Some Good Advice

I've bought myself a new book, to expand my horizons and further my knowledge, about ground work. It's called Schooling Exercises in-hand and, from my brief flick through it seems to explain how to execute lateral movements from the ground well.

In the introductory chapter, however, is a verse by Rudolph Binding which I thought was worth sharing.

The horse is your mirror.

It never flatters you.

It reflects your mood.

It also mirrors your changes.

Never get annoyed with your horse,

For you can just as well get annoyed with your mirror.

In a nutshell, this verse means that you should never allow negative emotions to surface when around your horse because the horse will recognise the tension and negative energy so will perform badly. Likewise, having a positive frame of mind and positive body language will subconsciously praise and reward the horse, leading to him performing better.

Self-control. One lesson that horses teach us, as well as the ability to recognise when you are not in the right frame to work your horse and instead treat him to a good grooming session or go for a relaxing hack.

The Crest Flip

We discussed the crest flip at dressage camp, and last week the following video came up on my social media.

The Crest Flip Demonstration

Now, camp seems a long time ago, but I'll endeavour to remember what we discussed.

The horse I was riding finds it difficult to connect through his body, back to front, and where he "cheats" and just holds his neck, he had developed an enlarged muscle one third of the way down his neck – where the trapezius inserts. We worked on releasing this knot of muscle by getting him to flex his head and neck, so releasing the muscles in his jaw and neck.

From above, I could see that an inch section of his mane insisted on falling left, which was where the tension was held.

When I managed to release those muscles, I was rewarded with that inch of mane flipping over to the right, to join the rest of his mane.

I had never heard of the Crest Flip before, but I've been keeping my eyes peeled for it on other horses.

Pony Club Dressage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day One of Pony Club Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Realignment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Observations

I had a client riding her Mum’s horse this week, who she hasn’t ridden very often, and hasn’t jumped her for a long time. 

I think she was slightly nervous when we began jumping, a bit worried about the unknown. So we had a discussion about how to create her own set of expectations for riding the unknown.

When you go to ride a different horse, perhaps when viewing to buy, you invariably see it ridden beforehand. By considering your observations, you know what to expect. They may not live up to these expectations, but at least you are more prepared.

In the case of this rider, I asked her what she’d seen, or noticed, when her Mum jumped. She pondered for a minute, until I gave her some hints. Eventually my rider said that the horse she was riding doesn’t rush into fences, sometimes backs off fences and usually chips in a stride. She didn’t think she drifted left or right though.

I totally agreed. The mare is very different to my rider’s usual mount in that she is steady towards fences and prefers to get in too deep. So with the knowledge of the mare’s tendencies, or preferences, we developed a plan for riding the fence. My rider decided that she needed to create a really energetic canter, and have her leg ready to maintain the energy if the mare backed off the fence, and also to keep the handbrake off and be very positive to discourage the last minute chip-in. 

They set off. The canter was energetic, and they had a straight approach. Because my rider was prepared, she was ready to counteract the slight reluctance as the mare calculated the fence. The result was a very rhythmical, positive approach so they had the perfect take off point.

We continued building a grid, and they jumped beautifully. I was very pleased with how quickly my rider adapted to her ride and how she read and reacted to the mare’s canter approach to best support her.

Which led me to thinking. How much can you learn about a horse and their way of going from watching? 

Firstly, you can gauge the horse’s behaviour; are they spooking at a particular area of the school? Do they have their head up and focused in the distance? Are they tense or relaxed?

Then you can look at the way they are going. If the rider is having to use a lot of leg, or has a lax rein contact. This tells you the responsiveness to the leg aids and the level of tension, or likelihood of the horse rushing. Does the horse have a long stride, or is it high-stepping? Do they track up? If they have an active stride, or a short stride, they will feel quite bouncy when you ride. Although this doesn’t help you ride, it helps prepare you for how they will feel.

Although horses are influenced by their riders, by watching a horse working, you can start to make educated guesses as to which rein is easier for the horse, whether they have a tendency to drift left or right, and if there’s any crookedness in their body. This knowledge will make you more aware of any discrepancies between the horse’s reins and then you will be quicker to support and correct them. Having an educated guess as to what to expect will also make you more confident when you get on board too.

So if you know what to look for, and can begin to piece together how a horse looks from the ground, then they are familiar when you first sit on board and you can quickly adapt to them and start to influence their way of going. Of course, sometimes they can surprise you. It’s quite a skill, but try watching some horses at your yard and see if you can work out how they might feel to ride – if you’re lucky you might even get the chance to experience them.

Dressage Camp – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressage Camp Part 1

Last weekend I took a client’s horse to a two day dressage camp. I felt I needed inspiring, could do with the motivation, and this particular horse has some issues (that isn’t really the right phrase) that I could do with some helpful suggestions to improve and I also knew I’d be able to apply my learnings to other horses that I ride. 

The weekend’s learning was split however I preferred, so I opted for a forty-five minute private lesson on each day. It was really interesting in the first session because this trainer picked up on exactly what I wanted to work on. Sometimes I think I’d be difficult to teach because I have quite specific aims for a lesson, but other times I think I’m probably quite easy because I’m focused.

Anyway, the main focus for the weekend was straightness and creating a true connection over the back. Whilst not particularly crooked, this horse often falls through his outside shoulder and avoids stepping under with his inside hind, and carries his quarters fractionally to the right.

The trainer immediately asked if the horse hollows in downward transitions, to which my answer was a resounding yes. He raises his head and blocks his back so doesn’t step under with his hindlegs. 

There are three phases of the hindleg movement in the transitions, I was told; the time it is in the air, moving forwards; the time it is underneath the horse’s body; and the time it is out behind the body. This horse tends to spend more time with his leg out behind the body, which means he isn’t carrying himself on his quarters and won’t be able to collect, but he also is unable to push into the transitions easily. 

So the aim of the game over the weekend was to alter the balance of this horse so that he spent more time with his hind leg underneath him, in a springier, bouncier trot.

One exercise we did to help improve the activity of the hind legs is shown in the video below. In walk I spiralled down onto a ten metre circle, and then asked the shoulders to come in slightly and the hindquarters to go out, so riding leg yield on the circle. The trainer assisted from the ground as this horse found it tricky initially and blocked his inside hind. We did this exercise predominantly on the right rein as it is this way that his hindquarters sit to the inside and he escapes to the left shoulder. So the exercise worked on his suppleness through the rib cage, straightening his neck, and teaching him to bring his inside hind under his body more. The difference in his trot when I straightened and rode out of the circle was incredible. His hind legs were like pistons firing the energy up and forwards so the trot was very balanced, effortless, and straight – there was a leg at each corner and I didn’t have to worry about him wobbling out. Once he was carrying himself like this it was easier to work on the bend and engagement of his topline, but that’s another post! 


Matt’s Latest Adventure 

It never rains, but it pours. At least it did for me last week. Otis had his MRI, which I told you about last weekend – Which you can read here –  but simultaneously Matt was having a big adventure of his own.

Mum went to catch him on Saturday afternoon to feed him and give him some TLC. He was grazing in the field quietly, away from the others. Mum put his headcollar on and asked him to walk on. He wouldn’t move. She got a bit angry as he is sometimes can be stubborn about coming in. But he still wouldn’t walk.

In the event, with one of the girls practically pushing Matt, they got him down the field and onto the yard. He was dragging his hind leg, which had a small wound on the stifle.

Mum cleaned it up and rang the vet. She duly turned up and examined the puncture wound, after sedating Matt of course as he didn’t like it very much! The vet was concerned about an infection as the wound was close to the joint, and the stifle is a very shallow joint, so the vet arranged for Matt to be admitted to the local equine hospital that evening.

Leaving a sedated Matt in the closest stable, loaded with painkillers, Mum drove home to collect non-horsey Dad and the trailer. By the time they got back the sedation had worn off and Matt was less than impressed at being in with no friends. You may remember from the winter that he doesn’t like being left in without company. He danced around and refused to load until Mum got the yard owner out in her pyjamas to say a couple of stern words to him.

So it was 8.30-9pm when they got to the, thankfully, local horse-pital. Matt was sedated again, and X-rayed. This was when they found the fracture.

I think it’s the top of the tibia that is fractured, it’s non-weight bearing and it isn’t the patella. I’ve asked to see the x-rays so will share once I do.

After the X-ray, the area was ultrasounded. This was looking for oxygen bubbles in the stifle joint, which are indicative of an infection. Thankfully he got the all clear in this area, so was put into his stable and hooked up to a drip and an intensive course of antibiotics started. This was to hopefully nip any infection in the bud and if there wasn’t yet an infection it was a preventive measure. He was dosed up on painkillers and left.

On Sunday, the vets were pleased to say that there didn’t look to be a joint infection, which meant Matt didn’t need to go to the nearest university hospital. 

With Mum and Dad about to go on their annual holiday, it was all systems go to organise Matt’s care. Thankfully, Mum has some lovely friends who offered to look after Matt on his box rest while she was away. 

Matt had to stay in hospital for five days: three days of intravenous antibiotics and two days of oral antibiotics. On Monday his painkillers were reduced as he was getting very agitated at being kept in and was box walking. I think they hoped that feeling a bit of pain would encourage him to stay still.

Last Thursday, Mum’s friend collected Matt and took him home. Mum had ordered a mixture of calming feeds and supplements contains chamomile, valerian, vervain and magnesium. All of which are known for their calming effect. Matt was still keen to eat, so had been having ad lib hay to try and occupy him, carrots hidden in haynets. He’s also had some cow parsley, hazel and willow branches to strip, and a likit toy is on it’s way. 

The first couple of days Matt expected to go out, but since the weekend he seems happier in this new routine so hopefully the effect of the calmer, plenty of forage and toys will keep him occupied.

He’s to stay on box rest for eight weeks, with another X-ray in six weeks time. Then limited exercise will ensue, with the aim of full turn out in twelve weeks time. Mum asked about picking up his feet, and the vet said his feet could be hoof picked if he’d let you, but keep the foot close to the ground to minimise the movement of the fracture. He can’t see the farrier until after his next X-ray because the fracture will open up in the next couple of weeks before closing and healing.


So lots of positive vibes to the little black dressage pony while he recuperates please, and hopefully the next couple of months go quickly and smoothly because he is not a patient patient!