Rule Of Three

At baby swimming last year I noticed that there was a theme of threes. Each exercise or song was repeated three times. Since then, it’s been in the back of my mind and I’ve noticed this occurring in other areas of learning, and even with my own teaching. I’ve found that whilst I don’t have to explain something three times, it usually takes clients three attempts to fully grasp an exercise, or I have to remind or make a correction three times in quick succession before they manage to make a long term adjustment to their riding.

I googled it to see if there is a learning theory for threes, and there doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted one, but I saw several articles citing that learners need to be given three opportunities to learn something.

I don’t think you want to stick too closely to repeating an exercise three times, in case it goes wrong. You almost want three decent attempts at an exercise before increasing its difficulty or changing it. Ignore the duff ones when horse or rider lost concentration at the beginning. Likewise, if a rider has tried an exercise three times unsuccessfully, it might be wise to change your explanation or simplify things. If you’re just warming up, for example when moving from flat to jumping I usually trot or canter over some poles first, purely to change the horse’s focus. An established horse and rider only need do that once, especially when used to using poles as a subject transition.

Last week I was teaching a young girl who is growing in confidence in her riding, and I keep mentioning the C-word. Cantering, you rude readers!! Until now she’s baulked at the idea, but this time she said she was “nervous but not scared”.

Great. So I talked her through where we were going to trot, what she was going to hold on to, and what to do whilst cantering. I didn’t worry her five year old brain with the transition aids at this moment, after all, I was leading her.

We set off and the first attempt had one stride of canter. Maybe. But on the plus side, no shrieking and she seemed happy enough. Second time we had half a dozen canter strides and her au pair got it on video for her Mum. I announced we were going to do it one more time.

“Why? I don’t want to do it again.”

“Ah well, we have to do it three times because the first is really wobbly and not very good, the second one is better, and the third time even better!”

“Oh okay. Why don’t we do it five times?”

“Because I don’t have enough puff to run that fast five times.”

“Okay.”

The third canter was longer, and she was starting to find her seat. So I left it on a positive note. She can reflect on the canter when telling her parents over dinner.

We moved on to jumping. Well practising our jumping position over tiny cross poles, to finish the lesson. My rider told me she wanted to do level four jumping. That means a cross on the fourth from bottom hole. Which we haven’t done before. So I humoured her, saying we needed to start lower and build up to it. I put the cross on the second hole and we went over it a couple of times. Three probably, let’s face it. And she was staying balanced over the jump and quiet! When I put the cross pole up a hole, my rider said she didn’t want to do level four. So I said that was fine. We did it once, successfully, and called her au pair to watch the second go. Unfortunately she didn’t get it on video. This was the conversation we had:

“We need to do it again so she gets it on video. But. But, what if she doesn’t get it … will you have enough puff to do it again so I do get a video to show Mummy?”

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll have enough energy to do the jump twice more if we need to. Now, are you ready?”

How sweet is that?! I was then that I realised I tended to use the rule of three when teaching. Perhaps I should be developing the Learning Theory of Three. Publish a book and make my fortune …

Shallow Loops

Every so often I remember an exercise and utilise it with various clients of all ages and abilities. Currently, it’s shallow loops.

Quite often they’re overlooked in favour of serpentines or figures of eights, but they have their own benefits as a movement which tests a horse’s balance.

First appearing at novice level, shallow loops are ridden down the long side of the arena, as perfectly illustrated by my friend’s sketch for Demi Dressage, below.

The criteria for a shallow loop is to ride a smooth, flowing line from F towards X and then return to the track at M. They become an easier movement if you only leave the track by five metres – that is, you cross the E-B line five metres from the track. Riding FXM makes the turns more acute so requires greater suppleness from your horse. As with everything, start easy and once you’ve mastered level one, up the ante.

So what are the benefits of riding shallow loops? Firstly, they stop horses getting too track bound, and ensure they are listening to the rider’s outside aids. They are good at teaching riders to be less reliant on the fence line, and they show up any erratic steering issues! If you don’t plan and ride subtly, you end up staggering across the arena. For the horse, you are changing their bend in quick succession so it is a test of their balance and suppleness as they shift from one hind leg to the other.

Riding trot shallow loops are really helpful for improving the trot-canter transitions as in the shallow loops the horse changes from the inside hind (in relation to the inside of the arena) to the outside hind (the one nearest the fenceline) as they return to the track. In the trot to canter transition the horse shifts from the inside hind leg in trot to the outside hind in canter.

Riding shallow loops in canter introduces counter canter, further testing a horse’s balance.

When introducing shallow loops I find the hardest aspect of the movement is getting the loop to flow smoothly with an even incline to and from the track, so the most useful thing is to provide visual cues for riders. By guiding their eyes they automatically begin to flow away and towards the track. I use cones or jump blocks to show riders where to go. I place one cone near the corner, where the rider needs to go round the outside of before they leave the track, then another on the E-B line which they need to pass on the inside, and the final cone in the next corner to encourage the rider to return to the track and ride into their corner. As we develop the movement we increase the shallow loop from five metres towards ten metres.

How do you ride shallow loops? Begin by riding into your corner to give yourself plenty of space, and then using the outside aids, ride off the track. Almost imagine you’re riding across the diagonal, so turn your body to look across the arena, sit into your inside seat bone as you open the inside rein and close your outside leg. As you approach the E-B line, and the innermost part of the shallow loop, start riding parallel to the long side. Aim for three or four strides, during which use the leg nearest the fence on the girth, and open that rein to change the horse’s bend and engage that hind leg. Then return to the track and upon reaching it change the bend back to the original direction with the leg nearest the centre of the school acting on the girth to engage that hind leg and opening that rein. Ride into your corner ensuring your horse stays balanced.

The biggest faux pas I see when riding shallow loops is riders having dramatic changes of bend, which unbalances their horse. Minimise the bend and take your time in the middle of the loop and the loops will begin to flow and feel balanced, with the horse able to maintain their rhythm. If a rider doesn’t spend sufficient time in the middle of the loop; riding straight lines to and from X, then it may be useful to replace the cone with a pole, which forces some straight strides.

I’ve been putting shallow loops into my warm ups to give variation, and to help riders move around the arena. Instead of trotting the long side, we’ve put in a shallow loop to keep the horse’s focus. Have fun incorporating them into your workouts!

Eyes Closed!

Trot to canter transitions have been a sticky point for one of my clients and her pony. Both the trot and canter work has come on in leaps and bounds, but the upward transition is still sticky – like a smudge on a drawing.

I think it stems from when the pony was more on the forehand and my rider less of an adult rider and more of a child rider so had less finesse over the subtlety of her aids. After all, it’s a huge transition from child rider (leg means go, hand means stop) to an adult rider (leg and hand together mean go,stop,left or right!).

I decided that we would have a session taking apart the trot to canter transition, to see how and where it could be improved.

After warming up, I put them on the lunge. She rode a couple of canter transitions as normal, but thinking about what her body is doing.

Then, I took her reins away. As this rider asks for canter, her upper body gets quite active, yet is also stiff, which comes out in her arms. As her arms stiffen in the transition, so her pony raises her head and blocks through her back.

I had her relax her shoulders and arms and then ride some transitions on the lunge without her reins. This helped improve the transition by keeping the pair relaxed and in sync. Then the pony was more forwards. Having no reins, it was obvious to my rider as her hands came up and her arms stiffened.

Staying without reins, we moved on to looking at my rider’s seat aids. To help her tune in to what she could feel and what she was doing, I got her to close her eyes for the canter transition. This was enlightening, and once she’d recovered from the feeling of not being fully in control (hence why I was there at the end of the lunge line!) she could tell me a little about her seat aids.

I reminded her that during the trot to canter transition her hips have to go from an up-down motion to a circular one, akin to doing the hula hoop. She then focused on this movement of her seat through the next couple of transitions with her eyes closed.

We also checked the angle of her pelvis; sometimes she sits a little onto the front of her seatbones, and whilst I don’t want her collapsing her lower back, by tucking her tail between her legs and sitting towards the back of her seat bones, her seat became a more forward thinking aid, so encouraging the energy to flow up from the hindquarters and through to the front end.

The upwards transitions were looking better, but we were still missing something. I asked where her weight was distributed between seat bones and asked her to put a little more weight onto her inside seat bone as she transitioned from the up-down hip movement to the hula-hooping movement.

Voila!

They got it! The transition suddenly looked like the completed jigsaw, and lost any resistance from either party, and meant they could immediately get a balanced, relaxed and rideable canter rather than wasting a few strides.

I made them repeat the transitions with no reins and eyes closed a few times on both reins. I considered taking her stirrups away but decided to save her that torture, as I thought my rider might tense her seat without stirrups and so undo all our progress.

With her reins back, I unclipped them and we worked on the trot to canter transitions around the arena. Every so often, to draw her attention to her seat, I got my rider to close her eyes for the transition. This was only possible because we were in a standard arena on our own with a very well behaved pony!

The transitions gained in consistency and became much more fluid. We didn’t focus very much on the leg aids because the improvement to her seat aids made such a difference, but in a few weeks I’d like to progress to minimising the leg aids, but my rider needs to strengthen and get more awareness over her seat aids first before we reduce the support of the legs. I really enjoyed the challenge of fine-tuning the aids and discovering the element which isn’t quite perfect.

If ever there’s an “blemish” to your riding, taking it apart and putting it back together piece by piece until you find the weak links and then spending some time focusing on improving that area with pay dividends in not only improving your blemish, but also having a positive impact on other areas of your riding, and in the future too. It’s far better from a long term point of view to find the cause and treat it, rather than put a plaster over that area and cover it up because that plaster will trip you up later on!

The Inside Hind

I’ve been on a mission recently to try to improve the feel of my riders. Some people say that talented riders have a “good feel”. Yes they may do, but for those of us less talented at equitation, don’t lose hope. You may have to work on your balance and coordination of aids, but you can still feel. Everyone can. It’s one of our five senses. You just might need a little more help in understanding what you can feel when riding and how to respond appropriately.

This is why I’m forever asking clients to tell me what they can feel. I’m not looking for correct terminology, or long winded descriptions, but I want to know if the rider can tell the difference between a long stride, a short stride, one full or impulsion, or one dragging their toes. I want to know if they’re aware that they have a heavier right rein, or if they can feel their horse bending or not.

Sometimes I’ll ask, “what can you feel?” Or “how does that trot feel now?”

Other times, I’ll give more leading questions such as “can you feel your horse leaning on your outside hand?” Or “can you feel a bit more push from the hindlegs?”

It’s never a problem if someone answers no. We just revise what we are aiming for in this session and where the rider should be feeling the change. Usually just by focusing their attention on that one area of the horse, they start to feel what I am explaining, and understand the subject more clearly. Occasionally, videos help. I’ve videoed jumps before, which haven’t been perfectly executed, and replayed them to the rider so that they can relate what they feel in the saddle to how it looks from the ground and the final result.

So in my quest to further my riders’ feel for what their horse’s legs are doing, and their ability to enhance their horse’s way of going, I have been encouraging them to think about the hind legs and what they can feel in terms of power and stride length.

When trotting the inside hind leg is the propulsion leg. It powers the horse forwards. In order to do this efficiently, the horse needs to step under their body with it, sit on that leg so that it takes the weight, and then push their weight up and forwards from the leg. It’s similar to the mechanics of human walking.

On curves the inside hind leg has to work extra hard, and this is where horses often lose their balance. If the inside hind leg is weak or lazy then it will step short, and the horse won’t be able to sit on that leg so well in the stance phase. This causes the horse to lose the balance in their body, and to load the outside shoulder in compensation.

For novice riders who are developing their feel, trotting corners are often when they first begin to feel the action of the hind leg, so I use lots of circles and turns to get them feeling. Sitting trot is useful at this stage so long as the rider can maintain it comfortably and the horse doesn’t brace against them or slow down.

Then I explain the mechanics of the horse, their particular strengths and weaknesses, and how improving the stride of the inside hind will improve the whole gait by engaging the abdominals and topline muscles, maintaining a consistent bend and contact, and increasing impulsion.

Then I link the footfall of the horse to their rising trot. When the rider is rising on the correct diagonal, the inside hind leg is stepping forwards. We are trying to encourage the inside hind leg to step further underneath the body, especially if it’s a little lazy, so that it can then propel the horse forwards more easily and powerfully. Therefore, we have to influence that hindleg whilst it is in the swing phase. As my riders are about to rise, and that inside hind about to come off the floor, they need to encourage it to come forward with a bit more vigour. A squeeze of some description with the inside leg is usually enough to make all the difference. Of course each horse is different, so you have to play around with the leg aids, and perhaps a flick of a schooling whip, on that haunch, to find the button which works for horse and rider.

Riders can learn to time their aids by linking it to their rising, and you can test their feel by working in sitting trot. But by at least applying the aids at the correct time, the rider will start to feel an improvement in the horse’s way of going, and the more active hind step should increase the feeling of movement to the rider, so further establish what they are aiming to feel. Once a rider has begun to become aware of what’s going on behind the saddle, you can start to dissect the walk and canter, and then fine tune the timing of their aids to improve their quality.

I’ve reminded several riders recently, of different abilities, to think about and to enhance the inside hind leg action, which has resulted in their horses maintaining impulsion, balance and consistency, which means the rider can ride more accurately and with a better quality of gait. Improving awareness of the inside hind is particularly important when changing the rein and changing the bend through the horse’s body. By focusing on the new inside hind leg propelling the horse forwards, the horse changes the rein more fluidly.

Perfecting The Approach To Jumps

I’ve had two clients recently working on perfecting their approach to jumps. They’ve had similar lesson formats, and both have had positive results from it.

One rider found that they kept “missing” the first jump to grids or on courses. With placing poles, and once in combinations, they fly the fences perfectly. So I brought her attention to their approach to jumps. We’re looking for a positive, active, balanced canter. And we’re looking for it to be consistent throughout the approach. The pony was backing off, losing power, on the approach to jumps. But only for a stride, or even just half a stride. It was only when we studied the approach that the slight loss of impulsion became apparent.

We then looked at my rider. She was riding a little reactively. So her pony backed off and a stride later, my rider closed her leg and rode him forwards. We needed to get rid of this delay because that slight loss of impulsion was enough to disrupt their take off point. By drawing my rider’s attention to this, she began to notice as her pony dropped impulsion quicker, and then reacted quicker. This meant that the canter stayed more consistent before the jump, and the maintained energy meant they hit their take off point perfectly.

This week I constructed a 90cm oxer in the middle of the arena, and asked them to jump it. The canter approach was rhythmical, and when I saw the pony think about backing off, his rider applied her aids and managed to maintain the consistency of the canter, so they jumped it brilliantly. And repeatedly did so as I increased it to just over a metre high.

My other rider has a rather fresh pony at the moment (spring grass has a lot to answer for!) and she started approaching fences in a kangaroo fashion, and then jumping erratically. I think this is caused by the pony being a bit more spooky, and looking at jumps more because she’s full of the joys of spring. However, the kangaroo approach to fences makes it harder for my rider, and then they lose their synchronicity.

We addressed the consistency of the canter, and I told my rider to micromanage the canter, so that she reduced the kangaroo effect, to smooth out the canter. She already rides well towards a fence, using her seat and legs to keep her pony up in front of her and taking her forwards, with a steady, quiet hand, so it was just a matter of her being a bit quicker to react to any changes to the canter. Be it quickening or slowing down. As soon as the canter was ironed out the jumps started to flow more. The spooks and looks at any jumps were minimised and then the mare started to focus on the job in hand.

The girls put this to the test last weekend at an eventers challenge, and the result was very positive. A much more flowing round and some stylish jumps so I’m very pleased.

It’s amazing the difference a couple of seconds in rider reactivity makes, and the resulting consistency in a horse’s canter to the jumps.

Mounting Manners

What are your expectations of your horse while you mount?

Everyone seems to have varying opinions on how a horse should behave when their rider is climbing aboard.

Being aware of normal mounting behaviour for your horse means you should be alerted to any changes and what he is trying to tell you.

I’ve known some horses who begin to fuss at the mounting block when they’re sore somewhere. One client’s horse was very fidgety during mounting although behaved well whilst ridden, but when examined by a physio found to be very sore in his back. Now that he’s been sorted, he’s a total gentleman to mount!

Some disciplines, such as racing, mount on the move, so it is ridiculous to expect an ex-racer to stand still to be mounted without some considerable retraining. So it’s worth assessing how the horse is used to being mounted before you first ride them – even if they’re used to one particular mounting block – so that you start on a positive note. You can then start to adapt this procedure to best suit you.

I expect a horse to stand by the mounting block without twisting away or fidgeting. A horse who usually stands quietly at the block, and suddenly starts fussing is telling you something, so it’s worth being aware of their body language. Unless of course you’re somewhere exciting, such as a sponsored ride, when your horse might be a little more of their toes.

I remember at a riding school I used to work at, there was a large rider (just physically tall and broad as opposed to overweight) and he used to ride this horse who struggled to carry him. As the rider mounted, the horse would groan and literally buckle. I hated it.

Some people like their horses to stand stock still whilst they mount, and yes this is ideal but I don’t mind a horse taking a step or two as the rider mounts. After all, of a heavy lump was getting on your back, however gracefully, it is fully acceptable that you may need to adjust your balance. This is particularly important when working with youngsters. You can encourage them to stand square, but ultimately if they need to step forwards in order to keep their balance then they should be allowed to so that mounting does not become an issue. If a horse does walk forwards as I mount, I just quietly pull them up and we pause. Over a period of time I accept fewer forward steps, and a longer halt. They’ll learn to stand in a way that means they can accept a rider’s weight easily soon enough, and understand that they wait until the rider is ready to walk on.

What I don’t like when getting on a horse though, is for their back to come up or for them to scoot off. Cold backed used to be the term for this, but I think with better understanding of the equine back and better fitting saddles, there is a reduction in “cold backed horses” and those showing these signs are generally trying to tell you something is wrong. Of course, some are just sensitive so like you to sit down lightly, but these ones usually stand calmly when you hover momentarily whilst mounting.

If a horse does show either of these signs then I want help mounting, so that it becomes less stressful for all involved, and we can start to retrain them to get positive associations to mounting, whilst investigating possible causes such as the saddle not fitting or them needing some form of physiotherapy or chiropractic treatment. If you’re convinced that the tension associated with mounting is from pain whilst ridden then I would get that sorted first, but I would simultaneously spend time wearing the saddle (not me – the horse!), and standing by the mounting block while you faff around doing stirrups, girths, climbing the steps, patting their back, sides, rump, saddle, to just help reduce the fear and desensitise them to an extent to the whole process. Then hopefully the horse will be in a better frame of mind about mounting, which combined with being more comfortable, should lead to better mounting manners.

Teaching a horse mounting manners takes time and consistency, and is often overlooked in the grand scheme of getting on and riding so that you can return quickly to your hectic life.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Controlling The Neck

I taught a lesson last week, where we focused on releasing the brachiocephalic muscles to enable the horse to step through from behind and use their back more correctly.

The horse we were working with has come back into work slowly after being a brood mare, and she’s changing shape nicely and building some muscle and fitness by lots of hacking. Her walk was improved since the last time I’d seen her in that it was more active with a longer length of stride and the mare’s neck was not so concertinaed. However, in the trot she was still locking her neck and trotting. The body wasn’t moving at all, and the legs scrabbling frantically underneath, with my rider feeling barely in control. Their trot was akin to a bolt – the neck set against the rider – but they weren’t getting any faster.

Usually when a rider feels resistance in the horse’s neck, a little flex of the neck and encouragement of the inside hindleg triggers the horse to relax the brachiocephalic muscle and start using their abdominals and topline. However, this mare has such large, solid brachiocephalics she didn’t respond to the small flexions.

In halt, we asked the mare to move her head from side to side. They were big turns of the head, slowly from left to right and back again. Initially I had to help from the ground to provide rein aids so that my rider could understand the exercise. By getting the mare to mobilise her neck we were improving her suppleness, increasing her range of movement, and causing her to relax the brachiocephalic muscles. After all, in order to look left, the muscles on the right side need to relax and lengthen. And vice versa. We had to turn her head quite a way to the left and right before she yielded and softened her neck. Hopefully as things progress she will give her neck to her rider after more subtle aids.

After a few turns, the mare’s neck became softer and you could see she was turning more easily and freely. We let her rest, standing still with a light contact, so that she could think about her posture, and process the exercise we had just done. She stayed standing with a softer neck and lower head carriage.

Then we moved up into the walk. A horse’s head is very heavy, and is held at the end of a lever, so getting them to lengthen the neck and hold their head further away from their body, and then to hold it in different positions, is very difficult and requires good balance and core strength. The walk allowed us to experiment with different head and neck positions, all making the mare more malleable and encouraging the muscles to relax. There was a lot of brain work going on here: the horse had to focus on keeping her balance with her head held in unusual positions (for her, anyway), and she had to focus on the leg and seat aids rather than the reins aids.

After a few releases of the neck, the mare’s walk started to improve by lengthening in stride, the energy in the hindquarters seemed to travel through the body more and she seemed to be more connected – working as one horse. Once my rider felt the change in the mare’s posture I had her straighten the neck and keep everything still. After all, we’re using these large turns to release the muscles and then the mare needs to learn to carry herself straight and with less tension in her neck on her own volition, and we don’t want her to get into the habit of swinging her head as she works, nor do I want my rider to get into a habit of sawing on her pony’s mouth. I reiterate, they are large turns of the head in either direction to encourage the release of the under neck muscles, which together with the leg and seat engaging her hindquarters will trigger the mare to use her topline as she works.

Once the mare was walking with a soft frame and contact, we went up into trot. Through the transition she set her neck and started running, but my rider began flexing her left and right and after a few strides the brachiocephalic was disengaged. So they trotted with the hands still for a couple of strides before the mare set herself again, so we repeated the process. We kept the trot basic: large circles, simple changes of rein, one rhythm, so that we could focus on unlocking the neck as soon as she tensed, rewarding her with quietness when she was soft, and then correcting her again as she tensed up.

Suddenly, they had a lightbulb moment! The trot became lighter, almost floaty, her back began to swing, she was using her hindquarters to propel herself. The trot was getting faster, but only because she was more efficient in using herself and the stride was lengthening rather than her rushing. Yes, every couple of strides my rider still had to move the mare’s neck to keep it soft, but they were now minor flexes and the mare responded immediately.

By the end of the session, we’d started work on keeping the neck soft through the upward transition by using small flexes. The trot was becoming more consistent and the horse and rider looked in partnership rather than having two different agendas. And as we cooled down, the mare wanted to stretch her head all the way to the floor.

It was a very constructive session, and they’ve both got a lot to work on in terms of building fitness so that the mare can be consistent in this new trot, and my rider’s feel so she reacts to any change in the neck before it becomes a solid mass. I don’t think it necessarily looked pretty, in that every so often the mare looked to be swinging her head, but so long as my rider remembers to stay quiet and still when everything’s right, and the rein stays positively opening wide to get the mare to look left or right rather than pulling back, the mare won’t get into a bad, swinging habit.

Next time I want to build on the consistency and then start to introduce a long and low frame so that the mare has more opportunity to utilise the correct muscles and learns to stretch.

Canter Leads

I had a very satisfying lesson this week; one which made me realise how much I enjoy my job.

In the last lesson with this pair, I first asked to see their canter. We’d been focusing on the trot work and rider position up until then, but I wanted to get an insight to the canter so I could plan the next few lessons.

Right canter was great. Yes, a bit green and unbalanced, but the horse was willing and could maintain canter around the arena, which when you’re 18.2hh is quite a feat! However, left canter was another story. In fact, it didn’t exist!

The horse insisted on picking up right canter, despite being asked correctly and in a corner. After a few attempts, he changed his lead in front, but continued to be disunited. Then I learnt that he has never done left canter. He’s always refused. His rider said that on the lunge he picks up right canter then changes, however when we looked into it further, we came to the conclusion that he only changes in front to the left canter, never behind.

After a few futile attempts everyone was getting tired, so we abandoned it, but I gave my rider homework of lunging in a smaller area (she split the 40x20m in half using jumps) to see if her horse could be persuaded to discover left canter on his own.

It’s been a few weeks since that lesson what with work shifts, sarcoid operations, but this week we were back to it.

Canter had improved on the lunge in that the horse was much more balanced and supple, although still staying disunited on the left rein. He was now changing his front legs almost immediately in the canter.

After some lovely right rein canter work, improving the transitions and rhythm, we turned our attention to the left. The first couple of transitions were unsuccessful, so I placed a pole on the curve in a corner of the school. I raised the end nearest the middle of the school, but unfortunately the horse didn’t pick his feet up enough for it to work. What I was aiming for, was for his rider to ask for left canter on the final stride before the jump, so that as the popped over the raised pole, the horse was encouraged to pick up left canter. It didn’t work, so undeterred I built an upright jump. A sizeable 70cm, despite my rider’s concerns as she doesn’t do jumping. But the jump had to be significant enough for a giant horse to pick his feet up over it.

On the left rein, she approached in an active trot, and as they took off over the jump my rider asked for left canter with exaggerated aids. He popped the jump quietly, landing in left canter. She rode away, large round the arena with plenty of encouragement and then after a lap, came forwards to trot and gave him lots of praise. We repeated it so that we had three left canters. In the last transition, where he was getting weary, he picked up a very lethargic left canter after the jump and fell into trot, but my rider asked immediately for left canter, and got it!

The aim of our session was to introduce the horse to left canter; for him to learn the aids, to discover his balance and coordination in left canter, and to learn to keep left canter for longer periods. And for his rider to get the feel for his left canter, so that she can tell if he’s disunited or not. She could feel that the canter was correct, and can now focus on repeating this exercise to build up the horse’s strength in left canter. We can then reduce the size of the jump until it is just a pole on the floor, and then take it away altogether. And then when they can pick up left canter at will, and maintain it for a significant period, we will turn our attention to improving the quality of the canter.

My job is all about finding the best teaching path for horse and rider, even if I sometimes have to think outside the box, and sometimes the most puzzling questions are the most satisfying to work with.

Getting An Insight

I had a day, purely coincidental, this week where I ended up riding a number of client’s horses in lessons.

I am of the mentality that a good instructor can teach without demonstrating, and that a rider gains much more satisfaction and self belief in their ability if they achieve a goal with their horse rather than sit on a ready made one. However, I also believe that an instructor should be able to sit on a client’s horse and make some benefit to the horse and the content of the lesson without the rider going away feeling inadequate.

The first pony I rode was one I’ve ridden infrequently, but we’ve been working on her suppleness, and whilst it’s improved hugely, I feel that we’re only connecting her 80%. The hindlegs are working actively and she’s far less on the forehand than she used to be, but something’s missing from the overall picture. My rider is doing everything I’m asking her to, and the exercises should be helping them. I wondered a couple of weeks ago if it was the fact they were both learning which was holding them back. If my rider has never, for example, experienced shoulder in, then when asking her pony she may have woolly or clumsy aids, or not be assertive enough (“I think my leg is in the right place” sort of thing) or she may not be asking until the pony gives it, and she may not know how to adjust her aids in response to what her pony is doing. If I were to ride the same movement, knowing what I am aiming to achieve, I will be more likely to teach the horse to understand the aids, and I can then help my rider perfect her aids – some horses have buttons which need pressing slightly harder, or in a different place than textbook.

So I sat on this pony and immediately found that she was much heavier in the right rein. Far heavier than she looks to be! Which was a revelation in itself and something I will be focusing more on. This led me to discover that the reason we aren’t getting her truly connected, bridging, working over her back, was because she’s locked on the right side of her neck. I did a fair bit of work on shoulder on and getting her to stretch and release her neck, eventually she understood and became lovely and light in both reins, straight, and was swinging over her back. I had done a running commentary throughout, so when I got her rider remounted she could ride through the exercises I had just done, knowing where and when to apply aids, getting the correct response, and feeling the correct feel in her pony. The tricky bit will be when she tries to recreate this next time she rides, but hopefully because her pony understands and my rider is more assured of her aids, they will get it.

The next horse I ended up riding; we were in one of those situations where my rider doesn’t fully understand, and her horse was taking the mickey of her unsureness. Straighter than he used to be, he’s still a crooked horse, drifting through his right shoulder. The result to my rider is that her left rein is always dominant and her right is a bit airy fairy. So we’ve been working a lot on using the outside aids to turn. On the left rein, this means she has to keep a firmer right contact and remember not to use the left to steer round the corner. But as she’s applying more right rein her horse is leaning against her, waiting for her to release the right hand and take over with the left. There’s an element here of my rider not being quite strong enough to stay firm until her horse rebalances himself and stops leaning on her right rein. I felt she would have also benefited from seeing the process and net result, which a lot of visual learners do. So I sat on and basically did exactly as she was doing, but I’m a bit stronger in my core so could hold up her horse’s right shoulder until he yielded. My right leg is probably a bit stronger to, which will help him understand the question I was asking him. That is, to move away from the outside aids. It took him a few attempts, and a few strides where he really tried to push through my right rein, but then it clicked. I rode for a few more minutes, making sure my rider could see what I was doing, and how I was asking her horse. Then she got back on, and we repeated it so that she could put the theory into practice, and because she got the correct results, she had more confidence in her understanding and ability.

A client had suggested I sat on her young horse a few lessons ago, so this ride didn’t come as a surprise to me. The horse is young, and young horses often benefit from more experienced riders sitting on from time to time. We have been working on her suppleness over the last few lessons because she tends to swing her hindquarters right instead of using the right hindleg properly. I started off slowly, finding the right buttons, and then did a few minutes in sitting trot, making very small adjustments with my seat and leg so that she spent more time with her hindquarters directly behind her forehand, and I could support her round turns and circles before she swung her quarters to help her understand how she should be carrying herself. We introduced leg yield a couple of lessons ago to help teach the mare to move away from the leg, but also so that we could start to improve the degree of bend she was giving round turns, and to encourage her to bend throughout her whole body. I rode some leg yield, and she tried really hard, but you could tell that leg yielding to the left was much harder because she had to push with her lazy right hindleg. Her rider watched, and could see the asymmetries, which will hopefully help her connect what she feels in the saddle to what is actually happening. And she will also be able to ride the exercises appropriately to her horse’s asymmetry. We work horses evenly on both reins, but if there’s a weaker rein it is often beneficial to do a few more circles, or whatever movement you’re riding, to help loosen them and strengthen them.

After the leg yielding, the mare started to feel more even behind, and more active, so I turned my attention to encouraging her to lengthen her stride and open up in the shoulder so her trot didn’t feel so choppy. A rider who is used to a choppy stride may find it harder to push a horse into a long, more fluid stride, so my rider could watch the benefit to her horse’s gait, and next time the horse knows what they should be doing so will be more receptive to the rider’s aids.

This client didn’t get on at the end because we ran out of time and the young mare had done sufficient work for that day, but I’m sure they’ve both got lots to put into practice over this week.

It’s not part of my teaching plan, to sit on every horse, but it does provide very useful insights as well as helping fine tune a horse and rider so that they work in unison, and I’d definitely recommend coaches have a feel for the horse that they are teaching with at some point as it furthers their understanding of how the horse ticks.