Falling In or Falling Out

After a few days in Wales giving Matt and Mum boot camp, and introducing him to his new jockey, I’ve plenty of blog material.

Let’s start with my Mum’s favourite phrase of the week – “is he falling in?”

Firstly, what can you see if a horse is “falling in”? When lunging, which is probably the easiest way to see, the circle gets smaller, ends up with a straight side, and the lunge line is slack. When riding you’ll find they cut corners, of drift onto the inner track. It’s a common problem with ponies who are being a bit cheeky and lazy, and taking the short cut.

What do you feel when a horse “falls in”? I always feel that it’s like driving a car with a flat tyre: the horse is loading their inside shoulder and may well go stiff and tense on the inside of their neck. With a horse who falls in you constantly feel like you are riding a motorbike.

Why does a horse “fall in”? It’s usually lack of suppleness and balance, so instead of curving through their whole body on a turn and staying balanced, they don’t flex through their barrel and so lose their balance on turns.

How do you correct a horse who “falls in”? Take them back to basics. A lot of novices pull the outside rein, causing the horse to turn their head to the outside but still continue to lean on the inside shoulder. Masking the symptoms but not solving the problem. The problem is usually a lack of straightness and a lack of suppleness.

I take it back to basics: check the saddle is straight, check the rider is sitting centrally. Using the long side, I get them to focus on being straight, and then we check that they aren’t using too much inside rein on the turns which will encourage the horse to fall in. After correcting their turning aids, I get the rider to apply their inside leg through turns to give the horse a pillar to bend around. Sometimes a rider over rides a turn, which causes a horse to turn too sharply and lose their balance, so I check that the correct amount of aids is being applied.

By now, we can see if the rider was encouraging the horse to fall in, or if it’s a stiffness or crookedness issue in the horse. So I turn my attention to improving the horse’s way of going. Activating the inside hind leg and getting the horse to unload the inside shoulder, can be done with some leg yielding. Either spiralling out on a circle, or leg yielding from the three quarter line to the track. Once the horse feels more even, and less like they’ve got a flat tyre, it’s back to normal suppling school movements to improve their flexibility and balance.

If a horse and/or rider is crooked and has a tendency to fall in on one rein then odds are they will fall out on the other rein. Falling out is most noticeable on the lunge, when you feel the lunge line being pulled through your hands as you’re pulled off your pivot point. When you’re riding in the school, falling out can be disguised with a fence line, which acts as a support for the horse and is a damage limitation tool.

A horse who falls out, drifts through their outside shoulder, tending to take any turns a little wide. Sometimes you feel like you aren’t going to make it round the turn, or that they’re like steering a canal boat.

Again, I start by straightening up the rider and increasing their awareness of straightness and ensuring they’re using the correct aids. Then, we begin to improve the horse. Initially it’s about gaining control of the outside shoulder, so shoulder in is very useful, as is a little bit of leg yield from the track to the three quarter line. Once the horse is bringing their outside shoulder around the turns and responding to the outside leg aid, they just need their overall suppleness improving through circles and serpentines.

Let’s take Matt as our prime example. When I sat on him on Sunday I could feel that he was loading his left shoulder; falling in on the left rein and falling out on the right rein. Mum is booking physio for him now that he’s doing more schooling, and to be honest it was a minor asymmetry between the two reins. On the left rein, I did some leg yielding to the right, just a couple of strides in circles, straight lines, etc. And then on the right rein I rode some shoulder fore on straight lines and circles. Then he got his act together, realised I meant business and started carrying himself more. Because each hind leg was then stepping under more actively he could propel himself forwards more efficiently, and his abdominals had to lift, so his topline engaged and he put himself in an outline.

I’ve given Mum homework of some groundwork exercises which will help get his hindlegs stepping under in the turns, and she can do some leg yielding with him to help. Once she’s cracked the straightness element … which I’m afraid to say, is in Part 2!

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Phoenix’s First Party

Last weekend I took Phoenix for her first dressage competition. She’s worked well when we’ve had lessons at other venues so I felt the time was right to get some competition feedback. Plus, the venue was only a few minutes from the yard, so it would have been rude not to.

Our canter is still a bit rushed and unbalanced so I decided to enter the Intro test, and then the Prelim as I thought she would benefit from seeing the arena and white boards twice in quick succession. I felt I should disregard the canter movements in as much as if I got the correct lead, maintained canter on the circle and trotted at the right place it would be an achievement. But I shouldn’t lose sleep over those movements and subsequent low marks.

Phoenix warmed up in the large indoor arena, complete with mirrors and numerous other horses, beautifully. She was relaxed and focused on me. When she relaxes she allows me to bend her with my legs so we did plenty of circles and she felt really settled. I’d put a green ribbon in her tail as she’s still a bit worried by other horses, especially if they canter up behind her or the rider is carrying a schooling whip. I also wanted to hint to the judge that she was new to this game!

When we were called for our first test I had to be led into the arena as Phoenix was busy gawping at a couple of signs, the judge’s car, everything. I walked and trotted her round until the bell; we were mainly using the inner track and were cautiously eyeing up the white boards and shadows from some overhanging trees. Thankfully though, once she’d passed each “monster” she paid less attention to it. Which shows that she just needs her horizons widening.

I was fairly happy with the test. She was tense for most of it, but not as tense as she can be as I could still apply my leg, but we had moments that felt fabulous – on par with her best work at home. Her trot circles were 50% beautiful and 50% tense. She did relax more towards the end of the test and I was really pleased with her walk work, and she showed that she was settling into work by stretching down in our free walk.

My score sheet was very positive. The judge marked in an encouraging way, saying what a lovely horse she was with so much potential. We just need to eradicate the moments of tension. There was quite a range of marks: from 8s for my walk circles, halt and rider collectives, to 5.5 for a walk-trot transition. All the comments were what I expected, and in line with her stage of training, and I definitely felt that I hadn’t produced our best work. But we will I’m sure when she’s got a few competitions under her belt.

Anyway, I was really pleased with a score of 73%, which was enough for first place!

The second test was better. It was a complicated prelim with lots going on, but Phoenix was less looky around the arena – she didn’t need to be led in this time – and overall I felt she was tense for less of the time. Our canter didn’t score highly; I was pleased with the left rein but the right she was falling in, looking at the reflection on the judge’s car, so did a great motorbike impression. Again, there was a range of marks and her walk scored 8s again. The trot work was predominantly 7s and 7.5s, depending on if she lost her rhythm.

I left them: happy with how Phoenix had performed, and confident in how to improve her way of going for future tests. I felt she’d had a positive experience at her first competition. I didn’t expect, however, to win the prelim test with a score of 70%!

Out of the restricted sections now, we’re going to have a nice week of hacking before getting back into the swing of things. Practising steadying and relaxing the trot after canter work (Phoenix likes to keep cantering once we’ve done it once!), and working on those transitions, especially the halt, to begin with. Then we’ll find another competition to go to, for more experience.

Phoenix Goes Showjumping

Any journey with horses is full of ups and downs. They are excellent creatures for keeping your feet firmly on the floor. I’ve been lucky so far that Phoenix and I have basically been on a smooth ride, but we were bound to encounter a couple of ruts in the road soon.

Two weeks ago Phoenix had her final massage as my friend’s case study and then had a long weekend off while we were away. On the Tuesday I lunged her and she was a bit fresh – trotting quickly, cantering before being asked, reluctant to come back to trot, that sort of thing. So I just let her get it all out of her system and then on Wednesday I lunged her again with her sensible head back on and she went nicely, relaxing and swinging along nicely.

Over the weekend, Phoenix had been plagued by little black flies around her ears, so she was feeling sensitive when I put the bridle and headcollar on. I cleaned them out as much as I could, and found an old fly mask of Otis’s for her to try. I wasn’t sure if she’d had a mask on before so wanted to trial her before buying her one of her own. Unfortunately this one didn’t have ears, so as soon as I saw that Phoenix kept a mask on and was comfortable with it, I ordered one of her own. As well as ensuring it had ear covers, I also got a UV proof nose net to protect her white nose.

Thursday and Friday I rode, avoiding the heavy downpours, but she was a bit tenser than I’d have liked. I put it down to her finding it harder to stay balanced in the wetter arena, her ears being a bit tender, and the fact she’d had a week off from schooling but by the end of Friday she was feeling normal again.

On Sunday I took her to a showjumping training venue. We’re so lucky to have such a fabulous arena and set of jumps so local. It was only the fifth time I’d jumped her under saddle, and the aim of the session was mostly to work well in a new environment, to link some fences together be them poles on the ground or small cross poles, and to see some fillers in the arena. It was a very positive experience; Phoenix took it all in her stride, building up from trotting over poles to cantering related distances, and finishing by jumping a little course. We had a couple of duff take off points, but I loved that she was calm and confident throughout. Here`s a link to a video on YouTube – https://youtu.be/vJrJ9PRH7Lk

As she’d worked so hard on Sunday, and probably used muscles which don’t get used very often, Phoenix had Monday off and then a gentle hack on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday we had the saddle fitter again. The good news is that she’s slimmed down to a wide gullet bar, and has changed shape enormously as she’s developing muscle. The bad news is that although the jump saddle was fitted to her, she didn’t like it and refused to move! I highly doubt that she has worn a saddle of that style before so my plan is to hack her to gently get her used to the shorter tree points, the different weight distribution, and it sitting slightly further back on her body. Throughout the saddle fit she went awfully. She was incredibly tense, choppy in her stride, fixed in her neck and shooting off in canter. Saddle fits are always a rush job in the sense that the saddler wants to see all three gaits, whereas in a schooling session I’d work on relaxation, stretching, and her balance in walk and trot before having a canter. The net result was that I came away disappointed and feeling that we haven’t made any progress.

That afternoon I had chance to reflect on everything. I think I underestimate how sensitive to change Phoenix is. Even my dressage saddle would have felt different to her, and the jump saddle is a completely new sensation, so I would take her back to basics on our next ride: walk and trot, getting her relaxed and working over her back again. Her new fly mask had arrived so hopefully in a couple of days her sensitivity around her ears would reduce because she was definitely unhappy in this area. I had also possibly underestimated the after effects of Sunday. The jumps weren’t big and she hadn’t seemed overly tired, but it was a lot of new things to digest and process, so although her muscles may have recovered, her brain might still be suffering from information overload. The final thing I thought of, and I was prompted by my saddler, is that Phoenix is wearing Otis’s bridle which is a bit on the big side so getting shorter cheek pieces would reduce the pressure just below her ears. I’m now researching different bridles to see what’s out there and what I should be considering for her.

On Thursday we had our back to basics session, using the dressage saddle and my friend’s Micklem bridle as it has good results with tense horses. Phoenix started off very tight and tense, but by the end she was trotting in a much more relaxed way, stretching down and forwards to the contact. Did the bridle make a difference? The stretching moments were some of her best, but whether that’s because I managed to release the tension or if she was used to how the dressage saddle was now sitting, or even if she liked the fit of the bridle. Who knows!

Today I gave her a quick lunge and she was back to stretching nicely again, so hopefully we’ve negotiated the little ruts in our road. I will make sure that her next saddle fit I have warmed her up more, and ensure that it’s at a time when I can give her a few days to adjust to any changes.

Suppleness Bootcamp

Fed up with the same comments on her dressage sheets regarding lack of suppleness, one of my clients is sending her mare to a suppleness bootcamp.

She’s been working on suppleness for a while, but with school, jumping, winter weather, and general life, her pony’s flexibility has improved, but not as much as I’d like so the only way is to make it our sole focus.

There are a couple of things they can change in their daily routine which will have a positive impact over a couple of weeks.

Firstly, I suggested they fit carrot stretches into their day. I do Phoenix’s on the way to the field, usually just outside the gate, but having a regular slot means I don’t forget the carrots or to do them. Just a couple of stretches every day will make all the difference.

Secondly, my rider needs to get into the mindset of circles. It’s very easy to troll around the arena putting in a circle at A. Then another at C, and so on. So I challenged my rider to ride five different sized circles on each lap of the school. I also want her to begin to use four loop serpentines and demi voltes to change the rein.

The joints of a horse, or any animal for that matter, are stabilised by tendons, ligaments and muscles, all of which work in different directions. If a horse is lacking suppleness it is usually because the muscles in one direction around a joint are tight and contracted. For example, if a horse finds it hard to move their leg forwards it’s because the muscles at the back (involved in moving the limb backwards) aren’t relaxing for whatever reason. If a horse has damaged the muscle then they’ll be lame, but it’s it’s just muscle tension then they’ll lack suppleness. Does this make sense? So as well as the muscles on the opposite side of the limb affecting movement, the muscles either side will too. Which means that in order to create a truly supple horse you not only have to work on the forwards and backwards movement, but also the adduction and abduction of their limbs.

I devised a bit of a course for this pair, which would work all areas of the pony’s body and hopefully by improving the movement in each direction the mare would start to swing over her back more, become more connected and ultimately more supple.

On one three quarter line I laid out five trotting poles. Over the course of the session I raised them into cavaletti. The poles encouraged the mare to lengthen her stride slightly and then to improve her cadence by lifting each limb higher. Increasing cadence requires more flexion at the shoulder and hip; both areas which when tight can limit suppleness.

Then at A they had to ride a circle. This was partly to give them time to prepare for the next three quarter line, but also to get both rider and horse turning on the circle. Their circle was fifteen metres but it could be made smaller to increase the difficulty level. I had my rider thinking about the inside hindleg on the circle, and making sure there was a uniform bend through her pony’s body, and minimal inside rein being used!

Down the next three quarter line I had them leg yield towards the track to improve adduction and abduction, which releases the lateral muscles. Again, we focused on feeling the inside hind leg coming under and pushing them over, rather than the outside shoulder dragging them across.

After a few goes on each rein, I was thrilled to see the mare taking her head out and stretching from the base of her neck as her length of stride increases and she floated along, swinging over her back. They had a good trot whilst stretching. And they really stretched; far more than I’ve seen them do before.

We’ve been improving their canter to step up to novice dressage, so repeated the exercises in canter. Again, working the limbs a little bit in each direction improved the stride length and overall quality of the gait.

For me, the pair showed real improvement, and the mare did some super stretching, showing that she’s really worked her muscles hard. I want to continue along this theme over the next few weeks, adding in some shoulder in type of exercises as well as varieties of polework so we’re improving the mare’s flexibility in all directions.

Phoenix’s Lesson

On Saturday we took Phoenix for our first dressage lesson. It went very smoothly, with her walking straight onto the trailer, travelling well and being perfectly behaved during the lesson, impressing our trainer. She behaved like an old hand, not being distracted by her surroundings, working beautifully and trying her hardest in the new exercises and then showing a definite improvement by the end. A very successful outing.

I thought I’d share our lesson exercises with you and why we used them.

Just like humans, horses have a degree of asymmetry. Using school movements to improve their suppleness and flexibility helps them develop even muscle tone, and creates a straighter, more symmetrical horse who is less likely to injure themselves because their limbs are sharing the workload. I won’t say evenly because although each limb may be taking 25% of the workload at prelim level, at Grand Prix level the hindlimbs are taking more of the horse’s weight and subsequently the workload, than the forelimbs. But Phoenix is still at prelim level so we will keep things simple.

One of the first things I noticed when riding Phoenix was that she likes to load her left shoulder, which is her way of compensating for having a lazy right hind. Not in a bad way, but in the same way that the left hand of a right handed person is slightly weaker than their right hand. I’ve been working on encouraging Phoenix to carry herself straighter and by working her evenly on both reins to ensure her muscles develop evenly. I introduced some leg yield on a circle last week as she now understands the idea of moving away from the leg rather than going faster.

I should also point out that when my masseuse friend assessed Phoenix for her case study she noted that the left side of her wither was slightly more developed than the right. You can see the slight asymmetry in the photo below.

Back to our lesson. After warming up by getting Phoenix to stretch in walk, which she’s really getting the hang of, and then a trot on both reins. My trainer agreed that leg yield was the right route to go down to help engage the right hind leg and take the weight from the left shoulder.

On the right rein I began walking a twenty metre circle, making sure there wasn’t too much bend through Phoenix’s neck. When a horse loads one shoulder they tend to jackknife their body and over bend and the base of the neck and not bend at all through their barrel. This leads to lose of the outside rein and a tendency to compensate by pulling on the inside rein. Anyway, we spiralled in on the circle before leg yielding her out. In leg yield the inside hindleg steps under and towards the centre of the body to lift and push the horse sideways. By leg yielding to the left, Phoenix has to engage her right hindleg. I could feel the push as it came into effect and the walk became lighter, and more through. Now because the leg yield on the circle can allow a horse to drift through the outside shoulder as much as being pushed by the inside hindleg we repeated the exercise but with counter flexion which would make Phoenix use her right hind even more so, and make sure that her left shoulder wasn’t working too hard. To create the counter flexion I Mel my body turning to the right, towards the circle and used my outside rein to encourage Phoenix to look slightly left. There was a little bit of left leg here too. This time as we leg yielded out on the circle I felt that Phoenix understood the exercise more and used her right hindleg more purposefully. Once I’d finished the exercise we had a little trot to feel how much straighter and more balanced the trot now felt.

Moving onto the left rein. As I spiralled in in this direction I had to make sure Phoenix maintained left bend and didn’t fall onto her left shoulder and then when I leg yielded out we cheated a bit. The first time I let her drift a little through the right shoulder, so as to help level out her shoulders. It’s easier said than done to ride a movement badly when you know how to ride it correctly! The second time we did it more correctly. Letting her drift is a short term activity to help bring her off her left shoulder, and I only need to do it if she’s finding the movement hard. Whilst on the big circle on the left rein I then leg yielded her to the left on the circle. This sounds strange, but basically I kept Phoenix in slight right bend and pushed her hindquarters to the left, and slightly to the middle of the circle. This was to allow Phoenix to rediscover her right hindleg. The subsequent trot was beautiful! Very light and balanced, and each hindleg stepping under nicely.

After another walk break and stretch during which we discussed the canter, we had a look at it. Obviously Phoenix is green in the canter, so I use our lunging sessions to allow her to find her balance in the transitions and the canter itself. I find that her canter on the lunge is quite steady and looking more balanced. But under saddle she is rushing, uptight and setting her neck against me. One factor is the fact that Phoenix is having to learn to canter with my weight, but I had noticed that she was less strong when I jumped her last week. I already had a theory, but my trainer confirmed it. As I ask Phoenix to canter and she runs a little in the transition I automatically half halt and try to hold her together, as I would with Otis. Phoenix doesn’t like and isn’t ready for the interference so just leans against my hand as she finds it harder to find her canter balance. When I jump my mindset is slightly different so I allow a bigger canter and so she finds her own balance and carries herself. I needed someone on the ground reminding me to relax my hands. Which he did and after a dozen strides of each canter Phoenix was feeling more balanced and I felt like we were working together more.

As Phoenix assumes that after canter work comes more canter work we had a trot to finish. This started with rushed, choppy strides but once she realised trot was the name of the game she relaxed and gave a lovely balanced trot whilst stretching her neck down nicely.

We’ve got plenty to work on over the next few weeks but I was very pleased with how Phoenix performed. Perhaps it’s time to look out for a local dressage competition!

Counting Circles

Now that ménages at livery yards tend to be bigger than the classic twenty by forty because it enables more riders to use the space simultaneously and there’s more scope for jumping exercises. The downside to this is that riders get used to bigger spaces and all of a sudden a twenty metre circle becomes a twenty three metre circle and then dressage scores slip due to inaccuracies.

This is particularly hard to explain to kids, but I’ve come up with a plan to help one of my boys.

I strode out a twenty metre circle so that my client could see the the 30m arena was making his circle too fat. Once he’d gotten his eye in on the size of the circle I asked him to count how many trot strides he got on the circle. He got twenty five.

I explained to my rider that he should use this number as a guide for his twenty metre circles, whether warming up at an event or in the dressage arena itself. Then he asked, and I was about to bring it up, if he should get twelve strides halfway around the circle. The answer is of course, yes. I kept it basic, we aren’t going to be adjusting the circle size by leg yielding in or out, but we used the twelve stride marker to see if one half of the circle is too small or too big. Interestingly, on the right rein all his circles had a smaller second half. So we worked on correcting this issue and continued practicing riding accurately sized circles at A, E, C and B.

We progressed this exercise into canter, and luckily for us, this pony also got twenty five canter strides on a twenty metre circle. So we perfected the circles at all points in the school. I still wasn’t that worried about how round they were, I was more interested in my rider developing his eye for the size of the circle, so that he can apply this logic to other arenas or when he’s competing.

A side effect of the counting meant that subconsciously my rider relaxed his arms. He has a tendency to pin his hands to the withers, but whilst counting he softened in his arms which meant his pony softened too and found it easier to bend and step under with the inside hind leg. Without realising, counting the improved their rhythm as well, so whilst I didn’t mention this aspect I’ll definitely be talking about counting to improve their rhythm another day, and then at a different time we can start to perfect the shape of the circle.

This counting exercise can be applied to different sized circles and also when looking at shortening and lengthening the strides, but I find it very useful for kids as it quantifies the goals and they can see a definite improvement, i.e. when they get the correct number of strides.

Riding On Grass

Eventing season is finally kicking off, although with the ground conditions it’s been difficult to get any work done out of the arena.

This means that horses have lost out on valuable fittening work, hence why some eventers have pulled out of Badminton this year. There’s now far more centres with arena cross country facilities so whilst you may not be able to physically go cross country schooling you can at least practice the technicality aspect over a variety of cross country fences.

Dressage and showjumping you can practice all winter in the arena, but there’s a difference between riding on a surface, and riding on grass, so it’s important to get some practice in before an event.

Let’s look at the differences between riding on the flat and over jumps on grass compared to on an artificial surface.

Firstly, unless you are riding on a bowling green, no grass arena is going to be perfectly flat, and practice is needed so that you and your horse can ride as accurately and correctly on a slope as you do in the arena. The lack of fences can also make it harder to ride a straight line or accurate circles too. Which means practice. Count your strides on a twenty metre circle in the arena and then use this number to check you’re riding the correct sized circle out in the open.

Grass is more slippery than artificial surfaces, especially if it’s long, wet or you have the pleasure of an 8am dressage test on dewy grass. In which case it’s worth investing in studs, and then practice using them and working out the best size and shape of stud that suits your horse in different conditions.

A showjumping course will be more spread out than one on a surface. This is because on grass you need to take a wider turn to stay balanced. Again, you need to practice jumping on a slope, especially combinations, which may catch you out in the ring.

The biggest learning curve transitioning from riding in a ménage to riding on grass is developing the ability adjust your riding for the conditions, and for your horse to learn to keep his balance and rideability in different conditions – whether it’s hard going, deep going or slippery. As a rider you need to assess the terrain: are any transitions in the test on a downhill? Try and mimic the transition in your warm up so you get the feel for how you need to prepare and support your horse through them. Depending on how long the grass is and how wet it is, you may need to ride larger turns on the showjumping course than the optimum line, so you’ll need to take into account the time allowed as well as your horse’s canter and ability to keep their footing in these conditions. Sometimes the ground itself can be less than ideal, especially if you’re jumping towards the end of a wet day, so you’ll need to be able to circumnavigate divots and furrows without being put off your game. Learning how to ride on grass is only really learnt by practice. So take every opportunity you can to ride in the open fields, even when the conditions are not our ideal.

The other big factor you have to contend with when riding in the open is the added excitability of your horse. Many horses suffer from open-space-itis which means they jog in the walk, have a quicker showjumping canter and are generally a bit hotter. The best thing to do is to practice on grass to reduce the novelty – although the first time schooling on grass is always more exciting. Spend the first session establishing manners. A calm, relaxed walk. A steady canter. Walking towards home rather than galloping. Jumping a fence then coming back to the rider. Then another relaxed walk. By ensuring that your horse doesn’t think an open space means a flat out gallop you will have a more rideable horse and get more enjoyment as a result. And be consistent: expect them to listen to you all the time and then they will.

Phoenix’s Progress

Yesterday marked two weeks since I first rode Phoenix so I thought I’d give you a little update.

The first couple of days she was a bit tense when I first mounted but soon relaxed after walking around. The first week I stuck to walk and trot for about twenty minutes in the school, focusing on her transitions and suppleness. She quickly began to bend nicely through her rib cage on the walk circles and changed the bend on serpentines and Demi-voltes smoothly.

Phoenix will always have the tendency to get a bit deep in her frame so all my work at the moment is focusing on getting her to take the contact out so her nose is on the vertical, not behind. I’m also spending a lot of time at the end encouraging Phoenix to take a long rein in the walk.

After initially fidgeting in the halt, she settled and stood square and still before I turned my attention to getting her to smoothly go into and out of the halt. She still has the tendency to halt abruptly but I’m finding the balance between how much leg I can use to prevent this.

Our trot work is much along the same lines: getting the consistency of her rhythm, improving her suppleness and straightness. It’s still taking three or four strides to establish the bend on each rein but plenty of figure of eights and serpentines are rapidly improving this.

Last week my friend who’s training to be an equine masseuse came to assess Phoenix to be one of her case studies. Finding very little wrong with her, Phoenix did have a couple of tight spots and thoroughly enjoyed her massage. It will be interesting to follow my friend’s findings when she comes next time and Phoenix has done some harder work.

The next time I schooled Phoenix I felt she was straighter, not swinging her hindquarters to the right on the left rein anymore. She felt more even and was bending better on each rein. It was in this session that we had our first canter. Phoenix’s canter is becoming more balanced on the lunge and she knows the voice aids for canter, so I used the voice and leg aids. We had a couple of extended trots as she tried to oblige but found it different with my weight and the saddle. However, once she ran into canter the first time I could balance the canter fairly easily and then she had it sussed. We did a handful of canters on both reins, and each time I felt Phoenix was understanding the aids and finding it easier. She’s such a trier, and wants please. She’s a quick learner and only needs to be shown something once, so I have high hopes for her education.

I also took Phoenix for a hack last weekend. I knew she had always been a steadfast and reliable hack horse, but as she hadn’t left the yard for four months I found a steady escort and half expected a shy or two. But she was perfect! She went in front and behind, past all the traffic perfectly, and took everything in her stride. She felt very relaxed and calm throughout, which means hacking is going to be very enjoyable.

I’ll continue in this vein, hacking when I can get a babysitter and escort, and focusing on the walk and trot with the aim of hopefully entering an Intro dressage test in the next couple of months. We’ll keep having a canter, sticking to allowing her to find her balance and canter rhythm, but that will come in time and I won’t rush her.

I watched some footage of yesterday’s session and I feel Phoenix is becoming much more consistent in the walk and trot, and working more correctly. There were moments in the canter where she’s more three time and coming off the forehand which is pleasing to see.

Yesterday I also had a revolutionary moment too. I didn’t want to stop riding her. I’d have carried on forever, I was enjoying teaching, feeling her oblige, and dreaming of the next few steps and then trying to not get carried away! I will admit that a fortnight ago when I first sat on her I had a bit of a meltdown. I think it was the combination of postnatal hormones and the fact that riding her brought home the fact that I really have turned over the page and closed the chapter on riding Otis. Which is still a hard pill to swallow. However, today I had a belated birthday present from one of my closest friends and it’s made everything fall into place. My gift was a tie pin of Otis’s tail hair – so that he’s always with Phoenix and I when we compete.

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.