Changing the Bascule

Every horse and pony is put together differently, which results in a different technique when jumping. For example, some have a very uphill canter and engaged hindleg which allows them to jump with quite a steep bascule – like a pogo stick. Others, who have more of a horizontal gait, will prefer to take off a bit further away from the jump so their bascule is longer and flatter.

I don't think you should try to change a horse's jump technique too drastically, because you're then working against their physical capacity. However, it is always worth trying to enhance their ability and develop the muscles that will allow them to jump more effortlessly.

One of my clients has a pony who tends to get long in the canter on the approach to jumps and so has a very long, flat bascule. He is tidy with his legs, so the shape his body makes isn't a problem, but when he jumps off a long stride he lands long and flat, so it is tricky for my rider to rebalance themselves, or even turn for the next fence! My aim was to improve my rider's feel for a better balanced canter and teach him to hold the canter together on the approach to fences, which will help their landing and getaway.

The last couple of lessons we've used our warm up time to get a feel for lengthening and shortening the trot and canter. The purpose of working on lengthened strides was to teach my rider the difference between balanced, lengthened gaits and rushing or running onto the forehand. After all, they will need to lengthen the canter in jump offs and on the cross country course. We focused on my rider using his seat to encourage the bigger strides, and feeling that he still had a rein contact throughout.

Next, we turned to shortening the strides, or squashing the pony together to give it a non-technical term. It wasn't all about pulling the reins, but rather a series of half halts with the outside rein and a stiller seat. Oh, and lots of tummy muscles! Over the last few weeks, my rider has really started to get a feel for a smaller striding, bouncier trot and canter.

Now we have to link the flatwork to the jumping. Half of the issue comes from my rider not holding the canter together on the approach, and half of the issue comes from the pony preferring to jump long and flat. So I built a series of three bounce fences, which will encourage the pony to jump in a steeper bascule, and to get a little closer to the fence, as well as to be a little more careful and calculating about his jumping.

We used cross poles initially, and my rider held the canter together in a much more balanced fashion until a couple of strides away from the fence, and even then he didn't fire his pony to the jump. Where the jump wasn't that big, I think my rider felt happier keeping the steadier, smaller canter until the jump.

After they'd jumped a few times we discussed how the grid felt. One time, as my rider correctly identified, they met the first fence on a long stride so had a flat jump then the pony had to really adjust his body in order to negotiate the second and third element correctly. When they had a closer take off point, the grid flowed much better and each bascule was more even.

Their getaway from the jumps was improving because my rider could just sit up and rebalance the canter, instead of having a flat, fast canter and the pony on the forehand, which is far harder to correct. The pony was also more willing to come back to his rider. We also put in a 15m circle after the grid to ensure my rider carried on riding after the jumps, and didn't collapse in a heap after. This also helped the pony rebalance and refocus.

We progressed to uprights, which are more demanding for the pony because he has to pick up his forelegs quicker, and make an even steeper bascule. The first time, they tapped each fence as the pony was a little slow in tucking up, but the second time my rider could feel his pony rounding his back more, and they jumped through soundlessly as the pony was quicker with his legs.

My next challenge is to get my rider riding courses in a steadier fashion (I am of course battling against that boy, gung-ho mentality), taking his time to rebalance his canter between jumps so that his pony approaches in a more uphill canter, which will enable them to jump bigger more successfully and effortlessly. By being more consistent in their canter on the flat and when jumping will also help the pony strengthen these muscles, which will further improve his bascule and technique.

I am really pleased with how this young rider is taking on board all the technical information I'm giving him about how horses jump, and I hope that his understanding of our reasons for doing these exercises will mean he does his homework and will be consistent in how he rides, and what he expects from his pony.

Only a Short One …

This is only a short post because I’m tired from dressage camp and still have a lot of unpacking and organising to do.

Dressage camp was at a large centre with an excellent cross country course so yesterday afternoon a friend and I went for a leg stretch around the cross country course; walking through the water and generally building up the bravery of the horses. 

The Diva, that I was riding, started off by mincing through the water, and shying ten foot from, with eyes on stalks, the ornamental camel, but with time he was trotting confidently through water and even gave the camel a kiss!

This morning we decided to actually go cross country. Yes, I know it’s a dressage camp, but it would have been rude not to given that the facilities were there. The ground is exceptionally hard at the moment, so I decided to only do little fences, and concentrate on the ones around the water and on all surface tracks. The aim being to give the horses a break from dressage, to have fun, and to build their confidence around the water and with steps and ditches. 

Which we did. There was a lovely selection of small fences around the water complexes and on the tracks. The horses felt great and The Diva even jumped into the water and cantered up a step the other side very happily.

Afterwards, we were talking to the owner of the centre and he had some gems of knowledge to share.

Currently he is trying to put people off from coming cross country schooling because the ground is so hard, but he thinks they’re busier now than when the ground conditions were ideal. Perhaps not good business sense, but good horse sense.

He went on to say that the main test in eventing is the width of the fences. Most horses can jump the height required, but few can jump the width required. Take for example, at BE100 the maximum height is 1m, but the maximum spread at the bottom is 1.8m, and 1.1m spread at the top of the fence. Here comes the facts. When jumping on hard ground, horses are more likely to jump with a steep bascule, i.e. up and down with very little distance covered. On landing, they don’t like putting their forefeet down first or opening up at the shoulder and thus loading their heels, so they tend to land steeply.

This obviously doesn’t have such an effect over little fences, but if you consider the competition rider training on hard ground then they will be changing their horse’s jumping technique which will mean they aren’t as economical with their gallop as they shorten their stride, and will lose time as they aren’t jumping the spreads out of a flowing stride. Additionally, they may lose confidence with the spread fences because they don’t want to take a longer bascule, or they associate it with jarred limbs.

So whilst it’s never been advised to do a lot of jumping on hard ground because of concussion risks, it’s interesting to know how it affects the mechanics of jumping and goes to show that it could actually be more detrimental to your competition performance by training over hard ground than by substituting it for some other training on a surface. 

Creating a Bouncier Canter

I did this exercise with a client yesterday and her pony. They love jumping, and we’re pushing towards 90cm courses and beyond. However in order to be successful over bigger fences the canter needs to be more uphill. The mare knows her job, bit by encouraging her to “sit” on her hindquarters more will strengthen them and enable her to make a steeper bascule, which will make jumping bigger fences easier. I’d also like the mare not to take such long, flat strides to fences as that’s when she over jumps or isn’t quick enough to fold her legs up and knocks it down.

As ever, it can be difficult to teach someone what a bouncier, more collected canter feels like when they haven’t experienced one before. Which is where poles come in very useful. 

On a twenty metre circle I laid out four poles at the 3,6,9,12 positions. We worked on each rein, cantering over the centre of the poles. The aims were to have a round circle, with the same number of strides between each pole, and to not leap the poles. It’s harder than you think as the rider has to plan their line in advance, use the outside aids and not rely on the inside rein, and have a good feel for the rhythm. The horse will find it tricky because the inside hind leg has to be more active over the poles and as it comes under the body they have to maintain their balance and be supple enough that they don’t drift out through their outside shoulder. It took a few circuits on each rein, but the canter started to get rounder and more elevated. This mare is quite laterally stiff, so I wasn’t expecting full circles in this balanced, improved canter, but rather to see both her and her rider “getting it” and maintaining it for a couple of poles before regrouping. That way, my rider knows what it is she is aiming for in the future, and we build the pony’s strength steadily.

Then I raised the inside end of each pole slightly. This exaggerates the canter stride so improves the mare’s flexibility and suppleness, as well as pushing the boundaries on her balance. 

This rider has a habit of using too much inside rein, so this exercise highlighted the problems of overusing it and made her focus on her outside aids.

From the two poles on the three quarter lines, I walked a dog leg of five short canter strides to build and upright. This meant we had a left dog leg and a right dog leg. The uprights were 90-100cm high.

The exercise we rode was the same on both reins. Ride the circle of poles until the canter felt bouncy and then leave the circle on the three quarter line pole and ride the dog leg, aiming to maintain that canter, to the upright. 

The mare can lock on, otherwise I’d have built the related distance in a straight line, but the dog leg meant she had to listen to her rider. On the right rein they had a very nice five canter strides and jumped the upright with a steeper bascule. The take off point was slightly closer and the mare made a cleaner shape. My rider could feel the difference in the way they jumped, and hopefully can understand how having the canter in a more uphill frame will help them get clear rounds. The left rein is the mare’s slightly weaker lead, and it took them a couple of attempts to ride a smooth dog leg turn, but again their technique was much better.

I found this exercise really beneficial for engaging the inside hindleg and the back muscles, and now my rider knows the canter she is aiming for we can try and reproduce that on the flat and round courses so the last fence isn’t the annoying one they have down! Below you can see how active the inside hindleg is in this canter after using the circle of poles.

My Toothpaste Analogy 

Sometimes it’s hard for a rider, especially a young rider, to understand the feel required on the approach to a fence: the difference between the horse taking you into a fence and rushing to the fence.

 Last week I came up with an analogy, which will come into force this week – you have been warned, clients!

When you’re riding a horse you want to feel that they’re taking you into a fence, in front of the leg. If they aren’t, then there tends to be two outcomes. 

Which can be likened to a tube of toothpaste.

Imagine a tube of toothpaste, fairly full, with the lid off. Now, clap your hand down on the toothpaste and watch the paste spurt out. This is the equivalent to giving a horse a big kick a few strides away from the fence. Some horses don’t mind this, and would prefer the definite feel of commitment and “let’s go” from the rider. Others get pushed out of rhythm and put off their stride and can cause a refusal.

Let’s go back to the toothpaste scenario. This time, you’re going to push gently with your fingers, akin to squeezing with the leg. The paste smoothly glides out of the nozzle. This is the equivalent of the horse feeling reassured by the rider’s commitment to the jump and moving in front of the leg; perhaps a slight lengthen of stride but ultimately engagement of the hindquarters to give the canter a bit more power whilst maintaining the rhythm and the horse’s stride. Then the horse feels confident to jump the fence.

When approaching a fence you want the horse to feel that they’re taking you into the fence, and if you feel them back off it’s important to reassure them without putting them off their stride. So don’t spurt the toothpaste otherwise they may start to doubt themselves and refuse. 

Singing A Tune

I had a challenge and a half this week, which definitely got me rummaging around my tool box for solutions.

I have a young rider who suffers from first-jump-itis. She flies through grids, and any related distances but as soon as I put a course together she falls apart.

In her first lesson this week, a bit later in the evening because of the heat, I built a course as she warmed up on the flat. Then I warmed her up over a cross pole then upright, and then started putting a couple of the lines of my course together. The jumps were well within their comfort zone and she was riding well. We had the odd dodgy jump when she was a bit restrictive with her hands (something we’ve been working on) but her lines between fences was superb. 

Once she’d jumped nearly all of them, bar a couple of island fences, I explained the course. And it went wrong. She had a stop at the first one and promptly slid out the side door. Remounted, she rode it again successfully and the rest of the course got better – it flowed more and she looked more comfortable as she went through.

I upped some of the jumps; still within her comfort zone – especially the first one and she did it again. The first jump was still an issue so once they’d ridden the course with a sticky first jump I suggested we did the course one last time, to crack the first-jump-itis. After all, she’d jumped it a few times now and I think repetition was needed to stop her overthinking it. They had a good breather and then off they went. 

And it all went wrong. The pony stopped, she fell off, then she over rode and got in front of the movement, and then her pony started anticipating and stopping even when she gave him a fair approach. Then she froze and pulled with her hands into the fence. Even lowering the jump didn’t help.

Then of course we’re in this vicious cycle where everyone gets hot and bothered. So I told them to have a walk break and moved onto another fence, and made that a little cross. They stumbled over it and I could see my rider was just in a panic.

I’ve said before, that teenagers can be tricky if there’s an external problem or if they’re a bit hormonal or whatever, it can be hard to solve a problem. Thankfully I know this rider very well, so jokingly checked there were no boy problems, or anything else she wanted to tell me. There wasn’t, so I told her to serenade me the next time she jumped. She laughed despite herself, and moaned that she wasn’t very good at singing. But just her laughter caused her to relax a bit and break the tension. 

She went again, and on the approach to the cross pole started singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They instantly improved, relaxing and she had the handbrake off so her pony sorted the jump out himself. I made her repeat it a couple more times, singing loudly. 

Then I made it an upright and continued with the singing approach, finding it made her breathing more even and meant my rider sat more like a passenger, which she needed to do so that she didn’t interfere with her pony’s jumping.

That went smoothly so as she landed  I told her to maintain the canter and approach the original jump. Unfortunately getting them up and running didn’t mean that they negotiated the problem jump. Usually breaking the cycle and establishing a flow helps overcome psychological refusals. But I noticed my rider stopped singing on the approach, and freezing her body.

I took the jump right down and got them singing and trotting, then cantering, over it until they’d done the original fence. The important part was that she continued singing and stayed relaxed. As soon as they’d succeeded we finished the lesson … to be continued tomorrow.

I mulled over the conundrum overnight, and the following day realised that it’s been very hot this week and the adults I teach bring their own water to lessons. Parents bring water for their kids in their lessons. I don’t take water with me unless I have multiple lessons because I just end up leaving it in arenas. But this young rider had come down to her lesson alone – Dad was poo picking (how well trained!) – so her performance was probably affected in the last third of the lesson because of thirst or heat. I had a gap in my diary just before her lesson and was feeling quite thirsty myself so headed to Costa and bought two iced fruit coolers, assuming my rider wouldn’t have a drink.

She seemed very pleased with the drink, and I think it definitely helped her having frequent slurps through the lesson. I changed the course slightly to make a three jump grid, which I kept as little crosses and got her jumping through in a relaxed and positive way to warm up. I also got her to jump the grid with one arm out to the side, just to highlight how tense her arms get on the approach, particularly when she’s worried. This also built her pony’s confidence back up.

With the grid going well I then used it as the first element on a course. This was to help her establish the rhythm and get into the zone before continuing on to the courses. I still made her sing loudly, and I was pleased to hear her doing it on her own accord. With her breathing and being more relaxed, and me reminding her to release her hands on the approach, the lines flowed a bit smoother. 

We had a couple of minor blips but overall a much more positive session. They jumped the grid then onto the course a couple of times successfully and then I called it a day. I felt it was more important to finish on a good note than to change the course in any way and ask any more questions. After all, there were a few little things for them both to go away and reflect on. 

Lessons to learn are for me to double check everyone brings water or refreshments to lessons in hot weather. To use grids the next couple of lessons to establish my rider’s rhythm and get her in the zone. To make her sing to every jump because each time she stopped singing she had a more frantic approach and not such a good take off or bascule. I’m also tempted to do some lunging without reins, and more grids without reins so that I stop her using the handbrake. Then hopefully we can break the cycle and they get back on top of their game. 

Improving Their Jump

The ideal bascule, which makes jumping effortless and lengthens their athletic life expectancy, as well as making them successful in the competition ring, is when a horse folds his forelegs neatly underneath him, rounds his back, lengthens and lowers the neck, and then follows through with tidy hindlegs. 

Various faults occur, either by poor training, poor technique, lack of confidence, or poor conformation. One interesting jumping fault I’ve recently experienced, and haven’t really come across it before, is the slither technique.

Have you seen it? It’s when the forelegs get left behind and the horse literally jumps with his front legs under his belly.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how best to work on overcoming this fault, but as ever reverted to flatwork.

Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps.

The horse in question is rather large, with long legs. Like a super model! So the flatwork focused on engaging his hindquarters, getting him to lighten his forehand and bring his engine underneath him. Smaller circles and shoulder in have all improved his balance, and the canter has improved dramatically. He can now shorten and lengthen the canter strides without losing his balance and his hindquarters are doing more work than his shoulders.

Horses tend to slither over jumps when related distances are too short, which given this horse’s size puts him at a disadvantage. At every competition he will find distances a bit short. Which is why it’s so important that his canter is adjustable. It does mean for me that I have to be generous with my grid distances with him so that he learns, and develops the right muscles, to bascule correctly. Then once he is stronger and more adjustable in the canter we can start to teach him to work with the slightly shorter distances, that he would find in a competition environment.

Once a horse is starting to get the hang of basculing correctly the gridwork becomes invaluable. Having a quick succession of jumps, one or two strides apart improves the horse’s gymnastic ability because they have to extend and flex their joints in quick succession.

Over the last few months this horse has really improved and the slithering only happens when he gets too deep into fences. I’m enjoying seeing him going out competing with his owner now, and having more success.

The other factor that can cause horses to slither over jumps is when they are a bit slow to pick up their forehand and to lift the shoulder over jumps. Which caused me to use an A-frame with this particular horse the other week. A placing pole meant he didn’t get too close, and the A-frame really got him lifting his forelegs and tucking them up neatly. His owner could feel the difference in the bascule from the saddle – his back rounded underneath her over the fence.

Our next move is to try a line of bounces because this will make him pick up his feet quickly, and improve the muscle memory, which will mean that if he does get a bit deep into a jump he will be able to get himself out of trouble. Previously when I’ve done raised pole and bounce work with him he’s found it really difficult to organise his legs and keep his balance, which invariably means I have to get on and off a lot to adjust poles!

Just by using a combination of different exercises, you can make massive improvements to a horse’s technique and build the correct muscles. Recently, because this particular horse was jumping so well on a lesson, we did a bit of a Chase-Me-Charlie. I wanted to build the horse’s confidence a bit and see the extent of his scope, but I knew a single upright would be very difficult for him as he would have to pick up his forelegs very quickly; he’s much better in his technique but our high jumps needed to complement previous work, and not let him revert to slithering. So I build an oxer. The front rail wasn’t very high, perhaps 70cm, and there was a clear ground line. The back rail of the oxer, which wasn’t that wide, started at 90cm. As he cleared it comfortably I notched it up, and up, to an impressive 120cm. He cleared it easily, whilst still jumping correctly! I was so pleased!

Now we need to increase the height of the general exercises to build his muscles and confidence, whilst still using his body correctly and efficiently. Then they will definitely notice a difference at competitions! 

Quit While You’re Ahead

I’m forever telling my clients that “we’ll leave it there for today” or “that’s a good note to finish on today” when they ride an exercise well. Then they leave the lesson on a high, will remember that feeling and feel motivated to continue their hard work. It’s also a reward for the horse when they have performed well.

Unfortunately for me, I forgot my own advice last week.

I ride a mare who is very bold over jumps, but doesn’t have much respect for them and often loses her technique as she rushes. I’ve worked on slowing her down, stopping her rushing away, and used poles to teach her to flex and round her back. But she still wasn’t rounding her back over jumps, carrying her head up with a stag-like technique. So I did some research and found that putting water trays under a fence is commonly used to get the horse to lower their neck and look down. Alternatively, a pole placed diagonally across an oxer has the same effect.

I didn’t have any trays, so I tried the pole technique. We started off low, and I felt the mare really thought about the question as she was much steadier in her approach and made an improved shape over the over. I did it a few times from both canter reins, making sure she didn’t drift right as she likes to. 

Once she felt confident with the set up I made it a bit bigger and fractionally wider. Again, she was focusing nicely on it and working well. I could feel her back flexing more underneath me as we jumped.

I’d done the jump off both reins, but decided to do it once more from the right, her weaker rein. Just to overcome that little wobble she did in the air. She approached with a really balanced canter, hocks underneath her, straight and focused.

Then I don’t know what happened. I think she thought about chipping in, but changed her mind. Which meant she didn’t pick up as well as she had been – probably a bit of complacency there too because they were only coloured poles, and the fact it was near the end of our session. Which led to her catching her front legs on the front rail, ploughing through the fence, going onto her knees, face planting the arena surface, and ejecting me out the front door. Not that I had any option really; there was nothing in front of me!

We scrambled to our feet and checked no one had seen, before I took a closer look at the mare. There was nothing visibly wrong, she just looked surprised. Once I’d tidied up the poles, I made a small cross and remounted. I gave her a trot and canter round to make sure she felt ok. Which she did, so I popped her over the cross pole. She jumped it very neatly, and we ended on a good note.

I’m really annoyed at myself for doing the jump “one last time” because she had done it 90% perfect before and I should have accepted that and moved on. The plus points are that apart from bruised egos, neither of us were hurt, and hopefully the mare will remember that coloured poles need respect as much as cross country fences and will continue to jump neatly with a better bascule so she doesn’t do a repeat performance. 

No Escape Routes

I taught a guinea pig rider over the weekend, a completely unknown combination to test my ability to assess and teach new people with no preparation, and we definitely had a breakthrough. With new, or unknown combinations, you often make tweaks and see the beginning of improvements, but rarely do you have a game changer of a lesson. That comes later when several tweaks come together in a dot-to-dot fashion.

My rider was a young teenager on her almost outgrown Welsh section B. The pony apparently had a phobia of fillers and didn’t jump more that 2’6″ at most.

After watching them warm up on the flat I felt that the pony was doing an excellent impression of a llama – nose up and out as he pranced along. But his rider had poker straight arms, which wasn’t helping the situation. Almost as soon as we’d corrected the hand carriage the pony relaxed his neck and became a bit softer in his frame. 

We moved into jumping, and the pony looked fairly scopey to me, albeit a bit erratic on the approach. So I focused my rider’s attention on the quality of the canter and not letting the pony back off towards fences. We worked on still softening the hands and arms on the approach, with quiet, positive legs.

Once they’d jumped a few and it was flowing well, I brought in the fillers. The two fillers were just at the side of the fence, with space to jump in the centre. Then I asked my rider how she was going to ride towards the filler jump. She said a few taps with the stick and fast. I asked her to demonstrate, so I could prove my point later.

After a refusal (a dive out to the right), they popped it easily and I brought them in to discuss how we could progress.

I felt that the pony was more than capable but was a typical pony and would take the easy route if possible. Which meant that it was down to his rider to ride him so that the only, and easiest, route was over the jump. Firstly, approaching a bit slower would give her more control and hopefully more time to prevent a run out. In order to give the pony just one direction to go in, the leg needs to be hugging him ready to apply pressure if he backs off the fence. The reins need to channel him straight without discouraging him from going forwards. I got my rider to imagine the reins were train tracks, hands quite close together and carried above the wither. The legs can help tunnel the pony along the tracks; e.g. If he drifts left, close the left leg and left rein to the shoulder. Basically the legs and hands had to block the alternative, sideways, routes. Finally, the seat needed to support the legs in driving the pony forwards. 

Put all together, the rider is quietly and positively giving the pony no alternative but to jump over the fence. We put the theory into practice, and they flew! Every single jump, regardless of filler or not, had a more positive and rhythmical approach and a better take off point and bascule. The whole course flowed nicely.

To test them thoroughly, I asked them to jump the narrow, white gate fence in the arena. It was full up 2’6″ and spooky, but my rider applied the aids and the pony refused by stopping on the final stride. This was fine; I explained to my rider that he was no longer running around the jump as his previous refusals had been, because her legs and reins were more effective. He had, however, exploited a weakness. She had just been a little lax with the seat, as she anticipated the take off. On the second attempt, they flew it easily!

They made a huge improvement through the lesson, and I think the rider understood the content and felt more confident in her pony’s ability. Hopefully they can apply this technique of shutting all exit routes in a quiet way, whilst clearly offering going forwards over the jump as the only option, the pony will stop thinking about how to evade the jump and just get on with it! It’s just a shame now that I can’t help them continue their journey, because they look like they’re going to have a lot of fun! 

Something To Get My Teeth Into …

Every so often I teach a lesson that is really rewarding. Whether it is because I’ve done mental gymnastics to work out how best to explain a concept, or had to do some research, or the satisfaction when a client “gets it”.

I had one of those lessons this week, and came away tired, but buzzing. 

One of my teenage clients has recently stepped up a level with her jumping, but they’ve had a couple of hiccoughs, which we’ve been trying to iron out.

Last week, we worked on the rein contact because a stride or so before the jump my rider was dropping the contact and getting in front of her pony. Which was causing him to refuse. But by the end of last week’s lesson she was waiting until the fence to fold and maintaining the contact nicely. Oh and she was also using the snaffle ring of the Dutch gag to minimise the effect of the loss of contact on the pony so that he didn’t lose confidence. 

Then over the weekend she had a pony club rally and got very muddled with the comments that instructor made. I’m not going into who’s right and wrong, but everyone has different ways of explaining principles and it can sometimes be overwhelming for young people to process. 

So armed with the knowledge that I needed to untangle my young rider’s  mind, I spent a couple of days thinking about it all.

She had been told that she was holding her horse back into the fence, but she was getting confused with our work on maintaining a contact, waiting for the fence, and her pony taking her to the fence.

Coincidentally, I’d read an article by Lucinda Green recently which discussed keeping 75% of the horse in front of you on the approach to a cross country fence so that you are behind the movement and in a safer position. It occurred to me that this explanation might be beneficial for this rider to help her understand not to get in front of her pony before the fence.

While she warmed up, I asked her to  think about how much of her pony was in front of her. She started feeling there was 50% in front of her, but by sitting on her bum, closing the leg and pushing the hindquarters into her much improved, steady contact she began to feel there was 75% of her pony in front of her. She found this useful to get her position correct, and to feel that her pony was taking her forwards.

I discussed with my rider the feedback from the rally, and her thoughts on her riding last week, at the rally and today, and we came to the conclusion that my rider had forgotten to close the leg towards the fence and ride positively (because I think we have been focusing on her keeping a consistent contact and not getting in front of the movement) and whilst I may have picked up on this because I know how my rider ticks, her past riding, and the pony; the rally instructor focused on the wrong aspect for my client. Not the wrong thing necessarily, but the phrase and explanation didn’t make sense to my rider at her current level of understanding. It’s also tricky because the pony behaves differently at home than away, so issues that I may not observe can occur. We’re planning an outing with me soon, so I can help my rider at a competition.

With the explanations untangled and my rider clearer in her head, we began jumping the course I had built.

As crosses and uprights at 90cm my rider flew around the course, her rein contact was steady, she kept herself upright and her pony took her into the fences nicely because she wasn’t getting in front of him. 

At this point, they were both looking confident and comfortable. So out of interest, I raised the fences to see if this changed anything. 

Now I had to get my thinking cap on, because things started to fall apart. The pony was keen, getting quicker to the fences and now I could see how my rider was holding him back. Perhaps she was worried he was going too fast to jump, or worried he would put in a sudden stop, or the jumps worried her because they were bigger, I’m not 100% sure why. The trouble is that the pony is keen so if you don’t steady him at some point whilst jumping a course he will get too fast and unbalanced which could cause other issues. It’s a fine balancing act, and one which has got out of proportion.

I reminded my rider of a principle we’ve covered many times. It’s her job to create an energetic, balanced canter and straight approach, but her pony’s job to get over the jump. That means the last three strides were his, and his alone. She remembered and understood this, so I stood in front of the jump and walked away until she told me where she relinquished control over the canter. Marking that place, I then strode out three canter strides. My rider’s point was significantly closer to the jump than the three strides I had walked. Partnered with the fact that a bigger fence has a take off point further away, my rider began to understand that she was trying to dictate the canter for too long, thus inhibiting the way her pony jumped. 

I think this is a fairly recent development, possibly due to their knock in confidence. We now jumped the course, focusing on organising the canter, and releasing the pony in sufficient time to allow him to organise himself over the jump. It was looking much better, and my rider understood everything we’d discussed and could feel how much better her pony was jumping. And how happier he felt.

But we had another problem now. In related distances, my rider was taking a steady, but still trying to slow the canter in those critical three strides prior to the next fence.  

I videoed her, and then we watched the video so my rider could clearly see where she should have released, and how she was trying to steady. I explained to her how she needs to land and try to rebalance her pony, but if she hasn’t managed to, or even if she has, it is vitally important that she releases and let’s her pony do his job. 

This worked. Okay, it was still fast through the related distances but by releasing the control over the canter in sufficient time, the pony still jumped easily and nicely. 

My rider understood everything we discussed, and could see what she needed to do to best help her pony, who after all wants to jump. Now it’s just retraining her eye and getting her to trust that he will fly the jump if she releases the handbrake before the fence. Her position was much more secure by the end, and the contact was steady, so we have resolved the getting in front of her pony issue. This means that I’ll give her some brakes next time and drop the reins down a ring on the Dutch gag, because I feel she can keep the contact consistent now, and I would like her to feel that she has some control around a course. 

We’ll spend the next few weeks focusing on when she’s in charge of the canter and when she needs to relinquish control to her pony.