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.


Picking Up Their Feet

Sometimes horses can get a little complacent when jumping and become a bit untidy with their legs, either knocking poles or only just scrabbling over the fence.

To quickly remind a horse that they need to be smarter with picking up their feet over fences; tucking them up neatly and quickly, I like to work them over bounces.

Last week I wanted to combine the bounces for this purpose, with also reminding one mare to sit on her hocks more in the canter. Equally, I wanted her teenage rider to see the benefits of improving in this area for jumping larger fences.

On the three quarter line I set up three bounce fences. The first and third were only a foot high, but the middle bounce was about 80cm. The focus of these three jumps was the centre one, but the first fence improves the cadence in the canter so the bascule over the middle jump is cleaner and more efficient. Then the last fence encourages the horse to sit up and focus on landing, and not to run away on the forehand.

After working through the bounces on each rein, I added in the final oxer across the diagonal. I put this up to 95cm initially but then rapidly raised it to over 1m. The bounces set up the canter so all my rider had to do was maintain it round the corner to the oxer.

This mare can sometimes back off bigger fences, or give a wiggle on the approach (sometimes changing her canter lead too) so it’s not the smoothest or most confidence giving of rides, but the first time they rode the whole exercise at the bigger height (managing to keep left canter, which is her weaker jumping canter) the approach was smoother and the canter more balanced. Which lead to a whopping jump! I think the mare thought it was 1.10m, because she gave it plenty of air and was very neat with her legs over it.

Typically, I only got the second attempt on camera, in which they lost the left canter but when my rider corrected the lead they still had a better quality canter and approach to the jump. The mare looked more confident on the approach and didn’t back off in the slightest or try to change her lead.

The bounces make a very simple warm up exercise prior to jumping a course and has almost instant results because the bounces tell the horse how to canter which can help teach the rider what the canter should feel like.

An Intensive Grid

I gave a couple of horses and riders a good gymnastic workout a few weeks ago.

It was a grid of 3 bounces, followed by one stride to an upright and then two strides to an oxer.

The three bounces encourage the horse to be neat with their legs and quick over the fences, and he needs to be gymnastically very supple and fit to be able to do the three bounces successfully.

However, after the third jump, the horse needs to travel with a good length canter stride in order to reach the bigger upright. If a horse finds the bounces physically challenging then they tend to struggle to make the distance to the upright, and end up chipping in. Then, the horse has a larger oxer to negotiate, when they are starting to tire. The upright jump requires a similar shapes bascule as the bounces, but the oxer requires the horse to take off slightly further away and make a longer bascule so that the horse clears both the front and back rail of the oxer. The change in bascule over the fence is physically demanding of the horse, so requires a high degree of suppleness and gymnastic ability.

However, because the bounce fences have improved the quality of the bascule and encouraged the horse to engage their abdominals and “round” the canter strides so improving their cadence the horse will usually make a more correct shape over the larger two fences and feel more confident over the bigger jumps. The pony in the video below is only 14hh and before Christmas found 80cm jumps tricky, and frequently chipped in before jumps, but the oxer here is just over 1m and he cleared it comfortably and confidently, as well as keeping a very good, positive canter throughout the exercise. If anything, he makes the jump look small.

I did this exercise with a horse who tends to get very long in the canter while jumping. The bounces improved his technique and made him shorten his canter, which meant that over the last two fences he didn’t get so close and had enough time to tuck up his forelegs.

In a smaller arena a few days later, I took out the upright fence in order to fit the grid in, which actually made the exercise a bit harder because there was no gradual lengthening to the canter and bascule. Instead, the 14.2hh horse has to go from a short, neat pop over the bounces to a longer, bigger fence which involves a bigger adjustment to their body so requires more suppleness. This little horse managed the exercise really well, and due to the bounces improving her canter she cleared 1.10m in a very neat and confident way.


Riding Diamonds

I was sharing the arena with another instructor a couple of weeks ago and she was using the diamond exercise. I’ve used it before to good effect, but it had fallen off my radar. However, I could think of a couple of clients and horses who would benefit from this exercise.

Best done in a 20x40m arena so you have fence markers to help focus the rider’s eye.

Instead of riding a 20m circle at A, imagine you are riding a 20m diamond. A is one corner, X is another, and there are two more just on the fence line, ten metres from the corner – sometimes a bit of tape is needed to mark this as they are four metres away from K and F.

Starting in walk, ride a straight line from point to point. Just before each corner collect the walk slightly, and then ensuring you are using the outside aids, push the outside shoulder around the turn. The horse will naturally slow and lose impulsion so ride positively out of the corner.

Riding a diamond improves a rider’s awareness of the outside aids and increases control over the outside shoulder as well as reducing their reliance on the inside rein. It highlights any crookedness in a horse, for example a horse will find it harder to move around a right rein corner if they are naturally a right banana. Moving around each corner will encourage the horse to take more weight onto their hindquarters and to bring the inside hindleg under their body more, all helping to strengthen the limbs and improve the quality of the gaits.

After riding a couple of diamonds, you should start to feel the hind legs stepping under more purposefully.

You can then progress to riding the exercise in trot and canter. I find that the biggest improvement is often seen in canter, where the inside hindleg becomes more active and improves the three beat rhythm. As the straightness improves the canter gains elevation and impulsion as the hindlegs work directly on the horse’s centre of gravity so the forehand lightens and the canter feels more effortless.

Some examples of horses and riders who have benefited from this exercise over the last week are as follows:

  • One pony drifts through his right shoulder and his rider has a mobile right hand, so riding this exercise, particularly on the left rein, focused my rider on her wobbly outside rein and helped straighten her pony. The difference was particularly noticeable in the canter work.
  • Another mare likes to push through the outside rein and triggers her rider to use the inside rein, so the diamonds were most beneficial to her at the very beginning of her warm up to establish the outside aids and ensure the mare is respecting her rider’s aids so that the rest of their workout is more productive as the mare is more focused on her rider.
  • Another mare is very lazy with her hindquarters, and transitions have a limited effect on engaging her hindquarters when she begins a session by being behind the leg because she wriggles through the shoulder, so riding the diamonds help engage her hindquarters and maintain the straightness because in an attempt to evade using her hindquarters the mare jackknifes through the shoulder. Then we can use a combination of transitions and other school movements to help get the mare off the forehand.



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.


Feed Balancers

Feed balancers are a relatively new concept in equine nutrition, and not something I’m overly familiar with because my horses have always needed hard feeds so I’ve been able to feed the recommended quantities of concentrates of chaff which provides the right balance of vitamins and minerals. According to the nutritionalists I’ve spoken to and blurb on the bag anyway.

Balancers have been brought to my attention recently because of an increase of time spent on the sofa and in my own company, but also because Phoenix appears to be a good doer and whilst she is thriving on quality ad lib hay in the field, and a token feed of fast fibre when I bring her in, when I start working her more I want to ensure that she gets the right nutrients to best support her body as she builds muscle and works harder.

Feed balancers are concentrated, usually pelleted, sources of protein, vitamins and minerals which provide the correct ratios for horses to balance out their forage or straights (feedstuffs like oats and barley) when extra calories aren’t needed because such a small portion is fed.

It all seems very straightforward, but of course it isn’t – life never is! Feed balancers can be feed on their own; so for example to the overweight pony on poor pasture who most definitely does not need calories but the quality of the grazing means that they risk becoming deficient in one mineral or vitamin, which could lead to further problems.

Balancers can be fed on top of hard feeds of sugar beet, oats or other straights which in their basic form do not provide sufficient vitamins or minerals. For example, horses require a Calcium:Phosphorus ratio of 2:1 yet oats contain far more phosphorus than calcium so providing a feed balancer would ensure the horse wasn’t deficient in calcium.

Some people feed concentrate feeds, which are scientifically balanced to contain the correct ratio of vitamins and minerals and then feed a balancer on top of this to increase the nutrient density. However, nutritionists recommend that you reduce the amount of balancer that you feed from the recommended rate.

Really, balancers are like the vitamin and mineral supplements you can buy; for example, NAF’s General Purpose Supplement. However, supplements focus on providing sufficient micro minerals, whilst feed balancers provide protein and macro minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus as well as the micro minerals. This is why you shouldn’t feed a supplement and a balancer because you risk overloading the horse’s system with a micro-mineral and causing a health problem. For example, horses can suffer from an excess of vitamin D, causing depression, weight loss, stiffness and an accumulation of calcium deposits in the organs.

To complicate your decision over which feed balancer to use, is the fact that the level of protein varies between brands and their different balancers. To decide how much protein your horse needs, you need to consider the forage in their diet and the horse’s individual requirements. Younger horses, who are growing, or broodmares, or veterans, need higher levels of protein than mature horses in light work. Likewise a horse in hard work, or those building muscles, also need higher levels of protein. This would be when feeding a balancer on top of a concentrate feed would be beneficial to “top up” the horse’s protein intake. Poor quality forage will have lower levels of protein, and hay usually contains lower levels of protein than haylage. The best way to check your forage protein levels is by conducting soil and forage analysis tests on it.

Why are balancers becoming more popular? Well, basically because our understanding of nutrition has improved and many of the equine population are overweight, or at least on the heavier side of the scale. Horses have evolved to work quite hard off limited calories, and the improvement in grazing and forage means that owners are turning towards low calorie yet nutritionally balanced feeds. Concentrated feeds are designed to be fed in certain quantities, dependent on the horse’s size and workload. However, horses are often not fed at the correct rate because of the risk of obesity and excess of calories, which means that these horses don’t receive sufficient levels of protein, vitamins or minerals. As our scientific research increases and understanding of the horse’s biology improves, we’ve become more aware of the effects of deficiencies in vitamins and minerals on the body. For this reason, some owners feed concentrates in a reduced quantity, but then feed a balancer to ensure the horse’s dietary needs are being met.

Feed balancers have the advantage in the fact that an owner can meet the individual nutritional requirements of the horse. Symptoms of a well balanced diet are:

  • Well developed top line
  • Good body and coat condition
  • Strong, healthy hooves
  • Improved post exercise recovery
  • Improved stamina
  • Improved fertility
  • Healthier gut
  • Easier foaling
  • Improved milk production
  • Better utilisation of food
  • A happy horse.

My next job is to read up on different brands of balancers to find one which will suit Phoenix, and when I’ve narrowed down my list, it would be worth my while ringing the feed companies to speak to their nutritionists so they I can make an educated decision as to which one to begin feeding Phoenix when she starts ridden work.



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.