My Toothpaste Analogy 

Sometimes it’s hard for a rider, especially a young rider, to understand the feel required on the approach to a fence: the difference between the horse taking you into a fence and rushing to the fence.

 Last week I came up with an analogy, which will come into force this week – you have been warned, clients!

When you’re riding a horse you want to feel that they’re taking you into a fence, in front of the leg. If they aren’t, then there tends to be two outcomes. 

Which can be likened to a tube of toothpaste.

Imagine a tube of toothpaste, fairly full, with the lid off. Now, clap your hand down on the toothpaste and watch the paste spurt out. This is the equivalent to giving a horse a big kick a few strides away from the fence. Some horses don’t mind this, and would prefer the definite feel of commitment and “let’s go” from the rider. Others get pushed out of rhythm and put off their stride and can cause a refusal.

Let’s go back to the toothpaste scenario. This time, you’re going to push gently with your fingers, akin to squeezing with the leg. The paste smoothly glides out of the nozzle. This is the equivalent of the horse feeling reassured by the rider’s commitment to the jump and moving in front of the leg; perhaps a slight lengthen of stride but ultimately engagement of the hindquarters to give the canter a bit more power whilst maintaining the rhythm and the horse’s stride. Then the horse feels confident to jump the fence.

When approaching a fence you want the horse to feel that they’re taking you into the fence, and if you feel them back off it’s important to reassure them without putting them off their stride. So don’t spurt the toothpaste otherwise they may start to doubt themselves and refuse. 

Singing A Tune

I had a challenge and a half this week, which definitely got me rummaging around my tool box for solutions.

I have a young rider who suffers from first-jump-itis. She flies through grids, and any related distances but as soon as I put a course together she falls apart.

In her first lesson this week, a bit later in the evening because of the heat, I built a course as she warmed up on the flat. Then I warmed her up over a cross pole then upright, and then started putting a couple of the lines of my course together. The jumps were well within their comfort zone and she was riding well. We had the odd dodgy jump when she was a bit restrictive with her hands (something we’ve been working on) but her lines between fences was superb. 

Once she’d jumped nearly all of them, bar a couple of island fences, I explained the course. And it went wrong. She had a stop at the first one and promptly slid out the side door. Remounted, she rode it again successfully and the rest of the course got better – it flowed more and she looked more comfortable as she went through.

I upped some of the jumps; still within her comfort zone – especially the first one and she did it again. The first jump was still an issue so once they’d ridden the course with a sticky first jump I suggested we did the course one last time, to crack the first-jump-itis. After all, she’d jumped it a few times now and I think repetition was needed to stop her overthinking it. They had a good breather and then off they went. 

And it all went wrong. The pony stopped, she fell off, then she over rode and got in front of the movement, and then her pony started anticipating and stopping even when she gave him a fair approach. Then she froze and pulled with her hands into the fence. Even lowering the jump didn’t help.

Then of course we’re in this vicious cycle where everyone gets hot and bothered. So I told them to have a walk break and moved onto another fence, and made that a little cross. They stumbled over it and I could see my rider was just in a panic.

I’ve said before, that teenagers can be tricky if there’s an external problem or if they’re a bit hormonal or whatever, it can be hard to solve a problem. Thankfully I know this rider very well, so jokingly checked there were no boy problems, or anything else she wanted to tell me. There wasn’t, so I told her to serenade me the next time she jumped. She laughed despite herself, and moaned that she wasn’t very good at singing. But just her laughter caused her to relax a bit and break the tension. 

She went again, and on the approach to the cross pole started singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They instantly improved, relaxing and she had the handbrake off so her pony sorted the jump out himself. I made her repeat it a couple more times, singing loudly. 

Then I made it an upright and continued with the singing approach, finding it made her breathing more even and meant my rider sat more like a passenger, which she needed to do so that she didn’t interfere with her pony’s jumping.

That went smoothly so as she landed  I told her to maintain the canter and approach the original jump. Unfortunately getting them up and running didn’t mean that they negotiated the problem jump. Usually breaking the cycle and establishing a flow helps overcome psychological refusals. But I noticed my rider stopped singing on the approach, and freezing her body.

I took the jump right down and got them singing and trotting, then cantering, over it until they’d done the original fence. The important part was that she continued singing and stayed relaxed. As soon as they’d succeeded we finished the lesson … to be continued tomorrow.

I mulled over the conundrum overnight, and the following day realised that it’s been very hot this week and the adults I teach bring their own water to lessons. Parents bring water for their kids in their lessons. I don’t take water with me unless I have multiple lessons because I just end up leaving it in arenas. But this young rider had come down to her lesson alone – Dad was poo picking (how well trained!) – so her performance was probably affected in the last third of the lesson because of thirst or heat. I had a gap in my diary just before her lesson and was feeling quite thirsty myself so headed to Costa and bought two iced fruit coolers, assuming my rider wouldn’t have a drink.

She seemed very pleased with the drink, and I think it definitely helped her having frequent slurps through the lesson. I changed the course slightly to make a three jump grid, which I kept as little crosses and got her jumping through in a relaxed and positive way to warm up. I also got her to jump the grid with one arm out to the side, just to highlight how tense her arms get on the approach, particularly when she’s worried. This also built her pony’s confidence back up.

With the grid going well I then used it as the first element on a course. This was to help her establish the rhythm and get into the zone before continuing on to the courses. I still made her sing loudly, and I was pleased to hear her doing it on her own accord. With her breathing and being more relaxed, and me reminding her to release her hands on the approach, the lines flowed a bit smoother. 

We had a couple of minor blips but overall a much more positive session. They jumped the grid then onto the course a couple of times successfully and then I called it a day. I felt it was more important to finish on a good note than to change the course in any way and ask any more questions. After all, there were a few little things for them both to go away and reflect on. 

Lessons to learn are for me to double check everyone brings water or refreshments to lessons in hot weather. To use grids the next couple of lessons to establish my rider’s rhythm and get her in the zone. To make her sing to every jump because each time she stopped singing she had a more frantic approach and not such a good take off or bascule. I’m also tempted to do some lunging without reins, and more grids without reins so that I stop her using the handbrake. Then hopefully we can break the cycle and they get back on top of their game. 

My ITT Exam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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! 

No Escape Routes

I taught a guinea pig rider over the weekend, a completely unknown combination to test my ability to assess and teach new people with no preparation, and we definitely had a breakthrough. With new, or unknown combinations, you often make tweaks and see the beginning of improvements, but rarely do you have a game changer of a lesson. That comes later when several tweaks come together in a dot-to-dot fashion.

My rider was a young teenager on her almost outgrown Welsh section B. The pony apparently had a phobia of fillers and didn’t jump more that 2’6″ at most.

After watching them warm up on the flat I felt that the pony was doing an excellent impression of a llama – nose up and out as he pranced along. But his rider had poker straight arms, which wasn’t helping the situation. Almost as soon as we’d corrected the hand carriage the pony relaxed his neck and became a bit softer in his frame. 

We moved into jumping, and the pony looked fairly scopey to me, albeit a bit erratic on the approach. So I focused my rider’s attention on the quality of the canter and not letting the pony back off towards fences. We worked on still softening the hands and arms on the approach, with quiet, positive legs.

Once they’d jumped a few and it was flowing well, I brought in the fillers. The two fillers were just at the side of the fence, with space to jump in the centre. Then I asked my rider how she was going to ride towards the filler jump. She said a few taps with the stick and fast. I asked her to demonstrate, so I could prove my point later.

After a refusal (a dive out to the right), they popped it easily and I brought them in to discuss how we could progress.

I felt that the pony was more than capable but was a typical pony and would take the easy route if possible. Which meant that it was down to his rider to ride him so that the only, and easiest, route was over the jump. Firstly, approaching a bit slower would give her more control and hopefully more time to prevent a run out. In order to give the pony just one direction to go in, the leg needs to be hugging him ready to apply pressure if he backs off the fence. The reins need to channel him straight without discouraging him from going forwards. I got my rider to imagine the reins were train tracks, hands quite close together and carried above the wither. The legs can help tunnel the pony along the tracks; e.g. If he drifts left, close the left leg and left rein to the shoulder. Basically the legs and hands had to block the alternative, sideways, routes. Finally, the seat needed to support the legs in driving the pony forwards. 

Put all together, the rider is quietly and positively giving the pony no alternative but to jump over the fence. We put the theory into practice, and they flew! Every single jump, regardless of filler or not, had a more positive and rhythmical approach and a better take off point and bascule. The whole course flowed nicely.

To test them thoroughly, I asked them to jump the narrow, white gate fence in the arena. It was full up 2’6″ and spooky, but my rider applied the aids and the pony refused by stopping on the final stride. This was fine; I explained to my rider that he was no longer running around the jump as his previous refusals had been, because her legs and reins were more effective. He had, however, exploited a weakness. She had just been a little lax with the seat, as she anticipated the take off. On the second attempt, they flew it easily!

They made a huge improvement through the lesson, and I think the rider understood the content and felt more confident in her pony’s ability. Hopefully they can apply this technique of shutting all exit routes in a quiet way, whilst clearly offering going forwards over the jump as the only option, the pony will stop thinking about how to evade the jump and just get on with it! It’s just a shame now that I can’t help them continue their journey, because they look like they’re going to have a lot of fun! 

Something To Get My Teeth Into …

Every so often I teach a lesson that is really rewarding. Whether it is because I’ve done mental gymnastics to work out how best to explain a concept, or had to do some research, or the satisfaction when a client “gets it”.

I had one of those lessons this week, and came away tired, but buzzing. 

One of my teenage clients has recently stepped up a level with her jumping, but they’ve had a couple of hiccoughs, which we’ve been trying to iron out.

Last week, we worked on the rein contact because a stride or so before the jump my rider was dropping the contact and getting in front of her pony. Which was causing him to refuse. But by the end of last week’s lesson she was waiting until the fence to fold and maintaining the contact nicely. Oh and she was also using the snaffle ring of the Dutch gag to minimise the effect of the loss of contact on the pony so that he didn’t lose confidence. 

Then over the weekend she had a pony club rally and got very muddled with the comments that instructor made. I’m not going into who’s right and wrong, but everyone has different ways of explaining principles and it can sometimes be overwhelming for young people to process. 

So armed with the knowledge that I needed to untangle my young rider’s  mind, I spent a couple of days thinking about it all.

She had been told that she was holding her horse back into the fence, but she was getting confused with our work on maintaining a contact, waiting for the fence, and her pony taking her to the fence.

Coincidentally, I’d read an article by Lucinda Green recently which discussed keeping 75% of the horse in front of you on the approach to a cross country fence so that you are behind the movement and in a safer position. It occurred to me that this explanation might be beneficial for this rider to help her understand not to get in front of her pony before the fence.

While she warmed up, I asked her to  think about how much of her pony was in front of her. She started feeling there was 50% in front of her, but by sitting on her bum, closing the leg and pushing the hindquarters into her much improved, steady contact she began to feel there was 75% of her pony in front of her. She found this useful to get her position correct, and to feel that her pony was taking her forwards.

I discussed with my rider the feedback from the rally, and her thoughts on her riding last week, at the rally and today, and we came to the conclusion that my rider had forgotten to close the leg towards the fence and ride positively (because I think we have been focusing on her keeping a consistent contact and not getting in front of the movement) and whilst I may have picked up on this because I know how my rider ticks, her past riding, and the pony; the rally instructor focused on the wrong aspect for my client. Not the wrong thing necessarily, but the phrase and explanation didn’t make sense to my rider at her current level of understanding. It’s also tricky because the pony behaves differently at home than away, so issues that I may not observe can occur. We’re planning an outing with me soon, so I can help my rider at a competition.

With the explanations untangled and my rider clearer in her head, we began jumping the course I had built.

As crosses and uprights at 90cm my rider flew around the course, her rein contact was steady, she kept herself upright and her pony took her into the fences nicely because she wasn’t getting in front of him. 

At this point, they were both looking confident and comfortable. So out of interest, I raised the fences to see if this changed anything. 

Now I had to get my thinking cap on, because things started to fall apart. The pony was keen, getting quicker to the fences and now I could see how my rider was holding him back. Perhaps she was worried he was going too fast to jump, or worried he would put in a sudden stop, or the jumps worried her because they were bigger, I’m not 100% sure why. The trouble is that the pony is keen so if you don’t steady him at some point whilst jumping a course he will get too fast and unbalanced which could cause other issues. It’s a fine balancing act, and one which has got out of proportion.

I reminded my rider of a principle we’ve covered many times. It’s her job to create an energetic, balanced canter and straight approach, but her pony’s job to get over the jump. That means the last three strides were his, and his alone. She remembered and understood this, so I stood in front of the jump and walked away until she told me where she relinquished control over the canter. Marking that place, I then strode out three canter strides. My rider’s point was significantly closer to the jump than the three strides I had walked. Partnered with the fact that a bigger fence has a take off point further away, my rider began to understand that she was trying to dictate the canter for too long, thus inhibiting the way her pony jumped. 

I think this is a fairly recent development, possibly due to their knock in confidence. We now jumped the course, focusing on organising the canter, and releasing the pony in sufficient time to allow him to organise himself over the jump. It was looking much better, and my rider understood everything we’d discussed and could feel how much better her pony was jumping. And how happier he felt.

But we had another problem now. In related distances, my rider was taking a steady, but still trying to slow the canter in those critical three strides prior to the next fence.  

I videoed her, and then we watched the video so my rider could clearly see where she should have released, and how she was trying to steady. I explained to her how she needs to land and try to rebalance her pony, but if she hasn’t managed to, or even if she has, it is vitally important that she releases and let’s her pony do his job. 

This worked. Okay, it was still fast through the related distances but by releasing the control over the canter in sufficient time, the pony still jumped easily and nicely. 

My rider understood everything we discussed, and could see what she needed to do to best help her pony, who after all wants to jump. Now it’s just retraining her eye and getting her to trust that he will fly the jump if she releases the handbrake before the fence. Her position was much more secure by the end, and the contact was steady, so we have resolved the getting in front of her pony issue. This means that I’ll give her some brakes next time and drop the reins down a ring on the Dutch gag, because I feel she can keep the contact consistent now, and I would like her to feel that she has some control around a course. 

We’ll spend the next few weeks focusing on when she’s in charge of the canter and when she needs to relinquish control to her pony.

Making Molehills Out Of Mountains 

I realised a couple of days ago that it’s been a while since I’ve done a lesson based blog. It’s not for the lack of teaching, I think rather just the busyness of holidays and revision has made in depth blogs rather less appealing. 

But one of this week’s jump lessons has quite a useful exercise in it.

We’ve been working a lot with this horse on improving the quality of his canter as he is such a long horse and he’s finally getting the idea of shortening his stride and taking his weight onto his hindquarters. This is really noticeable in the jumping because he’s not losing the quality of the canter around corners which is improving his take offs.

A couple of months ago I did some bounces with him and his jockey. It didn’t go that well because I think my rider got overwhelmed with the concept of bounces and over rode them. So I returned to some gridwork and other jumping exercises.

I decided this week to try again with bounces. But as I know this rider will focus on them and make a mountain out of a molehill I planned to just incorporate the bounce into a grid. I wanted the grid to make her horse think, to highlight  the improvement in his canter, as well as to work on their gymnastic ability.

I laid out four poles. Between the first and second was 12′ to make a bounce; 36′ between the second and third for two canter strides; and 24′ between the last two for one canter stride.

We worked over the poles in both directions in a slightly lengthened canter to accommodate the distance (which was built for jumping) until my rider relaxed into the exercise and loosened her hips so that she folded slightly over each pole to not inhibit her horse.

Next, I built the last fence as a cross and had them ride the grid a few times. Once they were in the grid, the poles flowed fine, but my rider was still focusing on the first pole and bounce. 

Repetition is key and reminding my rider to ride towards the jump at the end, and to look up not down at the poles meant that they negotiated the grid more comfortably.

We raised the cross pole to an upright and then made the third pole to an upright. I wanted the bounce poles to just become normal, part of the furniture so to speak, before I raised them.

Once the grid with the third and fourth fence up was flowing nicely I put the second element up as a teeny fence. The last two fences were around the 75cm mark, but the second fence was more like 50cm. They popped through it a couple of times until my rider looked more relaxed, and then I made the first bounce a 50cm upright. They were deliberately small so my rider wasn’t phased by height and so they felt more like exaggerated canter strides. Then once she’d stopped overthinking them I could raise them a bit.

The first couple of times my rider looked down and they met the first fence erratically, but the two strides after the bounce allowed both horse and rider to sort themselves out – the main reason I put two canter strides in here. 

When my rider created a balanced canter, rode the corner and closed the leg a couple of strides out, they met the bounce on a perfect stride, and had an excellent run through the grid. Her horse thinking about every fence, picking his feet up well and not rushing – he can sometimes get flat through grids which is why the one stride distance was after the two stride distance. When they’re more confident we could do a similar grid in reverse. My rider was also starting to see each stride and stay in balance over each element.

To finish, we had the bounce fences a bit bigger, and the last fence at 90cm, to test the horse’s proprioception, rider’s balance and for the bounces to be more influential and challenging.

They negotiated the grid perfectly; the bounce was no longer playing on my rider’s mind, which meant she just created the quality canter and allowed her horse to meet the fence appropriately. Where she was more relaxed over the fences she went with the movement of the horse more, which caused the grid to flow nicely. The horse wasn’t rushing the grid, and was jumping each element carefully and steadily, which was lovely to watch. 

I’d like to use more bounces with this pair to strengthen the hindquarters of this horse and to help improve his agility and quickness that he lifts the forehand and bends the forelegs over fences because I feel that is a weakness in his technique. Hopefully now my rider is less concerned about bounces we can incorporate them into other exercises and then see an improvement in the horse’s jump technique.

Riding To Different Fences

I`ve done a few cross country lessons over the Easter holidays and it`s tied in quite nicely with one of my revision topics for tonight … so I thought I`d kill two birds with one stone. Not that my aim is very good, so I`d probably miss both birds.

When you learn to jump there are a few golden rules you go by. Approach perpendicular to the jump, aim for the centre, have a rhythmical approach and getaway.

But then the jumps start to change, so you need to adapt your rules to best tackle the fences successfully. Shall we look at the different types of jump you will encounter around a showjumping and cross country course, and how best to tackle them?

Starting in the ring, the majority of the course will be uprights or oxers. Upright jumps require a steeper bascule, so the ascent and descent is steeper and the take off point slightly closer to the jump. In order to have the hindquarters underneath, hocks engaged and ready to push the horse up and over the jump, the canter wants to be fairly collected; energetic and bouncy. An oxer is a wider fence, so requires a take off point that is further away from the jump and a shallower ascent and descent with a wider bascule. Therefore, the canter needs to have a bigger stride, whilst still maintaining the impulsion.

A triple bar is an extreme oxer, so the canter needs to be even more longer striding and powerful in order for the horse to make the distance.

A Liverpool, or water jump, can be tricky for horses because they don`t see the water until quite late, and reflections or ripples can cause all sorts of problems. To give yourselves the best chance of jumping, approach in a collected canter, maintaining impulsion. This gives your horse plenty of time to see and assess the fence, so as long as you are riding quietly and positively, they will jump it.

Style-type fences are narrower than usual fences so test the rider`s accuracy. Again, collecting the trot, sitting up tall, and creating a tunnel for the horse with your hands towards the centre of the style before using the leg to drive them down the tunnel should ensure you jump it successfully. Because run-outs are common on narrower jumps it`s important that the rider rides to the very last stride, and doesn`t assume that because they are three metres away from the jump that the horse is fully committed.

Some jumps around the showjumping course are more “spooky” than others, so I would always advise steadying the canter to increase rider control, and creating the tunnel with the rider sat back and tall, with plenty of positive leg and seat aids so that the horse has no escape route other than clearing the fence.

Let`s move onto the cross country course. Many fences here are the equivalent to the oxers in the showjumping in that there is width to the obstacle – tyres, barrels, logs, rolltops that sort of thing. These simple, often island jumps, are invited and should be jumped from an open canter or gallop.

The same technique applies for skinny fences on the cross country course as in the arena; steading the pace to increase rider`s control and to focus the horse on the question ahead.

Ditches can cause problems for novices because the horse won`t spot it until the last moment, or the rider focuses down into the ditch which causes the horse to also look down. Shorten the canter, sit up and look up and beyond the ditch. Ride quietly and positively with the leg so the horse doesn’t have the opportunity to back off the fence. I always tell my riders to be prepared for a big jump and to hold on tight! We then repeat the ditch, incorporating it into little courses until the horse is confident, and then we introduce the coffin complex – or jump, ditch, jump as it`s now described as. Then other fences such as Trakheners and ditch palisades can be introduced. Again, when ditches are involved in fences you want to make sure the horse isn’t approaching too fast that they get surprised by the ditch – and don`t look down into it!

Offset doubles and angled fences aren`t jumped from straight on, which can make it difficult for the horse to assess the fence, and also can encourage them to run out, following the angle of the fence. I like to make sure my whip is in the hand that they are most likely to drift towards, so I can use it gently on the shoulder to back up that leg if necessary. Again, the canter needs to be balanced, but doesn’t need to be particularly collected unless the horse is prone to running out, and the rider needs to tunnel the horse along their line with the rein and leg aids. It`s important that the rider can see their line over the jump or combination to help focus the horse.

Another challenge often seen cross country are steps, either up or down, and sunken roads. Going up steps requires a lot of power from the horse. On the approach the canter needs to be collect so that the hindquarters are engaged and there is plenty of impulsion in order to get up the steps. The rider wants to be off the horse`s back up the step, but not resting on the neck or inhibiting the shoulders. When going down steps, the rider wants to lean back down the steps, with the weight into the heels and the hands letting the reins slip as necessary so the horse isn’t impeded. Again, horses need to have time to assess the question, so don`t rush towards the steps. Have a balanced canter and as always, positive aids. A sunken road is a step down before a step up. I think it`s a big test of rider balance as much as anything, but the horse has to recreate the impulsion to jump up out of the sunken road very quickly, so needs to be strong and confident.

For some, corners can be the trickiest part of the course. It can trick you into taking the wrong line and jumping it at an angle, which encourages a run out. When walking the course you should bisect the corner, and focus on riding to that line. The whip should be in the hand nearest the corner, as that is the side horses are more likely to run out, and it can back up that leg by being tapped on the shoulder. The canter wants to be controlled to reduce the likelihood of a run out.

Finally, on a cross country course you also encounter hills. When jumping uphill the horse needs more power because of the greater effort of jumping up an incline, and the rider needs to be off their back for as long as possible to help the horse canter economically. When jumping downhill you need a smaller canter to stop the horse getting onto the forehand, which could cause them to peck on landing or to falter over the jump. The rider should have their weight back on the approach and fold minimally over the fence, making sure they sit up quickly afterwards to help the horse rebalance.

I`m sure there are some types of fences that I have missed, but this post has taken me long enough to write (between various distractions of dinner, drink, cats and TV).  If in any doubt about a jump or combination, I always think it`s better to go a bit steadier, with impulsion, and positively ride to the fence. Then the horse has a little longer to process what is being asked of them, but you are also more effectively closing any escape routes with the leg and hand so they are more likely to jump the obstacle.



A Polework Exercise 

Last weekend I did a polework clinic for the riding club. Polework is becoming increasingly popular, and I have to say they are enjoyable lessons to teach. Plus, using the poles for two or three hours is far more satisfying than just the one lesson.

As I had a variety of horses and riders I decided to layer the exercises, so riders could opt to stay at the easier level if it suited their horse, or progress to slightly more challenging exercises.

Let me describe the layout, and by popular request I will do a diagram.

I had a jumping arena to use, so it was roughly 30m x 60m, giving me plenty of space and I left the outer track clear. At each end I laid out four poles on a 20m circle. Then down the three quarter line, in line with a pole on each circle, I did five trotting poles on one side and three canter poles on the other side. I put wings on alternate sides of the trot and canter poles, and put wings on the inside of each pole on the circle.

Automatically I had two levels of exercise; raised poles, or poles on the ground.

Each set of poles can be worked with independently, or linked together to add an extra level of difficulty.

The poles of the circle improve suppleness, ability, strength of the inside hind, and check the effectiveness of the rider’s outside aids. Riding to the outer edge of the circle makes a 20m circle, whilst riding closer to the middle is a 15m circle and more difficult for the horse. So within my lessons, the riders could adapt the one exercise to their ability by the size of the circle.

The poles on the circle can be raised to increase flexion of the inside hock, improve flexibility, suppleness and balance. I raised one circle, so I could accommodate both levels of horse.

Using the two circles you could ride a figure of eight going across the diagonal from circle to circle. This improves the horse’s ability to change their bend. You can also ride one circle in trot and one in canter, thus adding in a transition to further the exercise.

Now let’s look at the poles. I only raised the trotting poles as the horses had enough to think about without raising the canter poles. Once the horse is comfortable with the poles on their own you can start to have some fun.

The circles can be linked together via the three-quarter line poles to make a course.

These are the courses I used and the benefits:

  1. Trot the circle of raised poles, trot the raised trotting poles, canter the circle of ground poles. The elevated trot strides should improve the canter. You want to aim to get a clear transition, which should feel more active due to the increased engagement.
  2. Canter the circle of ground poles, trot the trotting poles, trot the circle of raised poles. For horses who run down into trot this course makes them and their ridersthink because they haven’t got time to waste in a sloppy trot otherwise the trot poles go everywhere. Downward transitions then become more balanced and clearer.
  3. Canter the circle of ground poles, canter the canter poles, trot the circle of raised poles. Again, you need a crisp, balanced transition into trot in order to negotiate the raised poles.
  4. Ride clockwise over the circle of raised poles in trot, change the rein across the diagonal, making a canter transition ready to ride anti-clockwise around the circle of ground poles before returning across the diagonal and trotting in preparation for the clockwise circle. You can progress to riding both circles in canter, and having both circles with raised poles. You’re looking to have clear transitions straight into a balanced gait, with no anticipation from the horse so that they negotiate the poles easily.
  5. Trot one of the circles (it will depend which rein you’re on) canter upon leaving the circle, over the canter poles, make a transition to trot before the next circle. Again, transitions need to be clear and the horse shouldn’t rush the canter poles.
  6. Canter one circle, trot upon leaving the circle, trot the trotting poles, canter the next circle. 
  7. Trot on circle, as you leave it ride a walk or halt transition. Ride back into trot ready for the trot poles. Ride another transition between the trot poles and next circle. The same can be done over the canter poles.

Putting all these exercises together keeps the horses on their toes; they can’t anticipate or rush because the poles will cause problems. They also have to work hard in staying balanced through the transitions, which helps improve the quality of the gaits, improve the rhythm and suppleness.