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.

Affiliation

Competition season has already started for many people; if it hasn`t yet then you`re probably like me and have the first event entered and the countdown has begun.

I considered affiliating my horse this season, but after looking into the costs I`ve decided against it.

Did you know full individual membership for BE is £150 per year for the rider/owner, and then £100 for the horse. Horse registration for BD is £70 per year and £80 for the rider. To register for BS the rider is expected to fork out £129 for the rider and anywhere between £20 and £160 for the horse. So what does this membership get you?
1) Access to affiliated competitions; which are run more professionally and efficient, with correct equipment and professional course builders. However, most large venues hold unaffiliated events which are run to the same standard as affiliated competitions.
2) A good standard of competition, as the bumpkins who just go along for a bit of fun don`t bother to affiliate. However, classes are big and the standard is high.
3) Prize money. Not that is covers the cost of the class, diesel, start fee and any other costs incurred during the day. Unaffiliated competitions tend to be slightly less expensive and have prizes in kind.
4) A good way of grading your horse and proving his successes. However, if you ever sold your horse or he had a new rider then you may have over qualified him, meaning that his new jockey could not start competing at a comfortable level. A client of mine is looking for a horse and was told about this showjumper. However, he is affiliated, and my client would not be able to compete any lower than 1.20cm unless she went hors concours. This means that, whilst it looks good on paper, you may be narrowing the market for selling your horse.

After I`d thought about all this I came to the conclusion that whilst governing bodies are great for doing exactly that – governing the discipline and ensuring rules are fair and maintained – they are actually very elitist, and exclude the majority of horse owners or riders. I genuinely believe that there will be a decrease in membership of the various bodies and a decrease in competitors as the financial costimplications are just too steep to justify, and there will be a move towards joining riding clubs, at an annual fee of £20-40 and competing on riding club teams and against other clubs. This is more accessible for Joe Bloggs, and success is more achievable because the competition is not dominated by the professionals. It will be interesting to see if BD, BE and BS change their approach to affiliation and competitions, or whether a new level or group of competition will step into the space between riding club level and professionalism.

Our Showjumping Lesson

So last weekend we were up at the crack of dawn to travel to a showjumping lesson. It was with an event rider called Jonathan Chapman. The idea is that he isn`t a pure showjumper so can train us in cross country as well without confusing our jumping style.

The lesson was at 9am, so we were loading at 7 to give us plenty of wiggle room to get there and tacked up. As it took us half an hour to load my horse it was a good thing. I don`t think he liked going into the dark trailer when it was still dark outside, and then the trailer light didn`t work so we couldn`t use that to entice him on. In the end he was being too stubborn to follow a feed bucket, we had to give him a sharp tap on the hindquarters with his stick. He soon ran up the ramp!

Anyway, we got there with minutes to spare and tacked up quickly before getting into the arena for 9. It was a fab lesson and really beneficial so I thought I`d explain the exercise.

There was two fences set up as a related distance of four strides, but initially they were three canter poles. Between them were two poles creating railway tracks to keep the horse central and help their straightness. Towards the middle of the school was another jump so that you rode a 10m circle from the railway tracks to the fence and back to the tracks. There was also a Liverpool oxer and an upright with a filler on the two diagonals.

Almost immediately we started trotting over the poles, keeping a rhythm, and making sure our horses didn`t anticipate them and rush. After doing this on both reins we repeated it in canter, and then we cantered over the first set of poles and rode a 10m circle over the other pole before returning to the railway tracks and riding over the second set of poles.

The jump on the 10m circle went up to a cross pole. It was an excellent way of suppling the horses and getting them to jump from a relatively small stride. My friends horse tends to launch over the jumps which obviously meant that the circle became elongated. The cross also made us ride accurately to the centre of it, and not fall out through the outside shoulder. We did this on both reins.

Next we moved on to building the upright and then the oxer. That was quite large. Pretty wide and a bit over a metre. Considering I haven`t jumped since November it was a bit of a shock to the system. Next we changed the rein and jumped into the exercise over the upright, rode the circle, and then jumped out over another upright.

Jonathan was a very quiet instructor, not saying much but what he did say was spot on. He very much teaches that it is the riders job to set the horse up with a balanced gait, but the last two strides belong to the horse. I had the problem that I feel the need to ride to the fence, and push him on, particularly when it gets a bit bigger, so I had to sit and just wrap my legs round and squeeze the last couple of strides.

We had one sticky moment over the oxer when I didn`t squeeze enough and left him hanging. I think I was thinking a bit too much about the size. So Jonathan put it to an upright and I repeated the exercise until he was confident, and then I rode straight through the related distance as an oxer before doing the circle exercise. I found the circle engaged the hindquarters a lot, but it was difficult not to ride out of the circle and accelerate to the final jump. My horse suddenly found the power in his hindquarters, and I managed to keep the rhythm and got a flowing series of jumps. Then we rode the exercise before doing the related distance on its own. It was very useful for stopping the horses locking onto the jumps and checking they were listening to us and balanced enough to ride the circle.

To finish we rode a course, including the other two jumps, in which we had to use our corners, keep a very good rhythm, and keep it nice and steady. My round wasn`t perfect, but we had the chance to repeat the jumps which didn`t go quite so well, and finished on a good note with a very tired horse! Best of all, it started raining when we were loading up so we timed it really well.

I would definitely recommend Jonathan for lessons, and look forward to my next one in a few weeks. He is hopefully doing a cross country clinic this weekend at Aston le Walls, but because of the forecast and ground conditions I`m going to give it a miss and test our new skills at an indoor showjumping competition (emphasis on the indoor part). The cross country will have to wait until the weather is a bit better.