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. 

Solving The Myth of Washing Down Horses

Whilst the UK is in the midst of a heatwave, a discussion is going on about the best ways to cool horses down. Usually we don’t have this problem and almost any method is sufficient.

It makes me wonder how equestrians cope in hot climates. Would any readers from those countries care to enlighten me? I think I was told when I was in Dubai that the polo horses had air conditioned stables and were exercised very early in the morning. Horses from those climates also tend to be fine coated and thin skinned, unlike our hairy natives who are all struggling as the thermometer nudges thirty degrees Celsius.

Some people advocate hosing and scraping, others say to hose and let evaporation do the cooling down.

In fact, the best answer is to do a bit of both. Imagine you are standing next to a very sweaty horse. Quickly run the hose over him. Touch his side; the water is warm isn’t it?

Now comes the pseudo science part. By which I just mean I’m haphazarding a guess at the science but. Heat from the horse’s body transfers immediately to the water, so the water becomes the same temperature as the horse. The water then acts like an insulator (although scientists will say that water isn’t a particularly good insulator, some would say it’s enough of one in this case) so preventing the horse’s body from losing any more heat. At this point the horse can’t cool down until the water has evaporated.

Now, scrape the excess water off the horse and hose him again. Keep removing the warmed water until the water runs off cool. Now the horse’s surface temperature is returning to normal, but he still needs to continue cooling down. This happens when the cooler blood leaves the skin and goes to the hot muscles, so removing some heat from there.

It’s at this point that leaving cool water on the body to evaporate, mimicking the sweating process, is effective.
I found this explanation of why sweating cools you down:

Beads of sweat on your skin are in liquid form. When the water temperature rises, the molecules become more active and gain energy. When a molecule gains enough energy, it can break free from the bonds that hold the liquid together and transform into water vapor. This is evaporation. As the molecule evaporates, its energy — or heat — is removed from the sweat that remains on your body. This loss of energy cools the surface of your skin.

In the same way, water and sweat evaporating from the horse’s skin will cool them down. 

A friend told me that endurance riders advocate washing and scraping until the water runs cool off their backs and then leave the rest to evaporate. Which makes me feel better in my hosing the horses until the water feels cool against my hand, then scraping off excess and then turning them out to roll and dry out naturally. 

I found the following article about the cooling process followed at the Beijing Olympics – Read it here – which makes the valid point that if you continue to apply water to the horse’s body then warmed water will be displaced so cold water is always next to the skin and heat will displace to the water. So scraping excess water away can be replaced by just continuous hosing. This article also points out that to maximise the cooling effect of washing down it’s important to cover as much of their body as possible to increase the area that is being cooled, so don’t just wash the sweaty shoulders, wash all the neck and hindquarters too. 

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!!

Learn To Lunge

How old can you be to learn to lunge properly? In one of my clients’ case, seven is the answer.

After falling over and cutting her knee at school she couldn’t put jodhpurs on over her large patch which stemmed the bleeding, so we decided that I would lunge the pony, who needed exercise anyway, and once he had settled, she would have a go.

I lunged him, working on getting him into right canter as he seems to have an aversion to it at the moment, and after my little client had watched for a bit she came into the middle to try.

Holding all the lunging equipment can be tricky with adult hands, so I gave her bits at a time. Firstly, I showed her how to hold the lunge line, correctly looped up. Then she led her pony out onto the circle to start the lunging. I held to whip and kept him walking, whilst she made sure she was standing in the middle and he had enough lunge line. 

Once we’d established a bigger circle and the lunge line was still organised, she used her little voice while I gave a wiggle of the whip to ask him to trot.

We spent quite a while practicing trotting on the lunge, with her noticing him slowing down and reacting to it. Making sure she was standing still, pivoting and facing her pony’s shoulder. Then I handed her the whip so she was in complete control. I stood behind, obviously, ready to help her if needed because she’s only tiny! 

Then we changed the rein, which involved correctly gathering up the lunge line, and swapping the lunge line on his bit. I started off holding the whip again, and on this rein the pony was a bit faster so I explained how to use the lunge line to steady him. Once he’d settled, she carried the whip again.

Since she was getting the hang of all the equipment, I laid out three trotting poles, and we then had a go at trotting over the poles. This was tricky for me because I had to subtly position the pony to go over the poles whilst telling my little client where to move to! The first time, the pony cantered over the last pole, pulling my client forwards a couple of steps. I guess it’s like me holding the end of the lunge line when the half Shire canters off when I’m lunging him. Anyway, the rest of the poles went smoothly and I even left her alone in the middle for a few moments whilst I adjusted the poles.

After doing the poles in both directions, I asked if we should try cantering. She was game, so we changed the rein onto his good canter lead. By now I was just holding the whip while she did it all.  We moved him onto a bigger circle and then asked for canter. Once he was cantering, she took hold of the whip and started controlling him with her little voice.

By the end, most impressively, her lunge line was as organised as it was at  the start! I thought she did really well, and seemed to understand how to use the equipment and the purpose of lunging is. I wouldn’t leave her to lunge solo, with no one in the middle to assist if there was a problem, but she is definitely well on her way to being able to lunge confidently and safely! 

Spring Grass

The spring grass has a lot to answer for at the moment. Horses spooking at their rugs, jumping a mile at the smallest puff of wind, putting on weight, and trying to dislodge their riders! I`ve had to make sure I have been wearing my Velcro jodhpurs on a few of my hacks …

So today was interesting. I was teaching a young girl and her little pony, who is usually pretty steady and obliging. We started off with a pretty steady trot, did some lovely circles and changes of rein. I thought she`d grown so needed her stirrups taking down a hole, but she wasn’t convinced so we did some sitting trot without stirrups. Instead of her usual stable position, she was a bit wobbly and her pony was trotting in quite a bouncy fashion. But my point was made, and we dropped the stirrups. She then looked in better balance and could use her legs more effectively.

The pony isn`t that fit, and is unclipped so soon began to get a bit hot and tired. Well, he seemed to settle down to work.

We moved onto the row of trotting poles. I had placed nine in a line, and out of character, the pony picked up a little speed through the poles. He remained in trot, he just had a bit more of a spring in his step, so we did it a few more times and he didn`t get any more excited, which is fine. I like the ponies to enjoy their work, but only to the extent that their rider`s feel they are being taken into the exercise rather than having to nag every stride.

Both pony and rider were looking very confident and balanced, and were settled into the exercise so we had a change of rein. This time, as my little rider turned onto the three quarter line towards the poles, her pony drifted to the left and picked up canter. Now bear in mind that this rider is still getting her confidence up on the lead in canter, and I was contemplating lunging her in canter to build her independence. The pony didn`t get any faster down the long side, but it was a steady, bouncy canter. Thankfully, my rider kept her cool and listened to my instructions – “Sit back! Heels down! Pull your reins! Woah!” – and she managed to bring her pony back to trot. I hurried over, hoping she wasn’t too worried, making a joke – “We aren`t ready to canter yet! We`ve still got to do the trotting poles!”. After walking and discussing how well she had sat the canter, and what we can do to stop that (half halting a bit quicker and not using the leg quite so much in trot) happening again. Then we did the poles with a shorter approach so the pony had less opportunity to take the lesson into his own hands!

He performed beautifully and we progressed to a jump. I kept the trotting poles where they were and just built the last two into a tiny cross pole. I hoped the line of trotting poles would keep the pony in a steady rhythm (I also rolled them closer together so he had no reason to stretch). After a quick practice of the jumping position, which is looking much better with her lower leg more stable and heels staying down. Over the poles and jump a few times without a problem. The pony was by now quite sweaty and I hoped he had gotten rid of his excess energy, so I suggested cantering on the leadrein and leaving lunging to another day.

We talked through the plan for cantering – hold on to the grab strap for a couple of strides, and when she felt secure let go, one hand at a time. The pony picked up canter when I asked, as normal, and we cantered down the long side. With my sideways glances I could see my rider sitting up nicely and just holding the reins. The next moment, I saw the hind legs of the pony way up in the air! I started slowing down, and to my relief my rider had only tipped forwards slightly. Unfortunately, as she was putting herself back into the saddle, he threw in another buck! This time, she flew towards his neck and I grabbed her little waist, pulling her sideways off the pony whilst pulling the pony up with the other hand. We stopped and I plonked her on the ground. She looked quite shocked, and a bit worried, so I immediately explained what her cheeky pony had done and how well she had sat the first buck. That stopped any threatening tears, and as she was unhurt I put her back on. We had a walk around the arena, with me nearby, just getting our breath back and processing the last couple of minutes.

Then on the other rein to the canter rein, and at another corner in the school we did some trotting to build her back up. This rider tends to think about things a lot, and can build up a worry, sometimes needlessly. So I felt it was important to have another canter in this lesson. So she ended on a good note and wasn`t left reflecting on the bucking canter.

Again on the opposite rein to the previous canter, we got ready to canter. I wasn`t taking any chances and held onto her leg with one hand as we cantered. The pony skipped into canter angelically, and I watched her and him closely (there was no pressure to let go of her grab strap) and after half a dozen strides, as his tail was starting to swish threateningly, we stopped.

Giving him a pat and telling my rider what a good job she had done, I have to say that I was relieved to have gotten through that lesson successfully. Tonight, the pony is going to be lunged, and will be lunged before she rides for the next couple of weeks while the spring grass is about! Our next lesson will just build on from todays and hopefully we`ll get to do some more cantering because I really do want her to start cantering independently. She has a lovely, balanced seat, it`s just a question of her feeling confident enough to control him without me next to her.

Traffic Light Game

Earlier this week I went to a Pony Club training evening, to jump through another hoop that enables me to teach at camp this summer. The theme was all about making flatwork interesting for kids. 

Some of the games I’ve used before, but I liked the traffic light game, which I’m about to tell you about.

The first level of this game is ideal for young children. If possible, space then out on the same rein (two ponies lengths apart). Red means halt, amber means walk, and green means trot. 

Then the instructor just shouts the colour, and the riders have to go into the correct gait (or halt). This gets riders riding independently, checks their preparation, and keeps them focused and alert. Once the progressive transitions are going well then you can put in a few red-green transitions. 

There was another level of the traffic light game, which can be used for more advanced children, aiming at developing balance. The additional colours are; 

  • Purple – sitting  
  • Pink – standing
  • Blue – light seat

In trot you can get the children to be in any of the above three positions, testing their balance and improving their lower leg position. They could do this in walk, but when the kids are looking really secure they can ride transitions whilst standing, sitting or in light seat. This should get lots of giggles as the kids wobble through the transitions. However their balance is improving!

I like the sound of this game for groups of kids, especially if you don’t know them particularly if they are of mixed abilities. That’s my lesson plan for the next rally I do! 

Out of Your Comfort Zone

Once we get our own horse it’s very easy to get complacent, and only ride our horse. We get to know them inside out and get comfortable with what we know.

I’m going to set you a challenge. Ride another horse. It could be a friend’s, a riding school horse, a prospective purchase, anything. If this thought terrifies you then book a lesson on said different horse. So long as you’re honest with your instructor they will set the pace of the lesson to suit you and how quickly you are adapting to this new horse. 

Of course, we’re all going to be slightly anxious trying the unknown, it takes bravery to leave your comfort zone, but you don’t have to go round Badminton! The whole point of having a go on another horse is to educate yourself. It might be that your horse forgives your bad habits, or you don’t know what a proper leg yield feels like, or this horse has a more active stride which will make you ride your own horse so that they become more active. I always think that even if you hated every second of riding the unknown horse, you will learn something. Even if it is that you don’t like horses that are behind the leg, or you feel more comfortable on the narrow Thoroughbred frame. 

Next time you can’t ride your horse, for whatever reason, see if you can borrow a horse. It will help you keep riding fit, probably help out your friend, and teach you something new.

Last week one of my young clients had a lame pony. So hesitantly, his Mum and I suggested that he had a lesson on his sister’s competition pony. To make it clear, we were asking him to go from a sweet, steady, honest, rotund native 13hh pony to a fine, sharp, strong, extravagant competition 13.2hh pony jumping 1.10m and competing at Advanced Medium.

Quite an ask really.

I’m not sure who was more nervous; his sister, his mum, himself or me. But he met me in the arena and we started off in walk, discussing the differences between his pony and today’s mount.

He actually described the differences very well so we moved onto the theory of trotting. I didn’t want to bore him, but it’s important to know how to stop before we set off! We talked about the fact this pony had a stronger bit and was more sensitive in the mouth than his, so he needed to make sure his hands were very still and to use them as little as possible. We talked about using circles to help slow down, and the fact that very little leg was needed. And they were off!

It took a couple of laps, but soon they were working together, and the pony looked quite relaxed. My rider was also calm, keeping his hands very still, and using his body more to direct the pony. I thought we were making a good start, so we kept trotting, changing the rein, so my rider could acclimatise to all these new feelings. 

Once the trot was looking more established I introduced transitions between walk and trot. This was so that my rider felt confident that he could control this pony, and learnt the amount of aids he needed – it’s like going from a Fiesta to a Jaguar car! We had a couple of transitions that were a bit heavy handed. He would have gotten away with it on his pony, but having a stronger bit, more sensitive mouth and more dramatic pony, every error was exaggerated. The pony let us know when there was too much hand by throwing his head around, so we aimed to minimise this. We practised though and took away from the lesson the feeling of a carried, more independent hand.

The next step is, of course, canter. It’s the part of any lesson I dread with a whizzy pony, so peering between my fingers I directed my rider into canter on the corner preceding the short side. They did it! A nice steady canter, my rider trying to sit this bigger stride. Thankfully this boy is very chilled out, and level headed because when the pony tried to go faster, he listened to my instructions and didn’t panic. I think if he’d tensed up the pony would have become quite stressed and accelerated rapidly.

We did some trot canter transitions with the pair now looking much more together, and then I suggested trying a jump.

This was met with some apprehension, but again we talked through the theory of jumping. Keep in trot, keep your shoulders back, maintain the rein contact, expect a bigger jump than usual, give with your hands, sit up and quietly ask him to slow down after. 

The cross pole was teeny tiny to begin with, and we worked over the one fence talking about the technical details – correcting my rider’s position and helping him adjust the pony before and after the fence. The final jump they did was an upright, of about 60cm, and my rider stayed totally in sync with the pony and managed to pull up after with very soft hands.

​I was super pleased with my rider for managing to adapt so well to this completely different pony. Whilst he probably won’t ride the pony very often, it’s a really good opportunity for him to open his eyes to how other horses ride and to build his experience and confidence because unfortunately he will soon have to look for a bigger pony for himself. The pony handled a more novice rider very well too, and was an excellent testament to his young owner and the amount of training she has put into him. All in all, a really useful exercise for everyone involved, and now I challenge you guys at home to try riding another horse, outside your comfort zone – good luck!


Equitation is a word that seems to have fallen out of favour nowadays, even within the equestrian world. I chose to name my business Starks Equitation for two reasons; Ian Stark (the Olympic eventer and unfortunately no relation) has a business Starks Equestrian, and I wanted to highlight the fact that my business was oriented around riding horses, as opposed to providing livery services or selling equine equipment.

What does the word equitation mean though, and why am I rambling on about it?

Equitation is the art or practice of horse riding or horsemanship.

I have chosen to start talking about equitation because of a thought I had months ago when I was writing for a dressage judge, and a conversation I had last week.

Let me tell you about the conversation firstly. It wasn`t so much a two way conversation, but we were discussing how Matt finds medium canter quite difficult and I said that I had always struggled to impress the show judges with our gallop. Except this one time.

We were in an Equitation class at one of the county shows. I remember being quite impressed with the idea of equitation – maybe I had a chance as Matt never stood out, but I knew that my riding was okay. It was a busy class and I felt like we were standing in line for ages. I looked around to plan my show as the judge hadn`t specified. Where could I get a good gallop?

When it was my turn, I went out and halted in front of the judge in the other direction to everyone else. After saluting I moved off in trot, rode my figure of eight in canter, and then came round ready to gallop behind the line. As I got level with the line, ready to turn right, Matt glanced left. I knew he would, after all the generator of the burger van was chugging away. As I turned right I kicked hard and let him spook, semi-bolt, and most importantly, gallop away from the generator. We calmly collected the canter at the other end before trotting and halting to salute the judge.

I remember patting him, knowing that I`d had his best show-ring gallop to date, but I wasn’t expecting to be pulled in third! Yes, I know equitation classes judge me more than Matt, but I felt marginally more motivated to keep showing for a bit longer, as well as feeling smug that I`d learnt some ring craft finally.

So now. The reason why I`m bringing this up?

When I was watching the dressage tests I felt there were several categories of competitor. Firstly, there were the lower level riders on their old faithfuls, perhaps having a go at their first dressage test. Then there were more competent riders on their green youngsters. And there were average riders on their schoolmasters. The dressage judge said to me at the time that she wished she could judge the riders as much as the horse, as she felt that some horses were being let down by the riders, or vice versa, but the test sheet had to reflect the horse, and not the rider.

Which made me thing. Surely that by competitions focusing solely on the results of the horse we are encouraging, or at least not dissuading, poor riding and bad habits in order to get results.

Could British Dressage somehow incorporate equitation into their dressage tests? Perhaps there could be a “Best Rider” rosette, or an Equitation league a bit like the RoR league? Or perhaps there should be a totally separate equitation class, with a different test that marks each movement in accordance to the rider`s balance, position, accuracy, and application of the aids?

You see equitation promoted in some showjumping competitions where they have a style class, or in JAS competitions where you are judged on how stylishly you tackle the course of fences. Hunter trials and arena cross country could incorporate some equitation fairly easily, I`m sure. When I`ve taught young kids at Pony Club and had to do a little showjumping competition I`ve often judged it on style rather than whether they were clear or not – I look for them to ride straight lines to and from jumps and fold into a good jumping position over the fence.

America shows offer a variety of equitation, or horsemanship classes, in different disciplines and they are usually well subscribed, so perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book and offer classes in all disciplines and at all levels to encourage the amateur rider to improve their standard of riding so that we can rid the equestrian world of sawing hands and tied in horses.


Circles and Circles

This week I was challenged to teach a joint jumping lesson to a mother and daughter – Mum is a happy hacker, dressage enthusiast whilst daughter mainly does jumping and eventing, with some dressage thrown in under duress. So I had two different abilities. Well four really, because the two ponies are very different too.

Luckily I had a couple of days to plan this lesson, and I came up with jumping on a circle. Yes, I`ve done it before, but it always catches people out.

Four poles were set out at 3, 6, 9, 12 o`clock on a twenty metre circle. Slightly smaller in this case as they were only ponies. After a warm up on serpentines, quick transitions and lots of circles we began with cantering over the poles on the circle.

I wanted my riders to take some responsibility for the task, so told them that they needed to enter the circle over a different pole each time, stay on the circle for a lap or two, but exit the circle when appropriate – i.e. when they felt they had had a good couple of poles. This is to increase my riders` awareness of the importance of not over-doing an exercise.

My younger rider and her jumping pony managed the poles easily; the pony is supple enough that he can maintain the circle and jump with a slight curve to his body. The mother and cob were focusing too much on riding to the poles, so lost the canter rhythm and didn`t have a smooth curve between poles.

Once we`d done the circles on both reins I put the opposite fences up as cross poles – crosses to help guide my riders to the centre of the jumps. Having alternate poles and crosses gave my riders time to correct or rebalance while they got used to the exercise. Now both ponies were starting to maintain a smoother canter around the circle and my riders weren’t trying to over correct, but rather positioning their bodies and keeping a smooth focus so that they glided around the circle, rather than focus on one specific point before moving onto the next focal point.

Once all four jumps up the cob mare was keeping a much better canter rhythm, not backing off the fences, and taking off slightly further away and not chipping in. Then her rider started to relax and go with the mare more. The jumping pony did it perfectly on the right rein, but on the left he kept changing his canter lead over the jumps.

He`s always favoured the left lead, so its important that each jump is met on a good, close stride as close to perpendicular as possible, because any long jumps, or jumps on an angle give him a good excuse to change his lead. We spent quite a lot of time trying to correct my rider`s lines to fences, her body position and aids, so that the pony maintained right canter for longer. He started to and my rider felt there was some improvement, although she still found it frustrating when he seemingly changed for no reason.

Now this is where the exercise steps up a level.

I introduced changes of canter lead over the jumps. On the left rein, they needed to enter the circle over, let`s say the blue jump. Canter around the circle and then the next time they jumped the blue jump they needed to turn right on landing, canter a 15m circle, jumping the blue jump again before continuing around the circle in left canter.

The cob mare and Mum went first. By now, the canter was a lot freer and consistent, but I wasn`t sure how she would cope with the change of lead. Starting on the left rein, I was pleased that they managed a flying change over the fence onto right canter, and then again back onto left lead to finish the exercise. The right handed circle needed a bit of work as it was a bit big, but overall they understood the concept. The jumping pony, I knew, would find this small, right circle hard, but I hoped that riding a smaller circle would encourage his change of lead. The first attempt he landed left lead. This is where the exercise is so useful for improving the rider`s awareness because that canter needs correcting immediately. The second time they tried my rider really turned, forcing herself into position right and being very clear with her aids, and the pony changed!

Using this new found feeling, I immediately sent my young rider on a change of rein and told her to canter right rein around the circle of poles exaggerating her turn over each fence, as she had for the small circle. They rode a whole circle and then some maintaining right canter. I left the lesson there for these two as I wanted them to retain the feeling and understanding of riding in position right over fences. The other pair finished the lesson repeating the exercise on the other rein.

Both pairs looked much better by the end; the canter was more rhythmical and the jumps more even, with both riders planning their route and riding more discreetly and subtly. In the future I want to progress to doing a small circle around each jump, so that in one lap of the circle there are four smaller circles, with each jump being jumped twice and a change of canter lead over each jump.

The next day I had a similar client; a young boy and his pony who love jumping but lack fluency and often get refusals. When working with boys I find it`s important to be “doing” rather than talking, and to choose your battles wisely. For example, we were doing three loop serpentines and the it was an erratic rhythm and more of a zig zag. So first of all we tried to keep the trot the same. When this had improved we tried to go straight across the arena … and ended up with a four loop serpentine! I didn’t correct him because the loops were much better than the first attempt!

Anyway, we did the circle exercise, focusing on looking up and around to the next fence. Immediately the circle became rounder and the pony stopped chipping in. His rider was quite analytical about the exercise, telling me when things went right or wrong, and how he needed to change the way he rode it the next time to improve. Repetition is the key to teaching the body to work automatically and to build muscle memory. With this client I also did the change of lead and small circle exercise. The pony knew to sort himself out, but I wanted my rider to get used to looking up whilst changing direction, and making sure he sat up on the smaller circles to help his pony keep his balance. Then of course the exercise flowed much better, which should help him in any showjumping competitions and when he goes hunting on the weekend!