Girthing Myths

I saw this little article last night – All about girths – which highlights how important it is to keep yourself up to date with scientific developments within the equine industry.

I can remember when elasticated girths first appeared. They were the bees knees. Then there was a phase which said elastic should be on both sides so that the tension is even.

There has been the warning for a few years that you should be careful not to over tighten elastic girths, but it was interesting to learn that it makes the saddle more unstable. More controversial then, are those anti-slip girths designed for barrel shaped cobs, which have a rubbery anti-slip pad on the girth, and elastic on both sides!

I didn’t know that girth tension varies with pace: although it makes logical sense because the different footfall sequences will affect the horse’s body. If you lift one arm up, for example, your barrel shifts to maintain balance and muscles around your rib cage contract in order to enable you to move your arm, so this follows through that the horses’ barrel will be similarly affected. In canter, their breathing is also in sync with the stride, so that could help explain the variation in girth tension whilst cantering.

Girths are now much more ergonomically shaped, cutting back away from the elbows, so I guess manufacturers are already aware of the pressure points.

I’ve heard plenty of times that girths shouldn’t be overtightened. And it’s easy to get carried away with rotund ponies prone to saddle slippage, but I wasn’t aware that it affected athletic performance other than the horse being uncomfortable – try running in too small a trainers, or like me still squeezing into your jodhpurs – and unable to take deep breaths that over tight girths compromised a horse’s performance.

I’m not really sure how the average horse owner assesses the tension in their girths, in order to be as close to the ideal 10kgs as possible. I would say that 10kgs doesn’t sound very much though!

I think it’s fairly obvious that men create more girth tension than women. It’s a fact, feminist or not, that men are usually stronger than women, and if you take into account their usually increased height, you can see quite easily how they can crank the girth up.

Even in my limited history of being around horses, which scarily enough is twenty years now, technology and research has made huge advances in tack and the way horses and riders are taught. It’s actually exciting, in a geeky way, to see how our knowledge and understanding changes in the next decade, and the impact this will have on all areas of the sport.

Centaur Biomechanics does a lot of research in this area. It’s a fairly local company to me, and once I’ve swallowed the price of a lesson, I’d be really interested in having a biomechanics session to really see how straight I am as a rider. I’m just off to Google some biomechanics books to add to my Christmas list … I’ll be needing some bedtime reading in the New Year!

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Storing Rosettes

I’ve got a bit of a dilemma at the moment. My office is currently being turned back into a bedroom for bump, so I’m having to find new homes for everything. But what do I do with all my rosettes?

I’m reluctant to box them up because of the associated memories, but equally I don’t think they should stay strung up along the wall. Or maybe I should leave them to start encouraging the competitive spirit and eagerness to ride …

When I was younger I did a variety of things with rosettes. Hung them up on the wooden beams in my bedroom, hung them on the top of my curtains (pencil pleats, but they were forever falling off), and then finally I had a bamboo blind on the back of my door – which had two panes of glass so let a lot of light into my room. On a side note, I just remembered my teenage brother smashing one patterned pane in anger… and we were in so much trouble because the panes were a hundred year old so replacements weren’t exactly easy to find. I hung the rosettes on this, which I always liked, and it served the job of keeping the light from the landing out of my room.

How does everyone store their rosettes and sashes? I’ve seen cushions made from them, but I’m not sure I like that idea – it gets confusing as to what the ribbon is for. And I like being able to reminisce. All of my rosettes have the date, horse, competition level, location, and score scribbled on the back to help trigger memories.

After a quick google, I found a lot of cushions, wall hangers (which is fine for a small number), and glass jars.

Ideas on a postcard please, so I can get organised. The more creative or quirky, the better. And if anyone has any photos that would be even better!

Filling the Gaps

Do you ever watch someone doing an activity and think “oh if they just did this and that it would be finished quicker/look better/be so much easier”. Apparently this is something that happens on a daily basis with children learning to tie shoelaces, get dressed, eat dinner etc so I’ve got this to look forwards to.

I try to step back and bite my tongue until I’m asked for help or advice. Over the last few months I’ve seen a girl and pony riding regularly while I’ve been working. And it was one of those situations where I knew exactly what I would teach them, and what exercises I’d use if they were to have a lesson with me. It wasn’t so much that it was going wrong for the pair of them, I just knew how to make them better. Now, you can’t (well, I can’t) just walk up to someone and demand they have lessons with you just to satisfy your yearning to impart knowledge. I didn’t stand and stare while they rode – that’s rude – but inquired to how they were getting on and showed an interest in their progress. So making myself approachable if she wanted lessons or advice but without being overbearing.

Then, to my delight, she mentioned having some lessons and we got talking about their jumping. I think I mentioned one thing I’d work on with them, and she booked a lesson. Now of course the pressure is on to deliver!

They had their first lesson last week and from my observations I felt that the pony was a bit behind the leg, didn’t have a steady contact to work into, and because he was then thinking backwards all the time he had the tendency to chip in at fences. The basics and his way of going were there, just bad habits were hiding them.

On the flat, I asked my rider to shorten her reins significantly so she could feel his mouth lightly, and to feel like her seat and legs were driving her pony into the contact, and then feel that he was taking her hand forwards as he moved. As soon as the contact was offered, he took it, stretching his neck out a bit and lengthening his stride. Immediately he started using his hindquarters and using his back. Most of our flatwork in this session was focused on establishing the contact. When the pony was taking the contact forwards, my riders hands stayed still, but when the reins were slack she was fussing to find the connection while her pony also fumbled for it.

We worked on feeling that the trot and canter were bigger striding, and had more energy. She needed to use her aids more effectively and the pony needed to react to them. However, now he had the security of the hand he was far happier going more forwards. I also did a check of her outside aids on circles to help the pony stay straight and balanced. As soon as the outside rein supported his shoulder he maintained the impulsion better. Which will pay off when riding a course if fences.

I didn’t want to overload them, and make too many tweaks that they wouldn’t remember or be able to practice them, so we applied the new flatwork to jumping a simple grid.

14.2hh ponies can be tricky to stride out distances for: if they’re a bit stuffy or backwards thinking they tend to need a pony stride count, whereas if they are more excitable or scopey then they prefer the horse stride. As I’ve said earlier, this pony tended to chip in, so I built the distance short, for a pony, and decided that as his confidence and strength improved I could lengthen the distances to him. I didn’t want him to feel that he couldn’t make the distance and so encourage him to chip in. I also put out a placing pole to get him to the correct take off point at the first fence.

We worked on the turn and approach, feeling that the pony was really taking his rider towards the grid, and that she wasn’t dropping the contact nor letting him hide behind it. I told her to feel that she had 80% of her pony in front of her at all times. This brought her shoulders back and made her use her seat and legs to improve the canter. With the placing pole, they were soon flying through the grid of about 75cm. The height was enough for him to focus on the fences, but not to make life too hard for him. After all, I wanted to build his confidence at taking off a bit earlier and to build his strength so it’s best to keep the heights within his comfort zone. The grid was also training my rider’s eye so that she rode for the better stride, rather than expecting the chip in at the last minute. A couple of times the pony took off correctly but my rider expected him to put in another stride, so it was a learning curve for her as much as him. When I took the placing pole away they found it harder to meet the first fence correctly, but what I liked was that the pony was now meeting the subsequent fences perfectly, almost making the distance look short.

I left my rider with the correct feeling of the length of stride, and contact so she could practice and improve their consistency.

In their next lesson, the flatwork started off far better than the start of the first lesson, and we used transitions to start getting the pony off the leg, and kept focusing on keeping the contact consistent, so that the transitions became more balanced and the gaits more forward thinking.

We talked about generating the impulsion in the trot and canter. When my rider rode an upwards transition I got her to think of riding into the medium gait, and once she had this speed and energy, she could half halt and balance the gait back to a working gait so that she had impulsion, i.e. energy without the speed.

This time I built a grid of three bounces and then an oxer one stride afterwards. The aim is to build the pony’s hindquarters and to get them both riding forwards towards the fences. They met the first fence much more consistently and negotiated the bounces perfectly each time. I half expected the pony to try to fit a stride in, but I think the flatwork was paying off. They jumped the oxer nicely too, making a better shape over the fence too.

We’ll continue working on their flatwork, developing their balance on circles as well as direct transitions which will help their turns on courses, as well as improving his hindleg strength and getting the pony more responsive to the leg aids, so that when he backs off a fence his rider can get them out of trouble. Then we’ll move on from jumping grids to putting courses together.

Cross Country Gears

I had a fun cross country lesson this week, and what we worked on really seems to have fallen into place with my rider and his pony.

Let me give you a bit of background. He’s had his pony for seven months, so is rapidly growing into him, and they have the most adorable relationship. Don’t tell him I said that! But it is, it’s so lovely seeing a boy who loves his pony this much. Anyway, he does everything with him, and so far doesn’t seem to be afraid of doing anything on him – you can imagine the “can I jump that?” As he points to a Novice brush fence!

However, before I’ll let them get too gung ho (we’ll leave that for the hunting field) and ambitious, I want to teach a bit more of the technicalities of jumping.

A few weeks ago we went cross country schooling and had some problems with the steps in particular. So with this in mind, we planned some cross country sessions for half term. And used the in between lessons to work on core muscles, position towards a jump, developing his seat aids, and getting him more aware of the variations in his trot and canter and subtly altering them.

Last week we went cross country schooling and we had a mixed afternoon. We began to improve his riding towards steps – he was no longer racing towards them, and was sitting up for longer on his approach. They jumped the trakhener and some rather large, straightforward fences confidently. With the water complex we had an issue of racing towards a small fence and creating so much splash his pony couldn’t calculate the jump. Then we had a problem in the water. A long, over confident leap up a step then caused a refusal in the water which led to an unfortunate dunking for my rider.

This week I was adamant that I was going to sort this out so that next season the boys didn’t start with a phobia of steps.

The pony is very bold, but tends to get long and fast on the approach to jumps, often preferring to take off half a stride too early than get closer and make a steeper bascule. His rider, because he’s a growing boy and still maturing, plus still growing into his pony, tends to collapse a bit through his core and over ride the last couple of strides to each fence. Which encourages and enables his pony to go long and then take a long stride to a fence. Which causes problems at technical fences because his pony either takes a long stride or can run out.

So how to make my client realise and understand how to maintain a more balanced canter towards these technical fences? After all, being a boy you can’t overload him with information. Last week, I’d tell him to sit up and hold the canter towards the fence, which meant he forgot to ride positively with the leg. So the next time I’d say to remember the leg, and he forgot to sit up towards the jump! We needed a simpler set of instructions which encompassed all aspects of his riding.

Then it came to me; use the gear changing analogy. He likes driving and has a go-kart, and if we put numbers to the gears it will be easy for me to instruct on the approach and a short directive for my client to take in. After all, it tied in well with our lesson the other week on transitions within the trot and canter using the seat and a scale of one to ten to identify the size of the gait.

We warmed up in the field, using transitions and shortening and lengthening the canter. We had a check of the braking system to make sure it was enough that the pony didn’t get strong and pull my rider forwards yet wasn’t too severe. Then I had my rider warm up over four simple fences in a fairly straight line, looking at the canter staying very rhythmical and balanced throughout. Which meant my rider had to tone down his riding so his half halts and squeezes of the leg were enough to steady or encourage the pony without affecting the canter. The second time they did the exercise it flowed beautifully.

My rider could tell me how smooth the canter was, and I told him this was fifth gear. And I wanted him to remember how this had felt. Any simple, straightforward jump could be ridden from fifth gear.

Then we did another course, with mainly simple logs, but there was one jump on entry to the water. I let my client have a try, after all he’d jumped a similar fence last week. They jumped the first few fences nicely in fifth gear, but approached the water in fifth gear. His pony caught sight of the water behind the jump and put the brakes on. I reminded my rider that when jumping light to dark, or into water the approach needed to be steadier to give his pony time to read the question and answer it. I suggested he tried approaching the water jump in fourth gear. Then they flew it. So we repeated the course, really focusing on the gear change.

Just by using the term “fourth gear” instead of “steady the canter and sit up” meant I could efficiently get the message across and my rider put the whole set of aids together automatically – sat up and used his core and didn’t flap the last few strides. Whereas before he’d follow one instruction but forgot the other instruction.

We moved on to the steps complex, and talked through the gears for each jump: fourth gear for the fence going into the water, third gear for the steps uphill, fifth gear for the log out of the water, and third gear for the steps downhill.

The first course was pretty well faultless, but I did feel the uphill steps could have been better by my rider riding forwards between the two steps to keep the momentum going. So they repeated the course, and it looked fabulous! Apart from the loss of stirrup between jumps, of course.

As the steps were looking much more straightforward to them, I took the pressure off them and we did another “fun” course, which included a double of larger houses and a trakhener, with a couple of twists and turns to keep my rider`s brain ticking over. Fourth gear was required for the trakhener so his pony could take in the question, and any jumps with turns very close after were also a fourth gear. Unfortunately, the pony got a bit strong on this course and they took the houses in sixth gear, so their bascule was long and flat, clipping the roof. My rider could feel that the canter was a bit too fast and out of control, so we did another similar course with the houses, focusing on maintaining fifth gear. That time they jumped the houses in a much more controlled and stylish manner.

It was good to see this time, that I could send my rider quite far away from me – within sight but out of earshot – and when he had a problem with a skinny due to his approach and collapsing forwards as he overrode on the last couple of strides, my rider had to solve the problem himself. He changed his whip over, steadied the canter back to third gear and sat on his bum. Afterwards, we talked about how to solve that particular problem so that he was more confident in the way that he had handled it and so would do the same next time. Which he did.

To finish the lesson, we returned to the big water complex, which was where they had their dunking last time. We didn`t have any problems with the splashing fence out of the water like last week, which was great. By slowing the canter into third gear, the splashes of water didn’t obscure the pony`s view of the jump and he was much happier popping over it. It was much of repeating the concept of changing gears to ensure my client was feeling more confident about adjusting the canter, and making sure his pony was responsive to the aid. We did the steps out of the water and had a little blip when they both thought too much about last week; in the last course the first step was a little long, but it’s that fine line between the pony feeling confident and taking his rider into the steps and his rider being able to bottle the energy and maintain third gear. Which will get easier as he grows and gets stronger. I was being very picky though. However, the boys jumped the bigger step perfectly, and the rest of the course flowed really nicely.

We did try to do a bigger step, with a small blue brush on top, which caused a few problems but we soon established that the pony was actually cautious about the blue brush rather than the step itself, so we left that fence after a couple of attempts – that will be next year`s challenge!

I feel that everything started to come together in this session, and instead of just jumping bigger and faster, the two of them were thinking about the way they rode the fences and starting to think for themselves out on course. The idea of gears really struck a chord with this client, and he seemed able to coordinate his rein, seat and leg aids when thinking of the gears rather than being overloaded with specific corrections or instructions. When he walks courses in future we`ll just have to label each jump with the gear that he needs. Over the winter I want to develop his core stability and his knowledge and ability to extend and collect his gaits as well as improving his pony`s ability to maintain a more collected canter towards fences and jump in a less point-to-point fashion. Then I think they`ll sail around BE80s.

Increasing Knowledge

I remember reading an article by a BHS instructor which said that teaching Riding Club members was often more rewarding to teach than professionals because they are more receptive to different views and are well read in their areas of interest: be it dressage, a past injury of their horse, or join up.

When I was younger I remember we followed our instructor and yard owner’s instructions blindly. Probably mostly to do with the fact that we were kids. But if she told us to increase our hard feeds, or that our pony needed the farrier next week, or that we should put a martingale on, then we did it. She was usually right, but it didn’t lead to a huge amount of understanding. For example, why did she think our pony needed more feed? Or that they needed a martingale.

Now however, amateur horse owners keep their horses on a far more individual basis. They organise field maintenance, decide when to bring their horses in for the winter (all our ponies had to be living in by the first weekend of December but the ones which started to drop weight started living in earlier), and feed rations. As well as organising the farrier and dentist themselves – we had a farrier who came weekly and our ponies were done when we were told they needed doing.

As a result, horse owners now need to be more well read, and know how frequently to check teeth or shoes, and signs to look for that means the feed ration is too much or too little. This gives them more control over their horse’s lifestyle though.

However, information is more available to horse owners. Magazines, social media, the internet, books, webinars and DVDs all mean that information is at our finger tips. We are also more likely to see new products earlier, which can lead to owners following the fads.

It’s understandable that horse owners want to learn, because they have a vested interest in equines, and this is their hobby. And I like that attitude, it makes these people easier to teach. The ability for amateur horse owners to research new products, ring up feed companies for advice, and read reviews or celebrity interviews means that by the time an instructor is asked their opinion, the owner has already decided on the answer.

I have some clients who do some research, and then ask me for my opinion. Whilst others are more confident in their convictions. I think there’s a balance: horses haven’t read the textbook so whilst on paper it would appear that (A) is the answer, in actual fact (B) is a better option. And your instructor or yard owner may have experience of similar horses or have some “outside the box” suggestions which may work. So it’s useful to keep your instructor or yard manager on board with your horse’s management. Additionally, an experienced horse person may notice the earlier signs of weight loss, lameness, behaviour problems, or illness than a one horse owner will, so it’s important for them to feel that they can approach you with a concern if they’ve noticed a change in your horse.

From an instructor’s point of view, the fact that your clients are more knowledgeable and keen to learn puts a bit of pressure on you to continually enhance your own knowledge and continue to learn. Which ultimately can only be good for the industry because instructors strive to improve their performance and quality of lessons. Last week a client of mine had the physio to her mare, and was advised to use either a bungee or a chambon. So she asked me what my opinions were on either of the two gadgets and if I could help her fit and use one. Now, I’ve not used either gadget frequently, but I had to double check my knowledge so I could formulate a balanced, knowledgeable answer for this client.

Teaching is not just a test of your knowledge of schooling and riding, but you are invariably asked about all aspects of horse care, and I do like the challenge involved with advising owners on all sorts of topics, and also being kept on my toes with new developments within the sport.

The Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grass Reins

What are everyone’s thoughts on grass reins? Or daisy reins, or any other pony restraints? Which are competition-legal, and how should they be fitted?

Recently I saw a blog post on the BHS APC group, discussing grass reins, which got me thinking.

A child’s safety and confidence is paramount when teaching, so within reason, ponies should have tack that prevents misbehaviour. However, the purpose of grass reins, or daisy reins, is to increase the child’s control over the pony, not to force it into an outline or hinder the pony when they are working well.

In the first session on the first day of Pony Club Camp, I’m sure it was within the first five minutes, I requested some form of grass reins for a pony. We were riding on grass, and he kept nosediving for the grass. His rider looked nervous and sat leaning forwards, so every time the pony’s head went down she was almost unseated. I felt that it was counter productive for her to be struggling to hold his head up all week, and that a gadget would be the best support for my rider. The next session, the pony was wearing a daisy rein, and didn’t even attempt to put his head down. It was almost as though the mere presence of the daisy rein was enough to deter him, and my rider gained confidence through the week.

I was surprised to see, on the equipment list of a different pony club, that grass reins were listed underneath bridle and saddle. Are they really that common, and are they seen as an essential piece of equipment?

I’m all for using grass reins or daisy reins (side reins are sometimes seen too, but I think they’re becoming less popular because they sit at ankle height for many small children so there’s a risk of them getting their foot caught in a fall) if necessary, but I do like to see them only used when necessary. Perhaps only at rallies, or in group lessons, or on grass, when the pony is more inclined to be cheeky. I also like them fitted so that they don’t interfere with the pony’s way of going when he’s behaving. For example, the grass reins are slack until the pony snatches his head, either to graze, to try to unseat the rider, or to evade the wobbly hands. I hate seeing ponies with their heads tied in, particularly show ponies, and I think that sometimes having gadgets too restrictive causes other behavioural problems, such as the pony not going forwards or shaking their head.

Can you use grass reins for jumping? This was the question posed by one instructor. It seemed the general consensus, which I agree with, is that if the reins are fitted correctly, i.e. not restricting the pony’s head then they can be used for jumping because the height that kids who require grass reins should be jumping is not much more than raised trotting poles and the ponies don’t jump as such, rather make an exaggerated stride over them. I will add, that if a child is ready to start jumping bigger then their position should be secure enough that their hands don’t cause the pony to snatch on the reins (like many do when their mouths are used for balancing on) and their upper body secure enough that it isn’t pulled forward when the pony snatches, or they are strong enough in their core to prevent a pony from putting his head down to graze. So if a child is jumping more than a few inches whilst still wearing grass reins, either the grass reins need removing or the basics revised with the rider on the flat.

Another instructor asked what form or daisy reins or grass reins were permitted in competitions. Affiliated, none except for Pony Club mounted games, where the are fitted from the D-ring, through the bit ring, over the poll, and through the bit ring to the D ring on the opposite side. I guess in unaffiliated competitions it is at the judges discretion. You won’t see any gadgets in the show ring (the warm up is a different matter!) and probably not the dressage arena, but I think if I was judging kids on grass I’d permit correctly fitted daisy reins purely for safety reasons. In the showjumping arena, again the judge may permit it in the lead rein or mini classes for the reason that the ponies aren’t really jumping, and if it keeps a child safer then it can only be a good thing. After all, you want to encourage the little riders.

When fitting grass reins, you can either fit them so that they connect each side of the bit via the poll, as in the mounted games rules, or under the chin. I think I prefer going under the chin because a pony is more likely to snatch their head downwards, and putting pressure on the poll with the grass reins will accentuate that. However, when used with a single jointed bit, the nutcracker action may become too severe for some ponies. Which is why it’s worth experimenting with different types of gadgets, because there are hundreds of variations from the classic daisy rein or webbing grass rein, and their fitting options, to make sure that they only come into effect when the pony’s behaviour is deviating from acceptable, and that the pony doesn’t react in an untoward way to their action, nor is the fitting of the rest of the tack hindered – for example, I once saw a rotund pony wearing a daisy rein and crupper. The daisy rein caused the saddle to pitch forwards, so the crupper was needed to counteract this!

Last weekend I took one of my little clients to her first showjumping show. It was a local affair, at a run down venue. But it was nearby, and aimed at beginners and nervous riders.

We were one of the first to arrive, so could take our time walking the course. Our deal was that I would lead my rider in the first class, as it was her first competition and we needed to build confidence and enjoyment. Then in the second class, if all went well, then I would just be in the ring to assist. The nice thing about this competition was that competitors could have assistance in the ring in the first three classes. Which is obviously ideal for first timers.

The course wasn’t designed for leaders in mind, with few shortcuts to take and lots of related distances going from one end to the other and across the diagonals. Add into the mix that it was single phase, with jumps seven to twelve timed.

Anyway, we were one of the first to go in the cross pole class. I forget how competitive I can be for other people. It brought back memories of Christmas gymkhanas when us leaders were more competitive than the kids we dragged along behind us.

I think as well, I’ve recently had a shift if perspectives, and no longer want to focus on my competitive aspirations or success. Perhaps it’s having been out of the circuit for so long. Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that from March the centre of my world will no longer be me, but it will be the little person currently inside me. Anyway, I find myself more and more getting satisfaction and pleasure from planning and watching my clients compete and grow.

So yes, I will admit that I got slightly competitive in that first class, despite feeling puffed out at jump six, and we managed the jump off in a mere 39 seconds. Not bad.

Even though we knew we’d been fast, I expected a nippy little pony and confident child to whizz round. However, the nature of the show actually meant that those competitors weren’t permitted to enter, or hadn’t gone. Which meant, to my clients great delight, she won! She was thrilled with her rosette and medal, but we needed to do some negotiating for the second class.

Unfortunately all the jumps went up to uprights, which although are within her capabilities, are less friendly for the nervous. Especially away from home. So I resigned myself to running again. We weren’t as fast, I knew that because I had to make more of an effort over each jump, so we were narrowly pipped into third place. However, my rider did the trot lap of honour herself and was very happy with the yellow rosette.

I love little shows like this; where the commentary is encouraging, the course is friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed, and assistance permitted. It’s so important to make riding away from home enjoyable to build confidence in young or beginner riders and to encourage a good sense of sportsmanship, as well as to ignite that flame of competitive spirit. The beaming grin on this clients face was worth the aching muscles the following day, and I felt very pleased to have given her a positive experience at her first competition.

I don’t think there are enough of these novice shows around. You can usually find a “mini” showjumping competition during half terms and holidays, and I have managed to find a mini cross country competition for this rider to do soon – although I have excused myself from running! I’d quite like to see more “mini” dressage competitions. Aimed at the young, and not too long for leaders, it will help build confidence and encourage kids to take up dressage as well as encouraging a better level of riding. A lot of local shows tend to have lead rein classes or young handlers, but I wonder if you could run a whole show for lead reins, or just off the lead rein.

After all, if we don’t look after and nurture those starting out competing and riding away from home, then unaffiliated and grassroots competitions will suffer because people won’t be confident or comfortable enough to enter.

This weekend, I also had a client doing her first ODE. It was a proper grassroots, unaffiliated competition run at BE standards, so was a big step up from local competitions that they’ve been to. I didn’t attend, although I would have liked to, but the last couple of weeks have been fun prepping them both for the different disciplines, as has being at the end of the phone and answering her questions when she walked the courses. Getting text message reports during the day was also great; I could congratulate, commiserate, discuss whatever she needed to do. It’s a tough thing, taking the step up to busier competitions, where professionals are against you, but I think getting a dressage test that puts you within the top half of your section, and a clear showjumping round is an excellent start. Unfortunately the cross country didn’t go as well as I’d have liked, but we had talked about fitness possibly being an issue because the course was much longer and more technical than they’d ridden before. And this will only improve as my rider becomes more adept at finding the right canter speed, and ultimately has more experience jumping courses of this level. Of course, there’s plenty to learn from her first competition and I feel that being so involved during the day means I get first hand knowledge of her experience and know how to alter my lesson plans to best help them. Besides, eventing is the hardest competition to enter because you have to get three very different disciplines right on the same day.

But yes, with perspectives changing, I think I will definitely be more involved with competing clients, and get just as much enjoyment competing through them as I do myself.

Riding a Special Square

This exercise was first introduced to me at dressage camp, but I’ve used it so many times since.

Without using the track, scribe a square in the arena in walk. Perhaps with 15m long sides, but the length is irrelevant really.

At the corners, you want to ride a turn around the forehand. The aim of this is to increase the flexibility of the inside hind leg because it is brought forwards and under the horse’s body. This means that the leg becomes stronger and so increases the impulsion from the hindquarters. Turning around the forehand also focuses the rider on controlling the outside shoulder because as the inside hind leg steps under, many horses will avoid taking the weight onto the inside hind by falling out through the outside shoulder. Whilst riding this movement you, as a rider, will also be able to feel the horse bending through their rib cage, which also improves their suppleness.

Once you can ride turn around the forehand easily in the corners, add in step two. Ride shoulder in on each side of the square. Again, this aims to improve the flexibility and strength of the inside hind leg, encourage the horse to take the weight of their body onto their hindquarters and to lighten the forehand. It increases the suppleness through the rib cage.

Initially, you can use a big square, and use several strides to rebalance the horse between the shoulder in and the turn around the haunches, but as they get more competent then you want to ride seamlessly between the movements.

After riding a whole square of the complete exercise, ride large on two tracks and pick up trot. You should feel that the hindquarters are pushing more energetically off the ground. The horse will also seem to “sit” more in the trot, and have a slightly shorter stride with more cadence, slower tempo but still the same rhythm, and overall have that impression of having more power contained within their frame.

I find this exercise doesn’t need repeating too much because it is quite strenuous, but is very useful to do if they feel a bit stiff, or lacking focus in their work. Each horse I’ve used it with has almost immediately felt more balanced in their trot, with more “ping” and bounce to the stride afterwards. It’s definitely a useful tool for my toolbox!