Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.

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In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!

A Good Walk

I thought I’d already done a blog post about the qualities of a good walk, but it appears that I haven’t.

So here goes, with the help of my little helper of course.

The walk gait consists of four beats, with each leg moving individually. The sequence goes like this: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore.

The stride wants to be of an even length, relaxed, flowing and steady. Each leg should flex at the fetlock and knee/hock well, and be purposeful in stride. I often tell young clients to imagine their pony is walking out of maths on a Friday afternoon rather than into maths on a Monday morning. Yep, you’re imagining those teenagers dragging their toes on a Monday and skipping out of school on a Friday!

The hind legs should be placed in front of the prints left by the fore feet, which is called over tracking. I’ve just read that over tracking enables the horse to absorb shock from the hard ground better. A horse who over tracks is also lighter on the forehand, so is more likely to get concussive injuries on the forelegs and less likely to work correctly and develop the correct muscles.

The average speed of a horse’s walk is four miles per hour, and it should feel relaxed, with the back swinging with each stride. The head and neck swings with each step of the foreleg, which is why many say don’t use side reins for too long in walk, because it restricts the natural swing of the horse.

When walking, as with all gaits, the horse should move straight. This means that each leg is pointing towards the direction of movement so propels the horse forward in the most efficient manner.

The frame of the horse should be slightly poll low, rather than poll high because then there is less tension over the back and the horse will stay more relaxed.

The walk is the easiest gait to ruin and the hardest gait to improve. Carl Hester always looks for a horse with a good walk and canter, as training will improve the trot. But why is the walk the hardest gait to improve?

It’s the slowest and has the least natural energy, and if a rider is too eager to input the energy they will throw the horse out of the four beat rhythm, causing a choppy stride and tension in the body. Which then causes them to inhibit the natural movement of the head and neck by holding too tight with the hands in an attempt to control the new energy. If a horse is pushed out of their four bear rhythm they are liable to start pacing. This is a two beat gait where the lateral feet step forwards simultaneously. Often, riders feel they’ve got an energetic walk as their horse begins to pace because they are covering the ground quicker, but as the four beat rhythm has been lost it is heavily criticised in dressage tests.

A horse who is hurried out of their natural rhythm, will be out of balance. This means that subsequent transitions aren’t balanced. They will struggle to halt squarely, or to push off into a balanced and correct trot or canter.

Horse can also be allowed to dawdle, which is when they’re allowed to drag their toes. Here, they usually still have a four beat gait, but the cadence and length of stride has deteriorated. Consequently, horses are more likely to use their forehand in the transitions and to be stiff through their body.

Next up, let’s see how we can improve the walk. I find the best way to teach a horse to walk with more purposefulness and energy, is to use hacks because a horse is naturally more forwards out of the arena. Then you can focus on channelling the extra energy into quality steps without the horse rushing. Steep hills will encourage the horse to use their hindquarters more efficiently and strengthen their muscles. When they walk correctly up a steep hill you can really feel the back lift and the hindlegs engage.

Other exercises involve collecting and extending the walk, which improves their balance and coordination, but you want to stay focused on their rhythm and only make small adjustments so that they still over track and keep the four beats.

Polework can help increase the horse’s cadence, and circle work will improve their suppleness which will increase their range of movement within each limb so their stride quality will improve.

I also think it’s important to be consistent in what you expect from a horse’s walk. Even when giving them a break mid-session, or cooling them down at the end, you should insist of the purposefulness of the walk, and maintaining the correct rhythm as so often both rider and horse switch off at these times. When the horse knows they have to walk actively and correctly at all times it becomes easier for the rider to influence because there is more natural energy to work with.

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.

Things To Do In The Cold

We’re into week three of unrelenting sub-zero temperatures and the trouble is that the ground is frozen to a deep level and is only superficially thawing each day.

Combined with freezing fog, limited turnout, and fewer daylight hours we’re restricted to the arena. Most of which at the moment are as hard as the roads.

Which leaves us only able to walk. The slowest, most boring gait!

After spending three hours schooling horses in walk this morning, I’ve come up with a list of exercises to occupy you and your horse.

  1. Long-reining. Yes it’s not riding, but whilst walking around behind your horse you keep nice and warm. It is also a different dimension to riding, particularly at slower fairs, to keep the horse interested in work. It also gives you chance to study the way your horse is working.
  2. In-hand work. This time of year is a good opportunity to introduce lateral work to your horse, or perhaps refresh their memories, and again you can study the correctness of the movements from the ground.
  3. De-sensitisation. If your horse tends to spook at different objects, or isn’t a fan of fillers, then scattering fillers, cones, and any other object (don’t have one that will flap and cause a big shy on the hard ground) and work your horse around these strange objects in walk so he learns to ignore them. Creating a tunnel of fillers can also be a useful exercise.
  4. Polework. Yes we’re only in walk, but using tunnels of poles to check your straightness, making zig zag tunnels to improve their proprioception, stepping over slightly raised poles on circles, all helps engage the mind and supple their joints.
  5. School movements. You can work on small circles, numerous-looped serpentines, 10m figure of eights, and any other school movement you can think of; being incredibly critical of yourself, your horse, and striving to ride it perfectly. After all, you have plenty of time to correct you both within the movement. Plus, on frosty days you can see your tracks so you can analyse precisely when you faltered.
  6. Quality of the walk. Really focus your attention on the four beat rhythm; tempo; balance; light, even rein contact; active, even strides; straightness; impulsion; outline/self carriage of the horse; and relaxed frame with a swinging back. You can also play around with extended walk and collected walk.
  7. Work without stirrups. It’s not as taxing as sitting trot without stirrups but it should highlight and crookedness in yourself, or twisting through any movements as well as allowing you to use your seat more to influence the horse, and feel the movement underneath you more.
  8. Transitions. Transitions can be between halt and walk or between the various types of walk. In all of them you are looking for the horse to be responsive to the aids, your aids to be as light as possible, the horse to stay straight and balanced, and the hind quarters engaged.
  9. Rein back. Incorporating rein back into your walk-halt transitions can stop your horse anticipating. Again, you’re looking to use the lightest aids possible; the rein back to be straight, relaxed, the back lifting and the neck staying nice and long with the diagonal legs stepping back in pairs. Many horses tense their neck, hollow their back and shuffle backwards, so take your time to improve this so your horse understands the concept and takes quality backwards steps.
  10. Lateral work. All too often we focus on lateral work in trot and canter to supple our horse, but these lateral movements are actually much harder to perfect in walk. Don’t stick with the typical “leg yield track to three quarter line”, but use the centre line, leg yield into shoulder in, zig zag leg yield. Be creative! Turn on the forehand is also a useful change of rein, and adding this to the mix of halting and rein back ensures your horse stays listening to you.
  11. Free walk on a long rein. Always worth double marks in dressage tests, it’s often a weak point for many riders, so use days like this to practice the transition from medium walk into free walk on a long rein. The free walk needs to stay four beat,  have active strides, show a good over track, maintain a rein contact despite the rein being longer, have the horse stretching their head and neck out and down, and be purposeful.
  12. If the roads aren’t icy, or you have fields to ride around, then take the opportunity when you can to have a change of scenery.

A Challenge for February

I recently challenged one of my clients to do a particular task every time she rode, and I decided it would be a good challenge for everyone, bloggers and clients alike.

Let me give you some background. This client`s horse doesn`t have the best walk in the world; he tends to amble along slowly, forget about his hindquarters, and in general just falls apart in his walk, which means that it`s really hard to pick up the work again.

My challenge to her is that every time she walks in the school she is going to make sure she has a good walk – active, with a rein contact, four beats, not on the forehand – before doing anything else. 

When you have a poor area it`s easier to skip past and get onto more exciting things that make you feel positive about your abilities. It`s the same in all areas of life. So this rider and pony are going to spend an extra five minutes at the beginning of every ride they have, including hacks, to create this lovely walk, and then progress into more exciting things like trot work. Then if they should have a breather, they will aim to ride into the lovely walk and if not, then regenerate it, for a couple of minutes, before having a long rein. When they pick up the work she must make sure the walk is good before picking up trot or canter. Even when jumping, if she can set off with a good walk then the trot, canter, and jumps comes beautifully. 

Basically I want her and her horse to get into the habit of having a good walk so that transitions in dressage tests, such as “transition to walk for one horses length” are not difficult to achieve and don`t affect the following movements. Hopefully by decreasing the time spent dawdling along will mean the horse forgets how to dawdle and his walk improves at the beginning of his schooling sessions.

So this challenge of spending an extra five minutes focusing on the walk does not only apply to those whose horse`s have a poor walk (which incidentally is the hardest gait to improve) but for those who`s horse tends to anticipate and jog. For example, when riding simple changes it`s easy to rush the walk strides, but time spent ensuring you have a walk not a jog will pay off in future dressage tests. As I said earlier, the walk is the hardest gait to improve, but it is also the easiest to ruin.

So readers, my challenge for you guys in February is to spent a little extra time on your walk; be it walking on the road, your walk at the beginning of the schooling session, your walk elements in your more complicated school movements, or your walk at the end of a session. Don`t rush through your warm up walk, or collapse in a heap in your cool down walk, but create a walk that you are happy with before moving onto the next thing. 

Walking Lessons

I taught an unusual lesson during the summer with a new client.

She had previously told me that she was buying a horse and that she would like regular lessons with me to help retrain her ex racer. 

Unfortunately within a fortnight, the mare had an accident in the fence and badly cut the front of her hock. Although not lame in anyway, she had to have a significant period of box rest to reduce movement and promote healing.

When the mare could come into work again she had to have a period of walk only, again to limit moving until the large wound had healed.

Regardless of the fact they could only walk, I was asked to teach a thirty minute lesson. I agreed, and after thinking about it, I realised that it is actually an excellent idea.

Walk is so often neglected, so it’s great to have time to focus on it, and if you have to spend a lot of time in walk only it can be boring unless you have a focus. As the mare wasn’t carrying a weakness, such as an injured tendon, the walk work didn’t need to be too limiting.

Anyway, I started the lesson by assessing the walk. It was big striding and had a tendency to rush. 

We looked at the different gears in the walk to help her rider find the mare’s natural rhythm and to improve her balance. This was difficult initially, but the mare soon began to maintain her better gait for longer, and could regain it quicker, on straight lines and on circles.

Then we worked on circles to help improve the mare’s suppleness and ensuring she is more even on both reins. The pair can work on decreasing the size of the circles as the mare gets more balanced.

Time seemed to be flying past, but I wanted to look at the walk-halt transitions; getting the mare to push forwards in the upwards transition, and not fall onto the forehand in the downwards transition. Making the transitions slower, and focusing on the seat being the prominent aid really helped improve them.

When I next taught the pair they were back to trotting, but you could see the improvement in the walk which rubbed off in the trot, which just goes to show how important it is to focus on the walk.

So perhaps next time you are bringing a horse back into work you shouldn’t be afraid of booking a walk only lesson!

Compare and Improve

I’m currently teaching a young teenager about riding her pony, shifting our focus from her position and correct aids to how well her pony is going.

Recently I’ve tried to get my rider to think more for herself, and not wait for me to tell her to use her leg or half halt, so lasts week I asked her to rate her walk out of ten. She said six.

Now I went with this score: she’s left herself plenty of room for improvement but is still more than halfway so it is a positive approach. I asked her why it was a six and then to identify an area to improve so that the walk was a seven.

She said that she had an energetic walk but it was a bit fast, so we worked on slowing the rhythm and making the strides more deliberate, using circles and half halts with the whole body.

Soon the walk improved to a seven and I moved on to some trot work. After a bit I asked my rider to ride forwards to walk and let her pony catch her breath. In the walk I asked her to get that seven walk. Which she did quite quickly, so we tried making it a seven and a half walk. This time I focused on her rein contact. She ensured the contact was symmetrical and balanced as we walked around the track, and then I told her to feel like her legs were pushing her pony forwards into her hands, which had to remain light and gentle, and then her hands allowed her pony to travel forwards. I didn’t want to speed up the walk but I wanted my rider to feel like the front and back ends of her pony were working together, instead of a disjointed walk.

Within a lap of the arena the walk had jumped up to an eight out of ten. The mare was soft to the contact and stretching forwards in her neck, taking even, deliberate strides, with activity in the stride. I praised my rider a lot, as this was great progress and we moved away from the walk and onto some canter work, which seemed to be better than usual. Before we finished the lesson I had my rider walk around with a seven and a half walk, before letting her pony stretch.

This week I continued the theme; beginning the lesson with aiming for a seven walk. I had previously explained to my rider that the best work does not come at the beginning of the session, but once the horse has warmed up, so it is unfair to expect the pony to produce an eight walk at the moment. But we should still start as we mean to go on.

When we revisited the walk after a trot my client asked “does Valegro get a ten for his walk?”
“Yes…”
“So if I’m between a seven and eight, am I almost as good as Valegro?”

Now this is a bit of a predicament …

After I’d gathered my thoughts I explained that as lovely as this pony is, she isn’t in the same league as Valegro so our scale of one to ten is different to Charlotte Dujardin’s. The ten we are aiming for is the best that this pony can do. I then went on to explain how our scale changes when the level of training of the pony improves or the rider gains knowledge and experience.

My rider seemed to understand this concept, and was happy to continue improving her walk so that it reaches a ten. When she rides consistently at a ten walk we will change the scale so that that walk is a seven again. And so both horse and rider will continue to improve.

Escapees!

I drove through town on my way home today as I had various errands to run, and I was reminded of a surreal morning at my old stables.

The stables I used to work at are right on the edge of town, with most of the fields adjacent to houses on one side. For this reason we never used to catch the horses before nine, as we then avoided rush hour and school traffic.

It was a dreary February morning and the yard was in full swing; mucking out the numerous stabled horses and preparing the barn for the day`s catch. The office door swung open as one of the ladies unlocked at nine o`clock. A couple of minutes later she stumbled back out, tea in hand, to inform the nearest groom that there were several phone messages, claiming that a herd of horses were herd trotting around the housing estate at seven am that morning. More recent messages claimed that the horses had made it to the school playing fields. They failed, however, to mention which school it was…

In great haste, we grabbed an armful of headcollars and piled into the rickety landrover. Bearing in mind, there was a bit of ice and it was just before nine, so that landrover hadn`t warmed up yet and the ice was still on the inside of the windscreen. At least someone had closed the window, and the driver wasn`t left with a puddle of icy water to sit in.

Anyway, we were off! We headed down the road to the field where five opinionated mares had been turned out the day before, and left out so that they could kick up their heels for a couple of days – there must have been a problem with high spirits and clients! When we reached the field I jumped out the back and called the mares. There wasn`t a sign of them. Not a single horse was left! So I hopped back in and we carried on driving into town, with our phones on standby for an update on the nomads.

There were a couple of droppings in the middle of the road, pointing us in the right direction. Almost like the gypsies following their trails of patrins (thanks to Enid Blyton for teaching me this word in my younger years). We met many children and carers walking to school, and some of them offered helpful directions.

Eventually we found the five mares attacking the front hedge and garden of a home. They eyed us balefully, but I grabbed the elderly matriarch, holding her rug while someone else found a suitably sized headcollar. Soon we had captured the five horses, but were left with the problem that we only had four headcollars that would fit…

We also only had two members of staff to lead the mares back through town, as someone needed to drive the landrover home. So I ended up with three of the horses, all of whom decided that it was boring walking home, and life would be more interesting they jogged sideways along the pavement, scattering children as we went. My colleague had a homemade headcollar cross leadrope and the other two horses.

So we began our journey home. You would not believe how far we had to walk! Even with the shortcut, we still walked over three miles back to the yard. The mares were all unharmed after their little escapade, if a bit warm under their layers of rugs and possibly a little sore from all their trotting on hard ground. We found the fence in the field had been pushed over in the corner, and the horses had got out onto a long, twisting, tree-covered lane, so we were lucky none of them were involved in a car accident.

The moral of the story is to always check the fencing really, really well, and don`t leave a herd of mares who are used to living in out, even if they are misbehaving, as they may take it into their heads to take themselves for a walk!