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Putting On The Leg

One of the concepts I’ve recently found people struggle to understand and to put into practice, is riding a forwards going horse with enough leg. Or at least the right amount of leg.

This is particularly noticeable when jumping. One of the big teaching points when jumping is that the rider feels that their horse is “taking them into the fence”. This means that they’re off the leg, with an energetic canter that’s travelling forwards. Which is easy if you have a forward going horse, or one who loves jumping.

But what happens if your forward going horse is tanking towards a simple jump before suddenly grinding to a halt or getting in too deep and clambering over? The rider can tick the “taking me into the fence” box, and given that there are no tack, back, confidence issues it becomes a bit of a mystery.

A lot of the time it’s because the rider hasn’t applied the leg aids. It’s easy to see why, because you’re already travelling forwards (sometimes too quickly for your liking) so why do you want to press the accelerator?

In this instance, the seat and leg aren’t so much driving aids but more of a commitment aid. The horse has focused on the jump, they want to do it so canter happily towards it. The rider sits passively. Then the horse has a moment of doubt – is this the right jump? Am I supposed to be doing this one? – so they back off the fence and either refuse or cat leap it awkwardly.

Here, a slight application of the leg and seat means “yes this is the jump, and I’m committed” which gives the horse the confidence to jump.

Precisely how much leg you use depends upon the individual horse, but usually because the horse in this situation knows what they’re doing the leg shouldn’t put them off their stride. It’s difficult to explain to riders, especially children who think “leg” means “kick”, but I always say that if their horse changes speed, balance, or direction (wobbles on the approach) then there’s been too much leg. A squeeze of the leg to support the horse rather than distract them from their game.

Usually as soon as the rider has found the balance of leg and seat aids three strides away from the fence, the horse will comfortably and happily jump.

Counting Circles

Now that ménages at livery yards tend to be bigger than the classic twenty by forty because it enables more riders to use the space simultaneously and there’s more scope for jumping exercises. The downside to this is that riders get used to bigger spaces and all of a sudden a twenty metre circle becomes a twenty three metre circle and then dressage scores slip due to inaccuracies.

This is particularly hard to explain to kids, but I’ve come up with a plan to help one of my boys.

I strode out a twenty metre circle so that my client could see the the 30m arena was making his circle too fat. Once he’d gotten his eye in on the size of the circle I asked him to count how many trot strides he got on the circle. He got twenty five.

I explained to my rider that he should use this number as a guide for his twenty metre circles, whether warming up at an event or in the dressage arena itself. Then he asked, and I was about to bring it up, if he should get twelve strides halfway around the circle. The answer is of course, yes. I kept it basic, we aren’t going to be adjusting the circle size by leg yielding in or out, but we used the twelve stride marker to see if one half of the circle is too small or too big. Interestingly, on the right rein all his circles had a smaller second half. So we worked on correcting this issue and continued practicing riding accurately sized circles at A, E, C and B.

We progressed this exercise into canter, and luckily for us, this pony also got twenty five canter strides on a twenty metre circle. So we perfected the circles at all points in the school. I still wasn’t that worried about how round they were, I was more interested in my rider developing his eye for the size of the circle, so that he can apply this logic to other arenas or when he’s competing.

A side effect of the counting meant that subconsciously my rider relaxed his arms. He has a tendency to pin his hands to the withers, but whilst counting he softened in his arms which meant his pony softened too and found it easier to bend and step under with the inside hind leg. Without realising, counting the improved their rhythm as well, so whilst I didn’t mention this aspect I’ll definitely be talking about counting to improve their rhythm another day, and then at a different time we can start to perfect the shape of the circle.

This counting exercise can be applied to different sized circles and also when looking at shortening and lengthening the strides, but I find it very useful for kids as it quantifies the goals and they can see a definite improvement, i.e. when they get the correct number of strides.

Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.

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.