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.

When is it Too Early?

When you learn to ride, and a lot of your time riding as a child, is focused on you. Are you sat correctly, are your reins short enough, are you balanced. But at what point should you start to be taught about the horse's way of going?

Last week my Pony Clubbers swapped rides for one lesson, and I asked them to describe the new pony they were riding. I didn't expect references to the Scales of Training or much technicality, but I was interested to see what their thoughts were:

  • "Faster walk"
  • "Bouncier trot"
  • "Longer steps"
  • "Slow" and, my personal favourite,
  • "She makes my bum wiggle round the saddle".

Just having an awareness that different ponies feel different to ride improves kids as riders because they'll be more sensitive if they ride new ponies, and think about how much leg they apply, or ride some walk-halt transitions to get a feel for the pony before heading off into trot. It will also make them appreciate aspects of their own pony, and unintentionally help them improve them. Perhaps if they ride a lazy pony and then experience a more forward thinking pony, then they will become more efficient, and more receptive to advice, with their aids on their pony so that it becomes more off the leg.

Sometimes with beginner riders you need to slow their physical progress a bit; to allow them to build up stamina, or muscle. Or to give them more experience in each gait. We all know people who try to run before they can walk. This is when I think it's really useful to introduce an awareness for the horse's way of going and to begin to improve it. I've just started teaching this teenage boy on his Mum's cob. He learnt as a child so our first lesson was all about finding the long lost muscles and reintroducing concepts like steering and trot diagonals.

However today, I didn't want to push him much more physically, by working without stirrups or cantering, because I felt he needed to improve his fitness or else he won't enjoy riding because of the associated fatigue.

Last lesson we worked on the correct aids for transitions, so today I asked him to think about how the mare felt in the transition, and where the power was coming from. He soon identified, although he didn't know the correct terminology, that she was on the forehand.

Just be tweaking the way he rode the upwards transitions, i.e. Having fractionally more positive rein contact to feel that he was containing the energy, he began to feel that she was pushing herself into trot from her hindquarters more.

Then we started to pay more attention on whether the trot felt horizontal, downhill or uphill. Were the shoulders level, lower or higher, than the hindquarters. Soon my rider was really aware of the balance of the mare in the trot, and as it changed on turns and circles. Once this awareness has developed you can use simple transitions and basic school movements to improve the horse's balance and the rider can begin to think for themselves about how the horse is moving and hopefully start to act upon their feelings.

We worked on some transitions within the trot to help improve my rider's feel for the trot. There wasn't much change, but it was enough for him to feel the mare fall into and out of balance, and by the end of the lesson she was working beautifully; staying nicely balanced, off her forehand, and seeking the contact forwards and down so her topline was engaged. Which just goes to show that with a quiet, balanced position and told the basics about how a horse should move, even a novice rider can improve a horse's way of going, which can only be of benefit to the horse. It's never too early to start thinking about the other member of the partnership.

The Spirit of Pony Club

This last week, the essence of Pony Club has really become apparent.

The kids adored their ponies, smothering them in hugs, kisses and praise. They've all improved their riding, and confidence. Most notably, the fact that they all galloped up the hill competently. With shrieks of laughter and face- splitting grins.

But I think my proudest moment of the week, and one which really showed how important the supportive spirit of Pony Club is.

We were doing the Handy Pony competition on Friday, where the children are timed round an obstacle course. One of my riders has an ex-driving pony, who wouldn't go near the flags or poles. So at the beginning of our competition, I said to the rest of the ride "because Corky doesn't like Handy Pony very much, would anyone be willing to let Freddie ride their pony for his round?"

Instantly, all their hands shot in the air as they generously offered their ponies to their friend. I was slightly taken aback, and initially slightly concerned Freddie would choose a sharp pony, but he chose the reliable camp-pro, and did the Handy Pony with minimal assistance, whilst having great fun.

I was very proud of the whole ride in the way that they supported each other, and how willing they all were to help each other out and give each other a good experience. After all, this is the reason we go to Pony Club, isn't it?

Pony Club Dressage

It was our dressage competition this afternoon at Pony Club, and the children and ponies were beautifully turned out – diamanté plaiting bands, sparkly quarter marks, big cheesy grins. The lot.

I have to say, that they all did me proud. They all stayed in the arena, cantered in the right place, and had some semblance of circles. I was very proud of all of them!

For a bunch of seven year olds, this test was pretty tricky. And I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Pony Club. There's a PC walk and trot test, which is pretty slow and sedate, and once kids can canter fairly competently they need pushing, as well as inspiring to take flatwork a bit more seriously. Now, my kids can all ask for canter at a corner, trot at a marker, and stay fairly balanced. So I didn't want them to do the walk trot test.

The alternative Pony Club test we had, however, is the grassroots test. This is quite a steep jump from the walk and trot test. Let me list some of the movements – I know the test well enough after having read it numerous times for six riders and judged another five on it.

  • 15 m circle on both reins at E and B in trot.
  • Half 20m circle between E and H to between M and B in free walk on a long rein.
  • Trot K to X then X to G. Halt at G.

This is pretty tough isn't it?! The rest of the test was fairly straightforward with centre lines, canter large, change of rein E-B, transitions at and between markers. How many of you reading this would be able to ride an accurate 15m circle? Or a half 20m circle between markers?

I had quite a lot of trouble getting my little riders' heads around the test. The circles were either too big or too small. Or sausage shaped. And the half circle was more of a straight line. The fact they navigated it at all in the correct gait was an impressive achievement to me.

This test is actually used at the regional dressage and eventing championships, so I understand that it needs to be challenging.

But what I'd quite like to see from the Pony Club is a set of training dressage tests, aimed at kids. Which are designed to encourage them into dressage. When a test is complicated and they don't score highly, they lose interest. Surely, it would be in equestrian's best interest to have a selection of tests which are prelim level, but clearly understood by children, and focusing on building their confidence, knowledge, attention to detail, and the basic flatwork building points. If the layout of the test is less complicated for them to think about, they will be able to focus instead on riding into their corners, sitting up tall, and keeping their pony in a rhythm.

Movements such as 20m circles, simple changes of rein, progressive transitions, serpentines. Nothing tricky, but everything encouraging. Then perhaps more Pony Clubs would run small competitions and rallies, particularly aimed at the younger members, and children would become more enthused by dressage, instead of it being seen as the "boring bit".

I just think that making simple dressage tests that do include canter, would stop dressage seem like such a daunting prospect for the little ones, and thus strike an interest as well as improving their riding.

Day One of Pony Club Camp

Today was the first day of Pony Club Camp, and I realised that in order to successfully teach and enjoy Pony Club you have to change your attitude.

When you teach clients on a weekly, permanent basis, you have long term goals and iron out any faults immediately as you try to mould your riders. You get to know both horse and rider very well and can plan lessons well in advance.

At Pony Club, you have a group of unknown children and ponies for a short term basis. The aim of the rallies or camp is to have fun, improve, and to stay safe. In that order! As instructors, we're told to give these kids the best week of their summer holiday.

My ride this year are seven years old, most having done junior camp before. So they have some independence, but still need their parents for help tacking up etc. They all have their own ponies, and varying number of lessons through the year so they won't all follow the classic BHS plan of "when a rider can ride sitting trot without stirrups they can learn to canter" or any other recommended stepping stones. These kids will love jumping, be confident, but not necessarily have a good command over the basic position, which can lead to some hairy moments. But you have to learn to close one eye and let it go.

I have a bit of a proven method now for getting started with Pony Club now. My first session today was Handy Pony. This rarely fills the whole allocated session, so I took the opportunity to have a thorough assessment of them all.

As a guide, you want to order them biggest pony to smallest, which gives you a starting point. Staying in walk and with a couple of questions, you can soon assess whether your lead file is suitably qualified – they have to be able to maintain trot, steer reasonably, understand basic school movements. While they're walking I can usually tweak the order too. If one little pony strides out well, or one rider has the tendency to daydream and get too close, or if one can't keep their pony up with the rest of the ride.

Once I'm happy with my order, I'll organise the first trot. I send them in pairs, or possibly threes, making sure the fresh ponies or weaker riders have bottoms to follow. Then of course, I have to find the right place for them to have a trot – just in case a fresh pony or keen child gets carried away. And the ponies are always fresh in the first session on grass! I try and pick a short stretch, or a uphill slope, with a clear marker where they should be walking again.

So I sent my six riders off in pairs, fairly successfully. At least, I'd managed to put the more able riders at the front of each pair so it didn't matter that one rider set off with long reins, or one pony cantered two strides before trotting. This is another Pony Club technique – learn to quickly shout "shorten your reins" and to stay calm while the pony speeds off!

After a couple of pair trots we trotted all together, which is actually very stressful because there is invariable corners cut, ponies getting too close, ponies walking, and overtaking attempts. But I count it as a success when we have the whole ride trotting for a couple of minutes at a time. Little things! If I'm feeling brave, and can find a nice short space to canter, then I'll do that individually with them too.

This is also the time to wear the ponies out, keep them trotting so they won't be so fresh for the Handy Pony part. For the riders, I work out the one think that I need to improve; what will keep them having fun, improve them, and keep them safe? After all, I've only got a short space of time, and by the time we've learnt dressage tests, musical rides, hacked, jumped and done stable management there's not that much chance to work on basic improvements.

Often there are general position pointers for everyone; heels down, look up, shoulders back, shorter reins. But I always try to find a specific area for each child so that they take something away from camp. So for example, one of my riders this week needs her stirrups dropping a few holes and needs to learn to sit up tall. I've already dropped her stirrups a couple of holes and explained to her the importance of not leaning forward to help keep her in the saddle (especially when her pony lowers his head into canter!), so by the end of the week I want her to be more aware of when she leans forwards and to be riding with longer stirrups. Another rider is very gung-ho and her trot gets faster and faster, so I want her to learn to keep a better rhythm. Another rider is slightly behind the movement with her hands in her lap, so I'm going to get her more in sync with her pony. Another gets a beautiful extended trot from his pony instead of canter, so we're going to work on those transitions. One stands up in her stirrups in downward transitions.

By giving each rider a little goal, I feel that they will finish camp having improved their riding, whilst not taking away any of the enjoyment (because let's face it, I would love to drill them without stirrups for an hour a day) and these tweaks will keep them safe. For example, sitting up straighter with normal length stirrups will make her less likely to fall off over a jump; riding a downward transition correctly improves her level of control; getting a canter transition on cue means he'll negotiate the dressage test more successfully.

I also feel better with a specific aim for each rider, and it helps me plan my warm up. For example, my warm up for dressage included practising downward transitions so that one rider didn't feel picked on, but it improved her as well as giving the rest of the ride something to think about. Tomorrow, we will discuss and practice canter transitions to help the rider who struggles with that. Then we may do some sitting trot for the rider who leans forward. They will all benefit from the exercises, but some will take more away from each one than others.

I think my kids did very well today; we had some good attempts at the dressage test, a very successful Handy Pony session, and we managed to spend longer trotting as a ride by the afternoon, as well as lots of smiles and laughter. Tomorrow we've got showjumping, mounted games and musical ride practice.

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.

Pony Club Rally

I got to experience being a Pony Club Mum – something all horsey women aspire to!

It was one of my little client's first Pony Club rally. This spring her confidence has soared and she's looking forwards to her first camp in a few weeks time. However with a heavily pregnant Mum, I was brought in to be leader/groom/support party at her first rally.

The pony is a Pony Club pro, but hasn't been out since my client has owned him – about two years – so he walked off the lorry with his eyes on stalks, snorting in anticipation. Although my rider is quite competent at home off the lead, I clipped one on and got her mounted. We walked around, or rather jogged round, while the seemingly hundreds of other ponies were trotting and leaping around. After all it was the summer BBQ rally and everyone was full of end of term spirits. For a newbie though, it was all a bit daunting and we got a bit nervous.

Unfortunately, the excited pony at the end of my lead rein was unsettling my rider. We walked to try and settle him down until the rally got started, but he was definitely a bit on the fresh side.

Our first activity was gymkhana games. Probably not the best decision with a fresh pony! So I resigned myself to doing some sprinting!
The first race was bending and we managed to keep to a steady trot to help our team win, and my rider started to relax a bit, letting go of her grab strap. The second race was ride and run. We broke into canter on our sprint to the end – she sat a buck and I hurriedly brought it back to trot. With my rider sprinting towards home I started jogging back with the pony. Who bronced merrily alongside me to the watching parents horror!

My rider thankfully hadn't seen this acrobatic display and happily got back on, and for the rest of the games her pony decided that he'd expended enough energy for tonight and was perfectly behaved, standing perfectly still while she picked up cups and dropped balls into buckets. She loved the games although I'm not sure who won in the end.

Next up was showjumping. As the pony seemed more settled I asked my rider if she wanted to do the warm up on her own. The lead reins and little ones were warming up together so I felt it would be quiet and safe. She nodded happily, so I stood in the middle with the instructor ready to assist if necessary. I had to bite my tongue a few times when instructors instinct kicked in – "shorten your reins!" "Heels down", those sort of comments. After all, I know how frustrating it is when parents comment from the side lines so I needed to set an example.

They got on well in the warm up, trotting in the small group together and over the pole. When it came to jumping the course I decided it was best to lead my pony and rider. They can jump little courses at home easily, but I was slightly worried that the pony might return to the ride a bit too quickly. I would rather they negotiated the course with me alongside and were safe, and confident afterwards than had a speedy, erratic round that knocked their confidence. The pony was brilliant, and jumped everything nicely from an active trot – although I didn't think I was going to make it around all eight jumps, I'm so unfit!

Pleased with how the jumping had gone, my rider asked me if she could do the final activity on her own. It was the drill ride. I nodded, secretly very relieved, but also pleased that my rider felt confident enough to try riding in a large group alone.

I explained to the instructor that they were perfectly capable but if necessary I would be on the sidelines. I checked that the pony in front of my rider didn't kick. She knows not to get too close, but if there's a choice I'd rather she was behind a non-kicker in case she accidentally got a bit near. It's hard being an instructor and not trying to organise the kids and ponies!
Anyway, I stood well back so I wasn't tempted to interfere, and watched the group of ten, ranging from 16hh horses with 16 year olds to 11hh lead rein ponies with five year olds, learn and ride the drill ride.

I was really proud of my rider holding her own in the group, keeping up and following all the instructions. Riding independently and also being aware of all the others. It's always daunting riding with older and more experienced riders, as well as being in a busy arena, so the fact that her pony was foot perfect and my rider was confident and competent was very satisfying to watch.

After a hot dog and drink, with some new little friends made, we headed off home. My rider had thoroughly enjoyed her first rally and is now very, very excited for camp. I feel more confident in the pony now I've seen him be a perfect gentleman at the rally, and I'm happy my rider will be able to take everything in her stride and have an amazing time. To me, seeing kids have fun and grow as riders is what Pony Club is all about. I'm also now in the Pony Club spirit ready for next week's camp – how exciting!

Using Observations

I had a client riding her Mum’s horse this week, who she hasn’t ridden very often, and hasn’t jumped her for a long time. 

I think she was slightly nervous when we began jumping, a bit worried about the unknown. So we had a discussion about how to create her own set of expectations for riding the unknown.

When you go to ride a different horse, perhaps when viewing to buy, you invariably see it ridden beforehand. By considering your observations, you know what to expect. They may not live up to these expectations, but at least you are more prepared.

In the case of this rider, I asked her what she’d seen, or noticed, when her Mum jumped. She pondered for a minute, until I gave her some hints. Eventually my rider said that the horse she was riding doesn’t rush into fences, sometimes backs off fences and usually chips in a stride. She didn’t think she drifted left or right though.

I totally agreed. The mare is very different to my rider’s usual mount in that she is steady towards fences and prefers to get in too deep. So with the knowledge of the mare’s tendencies, or preferences, we developed a plan for riding the fence. My rider decided that she needed to create a really energetic canter, and have her leg ready to maintain the energy if the mare backed off the fence, and also to keep the handbrake off and be very positive to discourage the last minute chip-in. 

They set off. The canter was energetic, and they had a straight approach. Because my rider was prepared, she was ready to counteract the slight reluctance as the mare calculated the fence. The result was a very rhythmical, positive approach so they had the perfect take off point.

We continued building a grid, and they jumped beautifully. I was very pleased with how quickly my rider adapted to her ride and how she read and reacted to the mare’s canter approach to best support her.

Which led me to thinking. How much can you learn about a horse and their way of going from watching? 

Firstly, you can gauge the horse’s behaviour; are they spooking at a particular area of the school? Do they have their head up and focused in the distance? Are they tense or relaxed?

Then you can look at the way they are going. If the rider is having to use a lot of leg, or has a lax rein contact. This tells you the responsiveness to the leg aids and the level of tension, or likelihood of the horse rushing. Does the horse have a long stride, or is it high-stepping? Do they track up? If they have an active stride, or a short stride, they will feel quite bouncy when you ride. Although this doesn’t help you ride, it helps prepare you for how they will feel.

Although horses are influenced by their riders, by watching a horse working, you can start to make educated guesses as to which rein is easier for the horse, whether they have a tendency to drift left or right, and if there’s any crookedness in their body. This knowledge will make you more aware of any discrepancies between the horse’s reins and then you will be quicker to support and correct them. Having an educated guess as to what to expect will also make you more confident when you get on board too.

So if you know what to look for, and can begin to piece together how a horse looks from the ground, then they are familiar when you first sit on board and you can quickly adapt to them and start to influence their way of going. Of course, sometimes they can surprise you. It’s quite a skill, but try watching some horses at your yard and see if you can work out how they might feel to ride – if you’re lucky you might even get the chance to experience them.

Dressage Camp – Part 2

Canter is an asymmetric gait because it has three beats, and is quite rolling in it’s way of going. This often leads to a horse becoming crooked.

As riders, we ride plenty of circles – or attempts at circles – and in the canter this focus on curves can overdevelop the inside bend and also help crookedness develop. One exercise we did at dressage camp was really useful in addressing this issue.

Instead of riding circles, we rode heptagons, or 50ps. The aim was to ride three or four straight strides, before turning and riding another few strides straight and turning again. Because the turns weren’t that acute, the horses found it slightly easier and were less likely to jack knife around the turns. As they get stronger the heptagon can become a hexagon and a pentagon, and eventually a square.

Riding a 50p focuses the rider on their outside aids, which means less inside rein, less neck bend, and less falling out through the outside shoulder as well as less of a bulge through the rib cage against the outside leg. Then the horse is straighter, which means the inside hind leg will come under further and will take the weight of the horse’s body, so improving the quality of the canter. If the horse is bent too much then they will fall through the outside shoulder instead of the hind leg taking their weight.

The other benefit of riding a 50p is that the inside hindleg is strengthened and made more supple around the turns. It has to come under and towards the horse’s midline in order to make the turn. When it does this, the canter has more push, and becomes more uphill. A lazy inside hind is also activated so the rhythm becomes a more concrete three beats. 

After riding a few heptagons, I found that the canter felt much straighter and engaged. The horse I was riding lifted his shoulders and sat back onto his hindquarters, whilst still feeling very balanced. By not riding a circle, I knew my outside aids were more effective, which also means that it’s a really useful exercise for novice riders who predominantly use their inside rein.

The canter circles after were more balanced and I had a more uniform bend through the horse’s body.

I used this exercise with one of my teenage clients last week, who likes to overuse her inside rein in the canter, and her pony ends up turning his head and neck to accommodate her. After telling me she thought she was riding a 20p, not a 50p (they’re actually both heptagons – I checked as I started this article) she and her pony became straighter, she could feel the inside hindleg coming under and pushing them forwards, rather than out through the outside shoulder as it had done when they were crooked. In terms of jumping, having a canter that more effortlessly propels forward because it’s straight, means that jumping is more straightforward and effortless, and hopefully more successful.

So have a go at some canter not-circles and see if you can feel the improvement in the quality of your canter. 

All About Control

I did this pole exercise earlier this week to get my clients thinking about their level of control.

When I laid out the exercise I could see a level of complacency in the simplicity of the exercise. However, looks can be deceiving!

The exercise started with two poles as tram lines, to focus on straightness. A couple of strides away, there were three trotting poles. A couple of strides after that was another set of tramlines. After another couple of strides, were three canter poles.


The aim of the exercise was to make a good, accurate turn to the tramlines (this highlights any cheaters who drift around corners) and create a balanced, elevated trot over the poles before riding a canter transition in the next tramlines. This ensures the horse doesn’t drift through the transition and illustrates any preference over canter leads. The transition needs to be immediate and active so that the canter is of good enough quality for the poles. The aim is to improve the quality of the canter transition, the accuracy of the rider’s preparation and execution, and for the rider to very quickly be able to change it if it isn’t good enough for the poles. 

By turning into the exercise from both reins you can see which way is weaker. One horse I did this with tends to drift around corners on the left rein, so his shoulders didn’t turn enough to meet the tramlines and thus he struggled to start the exercise straight. When his shoulders were turned sufficiently, he compensated by swinging his haunches out. Of which is going to be worked on next week!

The trotting poles looked after themselves, so the next question was the canter transition. With straightness enforced, horses can initially run through the transition to make it easier but once horse and rider get the feel of it the hindquarters should be more active through the transition and the shoulders lift. As the canter poles are almost immediately after, the rider has to be quick to balance the canter so the horse either has enough energy for the poles, or hasn’t flattened the canter so they won’t make the poles.

Once my riders had mastered this exercise, and the ponies improving their canter, we turned it around. They had to approach in canter, canter over the poles and between the tramlines, make a trot transition ready for the trot poles. This was the tricky part!

The canter poles were fine, and the first tramlines helped create a very straight canter. However, the ponies got a bit onward and it took my riders by surprise that they couldn’t bring them back to trot in time. First of all, I got them to prepare for the transition earlier. Even whilst going over the poles they needed to be preparing. This helps create impulsion because they had to find the balance between maintaining enough energy for the poles, without generating too much speed. 

Next up, my riders needed to think about how they ride the transition. They were jamming on the handbrake, so the ponies just beared down on the rein. They needed a series of half halts, to keep their core engaged and upper body tall, with heels dropped in order to be more effective in the downwards transition. And be committed to achieving that transition – just because they love their pony doesn’t mean that their pony is allowed to ignore their aids.

Of course, once they have achieved the downwards transition, and quietly asserted their authority their pony will be far more obliging next time. 

This means that our on the cross country course they are more able to bring their ponies back to a more collected canter in preparation for a skinny, ditch, corner, or any other tricky fence, without losing the energy and the pony’s desire to jump.

All in all, an exercise of multiple levels, which improves accuracy and control, as well as improving straightness and quality of the gaits – particularly if the poles are then raised.