Tackling Steps Cross Country

At a recent cross country lesson I did we had some fun going up and down some steps at the water’s edge, so I thought it was a good topic for discussion.

Steps are always seen at the higher level competitions, but increasingly are being seen in miniature form at grassroots and training venues.

Usually there’s either one or two steps, and they can either be a step up onto a mound, where there’s another jump and a gentle decline, or vice Verda, or they are set into the side of a hill, so making use of the terrain.

Firstly, let’s take a look at going up steps, because it’s easier for both horse and rider, and usually the first direction tried.

The horse needs to approach with plenty of energy, after all they are going uphill, but the canter (or trot if it’s a green horse and small step) needs to be heading towards collected, so that the weight is off the forehand and the hindquarters are engaged, ready to push the body up the step. The rider wants to be sat up, so that they are looking up the steps and their weight is off the horse’s shoulders. As they jump up the steps, the body should fold forwards, without collapsing onto the neck, hands forward to give the horse plenty of rein because they will need to stretch their neck out to balance. If the heels are down and the weight is in the foot then the rider won’t load the shoulders. A common problem when going up steps is gripping with the knee, so as they fold into their jumping position the lower leg swings back and the rider’s weight tips onto the horse’s withers, so unbalancing the horse and making his job difficult. I always find that you need to stay forward longer than you think over steps, because if you sit up too quickly the hindlegs will find it harder to mount the step.

When introducing horses and riders to steps I always like to find the smallest one and trot then canter up the single step until both are looking confident and understand the concept. With steps you can definitely feel when it has gone right, so often it’s a matter of waiting until it clicks with the rider.

Lots of training venues have a variety of steps, which are really useful for progressively building a horse and rider’s confidence and experience. Once the small step is mastered, and perhaps put into a short course, I like to add in a second step. Usually you can find a small pair of steps. With a pair of steps, the rider needs to be very flexible and balanced, to be able to fold up each step without impacting on the horse’s way of going. The horse needs to be thinking forwards, especially between the two steps so they don’t lose their momentum and end up scrabbling up the second step. As the rider feels the hindlegs climb the step, they want to close the leg to encourage a positive canter stride so they reach the second step at a suitable take off point.

Once two small steps are mastered, you can start to jump up bigger steps. This is physically quite demanding on a horse, so you’re almost better off doing smaller steps a couple more times and keep them feeling confident and not too fatigued.

Next up, is the rider scarer of jumping down steps. Again, start small, and with a single step.

Approach the step steadily, but with positive energy, allowing the horse plenty of time to look and assess the question. Don’t look down the step, drop your weight into your heels as you close the leg to encourage the horse to go down the step. The horse’s weight shifts backwards as they step off the edge, so lean back and allow the reins to slip through your fingers so the horse can lengthen his neck down the step. Lengthening the reins is important to stop the rider being jerked forwards and landing up the neck. Again, a lot of riders don’t stay back for long enough so it’s important to encourage novice riders not to rush to sit up. The secret to staying balanced down steps is keeping the weight into the heel and the lower leg forward.

Some green horses tend to be a bit over zealous and leap down the steps. I find that repetition, and making little deal of the steps usually solves the problem. Only when the horse steps calmly off the step do you want to start going down bigger steps, or multiple ones. Going down steps is a big confidence test for horses, and the rider needs to be quietly positive and stay balanced to give the horse a good experience.

The next step, excuse the pun, with steps is to incorporate them with water complexes. Firstly, stepping up out of water, and then dropping down into the water. The more steps you do, the more confident the horse and the rider become and they start treating steps like any other jump.

I was very lucky that Otis loved negotiating steps, and was very confident going up and down steps, and I loved doing sunken roads and step combinations with him. I spent a lot of time doing small steps, and each time I went cross country schooling I would warm up over small steps to build his confidence and remind him of them before incorporating them into courses so that neither of us thought twice about steps.

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The Addiction

Why is one day eventing the ultimate competition for so many amateur equestrians? And what makes it so addictive?

I always think it’s the hardest competition to be successful in because you have to get three different disciplines, which require totally different skills, right on the same day. Which is tricky enough, but when you consider the external factors such as weather and ground conditions, both horse and rider fitness and frame of mind, preparation, large class sizes, as well as factors such as tack, shoes, and other equipment, you realise that success in eventing is actually a pretty tough call.

First up, is dressage. You can practice this a hundred times at home, learning it off by heart and perfecting the movements. But when you get to the event the dressage arenas are on grass, possibly with a gradient. Depending on the time of your test, the grass may be dewy, and there is usually more grass cover than the corner of the field that you practiced in at home which can make it slippery. There are usually three or four, if not more, arenas next to each other so horse and rider need to adapt not only to the ground conditions, but also to focus on each other and the test so that other competitors don’t distract them.

So whilst dressage can be the one you are most practiced for, it still has unknown factors to contend with. Although competition experience and knowing the venue can help minimise this.

Next up is showjumping. You can’t get much better than a clear inside the time, but it’s just as easy to have an unlucky rolled pole, so it’s important to practice jumping bigger than the competition height, and over courses on grass. As well as ironing out any blips such as a dislike of planks or water trays. Showjumping courses are usually on grass and can have a gradient, which adds to the complexity of the round.

Finally is the cross country, and don’t forget you have to remember the course that you walked yesterday or a 7am that morning before your dressage. Which can be problematic in itself. The cross country is undulating, likely to ask a few questions such as skinnies, jumping into dark, drops, water or steps. All of which can be practiced at home, but it’s a real test of horse and rider fitness as it’s the final phase of the day, and tests their confidence, ability, and relationship because there is fence after fence. No matter how hard you try cross country schooling, you will jump the trickier fences as part of short courses rather than linking the tricky ones together in a longer course. The competition fences are unknown too, which can make green horses or riders back off but this develops with experience and confidence.

There is also the time aspect of cross country too: the terrain and weather conditions can sap a horse’s energy which makes getting inside the time difficult, but there is also the rider’s awareness for how fast they are going, or should be going.

Just from this, you can see all the different elements you need to practice and perfect in order to be successful at a one day event. The horse needs to be relaxed and obedient, with a good level of schooling for the dressage. They have to be steady, with a careful technique showjumping, and then they have to be fit, fast and bold for the cross country phase. With all those different elements to work on, there’s a higher risk of one not being quite right on the day; be it over excitement in the dressage phase, an unlucky pole showjumping, a doubt in confidence over the tricky cross country fence, or fatigue setting in half way round. I think it’s the challenge of balancing the phases, and of getting them all right on the day which makes riders try, try and try again. And then when you do get that sought after placing, you value the rosette far more than any others you have!

Ringcraft

In the show ring you learn a bit of clever ring craft. That doesn’t mean you cut up other competitors or hog the judge’s attention, but rather you give yourself plenty of space in front of you as you pass the judge to maximise your extended trot. You do any tweaking, circles etc while the judge has their back to you, so that you shine in front of them. Adjust your individual show so that the gallop is uphill, or your phenomenal trot is at the perfect angle that the judge gets the full benefit of it. I only managed it once with Matt, who doesn’t have the greatest gallop, to adjust my show so that the gallop was away from the burger van generator. By holding the canter together as I approached the generator, I managed to control Matt’s spook to get his best show ring gallop.

Anyway, back to the point. What I was originally going to discuss tonight was the fact that there’s slightly more to dressage tests than just knowing the directions.

A few weeks ago I was helping a client practice for a prelim test and in the halt on the centre line the mare, who can be a bit fidgety, was swinging her quarters left. But she was halting fairly square … just at an angle! Now, the judge is sitting at C, so what are the priorities when improving the halt at this moment in time? Straightness. In the perfect halt the judge at C can see two front feet, the chest and head. If a horse halts straight, but with a hindleg camped out behind, then the judge at C has no idea! So when weighing up where to focus your improvements to the halt transition, bear in mind what the judge can and cannot see.

At the dressage champs in April, I was disappointed with my final halt. It wasn’t Matt’s best and his hindquarters were right underneath him. However, I got an 8 for it. I can only assume that the judge saw a straight trot to halt transition, with the forehand square and the head and neck coming out the centre of his chest. So to my surprise, scored me highly.

Of course, at Novice level, you often have halt transitions at A or C, which gives the judge at C the perfect angle from which to assess the squareness of the halt. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and once the straightness through the transition and into the halt is perfected, you can work on squaring it up.

With my client with the swinging quarters, we worked on the trot to halt transition in the right rein, using the fence to prevent the quarters swinging. Then we used the three quarter lines to simulate the centre line. When the mare still swung left, my rider brought her left leg back slightly in the transition to catch the quarters. By adding in slight left flexion in the neck, they ended up staying straight in the halt. Hopefully some practice like this and the mare will get out of the habit of swinging when she’s halting and we can progress to improving their balance through the transition to get a square halt.

With another client recently, we were working with the prelim test to get the best marks they can for their level of training. Here are a few secrets to getting the best out of a movement.

From left canter, between B and M transition to working trot and at C, transition to medium walk. Now the judge is looking for the trot transition to be between the markers, as a guide I aim for the mid point. But if your horse tends to run into trot, or get a bit unbalanced and fast, I would aim to have the trot transition as close to B as possible. This gives an extra two or three trot strides to balance the horse, so you can better use the corner and are in a better balanced trot to get a highly scoring walk transition at C.

At A, circle right 20m and between X and A transition into right canter. So you have a full half circle in which to do your transition. Doing it near X is tricky: there’s no support from the fence line so a green horse may run or wobble into canter so giving you a poor transition and weak canter. If the horse tends to shoot off into canter, then doing the transition as you approach the track (particularly if you’re in an indoor arena or fenced arena) will make them back off the wall and so slow the canter down. If your horse tends to drift through the outside shoulder in the canter, then asking for the transition as the circle touches the track (near F) the fence will support the horse’s outside shoulder, so helping them stay straight through the transition.

Transitioning from medium walk to free walk on a long rein and back again. This is mainly practice, but ensuring the walk is active, and the horse is relaxed in their neck and contact. In prelim tests free walk tends to be on the diagonal or a half 20m circle. Use the turns onto the free walk to push the horse from the inside leg into the outside rein and then let the outside rein slide through your fingers so the horse stretches their neck down. Keep the walk active and the important thing is to keep a rein contact despite it getting long. If you lose the contact then it makes the transition up into medium walk less fluid and usually tense. As you pick up the contact; take the outside rein first and inch up the reins, keeping the hands up and forward to reduce the chance of the horse hollowing and resisting the contact. Keep the leg on because usually a horse will lose their activity as you pick up the reins. If in the test there is quite a short period of medium walk before trotting; e.g. B to F, then you want to have the medium walk established at B so that you can best prepare for the transition at F. This means you may need to start picking up the horse a couple of strides earlier.

It’s also really important to learn the individual movements of the test, so you know where each set of marks is. Then if you make a mistake, or have a spook, then you know where you have to get back on track, and at one point you can forget about the mistake. For example, if one mark is the canter transition, and the next mark is for the canter between two markers, and you have a dodgy transition then focus on getting the quality canter because although you may have lost marks for the transition you can still get a good mark for the canter around the arena.

Obviously as you move up the levels the movements are more complex, need to be more precise and there is less evading the judge’s eagle eye, but it’s definitely worth learning to read between the lines of the directives of a test and getting an idea of what the judge can see so that you can best position your horse to maximise your marks. It’s surprising the difference a couple of marks will make in a competition, as well as giving you a confidence boost as you try your hand at competing.

Grass Reins

What are everyone’s thoughts on grass reins? Or daisy reins, or any other pony restraints? Which are competition-legal, and how should they be fitted?

Recently I saw a blog post on the BHS APC group, discussing grass reins, which got me thinking.

A child’s safety and confidence is paramount when teaching, so within reason, ponies should have tack that prevents misbehaviour. However, the purpose of grass reins, or daisy reins, is to increase the child’s control over the pony, not to force it into an outline or hinder the pony when they are working well.

In the first session on the first day of Pony Club Camp, I’m sure it was within the first five minutes, I requested some form of grass reins for a pony. We were riding on grass, and he kept nosediving for the grass. His rider looked nervous and sat leaning forwards, so every time the pony’s head went down she was almost unseated. I felt that it was counter productive for her to be struggling to hold his head up all week, and that a gadget would be the best support for my rider. The next session, the pony was wearing a daisy rein, and didn’t even attempt to put his head down. It was almost as though the mere presence of the daisy rein was enough to deter him, and my rider gained confidence through the week.

I was surprised to see, on the equipment list of a different pony club, that grass reins were listed underneath bridle and saddle. Are they really that common, and are they seen as an essential piece of equipment?

I’m all for using grass reins or daisy reins (side reins are sometimes seen too, but I think they’re becoming less popular because they sit at ankle height for many small children so there’s a risk of them getting their foot caught in a fall) if necessary, but I do like to see them only used when necessary. Perhaps only at rallies, or in group lessons, or on grass, when the pony is more inclined to be cheeky. I also like them fitted so that they don’t interfere with the pony’s way of going when he’s behaving. For example, the grass reins are slack until the pony snatches his head, either to graze, to try to unseat the rider, or to evade the wobbly hands. I hate seeing ponies with their heads tied in, particularly show ponies, and I think that sometimes having gadgets too restrictive causes other behavioural problems, such as the pony not going forwards or shaking their head.

Can you use grass reins for jumping? This was the question posed by one instructor. It seemed the general consensus, which I agree with, is that if the reins are fitted correctly, i.e. not restricting the pony’s head then they can be used for jumping because the height that kids who require grass reins should be jumping is not much more than raised trotting poles and the ponies don’t jump as such, rather make an exaggerated stride over them. I will add, that if a child is ready to start jumping bigger then their position should be secure enough that their hands don’t cause the pony to snatch on the reins (like many do when their mouths are used for balancing on) and their upper body secure enough that it isn’t pulled forward when the pony snatches, or they are strong enough in their core to prevent a pony from putting his head down to graze. So if a child is jumping more than a few inches whilst still wearing grass reins, either the grass reins need removing or the basics revised with the rider on the flat.

Another instructor asked what form or daisy reins or grass reins were permitted in competitions. Affiliated, none except for Pony Club mounted games, where the are fitted from the D-ring, through the bit ring, over the poll, and through the bit ring to the D ring on the opposite side. I guess in unaffiliated competitions it is at the judges discretion. You won’t see any gadgets in the show ring (the warm up is a different matter!) and probably not the dressage arena, but I think if I was judging kids on grass I’d permit correctly fitted daisy reins purely for safety reasons. In the showjumping arena, again the judge may permit it in the lead rein or mini classes for the reason that the ponies aren’t really jumping, and if it keeps a child safer then it can only be a good thing. After all, you want to encourage the little riders.

When fitting grass reins, you can either fit them so that they connect each side of the bit via the poll, as in the mounted games rules, or under the chin. I think I prefer going under the chin because a pony is more likely to snatch their head downwards, and putting pressure on the poll with the grass reins will accentuate that. However, when used with a single jointed bit, the nutcracker action may become too severe for some ponies. Which is why it’s worth experimenting with different types of gadgets, because there are hundreds of variations from the classic daisy rein or webbing grass rein, and their fitting options, to make sure that they only come into effect when the pony’s behaviour is deviating from acceptable, and that the pony doesn’t react in an untoward way to their action, nor is the fitting of the rest of the tack hindered – for example, I once saw a rotund pony wearing a daisy rein and crupper. The daisy rein caused the saddle to pitch forwards, so the crupper was needed to counteract this!

Last weekend I took one of my little clients to her first showjumping show. It was a local affair, at a run down venue. But it was nearby, and aimed at beginners and nervous riders.

We were one of the first to arrive, so could take our time walking the course. Our deal was that I would lead my rider in the first class, as it was her first competition and we needed to build confidence and enjoyment. Then in the second class, if all went well, then I would just be in the ring to assist. The nice thing about this competition was that competitors could have assistance in the ring in the first three classes. Which is obviously ideal for first timers.

The course wasn’t designed for leaders in mind, with few shortcuts to take and lots of related distances going from one end to the other and across the diagonals. Add into the mix that it was single phase, with jumps seven to twelve timed.

Anyway, we were one of the first to go in the cross pole class. I forget how competitive I can be for other people. It brought back memories of Christmas gymkhanas when us leaders were more competitive than the kids we dragged along behind us.

I think as well, I’ve recently had a shift if perspectives, and no longer want to focus on my competitive aspirations or success. Perhaps it’s having been out of the circuit for so long. Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that from March the centre of my world will no longer be me, but it will be the little person currently inside me. Anyway, I find myself more and more getting satisfaction and pleasure from planning and watching my clients compete and grow.

So yes, I will admit that I got slightly competitive in that first class, despite feeling puffed out at jump six, and we managed the jump off in a mere 39 seconds. Not bad.

Even though we knew we’d been fast, I expected a nippy little pony and confident child to whizz round. However, the nature of the show actually meant that those competitors weren’t permitted to enter, or hadn’t gone. Which meant, to my clients great delight, she won! She was thrilled with her rosette and medal, but we needed to do some negotiating for the second class.

Unfortunately all the jumps went up to uprights, which although are within her capabilities, are less friendly for the nervous. Especially away from home. So I resigned myself to running again. We weren’t as fast, I knew that because I had to make more of an effort over each jump, so we were narrowly pipped into third place. However, my rider did the trot lap of honour herself and was very happy with the yellow rosette.

I love little shows like this; where the commentary is encouraging, the course is friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed, and assistance permitted. It’s so important to make riding away from home enjoyable to build confidence in young or beginner riders and to encourage a good sense of sportsmanship, as well as to ignite that flame of competitive spirit. The beaming grin on this clients face was worth the aching muscles the following day, and I felt very pleased to have given her a positive experience at her first competition.

I don’t think there are enough of these novice shows around. You can usually find a “mini” showjumping competition during half terms and holidays, and I have managed to find a mini cross country competition for this rider to do soon – although I have excused myself from running! I’d quite like to see more “mini” dressage competitions. Aimed at the young, and not too long for leaders, it will help build confidence and encourage kids to take up dressage as well as encouraging a better level of riding. A lot of local shows tend to have lead rein classes or young handlers, but I wonder if you could run a whole show for lead reins, or just off the lead rein.

After all, if we don’t look after and nurture those starting out competing and riding away from home, then unaffiliated and grassroots competitions will suffer because people won’t be confident or comfortable enough to enter.

This weekend, I also had a client doing her first ODE. It was a proper grassroots, unaffiliated competition run at BE standards, so was a big step up from local competitions that they’ve been to. I didn’t attend, although I would have liked to, but the last couple of weeks have been fun prepping them both for the different disciplines, as has being at the end of the phone and answering her questions when she walked the courses. Getting text message reports during the day was also great; I could congratulate, commiserate, discuss whatever she needed to do. It’s a tough thing, taking the step up to busier competitions, where professionals are against you, but I think getting a dressage test that puts you within the top half of your section, and a clear showjumping round is an excellent start. Unfortunately the cross country didn’t go as well as I’d have liked, but we had talked about fitness possibly being an issue because the course was much longer and more technical than they’d ridden before. And this will only improve as my rider becomes more adept at finding the right canter speed, and ultimately has more experience jumping courses of this level. Of course, there’s plenty to learn from her first competition and I feel that being so involved during the day means I get first hand knowledge of her experience and know how to alter my lesson plans to best help them. Besides, eventing is the hardest competition to enter because you have to get three very different disciplines right on the same day.

But yes, with perspectives changing, I think I will definitely be more involved with competing clients, and get just as much enjoyment competing through them as I do myself.

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.

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.

Only a Short One …

This is only a short post because I’m tired from dressage camp and still have a lot of unpacking and organising to do.

Dressage camp was at a large centre with an excellent cross country course so yesterday afternoon a friend and I went for a leg stretch around the cross country course; walking through the water and generally building up the bravery of the horses. 

The Diva, that I was riding, started off by mincing through the water, and shying ten foot from, with eyes on stalks, the ornamental camel, but with time he was trotting confidently through water and even gave the camel a kiss!


This morning we decided to actually go cross country. Yes, I know it’s a dressage camp, but it would have been rude not to given that the facilities were there. The ground is exceptionally hard at the moment, so I decided to only do little fences, and concentrate on the ones around the water and on all surface tracks. The aim being to give the horses a break from dressage, to have fun, and to build their confidence around the water and with steps and ditches. 

Which we did. There was a lovely selection of small fences around the water complexes and on the tracks. The horses felt great and The Diva even jumped into the water and cantered up a step the other side very happily.


Afterwards, we were talking to the owner of the centre and he had some gems of knowledge to share.

Currently he is trying to put people off from coming cross country schooling because the ground is so hard, but he thinks they’re busier now than when the ground conditions were ideal. Perhaps not good business sense, but good horse sense.

He went on to say that the main test in eventing is the width of the fences. Most horses can jump the height required, but few can jump the width required. Take for example, at BE100 the maximum height is 1m, but the maximum spread at the bottom is 1.8m, and 1.1m spread at the top of the fence. Here comes the facts. When jumping on hard ground, horses are more likely to jump with a steep bascule, i.e. up and down with very little distance covered. On landing, they don’t like putting their forefeet down first or opening up at the shoulder and thus loading their heels, so they tend to land steeply.

This obviously doesn’t have such an effect over little fences, but if you consider the competition rider training on hard ground then they will be changing their horse’s jumping technique which will mean they aren’t as economical with their gallop as they shorten their stride, and will lose time as they aren’t jumping the spreads out of a flowing stride. Additionally, they may lose confidence with the spread fences because they don’t want to take a longer bascule, or they associate it with jarred limbs.

So whilst it’s never been advised to do a lot of jumping on hard ground because of concussion risks, it’s interesting to know how it affects the mechanics of jumping and goes to show that it could actually be more detrimental to your competition performance by training over hard ground than by substituting it for some other training on a surface. 

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!