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.

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Breaking The Rules

One of my big hang ups is riders not preparing their canter transitions. And most importantly, not sitting into canter.

I explain to all my clients why we sit; the horse is expected to move smoothly from a two beat trot to a three beat canter, and if we continue to rise in a two beat rhythm we are making it harder for the horse. You can complicate the explanation by discussing how the seat moves differently in canter and trot, but for the riders who tend to rise into canter the first explanation is sufficient.

Last week though, I had to break my own rule. I’ve been working on canter transitions with a client and her horse. They’ve improved, but we haven’t quite nailed them.

Initially, the mare hollowed into the transition and ignored the leg aids. The canter was quite lethargic for a few strides before she found her rhythm.

We’ve improved the mare’s overall suppleness over the last few months because I think one of the contributing factors to the poor transitions is tightness over her back preventing the hindleg coming through.

We’ve also worked my rider in sitting trot to improve her seat and to ensure she isn’t accidentally blocking the canter through the seat. Improving the seat has also improved the hand position, and there’s no longer a “snatch-back” in the upward transition. Which is a very common feature of riders who’s horses don’t readily pick up canter.

There’s also been a variety of exercises to improve their transitions including walk-canter, successive trot-canter-trot transitions, using circles to pick up canter as well as straight lines. The canter itself has improved through lengthening and shortening the strides, using poles and improving my rider’s feel and understanding of a balanced canter.

So after all these avenues have been explored, we are looking at a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing. Part of me wonders if it’s just habit from the mare to lift her head slightly and try to run into canter. Which means we need to break the cycle. Perhaps the mare needs to realise that her rider won’t get left behind, or have negative hands. Or she just needs to build up the muscle strength and memory to perform the balanced and correct canter transitions.

Last lesson, as I observed the canter transitions I realised that my rider is sitting to the trot, but almost sits slightly onto the cantle so when they strike off into canter, she’s just momentarily behind the movement. It’s not much, and there’s nothing wrong with her position or anything obvious, and might be just enough to prevent the mare coming through with the hindlegs into canter, which makes it quite tricky to spot and improve.

Feeling daring, because we were breaking the rules, I asked my rider to ride from rising trot into canter. The transition definitely flowed better and horse and rider looked to be in better sync with each other. We did a few more transitions like this and they definitely got more consistent and smoother with the mare rounding her back more into the canter, and pushing off with her hindlegs.

I’ve left my rider with the instructions to only to riding trot into canter this week, because I think by rising, or having a half seat as she goes into canter gets her weight off the mare’s back, which makes it easier for her to use her back muscles. I also think that the rising encourages a forward swing from my rider’s hips, which should help her sit with the movement, rather than behind, and to absorb the change of rhythm more easily. It’s a very subtle change of technique, and I’m hoping that this week’s practice of rising into the canter means that we find the final piece of the jigsaw next week – fingers crossed!

The Addiction

Why is one day eventing the ultimate competition for so many amateur equestrians? And what makes it so addictive?

I always think it’s the hardest competition to be successful in because you have to get three different disciplines, which require totally different skills, right on the same day. Which is tricky enough, but when you consider the external factors such as weather and ground conditions, both horse and rider fitness and frame of mind, preparation, large class sizes, as well as factors such as tack, shoes, and other equipment, you realise that success in eventing is actually a pretty tough call.

First up, is dressage. You can practice this a hundred times at home, learning it off by heart and perfecting the movements. But when you get to the event the dressage arenas are on grass, possibly with a gradient. Depending on the time of your test, the grass may be dewy, and there is usually more grass cover than the corner of the field that you practiced in at home which can make it slippery. There are usually three or four, if not more, arenas next to each other so horse and rider need to adapt not only to the ground conditions, but also to focus on each other and the test so that other competitors don’t distract them.

So whilst dressage can be the one you are most practiced for, it still has unknown factors to contend with. Although competition experience and knowing the venue can help minimise this.

Next up is showjumping. You can’t get much better than a clear inside the time, but it’s just as easy to have an unlucky rolled pole, so it’s important to practice jumping bigger than the competition height, and over courses on grass. As well as ironing out any blips such as a dislike of planks or water trays. Showjumping courses are usually on grass and can have a gradient, which adds to the complexity of the round.

Finally is the cross country, and don’t forget you have to remember the course that you walked yesterday or a 7am that morning before your dressage. Which can be problematic in itself. The cross country is undulating, likely to ask a few questions such as skinnies, jumping into dark, drops, water or steps. All of which can be practiced at home, but it’s a real test of horse and rider fitness as it’s the final phase of the day, and tests their confidence, ability, and relationship because there is fence after fence. No matter how hard you try cross country schooling, you will jump the trickier fences as part of short courses rather than linking the tricky ones together in a longer course. The competition fences are unknown too, which can make green horses or riders back off but this develops with experience and confidence.

There is also the time aspect of cross country too: the terrain and weather conditions can sap a horse’s energy which makes getting inside the time difficult, but there is also the rider’s awareness for how fast they are going, or should be going.

Just from this, you can see all the different elements you need to practice and perfect in order to be successful at a one day event. The horse needs to be relaxed and obedient, with a good level of schooling for the dressage. They have to be steady, with a careful technique showjumping, and then they have to be fit, fast and bold for the cross country phase. With all those different elements to work on, there’s a higher risk of one not being quite right on the day; be it over excitement in the dressage phase, an unlucky pole showjumping, a doubt in confidence over the tricky cross country fence, or fatigue setting in half way round. I think it’s the challenge of balancing the phases, and of getting them all right on the day which makes riders try, try and try again. And then when you do get that sought after placing, you value the rosette far more than any others you have!

Scales of 1 to 10

Sometimes novice riders can get very comfortable and accepting of their horse or pony’s gait and aren’t aware of it’s quality. I always like to ask my clients what they think of the trot or canter; to describe it, and to suggest how they think they can improve it.

But sometimes it’s useful to label the gait so that we can easily relate to it. This is when I use a scale between one and ten.

For the younger riders, I keep it simple and we talk about the speed of the trot. When they’re in their average trot, I asked them to put a number of this trot. Really, I’m hoping they say five, but it doesn’t really matter if they say four or six. So long as there are a couple of numbers either side to play with.

Let’s say the rider has labelled the trot as a five. I’ll then ask them to slow it down to a four. Then speed it up to a six. Then we play a game, where I shout the number, and they change the trot to match the number. It’s actually really beneficial to the rider as they learn to apply subtle aids and get a better concept of rhythm.

I also use school movements to help the riders get used to changing the speed of the trot. For example, trotting across the diagonal in a six trot, then a four trot along the short side, then a six trot across the other diagonal before a four trot on the other short side.

If you have a rider who’s a bit nervous, then practising riding in a six, or seven, trot can help get them used to the bigger strides whilst still feeling in control. Likewise, if they find their horse is a bit fresh and trotting round in a seven trot, than identifying what level it is makes it more manageable and they feel more confident in changing the trot from a seven to a five.

As riders get more competent I apply the scale to different aspects. For example, one being a flat, lethargic trot and ten being a very bouncy trot with energy on par with a shaken bottle of lemonade, to measure the level of impulsion. Scales can also rate movements or transitions so that riders learn to identify their better attempts.

You do have to clarify to riders that the scale doesn’t mean they will get those marks in a dressage test, or that their ten trot for impulsion is comparable to Valegro’s, but rather a sliding scale for them to monitor the improvement in their horse.

Progressing to being able to adjust the canter can really help when jumping, especially cross country. It’s much easier to walk the course and number the canter approach so that you know how to tackle each fence. For example, a seven canter for the log jump, a four canter for the skinny fence. Numbered canters are easier to teach with, and easier to plan your technique.

Ringcraft

In the show ring you learn a bit of clever ring craft. That doesn’t mean you cut up other competitors or hog the judge’s attention, but rather you give yourself plenty of space in front of you as you pass the judge to maximise your extended trot. You do any tweaking, circles etc while the judge has their back to you, so that you shine in front of them. Adjust your individual show so that the gallop is uphill, or your phenomenal trot is at the perfect angle that the judge gets the full benefit of it. I only managed it once with Matt, who doesn’t have the greatest gallop, to adjust my show so that the gallop was away from the burger van generator. By holding the canter together as I approached the generator, I managed to control Matt’s spook to get his best show ring gallop.

Anyway, back to the point. What I was originally going to discuss tonight was the fact that there’s slightly more to dressage tests than just knowing the directions.

A few weeks ago I was helping a client practice for a prelim test and in the halt on the centre line the mare, who can be a bit fidgety, was swinging her quarters left. But she was halting fairly square … just at an angle! Now, the judge is sitting at C, so what are the priorities when improving the halt at this moment in time? Straightness. In the perfect halt the judge at C can see two front feet, the chest and head. If a horse halts straight, but with a hindleg camped out behind, then the judge at C has no idea! So when weighing up where to focus your improvements to the halt transition, bear in mind what the judge can and cannot see.

At the dressage champs in April, I was disappointed with my final halt. It wasn’t Matt’s best and his hindquarters were right underneath him. However, I got an 8 for it. I can only assume that the judge saw a straight trot to halt transition, with the forehand square and the head and neck coming out the centre of his chest. So to my surprise, scored me highly.

Of course, at Novice level, you often have halt transitions at A or C, which gives the judge at C the perfect angle from which to assess the squareness of the halt. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and once the straightness through the transition and into the halt is perfected, you can work on squaring it up.

With my client with the swinging quarters, we worked on the trot to halt transition in the right rein, using the fence to prevent the quarters swinging. Then we used the three quarter lines to simulate the centre line. When the mare still swung left, my rider brought her left leg back slightly in the transition to catch the quarters. By adding in slight left flexion in the neck, they ended up staying straight in the halt. Hopefully some practice like this and the mare will get out of the habit of swinging when she’s halting and we can progress to improving their balance through the transition to get a square halt.

With another client recently, we were working with the prelim test to get the best marks they can for their level of training. Here are a few secrets to getting the best out of a movement.

From left canter, between B and M transition to working trot and at C, transition to medium walk. Now the judge is looking for the trot transition to be between the markers, as a guide I aim for the mid point. But if your horse tends to run into trot, or get a bit unbalanced and fast, I would aim to have the trot transition as close to B as possible. This gives an extra two or three trot strides to balance the horse, so you can better use the corner and are in a better balanced trot to get a highly scoring walk transition at C.

At A, circle right 20m and between X and A transition into right canter. So you have a full half circle in which to do your transition. Doing it near X is tricky: there’s no support from the fence line so a green horse may run or wobble into canter so giving you a poor transition and weak canter. If the horse tends to shoot off into canter, then doing the transition as you approach the track (particularly if you’re in an indoor arena or fenced arena) will make them back off the wall and so slow the canter down. If your horse tends to drift through the outside shoulder in the canter, then asking for the transition as the circle touches the track (near F) the fence will support the horse’s outside shoulder, so helping them stay straight through the transition.

Transitioning from medium walk to free walk on a long rein and back again. This is mainly practice, but ensuring the walk is active, and the horse is relaxed in their neck and contact. In prelim tests free walk tends to be on the diagonal or a half 20m circle. Use the turns onto the free walk to push the horse from the inside leg into the outside rein and then let the outside rein slide through your fingers so the horse stretches their neck down. Keep the walk active and the important thing is to keep a rein contact despite it getting long. If you lose the contact then it makes the transition up into medium walk less fluid and usually tense. As you pick up the contact; take the outside rein first and inch up the reins, keeping the hands up and forward to reduce the chance of the horse hollowing and resisting the contact. Keep the leg on because usually a horse will lose their activity as you pick up the reins. If in the test there is quite a short period of medium walk before trotting; e.g. B to F, then you want to have the medium walk established at B so that you can best prepare for the transition at F. This means you may need to start picking up the horse a couple of strides earlier.

It’s also really important to learn the individual movements of the test, so you know where each set of marks is. Then if you make a mistake, or have a spook, then you know where you have to get back on track, and at one point you can forget about the mistake. For example, if one mark is the canter transition, and the next mark is for the canter between two markers, and you have a dodgy transition then focus on getting the quality canter because although you may have lost marks for the transition you can still get a good mark for the canter around the arena.

Obviously as you move up the levels the movements are more complex, need to be more precise and there is less evading the judge’s eagle eye, but it’s definitely worth learning to read between the lines of the directives of a test and getting an idea of what the judge can see so that you can best position your horse to maximise your marks. It’s surprising the difference a couple of marks will make in a competition, as well as giving you a confidence boost as you try your hand at competing.

Starting Groundwork

I bought a book about schooling in hand a couple of weeks ago; the reason behind it is obvious now, and last week I started putting the theory to the test.

With the mare I lunged, who can be a bit stuffy and reluctant to use her hind legs efficiently, I warmed her up on the lunge in side reins, establishing the rhythm and getting her to trot with impulsion.

After a canter to help improve the impulsion and length of stride, I brought her back to walk and began playing with the inhand work.

Initially I just worked on getting the mare to halt and walk on when asked. It’s a simple concept, but it’s worth checking that you and the horse have a mutual understanding to begin with. It took a couple of goes for her to instantly stop when I stopped, and to wait until I walked on.

Next up, was some turn on the forehand. Once the mare was standing still, I stood near her near shoulders facing her quarters. I flexed her neck towards me with my left hand, and with the right hand tapped her left hind leg, just above the fetlock, lightly with the schooling whip whilst saying “round”. She lifted that leg in response to the tap and brought it slightly under her tummy.

Placing her hindleg under her body caused her to bring her right hind forwards and out, so swinging her quarters around her forehand. We’ve done this movement under saddle, so the mare is familiar with the procedure, but I felt it was important to work on things that she was confident with so that she could transition smoothly between work under saddle and work in hand.

As soon as I had a quarter turn on the forehand, we walked straight on and I patted her. We repeated the exercise a couple more times until she moved evenly and with bigger, more confident steps. Then I sent her out on the lunge in trot. The turn on the forehand had an instant effect, because the inside hind leg was more active in this trot.

After repeating turn on the forehand on the other rein, I kept her trotting on the lunge whilst spiralling her in and out. In a similar way to the turn on the forehand, the inside hind leg had to adduct to the body on the leg yield out, so improving the suppleness and strength of it.

With the mare looking a lot looser and working over her back, I decided to take a look at the rein back in hand. We do it under saddle, but this mare isn’t always very giving over her back as she steps back, so it would be interesting to see her rein back from the ground.

Because of her resistance to the rein back, I wanted to remove any rein aids. The lunge line was attached to the centre ring of the cavesson, so using that to help push her back will cause her to step back crookedly. Instead, I deviated from the book, and placed the schooling whip horizontally across her chest. Rocking the whip gently, so it pushed first her left shoulder then her right shoulder, so easily encouraging her to take symmetrical steps backwards. My right hand could tilt the whip so my left hand could keep the head straight. Because of the lack of pressure on her head, she relaxed into the movement and started shifting her weight onto her hindquarters and lifting her back as she went.

A quick trot on the lunge to find the forwards gear, and we tried again, this time she was more responsive to the pressure on her shoulders and took bigger strides backwards.

I wanted to progress to leg yielding against the wall, but when I started leading her, positioning myself by her shoulder, facing the quarters, left hand near the left side of her head and right holding the schooling whip, the mare rushed her walk and got tense. Obviously walking like this was strange to her, so I settled for just practicing the walk and halt transitions against the wall, with my body in the new position. When she accepts this and relaxes I’ll introduce the lateral work.

To finish the session, I did some walk on a small circle on the lunge, asking with the lunge whip for her haunches to move out on a bigger circle almost a shoulder in on the circle. So continuing the theme of the inside hind leg moving forwards and under the body. The side reins supported her shoulders so she couldn’t fall out through the outside shoulder. A few strides of this and then we had this fab, bouncy trot – she looked like she was floating! Again, I repeated this on the other rein before finishing our session.

I felt we’d covered a lot of different things, but as the movements are all in her repertoire, albeit under saddle, there wasn’t too much new information for her to process, just the concept of me standing on the ground. I could see how the in hand work improved her suppleness, which will help her ridden work.

And once I’ve read the next chapter, I’ll have a play at those exercises. You’ll have to wait for the next installment.

Riding a Special Square

This exercise was first introduced to me at dressage camp, but I’ve used it so many times since.

Without using the track, scribe a square in the arena in walk. Perhaps with 15m long sides, but the length is irrelevant really.

At the corners, you want to ride a turn around the forehand. The aim of this is to increase the flexibility of the inside hind leg because it is brought forwards and under the horse’s body. This means that the leg becomes stronger and so increases the impulsion from the hindquarters. Turning around the forehand also focuses the rider on controlling the outside shoulder because as the inside hind leg steps under, many horses will avoid taking the weight onto the inside hind by falling out through the outside shoulder. Whilst riding this movement you, as a rider, will also be able to feel the horse bending through their rib cage, which also improves their suppleness.

Once you can ride turn around the forehand easily in the corners, add in step two. Ride shoulder in on each side of the square. Again, this aims to improve the flexibility and strength of the inside hind leg, encourage the horse to take the weight of their body onto their hindquarters and to lighten the forehand. It increases the suppleness through the rib cage.

Initially, you can use a big square, and use several strides to rebalance the horse between the shoulder in and the turn around the haunches, but as they get more competent then you want to ride seamlessly between the movements.

After riding a whole square of the complete exercise, ride large on two tracks and pick up trot. You should feel that the hindquarters are pushing more energetically off the ground. The horse will also seem to “sit” more in the trot, and have a slightly shorter stride with more cadence, slower tempo but still the same rhythm, and overall have that impression of having more power contained within their frame.

I find this exercise doesn’t need repeating too much because it is quite strenuous, but is very useful to do if they feel a bit stiff, or lacking focus in their work. Each horse I’ve used it with has almost immediately felt more balanced in their trot, with more “ping” and bounce to the stride afterwards. It’s definitely a useful tool for my toolbox!

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.