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.


Wonky Poles

I came across this exercise a few weeks ago, which is a great variant on usual trot poles. It’s good for adding an extra level of difficulty to trot poles, keeping a horse thinking about the exercise, and checks both them and their rider’s ability to ride a straight line. Especially useful for green horses, it improves proprioception.

Begin by trotting over a series of trotting poles laid parallel, approximately four foot six inches apart. Adjust the poles to suit your horse’s stride. Once your horse is confident, balanced and negotiating the poles straight and easily, you can begin to put him on his toes.

You should be trotting over the centre of the trotting poles, and the horse should increase their cadence over the poles and increase their impulsion. With the poles parallel, the horse can see either end of the poles as they trot over it. This helps the horse judge where the centre of the pole is, which is where they need to lift their feet over. Remember horses have that blind spot just in front of them, with a small amount of binocular vision, so rely on their peripheral vision, which is monocular. The binocular field of vision is where they gauge depth perception, which is vital for negotiating poles and fences.

Now your horse is happy with parallel trot poles, angle them so that they form a zig zag pattern. The centre of each pole should still be four foot six inches apart (or whatever distance best suits your horse). An easy way to create the zig zag pattern is to hold the pole in the middle, and lift and swing it so that it is then at an angle.

Usually, when first trotted over the zig zag poles, a horse will lower his head, pause, and increase their cadence. As long as you ride the centre of the poles, the distance is correct for the horse, but the zig zag position of the poles will make them think about where they’re putting their feet.

Going back to their vision. The ends of the poles are in their monocular vision, and they aren’t level. One eye will see the ends of two poles close together, and the other eye will see two pole ends together further forward in their field of monocular vision. Therefore it is not immediately obvious to them where the centre of the poles are, which is the part they’re stepping over. This means they need to engage the binocular vision to gauge the position of the centre of the poles. So they pause, lower their head to look carefully at the poles, and then lift their feet high to give the poles plenty of space just in case.

This means that the horse is working his body harder, so improving his balance, coordination, impulsion, rhythm and proprioception. It’s a good variation of trotting poles for those horses who get bored, or need to do a lot of pole work for rehab, and can be made physically more demanding by increasing the number of poles.

I don’t think this pole arrangement would work as raised poles, but they would work as canter poles, with the centre of the poles approximately nine feet apart.

Riding the Outside Line

I don’t know much about Formula 1; I just ask the questions to show the necessary level of interest that makes a marriage work.

“Where’s F1 this weekend?”

“What time is qually (see, I even know the lingo)?”

“Who’s in poll?”

“Who won?”

And most importantly; “Who had the biggest crash?”

One thing I have picked up though, during the hours spent being shown each race-changing crash in slow-mo from numerous different angles, is driving lines. In racing, it’s usually the inside line.

It may sound like I’m rambling, but this does tie in with a tip I learned last week.

When we’re riding we turn our bodies in the direction of movement and look where we’re going. Invariably this means we end up looking over the horse’s inside ear. Especially when you factor in how much easier it is to turn your head than the rest of your upper body.

However, we’re supposed to ride with the outside aids, and bring the outside shoulder around any turns.

Given that we’re looking at the inside line is it any wonder we often lose the outside shoulder and slip the outside rein?

Next time you’re schooling, keep looking over your horse’s outside ear on any turns or circles. It takes some getting used to, but because you’re now focusing on the outside line of the turn you’ll find you maintain control over the outside shoulder, and don’t get too much neck bend from your horse, resulting in a straighter horse who is stepping under with the inside hind and taking their weight on it before propelling themselves forwards. Let me know how you get on!

Demi Voltes

Here’s a nice little warm up exercise for you.

Trot down the long side, and ride a half circle just before the corner. Incline gently back to the track, making sure you’ve changed the bend prior to reaching the track at approximately E (or B if you’re on the other long side). As you reach the end of the long side (where you originally started) ride another demi volte of a similar size. See my rough sketch below for clarification.

Initially, you can ride the demi voltes with fifteen metre half circles, and then decrease it to ten metre demi voltes. This obviously requires more suppleness and better balance from the horse.

This exercise is very useful for ascertaining your stiffer rein, because the half circles are in quick succession. Ensure that with the fifteen metre demi voltes neither one crosses the far three quarter line. In ten metre demi voltes you shouldn’t cross the centre line.

A demi volte is surprisingly tricky to ride accurately because it’s very easy to let the horse stay in the bend they had on the circle as you drift back to the track, in a semi shoulder in position. Check you are riding a half circle to the midway point and then a straighten the horse to ride the line to the track before asking for the new bend as you approach the track. If the horse is over bending at the shoulder, they are harder to straighten as you come out of the half circle, so focus on the bend through their barrel and not overusing the inside rein to unbalance them. Think less is more and you’ll soon find that the exercise flows more easily.

If one rein is particularly stiff, you can ride one and a half circles before inclining back to the track. Then spend some time on the stiffer rein working various school movements to help improve their suppleness.

This exercise requires good balance from the horse because there are several changes of bend, and you’re looking for smooth transitions between the circles and straight lines. As the circles are fairly small it is a good way of engaging their inside hindleg.

You can increase the difficulty in this exercise by riding the demi voltes in canter, executing a change of lead either through trot or a simple change (or if you’re very snazzy, a flying change) as you return to the track.

To check that you are riding a straight line back to the track you can place tramlines to help guide your eye. You can also add in a walk transition after the half circle. By engaging the inside hind on the half circle you should be able to ride a really active downwards transition, and the transition will show up any wobbliness.

Give it a go; I’ve used it both as a warm up exercise in lessons, as a main exercise to improve rider feel and horse suppleness , and as a warming down exercise so that the rider can feel the difference in the way their horse moves on the demi voltes when they are off the forehand and on the aids.


Here’s another useful exercise I picked up from Horses Inside Out last month. The purpose of doing it at the demo was for us to observe the action of the hindlimbs on the painted horses through transitions. However, I felt it would be a very useful warm up exercise for a number of my clients. So I put it to good use last week.

I find that sometimes half halts can be ineffective, either the rider isn’t asking correctly or the horse is choosing to be ignorant, and this exercise sharpens a rider’s aids and the horse’s mind.

From a good, balanced trot, ride forward to walk to five strides then ride forwards to trot. This checks that the rider is thinking of changing the sequence of their horse’s legs rather than slowing down because if you lose energy into walk, you can’t ride the upwards transition accurately. At this point, I usually correct any issues with the aids and repeating the five walk strides until the downwards transition is fluent, maintaining energy, and the upward transition is prompt.

Gradually, you reduce the number of walk strides from five, to four, to three, two and eventually just one. Repeat each level until it feels harmonious and you can feel a bit of activation in the hindquarters. Some horses only need to go down to three walk strides for it to be effective, and you’re better off stopping there than having fewer walk strides of a poorer quality.

In a downward transition, the hind leg steps under the horse’s body with the joints flexing more. This means they take their weight off their forehand and then push themselves up into a lighter, floatier trot. If you ever get the chance to see this exercise performed by a painted horse, have a look because it’s far more illustrative than my words.

Back to my clients and their progression through this exercise. The lazier horses soon woke us and came more off the aids, developing a far superior walk because they hadn’t switched off to their rider. The riders were more alert and not collapsing into walk and likewise switching off. For the whizzier horse’s we put in circles and changes of rein to stop them anticipating the exercise so much. These riders learnt to refine their aids so the transitions were less sudden and tense.

All of my riders found it hard to get the precise number of steps – the upward transitions all included at least one stride of walk between asking and executing it. They had to think and ride faster.

The transitions helped those horses who were ignorant to the balancing effect of a half halt because there was no grey area. It was black and white. Their riders could feel the effect of an exaggerated half halt – especially when there was only one stride of walk, which meant that they had a clearer idea in their head about the desired effect of a half halt was. It also taught them to ride with more leg, and to put the downwards and upwards aids together quicker.

After using this exercise, all the horses had a better quality trot, were more connected because of the action of the hindquarters, and came off their forehand and worked over their backs into an outline. I found that the rider’s feel had improved and they were then using half halts more easily, subtly and more effectively. I felt that their understanding of a half halt had improved by riding the extreme version.

Try it yourself in your next warm up, and see the effect it has.

Corner Poles

If you look at any arena you’ll see that the corners are built up, with a little track marking a quarter circle. Partly this is because it’s difficult to get into the corner with the harrow, but also it’s because us riders are a bit lazy and cut off the corners. Plus a lot of horses lack the balance to ride a dressage worthy corner, so cut them off as well. I remember getting out traffic cones and getting the kids to ride around them if the ponies and riders were getting too lazy. I also remember being a teenager and helping with lessons and having to pretend to be a traffic cone – my toes curled as the ponies scraped past me!

Recently, most of my clients have been working on improving their ability to ride corners by using poles.

Either using two poles to make a right angle on the inner track of the arena, or using one pole perpendicular to the fence on the long side, I created a right angle.

The aim is not to ride a square corner, as a lot of horses will struggle to do that. The aim is to ride a corner in balance.

Too many riders ride off the inside rein, especially when faced with an unfenced corner – such as in a grass dressage arena – as their horse is less likely to turn themselves. This results in horses falling onto the inside shoulder and jack knifing through their bodies.

Starting in walk, I asked my riders to walk the corner thinking about their aids and what they were doing. Then I asked them to think about what the horse was doing in the next corner.

We then revised the aids for turning; inside rein indicates the direction of movement, inside leg asks the horse to bend around it, outside rein supports the outside shoulder and guides it round the turn, outside leg pushed the horse round the turn. Rider is sat fractionally more on their inside seat bone and upper body turns around the corner. I had to remind some riders that they weren’t driving a car, and that the inside rein shouldn’t get heavier than the outside.

I challenged them to ride the corner of poles with as little inside rein as possible – some of this was a case of mind over matter as their hands tended to get involved before they’d even realised!

We then checked they were using their outside aids, and already they could all feel their horses staying in a better balance, and were straighter. When horses work with their bodies straight they create two parallel tracks, like train tracks. Even on circles. If a horse over bends on a turn, they’re like a train about to derail, shooting out the side door of the turn. By increasing my riders awareness of and ability to use the outside aids they could keep their horse on the tracks.

To some, it felt like their horse was too straight, and indeed some horses showed elements of counter bend. But, as I learnt on my Horses Inside Out day, with flexibility you have to have stability. If a horse bends too easily in one direction then by removing the bend and riding them akin to a plank of wood, they become more stable and balanced, and then you can slowly add in degrees of bend until you have the correct amount.

After riding the corners in walk on both reins we proceeded to trot, which tended to exaggerate any problems.

For a couple of riders, their horse moved around the corner and then some on one rein, so we focused on riding straight out of the corner a stride earlier and ensuring the outside rein and inside leg were supporting the horse so he could travel straight along the track. This tended to happen on the horse’s bendiest rein.

On the other rein (the stiffer rein), and especially noticeable when there was no fence line to guide horse and rider, the horses tended to go 90% of the way around the corner before drifting out of the corner with the outside shoulder. By focusing on riding the outside shoulder fully around the turn my riders soon solved this issue.

By correcting the way the riders rode the corners the horses soon started to stay soft and balanced. The inside hind leg was coming underneath them and they were using it to propel themselves along, rather than escaping through the outside shoulder and losing energy and momentum. The trot became more energetic because of the improved steps and balance. The horse can also move more economically as they’re straighter so their hindlegs work towards their centre of gravity.

For the more advanced riders, we repeated the exercise in canter, but for all of them we took the improved way of riding turns onto circles so they could feel the improvement in their horse’s way of going.

Below is a clip taken from one of the lessons. Here we were focusing on using the outside aids and keeping the mare straighter as she has a history of crookedness. You can see how they maintained the trot throughout the corner, not losing energy or balance. We can increase the bend through her whole body once they’ve established this straightness.

Incredibly helpful for improving your use of the outside aids, it also gets the horse working correctly without any fiddling and yanking, because once the inside hindleg is going where it should be and taking the weight of the horse they will start to tighten their abdominal muscles and round their backs and necks correctly.

Problem Solving Polework

Logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords. I love all sorts of puzzles, and one of my favourite things when teaching is working out what exercise suits a horse or rider, and why. Why have they developed that way of going, and how can we improve it? Where is there weakness and how do we hone in on it?

So with one of my young clients, who’s really forged a great relationship with her new pony over the summer, I wanted to get her brain going. She’s a very thoughtful rider, with good feel, so I wanted to get her to deduce their weak points. I find that if a rider feels and understands the weak area then they are more motivated to improve it, and will focus more of their energy into practicing and self-correcting, which leaves me with more lesson time to focus on more exciting things.

In our lessons we’ve discussed the stages of training; rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion, but now she has more of a feel for a steady and consistent contact, and an understanding of the correct way a horse propels themselves forwards I wanted to re-address suppleness.

Whilst she warmed herself up with the criteria of working evenly on each rein, using circles of various sizes, serpentines and shallow loops, I set up four pole exercises. I should probably add that she’s only nine years old.

The first exercise we did was the S-bend, often seen in TREC competitions. All they had to do was walk through the path through the poles without touching or stepping over the poles. I’ve seen an agile Belgian Draft horse do this perfectly, so a 12.2hh pony has no excuse!

They had a few attempts to wiggle their way through, but in all but one time the pony stepped over the pole with a hindleg. There were a couple of teaching points such as looking up, and not down at the turn. It’s important to use the outside aids to turn as when she forgot about her outside rein (outside leg worked well) and overused the inside rein the pony was more likely to step over a pole. We ended the exercise with a discussion about whether one direction was easier for the pony than the other. She correctly identified that turning left was harder for him.

We moved on to a trio of trotting poles on a curve. On each rein, they aimed to trot over the centre of each pole. We also tried making the trot shorter striding and trotting over the poles closer to the centre of the circle.

As anticipated, the clever pony trotted a straight line over the poles, so I positioned myself to help guide my rider’s eye, and encouraged her to keep riding positively around the turn. As soon as they managed to trot the poles on the curve she could feel the increased activity of the inside hindleg. Again, I asked her which rein was easier, and she again said the right.

Next up was the house exercise. We began by focusing on straightness through the middle of the trot poles and trotting over the apex of the triangle.

Initially my rider was turning too close to the poles so started off drifting over the first pole. She also felt the exaggerated step her pony did over apex, and she had to maintain the active trot she got over the poles before the apex which will hopefully help her generate and maintain a more energetic trot on the flat.

Next, we worked on trotting over the centre of the trotting poles and then riding a curve to the centre of either of the angled (purple in the picture) poles. It took a couple of tries to perfect each turn: getting straight for the poles, using her outside aids to turn and not losing momentum. And of course I had to position myself to help guide them. Perhaps I need to invest in some cones for when I do similar exercises with bigger horses!

At the end, I asked my rider two questions.

“Which way did your pony find hardest?”

And “which way did you find hardest?”

Correctly, she replied that her pony found going left hardest, but she found it harder to ride right.

I was really impressed with her summation, and it meant that I could begin to explain why. The pony is older, I think having had a busy working life or perhaps an old injury has caused some stiffness which has led to the pony favouring the right rein. There’s not a huge amount we can do about it except ensure we work him evenly on both reins and sympathetically to his weaker area.

For my rider though, we can definitely help. I’m always reminding her to keep her left thumb on top, and to imagine her left elbow being Velcro-ed to her side. She’s right hand dominant, so when she turns right her left rein, the outside one, doesn’t support her pony’s outside shoulder and so, despite it being his easier rein, he drifts through the left shoulder. We need to focus on her using her outside aids, and building an awareness for what her left hand is doing. Or not doing. But I know some exercises which will help, and now she understands the implications of her weak rein I believe she will be more focused on correcting and improving herself.

To finish the lesson, I wanted to give my rider a feel for an elevated trot and to get her feeling a perfect straight line, so I introduced her to the grid of poles.

Firstly, they trotted on the lower poles, with the raised poles acting as tramlines to help pony and rider stay straight throughout the poles – no drifting! My rider could feel both hindlegs pushing evenly over the poles and felt the straightness in his head, neck and shoulders.

Finally, they worked over the raised poles. The pony really picked his feet up, giving my rider a lovely feel of an elevated trot, which again will help her create more impulsion in her flat work as she’s had a feel for the extreme.

In all, a really good lesson which I felt taught my little rider a lot about both her and her pony, which will enable me to put together some exercises on both the flat and over jumps which will improve the pair of them, and more to the point, my rider will understand why we’re doing them.

More Pole Work Exercises

Here’s another pole work exercise from a schooling session earlier this week.

The first three poles were set as trotting poles, 4’6″ apart. Then the tip of the triangle was twice this.

Initially I worked straight through the poles, aiming to stay straight and for the poles to feel effortless and there to be no change in her posture. If a horse doesn’t engage their abdominals whilst trotting over poles they will feel flat, set their neck and rush. So I spent time working straight through the poles until she stayed soft and balanced throughout.

The purpose of the apex after the trotting poles is to ensure you stay straight over and after the poles. Some horses wiggle around the apex because it looks different, others take a very large step over because they don’t like the look of it. It can help improve their cadence.

Once this exercise was established I added in a curve: trotting over the three poles before riding either left or right over the diagonal poles. Due to greenness, she struggled to adjust her trot stride on the curve so chipped in a tiny stride before the last pole. I made it a little easier, and more comfortable for her, by riding a smaller curve and slightly off centre to the first three poles. For example, if I was taking a left curve I rode over the three poles 1/3 from the left hand side before curving to the left diagonal pole. To curve right, I rode towards the right side of the trotting poles. As she gets stronger she will be able to maintain impulsion throughout the exercise and thus ride the curve more easily.

The aim was to introduce poles on a curve, and for her to maintain her balance, rhythm and not to tense up as she stepped over the poles.

Again, this exercise can be made harder by moving the first three poles apart so it can be ridden in canter. The horse must maintain their canter lead in order to ride smoothly between the straight line and the curve, whilst keeping a rhythmical, quality canter.

I also rode this exercise backwards, riding from the curve to the straight poles. This was easier as she managed to keep the impulsion on the curve.

Next time I do this exercise I’m going to put three trotting poles on each side of the triangle, to further develop her balance and strength.

Shallow Loops

To add variety to lessons I often throw in some shallow loops. Then the other week a kid asked me what was the point of them. Good question really, and it’s always good to know what you’re trying to achieve with an exercise.

Shallow loops are ridden on two tracks – they’re sometimes mistaken for leg yielding away from the track and then back to the track by riders who like to over complicate things – along the long side of the arena. Coming out the corner ride off the track towards the three quarter line, then after riding a couple of strides parallel to the track, riding back to the track in time for the corner.

The shallow loop can be made easier by not riding so far off the track, or harder by riding the shallow loop more steeply so that it reaches the centre line.

The shallow loop is very good at improving a horse’s suppleness because there is a series of changes of bend. For example, on the left rein, you have left bend around the corner and riding off the track. At the deepest part of the shallow loop you change to right bend. Upon returning to left bend for the corner. To execute a shallow loop well the horse needs to be balanced enough to switch seamlessly between bends.

I also find shallow loops very useful in checking that a rider is using their leg and not relying on their reins to steer. If they are cheating with their aids the horse will lose rhythm and balance, and swing through their neck as they drop onto the forehand. They will also get an exaggerated bend through the neck. A horse who relies on the fence for balance will wobble as they come away from the track and lose the quality of their gait.

Shallow loops are particularly useful in improving the quality of a horse’s canter because riding counter canter on the return to the track improves their suppleness and balance so the canter becomes straighter and the hindlegs more active.

In terms of jumping, riding shallow loops will improve your ability to ride dog leg turns smoothly and the horse will maintain a better quality canter so is more likely to jump cleanly.

From a teaching perspective, having these multiple changes of bend allows a coach to introduce the concept that outside aids are relative to the direction of bend as opposed to the direction of travel around the arena.

So add them into your warm up and it’s surprising the difference it makes to your horse’s way of going.

Improving the Canter Transition

A couple of weeks ago Phoenix and I had a lesson, where we learnt a very useful exercise.

Phoenix’s canter transitions are still a bit of a scrabble as she organises her legs and works out what each limb is doing. Now we’ve had some rain and the school surface isn’t so deep, I’m turning my attention to improving the canter transitions.

After establishing a twenty metre trot circle at R, so there are two open sides on the circle, I began leg yielding her out as I left the track and then once I crossed the centre line I straightened her up by leg yielding in one stride. We repeated this on both open sides of the arena a few times.

This exercise is really useful for getting Phoenix to move away from my leg and to accept the leg without rushing. As we left the track I used my inside leg to push her outwards with my outside rein opening slightly to almost lead her out as she’s still green to this sideways malarkey. Once she’d moved outwards, and the inside hind leg was stepping under her body more, I used the outside leg, closed the outside rein and straightened her body as we crossed the centre line. If she wanted to take slight counter flexion as I used my outside leg to push her inwards a couple of strides I let her. The aim of moving her inwards was to straighten her body and stop her falling out through her outside shoulder now that the inside hind was working more actively.

Once Phoenix had got the hang of this exercise in trot, I brought in the canter. After rising the lateral sequence, as she approached the track, I asked for canter.

The first step of canter is the outside hind leg, and the act of pushing Phoenix inwards just got her outside hindleg engaged so it could more easily push her into canter. Because she was straighter and more balanced the canter transition wasn’t so frantic. Well, once we’d repeated the exercise so that she had worked out what her legs were doing and we’d trotted the exercise enough that she wasn’t anticipating the transition! I did feel that immediately she went into a more correct and three time canter. On the right rein she often slides left through the transition, but this doesn’t happen when I’ve ridden the exercise to help prepare her.

Below is a video of me riding the exercise. Unfortunately it’s not that clear as the transition is close to the camera. The time after we rode the exercise she had a light bulb moment and nailed the transition. Next time the focus will be on getting less resistance in the lateral part of the exercise and then getting the canter transition straight after the leg yielding, but I’m really pleased with the effect this exercise had on Phoenix’s canter and with how she handled a fairly complex (for her!) series of questions.