Perfecting a Course

I took one of my young clients to a local venue before he went back to school this week so we could practice his course riding.

They’re a fast developing partnership, but have a couple of creases to iron out before the season really kicks off.

The pony loves his jumping and has a tendency to take control: getting a bit long and flat in the canter, accelerating and then taking a long jump.

Unfortunately as his rider has been growing into him the pony has had the upper hand in the speed stakes, so now that his rider is strong enough, we can start to improve their technique on the course. After all, when things get fast you lose the accuracy and poles tend to fly.

We’ve been playing around with the braking system, finding the right bit and noseband combination for a strong pony and young rider’s hands and feel and have decided on the Myler elevator bit and flash noseband at the moment.

Before we started the session, I made sure my rider was on the ball and meaning business: checking he was sitting up tall, engaging his tummy muscles, maintaining a steady rein contact, and monitoring the tempo of the trot and canter. I find the pony responds well if he’s not allowed to get quick or start using his powerful neck and shoulders then the pony is more biddable when we come to jumping.

After a lovely steady warm up, showing a good level of control we started warming up over a cross pole.

It was only small, so I told me rider to maintain a very steady canter right up until takeoff point. This is to establish the leader in today’s relationship and make sure my rider is setting the rules. That we approach the fence in a controlled fashion and the pony does not rush the last few strides and stand off the jump.

After a couple of goes in each direction my rider had cracked this. He can ride his pony in an up and together canter which places them in a much better take off point, and because the pony is off his forehand he makes a far better bascule over the fence. The only blip we have is when the pony gives a pull with his head, and my rider collapses his core. Then they get fast!

We built it up to an upright, then placed the fillers underneath, before finally making it an oxer. Each time, I made my rider focus on holding his position and looking up over the fence for the whole of the approach, so that the pony didn’t get ideas above his station. After the fence it was all about bringing the canter back under control as soon as possible.

Then we started stringing the fences together. I wanted to develop the course whilst keeping a lid on the speed, which tends to gather. I got my rider to jump a related distance across the diagonal before cantering a circle in the corner, rebalancing and steadying the canter before jumping a third fence and then circling afterwards.

We continued the lesson in this theme: linking fences together, with circles in suitable spots. For example, when the pony was likely to have gotten faster and to have taken control. The circles sat the pony back on his hocks and gave my rider chance to sit up and re-find his core muscles as well as shorten his reins up if the pony had pulled them through his fingers. This meant that the next fence was jumped in a more controlled manner.

After doing a few courses like this, we found that the getaway from each fence was more controlled because the pony was anticipating a circle. We still had a couple of blips when the pony pulled and my rider collapsed forwards fractionally. This will improve as my rider gets stronger in his core, but at least the circles are bringing things back under control between fences so that the final jump on a course is jumped at 40mph, not 80mph!

Of course, in an actual showjumping competition the pair cannot circle mid course, but if the pony anticipates a circle and gets used to listening to his rider between fences then my rider can maintain the accuracy in his lines to fences and the pony will be more likely to clear the fences neatly. As my rider gets quicker at recovering from the fences on circles then circles will become redundant because my rider will be able to bring his pony back to a controlled canter on the straight track between fences ready for the next question.

I did have one grey haired moment in our lesson, when they jumped into a two stride related distance neatly, took a normal length canter stride, and then took off over the second element! The pony had to be very clever with his hind legs to keep the fence up, and my rider sat very well before circling and gathering themselves together. Then the rest of the course flowed far better. Yes, there will blips on courses for a little while yet, but if we can do damage limitation afterwards then the pair can still complete a course nicely and their relationship will go from strength to strength with my rider calling the shots.


Jumping Accuracy

I used a nice, simple jump exercise today to help get my rider’s eye in after the Christmas break.

On the centre line, about X, I placed one jump. Then from the centre of the cross, angled at 45 degrees, I walked two canter strides and placed another jump, parallel to the first. I then repeated this so that there were four jumps in a square around the first one, two canter strides between them and the centre fence. If you had a birds eye view of the arena, the jumps would be in the same configuration as the five dots on a die.

With all the jumps up as crosses, we warmed up over the centre jump, checking the rhythm, impulsion and straightness in the approach and get away.

Then we jumped the two fences to the left of the centre fence, which are also conveniently a related distance of four canter strides. Again, we looked at the rhythm and ensuring the canter remained positive and the strides even between the fences.

The cross poles help guide both rider and horse to the centre of the fence, so helps improve their lines to the fences. Next we put this to the test.

Coming out of the left corner, horse and rider jumped the three fences on the diagonal. They had to jump each fence at an angle, which can cause horses to back off a fence, or encourage them to run out. It tests the rider’s ability to hold their line to the fence, especially with green horses.

We practiced riding the diagonal lines in both directions, asking for a change of canter lead over the last fence. Because the corner is more acute than turning onto the centre or three quarter lines, a horse is more likely to lose impulsion or fall out through the outside shoulder round the turn, which can affect the quality of the subsequent jump.

This horse and rider managed the diagonal lines very well, making the exercise look very easy. The canter stayed rhythmical and each jump flowed nicely.

I made the jumps into uprights, which can make it harder to stay central to the fences and so test the rider’s eye for lines. And then we linked the lines up to make a course, which focused on the jumps flowing, and getting the correct canter lead for the corners. On this course it’s important to use the corners of the school otherwise it’s harder to ride the lines – if you jump the first fence at the wrong angle then the distance to the next fence is wrong and the jumps won’t flow.

From the left rein, canter across the diagonal over the three jumps onto the right canter, and then over the related distance (the latter element being the first fence of the course in reverse), before jumping the diagonal line off the right rein and then the other related distance on the left rein.

It’s a nice, simple course which builds confidence in seeing lines, encourages a flowing canter and helps a rider see the benefits of preparing for jumps in their turns.

Getting To Know Phoenix

This morning was rather windy, but the promised rain hadn’t arrived, so I thought that it would be a good time to get to know Phoenix a bit better.

I find windy weather really tests a horse’s relationship with their human. Do they seek reassurance from their human? What worries them most? How does their human pre-empt and subsequently avoid meeting a monster.

A couple of weeks ago Phoenix had bravely walked past a flapping tarpaulin, so I thought she’d be fairly reliable in the wind, but it’s a good opportunity for me to gauge her insecurities. Last week she impressed me when I lunged her and three deer cantered up to the arena fence, closely followed by two galloping horses, she just stopped and stared at them. I’d say she’s fairly brave, despite being quite a shy character, because she doesn’t tend to flee in these sorts of situations but rather stands and observes.

Anyway, she was aware of her rug flapping on the nearby gate as I groomed her, but wasn’t jumpy with the gusts of wind, which is great to see. As she wasn’t fazed by the weather I went ahead with lunging her. A large metal gate was banging away as the wind got up, which distracted Phoenix but she continued trotting, just had her ears focused on it.

It’s reassuring to see that Phoenix took the gusty weather in her stride, and wasn’t silly in her behaviour. She wasn’t keen on noises and flapping objects directly behind her, but who can blame her?! Her response was to turn and face them. I did find that a quiet word and pat on the neck took any tension out of her, so I think she definitely looks to me for reassurance and takes comfort in the fact that I’m ignoring any monsters.

Last week my friend helped me do some poles and jumping on the lunge, and I found that Phoenix is keen to please and quick to assess the question and took it in her stride. Which is an excellent, trainable trait to have, but I think it’s important to continue introducing things steadily and build her confidence rather than exploit her willingness to please and outfacing her, thus losing her faith in me and what I’ve asked of her, as well as her confidence in her own abilities.

Phoenix is coming along with her cantering on the lunge, and today with her being slightly fresh I took advantage of this and we had a couple of circuits on each rein with her looking more balanced.

In her trot she moves very nicely, but lacks focus (which isn’t that surprising given her age and experience) and I’d like her to stretch a bit more over her back. So I introduced the Pessoa. I also wanted to know how she’d react to different equipment and pressure on different areas of her body. It all helps me to know how she ticks.

Nicely warmed up in the lunge roller, I put the Pessoa on and fitted the sheepskin round her haunches. Then I let her walk round and get used to the feeling. Initially, she wasn’t impressed and tucked her bum up. She gave it a go though, and had a trot, slowly relaxing. Interestingly, when she found it weird, she stopped and turned in to me. Obviously looking for reassurance from me, and when I talked to her she had another try and trotting. I’m really hoping that this means when we’re riding and competing that Phoenix will look for me to say go and give her confidence, and try her hardest to perform and understand the question.

Once she seemed happier with the Pessoa around her hindquarters I attached the front clips. Loose enough that she didn’t feel restricted and it didn’t put too much pressure on her, but not so loose she could get tangled up. Again, she started off a bit tense but did give a couple of strides where she really stretched her head long and low.

Below are some photos of when she first had the Pessoa on, and then when she started to get the idea of stretching.

I’ll be doing a variety of techniques with the lunging now; using the Pessoa to encourage more stretching in the trot, and to increase her consistency by keeping her focused. Canter, I’ll keep working her “naked” so that she finds her own balance. Then I’ll introduce some raised poles when the arena has dried up a bit to help engage her abdominal muscles.

The last couple of days has shown me that Phoenix isn’t particularly unnerved by windy weather, but probably feeds off me. When she’s introduced to new equipment or exercises she tries to please, but when she’s worried by it she tends to tense and then look to me for reassurance. From this I know that it’s up to me to make Phoenix feel safe in new situations, as she trusts me and takes her confidence from me.

Long in the Back

Kids can often ask the most random questions, or come up with the oddest statements. There’s actually been a lot of thought behind them, but the logic can take you by surprise. Which is partly why I like teaching kids and teenagers. It keeps me on my toes.

A few weeks ago one of my young clients stated, halfway through her lesson, “that horse has got a really long back”. She pointed to another livery working at the other end of the school.

Now, it’s very easy to quote your own opinion and air your views, but I don’t think that’s the right approach to encourage intelligent learning or the ability to analyse and develop own ideas and beliefs.

Also, I don’t want the horse’s owner to feel that I’m insulting their horse in any shape or form!

So I tried to provide a balanced argument for whether long backs are good or bad, and then I left it to my rider to decide whether the horse in question actually does have a long back or whether it’s a bit of an illusion with the tack.

  • Mares usually have longer backs than stallions or geldings, to better enable them to bear foals.
  • Horses with longer backs are often seen as being weaker because the muscles supporting the vertebrae are longer. Horses with long backs are associated with having weak loins.
  • More time is needed to be spent developing and maintaining the topline of a horse with a long back.
  • Horses with longer backs can find it hard to engage their hind legs and collect because the hindquarters is further away from the forehand and so the back muscles and abdominals need to be stronger.
  • Horses with shorter backs can often be more agile and change direction quickly and easily, for example on the polo field or when barrel racing.
  • A longer back is more flexible than a shorter back.
  • Shorter backed horses can develop spinal arthritis if their back becomes too stiff and rigid, which will affect their performance by their stride being shortened and becoming inelastic.
  • A horse who is shorter in the back will struggle to flex their spine over jumps and so will jump with a flat technique rather than a rounded bascule.
  • Horses with short backs can be more liable to overreaching or forging because the hind legs are closer to the forelegs so are more likely to over step. On the other hand, long backed horses can be speedy cutters when working at speed.
  • Horses with long backs usually find it easier to perform flying changes, and give a more comfortable ride because there is less movement in the back.

There are pros and cons to excessively long or short backs, but ultimately some disciplines will favour backs that sit towards one end of the scale or the other, and when a rider, owner, or trainer studies a horse they should take into account the back conformation and adjust their training time frame and exercises to make the most of the horse’s body, and reduce the risk of injury. For example, if someone came to me with a long backed horse who they wanted to do general riding club activities with, then I would tailor lessons and help the owner to work on developing and then maintains core strength through lunging, polework and other school exercises so that both horse and rider can enjoy a long, active partnership.

Jump Saddles and Jumping Positions

This may make me slightly unpopular, but I’m gonna say it anyway.

I’m not a massive fan of jumping saddles for leisure riders. A lot of people I know get themselves a dressage saddle, which helps improve their seat for flatwork and then they buy a jump saddle to complement this. However… I do feel that for low level jumping, up to 80-90cm, a jump saddle can put the rider in a too far forward position. This is partly due to the forward cut flaps and flat seat, but also partly due to the rider’s conformation and muscle’s strength. Riders with long thigh bones will find jump saddles more accommodating for the shorter stirrup length, which is when I would recommend riders look into using jump saddles. However, for the majority of us with average dimensions a jump saddle can encourage stirrups a bit too short, bring the rider’s centre of gravity up, push the bum to the back of the saddle and encourage the shoulders forward and the core to collapse. Then we wonder why riders struggle to maintain the rhythm into fences and find it harder to maintain a line to the fence. This position also leads to too much folding over a fence, especially a sub-80 jump, which can make it harder for the horse to bascule and for the rider to recover after the jump.

I would actually like to see more riders using forward cut general purpose saddles for low level jumping instead of fully fledged jump saddles. And let’s face it, the average leisure rider (particularly of the mature sector) rarely jumps higher than 90cm. I do wonder what saddlers think of the trend for having two saddles per leisure horse, and their feelings on the necessity of jump saddles.

Moving swiftly on, before I lose all followers, I’ve also done a lot of work with various clients recently on their jumping position, and getting them to understand how their position affects their horse’s balance and jumping ability.

First off, is the hand position. Horses need to be able to stretch their neck forwards over fences. However, over smaller fences they don’t need to stretch quite as much. So a rider doesn’t want to feel that they’re throwing their hands up their horse’s neck and losing all contact because retaking the contact will lose the fluidity of a jumping course or exercise. Nor should they feel that jerk in their hands as their horse pulls their hands off the wither to enable them to use their neck over the fence. The latter fault usually occurs when a rider is using their hands to balance in their jumping position. I always tell my riders to feel that the horse is taking their hands forward over the fence and the hand is following in a smooth motion.

Next up is the lower leg. The lower leg shouldn’t move between sitting up and folding over the fence. If it does have the tendency to swing it can cause the rider to sit back heavily on landing. There is the golden rule of shortening your stirrups by two holes from your flatwork length in order to jump, but as I said earlier, everyone is different so playing around with the length of your stirrups, particularly as you progress to higher fences, can make all the difference to your stability in the air.

When the lower leg is more secure, you can then move on to the upper body. A lot of riders throw the upper body forward when jumping, which as far as I can tell has two effects. Firstly, it encourages that lower leg instability. Secondly, it is weighting the horse’s shoulders which makes it harder for the horse to lift the forehand and tuck the forelegs up over the jump. In this situation you want to ensure that riders aren’t over folding and thus putting a glass ceiling on the withers, but rather folding forwards from the waist rather than dropping their tummy, and still carrying themselves so that they haven’t over loaded the horse’s forehand. Secondly, make sure the rider is folding into a squat position, so that their bum comes up out of the saddle and pushes towards the cantle. This brings their weight off the horse’s back so it can be flexed into the bascule. It also keeps the rider’s centre of gravity over the lower leg. I’ve found doing jockey position really beneficial for stopping riders throwing themselves over fences and developing a better sense of balance.

The next fault I’ll talk about is the recovery after the fence. This is difficult to teach because it’s all on feel. Weaker riders can find it hard to sit up after a fence, so recovery takes a couple of strides. Alternatively, they sit up between fences but only three quarters of the way back to upright. Which will affect both horse and rider balance over the next fence in a combination. On the other side of the scale is the rider who recovers too quickly after a fence; sitting bolt upright upon landing and disturbing their horse’s balance as they come down over the fence. Every horse is different: some scoot off after a jump so you need to sit up fairly quickly and regain control, but others will tense and run when a rider sits up quickly and heavily into the saddle upon landing. A good way of thinking about it, if you tend to sit up too abruptly is to think of your saddle being a pin cushion – you don’t want a sore bum! I do find that those riders who don’t sit up after fences are often hindered by their jumping saddle and I’d really like them to have a GP to jump in. Like I said previously, it is all about teaching feel for the right recovery for both horse and rider, so playing around with a single fence or simple grid can really help develop that sense of balance both over and after a fence.

One of my clients is transitioning from pony to horse, and we had an interesting lesson just before Christmas. They’ve been having the odd fence down, and looking at their performance, the mare can be a bit slow to pick up in front over uprights, so sometimes brings the rail down, but she can also drop a hind leg on the back rail of an over, so bringing that down.

We’ve done some grid exercises to improve their gymnastic ability, but this time I brought my rider’s focus onto her balance. She can help her horse over uprights by having her stirrups up a hole (the difference between jumping 1m instead of 80cm) and ensuring her centre of gravity doesn’t tip forward over the fence. She still needs to fold because it’s a large jump, but she wants to squat rather than fold, and leave space for the mare’s shoulders to come up to her. As soon as she did this, the mare had more clearance over the uprights.

This new sense of balance established, we moved on to the landing side. My rider had been told that she needed to sit up quicker after fences, however I disagreed and felt that it led to her sitting up in midair. Used to jumping a speedy pony, when she sits up after a fence she is quick to adjust speed and balance. Which isn’t needed so much with her new horse. I think she was slightly slow to recover initially because she was getting used to jumping bigger fences off a bigger stride. I felt that where she was sitting up as soon as they’d passed the halfway point, her weight was coming back down onto her horse’s back so encouraging her horse to drop her hindquarters quickly, which in the case of wide oxers, caused a hindleg to knock the back rail.

I asked my rider to jump the double we were using (a simple cross to a larger fence, to ensure they got the right stride for the jump in which we were focusing on position) and land in cross country position. Then two strides after the fence she should be sat into the saddle ready to go again. This is an exaggeration of what she needs to do on landing, but I needed my rider to feel and understand the difference it made to her horse’s bascule. The getaway looked more harmonious and in balance once my rider was staying in her jump position for a micro-second longer. Once she could feel the difference we looked at sitting up slightly quicker, so she decreased recovery time in preparation for jumping a course, but still sitting lightly into the saddle so that she didn’t hinder the way her horse jumped.

Hopefully, with this better sense of balance and centre of gravity they’ll improve their performance purely on the basis that the horse isn’t restricted in anyway, and then the variety of exercises I have lined up for the New Year will improve suppleness and agility for both of them which will only enhance their jumping ability.

This is one of my favourite photos of Otis and I jumping, and without bragging, it’s ideal for showing the stability of the lower leg, and how to fold without hindering the shoulder movement. I’m very quick to sit up on landing after fences – the joys of learning to jump whizzy ponies, and it took a while for me to get the hang of pausing in a light seat for a moment before fully recovering after a fence. Unfortunately I don’t have a video to demo this with.

Developing Straightness

One pony I`ve been teaching with lacks straightness. I`ve been working on the flat with his rider to develop her awareness of his tendency to curl to the left and drift through the right shoulder. She`s been working hard on ensuring her right rein is supporting the right shoulder, and not being too mobile or slack that he can push through it. We`ve also just started doing some leg yield so that she can straighten him up this way and get him more receptive to the right leg. This crookedness comes through in their jumping, which I noticed last lesson so wanted to address this week.

We started with a simple cross pole and approached from both canter leads. Last time he drifted right through the grid regardless of the canter lead he was on, but it was more severe from the left rein. Interestingly, with the cross they stayed pretty straight before, over and after the jump. I think this is because the centre of the cross guided them to the middle, and as it was also well within his comfort zone he could manage to jump it without twisting. So I made the fence into an upright of about 80cm. At this point, he suddenly started drifting on the approach and as he folding his front legs over the jump, he took them to the right, so dropping his left shoulder a bit. My rider could feel the  crookedness now.

At this point I suggested that she had his back checked after Christmas because whilst he was managing his daily routine, now that she was jumping a bit bigger and working him that much harder on the flat, we needed to make sure he was comfortable so that we got the best out of him, and he didn`t resort to naughty behaviour because of pain. Ensuring he`s physiologically aligned will also limit the chance of injury because he will not be over stressing an area of his body.

I wanted to work on the straightness of the three phases – approach, bascule and getaway – but in order to help both pony and rider they needed a visual guide.  Slowly, I built in some tramlines to guide their eyes. I began with two poles perpendicular to the fence, a stride after landing. Initially, the poles were very wide, and once the pony had jumped the fence without backing off to oogle at the poles, I rolled them in a bit. Then I added similar tramlines in the stride before the fence, rolling them in as he got used to them.

Because the pony tends to drift over the fence as well as on the approach and getaway, it`s important that the poles are close enough to the jump to influence the line he takes, yet not too close that he risks landing on them. Whilst my rider still had to work on keeping her pony straight on the approach, the tramlines gave her a good guide and she could keep him straight for them. Then the tramlines took care of his straightness on take off, in the air, and on landing, The getaway poles gave my rider chance to regroup and continue riding straight rather than having to correct the drift.

After a few times jumping the jump from both reins the pony was really starting to use himself well. He was folding his legs up to his chest, not to the side, which caused him to bascule more and where he was straight on take off he was pinging efficiently over the fence.

I added in another fence, with multiple jumping efforts the pony would be more likely to drift.  I didn`t put tramlines on the approach to the first fence, leaving it to my rider to channel him straight. From the left rein, she found she really had to work hard to bring his right shoulder around the turn and she almost had to leg yield him to the left out of the corner to get him straight. From the right rein she just had to maintain the diagonal aids of left rein and right leg to prevent the drifting on the approach.

When my rider managed to set her pony up so he met the first jump straight, he then basculed properly, and straight with his forelimbs, before landing and taking a lovely canter stride to meet the second fence nicely. Another straight bascule, and then a straight getaway.

Can you remember Pythagoras` Theorem? About the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle being the sum of the square of the other two sides? Where this pony drifts over fences, he then rides a diagonal line through combinations. This line is the hypotenuse, and because it is longer than the perpendicular path between the fences, it becomes a longer distance for him to navigate so he will either struggle to make the distance with the correct number of strides and take a long jump over the second element, or he will chip in and jump the second fence very short and steep. In this double, the pony found the distance perfect because he was taking the most efficient line between them, and that meant that he could give a much cleaner, more efficient pop over each jump.

Together with having a physio session, I hope that this straightness work helps this pony learn to use his body in the most efficient way, develops muscle symmetry, and enables him to tackle bigger and more complex jumping questions with ease. For my rider, she now has the feeling of being straight at all times when jumping so is better able to correct her pony when he starts to drift, and she will also pick up on the crookedness earlier. Her work on the flat will help hugely too because they will both get used to working straight.

It`s a shame I didn’t video the pair before and after, because the difference was incredible, and very obvious from my position at the end of the school facing the exercise. But I was too busy teaching to multi-task!

Jump Jockeys

I had a fun lesson yesterday with two kids. Obviously being after school it’s dark when they ride, so my repertoire of jump exercises is being tested as I find ones which make them and the ponies think whilst not being too big, and ones which aren’t too spacious so doesn’t use the darker side of the school.

Last week I decided that I wanted to get the jumps flowing for my riders. One has a speedy pony so where he was over folding, and now is using his shoulders and upper body as brakes is now getting left behind, so it’s a fine balance that we need to rediscover; the other tries to micromanage and pins her horse down with her hands so restricts his jumping and then it doesn’t flow or look harmonious.

The obvious choice of exercise was without hands. Thankfully, we had the arena to ourselves so I didn’t need to worry about the increased speed by the end of the exercise as they had plenty of time and space to gather reins back and circle to bring the ponies back under control.

Once they’d popped through the grid of three cross poles on both reins I told them to knot their reins.

“Oh no!”

“No way!”

“He’s going to go so fast!”

“I don’t like not having control” (this came from the dressage dive, who I keep telling to think of being a little messy when she rides because then her pony relaxes and she gets better jumps)

Reins knotted, I sent them straight through the grid with both hands out to the side. I told them to let go of the reins over the first jump, to try and keep some semblance of control on the approach, and then to circle until they brought the canter back to trot.

The first rider, where he’s been consciously not over folding has been a little slow giving with his hands over the fence, so has been getting slightly choppy bascules. This exercise allowed us to work on finding the fine balance between not over folding and encouraging the pony to accelerate and flatten the canter on landing and still allowing him to use himself properly over the fence. After a few tries this rider was starting to get the feeling of the right balance, and when we took back the reins the pair looked much better.

My second rider, by not holding onto the reins, gave her pony a much nicer ride through the grid, which enabled him to jump more freely and rebuilt his confidence because I don’t think he was that happy with being micromanaged. It also taught his rider that he does know his job, and the fences can flow. Which built her confidence because she had more faith in her pony and in her jumping ability. She was able to replicate this afterwards when she had her reins again.

Both of these riders managed to achieve this relatively quickly, so I decided to try out another exercise.

For the boy, it was more just having fun. End of term-itis is kicking in so I wanted the focus to be more on fun. For the girl, I wanted her to sit lighter after fences because her tendency to sit up quickly, which she needs to do a bit of in order to stop her pony getting too fast, comes with her also sitting heavily into the saddle which I think upsets his sensitive soul.

So I put their stirrups up eight and ten holes respectively.

There was quite a lot of banter by now: the boy in his jump saddle was quite happy and set off to trot and canter in jockey position. His core is a bit weaker so he did sneak in a few little rises, but I didn’t want to put his stirrups up too high so his balance wasn’t disturbed. I removed the knee blocks from my other rider’s dressage saddle, and she found it slightly easier then to ride light seat, but the high cantle stopped her really crouching low over the wither. She did start to find her balance on the flat, and I thought her pony looked a bit freer over his back with her out the saddle too.

Then they popped through the grid a few times in both directions, working on keeping their seat light yet still folding, or at least differentiation between their position on the flat and over the fence. The key here is to have a strong core, and to adjust the upper body without sitting heavily into the saddle or losing your balance. I’m a big believer in using the upper body after a fence to rebalance the canter and reorganise, yet both kids are still finding the balance between sitting right up after a fence to discourage their ponies from accelerating away and sitting deep into the saddle so their bums are driving the ponies forwards. With short stirrups it’s hard to drive!

The ponies started to soften over the fences, and use their backs a bit more. Where we’d worked without reins you could see that my riders were less reliant on them for either brakes or balance.

I was planning on leaving the lesson there, but they were keen to try no reins and jockey stirrups. I should have said no, and finished when we did, but I thought I’d run with their keenness.

The girl did it very well, and was pleased with herself. I think she had a lot to consider from the lesson and knows now that her pony is more than capable, but she needs to learn to take off her dressage hat and put on her showjumping one, which is a little bit more relaxed and laissez-faire. Unfortunately, my other rider bounced off over the last fence. Squashed pride and end of term-itis meant this was a bit sore, but he remounted and popped through the grid with jockey stirrups and reins. When I debriefed him after I think he understood that it was just a wobble due to lack of core stability (despite the no reins work, when he had the short stirrups he was giving with his hands but leaning on them as he folded over the jumps, showing that there’s more work needed to get him really secure over fences) and balance, rather than him or his pony doing wrong. I think he took a lot away from the lesson and I look forwards to hearing about his jockey riding on the gallops next week!

Riding like a jockey is so helpful at improving balance, and strengthening the core and thigh muscles. I think going to the extremes of a light seat will help my young riders learn to sit lightly whilst keeping their shoulders back on the approach and getaway of fences, which will hopefully help courses flow and for them to influence the quality of the canter without getting heavy in the hand and blocking their ponies shoulders from jumping. You can see in the first picture below, that the jockey is limiting the speed by his position and shifting his upper body back, and in the second image he is opening up the canter. For my two riders, they want to try to imitate the first picture on the approach and the second picture over fences to really help their ponies out.

Outwitting the Schoolmaster

This morning I did a riding club clinic, and as always really enjoyed it. It was great to see some new faces, and to see a few pennies drop as rider and horse had lightbulb moments.

One combination, who I’d never met before are new to each other so still finding out each other’s buttons. The horse loves jumping and is pretty experienced, but tends to lock on to fences and rush them, which doesn’t unnerve his rider particularly but makes her reluctant to take him out competing or anything.

I watched her warm up over the poles, and on the left rein the horse was far more biddable, but on the left rein he bounced and plunged around in anticipation.

There were two tactics I wanted to work on. It can be really hard with a horse who anticipates an exercise because it can get worse with repetition, yet as a rider you may need to repeat the exercise to learn.

The first thing I got this rider to do was to change how she approached the exercise. Trot or canter a circle, or several circles until the horse came round the corner and didn’t anticipate going down the grid. I got the rider to vary the number of circles, and where she asked for canter, so that the horse had to focus on what his rider wanted.

Over the poles they started to improve. One time they missed the first pole because the horse wasn’t off the aids so didn’t pick up canter on command. But the next time he was much more responsive to her aids. We also alternated which direction they approached the grid to help keep the exercise different.

We continued with this tactic of changing the approach so that the horse couldn’t anticipate too much. I also suggested that if the horse came round the corner quietly, there was no need to circle. She could also ride a shorter approach, or ride a calm trot-walk-trot transition on the circle to vary things.

We built up the grid fairly rapidly, only repeating each stage the minimal number of times, and changing the rein on each attempt.

Now, I wanted my rider to change her riding tactics. The horse is forward going towards the jumps, so his rider needs to try to limit the speed. However, if you just use the hand to check the speed it’s quite confrontational and can frustrate a forwards horse. It can also be quite harsh, like tapping the brakes in the car, which can lead to an erratic canter and potential bouncing around. With the hands pinning down on the wither the horse can feel trapped, as well as the fact it’s then harder for him to jump.

I told my rider to use her upper body to check and half half the horse rather than her hand. So in the approach, she needed to sit up and back, which actually kept the horse’s shoulder free so he didn’t feel so restricted. Then over the fences she needed to fold slightly less (after all, the jumps were small) and sit right up and back between them so that her body weight and seat acted as a brake instead of the hand. This means it’s more gradual and less confrontational. The horse almost thinks that it’s his idea to go slower through the grid. If necessary, then the rider could apply a light rein aid to help bring the canter back.

By putting these two tactics into place the grid started to flow and, still being slightly forwards it was a calmer picture and horse and rider looked in harmony.

The other piece of advice that I gave this rider was to change the shape of the jump frequently. When I changed some of the grid from crosses to uprights the horse backed off the fences slightly. So making the fences slightly bigger, adding in oxers, and fillers will help reduce the speed because the horse starts to look and think about what he is jumping.

It’s hard work for a rider to keep a clever horse thinking and preventing them anticipating, but hopefully this rider has a few tricks up her sleeve now that she can keep the horse focused on her throughout the approach and she can subtly influence his way of going without getting into an argument which will keep the canter calmer and more relaxed. Then hopefully they will enjoy jumping more and venture out cross country next spring.

10 Years of Otis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shallow Loop Grids

A friend in the riding club told me about this exercise and I have unashamedly borrowed it a few times this week, and really like it for a number of reasons.

I’ve had to adapt the exercise to fit within the confines of the arenas I’ve been using, but the original exercise is a grid of five jumps set out in a straight line, with two canter strides between each fence. Cross poles will ensure a combination don’t cheat and jump fences off centre, as well as helping guide their eye.

Once you’re warmed up over the fences in a straight line the idea of the exercise is to jump alternate fences with a shallow loop in between.

The first time I used this exercise I had three fences along the centre line. Once the straight grid was flowing nicely my rider came off the right rein and jumped number one, before bearing round to the right to shallow loop around fence two and jumping fence three. Turn right on landing and canter across the diagonal, jumping fence two the opposite way at an angle to change the canter lead and rein. Then we rode the same exercise from the left rein with a left shallow loop. This exercise followed on nicely from last week’s work on asking for a change of canter lead over fences, and being aware of the lead between fences.

This mare is not the most supple of horses, and whilst she can do canter shallow loops on the flat, when jumping she quite often changes her canter lead in front just before a fence if asked for fractional counter canter. Going disunited so close to a fence means that she’s not in the best balance and is more at risk of jumping awkwardly or having a pole down.

When they rode the shallow loops the mare changed in front and the canter deteriorated. I got my rider to focus on keeping position right (for right shallow loops, left for left loops) and sit up and balance the canter between the fences, making sure she wasn’t bringing the inside (of the horse’s bend, outside on the shallow loop) leg back as they angled back towards fence three.

There of course, my rider had to be clear with her aids that she wanted a change over the fence across the diagonal.

It took a few attempts to bring the exercise together, but once they got the idea the canter stayed much more balanced and then the actual jumps improved. The mare’s suppleness improved hugely. The mare had to really listen to her rider, who had to think about how she positioned herself over fences. My rider began to see how being able to ride counter canter for gentle turns on a course, or when she didn’t have time to change her lead through trot would give her a smoother ride, save some precious seconds in a jump off, and hopefully leave all the fences up.

The next time I used this exercise I managed to fit four fences in the school, and the exercise ran like this: from right rein jump fence one, shallow loop to the right, jump fence three, go to the left of fence four and turn back on yourself, jump fence four the opposite way, shallow loop to the right to jump fence two the opposite way. This course needed to be ridden from both reins in order to have left and right shallow loops.

These riders were a dressage diva, and I wanted her to focus on smoothly cantering between the fences and not micro-managing. When she micro-manages her horse gets tense and short in the canter, so I like her to focus on her lines and staying soft in the hand. Obviously her horse is very able to perform flying changes, but I challenged her to maintain the canter lead he was on upon landing after a fence. This meant that sometimes he needed counter canter and sometimes he didn’t depending on whether he changed over the fence. I didn’t want my rider to think too much about being perfect on the shallow loops, but rather get her to go with the flow and not upset her horse’s balance. By the end she wasn’t overriding and had much better shaped jumps because the canter was working canter, not collected, and more relaxed.

For her younger brother, who’s the jumper of the family, I wanted him to ride smoother turns between fences. He has a tendency to grab the inside rein and so unbalance his pony and get a jack knife turn. Interestingly, every time this rider used his inside rein, the canter got long and flat and the pony change lead in front. I didn’t want to complicate the actual jump by getting this young rider to ask for a particular lead over the fence, but rather to ride his lines accurately and keep the canter balanced by sitting up and using his outside aids to turn. As soon as he didn’t use his inside hand his shallow loops flowed really nicely and he met the jumps in a better place. He could feel the smoothness is the exercise then.

This exercise is really useful at teaching a rider to think and plan ahead; to ride accurate lines and smooth turns. For the horse is it brilliant at suppling them, making sure their listening to the rider and don’t lock on to the grid. There’s not enough time to change canter leads so it’s about riding what you have in that moment of time and keeping the horse balanced so they have the best possible chance of jumping well. It also helps with riding lines and quick turns for jump offs.

Definitely an exercise to remember as it’s a bit of fun, can be broken down to different levels to accommodate a variety of horse and rider abilities and has huge benefits for course jumping.