Building Expression

I was schooling a horse recently who has very correct and established paces, but isn’t the biggest mover so often has average marks in a dressage test as he lacks the “wow” factor. So I had a play at building some expression into his work.

Once I’d warmed him up long and low, stretching over his back, and had done some lateral work, I opened him up into some medium trot. He lengthened nicely from behind, but he could have given more.

I was riding in a large arena, and you need to have one which is more that 20m wide in order to ride this exercise.

In trot, establish shoulder in at the beginning of the long side. Halfway along, ride out of the shoulder in onto a 45 degree turn, so you effectively cut the corner off, and ask some medium trot. When you reach the short side, approximately halfway along, stay on the same rein in working trot. 

The shoulder in collects the horse, gets their inside hind leg underneath them and taking their weight. Which means it’s in a better position to push forwards to medium trot. The turn onto the diagonal line ensures they don’t fall out of the outside shoulder as you ride out of shoulder in and ask for medium trot. Staying on the same rein after the medium trot makes the exercise simpler as they don’t need to change bend, so keep their balance easier and maintain the impulsion into working trot.

The result is a more extravagant and powerful medium trot and an expressive working trot, which is still rhythmical and balanced, yet would earn more marks in a dressage test. 

It’s a fun exercise, so try putting it together next time you ride and see if you can feel the improvement in their general way of going as a result.

Interesting Trotting Poles

My friend has a horse who is in rehab and needs lots of work over poles. Last week she laid some poles out on a diagonal to add some variation because he concentrated more when trotting diagonally over the poles and we talked about ideas to make trotting poles more interesting.

Twenty four hours later, I was teaching a pair of siblings. The weather was awful so I didn’t want to jump, yet also didn’t want to bore them with flatwork (one pony has the attention span of a gnat on a hot plate unless there’s jumps involved and to be honest, the weather wasn’t conducive to having an argument with a napping pony) so I opted for trotting poles.

The horse in this lesson tends to rush poles so I needed to make him think and slow down, and I wanted to improve everyone’s suppleness and agility. 

I laid the poles out in an S-shape. Three parallel, at 4’6″ apart, then three on a slight left bend, with the centre off the poles 4’6″ apart. A further three bearing round to the right, and then three more parallel poles to finish. I measured the distances to the centre of each pole, and the first three and last three poles were parallel to each other.

This meant that in order to maintain the same trot, with regular strides, the horses had to bend left and right. I find that if you do trotting poles on a curve then the horse is liable to drifting out, which is of no benefit to anyone. By putting in the double twist the horses couldn’t fall out by more than a stride, because as soon as they did, they had to change their bend.

We worked through the poles until my riders were riding the twist accurately, added a little impulsion to help their horse through the change of bend, stayed central to the poles, and their horses didn’t fit any extra strides in (this happens when they fall out because the distance between the poles is greater). The pony was clever, and initially adjusted his stride so he could do minimal bend, yet not clip a pole. So I made his rider aware of this, and be firmer with his steering aids so they met each pole in the middle.

I was really pleased that the other horse did not rush the poles, and you could see him thinking about the exercise. He wasn’t quite as clever with his feet and if he didn’t get the twist just right, he clipped a pole. His rider just needed to support him more, and close the leg on the turns to help him maintain his trot stride.

Once the twisted trotting poles were easy, I started raising them. I raised three at a time, at alternate ends. I wanted the slanted poles to focus my riders to the centre; and make it more obvious when the horses cheated and went straight, because they would clunk over the high ends of the poles. When the last three parallel poles were raised it caused very little issue, except highlighting when the horses lost impulsion. They soon picked up their feet though, so I raised the next three, which were on the right turn. Again, it made it obvious when the horses weren’t central and they were more likely to roll the poles.

By the end of the lesson all twelve poles were raised and the horses were negotiating S-shape easily, bending nicely and being very active in their trot. To finish, I asked my riders to trot large on each rein and feel and describe the difference to the trot. Both came back saying the trot felt more active, energetic, and with bigger strides. I thought both horses also looked like they’d found some abdominal muscles and had lengthened their necks where they were less tense.


It was really pleasing to see how they all focused and thought about the exercise, and you could really see a difference to the way the horses moved afterwards. Now to find a few more different interesting pole work exercises for my friend!

Preparation is the Key

I`ve been doing some research and reading, and have got some new schoolwork exercises to play around with in my lessons – so watch out everyone!

I`ll list the exercises here briefly, but the main point I want to make in this post is the importance of preparation.

Exercise 1 – Stay on a twenty metre circle. Ride a ten metre circle within the bigger circle, so that the larger circle acts as a tangent to the smaller circle. The exercise becomes harder when small circles are ridden more frequently, and you can also ride a downwards transition immediately before the small circle, and an upwards transition upon finishing.

Exercise 2 – Stay on a twenty metre circle in the centre of the school. As you cross the centre line, ride a ten metre circle in the opposite direction before rejoining the large circle. To make this exercise harder, ride a ten metre circle in the same direction as the twenty metre circle at B and E, so you are alternating direction on the smaller circles.

Exercise 3 – Ride a twenty metre circle in trot. Spiral into the centre and make a walk transition. Immediately ride a half ten metre circle outwards to change the rein, upon reaching the larger circle make an upwards transition. Again, to make it harder it can be ridden in canter with direct transitions.

All of these circles really test the horse`s suppleness and ability to change their bend without losing their balance and falling onto the forehand. In order to best help the horse, it is vital that the rider prepares them.

So what preparation is needed?

A half halt to start with. I find that everyone thinks of half halts in a slightly different way, but in this instance I think it`s best to think of a half halt as a pause, or rebalance. When riding from a large circle to a small circle, the horse`s hindlegs need to come under them a bit more, and they need to lift the shoulder slightly. Thus, they are rebalancing their bodyweight so that more of it is carried by the hindquarters and less on the shoulders. The rider should apply the half halt with this in mind. So when they close the rein, they lift slightly, bring their shoulders back and shift their bodyweight so that it is closer to the cantle. You can think of sitting towards the back of your seat bones. Of course, the leg also needs to be applied in order to keep the energy and to encourage the hindleg to step under and propel the horse along.

The rider needs to be clear on where they are going. I always start these exercises by establishing the large circle first so that they get their eye in. It`s important that you don`t lose the basic shapes, such as ending up with an oval twenty metre circle, or drifting through the change of bend. As soon as the shapes are lost then you should go back a couple of paces. Perhaps walk it to get your eye in again, or remove the little circles. The rider needs to be looking in the direction they are going, apply the steering aids are the right time – immediately after the rebalance, and ensure that the aids are clear. Otherwise they risk panicking and grabbing the inside rein to haul their horse around the small circle.

I think these exercises are really useful for developing the rider`s balance and co-ordination; timing the half-halt, and giving clear turning aids so that the bend through the horse`s body adjust fluently. It raises awareness of the horse`s balance, and the action of the hindlegs. The transitions on the circles encourage the horse to step under more with the inside hind leg, so the rider will be able to feel it more which will help with transitions on a straight line. Because the circles and transitions come up so quickly they make the rider think ahead, and plan; encouraging multi-tasking. To me, it is a step towards riding elementary dressage tests. I notice that a lot of people struggle to make the step from novice to elementary, and I think it is because the movements are harder and come up quicker. Riding these exercises engages the rider`s brain and should make elementary dressage more achievable. Certainly, I`ve noticed an improvement to the riders that I`ve used these exercises with and the horses I`ve worked on this have become more flexible straighter; staying on two tracks around the circles and being less likely to fall out through the outside shoulder or wobbly on the changes of bends.