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.


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.

Building Expression

I was schooling a horse recently who has very correct and established paces, but isn’t the biggest mover so often has average marks in a dressage test as he lacks the “wow” factor. So I had a play at building some expression into his work.

Once I’d warmed him up long and low, stretching over his back, and had done some lateral work, I opened him up into some medium trot. He lengthened nicely from behind, but he could have given more.

I was riding in a large arena, and you need to have one which is more that 20m wide in order to ride this exercise.

In trot, establish shoulder in at the beginning of the long side. Halfway along, ride out of the shoulder in onto a 45 degree turn, so you effectively cut the corner off, and ask some medium trot. When you reach the short side, approximately halfway along, stay on the same rein in working trot. 

The shoulder in collects the horse, gets their inside hind leg underneath them and taking their weight. Which means it’s in a better position to push forwards to medium trot. The turn onto the diagonal line ensures they don’t fall out of the outside shoulder as you ride out of shoulder in and ask for medium trot. Staying on the same rein after the medium trot makes the exercise simpler as they don’t need to change bend, so keep their balance easier and maintain the impulsion into working trot.

The result is a more extravagant and powerful medium trot and an expressive working trot, which is still rhythmical and balanced, yet would earn more marks in a dressage test. 

It’s a fun exercise, so try putting it together next time you ride and see if you can feel the improvement in their general way of going as a result.

Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 

Inputting Impulsion

With one of my young riders we’re slowly working through the scales of training; getting her to understand, apply and improve her pony. Rhythm and suppleness have improved, and she has now grasped the feel of a good contact, and knows how to ride her pony into the contact when he hollows and comes above the bit.

So our next phase is to improve and increase their impulsion. I always explain to clients that basically impulsion is energy without speed; when energy is the purposefulness, or desire to go forwards. 

But it can be tricky for riders to generate the impulsion without losing the first two stages – rhythm and suppleness. 

When I asked my client for some suggestions to generate some impulsion into the trot, she replied by telling me that when she uses her leg to put in some energy her pony gets faster. Which didn’t really answer my question, but was a valid observation. I explained why her pony, who is a jumping machine, thought leg meant faster and how he pulls himself forwards, instead of using his hindquarters.

She still hadn’t worked out how to improve her pony’s impulsion, so I brought in a bit of maths.

If she adds energy to her horse but also gets speed, then she should use this to help improve the amount of energy he has in his gait. Then, when the energy is established, she can take away the speed. Once the speed is taken away, she is left with impulsion.

Then my rider suggested she could use medium trot to create impulsion. I agreed, and off she went.

Along the long sides of the school she focused on putting energy into the trot; feeling her pony use his hindquarters, and not losing the rhythm. Then as she approached the short side, she had to take away the speed. By the time she’d done a few transitions she could feel the improvement in the trot, so we added in circles to practice maintaining the impulsion for longer. 

Now she’s got the feeling of a more purposeful trot we can focus on maintaining this level of impulsion for longer periods, and then maintaining it on circles and school movements, checking that the rhythm and suppleness aren’t inhibited. 

Working through the scales of training is like peeling an onion; each time you introduce another level, or increase the difficulty, then you need to revisit the previous levels to ensure total understanding by horse and rider, and to make sure the horse continues to work correctly and to  improve. After all, if one of the building blocks starts to erode as you move up the levels and you don’t fix it then the whole thing falls down. 

Things To Do In The Cold

We’re into week three of unrelenting sub-zero temperatures and the trouble is that the ground is frozen to a deep level and is only superficially thawing each day.

Combined with freezing fog, limited turnout, and fewer daylight hours we’re restricted to the arena. Most of which at the moment are as hard as the roads.

Which leaves us only able to walk. The slowest, most boring gait!

After spending three hours schooling horses in walk this morning, I’ve come up with a list of exercises to occupy you and your horse.

  1. Long-reining. Yes it’s not riding, but whilst walking around behind your horse you keep nice and warm. It is also a different dimension to riding, particularly at slower fairs, to keep the horse interested in work. It also gives you chance to study the way your horse is working.
  2. In-hand work. This time of year is a good opportunity to introduce lateral work to your horse, or perhaps refresh their memories, and again you can study the correctness of the movements from the ground.
  3. De-sensitisation. If your horse tends to spook at different objects, or isn’t a fan of fillers, then scattering fillers, cones, and any other object (don’t have one that will flap and cause a big shy on the hard ground) and work your horse around these strange objects in walk so he learns to ignore them. Creating a tunnel of fillers can also be a useful exercise.
  4. Polework. Yes we’re only in walk, but using tunnels of poles to check your straightness, making zig zag tunnels to improve their proprioception, stepping over slightly raised poles on circles, all helps engage the mind and supple their joints.
  5. School movements. You can work on small circles, numerous-looped serpentines, 10m figure of eights, and any other school movement you can think of; being incredibly critical of yourself, your horse, and striving to ride it perfectly. After all, you have plenty of time to correct you both within the movement. Plus, on frosty days you can see your tracks so you can analyse precisely when you faltered.
  6. Quality of the walk. Really focus your attention on the four beat rhythm; tempo; balance; light, even rein contact; active, even strides; straightness; impulsion; outline/self carriage of the horse; and relaxed frame with a swinging back. You can also play around with extended walk and collected walk.
  7. Work without stirrups. It’s not as taxing as sitting trot without stirrups but it should highlight and crookedness in yourself, or twisting through any movements as well as allowing you to use your seat more to influence the horse, and feel the movement underneath you more.
  8. Transitions. Transitions can be between halt and walk or between the various types of walk. In all of them you are looking for the horse to be responsive to the aids, your aids to be as light as possible, the horse to stay straight and balanced, and the hind quarters engaged.
  9. Rein back. Incorporating rein back into your walk-halt transitions can stop your horse anticipating. Again, you’re looking to use the lightest aids possible; the rein back to be straight, relaxed, the back lifting and the neck staying nice and long with the diagonal legs stepping back in pairs. Many horses tense their neck, hollow their back and shuffle backwards, so take your time to improve this so your horse understands the concept and takes quality backwards steps.
  10. Lateral work. All too often we focus on lateral work in trot and canter to supple our horse, but these lateral movements are actually much harder to perfect in walk. Don’t stick with the typical “leg yield track to three quarter line”, but use the centre line, leg yield into shoulder in, zig zag leg yield. Be creative! Turn on the forehand is also a useful change of rein, and adding this to the mix of halting and rein back ensures your horse stays listening to you.
  11. Free walk on a long rein. Always worth double marks in dressage tests, it’s often a weak point for many riders, so use days like this to practice the transition from medium walk into free walk on a long rein. The free walk needs to stay four beat,  have active strides, show a good over track, maintain a rein contact despite the rein being longer, have the horse stretching their head and neck out and down, and be purposeful.
  12. If the roads aren’t icy, or you have fields to ride around, then take the opportunity when you can to have a change of scenery.

Net Curtain Syndrome

Net Curtain Syndrome. We all know humans who suffer from it. Like Harry Potter`s Aunt Petunia, they know all about the ins and outs of the lives of their neighbours, work colleagues, shop assistants, local barmen, everyone.

Horses also suffer from this ailment. Do you know of one?

Matt has a classic case of Net Curtain Syndrome, but I also know a few other horses who have degrees of the syndrome.

How do you know your horse is a sufferer? Firstly, how much attention and focus does he pay to you when you are working with him? Is he solely concentrating on you or does his mind wander to watch the horses in nearby fields, or the person walking across the yard?

Horses with a short attention span, one who is easily distracted, will show this most frequently in the halt. When you ride forwards to halt, they stop, but turn their head to immediately look at something outside the arena. Then when you ask them to move off again it takes a couple of asks for them to respond. There is also nothing worse then cantering towards a jump and they suddenly become more interested in the horse walking past!

If you have a horse who suffers from Net Curtain Syndrome the best thing to do is to confront the issue and consistently teach them that when you are working with him it is paramount that he focuses entirely on you.

When you are actively riding, in the school, and something triggers a loss of attention (perhaps a horse cantering around his field) the best way to stop your horse getting to carried away at watching or joining in is to act like a demanding toddler.

Toddlers are renowned for being very self-orientated – “me, me, me!” – so repeatedly bring your horse`s attention back to you. Pretend you are pulling the apron strings on a busy Mum (old fashioned I know, I don’t think I know anyone who wears an apron on a regular basis). If you are a parent I`m sure you can relate to this irritating situation.

When your horse`s focus has begun to drift, circle. Or make a transition. Ride a shallow loop, or a serpentine. Expect a good quality movement, and instant response; and your horse will rapidly realise that his attention is better concentrated on you and your wishes, rather than what is going on across the field.

Once you establish that instead of reprimanding your horse when they lose concentration, you just redivert their attention, and your schooling sessions are busy enough, and mentally taxing, to keep your horse`s focus, they will soon learn that there is no point daydreaming and gazing outside the arena.

If you have a horse who really suffers from Net Curtain Syndrome then you try to ride at quiet times of the day. After all, it`s far easier to avoid the problem! But this doesn’t help you at competitions. So you need to expose your horse to different situations, and different distractions.

Take an easy exercise, that`s well within your comfort zone, and ride it in the arena while a distraction, such as the morning turnout, is happening. The work itself is easy, so you can focus your efforts on keeping your horses focus. By doing this frequently your horse should soon learn to work in all conditions. So long as you are paying very little attention to the distraction, it shouldn`t affect your work.

My Mum has a goal to work on with Matt now that he`s home. She is going to work on keeping his attention. When you are schooling him, or hacking, he is pretty good at ignoring most things – he is much better when you yourself aren’t paying any attention to it. Matt`s weak areas are his walk, any stretching, and halt. That’s when he is most likely to peer about. It`s what lost us a couple of marks in our last dressage test. We were trotting a twenty metre circle, allowing him to stretch, when the next competitor came into sight. The second half of the circle consisted of Matt sticking his head up, looking out, and me rapidly picking up the reins so I could minimise the negative effect on our next movement. In the final halt, he also looked at that competitor. To overcome this little issue, Matt needs to do lots of walking, free rein, halt transitions, with the ethos that he must remain focused. Hopefully with this consistency, he will soon stop trying to look around. After all, if he never succeeds then why try?

Net Curtain Syndrome can be frustrating, but by working on it, having consistent standards, keeping your horse`s mind busy, and ensuring you don’t let your mind wander either, it can be minimised.


Interesting Trotting Poles

My friend has a horse who is in rehab and needs lots of work over poles. Last week she laid some poles out on a diagonal to add some variation because he concentrated more when trotting diagonally over the poles and we talked about ideas to make trotting poles more interesting.

Twenty four hours later, I was teaching a pair of siblings. The weather was awful so I didn’t want to jump, yet also didn’t want to bore them with flatwork (one pony has the attention span of a gnat on a hot plate unless there’s jumps involved and to be honest, the weather wasn’t conducive to having an argument with a napping pony) so I opted for trotting poles.

The horse in this lesson tends to rush poles so I needed to make him think and slow down, and I wanted to improve everyone’s suppleness and agility. 

I laid the poles out in an S-shape. Three parallel, at 4’6″ apart, then three on a slight left bend, with the centre off the poles 4’6″ apart. A further three bearing round to the right, and then three more parallel poles to finish. I measured the distances to the centre of each pole, and the first three and last three poles were parallel to each other.

This meant that in order to maintain the same trot, with regular strides, the horses had to bend left and right. I find that if you do trotting poles on a curve then the horse is liable to drifting out, which is of no benefit to anyone. By putting in the double twist the horses couldn’t fall out by more than a stride, because as soon as they did, they had to change their bend.

We worked through the poles until my riders were riding the twist accurately, added a little impulsion to help their horse through the change of bend, stayed central to the poles, and their horses didn’t fit any extra strides in (this happens when they fall out because the distance between the poles is greater). The pony was clever, and initially adjusted his stride so he could do minimal bend, yet not clip a pole. So I made his rider aware of this, and be firmer with his steering aids so they met each pole in the middle.

I was really pleased that the other horse did not rush the poles, and you could see him thinking about the exercise. He wasn’t quite as clever with his feet and if he didn’t get the twist just right, he clipped a pole. His rider just needed to support him more, and close the leg on the turns to help him maintain his trot stride.

Once the twisted trotting poles were easy, I started raising them. I raised three at a time, at alternate ends. I wanted the slanted poles to focus my riders to the centre; and make it more obvious when the horses cheated and went straight, because they would clunk over the high ends of the poles. When the last three parallel poles were raised it caused very little issue, except highlighting when the horses lost impulsion. They soon picked up their feet though, so I raised the next three, which were on the right turn. Again, it made it obvious when the horses weren’t central and they were more likely to roll the poles.

By the end of the lesson all twelve poles were raised and the horses were negotiating S-shape easily, bending nicely and being very active in their trot. To finish, I asked my riders to trot large on each rein and feel and describe the difference to the trot. Both came back saying the trot felt more active, energetic, and with bigger strides. I thought both horses also looked like they’d found some abdominal muscles and had lengthened their necks where they were less tense.

It was really pleasing to see how they all focused and thought about the exercise, and you could really see a difference to the way the horses moved afterwards. Now to find a few more different interesting pole work exercises for my friend!


I love this straightforward exercise as it teaches riders an awareness of the different types of canter, the different bascules a horse can make, and a certain degree of determination.

When warming up for the jumping exercise it is important to get the horse responsive to the aids, lengthening and shortening the strides in both trot and canter. Doing this also ensures the rider is aware of the variations between the gaits; and you can check that they are asking correctly for the extension and collection.

The exercise itself is two fences on the three quarter line with 40ft between them. For a horse, this is three non jumping canter strides and for a pony it is four canter strides. Initially, it is important to ride the combination on both reins ensuring that the working canter is rhythmical and the same number of strides occurs each time. Sometimes the height of the fences need adjusting slightly to ensure that the horse manages the set number of strides comfortably.

Last night, when I used this exercise with a teenager and her pony, I used cross poles because the mare drifts right and I wanted the centre of the cross to focus my rider on a straight line. This means that the distance between the fences doesn`t increase as it would do if they drifted.

The pair managed to get four canter strides between the fences easily, so the next stage in the exercise was to try to fit five canter strides between the fences. It is easier to learn to shorten the canter before lengthening the strides because the horse is usually more compliant.

My rider managed to shorten the canter on the approach very well and they negotiated the first fence with a neat, steep bascule. Landing quite close to the fence gave them an extra couple of feet between the jumps which can really help squeeze in the extra stride. They got four bouncy canter strides between the fences, but instead of adding a fifth stride, the mare took a flying leap over the second jump.

This is where determination comes into it. The mare thought she knew best, and until now she has been allowed to find her own stride. So my rider had to hold the mare together and be quite firm in waiting for the fifth stride. After a few tries, they succeeded! We practiced on both reins, with the right rein being the trickier one to collect.

After fitting in five strides between the jumps they had one go at putting in four strides again, which required slight lengthening, and then came the fun part! They easily managed to remove the fourth stride, taking three long canter strides and long, lower bascules over the fence. We only did it once on each rein because the mare found it so easy. I also felt that she was developing a bad habit of not picking up her forefeet over the jumps.

Unfortunately we then had difficulty taming the canter back into the working canter, which required my rider to just sit tall, close the rein whilst lifting the hand and having the leg maintaining the canter. I think there was a slight lightbulb moment for my rider when she realised how she needed to wait for the fence to come to her. Once of course, the mare realised she couldn`t control the speed she came back to her rider nicely so that they fitted four strides between the jumps. Finally, we collected the canter again to squeeze five strides between the jumps.

Being able to create a canter that is adjustable is incredibly helpful when jumping courses because you can collect the canter for some sharp turns, and lengthen the strides to efficiently cover the ground on long distances between fences. These saved seconds make the difference between winning, and being a close second. This mare found it easier to lengthen her strides, and could lengthen the canter within two strides. However, when collecting the canter it took five or six strides to bring it back. As she gets more flexible and supple, they should begin to be able to collect the canter quicker, and to a greater extent.

I find this exercise good fun with groups of children, and you can chop and change, shortening and lengthening, and trying to squeeze six strides in, instead of five. It`s possibly asking a bit much to lengthen it so that only two strides are between the fences, but getting kids to think on their feet really helps keep the ponies obedient to their riders.