Changing the Bascule

Every horse and pony is put together differently, which results in a different technique when jumping. For example, some have a very uphill canter and engaged hindleg which allows them to jump with quite a steep bascule – like a pogo stick. Others, who have more of a horizontal gait, will prefer to take off a bit further away from the jump so their bascule is longer and flatter.

I don't think you should try to change a horse's jump technique too drastically, because you're then working against their physical capacity. However, it is always worth trying to enhance their ability and develop the muscles that will allow them to jump more effortlessly.

One of my clients has a pony who tends to get long in the canter on the approach to jumps and so has a very long, flat bascule. He is tidy with his legs, so the shape his body makes isn't a problem, but when he jumps off a long stride he lands long and flat, so it is tricky for my rider to rebalance themselves, or even turn for the next fence! My aim was to improve my rider's feel for a better balanced canter and teach him to hold the canter together on the approach to fences, which will help their landing and getaway.

The last couple of lessons we've used our warm up time to get a feel for lengthening and shortening the trot and canter. The purpose of working on lengthened strides was to teach my rider the difference between balanced, lengthened gaits and rushing or running onto the forehand. After all, they will need to lengthen the canter in jump offs and on the cross country course. We focused on my rider using his seat to encourage the bigger strides, and feeling that he still had a rein contact throughout.

Next, we turned to shortening the strides, or squashing the pony together to give it a non-technical term. It wasn't all about pulling the reins, but rather a series of half halts with the outside rein and a stiller seat. Oh, and lots of tummy muscles! Over the last few weeks, my rider has really started to get a feel for a smaller striding, bouncier trot and canter.

Now we have to link the flatwork to the jumping. Half of the issue comes from my rider not holding the canter together on the approach, and half of the issue comes from the pony preferring to jump long and flat. So I built a series of three bounce fences, which will encourage the pony to jump in a steeper bascule, and to get a little closer to the fence, as well as to be a little more careful and calculating about his jumping.

We used cross poles initially, and my rider held the canter together in a much more balanced fashion until a couple of strides away from the fence, and even then he didn't fire his pony to the jump. Where the jump wasn't that big, I think my rider felt happier keeping the steadier, smaller canter until the jump.

After they'd jumped a few times we discussed how the grid felt. One time, as my rider correctly identified, they met the first fence on a long stride so had a flat jump then the pony had to really adjust his body in order to negotiate the second and third element correctly. When they had a closer take off point, the grid flowed much better and each bascule was more even.

Their getaway from the jumps was improving because my rider could just sit up and rebalance the canter, instead of having a flat, fast canter and the pony on the forehand, which is far harder to correct. The pony was also more willing to come back to his rider. We also put in a 15m circle after the grid to ensure my rider carried on riding after the jumps, and didn't collapse in a heap after. This also helped the pony rebalance and refocus.

We progressed to uprights, which are more demanding for the pony because he has to pick up his forelegs quicker, and make an even steeper bascule. The first time, they tapped each fence as the pony was a little slow in tucking up, but the second time my rider could feel his pony rounding his back more, and they jumped through soundlessly as the pony was quicker with his legs.

My next challenge is to get my rider riding courses in a steadier fashion (I am of course battling against that boy, gung-ho mentality), taking his time to rebalance his canter between jumps so that his pony approaches in a more uphill canter, which will enable them to jump bigger more successfully and effortlessly. By being more consistent in their canter on the flat and when jumping will also help the pony strengthen these muscles, which will further improve his bascule and technique.

I am really pleased with how this young rider is taking on board all the technical information I'm giving him about how horses jump, and I hope that his understanding of our reasons for doing these exercises will mean he does his homework and will be consistent in how he rides, and what he expects from his pony.

Pony Club Dressage

It was our dressage competition this afternoon at Pony Club, and the children and ponies were beautifully turned out – diamanté plaiting bands, sparkly quarter marks, big cheesy grins. The lot.

I have to say, that they all did me proud. They all stayed in the arena, cantered in the right place, and had some semblance of circles. I was very proud of all of them!

For a bunch of seven year olds, this test was pretty tricky. And I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Pony Club. There's a PC walk and trot test, which is pretty slow and sedate, and once kids can canter fairly competently they need pushing, as well as inspiring to take flatwork a bit more seriously. Now, my kids can all ask for canter at a corner, trot at a marker, and stay fairly balanced. So I didn't want them to do the walk trot test.

The alternative Pony Club test we had, however, is the grassroots test. This is quite a steep jump from the walk and trot test. Let me list some of the movements – I know the test well enough after having read it numerous times for six riders and judged another five on it.

  • 15 m circle on both reins at E and B in trot.
  • Half 20m circle between E and H to between M and B in free walk on a long rein.
  • Trot K to X then X to G. Halt at G.

This is pretty tough isn't it?! The rest of the test was fairly straightforward with centre lines, canter large, change of rein E-B, transitions at and between markers. How many of you reading this would be able to ride an accurate 15m circle? Or a half 20m circle between markers?

I had quite a lot of trouble getting my little riders' heads around the test. The circles were either too big or too small. Or sausage shaped. And the half circle was more of a straight line. The fact they navigated it at all in the correct gait was an impressive achievement to me.

This test is actually used at the regional dressage and eventing championships, so I understand that it needs to be challenging.

But what I'd quite like to see from the Pony Club is a set of training dressage tests, aimed at kids. Which are designed to encourage them into dressage. When a test is complicated and they don't score highly, they lose interest. Surely, it would be in equestrian's best interest to have a selection of tests which are prelim level, but clearly understood by children, and focusing on building their confidence, knowledge, attention to detail, and the basic flatwork building points. If the layout of the test is less complicated for them to think about, they will be able to focus instead on riding into their corners, sitting up tall, and keeping their pony in a rhythm.

Movements such as 20m circles, simple changes of rein, progressive transitions, serpentines. Nothing tricky, but everything encouraging. Then perhaps more Pony Clubs would run small competitions and rallies, particularly aimed at the younger members, and children would become more enthused by dressage, instead of it being seen as the "boring bit".

I just think that making simple dressage tests that do include canter, would stop dressage seem like such a daunting prospect for the little ones, and thus strike an interest as well as improving their riding.

Day One of Pony Club Camp

Today was the first day of Pony Club Camp, and I realised that in order to successfully teach and enjoy Pony Club you have to change your attitude.

When you teach clients on a weekly, permanent basis, you have long term goals and iron out any faults immediately as you try to mould your riders. You get to know both horse and rider very well and can plan lessons well in advance.

At Pony Club, you have a group of unknown children and ponies for a short term basis. The aim of the rallies or camp is to have fun, improve, and to stay safe. In that order! As instructors, we're told to give these kids the best week of their summer holiday.

My ride this year are seven years old, most having done junior camp before. So they have some independence, but still need their parents for help tacking up etc. They all have their own ponies, and varying number of lessons through the year so they won't all follow the classic BHS plan of "when a rider can ride sitting trot without stirrups they can learn to canter" or any other recommended stepping stones. These kids will love jumping, be confident, but not necessarily have a good command over the basic position, which can lead to some hairy moments. But you have to learn to close one eye and let it go.

I have a bit of a proven method now for getting started with Pony Club now. My first session today was Handy Pony. This rarely fills the whole allocated session, so I took the opportunity to have a thorough assessment of them all.

As a guide, you want to order them biggest pony to smallest, which gives you a starting point. Staying in walk and with a couple of questions, you can soon assess whether your lead file is suitably qualified – they have to be able to maintain trot, steer reasonably, understand basic school movements. While they're walking I can usually tweak the order too. If one little pony strides out well, or one rider has the tendency to daydream and get too close, or if one can't keep their pony up with the rest of the ride.

Once I'm happy with my order, I'll organise the first trot. I send them in pairs, or possibly threes, making sure the fresh ponies or weaker riders have bottoms to follow. Then of course, I have to find the right place for them to have a trot – just in case a fresh pony or keen child gets carried away. And the ponies are always fresh in the first session on grass! I try and pick a short stretch, or a uphill slope, with a clear marker where they should be walking again.

So I sent my six riders off in pairs, fairly successfully. At least, I'd managed to put the more able riders at the front of each pair so it didn't matter that one rider set off with long reins, or one pony cantered two strides before trotting. This is another Pony Club technique – learn to quickly shout "shorten your reins" and to stay calm while the pony speeds off!

After a couple of pair trots we trotted all together, which is actually very stressful because there is invariable corners cut, ponies getting too close, ponies walking, and overtaking attempts. But I count it as a success when we have the whole ride trotting for a couple of minutes at a time. Little things! If I'm feeling brave, and can find a nice short space to canter, then I'll do that individually with them too.

This is also the time to wear the ponies out, keep them trotting so they won't be so fresh for the Handy Pony part. For the riders, I work out the one think that I need to improve; what will keep them having fun, improve them, and keep them safe? After all, I've only got a short space of time, and by the time we've learnt dressage tests, musical rides, hacked, jumped and done stable management there's not that much chance to work on basic improvements.

Often there are general position pointers for everyone; heels down, look up, shoulders back, shorter reins. But I always try to find a specific area for each child so that they take something away from camp. So for example, one of my riders this week needs her stirrups dropping a few holes and needs to learn to sit up tall. I've already dropped her stirrups a couple of holes and explained to her the importance of not leaning forward to help keep her in the saddle (especially when her pony lowers his head into canter!), so by the end of the week I want her to be more aware of when she leans forwards and to be riding with longer stirrups. Another rider is very gung-ho and her trot gets faster and faster, so I want her to learn to keep a better rhythm. Another rider is slightly behind the movement with her hands in her lap, so I'm going to get her more in sync with her pony. Another gets a beautiful extended trot from his pony instead of canter, so we're going to work on those transitions. One stands up in her stirrups in downward transitions.

By giving each rider a little goal, I feel that they will finish camp having improved their riding, whilst not taking away any of the enjoyment (because let's face it, I would love to drill them without stirrups for an hour a day) and these tweaks will keep them safe. For example, sitting up straighter with normal length stirrups will make her less likely to fall off over a jump; riding a downward transition correctly improves her level of control; getting a canter transition on cue means he'll negotiate the dressage test more successfully.

I also feel better with a specific aim for each rider, and it helps me plan my warm up. For example, my warm up for dressage included practising downward transitions so that one rider didn't feel picked on, but it improved her as well as giving the rest of the ride something to think about. Tomorrow, we will discuss and practice canter transitions to help the rider who struggles with that. Then we may do some sitting trot for the rider who leans forward. They will all benefit from the exercises, but some will take more away from each one than others.

I think my kids did very well today; we had some good attempts at the dressage test, a very successful Handy Pony session, and we managed to spend longer trotting as a ride by the afternoon, as well as lots of smiles and laughter. Tomorrow we've got showjumping, mounted games and musical ride practice.

Dressage Camp – Part 2

Canter is an asymmetric gait because it has three beats, and is quite rolling in it’s way of going. This often leads to a horse becoming crooked.

As riders, we ride plenty of circles – or attempts at circles – and in the canter this focus on curves can overdevelop the inside bend and also help crookedness develop. One exercise we did at dressage camp was really useful in addressing this issue.

Instead of riding circles, we rode heptagons, or 50ps. The aim was to ride three or four straight strides, before turning and riding another few strides straight and turning again. Because the turns weren’t that acute, the horses found it slightly easier and were less likely to jack knife around the turns. As they get stronger the heptagon can become a hexagon and a pentagon, and eventually a square.

Riding a 50p focuses the rider on their outside aids, which means less inside rein, less neck bend, and less falling out through the outside shoulder as well as less of a bulge through the rib cage against the outside leg. Then the horse is straighter, which means the inside hind leg will come under further and will take the weight of the horse’s body, so improving the quality of the canter. If the horse is bent too much then they will fall through the outside shoulder instead of the hind leg taking their weight.

The other benefit of riding a 50p is that the inside hindleg is strengthened and made more supple around the turns. It has to come under and towards the horse’s midline in order to make the turn. When it does this, the canter has more push, and becomes more uphill. A lazy inside hind is also activated so the rhythm becomes a more concrete three beats. 

After riding a few heptagons, I found that the canter felt much straighter and engaged. The horse I was riding lifted his shoulders and sat back onto his hindquarters, whilst still feeling very balanced. By not riding a circle, I knew my outside aids were more effective, which also means that it’s a really useful exercise for novice riders who predominantly use their inside rein.

The canter circles after were more balanced and I had a more uniform bend through the horse’s body.

I used this exercise with one of my teenage clients last week, who likes to overuse her inside rein in the canter, and her pony ends up turning his head and neck to accommodate her. After telling me she thought she was riding a 20p, not a 50p (they’re actually both heptagons – I checked as I started this article) she and her pony became straighter, she could feel the inside hindleg coming under and pushing them forwards, rather than out through the outside shoulder as it had done when they were crooked. In terms of jumping, having a canter that more effortlessly propels forward because it’s straight, means that jumping is more straightforward and effortless, and hopefully more successful.

So have a go at some canter not-circles and see if you can feel the improvement in the quality of your canter. 

All About Control

I did this pole exercise earlier this week to get my clients thinking about their level of control.

When I laid out the exercise I could see a level of complacency in the simplicity of the exercise. However, looks can be deceiving!

The exercise started with two poles as tram lines, to focus on straightness. A couple of strides away, there were three trotting poles. A couple of strides after that was another set of tramlines. After another couple of strides, were three canter poles.


The aim of the exercise was to make a good, accurate turn to the tramlines (this highlights any cheaters who drift around corners) and create a balanced, elevated trot over the poles before riding a canter transition in the next tramlines. This ensures the horse doesn’t drift through the transition and illustrates any preference over canter leads. The transition needs to be immediate and active so that the canter is of good enough quality for the poles. The aim is to improve the quality of the canter transition, the accuracy of the rider’s preparation and execution, and for the rider to very quickly be able to change it if it isn’t good enough for the poles. 

By turning into the exercise from both reins you can see which way is weaker. One horse I did this with tends to drift around corners on the left rein, so his shoulders didn’t turn enough to meet the tramlines and thus he struggled to start the exercise straight. When his shoulders were turned sufficiently, he compensated by swinging his haunches out. Of which is going to be worked on next week!

The trotting poles looked after themselves, so the next question was the canter transition. With straightness enforced, horses can initially run through the transition to make it easier but once horse and rider get the feel of it the hindquarters should be more active through the transition and the shoulders lift. As the canter poles are almost immediately after, the rider has to be quick to balance the canter so the horse either has enough energy for the poles, or hasn’t flattened the canter so they won’t make the poles.

Once my riders had mastered this exercise, and the ponies improving their canter, we turned it around. They had to approach in canter, canter over the poles and between the tramlines, make a trot transition ready for the trot poles. This was the tricky part!

The canter poles were fine, and the first tramlines helped create a very straight canter. However, the ponies got a bit onward and it took my riders by surprise that they couldn’t bring them back to trot in time. First of all, I got them to prepare for the transition earlier. Even whilst going over the poles they needed to be preparing. This helps create impulsion because they had to find the balance between maintaining enough energy for the poles, without generating too much speed. 

Next up, my riders needed to think about how they ride the transition. They were jamming on the handbrake, so the ponies just beared down on the rein. They needed a series of half halts, to keep their core engaged and upper body tall, with heels dropped in order to be more effective in the downwards transition. And be committed to achieving that transition – just because they love their pony doesn’t mean that their pony is allowed to ignore their aids.

Of course, once they have achieved the downwards transition, and quietly asserted their authority their pony will be far more obliging next time. 

This means that our on the cross country course they are more able to bring their ponies back to a more collected canter in preparation for a skinny, ditch, corner, or any other tricky fence, without losing the energy and the pony’s desire to jump.

All in all, an exercise of multiple levels, which improves accuracy and control, as well as improving straightness and quality of the gaits – particularly if the poles are then raised. 

Improving Their Jump

The ideal bascule, which makes jumping effortless and lengthens their athletic life expectancy, as well as making them successful in the competition ring, is when a horse folds his forelegs neatly underneath him, rounds his back, lengthens and lowers the neck, and then follows through with tidy hindlegs. 

Various faults occur, either by poor training, poor technique, lack of confidence, or poor conformation. One interesting jumping fault I’ve recently experienced, and haven’t really come across it before, is the slither technique.

Have you seen it? It’s when the forelegs get left behind and the horse literally jumps with his front legs under his belly.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how best to work on overcoming this fault, but as ever reverted to flatwork.

Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps.

The horse in question is rather large, with long legs. Like a super model! So the flatwork focused on engaging his hindquarters, getting him to lighten his forehand and bring his engine underneath him. Smaller circles and shoulder in have all improved his balance, and the canter has improved dramatically. He can now shorten and lengthen the canter strides without losing his balance and his hindquarters are doing more work than his shoulders.

Horses tend to slither over jumps when related distances are too short, which given this horse’s size puts him at a disadvantage. At every competition he will find distances a bit short. Which is why it’s so important that his canter is adjustable. It does mean for me that I have to be generous with my grid distances with him so that he learns, and develops the right muscles, to bascule correctly. Then once he is stronger and more adjustable in the canter we can start to teach him to work with the slightly shorter distances, that he would find in a competition environment.

Once a horse is starting to get the hang of basculing correctly the gridwork becomes invaluable. Having a quick succession of jumps, one or two strides apart improves the horse’s gymnastic ability because they have to extend and flex their joints in quick succession.

Over the last few months this horse has really improved and the slithering only happens when he gets too deep into fences. I’m enjoying seeing him going out competing with his owner now, and having more success.

The other factor that can cause horses to slither over jumps is when they are a bit slow to pick up their forehand and to lift the shoulder over jumps. Which caused me to use an A-frame with this particular horse the other week. A placing pole meant he didn’t get too close, and the A-frame really got him lifting his forelegs and tucking them up neatly. His owner could feel the difference in the bascule from the saddle – his back rounded underneath her over the fence.

Our next move is to try a line of bounces because this will make him pick up his feet quickly, and improve the muscle memory, which will mean that if he does get a bit deep into a jump he will be able to get himself out of trouble. Previously when I’ve done raised pole and bounce work with him he’s found it really difficult to organise his legs and keep his balance, which invariably means I have to get on and off a lot to adjust poles!

Just by using a combination of different exercises, you can make massive improvements to a horse’s technique and build the correct muscles. Recently, because this particular horse was jumping so well on a lesson, we did a bit of a Chase-Me-Charlie. I wanted to build the horse’s confidence a bit and see the extent of his scope, but I knew a single upright would be very difficult for him as he would have to pick up his forelegs very quickly; he’s much better in his technique but our high jumps needed to complement previous work, and not let him revert to slithering. So I build an oxer. The front rail wasn’t very high, perhaps 70cm, and there was a clear ground line. The back rail of the oxer, which wasn’t that wide, started at 90cm. As he cleared it comfortably I notched it up, and up, to an impressive 120cm. He cleared it easily, whilst still jumping correctly! I was so pleased!

Now we need to increase the height of the general exercises to build his muscles and confidence, whilst still using his body correctly and efficiently. Then they will definitely notice a difference at competitions! 

Proud As Punch

I had a day today (it will have been yesterday by the time you read this) that made me realise exactly why I do my job. It made everything worthwhile.

I’ve mentioned this client before, but she’s only seven and quite a small seven year old. She’s very theoretical and methodical in her riding, and her confidence is easily knocked and slow to develop. I usually only see her in the holidays because of her long school days, and at Easter we’d progressed to cantering on the lunge, letting go with one hand momentarily.

This week she’s had three lessons. In the first she cantered on the lunge at the end of the lesson, but let go of her grab strap with both hands on her own accord during the first canter. So we did a few more canters, getting her to let go for longer each time. Her balance was great: there was no bouncing at all and when she let go of the grab strap her hands were the perfect imitation of Charlotte Dujardin’s. In general, her confidence was pretty high, both with me (usually she’s very shy) and with her pony. At the end of the lesson I just casually mentioned that we would progress to letting go of the grab strap for longer and longer, and not using it for the upwards transitions.

She’s a thinker, so I sowed the seed, and the next day she had to ride very positively because her pony wasn’t feeling the mini jumping and took any opportunity to go his own way. At the end we did some more cantering on the lunge. This time, she only held onto the grab strap with one hand in the upwards transitions. She wasn’t holding on for the majority of the canter. I encouraged her to be more in charge of the canter: asking her pony to canter, and giving a little kick if she felt him slowing down. At one point, I was redundant at the end of the lunge line! Although she still just held on when she used her legs. But the important thing was that her confidence was growing.

In today’s lesson I did a related distance of mini jumps… about fifteen of her pony’s little trot strides, but the purpose was to get my little rider sitting up and keeping her trot after fences. She was generating a really big, quick trot into the jumps, so I made them a bit bigger and her pony gave a little skip over the fences to give more of a feeling of jumping. She was looking very stable and wasn’t fazed by the bigger movements. Then it was time for cantering.

I sent her out on the lunge and she rode the canter transition holding on, but let go immediately and did a couple of circuits without holding on and using her legs to maintain the canter! After a quick breather I sent her off again, but noticed that she hadn’t grabbed the strap. She asked for canter with her hands up and out. Unfortunately her pony wasn’t compliant and just did medium trot. But we rebalanced it all, and she asked again. This time she got it! After a few canters without her holding on at all, I asked the big question.

“Would you like to have a canter on your own?”

She nodded. So I unclipped her and explained how to go large and canter just past the blue jump (where I was stationed to encourage the pony if necessary). She set off in trot and at the agreed point asked for canter. She held on with one hand but that doesn’t matter – she was going solo!

They had a couple of strides of canter and then trotted round to try again. This time, they had another couple of strides, but at the next corner she got a bit bossier and asked him on her own accord. This canter was more successful and they had several strides. By this time she wasn’t using the grab strap at all!

After a breather they went again. The transition was in my corner and she used her legs to keep him going around two sides of the school!

I was so proud! She was grinning away, loving the canter, and the best part was that she looked so balanced and secure throughout. All the lunging has paid off because her seat is now well developed, which will have boosted her confidence as she felt safer. I left that lesson with a great sense of satisfaction. 

 Hopefully now it’s summer we can keep the ball rolling, and she will continue to grow in confidence, but cantering on her own has been a real hurdle for her to climb, so I’m just pleased she’s achieved it. I am annoyed I didn’t get a video, but I got so caught up in the moment I completely forgot! 

Here is a video from her Mum, when they rode over the weekend – there’s no stopping them now!!

Feeling Canter Leads

I decided to improve one of my young rider’s feel for canter leads so that he is quicker to balance his canter between jumps which will mean he is quicker on jump offs and rides more flowing courses.

While we warmed up, I got him to tell me (without looking) if he was on the correct canter lead or not. Then we played around with picking up counter canter without looking down to improve his awareness for each canter lead.

Then we applied this to some jumps. I put three fences along the centre line, facing the long side of the arena. After warming up over the centre fence I asked him to identify the leading leg. Which he managed to do successfully. So I asked him to approach in left canter and try to land in right canter. I didn’t tell him how to do it, I wanted to see if he could apply any previous knowledge to try to get that change.

After two tries, we were still landing on the left lead so I brought my rider in and explained what he needed to do. Turn to look in the direction you want to go, open the new inside rein and put the new inside leg on the girth, and new outside leg behind the girth as you jump, shifting your weight to the new inside.

Now my rider started to get the idea. His pony is very obliging, so they were soon changing legs over the cross pole.

Now we moved onto linking the fences on half circles, changing canter leads over each fence. We did several courses, jumping the three fences in serpentines, circles, or figures of eight. 

The main focus was changing, and checking canter leads. Correcting them as soon as possible so that the approach to the next jump isn’t hindered. I kept the fences as cross poles to draw my rider to the centre, as he has the typical boy approach of cutting corners and taking jumps off centre and at an angle. 

I think it will take some practice, but now I can keep testing my rider as to his canter leads until he is subconsciously aware of them. Then he’ll start to ride courses more fluently and look more stylish. 

Interesting Trotting Poles

My friend has a horse who is in rehab and needs lots of work over poles. Last week she laid some poles out on a diagonal to add some variation because he concentrated more when trotting diagonally over the poles and we talked about ideas to make trotting poles more interesting.

Twenty four hours later, I was teaching a pair of siblings. The weather was awful so I didn’t want to jump, yet also didn’t want to bore them with flatwork (one pony has the attention span of a gnat on a hot plate unless there’s jumps involved and to be honest, the weather wasn’t conducive to having an argument with a napping pony) so I opted for trotting poles.

The horse in this lesson tends to rush poles so I needed to make him think and slow down, and I wanted to improve everyone’s suppleness and agility. 

I laid the poles out in an S-shape. Three parallel, at 4’6″ apart, then three on a slight left bend, with the centre off the poles 4’6″ apart. A further three bearing round to the right, and then three more parallel poles to finish. I measured the distances to the centre of each pole, and the first three and last three poles were parallel to each other.

This meant that in order to maintain the same trot, with regular strides, the horses had to bend left and right. I find that if you do trotting poles on a curve then the horse is liable to drifting out, which is of no benefit to anyone. By putting in the double twist the horses couldn’t fall out by more than a stride, because as soon as they did, they had to change their bend.

We worked through the poles until my riders were riding the twist accurately, added a little impulsion to help their horse through the change of bend, stayed central to the poles, and their horses didn’t fit any extra strides in (this happens when they fall out because the distance between the poles is greater). The pony was clever, and initially adjusted his stride so he could do minimal bend, yet not clip a pole. So I made his rider aware of this, and be firmer with his steering aids so they met each pole in the middle.

I was really pleased that the other horse did not rush the poles, and you could see him thinking about the exercise. He wasn’t quite as clever with his feet and if he didn’t get the twist just right, he clipped a pole. His rider just needed to support him more, and close the leg on the turns to help him maintain his trot stride.

Once the twisted trotting poles were easy, I started raising them. I raised three at a time, at alternate ends. I wanted the slanted poles to focus my riders to the centre; and make it more obvious when the horses cheated and went straight, because they would clunk over the high ends of the poles. When the last three parallel poles were raised it caused very little issue, except highlighting when the horses lost impulsion. They soon picked up their feet though, so I raised the next three, which were on the right turn. Again, it made it obvious when the horses weren’t central and they were more likely to roll the poles.

By the end of the lesson all twelve poles were raised and the horses were negotiating S-shape easily, bending nicely and being very active in their trot. To finish, I asked my riders to trot large on each rein and feel and describe the difference to the trot. Both came back saying the trot felt more active, energetic, and with bigger strides. I thought both horses also looked like they’d found some abdominal muscles and had lengthened their necks where they were less tense.


It was really pleasing to see how they all focused and thought about the exercise, and you could really see a difference to the way the horses moved afterwards. Now to find a few more different interesting pole work exercises for my friend!

Canter Straightness 

Recently with some clients I’ve been doing canter transitions in straight lines. They’re really useful for testing rider and horse crookedness, and useful in checking that the rider is using specific and correct canter aids, and that the horse understands the difference. Of course once the aids and correct response are established then you can move on to simple changes and flying changes. If a horse falls out through the outside shoulder into canter then they are evading stepping under with the inside hind leg, so aren’t using their abdominals and back muscles properly, which will negatively affect the quality of the canter and they’re ability to balance in the canter.

Travelling large around the arena, ride a trot to canter transition as you pass B and E, coming back to trot at A and C. To help get the straight transition make sure that you aren’t twisting your upper body or leaning excessively into the inside seat bone. Maintain the outside rein contact to support the horse so that they don’t bulge through that shoulder. If they pick up the wrong canter lead, just rebalance the trot, and ask again, checking that the outside leg is clearly behind the girth and in inside one on it. If you have a couple of incorrect strike offs, then just ride a couple on a corner to rebuild your horse’s confidence in the transition and try again. Make sure you reward them trying, even when they try to take the correct lead then wobble and take counter canter. After all, making a straight line transition requires slightly different balance.

If you still feel your horse is wobbling in the transition, perhaps falling in, then you can place poles on the inner track to make tramlines to help focus you both on straightness.

Once the upwards transitions are becoming simple then introduce downward transitions in a straight line. These are usually easier; focus on a point on the fence and ensure your seat, legs and rein aids are symmetrical. If your horse drifts or wobbles close the leg to support, and open the opposite rein to encourage them to straighten up.

The next step in this straightness work is to make direct walk to canter, or canter to walk transitions, on straight lines. Once these are achieved you should be feeling an improvement in the quality of the canter as the hind legs start to work a bit harder and the horse comes off the forehand because they aren’t falling towards the outside shoulder. 

Riding the transitions without stirrups will help you check the levelness of your seat bones and ensure you aren’t twisting or leaning through the transition, so if you are finding your horse is going crooked in the transition check yourself first. 

Hopefully it won’t be long before these transitions become straight forward and simple, so then you can begin to incorporate it into your warm up and usual schooling routine, riding your transitions in straight lines. 

Next up, is starting to look at alternating canter leads. For this we need to use the centre line. Trot onto the centre line from either rein, straighten you both up, and ask for a specific canter lead. If you’re with someone else they could shout left or right, to keep you on your toes. Make a trot transition before reaching the end of the centre line, and change the rein. Of course, the cheating way is to come off the right rein, barely straighten up before asking for right canter. But push yourself; make sure you’re straight, and pick left canter after a right turn. 

You can build this exercise up as I did with one mare, and ride direct transitions, fitting in as many alternate strike offs as you can along the centre line. You should soon feel that the canter transitions are improving and there’s less wiggling through their body, more hindleg engagement and a bit lighter in the forehand.

The horse should also feel that they will pick up the specific canter lead that you’ve asked for, and be more responsive to smaller, lighter aids. Now you can introduce canter changes of rein across the diagonal or across the school, maintaining straightness and minimising the trot or walk strides between the canter. This is a popular movement in novice and elementary tests, and when you get it right, the canter feels great; setting you up nicely for the next movement. 

Once the canter is straighter smaller circles, collection, and extension becomes easier because the hindlegs are directly behind the forehand so it is easier to bring them underneath the body, and to propel themselves forwards. Which leads us onto developing canter pirouettes…

But before we even think about canter pirouettes and flying changes I have one final test to check the straightness of you and your horse in your canter transitions. In either walk or trot, leg yield from the track to the three quarter line and then pick up canter. So if you are on the right rein you shift from right to left bend after the corner. Then after the leg yield, change back to right bend before asking for right canter. You want to aim to be asking for canter whilst still traveling in a straight line to make the exercise harder. 

I think that cracking the straight canter transitions is the secret to being able to take the next step up in dressage. Counter canter becomes easier, and being able to maintain straightness gives you the ability to collect without damaging the quality of the canter, opening up numerous elementary movements. 

Give it a go, and have fun!