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.

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Riding the Outside Shoulder Around

I’ve done some work with several clients this week about riding the outside shoulder around turns.

If a rider, like many novices and children, uses the inside rein to turn their horse then the horse will give too much bend through their neck, which opens up the outside shoulder. So when the inside hind leg comes under, instead of acting on the centre of the horse’s body and propelling them forwards, the inside hindleg works across the horse’s body, throwing their weight diagonally, out through the outside shoulder. This means that the horse moves less efficiently and has less power because energy isn’t flowing through the horse’s body back to front.

To the untrained eye, a horse giving an exaggerated neck bend can seem to be more supple than a horse who is slightly straighter through the body but engaging his hindquarters, yet the latter is working more efficiently and correctly.

Often, I believe, this trait comes from riders over using their inside rein, and horses being asked to ride too small a circle or too tight a turn before they are physically strong and balanced enough, so in order to negotiate the turn they fall through the outside shoulder as they go round.

Firstly, let’s look at how to prevent a horse falling out on turns and circles. The aids are the outside leg pushing the barrel around, and the outside rein maintaining the contact and preventing the neck from flexing. For a horse who is inclined to fall out, this rein has to be prepared to support the shoulder as the horse tries to fall out, then tries to work out how he should be moving. Often, this is where it goes wrong because the rider is not convinced enough in their application of the aids or strong enough in their core, that when the horse gets heavy in the outside hand they lengthen the arm to relieve the pressure. Which means the horse continues to fall through the outside shoulder. The inside rein on the turn opens, to tell the horse where they should be going. Think of this rein as an indicator, not an instigator. It is only suggesting to the horse which direction they need to go, not causing the movement itself. The inside leg prevents the horse falling in and also acts as the accelerator, keeping the impulsion of the gait. The rider’s body turns in the direction of movement, being careful not to throw the outside hand forward. The inside seat bone is loaded fractionally, and the outside shoulder and hip go forward.

So that’s how you should ride a turn. Be honest, do you always abide by these aids, or do you sometimes panic and think you aren’t going to make the turn so grab the inside rein? Or do you forget about the outside of your body? It’s very easily done, particularly when a horse tries to fall through the outside shoulder due to habit/old injury/previous poor schooling/evasion.

What exercises can be done to teach the rider to bring the outside shoulder around on turns, or to teach the horse to engage their inside hind leg through turns?

Firstly, I’ll often ask a rider to think about what’s going on underneath and behind them on circles while they warm up, this builds an awareness of the parts of the horse which are out of sight. Then they will more easily feel any improvement.

I like to use squares too, whether it’s just riding E-B or creating a square around the letter X. I’ll ask my rider to imagine that their horse is a plank of wood for a moment, and round each corner they are going to keep them as straight as possible. This stops them using so much inside rein and gets them using the outside aids. Once they are managing this and aren’t likely to fall back into old habits, we start introducing a bit of bend and softening the square into a circle. However, I get them to focus on creating a bend in the body, not the neck first – that comes naturally – so my rider thinks about the feel underneath them and uses the leg and seat to get a slight curve along the horse’s spine. Finally, I tell them to just allow the neck to bend in the direction of movement, which usually means that the horse gives just enough bend and the rider hasn’t lost the outside shoulder.

So this gets a rider feeling the difference between a uniform bend through the body, and a horse falling out through the outside shoulder. Hopefully they then apply the same aids on all circles and turns.

Now let’s look at the horse. Some horses are naturally crooked, so seem to bend easily in one direction and not so much in the other. One mare I teach sits in quarters right. We’ve done a lot of work building her rider’s awareness for the slight bend, and worked on improving the mare’s suppleness. In the trot my rider is getting more effective at using her outside aids and their circles are much improved, but the crookedness shows up most in the canter. Especially on the right rein. Both horse and rider have slight counter flexion, which added to the quarters sitting right means that circles tend to be more of an impression of a motorbike. So we’ve worked on my rider correcting her position and degree of turn, and then we asked the mare to look slightly to the outside in the canter before moving on to squarish circles, keeping the outside bend. To do this my rider had to keep her outside rein and exaggerate her outside leg. However, the mare soon started to move around the school with her outside shoulder coming round. After doing this a few times my rider could really feel the improvement in the canter – it was more active and where the mare was straighter it looked like the hindlegs were propelling her along better. Returning to usual circles in canter, my rider managed to prevent the mare curling her neck and falling through the outside shoulder whilst having a bit of inside bend. Now she was riding from her inside leg into her outside rein, which means she has much more control over the horse’s positioning through turns.

I’ve done similar work with another client, who’s cob falls out on right turns. This is more important for her with her jumping because when the cob drifts out through his left shoulder he loses power, which means he chips in or is more likely to know the fence down. As soon as his rider rode a square turn, off her outside aids and with slight counter flexion, they maintained the quality of the canter to the fence and met it on a much better stride. Next week, I’m planning on doing some more work on this right turn before fences to really establish my rider’s aids, and her horse’s technique and balance through the corner.

Other exercises I like to use with a horse who is reluctant to bring their outside shoulder around on turns are; shoulder in, shoulder in on turns, haunches out on turns, turn on the forehand. Anything really that gets them listening to the outside rein, encourages them to bring the inside hindleg under and towards the centre of their body and helps improve their general straightness.

Horse and Country TV did a useful video about the importance of bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, and you can see from my screen shots below, the difference between the first one (riding off the inside rein) and the second one (riding from the outside aids). If you can, see if you can find the full length video masterclass.

Tug Of War

If a horse is strong; be it in the field, school, on the ground, jumping or cantering, a rider or handler’s natural reaction is to pull the reins or hold on tighter. This creates a static pull and unfortunately isn’t that effective.

For this post, we’re ignoring the rest of the aids and body language, because I feel that this area is often most misunderstood by novice riders.

Imagine you are trying to push someone over who’s bigger than you. If you just lean your body weight against them then they will adjust their centre of gravity and lean against you, thus making them more stable and harder to push over. This is exactly what happens if you pull statically on your reins, or the lead rein if you’re on the ground. The horse will lean against you akin to a tug of war. Because they are so much heavier (ten times is the suggested ratio) gravity works in their favour and ultimately you will lose.

Going back to pushing someone over. Tactically, it is much better to give a series of smaller pushes, so unbalancing them and preventing them securing their centre of gravity against you. Now back to the horse scenario. A series of squeezes/jerks/tugs, whatever you wish to call them, is more effective at directing the horse and monitoring their speed.

Think of it as a give and take, or squeeze and release. You maintain the contact, be it lead rope or reins, but use your hand to apply pressure, then as the horse responds (however marginal) you relax the fingers. Don’t push hands forward because that will allow the horse to rush again. The release rewards the horse for his slight reaction, and reapplying the pressure repeatedly stops them leaning against you and means that they maintain respect for the aids.

From a driving perspective, you want to imagine you’re slowing decreasing your speed. So from 60mph, to 55, to 50 and so on. If you squeeze the rein yet drop the contact between squeezes it’s like alternating between the brake and accelerator. Some horses, like when you’re driving downhill, need frequent taps on the brake (half halts) to stop them rushing out their rhythm.

It’s a hard thing to get your head around, especially when faced with a horse who doesn’t want to stop cantering across the field, because it’s an automatic reaction when self preservation kicks in, but ask your horse to steady in small increments with a series of half halts rather than trying to win a tug of war and bring them to an emergency halt. Practice in the school, in a simulated environment so that you feel more confident out hacking and in open spaces, as well as training your brain.

Non-Athletic Careers

Most of us have horses for the purpose of riding; be it hacking, jumping, eventing, dressage, racing, playing polo or mounted games. Driving is another area we use them for. It’s a very athletic lifestyle, but unfortunately there are a large number of horses who aren’t able to have athletic careers. Maybe they’ve been neglected so are too weak to take a rider, or their conformation means they are limited, or they’ve picked up an injury during their lives. Or perhaps they just don’t have a particularly trainable brain.

This led me to wondering what non-athletic jobs a horse could have. After all, there must be something!

The first non-athletic reason that springs to mind is of course, companionship. Many older horses, or outgrown ponies are kept on by their owners to provide company for their younger/bigger/faster replacements. These horses often live a very happy, contended lifestyle, living out most of the time but being stabled during the worst of the weather, supplied with hay and rugged when necessary, visited by the dentist, farrier and vet as and when needed. Another aspect of this companionship is when competition horses suffer from separation anxiety and need their companion (often a Shetland) to accompany them to competitions. Obviously this is a far more exciting life than just staying in the field, but often these companions make all the difference to the competition horse’s performance.

There’s been a big move recently, and a lot of research done, into the positive effects of autistic children being around animals. The Riding For the Disabled charity has been around for years and hundreds of people have seen and felt the psychological and physical benefits of being with horses. One recent piece of research found an improvement in the social behaviour of autistic children who rode or handled horses on a weekly basis.

Obviously Riding for the Disabled involves riding, but there’s been a recent move towards Therapy Centres. These are for disabled people, or those suffering from depression, loss, or other psychological problems. Sessions involve grooming, and bonding with a horse or pony, leading them around, or being around the horses in their stable and field. After all, how many of us feel better after a tough day just by going and having a cuddle with your horse?

So a kind, gentle natured horse who cannot be ridden for whatever reason, could have a very fulfilling life at a Therapy Centre, letting troubled people spend time with them and heal. I had a quick look online and there are a few small businesses who have herds of horses and specialise in unridden sessions to help clients overcome their problems and rebuild their confidence.

I then got a bit stumped for other ideas, but I heard of a lady’s horse who had various ailments and after lengthy investigation and treatment needed to be retired, so she gifted him to an equine hospital as a blood donor. When you think about it, it’s logical really, for hospitals to have small herds of horses, usually geldings, on site so that in an emergency they can be caught (one criteria is that the horses are easy to catch) and blood taken from them and given directly to the patient. I guess this would appeal to many owners in that difficult situation of having a healthy, unrideable horse. The donor herds live out except for very bad weather, and are under the close eye of a team of vets, so are going to be well looked after.

That’s a very useful non-athletic job for geldings. But what about mares? Well a lot of people say “oh I can always breed from her”. Well, not really because the UK doesn’t need to increase the equine population and if a mare has an untrainable character then it’s unwise to breed from her anyway. Some injuries/illnesses or conformational faults can be inherited or make carrying a foal hazardous to the mare. For example, if a mare has chronic forelimb lameness (perhaps only two tenths lame so doesn’t prevent her from being retired) then this will be exacerbated when she is carrying a foal and heavier, therefore it’s not very ethical to put her through that. Some maternal mares could be used as “nannies” and could help orphaned foals, or they could help keep herds of weanlings or youngsters in check until they are taken to be backed. After all, recent studies have shown that it is very much the dominant mare which leads a wild herd to water, grazing, shelter.

Horses who can’t be ridden definitely become limited in the purpose that they can be kept for: which can make it difficult for some people to justify keeping them, but if they’re happy living out in a herd, and comfortable in whatever ails them, then there are huge numbers of retirement establishments around the UK, but it’s equally interesting to see what other options are available for them, be it helping improve the quality of life of troubled humans such as therapy horses, or assisting in the care of other equines, such as being a blood donor.

Where Are Your Heels?

Twenty years, or more, so ago when you learnt to ride it was “heels down, toes up!” I was teaching a client, a mother who’s getting back into riding now her daughter has a pony, and we were discussing the old school methods in her lesson and how equitation has moved on.

Being repeatedly told to put your heels down causes the rider to force their heel down – creating very stretchy calf muscles – which causes tension through the back of the leg and up to the thigh and seat. It also causes the lower leg to swing forward so you lose the vertical shoulder-hip-heel line. Which means that in order to stay balanced in rising trot the knee will get tight.

Next time you sit on a horse, try forcing your heels down. Can you feel your lower leg slide forwards? Can you also feel your thighs change and almost lighten your seat? All of this combined with a tight knee will push the rider out of balance and make the seat less effective.

The opposite foot position of course, is when the calves are tight and the heel sits higher than the toe. This means the rider has their weight in their toes so their centre of gravity is pushed forward. If the horse stops or slows down or changes direction, they’re far more likely to become unseated. Tight calves can affect the tightness of the whole upper leg, in a similar way to when the heels are forced down. Both extremes of position put tension into the leg muscles. Which, in both situations negatively affects the effectiveness of the seat.

So what is thought of now to be the correct lower leg and foot positioning?

The leg should drape around the horse, from the hip, with minimal amount of tension through the muscles so the the seat and inner thigh can subtly control the movement of the horse. Now, the precise angling of the foot depends on the riders anatomy. The weight wants to be favouring the heel – imagine your sole is covered with marbles and you are angling your foot to encourage the marbles to roll towards your heel. But the heel should only be fractionally lower than the toe, so you are close to horizontal. This means the lower leg is more stable in the rising trot and is the best position to support your body weight.

For some people, who have long, supple calves, their heel will naturally drop much lower than the toe, but while doing so you want to keep the leg tension free. The majority of us are tight in our calves, which means our heels and toes tend to be fairly level. In this case, it is the jamming of heels down that compromises the relaxed and correct leg. If a rider is tight in the calf and it is jeopardising their riding ability then it’s best to try some calf stretches off the horse to relax and lengthen the calf muscles, which will help improve the lower leg, rather than trying to just push their heels lower than their toes.

I rarely spend time telling my riders to push their heels down; I’ll ask them to drop the weight into their heels if they look tight in the calf or their weight has pitched towards their toes. If they do have a real problem with the lower leg position then I find working without stirrups, or standing up out of their stirrups whilst trotting helps them shift the weight around their feet so they can find the leg position that keeps them in balance – this exercise stops the knee getting tight because they’ll fall onto the horses neck whilst the lower leg flies out behind, akin to superman, and if the heel is forced down they will fall back onto the cantle.

A Variety of Bounces

I wanted to get a couple of the horses and riders I teach to improve their reactivity over fences so I put together a grid to get them thinking.

I laid out five poles, ten feet apart (we were working on grass, up a hill and neither horse has a huge length of stride so I reduced the usual bounce distance of twelve feet) and then walked two shortish canter strides to another pole. That was 30 feet to anyone going to replicate the exercise, 36 feet if you’re on a flat surface or have a bigger striding horse.

We warmed up by cantering up over the poles. Both horses managed to make the distances with a slightly more forwards canter. Checking for straightness as we went over them.

Then I built up the first fence as a cavaletti, so about eighteen inches from the ground. Then the third and fifth poles. The idea of these small fences was to improve the quality of the canter, and to give it a bit more jump.

Next, I raised the second pole, then the fourth, to just bigger than the cavaletti poles. Once the horses had popped through the grid comfortably, really using their hindquarters, and rounding their backs over the poles.

This alone is a great suppling exercise, but I wanted to improve the horses’ bascule. So I progressively raised the second and fourth jumps so they were double the height of the cavaletti. In order to negotiate these higher bounces the horses had to shorten their bodies, take off at a steeper angle and tuck their forelegs neatly and quickly to their chest.

Finally, I put up the last jump at about 80cm. The bounce fences encourages the horses to shorten their canter stride because they are making air, so to speak. Then they have to lengthen the canter stride and almost go slightly flatter in order to get the two strides to the final fence. A lot of horses find it difficult to adjust between these two canters so take off too far away from the final fence.

For a fairly straightforward exercise, the horses had to think about the fences. Pay enough attention to the smaller bounces that they didn’t tangle their legs up, but not over jump the smaller fences. The horse in the video b is very clean with his front legs, and this exercise made him tuck them up quicker than normal, which will help get him out of trouble if he gets in too deep to a fence. The other horse in the lesson can dangle his forelegs a bit, so alternating the height of the fences gets him thinking about his technique.

For the rider, it’s a good test of balance because their jump position varies between the smaller fences and the bigger fences. Which also serves to improve their position and lower leg stability.

Tackling Steps Cross Country

At a recent cross country lesson I did we had some fun going up and down some steps at the water’s edge, so I thought it was a good topic for discussion.

Steps are always seen at the higher level competitions, but increasingly are being seen in miniature form at grassroots and training venues.

Usually there’s either one or two steps, and they can either be a step up onto a mound, where there’s another jump and a gentle decline, or vice Verda, or they are set into the side of a hill, so making use of the terrain.

Firstly, let’s take a look at going up steps, because it’s easier for both horse and rider, and usually the first direction tried.

The horse needs to approach with plenty of energy, after all they are going uphill, but the canter (or trot if it’s a green horse and small step) needs to be heading towards collected, so that the weight is off the forehand and the hindquarters are engaged, ready to push the body up the step. The rider wants to be sat up, so that they are looking up the steps and their weight is off the horse’s shoulders. As they jump up the steps, the body should fold forwards, without collapsing onto the neck, hands forward to give the horse plenty of rein because they will need to stretch their neck out to balance. If the heels are down and the weight is in the foot then the rider won’t load the shoulders. A common problem when going up steps is gripping with the knee, so as they fold into their jumping position the lower leg swings back and the rider’s weight tips onto the horse’s withers, so unbalancing the horse and making his job difficult. I always find that you need to stay forward longer than you think over steps, because if you sit up too quickly the hindlegs will find it harder to mount the step.

When introducing horses and riders to steps I always like to find the smallest one and trot then canter up the single step until both are looking confident and understand the concept. With steps you can definitely feel when it has gone right, so often it’s a matter of waiting until it clicks with the rider.

Lots of training venues have a variety of steps, which are really useful for progressively building a horse and rider’s confidence and experience. Once the small step is mastered, and perhaps put into a short course, I like to add in a second step. Usually you can find a small pair of steps. With a pair of steps, the rider needs to be very flexible and balanced, to be able to fold up each step without impacting on the horse’s way of going. The horse needs to be thinking forwards, especially between the two steps so they don’t lose their momentum and end up scrabbling up the second step. As the rider feels the hindlegs climb the step, they want to close the leg to encourage a positive canter stride so they reach the second step at a suitable take off point.

Once two small steps are mastered, you can start to jump up bigger steps. This is physically quite demanding on a horse, so you’re almost better off doing smaller steps a couple more times and keep them feeling confident and not too fatigued.

Next up, is the rider scarer of jumping down steps. Again, start small, and with a single step.

Approach the step steadily, but with positive energy, allowing the horse plenty of time to look and assess the question. Don’t look down the step, drop your weight into your heels as you close the leg to encourage the horse to go down the step. The horse’s weight shifts backwards as they step off the edge, so lean back and allow the reins to slip through your fingers so the horse can lengthen his neck down the step. Lengthening the reins is important to stop the rider being jerked forwards and landing up the neck. Again, a lot of riders don’t stay back for long enough so it’s important to encourage novice riders not to rush to sit up. The secret to staying balanced down steps is keeping the weight into the heel and the lower leg forward.

Some green horses tend to be a bit over zealous and leap down the steps. I find that repetition, and making little deal of the steps usually solves the problem. Only when the horse steps calmly off the step do you want to start going down bigger steps, or multiple ones. Going down steps is a big confidence test for horses, and the rider needs to be quietly positive and stay balanced to give the horse a good experience.

The next step, excuse the pun, with steps is to incorporate them with water complexes. Firstly, stepping up out of water, and then dropping down into the water. The more steps you do, the more confident the horse and the rider become and they start treating steps like any other jump.

I was very lucky that Otis loved negotiating steps, and was very confident going up and down steps, and I loved doing sunken roads and step combinations with him. I spent a lot of time doing small steps, and each time I went cross country schooling I would warm up over small steps to build his confidence and remind him of them before incorporating them into courses so that neither of us thought twice about steps.

Breaking The Rules

One of my big hang ups is riders not preparing their canter transitions. And most importantly, not sitting into canter.

I explain to all my clients why we sit; the horse is expected to move smoothly from a two beat trot to a three beat canter, and if we continue to rise in a two beat rhythm we are making it harder for the horse. You can complicate the explanation by discussing how the seat moves differently in canter and trot, but for the riders who tend to rise into canter the first explanation is sufficient.

Last week though, I had to break my own rule. I’ve been working on canter transitions with a client and her horse. They’ve improved, but we haven’t quite nailed them.

Initially, the mare hollowed into the transition and ignored the leg aids. The canter was quite lethargic for a few strides before she found her rhythm.

We’ve improved the mare’s overall suppleness over the last few months because I think one of the contributing factors to the poor transitions is tightness over her back preventing the hindleg coming through.

We’ve also worked my rider in sitting trot to improve her seat and to ensure she isn’t accidentally blocking the canter through the seat. Improving the seat has also improved the hand position, and there’s no longer a “snatch-back” in the upward transition. Which is a very common feature of riders who’s horses don’t readily pick up canter.

There’s also been a variety of exercises to improve their transitions including walk-canter, successive trot-canter-trot transitions, using circles to pick up canter as well as straight lines. The canter itself has improved through lengthening and shortening the strides, using poles and improving my rider’s feel and understanding of a balanced canter.

So after all these avenues have been explored, we are looking at a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing. Part of me wonders if it’s just habit from the mare to lift her head slightly and try to run into canter. Which means we need to break the cycle. Perhaps the mare needs to realise that her rider won’t get left behind, or have negative hands. Or she just needs to build up the muscle strength and memory to perform the balanced and correct canter transitions.

Last lesson, as I observed the canter transitions I realised that my rider is sitting to the trot, but almost sits slightly onto the cantle so when they strike off into canter, she’s just momentarily behind the movement. It’s not much, and there’s nothing wrong with her position or anything obvious, and might be just enough to prevent the mare coming through with the hindlegs into canter, which makes it quite tricky to spot and improve.

Feeling daring, because we were breaking the rules, I asked my rider to ride from rising trot into canter. The transition definitely flowed better and horse and rider looked to be in better sync with each other. We did a few more transitions like this and they definitely got more consistent and smoother with the mare rounding her back more into the canter, and pushing off with her hindlegs.

I’ve left my rider with the instructions to only to riding trot into canter this week, because I think by rising, or having a half seat as she goes into canter gets her weight off the mare’s back, which makes it easier for her to use her back muscles. I also think that the rising encourages a forward swing from my rider’s hips, which should help her sit with the movement, rather than behind, and to absorb the change of rhythm more easily. It’s a very subtle change of technique, and I’m hoping that this week’s practice of rising into the canter means that we find the final piece of the jigsaw next week – fingers crossed!

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!

Scales of 1 to 10

Sometimes novice riders can get very comfortable and accepting of their horse or pony’s gait and aren’t aware of it’s quality. I always like to ask my clients what they think of the trot or canter; to describe it, and to suggest how they think they can improve it.

But sometimes it’s useful to label the gait so that we can easily relate to it. This is when I use a scale between one and ten.

For the younger riders, I keep it simple and we talk about the speed of the trot. When they’re in their average trot, I asked them to put a number of this trot. Really, I’m hoping they say five, but it doesn’t really matter if they say four or six. So long as there are a couple of numbers either side to play with.

Let’s say the rider has labelled the trot as a five. I’ll then ask them to slow it down to a four. Then speed it up to a six. Then we play a game, where I shout the number, and they change the trot to match the number. It’s actually really beneficial to the rider as they learn to apply subtle aids and get a better concept of rhythm.

I also use school movements to help the riders get used to changing the speed of the trot. For example, trotting across the diagonal in a six trot, then a four trot along the short side, then a six trot across the other diagonal before a four trot on the other short side.

If you have a rider who’s a bit nervous, then practising riding in a six, or seven, trot can help get them used to the bigger strides whilst still feeling in control. Likewise, if they find their horse is a bit fresh and trotting round in a seven trot, than identifying what level it is makes it more manageable and they feel more confident in changing the trot from a seven to a five.

As riders get more competent I apply the scale to different aspects. For example, one being a flat, lethargic trot and ten being a very bouncy trot with energy on par with a shaken bottle of lemonade, to measure the level of impulsion. Scales can also rate movements or transitions so that riders learn to identify their better attempts.

You do have to clarify to riders that the scale doesn’t mean they will get those marks in a dressage test, or that their ten trot for impulsion is comparable to Valegro’s, but rather a sliding scale for them to monitor the improvement in their horse.

Progressing to being able to adjust the canter can really help when jumping, especially cross country. It’s much easier to walk the course and number the canter approach so that you know how to tackle each fence. For example, a seven canter for the log jump, a four canter for the skinny fence. Numbered canters are easier to teach with, and easier to plan your technique.