Everything in Moderation

There’s been a few articles circulating recently about the detrimental effects of lunging. But before we condemn lunging forever more, let’s look at it from both sides.

Lunging is coming under criticism because studies are finding a positive correlation between horses working on circles and joint injuries. So perhaps lunging isn’t the problem here, it’s the number of circles a horse does?

I’m a great believer in doing everything in moderation; the horses I know with the longest active lives and fewest injuries are those who have a varied work load. They lunge, they hack, they do flatwork, they do polework, they jump.

From what I can see, if you do a lot of flatwork and lunge a couple of times a week then this combination puts your horse at risk of joint injuries because of the number of circles the horse does. But if you predominantly hack or jump so ride fewer circles, then lunging a similar amount has less cumulative stress on the joints.

Then of course, there is your lunging technique. There’s the old adage that lunging for twenty minutes is the equivalent of riding for an hour. I think this is an important guideline to bear in mind so your horse isn’t trotting in endless circles for an hour.

Also, do you lunge continuously on the same size circle, or do you vary the size and walk around the school in order to incorporate straight lines? Do you use transitions and variations to the gait, or just keep the horse moving in their comfort zone? Do you divide your lunging session up into periods of walk, in-hand work, such a lateral work or rein back? Trotting for twenty minutes on a fifteen metre circle stresses the joints much more than a varied lunge session.

Think about why you want to lunge? For a tense horse like Phoenix, I find lunging once a week is beneficial as she is more likely to relax and stretch over her back, which is then taken forward to her ridden work. She can do this naked, and not having my weight or the saddle on her back helps her stretch her back muscles. Some people love gadgets, others detest them; I think they are useful in the short term when used correctly to help direct the horse into working in the right frame. This is something an experienced rider may be able to do from the saddle, but a novice rider can’t, and in order to improve their horse’s way of going and increase their working lifespan, they need help to develop the correct musculature.

For some horses lunging can be useful for warming them up before you ride. They may be cold backed, or a bit sharp. But this type of lunge shouldn’t be much more than five minutes. Equally, if you think your horse is feeling fresh one day, it’s safer to lunge and get rid of their excess energy rather than have an accident riding.

Lunging is useful for assessing lameness as it is usually more pronounced on a circle or turn. Also, without the rider you can see more clearly if it is a bridle lameness or not.

So there are valid reasons for lunging, and I think we can reduce the risk of joint injuries by not lunging for too long or too often, and improving our lunge technique.

We’ve already said that it’s the number of circles a horse does which damages their legs, so let’s change our approach to a lunging session to reduce the number of circles.

Start in walk on a large circle, walking yourself so that the circle becomes less round and has a few straight lines on it. Then go into trot and work on the same principle; some circles where you stand still, mixed with some wanderings. Use transitions and spiraling in and out to give variety to the circle. Use poles on a straight line to add to the variety. The only time I don’t do a huge variety in terms of transitions is when a horse is learning to carry himself differently (for example taking his nose down and out) or needs to improve his rhythm. But then I use wanderings to break up the circles. Think of doing short bursts of canter, and focus on improving the quality of the transitions rather than having a stamina workout.

After a few minutes of trot or canter work have a walk break, getting your horse to relax out on a big circle. When you change the rein, take the opportunity to do some in hand work with them. It may be rein back, shoulder in or other lateral work. But equally it could be some general ground manners such as standing still as you move around them.

I think my pet hate, and what I think would be a large contributor to horses having joint issues and a routine of being lunged, is when a horse is literally allowed to gallop round, fly buck, and turn them inside out at the end of the lunge line. These short bursts of acceleration and deceleration on a turn are far more likely to cause injuries than when a calm, well-mannered horse being lunged. Apart from the fact it’s dangerous to the handler, it’s poor manners and in my opinion a recipe for disaster. They aren’t working correctly, and you can’t check for soundness or any other issue, so the lunging is of no benefit to anyone.

I’d be interested to read more about the studies into lunging and lameness to learn more about the quality of the lunging technique, as well as hearing more about the study horses conformation, age, workload and routine, to see what other factors could be contributing to any lameness. Then we know if lunging is as detrimental to our horse’s wellbeing as is being suggested. But otherwise I will continue to believe in everything in moderation, including moderation.

A Snazzy Change of Rein

Here’s a useful change of rein for you dressage divas. It incorporates shoulder fore as well as changes of bend, so is very useful for improving their balance and suppleness.

It can be ridden off either rein, but I’ll describe it beginning on the left rein.

At A, turn down the centre line and ride left shoulder fore to X. At X, ride a ten metre circle left before riding a ten metre circle right, and then continue down the centre line to C in right shoulder fore before turning right at C. If you turn off the right rein, ride right shoulder fore and the right circle first.

Shoulder fore, processing to shoulder in, on the centre line is trickier than riding it on the track because the horse has no support from the fence, so needs the rider’s support to keep them straight. Riding from shoulder fore onto the first circle will improve the inside hind leg engagement.

The second circle allows you to change your horse’s bend and help you set up the second shoulder fore.

The two circles effectively make up a figure of eight, and the quick change of bend helps improve the horse’s suppleness and balance as they have to shift their weight from the old inside hind to the new inside hind limb.

I enjoyed doing this exercise with Phoenix in my lesson this week, and could feel the benefits to her. Watch out clients as you’ll be having a go soon!

Walking The Course

This has come up a couple of times this season, but unfortunately it keeps going to the bottom of my blog list.

So often when riders walk a course, especially eventing when there’s two courses to remember on top of a dressage test, they focus on remembering the order of the jumps and where they’re going. Sound familiar?

Inexperienced riders rarely pay enough attention to the tactical aspects of riding a course. Yes, they’ll think about which fences their horse may dislike, or the gear that they need to approach a jump in, but what about the factors on course which you can’t influence so easily?

Firstly, the ground and way of going. Yes, you can’t change the fact it’s rained and the ground is soft, almost deep. But when walking the course you want to take the ground conditions into account. It may mean you ride a wider turn so your horse is less likely to slip, or if you know your horse finds one type of going easier than others you adjust your riding to best suit them. For example, accept some time penalties and take a steadier canter to help your horse out. You also want to consider the running order. If you are running towards the end of the day you should be aware that the course could become churned up and deep in places. So adjust your lines to take this into account.

Terrain. Some events have more undulating terrain than others, but as you walk the course you should be looking at all the twists and turns of the ground, and plan your ride so that you take the route which will enable your horse to stay most balanced and rhythmical. For example, a jump may be positioned at the edge of a hollow, so depending on how your horse copes with downhill, you may want to ride a longer line to the jump to give them more time to rebalance the canter after the downhill slope. Whether you are jumping uphill or downhill will also affect how you ride the fence. Going uphill you may need to put your foot on the accelerator a bit more, particularly if it’s towards the end of the course. Going downhill, you’ll need to ride a smaller canter to help keep your horse balanced and off the forehand, which will affect their take off point. Incorporating the terrain into your tactics for riding the course can make all the difference to going clear or picking up penalties as your horse will be better placed to jump confidently and successfully.

The weather conditions. One of my lasting memories of eventing Otis is when we were going cross country at 4.30pm in September. Invariably we’d been delayed, so it was after 5pm, and I was galloping up the hill directly into the evening sun, with a large table at the top. God knows how I managed to get over it as I was very disorientated and nearly steered into the hedge, but Otis got me out of trouble, as always. I hadn’t clocked the impact of the setting sun on my ride, and after that event I was always much more considerate of where the sun would be when I would be jumping, rather than where it was when I walked the course. It’s the same with shadows; if a jump is under some trees, check where the shadows are going to be. It takes horses eyes longer than ours to adjust from light to dark, so again you’ll need to adjust your riding line or gear in order to give your horse the best chance of seeing and judging the question. Equally, if it’s raining or windy, you’ll firstly be questioning your sanity, and secondly, need to adjust your riding whether you’re cantering into the rain or wind, or away from it, as your horse will find it harder when against the weather so will need more positive riding from you.

My challenge to you is the next time you are at a competition, or cross country schooling, to start to take into account the weather conditions, terrain, ground, and shadows, as well as trying to remember the order of the jumps. You should start to feel that although you are making more micro adjustments to your canter, and riding less direct lines, your round will flow more and the jumping efforts seem easier.

Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.

Changing the Approach

A quality of a good jumping horse is having an adjustable canter. So they can adjust the length of their stride in order to fit in a whole number of strides between two jumping elements so that they can jump comfortably. This may mean shortening the canter, or lengthening it.

So when you’re walking courses, and planning your lines to jumps, you want to bear in mind your horse’s length of canter stride. But when you’re working through an exercise at home, do you ever find that no matter what you do you just can’t meet the first element well?

Of course, you can look at adjusting the canter. But we are working with our all-rounder leisure horses, who may or may not be jumping supremos. So we have limitations as to how adjustable their canter is.

Let me put it another way; a top class showjumper has numerous gears to their canter. Let’s say working canter is gear five, and they have a range of canters between one and nine. They can jump out of each gear. Our average horse has a working canter of five too, but only a range between four and seven, per se, that they can comfortably jump out of.

When you consider your approach to an exercise, think about the quality and the gear to your canter, but also consider the distance of your approach. If you have adjusted your canter on the approach, but you still meet the first element half a stride too far or too close to it, then start playing around with the distance of your approach.

You don’t want to push the horse out of their jumping canter, but by riding a slightly inner line than previously, you may well find you meet the exercise in a better place. It may be that you need to ride a wider line, so giving your horse an extra three foot of room to play with as they approach the jump.

You need to be careful at this point, that you don’t just let your horse fall in on turns or cut corners. You are still riding your set line and balanced turns and canter. You are still approaching the fences in the middle and straight, not jumping off a curve or at an angle.

Quite a lot recently I’ve discussed with clients the benefits of changing the distance of their turn onto a line of jumps or poles rather than trying to adjust the canter outside of the horse’s comfort zone.

A Lot of Poles

I went to a gridwork clinic last week with a client’s horse. It was great fun, and as ever there were some exercises I could borrow and adapt when teaching myself. This week I’ve had great fun using a long line of poles with some clients.

You need a long arena for this, I was lucky to have access to a 50m and 60m long one when teaching. Begin by laying out as many canter poles as you can fit along the length of the arena. I used about 12. Ensure there is enough space at each end for the horse to turn.

I warmed all my riders up over the poles on the flat for quite a long time. We started off in trot, aiming to get two trot stride between each pole, and the important thing was that the trot stayed rhythmical. This work improved the activity of the trot and helped my riders tune into the feel of improved power to the gait and how to maintain it. Then we did the same for canter. The poles dictated the stride length, so a lazy wakes up, puts some effort in and the canter becomes much more energetic and jumpable. A horse who tends to rush, is encouraged to slow down so the energy is maintained. With all the horses I worked with, I felt that cantering over the poles improved the cadence and impulsion to the canter. The horses were forwards without rushing, and all the riders could feel how much rounder and bouncier the canter was. When I say rounder, I’m not talking about the horse’s frame, but rather the movement seemed rounder. The hindquarters were more active which will improve the horse’s bascule and jump. Using the poles to create this canter helped my riders learn the feel for it, and also helped the horses learn to maintain this canter.

From here, you can adapt the lesson to meet the individual requirements of the horse and rider in relation to their training.

For the horse I took on the clinic, using the poles with a simple jump at each end helped encourage him to look between the wings and take me into a fence. He’s recently lost his confidence jumping, so it was a real confidence building exercise.

The first client I taught with this exercise needed help seeing her stride. Her horse can do a kangaroo impression on the approach to fences, partly because he loses his balance on the turn and he finds it difficult to maintain sufficient impulsion in the canter to jump. The poles established the jumping canter for both horse and rider. I the made the second canter pole into a fairly small cross pole. So they had a placing pole, jump and then canter poles on the getaway. This meant that they were guaranteed to meet the cross on a good stride, which would help my rider develop her feel for a good jump, and she could get more in sync with her horse, and then they were both encouraged to ride positively away from the jump.

Once they had mastered maintaining the canter rhythm throughout the exercise, I put the penultimate canter pole up as a cross, and had the pair ride the exercise on both reins. The second jump was always better than the first because the canter was so much better because of the poles, but the exercise really benefitted my rider in that she started riding positively between the jumps so linking them together nicely. We analysed the differences between the two canter leads, discussed which was the easier rein, and generally improved my rider’s awareness and understanding of the way her horse jumps.

I repeated the exercise on both reins until the duo were consistent throughout the exercise. Knowing how this rider can back off an upright jump, I put the second fence as an upright and we repeated the exercise until it flowed nicely. I finished the exercise here with them as I felt they were benefiting most from the poles creating their jumping canter.

The next couple of lessons I used this set-up with was with more established jumpers. With one, she tends to rush albeit she finds it difficult to stop her canter getting flat and long striding, and the other needed to improve his consistency to the canter as he can suddenly lack energy.

Once we’d worked through the exercise with a jump at each end, I started to add in some questions. It was about getting the rushing horse to slow down and think about each pole, and the other horse to improve his gymnastic ability.

I raised the two canter poles before the upright fence so that the horses were encouraged to sit back on their haunches and lighten their forehand, which improved the bascule over the upright.

Next up, I made a low upright three canter poles after the cross. This really helped make the rushing horse slow down, and stopped her flattening her canter and playing Pick-Up-Sticks with the canter poles. The other horse used the little upright to give his canter a little boost, which helped him negotiate the rest of the grid.

The best thing I found with this exercise, apart from the fact I didn’t need to go to the gym after setting it out, was that there are so many levels to the exercise it is very adaptable to all riders and horses, and all will feel a benefit from using a line of poles to create and maintain a jumping canter.

Rule Of Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why? I don’t want to do it again.”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

Shallow Loops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Story

This isn’t easy to write, but it’s taken me long enough to stop being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand. This is the missing piece to Phoenix’s story of the last few months.

You may remember in January that she started shooting off in canter in the arena, which I discovered was caused by muscle adhesions and tightness in her left hind so she had a course of physio therapy. In April, this limb got a clean bill of health.

In February I was working on Phoenix’s walk and trot in the arena, and cantering in straight lines out on hacks. Until her left hind was sorted, I didn’t really want to canter her in the arena.

Phoenix’s uncontrolled right canters in the arena in January had unnerved me a bit. I’ll be honest. Whilst I could ride the eight laps of fast, uncontrolled canter calmly round the arena, I didn’t enjoy it. So I decided that I would ensure she wasn’t in any pain before readdressing the canter, and just focus on improving her trot, work the canter on the lunge so that she was calm and balanced throughout the transition. We were enjoying our hacks, and she was behaving perfectly.

Then it happened. I took her for a hack one afternoon. We were on our own, and I decided to trot across the patch of grass which cuts off a junction. That trot turned into canter, which turned into a flat out gallop. She jumped the ditch onto the road, turned left. Slipped over, and we parted company.

Ok, so I wasn’t particularly hurt. A couple of grazes and bruises, but nothing a hot bath won’t cure. But I was gutted. I felt betrayed. A bit like if you overhear a friend talking behind your back. It hurts much more than a stranger saying the same words. I think Phoenix scared herself too. I wish I knew what had triggered her bolt. But she definitely changed towards me after that incident. I led her home, lunged her hard and then got back on.

The rest of that week I beat myself up. Why was I being so pathetic? We had a tumultuous week weatherwise, with constant gales, so each day I weighed up the pros and cons of riding. And inevitably chickened out each day. I was tense and worried, and she was equally stressed out.

When the weather settled, a whole week later, I got back on and hacked round the block with a friend. It took both me and Phoenix most of the hack to relax. The next day I went in the arena, but I was so worked up about it I ended up getting another friend to lunge me to get the first trot, and then just stand there talking about the weather to me as a distraction.

I felt so disappointed in myself. My riding of clients’ horses on the other hand was feeling better and I was getting good results. But I couldn’t ride my own horse without stressing out.

It was about this time I began investigating Phoenix’s nutrition, and the possibility of ulcers. And decided to come up with a rescue plan for myself.

Firstly, what I’d tell my clients, I took the pressure off myself.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that it had to be me who solved this problem. There was no point getting someone else to ride her because that wouldn’t stop my qualms, and given Phoenix’s current mental state she wasn’t trusting of anyone. And as a friend said, she is actually very attached to me. You can see by the way she watches me and follows me round.

Someone described her as a cat pony. Which is totally true! Phoenix is affectionate, but on her terms and can be a bit aloof. Which I think makes it harder to build a relationship. You can’t kiss and make up, so to speak.

So I was sorting out Phoenix’s diet, she was having regular physio sessions, saddles had been checked, and I was focusing on spending more time grooming and just being with Phoenix so that we became friends again. I worked her on the lunge, and she was behaving perfectly here.

I decided to box over to my instructor to have some lessons to remove any environmental stimuli. I needed some advice to overcome Phoenix’s tension in the school, and to develop some tactics to stop her scooting off. After all, every time she scooted off I tensed, and that made her more jumpy. It was a vicious circle.

The hacks were getting back on track: we’ve been out alone again, and she’s been on her best behaviour ever since.

I hoped that a change of arena would help reset our flatwork. It seemed to work, and after two lessons we had a short canter on both reins. In the third lesson, the canter was beautifully calm and balanced, like it was at Christmas. I felt like we were back on track.

Just before the second lesson, Phoenix had had the all clear from the physio, and as I couldn’t find any physical excuses for her to be stressed about cantering I decided to take her on a sponsored ride. I hoped the long canters would build some muscle, and she had plenty of time to find her rhythm and balance. And of course she would realise that it didn’t hurt. She was phenomenal, and I was euphoric. We were friends again!

Since the sponsored ride I felt like we’ve been on an up; we had a great third lesson at my instructor’s. I still wasn’t getting the same level of relaxation at home, and was sticking to walk and trot. But then I think we are both aware that that particular arena is where she’s misbehaved.

This takes us up to last weekend. I was feeling happier, getting better work from Phoenix and we were making progress. I was schooling last Saturday and getting the best trot work I’ve had for a long time, just doing a last circle when Phoenix had what can only be described as a panic attack. Halfway round the circle she shot into canter, heading towards the corner of the arena. I pulled her round and we cantered a few panicked circles and she started putting her head down. But I pulled her up, then dismounted because she felt like she was about to explode. Her back was up, the saddle had shifted forwards. What caused what, who knows. Once deflated and with the saddle adjusted, I got back on and we had a tense trot. I was pretty disappointed, as I should’ve finished a circle before!

On Sunday I had a very disappointing ride. Phoenix was scooting off each time I asked for trot, and wouldn’t relax in walk. She behaved perfectly on the lunge, but her jumping and scooting made me jumpy so the vicious cycle was back (I did observe her to be in season too). I wrote it off, but wasn’t happy as I was going cross country schooling the following day!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get in the cross country field, but Phoenix was again, phenomenal. She jumped everything I asked her to, and felt incredibly bold and rideable!

It’s like a rollercoaster at the moment. Phoenix behaves so well out of the arena, but we’ve taken a few steps back again inside the boards. She’s living out now and whilst she has plenty of fresh grass, she seems happier so hopefully the nutrition and management side settles down now. I think that whilst she’s had some issues over the winter (left hind and not eating enough forage) Phoenix has started to try it on. Her scooting off was initially from discomfort, but she is now doing it to get out of work. So I’ve got my work cut out being consistent in the arena and teaching her that she’s not going to get away with not working. She’s trying to be in control in the arena. Out of her comfort zone on hacks or cross country, she’s happy for me to take control and is submissive.

This weekend is being spent repeating the lessons of last week and trotting with a softer neck, and relaxing through her body. Hopefully a few days of this and proud Phoenix will back down and submit to me in the arena. Then we can get our competing again!

I’ve signed us up for riding club camp in June too, so I’ve got a goal, a focus, and I shall keep plugging away; keeping consistent, putting the boundaries in place, and waiting for Phoenix to settle back down. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, the good days are fantastic, I just need to iron out the bad days, but hopefully now things will start to come together.

Eyes Closed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voila!

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

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

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

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

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