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!

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Suppleness Bootcamp

Fed up with the same comments on her dressage sheets regarding lack of suppleness, one of my clients is sending her mare to a suppleness bootcamp.

She’s been working on suppleness for a while, but with school, jumping, winter weather, and general life, her pony’s flexibility has improved, but not as much as I’d like so the only way is to make it our sole focus.

There are a couple of things they can change in their daily routine which will have a positive impact over a couple of weeks.

Firstly, I suggested they fit carrot stretches into their day. I do Phoenix’s on the way to the field, usually just outside the gate, but having a regular slot means I don’t forget the carrots or to do them. Just a couple of stretches every day will make all the difference.

Secondly, my rider needs to get into the mindset of circles. It’s very easy to troll around the arena putting in a circle at A. Then another at C, and so on. So I challenged my rider to ride five different sized circles on each lap of the school. I also want her to begin to use four loop serpentines and demi voltes to change the rein.

The joints of a horse, or any animal for that matter, are stabilised by tendons, ligaments and muscles, all of which work in different directions. If a horse is lacking suppleness it is usually because the muscles in one direction around a joint are tight and contracted. For example, if a horse finds it hard to move their leg forwards it’s because the muscles at the back (involved in moving the limb backwards) aren’t relaxing for whatever reason. If a horse has damaged the muscle then they’ll be lame, but it’s it’s just muscle tension then they’ll lack suppleness. Does this make sense? So as well as the muscles on the opposite side of the limb affecting movement, the muscles either side will too. Which means that in order to create a truly supple horse you not only have to work on the forwards and backwards movement, but also the adduction and abduction of their limbs.

I devised a bit of a course for this pair, which would work all areas of the pony’s body and hopefully by improving the movement in each direction the mare would start to swing over her back more, become more connected and ultimately more supple.

On one three quarter line I laid out five trotting poles. Over the course of the session I raised them into cavaletti. The poles encouraged the mare to lengthen her stride slightly and then to improve her cadence by lifting each limb higher. Increasing cadence requires more flexion at the shoulder and hip; both areas which when tight can limit suppleness.

Then at A they had to ride a circle. This was partly to give them time to prepare for the next three quarter line, but also to get both rider and horse turning on the circle. Their circle was fifteen metres but it could be made smaller to increase the difficulty level. I had my rider thinking about the inside hindleg on the circle, and making sure there was a uniform bend through her pony’s body, and minimal inside rein being used!

Down the next three quarter line I had them leg yield towards the track to improve adduction and abduction, which releases the lateral muscles. Again, we focused on feeling the inside hind leg coming under and pushing them over, rather than the outside shoulder dragging them across.

After a few goes on each rein, I was thrilled to see the mare taking her head out and stretching from the base of her neck as her length of stride increases and she floated along, swinging over her back. They had a good trot whilst stretching. And they really stretched; far more than I’ve seen them do before.

We’ve been improving their canter to step up to novice dressage, so repeated the exercises in canter. Again, working the limbs a little bit in each direction improved the stride length and overall quality of the gait.

For me, the pair showed real improvement, and the mare did some super stretching, showing that she’s really worked her muscles hard. I want to continue along this theme over the next few weeks, adding in some shoulder in type of exercises as well as varieties of polework so we’re improving the mare’s flexibility in all directions.

Learning the Seat Aids

When kids learn to ride it’s very much about the reins steering and stopping while the leg kicks to say go. I understand why kids are taught this way: cognitively they can’t comprehend multiple aids simultaneously or the concept of the seat, and they often aren’t strong enough to apply the aids and to get a response from their pony given that most of the time the ratio between child and pony is greater than between adult and horse. I think there is also an element that in the riding school environment many kids take up riding for a year before moving onto the next fad, and you’re more likely to retain their business by them seeing results. Don’t let me go off on a tangent about cutting corners to accomplish said results …

This means that at some point, a child has to learn to ride like an adult, and learn about the finesse of the seat and leg aids. Their equitation world is turned on it’s head as they come to terms with this. Unfortunately though, the majority of ponies only respond to the childish aids of stop, start, steer.

Picking the right time to introduce this whole new world to a young rider can be difficult. They have to be at an age that they’ll understand these concepts, and they have to be able to apply the aids and get a response – this depends on the pony being responsive and the child being strong enough to engage their leg and seat.

Recently, one of my young clients has progressed onto another of my client’s old ponies. This gem of a pony was schooled very well by a little girl who loved dressage, so he is fully aware of the correct aids, even if he hasn’t had to use them recently. And my young rider is a great thinker, and has a good natural feel, so I feel will be able to understand the adult aids. Once she’d ridden him a few times and got used to his bigger strides and more eager walk, I decided it was time.

After they’d warmed up in trot with some circles and changes of rein I asked my rider how her turns felt. Where she was predominantly asking with her inside rein, her pony fell in and she said the turns felt sharp and sudden. Which I thought was a good analogy.

I explained that we were going to start riding more like adults and start using aids that no one else could see. She liked the idea of this, so in walk I first asked her to put a little bit of weight into her inside seat bone at the corners as she turned her body in the direction she was moving. I told her I didn’t want to see her leaning, it was just a little bit of weight.

After riding a few corners like this I asked her to do less with her inside rein. She felt her turns were less sudden.

Next, I added a second stage. Putting the outside leg on to push her pony around the turns. She did this so effectively that her pony almost pirouetted! So we added the inside leg.

At each corner I gave her the direction “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” so she applied each aid consecutively. Which she did and their turns got smoother. Still in walk, we started circling. Her inside hand was barely moving now, just coming into effect if her pony was drifting out on the circle. Their circles got rounder and bigger, as before they tended to be ten metre circles rather than fifteen metres and more of a semi circle shape.

After a change of rein and practicing the turning aids on the other rein, we progressed to trotting circles and changes of rein focusing on the “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” aids.

I think my rider really benefited from seeing an immediate result from applying these new aids, and could feel how much more balanced her pony was around the turns when she wasn’t using her inside rein to turn.

The big question, at the end of the lesson, was for her to ride a smooth serpentine, which requires coordination to change her inside and outside. Apart from the loops not being that even in size, I was pleased with how fluid the movement was.

For me, the biggest proof was the following lesson after we’d revised the new aids and were doing some balance exercises with her hands. Holding onto her reins with her outside hand, she was circling her inside arm whilst trotting large. However, because the arena is so long we’d only been using half. As she reached E, she turned her body (still circling), applied the inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg, and made a beautiful turn across the school. This really brought home to her how she doesn’t need to use her reins to steer, and hopefully consolidated what we’d learnt.

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.

Counting Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding On Grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.