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.

Advertisements

Dressage for Juniors

Back in the summer I blogged about judging the Pony Club dressage at camp, and how difficult I felt the basic test was for young children, and perhaps that if the Pony Club did some simple tests aimed at young children it might encourage a higher standard of flatwork, and nurture an interest in dressage from an early age. You can read that post here.

Over the summer I saw some lead rein intro dressage classes, which seemed really popular. With the young riders anyway. I think the leaders just needed oxygen because the BD intro tests have a lot of trotting in! I did see that a couple of venues made their own lead rein tests as a result of leader feedback.

Then, I heard of this online business which runs monthly competitions, called Equi-Mind. I had a good nosey on the website, and decided that it was definitely worth following up.

Last year I did a couple of online dressage competitions, which is where you video a set test from the letter C and send it in. Unfortunately, that company folded.

Equi-mind, is actually fairly local to me, which gives me another reason to support them – local businesses and all that. Anyway, they have a variety of competitions to suit almost anyone who can`t or don’t want to go off site competing.

There are showing classes, where you video a short show and send in some photos. Entrants are judged according to the class requirements – best turned out, native class, ROR etc. There`s Western classes, vaulting classes, RDA classes, Horsemanship classes and dressage classes.

Then, I spotted another category which really caught my attention – My First Pony Club. This is aimed at novice and young children. Perhaps those who loan a pony, or don`t have access to transport, or don’t have horsey parents. There are a couple of levels of these tests in walk and trot. I`m waiting for a canter test to appear. The tests can be ridden on or off the lead, and are very straightforward. The focus on the tests is riding between markers, using the whole of the arena, keeping the walk or trot rhythm. There are some circles, but I find that children find it very difficult to visualise and ride a round circle of a particular size, so often movements from letter to letter are more achievable for them. The whole point of the tests, to me anyway, is to introduce the first scale of training – rhythm – and to test their ability to accurately steer their pony.

I liked these tests; they weren`t too long for leaders, and weren’t too daunting for young riders to try on their own. They also struck me as being easy to teach a child the test, and straightforward to feedback to them.

A couple of weeks later I had a young rider who had badly lost her confidence jumping, so I suggested we tried one of these dressage tests. I wanted to give her a new focus, and I`ve always thought she has the right aptitude for dressage – an eye for detail, a lovely position, and a mature understanding of the way a horse moves and feel for the correct way of going. She can canter quite happily, but the fact that the dressage test was walk and trot meant that even when she was feeling wobbly, she was still happy to give it a go.

We used one of her lessons to introduce the idea of dressage tests, and for her to start getting her head around movements, before videoing the test the following week. I thought it looked pretty good – she was accurate and being a tidy rider anyway they gave a good overall impression, but I wasn`t really sure what the judges were particularly looking for.

Much to my delight, and her surprise, she won that class with 65%. It was the much needed confidence boost that she needed. I`d like to get her doing an intro class soon, with more trotting and circles, but it would be nice to see a couple more tests in the My First Pony Club category which are slightly harder than the one they did, but still easily understood by children. Perhaps a couple more changes of rein or transitions, or a couple of 20m circles?

There were also some horsemanship tests designed for children, which I thought looked fun. In these, you video the child doing a series of tasks such as putting on a headcollar correctly, tying a quick release knot, leading their pony, picking out feet, giving their pony a treat from the palm of their hand. All useful little tasks which are achievable by the smallest of riders, and designed to encourage them to get involved in the care side of horse riding.

I have to say that I`ve been impressed with the support from Equi-mind, with the clear feedback given after the classes, and the instructions for entering. Check out their website, http://www.equimind.co.uk/ , and see if there`s a class for you to enter for a bit of fun. I sent off a photo of Otis jumping for the Jump in Style photo competition to get some feedback, whilst I was doing some reminiscing and grieving for the fact I`ll never jump him again.

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.

Un Horsey Musings

Hacking Wednesdays always brings one thing: far too much time spent with my own thoughts and the world questioned, rearranged, and put to rights. To my mind anyway!

Today’s musings has been on my mind for a few weeks, and I think it’s been triggered by the deluge of baby product adverts on my social media, the influx of Christmas adverts, and the scary fact that soon it will be my responsibility to teach morals and values to a little human.

Materialism. The world seems full of it. Kids have so much nowadays, and new toys get cast aside after five minutes inspection. Each year I see photos of children sat next to a huge pile of presents, or surrounded by a sea of ripped wrapping paper and packaging – do they really need so much stuff? It makes me sick, to see how some people have so much whilst some have so little. Not that I’m communist in any way; if you work hard then by all means reap the rewards. I think the sickening part is when I see so much unappreciated things, be it material or the fact you’re surrounded by loving family, a safe home and all those other things so easily taken for granted.

So how do you instil the value of giving, and appreciation of one’s lot in life?

It’s not that I would want to deprive my child of anything, I just want them to value what they do have, and appreciate how lucky they are compared to so many others.

The first idea that I’ve stolen from a friend, is the idea of giving. Each Christmas Eve she and her young daughter go through her things and leave a pile of outgrown clothes and old toys for Santa to collect when he delivers her presents to take to less fortunate children. It’s a double whammy: have a tidy up before the new toys arrive, and teach children about giving. Obviously there will be some skill involved in taking the handmedowns to the charity shop without your child finding out, but I’m up for the challenge.

Another thing that we did when we were younger was Operation Christmas Child. I used to enjoy wrapping up a shoe box and filling it with toys, essentials and sweets. I think I liked the idea of having a direct link to a child in need. It made me feel like I was making a difference and was more effective in teaching the idea of charity then putting money in a tin. So this will be another ritual we will do which will hopefully teach the value of giving, or at least instil some selflessness.

Last year I remember reading about this “Four Present Rule” by which parents only give their child four gifts: something the child needs, something for them to wear, something for them to read, and something that they want. The concept is great, but I don’t think it’s feasible because four is a very small number and there is a huge variation in size and cost of presents which could make some children feel like they’ve drawn the short straw. However, I think it’s a useful check list when thinking of what to buy children, as well as hopefully reducing the number of gifts that they receive but never use.

From this, I was thinking about the types of presents you could give a child. The choice of toys available is phenomenal, but I have discovered that I’m a fan of the activity type of gifts, which teach or enhance skills or interests. Then I thought that in this day and age, where time is a precious commodity, perhaps the way to go is to move away from material presents, and towards gifts that make memories. One of my aunts, who always gave us birthday and Christmas presents, of which were appreciated at the time but I now haven’t a clue what they were, has left one standing memory with me. She was a dab hand with the facepaints. Every time she came to visit we’d dig out the paints and choose a design of increasing complexity. So one of the biggest gifts this aunt gave to my brother and I was the memories and time spent with her having our faces decorated.

So maybe gifts could be a day out at a museum, or a trip to a water park; some quality time spent with you. This is where I get more materialistic. I like trinkets, or souvenirs. I think these physical momentos are memory triggers, allowing you to access memories many years later. For example, the model camel in our spare room is from Dubai – cue a string of memories from our holiday. Or the painted dolphin still hanging up in my bedroom at my parents house, reminds me of a weekend spent with my aunt when we went to a pottery cafe and I painted the dolphin. Or our collection of fridge magnets bought on days out or to remind us of a particular occasion. So maybe the ideal gift for a child is a day out somewhere and a gift from the gift shop?

From a child’s point of view, whilst they may not be able to pay for a day out, I think it’s important for them to understand that an adult will value a homemade gift, because of the time and effort invested in it. And whilst they may not be able to give gifts of material value to family members, they can give their time, conversation, and attention. My Grandparents did a lot of travelling in the 1990s and 2000s, and always came back with various souvenirs. On their trip to South Africa Granny bought four lengths of material and made her four granddaughters a sarong each. I still use mine every holiday we go on, and it means so much more to me than one that was bought in South Africa because it was sewn (lovingly, I hope) by my Granny.

I digress. I guess I like to give, and I’d like my child to receive, gifts that have something special attached to it, such as a memory or the time, talent and love put in to personalise it. Which is where I think that the process of gift giving is so important.

It’s not about ripping into the pile of presents under the tree, which ultimately become anonymous, it’s about seeing the giver, spending time with them (dinner, an afternoon at the park, even just a short conversation, for example) and then exchanging gifts before the vital process of thanking them. I realise this is difficult with Christmas, but when I think back to our family Christmases I can see how my parents tried to make present opening a civilised affair.

Stocking presents were opened in the morning, which usually gave us something to occupy us during the day, and then after dinner (which was always too late to our young minds) we opened the tree presents. This taught us that presents wouldn’t disappear if they weren’t opened upon first sight and that they weren’t the most important part of the day. First I’d open one, then my brother would, then my parents (although they often skipped a turn because there were fewer parcels for them) and lists of the gifts and who it was from was made. This meant that when we returned to our presents in the following days we could link the giver to the gift. And of course write personalised thank you cards. Which our child will be doing, whether they like it or not. The older generation live through their younger counterparts and receiving a letter, full of effort and glee from a child is incredibly uplifting for those who are frail or ill. I don’t think people realise that so much nowadays. My brother hated writing these letters with a passion, whilst I (not surprisingly) could reel off several pages to each person and not duplicate my paragraphs. Whether letter writing comes easily or not, it’s a very useful skill to have and one which gives pleasure to many others.

After all my musings, the one thing that I’m sure about is that it’s not going to be easy and it will take patience and insistence from our part, but I think that teaching a child how to receive presents and that gifts come in a variety of disguises – experiences, activities, or purely sharing someone’s time – is crucial to them fully appreciating all that they’ve got in life and being able to share this with others. I think we’re up for the challenge!

No Hands!

One of my little clients has recently mastered her canter seat; instead of the usual bouncing that children do whilst cantering which makes you wish they did homing devices like that for adults.

It brought back a memory from when I was learning to ride, so I decided to recreate the exercise for this confident little rider.

When I was … eight, perhaps or maybe seven … I was learning to canter. My friend had just started learning to ride and we had been promised that she could very soon join my lesson. Which we were very excited about.

At this standard of riding, the canter exercises consisted of the ride lining up on the track at B and individually trotting to A, cantering at the following corner and trotting again at the next corner. Those just learning to canter were led by the older girls, others followed one of the older girls on a pony, and the rest of us did it independently. It was actually a good way of progressing whilst accommodating a variety of abilities and learning speeds.

I was cantering to the rear of the ride on my own, and I remember my instructor being slightly surprised at my sudden ability to sit to the canter. Or at least I assume it was my ability to stay in the saddle while cantering! I think it was partly due to the super smooth grey mare I was riding, who had the nicest most armchair canter.

After I’d cantered twice to the rear, my instructor asked me to take my stirrups away in canter. Which I did. The next time she asked me to keep my stirrups but put one hand out to the side while cantering. The next time, the other hand. Then I had to knot my reins and canter with both hands out to the side. Finally, she also took my stirrups away.

I remember enjoying the challenge and feeling quite important because I’d been singled out to do harder exercises. And also being very pleased with myself for managing it.

At the end of the lesson, I was told I could move up a group (where they did individual trot and canter circles!) but my friend wouldn’t be able to join me. Ever the ambitious, I ditched my friend!

Like my canter seat, the canter seat has clicked with my client, and I decided to test her balance in this week’s lesson. She’s not quite up for cantering without stirrups having only just started to look really secure in her sitting trot work, but I thought I’d take her reins away.

We did a few canters, taking away one hand then the other. Then I showed her how to knot her reins. She looked slightly aghast, concerned about how she’ll steer round the outside. I told her she was allowed to cut corners for this exercise.

It took a couple of times, because her lovely mare isn’t quite riding school programmed, to get canter and manage to get both hands off the reins. But she did it! With a massive grin on her face. In a rather fast canter. We’ll have fun developing this exercise with her!

Cross Country Gears

I had a fun cross country lesson this week, and what we worked on really seems to have fallen into place with my rider and his pony.

Let me give you a bit of background. He’s had his pony for seven months, so is rapidly growing into him, and they have the most adorable relationship. Don’t tell him I said that! But it is, it’s so lovely seeing a boy who loves his pony this much. Anyway, he does everything with him, and so far doesn’t seem to be afraid of doing anything on him – you can imagine the “can I jump that?” As he points to a Novice brush fence!

However, before I’ll let them get too gung ho (we’ll leave that for the hunting field) and ambitious, I want to teach a bit more of the technicalities of jumping.

A few weeks ago we went cross country schooling and had some problems with the steps in particular. So with this in mind, we planned some cross country sessions for half term. And used the in between lessons to work on core muscles, position towards a jump, developing his seat aids, and getting him more aware of the variations in his trot and canter and subtly altering them.

Last week we went cross country schooling and we had a mixed afternoon. We began to improve his riding towards steps – he was no longer racing towards them, and was sitting up for longer on his approach. They jumped the trakhener and some rather large, straightforward fences confidently. With the water complex we had an issue of racing towards a small fence and creating so much splash his pony couldn’t calculate the jump. Then we had a problem in the water. A long, over confident leap up a step then caused a refusal in the water which led to an unfortunate dunking for my rider.

This week I was adamant that I was going to sort this out so that next season the boys didn’t start with a phobia of steps.

The pony is very bold, but tends to get long and fast on the approach to jumps, often preferring to take off half a stride too early than get closer and make a steeper bascule. His rider, because he’s a growing boy and still maturing, plus still growing into his pony, tends to collapse a bit through his core and over ride the last couple of strides to each fence. Which encourages and enables his pony to go long and then take a long stride to a fence. Which causes problems at technical fences because his pony either takes a long stride or can run out.

So how to make my client realise and understand how to maintain a more balanced canter towards these technical fences? After all, being a boy you can’t overload him with information. Last week, I’d tell him to sit up and hold the canter towards the fence, which meant he forgot to ride positively with the leg. So the next time I’d say to remember the leg, and he forgot to sit up towards the jump! We needed a simpler set of instructions which encompassed all aspects of his riding.

Then it came to me; use the gear changing analogy. He likes driving and has a go-kart, and if we put numbers to the gears it will be easy for me to instruct on the approach and a short directive for my client to take in. After all, it tied in well with our lesson the other week on transitions within the trot and canter using the seat and a scale of one to ten to identify the size of the gait.

We warmed up in the field, using transitions and shortening and lengthening the canter. We had a check of the braking system to make sure it was enough that the pony didn’t get strong and pull my rider forwards yet wasn’t too severe. Then I had my rider warm up over four simple fences in a fairly straight line, looking at the canter staying very rhythmical and balanced throughout. Which meant my rider had to tone down his riding so his half halts and squeezes of the leg were enough to steady or encourage the pony without affecting the canter. The second time they did the exercise it flowed beautifully.

My rider could tell me how smooth the canter was, and I told him this was fifth gear. And I wanted him to remember how this had felt. Any simple, straightforward jump could be ridden from fifth gear.

Then we did another course, with mainly simple logs, but there was one jump on entry to the water. I let my client have a try, after all he’d jumped a similar fence last week. They jumped the first few fences nicely in fifth gear, but approached the water in fifth gear. His pony caught sight of the water behind the jump and put the brakes on. I reminded my rider that when jumping light to dark, or into water the approach needed to be steadier to give his pony time to read the question and answer it. I suggested he tried approaching the water jump in fourth gear. Then they flew it. So we repeated the course, really focusing on the gear change.

Just by using the term “fourth gear” instead of “steady the canter and sit up” meant I could efficiently get the message across and my rider put the whole set of aids together automatically – sat up and used his core and didn’t flap the last few strides. Whereas before he’d follow one instruction but forgot the other instruction.

We moved on to the steps complex, and talked through the gears for each jump: fourth gear for the fence going into the water, third gear for the steps uphill, fifth gear for the log out of the water, and third gear for the steps downhill.

The first course was pretty well faultless, but I did feel the uphill steps could have been better by my rider riding forwards between the two steps to keep the momentum going. So they repeated the course, and it looked fabulous! Apart from the loss of stirrup between jumps, of course.

As the steps were looking much more straightforward to them, I took the pressure off them and we did another “fun” course, which included a double of larger houses and a trakhener, with a couple of twists and turns to keep my rider`s brain ticking over. Fourth gear was required for the trakhener so his pony could take in the question, and any jumps with turns very close after were also a fourth gear. Unfortunately, the pony got a bit strong on this course and they took the houses in sixth gear, so their bascule was long and flat, clipping the roof. My rider could feel that the canter was a bit too fast and out of control, so we did another similar course with the houses, focusing on maintaining fifth gear. That time they jumped the houses in a much more controlled and stylish manner.

It was good to see this time, that I could send my rider quite far away from me – within sight but out of earshot – and when he had a problem with a skinny due to his approach and collapsing forwards as he overrode on the last couple of strides, my rider had to solve the problem himself. He changed his whip over, steadied the canter back to third gear and sat on his bum. Afterwards, we talked about how to solve that particular problem so that he was more confident in the way that he had handled it and so would do the same next time. Which he did.

To finish the lesson, we returned to the big water complex, which was where they had their dunking last time. We didn`t have any problems with the splashing fence out of the water like last week, which was great. By slowing the canter into third gear, the splashes of water didn’t obscure the pony`s view of the jump and he was much happier popping over it. It was much of repeating the concept of changing gears to ensure my client was feeling more confident about adjusting the canter, and making sure his pony was responsive to the aid. We did the steps out of the water and had a little blip when they both thought too much about last week; in the last course the first step was a little long, but it’s that fine line between the pony feeling confident and taking his rider into the steps and his rider being able to bottle the energy and maintain third gear. Which will get easier as he grows and gets stronger. I was being very picky though. However, the boys jumped the bigger step perfectly, and the rest of the course flowed really nicely.

We did try to do a bigger step, with a small blue brush on top, which caused a few problems but we soon established that the pony was actually cautious about the blue brush rather than the step itself, so we left that fence after a couple of attempts – that will be next year`s challenge!

I feel that everything started to come together in this session, and instead of just jumping bigger and faster, the two of them were thinking about the way they rode the fences and starting to think for themselves out on course. The idea of gears really struck a chord with this client, and he seemed able to coordinate his rein, seat and leg aids when thinking of the gears rather than being overloaded with specific corrections or instructions. When he walks courses in future we`ll just have to label each jump with the gear that he needs. Over the winter I want to develop his core stability and his knowledge and ability to extend and collect his gaits as well as improving his pony`s ability to maintain a more collected canter towards fences and jump in a less point-to-point fashion. Then I think they`ll sail around BE80s.

Securing The Lower Leg

I was teaching a client this week about awareness of her horse’s bend, and how to adjust it. In it’s most basic sense, it was just about her feeling the bend throughout her horse’s body and beginning to think about asking for more bend in circles and turns. Until now I’ve been getting her to turn her body, use her seat and leg aids correctly to manoeuvre her horse, but the focus has been on the correctness of her as a rider. So now is the time to put these skills to the test and use them to improve her horse’s suppleness whilst getting her to think more about her horse’s way of going.

My rider could identify which rein was her horse’s stiffer, and we discussed how to ask for a bit more flexion by opening the inside rein and using the inside leg to push the horse into the outside bend. Here, we met a problem.

Where my rider, due to learning in the 80s, grips hard with her knees, her lower leg swings back. We’ve spent time working on correcting this, but when she isn’t thinking about her leg position they wander back. Which means that the inside leg isn’t working on the girth. So she’s inadvertently asking for counter bend.

I threatened, in a joking way, to tie her stirrups to her girth to prevent her leg swinging. Before I knew it, her helpful husband had produced a bit of string!

I took my client’s inside foot out of the stirrup, and tied the inside of the iron to the girth securely. My rider could barely find her stirrup to put her foot back in.

Immediately, she was aware of how her leg swings back each time she applied the leg aid. After walking a circle, we tried trotting a few circles. Once she’d gotten used to rising with a stable lower leg, and keeping the heel below the hip, she could feel how easy it was to use her inside leg to ask for more inside bend. There were a couple of lightbulb moments when her horse had the correct bend, engaged the inside hind and softened through his back and neck.

There were many moans because the position felt so alien, but as my rider could feel the benefit she tried to keep her leg still.

When we were ready to change the rein, I swapped the string to the other leg. This is because the new rein was the more supple, and the outside leg needed to be able to move behind the girth. However, I thought it would be beneficial for my rider to develop an awareness of the instability of her lower leg, regardless of rein.

I’d quite like to warm my rider up next time with string keeping her stirrups at the girth as this will improve her position and awareness, as well as training her muscles. Then when I take the string away, she’ll be able to use the inside leg on the girth to ask for the correct bend.

You have to be quite careful not to do the exercise for too long as her muscles will complain, and you need to have a reliable, steady horse to reduce the risk of her falling off or getting her foot stuck. Ideally, and I’ve used them when I’ve done a similar exercise with kids, you want safety stirrups because the foot can come out of the iron more easily. I think giving my rider physical restrictions on her stirrups highlighted far more than me repeatedly telling her, or moving her leg in halt, how much her lower leg swings and how much it affects the horse.

Riding the Outside Shoulder Around

I’ve done some work with several clients this week about riding the outside shoulder around turns.

If a rider, like many novices and children, uses the inside rein to turn their horse then the horse will give too much bend through their neck, which opens up the outside shoulder. So when the inside hind leg comes under, instead of acting on the centre of the horse’s body and propelling them forwards, the inside hindleg works across the horse’s body, throwing their weight diagonally, out through the outside shoulder. This means that the horse moves less efficiently and has less power because energy isn’t flowing through the horse’s body back to front.

To the untrained eye, a horse giving an exaggerated neck bend can seem to be more supple than a horse who is slightly straighter through the body but engaging his hindquarters, yet the latter is working more efficiently and correctly.

Often, I believe, this trait comes from riders over using their inside rein, and horses being asked to ride too small a circle or too tight a turn before they are physically strong and balanced enough, so in order to negotiate the turn they fall through the outside shoulder as they go round.

Firstly, let’s look at how to prevent a horse falling out on turns and circles. The aids are the outside leg pushing the barrel around, and the outside rein maintaining the contact and preventing the neck from flexing. For a horse who is inclined to fall out, this rein has to be prepared to support the shoulder as the horse tries to fall out, then tries to work out how he should be moving. Often, this is where it goes wrong because the rider is not convinced enough in their application of the aids or strong enough in their core, that when the horse gets heavy in the outside hand they lengthen the arm to relieve the pressure. Which means the horse continues to fall through the outside shoulder. The inside rein on the turn opens, to tell the horse where they should be going. Think of this rein as an indicator, not an instigator. It is only suggesting to the horse which direction they need to go, not causing the movement itself. The inside leg prevents the horse falling in and also acts as the accelerator, keeping the impulsion of the gait. The rider’s body turns in the direction of movement, being careful not to throw the outside hand forward. The inside seat bone is loaded fractionally, and the outside shoulder and hip go forward.

So that’s how you should ride a turn. Be honest, do you always abide by these aids, or do you sometimes panic and think you aren’t going to make the turn so grab the inside rein? Or do you forget about the outside of your body? It’s very easily done, particularly when a horse tries to fall through the outside shoulder due to habit/old injury/previous poor schooling/evasion.

What exercises can be done to teach the rider to bring the outside shoulder around on turns, or to teach the horse to engage their inside hind leg through turns?

Firstly, I’ll often ask a rider to think about what’s going on underneath and behind them on circles while they warm up, this builds an awareness of the parts of the horse which are out of sight. Then they will more easily feel any improvement.

I like to use squares too, whether it’s just riding E-B or creating a square around the letter X. I’ll ask my rider to imagine that their horse is a plank of wood for a moment, and round each corner they are going to keep them as straight as possible. This stops them using so much inside rein and gets them using the outside aids. Once they are managing this and aren’t likely to fall back into old habits, we start introducing a bit of bend and softening the square into a circle. However, I get them to focus on creating a bend in the body, not the neck first – that comes naturally – so my rider thinks about the feel underneath them and uses the leg and seat to get a slight curve along the horse’s spine. Finally, I tell them to just allow the neck to bend in the direction of movement, which usually means that the horse gives just enough bend and the rider hasn’t lost the outside shoulder.

So this gets a rider feeling the difference between a uniform bend through the body, and a horse falling out through the outside shoulder. Hopefully they then apply the same aids on all circles and turns.

Now let’s look at the horse. Some horses are naturally crooked, so seem to bend easily in one direction and not so much in the other. One mare I teach sits in quarters right. We’ve done a lot of work building her rider’s awareness for the slight bend, and worked on improving the mare’s suppleness. In the trot my rider is getting more effective at using her outside aids and their circles are much improved, but the crookedness shows up most in the canter. Especially on the right rein. Both horse and rider have slight counter flexion, which added to the quarters sitting right means that circles tend to be more of an impression of a motorbike. So we’ve worked on my rider correcting her position and degree of turn, and then we asked the mare to look slightly to the outside in the canter before moving on to squarish circles, keeping the outside bend. To do this my rider had to keep her outside rein and exaggerate her outside leg. However, the mare soon started to move around the school with her outside shoulder coming round. After doing this a few times my rider could really feel the improvement in the canter – it was more active and where the mare was straighter it looked like the hindlegs were propelling her along better. Returning to usual circles in canter, my rider managed to prevent the mare curling her neck and falling through the outside shoulder whilst having a bit of inside bend. Now she was riding from her inside leg into her outside rein, which means she has much more control over the horse’s positioning through turns.

I’ve done similar work with another client, who’s cob falls out on right turns. This is more important for her with her jumping because when the cob drifts out through his left shoulder he loses power, which means he chips in or is more likely to know the fence down. As soon as his rider rode a square turn, off her outside aids and with slight counter flexion, they maintained the quality of the canter to the fence and met it on a much better stride. Next week, I’m planning on doing some more work on this right turn before fences to really establish my rider’s aids, and her horse’s technique and balance through the corner.

Other exercises I like to use with a horse who is reluctant to bring their outside shoulder around on turns are; shoulder in, shoulder in on turns, haunches out on turns, turn on the forehand. Anything really that gets them listening to the outside rein, encourages them to bring the inside hindleg under and towards the centre of their body and helps improve their general straightness.

Horse and Country TV did a useful video about the importance of bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, and you can see from my screen shots below, the difference between the first one (riding off the inside rein) and the second one (riding from the outside aids). If you can, see if you can find the full length video masterclass.