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! 

Building Expression

I was schooling a horse recently who has very correct and established paces, but isn’t the biggest mover so often has average marks in a dressage test as he lacks the “wow” factor. So I had a play at building some expression into his work.

Once I’d warmed him up long and low, stretching over his back, and had done some lateral work, I opened him up into some medium trot. He lengthened nicely from behind, but he could have given more.

I was riding in a large arena, and you need to have one which is more that 20m wide in order to ride this exercise.

In trot, establish shoulder in at the beginning of the long side. Halfway along, ride out of the shoulder in onto a 45 degree turn, so you effectively cut the corner off, and ask some medium trot. When you reach the short side, approximately halfway along, stay on the same rein in working trot. 

The shoulder in collects the horse, gets their inside hind leg underneath them and taking their weight. Which means it’s in a better position to push forwards to medium trot. The turn onto the diagonal line ensures they don’t fall out of the outside shoulder as you ride out of shoulder in and ask for medium trot. Staying on the same rein after the medium trot makes the exercise simpler as they don’t need to change bend, so keep their balance easier and maintain the impulsion into working trot.

The result is a more extravagant and powerful medium trot and an expressive working trot, which is still rhythmical and balanced, yet would earn more marks in a dressage test. 

It’s a fun exercise, so try putting it together next time you ride and see if you can feel the improvement in their general way of going as a result.

Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 

Tickling Their Bellies

Whilst chatting to someone this week, they told me that one of the benefits of a water treadmill (more on this another day) is that the water splashes up onto a horse’s belly, which causes them to tense and engage their abdominals.

Thinking about it, when I’ve been waist deep in the sea, or another cold body of water, and tried walking around splashes invariably land on my torso, and I’ve felt my stomach clench in anticipation or dislike. It must be the same for horses.

Then today I was hacking one of the big horses. He can sometimes be a bit lazy in his posture, and I find him very big to correct, or support him. We were going around the mown edge of a field and it suddenly occurred to me that I had heard a long time ago that long grass tickling a horse’s belly can be useful in engaging their abdominals.

So I gave it a go; we ventured off the path and did some walk and trot in the long grass, that came up to my stirrup irons. He definitely seemed to float more, and I could feel his body working harder. He was exhausted by the time we had trotted halfway up the hill, and I was surprised by just how much of a workout it was for him, whilst being comparatively easy for me.


We can’t always use long grass to do our training for us because of the time of year, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind when I’m hacking at the moment. Plus we saw so much wildlife around – the swallows swooping around as we walked, and the deer that challenged us to a stare off, and the fox hiding in the woods, as well as the bird of prey that flapped frantically to hover over us in the middle of a vortex when I turned him out.

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.