More Pole Work Exercises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kids and Grids

As we know, I love gridwork. I do find it’s not introduced to children early enough in their jumping education though. Obviously you can’t or don’t need to build a long, complicated, all singing and dancing grid for those learning to jump, but a simple grid can help develop a child’s feel for a good jump, build their confidence, and develop their feel for their jumping position.

I find that children have less understanding of and ability to ride the different types of canter, and creating and maintaining a quality canter on the approach to fences, so a grid in this situation has to be built bespoke to the pony and adjusted through the lesson.

I start with three canter poles, with one pony stride between. The pony I did this with last week has quite a short striding canter, and stays very steady over poles, so I laid the poles out five of my strides apart. That’s about fifteen foot. They cantered easily through the poles, with my little jockey focusing on keeping straight and keeping the canter going through the poles.

Then I made the first fence into a little cross, and rolled out the following two poles so they were sixteen foot apart because the act of popping over the little cross pole opens up the pony’s canter and he needed more space between the poles.

Once they were confident and consistent through this setup, I rolled the second pole out slightly more and then made it into another jump. Then I corrected the third pole so it was still sixteen foot away from the second fence. Each time the pair went through the grid I checked the pony’s take off and landing points to see if he needed the distances lengthening. I didn’t want my rider to have to try to adjust the canter, I wanted the pony to easily negotiate the grid and make a good shape over the jumps to improve my rider’s feel.

I put the third jump up so we had three crosses, about seventeen foot apart, and then spent some time working on my rider’s position. It took a couple of attempts for her to find the rhythm of folding and sitting up quick enough for the series of jumps, and then we checked she was giving with her hands and not restricting his neck over jumps. Even if the first jump was taken a bit long or short, my rider soon began to see their take off point and stayed much more balanced throughout. So the grid was helping improve her balance, eye for a stride, and confidence over the fences. Prior to riding this grid, she’d got left behind over bigger jumps and hadn’t always looked in sync with her pony.

One at a time I turned the second and third jump into uprights, and raised the cross slightly. As each fence got bigger, from 45cm to 60cm, I tweaked the distances so that the pony met every jump well out of his canter, and my rider didn’t have to change the canter.

This little rider worries with upright and spread fences, so I used the grid to introduce these fence shapes. With the third fence moved out slightly further, I made an inviting spread with a cross at the front and a back rail. The grid ensured she met the jump well, and I hoped that having a good experience over an oxer would increase her confidence.

The pair finished with the grid below; the back rail of the oxer was 60cm. Easily the biggest she’s ever jumped, and she stayed balanced during the bigger bascule. They got a little close to the first jump, which meant they were a little close to the second too. I could have the distances slightly wider, but I didn’t want them to take a long one over the first fence and then either chip in for the second fence or take a very long jump. When we next do a grid I aim to get them jumping closer to 70cm, so the distances will be closer to the textbook 21 feet. However, I will let the pony dictate the distances as my little rider is less able to adjust the canter if things don’t go to plan.

Grids for beginners, even if they’re barely more than poles on the floor, are understated. So long as the instructor adapts the distances so the horse or pony can jump them out of their comfortable canter, it’s a great opportunity for a rider to develop their jumping position, balance and feel.

Keeping Fences Low

With Pony Club Camp last week and the ground being incredibly hard this summer, there was a lot of talk amongst the instructors (which didn’t necessarily relate to me and my six year old riders) about how to keep the fences low in the jumping sessions. After all, there is a huge trend towards people (and not just the children) judging how good a rider someone is based on how high they can jump. I would much rather see a horse and rider jump a lower height safely, stylishly and confidently than “keeping up with the Joneses” and have an accident, lose confidence, and have an ugly round. Besides, none of us question Charlotte Dujardin’s riding ability and she rarely jumps.

Anyway, one exercise I did a few weeks ago was a relevant option for keeping the fences low yet still still testing the rider’s ability.

The exercise started with a cross pole at X which I had my rider jump on a steep angle from both reins. This tested that they could ride their line and the pony wasn’t trying to run out through the open side.

Then I set up a skinny fence, one canter stride away from the cross, on the line they’d been jumping. The skinny was an upright, with a plain pole, so had very little visual clues to help the rider stay on their line.

This particular pony always runs to the left so the double was first set up to be ridden from the right rein. My rider carried his whip in the right rein so if his pony drifted to the right he could use it on the shoulder to help stay on their line.

It was a tricky exercise because although the cross was a nice, encouraging fence, having only one stride to the skinny meant that the pair had to prepare properly, and set themselves up accurately to the combination as there was no time to do any repair work between jumps. In all honesty, I was surprised when they succeeded the first time and jumped the skinny very accurately and stylishly.

After riding the line a couple of times I rearranged the exercise so that they jumped it off the left rein. This would be their harder rein, because the rider has a weaker left leg and the pony tends to drift through his left shoulder which, combined with the fact the pony is encouraged to veer left through the double, means it is more problematic.

The first time they drifted left, then my rider really applied his left leg and the whip on the pony’s left shoulder. Which unfortunately meant that the pony overcompensated and ran out to the right.

So I used some poles to help guide the rider and pony. The tramlines were leant against the jump wings so that they ran diagonally down to the ground. This meant they clarified the question to the pony and helped funnel him towards the skinny. After a couple of times where they jumped the guide pole rather than the skinny they successfully rode the double. As soon as they cracked the line and stayed straight as an arrow, the double was a perfect canter stride and the pony made it look effortless. When they wobbled off their line, however fractionally, the distance between the fences became longer so the pony squeezed in an extra stride to the skinny.

This exercise really tested both horse and rider without being very high, because the rider had to have a good eye and be able to ride their line, and the pony had to be on the aids. In Pony Club jumping sessions, a course could be set up with lots of tricky lines and combinations which encourage accurate riding rather than jumping big and fast. After all, lots of jumping on hard ground will damage the horse’s legs.

A Grid of Skinnies

I built this grid the other day to help with improving the rider’s eye for straightness, their accuracy in the turns and ability to ride a line. and to test the horse’s straightness over fences. It also builds a horse’s confidence over narrow fences.

The first jump was of normal width, with jump wings to give the horse plenty of guidance to the fence. I laid a pair of poles perpendicular to the first fence, which along with the inviting cross shape focused both horse and rider on the centre of the fence, which would hopefully give them the best chance of going straight over the skinnies.

One canter stride away, I made a skinny fence with some blocks as the wings. Initially I put it as a cross to keep horse and rider central. With a green horse, I would use jump wings to discourage the horse from running out, but this horse and rider combination are competent with narrow fences. This fence later became an upright, which meant there was no discernible wings to the fence because the blocks were level with the height of the fence, so increasing the difficulty.

Then, another canter stride from the second element, I placed a barrel on it’s side. I put two upright barrels as wings here, and then once the pair had negotiated the grid successfully I made the final fence an oxer by putting a short pole and two wings behind the barrels. Alternatively, I could have removed the barrel wings, but as this caused them some problems a couple of weeks ago, I’m leaving that option for another week.

I built the grid up slowly, fence by fence in order to keep them confident. If at any point, one of the skinny fences had caused a problem, or the horse was drifting over the fences, I’d have got out some guide poles. Initially, I’d have laid the poles so they formed a funnel, one end on the jump wing and one on the floor, to help encourage the horse to stay straight and jump the skinny fence. Then these poles can be laid on the floor so they are still helping the horse, but he becomes less reliant on them. Then finally, jump the fence without the guide poles.

This grid can be made more complicated by using bounces, converting the first fence into an upright and removing the tramlines at the beginning. I can also make the skinny fences narrower … watch this space!

Improving Balance Around Corners

I saw an exercise online last week and modified it slightly to help a client who’s pony tends to motorbike around corners.

Using one corner of the school, I laid out three trotting poles on the track. There was 4’6″ between the centre of each pole, which also conveniently also lay on the track my rider had made.

We worked on both reins with the poles laid flat until they were trotting around the corner easily, making the distance between each pole comfortably. Initially, the pony found it difficult to bend and increase her cadence so drifted through the outside shoulder. My rider had to use her outside rein and leg to support her pony through the turn and maintain the support for longer as they came out of the turn. She also found that if she used her inside rein and had too much bend through the neck, they drifted out more and found the exercise harder. So it was a good way of reminding my rider of the correct rein aids and contact.

Next I built up the trot poles into cavaletti, however I only raised the inside of each pole. This was to discourage the pair from falling in around the corner and to improve the activity and strength of the inside hind leg.

As the pony had to put in more effort over the raised poles she started to drift out around the corner, but the fence helped my rider correct this and as the bend developed through her whole body so she began to find it easier and stayed more balanced throughout.

With the abdominals now switched on the trot improved generally and the mare had a good stretch over her topline.

We moved on to riding a canter transition just after the poles to start working the canter. The more active trot helped the transitions have more energy and the subsequent trot was looser so their trot poles improved further.

Now finished with the trotting poles, I converted them to canter poles and after cantering through once started to raise them. This pony tends to motorbike more in canter, so the raised poles were even more beneficial at improving her balance and bend through the corners. They also stopped my rider leaning in!

The canter became stronger, balanced and more three time because the inside hind leg had become more supple and was stepping under the body more.

I was really pleased with the improvement in the quality of the trot and canter due to the trot poles, and my rider could feel how much more balanced they were around the corners which is great for developing her feel. She’ll now know when she gets it right and can strive to replicate the feeling.

I wanted to see how the poles on the corner helped their jump, so I walked two canter strides away from the third pole and put up an upright. As expected, the mare backed off the first time, but from then on she jumped it beautifully. The poles kept her really balanced and her hocks engaged so that the bascule was neat and my rider could feel the lift through the shoulders, and generally felt that the jump was more scopey and powerful. I then reversed the exercise so they could do it on the other rein. Hopefully this exercise will help them create better corners around a jumping course and with time ride tighter turns whilst staying balanced which will help them stay clear whilst against the clock. I just wish I’d taken a photo of the exercise!

Phoenix Goes Showjumping

Any journey with horses is full of ups and downs. They are excellent creatures for keeping your feet firmly on the floor. I’ve been lucky so far that Phoenix and I have basically been on a smooth ride, but we were bound to encounter a couple of ruts in the road soon.

Two weeks ago Phoenix had her final massage as my friend’s case study and then had a long weekend off while we were away. On the Tuesday I lunged her and she was a bit fresh – trotting quickly, cantering before being asked, reluctant to come back to trot, that sort of thing. So I just let her get it all out of her system and then on Wednesday I lunged her again with her sensible head back on and she went nicely, relaxing and swinging along nicely.

Over the weekend, Phoenix had been plagued by little black flies around her ears, so she was feeling sensitive when I put the bridle and headcollar on. I cleaned them out as much as I could, and found an old fly mask of Otis’s for her to try. I wasn’t sure if she’d had a mask on before so wanted to trial her before buying her one of her own. Unfortunately this one didn’t have ears, so as soon as I saw that Phoenix kept a mask on and was comfortable with it, I ordered one of her own. As well as ensuring it had ear covers, I also got a UV proof nose net to protect her white nose.

Thursday and Friday I rode, avoiding the heavy downpours, but she was a bit tenser than I’d have liked. I put it down to her finding it harder to stay balanced in the wetter arena, her ears being a bit tender, and the fact she’d had a week off from schooling but by the end of Friday she was feeling normal again.

On Sunday I took her to a showjumping training venue. We’re so lucky to have such a fabulous arena and set of jumps so local. It was only the fifth time I’d jumped her under saddle, and the aim of the session was mostly to work well in a new environment, to link some fences together be them poles on the ground or small cross poles, and to see some fillers in the arena. It was a very positive experience; Phoenix took it all in her stride, building up from trotting over poles to cantering related distances, and finishing by jumping a little course. We had a couple of duff take off points, but I loved that she was calm and confident throughout. Here`s a link to a video on YouTube – https://youtu.be/vJrJ9PRH7Lk

As she’d worked so hard on Sunday, and probably used muscles which don’t get used very often, Phoenix had Monday off and then a gentle hack on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday we had the saddle fitter again. The good news is that she’s slimmed down to a wide gullet bar, and has changed shape enormously as she’s developing muscle. The bad news is that although the jump saddle was fitted to her, she didn’t like it and refused to move! I highly doubt that she has worn a saddle of that style before so my plan is to hack her to gently get her used to the shorter tree points, the different weight distribution, and it sitting slightly further back on her body. Throughout the saddle fit she went awfully. She was incredibly tense, choppy in her stride, fixed in her neck and shooting off in canter. Saddle fits are always a rush job in the sense that the saddler wants to see all three gaits, whereas in a schooling session I’d work on relaxation, stretching, and her balance in walk and trot before having a canter. The net result was that I came away disappointed and feeling that we haven’t made any progress.

That afternoon I had chance to reflect on everything. I think I underestimate how sensitive to change Phoenix is. Even my dressage saddle would have felt different to her, and the jump saddle is a completely new sensation, so I would take her back to basics on our next ride: walk and trot, getting her relaxed and working over her back again. Her new fly mask had arrived so hopefully in a couple of days her sensitivity around her ears would reduce because she was definitely unhappy in this area. I had also possibly underestimated the after effects of Sunday. The jumps weren’t big and she hadn’t seemed overly tired, but it was a lot of new things to digest and process, so although her muscles may have recovered, her brain might still be suffering from information overload. The final thing I thought of, and I was prompted by my saddler, is that Phoenix is wearing Otis’s bridle which is a bit on the big side so getting shorter cheek pieces would reduce the pressure just below her ears. I’m now researching different bridles to see what’s out there and what I should be considering for her.

On Thursday we had our back to basics session, using the dressage saddle and my friend’s Micklem bridle as it has good results with tense horses. Phoenix started off very tight and tense, but by the end she was trotting in a much more relaxed way, stretching down and forwards to the contact. Did the bridle make a difference? The stretching moments were some of her best, but whether that’s because I managed to release the tension or if she was used to how the dressage saddle was now sitting, or even if she liked the fit of the bridle. Who knows!

Today I gave her a quick lunge and she was back to stretching nicely again, so hopefully we’ve negotiated the little ruts in our road. I will make sure that her next saddle fit I have warmed her up more, and ensure that it’s at a time when I can give her a few days to adjust to any changes.

Putting On The Leg

One of the concepts I’ve recently found people struggle to understand and to put into practice, is riding a forwards going horse with enough leg. Or at least the right amount of leg.

This is particularly noticeable when jumping. One of the big teaching points when jumping is that the rider feels that their horse is “taking them into the fence”. This means that they’re off the leg, with an energetic canter that’s travelling forwards. Which is easy if you have a forward going horse, or one who loves jumping.

But what happens if your forward going horse is tanking towards a simple jump before suddenly grinding to a halt or getting in too deep and clambering over? The rider can tick the “taking me into the fence” box, and given that there are no tack, back, confidence issues it becomes a bit of a mystery.

A lot of the time it’s because the rider hasn’t applied the leg aids. It’s easy to see why, because you’re already travelling forwards (sometimes too quickly for your liking) so why do you want to press the accelerator?

In this instance, the seat and leg aren’t so much driving aids but more of a commitment aid. The horse has focused on the jump, they want to do it so canter happily towards it. The rider sits passively. Then the horse has a moment of doubt – is this the right jump? Am I supposed to be doing this one? – so they back off the fence and either refuse or cat leap it awkwardly.

Here, a slight application of the leg and seat means “yes this is the jump, and I’m committed” which gives the horse the confidence to jump.

Precisely how much leg you use depends upon the individual horse, but usually because the horse in this situation knows what they’re doing the leg shouldn’t put them off their stride. It’s difficult to explain to riders, especially children who think “leg” means “kick”, but I always say that if their horse changes speed, balance, or direction (wobbles on the approach) then there’s been too much leg. A squeeze of the leg to support the horse rather than distract them from their game.

Usually as soon as the rider has found the balance of leg and seat aids three strides away from the fence, the horse will comfortably and happily jump.

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.

A Cross Exercise

I discovered this fun exercise a couple of weeks ago, which has numerous benefits for horse and rider, despite one of my riders declaring the exercise to be “easy” … this was before he’d attempted it!

If you’re following the arrows on the diagram you need to approach the first jump on the left canter lead. Reverse the direction of the arrows for right canter.

I kept the jumps as crosses because with uprights it’s very easy for riders to allow their horses to jump off centre if the circle lacks roundness so we lose the accuracy of the exercise.

This exercise is very good for establishing the rhythm to a course, as the horse cannot rush before or after each fence because the circle slows them and balances the canter.

The circle is also very good for improving the quality of the canter as the horse cannot flatten and lose the three beats on the approach to a fence. Which leads to a better bascule.

If a horse has the tendency to lock on and take a long stride to a fence then this exercise is useful for showing a rider the importance of not encouraging a long jump because the circle afterwards is particularly difficult. It also helps encourage a rider to see a closer take off point. This was what tripped up my rider who declared the exercise as “easy”. His pony tends to lock on, take a long jump over a fence and land flat. The circles made my rider realise that he can’t let his pony get so long as he wouldn’t be able to ride the circle afterwards. On courses, this often happens and they miss the next turn and subsequent fence.

In order for this exercise to flow smoothly, the rider needs to maintain the correct canter lead, which may involve them asking for the canter lead over each fence, especially if the horse favours one particular canter lead. This makes the rider more aware of their body language over and after a jump. The rider needs to plan the circle, but not be too quick on riding it on landing otherwise they’ll finish the circle too close to the centre of the cross of poles and have to jump the side of the fence. Equally, being a bit slow after the fence to respond leads to very large circle and the canter can be allowed to stay a bit long and flat.

I had another rider counting out loud as she rode this exercise to help her keep the rhythm. She was focusing too much on riding a dressage standard circle, and upsetting her horse’s jumping rhythm so he was getting tense and then jumping awkwardly. After a few goes at counting the canter rhythm improved as she rode with more subtle aids so had smoother turns, and they met each fence on the perfect stride, so the whole sequence flowed beautifully.

Grabbing the inside rein will prevent the circle being round, and the horse being balanced, so it’s also important to ride the outside of the horse around the turn in order to finish the circle well and not have a dodgy jump.

The horse’s suppleness will improve as a result of this exercise, which will help on jump offs, because the horse and rider can then ride short yet balanced approaches to fences, and make quick turns on landing which will shave off precious seconds.

Give the exercise a go, I think it’s easy to be complacent about the exercise, but in order to do it well there are lots of little elements to perfect.