Tug Of War

If a horse is strong; be it in the field, school, on the ground, jumping or cantering, a rider or handler’s natural reaction is to pull the reins or hold on tighter. This creates a static pull and unfortunately isn’t that effective.

For this post, we’re ignoring the rest of the aids and body language, because I feel that this area is often most misunderstood by novice riders.

Imagine you are trying to push someone over who’s bigger than you. If you just lean your body weight against them then they will adjust their centre of gravity and lean against you, thus making them more stable and harder to push over. This is exactly what happens if you pull statically on your reins, or the lead rein if you’re on the ground. The horse will lean against you akin to a tug of war. Because they are so much heavier (ten times is the suggested ratio) gravity works in their favour and ultimately you will lose.

Going back to pushing someone over. Tactically, it is much better to give a series of smaller pushes, so unbalancing them and preventing them securing their centre of gravity against you. Now back to the horse scenario. A series of squeezes/jerks/tugs, whatever you wish to call them, is more effective at directing the horse and monitoring their speed.

Think of it as a give and take, or squeeze and release. You maintain the contact, be it lead rope or reins, but use your hand to apply pressure, then as the horse responds (however marginal) you relax the fingers. Don’t push hands forward because that will allow the horse to rush again. The release rewards the horse for his slight reaction, and reapplying the pressure repeatedly stops them leaning against you and means that they maintain respect for the aids.

From a driving perspective, you want to imagine you’re slowing decreasing your speed. So from 60mph, to 55, to 50 and so on. If you squeeze the rein yet drop the contact between squeezes it’s like alternating between the brake and accelerator. Some horses, like when you’re driving downhill, need frequent taps on the brake (half halts) to stop them rushing out their rhythm.

It’s a hard thing to get your head around, especially when faced with a horse who doesn’t want to stop cantering across the field, because it’s an automatic reaction when self preservation kicks in, but ask your horse to steady in small increments with a series of half halts rather than trying to win a tug of war and bring them to an emergency halt. Practice in the school, in a simulated environment so that you feel more confident out hacking and in open spaces, as well as training your brain.

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Where Are Your Heels?

Twenty years, or more, so ago when you learnt to ride it was “heels down, toes up!” I was teaching a client, a mother who’s getting back into riding now her daughter has a pony, and we were discussing the old school methods in her lesson and how equitation has moved on.

Being repeatedly told to put your heels down causes the rider to force their heel down – creating very stretchy calf muscles – which causes tension through the back of the leg and up to the thigh and seat. It also causes the lower leg to swing forward so you lose the vertical shoulder-hip-heel line. Which means that in order to stay balanced in rising trot the knee will get tight.

Next time you sit on a horse, try forcing your heels down. Can you feel your lower leg slide forwards? Can you also feel your thighs change and almost lighten your seat? All of this combined with a tight knee will push the rider out of balance and make the seat less effective.

The opposite foot position of course, is when the calves are tight and the heel sits higher than the toe. This means the rider has their weight in their toes so their centre of gravity is pushed forward. If the horse stops or slows down or changes direction, they’re far more likely to become unseated. Tight calves can affect the tightness of the whole upper leg, in a similar way to when the heels are forced down. Both extremes of position put tension into the leg muscles. Which, in both situations negatively affects the effectiveness of the seat.

So what is thought of now to be the correct lower leg and foot positioning?

The leg should drape around the horse, from the hip, with minimal amount of tension through the muscles so the the seat and inner thigh can subtly control the movement of the horse. Now, the precise angling of the foot depends on the riders anatomy. The weight wants to be favouring the heel – imagine your sole is covered with marbles and you are angling your foot to encourage the marbles to roll towards your heel. But the heel should only be fractionally lower than the toe, so you are close to horizontal. This means the lower leg is more stable in the rising trot and is the best position to support your body weight.

For some people, who have long, supple calves, their heel will naturally drop much lower than the toe, but while doing so you want to keep the leg tension free. The majority of us are tight in our calves, which means our heels and toes tend to be fairly level. In this case, it is the jamming of heels down that compromises the relaxed and correct leg. If a rider is tight in the calf and it is jeopardising their riding ability then it’s best to try some calf stretches off the horse to relax and lengthen the calf muscles, which will help improve the lower leg, rather than trying to just push their heels lower than their toes.

I rarely spend time telling my riders to push their heels down; I’ll ask them to drop the weight into their heels if they look tight in the calf or their weight has pitched towards their toes. If they do have a real problem with the lower leg position then I find working without stirrups, or standing up out of their stirrups whilst trotting helps them shift the weight around their feet so they can find the leg position that keeps them in balance – this exercise stops the knee getting tight because they’ll fall onto the horses neck whilst the lower leg flies out behind, akin to superman, and if the heel is forced down they will fall back onto the cantle.

Tackling Steps Cross Country

At a recent cross country lesson I did we had some fun going up and down some steps at the water’s edge, so I thought it was a good topic for discussion.

Steps are always seen at the higher level competitions, but increasingly are being seen in miniature form at grassroots and training venues.

Usually there’s either one or two steps, and they can either be a step up onto a mound, where there’s another jump and a gentle decline, or vice Verda, or they are set into the side of a hill, so making use of the terrain.

Firstly, let’s take a look at going up steps, because it’s easier for both horse and rider, and usually the first direction tried.

The horse needs to approach with plenty of energy, after all they are going uphill, but the canter (or trot if it’s a green horse and small step) needs to be heading towards collected, so that the weight is off the forehand and the hindquarters are engaged, ready to push the body up the step. The rider wants to be sat up, so that they are looking up the steps and their weight is off the horse’s shoulders. As they jump up the steps, the body should fold forwards, without collapsing onto the neck, hands forward to give the horse plenty of rein because they will need to stretch their neck out to balance. If the heels are down and the weight is in the foot then the rider won’t load the shoulders. A common problem when going up steps is gripping with the knee, so as they fold into their jumping position the lower leg swings back and the rider’s weight tips onto the horse’s withers, so unbalancing the horse and making his job difficult. I always find that you need to stay forward longer than you think over steps, because if you sit up too quickly the hindlegs will find it harder to mount the step.

When introducing horses and riders to steps I always like to find the smallest one and trot then canter up the single step until both are looking confident and understand the concept. With steps you can definitely feel when it has gone right, so often it’s a matter of waiting until it clicks with the rider.

Lots of training venues have a variety of steps, which are really useful for progressively building a horse and rider’s confidence and experience. Once the small step is mastered, and perhaps put into a short course, I like to add in a second step. Usually you can find a small pair of steps. With a pair of steps, the rider needs to be very flexible and balanced, to be able to fold up each step without impacting on the horse’s way of going. The horse needs to be thinking forwards, especially between the two steps so they don’t lose their momentum and end up scrabbling up the second step. As the rider feels the hindlegs climb the step, they want to close the leg to encourage a positive canter stride so they reach the second step at a suitable take off point.

Once two small steps are mastered, you can start to jump up bigger steps. This is physically quite demanding on a horse, so you’re almost better off doing smaller steps a couple more times and keep them feeling confident and not too fatigued.

Next up, is the rider scarer of jumping down steps. Again, start small, and with a single step.

Approach the step steadily, but with positive energy, allowing the horse plenty of time to look and assess the question. Don’t look down the step, drop your weight into your heels as you close the leg to encourage the horse to go down the step. The horse’s weight shifts backwards as they step off the edge, so lean back and allow the reins to slip through your fingers so the horse can lengthen his neck down the step. Lengthening the reins is important to stop the rider being jerked forwards and landing up the neck. Again, a lot of riders don’t stay back for long enough so it’s important to encourage novice riders not to rush to sit up. The secret to staying balanced down steps is keeping the weight into the heel and the lower leg forward.

Some green horses tend to be a bit over zealous and leap down the steps. I find that repetition, and making little deal of the steps usually solves the problem. Only when the horse steps calmly off the step do you want to start going down bigger steps, or multiple ones. Going down steps is a big confidence test for horses, and the rider needs to be quietly positive and stay balanced to give the horse a good experience.

The next step, excuse the pun, with steps is to incorporate them with water complexes. Firstly, stepping up out of water, and then dropping down into the water. The more steps you do, the more confident the horse and the rider become and they start treating steps like any other jump.

I was very lucky that Otis loved negotiating steps, and was very confident going up and down steps, and I loved doing sunken roads and step combinations with him. I spent a lot of time doing small steps, and each time I went cross country schooling I would warm up over small steps to build his confidence and remind him of them before incorporating them into courses so that neither of us thought twice about steps.

Ringcraft

In the show ring you learn a bit of clever ring craft. That doesn’t mean you cut up other competitors or hog the judge’s attention, but rather you give yourself plenty of space in front of you as you pass the judge to maximise your extended trot. You do any tweaking, circles etc while the judge has their back to you, so that you shine in front of them. Adjust your individual show so that the gallop is uphill, or your phenomenal trot is at the perfect angle that the judge gets the full benefit of it. I only managed it once with Matt, who doesn’t have the greatest gallop, to adjust my show so that the gallop was away from the burger van generator. By holding the canter together as I approached the generator, I managed to control Matt’s spook to get his best show ring gallop.

Anyway, back to the point. What I was originally going to discuss tonight was the fact that there’s slightly more to dressage tests than just knowing the directions.

A few weeks ago I was helping a client practice for a prelim test and in the halt on the centre line the mare, who can be a bit fidgety, was swinging her quarters left. But she was halting fairly square … just at an angle! Now, the judge is sitting at C, so what are the priorities when improving the halt at this moment in time? Straightness. In the perfect halt the judge at C can see two front feet, the chest and head. If a horse halts straight, but with a hindleg camped out behind, then the judge at C has no idea! So when weighing up where to focus your improvements to the halt transition, bear in mind what the judge can and cannot see.

At the dressage champs in April, I was disappointed with my final halt. It wasn’t Matt’s best and his hindquarters were right underneath him. However, I got an 8 for it. I can only assume that the judge saw a straight trot to halt transition, with the forehand square and the head and neck coming out the centre of his chest. So to my surprise, scored me highly.

Of course, at Novice level, you often have halt transitions at A or C, which gives the judge at C the perfect angle from which to assess the squareness of the halt. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and once the straightness through the transition and into the halt is perfected, you can work on squaring it up.

With my client with the swinging quarters, we worked on the trot to halt transition in the right rein, using the fence to prevent the quarters swinging. Then we used the three quarter lines to simulate the centre line. When the mare still swung left, my rider brought her left leg back slightly in the transition to catch the quarters. By adding in slight left flexion in the neck, they ended up staying straight in the halt. Hopefully some practice like this and the mare will get out of the habit of swinging when she’s halting and we can progress to improving their balance through the transition to get a square halt.

With another client recently, we were working with the prelim test to get the best marks they can for their level of training. Here are a few secrets to getting the best out of a movement.

From left canter, between B and M transition to working trot and at C, transition to medium walk. Now the judge is looking for the trot transition to be between the markers, as a guide I aim for the mid point. But if your horse tends to run into trot, or get a bit unbalanced and fast, I would aim to have the trot transition as close to B as possible. This gives an extra two or three trot strides to balance the horse, so you can better use the corner and are in a better balanced trot to get a highly scoring walk transition at C.

At A, circle right 20m and between X and A transition into right canter. So you have a full half circle in which to do your transition. Doing it near X is tricky: there’s no support from the fence line so a green horse may run or wobble into canter so giving you a poor transition and weak canter. If the horse tends to shoot off into canter, then doing the transition as you approach the track (particularly if you’re in an indoor arena or fenced arena) will make them back off the wall and so slow the canter down. If your horse tends to drift through the outside shoulder in the canter, then asking for the transition as the circle touches the track (near F) the fence will support the horse’s outside shoulder, so helping them stay straight through the transition.

Transitioning from medium walk to free walk on a long rein and back again. This is mainly practice, but ensuring the walk is active, and the horse is relaxed in their neck and contact. In prelim tests free walk tends to be on the diagonal or a half 20m circle. Use the turns onto the free walk to push the horse from the inside leg into the outside rein and then let the outside rein slide through your fingers so the horse stretches their neck down. Keep the walk active and the important thing is to keep a rein contact despite it getting long. If you lose the contact then it makes the transition up into medium walk less fluid and usually tense. As you pick up the contact; take the outside rein first and inch up the reins, keeping the hands up and forward to reduce the chance of the horse hollowing and resisting the contact. Keep the leg on because usually a horse will lose their activity as you pick up the reins. If in the test there is quite a short period of medium walk before trotting; e.g. B to F, then you want to have the medium walk established at B so that you can best prepare for the transition at F. This means you may need to start picking up the horse a couple of strides earlier.

It’s also really important to learn the individual movements of the test, so you know where each set of marks is. Then if you make a mistake, or have a spook, then you know where you have to get back on track, and at one point you can forget about the mistake. For example, if one mark is the canter transition, and the next mark is for the canter between two markers, and you have a dodgy transition then focus on getting the quality canter because although you may have lost marks for the transition you can still get a good mark for the canter around the arena.

Obviously as you move up the levels the movements are more complex, need to be more precise and there is less evading the judge’s eagle eye, but it’s definitely worth learning to read between the lines of the directives of a test and getting an idea of what the judge can see so that you can best position your horse to maximise your marks. It’s surprising the difference a couple of marks will make in a competition, as well as giving you a confidence boost as you try your hand at competing.

Gaining Control

People learn in different ways; almost like the two approaches you can take when doing a jigsaw. Either you fit all the edge pieces and get a general outline before filling in the middle to complete the picture. Or you find all the sky pieces and put them together, before putting all the grass pieces together; thus you focus on the smaller parts whilst completing the big picture.

For the former learners, it’s best to give them a fairly complex exercise and then evaluate it and focus on little bits to improve on the next time. For the latter, you want to use a series of simple exercises that each focus on one element, and after successfully negotiating them the rider will be successful in the complex exercise.

I’ve been using this second teaching technique with a young client over the holidays. We’ve done jumps on a circle exercises to practice steering over jumps: mini grids to help improve their position: a keyhole exercise to improve her reactions and recovery after jumps.

However, when we progressed to riding a course of jumps and the pony got quicker and keener, my little rider got worried. So I devised an exercise that would make my rider believe in herself and her ability to control her pony throughout a course of jumps.

While she warmed up, I laid a train track of poles going across the arena at L, and frequently asked her to turn across the school, trotting through the poles. Then she had to ride forwards to walk as her pony’s front feet went between the poles. Then a trot transition as they exited the poles. Then she rode a halt transition between the poles.

The physical presence of the poles gave my rider something to aim for, and made her try that little bit harder get that transition between the poles. This also made her believe in herself and her ability to control her pony.

Next we progressed to a pair of poles before a jump. The jump pole was on the floor to begin with, and I gradually built it up. My rider had to trot the exercise, but walk between the pairs of poles. We worked in both directions so that the poles were either before or after the jump. This meant that my rider learnt that she could dictate the speed of the approach to the jump, and subsequently learn to correct their speed after the jump.

Once they were negotiating this exercise I introduced a pair of poles on the other side of the jump. This really tested her: she had to concentrate on riding a transition before and after a jump. Which actually took her focus off the jump so she enjoyed the jumping itself more. Even when her pony resisted the transition, my rider learnt to be a bit firmer and more insistent so that she got a response from her pony. It was nice to see her getting more and more confident, and riding more positively.

The following lesson, I laid out a course and we worked through the principles of the last few lessons – riding turns, steering and planning routes. As the jumps got bigger, and we repeated the exercise, the pony began to anticipate and get a bit quicker. So we pretended that there was a pair of poles before and after each jump to walk between. This focused my rider on controlling the speed, and showed her that she was in control at all times. Which meant she was far happier jumping and could then ride the course in a rhythm, ride the lines and turns that she wanted to and grow in confidence each time. Hopefully by reminding her pretend there are tramlines when her pony starts taking his own initiative, she will be proactive and effective in correcting him.

Grass Reins

What are everyone’s thoughts on grass reins? Or daisy reins, or any other pony restraints? Which are competition-legal, and how should they be fitted?

Recently I saw a blog post on the BHS APC group, discussing grass reins, which got me thinking.

A child’s safety and confidence is paramount when teaching, so within reason, ponies should have tack that prevents misbehaviour. However, the purpose of grass reins, or daisy reins, is to increase the child’s control over the pony, not to force it into an outline or hinder the pony when they are working well.

In the first session on the first day of Pony Club Camp, I’m sure it was within the first five minutes, I requested some form of grass reins for a pony. We were riding on grass, and he kept nosediving for the grass. His rider looked nervous and sat leaning forwards, so every time the pony’s head went down she was almost unseated. I felt that it was counter productive for her to be struggling to hold his head up all week, and that a gadget would be the best support for my rider. The next session, the pony was wearing a daisy rein, and didn’t even attempt to put his head down. It was almost as though the mere presence of the daisy rein was enough to deter him, and my rider gained confidence through the week.

I was surprised to see, on the equipment list of a different pony club, that grass reins were listed underneath bridle and saddle. Are they really that common, and are they seen as an essential piece of equipment?

I’m all for using grass reins or daisy reins (side reins are sometimes seen too, but I think they’re becoming less popular because they sit at ankle height for many small children so there’s a risk of them getting their foot caught in a fall) if necessary, but I do like to see them only used when necessary. Perhaps only at rallies, or in group lessons, or on grass, when the pony is more inclined to be cheeky. I also like them fitted so that they don’t interfere with the pony’s way of going when he’s behaving. For example, the grass reins are slack until the pony snatches his head, either to graze, to try to unseat the rider, or to evade the wobbly hands. I hate seeing ponies with their heads tied in, particularly show ponies, and I think that sometimes having gadgets too restrictive causes other behavioural problems, such as the pony not going forwards or shaking their head.

Can you use grass reins for jumping? This was the question posed by one instructor. It seemed the general consensus, which I agree with, is that if the reins are fitted correctly, i.e. not restricting the pony’s head then they can be used for jumping because the height that kids who require grass reins should be jumping is not much more than raised trotting poles and the ponies don’t jump as such, rather make an exaggerated stride over them. I will add, that if a child is ready to start jumping bigger then their position should be secure enough that their hands don’t cause the pony to snatch on the reins (like many do when their mouths are used for balancing on) and their upper body secure enough that it isn’t pulled forward when the pony snatches, or they are strong enough in their core to prevent a pony from putting his head down to graze. So if a child is jumping more than a few inches whilst still wearing grass reins, either the grass reins need removing or the basics revised with the rider on the flat.

Another instructor asked what form or daisy reins or grass reins were permitted in competitions. Affiliated, none except for Pony Club mounted games, where the are fitted from the D-ring, through the bit ring, over the poll, and through the bit ring to the D ring on the opposite side. I guess in unaffiliated competitions it is at the judges discretion. You won’t see any gadgets in the show ring (the warm up is a different matter!) and probably not the dressage arena, but I think if I was judging kids on grass I’d permit correctly fitted daisy reins purely for safety reasons. In the showjumping arena, again the judge may permit it in the lead rein or mini classes for the reason that the ponies aren’t really jumping, and if it keeps a child safer then it can only be a good thing. After all, you want to encourage the little riders.

When fitting grass reins, you can either fit them so that they connect each side of the bit via the poll, as in the mounted games rules, or under the chin. I think I prefer going under the chin because a pony is more likely to snatch their head downwards, and putting pressure on the poll with the grass reins will accentuate that. However, when used with a single jointed bit, the nutcracker action may become too severe for some ponies. Which is why it’s worth experimenting with different types of gadgets, because there are hundreds of variations from the classic daisy rein or webbing grass rein, and their fitting options, to make sure that they only come into effect when the pony’s behaviour is deviating from acceptable, and that the pony doesn’t react in an untoward way to their action, nor is the fitting of the rest of the tack hindered – for example, I once saw a rotund pony wearing a daisy rein and crupper. The daisy rein caused the saddle to pitch forwards, so the crupper was needed to counteract this!

Riding a Special Square

This exercise was first introduced to me at dressage camp, but I’ve used it so many times since.

Without using the track, scribe a square in the arena in walk. Perhaps with 15m long sides, but the length is irrelevant really.

At the corners, you want to ride a turn around the forehand. The aim of this is to increase the flexibility of the inside hind leg because it is brought forwards and under the horse’s body. This means that the leg becomes stronger and so increases the impulsion from the hindquarters. Turning around the forehand also focuses the rider on controlling the outside shoulder because as the inside hind leg steps under, many horses will avoid taking the weight onto the inside hind by falling out through the outside shoulder. Whilst riding this movement you, as a rider, will also be able to feel the horse bending through their rib cage, which also improves their suppleness.

Once you can ride turn around the forehand easily in the corners, add in step two. Ride shoulder in on each side of the square. Again, this aims to improve the flexibility and strength of the inside hind leg, encourage the horse to take the weight of their body onto their hindquarters and to lighten the forehand. It increases the suppleness through the rib cage.

Initially, you can use a big square, and use several strides to rebalance the horse between the shoulder in and the turn around the haunches, but as they get more competent then you want to ride seamlessly between the movements.

After riding a whole square of the complete exercise, ride large on two tracks and pick up trot. You should feel that the hindquarters are pushing more energetically off the ground. The horse will also seem to “sit” more in the trot, and have a slightly shorter stride with more cadence, slower tempo but still the same rhythm, and overall have that impression of having more power contained within their frame.

I find this exercise doesn’t need repeating too much because it is quite strenuous, but is very useful to do if they feel a bit stiff, or lacking focus in their work. Each horse I’ve used it with has almost immediately felt more balanced in their trot, with more “ping” and bounce to the stride afterwards. It’s definitely a useful tool for my toolbox!

The Crest Flip

We discussed the crest flip at dressage camp, and last week the following video came up on my social media.

The Crest Flip Demonstration

Now, camp seems a long time ago, but I'll endeavour to remember what we discussed.

The horse I was riding finds it difficult to connect through his body, back to front, and where he "cheats" and just holds his neck, he had developed an enlarged muscle one third of the way down his neck – where the trapezius inserts. We worked on releasing this knot of muscle by getting him to flex his head and neck, so releasing the muscles in his jaw and neck.

From above, I could see that an inch section of his mane insisted on falling left, which was where the tension was held.

When I managed to release those muscles, I was rewarded with that inch of mane flipping over to the right, to join the rest of his mane.

I had never heard of the Crest Flip before, but I've been keeping my eyes peeled for it on other horses.

When is it Too Early?

When you learn to ride, and a lot of your time riding as a child, is focused on you. Are you sat correctly, are your reins short enough, are you balanced. But at what point should you start to be taught about the horse's way of going?

Last week my Pony Clubbers swapped rides for one lesson, and I asked them to describe the new pony they were riding. I didn't expect references to the Scales of Training or much technicality, but I was interested to see what their thoughts were:

  • "Faster walk"
  • "Bouncier trot"
  • "Longer steps"
  • "Slow" and, my personal favourite,
  • "She makes my bum wiggle round the saddle".

Just having an awareness that different ponies feel different to ride improves kids as riders because they'll be more sensitive if they ride new ponies, and think about how much leg they apply, or ride some walk-halt transitions to get a feel for the pony before heading off into trot. It will also make them appreciate aspects of their own pony, and unintentionally help them improve them. Perhaps if they ride a lazy pony and then experience a more forward thinking pony, then they will become more efficient, and more receptive to advice, with their aids on their pony so that it becomes more off the leg.

Sometimes with beginner riders you need to slow their physical progress a bit; to allow them to build up stamina, or muscle. Or to give them more experience in each gait. We all know people who try to run before they can walk. This is when I think it's really useful to introduce an awareness for the horse's way of going and to begin to improve it. I've just started teaching this teenage boy on his Mum's cob. He learnt as a child so our first lesson was all about finding the long lost muscles and reintroducing concepts like steering and trot diagonals.

However today, I didn't want to push him much more physically, by working without stirrups or cantering, because I felt he needed to improve his fitness or else he won't enjoy riding because of the associated fatigue.

Last lesson we worked on the correct aids for transitions, so today I asked him to think about how the mare felt in the transition, and where the power was coming from. He soon identified, although he didn't know the correct terminology, that she was on the forehand.

Just be tweaking the way he rode the upwards transitions, i.e. Having fractionally more positive rein contact to feel that he was containing the energy, he began to feel that she was pushing herself into trot from her hindquarters more.

Then we started to pay more attention on whether the trot felt horizontal, downhill or uphill. Were the shoulders level, lower or higher, than the hindquarters. Soon my rider was really aware of the balance of the mare in the trot, and as it changed on turns and circles. Once this awareness has developed you can use simple transitions and basic school movements to improve the horse's balance and the rider can begin to think for themselves about how the horse is moving and hopefully start to act upon their feelings.

We worked on some transitions within the trot to help improve my rider's feel for the trot. There wasn't much change, but it was enough for him to feel the mare fall into and out of balance, and by the end of the lesson she was working beautifully; staying nicely balanced, off her forehand, and seeking the contact forwards and down so her topline was engaged. Which just goes to show that with a quiet, balanced position and told the basics about how a horse should move, even a novice rider can improve a horse's way of going, which can only be of benefit to the horse. It's never too early to start thinking about the other member of the partnership.

Day One of Pony Club Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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