Outwitting the Schoolmaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

Shallow Loop Grids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Addiction

Why is one day eventing the ultimate competition for so many amateur equestrians? And what makes it so addictive?

I always think it’s the hardest competition to be successful in because you have to get three different disciplines, which require totally different skills, right on the same day. Which is tricky enough, but when you consider the external factors such as weather and ground conditions, both horse and rider fitness and frame of mind, preparation, large class sizes, as well as factors such as tack, shoes, and other equipment, you realise that success in eventing is actually a pretty tough call.

First up, is dressage. You can practice this a hundred times at home, learning it off by heart and perfecting the movements. But when you get to the event the dressage arenas are on grass, possibly with a gradient. Depending on the time of your test, the grass may be dewy, and there is usually more grass cover than the corner of the field that you practiced in at home which can make it slippery. There are usually three or four, if not more, arenas next to each other so horse and rider need to adapt not only to the ground conditions, but also to focus on each other and the test so that other competitors don’t distract them.

So whilst dressage can be the one you are most practiced for, it still has unknown factors to contend with. Although competition experience and knowing the venue can help minimise this.

Next up is showjumping. You can’t get much better than a clear inside the time, but it’s just as easy to have an unlucky rolled pole, so it’s important to practice jumping bigger than the competition height, and over courses on grass. As well as ironing out any blips such as a dislike of planks or water trays. Showjumping courses are usually on grass and can have a gradient, which adds to the complexity of the round.

Finally is the cross country, and don’t forget you have to remember the course that you walked yesterday or a 7am that morning before your dressage. Which can be problematic in itself. The cross country is undulating, likely to ask a few questions such as skinnies, jumping into dark, drops, water or steps. All of which can be practiced at home, but it’s a real test of horse and rider fitness as it’s the final phase of the day, and tests their confidence, ability, and relationship because there is fence after fence. No matter how hard you try cross country schooling, you will jump the trickier fences as part of short courses rather than linking the tricky ones together in a longer course. The competition fences are unknown too, which can make green horses or riders back off but this develops with experience and confidence.

There is also the time aspect of cross country too: the terrain and weather conditions can sap a horse’s energy which makes getting inside the time difficult, but there is also the rider’s awareness for how fast they are going, or should be going.

Just from this, you can see all the different elements you need to practice and perfect in order to be successful at a one day event. The horse needs to be relaxed and obedient, with a good level of schooling for the dressage. They have to be steady, with a careful technique showjumping, and then they have to be fit, fast and bold for the cross country phase. With all those different elements to work on, there’s a higher risk of one not being quite right on the day; be it over excitement in the dressage phase, an unlucky pole showjumping, a doubt in confidence over the tricky cross country fence, or fatigue setting in half way round. I think it’s the challenge of balancing the phases, and of getting them all right on the day which makes riders try, try and try again. And then when you do get that sought after placing, you value the rosette far more than any others you have!

Day One of Pony Club Camp

Today was the first day of Pony Club Camp, and I realised that in order to successfully teach and enjoy Pony Club you have to change your attitude.

When you teach clients on a weekly, permanent basis, you have long term goals and iron out any faults immediately as you try to mould your riders. You get to know both horse and rider very well and can plan lessons well in advance.

At Pony Club, you have a group of unknown children and ponies for a short term basis. The aim of the rallies or camp is to have fun, improve, and to stay safe. In that order! As instructors, we're told to give these kids the best week of their summer holiday.

My ride this year are seven years old, most having done junior camp before. So they have some independence, but still need their parents for help tacking up etc. They all have their own ponies, and varying number of lessons through the year so they won't all follow the classic BHS plan of "when a rider can ride sitting trot without stirrups they can learn to canter" or any other recommended stepping stones. These kids will love jumping, be confident, but not necessarily have a good command over the basic position, which can lead to some hairy moments. But you have to learn to close one eye and let it go.

I have a bit of a proven method now for getting started with Pony Club now. My first session today was Handy Pony. This rarely fills the whole allocated session, so I took the opportunity to have a thorough assessment of them all.

As a guide, you want to order them biggest pony to smallest, which gives you a starting point. Staying in walk and with a couple of questions, you can soon assess whether your lead file is suitably qualified – they have to be able to maintain trot, steer reasonably, understand basic school movements. While they're walking I can usually tweak the order too. If one little pony strides out well, or one rider has the tendency to daydream and get too close, or if one can't keep their pony up with the rest of the ride.

Once I'm happy with my order, I'll organise the first trot. I send them in pairs, or possibly threes, making sure the fresh ponies or weaker riders have bottoms to follow. Then of course, I have to find the right place for them to have a trot – just in case a fresh pony or keen child gets carried away. And the ponies are always fresh in the first session on grass! I try and pick a short stretch, or a uphill slope, with a clear marker where they should be walking again.

So I sent my six riders off in pairs, fairly successfully. At least, I'd managed to put the more able riders at the front of each pair so it didn't matter that one rider set off with long reins, or one pony cantered two strides before trotting. This is another Pony Club technique – learn to quickly shout "shorten your reins" and to stay calm while the pony speeds off!

After a couple of pair trots we trotted all together, which is actually very stressful because there is invariable corners cut, ponies getting too close, ponies walking, and overtaking attempts. But I count it as a success when we have the whole ride trotting for a couple of minutes at a time. Little things! If I'm feeling brave, and can find a nice short space to canter, then I'll do that individually with them too.

This is also the time to wear the ponies out, keep them trotting so they won't be so fresh for the Handy Pony part. For the riders, I work out the one think that I need to improve; what will keep them having fun, improve them, and keep them safe? After all, I've only got a short space of time, and by the time we've learnt dressage tests, musical rides, hacked, jumped and done stable management there's not that much chance to work on basic improvements.

Often there are general position pointers for everyone; heels down, look up, shoulders back, shorter reins. But I always try to find a specific area for each child so that they take something away from camp. So for example, one of my riders this week needs her stirrups dropping a few holes and needs to learn to sit up tall. I've already dropped her stirrups a couple of holes and explained to her the importance of not leaning forward to help keep her in the saddle (especially when her pony lowers his head into canter!), so by the end of the week I want her to be more aware of when she leans forwards and to be riding with longer stirrups. Another rider is very gung-ho and her trot gets faster and faster, so I want her to learn to keep a better rhythm. Another rider is slightly behind the movement with her hands in her lap, so I'm going to get her more in sync with her pony. Another gets a beautiful extended trot from his pony instead of canter, so we're going to work on those transitions. One stands up in her stirrups in downward transitions.

By giving each rider a little goal, I feel that they will finish camp having improved their riding, whilst not taking away any of the enjoyment (because let's face it, I would love to drill them without stirrups for an hour a day) and these tweaks will keep them safe. For example, sitting up straighter with normal length stirrups will make her less likely to fall off over a jump; riding a downward transition correctly improves her level of control; getting a canter transition on cue means he'll negotiate the dressage test more successfully.

I also feel better with a specific aim for each rider, and it helps me plan my warm up. For example, my warm up for dressage included practising downward transitions so that one rider didn't feel picked on, but it improved her as well as giving the rest of the ride something to think about. Tomorrow, we will discuss and practice canter transitions to help the rider who struggles with that. Then we may do some sitting trot for the rider who leans forward. They will all benefit from the exercises, but some will take more away from each one than others.

I think my kids did very well today; we had some good attempts at the dressage test, a very successful Handy Pony session, and we managed to spend longer trotting as a ride by the afternoon, as well as lots of smiles and laughter. Tomorrow we've got showjumping, mounted games and musical ride practice.

All About Control

I did this pole exercise earlier this week to get my clients thinking about their level of control.

When I laid out the exercise I could see a level of complacency in the simplicity of the exercise. However, looks can be deceiving!

The exercise started with two poles as tram lines, to focus on straightness. A couple of strides away, there were three trotting poles. A couple of strides after that was another set of tramlines. After another couple of strides, were three canter poles.


The aim of the exercise was to make a good, accurate turn to the tramlines (this highlights any cheaters who drift around corners) and create a balanced, elevated trot over the poles before riding a canter transition in the next tramlines. This ensures the horse doesn’t drift through the transition and illustrates any preference over canter leads. The transition needs to be immediate and active so that the canter is of good enough quality for the poles. The aim is to improve the quality of the canter transition, the accuracy of the rider’s preparation and execution, and for the rider to very quickly be able to change it if it isn’t good enough for the poles. 

By turning into the exercise from both reins you can see which way is weaker. One horse I did this with tends to drift around corners on the left rein, so his shoulders didn’t turn enough to meet the tramlines and thus he struggled to start the exercise straight. When his shoulders were turned sufficiently, he compensated by swinging his haunches out. Of which is going to be worked on next week!

The trotting poles looked after themselves, so the next question was the canter transition. With straightness enforced, horses can initially run through the transition to make it easier but once horse and rider get the feel of it the hindquarters should be more active through the transition and the shoulders lift. As the canter poles are almost immediately after, the rider has to be quick to balance the canter so the horse either has enough energy for the poles, or hasn’t flattened the canter so they won’t make the poles.

Once my riders had mastered this exercise, and the ponies improving their canter, we turned it around. They had to approach in canter, canter over the poles and between the tramlines, make a trot transition ready for the trot poles. This was the tricky part!

The canter poles were fine, and the first tramlines helped create a very straight canter. However, the ponies got a bit onward and it took my riders by surprise that they couldn’t bring them back to trot in time. First of all, I got them to prepare for the transition earlier. Even whilst going over the poles they needed to be preparing. This helps create impulsion because they had to find the balance between maintaining enough energy for the poles, without generating too much speed. 

Next up, my riders needed to think about how they ride the transition. They were jamming on the handbrake, so the ponies just beared down on the rein. They needed a series of half halts, to keep their core engaged and upper body tall, with heels dropped in order to be more effective in the downwards transition. And be committed to achieving that transition – just because they love their pony doesn’t mean that their pony is allowed to ignore their aids.

Of course, once they have achieved the downwards transition, and quietly asserted their authority their pony will be far more obliging next time. 

This means that our on the cross country course they are more able to bring their ponies back to a more collected canter in preparation for a skinny, ditch, corner, or any other tricky fence, without losing the energy and the pony’s desire to jump.

All in all, an exercise of multiple levels, which improves accuracy and control, as well as improving straightness and quality of the gaits – particularly if the poles are then raised. 

Improving Their Jump

The ideal bascule, which makes jumping effortless and lengthens their athletic life expectancy, as well as making them successful in the competition ring, is when a horse folds his forelegs neatly underneath him, rounds his back, lengthens and lowers the neck, and then follows through with tidy hindlegs. 

Various faults occur, either by poor training, poor technique, lack of confidence, or poor conformation. One interesting jumping fault I’ve recently experienced, and haven’t really come across it before, is the slither technique.

Have you seen it? It’s when the forelegs get left behind and the horse literally jumps with his front legs under his belly.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how best to work on overcoming this fault, but as ever reverted to flatwork.

Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps.

The horse in question is rather large, with long legs. Like a super model! So the flatwork focused on engaging his hindquarters, getting him to lighten his forehand and bring his engine underneath him. Smaller circles and shoulder in have all improved his balance, and the canter has improved dramatically. He can now shorten and lengthen the canter strides without losing his balance and his hindquarters are doing more work than his shoulders.

Horses tend to slither over jumps when related distances are too short, which given this horse’s size puts him at a disadvantage. At every competition he will find distances a bit short. Which is why it’s so important that his canter is adjustable. It does mean for me that I have to be generous with my grid distances with him so that he learns, and develops the right muscles, to bascule correctly. Then once he is stronger and more adjustable in the canter we can start to teach him to work with the slightly shorter distances, that he would find in a competition environment.

Once a horse is starting to get the hang of basculing correctly the gridwork becomes invaluable. Having a quick succession of jumps, one or two strides apart improves the horse’s gymnastic ability because they have to extend and flex their joints in quick succession.

Over the last few months this horse has really improved and the slithering only happens when he gets too deep into fences. I’m enjoying seeing him going out competing with his owner now, and having more success.

The other factor that can cause horses to slither over jumps is when they are a bit slow to pick up their forehand and to lift the shoulder over jumps. Which caused me to use an A-frame with this particular horse the other week. A placing pole meant he didn’t get too close, and the A-frame really got him lifting his forelegs and tucking them up neatly. His owner could feel the difference in the bascule from the saddle – his back rounded underneath her over the fence.

Our next move is to try a line of bounces because this will make him pick up his feet quickly, and improve the muscle memory, which will mean that if he does get a bit deep into a jump he will be able to get himself out of trouble. Previously when I’ve done raised pole and bounce work with him he’s found it really difficult to organise his legs and keep his balance, which invariably means I have to get on and off a lot to adjust poles!

Just by using a combination of different exercises, you can make massive improvements to a horse’s technique and build the correct muscles. Recently, because this particular horse was jumping so well on a lesson, we did a bit of a Chase-Me-Charlie. I wanted to build the horse’s confidence a bit and see the extent of his scope, but I knew a single upright would be very difficult for him as he would have to pick up his forelegs very quickly; he’s much better in his technique but our high jumps needed to complement previous work, and not let him revert to slithering. So I build an oxer. The front rail wasn’t very high, perhaps 70cm, and there was a clear ground line. The back rail of the oxer, which wasn’t that wide, started at 90cm. As he cleared it comfortably I notched it up, and up, to an impressive 120cm. He cleared it easily, whilst still jumping correctly! I was so pleased!

Now we need to increase the height of the general exercises to build his muscles and confidence, whilst still using his body correctly and efficiently. Then they will definitely notice a difference at competitions! 

Holding the Mane

When I was little and learning to jump we were always told to “hold the mane halfway up your pony’s neck”. A phrase I would hear repeated with the next generations of children as I led th over jumps, occasionally with the addition of “look at the bunny rabbits waving to you in the field” to get them to look up. 

When I started my apprenticeship I was amazed that none of the instructors used this analogy. When I started teaching myself I often got strange looks when I suggested holding the mane for security when learning to jump. After all, I cringe whenever I see a rider restricting their horse’s jump by not allowing with their hands.

Today, to my delight, I was reading one of my coaching books and it had a whole section on holding the mane while learning to jump.

The author advocated putting two bunches into the mane in the right place so that the rider knows where to place their hands. After all, halfway up the neck can be quite difficult to gauge as you’re fast approaching your first fence! Also, you risk throwing your weight forward and becoming too heavy if you hold on too far up your pony’s neck!

Personally I find that when riders learn to jump they are often reluctant to move their hands away from their body, which although totally natural, makes it harder for them to balance. This means the hands are restricting the horse’s head and neck over jumps. Which may not be a big deal over a bottom hole cross, but the idea of learning to jump is to create good habits which benefit both horse and rider in the long term.

A rider concentrating on balancing in their jumping position will be more likely to wobble with their hands, using them to help balance whilst their muscles develop. So holding onto the mane can help the rider stabilise themselves until their muscles develop because they have something to lean on slightly.

I often see riders sitting up too early after a jump, which can be due to balance issues or a lack of confidence. However the pony is then snatched in the mouth so can then become reluctant to jump. Holding on to the mane helps keep the rider forward for longer and in balance with the pony. Then hopefully the rider learns the feeling of staying folded for a micro second longer.

A lot of instructors are probably now thinking, “just use the neck strap”. Personally I hate using the neck strap with beginner jumping. The neckstrap mainly sits at the base of the neck, so holding it doesn’t teach the rider to allow with their hands. Additionally, the strap also moves, which can cause the hands to snatch back over the fence, or for the rider to lose their balance because the neck strap has slipped and so their hands, which they are still using to balance, no longer have a fixed support (such as the pony’s neck). Top riders who have a neck strap know how to slip their reins correctly so can wrap their fingers in it for support without upsetting the horse’s jump.

The downside of getting riders to hold onto their mane is that they can be overly reliant on holding the mane, which means that they aren’t completely self-balanced. Also, if enough focus isn’t paid to where their centre of gravity is then they can risk toppling forwards.

When riding a course of jumps you often need to do some steering and riding in midair, or immediately upon landing, and holding the mane slows down the process and interrupts the fluency of riding a course. But then an instructor can introduce the idea of the rider hovering their hands over the mane when they are more balanced jumping. Also, teaching and practising cross country position will reduce reliance on physically holding the mane as the riders core strength and balance increases.

Call me old fashioned, but I will still be getting my clients, especially young children, to hold on to their mount’s mane when they learn about their jumping position and start going over fences because I would rather see happy horses jumping correctly with beginners, and beginners who are as safe as possible getting the feel for a nice, round bascule, rather than hollow, flat backed jumping. Below you can see even this high level rider has allowed her horse to stretch his neck over the large fence and is staying in balance with him, not restricting him in any way. 

Chase Me Charlie

As kids we all love Chase Me Charlie`s don`t we? The opportunity to jump as high as you can, and hopefully post a personal best.

My pony wasn`t the world`s greatest jumper, especially near fillers, so I never gravitated towards the puissance style classes. Some kids and ponies thrive off the pressure though.

Yesterday at the end of the Pony Club rally we ran a Chase Me Charlie competition. The idea of the day was to encourage the kids to come to camp, so we ran it in a similar manner to a day at camp – a mix of flatwork, showjumping and cross country.

All my young riders had poor hands over the fence – either they leant on them as they folded, or they fixed them at the wither, or tucked back with their hands as they folded. We worked over a jump without reins and stirrups before they rode a much tidier, secure, showjumping course. Unless they were concentrating on where they were going and forgot.

Until the Chase Me Charlie that is.

We started at a mere 70cm and to my horror all of my girls approached the fence leaning forwards, fixing their hands, and forgetting to allow with them hands over the fence!

After four rounds? By which we had only eliminated one rider we widened the wings so the pole was delicately balanced on the edge of the cups. We had a few more knockdowns then!

The problem I have with this competition is that everyone forgets how to ride – they cut their corners, they don’t balance the canter, they forget to fold or ride away. I saw all my good work of the day being undone rapidly!

There were a few exceptions obviously; a couple of the seniors rode the upright much more intelligently than they had earlier, as the height made them concentrate.

It was really interesting watching the horses jump. Their approach, their expressions, the way the riders panicked when it got out of their comfort zone, the horse’s technique and bascule. 

As ever, there were some surprise eliminations. In the shape of the ex-showjumper knocking a 1m upright. Or the point-and-kick eventer who hung a hind leg. Other impressive combinations were the little ponies who leapt vertically, or scrambled over, and the heavy cob who cleared 1.15m. 

Another area of concern I found was that the little ones didn’t know when to stop, so experienced horses were taking inexperienced, and out-of-their-depth riders, into jumps much larger than they should be jumping. Call me a scaredy cat, but I’d much rather keep kids in a safety zone so they don’t take it into their head to jump high at home, or even enter competitions at that height. It’s an accident waiting to happen.

One girl made me laugh. She was only ten and on her 13.2hh pony, and cleared 1.10m before retiring. As she exited the arena her older sister jumped the fence, knocking it down.

“Beat ya!” The little sister cried in delight! 

A couple of minutes later her other older sister cleared the fence and called the same taunt to her youngest sister.

It was interesting that the final handful of horses weren’t the flashiest, most expensive, most talented or most experienced horses. They were ponies who had heart.

The winner cleared 1.25m and the cremello 15hh gelding had a very neat bascule, and was very reliable and consistent on the approach. I was really pleased as it showed that money doesn’t buy the best horse!

Chase Me Charlie’s still don’t rate that highly on my list of show classes, but I found it really interesting to see it for the first time from the instructor’s point of view. There is such an element of luck too, as I’m sure many puissance riders will agree.