Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.

Left Anchors

I’ve done a few lessons this last week, strangely enough, correcting various riders on their hand position. And particularly, their left hand.

I’m not sure why it seems that so many riders are fixing their left hands down; I can only suggest that society’s bias towards right handedness causes people to use their left hand to stabilise themselves whilst their right hand does the dexterity work.

Anyway, I’ve had several riders this week who ride with their left hand held further back than the right, and low to the wither, like an anchor. This positioning has more impact on a horse’s way of going than many people realise, which is why I’ve been drumming on about it so much.

Let’s take a closer look at the effect of anchoring your left hand down.

On the left rein, you usually find the horse bends more easily and you find it easier to ride round the turns. Having the left rein fixed onto the wither creates left bend in the horse’s neck, which is why it can seem like they are going better in this direction, but when you pay attention to the hindquarters they usually are not following left curves. Riders who fix their left hand usually use this rein to steer, and so their right leg is less effective at pushing the horse left.

This becomes a cycle in that the horse doesn’t respond to the right leg so the rider is more inclined to rescue the situation by pulling their left rein, which means the horse becomes less responsive or understanding of the outside aids.

The left rein needs to be improved by reducing the amount of left bend. I usually ask the rider to take up more contact with the right rein and to raise their left and carry it further forwards. So it feels like it’s much further forwards than the right rein (then they become level) and then to focus on the right leg turning the horse round each turn and the left rein merely indicating.

I quite often ride squares or diamonds with riders who fix their inside rein as it focuses them on their outside aids and encourages them to ride their horse with a straighter neck. I also experiment with counter flexion to increase their awareness of how their horse tends to give too much inside bend in the neck.

On the right rein, an anchored left hand gives a more stable outside rein which I find the horse tends to prefer and they definitely look more settled, but if there is too much anchorage in the left rein it will encourage the horse to look to the outside and to fall onto the inside shoulder and so fall in. They will find it harder to produce right bend, purely because they are restricted. When working on the right rein I encourage my riders to soften the left arm to allow the horse to look right. Then I get them to focus on using the right leg to keep their horse out round the track, on circles etc. Most riders in this scenario fall into the trap of pulling even more with the left rein to try and pull their horse back out to the track. So I do some leg yielding exercises to improve the horse’s response to the right leg and to change my rider’s thinking so they are riding from inside leg into outside rein, rather than using their hand first. This usually triggers an epiphany moment, when they feel the horse begin to give right bend because the right hind is coming under their body more and to feel more balanced.

Some horses try to rush off when the left anchor is released, which is understandable as effectively the handbrake is being taken off. I often suggest the rider half halts with the right rein, even though it is the inside one, because it stops them anchoring the left rein back down, and also encourages the right hand to be a stabilising rein which has huge benefits on the left rein.

After working each rein independently, I then incorporate serpentines and figures of eight to help the rider feel the improved straightness and symmetry in their horse, and for them to tune in to the actions of their hands, when they are the outside and the inside rein.

By now, most riders are beginning to understand the consequences of fixing their left rein down, and with a few gentle reminders here and there, they are beginning to carry their hands and are more even in the contact. Sometimes it’s a matter of practice to retrain their muscle memory.

Correcting the left hand position improves the horse’s way of going, and usually the effect is instantaneous, but as an instructor I then need to work out why the left hand feels the need to fix down so much. Is it related to their confidence? Their balance?

The majority of the time, riders who anchor their left rein sit to the left. Which of course means they’re encouraging their horse to give left bend and will find it harder to apply their right leg. Both of which are symptoms of the situation I described earlier.

Chicken or Egg?

This leads me nicely onto my next teaching subject: working without stirrups and focusing the rider on sitting evenly on their seat bones and the correct aids. Hopefully in a couple of lessons both rider and horse will be working straighter, more correctly, and more symmetrically, which means the rest of their ridden work will improve.

Shallow Loops

Every so often I remember an exercise and utilise it with various clients of all ages and abilities. Currently, it’s shallow loops.

Quite often they’re overlooked in favour of serpentines or figures of eights, but they have their own benefits as a movement which tests a horse’s balance.

First appearing at novice level, shallow loops are ridden down the long side of the arena, as perfectly illustrated by my friend’s sketch for Demi Dressage, below.

The criteria for a shallow loop is to ride a smooth, flowing line from F towards X and then return to the track at M. They become an easier movement if you only leave the track by five metres – that is, you cross the E-B line five metres from the track. Riding FXM makes the turns more acute so requires greater suppleness from your horse. As with everything, start easy and once you’ve mastered level one, up the ante.

So what are the benefits of riding shallow loops? Firstly, they stop horses getting too track bound, and ensure they are listening to the rider’s outside aids. They are good at teaching riders to be less reliant on the fence line, and they show up any erratic steering issues! If you don’t plan and ride subtly, you end up staggering across the arena. For the horse, you are changing their bend in quick succession so it is a test of their balance and suppleness as they shift from one hind leg to the other.

Riding trot shallow loops are really helpful for improving the trot-canter transitions as in the shallow loops the horse changes from the inside hind (in relation to the inside of the arena) to the outside hind (the one nearest the fenceline) as they return to the track. In the trot to canter transition the horse shifts from the inside hind leg in trot to the outside hind in canter.

Riding shallow loops in canter introduces counter canter, further testing a horse’s balance.

When introducing shallow loops I find the hardest aspect of the movement is getting the loop to flow smoothly with an even incline to and from the track, so the most useful thing is to provide visual cues for riders. By guiding their eyes they automatically begin to flow away and towards the track. I use cones or jump blocks to show riders where to go. I place one cone near the corner, where the rider needs to go round the outside of before they leave the track, then another on the E-B line which they need to pass on the inside, and the final cone in the next corner to encourage the rider to return to the track and ride into their corner. As we develop the movement we increase the shallow loop from five metres towards ten metres.

How do you ride shallow loops? Begin by riding into your corner to give yourself plenty of space, and then using the outside aids, ride off the track. Almost imagine you’re riding across the diagonal, so turn your body to look across the arena, sit into your inside seat bone as you open the inside rein and close your outside leg. As you approach the E-B line, and the innermost part of the shallow loop, start riding parallel to the long side. Aim for three or four strides, during which use the leg nearest the fence on the girth, and open that rein to change the horse’s bend and engage that hind leg. Then return to the track and upon reaching it change the bend back to the original direction with the leg nearest the centre of the school acting on the girth to engage that hind leg and opening that rein. Ride into your corner ensuring your horse stays balanced.

The biggest faux pas I see when riding shallow loops is riders having dramatic changes of bend, which unbalances their horse. Minimise the bend and take your time in the middle of the loop and the loops will begin to flow and feel balanced, with the horse able to maintain their rhythm. If a rider doesn’t spend sufficient time in the middle of the loop; riding straight lines to and from X, then it may be useful to replace the cone with a pole, which forces some straight strides.

I’ve been putting shallow loops into my warm ups to give variation, and to help riders move around the arena. Instead of trotting the long side, we’ve put in a shallow loop to keep the horse’s focus. Have fun incorporating them into your workouts!

Our Story

This isn’t easy to write, but it’s taken me long enough to stop being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand. This is the missing piece to Phoenix’s story of the last few months.

You may remember in January that she started shooting off in canter in the arena, which I discovered was caused by muscle adhesions and tightness in her left hind so she had a course of physio therapy. In April, this limb got a clean bill of health.

In February I was working on Phoenix’s walk and trot in the arena, and cantering in straight lines out on hacks. Until her left hind was sorted, I didn’t really want to canter her in the arena.

Phoenix’s uncontrolled right canters in the arena in January had unnerved me a bit. I’ll be honest. Whilst I could ride the eight laps of fast, uncontrolled canter calmly round the arena, I didn’t enjoy it. So I decided that I would ensure she wasn’t in any pain before readdressing the canter, and just focus on improving her trot, work the canter on the lunge so that she was calm and balanced throughout the transition. We were enjoying our hacks, and she was behaving perfectly.

Then it happened. I took her for a hack one afternoon. We were on our own, and I decided to trot across the patch of grass which cuts off a junction. That trot turned into canter, which turned into a flat out gallop. She jumped the ditch onto the road, turned left. Slipped over, and we parted company.

Ok, so I wasn’t particularly hurt. A couple of grazes and bruises, but nothing a hot bath won’t cure. But I was gutted. I felt betrayed. A bit like if you overhear a friend talking behind your back. It hurts much more than a stranger saying the same words. I think Phoenix scared herself too. I wish I knew what had triggered her bolt. But she definitely changed towards me after that incident. I led her home, lunged her hard and then got back on.

The rest of that week I beat myself up. Why was I being so pathetic? We had a tumultuous week weatherwise, with constant gales, so each day I weighed up the pros and cons of riding. And inevitably chickened out each day. I was tense and worried, and she was equally stressed out.

When the weather settled, a whole week later, I got back on and hacked round the block with a friend. It took both me and Phoenix most of the hack to relax. The next day I went in the arena, but I was so worked up about it I ended up getting another friend to lunge me to get the first trot, and then just stand there talking about the weather to me as a distraction.

I felt so disappointed in myself. My riding of clients’ horses on the other hand was feeling better and I was getting good results. But I couldn’t ride my own horse without stressing out.

It was about this time I began investigating Phoenix’s nutrition, and the possibility of ulcers. And decided to come up with a rescue plan for myself.

Firstly, what I’d tell my clients, I took the pressure off myself.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that it had to be me who solved this problem. There was no point getting someone else to ride her because that wouldn’t stop my qualms, and given Phoenix’s current mental state she wasn’t trusting of anyone. And as a friend said, she is actually very attached to me. You can see by the way she watches me and follows me round.

Someone described her as a cat pony. Which is totally true! Phoenix is affectionate, but on her terms and can be a bit aloof. Which I think makes it harder to build a relationship. You can’t kiss and make up, so to speak.

So I was sorting out Phoenix’s diet, she was having regular physio sessions, saddles had been checked, and I was focusing on spending more time grooming and just being with Phoenix so that we became friends again. I worked her on the lunge, and she was behaving perfectly here.

I decided to box over to my instructor to have some lessons to remove any environmental stimuli. I needed some advice to overcome Phoenix’s tension in the school, and to develop some tactics to stop her scooting off. After all, every time she scooted off I tensed, and that made her more jumpy. It was a vicious circle.

The hacks were getting back on track: we’ve been out alone again, and she’s been on her best behaviour ever since.

I hoped that a change of arena would help reset our flatwork. It seemed to work, and after two lessons we had a short canter on both reins. In the third lesson, the canter was beautifully calm and balanced, like it was at Christmas. I felt like we were back on track.

Just before the second lesson, Phoenix had had the all clear from the physio, and as I couldn’t find any physical excuses for her to be stressed about cantering I decided to take her on a sponsored ride. I hoped the long canters would build some muscle, and she had plenty of time to find her rhythm and balance. And of course she would realise that it didn’t hurt. She was phenomenal, and I was euphoric. We were friends again!

Since the sponsored ride I felt like we’ve been on an up; we had a great third lesson at my instructor’s. I still wasn’t getting the same level of relaxation at home, and was sticking to walk and trot. But then I think we are both aware that that particular arena is where she’s misbehaved.

This takes us up to last weekend. I was feeling happier, getting better work from Phoenix and we were making progress. I was schooling last Saturday and getting the best trot work I’ve had for a long time, just doing a last circle when Phoenix had what can only be described as a panic attack. Halfway round the circle she shot into canter, heading towards the corner of the arena. I pulled her round and we cantered a few panicked circles and she started putting her head down. But I pulled her up, then dismounted because she felt like she was about to explode. Her back was up, the saddle had shifted forwards. What caused what, who knows. Once deflated and with the saddle adjusted, I got back on and we had a tense trot. I was pretty disappointed, as I should’ve finished a circle before!

On Sunday I had a very disappointing ride. Phoenix was scooting off each time I asked for trot, and wouldn’t relax in walk. She behaved perfectly on the lunge, but her jumping and scooting made me jumpy so the vicious cycle was back (I did observe her to be in season too). I wrote it off, but wasn’t happy as I was going cross country schooling the following day!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get in the cross country field, but Phoenix was again, phenomenal. She jumped everything I asked her to, and felt incredibly bold and rideable!

It’s like a rollercoaster at the moment. Phoenix behaves so well out of the arena, but we’ve taken a few steps back again inside the boards. She’s living out now and whilst she has plenty of fresh grass, she seems happier so hopefully the nutrition and management side settles down now. I think that whilst she’s had some issues over the winter (left hind and not eating enough forage) Phoenix has started to try it on. Her scooting off was initially from discomfort, but she is now doing it to get out of work. So I’ve got my work cut out being consistent in the arena and teaching her that she’s not going to get away with not working. She’s trying to be in control in the arena. Out of her comfort zone on hacks or cross country, she’s happy for me to take control and is submissive.

This weekend is being spent repeating the lessons of last week and trotting with a softer neck, and relaxing through her body. Hopefully a few days of this and proud Phoenix will back down and submit to me in the arena. Then we can get our competing again!

I’ve signed us up for riding club camp in June too, so I’ve got a goal, a focus, and I shall keep plugging away; keeping consistent, putting the boundaries in place, and waiting for Phoenix to settle back down. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, the good days are fantastic, I just need to iron out the bad days, but hopefully now things will start to come together.

Eyes Closed!

Trot to canter transitions have been a sticky point for one of my clients and her pony. Both the trot and canter work has come on in leaps and bounds, but the upward transition is still sticky – like a smudge on a drawing.

I think it stems from when the pony was more on the forehand and my rider less of an adult rider and more of a child rider so had less finesse over the subtlety of her aids. After all, it’s a huge transition from child rider (leg means go, hand means stop) to an adult rider (leg and hand together mean go,stop,left or right!).

I decided that we would have a session taking apart the trot to canter transition, to see how and where it could be improved.

After warming up, I put them on the lunge. She rode a couple of canter transitions as normal, but thinking about what her body is doing.

Then, I took her reins away. As this rider asks for canter, her upper body gets quite active, yet is also stiff, which comes out in her arms. As her arms stiffen in the transition, so her pony raises her head and blocks through her back.

I had her relax her shoulders and arms and then ride some transitions on the lunge without her reins. This helped improve the transition by keeping the pair relaxed and in sync. Then the pony was more forwards. Having no reins, it was obvious to my rider as her hands came up and her arms stiffened.

Staying without reins, we moved on to looking at my rider’s seat aids. To help her tune in to what she could feel and what she was doing, I got her to close her eyes for the canter transition. This was enlightening, and once she’d recovered from the feeling of not being fully in control (hence why I was there at the end of the lunge line!) she could tell me a little about her seat aids.

I reminded her that during the trot to canter transition her hips have to go from an up-down motion to a circular one, akin to doing the hula hoop. She then focused on this movement of her seat through the next couple of transitions with her eyes closed.

We also checked the angle of her pelvis; sometimes she sits a little onto the front of her seatbones, and whilst I don’t want her collapsing her lower back, by tucking her tail between her legs and sitting towards the back of her seat bones, her seat became a more forward thinking aid, so encouraging the energy to flow up from the hindquarters and through to the front end.

The upwards transitions were looking better, but we were still missing something. I asked where her weight was distributed between seat bones and asked her to put a little more weight onto her inside seat bone as she transitioned from the up-down hip movement to the hula-hooping movement.

Voila!

They got it! The transition suddenly looked like the completed jigsaw, and lost any resistance from either party, and meant they could immediately get a balanced, relaxed and rideable canter rather than wasting a few strides.

I made them repeat the transitions with no reins and eyes closed a few times on both reins. I considered taking her stirrups away but decided to save her that torture, as I thought my rider might tense her seat without stirrups and so undo all our progress.

With her reins back, I unclipped them and we worked on the trot to canter transitions around the arena. Every so often, to draw her attention to her seat, I got my rider to close her eyes for the transition. This was only possible because we were in a standard arena on our own with a very well behaved pony!

The transitions gained in consistency and became much more fluid. We didn’t focus very much on the leg aids because the improvement to her seat aids made such a difference, but in a few weeks I’d like to progress to minimising the leg aids, but my rider needs to strengthen and get more awareness over her seat aids first before we reduce the support of the legs. I really enjoyed the challenge of fine-tuning the aids and discovering the element which isn’t quite perfect.

If ever there’s an “blemish” to your riding, taking it apart and putting it back together piece by piece until you find the weak links and then spending some time focusing on improving that area with pay dividends in not only improving your blemish, but also having a positive impact on other areas of your riding, and in the future too. It’s far better from a long term point of view to find the cause and treat it, rather than put a plaster over that area and cover it up because that plaster will trip you up later on!

Equine Nutritionist

There will be a few posts over the next week or so, which all link together to create the full story. So be patient.

I thought I’d share my experience with an equine nutritionist with you. It’s not something I’ve really thought about doing before, but it was surprisingly informative.

I’ve found Phoenix very tricky over the winter, in terms of her being very tense and reactive to ride – to the point that I can’t actually apply any aids. I was sorting the left hind muscular issue with physio, but she was still unhappy. When riding her, she was struggling to relax, but when I applied my right leg the whole of her right side was going rigid. It didn’t make sense. If her left hind was sore then she shouldn’t be resisting engaging the right hind. Her reaction was unlike any I’ve ever felt on a horse.

It was a puzzle, and when I stood back and looked at her, her stance was uptight, rigid; a horse in full flight mode. But nothing had changed. I did some thinking and asking around and then a theory came to me.

What is she’s suffering from stomach ulcers? Perhaps not full blown ulcers, but some form of gastric discomfort?

Phoenix wasn’t responding to the classic ulcer trigger points, and the only way to diagnose ulcers is to scope. Which involves sixteen hours of nil by mouth – a highly stressful situation for what is already a stressed horse. So I decided that I had nothing to lose by assuming she has them and coming up with a plan.

Then, with hindsight (isn’t that a great thing?) I realised that when she started living in at night she ate very little of her ad lib hay, and periodically had nights where she ate very little. She had been eating better recently though, upping her intake to what I would expect from a horse her size, except for the night before my epiphany.

Immediately I bought some haylage and started mixing it with her hay to encourage her to eat. A couple of days later, I thought her body language seemed happier. Which led me to wonder if I could improve her diet.

I didn’t want to go to a feed company and ask their advice; they have a product bias. I wanted someone independent to look at the whole picture. So after qualming slightly at the cost (but decided I could easily waste that amount on inappropriate supplements) I approached an independent equine nutritionist.

I had to fill out a lengthy form, answering questions about vet history, behaviour, current diet and management system. It was very in depth, but I did think it could be improved by requesting a photo because the condition scoring relied on my honesty, and me being knowledgeable enough to score her correctly.

A week later, I received a thorough report, which I thought I’d share the main points with you.

  • Phoenix’s behaviour suggested gastric discomfort, potentially ulcers, and is probably rooted in it being her first winter stabled overnight. The nutritionist suggested that it could take several seasons for an adult horse to acclimatise to stabling, which I didn’t realise. Whilst Phoenix didn’t show signs of stress outwardly, she probably internalised it, and her not eating hay overnight is a sign of stress. I should continue to mix in haylage to increase her forage intake. Again, with hindsight, I know that Phoenix will keep her worries to herself, so I have let her down here by not cottoning on quick enough, and her stresses have now bubbled over. The nutritionist suggested that I could offer Phoenix multiple different types of forage in the stable: different types of hay or haylage, a bucket of dampened chaff or grass nuts, which is definitely something to consider next year.
  • There was a paragraph, which I think is fairly compulsory, describing the importance of good dentistry and worming practice. As Phoenix is on a 6 monthly dental routine, and in her worm test last week had a clear result, I’m not concerned about these factors as a cause for her unhappiness, but of course everything needs to be considered.
    I am feeding Phoenix the correct amount of a suitable hard feed – 1kg of Pure Feed Fibre Balance – but the nutritionist found this to be lacking in zinc and copper, so I could either supplement these or change to a different feed.
    Again, there was another compulsory statement reminding me to ensure Phoenix has salt added to her diet when she’s working as feeds and forages don’t supply sufficient sodium.
    I was told to feed 20g of magnesium oxide – which is quadruple the recommended amount on my supplement tub – which is perhaps why I haven’t noticed a difference in her behaviour.
    I was also recommended to feed Phoenix a probiotic until she starts living out, and then again next winter. I’m currently using Protexin gut balancer, but a friend has told me that it isn’t that effective if a horse has an Alf-Alfa intolerance. So if I don’t find a difference in Phoenix, try a different brand.
  • The equine nutritionist also suggested that I could try a stomach supporting supplement or a calming supplement, but recommended that I made other changes first before exploring this avenue. She finished the nutritional report by saying that although I could end up feeding lots of different supplements they should all complement each other nicely.

What I liked about this nutrition report is that it wasn’t trying to sell me a product, it took into account her current lifestyle and limitations that I have with regard to yard rules or routines. The nutritionist had obviously taken on board my spiel about her behaviour, personality, physio, and adapted her recommendations to reflect this. I also felt I could go back with any queries, and feedback to her in a month’s time. She’s also given me a plan for next winter.

I’d definitely recommend speaking to an independent nutritionist if you need help designing your horse’s diet; they have the knowledge to save you hours of research, and only recommend brands that they think will benefit your horse. It’s not cheap, but for the cost of a private lesson or two (depends on your instructor!) it’s worth it in the long run.

Here’s hoping that the improvements I’ve seen in Phoenix since feeding her haylage, a probiotic, magnesium oxide, salt, zinc and copper, continue now that she is living out 24/7. Once she’s stopped gorging on all the grass of course!

The Inside Hind

I’ve been on a mission recently to try to improve the feel of my riders. Some people say that talented riders have a “good feel”. Yes they may do, but for those of us less talented at equitation, don’t lose hope. You may have to work on your balance and coordination of aids, but you can still feel. Everyone can. It’s one of our five senses. You just might need a little more help in understanding what you can feel when riding and how to respond appropriately.

This is why I’m forever asking clients to tell me what they can feel. I’m not looking for correct terminology, or long winded descriptions, but I want to know if the rider can tell the difference between a long stride, a short stride, one full or impulsion, or one dragging their toes. I want to know if they’re aware that they have a heavier right rein, or if they can feel their horse bending or not.

Sometimes I’ll ask, “what can you feel?” Or “how does that trot feel now?”

Other times, I’ll give more leading questions such as “can you feel your horse leaning on your outside hand?” Or “can you feel a bit more push from the hindlegs?”

It’s never a problem if someone answers no. We just revise what we are aiming for in this session and where the rider should be feeling the change. Usually just by focusing their attention on that one area of the horse, they start to feel what I am explaining, and understand the subject more clearly. Occasionally, videos help. I’ve videoed jumps before, which haven’t been perfectly executed, and replayed them to the rider so that they can relate what they feel in the saddle to how it looks from the ground and the final result.

So in my quest to further my riders’ feel for what their horse’s legs are doing, and their ability to enhance their horse’s way of going, I have been encouraging them to think about the hind legs and what they can feel in terms of power and stride length.

When trotting the inside hind leg is the propulsion leg. It powers the horse forwards. In order to do this efficiently, the horse needs to step under their body with it, sit on that leg so that it takes the weight, and then push their weight up and forwards from the leg. It’s similar to the mechanics of human walking.

On curves the inside hind leg has to work extra hard, and this is where horses often lose their balance. If the inside hind leg is weak or lazy then it will step short, and the horse won’t be able to sit on that leg so well in the stance phase. This causes the horse to lose the balance in their body, and to load the outside shoulder in compensation.

For novice riders who are developing their feel, trotting corners are often when they first begin to feel the action of the hind leg, so I use lots of circles and turns to get them feeling. Sitting trot is useful at this stage so long as the rider can maintain it comfortably and the horse doesn’t brace against them or slow down.

Then I explain the mechanics of the horse, their particular strengths and weaknesses, and how improving the stride of the inside hind will improve the whole gait by engaging the abdominals and topline muscles, maintaining a consistent bend and contact, and increasing impulsion.

Then I link the footfall of the horse to their rising trot. When the rider is rising on the correct diagonal, the inside hind leg is stepping forwards. We are trying to encourage the inside hind leg to step further underneath the body, especially if it’s a little lazy, so that it can then propel the horse forwards more easily and powerfully. Therefore, we have to influence that hindleg whilst it is in the swing phase. As my riders are about to rise, and that inside hind about to come off the floor, they need to encourage it to come forward with a bit more vigour. A squeeze of some description with the inside leg is usually enough to make all the difference. Of course each horse is different, so you have to play around with the leg aids, and perhaps a flick of a schooling whip, on that haunch, to find the button which works for horse and rider.

Riders can learn to time their aids by linking it to their rising, and you can test their feel by working in sitting trot. But by at least applying the aids at the correct time, the rider will start to feel an improvement in the horse’s way of going, and the more active hind step should increase the feeling of movement to the rider, so further establish what they are aiming to feel. Once a rider has begun to become aware of what’s going on behind the saddle, you can start to dissect the walk and canter, and then fine tune the timing of their aids to improve their quality.

I’ve reminded several riders recently, of different abilities, to think about and to enhance the inside hind leg action, which has resulted in their horses maintaining impulsion, balance and consistency, which means the rider can ride more accurately and with a better quality of gait. Improving awareness of the inside hind is particularly important when changing the rein and changing the bend through the horse’s body. By focusing on the new inside hind leg propelling the horse forwards, the horse changes the rein more fluidly.

Perfecting The Approach To Jumps

I’ve had two clients recently working on perfecting their approach to jumps. They’ve had similar lesson formats, and both have had positive results from it.

One rider found that they kept “missing” the first jump to grids or on courses. With placing poles, and once in combinations, they fly the fences perfectly. So I brought her attention to their approach to jumps. We’re looking for a positive, active, balanced canter. And we’re looking for it to be consistent throughout the approach. The pony was backing off, losing power, on the approach to jumps. But only for a stride, or even just half a stride. It was only when we studied the approach that the slight loss of impulsion became apparent.

We then looked at my rider. She was riding a little reactively. So her pony backed off and a stride later, my rider closed her leg and rode him forwards. We needed to get rid of this delay because that slight loss of impulsion was enough to disrupt their take off point. By drawing my rider’s attention to this, she began to notice as her pony dropped impulsion quicker, and then reacted quicker. This meant that the canter stayed more consistent before the jump, and the maintained energy meant they hit their take off point perfectly.

This week I constructed a 90cm oxer in the middle of the arena, and asked them to jump it. The canter approach was rhythmical, and when I saw the pony think about backing off, his rider applied her aids and managed to maintain the consistency of the canter, so they jumped it brilliantly. And repeatedly did so as I increased it to just over a metre high.

My other rider has a rather fresh pony at the moment (spring grass has a lot to answer for!) and she started approaching fences in a kangaroo fashion, and then jumping erratically. I think this is caused by the pony being a bit more spooky, and looking at jumps more because she’s full of the joys of spring. However, the kangaroo approach to fences makes it harder for my rider, and then they lose their synchronicity.

We addressed the consistency of the canter, and I told my rider to micromanage the canter, so that she reduced the kangaroo effect, to smooth out the canter. She already rides well towards a fence, using her seat and legs to keep her pony up in front of her and taking her forwards, with a steady, quiet hand, so it was just a matter of her being a bit quicker to react to any changes to the canter. Be it quickening or slowing down. As soon as the canter was ironed out the jumps started to flow more. The spooks and looks at any jumps were minimised and then the mare started to focus on the job in hand.

The girls put this to the test last weekend at an eventers challenge, and the result was very positive. A much more flowing round and some stylish jumps so I’m very pleased.

It’s amazing the difference a couple of seconds in rider reactivity makes, and the resulting consistency in a horse’s canter to the jumps.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Controlling The Neck

I taught a lesson last week, where we focused on releasing the brachiocephalic muscles to enable the horse to step through from behind and use their back more correctly.

The horse we were working with has come back into work slowly after being a brood mare, and she’s changing shape nicely and building some muscle and fitness by lots of hacking. Her walk was improved since the last time I’d seen her in that it was more active with a longer length of stride and the mare’s neck was not so concertinaed. However, in the trot she was still locking her neck and trotting. The body wasn’t moving at all, and the legs scrabbling frantically underneath, with my rider feeling barely in control. Their trot was akin to a bolt – the neck set against the rider – but they weren’t getting any faster.

Usually when a rider feels resistance in the horse’s neck, a little flex of the neck and encouragement of the inside hindleg triggers the horse to relax the brachiocephalic muscle and start using their abdominals and topline. However, this mare has such large, solid brachiocephalics she didn’t respond to the small flexions.

In halt, we asked the mare to move her head from side to side. They were big turns of the head, slowly from left to right and back again. Initially I had to help from the ground to provide rein aids so that my rider could understand the exercise. By getting the mare to mobilise her neck we were improving her suppleness, increasing her range of movement, and causing her to relax the brachiocephalic muscles. After all, in order to look left, the muscles on the right side need to relax and lengthen. And vice versa. We had to turn her head quite a way to the left and right before she yielded and softened her neck. Hopefully as things progress she will give her neck to her rider after more subtle aids.

After a few turns, the mare’s neck became softer and you could see she was turning more easily and freely. We let her rest, standing still with a light contact, so that she could think about her posture, and process the exercise we had just done. She stayed standing with a softer neck and lower head carriage.

Then we moved up into the walk. A horse’s head is very heavy, and is held at the end of a lever, so getting them to lengthen the neck and hold their head further away from their body, and then to hold it in different positions, is very difficult and requires good balance and core strength. The walk allowed us to experiment with different head and neck positions, all making the mare more malleable and encouraging the muscles to relax. There was a lot of brain work going on here: the horse had to focus on keeping her balance with her head held in unusual positions (for her, anyway), and she had to focus on the leg and seat aids rather than the reins aids.

After a few releases of the neck, the mare’s walk started to improve by lengthening in stride, the energy in the hindquarters seemed to travel through the body more and she seemed to be more connected – working as one horse. Once my rider felt the change in the mare’s posture I had her straighten the neck and keep everything still. After all, we’re using these large turns to release the muscles and then the mare needs to learn to carry herself straight and with less tension in her neck on her own volition, and we don’t want her to get into the habit of swinging her head as she works, nor do I want my rider to get into a habit of sawing on her pony’s mouth. I reiterate, they are large turns of the head in either direction to encourage the release of the under neck muscles, which together with the leg and seat engaging her hindquarters will trigger the mare to use her topline as she works.

Once the mare was walking with a soft frame and contact, we went up into trot. Through the transition she set her neck and started running, but my rider began flexing her left and right and after a few strides the brachiocephalic was disengaged. So they trotted with the hands still for a couple of strides before the mare set herself again, so we repeated the process. We kept the trot basic: large circles, simple changes of rein, one rhythm, so that we could focus on unlocking the neck as soon as she tensed, rewarding her with quietness when she was soft, and then correcting her again as she tensed up.

Suddenly, they had a lightbulb moment! The trot became lighter, almost floaty, her back began to swing, she was using her hindquarters to propel herself. The trot was getting faster, but only because she was more efficient in using herself and the stride was lengthening rather than her rushing. Yes, every couple of strides my rider still had to move the mare’s neck to keep it soft, but they were now minor flexes and the mare responded immediately.

By the end of the session, we’d started work on keeping the neck soft through the upward transition by using small flexes. The trot was becoming more consistent and the horse and rider looked in partnership rather than having two different agendas. And as we cooled down, the mare wanted to stretch her head all the way to the floor.

It was a very constructive session, and they’ve both got a lot to work on in terms of building fitness so that the mare can be consistent in this new trot, and my rider’s feel so she reacts to any change in the neck before it becomes a solid mass. I don’t think it necessarily looked pretty, in that every so often the mare looked to be swinging her head, but so long as my rider remembers to stay quiet and still when everything’s right, and the rein stays positively opening wide to get the mare to look left or right rather than pulling back, the mare won’t get into a bad, swinging habit.

Next time I want to build on the consistency and then start to introduce a long and low frame so that the mare has more opportunity to utilise the correct muscles and learns to stretch.