A Cross Exercise

I discovered this fun exercise a couple of weeks ago, which has numerous benefits for horse and rider, despite one of my riders declaring the exercise to be “easy” … this was before he’d attempted it!

If you’re following the arrows on the diagram you need to approach the first jump on the left canter lead. Reverse the direction of the arrows for right canter.

I kept the jumps as crosses because with uprights it’s very easy for riders to allow their horses to jump off centre if the circle lacks roundness so we lose the accuracy of the exercise.

This exercise is very good for establishing the rhythm to a course, as the horse cannot rush before or after each fence because the circle slows them and balances the canter.

The circle is also very good for improving the quality of the canter as the horse cannot flatten and lose the three beats on the approach to a fence. Which leads to a better bascule.

If a horse has the tendency to lock on and take a long stride to a fence then this exercise is useful for showing a rider the importance of not encouraging a long jump because the circle afterwards is particularly difficult. It also helps encourage a rider to see a closer take off point. This was what tripped up my rider who declared the exercise as “easy”. His pony tends to lock on, take a long jump over a fence and land flat. The circles made my rider realise that he can’t let his pony get so long as he wouldn’t be able to ride the circle afterwards. On courses, this often happens and they miss the next turn and subsequent fence.

In order for this exercise to flow smoothly, the rider needs to maintain the correct canter lead, which may involve them asking for the canter lead over each fence, especially if the horse favours one particular canter lead. This makes the rider more aware of their body language over and after a jump. The rider needs to plan the circle, but not be too quick on riding it on landing otherwise they’ll finish the circle too close to the centre of the cross of poles and have to jump the side of the fence. Equally, being a bit slow after the fence to respond leads to very large circle and the canter can be allowed to stay a bit long and flat.

I had another rider counting out loud as she rode this exercise to help her keep the rhythm. She was focusing too much on riding a dressage standard circle, and upsetting her horse’s jumping rhythm so he was getting tense and then jumping awkwardly. After a few goes at counting the canter rhythm improved as she rode with more subtle aids so had smoother turns, and they met each fence on the perfect stride, so the whole sequence flowed beautifully.

Grabbing the inside rein will prevent the circle being round, and the horse being balanced, so it’s also important to ride the outside of the horse around the turn in order to finish the circle well and not have a dodgy jump.

The horse’s suppleness will improve as a result of this exercise, which will help on jump offs, because the horse and rider can then ride short yet balanced approaches to fences, and make quick turns on landing which will shave off precious seconds.

Give the exercise a go, I think it’s easy to be complacent about the exercise, but in order to do it well there are lots of little elements to perfect.


Riding Diamonds

I was sharing the arena with another instructor a couple of weeks ago and she was using the diamond exercise. I’ve used it before to good effect, but it had fallen off my radar. However, I could think of a couple of clients and horses who would benefit from this exercise.

Best done in a 20x40m arena so you have fence markers to help focus the rider’s eye.

Instead of riding a 20m circle at A, imagine you are riding a 20m diamond. A is one corner, X is another, and there are two more just on the fence line, ten metres from the corner – sometimes a bit of tape is needed to mark this as they are four metres away from K and F.

Starting in walk, ride a straight line from point to point. Just before each corner collect the walk slightly, and then ensuring you are using the outside aids, push the outside shoulder around the turn. The horse will naturally slow and lose impulsion so ride positively out of the corner.

Riding a diamond improves a rider’s awareness of the outside aids and increases control over the outside shoulder as well as reducing their reliance on the inside rein. It highlights any crookedness in a horse, for example a horse will find it harder to move around a right rein corner if they are naturally a right banana. Moving around each corner will encourage the horse to take more weight onto their hindquarters and to bring the inside hindleg under their body more, all helping to strengthen the limbs and improve the quality of the gaits.

After riding a couple of diamonds, you should start to feel the hind legs stepping under more purposefully.

You can then progress to riding the exercise in trot and canter. I find that the biggest improvement is often seen in canter, where the inside hindleg becomes more active and improves the three beat rhythm. As the straightness improves the canter gains elevation and impulsion as the hindlegs work directly on the horse’s centre of gravity so the forehand lightens and the canter feels more effortless.

Some examples of horses and riders who have benefited from this exercise over the last week are as follows:

  • One pony drifts through his right shoulder and his rider has a mobile right hand, so riding this exercise, particularly on the left rein, focused my rider on her wobbly outside rein and helped straighten her pony. The difference was particularly noticeable in the canter work.
  • Another mare likes to push through the outside rein and triggers her rider to use the inside rein, so the diamonds were most beneficial to her at the very beginning of her warm up to establish the outside aids and ensure the mare is respecting her rider’s aids so that the rest of their workout is more productive as the mare is more focused on her rider.
  • Another mare is very lazy with her hindquarters, and transitions have a limited effect on engaging her hindquarters when she begins a session by being behind the leg because she wriggles through the shoulder, so riding the diamonds help engage her hindquarters and maintain the straightness because in an attempt to evade using her hindquarters the mare jackknifes through the shoulder. Then we can use a combination of transitions and other school movements to help get the mare off the forehand.

Exaggerating Half Halts

I think we take it for granted sometimes as riders, how much we do subconsciously and automatically.

When you’re learning the process is as follows:

  • Verbally given an instruction
  • Think about how to carry out the instruction
  • Act out the instruction.

As you gain experience and knowledge, the first step and the second step merge together. You may not be told specifically what to do but you will think about what you need to do. For example, instead of being told by an instructor to put your leg on as a pony backs off a fence you will feel the pony back off and decide for yourself to put the leg on.

Then of course, it becomes innate and you will automatically put the leg on when a pony backs off a fence without consciously thinking about applying the aids.

As a rider, I think I sometimes forget how many half halts, or micro transitions, I make in order to maintain a horse’s rhythm and balance around the school. Sometimes they’re barely noticeable, just an engagement of my core or shifting my weight back slightly, buts it’s all innate.

I’ve been working with a client and her young horse over the winter. He’s been well educated in long reins and on the lunge but he’s a big boy and recently he’s started bearing down on the hand in trot. We’ve focused on establishing the trot rhythm and basic school movements – progressive transitions and circles etc. He’s coming along well, but I was starting to get concerned with how the horse was leaning on his rider’s hands and throwing his head down. Where he’s a big horse, he was also causing her to pitch forwards slightly.

Then I realised that my rider probably isn’t doing enough half halting, or rebalancing, of her young horse. Either she wasn’t picking up on the first sign of him losing his balance so was acting too late, or the half halts weren’t being effective either from her or in the fact the young horse didn’t understand them.

We discussed the fact that when the horse threw his head forwards he was loading his forehand, and whilst it’s understandable that he’s not very strong because he’s a baby, we couldn’t allow leaning on the contact to become a habit. Especially with 18hh worth of horse!

I explained that we were going to exaggerate the half halts, or rebalancing aids, to make it crystal clear to the horse that he needs to come off the forehand and carry himself. It’s important that the hand stays steady but light, and when a horse leans on you it’s a natural reflex to tighten the arms and hold back – like a tug of war.

I got my rider to work her horse in trot, and as soon as she felt him start to bear down on the hand she needed to ride a downwards transition to walk. It’s still a positive transition, in that she was asking with the seat and leg as well as the hand, but the act of going into walk shifted the horse’s weight back towards his hindquarters. After a couple of strides of a good quality walk, it was back into trot. Again, in the upwards transition she was aiming for it to be correct and for him to push up into trot with his hind legs.

We did some circles, changes of rein, and serpentines adding in the rebalancing transitions every time the horse started to drop onto the forehand. After a few minutes the difference was surprising. Whilst not collected by any means because he’s a baby and developing his muscles, he found self carriage. To be picky, he was above the bridle but he was tracking up, looked lighter in front, and was still to the contact. And more importantly, staying consistent in his trot rhythm and looking more balanced.

Now that he’d discovered self carriage, my rider could adjust her position, to ensure she wasn’t slightly pitched forwards (which tends to happen when a horse leans on the hands). This meant that she was more balanced, which only served to help her horse stay in balance – a win win situation.

Then we progressed to riding half halts in the more traditional sense – subtly. Where the horse was in self carriage his rider could engage her core and use very discreet aids, and the horse understood more, and found it easier to react and correct himself.

From this, my rider now needs to develop her internal metronome and become more aware of slight loss of balance in her horse’s way of going. Then she can discreetly rebalance him and he will find it easier to respond to the corrections. If he has a day when he is really bearing down on the hands then repeating the transition exercise will help him rediscover self carriage. After all, he has self carriage on the lunge, but that’s without the weight of a rider or their independent balance to worry about.

It’s tricky to teach the feeling of rhythm and balance, and for a rider to learn when and how much to correct, because with a green horse you may be making subtle corrections every other stride, but once a rider develops this innate process they will be able to apply it to all areas of their riding and be able to improve the way of going of any horse that they sit on.


The Two Loop Serpentine

There’s a movement that comes up frequently in both prelim and novice dressage tests which I really like. I like how is seems comparatively straightforward, but in order to score well you need to perfect several elements. I also like how it can be used to develop horse and rider in terms of rhythm, suppleness and balance.

It’s effectively a two loop serpentine, but is described in tests as “C half twenty metre circle right to X. X half twenty metre circle left to A.” Or starting at A, or on the left rein.

At prelim level, the movement is carried out in working trot. The judge is looking for the circles to be of an even size, so checking suppleness. For the trot to stay in a consistent rhythm, and for the change of bend to be smooth and balanced.

Initially when I use this exercise with riders, I get them to spend several strides over X changing the bend. A common mistake is that people lurch from the right circle to the left circle at X, which inevitably means the second circle lacks quality. By ensuring that the change of bend is balanced over a few straight strides we improve the suppleness of the horse, and the rider learns to prepare and execute the change of bend fluently, as well as riding accurately over X. Then we reduce the number of straight strides over X as the horse becomes more balanced and understands the exercise until the change of bend is done in literally two strides or less, and the horse passes over X as so often riders miss it because they haven’t ridden an accurate first half circle.

The next step in this exercise is when a test asks for one horses length in walk over X. This means that you have to factor in a transition before and after the change of bend, thus further testing the horse’s balance and suppleness. One horse’s length is 3-5 strides of walk, and the transitions need to be clear so that the walk is a definite four beats. It’s common for the horse to jog in anticipation of trotting again so the judge will mark lower for a loss of clarity in the walk.

Again, when introducing the walk steps to the movement I break it up. We go back to having quite a long straight stretch over X, and initially aim for half a dozen walk strides. This enables the rider to prepare each transition, and to separate each element. Coming off the half circle, they ride the downwards transition, and then change the bend, then ride the upward transition before going onto the second half circle. It’s key to keep the horse in front of the leg, so as soon as the horse is staying balanced into walk with a smooth change of bend, we reduce the number of walk steps. By slowly condensing the movement the horse and rider will be more able to ride it succinctly and fluidly. When practising this movement for a test I’ll quite often vary the number of walk steps so that the horse doesn’t anticipate the upward transition and tense up.

At Novice level, canter is introduced to this movement. In order to change the rein trot is required over X. Here, it is more noticeable if the rider doesn’t establish the new bend because the horse risks striking off onto the wrong lead.

In a similar way to introducing the walk transition, I get my rider to break down the elements and take their time changing the bend and preparing each transition. As the horse’s balance and rider’s preparation improves we reduce the number of trot strides, still focusing on the rhythm of the trot in case the horse tenses or rushes. Eventually, the transitions and change of bend happen almost simultaneously. Only needing one horse’s length of trot over X means that the rider has to be accurate in their transition: there’s no point riding the downward transition too early so you either have more trot strides or you pick up the new canter lead before X. Neither of which are looked favourably on by judges.

So what appears to be quite a simple movement actually requires a lot of preparation and accuracy from the rider. From the horse, they need to be responsive to the aids, supple and balanced through the changes of bend and transition. I think it’s quite a useful movement for assessing a horse’s way of going as well as to check the rider’s understanding of the different aspects of the exercise.


Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.


In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!


Exercises for Developing Medium Trot

One of my clients wants to have a go at some novice tests in the near future, and with another trying to establish herself at novice level, I thought that a blog post all about developing medium trot would be a useful guide for them. Homework so to speak when I’m not around to help.

Firstly, it’s important to understand what a judge is looking for at novice level. Tests will state to “show some lengthened strides” between two markers. This means that they are looking for a gradual yet balanced transition from working trot towards medium trot and then another balanced transition back down over a few strides. It’s far better to do fewer lengthened strides yet keep the horse in balance, than to rush out of working trot and have an unbalanced, incorrect medium trot.

In the lengthened strides, the judge is looking to see a difference in the length of strides. It sounds obvious, but many riders go faster instead of lengthening the step. The hindlegs should lengthen in step as well as the forelegs. This is another common mistake that people make – hurrying the horse so they fall onto the forehand and leave the hindlegs trailing as the forelegs paddle along. The rhythm of the trot should stay two beat, and the horse stay on the contact. Some riders can make the error of pushing their hands forward to encourage the medium trot, which actually causes the horse to lose balance as they reach forwards to find the contact again. When lengthening the strides it’s important to feel the push from the hindquarters, maintaining the impulsion.

So how best to introduce the concept of lengthening the trot strides? To begin with, I like just playing around with variations of the trot so that horse and rider get in tune with the subtle aids needed and improve their internal metronomes. This can be done anywhere in the arena, on circles or straight lines. Initially, I just ask my rider to try to shorten their horse’s strides for a couple of steps, then lengthen for another couple of strides. We aren’t looking for a huge difference in the trot, but rather for my rider to feel the level of half halts from her seat and hand, and the push needed from their seat and leg. Playing around with the trot also make the horse more switched on to the aids and engages the hindquarters. I think it’s important to discuss collection, or shortening the strides at the same time as extending because if a rider cannot collect to help the horse balance, then the horse cannot engage his hindquarters sufficiently to extend.

Then we begin with using the long sides of the arena to start lengthening the strides. I tell my riders to think of slowly growing the trot, a bit like a music crescendo if they are musically minded. To begin with, we want the trot to grow over half a dozen strides. It doesn’t have to grow by very much, but my rider should be aware of the push from the hindquarters, and the two beat rhythm staying consistent.

Over time, the rider should feel that they can push the boundaries in this trot: getting slightly longer strides over the same number of transitional strides, or reach the lengthened strides in fewer transitional steps.

Sometimes I ask my rider to check that they feel they are going uphill. Envisaging standing at the bottom of a hill and looking up to the brow, can correct a rider’s position do that they don’t collapse forwards, and then their seat is more active at driving the horse forwards towards medium trot. This position then helps the horse lift their shoulder and forehand.

If the rider lets their hands creep forwards as they lengthen the trot strides, then I remind them to ride the hindquarters towards the hand and then allow the horse to move forwards, with the hands following them so the contact is neither restrictive or lax.

Getting the rider to think about how their rising to the trot will help too. With longer trots strides, the rider’s hips need to swing more in the rise. Just by getting the rider to push and swing into their rise can help the horse push from behind and transmit the energy over their back. Likewise, by reducing the swing of the hips and using smaller rises will help shorten the strides. Developing the seat in this way makes the transition from working towards medium trot more fluid. A novice dressage judge is focusing on the strides lengthening without the horse hurrying, with smooth and balanced transitions, rather than an extravagant trot.

With both rider and horse beginnings to get the feel for lengthening the trot strides it’s now down to practice. Practice to build up their balance, their suppleness and their strength.

Outside of the school, practicing lengthening the trot along bridle paths or up hills can be very beneficial because the horse is naturally more forwards and the incline strengthens their hindquarters and helps them lighten their forehand.

In the school, one of the popular exercises is riding a 10m circle at the beginning of the long side before lengthening the trot strides. At the end of the long side, shorten the trot onto another 10m circle. It can also be ridden across the diagonal, with circles in the corners before and after. The circles encourage the horse to step under with their hindquarters, take the weight there, and then they can more effectively push up into the lengthened strides. This also helps the suppleness of the horse which can make them more “through” over their back.

Lengthening the trot strides on a 20m circle will further test their balance. They need to have the correct bend in order to do this exercise, but if they rely on the rider’s hands, or use their shoulders to balance, then the circle will become distorted.

Ride shoulder in, into medium trot. This has a similar effect to the 10m circles in that the inside hindleg is engaged, and is particularly useful for lengthened strides across the diagonal. Coming out the corner, the outside shoulder sometimes gets stuck on the fence line so the horse isn’t straight and instead of pushing into the medium trot and propelling effortlessly forwards, the horse falls onto their outside shoulder and pulls onto the forehand. Riding shoulder in ensures that the horse straight before lengthening the strides.

Using poles can help lengthen the trot strides too. Begin with poles the usual distance for your horse in working trot, and then slowly roll the poles out to encourage longer steps. Having to lift their feet over the poles also helps improve cadence.

If you only practice lengthening the trot strides in a certain place then a horse begins to anticipate the downwards transition so look like they’ve run out of petrol on the second half, losing the impulsion and balance. A good exercise to overcome this is to ride medium trot out on hacks, but to also ride it in different places in the arena. So if you have a 60x20m arena you can lengthen the trot strides across the short diagonal, the long diagonal, and any other line you fancy, as well as the full length of the long side. I quite like riding medium trot across the diagonal of the 40x60m arena, which really tests the horse’s staying power.


A Rhythmical Approach

There’s this horse that I was schooling for her owner who is best described as quirky. I’ve never really been aware, but she’s actually a very difficult horse to ride. Not because she’s particularly strong or nappy, or naughty or anything. But because you have to ride the whole spectrum with her. She can be really lazy and disengaged in the arena, then suddenly spook and do a snorting dragon impression whilst piaffing. She can be moving beautifully laterally and then change her mind and throw in a buck. So you have to have a huge range of tools and be quick to react to her behaviour at that particular moment in time. Because it will change in a flash.

This makes it hard to explain to someone else how to ride. You know, some horses you can sum up with “very quick off the leg but doesn’t spook” or “needs a lot of leg and seat to get canter”. But with this mare she can be everything within the same five minutes!

So I’ve enlisted a couple of friends to ride her under my supervision. I can tell them which buttons to press to get the best out of the mare on the day, and I can explain what exercises work best. There is a very fine balancing act too, between getting the mare working in a good rhythm with impulsion and straight, without her toys coming out the pram and her putting on the brakes, particularly in the canter.

I’ve had the girls jumping a lot because this mare really benefits from more complicated exercises, which to be frank can be a pain to set up on your own, and I like to get the mare thinking about the question rather than her usual cock-sure approach coloured poles.

One of last week’s exercises began as a series of canter poles. On the approach to fences it can be really tricky to find the right canter – three time, not too fast and flat, yet energetic. Then on the last few strides it can so easily go out the window. I felt that this exercise would help my rider get the feel of this delicate balance, whilst also making the mare stay in the correct canter rhythm.

After working over the poles in both directions I put up a cross pole. So there were three canter poles before a cross pole and then a landing pole to keep the mare’s focus after the fence.

It took a few goes in order to stop her rushing, or backing off, and to keep the rhythm in the canter throughout the exercises. My rider found that a walk to canter transition followed by a small circle and short approach helped create a lovely canter to the poles, and then the poles dictated the canter.

I built the cross higher and then turned it into an upright and then after removing the landing pole, an oxer. As the jump got bigger the mare had more of a tendency to change her canter on the approach – flattening, rushing and leaving her hindquarters behind her. Which made it harder for her to bascule correctly.

Its a very useful exercise to help riders learn to ride a rhythmical approach, and to be able to keep the canter together. Quite often, they’ll apply the leg to commit to the jump and a horse will be rushed out of their rhythm and lose the quality of the canter. When you have a horse as delicate to balance as this, the poles give a helping hand. Now this rider has got the feeling for approaching a jump with this mare which will help her get the best jump from her.


Keeping the Lower Leg Still

The other week I was trying to focus one of my riders on their lower leg over fences, and how it likes to swing backwards. But he was more interested in jumping bigger/higher/more exciting so I made limited progress. However, he went out competing over the weekend and saw some photos of him jumping and was horrified by his lower leg.

Great – so I had his attention!

In his last lesson I came armed with string. After a short warm up, in the indoor because of the unfriendly February weather, getting my rider to be really aware of what his legs were doing as he trotted round, I brought out the string.

I tied the inside of his stirrup iron to his girth. There’s still a bit of movement, but the resistance of the string makes the rider aware of their leg movements. This means that we can train their muscles to remain in the correct place whilst supporting his legs to help him learn the slightly different rise or slightly different feel in his balance.

Through the lesson we did rising and sitting trot, worked in light seat, and then worked the canter in sitting and light seat.

The string on his stirrups made my rider more aware of how his leg wanted to swing, but because the string stabilised the position of his lower leg, my rider could turn his attention to adjusting the height of his shoulders, how far back his bottom had gone to the cantle, and position of his hands. Thus allowing him to find the right balance.

I made some other tweaks, like getting him to carry his hands, and not hollowing the lower back as he went into his light seat. He also had to have softer knees so that the weight stayed in his foot, with the heel slightly lower than his toe and the leg stable. He started to understand how this new position would enable him to ride a whole cross country course like this without tiring, and how he could still use his calves to ride his pony towards a fence without losing balance.

At the end of the lesson I removed the string and we ran through light seat in trot and canter to see if his legs were remaining in the correct place and if he felt balanced. His homework over the next few weeks is to keep practicing maintaining the lower leg position, and hopefully by practicing on the flat and when hacking it will become second nature when he’s jumping.

Today, I got a video from him asking me to critique his position over a fence! It looked much better, he wasn’t in front of his pony over the fence and they looked much more balanced, as you can see in the rather blurry still from the video below.

I always think that when I jumping position, the rider should look as though they would stay squatting and not topple over if their horse has been removed from under them. If the lower leg swings back then a rider will topple face first, akin to superman gone wrong! I have high hopes that this rider will correct his position and strengthen it over the next few weeks because he’s understood the importance of it in helping his pony jump neatly and in balance, and in helping him recover quickly after a fence so that he can rebalance his pony and ride the next turn on the course.


Sticking to Your Line

One of my clients proudly told me of a jump exercise he’d successfully done in one of his school riding lessons. I’d seen it doing the rounds on social media but hadn’t got as far as utilising it. I had a different exercise in mind for his lesson that day, but at the end I moved the jumps so he could demonstrate the exercise.

Today, however, I decided to use it for another client. This pony is quite crooked, although getting straighter, so this exercise would be a real test for him and his rider. On the flat my rider rode lots of counter flexion on the left rein to stabilise her outside rein and to maintain control over the outside shoulder, which the pony tends to drift through. Getting him straighter meant that his hindlegs were more effective at propelling him along, leading to a more uphill canter and to my satisfaction, the pony reaching forwards to the contact and maintaining his nose on the vertical; stopping him tucking behind the bridle is another area that we’ve been working on.

I laid out three fences, two canter strides apart at the middle of the poles. However, each jump was angled at slightly less than forty-five degrees in alternate directions. A bit like a zig-zag.

Starting with poles on the floor, pony and rider cantered through off each rein, focusing on staying central to the poles and keeping a forwards canter throughout. When he’s unsure, this pony tends to chip in in front of a fence, so providing him with angles to jump will also test his confidence.

My rider couldn’t feel any real difference between the canter leads when the poles were on the ground. Her pony took her into the exercise nicely, maintained the rhythm and stayed straight. I suspected that the right rein might be easier to maintain straightness, but it was nice to see no discernible difference with the poles.

I built the first fence as a cross pole and they jumped it normally first of all, so approaching perpendicular to the jump. This was to make sure the pony was in jumping mode and that he was approaching in a confident, balanced canter with plenty of impulsion. He was really on the ball, almost taking a long stride, so next up they rode straight through the exercise with the first fence as a cross.

The cross guided both pony and rider, and they negotiated it from either rein competently, still staying straight throughout.

We built the second jump, and then the third, which was when the difficulty started to show. Because the pony had to make more of an effort over the jump he was more likely to drift, particularly coming off the left rein.

By now my rider could feel that she was having to work harder on the left rein to keep her pony straight. This was partly due to the fact that he drifts through the right shoulder, the left canter is weaker, and I angled the first fence to encourage the pony to drift right. Not that I’m mean or anything!

Now that we’d identified the weakness in the exercise we spent some time on the left rein. Firstly, my rider had to ride a squarer turn onto the exercise to ensure her pony started straight. Then as she jumped the first fence she had to open the left rein and close the right leg to maintain her line. The exercise was lined up so that the letter F was in the centre of the fences, to give my rider a visual marker. For anyone wondering over the logistics of the letter F and the location of three fences, it was a 60x40m school and we worked on the long side!

I also placed a guide pole between the first two jumps to help the pony land straight and reach the second fence in the middle rather than at higher right side. After a few goes through the exercise it was flowing nicely. The distances almost looked short because the pony was maintaining such a nice, forward canter and making a good bascule over each fence. Where they were staying straight, he didn’t change canter leads, and they had a good takeoff point for each fence.

To finish the lesson, I made the three jumps uprights, which took away their visual aid, and where the pony had to put in more effort, we’d see if he really was carrying himself straighter, or else he may revert to drifting. If he did drift, then the distance would get longer so he’d find he had to stretch for the second fence.

They jumped it beautifully off both reins. The pony made such a good shape over the fence and looked very confident. My rider noticed that she needed to be slightly quicker to sit up between the fences to help correct any drift, but otherwise they were very straight and made the exercise look easy.

The exercise can be made harder by reducing the number of strides between the fences, and making the angles more acute. However, don’t be too quick to up the difficulty level because it’s surprising how the angled fences will highlight a horse lacking confidence and prone to running out, or drifting over fences, and a rider who doesn’t commit to their line and ride positively down it.

Below is the demonstration video from another client. If I’m going to be really picky, he over shot the centre line which set them up for a slight wiggle through the exercise. But through riding his line and keeping a lid on the canter, this rider managed to limit the effect of overshooting the corner very well.


Outgrowing Ponies

It’s inevitable with kids really. They grow. And whilst it’s easy to buy new trousers, and give the outgrown pair to charity, the same cannot be said about ponies.

This is where learning in a riding school has it’s advantages. You get used to riding a variety of horses and can easily be put on one the next size up. However if you loan, own or share your own then the transition can be made all the harder.

One of my clients has been looking a bit leggy on her share pony for the last six months. Far from being too heavy, her legs just resemble Puddleglum’s (Narnia reference for anyone who’s childhood is far forgotten). I mentioned a few months ago about have to consider upgrading from her veteran school master. He’s lovely and a real confidence giver, but with his age and near perfect manners there’s a limit to what she can learn from him now.

I want her to be challenged more, so she isn’t complacent about her riding and learns to think about the horse and begins to influence and improve the way the horse goes rather than just directing them. We’re doing the theory, but it’s hard to put it into practice when her pony is limited by his good manners and expertise.

I suggested she asked around her yard to see if anyone would be willing to let her have a lesson on their horse so that she got a feel for riding taller, thinner, wider, faster, slower horses which means that she’s in a better position to find a share horse and to transition successfully.

But it’s very hard to find the right horse to try. Going from your ultimate schoolmaster, you need a bigger (but not too big) horse, who will tolerate a slightly heavier leg aid and not take the mickey if she makes a mistake or isn’t clear enough in her aids. Yet can be geed up and give her something to think about in her riding.

With me stopping work in a couple of weeks, I thought we’d better get the plan put into motion. One of my friends keeps her Connemara at that yard, so I asked her if he would be suitable to try, if she was willing to offer him, or if she could suggest a horse.

She told me a bit about him and offered him for a lesson. He’s six or seven, can be cheeky over jumps but on the flat works fairly quietly, although can have a bit of a spook. And is a hand bigger than my client’s pony, so not too much of a leap up. I decided that he was our best option, and with my rider getting increasingly nervous about riding an unknown horse, I knew we had to just get it over and done with, before she could mull over the idea.

First off, my client realised that she needed to be a bit more awake on the ground – no more daydreaming as she leads in from the field because this Connemara will stop for a cheeky snack of grass. Once tacked up, she mounted in the school.

She had gone mute, with nerves, so I got her to walk round the edge of the arena and to tell me her thoughts of him so far: how his size compared to her pony’s, how the walk felt, could she feel any tension in his neck, was he focusing on her or the dog walker on the far side of the field? As she started thinking and talking, she relaxed and so did the Connemara. After all, he was probably wondering who on Earth we were and where his Mum was!

We then started looking at his controls.

I used the analogy of cars to my rider, even though she can’t drive I think she can still appreciate the theory. Her pony is like a corsa. This horse is an upgrade … perhaps a golf or something (can you tell cars aren’t my strong point?). Some horses can be Ferraris. I told my rider that she wouldn’t need as strong an aid on this pony, but as we didn’t know the precise level of squeeze, it would be best to apply a Ferrari light aid, and if nothing happened then progress to a BMW level aid, and so forth until she got the response she wanted. It’s like learning to balance the clutch and accelerator on a new car.

In the walk we did some transitions to halt and back into walk, before some changes of rein and circles so that she could get the feel for him and felt more confident.

Progressing into the trot, I reminded her about the importance of preparation – her biggest complacency with her schoolmaster is that she’ll kick for trot then half a dozen strides later organise her reins. Once she was organised we went through the lightest aid, which didn’t get a response, to a firmer squeeze which did propel them into a steady trot.

I let her trot around a couple of times to get the feel for him, before getting her to assess and describe the trot in relation to her pony. This horse was bouncier, bigger striding and more energetic. Once she’d ridden some circles I got her to ride some serpentines, which highlighted to her how she needs to prepare a little earlier because he’s younger, slightly greener, and a bigger moving animal.

Then I addressed the fact that this horse was easily distracted. So far, I’d overcome the issue by telling her to ride a transition or school movement. I drew my rider’s attention to how the ears were pointing, and any turning to the outside as the horse looked off into the distance. Then I told her to try to be more aware of his body language, and if she felt he had lost focus, then she should draw him back into the arena by asking him to do something, such as a transition or circle so that he had to think about what she wanted him to do. I then got her to do some independent riding – choosing her own movements and changes of rein – to check that she was starting to think about the horse and how he was going.

They got the hang of the trot fairly quickly. I didn’t do too much about the quality of the trot and how to improve it, but I did make her aware of the fact that a younger horse needs reminding more frequently than a schoolmaster of the tempo, rhythm and not cutting corners, so she needed to stay on the ball about that too.

Towards the end of the lesson I suggested we tried a canter. Again, I checked she was preparing, and used the light aids until he reacted, although she was getting a feel for him now and almost immediately got canter. In the canter, this horse did try to fall in on the left rein, but after reminding my rider that he wasn’t remote control and she wasn’t a passenger, she managed to used her inside leg and outside rein to keep him going large. They had a couple of sloppy downward transitions when they fell into trot, which was largely to do with the fact that the horse needed a little more riding in the canter to maintain his balance and rhythm which my rider hadn’t quite mastered. It wasn’t bad though, and she did start to feel when he was about to fall into trot, so corrected him a couple of times.

The right rein was more interesting. Basically, the horse heard something in the distance and just cantered a bit faster, which caused my rider to clamp a bit with her legs, which didn’t decrease the speed. However, she remained calm and reacted to my instructions about dropping the heel, relaxing her calves, sitting up and half halting. Obviously I made her have another canter, which went much more smoothly and the important part was that she understood why he had cantered a bit faster and the effect she had on him and what to do next time.

All in all, it was a very useful lesson. My rider has come away with an awareness of how she needs to improve in order to upgrade from her corsa; she had a good experience so hopefully now feels more confident about trying another horse, and will hopefully get another couple of offers from other liveries there. The downside? She’s fallen in love with the Connemara!

In the meantime, I need to find another couple of horses for her to try before I get too fat to go to work.