The Number One Rule of Feeding

What's the number one rule of feeding? Which one do you place the most importance on?

For me, it has to be that horses should be fed little and often. It applies to horses of all sizes and workload, and can lead to a whole host of health issues if they do not have food moving through their digestive tract.

Horses have evolved to graze for a minimum of sixteen hours a day, therefore they are trickle eaters. Having small amounts of fibre at each stage of their gut helps regulate peristalsis which reduces the likelihood of colic, prevents stomach acid splashing up the lining of their stomach acid, causing ulcers, and means that they are most efficient at digesting their food and extracting the nutrients.

Even obese or laminitis horses require almost constant access to fibre. However, they should have fibre with very little nutritional value, such as soaked hay or straw. Unfortunately, too many people starve laminitis horses, which can lead to them developing stomach ulcers.

I also feel that there is a psychological benefit to a horse or pony having a semi-full tummy all the time. You know how ratty you and I get when we're late home and dinner is subsequently late. And we can reason why we're hungry, and when our next meal will be. Horses can't, so it stands to reason that when they are hungry they are more likely to bicker between themselves, and to be less tolerant of us – nipping whilst being tacked up, fidgeting whilst being groomed, for example. I think a lot of bad behaviour on the ground stems from horses being uncomfortable in their digestive system. Sometimes they're a bit gassy and bloated, but more often than not they're hungry. If they were to develop stomach ulcers, this also leads to negative reactions when their girth area is touched, which some people believe is naughtiness.

Horses and ponies who are starved for periods of time, or had their grazing restricted with a grazing muzzle for example, have been shown to gorge themselves, managing to take in as much grass in the short time they are unrestricted than the longer period that their intake is limited. Which is why it is recommended that ponies who need a muzzle wear it in the paddock during the day, but are stabled with a quota of soaked hay overnight, to prevent the gorging behaviour.

My reason for bringing up this subject is that last week I was involved in taking a young client to Pony Club Camp, which gave me a parental insight into the week.

I was disappointed to learn that the ponies did not need a haynet during the day. They were to be tied up in the barn; ridden for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, with a two hour lunch break in between. During this week the ponies would be working far harder than in their usual day to day lives, but their anatomy is not designed for them to go without food from 9am until 4.30pm. Yes, there is a risk of bickering in the pony lines with food, but surely if every pony had a small haynet and were tied at a correct length of lead rein, far enough apart, there would be less of a problem than when they're hungry and irritable. I would have also thought that they would perform better in the afternoon session because they were happier and had more energy.

Each evening, the pony I was involved with went out into his paddock and gorged, so he was bloated the next morning. This can't be good for his digestive system!

I felt it to be quite ironic that the children are taught correct pony management, and there is both a mini and a big badge all about the rules of feeding. At some point the children are going to realise that they aren't following the rules of feeding, and will question it. This leads to a mental internal battle, and unfortunately a lack of respect for their instructors and mentors. Which is a shame.

I think it's a case of "do as I say, and not as I do", which I don't think is the right attitude for any educational environment, and one that I certainly didn't appreciate when growing up.

Changing the Bascule

Every horse and pony is put together differently, which results in a different technique when jumping. For example, some have a very uphill canter and engaged hindleg which allows them to jump with quite a steep bascule – like a pogo stick. Others, who have more of a horizontal gait, will prefer to take off a bit further away from the jump so their bascule is longer and flatter.

I don't think you should try to change a horse's jump technique too drastically, because you're then working against their physical capacity. However, it is always worth trying to enhance their ability and develop the muscles that will allow them to jump more effortlessly.

One of my clients has a pony who tends to get long in the canter on the approach to jumps and so has a very long, flat bascule. He is tidy with his legs, so the shape his body makes isn't a problem, but when he jumps off a long stride he lands long and flat, so it is tricky for my rider to rebalance themselves, or even turn for the next fence! My aim was to improve my rider's feel for a better balanced canter and teach him to hold the canter together on the approach to fences, which will help their landing and getaway.

The last couple of lessons we've used our warm up time to get a feel for lengthening and shortening the trot and canter. The purpose of working on lengthened strides was to teach my rider the difference between balanced, lengthened gaits and rushing or running onto the forehand. After all, they will need to lengthen the canter in jump offs and on the cross country course. We focused on my rider using his seat to encourage the bigger strides, and feeling that he still had a rein contact throughout.

Next, we turned to shortening the strides, or squashing the pony together to give it a non-technical term. It wasn't all about pulling the reins, but rather a series of half halts with the outside rein and a stiller seat. Oh, and lots of tummy muscles! Over the last few weeks, my rider has really started to get a feel for a smaller striding, bouncier trot and canter.

Now we have to link the flatwork to the jumping. Half of the issue comes from my rider not holding the canter together on the approach, and half of the issue comes from the pony preferring to jump long and flat. So I built a series of three bounce fences, which will encourage the pony to jump in a steeper bascule, and to get a little closer to the fence, as well as to be a little more careful and calculating about his jumping.

We used cross poles initially, and my rider held the canter together in a much more balanced fashion until a couple of strides away from the fence, and even then he didn't fire his pony to the jump. Where the jump wasn't that big, I think my rider felt happier keeping the steadier, smaller canter until the jump.

After they'd jumped a few times we discussed how the grid felt. One time, as my rider correctly identified, they met the first fence on a long stride so had a flat jump then the pony had to really adjust his body in order to negotiate the second and third element correctly. When they had a closer take off point, the grid flowed much better and each bascule was more even.

Their getaway from the jumps was improving because my rider could just sit up and rebalance the canter, instead of having a flat, fast canter and the pony on the forehand, which is far harder to correct. The pony was also more willing to come back to his rider. We also put in a 15m circle after the grid to ensure my rider carried on riding after the jumps, and didn't collapse in a heap after. This also helped the pony rebalance and refocus.

We progressed to uprights, which are more demanding for the pony because he has to pick up his forelegs quicker, and make an even steeper bascule. The first time, they tapped each fence as the pony was a little slow in tucking up, but the second time my rider could feel his pony rounding his back more, and they jumped through soundlessly as the pony was quicker with his legs.

My next challenge is to get my rider riding courses in a steadier fashion (I am of course battling against that boy, gung-ho mentality), taking his time to rebalance his canter between jumps so that his pony approaches in a more uphill canter, which will enable them to jump bigger more successfully and effortlessly. By being more consistent in their canter on the flat and when jumping will also help the pony strengthen these muscles, which will further improve his bascule and technique.

I am really pleased with how this young rider is taking on board all the technical information I'm giving him about how horses jump, and I hope that his understanding of our reasons for doing these exercises will mean he does his homework and will be consistent in how he rides, and what he expects from his pony.

The Spirit of Pony Club

This last week, the essence of Pony Club has really become apparent.

The kids adored their ponies, smothering them in hugs, kisses and praise. They've all improved their riding, and confidence. Most notably, the fact that they all galloped up the hill competently. With shrieks of laughter and face- splitting grins.

But I think my proudest moment of the week, and one which really showed how important the supportive spirit of Pony Club is.

We were doing the Handy Pony competition on Friday, where the children are timed round an obstacle course. One of my riders has an ex-driving pony, who wouldn't go near the flags or poles. So at the beginning of our competition, I said to the rest of the ride "because Corky doesn't like Handy Pony very much, would anyone be willing to let Freddie ride their pony for his round?"

Instantly, all their hands shot in the air as they generously offered their ponies to their friend. I was slightly taken aback, and initially slightly concerned Freddie would choose a sharp pony, but he chose the reliable camp-pro, and did the Handy Pony with minimal assistance, whilst having great fun.

I was very proud of the whole ride in the way that they supported each other, and how willing they all were to help each other out and give each other a good experience. After all, this is the reason we go to Pony Club, isn't it?

Pony Club Dressage

It was our dressage competition this afternoon at Pony Club, and the children and ponies were beautifully turned out – diamanté plaiting bands, sparkly quarter marks, big cheesy grins. The lot.

I have to say, that they all did me proud. They all stayed in the arena, cantered in the right place, and had some semblance of circles. I was very proud of all of them!

For a bunch of seven year olds, this test was pretty tricky. And I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Pony Club. There's a PC walk and trot test, which is pretty slow and sedate, and once kids can canter fairly competently they need pushing, as well as inspiring to take flatwork a bit more seriously. Now, my kids can all ask for canter at a corner, trot at a marker, and stay fairly balanced. So I didn't want them to do the walk trot test.

The alternative Pony Club test we had, however, is the grassroots test. This is quite a steep jump from the walk and trot test. Let me list some of the movements – I know the test well enough after having read it numerous times for six riders and judged another five on it.

  • 15 m circle on both reins at E and B in trot.
  • Half 20m circle between E and H to between M and B in free walk on a long rein.
  • Trot K to X then X to G. Halt at G.

This is pretty tough isn't it?! The rest of the test was fairly straightforward with centre lines, canter large, change of rein E-B, transitions at and between markers. How many of you reading this would be able to ride an accurate 15m circle? Or a half 20m circle between markers?

I had quite a lot of trouble getting my little riders' heads around the test. The circles were either too big or too small. Or sausage shaped. And the half circle was more of a straight line. The fact they navigated it at all in the correct gait was an impressive achievement to me.

This test is actually used at the regional dressage and eventing championships, so I understand that it needs to be challenging.

But what I'd quite like to see from the Pony Club is a set of training dressage tests, aimed at kids. Which are designed to encourage them into dressage. When a test is complicated and they don't score highly, they lose interest. Surely, it would be in equestrian's best interest to have a selection of tests which are prelim level, but clearly understood by children, and focusing on building their confidence, knowledge, attention to detail, and the basic flatwork building points. If the layout of the test is less complicated for them to think about, they will be able to focus instead on riding into their corners, sitting up tall, and keeping their pony in a rhythm.

Movements such as 20m circles, simple changes of rein, progressive transitions, serpentines. Nothing tricky, but everything encouraging. Then perhaps more Pony Clubs would run small competitions and rallies, particularly aimed at the younger members, and children would become more enthused by dressage, instead of it being seen as the "boring bit".

I just think that making simple dressage tests that do include canter, would stop dressage seem like such a daunting prospect for the little ones, and thus strike an interest as well as improving their riding.

Day One of Pony Club Camp

Today was the first day of Pony Club Camp, and I realised that in order to successfully teach and enjoy Pony Club you have to change your attitude.

When you teach clients on a weekly, permanent basis, you have long term goals and iron out any faults immediately as you try to mould your riders. You get to know both horse and rider very well and can plan lessons well in advance.

At Pony Club, you have a group of unknown children and ponies for a short term basis. The aim of the rallies or camp is to have fun, improve, and to stay safe. In that order! As instructors, we're told to give these kids the best week of their summer holiday.

My ride this year are seven years old, most having done junior camp before. So they have some independence, but still need their parents for help tacking up etc. They all have their own ponies, and varying number of lessons through the year so they won't all follow the classic BHS plan of "when a rider can ride sitting trot without stirrups they can learn to canter" or any other recommended stepping stones. These kids will love jumping, be confident, but not necessarily have a good command over the basic position, which can lead to some hairy moments. But you have to learn to close one eye and let it go.

I have a bit of a proven method now for getting started with Pony Club now. My first session today was Handy Pony. This rarely fills the whole allocated session, so I took the opportunity to have a thorough assessment of them all.

As a guide, you want to order them biggest pony to smallest, which gives you a starting point. Staying in walk and with a couple of questions, you can soon assess whether your lead file is suitably qualified – they have to be able to maintain trot, steer reasonably, understand basic school movements. While they're walking I can usually tweak the order too. If one little pony strides out well, or one rider has the tendency to daydream and get too close, or if one can't keep their pony up with the rest of the ride.

Once I'm happy with my order, I'll organise the first trot. I send them in pairs, or possibly threes, making sure the fresh ponies or weaker riders have bottoms to follow. Then of course, I have to find the right place for them to have a trot – just in case a fresh pony or keen child gets carried away. And the ponies are always fresh in the first session on grass! I try and pick a short stretch, or a uphill slope, with a clear marker where they should be walking again.

So I sent my six riders off in pairs, fairly successfully. At least, I'd managed to put the more able riders at the front of each pair so it didn't matter that one rider set off with long reins, or one pony cantered two strides before trotting. This is another Pony Club technique – learn to quickly shout "shorten your reins" and to stay calm while the pony speeds off!

After a couple of pair trots we trotted all together, which is actually very stressful because there is invariable corners cut, ponies getting too close, ponies walking, and overtaking attempts. But I count it as a success when we have the whole ride trotting for a couple of minutes at a time. Little things! If I'm feeling brave, and can find a nice short space to canter, then I'll do that individually with them too.

This is also the time to wear the ponies out, keep them trotting so they won't be so fresh for the Handy Pony part. For the riders, I work out the one think that I need to improve; what will keep them having fun, improve them, and keep them safe? After all, I've only got a short space of time, and by the time we've learnt dressage tests, musical rides, hacked, jumped and done stable management there's not that much chance to work on basic improvements.

Often there are general position pointers for everyone; heels down, look up, shoulders back, shorter reins. But I always try to find a specific area for each child so that they take something away from camp. So for example, one of my riders this week needs her stirrups dropping a few holes and needs to learn to sit up tall. I've already dropped her stirrups a couple of holes and explained to her the importance of not leaning forward to help keep her in the saddle (especially when her pony lowers his head into canter!), so by the end of the week I want her to be more aware of when she leans forwards and to be riding with longer stirrups. Another rider is very gung-ho and her trot gets faster and faster, so I want her to learn to keep a better rhythm. Another rider is slightly behind the movement with her hands in her lap, so I'm going to get her more in sync with her pony. Another gets a beautiful extended trot from his pony instead of canter, so we're going to work on those transitions. One stands up in her stirrups in downward transitions.

By giving each rider a little goal, I feel that they will finish camp having improved their riding, whilst not taking away any of the enjoyment (because let's face it, I would love to drill them without stirrups for an hour a day) and these tweaks will keep them safe. For example, sitting up straighter with normal length stirrups will make her less likely to fall off over a jump; riding a downward transition correctly improves her level of control; getting a canter transition on cue means he'll negotiate the dressage test more successfully.

I also feel better with a specific aim for each rider, and it helps me plan my warm up. For example, my warm up for dressage included practising downward transitions so that one rider didn't feel picked on, but it improved her as well as giving the rest of the ride something to think about. Tomorrow, we will discuss and practice canter transitions to help the rider who struggles with that. Then we may do some sitting trot for the rider who leans forward. They will all benefit from the exercises, but some will take more away from each one than others.

I think my kids did very well today; we had some good attempts at the dressage test, a very successful Handy Pony session, and we managed to spend longer trotting as a ride by the afternoon, as well as lots of smiles and laughter. Tomorrow we've got showjumping, mounted games and musical ride practice.

Pony Club Rally

I got to experience being a Pony Club Mum – something all horsey women aspire to!

It was one of my little client's first Pony Club rally. This spring her confidence has soared and she's looking forwards to her first camp in a few weeks time. However with a heavily pregnant Mum, I was brought in to be leader/groom/support party at her first rally.

The pony is a Pony Club pro, but hasn't been out since my client has owned him – about two years – so he walked off the lorry with his eyes on stalks, snorting in anticipation. Although my rider is quite competent at home off the lead, I clipped one on and got her mounted. We walked around, or rather jogged round, while the seemingly hundreds of other ponies were trotting and leaping around. After all it was the summer BBQ rally and everyone was full of end of term spirits. For a newbie though, it was all a bit daunting and we got a bit nervous.

Unfortunately, the excited pony at the end of my lead rein was unsettling my rider. We walked to try and settle him down until the rally got started, but he was definitely a bit on the fresh side.

Our first activity was gymkhana games. Probably not the best decision with a fresh pony! So I resigned myself to doing some sprinting!
The first race was bending and we managed to keep to a steady trot to help our team win, and my rider started to relax a bit, letting go of her grab strap. The second race was ride and run. We broke into canter on our sprint to the end – she sat a buck and I hurriedly brought it back to trot. With my rider sprinting towards home I started jogging back with the pony. Who bronced merrily alongside me to the watching parents horror!

My rider thankfully hadn't seen this acrobatic display and happily got back on, and for the rest of the games her pony decided that he'd expended enough energy for tonight and was perfectly behaved, standing perfectly still while she picked up cups and dropped balls into buckets. She loved the games although I'm not sure who won in the end.

Next up was showjumping. As the pony seemed more settled I asked my rider if she wanted to do the warm up on her own. The lead reins and little ones were warming up together so I felt it would be quiet and safe. She nodded happily, so I stood in the middle with the instructor ready to assist if necessary. I had to bite my tongue a few times when instructors instinct kicked in – "shorten your reins!" "Heels down", those sort of comments. After all, I know how frustrating it is when parents comment from the side lines so I needed to set an example.

They got on well in the warm up, trotting in the small group together and over the pole. When it came to jumping the course I decided it was best to lead my pony and rider. They can jump little courses at home easily, but I was slightly worried that the pony might return to the ride a bit too quickly. I would rather they negotiated the course with me alongside and were safe, and confident afterwards than had a speedy, erratic round that knocked their confidence. The pony was brilliant, and jumped everything nicely from an active trot – although I didn't think I was going to make it around all eight jumps, I'm so unfit!

Pleased with how the jumping had gone, my rider asked me if she could do the final activity on her own. It was the drill ride. I nodded, secretly very relieved, but also pleased that my rider felt confident enough to try riding in a large group alone.

I explained to the instructor that they were perfectly capable but if necessary I would be on the sidelines. I checked that the pony in front of my rider didn't kick. She knows not to get too close, but if there's a choice I'd rather she was behind a non-kicker in case she accidentally got a bit near. It's hard being an instructor and not trying to organise the kids and ponies!
Anyway, I stood well back so I wasn't tempted to interfere, and watched the group of ten, ranging from 16hh horses with 16 year olds to 11hh lead rein ponies with five year olds, learn and ride the drill ride.

I was really proud of my rider holding her own in the group, keeping up and following all the instructions. Riding independently and also being aware of all the others. It's always daunting riding with older and more experienced riders, as well as being in a busy arena, so the fact that her pony was foot perfect and my rider was confident and competent was very satisfying to watch.

After a hot dog and drink, with some new little friends made, we headed off home. My rider had thoroughly enjoyed her first rally and is now very, very excited for camp. I feel more confident in the pony now I've seen him be a perfect gentleman at the rally, and I'm happy my rider will be able to take everything in her stride and have an amazing time. To me, seeing kids have fun and grow as riders is what Pony Club is all about. I'm also now in the Pony Club spirit ready for next week's camp – how exciting!

Using Observations

I had a client riding her Mum’s horse this week, who she hasn’t ridden very often, and hasn’t jumped her for a long time. 

I think she was slightly nervous when we began jumping, a bit worried about the unknown. So we had a discussion about how to create her own set of expectations for riding the unknown.

When you go to ride a different horse, perhaps when viewing to buy, you invariably see it ridden beforehand. By considering your observations, you know what to expect. They may not live up to these expectations, but at least you are more prepared.

In the case of this rider, I asked her what she’d seen, or noticed, when her Mum jumped. She pondered for a minute, until I gave her some hints. Eventually my rider said that the horse she was riding doesn’t rush into fences, sometimes backs off fences and usually chips in a stride. She didn’t think she drifted left or right though.

I totally agreed. The mare is very different to my rider’s usual mount in that she is steady towards fences and prefers to get in too deep. So with the knowledge of the mare’s tendencies, or preferences, we developed a plan for riding the fence. My rider decided that she needed to create a really energetic canter, and have her leg ready to maintain the energy if the mare backed off the fence, and also to keep the handbrake off and be very positive to discourage the last minute chip-in. 

They set off. The canter was energetic, and they had a straight approach. Because my rider was prepared, she was ready to counteract the slight reluctance as the mare calculated the fence. The result was a very rhythmical, positive approach so they had the perfect take off point.

We continued building a grid, and they jumped beautifully. I was very pleased with how quickly my rider adapted to her ride and how she read and reacted to the mare’s canter approach to best support her.

Which led me to thinking. How much can you learn about a horse and their way of going from watching? 

Firstly, you can gauge the horse’s behaviour; are they spooking at a particular area of the school? Do they have their head up and focused in the distance? Are they tense or relaxed?

Then you can look at the way they are going. If the rider is having to use a lot of leg, or has a lax rein contact. This tells you the responsiveness to the leg aids and the level of tension, or likelihood of the horse rushing. Does the horse have a long stride, or is it high-stepping? Do they track up? If they have an active stride, or a short stride, they will feel quite bouncy when you ride. Although this doesn’t help you ride, it helps prepare you for how they will feel.

Although horses are influenced by their riders, by watching a horse working, you can start to make educated guesses as to which rein is easier for the horse, whether they have a tendency to drift left or right, and if there’s any crookedness in their body. This knowledge will make you more aware of any discrepancies between the horse’s reins and then you will be quicker to support and correct them. Having an educated guess as to what to expect will also make you more confident when you get on board too.

So if you know what to look for, and can begin to piece together how a horse looks from the ground, then they are familiar when you first sit on board and you can quickly adapt to them and start to influence their way of going. Of course, sometimes they can surprise you. It’s quite a skill, but try watching some horses at your yard and see if you can work out how they might feel to ride – if you’re lucky you might even get the chance to experience them.

All About Control

I did this pole exercise earlier this week to get my clients thinking about their level of control.

When I laid out the exercise I could see a level of complacency in the simplicity of the exercise. However, looks can be deceiving!

The exercise started with two poles as tram lines, to focus on straightness. A couple of strides away, there were three trotting poles. A couple of strides after that was another set of tramlines. After another couple of strides, were three canter poles.


The aim of the exercise was to make a good, accurate turn to the tramlines (this highlights any cheaters who drift around corners) and create a balanced, elevated trot over the poles before riding a canter transition in the next tramlines. This ensures the horse doesn’t drift through the transition and illustrates any preference over canter leads. The transition needs to be immediate and active so that the canter is of good enough quality for the poles. The aim is to improve the quality of the canter transition, the accuracy of the rider’s preparation and execution, and for the rider to very quickly be able to change it if it isn’t good enough for the poles. 

By turning into the exercise from both reins you can see which way is weaker. One horse I did this with tends to drift around corners on the left rein, so his shoulders didn’t turn enough to meet the tramlines and thus he struggled to start the exercise straight. When his shoulders were turned sufficiently, he compensated by swinging his haunches out. Of which is going to be worked on next week!

The trotting poles looked after themselves, so the next question was the canter transition. With straightness enforced, horses can initially run through the transition to make it easier but once horse and rider get the feel of it the hindquarters should be more active through the transition and the shoulders lift. As the canter poles are almost immediately after, the rider has to be quick to balance the canter so the horse either has enough energy for the poles, or hasn’t flattened the canter so they won’t make the poles.

Once my riders had mastered this exercise, and the ponies improving their canter, we turned it around. They had to approach in canter, canter over the poles and between the tramlines, make a trot transition ready for the trot poles. This was the tricky part!

The canter poles were fine, and the first tramlines helped create a very straight canter. However, the ponies got a bit onward and it took my riders by surprise that they couldn’t bring them back to trot in time. First of all, I got them to prepare for the transition earlier. Even whilst going over the poles they needed to be preparing. This helps create impulsion because they had to find the balance between maintaining enough energy for the poles, without generating too much speed. 

Next up, my riders needed to think about how they ride the transition. They were jamming on the handbrake, so the ponies just beared down on the rein. They needed a series of half halts, to keep their core engaged and upper body tall, with heels dropped in order to be more effective in the downwards transition. And be committed to achieving that transition – just because they love their pony doesn’t mean that their pony is allowed to ignore their aids.

Of course, once they have achieved the downwards transition, and quietly asserted their authority their pony will be far more obliging next time. 

This means that our on the cross country course they are more able to bring their ponies back to a more collected canter in preparation for a skinny, ditch, corner, or any other tricky fence, without losing the energy and the pony’s desire to jump.

All in all, an exercise of multiple levels, which improves accuracy and control, as well as improving straightness and quality of the gaits – particularly if the poles are then raised. 

Creating a Bouncier Canter

I did this exercise with a client yesterday and her pony. They love jumping, and we’re pushing towards 90cm courses and beyond. However in order to be successful over bigger fences the canter needs to be more uphill. The mare knows her job, bit by encouraging her to “sit” on her hindquarters more will strengthen them and enable her to make a steeper bascule, which will make jumping bigger fences easier. I’d also like the mare not to take such long, flat strides to fences as that’s when she over jumps or isn’t quick enough to fold her legs up and knocks it down.

As ever, it can be difficult to teach someone what a bouncier, more collected canter feels like when they haven’t experienced one before. Which is where poles come in very useful. 

On a twenty metre circle I laid out four poles at the 3,6,9,12 positions. We worked on each rein, cantering over the centre of the poles. The aims were to have a round circle, with the same number of strides between each pole, and to not leap the poles. It’s harder than you think as the rider has to plan their line in advance, use the outside aids and not rely on the inside rein, and have a good feel for the rhythm. The horse will find it tricky because the inside hind leg has to be more active over the poles and as it comes under the body they have to maintain their balance and be supple enough that they don’t drift out through their outside shoulder. It took a few circuits on each rein, but the canter started to get rounder and more elevated. This mare is quite laterally stiff, so I wasn’t expecting full circles in this balanced, improved canter, but rather to see both her and her rider “getting it” and maintaining it for a couple of poles before regrouping. That way, my rider knows what it is she is aiming for in the future, and we build the pony’s strength steadily.

Then I raised the inside end of each pole slightly. This exaggerates the canter stride so improves the mare’s flexibility and suppleness, as well as pushing the boundaries on her balance. 

This rider has a habit of using too much inside rein, so this exercise highlighted the problems of overusing it and made her focus on her outside aids.

From the two poles on the three quarter lines, I walked a dog leg of five short canter strides to build and upright. This meant we had a left dog leg and a right dog leg. The uprights were 90-100cm high.

The exercise we rode was the same on both reins. Ride the circle of poles until the canter felt bouncy and then leave the circle on the three quarter line pole and ride the dog leg, aiming to maintain that canter, to the upright. 

The mare can lock on, otherwise I’d have built the related distance in a straight line, but the dog leg meant she had to listen to her rider. On the right rein they had a very nice five canter strides and jumped the upright with a steeper bascule. The take off point was slightly closer and the mare made a cleaner shape. My rider could feel the difference in the way they jumped, and hopefully can understand how having the canter in a more uphill frame will help them get clear rounds. The left rein is the mare’s slightly weaker lead, and it took them a couple of attempts to ride a smooth dog leg turn, but again their technique was much better.


I found this exercise really beneficial for engaging the inside hindleg and the back muscles, and now my rider knows the canter she is aiming for we can try and reproduce that on the flat and round courses so the last fence isn’t the annoying one they have down! Below you can see how active the inside hindleg is in this canter after using the circle of poles.