The Crest Flip

We discussed the crest flip at dressage camp, and last week the following video came up on my social media.

The Crest Flip Demonstration

Now, camp seems a long time ago, but I'll endeavour to remember what we discussed.

The horse I was riding finds it difficult to connect through his body, back to front, and where he "cheats" and just holds his neck, he had developed an enlarged muscle one third of the way down his neck – where the trapezius inserts. We worked on releasing this knot of muscle by getting him to flex his head and neck, so releasing the muscles in his jaw and neck.

From above, I could see that an inch section of his mane insisted on falling left, which was where the tension was held.

When I managed to release those muscles, I was rewarded with that inch of mane flipping over to the right, to join the rest of his mane.

I had never heard of the Crest Flip before, but I've been keeping my eyes peeled for it on other horses.

Pony Club Dressage

It was our dressage competition this afternoon at Pony Club, and the children and ponies were beautifully turned out – diamanté plaiting bands, sparkly quarter marks, big cheesy grins. The lot.

I have to say, that they all did me proud. They all stayed in the arena, cantered in the right place, and had some semblance of circles. I was very proud of all of them!

For a bunch of seven year olds, this test was pretty tricky. And I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Pony Club. There's a PC walk and trot test, which is pretty slow and sedate, and once kids can canter fairly competently they need pushing, as well as inspiring to take flatwork a bit more seriously. Now, my kids can all ask for canter at a corner, trot at a marker, and stay fairly balanced. So I didn't want them to do the walk trot test.

The alternative Pony Club test we had, however, is the grassroots test. This is quite a steep jump from the walk and trot test. Let me list some of the movements – I know the test well enough after having read it numerous times for six riders and judged another five on it.

  • 15 m circle on both reins at E and B in trot.
  • Half 20m circle between E and H to between M and B in free walk on a long rein.
  • Trot K to X then X to G. Halt at G.

This is pretty tough isn't it?! The rest of the test was fairly straightforward with centre lines, canter large, change of rein E-B, transitions at and between markers. How many of you reading this would be able to ride an accurate 15m circle? Or a half 20m circle between markers?

I had quite a lot of trouble getting my little riders' heads around the test. The circles were either too big or too small. Or sausage shaped. And the half circle was more of a straight line. The fact they navigated it at all in the correct gait was an impressive achievement to me.

This test is actually used at the regional dressage and eventing championships, so I understand that it needs to be challenging.

But what I'd quite like to see from the Pony Club is a set of training dressage tests, aimed at kids. Which are designed to encourage them into dressage. When a test is complicated and they don't score highly, they lose interest. Surely, it would be in equestrian's best interest to have a selection of tests which are prelim level, but clearly understood by children, and focusing on building their confidence, knowledge, attention to detail, and the basic flatwork building points. If the layout of the test is less complicated for them to think about, they will be able to focus instead on riding into their corners, sitting up tall, and keeping their pony in a rhythm.

Movements such as 20m circles, simple changes of rein, progressive transitions, serpentines. Nothing tricky, but everything encouraging. Then perhaps more Pony Clubs would run small competitions and rallies, particularly aimed at the younger members, and children would become more enthused by dressage, instead of it being seen as the "boring bit".

I just think that making simple dressage tests that do include canter, would stop dressage seem like such a daunting prospect for the little ones, and thus strike an interest as well as improving their riding.

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.

Dressage Camp – Part 2

Canter is an asymmetric gait because it has three beats, and is quite rolling in it’s way of going. This often leads to a horse becoming crooked.

As riders, we ride plenty of circles – or attempts at circles – and in the canter this focus on curves can overdevelop the inside bend and also help crookedness develop. One exercise we did at dressage camp was really useful in addressing this issue.

Instead of riding circles, we rode heptagons, or 50ps. The aim was to ride three or four straight strides, before turning and riding another few strides straight and turning again. Because the turns weren’t that acute, the horses found it slightly easier and were less likely to jack knife around the turns. As they get stronger the heptagon can become a hexagon and a pentagon, and eventually a square.

Riding a 50p focuses the rider on their outside aids, which means less inside rein, less neck bend, and less falling out through the outside shoulder as well as less of a bulge through the rib cage against the outside leg. Then the horse is straighter, which means the inside hind leg will come under further and will take the weight of the horse’s body, so improving the quality of the canter. If the horse is bent too much then they will fall through the outside shoulder instead of the hind leg taking their weight.

The other benefit of riding a 50p is that the inside hindleg is strengthened and made more supple around the turns. It has to come under and towards the horse’s midline in order to make the turn. When it does this, the canter has more push, and becomes more uphill. A lazy inside hind is also activated so the rhythm becomes a more concrete three beats. 

After riding a few heptagons, I found that the canter felt much straighter and engaged. The horse I was riding lifted his shoulders and sat back onto his hindquarters, whilst still feeling very balanced. By not riding a circle, I knew my outside aids were more effective, which also means that it’s a really useful exercise for novice riders who predominantly use their inside rein.

The canter circles after were more balanced and I had a more uniform bend through the horse’s body.

I used this exercise with one of my teenage clients last week, who likes to overuse her inside rein in the canter, and her pony ends up turning his head and neck to accommodate her. After telling me she thought she was riding a 20p, not a 50p (they’re actually both heptagons – I checked as I started this article) she and her pony became straighter, she could feel the inside hindleg coming under and pushing them forwards, rather than out through the outside shoulder as it had done when they were crooked. In terms of jumping, having a canter that more effortlessly propels forward because it’s straight, means that jumping is more straightforward and effortless, and hopefully more successful.

So have a go at some canter not-circles and see if you can feel the improvement in the quality of your canter. 

Dressage Camp Part 1

Last weekend I took a client’s horse to a two day dressage camp. I felt I needed inspiring, could do with the motivation, and this particular horse has some issues (that isn’t really the right phrase) that I could do with some helpful suggestions to improve and I also knew I’d be able to apply my learnings to other horses that I ride. 

The weekend’s learning was split however I preferred, so I opted for a forty-five minute private lesson on each day. It was really interesting in the first session because this trainer picked up on exactly what I wanted to work on. Sometimes I think I’d be difficult to teach because I have quite specific aims for a lesson, but other times I think I’m probably quite easy because I’m focused.

Anyway, the main focus for the weekend was straightness and creating a true connection over the back. Whilst not particularly crooked, this horse often falls through his outside shoulder and avoids stepping under with his inside hind, and carries his quarters fractionally to the right.

The trainer immediately asked if the horse hollows in downward transitions, to which my answer was a resounding yes. He raises his head and blocks his back so doesn’t step under with his hindlegs. 

There are three phases of the hindleg movement in the transitions, I was told; the time it is in the air, moving forwards; the time it is underneath the horse’s body; and the time it is out behind the body. This horse tends to spend more time with his leg out behind the body, which means he isn’t carrying himself on his quarters and won’t be able to collect, but he also is unable to push into the transitions easily. 

So the aim of the game over the weekend was to alter the balance of this horse so that he spent more time with his hind leg underneath him, in a springier, bouncier trot.

One exercise we did to help improve the activity of the hind legs is shown in the video below. In walk I spiralled down onto a ten metre circle, and then asked the shoulders to come in slightly and the hindquarters to go out, so riding leg yield on the circle. The trainer assisted from the ground as this horse found it tricky initially and blocked his inside hind. We did this exercise predominantly on the right rein as it is this way that his hindquarters sit to the inside and he escapes to the left shoulder. So the exercise worked on his suppleness through the rib cage, straightening his neck, and teaching him to bring his inside hind under his body more. The difference in his trot when I straightened and rode out of the circle was incredible. His hind legs were like pistons firing the energy up and forwards so the trot was very balanced, effortless, and straight – there was a leg at each corner and I didn’t have to worry about him wobbling out. Once he was carrying himself like this it was easier to work on the bend and engagement of his topline, but that’s another post! 


A Daunting Task

I taught a very daunting lesson earlier this week with a guinea pig rider.

She entered the arena with a rather snazzy looking Spanish horse, bedecked in a double bridle. 

The rider was very confident, as she was legged up onto the jogging mare. I made the necessary enquiries to tick the box:

  • What’s the rider’s name, riding experience, qualifications, medical history.
  • What’s the horse’s name, experience, history and medical history.
  • What was the horse and rider relationship.

This girl was a Stage IV rider and this was her new horse, recently come over from Spain. It could do all the lateral movements but didn’t have a competition record.

Gulp.

What on earth should I teach them?!

I admit, I felt slightly out of my depth. I take a while to get into my groove, especially with confident riders because I get a bit intimidated. The horse was also a far higher calibre than I’ve taught before.

I started the session by watching them warm up. It gave me time to think. The trot was choppy and short striding; the canter was bouncy and tense and this rider said that whilst the horse didn’t feel like she was going to bolt, she was strong. The mare tried to evade the contact by tucking her nose to her chest. The rider had a good balanced position, and secure lower leg. If I’m going to be really picky, she was a bit collapsed in her upper body, and had a tendency to fix her hands.

I had a plan. Despite the horse’s high level of training, there were some basic elements that we could improve. Equally though, the mare was hot and quick thinking, so needed to be kept mentally stimulated. 

I explained to my rider that I felt we should work on relaxing the mare, and getting her to take the contact forwards, instead of tucking behind the bridle. As the mare was a busy type, I suggested we used leg yield to get the mare stepping under with her inside hind leg and taking the contact forwards. Our focus being on the neck staying long and the mare relaxing.

We started in walk, and immediately it was obvious that the mare is very talented with an extravagant crossover. She easily leg yielded from the three-quarter line to the track. However, as with any big mover, she had the tendency to escape from her rider – in the leg yield the rider tends to lose her outside shoulder. 

Once we moved into the trot the loss of the outside shoulder was more noticeable, so I brought my riders   attention to her outside rein contact, making sure it prevented too much inside flexion and supported the outside shoulder. Then I highlighted how she was pinning her inside rein by the wither, so encouraging the mare to turn to the inside and fall through the outside shoulder. As soon as that hand was carried forwards the leg yield improved because they were straight. Then we turned our attention to keeping the trot rhythm consistent through the movement.

After working on both reins I felt there was a slight improvement; the rider was more in tune with the horse, who was starting to lengthen her neck and was moving laterally in a more relaxed manner.

I didn’t want to work on the canter – no need to over complicate matters – so we moved on to zig zag leg yielding. This was to ensure the mare wasn’t anticipating going from the three-quarter line to the track, and was responsive to the riders outside leg. The rider also had to make more subtle aids and change her position slowly as she changed direction so as to help maintain their balance. We talked about which direction was easier: the left leg yield was more extravagant but felt less controlled, than the right which had less crossing but was straighter and with no rushing. 

By the end of the session I felt the mare was much improved, with a longer trot stride, and more relaxed and consistent in her frame. I did mention to her rider about trying her in just a snaffle bridle to establish a consistent contact, and to get the horse seeking it more, but I think as it’s early days in their relationship it might be an exercise for the future. This rider gave me positive feedback, and seemed to understand the lesson concept and reasoning behind it, so hopefully I’ve helped her. 

Now that I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and managed to survive I actually reflect on that lesson in a positive light, and would quite like to teach this pair in the future.

Building Expression

I was schooling a horse recently who has very correct and established paces, but isn’t the biggest mover so often has average marks in a dressage test as he lacks the “wow” factor. So I had a play at building some expression into his work.

Once I’d warmed him up long and low, stretching over his back, and had done some lateral work, I opened him up into some medium trot. He lengthened nicely from behind, but he could have given more.

I was riding in a large arena, and you need to have one which is more that 20m wide in order to ride this exercise.

In trot, establish shoulder in at the beginning of the long side. Halfway along, ride out of the shoulder in onto a 45 degree turn, so you effectively cut the corner off, and ask some medium trot. When you reach the short side, approximately halfway along, stay on the same rein in working trot. 

The shoulder in collects the horse, gets their inside hind leg underneath them and taking their weight. Which means it’s in a better position to push forwards to medium trot. The turn onto the diagonal line ensures they don’t fall out of the outside shoulder as you ride out of shoulder in and ask for medium trot. Staying on the same rein after the medium trot makes the exercise simpler as they don’t need to change bend, so keep their balance easier and maintain the impulsion into working trot.

The result is a more extravagant and powerful medium trot and an expressive working trot, which is still rhythmical and balanced, yet would earn more marks in a dressage test. 

It’s a fun exercise, so try putting it together next time you ride and see if you can feel the improvement in their general way of going as a result.

Inputting Impulsion

With one of my young riders we’re slowly working through the scales of training; getting her to understand, apply and improve her pony. Rhythm and suppleness have improved, and she has now grasped the feel of a good contact, and knows how to ride her pony into the contact when he hollows and comes above the bit.

So our next phase is to improve and increase their impulsion. I always explain to clients that basically impulsion is energy without speed; when energy is the purposefulness, or desire to go forwards. 

But it can be tricky for riders to generate the impulsion without losing the first two stages – rhythm and suppleness. 

When I asked my client for some suggestions to generate some impulsion into the trot, she replied by telling me that when she uses her leg to put in some energy her pony gets faster. Which didn’t really answer my question, but was a valid observation. I explained why her pony, who is a jumping machine, thought leg meant faster and how he pulls himself forwards, instead of using his hindquarters.

She still hadn’t worked out how to improve her pony’s impulsion, so I brought in a bit of maths.

If she adds energy to her horse but also gets speed, then she should use this to help improve the amount of energy he has in his gait. Then, when the energy is established, she can take away the speed. Once the speed is taken away, she is left with impulsion.

Then my rider suggested she could use medium trot to create impulsion. I agreed, and off she went.

Along the long sides of the school she focused on putting energy into the trot; feeling her pony use his hindquarters, and not losing the rhythm. Then as she approached the short side, she had to take away the speed. By the time she’d done a few transitions she could feel the improvement in the trot, so we added in circles to practice maintaining the impulsion for longer. 

Now she’s got the feeling of a more purposeful trot we can focus on maintaining this level of impulsion for longer periods, and then maintaining it on circles and school movements, checking that the rhythm and suppleness aren’t inhibited. 

Working through the scales of training is like peeling an onion; each time you introduce another level, or increase the difficulty, then you need to revisit the previous levels to ensure total understanding by horse and rider, and to make sure the horse continues to work correctly and to  improve. After all, if one of the building blocks starts to erode as you move up the levels and you don’t fix it then the whole thing falls down.