Perfecting The Approach To Jumps

I’ve had two clients recently working on perfecting their approach to jumps. They’ve had similar lesson formats, and both have had positive results from it.

One rider found that they kept “missing” the first jump to grids or on courses. With placing poles, and once in combinations, they fly the fences perfectly. So I brought her attention to their approach to jumps. We’re looking for a positive, active, balanced canter. And we’re looking for it to be consistent throughout the approach. The pony was backing off, losing power, on the approach to jumps. But only for a stride, or even just half a stride. It was only when we studied the approach that the slight loss of impulsion became apparent.

We then looked at my rider. She was riding a little reactively. So her pony backed off and a stride later, my rider closed her leg and rode him forwards. We needed to get rid of this delay because that slight loss of impulsion was enough to disrupt their take off point. By drawing my rider’s attention to this, she began to notice as her pony dropped impulsion quicker, and then reacted quicker. This meant that the canter stayed more consistent before the jump, and the maintained energy meant they hit their take off point perfectly.

This week I constructed a 90cm oxer in the middle of the arena, and asked them to jump it. The canter approach was rhythmical, and when I saw the pony think about backing off, his rider applied her aids and managed to maintain the consistency of the canter, so they jumped it brilliantly. And repeatedly did so as I increased it to just over a metre high.

My other rider has a rather fresh pony at the moment (spring grass has a lot to answer for!) and she started approaching fences in a kangaroo fashion, and then jumping erratically. I think this is caused by the pony being a bit more spooky, and looking at jumps more because she’s full of the joys of spring. However, the kangaroo approach to fences makes it harder for my rider, and then they lose their synchronicity.

We addressed the consistency of the canter, and I told my rider to micromanage the canter, so that she reduced the kangaroo effect, to smooth out the canter. She already rides well towards a fence, using her seat and legs to keep her pony up in front of her and taking her forwards, with a steady, quiet hand, so it was just a matter of her being a bit quicker to react to any changes to the canter. Be it quickening or slowing down. As soon as the canter was ironed out the jumps started to flow more. The spooks and looks at any jumps were minimised and then the mare started to focus on the job in hand.

The girls put this to the test last weekend at an eventers challenge, and the result was very positive. A much more flowing round and some stylish jumps so I’m very pleased.

It’s amazing the difference a couple of seconds in rider reactivity makes, and the resulting consistency in a horse’s canter to the jumps.

Jumping A Cross

I saw this jump exercise on social media a couple of weeks ago, so two poor unsuspecting clients got to test it out for me.

The exercise consists of one jump block in the centre of the school with four upright jumps coming out at right angles.

There are two exercises to ride here. The first one is a test of suppleness, and will improve the horse’s jump because the canter is kept quite collected and there’s a short approach. You do however, need a wide arena – say thirty metres wide.

For this exercise, you are riding a circle to the outside after every jump. Let me explain, with the help of the diagram below. Jump the first upright off the right canter lead. Upon landing ride a right circle of approximately fifteen metres. The size of the circle shouldn’t be too small that your horse loses his balance and falls into trot, but it shouldn’t be too big that you have half a dozen straight strides before the next fence.

After the circle, jump the second upright, and repeat the circle right. Continue until you’ve jumped all four fences at least once. Because it’s a circular exercise I would recommend doing at least four, but if the fourth one goes wrong then do a fifth to finish on a positive note.

This exercise needs repeating on both reins, and will highlight any discrepancies in the quality of your horse’s canters, as well as any stiffness. The horse is encouraged to just pop over the fence, with quite a short landing and take off distance, which means that their hocks are working very hard and they will be pushing over the jump with their hindquarters so the jump will feel like more of a ping and easier for them. The circle will help them engage the hindquarters, and collect that canter, which is really helpful for horses who like to charge and rush their jumps.

My riders could feel the difference in their horse’s jump after doing the exercise, and I hope that they will be able to remember and recreate the canter next lesson so that the horses can better push over the fences, which will be more noticeable over larger jumps.

The second exercise with this layout, is a test of accuracy. You aim to jump the central block. The two poles nearest you will help draw both you and your horse to the centre, but because the jump looks strange, either or both may back off.

My first rider, and I’ll show you the video in a moment – don’t scroll down! – rode accurately to the jump getting very central, but her horse took a stride out and almost jumped them into orbit! The next time, my rider insisted on keeping the canter more collected for an extra stride, so the jump was still high, but not as long, and more controlled. This is good practice for skinny fences, because you don’t want your horse to over jump, as you’ll need to regroup before the next fence, which can only be a couple of strides away in a combination. This rider knows now how to better tackle skinny fences she meets out on course.

My other rider, having seen video evidence of this catapulting attempt, was a little nervous about how her horse would tackle this obstacle. But he has more sense than she gives him credit for, and they jumped it accurately and neatly the first time. The video below is of the second attempt, when my rider was a little more relaxed and positive on the approach so didn’t get left behind.

A really fun exercise; the suppling exercise can be done as poles on the floor or smaller jumps if more appropriate to the horse and rider’s level of training. And the accuracy test adds a challenge to any confident pair.

Riding Away

I’ve done a few lessons recently where I’ve been focusing on how my riders finish their school movements and ride away from a fence. The way you ride out of a circle sets you up for the next movement in your dressage test, and how you ride away from a jump affects your approach to the next fence.

With one rider, I worked on her landing, how she rode away from each fence and the speed in which she recovered: rebalancing the canter, checking she’s on the necessary canter lead and riding the turn after the jump. The quicker she can recover from a jump, the more time she’ll have to set up for the next fence. In jump of scenarios, a quicker recovery could mean that you can ride a tighter turn and shave precious seconds of your time. I used a very twisty course with lots of short approaches and getaways from fences to help my rider become more aware of the knock on effect of not preparing her getaway, or waiting until she’s landed and cantered a stride before thinking about her next jump.

On the dressage side of things, it is important to think about how you ride out of a school movement as finishing in a rushed, tense mess means that you will start your next movement in a rushed, tense mess, so you cannot execute that movement to the best of your ability.

The levels of dressage test takes recovery and preparation for each movement into account: at prelim level each movement is separated by some simple travelling around the arena. These filler movements allow you to rebalance yourself and your horse after a botched circle or transition so that you can do your best on the next movement. At elementary level, transitions, circles and school movements come up much quicker, meaning the rider has to plan how they finish a movement so that they are quickly set up for the next movement.

A very useful exercise for highlighting the importance of riding out of a movement is one of my favourite sequences to ride and teach with at the moment.

On the left rein, ride leg yield left from the letter F towards the centre line. After the EB line, halt and ride a turn on the forehand in a clockwise direction. Proceed in walk, leg yielding left back to the track. It seems pretty straightforward, but it’s important to break down the sequence even more. After the first leg yield, you need to ride a few strides in a straight line before halting. This is so that the horse halts in a balanced way, with their weight evenly distributed so that they can easily execute the turn on the forehand and don’t lurch sideways falling through their shoulder. It’s also important to halt, and have that moment of immobility, before asking your horse to turn on the forehand. Otherwise they will begin to fuss in a normal halt, anticipating a turn. This causes no end of problems down the centre line in your dressage tests!

After the turn on the forehand, pause. Again to let your horse process what they’ve just done and to rebalance themselves into a halt. Now, you should get a balanced, active transition to walk, and after a couple of straight strides, you can begin leg yielding back to the track. The straight strides ensure your horse is most able to moves sideways by using the inside hindleg to push across, rather than pulling across with the outside shoulder. On reaching the track, you right straight again, with their weight evenly over each side of their body. Then you can move up into trot or canter, and really feel the benefit of the lateral sequence you’ve just done.

Can you see how important those little breaks between each movement are? Each horse, depending on their level of training will need different lengths of time between each movement. An established schoolmaster will be able to go from leg yield to halt with only a stride of straight. A green horse, may need four strides to rebalance themselves after the leg yield. In training, it is better to give an extra stride, or second in the halt, before asking for the next movement so that your horse is more likely to do it correctly and to the best of their ability.

Next time you ride, have a think about how you’re coming out of a jump, or school movement, and see if it can be improved so that the trot you exited the circle with us as rhythmical and balanced as the trot you entered it. Then you can begin to think about how quickly you are ready to do another school movement. Could you do something at the next dressage letter, for example? When jumping, think about could you have ridden that turn between two fences if there was one less canter stride until the second – so a relates distance of four strides instead of five?

Jumping Manners

Last week I jumped a horse for a client. He’s new to her, and as she hasn’t jumped for a long time, I was given the job of putting him through his paces.

This horse is a keen and experienced jumper, but he can be a bit bargy on the ground so I wanted to establish the rules whilst jumping so that his rider would be confident and in control when she begins jumping.

I constructed a grid of three jumps, with one canter stride between. Starting with poles on the ground, I used these as part of my warm up. I trotted over them in both directions. Predictably, he rushed and tried to canter through the grid. So I made him halt. And then walk the rest of the grid. After doing this a couple of times he trotted sweetly over the grid in a lovely balanced rhythm.

I feel this is important as a rider lacking confidence when jumping needs to be able choose the pace they approach in. They may choose to trot into a cross pole for the first couple of times, then progress to cantering over it. When the jump becomes bigger, or an upright, they may decide to trot into it the first time. To help give the rider confidence, they need to know they will approach the jump at their chosen pace.

After I’d trotted the poles in both directions, with the horse staying steady and rhythmical throughout, I did the same in canter. When a grid is set up, the distances between poles on the ground is often awkward for horses. Because they don’t have the jumps the distance between the poles is about one and a half canter strides instead of one. If you think about the way a horse jumps they take off and land further away from a jump than they would over a pole on the ground. So you either have to extend the canter to get one long stride, or collect it to get two strides between the poles. Keeping with the plan of improving control, and not letting the horse rush the jumps, I collected the canter for two strides, to which he obliged.

Next, I put up the third jump to a little cross and we trotted the grid a couple of times, until I felt the horse settle at my chosen tempo. Then we cantered it, getting two canter strides between the first and second pole. The more jumps we did, the less the horse tried to rush, and the more easily I could dictate our approach.

I built the grid up to three crosses, alternating our approach from both reins and in trot or canter to ensure that the horse stayed with me and didn’t take over on the approach. He still tried to take over half a dozen strides away from the first jump, but a little half halt on my part and he listened to me. A couple of strides before the jump, I allowed him to take over so that he met the fence at a good take off point. After all, I didn’t want to put him off jumping!

Over the next few weeks, I plan to do more pole work and grids, keeping the focus on maintaining the rhythm, improving his suppleness and balance. And teaching him to be polite and wait for his rider to choose the approach. He’s a keen jumper, so he will give his rider a lot of confidence when they start jumping, so long as she feels in control throughout. I think we’ll have lots of fun getting these two off the ground!

Circles Within A Grid

Sometimes horses can lock on to fences quite strongly, and not always at the rider’s choice. Many times I remember coming round a corner on the showjumping course and Otis locking onto the wrong fence and we had to have serious words to take his eye off that one and to focus on the correct jump. Additionally, horses can get a bit fast and flat through a course.

To improve a horse’s responsiveness to the aids while jumping, to stop them rushing and flattening their canter through combinations, and to improve their bascule by encouraging them to sit on their hocks with a more collected and round canter, I built this grid earlier this week.

The grid was positioned on the three quarter line, and consisted of three cross poles, two canter strides apart. The jumps don’t want to be particularly large.

Once my horse and rider had cantered over the poles on the floor and the crosses on each rein, we started to get a bit more technical. The horse was getting a bit fast and flat as they travelled through the grid. Not unrideable, but her technique over the jumps had deteriorated by the third cross pole.

I asked my rider to jump fences one and two, then ride a circle to approach fence two again, before jumping the third fence. I left the size of the circle up to them, but they were limited to a maximum of 15m due to the size of the arena. The first time, my rider really had to pull her horse out of the grid and onto the circle. By the second half of the circle the canter had returned to its usual balanced self, and the second time over the second fence was much neater and less rushed.

We repeated this a couple of times in both directions so that the circle was round, fluid, and the canter consistent. Initially, my rider was landing then riding onto the circle, but by getting her to prepare whilst in the air, her horse expected a turn on landing so reacted quicker to her aids. I explained to her that landing and changing their direction of course felt to the horse like a change of mind, which can knock their confidence if they think the rider doesn’t want to jump and possibly lead to run outs. If my rider jumps the second fence the first time planning to turn away onto the circle then she’s already set their course, and if the horse doesn’t react or resists then the horse is in the wrong, and learns that they need to listen to the rider continuously. This makes the grid less confusing to the horse – the rider has set the course from the beginning and there are no moments when the horse can interpret a change of mind from the rider.

The next step, was to ride a circle after each jump, which meant that each fence was jumped twice. The first time, the pair had a little argument for the first circle, but as my rider was riding for the circle earlier, it was a smaller period of resistance and she managed to rebalance her canter quickly. The canter stayed much more rhythmical throughout the grid, and the mare made a cleaner shape over each fence.

We repeated this on both reins, to work the canters evenly, and then I got them to just ride straight through the grid. Whereas before we’d used this exercise, the horse was making the distance between the second and third fence look small (due to her flatter, longer striding canter), this time the distances looked the same as the canter stayed consistent.

I next raised all the fences to 90cm uprights, and had them jump through the grid on both reins. Their bascules were neater, and the grid didn’t feel as rushed.

I’d like to do this exercise, or a similar one, in the near future with this pair, but focusing more on improving the canter and riding smaller circles to bring the hocks underneath her, which will help them ping over the larger fences.

Sharers

I was asked the other day on my opinion on sharers, which is becoming a more and more popular option for horse owners. So here are my thoughts.

I’ve seen sharing arrangements which work really well for all parties, and I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong with the sharer fleeing at the first cold wind of winter or the first sign of lameness and the horse owner picking up the pieces.

For the horse owner, having a sharer can help reduce the workload of horse ownership; a sharer can make a financial contribution, help keep your horse exercised and fit, and help out with yard chores. Which can give you a lie in, or a day off from horses. It can help you maintain a healthy horse-family-work balance.

For the sharer, it’s an opportunity to forge a strong bond with a horse which you can’t do in a riding school environment, usually at a fraction of the cost. You get the horse ownership experience without the full time or financial commitment, which can work really well for those with young families or students.

Unfortunately though, I repeatedly see adverts on social media of young people who are basically looking for free rides in return for mucking out. Yes, I understand that financially they may not be able to afford riding lessons, but I worry that their naivety of riding unsupervised, plus the fact privately owned horses often have more get-up-and-go than riding school horses, poses a huge risk to the horse owner.

I still think that sharing arrangements can be a good solution for horse owners, it needs to be entered into carefully and with both eyes open.

Firstly, you need to decide why you want or need a sharer. Is it to help you exercise your horse as they can be too fizzy for you? Is it to give you a horse free day a couple of times a week? Is it to help cover your livery bill? Some share arrangements exchange riding for money whilst others exchange riding for chores. When advertising for a share you need to be very clear with what you expect in return.

Regardless of your sharing currency, there are a few hoops to jump through to help set up a successful share.

Firstly, insurance. You will have your own insurance, but you need to check that your horse is covered with other riders, or that other riders are covered. A good option is to get a sharer to take out BHS Gold membership as this will cover both them and your horse on the ground and in the saddle.

Assess their riding. Have them ride your horse under your supervision a few times, and doing all that they will want to do. So watch them school, pop a fence, and hack. They don’t need to be brilliant, but your horse shouldn’t be offended by their riding. Find out their riding goals, as it is really beneficial to have complementary aims. For example, if you like hacking and the sharer wants to do dressage this can provide variety for your horse. If you don’t like jumping then a sharer who does can be beneficial to your horse’s mental well being and fitness. However, regardless of what you both want to do, you need to have a similar approach to riding. For example, you don’t want to spend your days working your horse in a long and low frame to get them working over their back and relaxed, only for your sharer to undo all hard your work by pinning their heads in or galloping wildly round the countryside. I would strongly encourage sharers to have regular lessons, ideally with the same coach as the horse’s owner so that you can be sure you’re both singing off the same sheet, even if it’s at different levels.

The horse owner should watch how the potential sharer acts on the ground, whether they’re confident around horses and know their hoof pick from their body brush. Even if they’re straight out of a riding school and know very little, they can still learn. It’s worth the owner spending a few sessions with the sharer to help them build confidence on the ground and to set the owner’s mind at rest that their horse will be well cared for. Again, from an owner’s perspective, make sure you’re happy with the standard that the chores are done to when assessing the sharer. They can have room to learn, but you don’t want them doing a poor job and then you playing catch up the following day. It is also worth checking that the sharer is happy with any other horses they may have to deal with. For example, if your horse is in a field with one other then the sharer may well have to feed or hay both horses on their days, so they need to be happy with this, and the owner’s of the other horse does too.

I would also be careful of sharers who are fresh from the riding school as they often don’t foresee how time consuming the looking after aspect of horse care is, especially when they’re fumbling with tools or buckles, so can either shirk their duties and just chuck the tack on with a careless glance over the horse, or lose interest after a week. As an owner, your horse is your first priority and you want them to feel as loved by their sharer as they do by you. It’s definitely worth investing the time in training up a sharer so that they’re happy, your horse is happy, and you can then enjoy your horse free time without worrying.

Draw up a contract. This may seem formal, but it’s a useful reference point if anything goes wrong. The contract doesn’t have to be complicated but should contain the following subjects:

  • Insurance
  • Number of days and which days the sharer has use of the horse. The arrangement for flexibility or additional days (such as school holidays). How much warning needs to be given for changing days.
  • The chores or payment the sharer needs to provide in return for riding, and how often. Some sharers pay weekly, others monthly, some in advance and others in arrears. Some sharers have to do the chores for the entire day that they are riding the horse on, so for example turn out and muck out in the morning, and bringing in in the evening. Others just the jobs when they’re there to ride.
  • What the sharer can and cannot do with the horse. It may be that the horse has physical limitations (for example, an old injury which means they can’t be jumped too high or more than once a week) or that the owner doesn’t feel the sharer is competent enough to hack alone. However, there may be a clause that the sharer can compete or attend clinics with the approval of the owner.
  • What happens in the event of the horse going lame. Unfortunately I’ve seen many sharers up and go when the horse is injured and needs a period of box rest, leaving the owner high and dry. It may be that the sharer has such a bond with the horse that they want to continue caring for them without the benefit of riding, or the owner may have another horse the sharer can ride.
  • The notice period for terminating the contract. This may be a natural end because of the sharer outgrowing the horse, or changing jobs or moving house (or yard) but in order to end on a good note, it is more respectful to forewarn the owner.
  • Who is responsible for livery services? If for example, the sharer has to have the horse turned out on one their days, who foots the bill at the end of the month? Who is responsible for cleaning or repairing tack?

Of course, creating a sharing agreement is far more complicated than it initially seems, but having a good starting point for discussion helps both the horse owner and sharer work out what they want from, and what they can bring to, a sharing arrangement which will then hopefully have the horse’s welfare at its heart and makes for a lasting friendship between owner and sharer.

Jumping Straight

I was in a nit-picky mood last week, so focused one client and her horse on their straightness when jumping. Before Christmas I’d noticed a slight drift over the fence to the right. It was very subtle, and only noticeable if you were stood facing them and looking for it. I’d established that they always went right, and I’d also noticed that the drift was more pronounced in combinations.

I built a grid of three bounces, followed by one canter stride and then a fence. As the drift became more pronounced with multiple fences I hoped that the bounces would highlight this to my rider, and also allow us to strengthen the horse so that she found individual fences or doubles easier and so stayed straight.

Between the last bounce and the jump I laid two parallel poles to make tramlines. This was to refocus my rider after the bounces so that she was definitely central and straight on that canter stride. We worked over the grid with the poles on the floor from both reins, and they were straight as a die. But that wasn’t surprising because the horse is fit and balanced on the flat. The drifting only occurs as she has to put effort into a jump and she pushes asymmetrically from her hindlegs.

Next I built the last fence into a high cross. This was to focus their eye on the middle, and to reduce the drift over the fence. Because the bounce poles were still on the ground their approach was straight, and the tramlines prevented a drift in the last stride. So we added in the bounces one by one.

With all three bounces up we started to see the drift occur. One time they knocked the right hand pole, which is a very visual clue as to the direction and timing of the drifting. They could jump two bounces and stay central, but upon landing on the third my rider had to open her left hand and close the right leg to maintain their line.

Next, I made the cross pole higher and then raised the bounces, which could trigger more drifting, but with careful riding my rider managed to hold her line. She had to keep her left rein slightly open, right rein close to the shoulder, and right leg at the ready to correct any drifting, whilst ensuring she kept her weight even down each leg so that she wasn’t encouraging her horse to drift.

We isolated the drifting to the right as the last stride and over the bigger jump, so I made an A-frame. An A-frame is an upright jump with two slanting poles from the floor to the centre of the jump, making an “A” shape. They can improve a horse’s technique as well as accuracy, but I didn’t want the mare to change her bascule but rather focus on the straightness so I didn’t put the slanting poles too close together or sitting higher than the horizontal pole.

We worked through the grid from both reins, and as you can see in the video below the pair are very straight over the bounces, with a minimal drift right to the upright. However, I think this was partly due to them getting their line to the bounces fractionally left as they actually jump the A-frame centrally. Which means it’s time for me to nit-pick their approaches to jumps!

How To Be a Good Groom

It happens to everyone at some point, you get asked, or you could ask someone, if you can tag along to a competition with them. It’s a high honour, but how do you become an invaluable member of their team – a good groom?

First of all, find out what time you’re leaving the yard – and don’t gasp when you hear how early it is! Make sure you arrive in plenty of time, and it’s always good to ask them if they need any help before leaving. You don’t have to be an ace plaiter, or be able to do a do a tail bandage, you can be just as useful mucking out their stable or to-ing and fro-ing to the lorry with all their bits and pieces.

Be prepared to help with directions to the venue. It might be reading aloud instructions, tapping into satnav, or keeping an eye out for signs. But when you have pre-competition nerves, have a loaded lorry to drive, every bit of help is invaluable.

At the competition, you need to be ready to do anything your friend needs so show willing and offer. They may want you to run to the secretary with their passport, or stay with their horse while they walk the course. It may be tacking up, or putting on boots. If you aren’t sure how to do something, or if you’ve done it right, ask them to double check or show you on the first leg. After all, you’re learning too, and all riders would rather double check than have a tack malfunction halfway round a course!

While they warm up park yourself in an inconspicuous place, but within shouting distance so you can easily help adjust a girth or take an exercise blanket or coat from them. This is when nerves usually kick in, even if they don’t look it, so it’s important to be positive in your conversations. Don’t say “oh doesn’t that horse look good?” Or “Wow that was an awesome round!” Instead tell them they look very smart, relaxed, working well, or whatever adjective you can think of! The last thing that they want to hear before they go in is some encouragement, so even though they aren’t looking their best, just tell them to enjoy themselves, have fun, and good luck.

Videos provide great feedback, so offer to film their test, or round. Ask them where they want you to stand if you aren’t sure of the best place.

The first thing a competitor wants to hear when they’ve finished is “well done” or “that looked great”. Even if it went disastrously wrong, by you being positive they won’t beat themselves up too much. If they are a bit upset just focus on looking after their horse, give them space to reflect, and let the emotions die down. They’ll start talking when they’re ready. For example, they may not have got the clear round they’d hoped for, but after the initial disappointment has faded, you can help them find the positives, such as the fact that they may have refused the water, but they negotiated the plank more successfully than their last competition.

As before, help them untack and brush off their horse, again asking if you aren’t sure what to do. Then the most important job of the day, is to eat! Offer to go to the burger van or to go get a hot drink. A lot of people can’t eat when they’re nervous and when caught up in the hustle and bustle of the day it’s easy to forget to eat and suddenly get hunger pangs on the way home. So your job is to remind them to replenish their energy. Especially after a cross country round!

Once back at the yard don’t jump into your car to go home, even though you’re tired. Make sure you offer to turn out, unload the lorry, clean it out, or any other job your friend needs to do. After all, they’re just as tired as you!

Basically, the honour of accompanying a friend to a competition means being at their beck and call for a few hours whilst cheering them on and being very supportive. However, it is a lot of fun and you do learn a lot about riding and competing from watching other riders, as well as asking your friend a multitude of questions after they’ve competed!

One Year On

Last weekend marked one year since I bought Phoenix so I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on our journey together so far.

Initially, I didn’t think there has been a huge change in her physically. I mean, she’s put on muscle, but she’s not grown taller or bulked out like a youngster does. If anything, she’s a leaner frame, and less barrel shaped. Having said that, due to the fact she’s now fully clipped and had her mane pulled, she’s almost unrecognisable to the bystander.

So what have we achieved in the last twelve months? Quite a lot really I think.

To begin with, she’s done some travelling to clinics, competitions and lessons, and has progressed from cautiously edging up the trailer ramp, to almost running me over in her excitement to get loaded. She travels quietly and calmly, and has excellent manners both in the trailer and away from home.

I did quite a lot of groundwork for the first four months with Phoenix. Initially, she couldn’t canter on the lunge, and was quite unbalanced. Here’s two photos to compare the changes in her trot from the lunge. Her trot now is more uphill, and whilst the photos don’t really illustrate it very well her hindquarters are more engaged so her trot has a slower tempo whilst maintaining the same level of energy. Her back and topline also looks much stronger now. Now on the lunge she’s proficient at raised poles, canter and is developing a range of trots in preparation for Novice level.

Phoenix had been introduced to poles before I bought her, but hadn’t really done any jumping. I started with some jumps on the lunge, and since then she’s really taken to it. I only jump a couple of times a month, but she’s now confident with fillers and showjumps up to 85cm, enjoying it and showing a good technique. I had a jump lesson a couple of weeks ago, where we had very positive feedback and she jumped very well, growing in confidence over the related distances and fillers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any photos because it was pouring with rain. She’s also been cross country schooling, which again was a positive experience for her. Next year, my plan is to build on her competition experience over showjumps, and to do more cross country with her, on sponsored rides and training, in preparation for a hunter trial in the autumn. Weather dependent, of course!

In her ridden flatwork, Phoenix has gone from being a bit tucked in in her head and neck, and with quite a choppy trot, to carrying herself in a longer frame, in self carriage and with more impulsion from behind. Unfortunately there aren’t any recent ridden photos – I’m sure you’ll see some soon. She’s been to some dressage competitions, and definitely has the talent to succeed here. Marks have been high, with some low due to her greenness, and excited anticipation. This is an area we’re currently working on. She’s rather fresh at the moment, but after ten minutes work will settle into a lovely trot and work beautifully. Then I walk and give her a breather. Unfortunately, she then anticipates canter so it takes another ten minutes to re-establish the trot. On a positive note, the canter to trot transition is much calmer and more balanced, so we are getting there slowly! I’m looking forwards to cracking this as then we can move up a level and develop her lateral work, because the moments of good work are really good! She’s teaching me a lot, as I’ve never ridden a horse where I have to sit quite so quietly and have such minuscule aids. The slightest aid can get a huge reaction, so I’m on a learning curve (especially while she’s so lively) to stay relaxed whilst sitting quietly, and trying to remember not to back off my aids when she gets tense or scoots off as that makes her even more sensitive to the aids. For example, when she tries to rush in the trot it’s tempting to sit even more lightly. But that means I can’t use my seat without her acting like I’ve electrocuted her. I have to remember to keep sitting into her and trust that she will relax in a few strides. Then I can use my seat to half halt effectively.

Other experiences that Phoenix has had, and accepted, over this last year, are clipping, babies, pushchairs, massages and bareback riding. Clipping is still quite a stressful experience for her, but everything else she’s taken to like a fish to water.

Phoenix had done a fair bit of hacking before coming to me, and I don’t get her out as much as I’d like, but she’s brought the fun back into hacking for me. I hadn’t realised how on edge hacking spooky horses had made me last year. Now, I’m finding our hacks very relaxing and fun, either in company or on our own, especially as she’s so well mannered in open fields and is rock solid on roads. I’m looking forwards to doing some sponsored rides next year, especially as Otis had a lifetime ban for his continuous airs above the ground on these rides.

Looking back, I think we’ve made a solid start to our relationship and journey together. We’ve made a good start to all areas of leisure riding, and whilst we may not be perfect yet, a solid foundation is being built, so that hopefully we have a successful competitive career, whilst having a lot of fun. Phoenix is everything I wanted from my next horse, so I’m glad I took the gamble and bought her without trying her myself and before I was supposed to be purchasing. I’m really excited to see what the future brings for us.

Watch this space!

An Accuracy Grid

One of the horses I teach with has a tendency to drift slightly through grids. It’s not noticeable over single fences, and has vastly improved through doubles, so I wanted to test his rider’s accuracy to ensure she wasn’t allowing him to drift around courses.

I began with setting up a two stride double, with tramlines to focus both horse and rider on straightness. We kept the fences as cross poles too, to help them get central.

Once they were riding through the fences comfortably, I began to ask the questions. One stride before the first cross, I added a skinny fence. With no short poles, I had to use a barrel. This meant that the pony might back off the skinny jump, as well as trying to dodge round it. However, as it was the first fence in the grid my rider could set them up in a controlled, balanced canter and focus on her accuracy and the cross poles would follow naturally.

As predicted, the pony backed off the barrel fence, chipping in a little stride, so his rider had to ride positively to prevent him squeezing in three strides between the cross poles. They repeated it a few more times until the pony stopped backing off and felt more confident.

Next, I added a second skinny barrel jump at the end of the grid, one canter stride away from the second cross pole. As this question came up rapidly after the cross jump my rider couldn’t have a lapse in concentration through the grid or else her horse will have either drifted past the skinny, or will chip in a second stride. She also needed to pick up on any slight deviation from straight.

They jumped the first three fences neatly, straight, and on the correct stride. However, they drifted slightly right through the grid which gave the horse the perfect opportunity to slip past the last jump. The next time, my rider corrected their line throughout the grid, by opening her left rein and using her right leg. Because the horse was less able to circumnavigate the skinny fence he chipped in a stride, so disrupting the flow of the grid.

To overcome this, my rider had to recover quicker from the cross poles, and ride forwards and positively to the barrel fence to give her horse the confidence to take the distance on one stride. It took a few tries, and they only managed it from one canter lead, which suggests we have work to do on their weaker canter lead. Which fills my next couple of lesson plans!

Adding a skinny into a grid keeps horse and rider switched on, and ensures the rider doesn’t become a passenger once they’ve entered the grid of fences. It highlights any drifting by horse or rider, and by working on both canter leads you can see if there’s any asymmetry. For example, if a horse is stronger with their right hind leg then they will push more with that limb over the fence so the horse will always drift left over jumps. However, this horse drifts fractionally right in right canter but drifts significantly right in left canter, suggesting that the cause of his drift comes from the fact his body is crooked to the left, which is exaggerated in left canter so drifting becomes more apparent.

The grid can be made harder by removing the tramlines and converting the cross poles into uprights to make it harder for horse and rider to stay on their line. You can then remove the wings from the barrel jumps to make it easier for the horse to run out. If you can negotiate that in a fluid and confident manner then you know you’re riding straight and accurately!