Phoenix’s Progress

Time flies. I’ve just realised that it’s been almost three weeks since I last updated you on Phoenix and her ridden education.

She’s been hacking out alone weekly, and behaving brilliantly. I’ve her into the riding field to cool off after a schooling session and when the ground is a bit drier I’ll do some schooling out there with her, but she’s very relaxed in the open space which is great. I also need to take her on some faster hacks so I’m planning on going to a nearby cross country field in the next couple of weeks to have a play over some logs and see how she is after a couple of canters. Then I’ll have an idea of how she’ll find a sponsored ride and what preparations I need to make to give her an enjoyable experience on her first one.

Her flatwork is coming along nicely. She’s feeling more balanced in the trot and I was really pleased last week when she stretched and gave a lovely swing over her back in the trot at the end. It was the first time I’d felt such a release with her. She’s still running a bit into canter but I feel it’s partly my fault as I sometimes feel we’re talking two different languages. I think she prefers inside leg into canter whereas Otis liked a combination of both legs, but definitely the outside one behind the girth so I need to retrain myself a bit to help Phoenix.

The lunging sessions I’ve done have mainly focused on canter to help her find her balance without me to contend with, and she’s getting quite a little jump into canter now, so it’s time and practice to be able to replicate this under saddle. I did some jumping with her on the lunge a couple of weeks ago, getting it up to 90-95cm. She looked twice, but did it easily.

Then I followed this up the next weekend by jumping under saddle. She was great: we only did a few cross poles, working on approaching straight and rhythmically. She took me into the fences without being strong, and cleanly jumped all of them.

Then this week we progressed to a related distance. One pole was on the floor and four canter strides away was an upright – 80cm perhaps. I didn’t end up raising the pole to make two jumps because she was just getting to grips with negotiating the exercise without loosing her canter or wobbling off our line.

Last week Phoenix had the second of her massages as a case study for my friend. We found a very tight spot on the left side of her wither, which we think is because the saddle is a little on the narrow side – if you remember my saddler didn’t have the widest gullet so suggested I started riding and see how we got on as Phoenix will change shape anyway. As a result of the massage I’ve spoken to the saddler to organise refitting the saddles, and to perhaps fit my jumping saddle onto her.

Phoenix’s hamstrings and brachiocephalic were a bit tight too, but that’s due to an increase in work and is very typical rather than anything else, so she just enjoyed being loosened up. I was pleased that my friend noticed a big difference in the muscle of Phoenix’s neck; she’s developed quite a topline, and interestingly showed no sign of soreness in the top third, which is often tight with horses who “cheat” in the dressage arena and fix their heads in without working over their backs. Proof that Phoenix is working correctly!

This week she had her teeth rasped. I wasn’t sure when she was last done, but I decided to leave it until after the baby was born to give her chance to get to know me and for me to be fit enough to hold her if she fidgeted. She did fidget, but my dentist is very patient and just reassured her whilst following her around. They kept the session short and sweet, and we’ll rebook for six months time when they’ll spend a bit longer on her molars to perfect them as hopefully she’ll remember the positive experience she had this time round.

I’m really pleased with her weight as although not thin by any stretch of the imagination she has toned up nicely and her hindquarters are becoming more muscular and her tummy toned. She looks really well.

Next week we’ve got a dressage lesson booked, which will give Phoenix an experience of being ridden away from home, and then I’m hoping to plan a couple more trips out. Perhaps to a local dressage competition or to a jumping clinic to test her in a group environment.

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Putting On The Leg

One of the concepts I’ve recently found people struggle to understand and to put into practice, is riding a forwards going horse with enough leg. Or at least the right amount of leg.

This is particularly noticeable when jumping. One of the big teaching points when jumping is that the rider feels that their horse is “taking them into the fence”. This means that they’re off the leg, with an energetic canter that’s travelling forwards. Which is easy if you have a forward going horse, or one who loves jumping.

But what happens if your forward going horse is tanking towards a simple jump before suddenly grinding to a halt or getting in too deep and clambering over? The rider can tick the “taking me into the fence” box, and given that there are no tack, back, confidence issues it becomes a bit of a mystery.

A lot of the time it’s because the rider hasn’t applied the leg aids. It’s easy to see why, because you’re already travelling forwards (sometimes too quickly for your liking) so why do you want to press the accelerator?

In this instance, the seat and leg aren’t so much driving aids but more of a commitment aid. The horse has focused on the jump, they want to do it so canter happily towards it. The rider sits passively. Then the horse has a moment of doubt – is this the right jump? Am I supposed to be doing this one? – so they back off the fence and either refuse or cat leap it awkwardly.

Here, a slight application of the leg and seat means “yes this is the jump, and I’m committed” which gives the horse the confidence to jump.

Precisely how much leg you use depends upon the individual horse, but usually because the horse in this situation knows what they’re doing the leg shouldn’t put them off their stride. It’s difficult to explain to riders, especially children who think “leg” means “kick”, but I always say that if their horse changes speed, balance, or direction (wobbles on the approach) then there’s been too much leg. A squeeze of the leg to support the horse rather than distract them from their game.

Usually as soon as the rider has found the balance of leg and seat aids three strides away from the fence, the horse will comfortably and happily jump.

Counting Circles

Now that ménages at livery yards tend to be bigger than the classic twenty by forty because it enables more riders to use the space simultaneously and there’s more scope for jumping exercises. The downside to this is that riders get used to bigger spaces and all of a sudden a twenty metre circle becomes a twenty three metre circle and then dressage scores slip due to inaccuracies.

This is particularly hard to explain to kids, but I’ve come up with a plan to help one of my boys.

I strode out a twenty metre circle so that my client could see the the 30m arena was making his circle too fat. Once he’d gotten his eye in on the size of the circle I asked him to count how many trot strides he got on the circle. He got twenty five.

I explained to my rider that he should use this number as a guide for his twenty metre circles, whether warming up at an event or in the dressage arena itself. Then he asked, and I was about to bring it up, if he should get twelve strides halfway around the circle. The answer is of course, yes. I kept it basic, we aren’t going to be adjusting the circle size by leg yielding in or out, but we used the twelve stride marker to see if one half of the circle is too small or too big. Interestingly, on the right rein all his circles had a smaller second half. So we worked on correcting this issue and continued practicing riding accurately sized circles at A, E, C and B.

We progressed this exercise into canter, and luckily for us, this pony also got twenty five canter strides on a twenty metre circle. So we perfected the circles at all points in the school. I still wasn’t that worried about how round they were, I was more interested in my rider developing his eye for the size of the circle, so that he can apply this logic to other arenas or when he’s competing.

A side effect of the counting meant that subconsciously my rider relaxed his arms. He has a tendency to pin his hands to the withers, but whilst counting he softened in his arms which meant his pony softened too and found it easier to bend and step under with the inside hind leg. Without realising, counting the improved their rhythm as well, so whilst I didn’t mention this aspect I’ll definitely be talking about counting to improve their rhythm another day, and then at a different time we can start to perfect the shape of the circle.

This counting exercise can be applied to different sized circles and also when looking at shortening and lengthening the strides, but I find it very useful for kids as it quantifies the goals and they can see a definite improvement, i.e. when they get the correct number of strides.

Riding On Grass

Eventing season is finally kicking off, although with the ground conditions it’s been difficult to get any work done out of the arena.

This means that horses have lost out on valuable fittening work, hence why some eventers have pulled out of Badminton this year. There’s now far more centres with arena cross country facilities so whilst you may not be able to physically go cross country schooling you can at least practice the technicality aspect over a variety of cross country fences.

Dressage and showjumping you can practice all winter in the arena, but there’s a difference between riding on a surface, and riding on grass, so it’s important to get some practice in before an event.

Let’s look at the differences between riding on the flat and over jumps on grass compared to on an artificial surface.

Firstly, unless you are riding on a bowling green, no grass arena is going to be perfectly flat, and practice is needed so that you and your horse can ride as accurately and correctly on a slope as you do in the arena. The lack of fences can also make it harder to ride a straight line or accurate circles too. Which means practice. Count your strides on a twenty metre circle in the arena and then use this number to check you’re riding the correct sized circle out in the open.

Grass is more slippery than artificial surfaces, especially if it’s long, wet or you have the pleasure of an 8am dressage test on dewy grass. In which case it’s worth investing in studs, and then practice using them and working out the best size and shape of stud that suits your horse in different conditions.

A showjumping course will be more spread out than one on a surface. This is because on grass you need to take a wider turn to stay balanced. Again, you need to practice jumping on a slope, especially combinations, which may catch you out in the ring.

The biggest learning curve transitioning from riding in a ménage to riding on grass is developing the ability adjust your riding for the conditions, and for your horse to learn to keep his balance and rideability in different conditions – whether it’s hard going, deep going or slippery. As a rider you need to assess the terrain: are any transitions in the test on a downhill? Try and mimic the transition in your warm up so you get the feel for how you need to prepare and support your horse through them. Depending on how long the grass is and how wet it is, you may need to ride larger turns on the showjumping course than the optimum line, so you’ll need to take into account the time allowed as well as your horse’s canter and ability to keep their footing in these conditions. Sometimes the ground itself can be less than ideal, especially if you’re jumping towards the end of a wet day, so you’ll need to be able to circumnavigate divots and furrows without being put off your game. Learning how to ride on grass is only really learnt by practice. So take every opportunity you can to ride in the open fields, even when the conditions are not our ideal.

The other big factor you have to contend with when riding in the open is the added excitability of your horse. Many horses suffer from open-space-itis which means they jog in the walk, have a quicker showjumping canter and are generally a bit hotter. The best thing to do is to practice on grass to reduce the novelty – although the first time schooling on grass is always more exciting. Spend the first session establishing manners. A calm, relaxed walk. A steady canter. Walking towards home rather than galloping. Jumping a fence then coming back to the rider. Then another relaxed walk. By ensuring that your horse doesn’t think an open space means a flat out gallop you will have a more rideable horse and get more enjoyment as a result. And be consistent: expect them to listen to you all the time and then they will.

Just like humans, some horses are quick – both athletically and mentally. They’re always alert, might be a bit spooky, fast, and quick in the air. Others take life at a slower pace; take things in their stride, don’t feel the need to gallop flat out in open fields.

Both have their merits, and whilst you’ll never make a sprinter out of a marathon runner, there are various things you can do to slow down a quick horse and speed up a steady horse.

Let’s talk about the steady horse.

A quieter, laid back horse has the confidence giving qualities most amateurs seek in a horse, but it can mean that you end up struggling to get the horse forwards; either in a dressage test or round a course of jumps. Which can end up being frustrating. Because you feel that you were carrying your horse around!

So what exercises will help?

Firstly, it’s important that the laid back horse still responds to the aids. This means you don’t end up nagging constantly, and he respects the leg. Transitions help here – use lots of transitions throughout schooling sessions and hacks, bearing in mind that you’re only going to ask him once. And he should and will react. This may mean the first couple of upward transitions need “loud” aids, perhaps aided by the voice, but as your horse begins to take you seriously you can ask with quieter aids until it’s one squeeze and he’s off. Be strict with yourself, and over a few sessions there will be an improvement.

Talking of transitions, they’re also useful for switching the brain on. It’s not that steady horses are stupid, but rather their brains work steadily like their body. Think of transitions as being the equivalent to mental maths. Direct and progressive transitions, along with lots of different school movements in quick succession will help to get this sort of horse thinking. He’ll be more focused on his rider and not thinking about the dinner waiting in his stable. As he starts thinking more he’ll be quicker to react to the aids too.

Fairly early on in a schooling session I would have a canter, then utilise walk to canter transitions to wake up this sort of horse. Depending on the horse, a hack before going into the arena may be beneficial as horses are often more alert and forwards out in the open.

I would also use poles to provide a very varied schooling session, and keep sessions short and to the point. You don’t want the steady horse to become bored or tired because then his rider has to do even more work! If fitness is an issue then use hacks to build it up; in company to make them more exciting for the horse.

With jumping, steady horses can often lack the agility needed for combinations or jump offs because, quite simply, it involves a lot of effort! Improving their gymnastic ability with grids will help get them a bit quicker at folding their legs up over fences and again help get their brain ticking a bit faster so that they’re better able to think on their feet through combinations and better able to get themselves out of trouble. When schooling on courses I’d also use some transitions to keep them thinking; for example, if you have a fair distance between two jumps then collect the canter after a fence, or even make a downwards transition, and then lengthen the canter before checking that they’re balanced towards the next fence. This keeps them listening to you so you can keep them in front of the leg before the fences.

In terms of managing a steady horse, a lot of owners want to input some energy. Traditionally, this is done with oats, but there are some many energy mixes available now it’s probably worth ringing an independent nutritionist and trialling feeds until you find the right energy level without any silliness added in. Some steady horses benefit from being kept in the night before a competition, or even just an hour before they’re ridden. So again it’s worth finding out the best routine and time of day to exercise your steady horse which will be the most energetic and productive.

I am by no means trying to convert the quiet horses into whizzy athletes, because I value, and think many more people should place emphasis on the reliable and trustworthy nature of the cooler blooded equines. But it is nice to know how to get the best out of them so it’s most enjoyable to the owners.

Why Do We Have Trot Diagonals?

An excellent question posed by one of my clients recently, which I thought was worthy of a blog post.

For her school work, she wanted to know why we have trot diagonals and why we lay so much importance on them.

Firstly, it’s my biggest bug bear I think, when riders are ignorant of their trot diagonals – the ability to rise with unconscious autonomy and their age or ability to understand are the only exceptions. I just feel that by taking note of the little details of riding, such as trot diagonals, leads to a better learning focus and eye for details which can make all the difference in a dressage test. For example, if you overlook the incorrect diagonal, are you going to ride accurate school movements and strive to improve them?

I digress.

The legs move in diagonal pairs in trot, so when you are on the correct diagonal the outside foreleg and inside hindleg are stepping forwards as you rise out of the saddle. Before I continue, I should clarify that this is the UK trot diagonals, and shouldn’t be confused with other countries (e.g. France, Russia) standards, which is reverse to ours … I won’t complicate matters!

For novice riders, who are yet to develop their feel I teach them to look at the movement of the forelegs. I use the outside limb because I think it’s easier to see the leg stepping forwards, but I know some instructors get riders to look for the inside foreleg moving forwards when the rider is sitting. I’ve not yet discovered the benefit of teaching this method but if someone would care to enlighten me that would be lovely. Once riders have developed their feel I introduce the idea of feeling what the legs are doing, in particular the inside hindleg so they no longer have to look down to check their trot diagonal.

Back to the original question.

As I said earlier, when on the correct diagonal the rider is rising when the inside hindleg and outside foreleg are stepping forwards. This means their weight is off the horse’s back with enables the horse to bring their inside hindleg further under their body, so increasing impulsion and encouraging the horse to engage their abdominals and lift their back, which all helps the horse work efficiently and correctly. The inside hind leg also bears more weight on a turn, so enabling it to step further under the horse’s body and relieving it of the rider’s weight until the leg hits the ground will allow the inside hip to drop slightly and for weight to be transferred into that limb.

Riding on the correct diagonal also helps the horse balance, and I find it helps them find the correct bend. In part, I think the upward swing of the rise by the rider helps the rider turn their body in the direction of the bend or turn. But whether that’s because the rider is using the propulsion from the inside hindleg, I’m not sure. Either way, there is a noticeable difference between a horse’s bend and balance when ridden on a circle on the correct and incorrect diagonal. I’ve heard that research has been done into the biomechanics of the effect of trot diagonals, which found that the stride length of a horse is longer when ridden on the correct diagonal, which would fit in with the improved balance theory.

It’s important to use the trot diagonals evenly – which is easier in the arena when you work evenly on both reins, but even happy hackers should be aware of changing their diagonals frequently on their hacks. If a horse is always ridden on the left diagonal – left foreleg and right hindleg stepping forwards in the rise phase – then the back muscles, particularly behind the saddle will develop asymmetrically. The left hindleg has to work harder to push forwards because the rider is in the sit phase, therefore the muscles become stronger and less supple. Have you ever ridden a horse in a straight line, and started off in sitting trot and found that the horse always “pushes” you up on one diagonal? This is because the horse has asymmetric muscles and gait, so needs work to correct the imbalance.

A Cross Exercise

I discovered this fun exercise a couple of weeks ago, which has numerous benefits for horse and rider, despite one of my riders declaring the exercise to be “easy” … this was before he’d attempted it!

If you’re following the arrows on the diagram you need to approach the first jump on the left canter lead. Reverse the direction of the arrows for right canter.

I kept the jumps as crosses because with uprights it’s very easy for riders to allow their horses to jump off centre if the circle lacks roundness so we lose the accuracy of the exercise.

This exercise is very good for establishing the rhythm to a course, as the horse cannot rush before or after each fence because the circle slows them and balances the canter.

The circle is also very good for improving the quality of the canter as the horse cannot flatten and lose the three beats on the approach to a fence. Which leads to a better bascule.

If a horse has the tendency to lock on and take a long stride to a fence then this exercise is useful for showing a rider the importance of not encouraging a long jump because the circle afterwards is particularly difficult. It also helps encourage a rider to see a closer take off point. This was what tripped up my rider who declared the exercise as “easy”. His pony tends to lock on, take a long jump over a fence and land flat. The circles made my rider realise that he can’t let his pony get so long as he wouldn’t be able to ride the circle afterwards. On courses, this often happens and they miss the next turn and subsequent fence.

In order for this exercise to flow smoothly, the rider needs to maintain the correct canter lead, which may involve them asking for the canter lead over each fence, especially if the horse favours one particular canter lead. This makes the rider more aware of their body language over and after a jump. The rider needs to plan the circle, but not be too quick on riding it on landing otherwise they’ll finish the circle too close to the centre of the cross of poles and have to jump the side of the fence. Equally, being a bit slow after the fence to respond leads to very large circle and the canter can be allowed to stay a bit long and flat.

I had another rider counting out loud as she rode this exercise to help her keep the rhythm. She was focusing too much on riding a dressage standard circle, and upsetting her horse’s jumping rhythm so he was getting tense and then jumping awkwardly. After a few goes at counting the canter rhythm improved as she rode with more subtle aids so had smoother turns, and they met each fence on the perfect stride, so the whole sequence flowed beautifully.

Grabbing the inside rein will prevent the circle being round, and the horse being balanced, so it’s also important to ride the outside of the horse around the turn in order to finish the circle well and not have a dodgy jump.

The horse’s suppleness will improve as a result of this exercise, which will help on jump offs, because the horse and rider can then ride short yet balanced approaches to fences, and make quick turns on landing which will shave off precious seconds.

Give the exercise a go, I think it’s easy to be complacent about the exercise, but in order to do it well there are lots of little elements to perfect.

Picking Up Their Feet

Sometimes horses can get a little complacent when jumping and become a bit untidy with their legs, either knocking poles or only just scrabbling over the fence.

To quickly remind a horse that they need to be smarter with picking up their feet over fences; tucking them up neatly and quickly, I like to work them over bounces.

Last week I wanted to combine the bounces for this purpose, with also reminding one mare to sit on her hocks more in the canter. Equally, I wanted her teenage rider to see the benefits of improving in this area for jumping larger fences.

On the three quarter line I set up three bounce fences. The first and third were only a foot high, but the middle bounce was about 80cm. The focus of these three jumps was the centre one, but the first fence improves the cadence in the canter so the bascule over the middle jump is cleaner and more efficient. Then the last fence encourages the horse to sit up and focus on landing, and not to run away on the forehand.

After working through the bounces on each rein, I added in the final oxer across the diagonal. I put this up to 95cm initially but then rapidly raised it to over 1m. The bounces set up the canter so all my rider had to do was maintain it round the corner to the oxer.

This mare can sometimes back off bigger fences, or give a wiggle on the approach (sometimes changing her canter lead too) so it’s not the smoothest or most confidence giving of rides, but the first time they rode the whole exercise at the bigger height (managing to keep left canter, which is her weaker jumping canter) the approach was smoother and the canter more balanced. Which lead to a whopping jump! I think the mare thought it was 1.10m, because she gave it plenty of air and was very neat with her legs over it.

Typically, I only got the second attempt on camera, in which they lost the left canter but when my rider corrected the lead they still had a better quality canter and approach to the jump. The mare looked more confident on the approach and didn’t back off in the slightest or try to change her lead.

The bounces make a very simple warm up exercise prior to jumping a course and has almost instant results because the bounces tell the horse how to canter which can help teach the rider what the canter should feel like.

An Intensive Grid

I gave a couple of horses and riders a good gymnastic workout a few weeks ago.

It was a grid of 3 bounces, followed by one stride to an upright and then two strides to an oxer.

The three bounces encourage the horse to be neat with their legs and quick over the fences, and he needs to be gymnastically very supple and fit to be able to do the three bounces successfully.

However, after the third jump, the horse needs to travel with a good length canter stride in order to reach the bigger upright. If a horse finds the bounces physically challenging then they tend to struggle to make the distance to the upright, and end up chipping in. Then, the horse has a larger oxer to negotiate, when they are starting to tire. The upright jump requires a similar shapes bascule as the bounces, but the oxer requires the horse to take off slightly further away and make a longer bascule so that the horse clears both the front and back rail of the oxer. The change in bascule over the fence is physically demanding of the horse, so requires a high degree of suppleness and gymnastic ability.

However, because the bounce fences have improved the quality of the bascule and encouraged the horse to engage their abdominals and “round” the canter strides so improving their cadence the horse will usually make a more correct shape over the larger two fences and feel more confident over the bigger jumps. The pony in the video below is only 14hh and before Christmas found 80cm jumps tricky, and frequently chipped in before jumps, but the oxer here is just over 1m and he cleared it comfortably and confidently, as well as keeping a very good, positive canter throughout the exercise. If anything, he makes the jump look small.

I did this exercise with a horse who tends to get very long in the canter while jumping. The bounces improved his technique and made him shorten his canter, which meant that over the last two fences he didn’t get so close and had enough time to tuck up his forelegs.

In a smaller arena a few days later, I took out the upright fence in order to fit the grid in, which actually made the exercise a bit harder because there was no gradual lengthening to the canter and bascule. Instead, the 14.2hh horse has to go from a short, neat pop over the bounces to a longer, bigger fence which involves a bigger adjustment to their body so requires more suppleness. This little horse managed the exercise really well, and due to the bounces improving her canter she cleared 1.10m in a very neat and confident way.