Phoenix’s Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Counting Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding On Grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoenix’s Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Have Trot Diagonals?

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

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

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

I digress.

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

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

Back to the original question.

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

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

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

Riding Diamonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exaggerating Half Halts

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

When you’re learning the process is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Two Loop Serpentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoenix`s Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercises for Developing Medium Trot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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