Phoenix’s Lesson

On Saturday we took Phoenix for our first dressage lesson. It went very smoothly, with her walking straight onto the trailer, travelling well and being perfectly behaved during the lesson, impressing our trainer. She behaved like an old hand, not being distracted by her surroundings, working beautifully and trying her hardest in the new exercises and then showing a definite improvement by the end. A very successful outing.

I thought I’d share our lesson exercises with you and why we used them.

Just like humans, horses have a degree of asymmetry. Using school movements to improve their suppleness and flexibility helps them develop even muscle tone, and creates a straighter, more symmetrical horse who is less likely to injure themselves because their limbs are sharing the workload. I won’t say evenly because although each limb may be taking 25% of the workload at prelim level, at Grand Prix level the hindlimbs are taking more of the horse’s weight and subsequently the workload, than the forelimbs. But Phoenix is still at prelim level so we will keep things simple.

One of the first things I noticed when riding Phoenix was that she likes to load her left shoulder, which is her way of compensating for having a lazy right hind. Not in a bad way, but in the same way that the left hand of a right handed person is slightly weaker than their right hand. I’ve been working on encouraging Phoenix to carry herself straighter and by working her evenly on both reins to ensure her muscles develop evenly. I introduced some leg yield on a circle last week as she now understands the idea of moving away from the leg rather than going faster.

I should also point out that when my masseuse friend assessed Phoenix for her case study she noted that the left side of her wither was slightly more developed than the right. You can see the slight asymmetry in the photo below.

Back to our lesson. After warming up by getting Phoenix to stretch in walk, which she’s really getting the hang of, and then a trot on both reins. My trainer agreed that leg yield was the right route to go down to help engage the right hind leg and take the weight from the left shoulder.

On the right rein I began walking a twenty metre circle, making sure there wasn’t too much bend through Phoenix’s neck. When a horse loads one shoulder they tend to jackknife their body and over bend and the base of the neck and not bend at all through their barrel. This leads to lose of the outside rein and a tendency to compensate by pulling on the inside rein. Anyway, we spiralled in on the circle before leg yielding her out. In leg yield the inside hindleg steps under and towards the centre of the body to lift and push the horse sideways. By leg yielding to the left, Phoenix has to engage her right hindleg. I could feel the push as it came into effect and the walk became lighter, and more through. Now because the leg yield on the circle can allow a horse to drift through the outside shoulder as much as being pushed by the inside hindleg we repeated the exercise but with counter flexion which would make Phoenix use her right hind even more so, and make sure that her left shoulder wasn’t working too hard. To create the counter flexion I Mel my body turning to the right, towards the circle and used my outside rein to encourage Phoenix to look slightly left. There was a little bit of left leg here too. This time as we leg yielded out on the circle I felt that Phoenix understood the exercise more and used her right hindleg more purposefully. Once I’d finished the exercise we had a little trot to feel how much straighter and more balanced the trot now felt.

Moving onto the left rein. As I spiralled in in this direction I had to make sure Phoenix maintained left bend and didn’t fall onto her left shoulder and then when I leg yielded out we cheated a bit. The first time I let her drift a little through the right shoulder, so as to help level out her shoulders. It’s easier said than done to ride a movement badly when you know how to ride it correctly! The second time we did it more correctly. Letting her drift is a short term activity to help bring her off her left shoulder, and I only need to do it if she’s finding the movement hard. Whilst on the big circle on the left rein I then leg yielded her to the left on the circle. This sounds strange, but basically I kept Phoenix in slight right bend and pushed her hindquarters to the left, and slightly to the middle of the circle. This was to allow Phoenix to rediscover her right hindleg. The subsequent trot was beautiful! Very light and balanced, and each hindleg stepping under nicely.

After another walk break and stretch during which we discussed the canter, we had a look at it. Obviously Phoenix is green in the canter, so I use our lunging sessions to allow her to find her balance in the transitions and the canter itself. I find that her canter on the lunge is quite steady and looking more balanced. But under saddle she is rushing, uptight and setting her neck against me. One factor is the fact that Phoenix is having to learn to canter with my weight, but I had noticed that she was less strong when I jumped her last week. I already had a theory, but my trainer confirmed it. As I ask Phoenix to canter and she runs a little in the transition I automatically half halt and try to hold her together, as I would with Otis. Phoenix doesn’t like and isn’t ready for the interference so just leans against my hand as she finds it harder to find her canter balance. When I jump my mindset is slightly different so I allow a bigger canter and so she finds her own balance and carries herself. I needed someone on the ground reminding me to relax my hands. Which he did and after a dozen strides of each canter Phoenix was feeling more balanced and I felt like we were working together more.

As Phoenix assumes that after canter work comes more canter work we had a trot to finish. This started with rushed, choppy strides but once she realised trot was the name of the game she relaxed and gave a lovely balanced trot whilst stretching her neck down nicely.

We’ve got plenty to work on over the next few weeks but I was very pleased with how Phoenix performed. Perhaps it’s time to look out for a local dressage competition!

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The Girl on the Dancing Horse – a Book Review

One Monday evening in March my Mum and a friend had booked tickets to go to a book signing by Charlotte Dujardin, to promote her new autobiography “The Girl On The Dancing Horse”. Unfortunately for my Mum, her granddaughter decided to arrive the day before so she never got to go.

This week I’ve had the chance to read the book, so thought I’d share my thoughts.

The first thing that struck me about the book is that it’s very readable. You can pick it up and read two pages, or you can settle down for an hour and just as easily read a few chapters.

It’s very much written as the words come out of Charlotte’s mouth. Or how I would imagine they’d come out of her mouth as you chat over a cup of tea and slice of cake.

The first couple of chapters set the scene of Charlotte’s childhood in enough detail, without telling you about her third cousin once removed. It’s all relevant; talking about her ponies and showing days with a couple of anecdotes added for good measure.

The book is very honest. Charlotte is quite critical of showing and it’s politics, which I’m fully aware of and was why I never fully enjoyed it as a teenager, despite the educational benefits of it for young horses and riders. However it’s good to see her voicing this opinion and being honest.

The book spends a lot of time explaining how Charlotte transitioned from showing into dressage and started with Carl Hester. Quite a few big names are dropped, but not in a bad way, they just make the story clearer. If you knew nothing about dressage then the names could start to get confusing. But then again, if you knew nothing about dressage would you pick up this book? Most probably not!

Dressage terms are used frequently, so if you aren’t au fait with dressage movements, levels or terms then you may need to put the book aside and consult Google. The good thing being that, as I said earlier, the book is easy to pick up and put down.

Probably the main reason people will choose this book off a bookshelf is to learn more about Valegro himself. And there’s a lot of the book devoted to his and Charlotte’s career together. This section is very matter of fact; it must be hard to find the balance between accepting compliments and acknowledging world records without coming across as egotistical or arrogant. I think Charlotte has managed this really well. She describes her experiences and emotions simply, and uses the facts and figures to illustrate their successes.

There’s also a side of the book which brings up criticisms of herself, by her trainers and herself, which highlights why she is successful – because she is so driven to achieve perfection – and also doesn’t make light of the negative effects of suddenly being thrown into the media spotlight and the pressure of being at the top, pressure to prove she’s not just a one trick pony (excuse the pun), as well as competition nerves and how to deal with them. Which is important for us “normals” to know, I think. That being a top professional rider has both its highs and lows.

The Girl On The Dancing Horse is definitely one of the best biographical books I’ve read, as it balances professional life with childhood and personal experiences whilst keeping relevant to the reason we equestrians picked the book up in the first place – to discover the Charlotte and Valegro story.

Phoenix’s Progress

Time flies. I’ve just realised that it’s been almost three weeks since I last updated you on Phoenix and her ridden education.

She’s been hacking out alone weekly, and behaving brilliantly. I’ve her into the riding field to cool off after a schooling session and when the ground is a bit drier I’ll do some schooling out there with her, but she’s very relaxed in the open space which is great. I also need to take her on some faster hacks so I’m planning on going to a nearby cross country field in the next couple of weeks to have a play over some logs and see how she is after a couple of canters. Then I’ll have an idea of how she’ll find a sponsored ride and what preparations I need to make to give her an enjoyable experience on her first one.

Her flatwork is coming along nicely. She’s feeling more balanced in the trot and I was really pleased last week when she stretched and gave a lovely swing over her back in the trot at the end. It was the first time I’d felt such a release with her. She’s still running a bit into canter but I feel it’s partly my fault as I sometimes feel we’re talking two different languages. I think she prefers inside leg into canter whereas Otis liked a combination of both legs, but definitely the outside one behind the girth so I need to retrain myself a bit to help Phoenix.

The lunging sessions I’ve done have mainly focused on canter to help her find her balance without me to contend with, and she’s getting quite a little jump into canter now, so it’s time and practice to be able to replicate this under saddle. I did some jumping with her on the lunge a couple of weeks ago, getting it up to 90-95cm. She looked twice, but did it easily.

Then I followed this up the next weekend by jumping under saddle. She was great: we only did a few cross poles, working on approaching straight and rhythmically. She took me into the fences without being strong, and cleanly jumped all of them.

Then this week we progressed to a related distance. One pole was on the floor and four canter strides away was an upright – 80cm perhaps. I didn’t end up raising the pole to make two jumps because she was just getting to grips with negotiating the exercise without loosing her canter or wobbling off our line.

Last week Phoenix had the second of her massages as a case study for my friend. We found a very tight spot on the left side of her wither, which we think is because the saddle is a little on the narrow side – if you remember my saddler didn’t have the widest gullet so suggested I started riding and see how we got on as Phoenix will change shape anyway. As a result of the massage I’ve spoken to the saddler to organise refitting the saddles, and to perhaps fit my jumping saddle onto her.

Phoenix’s hamstrings and brachiocephalic were a bit tight too, but that’s due to an increase in work and is very typical rather than anything else, so she just enjoyed being loosened up. I was pleased that my friend noticed a big difference in the muscle of Phoenix’s neck; she’s developed quite a topline, and interestingly showed no sign of soreness in the top third, which is often tight with horses who “cheat” in the dressage arena and fix their heads in without working over their backs. Proof that Phoenix is working correctly!

This week she had her teeth rasped. I wasn’t sure when she was last done, but I decided to leave it until after the baby was born to give her chance to get to know me and for me to be fit enough to hold her if she fidgeted. She did fidget, but my dentist is very patient and just reassured her whilst following her around. They kept the session short and sweet, and we’ll rebook for six months time when they’ll spend a bit longer on her molars to perfect them as hopefully she’ll remember the positive experience she had this time round.

I’m really pleased with her weight as although not thin by any stretch of the imagination she has toned up nicely and her hindquarters are becoming more muscular and her tummy toned. She looks really well.

Next week we’ve got a dressage lesson booked, which will give Phoenix an experience of being ridden away from home, and then I’m hoping to plan a couple more trips out. Perhaps to a local dressage competition or to a jumping clinic to test her in a group environment.

Counting Circles

Now that ménages at livery yards tend to be bigger than the classic twenty by forty because it enables more riders to use the space simultaneously and there’s more scope for jumping exercises. The downside to this is that riders get used to bigger spaces and all of a sudden a twenty metre circle becomes a twenty three metre circle and then dressage scores slip due to inaccuracies.

This is particularly hard to explain to kids, but I’ve come up with a plan to help one of my boys.

I strode out a twenty metre circle so that my client could see the the 30m arena was making his circle too fat. Once he’d gotten his eye in on the size of the circle I asked him to count how many trot strides he got on the circle. He got twenty five.

I explained to my rider that he should use this number as a guide for his twenty metre circles, whether warming up at an event or in the dressage arena itself. Then he asked, and I was about to bring it up, if he should get twelve strides halfway around the circle. The answer is of course, yes. I kept it basic, we aren’t going to be adjusting the circle size by leg yielding in or out, but we used the twelve stride marker to see if one half of the circle is too small or too big. Interestingly, on the right rein all his circles had a smaller second half. So we worked on correcting this issue and continued practicing riding accurately sized circles at A, E, C and B.

We progressed this exercise into canter, and luckily for us, this pony also got twenty five canter strides on a twenty metre circle. So we perfected the circles at all points in the school. I still wasn’t that worried about how round they were, I was more interested in my rider developing his eye for the size of the circle, so that he can apply this logic to other arenas or when he’s competing.

A side effect of the counting meant that subconsciously my rider relaxed his arms. He has a tendency to pin his hands to the withers, but whilst counting he softened in his arms which meant his pony softened too and found it easier to bend and step under with the inside hind leg. Without realising, counting the improved their rhythm as well, so whilst I didn’t mention this aspect I’ll definitely be talking about counting to improve their rhythm another day, and then at a different time we can start to perfect the shape of the circle.

This counting exercise can be applied to different sized circles and also when looking at shortening and lengthening the strides, but I find it very useful for kids as it quantifies the goals and they can see a definite improvement, i.e. when they get the correct number of strides.

Riding On Grass

Eventing season is finally kicking off, although with the ground conditions it’s been difficult to get any work done out of the arena.

This means that horses have lost out on valuable fittening work, hence why some eventers have pulled out of Badminton this year. There’s now far more centres with arena cross country facilities so whilst you may not be able to physically go cross country schooling you can at least practice the technicality aspect over a variety of cross country fences.

Dressage and showjumping you can practice all winter in the arena, but there’s a difference between riding on a surface, and riding on grass, so it’s important to get some practice in before an event.

Let’s look at the differences between riding on the flat and over jumps on grass compared to on an artificial surface.

Firstly, unless you are riding on a bowling green, no grass arena is going to be perfectly flat, and practice is needed so that you and your horse can ride as accurately and correctly on a slope as you do in the arena. The lack of fences can also make it harder to ride a straight line or accurate circles too. Which means practice. Count your strides on a twenty metre circle in the arena and then use this number to check you’re riding the correct sized circle out in the open.

Grass is more slippery than artificial surfaces, especially if it’s long, wet or you have the pleasure of an 8am dressage test on dewy grass. In which case it’s worth investing in studs, and then practice using them and working out the best size and shape of stud that suits your horse in different conditions.

A showjumping course will be more spread out than one on a surface. This is because on grass you need to take a wider turn to stay balanced. Again, you need to practice jumping on a slope, especially combinations, which may catch you out in the ring.

The biggest learning curve transitioning from riding in a ménage to riding on grass is developing the ability adjust your riding for the conditions, and for your horse to learn to keep his balance and rideability in different conditions – whether it’s hard going, deep going or slippery. As a rider you need to assess the terrain: are any transitions in the test on a downhill? Try and mimic the transition in your warm up so you get the feel for how you need to prepare and support your horse through them. Depending on how long the grass is and how wet it is, you may need to ride larger turns on the showjumping course than the optimum line, so you’ll need to take into account the time allowed as well as your horse’s canter and ability to keep their footing in these conditions. Sometimes the ground itself can be less than ideal, especially if you’re jumping towards the end of a wet day, so you’ll need to be able to circumnavigate divots and furrows without being put off your game. Learning how to ride on grass is only really learnt by practice. So take every opportunity you can to ride in the open fields, even when the conditions are not our ideal.

The other big factor you have to contend with when riding in the open is the added excitability of your horse. Many horses suffer from open-space-itis which means they jog in the walk, have a quicker showjumping canter and are generally a bit hotter. The best thing to do is to practice on grass to reduce the novelty – although the first time schooling on grass is always more exciting. Spend the first session establishing manners. A calm, relaxed walk. A steady canter. Walking towards home rather than galloping. Jumping a fence then coming back to the rider. Then another relaxed walk. By ensuring that your horse doesn’t think an open space means a flat out gallop you will have a more rideable horse and get more enjoyment as a result. And be consistent: expect them to listen to you all the time and then they will.

Phoenix’s Progress

Yesterday marked two weeks since I first rode Phoenix so I thought I’d give you a little update.

The first couple of days she was a bit tense when I first mounted but soon relaxed after walking around. The first week I stuck to walk and trot for about twenty minutes in the school, focusing on her transitions and suppleness. She quickly began to bend nicely through her rib cage on the walk circles and changed the bend on serpentines and Demi-voltes smoothly.

Phoenix will always have the tendency to get a bit deep in her frame so all my work at the moment is focusing on getting her to take the contact out so her nose is on the vertical, not behind. I’m also spending a lot of time at the end encouraging Phoenix to take a long rein in the walk.

After initially fidgeting in the halt, she settled and stood square and still before I turned my attention to getting her to smoothly go into and out of the halt. She still has the tendency to halt abruptly but I’m finding the balance between how much leg I can use to prevent this.

Our trot work is much along the same lines: getting the consistency of her rhythm, improving her suppleness and straightness. It’s still taking three or four strides to establish the bend on each rein but plenty of figure of eights and serpentines are rapidly improving this.

Last week my friend who’s training to be an equine masseuse came to assess Phoenix to be one of her case studies. Finding very little wrong with her, Phoenix did have a couple of tight spots and thoroughly enjoyed her massage. It will be interesting to follow my friend’s findings when she comes next time and Phoenix has done some harder work.

The next time I schooled Phoenix I felt she was straighter, not swinging her hindquarters to the right on the left rein anymore. She felt more even and was bending better on each rein. It was in this session that we had our first canter. Phoenix’s canter is becoming more balanced on the lunge and she knows the voice aids for canter, so I used the voice and leg aids. We had a couple of extended trots as she tried to oblige but found it different with my weight and the saddle. However, once she ran into canter the first time I could balance the canter fairly easily and then she had it sussed. We did a handful of canters on both reins, and each time I felt Phoenix was understanding the aids and finding it easier. She’s such a trier, and wants please. She’s a quick learner and only needs to be shown something once, so I have high hopes for her education.

I also took Phoenix for a hack last weekend. I knew she had always been a steadfast and reliable hack horse, but as she hadn’t left the yard for four months I found a steady escort and half expected a shy or two. But she was perfect! She went in front and behind, past all the traffic perfectly, and took everything in her stride. She felt very relaxed and calm throughout, which means hacking is going to be very enjoyable.

I’ll continue in this vein, hacking when I can get a babysitter and escort, and focusing on the walk and trot with the aim of hopefully entering an Intro dressage test in the next couple of months. We’ll keep having a canter, sticking to allowing her to find her balance and canter rhythm, but that will come in time and I won’t rush her.

I watched some footage of yesterday’s session and I feel Phoenix is becoming much more consistent in the walk and trot, and working more correctly. There were moments in the canter where she’s more three time and coming off the forehand which is pleasing to see.

Yesterday I also had a revolutionary moment too. I didn’t want to stop riding her. I’d have carried on forever, I was enjoying teaching, feeling her oblige, and dreaming of the next few steps and then trying to not get carried away! I will admit that a fortnight ago when I first sat on her I had a bit of a meltdown. I think it was the combination of postnatal hormones and the fact that riding her brought home the fact that I really have turned over the page and closed the chapter on riding Otis. Which is still a hard pill to swallow. However, today I had a belated birthday present from one of my closest friends and it’s made everything fall into place. My gift was a tie pin of Otis’s tail hair – so that he’s always with Phoenix and I when we compete.

The Next Step

This week the saddler came to fit my saddles to Phoenix. I knew she was wider than Otis … but I didn’t expect her to be that much wider!

Otis had the wide gullet bar in both his saddles, and Phoenix needs the extra extra wide bar! Which unfortunately the saddler didn’t have, because he so rarely needs it. Anyway, he adjusted my dressage saddle as best he could so that it wouldn’t ride forwards up her neck and then watched me ride in it. It’s not perfect, but at least I can start riding and change the gullet bar when it arrives. And of course, Phoenix will change shape as she gets fitter and muscles up so will need her saddle checking in a couple of months time anyway.

She was very good considering it has been four months since she’d been sat on. Her back was up initially when I got on, but after being led around for a minute she relaxed.

With the saddler I only did a few minutes, but today I got to have a proper play.

Phoenix is very sensitive to the leg, although we need to develop her reaction to the leg so that I can ask her to bend around the inside leg instead of sidestepping. When I was cooling her down at the end she was starting to bend around my inside leg so I’m sure that will come quickly, especially as I will be doing slow and steady while the saddle isn’t a perfect fit and while I improve my fitness. The trot feels active but not as bouncy as Otis’s – which is a relief while I rediscover my stomach muscles! Her transitions are fairly balanced, and she responds well to the seat. I just need to make sure the downward transitions aren’t too sudden.

I felt she had a good natural rhythm, occasionally faltering but that’s not surprising considering that she’s learning to balance my weight as well as hers. In terms of suppleness we need to work on getting her to bend through her rib cage, but that will come as she better understands my leg aids. She was more wiggly than I expected, swinging her hindquarters to the right. As she gets more supple and balanced on turns she’ll be less wiggly, which is quite normal for green horses.

Phoenix feels uphill to ride, and she felt more consistent to the contact then I was expecting. She puts herself onto the bit but can go behind the vertical so I expected her to be lighter and slightly behind the bridle, particularly as she’s not had any pressure on her mouth for months.

From our short ride yesterday I’ve devised a plan for Phoenix’s ridden work. I want to aim to ride her three times a week and lunge her once, but it’s open to change, depending on the weather and babysitters. We’ll stick to walk and trot initially, with canter work on the lunge, and focus on transitions with general school movements and encouraging her to work in a long and low frame, and encouraging her nose to stay on or in front of the vertical. As her balance through the transitions and in her frame improves so will the quality of her walk and trot. Of course, this work can be done on hacks too. We have a large field to ride round, which will provide variation to the arena as well.

Today I spent twenty minutes in the school on walk circles and serpentines getting Phoenix to bend and she was starting to bend well. Then we did some transitions into trot with lots of circles and changes of rein. I felt Phoenix was in a slightly longer frame and taking her neck out a bit more. Then to finish we did some halt transitions, more suppling work in walk and then had a try of walking on a long rein. She stretched down before going behind the bridle and causing the reins to go loose, and her walk slowed down as she drifted into the middle of the school. This is quite normal for green horses, because they’ve lost the guidance and security of the rein contact, but we’ll keep working on it until she’s confident in stretching and walking purposefully.

I’ll keep you updated! But it’s very exciting to have a project to work on again, especially one who’s so keen to learn!

Why Do We Have Trot Diagonals?

An excellent question posed by one of my clients recently, which I thought was worthy of a blog post.

For her school work, she wanted to know why we have trot diagonals and why we lay so much importance on them.

Firstly, it’s my biggest bug bear I think, when riders are ignorant of their trot diagonals – the ability to rise with unconscious autonomy and their age or ability to understand are the only exceptions. I just feel that by taking note of the little details of riding, such as trot diagonals, leads to a better learning focus and eye for details which can make all the difference in a dressage test. For example, if you overlook the incorrect diagonal, are you going to ride accurate school movements and strive to improve them?

I digress.

The legs move in diagonal pairs in trot, so when you are on the correct diagonal the outside foreleg and inside hindleg are stepping forwards as you rise out of the saddle. Before I continue, I should clarify that this is the UK trot diagonals, and shouldn’t be confused with other countries (e.g. France, Russia) standards, which is reverse to ours … I won’t complicate matters!

For novice riders, who are yet to develop their feel I teach them to look at the movement of the forelegs. I use the outside limb because I think it’s easier to see the leg stepping forwards, but I know some instructors get riders to look for the inside foreleg moving forwards when the rider is sitting. I’ve not yet discovered the benefit of teaching this method but if someone would care to enlighten me that would be lovely. Once riders have developed their feel I introduce the idea of feeling what the legs are doing, in particular the inside hindleg so they no longer have to look down to check their trot diagonal.

Back to the original question.

As I said earlier, when on the correct diagonal the rider is rising when the inside hindleg and outside foreleg are stepping forwards. This means their weight is off the horse’s back with enables the horse to bring their inside hindleg further under their body, so increasing impulsion and encouraging the horse to engage their abdominals and lift their back, which all helps the horse work efficiently and correctly. The inside hind leg also bears more weight on a turn, so enabling it to step further under the horse’s body and relieving it of the rider’s weight until the leg hits the ground will allow the inside hip to drop slightly and for weight to be transferred into that limb.

Riding on the correct diagonal also helps the horse balance, and I find it helps them find the correct bend. In part, I think the upward swing of the rise by the rider helps the rider turn their body in the direction of the bend or turn. But whether that’s because the rider is using the propulsion from the inside hindleg, I’m not sure. Either way, there is a noticeable difference between a horse’s bend and balance when ridden on a circle on the correct and incorrect diagonal. I’ve heard that research has been done into the biomechanics of the effect of trot diagonals, which found that the stride length of a horse is longer when ridden on the correct diagonal, which would fit in with the improved balance theory.

It’s important to use the trot diagonals evenly – which is easier in the arena when you work evenly on both reins, but even happy hackers should be aware of changing their diagonals frequently on their hacks. If a horse is always ridden on the left diagonal – left foreleg and right hindleg stepping forwards in the rise phase – then the back muscles, particularly behind the saddle will develop asymmetrically. The left hindleg has to work harder to push forwards because the rider is in the sit phase, therefore the muscles become stronger and less supple. Have you ever ridden a horse in a straight line, and started off in sitting trot and found that the horse always “pushes” you up on one diagonal? This is because the horse has asymmetric muscles and gait, so needs work to correct the imbalance.

Riding Diamonds

I was sharing the arena with another instructor a couple of weeks ago and she was using the diamond exercise. I’ve used it before to good effect, but it had fallen off my radar. However, I could think of a couple of clients and horses who would benefit from this exercise.

Best done in a 20x40m arena so you have fence markers to help focus the rider’s eye.

Instead of riding a 20m circle at A, imagine you are riding a 20m diamond. A is one corner, X is another, and there are two more just on the fence line, ten metres from the corner – sometimes a bit of tape is needed to mark this as they are four metres away from K and F.

Starting in walk, ride a straight line from point to point. Just before each corner collect the walk slightly, and then ensuring you are using the outside aids, push the outside shoulder around the turn. The horse will naturally slow and lose impulsion so ride positively out of the corner.

Riding a diamond improves a rider’s awareness of the outside aids and increases control over the outside shoulder as well as reducing their reliance on the inside rein. It highlights any crookedness in a horse, for example a horse will find it harder to move around a right rein corner if they are naturally a right banana. Moving around each corner will encourage the horse to take more weight onto their hindquarters and to bring the inside hindleg under their body more, all helping to strengthen the limbs and improve the quality of the gaits.

After riding a couple of diamonds, you should start to feel the hind legs stepping under more purposefully.

You can then progress to riding the exercise in trot and canter. I find that the biggest improvement is often seen in canter, where the inside hindleg becomes more active and improves the three beat rhythm. As the straightness improves the canter gains elevation and impulsion as the hindlegs work directly on the horse’s centre of gravity so the forehand lightens and the canter feels more effortless.

Some examples of horses and riders who have benefited from this exercise over the last week are as follows:

  • One pony drifts through his right shoulder and his rider has a mobile right hand, so riding this exercise, particularly on the left rein, focused my rider on her wobbly outside rein and helped straighten her pony. The difference was particularly noticeable in the canter work.
  • Another mare likes to push through the outside rein and triggers her rider to use the inside rein, so the diamonds were most beneficial to her at the very beginning of her warm up to establish the outside aids and ensure the mare is respecting her rider’s aids so that the rest of their workout is more productive as the mare is more focused on her rider.
  • Another mare is very lazy with her hindquarters, and transitions have a limited effect on engaging her hindquarters when she begins a session by being behind the leg because she wriggles through the shoulder, so riding the diamonds help engage her hindquarters and maintain the straightness because in an attempt to evade using her hindquarters the mare jackknifes through the shoulder. Then we can use a combination of transitions and other school movements to help get the mare off the forehand.

Exaggerating Half Halts

I think we take it for granted sometimes as riders, how much we do subconsciously and automatically.

When you’re learning the process is as follows:

  • Verbally given an instruction
  • Think about how to carry out the instruction
  • Act out the instruction.

As you gain experience and knowledge, the first step and the second step merge together. You may not be told specifically what to do but you will think about what you need to do. For example, instead of being told by an instructor to put your leg on as a pony backs off a fence you will feel the pony back off and decide for yourself to put the leg on.

Then of course, it becomes innate and you will automatically put the leg on when a pony backs off a fence without consciously thinking about applying the aids.

As a rider, I think I sometimes forget how many half halts, or micro transitions, I make in order to maintain a horse’s rhythm and balance around the school. Sometimes they’re barely noticeable, just an engagement of my core or shifting my weight back slightly, buts it’s all innate.

I’ve been working with a client and her young horse over the winter. He’s been well educated in long reins and on the lunge but he’s a big boy and recently he’s started bearing down on the hand in trot. We’ve focused on establishing the trot rhythm and basic school movements – progressive transitions and circles etc. He’s coming along well, but I was starting to get concerned with how the horse was leaning on his rider’s hands and throwing his head down. Where he’s a big horse, he was also causing her to pitch forwards slightly.

Then I realised that my rider probably isn’t doing enough half halting, or rebalancing, of her young horse. Either she wasn’t picking up on the first sign of him losing his balance so was acting too late, or the half halts weren’t being effective either from her or in the fact the young horse didn’t understand them.

We discussed the fact that when the horse threw his head forwards he was loading his forehand, and whilst it’s understandable that he’s not very strong because he’s a baby, we couldn’t allow leaning on the contact to become a habit. Especially with 18hh worth of horse!

I explained that we were going to exaggerate the half halts, or rebalancing aids, to make it crystal clear to the horse that he needs to come off the forehand and carry himself. It’s important that the hand stays steady but light, and when a horse leans on you it’s a natural reflex to tighten the arms and hold back – like a tug of war.

I got my rider to work her horse in trot, and as soon as she felt him start to bear down on the hand she needed to ride a downwards transition to walk. It’s still a positive transition, in that she was asking with the seat and leg as well as the hand, but the act of going into walk shifted the horse’s weight back towards his hindquarters. After a couple of strides of a good quality walk, it was back into trot. Again, in the upwards transition she was aiming for it to be correct and for him to push up into trot with his hind legs.

We did some circles, changes of rein, and serpentines adding in the rebalancing transitions every time the horse started to drop onto the forehand. After a few minutes the difference was surprising. Whilst not collected by any means because he’s a baby and developing his muscles, he found self carriage. To be picky, he was above the bridle but he was tracking up, looked lighter in front, and was still to the contact. And more importantly, staying consistent in his trot rhythm and looking more balanced.

Now that he’d discovered self carriage, my rider could adjust her position, to ensure she wasn’t slightly pitched forwards (which tends to happen when a horse leans on the hands). This meant that she was more balanced, which only served to help her horse stay in balance – a win win situation.

Then we progressed to riding half halts in the more traditional sense – subtly. Where the horse was in self carriage his rider could engage her core and use very discreet aids, and the horse understood more, and found it easier to react and correct himself.

From this, my rider now needs to develop her internal metronome and become more aware of slight loss of balance in her horse’s way of going. Then she can discreetly rebalance him and he will find it easier to respond to the corrections. If he has a day when he is really bearing down on the hands then repeating the transition exercise will help him rediscover self carriage. After all, he has self carriage on the lunge, but that’s without the weight of a rider or their independent balance to worry about.

It’s tricky to teach the feeling of rhythm and balance, and for a rider to learn when and how much to correct, because with a green horse you may be making subtle corrections every other stride, but once a rider develops this innate process they will be able to apply it to all areas of their riding and be able to improve the way of going of any horse that they sit on.