My ITT Exam

I had a blog topic all lined up for you tonight, but as I had the very exciting news in the post today that I passed my BHS Intermediate Teaching Test, which together with my Stage IV that I got a few years ago, I’m now a BHS Intermediate Instructor! Yay!! So instead tonight I’m going to bore you with the details of my exam, and my other story will just have to wait – apologies in advance!


I had a very early start to get to my exam in order to avoid the M25 at rush hour, but when I got there with plenty of time I buddied up with another girl, who seemed confident and knew what we were supposed to be doing! Off we went to the indoor schools; to walk the simulated cross country and showjumping courses. We would be teaching one of those lessons, but would only be told in the briefing at 8.15am. The cross country course looked fairly straightforward and walked well. However the showjumping had slightly dodgy striding, which would mean we’d need to adjust it during the lesson. 

Our five examiners all seemed very nice – approachable and friendly. If not slight batty. But I think that happens to everyone in the horse world at some point! They put us at ease anyway, and once all the paperwork and everything was filled out we started the exam.

First up, I had presentations and equitation theory. I think I was quite glad to get the presentations out the way because it was definitely an area that worried me. In the ITT exam you prepare nine presentations on coaching topics, and present a random one. I was given “non-rider injury prevention”. Not my favourite, but also by no means the hardest one! I had to present it to the two other ladies in my group, who got nicely involved. I think the main point of the presentations is that the examiner can see that you engage with your audience and have a discussion more than a lecture.

The equitation theory covered training horses up to elementary standard, describing how to ride various dressage movements, and how you would develop both horse and rider over fences. As well as preparing them for their first competition. All of my friends’ quizzing the week before paid off as I felt quite happy answering questions. I was cut off a couple of times, which always worries you, but I think that was because the examiner was happy with my answer and wanted another candidate to give their thoughts. Overall, I left that section feeling nicely focused and confident, which I think made me feel better for the flat private lesson, which was next!

Two candidates took this unit of the exam simultaneously, so there were two horses ready for us. One, I recognised from my training day as being the quirky one who changed canter lead behind every half dozen strides. To my relief, I had the slightly daunting Spanish horse complete in double bridle … there’s a post somewhere already about that. Here it is!

Anyway, I felt I got a good rapport with the rider and made some tweaks to both horse and rider. I managed to answer the examiner’s questions after and she seemed happy enough so I felt that went alright. I also felt quite confident that this rider would give positive and fair feedback to the examiner.

My next stop was the private jump lesson, and I was in the showjumping arena. My rider was an ex-eventer but had never ridden this riding school horse before. I announced to the examiner that as they were an unknown combination I’d treat it as an assessment lesson so they could develop a relationship. So I lowered the fences a bit below standard. They warmed up and the horse was very honest and straightforward. Just crooked, and drifted left all the time. It was also stuffy so I shortened all the distances to build it’s confidence, and we put together the course in stages. There was a dog leg to the right, and we had a couple of problems with the horse drifting to the left and around the style. So I explained to my rider how to adjust her line so that she had as many straight strides as possible before the style. Then they flew it and the rest of the course no problem. When I spoke to the examiner afterwards I said I wouldn’t take them much over 80cm until the straightness and suppleness issues were sorted, which the examiner said she agreed wholeheartedly with. I felt this lesson went well generally, but I was slightly worried that I hadn’t jumped big enough. But then I’d provided a reason so that was the best I could do really.

After a really long lunch break because of the timetabling, I had business management. Again, I felt that went reasonably well and I answered all the questions; including the bonus one that DEFRA can randomly inspect yards to see if all horses have passports and if they haven’t you can be fined up to £1000 per horse – ouch! Some of these questions were a bit of common sense and some purely educated guesses so fingers crossed!

Then I had to teach a group of riders on the flat – thank god I didn’t need to test my grid distances because these riding school horses would struggle with competition distances and it would have upset my frame of mind. I had three riders and two stuffy horses, and one which didn’t bend. After watching them warm up I introduced a four loop serpentine (the arena was 70m long!) which would benefit all the horse’s suppleness and then I put in transitions to help those that were behind the leg. Then we did trot-canter-trot transitions to help improve the quality of the canter. Everyone seemed to improve and the riders gave me good feedback, which I hoped they’d reiterate to the examiner.

Finally, I had to do a lunge lesson. I felt fairly well prepared for this, but when I arrived I saw a rather dour looking woman. And I was reminded of the conversation over lunch … “I had X to teach. She wasn’t very helpful. She didn’t listen to anything I said.” 

I knew it was the same lady, so felt a bit put off. And I was also feeling a little tired by then, so I made a couple of mistakes – forgetting to undo the reins until the last minute as she was mounting, and not encouraging her to hold on to the saddle in her very bouncy trot without stirrups. So I came away slightly frustrated, but at least I thought I had raised a smile and she had complied with my instructions so hopefully she would give the examiner fair feedback. 

Thankfully I missed the rush hour back to get home in time for Pilates, and since then I’ve been reflecting and dissecting the whole day until today’s post! 

Along with my certificates I had feedback from the lessons, which is really great. The examiners all said I managed the lessons safely, improved the riders, developed a rapport, had good structure to my lessons, used open questions to engage my riders, and gave relevant technical knowledge – I’m so pleased!

So now I’ve bored you all to tears about my ITT exam, I’ll finish my glass of wine and make a start on the very large box of chocolates my long suffering husband bought home with some flowers. 

A Daunting Task

I taught a very daunting lesson earlier this week with a guinea pig rider.

She entered the arena with a rather snazzy looking Spanish horse, bedecked in a double bridle. 

The rider was very confident, as she was legged up onto the jogging mare. I made the necessary enquiries to tick the box:

  • What’s the rider’s name, riding experience, qualifications, medical history.
  • What’s the horse’s name, experience, history and medical history.
  • What was the horse and rider relationship.

This girl was a Stage IV rider and this was her new horse, recently come over from Spain. It could do all the lateral movements but didn’t have a competition record.

Gulp.

What on earth should I teach them?!

I admit, I felt slightly out of my depth. I take a while to get into my groove, especially with confident riders because I get a bit intimidated. The horse was also a far higher calibre than I’ve taught before.

I started the session by watching them warm up. It gave me time to think. The trot was choppy and short striding; the canter was bouncy and tense and this rider said that whilst the horse didn’t feel like she was going to bolt, she was strong. The mare tried to evade the contact by tucking her nose to her chest. The rider had a good balanced position, and secure lower leg. If I’m going to be really picky, she was a bit collapsed in her upper body, and had a tendency to fix her hands.

I had a plan. Despite the horse’s high level of training, there were some basic elements that we could improve. Equally though, the mare was hot and quick thinking, so needed to be kept mentally stimulated. 

I explained to my rider that I felt we should work on relaxing the mare, and getting her to take the contact forwards, instead of tucking behind the bridle. As the mare was a busy type, I suggested we used leg yield to get the mare stepping under with her inside hind leg and taking the contact forwards. Our focus being on the neck staying long and the mare relaxing.

We started in walk, and immediately it was obvious that the mare is very talented with an extravagant crossover. She easily leg yielded from the three-quarter line to the track. However, as with any big mover, she had the tendency to escape from her rider – in the leg yield the rider tends to lose her outside shoulder. 

Once we moved into the trot the loss of the outside shoulder was more noticeable, so I brought my riders   attention to her outside rein contact, making sure it prevented too much inside flexion and supported the outside shoulder. Then I highlighted how she was pinning her inside rein by the wither, so encouraging the mare to turn to the inside and fall through the outside shoulder. As soon as that hand was carried forwards the leg yield improved because they were straight. Then we turned our attention to keeping the trot rhythm consistent through the movement.

After working on both reins I felt there was a slight improvement; the rider was more in tune with the horse, who was starting to lengthen her neck and was moving laterally in a more relaxed manner.

I didn’t want to work on the canter – no need to over complicate matters – so we moved on to zig zag leg yielding. This was to ensure the mare wasn’t anticipating going from the three-quarter line to the track, and was responsive to the riders outside leg. The rider also had to make more subtle aids and change her position slowly as she changed direction so as to help maintain their balance. We talked about which direction was easier: the left leg yield was more extravagant but felt less controlled, than the right which had less crossing but was straighter and with no rushing. 

By the end of the session I felt the mare was much improved, with a longer trot stride, and more relaxed and consistent in her frame. I did mention to her rider about trying her in just a snaffle bridle to establish a consistent contact, and to get the horse seeking it more, but I think as it’s early days in their relationship it might be an exercise for the future. This rider gave me positive feedback, and seemed to understand the lesson concept and reasoning behind it, so hopefully I’ve helped her. 

Now that I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and managed to survive I actually reflect on that lesson in a positive light, and would quite like to teach this pair in the future.

Building Expression

I was schooling a horse recently who has very correct and established paces, but isn’t the biggest mover so often has average marks in a dressage test as he lacks the “wow” factor. So I had a play at building some expression into his work.

Once I’d warmed him up long and low, stretching over his back, and had done some lateral work, I opened him up into some medium trot. He lengthened nicely from behind, but he could have given more.

I was riding in a large arena, and you need to have one which is more that 20m wide in order to ride this exercise.

In trot, establish shoulder in at the beginning of the long side. Halfway along, ride out of the shoulder in onto a 45 degree turn, so you effectively cut the corner off, and ask some medium trot. When you reach the short side, approximately halfway along, stay on the same rein in working trot. 

The shoulder in collects the horse, gets their inside hind leg underneath them and taking their weight. Which means it’s in a better position to push forwards to medium trot. The turn onto the diagonal line ensures they don’t fall out of the outside shoulder as you ride out of shoulder in and ask for medium trot. Staying on the same rein after the medium trot makes the exercise simpler as they don’t need to change bend, so keep their balance easier and maintain the impulsion into working trot.

The result is a more extravagant and powerful medium trot and an expressive working trot, which is still rhythmical and balanced, yet would earn more marks in a dressage test. 

It’s a fun exercise, so try putting it together next time you ride and see if you can feel the improvement in their general way of going as a result.

Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 

Inputting Impulsion

With one of my young riders we’re slowly working through the scales of training; getting her to understand, apply and improve her pony. Rhythm and suppleness have improved, and she has now grasped the feel of a good contact, and knows how to ride her pony into the contact when he hollows and comes above the bit.

So our next phase is to improve and increase their impulsion. I always explain to clients that basically impulsion is energy without speed; when energy is the purposefulness, or desire to go forwards. 

But it can be tricky for riders to generate the impulsion without losing the first two stages – rhythm and suppleness. 

When I asked my client for some suggestions to generate some impulsion into the trot, she replied by telling me that when she uses her leg to put in some energy her pony gets faster. Which didn’t really answer my question, but was a valid observation. I explained why her pony, who is a jumping machine, thought leg meant faster and how he pulls himself forwards, instead of using his hindquarters.

She still hadn’t worked out how to improve her pony’s impulsion, so I brought in a bit of maths.

If she adds energy to her horse but also gets speed, then she should use this to help improve the amount of energy he has in his gait. Then, when the energy is established, she can take away the speed. Once the speed is taken away, she is left with impulsion.

Then my rider suggested she could use medium trot to create impulsion. I agreed, and off she went.

Along the long sides of the school she focused on putting energy into the trot; feeling her pony use his hindquarters, and not losing the rhythm. Then as she approached the short side, she had to take away the speed. By the time she’d done a few transitions she could feel the improvement in the trot, so we added in circles to practice maintaining the impulsion for longer. 

Now she’s got the feeling of a more purposeful trot we can focus on maintaining this level of impulsion for longer periods, and then maintaining it on circles and school movements, checking that the rhythm and suppleness aren’t inhibited. 

Working through the scales of training is like peeling an onion; each time you introduce another level, or increase the difficulty, then you need to revisit the previous levels to ensure total understanding by horse and rider, and to make sure the horse continues to work correctly and to  improve. After all, if one of the building blocks starts to erode as you move up the levels and you don’t fix it then the whole thing falls down. 

Directly or Indirectly?

I started explaining to one of the kids this week about the direct and indirect aids. They sometimes get lost in translation and are easily confused. I’ve read many woolly explanations, but by far this one is the clearest – Holistic equitation.

When you first learn to ride, and most kids continue to do so, you learn that the inside rein steers the horse in the direction you want, and the outside leg pushes them there. Or words to that effect.

The rein used in this instance is the direct rein. Put simply, it is brought backwards to encourage the horse to turn in the direction of the pressure. Holistic Equitation explain the mechanics of this well: the direct rein causes the weight to go to the inside foreleg and the hindquarters to pivot out, like a motorcycle round a corner.

However, once a rider is co-ordinated and reaches a certain level of understanding, it’s time to introduce the indirect rein. This is the outside bend of the horse. Wikipedia describes it as pulling back but I don’t think that’s correct – perhaps not going forward is a more correct way of thinking of it. The indirect rein can close to the outside shoulder, towards the horse’s centre of gravity without crossing the wither, and is used to regulate the amount of neck bend, to support the outside shoulder and is vital for performing lateral movements. The indirect rein transfers the weight to the centre of the horse’s body and into the opposite hind leg (the inside hind). The shoulders then pivot around the weighted hind leg, like a skier doing a slalom. 

I introduced this concept to a young rider this week because she’d fallen into the classic trap of pulling her inside rein, letting the outside hand go forwards as she turned, which let the pony twist his neck and drift through the outside shoulder. Her pony now exploits this on the left rein. As the left hand comes back he curls his neck so the right hand goes forward, and he drops his shoulder to turn right on the last quarter of the circle.

I kept the concept simple as she’s only young, and did some work on keeping her hands as a pair and creating an awareness of where they were. Then I focused her attention on using more outside leg and less inside rein, which kept her pony straighter. And stopped her actively giving the outside rein away. 

I don’t think she’s quite ready, physically or mentally, to fully grasp how to use her reins directly or indirectly, but I hope that the seeds are sown so that she’s aware of how to control her pony’s outside shoulder, and stop him drifting out and then dropping his shoulder to turn right. As soon as my rider kept her indirect rein, and kept her upper body tall, her pony trotted the circles perfectly! Once this is mastered, all school movements will become straight forward and her pony will oblige readily.

 Often I think the indirect aids aren’t introduced, in a simple level, early enough in a rider’s education which means that they are always more reliant on the direct rein and will always struggle with the finer movements at any dressage level as their horse will come out of a movement unbalanced and develop bad habits and a poor way of going which puts them at a higher risk of injury.

Riding Deep

When people talk about riding a horse deep, you (or at least I) immediately start thinking of rolkur. But rolkur is the extreme.

Let’s start by talking about what is riding a horse deep. A deep frame is when the horse’s nose is pointing towards the knees, the neck rounded and the topline stretched, and poll no longer the highest point. There’s a fine line between being deep and being hyper flexed, i.e. Rolkur – I saw an explanation that stated that rolkur is when the nose is towards the chest, rather than knee, for a prolonged length of time. The important thing when observing or riding a horse in a deep frame is that the hindquarters are still pushing through actively and they are not behind the contact with a short, tight neck.

So why do we ride horses deep? Rolkur is the sin of all sins, but often competition riders warming up will ride a horse deeply for a few minutes, treading along the delicate line. Firstly, I guess it is a good stretch for the topline muscles, and putting a horse deep for a few strides will improve the horse’s way of going when you revert to the classical position, of poll being the highest point and nose on the vertical as the back muscles are more released so are lifted and more supple.

Secondly, if you have a spooky horse, riding them round and deep can improve your control and prevent them spooking as you can position them more easily into shoulder in. Then once they’ve settled to work you can encourage them to lift the poll.

Some horses naturally put themselves in a deep frame. I think this can be partly due to conformation, and partly due to past training. One horse I ride is very spooky so I tend to have her a little bit deep when warming her up so I get some decent work, rather than numerous sideways jumps. Once she’s settled to work and her focus is on me I start to encourage her to lengthen her neck into a longer and lower position. This tests her balance quite a lot because the head and neck count for a significant percentage of the horse’s weight, and just like it’s harder to carry a weight out away from your body, it’s harder for them to carry their heads further away from their body. I’m sure a mathematician could provide a lecture about levers here, but I’ll leave that to them. So in this case, being able to adjust her frame makes her more rideable.

If you’re riding a horse that likes to put themselves a bit deep, how do you encourage them into the classical position of their nose on the vertical? Firstly, a horse can go over bent if the hand is too restrictive, or if they are not coming through from the hindquarters. So check that your reins aren’t too short or your hands heavy. Then do some transitions to help activate the hindquarters and improve their suppleness over their back, keeping your attention on the feeling underneath the saddle rather than how the front end looks.

Once these corrections have been made then you can turn your attention to actively correcting the horse as they tuck their neck in. When you feel the neck tucking in and the nose dropping, keep your legs long and wrap them around the barrel, to lift the horse up and to encourage them to engage their abdominals. Feel that your pushing the horse from the leg into the hand and as the horse moves into the contact, allow the hand to move up the neck to encourage the horse to lengthen his neck as he seeks the contact. This doesn’t want to be a big movement because the horse needs to find the contact so they don’t lose confidence in your empty promises. Keeping your shoulders up will also help the horse by not overloading the forehand. 

These corrections to their balance is very subtle and should be done as frequently as the horse tucks behind the contact and gets deep. Then hopefully they will learn and strengthen this new frame. Lunging in side reins is also quite useful so long as the side reins are slightly on the long side and you actively get the hindquarters pushing forwards, otherwise you risk tying the horse’s head in. You always want to encourage the horse to be stretching forwards towards the contact.

The aim of correcting a horse who likes to work deeply is to encourage them to lengthen the neck out, but as I said earlier it’s hard for them so build it up by tiny increments and remember that they will tire quickly. Matt has a tendency to get a bit deep, when he stops tracking up and forgets to push with his hind legs, but just closing the leg and letting my hands inch forwards puts him back into the classical frame with his nose on the vertical and gets his back swinging nicely again.

We had this issue, if that’s the correct word, on a lesson earlier this week when one of the mares I was teaching with decided to demonstrate hyperflexion. Her rider wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I think the mare was evading using her back (which is tight, and work in progress) by curling her neck to her chest. While I desperately hoped no one thought I was encouraging this behaviour, I asked my rider to squeeze with her legs and then allow with the hand when the mare lifted her head and neck. A “good girl” when she’s corrected herself and hopefully as the mare gets more supple and stronger in her back she will find it easier to carry herself properly and we’ll see less of her curling her neck down.