My Toothpaste Analogy 

Sometimes it’s hard for a rider, especially a young rider, to understand the feel required on the approach to a fence: the difference between the horse taking you into a fence and rushing to the fence.

 Last week I came up with an analogy, which will come into force this week – you have been warned, clients!

When you’re riding a horse you want to feel that they’re taking you into a fence, in front of the leg. If they aren’t, then there tends to be two outcomes. 

Which can be likened to a tube of toothpaste.

Imagine a tube of toothpaste, fairly full, with the lid off. Now, clap your hand down on the toothpaste and watch the paste spurt out. This is the equivalent to giving a horse a big kick a few strides away from the fence. Some horses don’t mind this, and would prefer the definite feel of commitment and “let’s go” from the rider. Others get pushed out of rhythm and put off their stride and can cause a refusal.

Let’s go back to the toothpaste scenario. This time, you’re going to push gently with your fingers, akin to squeezing with the leg. The paste smoothly glides out of the nozzle. This is the equivalent of the horse feeling reassured by the rider’s commitment to the jump and moving in front of the leg; perhaps a slight lengthen of stride but ultimately engagement of the hindquarters to give the canter a bit more power whilst maintaining the rhythm and the horse’s stride. Then the horse feels confident to jump the fence.

When approaching a fence you want the horse to feel that they’re taking you into the fence, and if you feel them back off it’s important to reassure them without putting them off their stride. So don’t spurt the toothpaste otherwise they may start to doubt themselves and refuse. 

Singing A Tune

I had a challenge and a half this week, which definitely got me rummaging around my tool box for solutions.

I have a young rider who suffers from first-jump-itis. She flies through grids, and any related distances but as soon as I put a course together she falls apart.

In her first lesson this week, a bit later in the evening because of the heat, I built a course as she warmed up on the flat. Then I warmed her up over a cross pole then upright, and then started putting a couple of the lines of my course together. The jumps were well within their comfort zone and she was riding well. We had the odd dodgy jump when she was a bit restrictive with her hands (something we’ve been working on) but her lines between fences was superb. 

Once she’d jumped nearly all of them, bar a couple of island fences, I explained the course. And it went wrong. She had a stop at the first one and promptly slid out the side door. Remounted, she rode it again successfully and the rest of the course got better – it flowed more and she looked more comfortable as she went through.

I upped some of the jumps; still within her comfort zone – especially the first one and she did it again. The first jump was still an issue so once they’d ridden the course with a sticky first jump I suggested we did the course one last time, to crack the first-jump-itis. After all, she’d jumped it a few times now and I think repetition was needed to stop her overthinking it. They had a good breather and then off they went. 

And it all went wrong. The pony stopped, she fell off, then she over rode and got in front of the movement, and then her pony started anticipating and stopping even when she gave him a fair approach. Then she froze and pulled with her hands into the fence. Even lowering the jump didn’t help.

Then of course we’re in this vicious cycle where everyone gets hot and bothered. So I told them to have a walk break and moved onto another fence, and made that a little cross. They stumbled over it and I could see my rider was just in a panic.

I’ve said before, that teenagers can be tricky if there’s an external problem or if they’re a bit hormonal or whatever, it can be hard to solve a problem. Thankfully I know this rider very well, so jokingly checked there were no boy problems, or anything else she wanted to tell me. There wasn’t, so I told her to serenade me the next time she jumped. She laughed despite herself, and moaned that she wasn’t very good at singing. But just her laughter caused her to relax a bit and break the tension. 

She went again, and on the approach to the cross pole started singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They instantly improved, relaxing and she had the handbrake off so her pony sorted the jump out himself. I made her repeat it a couple more times, singing loudly. 

Then I made it an upright and continued with the singing approach, finding it made her breathing more even and meant my rider sat more like a passenger, which she needed to do so that she didn’t interfere with her pony’s jumping.

That went smoothly so as she landed  I told her to maintain the canter and approach the original jump. Unfortunately getting them up and running didn’t mean that they negotiated the problem jump. Usually breaking the cycle and establishing a flow helps overcome psychological refusals. But I noticed my rider stopped singing on the approach, and freezing her body.

I took the jump right down and got them singing and trotting, then cantering, over it until they’d done the original fence. The important part was that she continued singing and stayed relaxed. As soon as they’d succeeded we finished the lesson … to be continued tomorrow.

I mulled over the conundrum overnight, and the following day realised that it’s been very hot this week and the adults I teach bring their own water to lessons. Parents bring water for their kids in their lessons. I don’t take water with me unless I have multiple lessons because I just end up leaving it in arenas. But this young rider had come down to her lesson alone – Dad was poo picking (how well trained!) – so her performance was probably affected in the last third of the lesson because of thirst or heat. I had a gap in my diary just before her lesson and was feeling quite thirsty myself so headed to Costa and bought two iced fruit coolers, assuming my rider wouldn’t have a drink.

She seemed very pleased with the drink, and I think it definitely helped her having frequent slurps through the lesson. I changed the course slightly to make a three jump grid, which I kept as little crosses and got her jumping through in a relaxed and positive way to warm up. I also got her to jump the grid with one arm out to the side, just to highlight how tense her arms get on the approach, particularly when she’s worried. This also built her pony’s confidence back up.

With the grid going well I then used it as the first element on a course. This was to help her establish the rhythm and get into the zone before continuing on to the courses. I still made her sing loudly, and I was pleased to hear her doing it on her own accord. With her breathing and being more relaxed, and me reminding her to release her hands on the approach, the lines flowed a bit smoother. 

We had a couple of minor blips but overall a much more positive session. They jumped the grid then onto the course a couple of times successfully and then I called it a day. I felt it was more important to finish on a good note than to change the course in any way and ask any more questions. After all, there were a few little things for them both to go away and reflect on. 

Lessons to learn are for me to double check everyone brings water or refreshments to lessons in hot weather. To use grids the next couple of lessons to establish my rider’s rhythm and get her in the zone. To make her sing to every jump because each time she stopped singing she had a more frantic approach and not such a good take off or bascule. I’m also tempted to do some lunging without reins, and more grids without reins so that I stop her using the handbrake. Then hopefully we can break the cycle and they get back on top of their game. 

Inputting Impulsion

With one of my young riders we’re slowly working through the scales of training; getting her to understand, apply and improve her pony. Rhythm and suppleness have improved, and she has now grasped the feel of a good contact, and knows how to ride her pony into the contact when he hollows and comes above the bit.

So our next phase is to improve and increase their impulsion. I always explain to clients that basically impulsion is energy without speed; when energy is the purposefulness, or desire to go forwards. 

But it can be tricky for riders to generate the impulsion without losing the first two stages – rhythm and suppleness. 

When I asked my client for some suggestions to generate some impulsion into the trot, she replied by telling me that when she uses her leg to put in some energy her pony gets faster. Which didn’t really answer my question, but was a valid observation. I explained why her pony, who is a jumping machine, thought leg meant faster and how he pulls himself forwards, instead of using his hindquarters.

She still hadn’t worked out how to improve her pony’s impulsion, so I brought in a bit of maths.

If she adds energy to her horse but also gets speed, then she should use this to help improve the amount of energy he has in his gait. Then, when the energy is established, she can take away the speed. Once the speed is taken away, she is left with impulsion.

Then my rider suggested she could use medium trot to create impulsion. I agreed, and off she went.

Along the long sides of the school she focused on putting energy into the trot; feeling her pony use his hindquarters, and not losing the rhythm. Then as she approached the short side, she had to take away the speed. By the time she’d done a few transitions she could feel the improvement in the trot, so we added in circles to practice maintaining the impulsion for longer. 

Now she’s got the feeling of a more purposeful trot we can focus on maintaining this level of impulsion for longer periods, and then maintaining it on circles and school movements, checking that the rhythm and suppleness aren’t inhibited. 

Working through the scales of training is like peeling an onion; each time you introduce another level, or increase the difficulty, then you need to revisit the previous levels to ensure total understanding by horse and rider, and to make sure the horse continues to work correctly and to  improve. After all, if one of the building blocks starts to erode as you move up the levels and you don’t fix it then the whole thing falls down. 

Teaching Teenagers

Teenagers are a special sort of client. So special in fact, that my coaching book devotes a whole section about how to teach teenagers. Whilst I don’t envy secondary school teachers having to teach a whole classroom of hormonal adolescents, I do feel I have the advantage of teaching teenagers who want to be there. And want to learn to ride. That’s got to be better than trying to teach them maths! 

Recently my geek of a husband told me a fascinating fact in that during puberty the brain undergoes huge neurological changes, similar to that of a toddler. Without listening to the whole audio book by David Eagleman (look it up, it’s really interesting), basically during puberty the prefrontal cortex changes beyond recognition which means that teenagers are more affected by social situations and show exaggerated stress responses. There’s also something about them being more inclined to take risks and “live for the moment” but as I’m getting out of my depth I’ll leave it to you to do more reading on it.

For me, the important thing I took away from hearing this is that teenagers can’t physically help their erratic behaviour or highly charged responses, and actually need a very supportive environment in order to thrive. 

Which means we need to make sure teenagers aren’t embarrassed, or made to feel socially awkward or inferior. And we should be aware that adolescents should encompass ten year olds as well as twenty five year olds, because research has shown that the brain is changing rapidly between these ages. 

I teach a few teenagers, and like I said earlier, I have the advantage of being able to develop a rapport and strong mentoring relationship with my clients who want to be there, and want to learn, as opposed to being made to be there by law.

I’ve never been one to talk down to children anyway – I’d be one of those parents who has a serious conversation about the political conundrum with their toddler – but with teenagers I think it’s even more important to treat them as adults. After all, they’re developing their own opinions and views, so if we never teach them how to discuss and negotiate then they’ll never learn to rationalise or value others’ opinions.

So when I teach the teenagers, I speak to them like adults. I explain a concept, and ask them about their understanding or opinions, as equals. If they give a wrong answer, I just elaborate and subtly correct them, as opposed to shutting them down. If they have a different suggestion to me as to what exercise or approach will help their horse, and it’s safe to try it then I’ll let them. If it goes wrong then they’ll have learnt a valuable lesson. And I’d much rather they tried it under my supervision than on their own. They can then make the decision themselves to reject their idea as a good one, and to embrace my suggestion. I also like to give them bits of homework, so that they’re taking responsibility for their own development, and I’ll tell them directly what they need to work on. That also helps them feel valued and respected. 

Even when talking to their parents about future lessons, and their progress, I always try to include them so that they feel valued and involved in their own development. After all, you need them to be on your side and making them feel important is a good way of creating a rapport. I enjoy seeing them come out of their shells as I get to know them and they get to know me. One girl I’ve been teaching for a couple of years started off quiet and said very little, but now she gives more input to lessons, starts off conversation when I arrive, and is generally more comfortable with herself. She’s really coming out of her shell and becoming a young lady.

Because adolescents are still developing, they have that balance between maturity and immaturity. The ability to cope with every day stressors and the ability to rationally respond, varies enormously. So when planning lessons for teenagers I find I often have to have a couple of options up my sleeve: so I can adjust the lesson to today’s emotions. If they overreact to a silly thing while tacking up, I know they need a fairly simple, straightforward lesson. But if they come across as being very mature today as they warm up, I will challenge them more and perhaps give them a new concept or exercise to process. 

Also with teenagers, it’s important to take into account the rest of their lives. Is it exam week in school? Have they just been on a Duke of Edinburgh weekend? Are the likely to be physically or mentally tired? I usually ask them a couple of questions about their week, and I like parents to give me the heads up during exam period, so I can adjust my teaching to get the best out of my rider on that day. 

Teenagers have a lot of emotional baggage too; falling out with friends, body image worries, boy/girlfriends, the lot. They aren’t going to tell me all their worries. Occasionally I get let into secrets, but I try to create a lesson environment where they can forget about the rest of life. I don’t usually ask about personal things, unless they’re visibly upset; I just gauge their mood by their behaviour and start a light hearted conversation about their horse or dog or whatever they’re interested in to distract them from their worries. Once they let go of those then they are more relaxed and open to learning, so the lesson will go more smoothly.

Everyone knows that teenagers clash with their parents, which can create problems within the learning environment. One mother will go and busy herself on the yard if her son is a bit fraught at the beginning of the lesson, and then she’ll watch the lesson through a hole in the stable wall. We usually then have a far more successful lesson because my rider doesn’t feel that there is any interference and focuses better. So yes parents need to be supportive, but also to know when to remove themselves from the equation and let their teen feel more independent and responsible for their own riding, whether it’s in lessons or not. 

It can be tricky to plan ahead with teenagers; you have to be flexible and fluid with lesson plans so you can get the best work out of them on that day. Then they’ll appreciate their riding time, want to work hard at it, not resent having lessons, and generally become easier to teach. As well as hopefully learning to leave the bad moods at home!

Teaching teenagers can be really rewarding as they can be fun, and up for a challenge. But they can be testing; for example when they’re grumpy and give mono-syllabic answers. But then all of a sudden you get that feeling of satisfaction when you’ve got through to them and they’ve forgotten their woes, and have a smile on their face again. It definitely keeps me on my toes!

Directly or Indirectly?

I started explaining to one of the kids this week about the direct and indirect aids. They sometimes get lost in translation and are easily confused. I’ve read many woolly explanations, but by far this one is the clearest – Holistic equitation.

When you first learn to ride, and most kids continue to do so, you learn that the inside rein steers the horse in the direction you want, and the outside leg pushes them there. Or words to that effect.

The rein used in this instance is the direct rein. Put simply, it is brought backwards to encourage the horse to turn in the direction of the pressure. Holistic Equitation explain the mechanics of this well: the direct rein causes the weight to go to the inside foreleg and the hindquarters to pivot out, like a motorcycle round a corner.

However, once a rider is co-ordinated and reaches a certain level of understanding, it’s time to introduce the indirect rein. This is the outside bend of the horse. Wikipedia describes it as pulling back but I don’t think that’s correct – perhaps not going forward is a more correct way of thinking of it. The indirect rein can close to the outside shoulder, towards the horse’s centre of gravity without crossing the wither, and is used to regulate the amount of neck bend, to support the outside shoulder and is vital for performing lateral movements. The indirect rein transfers the weight to the centre of the horse’s body and into the opposite hind leg (the inside hind). The shoulders then pivot around the weighted hind leg, like a skier doing a slalom. 

I introduced this concept to a young rider this week because she’d fallen into the classic trap of pulling her inside rein, letting the outside hand go forwards as she turned, which let the pony twist his neck and drift through the outside shoulder. Her pony now exploits this on the left rein. As the left hand comes back he curls his neck so the right hand goes forward, and he drops his shoulder to turn right on the last quarter of the circle.

I kept the concept simple as she’s only young, and did some work on keeping her hands as a pair and creating an awareness of where they were. Then I focused her attention on using more outside leg and less inside rein, which kept her pony straighter. And stopped her actively giving the outside rein away. 

I don’t think she’s quite ready, physically or mentally, to fully grasp how to use her reins directly or indirectly, but I hope that the seeds are sown so that she’s aware of how to control her pony’s outside shoulder, and stop him drifting out and then dropping his shoulder to turn right. As soon as my rider kept her indirect rein, and kept her upper body tall, her pony trotted the circles perfectly! Once this is mastered, all school movements will become straight forward and her pony will oblige readily.

 Often I think the indirect aids aren’t introduced, in a simple level, early enough in a rider’s education which means that they are always more reliant on the direct rein and will always struggle with the finer movements at any dressage level as their horse will come out of a movement unbalanced and develop bad habits and a poor way of going which puts them at a higher risk of injury.

Proud As Punch

I had a day today (it will have been yesterday by the time you read this) that made me realise exactly why I do my job. It made everything worthwhile.

I’ve mentioned this client before, but she’s only seven and quite a small seven year old. She’s very theoretical and methodical in her riding, and her confidence is easily knocked and slow to develop. I usually only see her in the holidays because of her long school days, and at Easter we’d progressed to cantering on the lunge, letting go with one hand momentarily.

This week she’s had three lessons. In the first she cantered on the lunge at the end of the lesson, but let go of her grab strap with both hands on her own accord during the first canter. So we did a few more canters, getting her to let go for longer each time. Her balance was great: there was no bouncing at all and when she let go of the grab strap her hands were the perfect imitation of Charlotte Dujardin’s. In general, her confidence was pretty high, both with me (usually she’s very shy) and with her pony. At the end of the lesson I just casually mentioned that we would progress to letting go of the grab strap for longer and longer, and not using it for the upwards transitions.

She’s a thinker, so I sowed the seed, and the next day she had to ride very positively because her pony wasn’t feeling the mini jumping and took any opportunity to go his own way. At the end we did some more cantering on the lunge. This time, she only held onto the grab strap with one hand in the upwards transitions. She wasn’t holding on for the majority of the canter. I encouraged her to be more in charge of the canter: asking her pony to canter, and giving a little kick if she felt him slowing down. At one point, I was redundant at the end of the lunge line! Although she still just held on when she used her legs. But the important thing was that her confidence was growing.

In today’s lesson I did a related distance of mini jumps… about fifteen of her pony’s little trot strides, but the purpose was to get my little rider sitting up and keeping her trot after fences. She was generating a really big, quick trot into the jumps, so I made them a bit bigger and her pony gave a little skip over the fences to give more of a feeling of jumping. She was looking very stable and wasn’t fazed by the bigger movements. Then it was time for cantering.

I sent her out on the lunge and she rode the canter transition holding on, but let go immediately and did a couple of circuits without holding on and using her legs to maintain the canter! After a quick breather I sent her off again, but noticed that she hadn’t grabbed the strap. She asked for canter with her hands up and out. Unfortunately her pony wasn’t compliant and just did medium trot. But we rebalanced it all, and she asked again. This time she got it! After a few canters without her holding on at all, I asked the big question.

“Would you like to have a canter on your own?”

She nodded. So I unclipped her and explained how to go large and canter just past the blue jump (where I was stationed to encourage the pony if necessary). She set off in trot and at the agreed point asked for canter. She held on with one hand but that doesn’t matter – she was going solo!

They had a couple of strides of canter and then trotted round to try again. This time, they had another couple of strides, but at the next corner she got a bit bossier and asked him on her own accord. This canter was more successful and they had several strides. By this time she wasn’t using the grab strap at all!

After a breather they went again. The transition was in my corner and she used her legs to keep him going around two sides of the school!

I was so proud! She was grinning away, loving the canter, and the best part was that she looked so balanced and secure throughout. All the lunging has paid off because her seat is now well developed, which will have boosted her confidence as she felt safer. I left that lesson with a great sense of satisfaction. 

 Hopefully now it’s summer we can keep the ball rolling, and she will continue to grow in confidence, but cantering on her own has been a real hurdle for her to climb, so I’m just pleased she’s achieved it. I am annoyed I didn’t get a video, but I got so caught up in the moment I completely forgot! 

Here is a video from her Mum, when they rode over the weekend – there’s no stopping them now!!

No Escape Routes

I taught a guinea pig rider over the weekend, a completely unknown combination to test my ability to assess and teach new people with no preparation, and we definitely had a breakthrough. With new, or unknown combinations, you often make tweaks and see the beginning of improvements, but rarely do you have a game changer of a lesson. That comes later when several tweaks come together in a dot-to-dot fashion.

My rider was a young teenager on her almost outgrown Welsh section B. The pony apparently had a phobia of fillers and didn’t jump more that 2’6″ at most.

After watching them warm up on the flat I felt that the pony was doing an excellent impression of a llama – nose up and out as he pranced along. But his rider had poker straight arms, which wasn’t helping the situation. Almost as soon as we’d corrected the hand carriage the pony relaxed his neck and became a bit softer in his frame. 

We moved into jumping, and the pony looked fairly scopey to me, albeit a bit erratic on the approach. So I focused my rider’s attention on the quality of the canter and not letting the pony back off towards fences. We worked on still softening the hands and arms on the approach, with quiet, positive legs.

Once they’d jumped a few and it was flowing well, I brought in the fillers. The two fillers were just at the side of the fence, with space to jump in the centre. Then I asked my rider how she was going to ride towards the filler jump. She said a few taps with the stick and fast. I asked her to demonstrate, so I could prove my point later.

After a refusal (a dive out to the right), they popped it easily and I brought them in to discuss how we could progress.

I felt that the pony was more than capable but was a typical pony and would take the easy route if possible. Which meant that it was down to his rider to ride him so that the only, and easiest, route was over the jump. Firstly, approaching a bit slower would give her more control and hopefully more time to prevent a run out. In order to give the pony just one direction to go in, the leg needs to be hugging him ready to apply pressure if he backs off the fence. The reins need to channel him straight without discouraging him from going forwards. I got my rider to imagine the reins were train tracks, hands quite close together and carried above the wither. The legs can help tunnel the pony along the tracks; e.g. If he drifts left, close the left leg and left rein to the shoulder. Basically the legs and hands had to block the alternative, sideways, routes. Finally, the seat needed to support the legs in driving the pony forwards. 

Put all together, the rider is quietly and positively giving the pony no alternative but to jump over the fence. We put the theory into practice, and they flew! Every single jump, regardless of filler or not, had a more positive and rhythmical approach and a better take off point and bascule. The whole course flowed nicely.

To test them thoroughly, I asked them to jump the narrow, white gate fence in the arena. It was full up 2’6″ and spooky, but my rider applied the aids and the pony refused by stopping on the final stride. This was fine; I explained to my rider that he was no longer running around the jump as his previous refusals had been, because her legs and reins were more effective. He had, however, exploited a weakness. She had just been a little lax with the seat, as she anticipated the take off. On the second attempt, they flew it easily!

They made a huge improvement through the lesson, and I think the rider understood the content and felt more confident in her pony’s ability. Hopefully they can apply this technique of shutting all exit routes in a quiet way, whilst clearly offering going forwards over the jump as the only option, the pony will stop thinking about how to evade the jump and just get on with it! It’s just a shame now that I can’t help them continue their journey, because they look like they’re going to have a lot of fun! 

Asserting My Authority 

I was a mean instructor earlier this week. I felt so bad! But it needed to be done, and hopefully my little rider learnt from it.

I’ve only taught this self-assured five year old a couple of times with her pony. She has the basic rising trot and steering and is confident with her pony, so her Mum decided it was time for lessons. 

I had noticed that she’s confident and quite independent. Which is good … but I knew I needed to keep an eye on this. For example, waiting until I tell her to trot, and her understanding that it’s because her pony has had enough time in walk, not because she’s bored of walking! 

This week we were starting to use poles. Her position is much improved after last week’s lunge lesson so I wanted to use the poles to help her steering and balance. After we’d done some trot work to warm up, I showed her a little bit of jumping position. My main point was that she needed to hold the mane over poles. I said she was super confident didn’t I? Well I felt I needed to give her something to thing about, i.e. her jumping position, to hopefully slow her down so she learns to walk properly before she tries to run.

As she was trotting round practising her balancing, I laid out a single pole on the ground. Then I told her to walk, so I could explain the exercise. But she carried on kicking her pony, steering towards the pole, blatantly ignoring my shouts of “WALK!”

Once over the pole, she stopped and turned to face me, grinning. I didn’t smile back. I marched over to the pole and picked it up, whilst calmly explaining that “the pole was going away because she wasn’t listening to me, and I couldn’t trust her to do harder exercises if she didn’t listen to instructions.”

To be fair to her, she didn’t cry but looked suitably shamefaced. Once the pole was away I told her to walk on, which she did immediately. We then did some trotting and changing the rein, which she really tried hard with, and most importantly she listened to every word I said. 

I relented, after all, I want her to continue having lessons and not to hate me, so I got the pole out at the end of the lesson and she managed to trot over the centre of it and hold her mane nicely.

At the end of the lesson, with her Mum within earshot I explained to the little girl how important it was that she listened to my instructions because she or her pony might get hurt, and we had to make sure I’d finished arranging the exercise and was watching them. And of course so she knew how to do it properly! Her Mum was on board with what I was saying, so hopefully will continue to emphasise my point when they practice during the week.

Hopefully we’ll soon strike the right balance between her thinking for herself yet following my directives, as I think this rider is going to be fun to teach and watch develop. 

A Lesson We Can All Learn

I had a proud moment the other day, and I think it’s worth sharing because,to me, these two epitomise why I work with horses.

So my ten year old client went to his first ODE last weekend, and with a bit of knowledge from his Mum, I asked him to tell me about the day. He was pleased with his dressage test but thought his serpentine loops weren’t very even. He was pleased with his clear showjumping round. Cross country went well, he told me, until he approached the ditch at a funny angle. His pony ran out so he got angry and quickly retried, but on a bad line so they got another run out. Then my client got his act together and gave his pony the best opportunity to jump the ditch. The rest of the round was successful. 

Now it doesn’t sound like much, except for a mature and fair evaluation by a ten year old. But what I liked was that the pony wasn’t blamed in the slightest: my rider took full responsibility for his error. Afterwards, he hotly defended his pony when he heard that the commentators had called the pony naughty – “but he’s not naughty, he jumped everything really well.” One of the professional photos they bought shows my rider enthusiastically patting and praising his pony through the water, a weak area in the past. Yes they wanted to win that competition, but they thoroughly enjoyed themselves having a go. 

So what can we all learn from these two? The simple fact that we should love and appreciate our horses all the time. And value our relationship with them. 

And enjoy every moment we share with them. Thankfully I get this reminder whenever I see them; this boy throws his arms around his pony’s neck at any opportunity and has a permanent grin on his face. It’s total adoration and it makes me so happy to see someone riding and spending time with their pony for the simple reason that they enjoy their company and love them. Everything else is a bonus.

 I think we can all learn a lesson from them when we get caught up in the stress of life, success and failure. Love your horse and just enjoy them.

How We Used To Cross Country…

Cross country lessons have changed a lot now travelling is more accessible and there are now many more venues with well designed courses for all abilities. Around us we’re lucky to have half a dozen cross country courses near us (that many I can think of early on a Sunday morning anyway) ranging from teeny tiny courses for novices and kids, right up to the advanced jumps that the Olympians train over. Many coaches offer cross country clinics, and amateur riders get to practice over competition standard fences.

I was reminiscing about our cross country days whilst hacking last week. We had a cross country field. It was fairly flat in the middle, with a gentle incline into the top left corner. A stream ran on two sides of the field, and there was a bit of field on the other side of the stream.

At the beginning of the lesson we’d all walk off the yard, open the cross country field gate, cross the stream and up the hill. We warmed up around a large tree, then moved onto the jumps.

These were the days before health and safety and frangible pins, so our jumps consisted of stick piles, which were frequently added to, logs (I remember one log started off huge but due to going rotten it got smaller and smaller each year), tyres, barrels (often had to be rebuilt as horses rolled them around), pallets, water trough (this was tricky as it was next to the fence, near a tree and bordered by nettles) and anything else we could get our hands on. There were a few fixed, proper jumps like the tiger trap, or “the big one” which was three stout rails on an ascending spread, up the hill. Every spring we would go to the cross country field, retrieve barrels that had rolled into the stream, rebuilt jumps and try to make some new ones.

Our courses involved mixing up the jumps, and following the rabbit paths to cross the stream in a couple of places. This was a good test of balance because the ground was quite undulating. I used to struggle with this part of the lessons because I couldn’t see the path I should take – there were loads of little, twisty tracks – and I think because I wasn’t convinced which route we should go, my pony declined to cross. I was a child who had to have things spelt out for me.

The cross country field was also one of our grazing fields, so we often had our lessons while the horses were grazing. We would sometimes have to avoid a grazing horse on the approach to a fence – they usually moved after the first person had cantered past them. Sometimes we had a horse join us; I remember Otis coming over to the warm up when I was riding Matt once. He trotted around a bit, and then stood with us all as we took it in turns to jump.

Sometimes the jumps needed rearranging, in which case one of us would gallop over; dismount and push the barrels or tyres back into place, remount and gallop back.

We did have a ditch, well more of a gulley that we would pop that, and we also had a jump just behind it to make a more interesting fence one year. I think the wooden pole was so precariously balanced on the beer barrels that we were forever having to rebuild the jump. 

When I was ten or eleven I got to ride in top group with my friend; we weren’t really ready for top group, but we were given different courses to the big girls. I was on my 11.2hh spindly legged loan pony, called Filly – such a rubbish name! Her show name was Glebedale Sapphire but if I’m honest, she wasn’t pretty enough for that name. She was known as “the filly in the back stable” when she arrived, and Filly stuck. I digress.

We were given a course of fences, and I was told not to jump the tyres. Fair enough, it was pretty big. What my instructor didn’t clarify though, was that I shouldn’t jump the pallet fence, which was actually bigger. I told you earlier, I was a child who needed things spelt out. So off I cantered. We avoided the tyre jump, but I kicked for the 3′ pallet fence. We jumped it. We just parted company on landing. It took a while to live that down! 

We loved our cross country lessons, but when I think back about them I feel old – times have changed so much!