Jump Jockeys

I had a fun lesson yesterday with two kids. Obviously being after school it’s dark when they ride, so my repertoire of jump exercises is being tested as I find ones which make them and the ponies think whilst not being too big, and ones which aren’t too spacious so doesn’t use the darker side of the school.

Last week I decided that I wanted to get the jumps flowing for my riders. One has a speedy pony so where he was over folding, and now is using his shoulders and upper body as brakes is now getting left behind, so it’s a fine balance that we need to rediscover; the other tries to micromanage and pins her horse down with her hands so restricts his jumping and then it doesn’t flow or look harmonious.

The obvious choice of exercise was without hands. Thankfully, we had the arena to ourselves so I didn’t need to worry about the increased speed by the end of the exercise as they had plenty of time and space to gather reins back and circle to bring the ponies back under control.

Once they’d popped through the grid of three cross poles on both reins I told them to knot their reins.

“Oh no!”

“No way!”

“He’s going to go so fast!”

“I don’t like not having control” (this came from the dressage dive, who I keep telling to think of being a little messy when she rides because then her pony relaxes and she gets better jumps)

Reins knotted, I sent them straight through the grid with both hands out to the side. I told them to let go of the reins over the first jump, to try and keep some semblance of control on the approach, and then to circle until they brought the canter back to trot.

The first rider, where he’s been consciously not over folding has been a little slow giving with his hands over the fence, so has been getting slightly choppy bascules. This exercise allowed us to work on finding the fine balance between not over folding and encouraging the pony to accelerate and flatten the canter on landing and still allowing him to use himself properly over the fence. After a few tries this rider was starting to get the feeling of the right balance, and when we took back the reins the pair looked much better.

My second rider, by not holding onto the reins, gave her pony a much nicer ride through the grid, which enabled him to jump more freely and rebuilt his confidence because I don’t think he was that happy with being micromanaged. It also taught his rider that he does know his job, and the fences can flow. Which built her confidence because she had more faith in her pony and in her jumping ability. She was able to replicate this afterwards when she had her reins again.

Both of these riders managed to achieve this relatively quickly, so I decided to try out another exercise.

For the boy, it was more just having fun. End of term-itis is kicking in so I wanted the focus to be more on fun. For the girl, I wanted her to sit lighter after fences because her tendency to sit up quickly, which she needs to do a bit of in order to stop her pony getting too fast, comes with her also sitting heavily into the saddle which I think upsets his sensitive soul.

So I put their stirrups up eight and ten holes respectively.

There was quite a lot of banter by now: the boy in his jump saddle was quite happy and set off to trot and canter in jockey position. His core is a bit weaker so he did sneak in a few little rises, but I didn’t want to put his stirrups up too high so his balance wasn’t disturbed. I removed the knee blocks from my other rider’s dressage saddle, and she found it slightly easier then to ride light seat, but the high cantle stopped her really crouching low over the wither. She did start to find her balance on the flat, and I thought her pony looked a bit freer over his back with her out the saddle too.

Then they popped through the grid a few times in both directions, working on keeping their seat light yet still folding, or at least differentiation between their position on the flat and over the fence. The key here is to have a strong core, and to adjust the upper body without sitting heavily into the saddle or losing your balance. I’m a big believer in using the upper body after a fence to rebalance the canter and reorganise, yet both kids are still finding the balance between sitting right up after a fence to discourage their ponies from accelerating away and sitting deep into the saddle so their bums are driving the ponies forwards. With short stirrups it’s hard to drive!

The ponies started to soften over the fences, and use their backs a bit more. Where we’d worked without reins you could see that my riders were less reliant on them for either brakes or balance.

I was planning on leaving the lesson there, but they were keen to try no reins and jockey stirrups. I should have said no, and finished when we did, but I thought I’d run with their keenness.

The girl did it very well, and was pleased with herself. I think she had a lot to consider from the lesson and knows now that her pony is more than capable, but she needs to learn to take off her dressage hat and put on her showjumping one, which is a little bit more relaxed and laissez-faire. Unfortunately, my other rider bounced off over the last fence. Squashed pride and end of term-itis meant this was a bit sore, but he remounted and popped through the grid with jockey stirrups and reins. When I debriefed him after I think he understood that it was just a wobble due to lack of core stability (despite the no reins work, when he had the short stirrups he was giving with his hands but leaning on them as he folded over the jumps, showing that there’s more work needed to get him really secure over fences) and balance, rather than him or his pony doing wrong. I think he took a lot away from the lesson and I look forwards to hearing about his jockey riding on the gallops next week!

Riding like a jockey is so helpful at improving balance, and strengthening the core and thigh muscles. I think going to the extremes of a light seat will help my young riders learn to sit lightly whilst keeping their shoulders back on the approach and getaway of fences, which will hopefully help courses flow and for them to influence the quality of the canter without getting heavy in the hand and blocking their ponies shoulders from jumping. You can see in the first picture below, that the jockey is limiting the speed by his position and shifting his upper body back, and in the second image he is opening up the canter. For my two riders, they want to try to imitate the first picture on the approach and the second picture over fences to really help their ponies out.

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Outwitting the Schoolmaster

This morning I did a riding club clinic, and as always really enjoyed it. It was great to see some new faces, and to see a few pennies drop as rider and horse had lightbulb moments.

One combination, who I’d never met before are new to each other so still finding out each other’s buttons. The horse loves jumping and is pretty experienced, but tends to lock on to fences and rush them, which doesn’t unnerve his rider particularly but makes her reluctant to take him out competing or anything.

I watched her warm up over the poles, and on the left rein the horse was far more biddable, but on the left rein he bounced and plunged around in anticipation.

There were two tactics I wanted to work on. It can be really hard with a horse who anticipates an exercise because it can get worse with repetition, yet as a rider you may need to repeat the exercise to learn.

The first thing I got this rider to do was to change how she approached the exercise. Trot or canter a circle, or several circles until the horse came round the corner and didn’t anticipate going down the grid. I got the rider to vary the number of circles, and where she asked for canter, so that the horse had to focus on what his rider wanted.

Over the poles they started to improve. One time they missed the first pole because the horse wasn’t off the aids so didn’t pick up canter on command. But the next time he was much more responsive to her aids. We also alternated which direction they approached the grid to help keep the exercise different.

We continued with this tactic of changing the approach so that the horse couldn’t anticipate too much. I also suggested that if the horse came round the corner quietly, there was no need to circle. She could also ride a shorter approach, or ride a calm trot-walk-trot transition on the circle to vary things.

We built up the grid fairly rapidly, only repeating each stage the minimal number of times, and changing the rein on each attempt.

Now, I wanted my rider to change her riding tactics. The horse is forward going towards the jumps, so his rider needs to try to limit the speed. However, if you just use the hand to check the speed it’s quite confrontational and can frustrate a forwards horse. It can also be quite harsh, like tapping the brakes in the car, which can lead to an erratic canter and potential bouncing around. With the hands pinning down on the wither the horse can feel trapped, as well as the fact it’s then harder for him to jump.

I told my rider to use her upper body to check and half half the horse rather than her hand. So in the approach, she needed to sit up and back, which actually kept the horse’s shoulder free so he didn’t feel so restricted. Then over the fences she needed to fold slightly less (after all, the jumps were small) and sit right up and back between them so that her body weight and seat acted as a brake instead of the hand. This means it’s more gradual and less confrontational. The horse almost thinks that it’s his idea to go slower through the grid. If necessary, then the rider could apply a light rein aid to help bring the canter back.

By putting these two tactics into place the grid started to flow and, still being slightly forwards it was a calmer picture and horse and rider looked in harmony.

The other piece of advice that I gave this rider was to change the shape of the jump frequently. When I changed some of the grid from crosses to uprights the horse backed off the fences slightly. So making the fences slightly bigger, adding in oxers, and fillers will help reduce the speed because the horse starts to look and think about what he is jumping.

It’s hard work for a rider to keep a clever horse thinking and preventing them anticipating, but hopefully this rider has a few tricks up her sleeve now that she can keep the horse focused on her throughout the approach and she can subtly influence his way of going without getting into an argument which will keep the canter calmer and more relaxed. Then hopefully they will enjoy jumping more and venture out cross country next spring.

The Chair Seat

A friend and I discussed this particular rider fault the other day, and it’s something I’ve touched on recently in a couple of lessons so it’s time for a blog post.

The ideal rider position has a vertical line from ear through the shoulder and hip, to the heel. The chair seat deviates from this because the vertical line is lost by the lower leg creeping forwards. When you look from the side, the rider’s outline is akin to if they were sat in a chair.

So why is the chair position frowned upon?

It’s most problematic in the rising trot. If you look at the ideal position, when you rise to the trot the lower leg stays under the body, and the rider can control their upper body so that they sit back into the centre of the saddle and immediately push themselves back out of the saddle. This means that the rider is quieter in their body language, more in control of their body and therefore more effective and precise with their aids. They are also more balanced, which means they are less likely to hinder the movement of the horse or be unbalanced by sudden movements.

Now think about the chair position, and imagine there’s a line going through the centre of the rider’s body, head to toe. If it were on a clock face the time would be 1.35, whereas the ideal position the line is vertical. Now as the rider rises from their chair position the lower leg swings back to balance the rider, who’s upper body comes forward. This means that the 1.35 line gets closer to the vertical when the rider is at the highest point of the rise. And swings back to the 1.35 position in the sit phase.

This means that the rider tends to sit down heavily onto the horse’s back, and towards the back of the saddle and the weaker part of the back. This heavy sit can damage the horse’s back, cause pain and unbalance them.

Collapsing into the saddle makes it harder for the rider to rise back up from the saddle. Which means they are hindering the horse’s movement further.

Ultimately in the chair position, the rider is less in control of their body so gives less effective aids, whilst also hindering the movement of the horse, and is more likely to be unbalanced by sudden movements.

So riding in a chair position makes it harder to influence the horse effectively because the crashing down movement of the sit discourages the horse from moving forwards, and the lower leg being further forward means it’s harder to apply the leg aid. Where the rider is sat on the back of the saddle they then find it harder to use their seat aid. Unfortunately this means that the horse is less inclined to move forwards and becomes “behind the leg” and lazy. This then causes the rider to try harder with the leg aids, which reinforces the chair position, and the lack of impulsion causes the rider to sit heavily back into the saddle, again reinforcing the chair position.

How do riders end up in the chair position? For young children, it’s often when they’ve been taught rising trot before they are strong enough, as the lack of strength in their legs and core means they need to swing their body up into the rise. The best way to overcome this is to make sure the saddle is the right size for the rider, and the stirrups the correct length so that the rider’s body is supported in the correct position. Then making sure the pony isn’t too lazy, so excessive leg aids aren’t needed. And then it’s just time needed to develop the correct muscles. One of my little riders falls back into the chair position every so often, and I find a useful analogy for her is that she imagines she’s sitting onto a pin cushion so she wants to sit as lightly as possible so she doesn’t get a sore bum!

For other riders, the chair position develops from a lack of core muscles and fitness, so improving their general fitness and not overdoing the trot work will help, whilst also working in sitting trot and without stirrups to improve their core muscles.

Along with a lack of fitness, riding a lazy horse when you don’t have the strength in your seat and legs means a rider’s position is compromised in order for them to make their aids more effective.

Sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause the chair position: if the saddle is lower at the cantle then the rider almost has to rise uphill, which encourages the lower leg to swing. If a rider has a chair seat despite work on trying to improve it, and the horse being quite forwards it’s worth making sure the saddle fits both horse and the rider’s anatomy.

The chair position and a lazy horse makes a vicious circle, which is hard to get out of because the horse doesn’t want to move forwards with a “heavy” rider, and then the rider moves into the chair position as they try in earnest to persuade the horse to move.

To break the cycle, having the horse schooled by a stronger rider to remind them that they can travel forwards easily, and the rider improving their core muscles and position by riding a more forwards thinking horse. I recently lunged a client on her horse for two purposes. One, the horse doesn’t seem to understand the idea of lunging so we hope that having a rider on board will help teach him to stay out in the circle. Two, I can work on keeping the horse trotting forwards so his rider can really concentrate on her position and maintaining the vertical line throughout her rising. When she was more adept at keeping this position she took over from me, and found that her horse was more willing when she was sitting more lightly into the saddle and staying more balanced. Hopefully they can build on this in the next few weeks.

Shallow Loop Grids

A friend in the riding club told me about this exercise and I have unashamedly borrowed it a few times this week, and really like it for a number of reasons.

I’ve had to adapt the exercise to fit within the confines of the arenas I’ve been using, but the original exercise is a grid of five jumps set out in a straight line, with two canter strides between each fence. Cross poles will ensure a combination don’t cheat and jump fences off centre, as well as helping guide their eye.

Once you’re warmed up over the fences in a straight line the idea of the exercise is to jump alternate fences with a shallow loop in between.

The first time I used this exercise I had three fences along the centre line. Once the straight grid was flowing nicely my rider came off the right rein and jumped number one, before bearing round to the right to shallow loop around fence two and jumping fence three. Turn right on landing and canter across the diagonal, jumping fence two the opposite way at an angle to change the canter lead and rein. Then we rode the same exercise from the left rein with a left shallow loop. This exercise followed on nicely from last week’s work on asking for a change of canter lead over fences, and being aware of the lead between fences.

This mare is not the most supple of horses, and whilst she can do canter shallow loops on the flat, when jumping she quite often changes her canter lead in front just before a fence if asked for fractional counter canter. Going disunited so close to a fence means that she’s not in the best balance and is more at risk of jumping awkwardly or having a pole down.

When they rode the shallow loops the mare changed in front and the canter deteriorated. I got my rider to focus on keeping position right (for right shallow loops, left for left loops) and sit up and balance the canter between the fences, making sure she wasn’t bringing the inside (of the horse’s bend, outside on the shallow loop) leg back as they angled back towards fence three.

There of course, my rider had to be clear with her aids that she wanted a change over the fence across the diagonal.

It took a few attempts to bring the exercise together, but once they got the idea the canter stayed much more balanced and then the actual jumps improved. The mare’s suppleness improved hugely. The mare had to really listen to her rider, who had to think about how she positioned herself over fences. My rider began to see how being able to ride counter canter for gentle turns on a course, or when she didn’t have time to change her lead through trot would give her a smoother ride, save some precious seconds in a jump off, and hopefully leave all the fences up.

The next time I used this exercise I managed to fit four fences in the school, and the exercise ran like this: from right rein jump fence one, shallow loop to the right, jump fence three, go to the left of fence four and turn back on yourself, jump fence four the opposite way, shallow loop to the right to jump fence two the opposite way. This course needed to be ridden from both reins in order to have left and right shallow loops.

These riders were a dressage diva, and I wanted her to focus on smoothly cantering between the fences and not micro-managing. When she micro-manages her horse gets tense and short in the canter, so I like her to focus on her lines and staying soft in the hand. Obviously her horse is very able to perform flying changes, but I challenged her to maintain the canter lead he was on upon landing after a fence. This meant that sometimes he needed counter canter and sometimes he didn’t depending on whether he changed over the fence. I didn’t want my rider to think too much about being perfect on the shallow loops, but rather get her to go with the flow and not upset her horse’s balance. By the end she wasn’t overriding and had much better shaped jumps because the canter was working canter, not collected, and more relaxed.

For her younger brother, who’s the jumper of the family, I wanted him to ride smoother turns between fences. He has a tendency to grab the inside rein and so unbalance his pony and get a jack knife turn. Interestingly, every time this rider used his inside rein, the canter got long and flat and the pony change lead in front. I didn’t want to complicate the actual jump by getting this young rider to ask for a particular lead over the fence, but rather to ride his lines accurately and keep the canter balanced by sitting up and using his outside aids to turn. As soon as he didn’t use his inside hand his shallow loops flowed really nicely and he met the jumps in a better place. He could feel the smoothness is the exercise then.

This exercise is really useful at teaching a rider to think and plan ahead; to ride accurate lines and smooth turns. For the horse is it brilliant at suppling them, making sure their listening to the rider and don’t lock on to the grid. There’s not enough time to change canter leads so it’s about riding what you have in that moment of time and keeping the horse balanced so they have the best possible chance of jumping well. It also helps with riding lines and quick turns for jump offs.

Definitely an exercise to remember as it’s a bit of fun, can be broken down to different levels to accommodate a variety of horse and rider abilities and has huge benefits for course jumping.

Riding Subtly

I taught a gridwork clinic over the weekend and had a nice variety of horses and riders to challenge me.

I felt I made the biggest improvement with one young horse. I’ve seen him a few times over the last year and whilst his dressage has come along nicely, he took a while to be persuaded to jump. Some days, he would be fine, but if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction he wouldn’t even go over a pole.

So his owner has been focusing purely on getting him to jump consistently, using grids and courses and going to different venues. So she’s been riding quietly and positively, and in this clinic he took everything in his stride, not backing off the poles or fences at all.

Watching them through the grid (jump, 1 stride, jump, 2 strides) a couple of times I felt that he was looking confident, but getting a bit long in the canter so the distances became a bit short for him. I also thought that his bascule was akin to a steeplechaser, and in order to increase the height of the fences we needed to improve his technique.

However, being the sensitive soul that he is, you couldn’t just collect the canter up and hold him together more because he might take that as negative riding and throw in the towel. Neither could you give him A-frames or make changes to the jump to get him to back off and alter his bascule so that he jumps up a bit steeper and uses his hindquarters better.

I suggested to my rider that we started to discreetly affect her horse’s way of going through the grid. We don’t want to make a huge change and put him off his stride, so without taking a half halt or using the rein in any way that may be interpreted by the horse as a negative aid, I told my rider to fold less over the fences and to make sure she really sat up and back between the jumps. So we were hinting to the horse about how he should jump, without telling him and getting into an argument, and then he would believe that this new technique was his idea all along and do it happily – really, it’s the same way as getting husbands to do anything!

The jumps were well within his comfort zone, cross poles at about 75cm, and being fairly small she didn’t feel she really needed to fold over the fences. The first time they tried it there wasn’t much difference, but I could see her horse working out how best to balance himself with her sat in a slightly different position. He still jumped fairly fast, and long over the fences so I sent them again.

This time, his bascule changed. Over the fences he lifted his shoulder more which enabled him to take off at a steeper angle. He also got two nice canter strides between jumps two and three, with the distance looking perfect. His rider could feel the impact her riding had had, so we continued developing the grid with this in mind.

They finished jumping the grid of an 80cm cross pole, 80cm upright and then 80cm square oxer. They looked to be spending more time through the grid, so it was less hurried, and he met each fence at the ideal take off point with the distances looking perfect. His bascule over the oxer was particularly altered, with his forelegs tucking up to his tummy nicely and his back and shoulders rounding nicely to look like a clean, scopey technique.

Hopefully by subtly making improvements in this way, he’ll continue to develop his confidence jumping and will get stronger and more able to clear bigger fences. I just wish I’d taken some before and after videos for comparison.

No Hands!

One of my little clients has recently mastered her canter seat; instead of the usual bouncing that children do whilst cantering which makes you wish they did homing devices like that for adults.

It brought back a memory from when I was learning to ride, so I decided to recreate the exercise for this confident little rider.

When I was … eight, perhaps or maybe seven … I was learning to canter. My friend had just started learning to ride and we had been promised that she could very soon join my lesson. Which we were very excited about.

At this standard of riding, the canter exercises consisted of the ride lining up on the track at B and individually trotting to A, cantering at the following corner and trotting again at the next corner. Those just learning to canter were led by the older girls, others followed one of the older girls on a pony, and the rest of us did it independently. It was actually a good way of progressing whilst accommodating a variety of abilities and learning speeds.

I was cantering to the rear of the ride on my own, and I remember my instructor being slightly surprised at my sudden ability to sit to the canter. Or at least I assume it was my ability to stay in the saddle while cantering! I think it was partly due to the super smooth grey mare I was riding, who had the nicest most armchair canter.

After I’d cantered twice to the rear, my instructor asked me to take my stirrups away in canter. Which I did. The next time she asked me to keep my stirrups but put one hand out to the side while cantering. The next time, the other hand. Then I had to knot my reins and canter with both hands out to the side. Finally, she also took my stirrups away.

I remember enjoying the challenge and feeling quite important because I’d been singled out to do harder exercises. And also being very pleased with myself for managing it.

At the end of the lesson, I was told I could move up a group (where they did individual trot and canter circles!) but my friend wouldn’t be able to join me. Ever the ambitious, I ditched my friend!

Like my canter seat, the canter seat has clicked with my client, and I decided to test her balance in this week’s lesson. She’s not quite up for cantering without stirrups having only just started to look really secure in her sitting trot work, but I thought I’d take her reins away.

We did a few canters, taking away one hand then the other. Then I showed her how to knot her reins. She looked slightly aghast, concerned about how she’ll steer round the outside. I told her she was allowed to cut corners for this exercise.

It took a couple of times, because her lovely mare isn’t quite riding school programmed, to get canter and manage to get both hands off the reins. But she did it! With a massive grin on her face. In a rather fast canter. We’ll have fun developing this exercise with her!

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.

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.