Improving The Contact

I’ve been working on establishing a stable and secure rein contact with a client and her pony recently. They’re making good progress, but it’s an interesting journey.

When I first met them there was no contact. The pony was short and tight in the neck, truly behind the bridle, and spent his whole time chewing on the bit and moving his head, seeking a contact. His rider had reins that were slightly too long and hands that were a bit too mobile as she sought to find a contact.

Although the contact is the third stage of training in the German scales, I felt that in order to improve the suppleness and rhythm of the pony he needed to have some sort of contact to guide him and support his frame. So we focused on this initially.

In their first lesson I worked on shortening the rein, so my rider began to be able to feel the bit in the pony’s mouth. As she shortened the reins, we discussed them staying even in length and weight and the importance of her using her leg and seat to push (or drive, if you like) her pony towards the contact so that he reached out towards it instead of waving his head around looking for security.

I wasn’t too concerned about the position of the pony’s head initially, he tends to be behind the vertical. After all, once he is travelling forwards and seeking the bit into a more stable contact we can begin to encourage him to stretch and use his topline correctly.

I also did a bit of nagging to my rider to remind her to stabilise her hands. We discussed how the ideal contact is still and stable, and in order to teach her pony to be still to the contact she needed to provide a stable contact, a still hand, and wait for the pony to find it and learn that it is going to stay consistent.

They’ve been working really hard on this concept, and my rider is keeping her hands far stiller and her pony is having more and more moments “on the contact” so to speak.

Now that the contact is beginning to come, we moved on to looking at the rhythm and suppleness. The pony is a little bit backward thinking so we worked on transitions and getting the balance between the leg and seat encouraging forward motion, and there being a contact that isn’t restricting the forwardness yet is stable enough for the pony. I think this is where the lack of contact developed: in her focus to get her pony going forwards, my rider threw away the contact. However, I think the lack of contact knocked the confidence of the pony so he was less inclined to go off the leg, thus creating a circle.

The pony soon started going from the leg into the contact and covered the ground a bit more because his stride started to lengthen.

In terms of suppleness, we worked on the reins staying more even on turns and circles – so the inside hand doesn’t come back and the outside hand going forward – and then we were encouraging the pony to bend through his body, not just his neck. With the stability of the contact the pony will learn to use himself correctly and step under with his inside hind leg and take the weight of his body on it instead of falling out through the outside shoulder.

As the suppleness starts to improve, we began to address straightness. On the left rein, my rider is more supple and as she turns her body, her right hand shoots forward, thus losing the outside rein. Then the pony jack-knifes and drifts round the turns. Returning to the feeling of an even contact, and ensuring she provides stability in the rein for her pony to seek support from, they began to ride better left turns and stayed in balance.

The straightness will come in time, but just by supporting the outside shoulder a bit more, my rider’s steady rein contact encouraged the pony to use himself more correctly and by ensuring he works evenly on both reins his muscles will develop evenly and then the crookedness will start to dissipate.

In their latest lesson, I could see that things were coming together. The reins are a better length, the rhythm is improving and the stride lengthening with the pony thinking in a more forwards way. The two reins are beginning to look more even as the suppleness and straightness improves. Towards the end of the lesson I decided to introduce the next step.

The pony, whilst he is starting to use himself more correctly, he is still short and tight in the neck. This means that his brachiocephalic muscle is engaged, and he’s not “through” over his back. This means that energy doesn’t flow forwards from his hindquarters through his body and his abdominals and back muscles are switched off.

Encouraging the pony to stretch his neck out and down, will mean that he has to utilise his abdominals and back muscles to keep his balance. Then, he will start to lighten in his way of going and feel lighter, and feel more effortless. Once the trot felt forwards, and the contact still, I got my rider to lengthen her arms – not her reins – whilst closing the leg to push the pony towards this contact, which is slowly creeping out in front of him. A bit like a carrot on a stick! It’s important that my rider didn’t lose the contact though, so her arms had to lengthen by micro millimetres because if the pony lost the contact he would slow down and start fussing in his mouth.

It’s a very delicate balance, but one which needs introducing sooner rather than later, and only when they’ve established a steady contact in their schooling session. If the pony stops reaching for the contact then the elbows need to be bent to shorten the arms and recreate the steady contact within the pony’s comfort zone.

We had moments when the pony began to stretch his neck out, and then his frame softened and my rider could feel more movement under the saddle as well as a lighter, longer stride.

Over the next few weeks I’m aiming for the rein contact to become completely consistent, and for the rhythm, suppleness, balance, straightness to come together. Then as the pony gets stronger and more confident in his way of going we can increase the length of his neck and improve his topline more.

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The Chair Seat

A friend and I discussed this particular rider fault the other day, and it’s something I’ve touched on recently in a couple of lessons so it’s time for a blog post.

The ideal rider position has a vertical line from ear through the shoulder and hip, to the heel. The chair seat deviates from this because the vertical line is lost by the lower leg creeping forwards. When you look from the side, the rider’s outline is akin to if they were sat in a chair.

So why is the chair position frowned upon?

It’s most problematic in the rising trot. If you look at the ideal position, when you rise to the trot the lower leg stays under the body, and the rider can control their upper body so that they sit back into the centre of the saddle and immediately push themselves back out of the saddle. This means that the rider is quieter in their body language, more in control of their body and therefore more effective and precise with their aids. They are also more balanced, which means they are less likely to hinder the movement of the horse or be unbalanced by sudden movements.

Now think about the chair position, and imagine there’s a line going through the centre of the rider’s body, head to toe. If it were on a clock face the time would be 1.35, whereas the ideal position the line is vertical. Now as the rider rises from their chair position the lower leg swings back to balance the rider, who’s upper body comes forward. This means that the 1.35 line gets closer to the vertical when the rider is at the highest point of the rise. And swings back to the 1.35 position in the sit phase.

This means that the rider tends to sit down heavily onto the horse’s back, and towards the back of the saddle and the weaker part of the back. This heavy sit can damage the horse’s back, cause pain and unbalance them.

Collapsing into the saddle makes it harder for the rider to rise back up from the saddle. Which means they are hindering the horse’s movement further.

Ultimately in the chair position, the rider is less in control of their body so gives less effective aids, whilst also hindering the movement of the horse, and is more likely to be unbalanced by sudden movements.

So riding in a chair position makes it harder to influence the horse effectively because the crashing down movement of the sit discourages the horse from moving forwards, and the lower leg being further forward means it’s harder to apply the leg aid. Where the rider is sat on the back of the saddle they then find it harder to use their seat aid. Unfortunately this means that the horse is less inclined to move forwards and becomes “behind the leg” and lazy. This then causes the rider to try harder with the leg aids, which reinforces the chair position, and the lack of impulsion causes the rider to sit heavily back into the saddle, again reinforcing the chair position.

How do riders end up in the chair position? For young children, it’s often when they’ve been taught rising trot before they are strong enough, as the lack of strength in their legs and core means they need to swing their body up into the rise. The best way to overcome this is to make sure the saddle is the right size for the rider, and the stirrups the correct length so that the rider’s body is supported in the correct position. Then making sure the pony isn’t too lazy, so excessive leg aids aren’t needed. And then it’s just time needed to develop the correct muscles. One of my little riders falls back into the chair position every so often, and I find a useful analogy for her is that she imagines she’s sitting onto a pin cushion so she wants to sit as lightly as possible so she doesn’t get a sore bum!

For other riders, the chair position develops from a lack of core muscles and fitness, so improving their general fitness and not overdoing the trot work will help, whilst also working in sitting trot and without stirrups to improve their core muscles.

Along with a lack of fitness, riding a lazy horse when you don’t have the strength in your seat and legs means a rider’s position is compromised in order for them to make their aids more effective.

Sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause the chair position: if the saddle is lower at the cantle then the rider almost has to rise uphill, which encourages the lower leg to swing. If a rider has a chair seat despite work on trying to improve it, and the horse being quite forwards it’s worth making sure the saddle fits both horse and the rider’s anatomy.

The chair position and a lazy horse makes a vicious circle, which is hard to get out of because the horse doesn’t want to move forwards with a “heavy” rider, and then the rider moves into the chair position as they try in earnest to persuade the horse to move.

To break the cycle, having the horse schooled by a stronger rider to remind them that they can travel forwards easily, and the rider improving their core muscles and position by riding a more forwards thinking horse. I recently lunged a client on her horse for two purposes. One, the horse doesn’t seem to understand the idea of lunging so we hope that having a rider on board will help teach him to stay out in the circle. Two, I can work on keeping the horse trotting forwards so his rider can really concentrate on her position and maintaining the vertical line throughout her rising. When she was more adept at keeping this position she took over from me, and found that her horse was more willing when she was sitting more lightly into the saddle and staying more balanced. Hopefully they can build on this in the next few weeks.

10 Years of Otis

Today marks the ten year anniversary of bringing Otis home. It’s been a journey of mainly ups, but he’s given me so much. I know I’ve changed as a rider in the last ten years as a result of him, and it’s him who motivates me to learn more and further my career.

So I thought I’d treat you all to a selection of photos through the years. Apologies if there’s a photo overload!

Otis in 2007 or early 2008. A baby anyway! He was always very grown up around the yard and apart from tending to walk through you (personal space issues) his manners on the ground were very good. He used to see me coming up the field and march purposely over, bottom lip swinging. I’d catch Matt, and Otis would walk down between us, trying to get as close to me as possible. Once at the gate, I used to let him down to the yard and he’d walk straight to his stable and either go in, or wait outside, depending on whether the door was open.

As a four year old, Otis was very gangly – as you can see in the first two photos, but that winter he really filled out and matured. I was an apprentice then so got a lot of help with schooling him.

Otis had his showing debut with a friend of mine. The yard I trained at did “novice showing shows” twice a year which was really popular with the helpers and liveries. Not at all interested in it, I remember the autumn one when I first started working there. One helper had spent days if not weeks preening her ex-polo mare. And was gutted to be placed last in every class. I remember feeling so sorry for her because she’d put in so much effort, and it was only the mare’s old injuries and conformation – curb, thoroughpin etc – which let them down. So I offered Otis to her in the spring show. I can’t remember if they did the next two or three shows together, but they won or got placed in everything and she had a fab time.

Over the winter I’d done a lot of prelim and novice dressage with him, winning a photo shoot – see photo above – and we won the dressage rider of the year, so got a nice big sash, rosette and trophy. I can’t find the photo of that though.

My photos aren’t as well chronicled after age five (don’t expect any baby albums!) and it’s harder to tell how old Otis is in them, but here are some memories.

The August Otis was five we did our first one day event, getting second place. I remember being very surprised but pleased. It was our second attempt to get to one because the one before Otis had decided to scratch his ear whilst tied up and got rope burn around his hind fetlock – don’t ask … So I went on a friend’s pony, who is never ridden before!

We carried on with the novice dressage and did more jumping, which he loves.

We usually did well: being placed at dressage competitions and usually getting clear cross country, decent dressage and an unlucky showjump eventing. I did achieve my goal of being successful at elementary dressage and BE100, so I’m really proud of him for getting that far. Particular competitions that stand out were jumping clear at Hickstead, and completing the Blenheim eventers challenge for the riding club, but equally I remember a dressage judge getting out her car to tell me how much she liked Otis. The little comments and compliments, as well as his endless patience waiting on the trailer made competing really enjoyable.

The less said about sponsored rides the better. The more he did and the older he got, the more he would prance around, waving his hind feet ten foot in the air. I’m sure my friend will always remember our ride around Highclere, where Otis did airs above the ground for two hours. He sat back on his hindquarters, lifted the front in a levade, jumped forward, and kicked out his hind legs. The Spanish Riding School would’ve been impressed. I wasn’t quite so impressed when he did it going downhill! Needless to say, he loved hacking on his own or with a couple of others. So long as he was at the front!

On the ground, I don’t think Otis could’ve been anymore perfect. He’s incredibly patient, loves attention, fab to shoe, clip, vet, dentist, everyone, and is great in company. Although he will look slightly miffed if he hears me teaching and not working him! I think one of the best things about him is that he just goes with the flow, and doesn’t get wound up about coming in early or late, or having a field friend or not. So long as he has the odd polo and plenty of cuddles, he’s happy!

Ten years has flown by, and whilst the last eighteen months hasn’t been what I wanted, I value every lesson he’s taught me and have enjoyed every second of our journey together. I might not ride him again, who knows, but he’s given me so much and now he can enjoy time with his field buddies, listening to the baby (maybe he’ll understand when he sees her), crunching endless apples, and being there when I need him to let me escape from the world. Happy ten years Otis Motis!

Dressage for Juniors

Back in the summer I blogged about judging the Pony Club dressage at camp, and how difficult I felt the basic test was for young children, and perhaps that if the Pony Club did some simple tests aimed at young children it might encourage a higher standard of flatwork, and nurture an interest in dressage from an early age. You can read that post here.

Over the summer I saw some lead rein intro dressage classes, which seemed really popular. With the young riders anyway. I think the leaders just needed oxygen because the BD intro tests have a lot of trotting in! I did see that a couple of venues made their own lead rein tests as a result of leader feedback.

Then, I heard of this online business which runs monthly competitions, called Equi-Mind. I had a good nosey on the website, and decided that it was definitely worth following up.

Last year I did a couple of online dressage competitions, which is where you video a set test from the letter C and send it in. Unfortunately, that company folded.

Equi-mind, is actually fairly local to me, which gives me another reason to support them – local businesses and all that. Anyway, they have a variety of competitions to suit almost anyone who can`t or don’t want to go off site competing.

There are showing classes, where you video a short show and send in some photos. Entrants are judged according to the class requirements – best turned out, native class, ROR etc. There`s Western classes, vaulting classes, RDA classes, Horsemanship classes and dressage classes.

Then, I spotted another category which really caught my attention – My First Pony Club. This is aimed at novice and young children. Perhaps those who loan a pony, or don`t have access to transport, or don’t have horsey parents. There are a couple of levels of these tests in walk and trot. I`m waiting for a canter test to appear. The tests can be ridden on or off the lead, and are very straightforward. The focus on the tests is riding between markers, using the whole of the arena, keeping the walk or trot rhythm. There are some circles, but I find that children find it very difficult to visualise and ride a round circle of a particular size, so often movements from letter to letter are more achievable for them. The whole point of the tests, to me anyway, is to introduce the first scale of training – rhythm – and to test their ability to accurately steer their pony.

I liked these tests; they weren`t too long for leaders, and weren’t too daunting for young riders to try on their own. They also struck me as being easy to teach a child the test, and straightforward to feedback to them.

A couple of weeks later I had a young rider who had badly lost her confidence jumping, so I suggested we tried one of these dressage tests. I wanted to give her a new focus, and I`ve always thought she has the right aptitude for dressage – an eye for detail, a lovely position, and a mature understanding of the way a horse moves and feel for the correct way of going. She can canter quite happily, but the fact that the dressage test was walk and trot meant that even when she was feeling wobbly, she was still happy to give it a go.

We used one of her lessons to introduce the idea of dressage tests, and for her to start getting her head around movements, before videoing the test the following week. I thought it looked pretty good – she was accurate and being a tidy rider anyway they gave a good overall impression, but I wasn`t really sure what the judges were particularly looking for.

Much to my delight, and her surprise, she won that class with 65%. It was the much needed confidence boost that she needed. I`d like to get her doing an intro class soon, with more trotting and circles, but it would be nice to see a couple more tests in the My First Pony Club category which are slightly harder than the one they did, but still easily understood by children. Perhaps a couple more changes of rein or transitions, or a couple of 20m circles?

There were also some horsemanship tests designed for children, which I thought looked fun. In these, you video the child doing a series of tasks such as putting on a headcollar correctly, tying a quick release knot, leading their pony, picking out feet, giving their pony a treat from the palm of their hand. All useful little tasks which are achievable by the smallest of riders, and designed to encourage them to get involved in the care side of horse riding.

I have to say that I`ve been impressed with the support from Equi-mind, with the clear feedback given after the classes, and the instructions for entering. Check out their website, http://www.equimind.co.uk/ , and see if there`s a class for you to enter for a bit of fun. I sent off a photo of Otis jumping for the Jump in Style photo competition to get some feedback, whilst I was doing some reminiscing and grieving for the fact I`ll never jump him again.

A Good Walk

I thought I’d already done a blog post about the qualities of a good walk, but it appears that I haven’t.

So here goes, with the help of my little helper of course.

The walk gait consists of four beats, with each leg moving individually. The sequence goes like this: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore.

The stride wants to be of an even length, relaxed, flowing and steady. Each leg should flex at the fetlock and knee/hock well, and be purposeful in stride. I often tell young clients to imagine their pony is walking out of maths on a Friday afternoon rather than into maths on a Monday morning. Yep, you’re imagining those teenagers dragging their toes on a Monday and skipping out of school on a Friday!

The hind legs should be placed in front of the prints left by the fore feet, which is called over tracking. I’ve just read that over tracking enables the horse to absorb shock from the hard ground better. A horse who over tracks is also lighter on the forehand, so is more likely to get concussive injuries on the forelegs and less likely to work correctly and develop the correct muscles.

The average speed of a horse’s walk is four miles per hour, and it should feel relaxed, with the back swinging with each stride. The head and neck swings with each step of the foreleg, which is why many say don’t use side reins for too long in walk, because it restricts the natural swing of the horse.

When walking, as with all gaits, the horse should move straight. This means that each leg is pointing towards the direction of movement so propels the horse forward in the most efficient manner.

The frame of the horse should be slightly poll low, rather than poll high because then there is less tension over the back and the horse will stay more relaxed.

The walk is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve. Carl Hester always looks for a horse with a good walk and canter, as training will improve the trot. But why is the walk the hardest gait to improve?

It’s the slowest and has the least natural energy, and if a rider is too eager to input the energy they will throw the horse out of the four beat rhythm, causing a choppy stride and tension in the body. Which then causes them to inhibit the natural movement of the head and neck by holding too tight with the hands in an attempt to control the new energy. If a horse is pushed out of their four bear rhythm they are liable to start pacing. This is a two beat gait where the lateral feet step forwards simultaneously. Often, riders feel they’ve got an energetic walk as their horse begins to pace because they are covering the ground quicker, but as the four beat rhythm has been lost it is heavily criticised in dressage tests.

A horse who is hurried out of their natural rhythm, will be out of balance. This means that subsequent transitions aren’t balanced. They will struggle to halt squarely, or to push off into a balanced and correct trot or canter.

Horse can also be allowed to dawdle, which is when they’re allowed to drag their toes. Here, they usually still have a four beat gait, but the cadence and length of stride has deteriorated. Consequently, horses are more likely to use their forehand in the transitions and to be stiff through their body.

Next up, let’s see how we can improve the walk. I find the best way to teach a horse to walk with more purposefulness and energy, is to use hacks because a horse is naturally more forwards out of the arena. Then you can focus on channelling the extra energy into quality steps without the horse rushing. Steep hills will encourage the horse to use their hindquarters more efficiently and strengthen their muscles. When they walk correctly up a steep hill you can really feel the back lift and the hindlegs engage.

Other exercises involve collecting and extending the walk, which improves their balance and coordination, but you want to stay focused on their rhythm and only make small adjustments so that they still over track and keep the four beats.

Polework can help increase the horse’s cadence, and circle work will improve their suppleness which will increase their range of movement within each limb so their stride quality will improve.

I also think it’s important to be consistent in what you expect from a horse’s walk. Even when giving them a break mid-session, or cooling them down at the end, you should insist of the purposefulness of the walk, and maintaining the correct rhythm as so often both rider and horse switch off at these times. When the horse knows they have to walk actively and correctly at all times it becomes easier for the rider to influence because there is more natural energy to work with.

A Matt Update

Matt has had an exciting week, so I thought I’d update you all.

Last time I told you about him he had progressed to walking 30-60 steps a day in hand. Which was all very exciting!

He’s done six weeks of this walking, some days doing it twice and lately I think the walls had gotten longer. So Mum had the vet out again to assess him.

Mum walked him along the yard for the vet to see, then when she went to turn him around Matt did his “stop, stare, ignore everyone” pose so Mum performed the heinous crime of turning him towards her. Which is incidentally so that his injured hind was on the inside of the circle.

Anyway, the vet was really pleased that there was no swelling in the stifle, and the stride was smooth and fluid, suggesting the bones were gliding over each other easily.

She announced with some trepidation that it was time to introduce some turn out – how exciting! After all, Matt’s been on box rest for eighteen weeks. The following morning, fairly early, Mum gave Matt a little bit of Sedalin to take the edge off him. He hadn’t had breakfast in the hope that being a bit hungry would encourage him to eat.

Her yard owner led Matt to the outdoor arena – the smallest area to turn out (remember, this is a traditional yard with huge fields up the side of the mountain and most of the horses run together). Matt did start to get excited when he got past the 60 step mark, but when they released him he just stood there.

After a few minutes of Matt wandering round, having a sniff of droppings and nibble of tufts of grass, two of his friends came down the field to see him. And then he was off!

Several minutes of some beautiful, sound as a pound, trot and canter, a good roll on both sides, Matt settled and did some more wandering round and grazing for half an hour before returning to his stable.

The next day Matt couldn’t go out because there were lessons in the arena all day, but he looked a bit stiff when he was walked out so perhaps that was a good thing.

He went out again Monday morning without sedation, and had a shorter cavort around. Incidentally, Monday was our one year anniversary since we qualified for the riding club championships with 78%. How much has changed in twelve months!

Improving a Weak Horse

I had a difficult concept to explain to a young client this last few weeks. She’s got a new, young horse who is lacking muscle development and topline. In our first few lessons we went over the basics and started developing the rhythm and balance.

Then my client heard the phrase “needs to build her topline” and started to get a little confused about what we were doing and why.

I guess it’s actually quite a hard concept to get your head around, but a good topline is the result of all the building blocks of the training and stable management coming together. There is no one “build the topline” exercise. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

Anyway, I thought it was a good subject to ramble about, so here it is.

A horse’s topline is the muscles over the top of their neck, back and top of their hindquarters, and a strong topline enables them to carry themselves efficiently and correctly, so minimising the risk of injuring themselves due to strain.

So how do you improve a horse’s topline? Firstly, from a management point of view, you need to ensure the diet includes a sufficient amount of protein. Protein is the building blocks for muscle, so regardless of the training you do, a horse won’t muscle up until they are receiving enough protein in their diet. Feed such as Alfa-A and conditioning mixes have higher levels of protein.

Feeding forage from the floor is a well known method of encouraging good muscle growth, as well as being the most natural way a horse can eat. With their head low to the ground, the topline muscles are stretched so maintain their suppleness and are working when the horse eats.

Checking saddle fit frequently as training continues is important, as is getting them checked by a physio. A saddle that is too tight (which happens as they develop muscle) will restrict muscle movement and blood flow so reducing that muscle’s ability to grow. Tightness or muscle soreness, ironed out by the physio, will limit the horse from using themselves correctly so will slow the rate of improvement or create a risk of injury somewhere else in their body.

In terms of training a horse and improving their topline, the best methods are not the quick fixes. It’s using the Stages of Training, to slowly establish the correct way of going and build up muscle steadily so that the horse is less likely to over stress muscle.

Rhythm and suppleness together improve a horse’s balance and quality of the gait, so that the strides are of an even length and cadence. As the quality and balance improves the horse will be able to accept a light, consistent contact and then you can add impulsion, which is the controlled, forwards energy created in the hindquarters. Going back to a horse with good basic balance, when you add the contact and impulsion they will begin to step more actively underneath their body with their hind legs, thus contracting the abdominals and lifting and engaging the back and top neck muscles. Only when this happens does the topline start to develop.

I think it’s also important to understand that a horse in training will not look like the finished article. As they develop strength and learn to balance in this new way of going then they may be slightly behind the vertical, or in front of the vertical, or low in poll, or slightly on the forehand, but so long as you continue to build them up steadily these don’t become faults, but are rather small sacrifices that are made while the horse learns and as soon as they feel strong enough, and so long as you aren’t forcing them into an outline or frame beyond their current ability, they will correct themselves. For example, when you begin to introduce impulsion, some horses may use the reins to balance, which puts their low in front and behind the vertical. By taking it back half a step and not inputting too much impulsion, or doing it for too long, they will find their balance and come up off the forehand and back onto the vertical as they find their self carriage.

Ridden exercises should focus on the basics: circles and serpentines of steadily increasing difficulty, transitions between gaits and within the gaits.

Lunging can also be very beneficial in encouraging a horse to use their topline. Gadgets, used with care, can show the horse where to put their body, and then you can test their ability and strength by working them “naked” and seeing if they can work themselves over their topline.

I like polework for getting a horse to realise that they have abdominals and back muscles. It increases their cadence so they end up rounding their backs, which can be helpful in giving a rider an insight into the feel they are aiming for, and can just show the horse the way. Incorporating poles into flatwork is a really good way of giving the horse something to think about and breaking up the monotony of circles and straight lines. Jumping, such as gridwork, will also help because having a correct bascule requires the topline muscles to function correctly.

Hill work will also improve the topline muscles: trotting and walking up hills with the horse working correctly (there’s no point trotting up a hill if their heads in the air and they are using their forehand to pull themselves along) as the incline makes the muscles work harder without having to work faster.

Developing the topline doesn’t happen overnight, it takes consistency and steady work. Then after a couple of months, you all of a sudden step back and realise that your horse has changed shape and there is more muscle over their neck and back.

Securing The Lower Leg

I was teaching a client this week about awareness of her horse’s bend, and how to adjust it. In it’s most basic sense, it was just about her feeling the bend throughout her horse’s body and beginning to think about asking for more bend in circles and turns. Until now I’ve been getting her to turn her body, use her seat and leg aids correctly to manoeuvre her horse, but the focus has been on the correctness of her as a rider. So now is the time to put these skills to the test and use them to improve her horse’s suppleness whilst getting her to think more about her horse’s way of going.

My rider could identify which rein was her horse’s stiffer, and we discussed how to ask for a bit more flexion by opening the inside rein and using the inside leg to push the horse into the outside bend. Here, we met a problem.

Where my rider, due to learning in the 80s, grips hard with her knees, her lower leg swings back. We’ve spent time working on correcting this, but when she isn’t thinking about her leg position they wander back. Which means that the inside leg isn’t working on the girth. So she’s inadvertently asking for counter bend.

I threatened, in a joking way, to tie her stirrups to her girth to prevent her leg swinging. Before I knew it, her helpful husband had produced a bit of string!

I took my client’s inside foot out of the stirrup, and tied the inside of the iron to the girth securely. My rider could barely find her stirrup to put her foot back in.

Immediately, she was aware of how her leg swings back each time she applied the leg aid. After walking a circle, we tried trotting a few circles. Once she’d gotten used to rising with a stable lower leg, and keeping the heel below the hip, she could feel how easy it was to use her inside leg to ask for more inside bend. There were a couple of lightbulb moments when her horse had the correct bend, engaged the inside hind and softened through his back and neck.

There were many moans because the position felt so alien, but as my rider could feel the benefit she tried to keep her leg still.

When we were ready to change the rein, I swapped the string to the other leg. This is because the new rein was the more supple, and the outside leg needed to be able to move behind the girth. However, I thought it would be beneficial for my rider to develop an awareness of the instability of her lower leg, regardless of rein.

I’d quite like to warm my rider up next time with string keeping her stirrups at the girth as this will improve her position and awareness, as well as training her muscles. Then when I take the string away, she’ll be able to use the inside leg on the girth to ask for the correct bend.

You have to be quite careful not to do the exercise for too long as her muscles will complain, and you need to have a reliable, steady horse to reduce the risk of her falling off or getting her foot stuck. Ideally, and I’ve used them when I’ve done a similar exercise with kids, you want safety stirrups because the foot can come out of the iron more easily. I think giving my rider physical restrictions on her stirrups highlighted far more than me repeatedly telling her, or moving her leg in halt, how much her lower leg swings and how much it affects the horse.

Where Are Your Heels?

Twenty years, or more, so ago when you learnt to ride it was “heels down, toes up!” I was teaching a client, a mother who’s getting back into riding now her daughter has a pony, and we were discussing the old school methods in her lesson and how equitation has moved on.

Being repeatedly told to put your heels down causes the rider to force their heel down – creating very stretchy calf muscles – which causes tension through the back of the leg and up to the thigh and seat. It also causes the lower leg to swing forward so you lose the vertical shoulder-hip-heel line. Which means that in order to stay balanced in rising trot the knee will get tight.

Next time you sit on a horse, try forcing your heels down. Can you feel your lower leg slide forwards? Can you also feel your thighs change and almost lighten your seat? All of this combined with a tight knee will push the rider out of balance and make the seat less effective.

The opposite foot position of course, is when the calves are tight and the heel sits higher than the toe. This means the rider has their weight in their toes so their centre of gravity is pushed forward. If the horse stops or slows down or changes direction, they’re far more likely to become unseated. Tight calves can affect the tightness of the whole upper leg, in a similar way to when the heels are forced down. Both extremes of position put tension into the leg muscles. Which, in both situations negatively affects the effectiveness of the seat.

So what is thought of now to be the correct lower leg and foot positioning?

The leg should drape around the horse, from the hip, with minimal amount of tension through the muscles so the the seat and inner thigh can subtly control the movement of the horse. Now, the precise angling of the foot depends on the riders anatomy. The weight wants to be favouring the heel – imagine your sole is covered with marbles and you are angling your foot to encourage the marbles to roll towards your heel. But the heel should only be fractionally lower than the toe, so you are close to horizontal. This means the lower leg is more stable in the rising trot and is the best position to support your body weight.

For some people, who have long, supple calves, their heel will naturally drop much lower than the toe, but while doing so you want to keep the leg tension free. The majority of us are tight in our calves, which means our heels and toes tend to be fairly level. In this case, it is the jamming of heels down that compromises the relaxed and correct leg. If a rider is tight in the calf and it is jeopardising their riding ability then it’s best to try some calf stretches off the horse to relax and lengthen the calf muscles, which will help improve the lower leg, rather than trying to just push their heels lower than their toes.

I rarely spend time telling my riders to push their heels down; I’ll ask them to drop the weight into their heels if they look tight in the calf or their weight has pitched towards their toes. If they do have a real problem with the lower leg position then I find working without stirrups, or standing up out of their stirrups whilst trotting helps them shift the weight around their feet so they can find the leg position that keeps them in balance – this exercise stops the knee getting tight because they’ll fall onto the horses neck whilst the lower leg flies out behind, akin to superman, and if the heel is forced down they will fall back onto the cantle.