Rule Of Three

At baby swimming last year I noticed that there was a theme of threes. Each exercise or song was repeated three times. Since then, it’s been in the back of my mind and I’ve noticed this occurring in other areas of learning, and even with my own teaching. I’ve found that whilst I don’t have to explain something three times, it usually takes clients three attempts to fully grasp an exercise, or I have to remind or make a correction three times in quick succession before they manage to make a long term adjustment to their riding.

I googled it to see if there is a learning theory for threes, and there doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted one, but I saw several articles citing that learners need to be given three opportunities to learn something.

I don’t think you want to stick too closely to repeating an exercise three times, in case it goes wrong. You almost want three decent attempts at an exercise before increasing its difficulty or changing it. Ignore the duff ones when horse or rider lost concentration at the beginning. Likewise, if a rider has tried an exercise three times unsuccessfully, it might be wise to change your explanation or simplify things. If you’re just warming up, for example when moving from flat to jumping I usually trot or canter over some poles first, purely to change the horse’s focus. An established horse and rider only need do that once, especially when used to using poles as a subject transition.

Last week I was teaching a young girl who is growing in confidence in her riding, and I keep mentioning the C-word. Cantering, you rude readers!! Until now she’s baulked at the idea, but this time she said she was “nervous but not scared”.

Great. So I talked her through where we were going to trot, what she was going to hold on to, and what to do whilst cantering. I didn’t worry her five year old brain with the transition aids at this moment, after all, I was leading her.

We set off and the first attempt had one stride of canter. Maybe. But on the plus side, no shrieking and she seemed happy enough. Second time we had half a dozen canter strides and her au pair got it on video for her Mum. I announced we were going to do it one more time.

“Why? I don’t want to do it again.”

“Ah well, we have to do it three times because the first is really wobbly and not very good, the second one is better, and the third time even better!”

“Oh okay. Why don’t we do it five times?”

“Because I don’t have enough puff to run that fast five times.”

“Okay.”

The third canter was longer, and she was starting to find her seat. So I left it on a positive note. She can reflect on the canter when telling her parents over dinner.

We moved on to jumping. Well practising our jumping position over tiny cross poles, to finish the lesson. My rider told me she wanted to do level four jumping. That means a cross on the fourth from bottom hole. Which we haven’t done before. So I humoured her, saying we needed to start lower and build up to it. I put the cross on the second hole and we went over it a couple of times. Three probably, let’s face it. And she was staying balanced over the jump and quiet! When I put the cross pole up a hole, my rider said she didn’t want to do level four. So I said that was fine. We did it once, successfully, and called her au pair to watch the second go. Unfortunately she didn’t get it on video. This was the conversation we had:

“We need to do it again so she gets it on video. But. But, what if she doesn’t get it … will you have enough puff to do it again so I do get a video to show Mummy?”

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll have enough energy to do the jump twice more if we need to. Now, are you ready?”

How sweet is that?! I was then that I realised I tended to use the rule of three when teaching. Perhaps I should be developing the Learning Theory of Three. Publish a book and make my fortune …

Our Story

This isn’t easy to write, but it’s taken me long enough to stop being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand. This is the missing piece to Phoenix’s story of the last few months.

You may remember in January that she started shooting off in canter in the arena, which I discovered was caused by muscle adhesions and tightness in her left hind so she had a course of physio therapy. In April, this limb got a clean bill of health.

In February I was working on Phoenix’s walk and trot in the arena, and cantering in straight lines out on hacks. Until her left hind was sorted, I didn’t really want to canter her in the arena.

Phoenix’s uncontrolled right canters in the arena in January had unnerved me a bit. I’ll be honest. Whilst I could ride the eight laps of fast, uncontrolled canter calmly round the arena, I didn’t enjoy it. So I decided that I would ensure she wasn’t in any pain before readdressing the canter, and just focus on improving her trot, work the canter on the lunge so that she was calm and balanced throughout the transition. We were enjoying our hacks, and she was behaving perfectly.

Then it happened. I took her for a hack one afternoon. We were on our own, and I decided to trot across the patch of grass which cuts off a junction. That trot turned into canter, which turned into a flat out gallop. She jumped the ditch onto the road, turned left. Slipped over, and we parted company.

Ok, so I wasn’t particularly hurt. A couple of grazes and bruises, but nothing a hot bath won’t cure. But I was gutted. I felt betrayed. A bit like if you overhear a friend talking behind your back. It hurts much more than a stranger saying the same words. I think Phoenix scared herself too. I wish I knew what had triggered her bolt. But she definitely changed towards me after that incident. I led her home, lunged her hard and then got back on.

The rest of that week I beat myself up. Why was I being so pathetic? We had a tumultuous week weatherwise, with constant gales, so each day I weighed up the pros and cons of riding. And inevitably chickened out each day. I was tense and worried, and she was equally stressed out.

When the weather settled, a whole week later, I got back on and hacked round the block with a friend. It took both me and Phoenix most of the hack to relax. The next day I went in the arena, but I was so worked up about it I ended up getting another friend to lunge me to get the first trot, and then just stand there talking about the weather to me as a distraction.

I felt so disappointed in myself. My riding of clients’ horses on the other hand was feeling better and I was getting good results. But I couldn’t ride my own horse without stressing out.

It was about this time I began investigating Phoenix’s nutrition, and the possibility of ulcers. And decided to come up with a rescue plan for myself.

Firstly, what I’d tell my clients, I took the pressure off myself.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that it had to be me who solved this problem. There was no point getting someone else to ride her because that wouldn’t stop my qualms, and given Phoenix’s current mental state she wasn’t trusting of anyone. And as a friend said, she is actually very attached to me. You can see by the way she watches me and follows me round.

Someone described her as a cat pony. Which is totally true! Phoenix is affectionate, but on her terms and can be a bit aloof. Which I think makes it harder to build a relationship. You can’t kiss and make up, so to speak.

So I was sorting out Phoenix’s diet, she was having regular physio sessions, saddles had been checked, and I was focusing on spending more time grooming and just being with Phoenix so that we became friends again. I worked her on the lunge, and she was behaving perfectly here.

I decided to box over to my instructor to have some lessons to remove any environmental stimuli. I needed some advice to overcome Phoenix’s tension in the school, and to develop some tactics to stop her scooting off. After all, every time she scooted off I tensed, and that made her more jumpy. It was a vicious circle.

The hacks were getting back on track: we’ve been out alone again, and she’s been on her best behaviour ever since.

I hoped that a change of arena would help reset our flatwork. It seemed to work, and after two lessons we had a short canter on both reins. In the third lesson, the canter was beautifully calm and balanced, like it was at Christmas. I felt like we were back on track.

Just before the second lesson, Phoenix had had the all clear from the physio, and as I couldn’t find any physical excuses for her to be stressed about cantering I decided to take her on a sponsored ride. I hoped the long canters would build some muscle, and she had plenty of time to find her rhythm and balance. And of course she would realise that it didn’t hurt. She was phenomenal, and I was euphoric. We were friends again!

Since the sponsored ride I felt like we’ve been on an up; we had a great third lesson at my instructor’s. I still wasn’t getting the same level of relaxation at home, and was sticking to walk and trot. But then I think we are both aware that that particular arena is where she’s misbehaved.

This takes us up to last weekend. I was feeling happier, getting better work from Phoenix and we were making progress. I was schooling last Saturday and getting the best trot work I’ve had for a long time, just doing a last circle when Phoenix had what can only be described as a panic attack. Halfway round the circle she shot into canter, heading towards the corner of the arena. I pulled her round and we cantered a few panicked circles and she started putting her head down. But I pulled her up, then dismounted because she felt like she was about to explode. Her back was up, the saddle had shifted forwards. What caused what, who knows. Once deflated and with the saddle adjusted, I got back on and we had a tense trot. I was pretty disappointed, as I should’ve finished a circle before!

On Sunday I had a very disappointing ride. Phoenix was scooting off each time I asked for trot, and wouldn’t relax in walk. She behaved perfectly on the lunge, but her jumping and scooting made me jumpy so the vicious cycle was back (I did observe her to be in season too). I wrote it off, but wasn’t happy as I was going cross country schooling the following day!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get in the cross country field, but Phoenix was again, phenomenal. She jumped everything I asked her to, and felt incredibly bold and rideable!

It’s like a rollercoaster at the moment. Phoenix behaves so well out of the arena, but we’ve taken a few steps back again inside the boards. She’s living out now and whilst she has plenty of fresh grass, she seems happier so hopefully the nutrition and management side settles down now. I think that whilst she’s had some issues over the winter (left hind and not eating enough forage) Phoenix has started to try it on. Her scooting off was initially from discomfort, but she is now doing it to get out of work. So I’ve got my work cut out being consistent in the arena and teaching her that she’s not going to get away with not working. She’s trying to be in control in the arena. Out of her comfort zone on hacks or cross country, she’s happy for me to take control and is submissive.

This weekend is being spent repeating the lessons of last week and trotting with a softer neck, and relaxing through her body. Hopefully a few days of this and proud Phoenix will back down and submit to me in the arena. Then we can get our competing again!

I’ve signed us up for riding club camp in June too, so I’ve got a goal, a focus, and I shall keep plugging away; keeping consistent, putting the boundaries in place, and waiting for Phoenix to settle back down. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, the good days are fantastic, I just need to iron out the bad days, but hopefully now things will start to come together.

Perfecting The Approach To Jumps

I’ve had two clients recently working on perfecting their approach to jumps. They’ve had similar lesson formats, and both have had positive results from it.

One rider found that they kept “missing” the first jump to grids or on courses. With placing poles, and once in combinations, they fly the fences perfectly. So I brought her attention to their approach to jumps. We’re looking for a positive, active, balanced canter. And we’re looking for it to be consistent throughout the approach. The pony was backing off, losing power, on the approach to jumps. But only for a stride, or even just half a stride. It was only when we studied the approach that the slight loss of impulsion became apparent.

We then looked at my rider. She was riding a little reactively. So her pony backed off and a stride later, my rider closed her leg and rode him forwards. We needed to get rid of this delay because that slight loss of impulsion was enough to disrupt their take off point. By drawing my rider’s attention to this, she began to notice as her pony dropped impulsion quicker, and then reacted quicker. This meant that the canter stayed more consistent before the jump, and the maintained energy meant they hit their take off point perfectly.

This week I constructed a 90cm oxer in the middle of the arena, and asked them to jump it. The canter approach was rhythmical, and when I saw the pony think about backing off, his rider applied her aids and managed to maintain the consistency of the canter, so they jumped it brilliantly. And repeatedly did so as I increased it to just over a metre high.

My other rider has a rather fresh pony at the moment (spring grass has a lot to answer for!) and she started approaching fences in a kangaroo fashion, and then jumping erratically. I think this is caused by the pony being a bit more spooky, and looking at jumps more because she’s full of the joys of spring. However, the kangaroo approach to fences makes it harder for my rider, and then they lose their synchronicity.

We addressed the consistency of the canter, and I told my rider to micromanage the canter, so that she reduced the kangaroo effect, to smooth out the canter. She already rides well towards a fence, using her seat and legs to keep her pony up in front of her and taking her forwards, with a steady, quiet hand, so it was just a matter of her being a bit quicker to react to any changes to the canter. Be it quickening or slowing down. As soon as the canter was ironed out the jumps started to flow more. The spooks and looks at any jumps were minimised and then the mare started to focus on the job in hand.

The girls put this to the test last weekend at an eventers challenge, and the result was very positive. A much more flowing round and some stylish jumps so I’m very pleased.

It’s amazing the difference a couple of seconds in rider reactivity makes, and the resulting consistency in a horse’s canter to the jumps.

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.

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.

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.

Riding Away

I’ve done a few lessons recently where I’ve been focusing on how my riders finish their school movements and ride away from a fence. The way you ride out of a circle sets you up for the next movement in your dressage test, and how you ride away from a jump affects your approach to the next fence.

With one rider, I worked on her landing, how she rode away from each fence and the speed in which she recovered: rebalancing the canter, checking she’s on the necessary canter lead and riding the turn after the jump. The quicker she can recover from a jump, the more time she’ll have to set up for the next fence. In jump of scenarios, a quicker recovery could mean that you can ride a tighter turn and shave precious seconds of your time. I used a very twisty course with lots of short approaches and getaways from fences to help my rider become more aware of the knock on effect of not preparing her getaway, or waiting until she’s landed and cantered a stride before thinking about her next jump.

On the dressage side of things, it is important to think about how you ride out of a school movement as finishing in a rushed, tense mess means that you will start your next movement in a rushed, tense mess, so you cannot execute that movement to the best of your ability.

The levels of dressage test takes recovery and preparation for each movement into account: at prelim level each movement is separated by some simple travelling around the arena. These filler movements allow you to rebalance yourself and your horse after a botched circle or transition so that you can do your best on the next movement. At elementary level, transitions, circles and school movements come up much quicker, meaning the rider has to plan how they finish a movement so that they are quickly set up for the next movement.

A very useful exercise for highlighting the importance of riding out of a movement is one of my favourite sequences to ride and teach with at the moment.

On the left rein, ride leg yield left from the letter F towards the centre line. After the EB line, halt and ride a turn on the forehand in a clockwise direction. Proceed in walk, leg yielding left back to the track. It seems pretty straightforward, but it’s important to break down the sequence even more. After the first leg yield, you need to ride a few strides in a straight line before halting. This is so that the horse halts in a balanced way, with their weight evenly distributed so that they can easily execute the turn on the forehand and don’t lurch sideways falling through their shoulder. It’s also important to halt, and have that moment of immobility, before asking your horse to turn on the forehand. Otherwise they will begin to fuss in a normal halt, anticipating a turn. This causes no end of problems down the centre line in your dressage tests!

After the turn on the forehand, pause. Again to let your horse process what they’ve just done and to rebalance themselves into a halt. Now, you should get a balanced, active transition to walk, and after a couple of straight strides, you can begin leg yielding back to the track. The straight strides ensure your horse is most able to moves sideways by using the inside hindleg to push across, rather than pulling across with the outside shoulder. On reaching the track, you right straight again, with their weight evenly over each side of their body. Then you can move up into trot or canter, and really feel the benefit of the lateral sequence you’ve just done.

Can you see how important those little breaks between each movement are? Each horse, depending on their level of training will need different lengths of time between each movement. An established schoolmaster will be able to go from leg yield to halt with only a stride of straight. A green horse, may need four strides to rebalance themselves after the leg yield. In training, it is better to give an extra stride, or second in the halt, before asking for the next movement so that your horse is more likely to do it correctly and to the best of their ability.

Next time you ride, have a think about how you’re coming out of a jump, or school movement, and see if it can be improved so that the trot you exited the circle with us as rhythmical and balanced as the trot you entered it. Then you can begin to think about how quickly you are ready to do another school movement. Could you do something at the next dressage letter, for example? When jumping, think about could you have ridden that turn between two fences if there was one less canter stride until the second – so a relates distance of four strides instead of five?

Jumping Manners

Last week I jumped a horse for a client. He’s new to her, and as she hasn’t jumped for a long time, I was given the job of putting him through his paces.

This horse is a keen and experienced jumper, but he can be a bit bargy on the ground so I wanted to establish the rules whilst jumping so that his rider would be confident and in control when she begins jumping.

I constructed a grid of three jumps, with one canter stride between. Starting with poles on the ground, I used these as part of my warm up. I trotted over them in both directions. Predictably, he rushed and tried to canter through the grid. So I made him halt. And then walk the rest of the grid. After doing this a couple of times he trotted sweetly over the grid in a lovely balanced rhythm.

I feel this is important as a rider lacking confidence when jumping needs to be able choose the pace they approach in. They may choose to trot into a cross pole for the first couple of times, then progress to cantering over it. When the jump becomes bigger, or an upright, they may decide to trot into it the first time. To help give the rider confidence, they need to know they will approach the jump at their chosen pace.

After I’d trotted the poles in both directions, with the horse staying steady and rhythmical throughout, I did the same in canter. When a grid is set up, the distances between poles on the ground is often awkward for horses. Because they don’t have the jumps the distance between the poles is about one and a half canter strides instead of one. If you think about the way a horse jumps they take off and land further away from a jump than they would over a pole on the ground. So you either have to extend the canter to get one long stride, or collect it to get two strides between the poles. Keeping with the plan of improving control, and not letting the horse rush the jumps, I collected the canter for two strides, to which he obliged.

Next, I put up the third jump to a little cross and we trotted the grid a couple of times, until I felt the horse settle at my chosen tempo. Then we cantered it, getting two canter strides between the first and second pole. The more jumps we did, the less the horse tried to rush, and the more easily I could dictate our approach.

I built the grid up to three crosses, alternating our approach from both reins and in trot or canter to ensure that the horse stayed with me and didn’t take over on the approach. He still tried to take over half a dozen strides away from the first jump, but a little half halt on my part and he listened to me. A couple of strides before the jump, I allowed him to take over so that he met the fence at a good take off point. After all, I didn’t want to put him off jumping!

Over the next few weeks, I plan to do more pole work and grids, keeping the focus on maintaining the rhythm, improving his suppleness and balance. And teaching him to be polite and wait for his rider to choose the approach. He’s a keen jumper, so he will give his rider a lot of confidence when they start jumping, so long as she feels in control throughout. I think we’ll have lots of fun getting these two off the ground!

What’s What?

We all know that an instructor teaches, but have you ever thought of why they charge what they do, and the other hats that they wear?

Firstly, let’s look at the behind the scenes costs an instructor has.

Arena hire – if you go to their yard they need to include wear and tear, and maintenance costs for their arena. Some instructors have a separate fee for arena hire, as this can vary depending on the facilities hired or the number of riders using the facilities.

Petrol costs – if they come out to your yard, you may be saving on arena hire, but it’s amazing how quickly the mileage clocks up when you visit several yards. On your accounts you can claim £0.45 per mile, so if you imagine an instructor has travelled 10 miles to your lesson that costs them £9 in motor costs, because of course they have two journeys. Some instructors have an area or radius of X miles and if they have to travel beyond that they charge petrol money. Other instructors work in different areas on different days of the week, or try and book their work into the most economical blocks, saving on both travel time and travel costs.

Insurance – all instructors should be insured, whether it’s for teaching, or riding, or both. Even if you have your own insurance as a horse owner, as soon as you pay someone to teach you or ride your horse that insurance becomes invalid. Instructor insurance covers the instructor for any accident that happens to them whilst working, any injury to you or your horse under their supervision, and any damage to a third party or property whilst they are riding or teaching. As well as paying a monthly insurance premium, there are also compulsory courses for instructors to attend, such as annual CPD training days, first aid courses, DBS and safeguarding certificates. Of which all adds up.

PPE- horse riding equipment is expensive, as we all know, and being a self employed instructor you have to provide your own PPE, as well as suitable clothes to work in. This can become very expensive, so it’s no wonder so many equestrian professionals wait until there are holes in their boots before replacing them.

Of course there is then time spent, unpaid, preparing for lessons. For many regular clients, it may be thinking of an appropriate exercise from your repertoire, but often you have to spend a bit of time researching new exercises or planning your delivery of a new concept. But you may be investigating alternative tack or preparing a stable management lecture.

I think that pretty much sums up the hidden costs of an equitation instructor. But what about the various hats they don? How do they help you out of the saddle?

Firstly, an instructor is very often your first port of call to discuss anything and everything equine. I spend a surprising amount of time talking to clients, both during lessons, or over text, about things that are not related to their lessons at all.

I’m often asked about feeding. Is the feed the correct energy level for their horse. Should they have hay or haylage? Have I any experience of various supplements and which does their horse need? Has their horse gained weight?

I also get asked about field management; whether the horse should start living in at night, if they should come in during the day out of the sun, how to divide and rest their paddock. What bedding should they use, how to provide water so that their horse can’t tip it over.

Clients also ask me about tack. Does it look like it fits, would a different bit be better, is this the right style girth to buy. Then I’ll also be asked what type of clip they need, if they’ve got the right weight rug on, or do they need a fly rug.

Often I also find I am someone to tell about their week’s riding. Their horse’s behaviour on a hack, or their amazing schooling session, or the fun they had competing. Or perhaps they want to analyse a new behaviour they’ve come across in their horse and see if I can suggest a cause.

Then of course, we talk about the upcoming week. Queries about loading, what to work on before their competition, how to manage or balance their horse’s workload.

I guess you could say that whilst an instructor is primarily employed to educate horse and rider in equitation, they are also a bit of a life coach and agony aunt. Clients go to them for advice about everything equine, and it is the instructors duty to advise where they can, listen when needed, but also to be able to direct the owner to someone who specialises in their problem area. For example, I may be able to tell them that the saddle needs adjusting, and help them find a temporary solution to keep the horse comfortable, but the client needs to book a saddler to fit the saddle long term, and I often need to be able to suggest a couple of suitable professionals for them to contact.

You want to feel that you can contact your instructor “out of hours” so to speak. No, that does not mean late at night! It means you can speak to them outside of lesson times and they will help or support you. For example, I love getting texts from my clients who have been competing, telling me how they’ve got on and sending videos. I also regularly get texts from them telling me how fabulous their schooling session was, or thanking me for giving them the confidence to try new things. Or just telling me how much they appreciate and love their horse!

So yes, there are many hats that an instructor needs to be able to wear, and a plethora of information that they need to have at their fingertips. Remember that as they’re worth their weight in gold, and are most definitely working hard to earn that lesson fee, in ways which aren’t always immediately obvious. Value them!