My Toothpaste Analogy 

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

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

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

Which can be likened to a tube of toothpaste.

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

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

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

Singing A Tune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ITT Exam

I had a blog topic all lined up for you tonight, but as I had the very exciting news in the post today that I passed my BHS Intermediate Teaching Test, which together with my Stage IV that I got a few years ago, I’m now a BHS Intermediate Instructor! Yay!! So instead tonight I’m going to bore you with the details of my exam, and my other story will just have to wait – apologies in advance!


I had a very early start to get to my exam in order to avoid the M25 at rush hour, but when I got there with plenty of time I buddied up with another girl, who seemed confident and knew what we were supposed to be doing! Off we went to the indoor schools; to walk the simulated cross country and showjumping courses. We would be teaching one of those lessons, but would only be told in the briefing at 8.15am. The cross country course looked fairly straightforward and walked well. However the showjumping had slightly dodgy striding, which would mean we’d need to adjust it during the lesson. 

Our five examiners all seemed very nice – approachable and friendly. If not slight batty. But I think that happens to everyone in the horse world at some point! They put us at ease anyway, and once all the paperwork and everything was filled out we started the exam.

First up, I had presentations and equitation theory. I think I was quite glad to get the presentations out the way because it was definitely an area that worried me. In the ITT exam you prepare nine presentations on coaching topics, and present a random one. I was given “non-rider injury prevention”. Not my favourite, but also by no means the hardest one! I had to present it to the two other ladies in my group, who got nicely involved. I think the main point of the presentations is that the examiner can see that you engage with your audience and have a discussion more than a lecture.

The equitation theory covered training horses up to elementary standard, describing how to ride various dressage movements, and how you would develop both horse and rider over fences. As well as preparing them for their first competition. All of my friends’ quizzing the week before paid off as I felt quite happy answering questions. I was cut off a couple of times, which always worries you, but I think that was because the examiner was happy with my answer and wanted another candidate to give their thoughts. Overall, I left that section feeling nicely focused and confident, which I think made me feel better for the flat private lesson, which was next!

Two candidates took this unit of the exam simultaneously, so there were two horses ready for us. One, I recognised from my training day as being the quirky one who changed canter lead behind every half dozen strides. To my relief, I had the slightly daunting Spanish horse complete in double bridle … there’s a post somewhere already about that. Here it is!

Anyway, I felt I got a good rapport with the rider and made some tweaks to both horse and rider. I managed to answer the examiner’s questions after and she seemed happy enough so I felt that went alright. I also felt quite confident that this rider would give positive and fair feedback to the examiner.

My next stop was the private jump lesson, and I was in the showjumping arena. My rider was an ex-eventer but had never ridden this riding school horse before. I announced to the examiner that as they were an unknown combination I’d treat it as an assessment lesson so they could develop a relationship. So I lowered the fences a bit below standard. They warmed up and the horse was very honest and straightforward. Just crooked, and drifted left all the time. It was also stuffy so I shortened all the distances to build it’s confidence, and we put together the course in stages. There was a dog leg to the right, and we had a couple of problems with the horse drifting to the left and around the style. So I explained to my rider how to adjust her line so that she had as many straight strides as possible before the style. Then they flew it and the rest of the course no problem. When I spoke to the examiner afterwards I said I wouldn’t take them much over 80cm until the straightness and suppleness issues were sorted, which the examiner said she agreed wholeheartedly with. I felt this lesson went well generally, but I was slightly worried that I hadn’t jumped big enough. But then I’d provided a reason so that was the best I could do really.

After a really long lunch break because of the timetabling, I had business management. Again, I felt that went reasonably well and I answered all the questions; including the bonus one that DEFRA can randomly inspect yards to see if all horses have passports and if they haven’t you can be fined up to £1000 per horse – ouch! Some of these questions were a bit of common sense and some purely educated guesses so fingers crossed!

Then I had to teach a group of riders on the flat – thank god I didn’t need to test my grid distances because these riding school horses would struggle with competition distances and it would have upset my frame of mind. I had three riders and two stuffy horses, and one which didn’t bend. After watching them warm up I introduced a four loop serpentine (the arena was 70m long!) which would benefit all the horse’s suppleness and then I put in transitions to help those that were behind the leg. Then we did trot-canter-trot transitions to help improve the quality of the canter. Everyone seemed to improve and the riders gave me good feedback, which I hoped they’d reiterate to the examiner.

Finally, I had to do a lunge lesson. I felt fairly well prepared for this, but when I arrived I saw a rather dour looking woman. And I was reminded of the conversation over lunch … “I had X to teach. She wasn’t very helpful. She didn’t listen to anything I said.” 

I knew it was the same lady, so felt a bit put off. And I was also feeling a little tired by then, so I made a couple of mistakes – forgetting to undo the reins until the last minute as she was mounting, and not encouraging her to hold on to the saddle in her very bouncy trot without stirrups. So I came away slightly frustrated, but at least I thought I had raised a smile and she had complied with my instructions so hopefully she would give the examiner fair feedback. 

Thankfully I missed the rush hour back to get home in time for Pilates, and since then I’ve been reflecting and dissecting the whole day until today’s post! 

Along with my certificates I had feedback from the lessons, which is really great. The examiners all said I managed the lessons safely, improved the riders, developed a rapport, had good structure to my lessons, used open questions to engage my riders, and gave relevant technical knowledge – I’m so pleased!

So now I’ve bored you all to tears about my ITT exam, I’ll finish my glass of wine and make a start on the very large box of chocolates my long suffering husband bought home with some flowers. 

A Daunting Task

I taught a very daunting lesson earlier this week with a guinea pig rider.

She entered the arena with a rather snazzy looking Spanish horse, bedecked in a double bridle. 

The rider was very confident, as she was legged up onto the jogging mare. I made the necessary enquiries to tick the box:

  • What’s the rider’s name, riding experience, qualifications, medical history.
  • What’s the horse’s name, experience, history and medical history.
  • What was the horse and rider relationship.

This girl was a Stage IV rider and this was her new horse, recently come over from Spain. It could do all the lateral movements but didn’t have a competition record.

Gulp.

What on earth should I teach them?!

I admit, I felt slightly out of my depth. I take a while to get into my groove, especially with confident riders because I get a bit intimidated. The horse was also a far higher calibre than I’ve taught before.

I started the session by watching them warm up. It gave me time to think. The trot was choppy and short striding; the canter was bouncy and tense and this rider said that whilst the horse didn’t feel like she was going to bolt, she was strong. The mare tried to evade the contact by tucking her nose to her chest. The rider had a good balanced position, and secure lower leg. If I’m going to be really picky, she was a bit collapsed in her upper body, and had a tendency to fix her hands.

I had a plan. Despite the horse’s high level of training, there were some basic elements that we could improve. Equally though, the mare was hot and quick thinking, so needed to be kept mentally stimulated. 

I explained to my rider that I felt we should work on relaxing the mare, and getting her to take the contact forwards, instead of tucking behind the bridle. As the mare was a busy type, I suggested we used leg yield to get the mare stepping under with her inside hind leg and taking the contact forwards. Our focus being on the neck staying long and the mare relaxing.

We started in walk, and immediately it was obvious that the mare is very talented with an extravagant crossover. She easily leg yielded from the three-quarter line to the track. However, as with any big mover, she had the tendency to escape from her rider – in the leg yield the rider tends to lose her outside shoulder. 

Once we moved into the trot the loss of the outside shoulder was more noticeable, so I brought my riders   attention to her outside rein contact, making sure it prevented too much inside flexion and supported the outside shoulder. Then I highlighted how she was pinning her inside rein by the wither, so encouraging the mare to turn to the inside and fall through the outside shoulder. As soon as that hand was carried forwards the leg yield improved because they were straight. Then we turned our attention to keeping the trot rhythm consistent through the movement.

After working on both reins I felt there was a slight improvement; the rider was more in tune with the horse, who was starting to lengthen her neck and was moving laterally in a more relaxed manner.

I didn’t want to work on the canter – no need to over complicate matters – so we moved on to zig zag leg yielding. This was to ensure the mare wasn’t anticipating going from the three-quarter line to the track, and was responsive to the riders outside leg. The rider also had to make more subtle aids and change her position slowly as she changed direction so as to help maintain their balance. We talked about which direction was easier: the left leg yield was more extravagant but felt less controlled, than the right which had less crossing but was straighter and with no rushing. 

By the end of the session I felt the mare was much improved, with a longer trot stride, and more relaxed and consistent in her frame. I did mention to her rider about trying her in just a snaffle bridle to establish a consistent contact, and to get the horse seeking it more, but I think as it’s early days in their relationship it might be an exercise for the future. This rider gave me positive feedback, and seemed to understand the lesson concept and reasoning behind it, so hopefully I’ve helped her. 

Now that I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and managed to survive I actually reflect on that lesson in a positive light, and would quite like to teach this pair in the future.

Improving Their Jump

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

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

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

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

Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inputting Impulsion

With one of my young riders we’re slowly working through the scales of training; getting her to understand, apply and improve her pony. Rhythm and suppleness have improved, and she has now grasped the feel of a good contact, and knows how to ride her pony into the contact when he hollows and comes above the bit.

So our next phase is to improve and increase their impulsion. I always explain to clients that basically impulsion is energy without speed; when energy is the purposefulness, or desire to go forwards. 

But it can be tricky for riders to generate the impulsion without losing the first two stages – rhythm and suppleness. 

When I asked my client for some suggestions to generate some impulsion into the trot, she replied by telling me that when she uses her leg to put in some energy her pony gets faster. Which didn’t really answer my question, but was a valid observation. I explained why her pony, who is a jumping machine, thought leg meant faster and how he pulls himself forwards, instead of using his hindquarters.

She still hadn’t worked out how to improve her pony’s impulsion, so I brought in a bit of maths.

If she adds energy to her horse but also gets speed, then she should use this to help improve the amount of energy he has in his gait. Then, when the energy is established, she can take away the speed. Once the speed is taken away, she is left with impulsion.

Then my rider suggested she could use medium trot to create impulsion. I agreed, and off she went.

Along the long sides of the school she focused on putting energy into the trot; feeling her pony use his hindquarters, and not losing the rhythm. Then as she approached the short side, she had to take away the speed. By the time she’d done a few transitions she could feel the improvement in the trot, so we added in circles to practice maintaining the impulsion for longer. 

Now she’s got the feeling of a more purposeful trot we can focus on maintaining this level of impulsion for longer periods, and then maintaining it on circles and school movements, checking that the rhythm and suppleness aren’t inhibited. 

Working through the scales of training is like peeling an onion; each time you introduce another level, or increase the difficulty, then you need to revisit the previous levels to ensure total understanding by horse and rider, and to make sure the horse continues to work correctly and to  improve. After all, if one of the building blocks starts to erode as you move up the levels and you don’t fix it then the whole thing falls down. 

Teaching Teenagers

Teenagers are a special sort of client. So special in fact, that my coaching book devotes a whole section about how to teach teenagers. Whilst I don’t envy secondary school teachers having to teach a whole classroom of hormonal adolescents, I do feel I have the advantage of teaching teenagers who want to be there. And want to learn to ride. That’s got to be better than trying to teach them maths! 

Recently my geek of a husband told me a fascinating fact in that during puberty the brain undergoes huge neurological changes, similar to that of a toddler. Without listening to the whole audio book by David Eagleman (look it up, it’s really interesting), basically during puberty the prefrontal cortex changes beyond recognition which means that teenagers are more affected by social situations and show exaggerated stress responses. There’s also something about them being more inclined to take risks and “live for the moment” but as I’m getting out of my depth I’ll leave it to you to do more reading on it.

For me, the important thing I took away from hearing this is that teenagers can’t physically help their erratic behaviour or highly charged responses, and actually need a very supportive environment in order to thrive. 

Which means we need to make sure teenagers aren’t embarrassed, or made to feel socially awkward or inferior. And we should be aware that adolescents should encompass ten year olds as well as twenty five year olds, because research has shown that the brain is changing rapidly between these ages. 

I teach a few teenagers, and like I said earlier, I have the advantage of being able to develop a rapport and strong mentoring relationship with my clients who want to be there, and want to learn, as opposed to being made to be there by law.

I’ve never been one to talk down to children anyway – I’d be one of those parents who has a serious conversation about the political conundrum with their toddler – but with teenagers I think it’s even more important to treat them as adults. After all, they’re developing their own opinions and views, so if we never teach them how to discuss and negotiate then they’ll never learn to rationalise or value others’ opinions.

So when I teach the teenagers, I speak to them like adults. I explain a concept, and ask them about their understanding or opinions, as equals. If they give a wrong answer, I just elaborate and subtly correct them, as opposed to shutting them down. If they have a different suggestion to me as to what exercise or approach will help their horse, and it’s safe to try it then I’ll let them. If it goes wrong then they’ll have learnt a valuable lesson. And I’d much rather they tried it under my supervision than on their own. They can then make the decision themselves to reject their idea as a good one, and to embrace my suggestion. I also like to give them bits of homework, so that they’re taking responsibility for their own development, and I’ll tell them directly what they need to work on. That also helps them feel valued and respected. 

Even when talking to their parents about future lessons, and their progress, I always try to include them so that they feel valued and involved in their own development. After all, you need them to be on your side and making them feel important is a good way of creating a rapport. I enjoy seeing them come out of their shells as I get to know them and they get to know me. One girl I’ve been teaching for a couple of years started off quiet and said very little, but now she gives more input to lessons, starts off conversation when I arrive, and is generally more comfortable with herself. She’s really coming out of her shell and becoming a young lady.

Because adolescents are still developing, they have that balance between maturity and immaturity. The ability to cope with every day stressors and the ability to rationally respond, varies enormously. So when planning lessons for teenagers I find I often have to have a couple of options up my sleeve: so I can adjust the lesson to today’s emotions. If they overreact to a silly thing while tacking up, I know they need a fairly simple, straightforward lesson. But if they come across as being very mature today as they warm up, I will challenge them more and perhaps give them a new concept or exercise to process. 

Also with teenagers, it’s important to take into account the rest of their lives. Is it exam week in school? Have they just been on a Duke of Edinburgh weekend? Are the likely to be physically or mentally tired? I usually ask them a couple of questions about their week, and I like parents to give me the heads up during exam period, so I can adjust my teaching to get the best out of my rider on that day. 

Teenagers have a lot of emotional baggage too; falling out with friends, body image worries, boy/girlfriends, the lot. They aren’t going to tell me all their worries. Occasionally I get let into secrets, but I try to create a lesson environment where they can forget about the rest of life. I don’t usually ask about personal things, unless they’re visibly upset; I just gauge their mood by their behaviour and start a light hearted conversation about their horse or dog or whatever they’re interested in to distract them from their worries. Once they let go of those then they are more relaxed and open to learning, so the lesson will go more smoothly.

Everyone knows that teenagers clash with their parents, which can create problems within the learning environment. One mother will go and busy herself on the yard if her son is a bit fraught at the beginning of the lesson, and then she’ll watch the lesson through a hole in the stable wall. We usually then have a far more successful lesson because my rider doesn’t feel that there is any interference and focuses better. So yes parents need to be supportive, but also to know when to remove themselves from the equation and let their teen feel more independent and responsible for their own riding, whether it’s in lessons or not. 

It can be tricky to plan ahead with teenagers; you have to be flexible and fluid with lesson plans so you can get the best work out of them on that day. Then they’ll appreciate their riding time, want to work hard at it, not resent having lessons, and generally become easier to teach. As well as hopefully learning to leave the bad moods at home!

Teaching teenagers can be really rewarding as they can be fun, and up for a challenge. But they can be testing; for example when they’re grumpy and give mono-syllabic answers. But then all of a sudden you get that feeling of satisfaction when you’ve got through to them and they’ve forgotten their woes, and have a smile on their face again. It definitely keeps me on my toes!

Directly or Indirectly?

I started explaining to one of the kids this week about the direct and indirect aids. They sometimes get lost in translation and are easily confused. I’ve read many woolly explanations, but by far this one is the clearest – Holistic equitation.

When you first learn to ride, and most kids continue to do so, you learn that the inside rein steers the horse in the direction you want, and the outside leg pushes them there. Or words to that effect.

The rein used in this instance is the direct rein. Put simply, it is brought backwards to encourage the horse to turn in the direction of the pressure. Holistic Equitation explain the mechanics of this well: the direct rein causes the weight to go to the inside foreleg and the hindquarters to pivot out, like a motorcycle round a corner.

However, once a rider is co-ordinated and reaches a certain level of understanding, it’s time to introduce the indirect rein. This is the outside bend of the horse. Wikipedia describes it as pulling back but I don’t think that’s correct – perhaps not going forward is a more correct way of thinking of it. The indirect rein can close to the outside shoulder, towards the horse’s centre of gravity without crossing the wither, and is used to regulate the amount of neck bend, to support the outside shoulder and is vital for performing lateral movements. The indirect rein transfers the weight to the centre of the horse’s body and into the opposite hind leg (the inside hind). The shoulders then pivot around the weighted hind leg, like a skier doing a slalom. 

I introduced this concept to a young rider this week because she’d fallen into the classic trap of pulling her inside rein, letting the outside hand go forwards as she turned, which let the pony twist his neck and drift through the outside shoulder. Her pony now exploits this on the left rein. As the left hand comes back he curls his neck so the right hand goes forward, and he drops his shoulder to turn right on the last quarter of the circle.

I kept the concept simple as she’s only young, and did some work on keeping her hands as a pair and creating an awareness of where they were. Then I focused her attention on using more outside leg and less inside rein, which kept her pony straighter. And stopped her actively giving the outside rein away. 

I don’t think she’s quite ready, physically or mentally, to fully grasp how to use her reins directly or indirectly, but I hope that the seeds are sown so that she’s aware of how to control her pony’s outside shoulder, and stop him drifting out and then dropping his shoulder to turn right. As soon as my rider kept her indirect rein, and kept her upper body tall, her pony trotted the circles perfectly! Once this is mastered, all school movements will become straight forward and her pony will oblige readily.

 Often I think the indirect aids aren’t introduced, in a simple level, early enough in a rider’s education which means that they are always more reliant on the direct rein and will always struggle with the finer movements at any dressage level as their horse will come out of a movement unbalanced and develop bad habits and a poor way of going which puts them at a higher risk of injury.

Proud As Punch

I had a day today (it will have been yesterday by the time you read this) that made me realise exactly why I do my job. It made everything worthwhile.

I’ve mentioned this client before, but she’s only seven and quite a small seven year old. She’s very theoretical and methodical in her riding, and her confidence is easily knocked and slow to develop. I usually only see her in the holidays because of her long school days, and at Easter we’d progressed to cantering on the lunge, letting go with one hand momentarily.

This week she’s had three lessons. In the first she cantered on the lunge at the end of the lesson, but let go of her grab strap with both hands on her own accord during the first canter. So we did a few more canters, getting her to let go for longer each time. Her balance was great: there was no bouncing at all and when she let go of the grab strap her hands were the perfect imitation of Charlotte Dujardin’s. In general, her confidence was pretty high, both with me (usually she’s very shy) and with her pony. At the end of the lesson I just casually mentioned that we would progress to letting go of the grab strap for longer and longer, and not using it for the upwards transitions.

She’s a thinker, so I sowed the seed, and the next day she had to ride very positively because her pony wasn’t feeling the mini jumping and took any opportunity to go his own way. At the end we did some more cantering on the lunge. This time, she only held onto the grab strap with one hand in the upwards transitions. She wasn’t holding on for the majority of the canter. I encouraged her to be more in charge of the canter: asking her pony to canter, and giving a little kick if she felt him slowing down. At one point, I was redundant at the end of the lunge line! Although she still just held on when she used her legs. But the important thing was that her confidence was growing.

In today’s lesson I did a related distance of mini jumps… about fifteen of her pony’s little trot strides, but the purpose was to get my little rider sitting up and keeping her trot after fences. She was generating a really big, quick trot into the jumps, so I made them a bit bigger and her pony gave a little skip over the fences to give more of a feeling of jumping. She was looking very stable and wasn’t fazed by the bigger movements. Then it was time for cantering.

I sent her out on the lunge and she rode the canter transition holding on, but let go immediately and did a couple of circuits without holding on and using her legs to maintain the canter! After a quick breather I sent her off again, but noticed that she hadn’t grabbed the strap. She asked for canter with her hands up and out. Unfortunately her pony wasn’t compliant and just did medium trot. But we rebalanced it all, and she asked again. This time she got it! After a few canters without her holding on at all, I asked the big question.

“Would you like to have a canter on your own?”

She nodded. So I unclipped her and explained how to go large and canter just past the blue jump (where I was stationed to encourage the pony if necessary). She set off in trot and at the agreed point asked for canter. She held on with one hand but that doesn’t matter – she was going solo!

They had a couple of strides of canter and then trotted round to try again. This time, they had another couple of strides, but at the next corner she got a bit bossier and asked him on her own accord. This canter was more successful and they had several strides. By this time she wasn’t using the grab strap at all!

After a breather they went again. The transition was in my corner and she used her legs to keep him going around two sides of the school!

I was so proud! She was grinning away, loving the canter, and the best part was that she looked so balanced and secure throughout. All the lunging has paid off because her seat is now well developed, which will have boosted her confidence as she felt safer. I left that lesson with a great sense of satisfaction. 

 Hopefully now it’s summer we can keep the ball rolling, and she will continue to grow in confidence, but cantering on her own has been a real hurdle for her to climb, so I’m just pleased she’s achieved it. I am annoyed I didn’t get a video, but I got so caught up in the moment I completely forgot! 

Here is a video from her Mum, when they rode over the weekend – there’s no stopping them now!!

Moulding Them

I had fun earlier this week whilst schooling a horse, putting into practice some tips I’d read in a Carl Hester article.

Carl described the benefits of working a horse in a frame he finds difficult. For example, try to lengthen the frame of a short-coupled horse, or to condense the frame of a long horse. He also talked about how a trainable horse was one who allowed you to manipulate his and position him however you like. For example, riding collected gaits in a long frame.

So I thought I’d give this a go. One of the horses I ride is a long horse, and I’ve been really focusing on developing his top line recently. There’s now neck muscle, which I’m really pleased about, but as he has a long neck we need to keep building his strength.

Have you ever thought about why a weak horse will carry their head up, brachiocephalic muscle working, and neck short? It’s all to do with levers – I knew maths A-level would come in useful one day! 

The head is heavy, so carrying it at the end of the neck, as in the long and low frame, is harder for a horse because the back and abdominals have to work harder to balance the head. A bit like the fact that if you lift a box up and carry it close to your body it’s much easier than if you held the box at arms length. If you want more of a mathematical explanation then the internet is your best friend, and there are hundreds of video explanations, which are far better than my rusty decade-old knowledge. 

Back to horses. A horse with a weak topline will shorten their neck, brace the underside muscles and hold it higher to save their back muscles from working. Which is what this long horse I ride used to do. All hacks consist of him lengthening his neck, and lowering his head. I know it’s taxing for him because usually about three quarters of the way round, he’ll start throwing his head around to evade working. Our schooling has been predominantly long and low based, and I’m pleased with how easily he is managing this now. 

Due to his long neck and body, it’s actually harder for him to develop the necessary muscles to hold himself in the long and low position because the muscles are longer than in a short coupled horse, so take longer to strengthen. But he’s got it in the walk and working trot, for sure.

I’ve been moving onto developing the medium and collected trot with him. Shortening his stride length is harder for him, and I felt a couple of weeks ago that he was getting tight in his neck and blocking over his back: hindering the progress I’d made with building his topline. This is where Carl Hester came in. This week I established working trot in a long and low frame, before playing around at shortening and lengthening his neck and frame whilst maintaining the rhythm and balance of his working trot. 

Once he’d got the idea of this, I put him back into a long and low frame before asking him to shorten his strides. Because I’d already shown him how to position his head and neck where I wanted to in a trot he was comfortable in, whenever he got tight and shortened his neck with the collected strides I could lengthen his frame without losing the collection. 

We played around with this for a while, and I could feel his back staying engaged and him becoming more malleable so I could position him precisely. Obviously it was baby steps of shortening, but at least now he’s doing it correctly and maintaining impulsion and “throughness” so I can build on it over the next few weeks. 

After a little break, I turned to the canter. He can get very long in the canter so I’ve been working on balancing it, getting his hindlegs underneath him a bit more and generally shortening his frame a bit so that he can canter a 15 or 20m circle rather than a 30 or 35m circle! However, he needs to release his brachiocephalic muscle in the canter, which will allow the gait to become more uphill and rideable. 

Once he was trotting in a long and low frame I asked for canter. His head came up initially but slowly I managed to get him to drop his nose slightly  and soften his neck whilst using my seat to maintain the steadier canter. 

This one is work in progress, but the idea of being able to shorten or lengthen the neck whilst almost doing the opposite with the body will make the horse more trainable, supple, strong and balanced. Give it a go next time you’re schooling and you’ll be surprised at how hard they have to work to collect the trot whilst balancing the lever that is their neck. I’m hoping that by practising, this horse will build his trapezius muscle, have better posture, and have a more toned barrel because of his abdominals being toned. Which all reduces the chance of him injuring himself.