Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Phoenix’s First Sponsored Ride

Phoenix and I have had a tumultuous few months; tight left gluteals and hamstrings followed by some internal stress bubbling over on her part (possibly caused by adapting to living in at night through winter) but we are getting it back together, and with some nutrition advice – more on that another day – I am better prepared for next winter so I can help her adjust. Phoenix internalises her worries so seems calm and in control, until it fizzes up and she pops. Not that dissimilar to how I handle things …

Anyway, with her having longer turn out, a clean bill of health from the physio, and a positive flat lesson last week, I decided very last minute that we both needed to have some fun, and entered us for a sponsored ride.

Some of you may remember that Otis had a reputation for doing airs above the ground for a solid two hours at his last fun ride. Before I handed him a life time ban. Matt had restored the fun part into fun rides a couple of years ago, but as Phoenix was a sponsored ride virgin, I was unsure how she’d take to it.

Anyway, in typical Phoenix style she loaded and travelled like a dream. I always feel very smug as we load her because she never falters. I unloaded her, tacked up then let her graze while we waited for our friends to arrive. Despite many sponsored ride veterans leaping around in anticipation, Phoenix felt remarkably calm and unfazed by her surroundings. It was by far the busiest place she’s ever been to.

Once our friends were ready, with horses she’d never met before, she let me mount and walked calmly down to the start, ignoring our cavorting friend behind us.

We set off in a working trot; she was a little tense and choppy to begin with but soon settled and opened up her stride as we crossed two fields.

We then pushed into canter, and it was forwards yet calm. We were leading, and it was very organised. No one overtook as we didn’t want any horses to get their racing heads on. My friend then drew away onto a line of small tyres. I followed. They were about 2’3″, but Phoenix leapt them confidently, doubling the height.

We did a couple more, sticking to the smaller options while she was over jumping. Considering her limited cross country experience and the fact she’s not really jumped since Christmas, I found her to be bold and basculing nicely. I think the physio has helped her utilise her back muscles more.

Unfortunately after a few jumps I felt Phoenix was chasing her friend in front, and not giving due consideration to the jumps, so I put her in front for a couple. Which made her sit up and think a little.

After a nice, long walk with fabulous Watership Down scenery, where she was calm and relaxed, we rode another line of jumps. This time, she stayed listening to me, and jumped like she was on springs! She’s so light in the forehand when she jumps, it felt phenomenal!

Another long walk to recover, and I was really pleased with how she coped by other horses cantering past, and being in such close proximity to her new friends.

We jumped another line of fences on the way home, and I couldn’t have been prouder! She took barrels, tyres, logs, hanging logs, all in her stride. She felt relaxed, confident, and very happy. I was on cloud nine. The last few months were forgotten and I could feel the talent, willingness, and unison that is Phoenix. She was perfectly behaved, and took everything on board sensibly – I was very proud of her performance.

Unfortunately, the official photos were over early jumps where she was still a little exuberant and whilst I’d have loved to commemorate our first sponsored ride together, there will be many others and far better photos I’m sure. I hope! Now though, I’m looking forwards to our next big adventure in May, and in the meantime we’ll get practising our dancing again.

Controlling The Neck

I taught a lesson last week, where we focused on releasing the brachiocephalic muscles to enable the horse to step through from behind and use their back more correctly.

The horse we were working with has come back into work slowly after being a brood mare, and she’s changing shape nicely and building some muscle and fitness by lots of hacking. Her walk was improved since the last time I’d seen her in that it was more active with a longer length of stride and the mare’s neck was not so concertinaed. However, in the trot she was still locking her neck and trotting. The body wasn’t moving at all, and the legs scrabbling frantically underneath, with my rider feeling barely in control. Their trot was akin to a bolt – the neck set against the rider – but they weren’t getting any faster.

Usually when a rider feels resistance in the horse’s neck, a little flex of the neck and encouragement of the inside hindleg triggers the horse to relax the brachiocephalic muscle and start using their abdominals and topline. However, this mare has such large, solid brachiocephalics she didn’t respond to the small flexions.

In halt, we asked the mare to move her head from side to side. They were big turns of the head, slowly from left to right and back again. Initially I had to help from the ground to provide rein aids so that my rider could understand the exercise. By getting the mare to mobilise her neck we were improving her suppleness, increasing her range of movement, and causing her to relax the brachiocephalic muscles. After all, in order to look left, the muscles on the right side need to relax and lengthen. And vice versa. We had to turn her head quite a way to the left and right before she yielded and softened her neck. Hopefully as things progress she will give her neck to her rider after more subtle aids.

After a few turns, the mare’s neck became softer and you could see she was turning more easily and freely. We let her rest, standing still with a light contact, so that she could think about her posture, and process the exercise we had just done. She stayed standing with a softer neck and lower head carriage.

Then we moved up into the walk. A horse’s head is very heavy, and is held at the end of a lever, so getting them to lengthen the neck and hold their head further away from their body, and then to hold it in different positions, is very difficult and requires good balance and core strength. The walk allowed us to experiment with different head and neck positions, all making the mare more malleable and encouraging the muscles to relax. There was a lot of brain work going on here: the horse had to focus on keeping her balance with her head held in unusual positions (for her, anyway), and she had to focus on the leg and seat aids rather than the reins aids.

After a few releases of the neck, the mare’s walk started to improve by lengthening in stride, the energy in the hindquarters seemed to travel through the body more and she seemed to be more connected – working as one horse. Once my rider felt the change in the mare’s posture I had her straighten the neck and keep everything still. After all, we’re using these large turns to release the muscles and then the mare needs to learn to carry herself straight and with less tension in her neck on her own volition, and we don’t want her to get into the habit of swinging her head as she works, nor do I want my rider to get into a habit of sawing on her pony’s mouth. I reiterate, they are large turns of the head in either direction to encourage the release of the under neck muscles, which together with the leg and seat engaging her hindquarters will trigger the mare to use her topline as she works.

Once the mare was walking with a soft frame and contact, we went up into trot. Through the transition she set her neck and started running, but my rider began flexing her left and right and after a few strides the brachiocephalic was disengaged. So they trotted with the hands still for a couple of strides before the mare set herself again, so we repeated the process. We kept the trot basic: large circles, simple changes of rein, one rhythm, so that we could focus on unlocking the neck as soon as she tensed, rewarding her with quietness when she was soft, and then correcting her again as she tensed up.

Suddenly, they had a lightbulb moment! The trot became lighter, almost floaty, her back began to swing, she was using her hindquarters to propel herself. The trot was getting faster, but only because she was more efficient in using herself and the stride was lengthening rather than her rushing. Yes, every couple of strides my rider still had to move the mare’s neck to keep it soft, but they were now minor flexes and the mare responded immediately.

By the end of the session, we’d started work on keeping the neck soft through the upward transition by using small flexes. The trot was becoming more consistent and the horse and rider looked in partnership rather than having two different agendas. And as we cooled down, the mare wanted to stretch her head all the way to the floor.

It was a very constructive session, and they’ve both got a lot to work on in terms of building fitness so that the mare can be consistent in this new trot, and my rider’s feel so she reacts to any change in the neck before it becomes a solid mass. I don’t think it necessarily looked pretty, in that every so often the mare looked to be swinging her head, but so long as my rider remembers to stay quiet and still when everything’s right, and the rein stays positively opening wide to get the mare to look left or right rather than pulling back, the mare won’t get into a bad, swinging habit.

Next time I want to build on the consistency and then start to introduce a long and low frame so that the mare has more opportunity to utilise the correct muscles and learns to stretch.

Uses For Horse Shoes

I follow this farrier on social media – Wildfire Forge – who makes bespoke artefacts out of shoes from your beloved horse. They’re very pretty; things such as tea light holders, hoof picks, key rings, bottle openers, and are treated so that they’re iridescent. There’s also the option of having them personalised with a few words.

I love these creations, especially the huge model horse head – go on, have a look!

I have some of Otis’s shoes, which I’m always wondering what I can do with them, and how they can be usefully put to good use. My uncle is particularly creative, giving me a horse shoe photo frame for Christmas, and last week he presented me with a keyring rack from one of Otis’s hind shoes. Being homemade, and of sentimental value, this is going to be the most loved keyring rack in the world! And far nicer than any shop bought product.

I’ve seen doormats, boot scrapers, door knockers, all made from horse shoes. What have you done with your old horse shoes? How have they become useful around the house and garden? What’s the most inventive use, and not just decorative, for old shoes that you’ve seen? I’ve even seen Christmas trees made out of horse shoes, which do look very cool – and are less likely to be knocked over by cats and babies!

Poor Phoenix won’t be able to contribute to our home in this way as she’s barefoot and highly likely to stay this way, but I’d like to get some more of Otis’s shoes into the house and garden in a functional way…

Canter Leads

I had a very satisfying lesson this week; one which made me realise how much I enjoy my job.

In the last lesson with this pair, I first asked to see their canter. We’d been focusing on the trot work and rider position up until then, but I wanted to get an insight to the canter so I could plan the next few lessons.

Right canter was great. Yes, a bit green and unbalanced, but the horse was willing and could maintain canter around the arena, which when you’re 18.2hh is quite a feat! However, left canter was another story. In fact, it didn’t exist!

The horse insisted on picking up right canter, despite being asked correctly and in a corner. After a few attempts, he changed his lead in front, but continued to be disunited. Then I learnt that he has never done left canter. He’s always refused. His rider said that on the lunge he picks up right canter then changes, however when we looked into it further, we came to the conclusion that he only changes in front to the left canter, never behind.

After a few futile attempts everyone was getting tired, so we abandoned it, but I gave my rider homework of lunging in a smaller area (she split the 40x20m in half using jumps) to see if her horse could be persuaded to discover left canter on his own.

It’s been a few weeks since that lesson what with work shifts, sarcoid operations, but this week we were back to it.

Canter had improved on the lunge in that the horse was much more balanced and supple, although still staying disunited on the left rein. He was now changing his front legs almost immediately in the canter.

After some lovely right rein canter work, improving the transitions and rhythm, we turned our attention to the left. The first couple of transitions were unsuccessful, so I placed a pole on the curve in a corner of the school. I raised the end nearest the middle of the school, but unfortunately the horse didn’t pick his feet up enough for it to work. What I was aiming for, was for his rider to ask for left canter on the final stride before the jump, so that as the popped over the raised pole, the horse was encouraged to pick up left canter. It didn’t work, so undeterred I built an upright jump. A sizeable 70cm, despite my rider’s concerns as she doesn’t do jumping. But the jump had to be significant enough for a giant horse to pick his feet up over it.

On the left rein, she approached in an active trot, and as they took off over the jump my rider asked for left canter with exaggerated aids. He popped the jump quietly, landing in left canter. She rode away, large round the arena with plenty of encouragement and then after a lap, came forwards to trot and gave him lots of praise. We repeated it so that we had three left canters. In the last transition, where he was getting weary, he picked up a very lethargic left canter after the jump and fell into trot, but my rider asked immediately for left canter, and got it!

The aim of our session was to introduce the horse to left canter; for him to learn the aids, to discover his balance and coordination in left canter, and to learn to keep left canter for longer periods. And for his rider to get the feel for his left canter, so that she can tell if he’s disunited or not. She could feel that the canter was correct, and can now focus on repeating this exercise to build up the horse’s strength in left canter. We can then reduce the size of the jump until it is just a pole on the floor, and then take it away altogether. And then when they can pick up left canter at will, and maintain it for a significant period, we will turn our attention to improving the quality of the canter.

My job is all about finding the best teaching path for horse and rider, even if I sometimes have to think outside the box, and sometimes the most puzzling questions are the most satisfying to work with.

Palomino Genetics

I was chatting to some old friends (not old old; we just go back a long way) and we were discussing chestnuts and their sensitivity, and then started to discuss how palominos can be equally quirky. We could remember that there was a genetic link between the two colours, but after that it all became a bit vague.

I needed to lay my mind to rest, so thought I would share my research with you.

This is genetics at their very basic level, so apologies to any readers who are more versed in it.

All horses start out genetically as either a chestnut, or a black horse. A chestnut horse does not have an extensor gene (so is referred to as ee), whilst a black horse does (so is either referred to as EE or Ee). What the extensor gene does, I’m not sure, but this is after all very basic!

From here, the Agouti gene modifier works on the black horse to create the bay colour. Bay, along with chestnut and black, forms the three basic colours from which all other equine coat colours are derived, with the help of additional genes.

A palomino horse, which is my main focus of this blog, is a chestnut colour (lacking the extensor gene) with one cream dilution gene. This gene causes the red coat to lighten to a yellow colour (anywhere from very light creamy colour, to golden, to an almost chocolatey colour) and for the mane and tail to be white.

Have you heard of the colour “chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail”? This colouring is different from palomino, although they can look similar to the bystander. There is a flaxen gene, which only works on chestnut horses, and lightens their mane and tail so that it is lighter than their body. The coat of the horse is still red, as opposed to the yellowy colour of a palomino.

Equine coat genetics are complicated. I’d like to know more, but even just visually categorising coloured horses into tobiano, overo, tovero gets me in a muddle. I do find it interesting that palomino and chestnut horses have such similar colour genetics, and I’m sure these genes are linked to other genes which contribute to other areas of their personality, giving chestnut mares particularly, a bad name. Perhaps it is that the chestnut coat genes are linked with thinner, more sensitive skin, which can cause problems with ill fitting tack and rugs, or rough handling or riding, which gives the chestnuts the bad name. Perhaps the gene which gives chestnuts thinner skin (don’t ask me where I read that article, but I did whilst researching the chestnut mare myth) is also prevalent in palominos, which could explain why some palominos have that feisty reputation.

Or perhaps it’s just down to the way they’ve been brought up and managed…

Maybe I’ll see if I can find an equine genetics book for dummies to read.

Getting An Insight

I had a day, purely coincidental, this week where I ended up riding a number of client’s horses in lessons.

I am of the mentality that a good instructor can teach without demonstrating, and that a rider gains much more satisfaction and self belief in their ability if they achieve a goal with their horse rather than sit on a ready made one. However, I also believe that an instructor should be able to sit on a client’s horse and make some benefit to the horse and the content of the lesson without the rider going away feeling inadequate.

The first pony I rode was one I’ve ridden infrequently, but we’ve been working on her suppleness, and whilst it’s improved hugely, I feel that we’re only connecting her 80%. The hindlegs are working actively and she’s far less on the forehand than she used to be, but something’s missing from the overall picture. My rider is doing everything I’m asking her to, and the exercises should be helping them. I wondered a couple of weeks ago if it was the fact they were both learning which was holding them back. If my rider has never, for example, experienced shoulder in, then when asking her pony she may have woolly or clumsy aids, or not be assertive enough (“I think my leg is in the right place” sort of thing) or she may not be asking until the pony gives it, and she may not know how to adjust her aids in response to what her pony is doing. If I were to ride the same movement, knowing what I am aiming to achieve, I will be more likely to teach the horse to understand the aids, and I can then help my rider perfect her aids – some horses have buttons which need pressing slightly harder, or in a different place than textbook.

So I sat on this pony and immediately found that she was much heavier in the right rein. Far heavier than she looks to be! Which was a revelation in itself and something I will be focusing more on. This led me to discover that the reason we aren’t getting her truly connected, bridging, working over her back, was because she’s locked on the right side of her neck. I did a fair bit of work on shoulder on and getting her to stretch and release her neck, eventually she understood and became lovely and light in both reins, straight, and was swinging over her back. I had done a running commentary throughout, so when I got her rider remounted she could ride through the exercises I had just done, knowing where and when to apply aids, getting the correct response, and feeling the correct feel in her pony. The tricky bit will be when she tries to recreate this next time she rides, but hopefully because her pony understands and my rider is more assured of her aids, they will get it.

The next horse I ended up riding; we were in one of those situations where my rider doesn’t fully understand, and her horse was taking the mickey of her unsureness. Straighter than he used to be, he’s still a crooked horse, drifting through his right shoulder. The result to my rider is that her left rein is always dominant and her right is a bit airy fairy. So we’ve been working a lot on using the outside aids to turn. On the left rein, this means she has to keep a firmer right contact and remember not to use the left to steer round the corner. But as she’s applying more right rein her horse is leaning against her, waiting for her to release the right hand and take over with the left. There’s an element here of my rider not being quite strong enough to stay firm until her horse rebalances himself and stops leaning on her right rein. I felt she would have also benefited from seeing the process and net result, which a lot of visual learners do. So I sat on and basically did exactly as she was doing, but I’m a bit stronger in my core so could hold up her horse’s right shoulder until he yielded. My right leg is probably a bit stronger to, which will help him understand the question I was asking him. That is, to move away from the outside aids. It took him a few attempts, and a few strides where he really tried to push through my right rein, but then it clicked. I rode for a few more minutes, making sure my rider could see what I was doing, and how I was asking her horse. Then she got back on, and we repeated it so that she could put the theory into practice, and because she got the correct results, she had more confidence in her understanding and ability.

A client had suggested I sat on her young horse a few lessons ago, so this ride didn’t come as a surprise to me. The horse is young, and young horses often benefit from more experienced riders sitting on from time to time. We have been working on her suppleness over the last few lessons because she tends to swing her hindquarters right instead of using the right hindleg properly. I started off slowly, finding the right buttons, and then did a few minutes in sitting trot, making very small adjustments with my seat and leg so that she spent more time with her hindquarters directly behind her forehand, and I could support her round turns and circles before she swung her quarters to help her understand how she should be carrying herself. We introduced leg yield a couple of lessons ago to help teach the mare to move away from the leg, but also so that we could start to improve the degree of bend she was giving round turns, and to encourage her to bend throughout her whole body. I rode some leg yield, and she tried really hard, but you could tell that leg yielding to the left was much harder because she had to push with her lazy right hindleg. Her rider watched, and could see the asymmetries, which will hopefully help her connect what she feels in the saddle to what is actually happening. And she will also be able to ride the exercises appropriately to her horse’s asymmetry. We work horses evenly on both reins, but if there’s a weaker rein it is often beneficial to do a few more circles, or whatever movement you’re riding, to help loosen them and strengthen them.

After the leg yielding, the mare started to feel more even behind, and more active, so I turned my attention to encouraging her to lengthen her stride and open up in the shoulder so her trot didn’t feel so choppy. A rider who is used to a choppy stride may find it harder to push a horse into a long, more fluid stride, so my rider could watch the benefit to her horse’s gait, and next time the horse knows what they should be doing so will be more receptive to the rider’s aids.

This client didn’t get on at the end because we ran out of time and the young mare had done sufficient work for that day, but I’m sure they’ve both got lots to put into practice over this week.

It’s not part of my teaching plan, to sit on every horse, but it does provide very useful insights as well as helping fine tune a horse and rider so that they work in unison, and I’d definitely recommend coaches have a feel for the horse that they are teaching with at some point as it furthers their understanding of how the horse ticks.

Positive, Neutral and Negative Riders

I heard an interesting analogy last week, which I thought I would share with you as it’s a good attitude to have each time you go to ride your horse.

There are three types of rider: those who have a positive effect on their horse, those who have a neutral effect, and those who have a negative effect on their horse.

It doesn’t sound very nice really, does it, saying that you have a negative or detrimental effect on your horse. But we all started off as negative riders. When we were bumbling around with clumsy steering aids and heavy rising, those riding school horses tolerated us and accepted our mistakes as we learnt. But this comes at a cost. The horse’s way of going will deteriorate over time by them losing topline muscles and learning to compensate by working in a hollow manner; they may lose the level of impulsion and cadence to their gaits.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and have control over your aids, and can maintain your balance you begin to become a neutral rider. That means that the time you spend riding your horse (assuming you are appropriately matched) won’t cause their way of going to deteriorate, yet you also won’t improve their level of schooling.

Finally, there is the positive rider. These are more experienced riders who can enhance the horse’s way of going; teach them new movements or fine tune their current skills.

Throughout our riding careers you can find yourself as all three types of rider at some point. If you are overhorsed, you may be a negative rider for the short term but with the right help you can improve your skills so that you become a neutral rider. You may find yourself riding a young or green horse, in which case you need to be a positive rider to further their education.

As a rider, horse owner and horse lover, you should want to do the best by your horse, and that means that on a bad day you want to have a neutral effect on your horse – perhaps you’ve had a busy day at work and just need to hack or lightly school. But every other day, you are a positive rider, and enhancing your horse with every ride. Be that by improving a certain movement, building their self confidence, or by riding exercises to improve their muscle tone.

It’s a good ambition to have, regardless of whether you want to ride an advanced medium test, event internationally, or hack confidently or enter your local riding club competitions; you should aim to be a positive rider for the benefit of your horse.

Jumping A Cross

I saw this jump exercise on social media a couple of weeks ago, so two poor unsuspecting clients got to test it out for me.

The exercise consists of one jump block in the centre of the school with four upright jumps coming out at right angles.

There are two exercises to ride here. The first one is a test of suppleness, and will improve the horse’s jump because the canter is kept quite collected and there’s a short approach. You do however, need a wide arena – say thirty metres wide.

For this exercise, you are riding a circle to the outside after every jump. Let me explain, with the help of the diagram below. Jump the first upright off the right canter lead. Upon landing ride a right circle of approximately fifteen metres. The size of the circle shouldn’t be too small that your horse loses his balance and falls into trot, but it shouldn’t be too big that you have half a dozen straight strides before the next fence.

After the circle, jump the second upright, and repeat the circle right. Continue until you’ve jumped all four fences at least once. Because it’s a circular exercise I would recommend doing at least four, but if the fourth one goes wrong then do a fifth to finish on a positive note.

This exercise needs repeating on both reins, and will highlight any discrepancies in the quality of your horse’s canters, as well as any stiffness. The horse is encouraged to just pop over the fence, with quite a short landing and take off distance, which means that their hocks are working very hard and they will be pushing over the jump with their hindquarters so the jump will feel like more of a ping and easier for them. The circle will help them engage the hindquarters, and collect that canter, which is really helpful for horses who like to charge and rush their jumps.

My riders could feel the difference in their horse’s jump after doing the exercise, and I hope that they will be able to remember and recreate the canter next lesson so that the horses can better push over the fences, which will be more noticeable over larger jumps.

The second exercise with this layout, is a test of accuracy. You aim to jump the central block. The two poles nearest you will help draw both you and your horse to the centre, but because the jump looks strange, either or both may back off.

My first rider, and I’ll show you the video in a moment – don’t scroll down! – rode accurately to the jump getting very central, but her horse took a stride out and almost jumped them into orbit! The next time, my rider insisted on keeping the canter more collected for an extra stride, so the jump was still high, but not as long, and more controlled. This is good practice for skinny fences, because you don’t want your horse to over jump, as you’ll need to regroup before the next fence, which can only be a couple of strides away in a combination. This rider knows now how to better tackle skinny fences she meets out on course.

My other rider, having seen video evidence of this catapulting attempt, was a little nervous about how her horse would tackle this obstacle. But he has more sense than she gives him credit for, and they jumped it accurately and neatly the first time. The video below is of the second attempt, when my rider was a little more relaxed and positive on the approach so didn’t get left behind.

A really fun exercise; the suppling exercise can be done as poles on the floor or smaller jumps if more appropriate to the horse and rider’s level of training. And the accuracy test adds a challenge to any confident pair.

Square Serpentines

Following on from my square theme a few weeks ago, I’ve been doing a lot of square serpentines with clients.

I thought I’d blogged about riding squares, but apparently I only imagined that I did. Let me explain them further.

I’ve used the EB markers a lot during lessons to get clients riding corners, and practicing riding straight lines across the arena with no fence line to support them or their horse. Riding these square turns encourages the rider to indicate only with the inside rein, to maintain the outside contact and keep the neck and shoulder straight, whilst using the outside leg to instigate the turn. This causes the horse to step under with their inside hind and to take their weight onto it, which increases the impulsion and activity in the hindquarters.

Squares have become quite common in the warm up session of many of my lessons, as I’ve found they’ve improved my rider’s aids, outside rein contact, and the quality of the horse’s gait as well as establishing their awareness of straightness which helps set us up for the rest of the lesson. With the majority of clients, we’ve ridden squares in trot, but for the more established horse and rider we’ve ridden large squares in canter which really improves the inside hindleg action and quality of the canter.

Once a horse and rider can maintain a quality gait on the square, then it’s time to go up a level. Cue, square serpentines. These are three loop serpentines with square turns instead of curves across the school. This is harder than the squares because the rider and horse need to change direction, so the rider needs to be coordinated with their aids, and the horse needs to be balanced. Riding alternate square turns helps highlight which direction is easier for them, and when they can do it easily the rider will get a good feeling for straightness. It is also a good test to see if they overturn on the square corners, and are over cooking it.

When you ride a square turn to the left, for example, the left rein opens to encourage the shoulder round and the right rein limits the neck bend so that the outside shoulder travels left and the horse doesn’t drift through it. The outside leg instigates the turn by pushing the horse’s body round, and the inside leg provides a pillar for them to go around. We aren’t looking for a huge amount of bend from the horse here, but if there’s no inside leg at all then they can end up falling round the left turn. Or motor biking. This means they end up loading the inside shoulder and looking to the outside. Which is not good, and can be the end result if square turns are ridden before the horse is physically able to, or incorrectly. So should a horse turn left on the serpentine in a motorbike fashion, then when they turn right they will lead through the outside shoulder, hang their head to the right and be unable to engage the right hind. Which will highlight to the rider that they are crooked, and hopefully help them understand that whilst the outside aids are really important, so is the inside leg! If the rider was to then ride a less severe corner, but with their inside leg encouraging the inside hindleg to step under the horse’s body then they would come out of the turn straighter and more balanced.

I love riding the square turns, and the square serpentines are so useful to checking their balance and symmetry. Riding circles after square work is suddenly much easier, but the horse will then be able to give a uniform bend through their body, on a line which follows the curve of the circle, so working correctly and easily.