The Chair Seat

A friend and I discussed this particular rider fault the other day, and it’s something I’ve touched on recently in a couple of lessons so it’s time for a blog post.

The ideal rider position has a vertical line from ear through the shoulder and hip, to the heel. The chair seat deviates from this because the vertical line is lost by the lower leg creeping forwards. When you look from the side, the rider’s outline is akin to if they were sat in a chair.

So why is the chair position frowned upon?

It’s most problematic in the rising trot. If you look at the ideal position, when you rise to the trot the lower leg stays under the body, and the rider can control their upper body so that they sit back into the centre of the saddle and immediately push themselves back out of the saddle. This means that the rider is quieter in their body language, more in control of their body and therefore more effective and precise with their aids. They are also more balanced, which means they are less likely to hinder the movement of the horse or be unbalanced by sudden movements.

Now think about the chair position, and imagine there’s a line going through the centre of the rider’s body, head to toe. If it were on a clock face the time would be 1.35, whereas the ideal position the line is vertical. Now as the rider rises from their chair position the lower leg swings back to balance the rider, who’s upper body comes forward. This means that the 1.35 line gets closer to the vertical when the rider is at the highest point of the rise. And swings back to the 1.35 position in the sit phase.

This means that the rider tends to sit down heavily onto the horse’s back, and towards the back of the saddle and the weaker part of the back. This heavy sit can damage the horse’s back, cause pain and unbalance them.

Collapsing into the saddle makes it harder for the rider to rise back up from the saddle. Which means they are hindering the horse’s movement further.

Ultimately in the chair position, the rider is less in control of their body so gives less effective aids, whilst also hindering the movement of the horse, and is more likely to be unbalanced by sudden movements.

So riding in a chair position makes it harder to influence the horse effectively because the crashing down movement of the sit discourages the horse from moving forwards, and the lower leg being further forward means it’s harder to apply the leg aid. Where the rider is sat on the back of the saddle they then find it harder to use their seat aid. Unfortunately this means that the horse is less inclined to move forwards and becomes “behind the leg” and lazy. This then causes the rider to try harder with the leg aids, which reinforces the chair position, and the lack of impulsion causes the rider to sit heavily back into the saddle, again reinforcing the chair position.

How do riders end up in the chair position? For young children, it’s often when they’ve been taught rising trot before they are strong enough, as the lack of strength in their legs and core means they need to swing their body up into the rise. The best way to overcome this is to make sure the saddle is the right size for the rider, and the stirrups the correct length so that the rider’s body is supported in the correct position. Then making sure the pony isn’t too lazy, so excessive leg aids aren’t needed. And then it’s just time needed to develop the correct muscles. One of my little riders falls back into the chair position every so often, and I find a useful analogy for her is that she imagines she’s sitting onto a pin cushion so she wants to sit as lightly as possible so she doesn’t get a sore bum!

For other riders, the chair position develops from a lack of core muscles and fitness, so improving their general fitness and not overdoing the trot work will help, whilst also working in sitting trot and without stirrups to improve their core muscles.

Along with a lack of fitness, riding a lazy horse when you don’t have the strength in your seat and legs means a rider’s position is compromised in order for them to make their aids more effective.

Sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause the chair position: if the saddle is lower at the cantle then the rider almost has to rise uphill, which encourages the lower leg to swing. If a rider has a chair seat despite work on trying to improve it, and the horse being quite forwards it’s worth making sure the saddle fits both horse and the rider’s anatomy.

The chair position and a lazy horse makes a vicious circle, which is hard to get out of because the horse doesn’t want to move forwards with a “heavy” rider, and then the rider moves into the chair position as they try in earnest to persuade the horse to move.

To break the cycle, having the horse schooled by a stronger rider to remind them that they can travel forwards easily, and the rider improving their core muscles and position by riding a more forwards thinking horse. I recently lunged a client on her horse for two purposes. One, the horse doesn’t seem to understand the idea of lunging so we hope that having a rider on board will help teach him to stay out in the circle. Two, I can work on keeping the horse trotting forwards so his rider can really concentrate on her position and maintaining the vertical line throughout her rising. When she was more adept at keeping this position she took over from me, and found that her horse was more willing when she was sitting more lightly into the saddle and staying more balanced. Hopefully they can build on this in the next few weeks.

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Dressage for Juniors

Back in the summer I blogged about judging the Pony Club dressage at camp, and how difficult I felt the basic test was for young children, and perhaps that if the Pony Club did some simple tests aimed at young children it might encourage a higher standard of flatwork, and nurture an interest in dressage from an early age. You can read that post here.

Over the summer I saw some lead rein intro dressage classes, which seemed really popular. With the young riders anyway. I think the leaders just needed oxygen because the BD intro tests have a lot of trotting in! I did see that a couple of venues made their own lead rein tests as a result of leader feedback.

Then, I heard of this online business which runs monthly competitions, called Equi-Mind. I had a good nosey on the website, and decided that it was definitely worth following up.

Last year I did a couple of online dressage competitions, which is where you video a set test from the letter C and send it in. Unfortunately, that company folded.

Equi-mind, is actually fairly local to me, which gives me another reason to support them – local businesses and all that. Anyway, they have a variety of competitions to suit almost anyone who can`t or don’t want to go off site competing.

There are showing classes, where you video a short show and send in some photos. Entrants are judged according to the class requirements – best turned out, native class, ROR etc. There`s Western classes, vaulting classes, RDA classes, Horsemanship classes and dressage classes.

Then, I spotted another category which really caught my attention – My First Pony Club. This is aimed at novice and young children. Perhaps those who loan a pony, or don`t have access to transport, or don’t have horsey parents. There are a couple of levels of these tests in walk and trot. I`m waiting for a canter test to appear. The tests can be ridden on or off the lead, and are very straightforward. The focus on the tests is riding between markers, using the whole of the arena, keeping the walk or trot rhythm. There are some circles, but I find that children find it very difficult to visualise and ride a round circle of a particular size, so often movements from letter to letter are more achievable for them. The whole point of the tests, to me anyway, is to introduce the first scale of training – rhythm – and to test their ability to accurately steer their pony.

I liked these tests; they weren`t too long for leaders, and weren’t too daunting for young riders to try on their own. They also struck me as being easy to teach a child the test, and straightforward to feedback to them.

A couple of weeks later I had a young rider who had badly lost her confidence jumping, so I suggested we tried one of these dressage tests. I wanted to give her a new focus, and I`ve always thought she has the right aptitude for dressage – an eye for detail, a lovely position, and a mature understanding of the way a horse moves and feel for the correct way of going. She can canter quite happily, but the fact that the dressage test was walk and trot meant that even when she was feeling wobbly, she was still happy to give it a go.

We used one of her lessons to introduce the idea of dressage tests, and for her to start getting her head around movements, before videoing the test the following week. I thought it looked pretty good – she was accurate and being a tidy rider anyway they gave a good overall impression, but I wasn`t really sure what the judges were particularly looking for.

Much to my delight, and her surprise, she won that class with 65%. It was the much needed confidence boost that she needed. I`d like to get her doing an intro class soon, with more trotting and circles, but it would be nice to see a couple more tests in the My First Pony Club category which are slightly harder than the one they did, but still easily understood by children. Perhaps a couple more changes of rein or transitions, or a couple of 20m circles?

There were also some horsemanship tests designed for children, which I thought looked fun. In these, you video the child doing a series of tasks such as putting on a headcollar correctly, tying a quick release knot, leading their pony, picking out feet, giving their pony a treat from the palm of their hand. All useful little tasks which are achievable by the smallest of riders, and designed to encourage them to get involved in the care side of horse riding.

I have to say that I`ve been impressed with the support from Equi-mind, with the clear feedback given after the classes, and the instructions for entering. Check out their website, http://www.equimind.co.uk/ , and see if there`s a class for you to enter for a bit of fun. I sent off a photo of Otis jumping for the Jump in Style photo competition to get some feedback, whilst I was doing some reminiscing and grieving for the fact I`ll never jump him again.

Lunge Work

I thought I’d explain how to work a horse on the lunge in a way that’s more interesting and complex than the usual walk, trot and canter. Even though periods of straightforward work like this is useful to building fitness, balance, posture and muscle tone.

This exercise helps engage the inside hind leg, improves suppleness and gets them pushing up in the subsequent upward transition.

After I’ve warmed the horse up, and put them in side reins in trot I’ll usually start adding this exercise. They need to be in the right frame of mind, so sometimes I canter to make sure they aren’t too energetic or overly responsive to my aids and body language. One mare I lunge needs to be quite physically tired before she’s open to some mental questions, otherwise she just leaps around!

From trot, I bring the horse forwards to walk and spiral them in. To do this, shorten the lunge line steadily and keep the tension in it so that, along with some little half halts, they start to bring their forehand in. The lunge whip stops the hindquarters falling in by pointing quietly at the hock. I find raising it and almost pushing it towards them, helps keep the hindquarters in the correct place. If the horse falls in too quickly, I use the same technique with the whip at the shoulder. This is why you want them to be accepting of your aids because they need to step quietly away from the whip as opposed to doing a Scooby-Doo moment and leaping in the air at the smallest movement.

Sometimes I’ll repeat the spiralling in element of this exercise until I’m sure they’ve completely understood it, and are looking supple enough for the next stage.

With the horse walking on a ten metre circle I start asking for some shoulder in. In a similar way to how I asked them to spiral in, I’ll half halt down the lunge line whilst pushing the whip towards their inside hind. The whip is mimicking the inside leg and is a bit more active than when I spiralled in. After all, we want the inside hindleg to step under the body.

Once the horse has walked three or four strides like this, I release the tension in the lunge line to allow them to straighten up, and then ask them to trot on. Usually this transition is very active and the trot is very springy as they’re working nicely from behind and using their backs well.

Some horses will trot off instead of stepping under, so it’s important to keep the whip movements minimal and the contact down the lunge line enough that you can quickly correct them. They soon start to get the idea, especially if you use your voice to ask them to trot on, rather than waving the whip at them.

Asking for shoulder in will highlight any stiffness or asymmetry. It will also encourage more inside bend, but if the side reins are the correct length then they will soon support the outside shoulder. One mare I’ve been lunging is significantly stiffer in this exercise on the left rein.

It can be frustrating because one week she may be stiffer and more resistant than the previous. Incidentally, who do you blame when training doesn’t go quite right? Your horse? Or yourself? The correct answer is yourself! Try to work out why they aren’t doing the exercise like they did last week: are you asking differently? Are they sore from yesterday’s workout? Did they find it too hard last time so are more reluctant? Have you done the same preparation work, or tried to go from step two to step five? Are they in the right frame of mind and warmed up sufficiently?

So yes, this mare has days when she’s forgotten how to bend her neck to the left and when I ask for shoulder in she falls in through the left shoulder, looking out on the circle, and instead of using her lazy left hind leg she brings her shoulder to me. So I end up backing away out of her way without realising and she escapes doing the exercise.

To overcome this, I’ve been focusing on improving her bend and riding shoulder in under saddle to help her suppleness. Then in hand I’ve been clipping on my reins to the lunge bridle and flexing her left and right. She’ll turn her head all the way to the right without taking a step, but she’ll avoid bending to the left by shifting her hindquarters right. I think there’s also an element of losing her balance here. So I do some stretches like this, and then try to get her to walk and flex her head left and right. Again, she struggles with bending left. I also ask for some turn on the forehand to get her stepping under with her left hind leg without loading the left shoulder.

Usually after this in hand work she remembers that she can bend to the left and we get a much better attempt at the shoulder in. Moving her up into trot is helping strengthen that left hind leg too.

Whilst trotting on the left rein she can be reluctant to give a true bend, but today she seemed to understand more that the whip flicking towards her left hind leg meant it was to come under her body more and that extra effort gave her left bend and then she gave a beautiful, floaty trot, pinging along effortlessly. She also began to track up better and improved the activity of her hindquarters.

A Good Walk

I thought I’d already done a blog post about the qualities of a good walk, but it appears that I haven’t.

So here goes, with the help of my little helper of course.

The walk gait consists of four beats, with each leg moving individually. The sequence goes like this: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore.

The stride wants to be of an even length, relaxed, flowing and steady. Each leg should flex at the fetlock and knee/hock well, and be purposeful in stride. I often tell young clients to imagine their pony is walking out of maths on a Friday afternoon rather than into maths on a Monday morning. Yep, you’re imagining those teenagers dragging their toes on a Monday and skipping out of school on a Friday!

The hind legs should be placed in front of the prints left by the fore feet, which is called over tracking. I’ve just read that over tracking enables the horse to absorb shock from the hard ground better. A horse who over tracks is also lighter on the forehand, so is more likely to get concussive injuries on the forelegs and less likely to work correctly and develop the correct muscles.

The average speed of a horse’s walk is four miles per hour, and it should feel relaxed, with the back swinging with each stride. The head and neck swings with each step of the foreleg, which is why many say don’t use side reins for too long in walk, because it restricts the natural swing of the horse.

When walking, as with all gaits, the horse should move straight. This means that each leg is pointing towards the direction of movement so propels the horse forward in the most efficient manner.

The frame of the horse should be slightly poll low, rather than poll high because then there is less tension over the back and the horse will stay more relaxed.

The walk is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve. Carl Hester always looks for a horse with a good walk and canter, as training will improve the trot. But why is the walk the hardest gait to improve?

It’s the slowest and has the least natural energy, and if a rider is too eager to input the energy they will throw the horse out of the four beat rhythm, causing a choppy stride and tension in the body. Which then causes them to inhibit the natural movement of the head and neck by holding too tight with the hands in an attempt to control the new energy. If a horse is pushed out of their four bear rhythm they are liable to start pacing. This is a two beat gait where the lateral feet step forwards simultaneously. Often, riders feel they’ve got an energetic walk as their horse begins to pace because they are covering the ground quicker, but as the four beat rhythm has been lost it is heavily criticised in dressage tests.

A horse who is hurried out of their natural rhythm, will be out of balance. This means that subsequent transitions aren’t balanced. They will struggle to halt squarely, or to push off into a balanced and correct trot or canter.

Horse can also be allowed to dawdle, which is when they’re allowed to drag their toes. Here, they usually still have a four beat gait, but the cadence and length of stride has deteriorated. Consequently, horses are more likely to use their forehand in the transitions and to be stiff through their body.

Next up, let’s see how we can improve the walk. I find the best way to teach a horse to walk with more purposefulness and energy, is to use hacks because a horse is naturally more forwards out of the arena. Then you can focus on channelling the extra energy into quality steps without the horse rushing. Steep hills will encourage the horse to use their hindquarters more efficiently and strengthen their muscles. When they walk correctly up a steep hill you can really feel the back lift and the hindlegs engage.

Other exercises involve collecting and extending the walk, which improves their balance and coordination, but you want to stay focused on their rhythm and only make small adjustments so that they still over track and keep the four beats.

Polework can help increase the horse’s cadence, and circle work will improve their suppleness which will increase their range of movement within each limb so their stride quality will improve.

I also think it’s important to be consistent in what you expect from a horse’s walk. Even when giving them a break mid-session, or cooling them down at the end, you should insist of the purposefulness of the walk, and maintaining the correct rhythm as so often both rider and horse switch off at these times. When the horse knows they have to walk actively and correctly at all times it becomes easier for the rider to influence because there is more natural energy to work with.

Improving a Weak Horse

I had a difficult concept to explain to a young client this last few weeks. She’s got a new, young horse who is lacking muscle development and topline. In our first few lessons we went over the basics and started developing the rhythm and balance.

Then my client heard the phrase “needs to build her topline” and started to get a little confused about what we were doing and why.

I guess it’s actually quite a hard concept to get your head around, but a good topline is the result of all the building blocks of the training and stable management coming together. There is no one “build the topline” exercise. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

Anyway, I thought it was a good subject to ramble about, so here it is.

A horse’s topline is the muscles over the top of their neck, back and top of their hindquarters, and a strong topline enables them to carry themselves efficiently and correctly, so minimising the risk of injuring themselves due to strain.

So how do you improve a horse’s topline? Firstly, from a management point of view, you need to ensure the diet includes a sufficient amount of protein. Protein is the building blocks for muscle, so regardless of the training you do, a horse won’t muscle up until they are receiving enough protein in their diet. Feed such as Alfa-A and conditioning mixes have higher levels of protein.

Feeding forage from the floor is a well known method of encouraging good muscle growth, as well as being the most natural way a horse can eat. With their head low to the ground, the topline muscles are stretched so maintain their suppleness and are working when the horse eats.

Checking saddle fit frequently as training continues is important, as is getting them checked by a physio. A saddle that is too tight (which happens as they develop muscle) will restrict muscle movement and blood flow so reducing that muscle’s ability to grow. Tightness or muscle soreness, ironed out by the physio, will limit the horse from using themselves correctly so will slow the rate of improvement or create a risk of injury somewhere else in their body.

In terms of training a horse and improving their topline, the best methods are not the quick fixes. It’s using the Stages of Training, to slowly establish the correct way of going and build up muscle steadily so that the horse is less likely to over stress muscle.

Rhythm and suppleness together improve a horse’s balance and quality of the gait, so that the strides are of an even length and cadence. As the quality and balance improves the horse will be able to accept a light, consistent contact and then you can add impulsion, which is the controlled, forwards energy created in the hindquarters. Going back to a horse with good basic balance, when you add the contact and impulsion they will begin to step more actively underneath their body with their hind legs, thus contracting the abdominals and lifting and engaging the back and top neck muscles. Only when this happens does the topline start to develop.

I think it’s also important to understand that a horse in training will not look like the finished article. As they develop strength and learn to balance in this new way of going then they may be slightly behind the vertical, or in front of the vertical, or low in poll, or slightly on the forehand, but so long as you continue to build them up steadily these don’t become faults, but are rather small sacrifices that are made while the horse learns and as soon as they feel strong enough, and so long as you aren’t forcing them into an outline or frame beyond their current ability, they will correct themselves. For example, when you begin to introduce impulsion, some horses may use the reins to balance, which puts their low in front and behind the vertical. By taking it back half a step and not inputting too much impulsion, or doing it for too long, they will find their balance and come up off the forehand and back onto the vertical as they find their self carriage.

Ridden exercises should focus on the basics: circles and serpentines of steadily increasing difficulty, transitions between gaits and within the gaits.

Lunging can also be very beneficial in encouraging a horse to use their topline. Gadgets, used with care, can show the horse where to put their body, and then you can test their ability and strength by working them “naked” and seeing if they can work themselves over their topline.

I like polework for getting a horse to realise that they have abdominals and back muscles. It increases their cadence so they end up rounding their backs, which can be helpful in giving a rider an insight into the feel they are aiming for, and can just show the horse the way. Incorporating poles into flatwork is a really good way of giving the horse something to think about and breaking up the monotony of circles and straight lines. Jumping, such as gridwork, will also help because having a correct bascule requires the topline muscles to function correctly.

Hill work will also improve the topline muscles: trotting and walking up hills with the horse working correctly (there’s no point trotting up a hill if their heads in the air and they are using their forehand to pull themselves along) as the incline makes the muscles work harder without having to work faster.

Developing the topline doesn’t happen overnight, it takes consistency and steady work. Then after a couple of months, you all of a sudden step back and realise that your horse has changed shape and there is more muscle over their neck and back.

Riding the Outside Shoulder Around

I’ve done some work with several clients this week about riding the outside shoulder around turns.

If a rider, like many novices and children, uses the inside rein to turn their horse then the horse will give too much bend through their neck, which opens up the outside shoulder. So when the inside hind leg comes under, instead of acting on the centre of the horse’s body and propelling them forwards, the inside hindleg works across the horse’s body, throwing their weight diagonally, out through the outside shoulder. This means that the horse moves less efficiently and has less power because energy isn’t flowing through the horse’s body back to front.

To the untrained eye, a horse giving an exaggerated neck bend can seem to be more supple than a horse who is slightly straighter through the body but engaging his hindquarters, yet the latter is working more efficiently and correctly.

Often, I believe, this trait comes from riders over using their inside rein, and horses being asked to ride too small a circle or too tight a turn before they are physically strong and balanced enough, so in order to negotiate the turn they fall through the outside shoulder as they go round.

Firstly, let’s look at how to prevent a horse falling out on turns and circles. The aids are the outside leg pushing the barrel around, and the outside rein maintaining the contact and preventing the neck from flexing. For a horse who is inclined to fall out, this rein has to be prepared to support the shoulder as the horse tries to fall out, then tries to work out how he should be moving. Often, this is where it goes wrong because the rider is not convinced enough in their application of the aids or strong enough in their core, that when the horse gets heavy in the outside hand they lengthen the arm to relieve the pressure. Which means the horse continues to fall through the outside shoulder. The inside rein on the turn opens, to tell the horse where they should be going. Think of this rein as an indicator, not an instigator. It is only suggesting to the horse which direction they need to go, not causing the movement itself. The inside leg prevents the horse falling in and also acts as the accelerator, keeping the impulsion of the gait. The rider’s body turns in the direction of movement, being careful not to throw the outside hand forward. The inside seat bone is loaded fractionally, and the outside shoulder and hip go forward.

So that’s how you should ride a turn. Be honest, do you always abide by these aids, or do you sometimes panic and think you aren’t going to make the turn so grab the inside rein? Or do you forget about the outside of your body? It’s very easily done, particularly when a horse tries to fall through the outside shoulder due to habit/old injury/previous poor schooling/evasion.

What exercises can be done to teach the rider to bring the outside shoulder around on turns, or to teach the horse to engage their inside hind leg through turns?

Firstly, I’ll often ask a rider to think about what’s going on underneath and behind them on circles while they warm up, this builds an awareness of the parts of the horse which are out of sight. Then they will more easily feel any improvement.

I like to use squares too, whether it’s just riding E-B or creating a square around the letter X. I’ll ask my rider to imagine that their horse is a plank of wood for a moment, and round each corner they are going to keep them as straight as possible. This stops them using so much inside rein and gets them using the outside aids. Once they are managing this and aren’t likely to fall back into old habits, we start introducing a bit of bend and softening the square into a circle. However, I get them to focus on creating a bend in the body, not the neck first – that comes naturally – so my rider thinks about the feel underneath them and uses the leg and seat to get a slight curve along the horse’s spine. Finally, I tell them to just allow the neck to bend in the direction of movement, which usually means that the horse gives just enough bend and the rider hasn’t lost the outside shoulder.

So this gets a rider feeling the difference between a uniform bend through the body, and a horse falling out through the outside shoulder. Hopefully they then apply the same aids on all circles and turns.

Now let’s look at the horse. Some horses are naturally crooked, so seem to bend easily in one direction and not so much in the other. One mare I teach sits in quarters right. We’ve done a lot of work building her rider’s awareness for the slight bend, and worked on improving the mare’s suppleness. In the trot my rider is getting more effective at using her outside aids and their circles are much improved, but the crookedness shows up most in the canter. Especially on the right rein. Both horse and rider have slight counter flexion, which added to the quarters sitting right means that circles tend to be more of an impression of a motorbike. So we’ve worked on my rider correcting her position and degree of turn, and then we asked the mare to look slightly to the outside in the canter before moving on to squarish circles, keeping the outside bend. To do this my rider had to keep her outside rein and exaggerate her outside leg. However, the mare soon started to move around the school with her outside shoulder coming round. After doing this a few times my rider could really feel the improvement in the canter – it was more active and where the mare was straighter it looked like the hindlegs were propelling her along better. Returning to usual circles in canter, my rider managed to prevent the mare curling her neck and falling through the outside shoulder whilst having a bit of inside bend. Now she was riding from her inside leg into her outside rein, which means she has much more control over the horse’s positioning through turns.

I’ve done similar work with another client, who’s cob falls out on right turns. This is more important for her with her jumping because when the cob drifts out through his left shoulder he loses power, which means he chips in or is more likely to know the fence down. As soon as his rider rode a square turn, off her outside aids and with slight counter flexion, they maintained the quality of the canter to the fence and met it on a much better stride. Next week, I’m planning on doing some more work on this right turn before fences to really establish my rider’s aids, and her horse’s technique and balance through the corner.

Other exercises I like to use with a horse who is reluctant to bring their outside shoulder around on turns are; shoulder in, shoulder in on turns, haunches out on turns, turn on the forehand. Anything really that gets them listening to the outside rein, encourages them to bring the inside hindleg under and towards the centre of their body and helps improve their general straightness.

Horse and Country TV did a useful video about the importance of bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, and you can see from my screen shots below, the difference between the first one (riding off the inside rein) and the second one (riding from the outside aids). If you can, see if you can find the full length video masterclass.

Breaking The Rules

One of my big hang ups is riders not preparing their canter transitions. And most importantly, not sitting into canter.

I explain to all my clients why we sit; the horse is expected to move smoothly from a two beat trot to a three beat canter, and if we continue to rise in a two beat rhythm we are making it harder for the horse. You can complicate the explanation by discussing how the seat moves differently in canter and trot, but for the riders who tend to rise into canter the first explanation is sufficient.

Last week though, I had to break my own rule. I’ve been working on canter transitions with a client and her horse. They’ve improved, but we haven’t quite nailed them.

Initially, the mare hollowed into the transition and ignored the leg aids. The canter was quite lethargic for a few strides before she found her rhythm.

We’ve improved the mare’s overall suppleness over the last few months because I think one of the contributing factors to the poor transitions is tightness over her back preventing the hindleg coming through.

We’ve also worked my rider in sitting trot to improve her seat and to ensure she isn’t accidentally blocking the canter through the seat. Improving the seat has also improved the hand position, and there’s no longer a “snatch-back” in the upward transition. Which is a very common feature of riders who’s horses don’t readily pick up canter.

There’s also been a variety of exercises to improve their transitions including walk-canter, successive trot-canter-trot transitions, using circles to pick up canter as well as straight lines. The canter itself has improved through lengthening and shortening the strides, using poles and improving my rider’s feel and understanding of a balanced canter.

So after all these avenues have been explored, we are looking at a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing. Part of me wonders if it’s just habit from the mare to lift her head slightly and try to run into canter. Which means we need to break the cycle. Perhaps the mare needs to realise that her rider won’t get left behind, or have negative hands. Or she just needs to build up the muscle strength and memory to perform the balanced and correct canter transitions.

Last lesson, as I observed the canter transitions I realised that my rider is sitting to the trot, but almost sits slightly onto the cantle so when they strike off into canter, she’s just momentarily behind the movement. It’s not much, and there’s nothing wrong with her position or anything obvious, and might be just enough to prevent the mare coming through with the hindlegs into canter, which makes it quite tricky to spot and improve.

Feeling daring, because we were breaking the rules, I asked my rider to ride from rising trot into canter. The transition definitely flowed better and horse and rider looked to be in better sync with each other. We did a few more transitions like this and they definitely got more consistent and smoother with the mare rounding her back more into the canter, and pushing off with her hindlegs.

I’ve left my rider with the instructions to only to riding trot into canter this week, because I think by rising, or having a half seat as she goes into canter gets her weight off the mare’s back, which makes it easier for her to use her back muscles. I also think that the rising encourages a forward swing from my rider’s hips, which should help her sit with the movement, rather than behind, and to absorb the change of rhythm more easily. It’s a very subtle change of technique, and I’m hoping that this week’s practice of rising into the canter means that we find the final piece of the jigsaw next week – fingers crossed!

The Addiction

Why is one day eventing the ultimate competition for so many amateur equestrians? And what makes it so addictive?

I always think it’s the hardest competition to be successful in because you have to get three different disciplines, which require totally different skills, right on the same day. Which is tricky enough, but when you consider the external factors such as weather and ground conditions, both horse and rider fitness and frame of mind, preparation, large class sizes, as well as factors such as tack, shoes, and other equipment, you realise that success in eventing is actually a pretty tough call.

First up, is dressage. You can practice this a hundred times at home, learning it off by heart and perfecting the movements. But when you get to the event the dressage arenas are on grass, possibly with a gradient. Depending on the time of your test, the grass may be dewy, and there is usually more grass cover than the corner of the field that you practiced in at home which can make it slippery. There are usually three or four, if not more, arenas next to each other so horse and rider need to adapt not only to the ground conditions, but also to focus on each other and the test so that other competitors don’t distract them.

So whilst dressage can be the one you are most practiced for, it still has unknown factors to contend with. Although competition experience and knowing the venue can help minimise this.

Next up is showjumping. You can’t get much better than a clear inside the time, but it’s just as easy to have an unlucky rolled pole, so it’s important to practice jumping bigger than the competition height, and over courses on grass. As well as ironing out any blips such as a dislike of planks or water trays. Showjumping courses are usually on grass and can have a gradient, which adds to the complexity of the round.

Finally is the cross country, and don’t forget you have to remember the course that you walked yesterday or a 7am that morning before your dressage. Which can be problematic in itself. The cross country is undulating, likely to ask a few questions such as skinnies, jumping into dark, drops, water or steps. All of which can be practiced at home, but it’s a real test of horse and rider fitness as it’s the final phase of the day, and tests their confidence, ability, and relationship because there is fence after fence. No matter how hard you try cross country schooling, you will jump the trickier fences as part of short courses rather than linking the tricky ones together in a longer course. The competition fences are unknown too, which can make green horses or riders back off but this develops with experience and confidence.

There is also the time aspect of cross country too: the terrain and weather conditions can sap a horse’s energy which makes getting inside the time difficult, but there is also the rider’s awareness for how fast they are going, or should be going.

Just from this, you can see all the different elements you need to practice and perfect in order to be successful at a one day event. The horse needs to be relaxed and obedient, with a good level of schooling for the dressage. They have to be steady, with a careful technique showjumping, and then they have to be fit, fast and bold for the cross country phase. With all those different elements to work on, there’s a higher risk of one not being quite right on the day; be it over excitement in the dressage phase, an unlucky pole showjumping, a doubt in confidence over the tricky cross country fence, or fatigue setting in half way round. I think it’s the challenge of balancing the phases, and of getting them all right on the day which makes riders try, try and try again. And then when you do get that sought after placing, you value the rosette far more than any others you have!

Scales of 1 to 10

Sometimes novice riders can get very comfortable and accepting of their horse or pony’s gait and aren’t aware of it’s quality. I always like to ask my clients what they think of the trot or canter; to describe it, and to suggest how they think they can improve it.

But sometimes it’s useful to label the gait so that we can easily relate to it. This is when I use a scale between one and ten.

For the younger riders, I keep it simple and we talk about the speed of the trot. When they’re in their average trot, I asked them to put a number of this trot. Really, I’m hoping they say five, but it doesn’t really matter if they say four or six. So long as there are a couple of numbers either side to play with.

Let’s say the rider has labelled the trot as a five. I’ll then ask them to slow it down to a four. Then speed it up to a six. Then we play a game, where I shout the number, and they change the trot to match the number. It’s actually really beneficial to the rider as they learn to apply subtle aids and get a better concept of rhythm.

I also use school movements to help the riders get used to changing the speed of the trot. For example, trotting across the diagonal in a six trot, then a four trot along the short side, then a six trot across the other diagonal before a four trot on the other short side.

If you have a rider who’s a bit nervous, then practising riding in a six, or seven, trot can help get them used to the bigger strides whilst still feeling in control. Likewise, if they find their horse is a bit fresh and trotting round in a seven trot, than identifying what level it is makes it more manageable and they feel more confident in changing the trot from a seven to a five.

As riders get more competent I apply the scale to different aspects. For example, one being a flat, lethargic trot and ten being a very bouncy trot with energy on par with a shaken bottle of lemonade, to measure the level of impulsion. Scales can also rate movements or transitions so that riders learn to identify their better attempts.

You do have to clarify to riders that the scale doesn’t mean they will get those marks in a dressage test, or that their ten trot for impulsion is comparable to Valegro’s, but rather a sliding scale for them to monitor the improvement in their horse.

Progressing to being able to adjust the canter can really help when jumping, especially cross country. It’s much easier to walk the course and number the canter approach so that you know how to tackle each fence. For example, a seven canter for the log jump, a four canter for the skinny fence. Numbered canters are easier to teach with, and easier to plan your technique.

Ringcraft

In the show ring you learn a bit of clever ring craft. That doesn’t mean you cut up other competitors or hog the judge’s attention, but rather you give yourself plenty of space in front of you as you pass the judge to maximise your extended trot. You do any tweaking, circles etc while the judge has their back to you, so that you shine in front of them. Adjust your individual show so that the gallop is uphill, or your phenomenal trot is at the perfect angle that the judge gets the full benefit of it. I only managed it once with Matt, who doesn’t have the greatest gallop, to adjust my show so that the gallop was away from the burger van generator. By holding the canter together as I approached the generator, I managed to control Matt’s spook to get his best show ring gallop.

Anyway, back to the point. What I was originally going to discuss tonight was the fact that there’s slightly more to dressage tests than just knowing the directions.

A few weeks ago I was helping a client practice for a prelim test and in the halt on the centre line the mare, who can be a bit fidgety, was swinging her quarters left. But she was halting fairly square … just at an angle! Now, the judge is sitting at C, so what are the priorities when improving the halt at this moment in time? Straightness. In the perfect halt the judge at C can see two front feet, the chest and head. If a horse halts straight, but with a hindleg camped out behind, then the judge at C has no idea! So when weighing up where to focus your improvements to the halt transition, bear in mind what the judge can and cannot see.

At the dressage champs in April, I was disappointed with my final halt. It wasn’t Matt’s best and his hindquarters were right underneath him. However, I got an 8 for it. I can only assume that the judge saw a straight trot to halt transition, with the forehand square and the head and neck coming out the centre of his chest. So to my surprise, scored me highly.

Of course, at Novice level, you often have halt transitions at A or C, which gives the judge at C the perfect angle from which to assess the squareness of the halt. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and once the straightness through the transition and into the halt is perfected, you can work on squaring it up.

With my client with the swinging quarters, we worked on the trot to halt transition in the right rein, using the fence to prevent the quarters swinging. Then we used the three quarter lines to simulate the centre line. When the mare still swung left, my rider brought her left leg back slightly in the transition to catch the quarters. By adding in slight left flexion in the neck, they ended up staying straight in the halt. Hopefully some practice like this and the mare will get out of the habit of swinging when she’s halting and we can progress to improving their balance through the transition to get a square halt.

With another client recently, we were working with the prelim test to get the best marks they can for their level of training. Here are a few secrets to getting the best out of a movement.

From left canter, between B and M transition to working trot and at C, transition to medium walk. Now the judge is looking for the trot transition to be between the markers, as a guide I aim for the mid point. But if your horse tends to run into trot, or get a bit unbalanced and fast, I would aim to have the trot transition as close to B as possible. This gives an extra two or three trot strides to balance the horse, so you can better use the corner and are in a better balanced trot to get a highly scoring walk transition at C.

At A, circle right 20m and between X and A transition into right canter. So you have a full half circle in which to do your transition. Doing it near X is tricky: there’s no support from the fence line so a green horse may run or wobble into canter so giving you a poor transition and weak canter. If the horse tends to shoot off into canter, then doing the transition as you approach the track (particularly if you’re in an indoor arena or fenced arena) will make them back off the wall and so slow the canter down. If your horse tends to drift through the outside shoulder in the canter, then asking for the transition as the circle touches the track (near F) the fence will support the horse’s outside shoulder, so helping them stay straight through the transition.

Transitioning from medium walk to free walk on a long rein and back again. This is mainly practice, but ensuring the walk is active, and the horse is relaxed in their neck and contact. In prelim tests free walk tends to be on the diagonal or a half 20m circle. Use the turns onto the free walk to push the horse from the inside leg into the outside rein and then let the outside rein slide through your fingers so the horse stretches their neck down. Keep the walk active and the important thing is to keep a rein contact despite it getting long. If you lose the contact then it makes the transition up into medium walk less fluid and usually tense. As you pick up the contact; take the outside rein first and inch up the reins, keeping the hands up and forward to reduce the chance of the horse hollowing and resisting the contact. Keep the leg on because usually a horse will lose their activity as you pick up the reins. If in the test there is quite a short period of medium walk before trotting; e.g. B to F, then you want to have the medium walk established at B so that you can best prepare for the transition at F. This means you may need to start picking up the horse a couple of strides earlier.

It’s also really important to learn the individual movements of the test, so you know where each set of marks is. Then if you make a mistake, or have a spook, then you know where you have to get back on track, and at one point you can forget about the mistake. For example, if one mark is the canter transition, and the next mark is for the canter between two markers, and you have a dodgy transition then focus on getting the quality canter because although you may have lost marks for the transition you can still get a good mark for the canter around the arena.

Obviously as you move up the levels the movements are more complex, need to be more precise and there is less evading the judge’s eagle eye, but it’s definitely worth learning to read between the lines of the directives of a test and getting an idea of what the judge can see so that you can best position your horse to maximise your marks. It’s surprising the difference a couple of marks will make in a competition, as well as giving you a confidence boost as you try your hand at competing.