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!

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.

Turn On The Forehand

Recently I`ve done quite a bit of turn on the forehand, and on the haunches, with different clients and horses, so thought it was a useful time to blog about it.

Turn on the forehand is usually one of the first lateral movements people teach their horses. For some, however, they wouldn`t dream of touching turn on the forehand as it encourages the horse to put their weight onto the forehand.

So before we embark on pivoting in little circles, let`s discuss why we would use turn on the forehand. The first, and most obvious reason, is whilst out hacking. Gates are far easier to negotiate if your horse can turn on the forehand because you can keep hold of the gate whilst manoeuvring your way through. No more swinging gates, or pushing against the unfriendly gusts of wind. In the arena, learning turn on the forehand teaches a young horse the basic concept of moving away from the leg aid. I find it is useful for increasing the rider`s awareness of what the hindquarters are doing, and it is a good way of suppling the hind legs because they are adducting and abducting with each step.

What exactly is turn on the forehand?

Put simply, it is when the horse pivots on their front feet. Put in a slightly more technical way, the horse turns a small circle with their front feet, whilst the hindlegs scribe a larger circle around them. A turn on the forehand can be a quarter turn, a half turn, or a full circle. Obviously a quarter circle is the easiest as there are fewer steps.

Initially you want to establish that the horse and rider can ride balanced transitions into fairly square halts. These could be direct from trot, or progressive through walk. If a horse stops in a balanced way then they are in a better position to perform turn on the forehand.

Once the halt transitions are established, ride medium walk on the inside track, making sure you have enough room between you and the fence for the length of the horse. Ride forwards to halt (remembering that square part). Maintain the rein contact, and flex the horse slightly to the inside. Remember here that inside is towards the direction of movement. Shift your weight to the inside seat bone and place the inside leg slightly behind the girth. Use this leg to push the horse to step around the forehand. The outside leg, behind the girth, prevents the hindquarters from rushing and supports the horse, whilst the outside rein supports the outside shoulder, keeping the neck straight at the base of the neck and prevents the horse falling out through the outside shoulder. If the horse does not understand the driving aid of the inside leg then a whip can be carried to back up the leg aid if necessary.

Initially, you want two or three steps, which takes you on a quarter circle. Ride forwards away from the movement as you praise the horse. It`s important to move forwards away from the movement so that the horse doesn’t associated turning on the forehand with losing energy or momentum.

It`s really important not to over ride turn on the forehand, after all, it will be difficult initially for a horse, but you also do not want them to anticipate turning when you ride to halt, otherwise you sacrifice your final centre line in any dressage tests! Once I`ve ridden turn on the forehand a few times in both directions, and the horse is beginning to understand the concept, I tend to work on another area of their schooling before doing a couple of reminder turns towards the end of the session. Then, to keep revising the movement, you can use it as a change of rein, during a walk break in the schooling session, or as part of a trickier exercise.

Some horses cheat in turn on the forehand and swivel their front feet. This is incorrect, and you want them to step up and down in the walk rhythm, without taking any forward steps.

Other faults to watch out for are;

  • the horse bending their neck and falling out of the outside shoulder, taking forwards steps as they go. This can be caused by the rider using too much inside rein. To correct it, maintain a more secure outside rein contact, and monitor the different aids as independently as possible.
  • the inside hind leg not coming up and crossing in front of the outside hind leg.
  • the rider`s inside leg shifting too far behind the girth, which displaces their weight to the outside.
  • the horse rushing through the movement, hollowing their back and coming above the bit. This can be caused by the rider shifting their position – lifting the seat, leaning forward, raising the heels and using too much of a rein aid. Taking the stirrups away can stop the position being lost, but ultimately the rider needs to improve their seat.
  • Horse doesn`t understand and becomes “stuck”; doesn’t move around the turn, or backs up. If they back up then the rider may have too heavy a hand, but also if the horse has moved one step then become “stuck”, the rider should trot forwards, to regenerate the energy before trying again. If the horse still doesn`t understand the concept, then it can be practiced from the ground, with or without a rider, using a schooling whip to mimic the inside leg aid.

Hopefully you understand my description of turning on the forehand; I`ve found it to be very useful for horses who aren`t very active or supple in their hindquarters, and a real learning curve for riders as they learn to use all their aids independently and control the two halves of the horses body simultaneously. After riding it, the horse usually settles into a steadier contact, are easier to correct on circles and turns, and have a more active, balanced stride in the trot.

Let me know how you get on!

Positioning

Again, I`ve been swotting up with my coaching books, and in one of the more old fashioned books it talks a lot about position left and position right.

They aren`t terms you hear that often now, but actually they are useful phrases to know because as they encompass a whole explanation within two words so act as useful reminders when teaching.

So what are these different positions? And don`t get thinking that they are some strange yoga contortions!

Think about when you are riding in a straight line – in walk, trot, or canter – you are sat evenly on your seat bones, your legs are hanging symmetrically by the girth, there is an even rein contact and the hands are held at the same height, and level. Ideally, you are symmetrical.

Now think about turning left. Your left shoulder comes back as you turn your upper body left. Your left leg stays on the girth, and the right leg comes behind the girth as your weight shifts slightly left. The left rein opens slightly, and the right rein stays close to the shoulder. You are looking left. This is position left. Everything about the way you are positioning your body says “we are turning left”.

Logic dictates then, that position right is right shoulder back, upper body turning right. Head looking to the right with the right rein open and the left rein close to the shoulder. Right leg is on the girth and left leg is behind, with the weight shifted slightly right.

Now think about the aids for canter. They are the same as “position left” or “position right” aren`t they? So thinking about these two positions can help a rider make it clear to their horse which canter lead they want, help improve their feel for the correct strike off, and help improve a horse who favours one lead over another.

Incorporating these terms into teaching can also save on “wordage” – highly important when you spend as many hours talking as I do – because you only have to state which position your rider needs to be in instead of each individual body part.

These different body positions, and the ability to switch between the two came in very useful for a jumping exercise I did earlier this week … but you`ll have to check out the blog tomorrow!

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Riding One-Handed

I`ve started teaching a Mum on her daughter`s pony. She used to ride years ago, so is a bit rusty and we`ve started from scratch really, but last week we had a really productive lesson.

Now it`s common knowledge amongst equestrians that ponies are harder to ride than horses; they tend to know all the tricks in the books, are naughty, strong-willed, and cheeky. However, some think that because a pony is smaller they are easier to ride. Yes, to a certain extent, if you yourself are small. But to ride a pony that is too small for you (say a tall teenager on a 13.2hh) actually requires a lot of balance because there is less support underneath you and a shorter, bouncier movement; and the ratio of your weight to the pony is greater so an unbalance of yourself will have a greater impact on the pony`s sense of balance and subsequent way of going.

This is the problem I am encountering with this client. In the perfect world she would be riding a 15.2hh horse; but as the world is not perfect, we have to make do with a 14.2hh. However, it does mean that if my rider falters in her trot, such as her shoulders tipping forwards, then the pony`s rhythm changes as she overloads his shoulders.

There is a combination of building up my rider`s fitness; muscle and balance, which takes time. But there is also the fact that my rider needs to learn how to control her body, and make smaller, slower adjustments and more subtle aids so that she does not upset the balance of her horse, because he is a bit on the small side.

At the moment, the biggest area that needs work on are the aids for turning. There are a couple of bad habits to iron out, such as dropping the inside shoulder and using too much inside rein, which cause the pony to fall onto his inside shoulder and into walk. Even after revising the correct leg and seat aids, we were still losing balance on turns across the school. Which I felt was because of my rider using too big a movements (such as turning to look around the turn too much, or too quickly).

So I decided to take the reins away. As much as I could, at least. My rider put both reins into her outside hand and just hung her inside by her side. We did some trotting working on my rider being less reliant on her hands and arms to help rise – she holds tension in her wrist too, so as soon as she starts to panic or feel insecure her wrist fixes and the arm gets stiff. When she wasn`t holding her reins the arm stuck out towards me in the centre of the arena, highlighting the tension. This alone was useful as she became aware of it and her could focus on the correct muscles working.

Anyway, this soon became easier so I introduced turns. I wanted my rider to turn across the arena, from one long side to the other. Roughly aiming to ride E to B, but it didn`t matter if it wasn’t precise at the moment. In walk it wasn`t too difficult, and the pony moved off the track after a couple of strides, and the rider instantly felt how much smoother the turn back onto the track was. Then we trotted. The first time, she dropped her inside shoulder and the pony slowed to a walk, but not as suddenly as when she`d had her reins. The second time she imagined being a carousel; her vertical spine rotated so that the outside of her body moved forwards and the inside of the body moved back, instead of leaning in like a motorcyclist. This was much better. The pony stayed in trot and made a good curve off and onto the track. My rider could feel her seat, legs and the rest of her body working correctly, as well as how they both stayed in balance.

Once we practiced this a few times I allowed her to take her reins back to ride some more turns. They were much better – more fluent, more subtle, and much more balanced. Of course we then had to repeat the exercise on the other rein.

We finished the lesson by riding figures of eight using the diagonal lines; aiming to stay in trot, not turn too sharply, and ride balanced turns. Compared to our initial changes of rein at the beginning of the lesson, my rider was in better control of her body and had more subtle aids which meant that she didn`t upset the balance of her pony and they maintained trot.

I want to do more one-handed riding with clients as I feel it really focuses them on their seat and leg aids and makes them less reliant on their hands (inside hand especially) for controlling their horse.

The Shock of His Life

One of my little clients couldn’t make her lesson this week because she was going to the circus. This left me with a great opportunity to school her pony.

Now, he’s only eleven hands so I didn’t ride him. I have done before, but he’s very well behaved for bigger jockeys so I doesn’t help the problem my rider has.

On the left rein she turns him off the track, circles etc easily, but on the right rein he curls his neck up as she turns him off the track. I think her left leg is weaker than her right. On the right rein he also falls through that shoulder to the gate.

We’ve put him in the full cheek snaffle, and used side reins when she’s riding, which have helped, but no solved the issue.

My solution was to long rein him. That way he didn’t have the weight of me, but hopefully I could  still  influence his behaviour. 

After towing me round on the left rein for a couple of laps, he settled and I got him walking circles. He was very good, so I changed the rein.

Here, I tricked him a bit as I sloppily steered him down the long side before pulling the inside rein, mimicking a child, as children always ride hand first then leg when they remember! The pony curled his neck and carried on walking along the track, so quick as a flash I whopped the outside long rein against his side, mimicking the outside leg. 

He leapt forwards, as though he’d been electrocuted, completely caught by surprise at this outside aid. We carried on walking around the circle before trying to turn off the track again … He was brilliant – no hesitation and he kept his neck and shoulders straighter.

I had to repeat the exercise near the gate, but once told he was foot perfect.

After a lunge with the long reins I put him onto a single line and did some free jumping with him. He loved it! Taking me towards the fences before I was organised. The idea of this was to give him some fun and to let him feel the freedom of jumping without being restricted by his rider, although his rider has gotten much better at folding and keeping her hands forward. We finished by jumping a 2’3″ spread, which is quite impressive for a pony only jumping one foot with his rider.

I’m hoping that next lesson this pony behaves on the right rein, and allows his rider to feel a more correct turn.

Dividing Lines

I was teaching some lateral work today and an adage came to mind.

“The Rider`s hips mirror the horse`s hips and the rider`s shoulders mirror that of the horse.”

This made me think about how the body is connected when you teach people to ride.

When you first learn to ride school movements you`re taught to bring your inside shoulder back. I often suggest that this level of rider allows their outside hip forwards, as many people become locked in this area. So the body is divided along a vertical line, from the centre of the rider`s head, bisecting the nose, and torso. As you circle to the right, everything on the right side of the body turns back slightly, as if swivelling around that centre line. The left side turns forwards slightly. Imagine that vertical line in the centre of the body is actually a central dowel to which the body moves around. As everything is connected, the left hip goes forwards with the left shoulder, moving in sync.

By remembering to separate each side of the body rider`s can more easily influence and adjust the movements of the horse when travelling on two tracks. You can often see the instantaneous effect of adjusting the rider`s position slightly on the way the horse is going, and their straightness.

So moving on to the lateral work; the shoulders and hips of the horse are now doing slightly different things … which means that we must bisect the body differently. If we draw a horizontal line at the belly button, and separate the upper and lower half of the bodies we can begin to influence  the horse as he travels laterally.

Let`s begin with shoulder in, as that was the topic of today`s lesson. In shoulder in the hindquarters and hips of the horse travel along the track, which means the rider`s hips must stay facing forwards, and the shoulders come in on an inner track, at approximately 45 degrees. This means that the rider must flex at the waist and allow their shoulders to turn to the inside, at approximately 45 degrees.

Now in today`s lesson my rider`s hips rotated with her shoulders, which caused her horse to evade the shoulder in by “popping” his hindquarters out to the track, so they were at the same angle as the shoulders and the ribs straight. Once we worked on separating the upper and lower body the outside leg could stay on the girth and support the hindquarters thus improving the shoulder in.

If you move on to travers and renvers, the rider should remember that the shoulders need to stay facing forwards and the hips need to turn as the hindquarters move left or right. For example, in left travers the right hip is allowed back slightly, as the outside leg goes behind the girth, and the left hip tilts forwards to allow the horse to flex through their rib cage and bring their left hip forward and to the left.

So the next time you`re struggling with bend, think about bisecting your body and allowing your hips and shoulders to follow those of your horse.

Rein Back

I was teaching rein back to a client a couple of weeks ago. It`s one of those movements all hackers utilise, opening gates for example, but how many people do it correctly?

The footfalls of a correctly ridden rein back mirror the footfalls of trot – each diagonal pair moves in turn.

Now, think about this the next time you rein back, and I`m sure you`ll find it is more of a shuffle. One leg creeps back, then another, and another, and the other. The horse is usually short in the neck and hollow.

This was how my rider and horse reined back the first couple of times. It was all a rush and veered to the right.

Firstly we ran through the aids; both legs behind the girth, rein pressure and the verbal command “back”. Often the legs swing too far back, which unbalances the rider. The rider should also try to lighten their seat so the horse is encouraged to lift their back as they reverse.

The problem with practising rein back is that the horse soon learns to anticipate the aids, so I always interspace rein backs with halts and the odd trots to keep the horse interested.

Back to improving the rein back. As the horse veered to the right, we used the  fence on his right to support him and encourage him to stay straight. I also asked my rider to adjust her leg pressure. In the same way that you push the horse away from the leg when riding forwards (such as to adjust your centre line) she should adjust the pressure of her leg aids in the rein back. Soon, they were going backwards in a straight line with no support.

Next we had a look at the speed of the rein back. It was very rushed and quite tense. After having a trot and little break I asked my rider to halt. Then, I told her to breathe out slowly as she asked for the rein back. Like magic, the movement was slower. However, after three strides the horse shot forwards into a walk. He was now anticipating the end of the rein back.

My rider also adjusted her rein aids. Instead of thinking of bringing her hands back to her tummy she squeezed them as if squeezing a sponge, which creates a milder aid, and more of a half halt, so the horse was less likely to run away from the pressure in his mouth. This, combined with breathing out slowly created two correct strides of rein back, before the horse shuffled again. I told my rider to keep asking for the rein back, so her horse didn`t know how many steps to do before walking forwards. The shuffling was caused by him losing balance and wanting to move forwards. Asking for more strides improved his balance, and when he stopped anticipating the rein back the diagonal pairs moved in time. Once the horse found all of this easier he started dropping his head and lifting his back a bit.

Rein back is the highest form of collection, after all, you are going backwards! So my rider used this with some direct transitions to help improve her trot and the hind leg engagement of her trot. With the engine working more powerfully, I think their medium trot will grow too!

Making Progress

Today’s post is a long one, I’m afraid, and one that I have been planning for a while but haven’t had enough time to give it it’s dues. Neither did I wish to tempt fate.

Some of you may remember me wittering on about a young client who overthinks her riding and is a bit neurotic. What happens if she fell off … Her pony doesn’t like that bag six miles away … She doesn’t want to hurt herself.

Before Christmas I was running out of ideas so I suggested to her Mum that we do the equivalent of turning her away and take the pressure off completely. She still needed to help care for her pony but she would only ride if she wanted to. Instead of teaching her I would teach her brother on the pony instead. Over Christmas the weather wasn’t particularly conducive to riding so I think everyone benefitted from a break. Then in January we borrowed a friends pony so the two kids could have a couple of lessons together. My client rode this friends pony who she initially liked, but then decided he was too fast … I think a snail i overtook them in trot! And she saw her brother doing his riding trot and going over poles quite happily on her pony, which I think made her determined to ride her pony again and be better than her brother.

So in mid-January we started the private lessons again. Now her pony is cute and lovable, but boy does he know how to take the Mickey! He’d been schooled by one of the teenagers at the yard and was perfect, so any nonsense stemmed from his jockey, and was unfortunately something she had to overcome.

The break seemed to have changed her approach to riding as instead of panicking when her pony stopped or tried to go past the gate, she told him off and gave him a little smack and they continued on their way. I have to help from the middle  of the arena with my schooling stick so her legs don’t get too tired, but she is mastering his trot.

So that they didn’t get bored, and I continued to take advantage of this positive approach we started going over poles and little crosses. I had to lead, obviously, and still am even though the jumps are getting bigger. She’s much more confident over the fences and I’ve done exercises without hands to develop her core stability, particularly as her instinctive reaction when she’s worried is to put the handbrake, to which her pony responds with an emergency stop! Which doesn’t help anyone!

after a few weeks of trot work and building up the poles I introduced canter. This pony has such a fast canter! I have to really sprint, but thankfully he’s getting more balanced into the transition so it’s more comfortable for her, him and me!

Still leading, I’ve increased the length of canters, introduced letting go of the saddle and last week letting go of the reins completely. My little client vowed she would never hold both hands out to the side as it was scary, but she quickly realised how much fun it was and let go for herself. I’m not in a rush to stop leading her, despite what my thighs cry, as I need her to be comfortable and balanced into canter so she doesn’t put her handbrake on, as I said earlier, and confuse her pony.

Using cantering and jumping as a bribe, I’ve also persuaded her to walk down the road. This is where her neuroticism comes in as every movement causes her to worry. But I distract her by making jokes and. Last week we posted a letter, so she had to get all the way to the post box without panicking, and practised posting the letter in case she has to do Handy Pony at Pony Club.

Last week was particularly satisfying from my point of view as we successfully went on a hack, cantered with hands out to the side, worked at the scary end of the school (it’s not, there’s just bits and pieces for the horses to look at), trotted over poles, and all with a smile on her face!

Fingers crossed that progress continues with the lighter evenings and warmer weather, and I think my little rider will be ready for Pony Club Camp!

A Lightbulb Moment

I was perusing the internet last week and read the following post:

 thought – what was the moment in your riding career that you had a real light-bulb epiphany on something you had been doing wrong for years and never known? For me it was over twenty years ago when an instructor finally ground into my head that I’d been riding downward transitions wrong since I was 5 years old. I remember his exasperated words to this day. “Pelvis forward to hand, not hand back to pelvis!” I looked at him as if he was bonkers. Then tried it. It worked. Then experimented with it in half halts. It worked there too. Such a simple image, and a complete game changer. What was your moment?

I liked the phraseology used by the instructor, as it created a clear image so I stored it at the back of my mind to trial on some clients.

Firstly, I told one of my advanced clients about the theory and asked her to ride some transitions from walk to halt so that I could see if a) the explanation worked, and b) the effect it had on the horse. This rider is very aware of her seat and rides reasonable downwards transitions so I was more interested in her feedback than anything else.

It was really interesting. I`m often telling clients to think about positive hands, and lightening their seat in their transitions to allow the horse to lift through their back, but sometimes it seems to go over their heads, or they get the wrong end of the stick. My client experimented with some transitions, and she described the pelvic movement as more of a tilt as opposed to pushing it forwards. My analogy for this was to imagine you are on a swing in the playground and at the top of the, well, swing. As you are about to swing down towards earth you tilt your seat back slightly. This rider agreed with this analogy and progressed into trot to walk transitions. In terms of the horse, there was no tension in the neck, and the transition was uphill. The halt transition was akin to the horse standing with his front feet on a step, ready to move forwards instantly. I also noticed that the transitions were more instantaneous, and after riding a few my client didn`t need to use the reins at all.

I was pleased that the explanation seemed so successful, and ended up using it whilst teaching on the weekend. I had a client riding a lazy horse, so got her to think about tilting her pelvis in the downward transitions so that she stopped “with the engine revving at the traffic lights” and subsequently the upwards transition was easier to ride.

Over the last couple of days I`ve ridden a variety of horses and experimented with this technique myself. First of all I felt that it was much worse … and then I realised I already tilted my pelvis in the downwards transitions already, so I wasn`t helping the horse at all. I only realised whilst riding Llani, who requires seat aids more than rein or leg aids and responds well to the tilt of the pelvis that I noticed I was doing it automatically.

This is definitely a phrase that I need to remember and use with clients who aren`t aware of their seat, or who rely on their hands too much when riding a downwards transition. Hopefully it helps anybody reading this too!