Hacking To Shows

Yesterday I took Phoenix to her first competition (blog to follow) but I hacked there. It would’ve been rude not to; the venue was a ten minute walk away from our yard.

Anyway, it brought back memories so I sent a request to Mum to dig through the archives to find some photos from when we used to hack to shows.

It was strange getting changed at the yard, tacking up and feeling very posh hacking along the road. It did save on the warm up though, and it was a lovely way to cool Phoenix down afterwards. Not that either of us cooled down much in this heatwave!

I met my groom/photographer/chauffeur/babysitter there with water (or milk) for all of us before cracking on with the competition.

Years ago very few of us had trailers so we would either hack to shows or club together and hire a lorry. Our first show we took 9 ponies in a huge livestock lorry. They travelled in threes with a partition separating the trios – it’s a good job they all got on well! It was great fun everyone going together because you always had a group of supporters and there were plenty of Mums to do up gaiters at the last minute or older teenagers to give you ringside advice.

I remember at one show I was taking a friend’s pony and I wanted to do the 2’9″ jumping class. But Mum wouldn’t let me as it was “too big” (even though my jumping had improved massively since riding this mare) so my friend, who was a bit older, just slipped into the secretary’s tent and entered me for it!

Mum usually took on the role of Yard Mum, filling the car up with haynets, tweed jackets, grooming kits, water butts and buckets, headcollars, and rugs if rain threatened. She would meet us at the venue and we’d find somewhere to tie up (Mum would’ve brought baling twine too) for the day. We would be there for the first classes and then stay as long as we could, usually hacking home in smaller groups as our classes finished. We usually did the Mountain and Moorland, a working hunter class, and at least one showjumping class. Sometimes we did five classes! There was usually a clash which would involve one of us dashing between arenas to inform the judge that someone would be late.

It was a long day, but always a lot of fun!

Here are two photos from 2003 when three of us hacked five miles to a show. I think it was the first show that I hacked to. We left the yard at 7am, show shirts and jodhs under our jeans and jumpers; headcollars over our bridles like trekking ponies. Our Mothers drove behind. We arrived at the venue just after 8am, only to find that we were the first to arrive and the farmer hadn’t even taken the sheep out of the field! So after phoning the secretary and waiting for the sheep to be removed we tied up on a fence line and let the ponies graze until the show began. I’m on the grey, Partner, who I had on loan. I lovesd that pony! Initially I couldn’t jump him as he’d just run out but after two of the older girls shouting at me in the cross country field I manned up and got bossy! The smaller bay is Billy, who was my favourite riding school pony. Last I knew he was still going strong in the riding school. The bigger bay is Dan, who I loved to ride a couple of years later. He was considered unrideable and the older girls spent a whole summer breaking him in. He had an almighty buck in him though – I came off him several times that way.

These photos were taken in 2004, when eight of us hacked to a show. I think the most that ever went was twelve, which certainly filled the lanes! Although, when we hacked into town for the Boxing Day Meet there was closer to twenty of us!

Squiggle, the large grey, and his best friend Bisto, the large dark bay, led the group. I never liked riding Squiggle, who lived up to his name and was very wiggly to ride. I rode him a lot when I was backing Matt. Now, I’d like to see what tune I could get out of him with more experience but he’s in the field in the sky. I loved riding Bisto, who was a horse as opposed to a pony and you had to ride like a grown up! She did make my triceps ache though, I remember.

I’m behind on the chestnut mare, Llynos, who was a friend’s pony and a lovely jumper. She really built my confidence up while I was backing Matt. Next to me is Aries, who was slightly crazy but I loved to jump him when I was about fifteen/sixteen. He used to trot or canter sideways very slowly towards a fence and then you’d straighten up and he’d gallop over the jump, before you had to collect him and go sideways to the next fence. He was the first pony I jumped 3′ on. When his owner was at university I used to ride him weekly and got a lot of enjoyment out of getting him straight when jumping or doing trotting poles!

Behind us is a black pony, Jack, who was very sensitive. The first time I rode him was when Partner was lame and the yard was on lockdown with strangles. I didn’t want to ride boring old Gypsy in my lesson so jumped at the chance when my friend offered me Jack. Last I knew, he was enjoying his retirement in the field behind her house, in his early thirties. He is Dan’s half brother.

Next to Jack is Geraint, the chestnut. He is Llynos’ half brother and was such a thug! He was best friends with Matt and used to follow me down the field when I caught, before barging past me at the gate. To ride, he was very bargy and just used to run through the hand. Again, now I’d like to see how I got on with him. He could go nicely on the flat and when he coordinated his legs he could jump pretty well too.

You can see Dan behind Geraint, and to his left just the black nose of Bubbles is showing. She was Jack’s Mum and quite crazy to ride. In a similar way to Aries, she’d gallop over jumps. She could jump the moon though, and had a dead mouth. We were forever trying out different (strong) bits in an attempt to slow her down. When excited, she used to jog on the spot and she had the most uncomfortable saddle! Like sitting on a brick – you can only imagine the moans when she was jig jogging along! I first rode her when the yard had strangles too. This was before Partner went lame – Mum had offered him for school use so lessons could continue and in return I got to ride Bubbles. Partner’s rider booted him into canter and promptly fell off if I remember correctly.

The other side of Dan is a dun, Sandeman. I didn’t ride him until I was fifteen or sixteen. Again, he was a horse not a pony. Very forwards, and frequently bounced one stride doubles. At one show, he jumped out the ring! Mum always remembers when I hacked him with her and I refused to let him gallop up the canter track. She says he looked like a charger. I won that battle! He’s another horse I’d like to try again now I’ve got more experience.

Finally, was little Jet, who still looks great in his twenties. Mum and I loaned him when I was eight and he was very tolerant, especially as he was only young at the time. I don’t think my feet passed his saddle flaps! Mum’s friend loaned and eventually bought him – he’s a real all rounder and tried his best at everything!

Somehow I’ve digressed from the main point of this blog, but memory lane has been very therapeutic!

Hacking to competitions is rarely done now – definitely a sign of the “good old days” but I have many happy memories of hacking excitedly at dawn to shows, cheering each other on all day then wearily traipsing back. Usually too tired for talk, but reliving each moment before turning our attentions to our sore bums and the bath we would have when we got home.

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Improving Balance Around Corners

I saw an exercise online last week and modified it slightly to help a client who’s pony tends to motorbike around corners.

Using one corner of the school, I laid out three trotting poles on the track. There was 4’6″ between the centre of each pole, which also conveniently also lay on the track my rider had made.

We worked on both reins with the poles laid flat until they were trotting around the corner easily, making the distance between each pole comfortably. Initially, the pony found it difficult to bend and increase her cadence so drifted through the outside shoulder. My rider had to use her outside rein and leg to support her pony through the turn and maintain the support for longer as they came out of the turn. She also found that if she used her inside rein and had too much bend through the neck, they drifted out more and found the exercise harder. So it was a good way of reminding my rider of the correct rein aids and contact.

Next I built up the trot poles into cavaletti, however I only raised the inside of each pole. This was to discourage the pair from falling in around the corner and to improve the activity and strength of the inside hind leg.

As the pony had to put in more effort over the raised poles she started to drift out around the corner, but the fence helped my rider correct this and as the bend developed through her whole body so she began to find it easier and stayed more balanced throughout.

With the abdominals now switched on the trot improved generally and the mare had a good stretch over her topline.

We moved on to riding a canter transition just after the poles to start working the canter. The more active trot helped the transitions have more energy and the subsequent trot was looser so their trot poles improved further.

Now finished with the trotting poles, I converted them to canter poles and after cantering through once started to raise them. This pony tends to motorbike more in canter, so the raised poles were even more beneficial at improving her balance and bend through the corners. They also stopped my rider leaning in!

The canter became stronger, balanced and more three time because the inside hind leg had become more supple and was stepping under the body more.

I was really pleased with the improvement in the quality of the trot and canter due to the trot poles, and my rider could feel how much more balanced they were around the corners which is great for developing her feel. She’ll now know when she gets it right and can strive to replicate the feeling.

I wanted to see how the poles on the corner helped their jump, so I walked two canter strides away from the third pole and put up an upright. As expected, the mare backed off the first time, but from then on she jumped it beautifully. The poles kept her really balanced and her hocks engaged so that the bascule was neat and my rider could feel the lift through the shoulders, and generally felt that the jump was more scopey and powerful. I then reversed the exercise so they could do it on the other rein. Hopefully this exercise will help them create better corners around a jumping course and with time ride tighter turns whilst staying balanced which will help them stay clear whilst against the clock. I just wish I’d taken a photo of the exercise!

Tack Trouble

Today I saw an interesting article doing the rounds on social media. You can have a peruse here.

Over a cup of tea I had a read of the article and all the comments from keyboard warriors. It made interesting reading for sure.

Now, I’m going to digress from the topic of the article, which is about a tack malfunction, onto the subject of tack in general.

As one commenter typed, I’m not a “tack nazi” and completely understand that some horses cannot be ridden in the classical snaffle and cavesson bridle. But I do think that as riders we should aim to have tack that is minimal so it doesn’t hinder the horse, and so that the tack clearly and precisely relays our aids to the horse. Regardless of the level of horse or rider, as I know some will say “well you try riding at 3* level”, well all I can say is that Michael Jung went around Badminton cross country in a snaffle so we can all aspire to be like him.

Anyway, the big issue I had with the horse’s tack in question was the amount of conflicting tack and how much clutter there was on the horse.

I feel that everyone should put more consideration into the reasons why they want to put a piece of tack on a horse, and the mechanics behind said piece of tack. And not use it because their horse “looks pretty in that bridle” or because everyone else is using that noseband.

For example, a gag works on poll pressure, so you wouldn’t use it on a horse who is sensitive over the poll, or one who already raises his head.

Of course, some horses haven’t read the manual and work well with tack that theoretically shouldn’t suit them. But I’m talking in general.

Then, I think tack should compliment each other. For example, if you have a cutaway headpiece to reduce poll pressure, as in the article above, then it doesn’t make sense (in my humble opinion) to fit a tight browband which puts pressure around the ears and pulls the headpiece forwards. Nor would I put a bit which works on the poll on a bridle which is cutaway so it doesn’t touch the poll …

Tack has come on hugely in the last twenty years, and companies like Fairfax have done scientific research on the effects of tack on horse stride length, muscle tension, etc. So we can make more informed decisions on what we use on our horses. There is also far more choice. Which means that if a piece of tack, for example a bit, doesn’t suit your horse you can find an alternative. A lot of companies even do trial periods on tack which can be a more cost effective alternative if you’re trying out a variety of items.

The horse in this article is wearing two breast plates and a running martingale, which shows that the saddle slips back when jumping. Which is a common complaint with fit eventers. Off the top of my head. I can think of half a dozen breast plates or breast girths which work on different ways, and suit different builds of horse, so if I was looking after this horse I’d be tempted to try different styles, and incorporate the running martingale, in order to find the breast plate which bear suits this particular horse. So the saddle is stabilised and there is less clutter on the horse, which can potentially hinder their movement.

I don’t mind what bit or tack riders use within reason, but I do think it’s important to consider why you are using this piece of equipment, and bear in mind that less is more so that communication between horse and rider is not hindered by straps sitting on top of each other, or pressure points caused by multiple straps. Tack should enhance a horse’s performance, not hinder it.

Returning to the article in question. Perhaps the rider has found the best combination of tack for this horse, and he’s certainly thinking outside the box, but in that case could he not work with a bridle maker to make a bespoke bridle which is less cluttered or confusing? For both horse and observer!

Without becoming a keyboard warrior or slating others, I think this article serves as a reminder to everyone to think carefully about their tackroom choices; bearing in mind how tack fits a horse and how it works because their comfort and wellbeing is our top priority.

Phoenix Goes Showjumping

Any journey with horses is full of ups and downs. They are excellent creatures for keeping your feet firmly on the floor. I’ve been lucky so far that Phoenix and I have basically been on a smooth ride, but we were bound to encounter a couple of ruts in the road soon.

Two weeks ago Phoenix had her final massage as my friend’s case study and then had a long weekend off while we were away. On the Tuesday I lunged her and she was a bit fresh – trotting quickly, cantering before being asked, reluctant to come back to trot, that sort of thing. So I just let her get it all out of her system and then on Wednesday I lunged her again with her sensible head back on and she went nicely, relaxing and swinging along nicely.

Over the weekend, Phoenix had been plagued by little black flies around her ears, so she was feeling sensitive when I put the bridle and headcollar on. I cleaned them out as much as I could, and found an old fly mask of Otis’s for her to try. I wasn’t sure if she’d had a mask on before so wanted to trial her before buying her one of her own. Unfortunately this one didn’t have ears, so as soon as I saw that Phoenix kept a mask on and was comfortable with it, I ordered one of her own. As well as ensuring it had ear covers, I also got a UV proof nose net to protect her white nose.

Thursday and Friday I rode, avoiding the heavy downpours, but she was a bit tenser than I’d have liked. I put it down to her finding it harder to stay balanced in the wetter arena, her ears being a bit tender, and the fact she’d had a week off from schooling but by the end of Friday she was feeling normal again.

On Sunday I took her to a showjumping training venue. We’re so lucky to have such a fabulous arena and set of jumps so local. It was only the fifth time I’d jumped her under saddle, and the aim of the session was mostly to work well in a new environment, to link some fences together be them poles on the ground or small cross poles, and to see some fillers in the arena. It was a very positive experience; Phoenix took it all in her stride, building up from trotting over poles to cantering related distances, and finishing by jumping a little course. We had a couple of duff take off points, but I loved that she was calm and confident throughout. Here`s a link to a video on YouTube – https://youtu.be/vJrJ9PRH7Lk

As she’d worked so hard on Sunday, and probably used muscles which don’t get used very often, Phoenix had Monday off and then a gentle hack on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday we had the saddle fitter again. The good news is that she’s slimmed down to a wide gullet bar, and has changed shape enormously as she’s developing muscle. The bad news is that although the jump saddle was fitted to her, she didn’t like it and refused to move! I highly doubt that she has worn a saddle of that style before so my plan is to hack her to gently get her used to the shorter tree points, the different weight distribution, and it sitting slightly further back on her body. Throughout the saddle fit she went awfully. She was incredibly tense, choppy in her stride, fixed in her neck and shooting off in canter. Saddle fits are always a rush job in the sense that the saddler wants to see all three gaits, whereas in a schooling session I’d work on relaxation, stretching, and her balance in walk and trot before having a canter. The net result was that I came away disappointed and feeling that we haven’t made any progress.

That afternoon I had chance to reflect on everything. I think I underestimate how sensitive to change Phoenix is. Even my dressage saddle would have felt different to her, and the jump saddle is a completely new sensation, so I would take her back to basics on our next ride: walk and trot, getting her relaxed and working over her back again. Her new fly mask had arrived so hopefully in a couple of days her sensitivity around her ears would reduce because she was definitely unhappy in this area. I had also possibly underestimated the after effects of Sunday. The jumps weren’t big and she hadn’t seemed overly tired, but it was a lot of new things to digest and process, so although her muscles may have recovered, her brain might still be suffering from information overload. The final thing I thought of, and I was prompted by my saddler, is that Phoenix is wearing Otis’s bridle which is a bit on the big side so getting shorter cheek pieces would reduce the pressure just below her ears. I’m now researching different bridles to see what’s out there and what I should be considering for her.

On Thursday we had our back to basics session, using the dressage saddle and my friend’s Micklem bridle as it has good results with tense horses. Phoenix started off very tight and tense, but by the end she was trotting in a much more relaxed way, stretching down and forwards to the contact. Did the bridle make a difference? The stretching moments were some of her best, but whether that’s because I managed to release the tension or if she was used to how the dressage saddle was now sitting, or even if she liked the fit of the bridle. Who knows!

Today I gave her a quick lunge and she was back to stretching nicely again, so hopefully we’ve negotiated the little ruts in our road. I will make sure that her next saddle fit I have warmed her up more, and ensure that it’s at a time when I can give her a few days to adjust to any changes.

Phoenix’s Progress

Time flies. I’ve just realised that it’s been almost three weeks since I last updated you on Phoenix and her ridden education.

She’s been hacking out alone weekly, and behaving brilliantly. I’ve her into the riding field to cool off after a schooling session and when the ground is a bit drier I’ll do some schooling out there with her, but she’s very relaxed in the open space which is great. I also need to take her on some faster hacks so I’m planning on going to a nearby cross country field in the next couple of weeks to have a play over some logs and see how she is after a couple of canters. Then I’ll have an idea of how she’ll find a sponsored ride and what preparations I need to make to give her an enjoyable experience on her first one.

Her flatwork is coming along nicely. She’s feeling more balanced in the trot and I was really pleased last week when she stretched and gave a lovely swing over her back in the trot at the end. It was the first time I’d felt such a release with her. She’s still running a bit into canter but I feel it’s partly my fault as I sometimes feel we’re talking two different languages. I think she prefers inside leg into canter whereas Otis liked a combination of both legs, but definitely the outside one behind the girth so I need to retrain myself a bit to help Phoenix.

The lunging sessions I’ve done have mainly focused on canter to help her find her balance without me to contend with, and she’s getting quite a little jump into canter now, so it’s time and practice to be able to replicate this under saddle. I did some jumping with her on the lunge a couple of weeks ago, getting it up to 90-95cm. She looked twice, but did it easily.

Then I followed this up the next weekend by jumping under saddle. She was great: we only did a few cross poles, working on approaching straight and rhythmically. She took me into the fences without being strong, and cleanly jumped all of them.

Then this week we progressed to a related distance. One pole was on the floor and four canter strides away was an upright – 80cm perhaps. I didn’t end up raising the pole to make two jumps because she was just getting to grips with negotiating the exercise without loosing her canter or wobbling off our line.

Last week Phoenix had the second of her massages as a case study for my friend. We found a very tight spot on the left side of her wither, which we think is because the saddle is a little on the narrow side – if you remember my saddler didn’t have the widest gullet so suggested I started riding and see how we got on as Phoenix will change shape anyway. As a result of the massage I’ve spoken to the saddler to organise refitting the saddles, and to perhaps fit my jumping saddle onto her.

Phoenix’s hamstrings and brachiocephalic were a bit tight too, but that’s due to an increase in work and is very typical rather than anything else, so she just enjoyed being loosened up. I was pleased that my friend noticed a big difference in the muscle of Phoenix’s neck; she’s developed quite a topline, and interestingly showed no sign of soreness in the top third, which is often tight with horses who “cheat” in the dressage arena and fix their heads in without working over their backs. Proof that Phoenix is working correctly!

This week she had her teeth rasped. I wasn’t sure when she was last done, but I decided to leave it until after the baby was born to give her chance to get to know me and for me to be fit enough to hold her if she fidgeted. She did fidget, but my dentist is very patient and just reassured her whilst following her around. They kept the session short and sweet, and we’ll rebook for six months time when they’ll spend a bit longer on her molars to perfect them as hopefully she’ll remember the positive experience she had this time round.

I’m really pleased with her weight as although not thin by any stretch of the imagination she has toned up nicely and her hindquarters are becoming more muscular and her tummy toned. She looks really well.

Next week we’ve got a dressage lesson booked, which will give Phoenix an experience of being ridden away from home, and then I’m hoping to plan a couple more trips out. Perhaps to a local dressage competition or to a jumping clinic to test her in a group environment.

Putting On The Leg

One of the concepts I’ve recently found people struggle to understand and to put into practice, is riding a forwards going horse with enough leg. Or at least the right amount of leg.

This is particularly noticeable when jumping. One of the big teaching points when jumping is that the rider feels that their horse is “taking them into the fence”. This means that they’re off the leg, with an energetic canter that’s travelling forwards. Which is easy if you have a forward going horse, or one who loves jumping.

But what happens if your forward going horse is tanking towards a simple jump before suddenly grinding to a halt or getting in too deep and clambering over? The rider can tick the “taking me into the fence” box, and given that there are no tack, back, confidence issues it becomes a bit of a mystery.

A lot of the time it’s because the rider hasn’t applied the leg aids. It’s easy to see why, because you’re already travelling forwards (sometimes too quickly for your liking) so why do you want to press the accelerator?

In this instance, the seat and leg aren’t so much driving aids but more of a commitment aid. The horse has focused on the jump, they want to do it so canter happily towards it. The rider sits passively. Then the horse has a moment of doubt – is this the right jump? Am I supposed to be doing this one? – so they back off the fence and either refuse or cat leap it awkwardly.

Here, a slight application of the leg and seat means “yes this is the jump, and I’m committed” which gives the horse the confidence to jump.

Precisely how much leg you use depends upon the individual horse, but usually because the horse in this situation knows what they’re doing the leg shouldn’t put them off their stride. It’s difficult to explain to riders, especially children who think “leg” means “kick”, but I always say that if their horse changes speed, balance, or direction (wobbles on the approach) then there’s been too much leg. A squeeze of the leg to support the horse rather than distract them from their game.

Usually as soon as the rider has found the balance of leg and seat aids three strides away from the fence, the horse will comfortably and happily jump.

Riding On Grass

Eventing season is finally kicking off, although with the ground conditions it’s been difficult to get any work done out of the arena.

This means that horses have lost out on valuable fittening work, hence why some eventers have pulled out of Badminton this year. There’s now far more centres with arena cross country facilities so whilst you may not be able to physically go cross country schooling you can at least practice the technicality aspect over a variety of cross country fences.

Dressage and showjumping you can practice all winter in the arena, but there’s a difference between riding on a surface, and riding on grass, so it’s important to get some practice in before an event.

Let’s look at the differences between riding on the flat and over jumps on grass compared to on an artificial surface.

Firstly, unless you are riding on a bowling green, no grass arena is going to be perfectly flat, and practice is needed so that you and your horse can ride as accurately and correctly on a slope as you do in the arena. The lack of fences can also make it harder to ride a straight line or accurate circles too. Which means practice. Count your strides on a twenty metre circle in the arena and then use this number to check you’re riding the correct sized circle out in the open.

Grass is more slippery than artificial surfaces, especially if it’s long, wet or you have the pleasure of an 8am dressage test on dewy grass. In which case it’s worth investing in studs, and then practice using them and working out the best size and shape of stud that suits your horse in different conditions.

A showjumping course will be more spread out than one on a surface. This is because on grass you need to take a wider turn to stay balanced. Again, you need to practice jumping on a slope, especially combinations, which may catch you out in the ring.

The biggest learning curve transitioning from riding in a ménage to riding on grass is developing the ability adjust your riding for the conditions, and for your horse to learn to keep his balance and rideability in different conditions – whether it’s hard going, deep going or slippery. As a rider you need to assess the terrain: are any transitions in the test on a downhill? Try and mimic the transition in your warm up so you get the feel for how you need to prepare and support your horse through them. Depending on how long the grass is and how wet it is, you may need to ride larger turns on the showjumping course than the optimum line, so you’ll need to take into account the time allowed as well as your horse’s canter and ability to keep their footing in these conditions. Sometimes the ground itself can be less than ideal, especially if you’re jumping towards the end of a wet day, so you’ll need to be able to circumnavigate divots and furrows without being put off your game. Learning how to ride on grass is only really learnt by practice. So take every opportunity you can to ride in the open fields, even when the conditions are not our ideal.

The other big factor you have to contend with when riding in the open is the added excitability of your horse. Many horses suffer from open-space-itis which means they jog in the walk, have a quicker showjumping canter and are generally a bit hotter. The best thing to do is to practice on grass to reduce the novelty – although the first time schooling on grass is always more exciting. Spend the first session establishing manners. A calm, relaxed walk. A steady canter. Walking towards home rather than galloping. Jumping a fence then coming back to the rider. Then another relaxed walk. By ensuring that your horse doesn’t think an open space means a flat out gallop you will have a more rideable horse and get more enjoyment as a result. And be consistent: expect them to listen to you all the time and then they will.

Just like humans, some horses are quick – both athletically and mentally. They’re always alert, might be a bit spooky, fast, and quick in the air. Others take life at a slower pace; take things in their stride, don’t feel the need to gallop flat out in open fields.

Both have their merits, and whilst you’ll never make a sprinter out of a marathon runner, there are various things you can do to slow down a quick horse and speed up a steady horse.

Let’s talk about the steady horse.

A quieter, laid back horse has the confidence giving qualities most amateurs seek in a horse, but it can mean that you end up struggling to get the horse forwards; either in a dressage test or round a course of jumps. Which can end up being frustrating. Because you feel that you were carrying your horse around!

So what exercises will help?

Firstly, it’s important that the laid back horse still responds to the aids. This means you don’t end up nagging constantly, and he respects the leg. Transitions help here – use lots of transitions throughout schooling sessions and hacks, bearing in mind that you’re only going to ask him once. And he should and will react. This may mean the first couple of upward transitions need “loud” aids, perhaps aided by the voice, but as your horse begins to take you seriously you can ask with quieter aids until it’s one squeeze and he’s off. Be strict with yourself, and over a few sessions there will be an improvement.

Talking of transitions, they’re also useful for switching the brain on. It’s not that steady horses are stupid, but rather their brains work steadily like their body. Think of transitions as being the equivalent to mental maths. Direct and progressive transitions, along with lots of different school movements in quick succession will help to get this sort of horse thinking. He’ll be more focused on his rider and not thinking about the dinner waiting in his stable. As he starts thinking more he’ll be quicker to react to the aids too.

Fairly early on in a schooling session I would have a canter, then utilise walk to canter transitions to wake up this sort of horse. Depending on the horse, a hack before going into the arena may be beneficial as horses are often more alert and forwards out in the open.

I would also use poles to provide a very varied schooling session, and keep sessions short and to the point. You don’t want the steady horse to become bored or tired because then his rider has to do even more work! If fitness is an issue then use hacks to build it up; in company to make them more exciting for the horse.

With jumping, steady horses can often lack the agility needed for combinations or jump offs because, quite simply, it involves a lot of effort! Improving their gymnastic ability with grids will help get them a bit quicker at folding their legs up over fences and again help get their brain ticking a bit faster so that they’re better able to think on their feet through combinations and better able to get themselves out of trouble. When schooling on courses I’d also use some transitions to keep them thinking; for example, if you have a fair distance between two jumps then collect the canter after a fence, or even make a downwards transition, and then lengthen the canter before checking that they’re balanced towards the next fence. This keeps them listening to you so you can keep them in front of the leg before the fences.

In terms of managing a steady horse, a lot of owners want to input some energy. Traditionally, this is done with oats, but there are some many energy mixes available now it’s probably worth ringing an independent nutritionist and trialling feeds until you find the right energy level without any silliness added in. Some steady horses benefit from being kept in the night before a competition, or even just an hour before they’re ridden. So again it’s worth finding out the best routine and time of day to exercise your steady horse which will be the most energetic and productive.

I am by no means trying to convert the quiet horses into whizzy athletes, because I value, and think many more people should place emphasis on the reliable and trustworthy nature of the cooler blooded equines. But it is nice to know how to get the best out of them so it’s most enjoyable to the owners.

A Cross Exercise

I discovered this fun exercise a couple of weeks ago, which has numerous benefits for horse and rider, despite one of my riders declaring the exercise to be “easy” … this was before he’d attempted it!

If you’re following the arrows on the diagram you need to approach the first jump on the left canter lead. Reverse the direction of the arrows for right canter.

I kept the jumps as crosses because with uprights it’s very easy for riders to allow their horses to jump off centre if the circle lacks roundness so we lose the accuracy of the exercise.

This exercise is very good for establishing the rhythm to a course, as the horse cannot rush before or after each fence because the circle slows them and balances the canter.

The circle is also very good for improving the quality of the canter as the horse cannot flatten and lose the three beats on the approach to a fence. Which leads to a better bascule.

If a horse has the tendency to lock on and take a long stride to a fence then this exercise is useful for showing a rider the importance of not encouraging a long jump because the circle afterwards is particularly difficult. It also helps encourage a rider to see a closer take off point. This was what tripped up my rider who declared the exercise as “easy”. His pony tends to lock on, take a long jump over a fence and land flat. The circles made my rider realise that he can’t let his pony get so long as he wouldn’t be able to ride the circle afterwards. On courses, this often happens and they miss the next turn and subsequent fence.

In order for this exercise to flow smoothly, the rider needs to maintain the correct canter lead, which may involve them asking for the canter lead over each fence, especially if the horse favours one particular canter lead. This makes the rider more aware of their body language over and after a jump. The rider needs to plan the circle, but not be too quick on riding it on landing otherwise they’ll finish the circle too close to the centre of the cross of poles and have to jump the side of the fence. Equally, being a bit slow after the fence to respond leads to very large circle and the canter can be allowed to stay a bit long and flat.

I had another rider counting out loud as she rode this exercise to help her keep the rhythm. She was focusing too much on riding a dressage standard circle, and upsetting her horse’s jumping rhythm so he was getting tense and then jumping awkwardly. After a few goes at counting the canter rhythm improved as she rode with more subtle aids so had smoother turns, and they met each fence on the perfect stride, so the whole sequence flowed beautifully.

Grabbing the inside rein will prevent the circle being round, and the horse being balanced, so it’s also important to ride the outside of the horse around the turn in order to finish the circle well and not have a dodgy jump.

The horse’s suppleness will improve as a result of this exercise, which will help on jump offs, because the horse and rider can then ride short yet balanced approaches to fences, and make quick turns on landing which will shave off precious seconds.

Give the exercise a go, I think it’s easy to be complacent about the exercise, but in order to do it well there are lots of little elements to perfect.