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!

The Inside Hind

I’ve been on a mission recently to try to improve the feel of my riders. Some people say that talented riders have a “good feel”. Yes they may do, but for those of us less talented at equitation, don’t lose hope. You may have to work on your balance and coordination of aids, but you can still feel. Everyone can. It’s one of our five senses. You just might need a little more help in understanding what you can feel when riding and how to respond appropriately.

This is why I’m forever asking clients to tell me what they can feel. I’m not looking for correct terminology, or long winded descriptions, but I want to know if the rider can tell the difference between a long stride, a short stride, one full or impulsion, or one dragging their toes. I want to know if they’re aware that they have a heavier right rein, or if they can feel their horse bending or not.

Sometimes I’ll ask, “what can you feel?” Or “how does that trot feel now?”

Other times, I’ll give more leading questions such as “can you feel your horse leaning on your outside hand?” Or “can you feel a bit more push from the hindlegs?”

It’s never a problem if someone answers no. We just revise what we are aiming for in this session and where the rider should be feeling the change. Usually just by focusing their attention on that one area of the horse, they start to feel what I am explaining, and understand the subject more clearly. Occasionally, videos help. I’ve videoed jumps before, which haven’t been perfectly executed, and replayed them to the rider so that they can relate what they feel in the saddle to how it looks from the ground and the final result.

So in my quest to further my riders’ feel for what their horse’s legs are doing, and their ability to enhance their horse’s way of going, I have been encouraging them to think about the hind legs and what they can feel in terms of power and stride length.

When trotting the inside hind leg is the propulsion leg. It powers the horse forwards. In order to do this efficiently, the horse needs to step under their body with it, sit on that leg so that it takes the weight, and then push their weight up and forwards from the leg. It’s similar to the mechanics of human walking.

On curves the inside hind leg has to work extra hard, and this is where horses often lose their balance. If the inside hind leg is weak or lazy then it will step short, and the horse won’t be able to sit on that leg so well in the stance phase. This causes the horse to lose the balance in their body, and to load the outside shoulder in compensation.

For novice riders who are developing their feel, trotting corners are often when they first begin to feel the action of the hind leg, so I use lots of circles and turns to get them feeling. Sitting trot is useful at this stage so long as the rider can maintain it comfortably and the horse doesn’t brace against them or slow down.

Then I explain the mechanics of the horse, their particular strengths and weaknesses, and how improving the stride of the inside hind will improve the whole gait by engaging the abdominals and topline muscles, maintaining a consistent bend and contact, and increasing impulsion.

Then I link the footfall of the horse to their rising trot. When the rider is rising on the correct diagonal, the inside hind leg is stepping forwards. We are trying to encourage the inside hind leg to step further underneath the body, especially if it’s a little lazy, so that it can then propel the horse forwards more easily and powerfully. Therefore, we have to influence that hindleg whilst it is in the swing phase. As my riders are about to rise, and that inside hind about to come off the floor, they need to encourage it to come forward with a bit more vigour. A squeeze of some description with the inside leg is usually enough to make all the difference. Of course each horse is different, so you have to play around with the leg aids, and perhaps a flick of a schooling whip, on that haunch, to find the button which works for horse and rider.

Riders can learn to time their aids by linking it to their rising, and you can test their feel by working in sitting trot. But by at least applying the aids at the correct time, the rider will start to feel an improvement in the horse’s way of going, and the more active hind step should increase the feeling of movement to the rider, so further establish what they are aiming to feel. Once a rider has begun to become aware of what’s going on behind the saddle, you can start to dissect the walk and canter, and then fine tune the timing of their aids to improve their quality.

I’ve reminded several riders recently, of different abilities, to think about and to enhance the inside hind leg action, which has resulted in their horses maintaining impulsion, balance and consistency, which means the rider can ride more accurately and with a better quality of gait. Improving awareness of the inside hind is particularly important when changing the rein and changing the bend through the horse’s body. By focusing on the new inside hind leg propelling the horse forwards, the horse changes the rein more fluidly.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Controlling The Neck

I taught a lesson last week, where we focused on releasing the brachiocephalic muscles to enable the horse to step through from behind and use their back more correctly.

The horse we were working with has come back into work slowly after being a brood mare, and she’s changing shape nicely and building some muscle and fitness by lots of hacking. Her walk was improved since the last time I’d seen her in that it was more active with a longer length of stride and the mare’s neck was not so concertinaed. However, in the trot she was still locking her neck and trotting. The body wasn’t moving at all, and the legs scrabbling frantically underneath, with my rider feeling barely in control. Their trot was akin to a bolt – the neck set against the rider – but they weren’t getting any faster.

Usually when a rider feels resistance in the horse’s neck, a little flex of the neck and encouragement of the inside hindleg triggers the horse to relax the brachiocephalic muscle and start using their abdominals and topline. However, this mare has such large, solid brachiocephalics she didn’t respond to the small flexions.

In halt, we asked the mare to move her head from side to side. They were big turns of the head, slowly from left to right and back again. Initially I had to help from the ground to provide rein aids so that my rider could understand the exercise. By getting the mare to mobilise her neck we were improving her suppleness, increasing her range of movement, and causing her to relax the brachiocephalic muscles. After all, in order to look left, the muscles on the right side need to relax and lengthen. And vice versa. We had to turn her head quite a way to the left and right before she yielded and softened her neck. Hopefully as things progress she will give her neck to her rider after more subtle aids.

After a few turns, the mare’s neck became softer and you could see she was turning more easily and freely. We let her rest, standing still with a light contact, so that she could think about her posture, and process the exercise we had just done. She stayed standing with a softer neck and lower head carriage.

Then we moved up into the walk. A horse’s head is very heavy, and is held at the end of a lever, so getting them to lengthen the neck and hold their head further away from their body, and then to hold it in different positions, is very difficult and requires good balance and core strength. The walk allowed us to experiment with different head and neck positions, all making the mare more malleable and encouraging the muscles to relax. There was a lot of brain work going on here: the horse had to focus on keeping her balance with her head held in unusual positions (for her, anyway), and she had to focus on the leg and seat aids rather than the reins aids.

After a few releases of the neck, the mare’s walk started to improve by lengthening in stride, the energy in the hindquarters seemed to travel through the body more and she seemed to be more connected – working as one horse. Once my rider felt the change in the mare’s posture I had her straighten the neck and keep everything still. After all, we’re using these large turns to release the muscles and then the mare needs to learn to carry herself straight and with less tension in her neck on her own volition, and we don’t want her to get into the habit of swinging her head as she works, nor do I want my rider to get into a habit of sawing on her pony’s mouth. I reiterate, they are large turns of the head in either direction to encourage the release of the under neck muscles, which together with the leg and seat engaging her hindquarters will trigger the mare to use her topline as she works.

Once the mare was walking with a soft frame and contact, we went up into trot. Through the transition she set her neck and started running, but my rider began flexing her left and right and after a few strides the brachiocephalic was disengaged. So they trotted with the hands still for a couple of strides before the mare set herself again, so we repeated the process. We kept the trot basic: large circles, simple changes of rein, one rhythm, so that we could focus on unlocking the neck as soon as she tensed, rewarding her with quietness when she was soft, and then correcting her again as she tensed up.

Suddenly, they had a lightbulb moment! The trot became lighter, almost floaty, her back began to swing, she was using her hindquarters to propel herself. The trot was getting faster, but only because she was more efficient in using herself and the stride was lengthening rather than her rushing. Yes, every couple of strides my rider still had to move the mare’s neck to keep it soft, but they were now minor flexes and the mare responded immediately.

By the end of the session, we’d started work on keeping the neck soft through the upward transition by using small flexes. The trot was becoming more consistent and the horse and rider looked in partnership rather than having two different agendas. And as we cooled down, the mare wanted to stretch her head all the way to the floor.

It was a very constructive session, and they’ve both got a lot to work on in terms of building fitness so that the mare can be consistent in this new trot, and my rider’s feel so she reacts to any change in the neck before it becomes a solid mass. I don’t think it necessarily looked pretty, in that every so often the mare looked to be swinging her head, but so long as my rider remembers to stay quiet and still when everything’s right, and the rein stays positively opening wide to get the mare to look left or right rather than pulling back, the mare won’t get into a bad, swinging habit.

Next time I want to build on the consistency and then start to introduce a long and low frame so that the mare has more opportunity to utilise the correct muscles and learns to stretch.

Getting An Insight

I had a day, purely coincidental, this week where I ended up riding a number of client’s horses in lessons.

I am of the mentality that a good instructor can teach without demonstrating, and that a rider gains much more satisfaction and self belief in their ability if they achieve a goal with their horse rather than sit on a ready made one. However, I also believe that an instructor should be able to sit on a client’s horse and make some benefit to the horse and the content of the lesson without the rider going away feeling inadequate.

The first pony I rode was one I’ve ridden infrequently, but we’ve been working on her suppleness, and whilst it’s improved hugely, I feel that we’re only connecting her 80%. The hindlegs are working actively and she’s far less on the forehand than she used to be, but something’s missing from the overall picture. My rider is doing everything I’m asking her to, and the exercises should be helping them. I wondered a couple of weeks ago if it was the fact they were both learning which was holding them back. If my rider has never, for example, experienced shoulder in, then when asking her pony she may have woolly or clumsy aids, or not be assertive enough (“I think my leg is in the right place” sort of thing) or she may not be asking until the pony gives it, and she may not know how to adjust her aids in response to what her pony is doing. If I were to ride the same movement, knowing what I am aiming to achieve, I will be more likely to teach the horse to understand the aids, and I can then help my rider perfect her aids – some horses have buttons which need pressing slightly harder, or in a different place than textbook.

So I sat on this pony and immediately found that she was much heavier in the right rein. Far heavier than she looks to be! Which was a revelation in itself and something I will be focusing more on. This led me to discover that the reason we aren’t getting her truly connected, bridging, working over her back, was because she’s locked on the right side of her neck. I did a fair bit of work on shoulder on and getting her to stretch and release her neck, eventually she understood and became lovely and light in both reins, straight, and was swinging over her back. I had done a running commentary throughout, so when I got her rider remounted she could ride through the exercises I had just done, knowing where and when to apply aids, getting the correct response, and feeling the correct feel in her pony. The tricky bit will be when she tries to recreate this next time she rides, but hopefully because her pony understands and my rider is more assured of her aids, they will get it.

The next horse I ended up riding; we were in one of those situations where my rider doesn’t fully understand, and her horse was taking the mickey of her unsureness. Straighter than he used to be, he’s still a crooked horse, drifting through his right shoulder. The result to my rider is that her left rein is always dominant and her right is a bit airy fairy. So we’ve been working a lot on using the outside aids to turn. On the left rein, this means she has to keep a firmer right contact and remember not to use the left to steer round the corner. But as she’s applying more right rein her horse is leaning against her, waiting for her to release the right hand and take over with the left. There’s an element here of my rider not being quite strong enough to stay firm until her horse rebalances himself and stops leaning on her right rein. I felt she would have also benefited from seeing the process and net result, which a lot of visual learners do. So I sat on and basically did exactly as she was doing, but I’m a bit stronger in my core so could hold up her horse’s right shoulder until he yielded. My right leg is probably a bit stronger to, which will help him understand the question I was asking him. That is, to move away from the outside aids. It took him a few attempts, and a few strides where he really tried to push through my right rein, but then it clicked. I rode for a few more minutes, making sure my rider could see what I was doing, and how I was asking her horse. Then she got back on, and we repeated it so that she could put the theory into practice, and because she got the correct results, she had more confidence in her understanding and ability.

A client had suggested I sat on her young horse a few lessons ago, so this ride didn’t come as a surprise to me. The horse is young, and young horses often benefit from more experienced riders sitting on from time to time. We have been working on her suppleness over the last few lessons because she tends to swing her hindquarters right instead of using the right hindleg properly. I started off slowly, finding the right buttons, and then did a few minutes in sitting trot, making very small adjustments with my seat and leg so that she spent more time with her hindquarters directly behind her forehand, and I could support her round turns and circles before she swung her quarters to help her understand how she should be carrying herself. We introduced leg yield a couple of lessons ago to help teach the mare to move away from the leg, but also so that we could start to improve the degree of bend she was giving round turns, and to encourage her to bend throughout her whole body. I rode some leg yield, and she tried really hard, but you could tell that leg yielding to the left was much harder because she had to push with her lazy right hindleg. Her rider watched, and could see the asymmetries, which will hopefully help her connect what she feels in the saddle to what is actually happening. And she will also be able to ride the exercises appropriately to her horse’s asymmetry. We work horses evenly on both reins, but if there’s a weaker rein it is often beneficial to do a few more circles, or whatever movement you’re riding, to help loosen them and strengthen them.

After the leg yielding, the mare started to feel more even behind, and more active, so I turned my attention to encouraging her to lengthen her stride and open up in the shoulder so her trot didn’t feel so choppy. A rider who is used to a choppy stride may find it harder to push a horse into a long, more fluid stride, so my rider could watch the benefit to her horse’s gait, and next time the horse knows what they should be doing so will be more receptive to the rider’s aids.

This client didn’t get on at the end because we ran out of time and the young mare had done sufficient work for that day, but I’m sure they’ve both got lots to put into practice over this week.

It’s not part of my teaching plan, to sit on every horse, but it does provide very useful insights as well as helping fine tune a horse and rider so that they work in unison, and I’d definitely recommend coaches have a feel for the horse that they are teaching with at some point as it furthers their understanding of how the horse ticks.

Positive, Neutral and Negative Riders

I heard an interesting analogy last week, which I thought I would share with you as it’s a good attitude to have each time you go to ride your horse.

There are three types of rider: those who have a positive effect on their horse, those who have a neutral effect, and those who have a negative effect on their horse.

It doesn’t sound very nice really, does it, saying that you have a negative or detrimental effect on your horse. But we all started off as negative riders. When we were bumbling around with clumsy steering aids and heavy rising, those riding school horses tolerated us and accepted our mistakes as we learnt. But this comes at a cost. The horse’s way of going will deteriorate over time by them losing topline muscles and learning to compensate by working in a hollow manner; they may lose the level of impulsion and cadence to their gaits.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and have control over your aids, and can maintain your balance you begin to become a neutral rider. That means that the time you spend riding your horse (assuming you are appropriately matched) won’t cause their way of going to deteriorate, yet you also won’t improve their level of schooling.

Finally, there is the positive rider. These are more experienced riders who can enhance the horse’s way of going; teach them new movements or fine tune their current skills.

Throughout our riding careers you can find yourself as all three types of rider at some point. If you are overhorsed, you may be a negative rider for the short term but with the right help you can improve your skills so that you become a neutral rider. You may find yourself riding a young or green horse, in which case you need to be a positive rider to further their education.

As a rider, horse owner and horse lover, you should want to do the best by your horse, and that means that on a bad day you want to have a neutral effect on your horse – perhaps you’ve had a busy day at work and just need to hack or lightly school. But every other day, you are a positive rider, and enhancing your horse with every ride. Be that by improving a certain movement, building their self confidence, or by riding exercises to improve their muscle tone.

It’s a good ambition to have, regardless of whether you want to ride an advanced medium test, event internationally, or hack confidently or enter your local riding club competitions; you should aim to be a positive rider for the benefit of your horse.

Square Serpentines

Following on from my square theme a few weeks ago, I’ve been doing a lot of square serpentines with clients.

I thought I’d blogged about riding squares, but apparently I only imagined that I did. Let me explain them further.

I’ve used the EB markers a lot during lessons to get clients riding corners, and practicing riding straight lines across the arena with no fence line to support them or their horse. Riding these square turns encourages the rider to indicate only with the inside rein, to maintain the outside contact and keep the neck and shoulder straight, whilst using the outside leg to instigate the turn. This causes the horse to step under with their inside hind and to take their weight onto it, which increases the impulsion and activity in the hindquarters.

Squares have become quite common in the warm up session of many of my lessons, as I’ve found they’ve improved my rider’s aids, outside rein contact, and the quality of the horse’s gait as well as establishing their awareness of straightness which helps set us up for the rest of the lesson. With the majority of clients, we’ve ridden squares in trot, but for the more established horse and rider we’ve ridden large squares in canter which really improves the inside hindleg action and quality of the canter.

Once a horse and rider can maintain a quality gait on the square, then it’s time to go up a level. Cue, square serpentines. These are three loop serpentines with square turns instead of curves across the school. This is harder than the squares because the rider and horse need to change direction, so the rider needs to be coordinated with their aids, and the horse needs to be balanced. Riding alternate square turns helps highlight which direction is easier for them, and when they can do it easily the rider will get a good feeling for straightness. It is also a good test to see if they overturn on the square corners, and are over cooking it.

When you ride a square turn to the left, for example, the left rein opens to encourage the shoulder round and the right rein limits the neck bend so that the outside shoulder travels left and the horse doesn’t drift through it. The outside leg instigates the turn by pushing the horse’s body round, and the inside leg provides a pillar for them to go around. We aren’t looking for a huge amount of bend from the horse here, but if there’s no inside leg at all then they can end up falling round the left turn. Or motor biking. This means they end up loading the inside shoulder and looking to the outside. Which is not good, and can be the end result if square turns are ridden before the horse is physically able to, or incorrectly. So should a horse turn left on the serpentine in a motorbike fashion, then when they turn right they will lead through the outside shoulder, hang their head to the right and be unable to engage the right hind. Which will highlight to the rider that they are crooked, and hopefully help them understand that whilst the outside aids are really important, so is the inside leg! If the rider was to then ride a less severe corner, but with their inside leg encouraging the inside hindleg to step under the horse’s body then they would come out of the turn straighter and more balanced.

I love riding the square turns, and the square serpentines are so useful to checking their balance and symmetry. Riding circles after square work is suddenly much easier, but the horse will then be able to give a uniform bend through their body, on a line which follows the curve of the circle, so working correctly and easily.

Tramlines

Two poles is all you need for this exercise to improve your horse’s straightness.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, a lot of horses carry themselves in a crooked way. For example, with their hindquarters always to the right. When I start working with a horse who is crooked in their way of going I check the rider’s position, symmetry and if they have any history of injuries which could cause them to have a weaker side. Then I cover topics such as saddle fit, chiropractic and physiotherapy treatments, dental history to make sure we rule out any of those causes.

If a horse is allowed to work in a crooked way then muscles develop asymmetrically, which can compound the problem.

I find that using poles as tramlines can be really beneficial in teaching both horse and rider what straight feels like. The physical presence of the poles can be more effective than asking the rider to do too much correcting and straightening of the horse as the effort involved in applying these aids can twist the rider’s seat, which doesn’t help the horse go straight.

In a session where I’m planning to use tramlines, I warm horse and rider up focusing on feel and straightness. I don’t necessarily want my rider to start adjusting their horse, but I want them to gain an awareness: is the horse holding their head to one side, or their hindquarters to one side? Is it always held to the same side? I tweak my rider’s position and aids so that they are minimising the crookedness, and are as symmetrical as possible.

Then I get them to trot between the two poles a few times, so that the horse is comfortable with the poles, then I roll them slightly closer so they are fractionally wider than the horse. Now, when they pass through, the horse will have to straighten their body so that the left hind follows the track of the left fore, and the same with the right legs. The rider should then feel the change in the horse’s way of going, which will help them recreate the straightness elsewhere in the arena. We repeat this until there is less of a change in the horse’s body before, during and after the poles, because they are working in a less crooked manner.

Next, I add in transitions. Horses who are crooked tend to wobble through transitions, so riding a transition between the poles encourages the horse to stay straight. Horse and rider begins in trot, and once the hindquarters have entered the poles, ride a transition to walk. Usually the first couple of times there’s a clunk on the pole, proving the horse has lost straightness. As they exit the poles, you sometimes see an exaggerated drift because the horse is so reliant on the poles to keep them straight and almost lose their balance when their support is removed. It’s a very good exercise for teaching the rider a feel for a straight transition and straight horse.

Once the downwards transition is feeling straighter and more balanced, I repeat the same exercise with upwards transitions, from walk to trot. Riding the transition between the poles usually encourages the horse to utilise their hindquarters and push up into a springy, active trot because when they are straight they hindlegs work more efficiently as their stepping towards the horse’s centre of gravity. The rider learns the feel for a more active transition, and a straighter way of going. Again, you might get the wriggle after exiting the poles, but as the horse improves their balance whilst being straight, they will be less dependent on the tramlines.

Soon, the rider should be able to ride their horse on two tracks and in a straighter frame without the help of the tramlines, and when they do travel between poles there is no change to the rhythm or balance of their gait.

I really like using the tramlines for canter, which is notoriously a crooked gait. I place the tramlines so they are ridden across the school, from E to B, and then get my horse and rider to ride straight across the school in canter. Having to ride a straight line across the school encourages the rider to use their outside aids and not their inside rein to end up riding a half circle across the arena. Once the canter has become straighter, the rider should feel the increased stride length of the inside hindleg, and the canter will become more balanced and three time in rhythm.

So long as the horse and rider can strike off into canter on the long side, on a specific canter lead, you can begin to ride trot to canter transitions between the tramlines, which most horses find quite tricky as they usually drift through the outside shoulder. As with the walk and trot transitions, the canter transitions will improve the rider’s feel for straightness, their awareness of the importance of maintaining the outside aids, and improve the quality of the transition.

The mare I used this exercise with over the weekend likes to hold her hindquarters to the right and her head to the left, so after warming her and her rider up focusing on minimising the crookedness in walk and trot before we started using the tramlines. It took a few trots through for the mare to begin to maintain the straightness without the poles – she drifted as she came out from between the poles initially. Once we started to ride transitions between the poles I noticed that the mare stayed softer in her neck and started to engage her hindquarters. This mare is very good at learning an exercise, so we only needed to do it a handful of times before moving on, and continuing to practice keeping her straight elsewhere in the school. With all this focus on straightness, my rider’s hands became more even, which helped the mare stay straight. For this pair, cantering between the poles had the most effect. The mare finds it difficult to stay together in the canter, tending to run and wiggle along; the tramlines encouraged her to be straighter, and subsequently her rider could begin to balance her more easily and then the canter looked stronger and more correct. We’ll be doing more work using tramlines as part of more elaborate polework exercises to further improve the mare’s straightness and quality of her gaits so that both horse and rider can work straight and efficiently, with less risk of overstressing and straining one area of her body.