Jump Jockeys

I had a fun lesson yesterday with two kids. Obviously being after school it’s dark when they ride, so my repertoire of jump exercises is being tested as I find ones which make them and the ponies think whilst not being too big, and ones which aren’t too spacious so doesn’t use the darker side of the school.

Last week I decided that I wanted to get the jumps flowing for my riders. One has a speedy pony so where he was over folding, and now is using his shoulders and upper body as brakes is now getting left behind, so it’s a fine balance that we need to rediscover; the other tries to micromanage and pins her horse down with her hands so restricts his jumping and then it doesn’t flow or look harmonious.

The obvious choice of exercise was without hands. Thankfully, we had the arena to ourselves so I didn’t need to worry about the increased speed by the end of the exercise as they had plenty of time and space to gather reins back and circle to bring the ponies back under control.

Once they’d popped through the grid of three cross poles on both reins I told them to knot their reins.

“Oh no!”

“No way!”

“He’s going to go so fast!”

“I don’t like not having control” (this came from the dressage dive, who I keep telling to think of being a little messy when she rides because then her pony relaxes and she gets better jumps)

Reins knotted, I sent them straight through the grid with both hands out to the side. I told them to let go of the reins over the first jump, to try and keep some semblance of control on the approach, and then to circle until they brought the canter back to trot.

The first rider, where he’s been consciously not over folding has been a little slow giving with his hands over the fence, so has been getting slightly choppy bascules. This exercise allowed us to work on finding the fine balance between not over folding and encouraging the pony to accelerate and flatten the canter on landing and still allowing him to use himself properly over the fence. After a few tries this rider was starting to get the feeling of the right balance, and when we took back the reins the pair looked much better.

My second rider, by not holding onto the reins, gave her pony a much nicer ride through the grid, which enabled him to jump more freely and rebuilt his confidence because I don’t think he was that happy with being micromanaged. It also taught his rider that he does know his job, and the fences can flow. Which built her confidence because she had more faith in her pony and in her jumping ability. She was able to replicate this afterwards when she had her reins again.

Both of these riders managed to achieve this relatively quickly, so I decided to try out another exercise.

For the boy, it was more just having fun. End of term-itis is kicking in so I wanted the focus to be more on fun. For the girl, I wanted her to sit lighter after fences because her tendency to sit up quickly, which she needs to do a bit of in order to stop her pony getting too fast, comes with her also sitting heavily into the saddle which I think upsets his sensitive soul.

So I put their stirrups up eight and ten holes respectively.

There was quite a lot of banter by now: the boy in his jump saddle was quite happy and set off to trot and canter in jockey position. His core is a bit weaker so he did sneak in a few little rises, but I didn’t want to put his stirrups up too high so his balance wasn’t disturbed. I removed the knee blocks from my other rider’s dressage saddle, and she found it slightly easier then to ride light seat, but the high cantle stopped her really crouching low over the wither. She did start to find her balance on the flat, and I thought her pony looked a bit freer over his back with her out the saddle too.

Then they popped through the grid a few times in both directions, working on keeping their seat light yet still folding, or at least differentiation between their position on the flat and over the fence. The key here is to have a strong core, and to adjust the upper body without sitting heavily into the saddle or losing your balance. I’m a big believer in using the upper body after a fence to rebalance the canter and reorganise, yet both kids are still finding the balance between sitting right up after a fence to discourage their ponies from accelerating away and sitting deep into the saddle so their bums are driving the ponies forwards. With short stirrups it’s hard to drive!

The ponies started to soften over the fences, and use their backs a bit more. Where we’d worked without reins you could see that my riders were less reliant on them for either brakes or balance.

I was planning on leaving the lesson there, but they were keen to try no reins and jockey stirrups. I should have said no, and finished when we did, but I thought I’d run with their keenness.

The girl did it very well, and was pleased with herself. I think she had a lot to consider from the lesson and knows now that her pony is more than capable, but she needs to learn to take off her dressage hat and put on her showjumping one, which is a little bit more relaxed and laissez-faire. Unfortunately, my other rider bounced off over the last fence. Squashed pride and end of term-itis meant this was a bit sore, but he remounted and popped through the grid with jockey stirrups and reins. When I debriefed him after I think he understood that it was just a wobble due to lack of core stability (despite the no reins work, when he had the short stirrups he was giving with his hands but leaning on them as he folded over the jumps, showing that there’s more work needed to get him really secure over fences) and balance, rather than him or his pony doing wrong. I think he took a lot away from the lesson and I look forwards to hearing about his jockey riding on the gallops next week!

Riding like a jockey is so helpful at improving balance, and strengthening the core and thigh muscles. I think going to the extremes of a light seat will help my young riders learn to sit lightly whilst keeping their shoulders back on the approach and getaway of fences, which will hopefully help courses flow and for them to influence the quality of the canter without getting heavy in the hand and blocking their ponies shoulders from jumping. You can see in the first picture below, that the jockey is limiting the speed by his position and shifting his upper body back, and in the second image he is opening up the canter. For my two riders, they want to try to imitate the first picture on the approach and the second picture over fences to really help their ponies out.

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Outwitting the Schoolmaster

This morning I did a riding club clinic, and as always really enjoyed it. It was great to see some new faces, and to see a few pennies drop as rider and horse had lightbulb moments.

One combination, who I’d never met before are new to each other so still finding out each other’s buttons. The horse loves jumping and is pretty experienced, but tends to lock on to fences and rush them, which doesn’t unnerve his rider particularly but makes her reluctant to take him out competing or anything.

I watched her warm up over the poles, and on the left rein the horse was far more biddable, but on the left rein he bounced and plunged around in anticipation.

There were two tactics I wanted to work on. It can be really hard with a horse who anticipates an exercise because it can get worse with repetition, yet as a rider you may need to repeat the exercise to learn.

The first thing I got this rider to do was to change how she approached the exercise. Trot or canter a circle, or several circles until the horse came round the corner and didn’t anticipate going down the grid. I got the rider to vary the number of circles, and where she asked for canter, so that the horse had to focus on what his rider wanted.

Over the poles they started to improve. One time they missed the first pole because the horse wasn’t off the aids so didn’t pick up canter on command. But the next time he was much more responsive to her aids. We also alternated which direction they approached the grid to help keep the exercise different.

We continued with this tactic of changing the approach so that the horse couldn’t anticipate too much. I also suggested that if the horse came round the corner quietly, there was no need to circle. She could also ride a shorter approach, or ride a calm trot-walk-trot transition on the circle to vary things.

We built up the grid fairly rapidly, only repeating each stage the minimal number of times, and changing the rein on each attempt.

Now, I wanted my rider to change her riding tactics. The horse is forward going towards the jumps, so his rider needs to try to limit the speed. However, if you just use the hand to check the speed it’s quite confrontational and can frustrate a forwards horse. It can also be quite harsh, like tapping the brakes in the car, which can lead to an erratic canter and potential bouncing around. With the hands pinning down on the wither the horse can feel trapped, as well as the fact it’s then harder for him to jump.

I told my rider to use her upper body to check and half half the horse rather than her hand. So in the approach, she needed to sit up and back, which actually kept the horse’s shoulder free so he didn’t feel so restricted. Then over the fences she needed to fold slightly less (after all, the jumps were small) and sit right up and back between them so that her body weight and seat acted as a brake instead of the hand. This means it’s more gradual and less confrontational. The horse almost thinks that it’s his idea to go slower through the grid. If necessary, then the rider could apply a light rein aid to help bring the canter back.

By putting these two tactics into place the grid started to flow and, still being slightly forwards it was a calmer picture and horse and rider looked in harmony.

The other piece of advice that I gave this rider was to change the shape of the jump frequently. When I changed some of the grid from crosses to uprights the horse backed off the fences slightly. So making the fences slightly bigger, adding in oxers, and fillers will help reduce the speed because the horse starts to look and think about what he is jumping.

It’s hard work for a rider to keep a clever horse thinking and preventing them anticipating, but hopefully this rider has a few tricks up her sleeve now that she can keep the horse focused on her throughout the approach and she can subtly influence his way of going without getting into an argument which will keep the canter calmer and more relaxed. Then hopefully they will enjoy jumping more and venture out cross country next spring.

The Chair Seat

A friend and I discussed this particular rider fault the other day, and it’s something I’ve touched on recently in a couple of lessons so it’s time for a blog post.

The ideal rider position has a vertical line from ear through the shoulder and hip, to the heel. The chair seat deviates from this because the vertical line is lost by the lower leg creeping forwards. When you look from the side, the rider’s outline is akin to if they were sat in a chair.

So why is the chair position frowned upon?

It’s most problematic in the rising trot. If you look at the ideal position, when you rise to the trot the lower leg stays under the body, and the rider can control their upper body so that they sit back into the centre of the saddle and immediately push themselves back out of the saddle. This means that the rider is quieter in their body language, more in control of their body and therefore more effective and precise with their aids. They are also more balanced, which means they are less likely to hinder the movement of the horse or be unbalanced by sudden movements.

Now think about the chair position, and imagine there’s a line going through the centre of the rider’s body, head to toe. If it were on a clock face the time would be 1.35, whereas the ideal position the line is vertical. Now as the rider rises from their chair position the lower leg swings back to balance the rider, who’s upper body comes forward. This means that the 1.35 line gets closer to the vertical when the rider is at the highest point of the rise. And swings back to the 1.35 position in the sit phase.

This means that the rider tends to sit down heavily onto the horse’s back, and towards the back of the saddle and the weaker part of the back. This heavy sit can damage the horse’s back, cause pain and unbalance them.

Collapsing into the saddle makes it harder for the rider to rise back up from the saddle. Which means they are hindering the horse’s movement further.

Ultimately in the chair position, the rider is less in control of their body so gives less effective aids, whilst also hindering the movement of the horse, and is more likely to be unbalanced by sudden movements.

So riding in a chair position makes it harder to influence the horse effectively because the crashing down movement of the sit discourages the horse from moving forwards, and the lower leg being further forward means it’s harder to apply the leg aid. Where the rider is sat on the back of the saddle they then find it harder to use their seat aid. Unfortunately this means that the horse is less inclined to move forwards and becomes “behind the leg” and lazy. This then causes the rider to try harder with the leg aids, which reinforces the chair position, and the lack of impulsion causes the rider to sit heavily back into the saddle, again reinforcing the chair position.

How do riders end up in the chair position? For young children, it’s often when they’ve been taught rising trot before they are strong enough, as the lack of strength in their legs and core means they need to swing their body up into the rise. The best way to overcome this is to make sure the saddle is the right size for the rider, and the stirrups the correct length so that the rider’s body is supported in the correct position. Then making sure the pony isn’t too lazy, so excessive leg aids aren’t needed. And then it’s just time needed to develop the correct muscles. One of my little riders falls back into the chair position every so often, and I find a useful analogy for her is that she imagines she’s sitting onto a pin cushion so she wants to sit as lightly as possible so she doesn’t get a sore bum!

For other riders, the chair position develops from a lack of core muscles and fitness, so improving their general fitness and not overdoing the trot work will help, whilst also working in sitting trot and without stirrups to improve their core muscles.

Along with a lack of fitness, riding a lazy horse when you don’t have the strength in your seat and legs means a rider’s position is compromised in order for them to make their aids more effective.

Sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause the chair position: if the saddle is lower at the cantle then the rider almost has to rise uphill, which encourages the lower leg to swing. If a rider has a chair seat despite work on trying to improve it, and the horse being quite forwards it’s worth making sure the saddle fits both horse and the rider’s anatomy.

The chair position and a lazy horse makes a vicious circle, which is hard to get out of because the horse doesn’t want to move forwards with a “heavy” rider, and then the rider moves into the chair position as they try in earnest to persuade the horse to move.

To break the cycle, having the horse schooled by a stronger rider to remind them that they can travel forwards easily, and the rider improving their core muscles and position by riding a more forwards thinking horse. I recently lunged a client on her horse for two purposes. One, the horse doesn’t seem to understand the idea of lunging so we hope that having a rider on board will help teach him to stay out in the circle. Two, I can work on keeping the horse trotting forwards so his rider can really concentrate on her position and maintaining the vertical line throughout her rising. When she was more adept at keeping this position she took over from me, and found that her horse was more willing when she was sitting more lightly into the saddle and staying more balanced. Hopefully they can build on this in the next few weeks.

Shallow Loop Grids

A friend in the riding club told me about this exercise and I have unashamedly borrowed it a few times this week, and really like it for a number of reasons.

I’ve had to adapt the exercise to fit within the confines of the arenas I’ve been using, but the original exercise is a grid of five jumps set out in a straight line, with two canter strides between each fence. Cross poles will ensure a combination don’t cheat and jump fences off centre, as well as helping guide their eye.

Once you’re warmed up over the fences in a straight line the idea of the exercise is to jump alternate fences with a shallow loop in between.

The first time I used this exercise I had three fences along the centre line. Once the straight grid was flowing nicely my rider came off the right rein and jumped number one, before bearing round to the right to shallow loop around fence two and jumping fence three. Turn right on landing and canter across the diagonal, jumping fence two the opposite way at an angle to change the canter lead and rein. Then we rode the same exercise from the left rein with a left shallow loop. This exercise followed on nicely from last week’s work on asking for a change of canter lead over fences, and being aware of the lead between fences.

This mare is not the most supple of horses, and whilst she can do canter shallow loops on the flat, when jumping she quite often changes her canter lead in front just before a fence if asked for fractional counter canter. Going disunited so close to a fence means that she’s not in the best balance and is more at risk of jumping awkwardly or having a pole down.

When they rode the shallow loops the mare changed in front and the canter deteriorated. I got my rider to focus on keeping position right (for right shallow loops, left for left loops) and sit up and balance the canter between the fences, making sure she wasn’t bringing the inside (of the horse’s bend, outside on the shallow loop) leg back as they angled back towards fence three.

There of course, my rider had to be clear with her aids that she wanted a change over the fence across the diagonal.

It took a few attempts to bring the exercise together, but once they got the idea the canter stayed much more balanced and then the actual jumps improved. The mare’s suppleness improved hugely. The mare had to really listen to her rider, who had to think about how she positioned herself over fences. My rider began to see how being able to ride counter canter for gentle turns on a course, or when she didn’t have time to change her lead through trot would give her a smoother ride, save some precious seconds in a jump off, and hopefully leave all the fences up.

The next time I used this exercise I managed to fit four fences in the school, and the exercise ran like this: from right rein jump fence one, shallow loop to the right, jump fence three, go to the left of fence four and turn back on yourself, jump fence four the opposite way, shallow loop to the right to jump fence two the opposite way. This course needed to be ridden from both reins in order to have left and right shallow loops.

These riders were a dressage diva, and I wanted her to focus on smoothly cantering between the fences and not micro-managing. When she micro-manages her horse gets tense and short in the canter, so I like her to focus on her lines and staying soft in the hand. Obviously her horse is very able to perform flying changes, but I challenged her to maintain the canter lead he was on upon landing after a fence. This meant that sometimes he needed counter canter and sometimes he didn’t depending on whether he changed over the fence. I didn’t want my rider to think too much about being perfect on the shallow loops, but rather get her to go with the flow and not upset her horse’s balance. By the end she wasn’t overriding and had much better shaped jumps because the canter was working canter, not collected, and more relaxed.

For her younger brother, who’s the jumper of the family, I wanted him to ride smoother turns between fences. He has a tendency to grab the inside rein and so unbalance his pony and get a jack knife turn. Interestingly, every time this rider used his inside rein, the canter got long and flat and the pony change lead in front. I didn’t want to complicate the actual jump by getting this young rider to ask for a particular lead over the fence, but rather to ride his lines accurately and keep the canter balanced by sitting up and using his outside aids to turn. As soon as he didn’t use his inside hand his shallow loops flowed really nicely and he met the jumps in a better place. He could feel the smoothness is the exercise then.

This exercise is really useful at teaching a rider to think and plan ahead; to ride accurate lines and smooth turns. For the horse is it brilliant at suppling them, making sure their listening to the rider and don’t lock on to the grid. There’s not enough time to change canter leads so it’s about riding what you have in that moment of time and keeping the horse balanced so they have the best possible chance of jumping well. It also helps with riding lines and quick turns for jump offs.

Definitely an exercise to remember as it’s a bit of fun, can be broken down to different levels to accommodate a variety of horse and rider abilities and has huge benefits for course jumping.

Riding Subtly

I taught a gridwork clinic over the weekend and had a nice variety of horses and riders to challenge me.

I felt I made the biggest improvement with one young horse. I’ve seen him a few times over the last year and whilst his dressage has come along nicely, he took a while to be persuaded to jump. Some days, he would be fine, but if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction he wouldn’t even go over a pole.

So his owner has been focusing purely on getting him to jump consistently, using grids and courses and going to different venues. So she’s been riding quietly and positively, and in this clinic he took everything in his stride, not backing off the poles or fences at all.

Watching them through the grid (jump, 1 stride, jump, 2 strides) a couple of times I felt that he was looking confident, but getting a bit long in the canter so the distances became a bit short for him. I also thought that his bascule was akin to a steeplechaser, and in order to increase the height of the fences we needed to improve his technique.

However, being the sensitive soul that he is, you couldn’t just collect the canter up and hold him together more because he might take that as negative riding and throw in the towel. Neither could you give him A-frames or make changes to the jump to get him to back off and alter his bascule so that he jumps up a bit steeper and uses his hindquarters better.

I suggested to my rider that we started to discreetly affect her horse’s way of going through the grid. We don’t want to make a huge change and put him off his stride, so without taking a half halt or using the rein in any way that may be interpreted by the horse as a negative aid, I told my rider to fold less over the fences and to make sure she really sat up and back between the jumps. So we were hinting to the horse about how he should jump, without telling him and getting into an argument, and then he would believe that this new technique was his idea all along and do it happily – really, it’s the same way as getting husbands to do anything!

The jumps were well within his comfort zone, cross poles at about 75cm, and being fairly small she didn’t feel she really needed to fold over the fences. The first time they tried it there wasn’t much difference, but I could see her horse working out how best to balance himself with her sat in a slightly different position. He still jumped fairly fast, and long over the fences so I sent them again.

This time, his bascule changed. Over the fences he lifted his shoulder more which enabled him to take off at a steeper angle. He also got two nice canter strides between jumps two and three, with the distance looking perfect. His rider could feel the impact her riding had had, so we continued developing the grid with this in mind.

They finished jumping the grid of an 80cm cross pole, 80cm upright and then 80cm square oxer. They looked to be spending more time through the grid, so it was less hurried, and he met each fence at the ideal take off point with the distances looking perfect. His bascule over the oxer was particularly altered, with his forelegs tucking up to his tummy nicely and his back and shoulders rounding nicely to look like a clean, scopey technique.

Hopefully by subtly making improvements in this way, he’ll continue to develop his confidence jumping and will get stronger and more able to clear bigger fences. I just wish I’d taken some before and after videos for comparison.

Filling the Gaps

Do you ever watch someone doing an activity and think “oh if they just did this and that it would be finished quicker/look better/be so much easier”. Apparently this is something that happens on a daily basis with children learning to tie shoelaces, get dressed, eat dinner etc so I’ve got this to look forwards to.

I try to step back and bite my tongue until I’m asked for help or advice. Over the last few months I’ve seen a girl and pony riding regularly while I’ve been working. And it was one of those situations where I knew exactly what I would teach them, and what exercises I’d use if they were to have a lesson with me. It wasn’t so much that it was going wrong for the pair of them, I just knew how to make them better. Now, you can’t (well, I can’t) just walk up to someone and demand they have lessons with you just to satisfy your yearning to impart knowledge. I didn’t stand and stare while they rode – that’s rude – but inquired to how they were getting on and showed an interest in their progress. So making myself approachable if she wanted lessons or advice but without being overbearing.

Then, to my delight, she mentioned having some lessons and we got talking about their jumping. I think I mentioned one thing I’d work on with them, and she booked a lesson. Now of course the pressure is on to deliver!

They had their first lesson last week and from my observations I felt that the pony was a bit behind the leg, didn’t have a steady contact to work into, and because he was then thinking backwards all the time he had the tendency to chip in at fences. The basics and his way of going were there, just bad habits were hiding them.

On the flat, I asked my rider to shorten her reins significantly so she could feel his mouth lightly, and to feel like her seat and legs were driving her pony into the contact, and then feel that he was taking her hand forwards as he moved. As soon as the contact was offered, he took it, stretching his neck out a bit and lengthening his stride. Immediately he started using his hindquarters and using his back. Most of our flatwork in this session was focused on establishing the contact. When the pony was taking the contact forwards, my riders hands stayed still, but when the reins were slack she was fussing to find the connection while her pony also fumbled for it.

We worked on feeling that the trot and canter were bigger striding, and had more energy. She needed to use her aids more effectively and the pony needed to react to them. However, now he had the security of the hand he was far happier going more forwards. I also did a check of her outside aids on circles to help the pony stay straight and balanced. As soon as the outside rein supported his shoulder he maintained the impulsion better. Which will pay off when riding a course if fences.

I didn’t want to overload them, and make too many tweaks that they wouldn’t remember or be able to practice them, so we applied the new flatwork to jumping a simple grid.

14.2hh ponies can be tricky to stride out distances for: if they’re a bit stuffy or backwards thinking they tend to need a pony stride count, whereas if they are more excitable or scopey then they prefer the horse stride. As I’ve said earlier, this pony tended to chip in, so I built the distance short, for a pony, and decided that as his confidence and strength improved I could lengthen the distances to him. I didn’t want him to feel that he couldn’t make the distance and so encourage him to chip in. I also put out a placing pole to get him to the correct take off point at the first fence.

We worked on the turn and approach, feeling that the pony was really taking his rider towards the grid, and that she wasn’t dropping the contact nor letting him hide behind it. I told her to feel that she had 80% of her pony in front of her at all times. This brought her shoulders back and made her use her seat and legs to improve the canter. With the placing pole, they were soon flying through the grid of about 75cm. The height was enough for him to focus on the fences, but not to make life too hard for him. After all, I wanted to build his confidence at taking off a bit earlier and to build his strength so it’s best to keep the heights within his comfort zone. The grid was also training my rider’s eye so that she rode for the better stride, rather than expecting the chip in at the last minute. A couple of times the pony took off correctly but my rider expected him to put in another stride, so it was a learning curve for her as much as him. When I took the placing pole away they found it harder to meet the first fence correctly, but what I liked was that the pony was now meeting the subsequent fences perfectly, almost making the distance look short.

I left my rider with the correct feeling of the length of stride, and contact so she could practice and improve their consistency.

In their next lesson, the flatwork started off far better than the start of the first lesson, and we used transitions to start getting the pony off the leg, and kept focusing on keeping the contact consistent, so that the transitions became more balanced and the gaits more forward thinking.

We talked about generating the impulsion in the trot and canter. When my rider rode an upwards transition I got her to think of riding into the medium gait, and once she had this speed and energy, she could half halt and balance the gait back to a working gait so that she had impulsion, i.e. energy without the speed.

This time I built a grid of three bounces and then an oxer one stride afterwards. The aim is to build the pony’s hindquarters and to get them both riding forwards towards the fences. They met the first fence much more consistently and negotiated the bounces perfectly each time. I half expected the pony to try to fit a stride in, but I think the flatwork was paying off. They jumped the oxer nicely too, making a better shape over the fence too.

We’ll continue working on their flatwork, developing their balance on circles as well as direct transitions which will help their turns on courses, as well as improving his hindleg strength and getting the pony more responsive to the leg aids, so that when he backs off a fence his rider can get them out of trouble. Then we’ll move on from jumping grids to putting courses together.

Securing The Lower Leg

I was teaching a client this week about awareness of her horse’s bend, and how to adjust it. In it’s most basic sense, it was just about her feeling the bend throughout her horse’s body and beginning to think about asking for more bend in circles and turns. Until now I’ve been getting her to turn her body, use her seat and leg aids correctly to manoeuvre her horse, but the focus has been on the correctness of her as a rider. So now is the time to put these skills to the test and use them to improve her horse’s suppleness whilst getting her to think more about her horse’s way of going.

My rider could identify which rein was her horse’s stiffer, and we discussed how to ask for a bit more flexion by opening the inside rein and using the inside leg to push the horse into the outside bend. Here, we met a problem.

Where my rider, due to learning in the 80s, grips hard with her knees, her lower leg swings back. We’ve spent time working on correcting this, but when she isn’t thinking about her leg position they wander back. Which means that the inside leg isn’t working on the girth. So she’s inadvertently asking for counter bend.

I threatened, in a joking way, to tie her stirrups to her girth to prevent her leg swinging. Before I knew it, her helpful husband had produced a bit of string!

I took my client’s inside foot out of the stirrup, and tied the inside of the iron to the girth securely. My rider could barely find her stirrup to put her foot back in.

Immediately, she was aware of how her leg swings back each time she applied the leg aid. After walking a circle, we tried trotting a few circles. Once she’d gotten used to rising with a stable lower leg, and keeping the heel below the hip, she could feel how easy it was to use her inside leg to ask for more inside bend. There were a couple of lightbulb moments when her horse had the correct bend, engaged the inside hind and softened through his back and neck.

There were many moans because the position felt so alien, but as my rider could feel the benefit she tried to keep her leg still.

When we were ready to change the rein, I swapped the string to the other leg. This is because the new rein was the more supple, and the outside leg needed to be able to move behind the girth. However, I thought it would be beneficial for my rider to develop an awareness of the instability of her lower leg, regardless of rein.

I’d quite like to warm my rider up next time with string keeping her stirrups at the girth as this will improve her position and awareness, as well as training her muscles. Then when I take the string away, she’ll be able to use the inside leg on the girth to ask for the correct bend.

You have to be quite careful not to do the exercise for too long as her muscles will complain, and you need to have a reliable, steady horse to reduce the risk of her falling off or getting her foot stuck. Ideally, and I’ve used them when I’ve done a similar exercise with kids, you want safety stirrups because the foot can come out of the iron more easily. I think giving my rider physical restrictions on her stirrups highlighted far more than me repeatedly telling her, or moving her leg in halt, how much her lower leg swings and how much it affects the horse.

Riding the Outside Shoulder Around

I’ve done some work with several clients this week about riding the outside shoulder around turns.

If a rider, like many novices and children, uses the inside rein to turn their horse then the horse will give too much bend through their neck, which opens up the outside shoulder. So when the inside hind leg comes under, instead of acting on the centre of the horse’s body and propelling them forwards, the inside hindleg works across the horse’s body, throwing their weight diagonally, out through the outside shoulder. This means that the horse moves less efficiently and has less power because energy isn’t flowing through the horse’s body back to front.

To the untrained eye, a horse giving an exaggerated neck bend can seem to be more supple than a horse who is slightly straighter through the body but engaging his hindquarters, yet the latter is working more efficiently and correctly.

Often, I believe, this trait comes from riders over using their inside rein, and horses being asked to ride too small a circle or too tight a turn before they are physically strong and balanced enough, so in order to negotiate the turn they fall through the outside shoulder as they go round.

Firstly, let’s look at how to prevent a horse falling out on turns and circles. The aids are the outside leg pushing the barrel around, and the outside rein maintaining the contact and preventing the neck from flexing. For a horse who is inclined to fall out, this rein has to be prepared to support the shoulder as the horse tries to fall out, then tries to work out how he should be moving. Often, this is where it goes wrong because the rider is not convinced enough in their application of the aids or strong enough in their core, that when the horse gets heavy in the outside hand they lengthen the arm to relieve the pressure. Which means the horse continues to fall through the outside shoulder. The inside rein on the turn opens, to tell the horse where they should be going. Think of this rein as an indicator, not an instigator. It is only suggesting to the horse which direction they need to go, not causing the movement itself. The inside leg prevents the horse falling in and also acts as the accelerator, keeping the impulsion of the gait. The rider’s body turns in the direction of movement, being careful not to throw the outside hand forward. The inside seat bone is loaded fractionally, and the outside shoulder and hip go forward.

So that’s how you should ride a turn. Be honest, do you always abide by these aids, or do you sometimes panic and think you aren’t going to make the turn so grab the inside rein? Or do you forget about the outside of your body? It’s very easily done, particularly when a horse tries to fall through the outside shoulder due to habit/old injury/previous poor schooling/evasion.

What exercises can be done to teach the rider to bring the outside shoulder around on turns, or to teach the horse to engage their inside hind leg through turns?

Firstly, I’ll often ask a rider to think about what’s going on underneath and behind them on circles while they warm up, this builds an awareness of the parts of the horse which are out of sight. Then they will more easily feel any improvement.

I like to use squares too, whether it’s just riding E-B or creating a square around the letter X. I’ll ask my rider to imagine that their horse is a plank of wood for a moment, and round each corner they are going to keep them as straight as possible. This stops them using so much inside rein and gets them using the outside aids. Once they are managing this and aren’t likely to fall back into old habits, we start introducing a bit of bend and softening the square into a circle. However, I get them to focus on creating a bend in the body, not the neck first – that comes naturally – so my rider thinks about the feel underneath them and uses the leg and seat to get a slight curve along the horse’s spine. Finally, I tell them to just allow the neck to bend in the direction of movement, which usually means that the horse gives just enough bend and the rider hasn’t lost the outside shoulder.

So this gets a rider feeling the difference between a uniform bend through the body, and a horse falling out through the outside shoulder. Hopefully they then apply the same aids on all circles and turns.

Now let’s look at the horse. Some horses are naturally crooked, so seem to bend easily in one direction and not so much in the other. One mare I teach sits in quarters right. We’ve done a lot of work building her rider’s awareness for the slight bend, and worked on improving the mare’s suppleness. In the trot my rider is getting more effective at using her outside aids and their circles are much improved, but the crookedness shows up most in the canter. Especially on the right rein. Both horse and rider have slight counter flexion, which added to the quarters sitting right means that circles tend to be more of an impression of a motorbike. So we’ve worked on my rider correcting her position and degree of turn, and then we asked the mare to look slightly to the outside in the canter before moving on to squarish circles, keeping the outside bend. To do this my rider had to keep her outside rein and exaggerate her outside leg. However, the mare soon started to move around the school with her outside shoulder coming round. After doing this a few times my rider could really feel the improvement in the canter – it was more active and where the mare was straighter it looked like the hindlegs were propelling her along better. Returning to usual circles in canter, my rider managed to prevent the mare curling her neck and falling through the outside shoulder whilst having a bit of inside bend. Now she was riding from her inside leg into her outside rein, which means she has much more control over the horse’s positioning through turns.

I’ve done similar work with another client, who’s cob falls out on right turns. This is more important for her with her jumping because when the cob drifts out through his left shoulder he loses power, which means he chips in or is more likely to know the fence down. As soon as his rider rode a square turn, off her outside aids and with slight counter flexion, they maintained the quality of the canter to the fence and met it on a much better stride. Next week, I’m planning on doing some more work on this right turn before fences to really establish my rider’s aids, and her horse’s technique and balance through the corner.

Other exercises I like to use with a horse who is reluctant to bring their outside shoulder around on turns are; shoulder in, shoulder in on turns, haunches out on turns, turn on the forehand. Anything really that gets them listening to the outside rein, encourages them to bring the inside hindleg under and towards the centre of their body and helps improve their general straightness.

Horse and Country TV did a useful video about the importance of bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, and you can see from my screen shots below, the difference between the first one (riding off the inside rein) and the second one (riding from the outside aids). If you can, see if you can find the full length video masterclass.

Where Are Your Heels?

Twenty years, or more, so ago when you learnt to ride it was “heels down, toes up!” I was teaching a client, a mother who’s getting back into riding now her daughter has a pony, and we were discussing the old school methods in her lesson and how equitation has moved on.

Being repeatedly told to put your heels down causes the rider to force their heel down – creating very stretchy calf muscles – which causes tension through the back of the leg and up to the thigh and seat. It also causes the lower leg to swing forward so you lose the vertical shoulder-hip-heel line. Which means that in order to stay balanced in rising trot the knee will get tight.

Next time you sit on a horse, try forcing your heels down. Can you feel your lower leg slide forwards? Can you also feel your thighs change and almost lighten your seat? All of this combined with a tight knee will push the rider out of balance and make the seat less effective.

The opposite foot position of course, is when the calves are tight and the heel sits higher than the toe. This means the rider has their weight in their toes so their centre of gravity is pushed forward. If the horse stops or slows down or changes direction, they’re far more likely to become unseated. Tight calves can affect the tightness of the whole upper leg, in a similar way to when the heels are forced down. Both extremes of position put tension into the leg muscles. Which, in both situations negatively affects the effectiveness of the seat.

So what is thought of now to be the correct lower leg and foot positioning?

The leg should drape around the horse, from the hip, with minimal amount of tension through the muscles so the the seat and inner thigh can subtly control the movement of the horse. Now, the precise angling of the foot depends on the riders anatomy. The weight wants to be favouring the heel – imagine your sole is covered with marbles and you are angling your foot to encourage the marbles to roll towards your heel. But the heel should only be fractionally lower than the toe, so you are close to horizontal. This means the lower leg is more stable in the rising trot and is the best position to support your body weight.

For some people, who have long, supple calves, their heel will naturally drop much lower than the toe, but while doing so you want to keep the leg tension free. The majority of us are tight in our calves, which means our heels and toes tend to be fairly level. In this case, it is the jamming of heels down that compromises the relaxed and correct leg. If a rider is tight in the calf and it is jeopardising their riding ability then it’s best to try some calf stretches off the horse to relax and lengthen the calf muscles, which will help improve the lower leg, rather than trying to just push their heels lower than their toes.

I rarely spend time telling my riders to push their heels down; I’ll ask them to drop the weight into their heels if they look tight in the calf or their weight has pitched towards their toes. If they do have a real problem with the lower leg position then I find working without stirrups, or standing up out of their stirrups whilst trotting helps them shift the weight around their feet so they can find the leg position that keeps them in balance – this exercise stops the knee getting tight because they’ll fall onto the horses neck whilst the lower leg flies out behind, akin to superman, and if the heel is forced down they will fall back onto the cantle.

Scales of 1 to 10

Sometimes novice riders can get very comfortable and accepting of their horse or pony’s gait and aren’t aware of it’s quality. I always like to ask my clients what they think of the trot or canter; to describe it, and to suggest how they think they can improve it.

But sometimes it’s useful to label the gait so that we can easily relate to it. This is when I use a scale between one and ten.

For the younger riders, I keep it simple and we talk about the speed of the trot. When they’re in their average trot, I asked them to put a number of this trot. Really, I’m hoping they say five, but it doesn’t really matter if they say four or six. So long as there are a couple of numbers either side to play with.

Let’s say the rider has labelled the trot as a five. I’ll then ask them to slow it down to a four. Then speed it up to a six. Then we play a game, where I shout the number, and they change the trot to match the number. It’s actually really beneficial to the rider as they learn to apply subtle aids and get a better concept of rhythm.

I also use school movements to help the riders get used to changing the speed of the trot. For example, trotting across the diagonal in a six trot, then a four trot along the short side, then a six trot across the other diagonal before a four trot on the other short side.

If you have a rider who’s a bit nervous, then practising riding in a six, or seven, trot can help get them used to the bigger strides whilst still feeling in control. Likewise, if they find their horse is a bit fresh and trotting round in a seven trot, than identifying what level it is makes it more manageable and they feel more confident in changing the trot from a seven to a five.

As riders get more competent I apply the scale to different aspects. For example, one being a flat, lethargic trot and ten being a very bouncy trot with energy on par with a shaken bottle of lemonade, to measure the level of impulsion. Scales can also rate movements or transitions so that riders learn to identify their better attempts.

You do have to clarify to riders that the scale doesn’t mean they will get those marks in a dressage test, or that their ten trot for impulsion is comparable to Valegro’s, but rather a sliding scale for them to monitor the improvement in their horse.

Progressing to being able to adjust the canter can really help when jumping, especially cross country. It’s much easier to walk the course and number the canter approach so that you know how to tackle each fence. For example, a seven canter for the log jump, a four canter for the skinny fence. Numbered canters are easier to teach with, and easier to plan your technique.