Why Do We Have Trot Diagonals?

An excellent question posed by one of my clients recently, which I thought was worthy of a blog post.

For her school work, she wanted to know why we have trot diagonals and why we lay so much importance on them.

Firstly, it’s my biggest bug bear I think, when riders are ignorant of their trot diagonals – the ability to rise with unconscious autonomy and their age or ability to understand are the only exceptions. I just feel that by taking note of the little details of riding, such as trot diagonals, leads to a better learning focus and eye for details which can make all the difference in a dressage test. For example, if you overlook the incorrect diagonal, are you going to ride accurate school movements and strive to improve them?

I digress.

The legs move in diagonal pairs in trot, so when you are on the correct diagonal the outside foreleg and inside hindleg are stepping forwards as you rise out of the saddle. Before I continue, I should clarify that this is the UK trot diagonals, and shouldn’t be confused with other countries (e.g. France, Russia) standards, which is reverse to ours … I won’t complicate matters!

For novice riders, who are yet to develop their feel I teach them to look at the movement of the forelegs. I use the outside limb because I think it’s easier to see the leg stepping forwards, but I know some instructors get riders to look for the inside foreleg moving forwards when the rider is sitting. I’ve not yet discovered the benefit of teaching this method but if someone would care to enlighten me that would be lovely. Once riders have developed their feel I introduce the idea of feeling what the legs are doing, in particular the inside hindleg so they no longer have to look down to check their trot diagonal.

Back to the original question.

As I said earlier, when on the correct diagonal the rider is rising when the inside hindleg and outside foreleg are stepping forwards. This means their weight is off the horse’s back with enables the horse to bring their inside hindleg further under their body, so increasing impulsion and encouraging the horse to engage their abdominals and lift their back, which all helps the horse work efficiently and correctly. The inside hind leg also bears more weight on a turn, so enabling it to step further under the horse’s body and relieving it of the rider’s weight until the leg hits the ground will allow the inside hip to drop slightly and for weight to be transferred into that limb.

Riding on the correct diagonal also helps the horse balance, and I find it helps them find the correct bend. In part, I think the upward swing of the rise by the rider helps the rider turn their body in the direction of the bend or turn. But whether that’s because the rider is using the propulsion from the inside hindleg, I’m not sure. Either way, there is a noticeable difference between a horse’s bend and balance when ridden on a circle on the correct and incorrect diagonal. I’ve heard that research has been done into the biomechanics of the effect of trot diagonals, which found that the stride length of a horse is longer when ridden on the correct diagonal, which would fit in with the improved balance theory.

It’s important to use the trot diagonals evenly – which is easier in the arena when you work evenly on both reins, but even happy hackers should be aware of changing their diagonals frequently on their hacks. If a horse is always ridden on the left diagonal – left foreleg and right hindleg stepping forwards in the rise phase – then the back muscles, particularly behind the saddle will develop asymmetrically. The left hindleg has to work harder to push forwards because the rider is in the sit phase, therefore the muscles become stronger and less supple. Have you ever ridden a horse in a straight line, and started off in sitting trot and found that the horse always “pushes” you up on one diagonal? This is because the horse has asymmetric muscles and gait, so needs work to correct the imbalance.


Riding Diamonds

I was sharing the arena with another instructor a couple of weeks ago and she was using the diamond exercise. I’ve used it before to good effect, but it had fallen off my radar. However, I could think of a couple of clients and horses who would benefit from this exercise.

Best done in a 20x40m arena so you have fence markers to help focus the rider’s eye.

Instead of riding a 20m circle at A, imagine you are riding a 20m diamond. A is one corner, X is another, and there are two more just on the fence line, ten metres from the corner – sometimes a bit of tape is needed to mark this as they are four metres away from K and F.

Starting in walk, ride a straight line from point to point. Just before each corner collect the walk slightly, and then ensuring you are using the outside aids, push the outside shoulder around the turn. The horse will naturally slow and lose impulsion so ride positively out of the corner.

Riding a diamond improves a rider’s awareness of the outside aids and increases control over the outside shoulder as well as reducing their reliance on the inside rein. It highlights any crookedness in a horse, for example a horse will find it harder to move around a right rein corner if they are naturally a right banana. Moving around each corner will encourage the horse to take more weight onto their hindquarters and to bring the inside hindleg under their body more, all helping to strengthen the limbs and improve the quality of the gaits.

After riding a couple of diamonds, you should start to feel the hind legs stepping under more purposefully.

You can then progress to riding the exercise in trot and canter. I find that the biggest improvement is often seen in canter, where the inside hindleg becomes more active and improves the three beat rhythm. As the straightness improves the canter gains elevation and impulsion as the hindlegs work directly on the horse’s centre of gravity so the forehand lightens and the canter feels more effortless.

Some examples of horses and riders who have benefited from this exercise over the last week are as follows:

  • One pony drifts through his right shoulder and his rider has a mobile right hand, so riding this exercise, particularly on the left rein, focused my rider on her wobbly outside rein and helped straighten her pony. The difference was particularly noticeable in the canter work.
  • Another mare likes to push through the outside rein and triggers her rider to use the inside rein, so the diamonds were most beneficial to her at the very beginning of her warm up to establish the outside aids and ensure the mare is respecting her rider’s aids so that the rest of their workout is more productive as the mare is more focused on her rider.
  • Another mare is very lazy with her hindquarters, and transitions have a limited effect on engaging her hindquarters when she begins a session by being behind the leg because she wriggles through the shoulder, so riding the diamonds help engage her hindquarters and maintain the straightness because in an attempt to evade using her hindquarters the mare jackknifes through the shoulder. Then we can use a combination of transitions and other school movements to help get the mare off the forehand.

Exaggerating Half Halts

I think we take it for granted sometimes as riders, how much we do subconsciously and automatically.

When you’re learning the process is as follows:

  • Verbally given an instruction
  • Think about how to carry out the instruction
  • Act out the instruction.

As you gain experience and knowledge, the first step and the second step merge together. You may not be told specifically what to do but you will think about what you need to do. For example, instead of being told by an instructor to put your leg on as a pony backs off a fence you will feel the pony back off and decide for yourself to put the leg on.

Then of course, it becomes innate and you will automatically put the leg on when a pony backs off a fence without consciously thinking about applying the aids.

As a rider, I think I sometimes forget how many half halts, or micro transitions, I make in order to maintain a horse’s rhythm and balance around the school. Sometimes they’re barely noticeable, just an engagement of my core or shifting my weight back slightly, buts it’s all innate.

I’ve been working with a client and her young horse over the winter. He’s been well educated in long reins and on the lunge but he’s a big boy and recently he’s started bearing down on the hand in trot. We’ve focused on establishing the trot rhythm and basic school movements – progressive transitions and circles etc. He’s coming along well, but I was starting to get concerned with how the horse was leaning on his rider’s hands and throwing his head down. Where he’s a big horse, he was also causing her to pitch forwards slightly.

Then I realised that my rider probably isn’t doing enough half halting, or rebalancing, of her young horse. Either she wasn’t picking up on the first sign of him losing his balance so was acting too late, or the half halts weren’t being effective either from her or in the fact the young horse didn’t understand them.

We discussed the fact that when the horse threw his head forwards he was loading his forehand, and whilst it’s understandable that he’s not very strong because he’s a baby, we couldn’t allow leaning on the contact to become a habit. Especially with 18hh worth of horse!

I explained that we were going to exaggerate the half halts, or rebalancing aids, to make it crystal clear to the horse that he needs to come off the forehand and carry himself. It’s important that the hand stays steady but light, and when a horse leans on you it’s a natural reflex to tighten the arms and hold back – like a tug of war.

I got my rider to work her horse in trot, and as soon as she felt him start to bear down on the hand she needed to ride a downwards transition to walk. It’s still a positive transition, in that she was asking with the seat and leg as well as the hand, but the act of going into walk shifted the horse’s weight back towards his hindquarters. After a couple of strides of a good quality walk, it was back into trot. Again, in the upwards transition she was aiming for it to be correct and for him to push up into trot with his hind legs.

We did some circles, changes of rein, and serpentines adding in the rebalancing transitions every time the horse started to drop onto the forehand. After a few minutes the difference was surprising. Whilst not collected by any means because he’s a baby and developing his muscles, he found self carriage. To be picky, he was above the bridle but he was tracking up, looked lighter in front, and was still to the contact. And more importantly, staying consistent in his trot rhythm and looking more balanced.

Now that he’d discovered self carriage, my rider could adjust her position, to ensure she wasn’t slightly pitched forwards (which tends to happen when a horse leans on the hands). This meant that she was more balanced, which only served to help her horse stay in balance – a win win situation.

Then we progressed to riding half halts in the more traditional sense – subtly. Where the horse was in self carriage his rider could engage her core and use very discreet aids, and the horse understood more, and found it easier to react and correct himself.

From this, my rider now needs to develop her internal metronome and become more aware of slight loss of balance in her horse’s way of going. Then she can discreetly rebalance him and he will find it easier to respond to the corrections. If he has a day when he is really bearing down on the hands then repeating the transition exercise will help him rediscover self carriage. After all, he has self carriage on the lunge, but that’s without the weight of a rider or their independent balance to worry about.

It’s tricky to teach the feeling of rhythm and balance, and for a rider to learn when and how much to correct, because with a green horse you may be making subtle corrections every other stride, but once a rider develops this innate process they will be able to apply it to all areas of their riding and be able to improve the way of going of any horse that they sit on.


The Two Loop Serpentine

There’s a movement that comes up frequently in both prelim and novice dressage tests which I really like. I like how is seems comparatively straightforward, but in order to score well you need to perfect several elements. I also like how it can be used to develop horse and rider in terms of rhythm, suppleness and balance.

It’s effectively a two loop serpentine, but is described in tests as “C half twenty metre circle right to X. X half twenty metre circle left to A.” Or starting at A, or on the left rein.

At prelim level, the movement is carried out in working trot. The judge is looking for the circles to be of an even size, so checking suppleness. For the trot to stay in a consistent rhythm, and for the change of bend to be smooth and balanced.

Initially when I use this exercise with riders, I get them to spend several strides over X changing the bend. A common mistake is that people lurch from the right circle to the left circle at X, which inevitably means the second circle lacks quality. By ensuring that the change of bend is balanced over a few straight strides we improve the suppleness of the horse, and the rider learns to prepare and execute the change of bend fluently, as well as riding accurately over X. Then we reduce the number of straight strides over X as the horse becomes more balanced and understands the exercise until the change of bend is done in literally two strides or less, and the horse passes over X as so often riders miss it because they haven’t ridden an accurate first half circle.

The next step in this exercise is when a test asks for one horses length in walk over X. This means that you have to factor in a transition before and after the change of bend, thus further testing the horse’s balance and suppleness. One horse’s length is 3-5 strides of walk, and the transitions need to be clear so that the walk is a definite four beats. It’s common for the horse to jog in anticipation of trotting again so the judge will mark lower for a loss of clarity in the walk.

Again, when introducing the walk steps to the movement I break it up. We go back to having quite a long straight stretch over X, and initially aim for half a dozen walk strides. This enables the rider to prepare each transition, and to separate each element. Coming off the half circle, they ride the downwards transition, and then change the bend, then ride the upward transition before going onto the second half circle. It’s key to keep the horse in front of the leg, so as soon as the horse is staying balanced into walk with a smooth change of bend, we reduce the number of walk steps. By slowly condensing the movement the horse and rider will be more able to ride it succinctly and fluidly. When practising this movement for a test I’ll quite often vary the number of walk steps so that the horse doesn’t anticipate the upward transition and tense up.

At Novice level, canter is introduced to this movement. In order to change the rein trot is required over X. Here, it is more noticeable if the rider doesn’t establish the new bend because the horse risks striking off onto the wrong lead.

In a similar way to introducing the walk transition, I get my rider to break down the elements and take their time changing the bend and preparing each transition. As the horse’s balance and rider’s preparation improves we reduce the number of trot strides, still focusing on the rhythm of the trot in case the horse tenses or rushes. Eventually, the transitions and change of bend happen almost simultaneously. Only needing one horse’s length of trot over X means that the rider has to be accurate in their transition: there’s no point riding the downward transition too early so you either have more trot strides or you pick up the new canter lead before X. Neither of which are looked favourably on by judges.

So what appears to be quite a simple movement actually requires a lot of preparation and accuracy from the rider. From the horse, they need to be responsive to the aids, supple and balanced through the changes of bend and transition. I think it’s quite a useful movement for assessing a horse’s way of going as well as to check the rider’s understanding of the different aspects of the exercise.


Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.


In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!


Exercises for Developing Medium Trot

One of my clients wants to have a go at some novice tests in the near future, and with another trying to establish herself at novice level, I thought that a blog post all about developing medium trot would be a useful guide for them. Homework so to speak when I’m not around to help.

Firstly, it’s important to understand what a judge is looking for at novice level. Tests will state to “show some lengthened strides” between two markers. This means that they are looking for a gradual yet balanced transition from working trot towards medium trot and then another balanced transition back down over a few strides. It’s far better to do fewer lengthened strides yet keep the horse in balance, than to rush out of working trot and have an unbalanced, incorrect medium trot.

In the lengthened strides, the judge is looking to see a difference in the length of strides. It sounds obvious, but many riders go faster instead of lengthening the step. The hindlegs should lengthen in step as well as the forelegs. This is another common mistake that people make – hurrying the horse so they fall onto the forehand and leave the hindlegs trailing as the forelegs paddle along. The rhythm of the trot should stay two beat, and the horse stay on the contact. Some riders can make the error of pushing their hands forward to encourage the medium trot, which actually causes the horse to lose balance as they reach forwards to find the contact again. When lengthening the strides it’s important to feel the push from the hindquarters, maintaining the impulsion.

So how best to introduce the concept of lengthening the trot strides? To begin with, I like just playing around with variations of the trot so that horse and rider get in tune with the subtle aids needed and improve their internal metronomes. This can be done anywhere in the arena, on circles or straight lines. Initially, I just ask my rider to try to shorten their horse’s strides for a couple of steps, then lengthen for another couple of strides. We aren’t looking for a huge difference in the trot, but rather for my rider to feel the level of half halts from her seat and hand, and the push needed from their seat and leg. Playing around with the trot also make the horse more switched on to the aids and engages the hindquarters. I think it’s important to discuss collection, or shortening the strides at the same time as extending because if a rider cannot collect to help the horse balance, then the horse cannot engage his hindquarters sufficiently to extend.

Then we begin with using the long sides of the arena to start lengthening the strides. I tell my riders to think of slowly growing the trot, a bit like a music crescendo if they are musically minded. To begin with, we want the trot to grow over half a dozen strides. It doesn’t have to grow by very much, but my rider should be aware of the push from the hindquarters, and the two beat rhythm staying consistent.

Over time, the rider should feel that they can push the boundaries in this trot: getting slightly longer strides over the same number of transitional strides, or reach the lengthened strides in fewer transitional steps.

Sometimes I ask my rider to check that they feel they are going uphill. Envisaging standing at the bottom of a hill and looking up to the brow, can correct a rider’s position do that they don’t collapse forwards, and then their seat is more active at driving the horse forwards towards medium trot. This position then helps the horse lift their shoulder and forehand.

If the rider lets their hands creep forwards as they lengthen the trot strides, then I remind them to ride the hindquarters towards the hand and then allow the horse to move forwards, with the hands following them so the contact is neither restrictive or lax.

Getting the rider to think about how their rising to the trot will help too. With longer trots strides, the rider’s hips need to swing more in the rise. Just by getting the rider to push and swing into their rise can help the horse push from behind and transmit the energy over their back. Likewise, by reducing the swing of the hips and using smaller rises will help shorten the strides. Developing the seat in this way makes the transition from working towards medium trot more fluid. A novice dressage judge is focusing on the strides lengthening without the horse hurrying, with smooth and balanced transitions, rather than an extravagant trot.

With both rider and horse beginnings to get the feel for lengthening the trot strides it’s now down to practice. Practice to build up their balance, their suppleness and their strength.

Outside of the school, practicing lengthening the trot along bridle paths or up hills can be very beneficial because the horse is naturally more forwards and the incline strengthens their hindquarters and helps them lighten their forehand.

In the school, one of the popular exercises is riding a 10m circle at the beginning of the long side before lengthening the trot strides. At the end of the long side, shorten the trot onto another 10m circle. It can also be ridden across the diagonal, with circles in the corners before and after. The circles encourage the horse to step under with their hindquarters, take the weight there, and then they can more effectively push up into the lengthened strides. This also helps the suppleness of the horse which can make them more “through” over their back.

Lengthening the trot strides on a 20m circle will further test their balance. They need to have the correct bend in order to do this exercise, but if they rely on the rider’s hands, or use their shoulders to balance, then the circle will become distorted.

Ride shoulder in, into medium trot. This has a similar effect to the 10m circles in that the inside hindleg is engaged, and is particularly useful for lengthened strides across the diagonal. Coming out the corner, the outside shoulder sometimes gets stuck on the fence line so the horse isn’t straight and instead of pushing into the medium trot and propelling effortlessly forwards, the horse falls onto their outside shoulder and pulls onto the forehand. Riding shoulder in ensures that the horse straight before lengthening the strides.

Using poles can help lengthen the trot strides too. Begin with poles the usual distance for your horse in working trot, and then slowly roll the poles out to encourage longer steps. Having to lift their feet over the poles also helps improve cadence.

If you only practice lengthening the trot strides in a certain place then a horse begins to anticipate the downwards transition so look like they’ve run out of petrol on the second half, losing the impulsion and balance. A good exercise to overcome this is to ride medium trot out on hacks, but to also ride it in different places in the arena. So if you have a 60x20m arena you can lengthen the trot strides across the short diagonal, the long diagonal, and any other line you fancy, as well as the full length of the long side. I quite like riding medium trot across the diagonal of the 40x60m arena, which really tests the horse’s staying power.


Phoenix’s Big Adventure

At the beginning of the week I took Phoenix out for her much anticipated adventure. We headed over to my friend, Wiola’s, yard – Aspire Equestrian Academy .

It all started with a thorough groom and leg wash. Got to maintain our standards haven’t we, and it was nice knowing that her legs would be mud free for a few hours!

I put a tail bandage and guard on her. She’s not worn travel boots yet and as I haven’t had chance to introduce them to her, I left her with bare legs and just introduced the tail bandage. She loaded slowly. Had a good look around with her front legs on the ramp, but once she decided to commit, she walked straight on.

When we picked her up we loaded and left within seconds, but this time we took our time shutting ramps and getting settled for the journey, and she stood nice and patiently. She travelled well: it wasn’t such as straightforward motorway journey as she had last time, but she coped well with the lanes and roundabouts. That may have something to do with The Chauffeur’s skills though! She was relaxed enough to snack at her haynet en route too.

Once at the yard, we waited near her so she got used to the idea of standing on the trailer for a bit, but we were on hand to keep an eye. This is one of the best parts about taking Otis out – he would stand patiently on the trailer for hours!

Then I put on her bridle and lunge cavesson and unloaded her. She stood quietly, taking in the sights and then I took her to the indoor arena. I have to assume that she’s never been in an indoor arena before, but she took it in her stride as I led her round to have a look. After admiring herself in the mirrors, I started lunging her.

Initially I wanted to see how Phoenix performed in a new environment doing a very familiar exercise. I would say she was slightly less focused on me than at home, keeping her eye on the windows, the spaniel and my friend. Phoenix was a little slower to canter and it wasn’t quite as balanced as at home, but generally I thought she behaved well in a new environment.

Wiola videoed Phoenix on both reins and then we had a look. From the outside of the circle, you can clearly see that on the left rein Phoenix tends to lean to the inside, loading her left shoulder. Which is highlighted most in the fact that her tail is carried to left. I’ve found that Phoenix does tend to scribe a smaller circle on the left rein, which is why I’ve introduced spiralling in and out in the trot to help her learn to step under with her inside hindleg and develop the correct bend.

On the right rein, Phoenix stays out on a much bigger circle, but using the logic of the way she carries herself on the left rein then it is not surprising that she finds it easier to scribe a bigger circle.

Wiola suggested that we worked on improving Phoenix’s suppleness, as improving her bend throughout her whole body would benefit her performance on the lunge, help her balance her weight more evenly over the four limbs, make her less prone to injury, improve her vertical balance, and help to improve her canter. In order to teach Phoenix how to bend through her rib cage we did a quasi-leg yield so that Phoenix started to adduct and abduct her limbs whilst walking on a small circle.

Keeping the lunge line quite short, and walking by Phoenix’s shoulder, I walked a small circle with her on the outside. The hand nearest her girth mimicked the leg, and I used that to push her out on the circle so that each forwards step involved her stepping away from me. After a few tries I could see, particularly on the left circle when Phoenix started to take the weight off her left shoulder.

After getting to grips with this in hand exercise, we moved on to trying some poll flexions. This is similar to what a masseuse would do to release tension in the atlas-axis area. It took us a while to get this: for me to work out what to do with my fingers and to find the right pressure points, and for Phoenix to work out what I was asking.

We progressed to trying to perform this poll flexions in walk before having a final trot and canter.

I thought Phoenix looked much more balanced and supple in her trot afterwards. She seemed to find the half halts easier too, so started to use her hindquarters more. Canter looked better too, although she was getting tired by now.

Apologies for the lack of final left rein footage – we did both evenly, I promise!

After a cool down in the indoor, we went out to the new outdoor arena and Phoenix inspected the letters and took in the sights. I definitely need to introduce white boards to her, as I think she may look for monsters behind them initially.

When we loaded her to come home there was a very noisy tractor and trailer of haylage bales, but again after having a little think about the trailer, she loaded and travelled home well.

All in all, I think it was a very positive experience for Phoenix, and we have some homework practicing the various exercises as well as continuing with turn on the forehand and introducing turn on the haunches. After lunging Phoenix today, I thought I could see an improvement already.


A Week in Social Media

Has anyone seen the furore on social media this week about “that dressage test”?

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, there was a video of a US rider performing an Intermediare II test which received a huge amount of interest. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a pretty video. There have been two main responses online.

Firstly, there are the keyboard warriors criticising the riding and quality of the test. To me, the video shows a rider who is out of her depth. She found sitting to the extended trot difficult (not that I can blame her) and the movements lacked finesse. The horse looked like a schoolmaster, who knew his job but unfortunately he did spend the majority of the time behind the bit on the verge of rolkur – which is a sensitive subject at the moment.

So it wasn’t the best example of an Intermediare test. But there’s still no need to publicly insult the rider, although part of me thinks that by competing above her ability and at a live streamed competition she is opening herself up for criticism.

It would be interesting to know the full story. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. But it’s useful to know the circumstances that the photo (or video) was taken in. How long has she had this horse? How long has she been competing? Does she have a trainer? Does she suffer from competition nerves? A new partnership is likely to have some rough edges in their first competition. And someone who is competing at their first national competition, or at a new level, is likely to be nervous so will make mistakes with their riding. Do they have a trainer and has the trainer encouraged this rider to enter this test, or is it all off the rider’s own back?

The next criticism that I read was about the US dressage system. Apparently there’s no entry requirements to ride at the higher levels in the US. Which, in my opinion, leads to a lowering of standards and allows riders to take short cuts in their training. Then there’s the fact that the judges were quite generous in their marking. However, the judges are marking the horse’s performance and to give the horse it’s due, he tried his best and did all movements asked of him. It’s just a shame that their competition results aren’t a true reflection of the test. The video does highlight a flaw in the dressage world in that judges don’t (or can’t) take it account the effect a rider has on the horse’s performance. Perhaps the competitive world could learn something from this. My friend and I were discussing how equitation tests, which judge the rider as well as the horse, would improve the standard of riding. Unfortunately though, those riders who are striving to improve would enter these classes and the riders who need the feedback and are complacent in their ability wouldn’t enter. Which doesn’t solve the problem.

The last criticism I saw, concerned the welfare of the horse. The rider’s aids were less than subtle, and she did get frustrated with the way the test went and unfortunately took it out on the horse. To me, the social media criticism in this area was most justified and I would be appalled if any of my clients (or I!) behaved like this to their horse at any time as it’s just bad horsemanship.

I think that covers the negative comments with regard to the video. In my humble opinion, whilst no one should criticise without being constructive or having a good level of understanding and education to verify their point of view (and unfortunately a lot of keyboard warriors just bash out insults without a moment of thought), there is a lot to be learnt from the video. Not just from the rider’s perspective, but also from the dressage world’s.

The other side of the debate, was all about bullying. These comments were largely defensive to the rider, saying that the rider should be praised for furthering herself. Yes, I agree, anyone who wants to improve their riding and ability should be supported and encouraged. And the thoughtless insults shouldn’t be endorsed.

I do think, however, that there is a flaw in the way this rider is is going about furthering herself. She’s got the horse power, and done the right thing in getting a horse who can teach her the movements. But I do wonder if she’s getting the right support behind her. Surely she would have been better off competing at a lower level and establishing their partnership, whilst practising the movements at home before going to such a high profile competition. Then, when competition nerves kick in they still perform to a decent level. So perhaps the issue lies with the trainer, for not enforcing the basic building blocks and for pushing her client beyond her current ability in a public environment. Which ultimately will shatter her confidence because the video has gone viral and received less than complimentary comments.

The equestrian world has been shown at it’s worst this week – I’m not going to link to the debates, but a little surfing online will get you there. There are those who have critiqued this rider for the sake of it, and those who have criticised the wider picture in an attempt to improve our little society. But equally, there have been those who have played the anti-bullying card and ended up defending some of the poorest aspects of the equine world. I don’t know who’s right, but I do think everyone can learn something from watching the video and reading up on the situation as a whole.


Riding Definitions

Equitation is hard enough to master as it is, but what many beginners don’t always recognise is that we also have a whole new language for them to learn. Words as simple as mane, withers, girth, to words that always get a snigger, such as lunging, numnah or sausage boot.

That’s before you even get to the ridden terminology. These terms are further complicated by the fact that they are open to interpretation. As an instructor, it’s useful to clarify your meaning of a term to a new client. As a client, it’s important to ask your instructor to explain anything you don’t completely understand.

One term which I find has multiple meanings and causes all sorts of confusion is this, “forwards”.

In the normal world forwards refers to the direction of movement. However, to equestrians it has multiple meanings, depending on the horse’s level or training and the rider’s ability, understanding, and discipline.

Let’s discuss the different aspects of the word forwards.

A horse who is forwards, is responsive to the aids. For example, when you apply the leg and seat aids the horse moves off. That doesn’t mean you ask three or four times and they eventually shuffle off. One ask and it’s done.

A horse who is forwards moves with energy and purposefully. They should still have a good quality gait – be consistent in the rhythm, have a steady tempo, be working into a contact, and be working from behind with impulsion. The strides should be active, of a good length and cadence. The back should swing and the horse shouldn’t look tense.

A forward going horse should feel like they’re taking you forwards – towards a jump, for example – but that they aren’t running away with you.

Very often, riders confuse the idea of a horse being forwards with them being fast.

Unfortunately, many forward going horses have the tendency to rush, both on the flat and over jumps. You can also think of them as hot horses.

Confusing the two concepts means that if you are riding a lazy horse and trying to get them “more forwards” invariably they end up still needing a lot of leg aids and rush around, still not moving purposefully or with a good length of stride. If you have a lazy horse and want to make them more forward going then rather than chivvying your horse around the arena use a variety of exercises to retrain their brain.

If the horse doesn’t respond to your leg aids then you can use transitions to get the horse focused on the rider and the aids. Transitions in quick succession sharpen the horse’s mind, keeps them focused on the work and teaches them to react to the leg and seat aids.

The transitions also teach the horse to use their hindquarters and to step up towards the contact. This improves the activity of the hindquarters which, together with suppling work, improves the stride length and cadence of the horse. Which means that they will find it easier and more effortless to move, and so they work more economically and purposefully.

Providing varied work will keep the horse mentally focused, so they will concentrate on the rider more and have more of a desire to please their rider. Which means that they usually respond to the aids more and have more energy in their work.

Only when the horse learns to react to the first leg aids (which can then become lighter), and move more effortlessly, as well as being mentally switched on to their work, will they become more forward going.