them not to drift through the transition and to ensure they pick up the correct lead.

Step three is picking up canter before the circle. Which means instead of a trot circle it is a canter circle. Less time between the two leads teaches obedience, focus on the rider, and further improves their balance.

Step four. Reduce the number of trot strides over the letter X. This is great preparation for novice dressage tests, which commonly have a change of canter lead through trot.

Step five for those of you looking towards elementary level dressage; change the canter lead with a simple change. This requires more engagement from behind and for the horse to have a more established and elevated canter in order for them to not fall onto their forehand in the downwards transition which then prevents them from being able to push directly from walk back into canter. Bonus points if you can execute a flying change over X.

At the moment Phoenix is only working on step three. The first circle is feeling very balanced, she’s staying straight through both the downward and upward transitions and I can feel her really pushing back up into canter from her hindquarters. However, the second canter circle is still feeling a bit rushed and she drops onto her inside shoulder. Whilst her canter transitions are improving, we need to work on establishing her canter rhythm quicker so that she can stay balanced around the second circle. Once she’s established on the second circle, I’ll begin working towards step four and introducing direct transitions.

A Christmas Cracker

For anyone feeling festively proactive, here’s a fun polework exercise I did with Phoenix this week.

It’s not the easiest to see in the grass, but I had a bit more space in the jumping paddock and it makes a nice change from the four fences of the arena at this time of year, it is shaped like a Christmas cracker. With ground conditions I did make it into a trot exercise, but by adjusting the distances between the poles in the middle, it can become a canter exercise.

I used five trot poles (4’6ish depending on your horse’s stride length) along the middle, with poles perpendicular to the ends. From the last poles I laid two more diagonally to form a triangle, and then two more to so that the point of the triangle became a cross. I’ll get a diagram …

Maybe I need a drone to take images of my exercises from the air … I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with my dodgy sketching on my phone because I am not getting up, risking waking the baby, and losing the only lie in we have booked this week just to get some paper. I’m already annoyed that I didn’t sleep beyond seven!

There are many ways to use this arrangement of poles. Ultimately the only limitation is your imagination!

I began by walking over the centre of the cross of four poles because Phoenix was quite suspicious of them and it took her a couple of attempts to walk straight over the centre and not wiggle around it. I approached from all sides, so either walked the full length of the cracker, or just went across the short side. When I started trotting it, I did the short sides first so she only had to concentrate on the cross on the floor and could get it right.Trotting the full length of the cracker, with the two crosses to keep you straight is a good check of their straightness and the trot poles improve their rhythm, stride length, cadence as well. You could raise these using caveletti blocks to engage their abdominals a bit more. I didn’t because this polework arrangement is the most complicated I’ve done with Phoenix and she found it hard enough to stay balanced over the trot poles and go straight over the crosses before and after without trying to jump them!

You can also trot across the cracker, so you are using the trotting poles as tramlines, which also helps straightness. Adding in a halt transition between them helps improve your straightness through transitions and can stop any cheeky horse from swinging their quarters.

Finally, the ends of the cracker are useful for introducing poles on a curve. This is not something I’ve done a huge amount of with Phoenix – usually it’s on the lunge and using the corner of the arena to support her – so it was a good test of her balance and suppleness. I trotted arcs of various sizes across the two poles at either end in both directions. On the right rein, where she sometimes resists bending through her whole body, she just loaded her right shoulder over the second pole. But by exaggerating the right bend before the poles and ensuring she was listening to my inside leg she started to maintain the correct bend poll to tail over the two poles. I kept the arcs a bit bigger on the right rein until she’d succeeded in staying balanced. I’m definitely thinking of doing more poles on a curve with her in the next couple of weeks as this felt like her weakest area.

Have fun with this Christmas Cracker polework, and if you crack it in trot, adjust the poles so you can do it in canter and that will really test your ability to ride straight!

Tight Nosebands

So I’m a little late to the party with this topic, but I didn’t have time to read, digest, mull over, and think about the Open Letter to World Horse Welfare on the 26th November 2018. When I did have time, I’d lost the article and didn’t have time to find it and blog about it.

But voila, here it is. Hopefully it was worth the wait.

Firstly, I’m going to direct you to the original article, that is the Open Letter, which was shared on social media last week. The link will take you to the renowned Dr David Marlin’s Page (you can thank me later Sir, for your sudden influx in popularity) where you can read the article.

The World Horse Welfare recently covered the delicate yet very current topic of noseband tightness in sports horses. The letter is basically correcting a few misquotes and clarifying statements, but let’s start with the subject of tight nosebands.

I think the equestrian world has become conscious of the issue about how tight a noseband should or could be in the last couple of years, especially as more and more bridles are moving away from the traditional fit and more down the micklem route, highlighting the importance of avoiding facial nerves. I think this has had more of an impact on the amateur riders. The leisure riders. The riding club level riders. These are the people who’s horse is their best friend, a member of their family (go on, admit it you’re signing those Christmas cards love from, then a list of human and fur members. In order of preference, with the human child at the end? Yep, you know you do!). These horse owners want what’s best for their horse. They read magazines, articles online, chat to friends and on forums learning about new equipment and advances within equestrianism. They then buy or trial said item and are converted. Yet I’m disappointed in that the professional world is slightly behind the times. Think about it, not that long ago in Horse and Hound they covered a story about a racehorse (Wenyerreadyfreddie) who races in a micklem bridle. Everyone was aghast. How many professional riders do you see in non traditional tack, even that which is FEI legal? Very few. Charlotte Dujardin rides in either a cavesson or a flash noseband snaffle bridle and the lower levels. Not that I am saying that she has over tight nosebands, I’m just using her as an example to the fact that the higher echelons in our sport are very much traditionalists. A quick look at eventing and showjumping royalty shows a similar trend towards flash and grackle nosebands.

So my first question, is why is there such a difference in tack preference between amateur, lesser qualified riders, and professional, top level riders? We’re all privy to the same information on scientific research, so why are leisure horse owners seemingly so much more open minded to tack, and especially nosebands, which differ from tradition. Of course, if your horse works at their best in it’s traditional noseband then there’s no need to change things, but you can’t tell me that not a single horse on a professional’s yard would benefit from a bridle which reduces pressure either around the nose or poll. Perhaps they need to take a leaf out of Nicky Henderson’s book and experiment to find a happier horse.

One piece of research showed a positive correlation between the tightness of nosebands and the number of oral lesions in competition horses in their post performance tack check. I can quite believe this, but I think it would be a more substantial piece of evidence if a wider range of horses were considered, such as leisure and riding school horses, along with information on their usual tack and its fit (some horses may be ridden in a snaffle for the majority of their training, just wearing a double bridle for test preparation and the competition), their age, and frequency and type of work. After all, competition horses tend to be more highly strung, sensitive, and given the pressures of the competition environment possibly more at risk of developing mouth ulcers, or lesions. As with any piece of research, including the recent stats about Oxbridge being socially exclusive, stats can be skewed and need to be read with open eyes.

The letter also addresses the lack of standards in sample size and getting a cross section of equines from all disciplines, levels of competition or ridden work so that it accurately represents the equine population. This will only change if we, as readers, question research and the quality of their samples, and demand higher standards in equine research.

The crux of the letter, and the most important subject to reflect upon, is what appears to be the World Horse Welfare’s reluctance to accept the taper gauge, which is a standard measure used at competition tack checks, to ensure fairness to all competitors. After all, we fit cavesson nosebands with a two finger gap between that and the horse’s nose. But the width of two fingers on a petite woman is significantly smaller than that of a tall, strong man.

You can view the taper gauge here.

Claims were made that the taper gauge was involved in an incident where a horse got loose at a top international competition, but these were found to be misleading. As far as I can see, from my reading, competitions could do with a quiet area for tack checks, and to somehow try to reduce the tension in the environment while they’re being done. That would hopefully reduce the risk of a horse panicking and bolting, as in the example in the letter. Perhaps more time needs to be devoted to tack checks so they are less hurried, and grooms can remove fly veils with less haste so are less likely to dislodge the actual bridle. Or the tack check is in a small enclosure, so a loose horse doesn’t pose a risk to the rest of the competition. I don’t know the logic in organising this level of competition, but I believe it’s an area which can be improved.

Returning to the subject of taper gauges. In order to fairly measure the tightness of nosebands you must have an objective and standard method. Of course, some horses will take a dislike to a green thing near their head, but in my opinion it is the duty of the owner or rider to introduce the gauge at home, so that the horse is used to the measuring procedure. After all, they can be purchased for a mere ten pounds. Combine this desensitisation process with tack check stewards being trained to safely approach and use the gauge to minimise risk to all involved, and the necessary post competition tack checks should be safe and fair to all competitors.

As with everything in the media, there are ulterior motives and deception, which have certainly been highlighted by this Open Letter from the ISES, so whilst equestrian sport is moving in the right direction in terms of equine welfare, we still have a lot to do to persuade the powers that be to move from their antiquated pedestals and embrace the changes.

A Centre Line Exercise

At the moment I’m focusing on Phoenix’s canter, in particular stopping her hindquarters drifting out on the canter transitions, so earlier this week we used a centre line exercise to help improve the strength of her hindlegs, balance and straightness. It’s an exercise which is harder than it looks, so build it up slowly.

Canter is an asymmetric gait, being three beat, which can lead to horses becoming crooked in the canter, or relying on the fence line to prop them up. Cantering a straight line down either the three quarter lines or the centre line, will show you if your horse is crooked or relies on the fence. If they’re crooked, you’ll drift off the line and if they rely on the fence, then the quality of the canter will decrease and they’ll fall into trot. In order to be able to use this centre line exercise to full effect, it’s worth perfecting cantering straight lines in a consistent rhythm on both reins first.

When cantering the outside hindleg is the propulsion leg, yet in trot the inside hind is the propulsion limb. Which is a reason why it’s quite difficult for horses to ride rapid sequences of trot and canter transitions; they’re having to change their propulsion leg and change their balance between left and right, which utilises their abdominals and tests their balance.

Bearing this fact in mind, you should start to understand how the following exercise helps improve the canter transitions and impulsion in the canter.

On the right rein, pick up right canter and then turn down the centre line at A. Between D and X, circle right. If you’re unlucky enough to have a 20x40m school this is a harder element than in a wider school because your circles are smaller. Maximise your space on this circle to help keep your horse as balanced as possible.

After the circle ride a few straight strides of canter. After X ride a transition to trot – without wobbling off the centre line – and before G ride a ten metre circle left. This circle needs to be smaller than the canter circle in order to be effective. At C, track right.

So, in right canter the left hind leg is the propulsive limb, so if a horse is a bit crooked in the canter, or slightly on the forehand than they will lose the energy from the left hindleg in the downwards transition – it won’t be as an efficient propulsive – and find it difficult to trot a left circle, where that limb is on the inside and propelling then forwards. The exercise improves the straightness in the canter, keeps that hindlimb engaged throughout, and so improves the quality of the gaits.

Ride the exercise a few times on each rein, and you should start to feel the difference in the upwards transition because the horse’s propulsive limb is acting towards their centre of gravity and they are straighter. So long as they stay straighter, and stronger in the canter they will be able to make the transition to trot and stay balanced on the trot circle, which can get progressively closer to the downwards transition to become more of a balance test.

I could feel Phoenix thinking, and staying much more with me in the downward transition, being less inclined to drop slightly onto her forehand, and she definitely stayed a bit straighter when I went up to canter. Interestingly, I did this exercise with a much more established horse a couple of days later and he really struggled. He’s a big moving horse, and tends to drift through his outside shoulder in canter and avoids stepping under with his hindlegs so throws himself into a big trot on the forehand in the downwards transition and so finds it difficult to circle almost immediately, and ends up falling in. I’ll be taking it back a step with him this week to improve the basics before putting this exercise back together again.

A Scale of 1 to 10

I’ve been playing around with transitions within the gaits recently, to improve my riders’ feel, to increase the subtlety of their aids, to improve the balance of their horse and the quality of the gait, and to focus the horse on its rider.

It’s quite a useful warm up exercise so once you’ve loosened up horse and rider, settled their brains and they’ve settled into a trot rhythm, you can begin. It’s equally useful in the canter work too.

The trot a horse and rider are currently in is gauged as a 5. It’s important that the horse’s natural, or most comfortable stride length is in the middle of the scale. Which means that you can’t really compare the 5 trot of one horse, with the 5 trot of another. Especially if they are at different levels of training, as they have different levels of strength and balance. This also means that the 5 trot for one horse will change over time, as they get stronger and are more able to take their weight onto their hindquarters so the trot will naturally collect and become more elevated.

Anyway, I digress. I tell my riders that they need to think of their trot as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Valegro’s piaffe and 10 being Totilas’ extended trot. And no, spellcheck I did not mean the extended trot belonging to a tortilla…

Obviously none of the horses I teach are capable of a 1 trot or a 10 trot, but having a picture of the two extremes can really help a rider understand the exercise and its aims.

So, from their 5 trot, I ask the rider to try and create a smaller trot; a 4 trot. Depending on the level of rider and horse, their 4 trot may only be minutely more collected than their 5 trot, or it may be a significant change. They may only be able to maintain their 4 trot for two strides, or I might expect them to hold it for the length of the long side of the arena. Once the transitions between a 4 trot and a 5 trot have become fluid and subtle, we move on to transitioning between a 5 trot and a 6 trot. Again, only adjusting the horse’s trot within his capabilities, and only maintaining it for as long as he is able. When established, the fun begins and we play around between the three numbers of trot.

Because we’re talking about a sliding scale of trot, it then becomes easy for me to direct the rider. For example, “let’s see some 6 trot down the long side … back to 5 … how about a 4 trot on a 20m circle…”. Within a short space of time we can work through dozens of transitions because numbers are so quick to say and easily comprehended.

I can then begin to help them with their understanding of the various trots – collected, working, medium and extended. For example, if they haven’t really lengthened the trot strides into a 6 trot, a lot of people understand the line “ooh that’s only a 5.5, can you squeeze him all the way into the 6 trot?” rather than a description of stride length, cadence and tracking up. And when they’re more accomplished at this exercise and we’re moving towards Novice level dressage, we can utilise the 3 and 7 trots on our scale and we can then label a 7 trot as medium trot.

I find that using this scale of trots improves a rider’s feel for their horse’s balance, and encourages them to ride progressively between the various trots. In Novice level, the judge is looking for a progressive transition from working trot into lengthened strides. At Elementary level, the transition from working to medium need to be more direct. So with a Novice horse and rider, we’d think of riding from a 5 trot, into a 6 trot for a couple of strides, and then into a 7 trot, before back to a 6 trot and then a 5 trot at the end of the movement. With an Elementary horse, we’d be aiming to ride from a 5 trot straight into a 7 trot and back again. We can also use this theory for their canter work, and then with the Elementary horse, the collected gaits.

When riding transitions within the gaits, riders suddenly have to become more discreet and subtle with their aids so that they don’t unbalance their horse, or ride into a different gait. To shorten their trot, they need to begin to use their seat and not rely so much on the rein half halt as that is too strong and they risk falling into walk. The rider also becomes more aware of the need to apply some leg, even in a downward transition. To lengthen the gait, the rider becomes more aware of the need to maintain a steady rein contact when applying the leg and seat to push the horse on. Overall, I find riding micro transitions refines a rider’s aids, and the horse becomes more attuned to them so is more responsive. Along with improving their feel for maintaining the tempo, the rider becomes more aware of the activity in the hindquarters, and of their horse’s balance, both in their ability to maintain that particular trot and their weight distribution between hindquarters and forehand. This leads to an unconsciously ridden, better quality working trot.

This Week’s Circle Exercise

Phoenix and I did a really useful exercise in our dressage lesson this week, which I subsequently used for some lucky clients and found it to be really useful.

In trot, ride a twenty metre circle at A on the left rein. Once the circle is established, at X ride a ten metre circle on the right rein, before continuing on the larger, left circle. Repeat a few times and then on the other rein.

The horse needs to stay balanced through the change of rein and onto the smaller circle, so you’re looking for the rhythm to stay consistent. This is a good suppling exercise for your warm up, but is also useful for checking your aids because if you use too much inside rein your horse will lurch onto their inside shoulder through the change of bend.

Now that the exercise is familiar in trot, it’s time to add in the all important canter transition. As you exit the ten metre circle, and rejoin the twenty metre one, ask for canter. You should find you get a very active, snappy transition with a good quality canter.

Now here’s the reason why.

Let’s say we’re asking for left canter. In the strike off, the right hind leg steps first, and then the diagonal pair of left hind and right fore steps forward before the left fore and then the moment of suspension. The right ten metre circle engages the right hind leg, as it’s the inside one, so when you return to the left lead the right hind leg is under the horse’s body, and then they really utilise it during the strike off, which is why canter feels so much more powerful and correct.

All of the horses and riders I used this for had a straighter transition and had a cleaner change of gait, and were less likely to drift into the canter so it was a more established three beats. Riding the transition after a change of bend and away from the fence line also meant that the riders had to be clear with their aids and the horse responsive to them.

Circles, Canter, and Control

I’ve not used this exercise for a while, but recently brought it out for a couple of clients as it was perfect for improving their canter work.

Start by riding a continuous twenty metre circle at A in trot. At A, ride forward to canter. At X, ride a downward transition to trot. Repeat the transitions at A and X on each lap. Then progress to riding four transitions per circle; so a transition at A, halfway between A and X, X, and halfway between X and A. You should repeat the exercise on both reins.

There are several purposes to this exercise. Firstly, the rapid succession of transitions between the two beat trot and three beat canter means that the horse has to engage their abdominal muscles, which helps improve their posture and develops their top line. So it’s very good for their balance and core stability.

If you have a lazy horse, or one who is slow to respond to the leg, riding transitions quickly in succession engages the horse’s brain and teaches them to react more quickly to the aids. The exercise can also increase the rider’s speed of riding. I don’t mean that they trot or canter faster, but that they process the preparation and execution of their aids faster.

Riding the transitions at given points on the circle can be tricky because the horse has less support from then fence line so is more likely to wobble through the transition or hollow their frame. I find this to be especially so in the upwards transition over X. Which of course is quite a common movement in dressage tests. To help stop the horse from drifting, the rider should focus more on their outside aids (usually they’ve slipped so aren’t supporting the horse) and think of riding a straight stride during the transition as opposed to the continuous curve of the circle. This helps prevent the horse drifting out though his outside shoulder and lifting his head because he’s not engaging the hindquarters.

The horse I used this exercise for whilst schooling is fairly forwards but always pokes his nose slightly in the canter strike off. While he’s active in the trot and using his hindquarters to push into canter he just doesn’t quite carry it through. Back and saddle are fine so it’s just a quirk of his. Anyway, I hoped that riding multiple transitions in quick succession would get him fractionally more forward thinking and he would stay connected as he picked up canter. Which he did. He stayed completely soft in my hands and I felt more of a jump into canter as I could use lighter aids because he was anticipating the canter.

A pony and rider that I also introduced to this exercise have a problem with lack of forwardness. After riding a couple of circles the pony was anticipating the transitions so responded immediately to his rider’s aids and then she could put more leg on as she rode him into trot which resulted in a more active trot and the pony became more forward thinking. The upward transitions became more active so the quality of the canter improved. This pony also drifts through the right shoulder on the left rein, so the transitions over X highlighted this so by holding him straighter and with a more supportive outside rein his rider could correct the drift. Then the canter improved further because the inside hind leg started propelling the horse forwards towards his centre of gravity, instead of pushing the energy out through the right shoulder. It was great to see the improvement in the accuracy of their transitions and the quality of the pony’s canter.

To add another level of difficulty to this exercise, count the number of strides in each gait, aiming to get the same number of strides in each quarter. This also encourages you to ride a more accurate transition, which helps improve your accuracy marks in dressage tests.