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.

Advertisements

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.

A Cross Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping the Lower Leg Still

The other week I was trying to focus one of my riders on their lower leg over fences, and how it likes to swing backwards. But he was more interested in jumping bigger/higher/more exciting so I made limited progress. However, he went out competing over the weekend and saw some photos of him jumping and was horrified by his lower leg.

Great – so I had his attention!

In his last lesson I came armed with string. After a short warm up, in the indoor because of the unfriendly February weather, getting my rider to be really aware of what his legs were doing as he trotted round, I brought out the string.

I tied the inside of his stirrup iron to his girth. There’s still a bit of movement, but the resistance of the string makes the rider aware of their leg movements. This means that we can train their muscles to remain in the correct place whilst supporting his legs to help him learn the slightly different rise or slightly different feel in his balance.

Through the lesson we did rising and sitting trot, worked in light seat, and then worked the canter in sitting and light seat.

The string on his stirrups made my rider more aware of how his leg wanted to swing, but because the string stabilised the position of his lower leg, my rider could turn his attention to adjusting the height of his shoulders, how far back his bottom had gone to the cantle, and position of his hands. Thus allowing him to find the right balance.

I made some other tweaks, like getting him to carry his hands, and not hollowing the lower back as he went into his light seat. He also had to have softer knees so that the weight stayed in his foot, with the heel slightly lower than his toe and the leg stable. He started to understand how this new position would enable him to ride a whole cross country course like this without tiring, and how he could still use his calves to ride his pony towards a fence without losing balance.

At the end of the lesson I removed the string and we ran through light seat in trot and canter to see if his legs were remaining in the correct place and if he felt balanced. His homework over the next few weeks is to keep practicing maintaining the lower leg position, and hopefully by practicing on the flat and when hacking it will become second nature when he’s jumping.

Today, I got a video from him asking me to critique his position over a fence! It looked much better, he wasn’t in front of his pony over the fence and they looked much more balanced, as you can see in the rather blurry still from the video below.

I always think that when I jumping position, the rider should look as though they would stay squatting and not topple over if their horse has been removed from under them. If the lower leg swings back then a rider will topple face first, akin to superman gone wrong! I have high hopes that this rider will correct his position and strengthen it over the next few weeks because he’s understood the importance of it in helping his pony jump neatly and in balance, and in helping him recover quickly after a fence so that he can rebalance his pony and ride the next turn on the course.

Sticking to Your Line

One of my clients proudly told me of a jump exercise he’d successfully done in one of his school riding lessons. I’d seen it doing the rounds on social media but hadn’t got as far as utilising it. I had a different exercise in mind for his lesson that day, but at the end I moved the jumps so he could demonstrate the exercise.

Today, however, I decided to use it for another client. This pony is quite crooked, although getting straighter, so this exercise would be a real test for him and his rider. On the flat my rider rode lots of counter flexion on the left rein to stabilise her outside rein and to maintain control over the outside shoulder, which the pony tends to drift through. Getting him straighter meant that his hindlegs were more effective at propelling him along, leading to a more uphill canter and to my satisfaction, the pony reaching forwards to the contact and maintaining his nose on the vertical; stopping him tucking behind the bridle is another area that we’ve been working on.

I laid out three fences, two canter strides apart at the middle of the poles. However, each jump was angled at slightly less than forty-five degrees in alternate directions. A bit like a zig-zag.

Starting with poles on the floor, pony and rider cantered through off each rein, focusing on staying central to the poles and keeping a forwards canter throughout. When he’s unsure, this pony tends to chip in in front of a fence, so providing him with angles to jump will also test his confidence.

My rider couldn’t feel any real difference between the canter leads when the poles were on the ground. Her pony took her into the exercise nicely, maintained the rhythm and stayed straight. I suspected that the right rein might be easier to maintain straightness, but it was nice to see no discernible difference with the poles.

I built the first fence as a cross pole and they jumped it normally first of all, so approaching perpendicular to the jump. This was to make sure the pony was in jumping mode and that he was approaching in a confident, balanced canter with plenty of impulsion. He was really on the ball, almost taking a long stride, so next up they rode straight through the exercise with the first fence as a cross.

The cross guided both pony and rider, and they negotiated it from either rein competently, still staying straight throughout.

We built the second jump, and then the third, which was when the difficulty started to show. Because the pony had to make more of an effort over the jump he was more likely to drift, particularly coming off the left rein.

By now my rider could feel that she was having to work harder on the left rein to keep her pony straight. This was partly due to the fact that he drifts through the right shoulder, the left canter is weaker, and I angled the first fence to encourage the pony to drift right. Not that I’m mean or anything!

Now that we’d identified the weakness in the exercise we spent some time on the left rein. Firstly, my rider had to ride a squarer turn onto the exercise to ensure her pony started straight. Then as she jumped the first fence she had to open the left rein and close the right leg to maintain her line. The exercise was lined up so that the letter F was in the centre of the fences, to give my rider a visual marker. For anyone wondering over the logistics of the letter F and the location of three fences, it was a 60x40m school and we worked on the long side!

I also placed a guide pole between the first two jumps to help the pony land straight and reach the second fence in the middle rather than at higher right side. After a few goes through the exercise it was flowing nicely. The distances almost looked short because the pony was maintaining such a nice, forward canter and making a good bascule over each fence. Where they were staying straight, he didn’t change canter leads, and they had a good takeoff point for each fence.

To finish the lesson, I made the three jumps uprights, which took away their visual aid, and where the pony had to put in more effort, we’d see if he really was carrying himself straighter, or else he may revert to drifting. If he did drift, then the distance would get longer so he’d find he had to stretch for the second fence.

They jumped it beautifully off both reins. The pony made such a good shape over the fence and looked very confident. My rider noticed that she needed to be slightly quicker to sit up between the fences to help correct any drift, but otherwise they were very straight and made the exercise look easy.

The exercise can be made harder by reducing the number of strides between the fences, and making the angles more acute. However, don’t be too quick to up the difficulty level because it’s surprising how the angled fences will highlight a horse lacking confidence and prone to running out, or drifting over fences, and a rider who doesn’t commit to their line and ride positively down it.

Below is the demonstration video from another client. If I’m going to be really picky, he over shot the centre line which set them up for a slight wiggle through the exercise. But through riding his line and keeping a lid on the canter, this rider managed to limit the effect of overshooting the corner very well.

Outgrowing Ponies

It’s inevitable with kids really. They grow. And whilst it’s easy to buy new trousers, and give the outgrown pair to charity, the same cannot be said about ponies.

This is where learning in a riding school has it’s advantages. You get used to riding a variety of horses and can easily be put on one the next size up. However if you loan, own or share your own then the transition can be made all the harder.

One of my clients has been looking a bit leggy on her share pony for the last six months. Far from being too heavy, her legs just resemble Puddleglum’s (Narnia reference for anyone who’s childhood is far forgotten). I mentioned a few months ago about have to consider upgrading from her veteran school master. He’s lovely and a real confidence giver, but with his age and near perfect manners there’s a limit to what she can learn from him now.

I want her to be challenged more, so she isn’t complacent about her riding and learns to think about the horse and begins to influence and improve the way the horse goes rather than just directing them. We’re doing the theory, but it’s hard to put it into practice when her pony is limited by his good manners and expertise.

I suggested she asked around her yard to see if anyone would be willing to let her have a lesson on their horse so that she got a feel for riding taller, thinner, wider, faster, slower horses which means that she’s in a better position to find a share horse and to transition successfully.

But it’s very hard to find the right horse to try. Going from your ultimate schoolmaster, you need a bigger (but not too big) horse, who will tolerate a slightly heavier leg aid and not take the mickey if she makes a mistake or isn’t clear enough in her aids. Yet can be geed up and give her something to think about in her riding.

With me stopping work in a couple of weeks, I thought we’d better get the plan put into motion. One of my friends keeps her Connemara at that yard, so I asked her if he would be suitable to try, if she was willing to offer him, or if she could suggest a horse.

She told me a bit about him and offered him for a lesson. He’s six or seven, can be cheeky over jumps but on the flat works fairly quietly, although can have a bit of a spook. And is a hand bigger than my client’s pony, so not too much of a leap up. I decided that he was our best option, and with my rider getting increasingly nervous about riding an unknown horse, I knew we had to just get it over and done with, before she could mull over the idea.

First off, my client realised that she needed to be a bit more awake on the ground – no more daydreaming as she leads in from the field because this Connemara will stop for a cheeky snack of grass. Once tacked up, she mounted in the school.

She had gone mute, with nerves, so I got her to walk round the edge of the arena and to tell me her thoughts of him so far: how his size compared to her pony’s, how the walk felt, could she feel any tension in his neck, was he focusing on her or the dog walker on the far side of the field? As she started thinking and talking, she relaxed and so did the Connemara. After all, he was probably wondering who on Earth we were and where his Mum was!

We then started looking at his controls.

I used the analogy of cars to my rider, even though she can’t drive I think she can still appreciate the theory. Her pony is like a corsa. This horse is an upgrade … perhaps a golf or something (can you tell cars aren’t my strong point?). Some horses can be Ferraris. I told my rider that she wouldn’t need as strong an aid on this pony, but as we didn’t know the precise level of squeeze, it would be best to apply a Ferrari light aid, and if nothing happened then progress to a BMW level aid, and so forth until she got the response she wanted. It’s like learning to balance the clutch and accelerator on a new car.

In the walk we did some transitions to halt and back into walk, before some changes of rein and circles so that she could get the feel for him and felt more confident.

Progressing into the trot, I reminded her about the importance of preparation – her biggest complacency with her schoolmaster is that she’ll kick for trot then half a dozen strides later organise her reins. Once she was organised we went through the lightest aid, which didn’t get a response, to a firmer squeeze which did propel them into a steady trot.

I let her trot around a couple of times to get the feel for him, before getting her to assess and describe the trot in relation to her pony. This horse was bouncier, bigger striding and more energetic. Once she’d ridden some circles I got her to ride some serpentines, which highlighted to her how she needs to prepare a little earlier because he’s younger, slightly greener, and a bigger moving animal.

Then I addressed the fact that this horse was easily distracted. So far, I’d overcome the issue by telling her to ride a transition or school movement. I drew my rider’s attention to how the ears were pointing, and any turning to the outside as the horse looked off into the distance. Then I told her to try to be more aware of his body language, and if she felt he had lost focus, then she should draw him back into the arena by asking him to do something, such as a transition or circle so that he had to think about what she wanted him to do. I then got her to do some independent riding – choosing her own movements and changes of rein – to check that she was starting to think about the horse and how he was going.

They got the hang of the trot fairly quickly. I didn’t do too much about the quality of the trot and how to improve it, but I did make her aware of the fact that a younger horse needs reminding more frequently than a schoolmaster of the tempo, rhythm and not cutting corners, so she needed to stay on the ball about that too.

Towards the end of the lesson I suggested we tried a canter. Again, I checked she was preparing, and used the light aids until he reacted, although she was getting a feel for him now and almost immediately got canter. In the canter, this horse did try to fall in on the left rein, but after reminding my rider that he wasn’t remote control and she wasn’t a passenger, she managed to used her inside leg and outside rein to keep him going large. They had a couple of sloppy downward transitions when they fell into trot, which was largely to do with the fact that the horse needed a little more riding in the canter to maintain his balance and rhythm which my rider hadn’t quite mastered. It wasn’t bad though, and she did start to feel when he was about to fall into trot, so corrected him a couple of times.

The right rein was more interesting. Basically, the horse heard something in the distance and just cantered a bit faster, which caused my rider to clamp a bit with her legs, which didn’t decrease the speed. However, she remained calm and reacted to my instructions about dropping the heel, relaxing her calves, sitting up and half halting. Obviously I made her have another canter, which went much more smoothly and the important part was that she understood why he had cantered a bit faster and the effect she had on him and what to do next time.

All in all, it was a very useful lesson. My rider has come away with an awareness of how she needs to improve in order to upgrade from her corsa; she had a good experience so hopefully now feels more confident about trying another horse, and will hopefully get another couple of offers from other liveries there. The downside? She’s fallen in love with the Connemara!

In the meantime, I need to find another couple of horses for her to try before I get too fat to go to work.