Keeping Fences Low

With Pony Club Camp last week and the ground being incredibly hard this summer, there was a lot of talk amongst the instructors (which didn’t necessarily relate to me and my six year old riders) about how to keep the fences low in the jumping sessions. After all, there is a huge trend towards people (and not just the children) judging how good a rider someone is based on how high they can jump. I would much rather see a horse and rider jump a lower height safely, stylishly and confidently than “keeping up with the Joneses” and have an accident, lose confidence, and have an ugly round. Besides, none of us question Charlotte Dujardin’s riding ability and she rarely jumps.

Anyway, one exercise I did a few weeks ago was a relevant option for keeping the fences low yet still still testing the rider’s ability.

The exercise started with a cross pole at X which I had my rider jump on a steep angle from both reins. This tested that they could ride their line and the pony wasn’t trying to run out through the open side.

Then I set up a skinny fence, one canter stride away from the cross, on the line they’d been jumping. The skinny was an upright, with a plain pole, so had very little visual clues to help the rider stay on their line.

This particular pony always runs to the left so the double was first set up to be ridden from the right rein. My rider carried his whip in the right rein so if his pony drifted to the right he could use it on the shoulder to help stay on their line.

It was a tricky exercise because although the cross was a nice, encouraging fence, having only one stride to the skinny meant that the pair had to prepare properly, and set themselves up accurately to the combination as there was no time to do any repair work between jumps. In all honesty, I was surprised when they succeeded the first time and jumped the skinny very accurately and stylishly.

After riding the line a couple of times I rearranged the exercise so that they jumped it off the left rein. This would be their harder rein, because the rider has a weaker left leg and the pony tends to drift through his left shoulder which, combined with the fact the pony is encouraged to veer left through the double, means it is more problematic.

The first time they drifted left, then my rider really applied his left leg and the whip on the pony’s left shoulder. Which unfortunately meant that the pony overcompensated and ran out to the right.

So I used some poles to help guide the rider and pony. The tramlines were leant against the jump wings so that they ran diagonally down to the ground. This meant they clarified the question to the pony and helped funnel him towards the skinny. After a couple of times where they jumped the guide pole rather than the skinny they successfully rode the double. As soon as they cracked the line and stayed straight as an arrow, the double was a perfect canter stride and the pony made it look effortless. When they wobbled off their line, however fractionally, the distance between the fences became longer so the pony squeezed in an extra stride to the skinny.

This exercise really tested both horse and rider without being very high, because the rider had to have a good eye and be able to ride their line, and the pony had to be on the aids. In Pony Club jumping sessions, a course could be set up with lots of tricky lines and combinations which encourage accurate riding rather than jumping big and fast. After all, lots of jumping on hard ground will damage the horse’s legs.

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Dressage with Kids

Even the easiest of dressage tests can be overly complicated for kids, which I found out this week.

Just before their dressage competition this afternoon I snuck over to the judge’s car and stuck a sign on the front with an arrow pointing left. This is because my riders don’t know their left from their right and I wanted the girls to have a successful experience to hopefully encourage them to further their dressage education.

However, I did think that you’d enjoy my adjusted commanding for the test so that the little kids could ride their best.

1. At A walk towards C … straight! … C’s over here! Halt at X … now! Salute (try not to laugh at the flamboyant salute).

2. C turn left … other left! At H walk to F … trot now!

3. At A 20 metre circle … bigger … bigger …

4. Just after K walk. Not yet, keep going … now walk.

5. C halt and count to three SLOWLY! Now walk on. Don’t let them go back to their friends!

6. At M walk towards K … trot now!

7. At A 20 metre circle …. bigger than your last one! Stay in the arena …

8. Just after F … keep trotting … now walk.

9. At H change the rein across the diagonal to F with long reins … keep walking … no, don’t trot, just walk. Short reins at F.

10. Between A and K … wait for it … yep ok, trot! Quick, trot!! At E rainbow across to B.

11. Walk in the corner … keep going, keep going. Now walk. Don’t leave the arena!

12. A turn down the centre line … keep walking … keep walking … straight … stop …. right there. And salute!

All seven of my riders managed their test, albeit with some assistance, and I was pleased with their marks and the huge improvement in their riding over the week. But commanding those tests wasn’t easy!

“Put Can’t in Your Pocket…”

This week at Pony Club camp I’ve dragged up an old adage my childhood riding instructor used to say:

“Put can’t in your pocket and pull out try”

She used to say that to any child who said they couldn’t do an exercise before they’d even tried it.

Now why have I brought this up? Because for some reason my group of little girls lack confidence and the desire to try new things.

In some areas they’re very confident, but as soon as I mentioned the concept of jumping, I had a couple of them say “I can’t do that… I’ll just go around the jump/I’ll only walk over the jump. I can’t do it.” The same with cantering and their dressage test.

So I had a good talk with all of them about giving things a go. Walking on the edge. Widening their horizons. Thinking positively.

I have to admit that today they were a bit more positive about their own abilities and with some gentle coercion they agreed to try the exercise. For example, one girl agreed to try to trotting over a cross pole instead of walking. And another tried jumping without a leader. Another agreed to try cantering on her own.

So I think my main aim for this week is to create a group of riders who have a positive attitude towards trying new things, and have more self belief in their own abilities. After all, they’re more than capable and have lovely, willing ponies who look after them.

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.

Learning the Seat Aids

When kids learn to ride it’s very much about the reins steering and stopping while the leg kicks to say go. I understand why kids are taught this way: cognitively they can’t comprehend multiple aids simultaneously or the concept of the seat, and they often aren’t strong enough to apply the aids and to get a response from their pony given that most of the time the ratio between child and pony is greater than between adult and horse. I think there is also an element that in the riding school environment many kids take up riding for a year before moving onto the next fad, and you’re more likely to retain their business by them seeing results. Don’t let me go off on a tangent about cutting corners to accomplish said results …

This means that at some point, a child has to learn to ride like an adult, and learn about the finesse of the seat and leg aids. Their equitation world is turned on it’s head as they come to terms with this. Unfortunately though, the majority of ponies only respond to the childish aids of stop, start, steer.

Picking the right time to introduce this whole new world to a young rider can be difficult. They have to be at an age that they’ll understand these concepts, and they have to be able to apply the aids and get a response – this depends on the pony being responsive and the child being strong enough to engage their leg and seat.

Recently, one of my young clients has progressed onto another of my client’s old ponies. This gem of a pony was schooled very well by a little girl who loved dressage, so he is fully aware of the correct aids, even if he hasn’t had to use them recently. And my young rider is a great thinker, and has a good natural feel, so I feel will be able to understand the adult aids. Once she’d ridden him a few times and got used to his bigger strides and more eager walk, I decided it was time.

After they’d warmed up in trot with some circles and changes of rein I asked my rider how her turns felt. Where she was predominantly asking with her inside rein, her pony fell in and she said the turns felt sharp and sudden. Which I thought was a good analogy.

I explained that we were going to start riding more like adults and start using aids that no one else could see. She liked the idea of this, so in walk I first asked her to put a little bit of weight into her inside seat bone at the corners as she turned her body in the direction she was moving. I told her I didn’t want to see her leaning, it was just a little bit of weight.

After riding a few corners like this I asked her to do less with her inside rein. She felt her turns were less sudden.

Next, I added a second stage. Putting the outside leg on to push her pony around the turns. She did this so effectively that her pony almost pirouetted! So we added the inside leg.

At each corner I gave her the direction “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” so she applied each aid consecutively. Which she did and their turns got smoother. Still in walk, we started circling. Her inside hand was barely moving now, just coming into effect if her pony was drifting out on the circle. Their circles got rounder and bigger, as before they tended to be ten metre circles rather than fifteen metres and more of a semi circle shape.

After a change of rein and practicing the turning aids on the other rein, we progressed to trotting circles and changes of rein focusing on the “inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg” aids.

I think my rider really benefited from seeing an immediate result from applying these new aids, and could feel how much more balanced her pony was around the turns when she wasn’t using her inside rein to turn.

The big question, at the end of the lesson, was for her to ride a smooth serpentine, which requires coordination to change her inside and outside. Apart from the loops not being that even in size, I was pleased with how fluid the movement was.

For me, the biggest proof was the following lesson after we’d revised the new aids and were doing some balance exercises with her hands. Holding onto her reins with her outside hand, she was circling her inside arm whilst trotting large. However, because the arena is so long we’d only been using half. As she reached E, she turned her body (still circling), applied the inside seatbone, outside leg, inside leg, and made a beautiful turn across the school. This really brought home to her how she doesn’t need to use her reins to steer, and hopefully consolidated what we’d learnt.

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.

Counting Circles

Now that ménages at livery yards tend to be bigger than the classic twenty by forty because it enables more riders to use the space simultaneously and there’s more scope for jumping exercises. The downside to this is that riders get used to bigger spaces and all of a sudden a twenty metre circle becomes a twenty three metre circle and then dressage scores slip due to inaccuracies.

This is particularly hard to explain to kids, but I’ve come up with a plan to help one of my boys.

I strode out a twenty metre circle so that my client could see the the 30m arena was making his circle too fat. Once he’d gotten his eye in on the size of the circle I asked him to count how many trot strides he got on the circle. He got twenty five.

I explained to my rider that he should use this number as a guide for his twenty metre circles, whether warming up at an event or in the dressage arena itself. Then he asked, and I was about to bring it up, if he should get twelve strides halfway around the circle. The answer is of course, yes. I kept it basic, we aren’t going to be adjusting the circle size by leg yielding in or out, but we used the twelve stride marker to see if one half of the circle is too small or too big. Interestingly, on the right rein all his circles had a smaller second half. So we worked on correcting this issue and continued practicing riding accurately sized circles at A, E, C and B.

We progressed this exercise into canter, and luckily for us, this pony also got twenty five canter strides on a twenty metre circle. So we perfected the circles at all points in the school. I still wasn’t that worried about how round they were, I was more interested in my rider developing his eye for the size of the circle, so that he can apply this logic to other arenas or when he’s competing.

A side effect of the counting meant that subconsciously my rider relaxed his arms. He has a tendency to pin his hands to the withers, but whilst counting he softened in his arms which meant his pony softened too and found it easier to bend and step under with the inside hind leg. Without realising, counting the improved their rhythm as well, so whilst I didn’t mention this aspect I’ll definitely be talking about counting to improve their rhythm another day, and then at a different time we can start to perfect the shape of the circle.

This counting exercise can be applied to different sized circles and also when looking at shortening and lengthening the strides, but I find it very useful for kids as it quantifies the goals and they can see a definite improvement, i.e. when they get the correct number of strides.

The Two Legged Project Arrives

Many of you readers will know that we’ve been eagerly/impatiently/nervously awaiting the arrival of our baby.

When the Beast from the East hit the UK at the beginning of March I was put under house arrest … just in case. But we crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t have a middle of the night rush to hospital in all the snow.

We didn’t. And I filled my time writing blog posts and scheduling them over the next couple of weeks.

Six days after the due date, with us both getting increasingly impatient, we welcomed the arrival of our little girl, Mallory Jill, who bounced into the world at 6.29am on Sunday 11th March.

It’s safe to say that I had my comeuppance for having the world’s most straightforward pregnancy with a long and painful labour. But everyone likes a good story don’t they! I won’t divulge the details for those of you of a sensitive nature.

Anyway, we’ve definitely got our hands full, as Mallory is already very alert, very hungry and not very sleepy!

I will be off work for a few weeks, so may well be lacking in blog inspiration, let alone time to write, as we find our feet as parents, so I’m afraid readers, the Rubber Curry Comb will be a bit quiet over the next few weeks. But don’t worry, there will be a Phoenix update when the saddler has been and I’ve ridden her! And of course some photos of when we introduce the horses to little Mallory.

Why Do We Have Trot Diagonals?

An excellent question posed by one of my clients recently, which I thought was worthy of a blog post.

For her school work, she wanted to know why we have trot diagonals and why we lay so much importance on them.

Firstly, it’s my biggest bug bear I think, when riders are ignorant of their trot diagonals – the ability to rise with unconscious autonomy and their age or ability to understand are the only exceptions. I just feel that by taking note of the little details of riding, such as trot diagonals, leads to a better learning focus and eye for details which can make all the difference in a dressage test. For example, if you overlook the incorrect diagonal, are you going to ride accurate school movements and strive to improve them?

I digress.

The legs move in diagonal pairs in trot, so when you are on the correct diagonal the outside foreleg and inside hindleg are stepping forwards as you rise out of the saddle. Before I continue, I should clarify that this is the UK trot diagonals, and shouldn’t be confused with other countries (e.g. France, Russia) standards, which is reverse to ours … I won’t complicate matters!

For novice riders, who are yet to develop their feel I teach them to look at the movement of the forelegs. I use the outside limb because I think it’s easier to see the leg stepping forwards, but I know some instructors get riders to look for the inside foreleg moving forwards when the rider is sitting. I’ve not yet discovered the benefit of teaching this method but if someone would care to enlighten me that would be lovely. Once riders have developed their feel I introduce the idea of feeling what the legs are doing, in particular the inside hindleg so they no longer have to look down to check their trot diagonal.

Back to the original question.

As I said earlier, when on the correct diagonal the rider is rising when the inside hindleg and outside foreleg are stepping forwards. This means their weight is off the horse’s back with enables the horse to bring their inside hindleg further under their body, so increasing impulsion and encouraging the horse to engage their abdominals and lift their back, which all helps the horse work efficiently and correctly. The inside hind leg also bears more weight on a turn, so enabling it to step further under the horse’s body and relieving it of the rider’s weight until the leg hits the ground will allow the inside hip to drop slightly and for weight to be transferred into that limb.

Riding on the correct diagonal also helps the horse balance, and I find it helps them find the correct bend. In part, I think the upward swing of the rise by the rider helps the rider turn their body in the direction of the bend or turn. But whether that’s because the rider is using the propulsion from the inside hindleg, I’m not sure. Either way, there is a noticeable difference between a horse’s bend and balance when ridden on a circle on the correct and incorrect diagonal. I’ve heard that research has been done into the biomechanics of the effect of trot diagonals, which found that the stride length of a horse is longer when ridden on the correct diagonal, which would fit in with the improved balance theory.

It’s important to use the trot diagonals evenly – which is easier in the arena when you work evenly on both reins, but even happy hackers should be aware of changing their diagonals frequently on their hacks. If a horse is always ridden on the left diagonal – left foreleg and right hindleg stepping forwards in the rise phase – then the back muscles, particularly behind the saddle will develop asymmetrically. The left hindleg has to work harder to push forwards because the rider is in the sit phase, therefore the muscles become stronger and less supple. Have you ever ridden a horse in a straight line, and started off in sitting trot and found that the horse always “pushes” you up on one diagonal? This is because the horse has asymmetric muscles and gait, so needs work to correct the imbalance.