An Old Exercise

When I was a kid riding in my weekly group lessons we had a couple of exercises that were performed during our warm up on an almost weekly basis. The BHS don’t encourage it, but when I think back on it I realise that they actually had a lot of benefits for us.

The first exercise was that we’d be trotting round, either rising or sitting, and the command “inside/outside foot out of your stirrup iron”. We’d have to continue exactly what we were doing but minus a stirrup. After a couple of minutes, we’d take it back and repeat with the other foot.

The benefits? Not one of us lost our balance if we ever accidentally lost a stirrup and we could get our foot back in in a nanosecond. How many riders today can do that? This means on a hack, showjumping round, cross country, we weren’t put off our stride by a loss of stirrup.

Secondly, which is the big reason I brought it up today, is that we were pretty symmetrical in the saddle as a result. If you have a leg that is particularly dominant then, even when sitting centrally you rely on that leg to help you rise and to support your body. When that foot is taken from the stirrup, suddenly it’s down to your weaker or lazy leg to support you, which makes rising harder. The rise sequence is more fragile and often not as high.

Yesterday I used this with a client who is coming back from a leg injury. We’ve done a lot in walk without stirrups ensuring she’s sat evenly on her seat bones, but now that we’re progressing to trot work we need to make sure that her weaker leg is working and building strength, otherwise we counteract her physiotherapy sessions. I’ve also done this with riders who sit crooked or have one leg that is far more dominant than the other. In walk, we checked seat bone symmetry and then removed the weaker leg from the stirrup, making sure the seat bones don’t change, and then went up into sitting and rising trot. This is fairly straightforward for most riders because they have their stronger leg stabilising them in the rise. Then we go back to walk and swap legs. This is usually the wake up call. For riders who are unaware (and therefore not really taking in my position lecture) they can see the asymmetry in their body because rising trot is almost impossible for them. For yesterday’s rider, it was more about waking her weaker leg up to the fact it couldn’t drift through life aimlessly and helping her rediscover the muscles. We did short bursts of rising trot a couple of times without her dominant leg until she felt that her weak leg was working better.

When we retook the stirrups back and did another seat bone check, my rider already felt more even, and whilst in the trot her injured leg was still erring on the lazy side, there was definitely an improvement to be seen. She could feel the muscles working harder and her rises felt more level and stronger. Hopefully by using this exercise she’ll be able to strengthen her riding muscles as symmetrically as possible.

If you rely heavily on your stirrups to rise, then going without one foot will cause you to lean your upper body one way, which makes you feel like you’re going to fall off. When the weaker leg is in the stirrup the rider tends to take their shoulders across to that side, so curving their spine. This isn’t the purpose of the exercise; the rider should feel they stay above the horse’s spine but the important part is that they can’t feel a difference between their rising ability with one foot in the stirrup rather than the other, after all the rising comes from the core and thigh muscles rather than the lower leg, but when the lower leg is in the correct position and still it supports the upper body in the rise. I can still remember the lightbulb moment I had when I was little and I managed to rise with one stirrup without feeling that I was going to slide off the side. That’s when I started using the correct muscles and became generally less reliant on stirrups.

I find that trotting without a stirrup to be the easiest way to explain to a rider that they are crooked; after all, crooked becomes the new straight after a while. As soon as a rider is aware of their asymmetry they are more likely to make a conscious effort to straighten themselves up and engage their weaker side.

We also used to do a lot of trotting, sitting and rising, without either stirrup. They’d dangle by the girths, which the BHS hates, but none of our ponies batted an eye when stirrups were lost and banged around for a moment, and the lesson progressed much more quickly by not stopping a ride of eight children to help cross and uncross their stirrups. The BHS also isn’t a fan of rising without stirrups but I find short periods of it can be really beneficial to helping riders find the correct muscles. You do need to be careful that they don’t grip with the knee, but careful observation and explanation soon overcomes this. Again, removing and replacing feet whilst trotting really helped our balance.

Give these exercises a go when you’re next warming up, and it may well be an eye opener about how much you rely on your stirrups for security and to keep you central in the saddle. Let me know how you get on!

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10 Years of Otis

Today marks the ten year anniversary of bringing Otis home. It’s been a journey of mainly ups, but he’s given me so much. I know I’ve changed as a rider in the last ten years as a result of him, and it’s him who motivates me to learn more and further my career.

So I thought I’d treat you all to a selection of photos through the years. Apologies if there’s a photo overload!

Otis in 2007 or early 2008. A baby anyway! He was always very grown up around the yard and apart from tending to walk through you (personal space issues) his manners on the ground were very good. He used to see me coming up the field and march purposely over, bottom lip swinging. I’d catch Matt, and Otis would walk down between us, trying to get as close to me as possible. Once at the gate, I used to let him down to the yard and he’d walk straight to his stable and either go in, or wait outside, depending on whether the door was open.

As a four year old, Otis was very gangly – as you can see in the first two photos, but that winter he really filled out and matured. I was an apprentice then so got a lot of help with schooling him.

Otis had his showing debut with a friend of mine. The yard I trained at did “novice showing shows” twice a year which was really popular with the helpers and liveries. Not at all interested in it, I remember the autumn one when I first started working there. One helper had spent days if not weeks preening her ex-polo mare. And was gutted to be placed last in every class. I remember feeling so sorry for her because she’d put in so much effort, and it was only the mare’s old injuries and conformation – curb, thoroughpin etc – which let them down. So I offered Otis to her in the spring show. I can’t remember if they did the next two or three shows together, but they won or got placed in everything and she had a fab time.

Over the winter I’d done a lot of prelim and novice dressage with him, winning a photo shoot – see photo above – and we won the dressage rider of the year, so got a nice big sash, rosette and trophy. I can’t find the photo of that though.

My photos aren’t as well chronicled after age five (don’t expect any baby albums!) and it’s harder to tell how old Otis is in them, but here are some memories.

The August Otis was five we did our first one day event, getting second place. I remember being very surprised but pleased. It was our second attempt to get to one because the one before Otis had decided to scratch his ear whilst tied up and got rope burn around his hind fetlock – don’t ask … So I went on a friend’s pony, who is never ridden before!

We carried on with the novice dressage and did more jumping, which he loves.

We usually did well: being placed at dressage competitions and usually getting clear cross country, decent dressage and an unlucky showjump eventing. I did achieve my goal of being successful at elementary dressage and BE100, so I’m really proud of him for getting that far. Particular competitions that stand out were jumping clear at Hickstead, and completing the Blenheim eventers challenge for the riding club, but equally I remember a dressage judge getting out her car to tell me how much she liked Otis. The little comments and compliments, as well as his endless patience waiting on the trailer made competing really enjoyable.

The less said about sponsored rides the better. The more he did and the older he got, the more he would prance around, waving his hind feet ten foot in the air. I’m sure my friend will always remember our ride around Highclere, where Otis did airs above the ground for two hours. He sat back on his hindquarters, lifted the front in a levade, jumped forward, and kicked out his hind legs. The Spanish Riding School would’ve been impressed. I wasn’t quite so impressed when he did it going downhill! Needless to say, he loved hacking on his own or with a couple of others. So long as he was at the front!

On the ground, I don’t think Otis could’ve been anymore perfect. He’s incredibly patient, loves attention, fab to shoe, clip, vet, dentist, everyone, and is great in company. Although he will look slightly miffed if he hears me teaching and not working him! I think one of the best things about him is that he just goes with the flow, and doesn’t get wound up about coming in early or late, or having a field friend or not. So long as he has the odd polo and plenty of cuddles, he’s happy!

Ten years has flown by, and whilst the last eighteen months hasn’t been what I wanted, I value every lesson he’s taught me and have enjoyed every second of our journey together. I might not ride him again, who knows, but he’s given me so much and now he can enjoy time with his field buddies, listening to the baby (maybe he’ll understand when he sees her), crunching endless apples, and being there when I need him to let me escape from the world. Happy ten years Otis Motis!

No Hands!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Good Walk

I thought I’d already done a blog post about the qualities of a good walk, but it appears that I haven’t.

So here goes, with the help of my little helper of course.

The walk gait consists of four beats, with each leg moving individually. The sequence goes like this: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore.

The stride wants to be of an even length, relaxed, flowing and steady. Each leg should flex at the fetlock and knee/hock well, and be purposeful in stride. I often tell young clients to imagine their pony is walking out of maths on a Friday afternoon rather than into maths on a Monday morning. Yep, you’re imagining those teenagers dragging their toes on a Monday and skipping out of school on a Friday!

The hind legs should be placed in front of the prints left by the fore feet, which is called over tracking. I’ve just read that over tracking enables the horse to absorb shock from the hard ground better. A horse who over tracks is also lighter on the forehand, so is more likely to get concussive injuries on the forelegs and less likely to work correctly and develop the correct muscles.

The average speed of a horse’s walk is four miles per hour, and it should feel relaxed, with the back swinging with each stride. The head and neck swings with each step of the foreleg, which is why many say don’t use side reins for too long in walk, because it restricts the natural swing of the horse.

When walking, as with all gaits, the horse should move straight. This means that each leg is pointing towards the direction of movement so propels the horse forward in the most efficient manner.

The frame of the horse should be slightly poll low, rather than poll high because then there is less tension over the back and the horse will stay more relaxed.

The walk is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve. Carl Hester always looks for a horse with a good walk and canter, as training will improve the trot. But why is the walk the hardest gait to improve?

It’s the slowest and has the least natural energy, and if a rider is too eager to input the energy they will throw the horse out of the four beat rhythm, causing a choppy stride and tension in the body. Which then causes them to inhibit the natural movement of the head and neck by holding too tight with the hands in an attempt to control the new energy. If a horse is pushed out of their four bear rhythm they are liable to start pacing. This is a two beat gait where the lateral feet step forwards simultaneously. Often, riders feel they’ve got an energetic walk as their horse begins to pace because they are covering the ground quicker, but as the four beat rhythm has been lost it is heavily criticised in dressage tests.

A horse who is hurried out of their natural rhythm, will be out of balance. This means that subsequent transitions aren’t balanced. They will struggle to halt squarely, or to push off into a balanced and correct trot or canter.

Horse can also be allowed to dawdle, which is when they’re allowed to drag their toes. Here, they usually still have a four beat gait, but the cadence and length of stride has deteriorated. Consequently, horses are more likely to use their forehand in the transitions and to be stiff through their body.

Next up, let’s see how we can improve the walk. I find the best way to teach a horse to walk with more purposefulness and energy, is to use hacks because a horse is naturally more forwards out of the arena. Then you can focus on channelling the extra energy into quality steps without the horse rushing. Steep hills will encourage the horse to use their hindquarters more efficiently and strengthen their muscles. When they walk correctly up a steep hill you can really feel the back lift and the hindlegs engage.

Other exercises involve collecting and extending the walk, which improves their balance and coordination, but you want to stay focused on their rhythm and only make small adjustments so that they still over track and keep the four beats.

Polework can help increase the horse’s cadence, and circle work will improve their suppleness which will increase their range of movement within each limb so their stride quality will improve.

I also think it’s important to be consistent in what you expect from a horse’s walk. Even when giving them a break mid-session, or cooling them down at the end, you should insist of the purposefulness of the walk, and maintaining the correct rhythm as so often both rider and horse switch off at these times. When the horse knows they have to walk actively and correctly at all times it becomes easier for the rider to influence because there is more natural energy to work with.

Securing The Lower Leg

I was teaching a client this week about awareness of her horse’s bend, and how to adjust it. In it’s most basic sense, it was just about her feeling the bend throughout her horse’s body and beginning to think about asking for more bend in circles and turns. Until now I’ve been getting her to turn her body, use her seat and leg aids correctly to manoeuvre her horse, but the focus has been on the correctness of her as a rider. So now is the time to put these skills to the test and use them to improve her horse’s suppleness whilst getting her to think more about her horse’s way of going.

My rider could identify which rein was her horse’s stiffer, and we discussed how to ask for a bit more flexion by opening the inside rein and using the inside leg to push the horse into the outside bend. Here, we met a problem.

Where my rider, due to learning in the 80s, grips hard with her knees, her lower leg swings back. We’ve spent time working on correcting this, but when she isn’t thinking about her leg position they wander back. Which means that the inside leg isn’t working on the girth. So she’s inadvertently asking for counter bend.

I threatened, in a joking way, to tie her stirrups to her girth to prevent her leg swinging. Before I knew it, her helpful husband had produced a bit of string!

I took my client’s inside foot out of the stirrup, and tied the inside of the iron to the girth securely. My rider could barely find her stirrup to put her foot back in.

Immediately, she was aware of how her leg swings back each time she applied the leg aid. After walking a circle, we tried trotting a few circles. Once she’d gotten used to rising with a stable lower leg, and keeping the heel below the hip, she could feel how easy it was to use her inside leg to ask for more inside bend. There were a couple of lightbulb moments when her horse had the correct bend, engaged the inside hind and softened through his back and neck.

There were many moans because the position felt so alien, but as my rider could feel the benefit she tried to keep her leg still.

When we were ready to change the rein, I swapped the string to the other leg. This is because the new rein was the more supple, and the outside leg needed to be able to move behind the girth. However, I thought it would be beneficial for my rider to develop an awareness of the instability of her lower leg, regardless of rein.

I’d quite like to warm my rider up next time with string keeping her stirrups at the girth as this will improve her position and awareness, as well as training her muscles. Then when I take the string away, she’ll be able to use the inside leg on the girth to ask for the correct bend.

You have to be quite careful not to do the exercise for too long as her muscles will complain, and you need to have a reliable, steady horse to reduce the risk of her falling off or getting her foot stuck. Ideally, and I’ve used them when I’ve done a similar exercise with kids, you want safety stirrups because the foot can come out of the iron more easily. I think giving my rider physical restrictions on her stirrups highlighted far more than me repeatedly telling her, or moving her leg in halt, how much her lower leg swings and how much it affects the horse.

Grass Reins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising Prices

There’s been a lot in the news recently about the pay cap on public sector workers, particularly firefighters after the recent Grenfell tragedy. 

I’m not going to get involved with it as politics isn’t my strong point, but with the cost of basic living always rising it makes sense that wages have to follow the trend.

Which brings me onto equine businesses and changing prices. Business rates recently rocketed, hitting livery yards hardest. But unfortunately for them, you cannot raise livery prices in line with this because the rest of the country’s economy hasn’t changed in a similar fashion.

I always think that in order to raise your prices, be it livery, forage, lessons, facility hire, you need to be able to justify it. Take me, for example, now I have a higher teaching qualification I think I can justifiably increase lesson prices. If you are investing in new facilities or updating current ones then there is also room to increase fees. 

Unfortunately there are a lot of hidden costs in the equine industry, which is why things are generally expensive. For me, hidden costs include petrol, insurance, PPE, website costs, professional development. For yards, hidden costs can include ongoing maintenance, insurance, business rates, staff wages, machinery maintenance. So when there’s a sharp increase in one of the hidden costs it can make clients feel that price hikes are unfair. But you can be honest, and without going into specifics, tell them that the reason you are having to put up your fees is, for example, because of the increase in your insurance premium. Or whatever the reason is. I think that when people know why they are being charged more they are more accepting of the situation. Which ultimately leads to happier clients and a more respected business.

I also think that if a price rise is imminent then it’s also worth checking that your standards haven’t slipped. You can’t justifiably increase your fees if you continue to be late to lessons, or if the standard of service is deteriorating. That’s when people will get unhappy and start grumbling. People need to feel that they get value for money, and if they feel that they currently get good value for money then they will be more accepting of increased fees.

I’ve been giving my prices a lot of thought recently, particularly with my ITT exam. They haven’t changed since I set up my business three years ago. Well, last year I increased my clipping fees to stay in line with others, and because I had a new pair of clippers. Which means I can do a better job. 

But how do you go about changing price lists without disrupting your business? I always think client loyalty should be rewarded, and you have to balance out whether you are better keeping your prices the same and having a client have weekly lessons, or by putting your prices up and meaning that they then have fortnightly lessons. So long as you can fill that space then financially you haven’t lost out. But it’s a risk you take. Halving the number of lessons someone has is also detrimental to their education which may be catastrophic if they’re a nervous rider or on a green horse. So out of loyalty and respect for your clients it’s worth bearing that in mind. If you are a livery yard and put up prices then you risk owners doing favours for each other rather than using your services, which could affect your income.

There is also a question of how much to raise prices by. I always think there should be notice given to price changes of at least a month to allow families to budget. I also don’t think you should raise prices drastically, for example more than 10%. It’s a far softer blow to have two incremental price rises over three years than a large jump, which will upset the apple cart and risk the stability of your business. Plus, you don’t want to look greedy!

Equestrianism is already seen as elitist, so making yourself unavoidable to the amateur rider only does a disservice to the sport.

I think it’s also worth considering just changing the prices of one area of the business. So if facilities have changed, or equipment improved then you could justifiably increase prices for that area. Going back to my ITT exam; a higher teaching qualification could mean I’m better off just increasing lesson prices, and leaving schooling fees as they are. Which would only affect a portion of my business, meaning it’s probably more affordable for clients and less of a business risk to me. As a livery yard, if you have invested in new jumps or a cross country field then you could justifiably increase hire fees.

There’s lots of different elements to consider, and various ways to make the pill easier to swallow. I’ve altered my price list on my website for new clients, but am not changing current client prices at the moment. I do think all businesses should think carefully about the ways and means of changing fees. Which have to change as inflation, wages and living costs rise, but it should be done sensitively so that the business carries on running smoothly and clients continue to be satisfied with the quality of service they receive.

Shock Absorbers

I used this exercise a couple of times last week with various clients. It’s a bit of a brain teaser, but helps to improve the arm position.

We all know that there should be a straight line from the horse’s bit, through the wrist, to the elbow, which hangs below the shoulder. Easier said than done and many people ride with too straight an elbow.

The first client I introduced this concept to has very tense arms, and her go-to position is to lock her arms when she’s nervous. So we’ve done a lot of work on keeping the wrists soft and not braced, working on the lunge without reins, building her confidence so that she’s not as inclined to “hold on” with her hands.

So the overall picture is getting better, but because this rider has a tendency to lock and stiffen her arms, the elbows don’t act as shock absorbers and subsequently her rein contact and hand position isn’t very consistent.

Still looking hands are the ideal, but the only way to create the illusion of having still hands is to have them so that they follow every movement of the horse. In order to do this, the elbows need to absorb any movement. After all, holding something rigidly still gives the impression of a stream flowing around a large rock.

As we all know, jumping and landing with our knees straight causes a jarring feeling through our body, and the only way to avoid jarring yourself is to land with your knees bent slightly. Knees are hinge joints, the same as elbows, so in order for the elbows to be shock absorbers they must also have a bend to them.

For riders who struggle with carrying tension in their arms, it is important to introduce some movement to the arms. But obviously it needs to be controlled movement and to go with the movement of the horse and rider.

Take rising trot, beginning with the arms in the classically correct position. As you stand up out your stirrups, push your hands down; as you sit down, raise them up. It’s a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head but once you get it it’s fairly straightforward.

Initially the movement wants to be quite exaggerated, especially as it feels quite alien to the rider. But after riding it for a few circuits you will find that when the rider thinks of another exercise or movement they will stop actively opening and closing the elbow, but because the arm is relaxed and movement has been introduced the elbow will open and close slightly, thus acting as a shock absorber and giving the illusion that the hands are perfectly still. Then because the hands and arms are moving perfectly with the horse, the contact will remain consistent.

My client with tense arms understood the concept well and it was good to see the elbows starting to work properly after moving them as she rose, but we need more practice in getting her to move her arms so that she doesn’t rapidly adopt the locked arm look. 

I find this exercise is also useful for anyone who struggles to hold a consistent contact as it improves their feel and awareness of their hands and arms; and it’s also very good at relaxing riders who maybe need their brains focused on something rather than their environment. 

My ITT Exam

I had a blog topic all lined up for you tonight, but as I had the very exciting news in the post today that I passed my BHS Intermediate Teaching Test, which together with my Stage IV that I got a few years ago, I’m now a BHS Intermediate Instructor! Yay!! So instead tonight I’m going to bore you with the details of my exam, and my other story will just have to wait – apologies in advance!


I had a very early start to get to my exam in order to avoid the M25 at rush hour, but when I got there with plenty of time I buddied up with another girl, who seemed confident and knew what we were supposed to be doing! Off we went to the indoor schools; to walk the simulated cross country and showjumping courses. We would be teaching one of those lessons, but would only be told in the briefing at 8.15am. The cross country course looked fairly straightforward and walked well. However the showjumping had slightly dodgy striding, which would mean we’d need to adjust it during the lesson. 

Our five examiners all seemed very nice – approachable and friendly. If not slight batty. But I think that happens to everyone in the horse world at some point! They put us at ease anyway, and once all the paperwork and everything was filled out we started the exam.

First up, I had presentations and equitation theory. I think I was quite glad to get the presentations out the way because it was definitely an area that worried me. In the ITT exam you prepare nine presentations on coaching topics, and present a random one. I was given “non-rider injury prevention”. Not my favourite, but also by no means the hardest one! I had to present it to the two other ladies in my group, who got nicely involved. I think the main point of the presentations is that the examiner can see that you engage with your audience and have a discussion more than a lecture.

The equitation theory covered training horses up to elementary standard, describing how to ride various dressage movements, and how you would develop both horse and rider over fences. As well as preparing them for their first competition. All of my friends’ quizzing the week before paid off as I felt quite happy answering questions. I was cut off a couple of times, which always worries you, but I think that was because the examiner was happy with my answer and wanted another candidate to give their thoughts. Overall, I left that section feeling nicely focused and confident, which I think made me feel better for the flat private lesson, which was next!

Two candidates took this unit of the exam simultaneously, so there were two horses ready for us. One, I recognised from my training day as being the quirky one who changed canter lead behind every half dozen strides. To my relief, I had the slightly daunting Spanish horse complete in double bridle … there’s a post somewhere already about that. Here it is!

Anyway, I felt I got a good rapport with the rider and made some tweaks to both horse and rider. I managed to answer the examiner’s questions after and she seemed happy enough so I felt that went alright. I also felt quite confident that this rider would give positive and fair feedback to the examiner.

My next stop was the private jump lesson, and I was in the showjumping arena. My rider was an ex-eventer but had never ridden this riding school horse before. I announced to the examiner that as they were an unknown combination I’d treat it as an assessment lesson so they could develop a relationship. So I lowered the fences a bit below standard. They warmed up and the horse was very honest and straightforward. Just crooked, and drifted left all the time. It was also stuffy so I shortened all the distances to build it’s confidence, and we put together the course in stages. There was a dog leg to the right, and we had a couple of problems with the horse drifting to the left and around the style. So I explained to my rider how to adjust her line so that she had as many straight strides as possible before the style. Then they flew it and the rest of the course no problem. When I spoke to the examiner afterwards I said I wouldn’t take them much over 80cm until the straightness and suppleness issues were sorted, which the examiner said she agreed wholeheartedly with. I felt this lesson went well generally, but I was slightly worried that I hadn’t jumped big enough. But then I’d provided a reason so that was the best I could do really.

After a really long lunch break because of the timetabling, I had business management. Again, I felt that went reasonably well and I answered all the questions; including the bonus one that DEFRA can randomly inspect yards to see if all horses have passports and if they haven’t you can be fined up to £1000 per horse – ouch! Some of these questions were a bit of common sense and some purely educated guesses so fingers crossed!

Then I had to teach a group of riders on the flat – thank god I didn’t need to test my grid distances because these riding school horses would struggle with competition distances and it would have upset my frame of mind. I had three riders and two stuffy horses, and one which didn’t bend. After watching them warm up I introduced a four loop serpentine (the arena was 70m long!) which would benefit all the horse’s suppleness and then I put in transitions to help those that were behind the leg. Then we did trot-canter-trot transitions to help improve the quality of the canter. Everyone seemed to improve and the riders gave me good feedback, which I hoped they’d reiterate to the examiner.

Finally, I had to do a lunge lesson. I felt fairly well prepared for this, but when I arrived I saw a rather dour looking woman. And I was reminded of the conversation over lunch … “I had X to teach. She wasn’t very helpful. She didn’t listen to anything I said.” 

I knew it was the same lady, so felt a bit put off. And I was also feeling a little tired by then, so I made a couple of mistakes – forgetting to undo the reins until the last minute as she was mounting, and not encouraging her to hold on to the saddle in her very bouncy trot without stirrups. So I came away slightly frustrated, but at least I thought I had raised a smile and she had complied with my instructions so hopefully she would give the examiner fair feedback. 

Thankfully I missed the rush hour back to get home in time for Pilates, and since then I’ve been reflecting and dissecting the whole day until today’s post! 

Along with my certificates I had feedback from the lessons, which is really great. The examiners all said I managed the lessons safely, improved the riders, developed a rapport, had good structure to my lessons, used open questions to engage my riders, and gave relevant technical knowledge – I’m so pleased!

So now I’ve bored you all to tears about my ITT exam, I’ll finish my glass of wine and make a start on the very large box of chocolates my long suffering husband bought home with some flowers. 

A Daunting Task

I taught a very daunting lesson earlier this week with a guinea pig rider.

She entered the arena with a rather snazzy looking Spanish horse, bedecked in a double bridle. 

The rider was very confident, as she was legged up onto the jogging mare. I made the necessary enquiries to tick the box:

  • What’s the rider’s name, riding experience, qualifications, medical history.
  • What’s the horse’s name, experience, history and medical history.
  • What was the horse and rider relationship.

This girl was a Stage IV rider and this was her new horse, recently come over from Spain. It could do all the lateral movements but didn’t have a competition record.

Gulp.

What on earth should I teach them?!

I admit, I felt slightly out of my depth. I take a while to get into my groove, especially with confident riders because I get a bit intimidated. The horse was also a far higher calibre than I’ve taught before.

I started the session by watching them warm up. It gave me time to think. The trot was choppy and short striding; the canter was bouncy and tense and this rider said that whilst the horse didn’t feel like she was going to bolt, she was strong. The mare tried to evade the contact by tucking her nose to her chest. The rider had a good balanced position, and secure lower leg. If I’m going to be really picky, she was a bit collapsed in her upper body, and had a tendency to fix her hands.

I had a plan. Despite the horse’s high level of training, there were some basic elements that we could improve. Equally though, the mare was hot and quick thinking, so needed to be kept mentally stimulated. 

I explained to my rider that I felt we should work on relaxing the mare, and getting her to take the contact forwards, instead of tucking behind the bridle. As the mare was a busy type, I suggested we used leg yield to get the mare stepping under with her inside hind leg and taking the contact forwards. Our focus being on the neck staying long and the mare relaxing.

We started in walk, and immediately it was obvious that the mare is very talented with an extravagant crossover. She easily leg yielded from the three-quarter line to the track. However, as with any big mover, she had the tendency to escape from her rider – in the leg yield the rider tends to lose her outside shoulder. 

Once we moved into the trot the loss of the outside shoulder was more noticeable, so I brought my riders   attention to her outside rein contact, making sure it prevented too much inside flexion and supported the outside shoulder. Then I highlighted how she was pinning her inside rein by the wither, so encouraging the mare to turn to the inside and fall through the outside shoulder. As soon as that hand was carried forwards the leg yield improved because they were straight. Then we turned our attention to keeping the trot rhythm consistent through the movement.

After working on both reins I felt there was a slight improvement; the rider was more in tune with the horse, who was starting to lengthen her neck and was moving laterally in a more relaxed manner.

I didn’t want to work on the canter – no need to over complicate matters – so we moved on to zig zag leg yielding. This was to ensure the mare wasn’t anticipating going from the three-quarter line to the track, and was responsive to the riders outside leg. The rider also had to make more subtle aids and change her position slowly as she changed direction so as to help maintain their balance. We talked about which direction was easier: the left leg yield was more extravagant but felt less controlled, than the right which had less crossing but was straighter and with no rushing. 

By the end of the session I felt the mare was much improved, with a longer trot stride, and more relaxed and consistent in her frame. I did mention to her rider about trying her in just a snaffle bridle to establish a consistent contact, and to get the horse seeking it more, but I think as it’s early days in their relationship it might be an exercise for the future. This rider gave me positive feedback, and seemed to understand the lesson concept and reasoning behind it, so hopefully I’ve helped her. 

Now that I’ve been thrown in the deep end, and managed to survive I actually reflect on that lesson in a positive light, and would quite like to teach this pair in the future.