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.


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.

Picking Up Their Feet

Sometimes horses can get a little complacent when jumping and become a bit untidy with their legs, either knocking poles or only just scrabbling over the fence.

To quickly remind a horse that they need to be smarter with picking up their feet over fences; tucking them up neatly and quickly, I like to work them over bounces.

Last week I wanted to combine the bounces for this purpose, with also reminding one mare to sit on her hocks more in the canter. Equally, I wanted her teenage rider to see the benefits of improving in this area for jumping larger fences.

On the three quarter line I set up three bounce fences. The first and third were only a foot high, but the middle bounce was about 80cm. The focus of these three jumps was the centre one, but the first fence improves the cadence in the canter so the bascule over the middle jump is cleaner and more efficient. Then the last fence encourages the horse to sit up and focus on landing, and not to run away on the forehand.

After working through the bounces on each rein, I added in the final oxer across the diagonal. I put this up to 95cm initially but then rapidly raised it to over 1m. The bounces set up the canter so all my rider had to do was maintain it round the corner to the oxer.

This mare can sometimes back off bigger fences, or give a wiggle on the approach (sometimes changing her canter lead too) so it’s not the smoothest or most confidence giving of rides, but the first time they rode the whole exercise at the bigger height (managing to keep left canter, which is her weaker jumping canter) the approach was smoother and the canter more balanced. Which lead to a whopping jump! I think the mare thought it was 1.10m, because she gave it plenty of air and was very neat with her legs over it.

Typically, I only got the second attempt on camera, in which they lost the left canter but when my rider corrected the lead they still had a better quality canter and approach to the jump. The mare looked more confident on the approach and didn’t back off in the slightest or try to change her lead.

The bounces make a very simple warm up exercise prior to jumping a course and has almost instant results because the bounces tell the horse how to canter which can help teach the rider what the canter should feel like.


An Intensive Grid

I gave a couple of horses and riders a good gymnastic workout a few weeks ago.

It was a grid of 3 bounces, followed by one stride to an upright and then two strides to an oxer.

The three bounces encourage the horse to be neat with their legs and quick over the fences, and he needs to be gymnastically very supple and fit to be able to do the three bounces successfully.

However, after the third jump, the horse needs to travel with a good length canter stride in order to reach the bigger upright. If a horse finds the bounces physically challenging then they tend to struggle to make the distance to the upright, and end up chipping in. Then, the horse has a larger oxer to negotiate, when they are starting to tire. The upright jump requires a similar shapes bascule as the bounces, but the oxer requires the horse to take off slightly further away and make a longer bascule so that the horse clears both the front and back rail of the oxer. The change in bascule over the fence is physically demanding of the horse, so requires a high degree of suppleness and gymnastic ability.

However, because the bounce fences have improved the quality of the bascule and encouraged the horse to engage their abdominals and “round” the canter strides so improving their cadence the horse will usually make a more correct shape over the larger two fences and feel more confident over the bigger jumps. The pony in the video below is only 14hh and before Christmas found 80cm jumps tricky, and frequently chipped in before jumps, but the oxer here is just over 1m and he cleared it comfortably and confidently, as well as keeping a very good, positive canter throughout the exercise. If anything, he makes the jump look small.

I did this exercise with a horse who tends to get very long in the canter while jumping. The bounces improved his technique and made him shorten his canter, which meant that over the last two fences he didn’t get so close and had enough time to tuck up his forelegs.

In a smaller arena a few days later, I took out the upright fence in order to fit the grid in, which actually made the exercise a bit harder because there was no gradual lengthening to the canter and bascule. Instead, the 14.2hh horse has to go from a short, neat pop over the bounces to a longer, bigger fence which involves a bigger adjustment to their body so requires more suppleness. This little horse managed the exercise really well, and due to the bounces improving her canter she cleared 1.10m in a very neat and confident way.


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.


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.


A Rhythmical Approach

There’s this horse that I was schooling for her owner who is best described as quirky. I’ve never really been aware, but she’s actually a very difficult horse to ride. Not because she’s particularly strong or nappy, or naughty or anything. But because you have to ride the whole spectrum with her. She can be really lazy and disengaged in the arena, then suddenly spook and do a snorting dragon impression whilst piaffing. She can be moving beautifully laterally and then change her mind and throw in a buck. So you have to have a huge range of tools and be quick to react to her behaviour at that particular moment in time. Because it will change in a flash.

This makes it hard to explain to someone else how to ride. You know, some horses you can sum up with “very quick off the leg but doesn’t spook” or “needs a lot of leg and seat to get canter”. But with this mare she can be everything within the same five minutes!

So I’ve enlisted a couple of friends to ride her under my supervision. I can tell them which buttons to press to get the best out of the mare on the day, and I can explain what exercises work best. There is a very fine balancing act too, between getting the mare working in a good rhythm with impulsion and straight, without her toys coming out the pram and her putting on the brakes, particularly in the canter.

I’ve had the girls jumping a lot because this mare really benefits from more complicated exercises, which to be frank can be a pain to set up on your own, and I like to get the mare thinking about the question rather than her usual cock-sure approach coloured poles.

One of last week’s exercises began as a series of canter poles. On the approach to fences it can be really tricky to find the right canter – three time, not too fast and flat, yet energetic. Then on the last few strides it can so easily go out the window. I felt that this exercise would help my rider get the feel of this delicate balance, whilst also making the mare stay in the correct canter rhythm.

After working over the poles in both directions I put up a cross pole. So there were three canter poles before a cross pole and then a landing pole to keep the mare’s focus after the fence.

It took a few goes in order to stop her rushing, or backing off, and to keep the rhythm in the canter throughout the exercises. My rider found that a walk to canter transition followed by a small circle and short approach helped create a lovely canter to the poles, and then the poles dictated the canter.

I built the cross higher and then turned it into an upright and then after removing the landing pole, an oxer. As the jump got bigger the mare had more of a tendency to change her canter on the approach – flattening, rushing and leaving her hindquarters behind her. Which made it harder for her to bascule correctly.

Its a very useful exercise to help riders learn to ride a rhythmical approach, and to be able to keep the canter together. Quite often, they’ll apply the leg to commit to the jump and a horse will be rushed out of their rhythm and lose the quality of the canter. When you have a horse as delicate to balance as this, the poles give a helping hand. Now this rider has got the feeling for approaching a jump with this mare which will help her get the best jump from her.


Keeping the Lower Leg Still

The other week I was trying to focus one of my riders on their lower leg over fences, and how it likes to swing backwards. But he was more interested in jumping bigger/higher/more exciting so I made limited progress. However, he went out competing over the weekend and saw some photos of him jumping and was horrified by his lower leg.

Great – so I had his attention!

In his last lesson I came armed with string. After a short warm up, in the indoor because of the unfriendly February weather, getting my rider to be really aware of what his legs were doing as he trotted round, I brought out the string.

I tied the inside of his stirrup iron to his girth. There’s still a bit of movement, but the resistance of the string makes the rider aware of their leg movements. This means that we can train their muscles to remain in the correct place whilst supporting his legs to help him learn the slightly different rise or slightly different feel in his balance.

Through the lesson we did rising and sitting trot, worked in light seat, and then worked the canter in sitting and light seat.

The string on his stirrups made my rider more aware of how his leg wanted to swing, but because the string stabilised the position of his lower leg, my rider could turn his attention to adjusting the height of his shoulders, how far back his bottom had gone to the cantle, and position of his hands. Thus allowing him to find the right balance.

I made some other tweaks, like getting him to carry his hands, and not hollowing the lower back as he went into his light seat. He also had to have softer knees so that the weight stayed in his foot, with the heel slightly lower than his toe and the leg stable. He started to understand how this new position would enable him to ride a whole cross country course like this without tiring, and how he could still use his calves to ride his pony towards a fence without losing balance.

At the end of the lesson I removed the string and we ran through light seat in trot and canter to see if his legs were remaining in the correct place and if he felt balanced. His homework over the next few weeks is to keep practicing maintaining the lower leg position, and hopefully by practicing on the flat and when hacking it will become second nature when he’s jumping.

Today, I got a video from him asking me to critique his position over a fence! It looked much better, he wasn’t in front of his pony over the fence and they looked much more balanced, as you can see in the rather blurry still from the video below.

I always think that when I jumping position, the rider should look as though they would stay squatting and not topple over if their horse has been removed from under them. If the lower leg swings back then a rider will topple face first, akin to superman gone wrong! I have high hopes that this rider will correct his position and strengthen it over the next few weeks because he’s understood the importance of it in helping his pony jump neatly and in balance, and in helping him recover quickly after a fence so that he can rebalance his pony and ride the next turn on the course.