The Left Hand Knowing What The Right Hand Is Doing

I discussed this subject with a teenage client last week as we focus on improving her pony’s straightness and her rein contact.

I asked her if she was aware of the jobs of the inside and outside hand, and if she felt that her hands were as good as each other at each job.

She knew that the outside rein is a stabilising rein, it needs to be steady and consistent to prevent the horse falling in, losing vertical balance, or bending too much through the neck. The inside rein is used to flex the horse and indicate the direction of movement. As a result, the inside rein is more mobile (not to the extent of dancing around) but not quite so steadfast as the outside rein.

With my rider understanding the concept of the different roles of the inside and outside rein, I asked her to evaluate her rein contact and hands in each direction. Did her right hand find it easier to be the outside rein than the inside? Did her left hand provide a better outside rein contact than the left?

She correctly identified that her right rein was a better outside contact than her left hand as it stayed steady without hanging off the mouth. Her left hand found it easier to soften her pony into a left bend. In this case, the more dextrous hand was her writing hand, but this isn’t always the case. In my observations, I’ve noticed that everyone has a stabilising hand, which is used for example to hold a nail, and everyone has a hand which is more adept at finer movements – the one which uses the hammer. Perhaps that isn’t the best description. The stabilising hand holds the paper still whilst the motor hand draws the picture – how’s that? Most of the time the motor hand is your dominant hand, but it’s not a golden rule.

Once we’d established the different jobs of the outside and inside rein, we talked about how to improve the hands. I asked my rider if she felt there was an even weight in both hands, or if one was always heavier. A lot of riders carry more weight in their stabilising hand, which when it is the inside rein means that the horse is more likely to motorbike around turns and lean in. So I had my rider assess the weight in her hands on both reins to see if one was significantly more. Her right hand was slightly heavier, but not a huge amount so on the right rein I just kept reminding her to balance out the feel in her hands – taking more weight with the left hand and lightening the right. This immediately began to help create a better outside rein contact on the right rein as the left hand became more stable.

I kept the focus on the right rein (clockwise around the school); keeping the left hand more stable and consistent as the outside aid, and then as I don’t want the right hand to suddenly start leaping around we mainly worked on lightening the wrist, keeping the weight of the arm in the slightly more bent elbow. As my rider’s hands became better at each job and the weight more even between left and right, her pony started to move straighter, staying more balanced on turns and giving more of a uniform bend throughout his body. She could then add in the inside leg aid to improve his inside hind leg engagement and balance.

With her new knowledge and understanding of the job of the inside and outside reins, my rider found it easier to change their bend when we started to work on serpentines and figures of eight. Her pony then kept his balance during changes of rein and became more symmetrical in his way of going because he was giving more bend on his stiffer rein and less bend on his hollow side.

With ambidextrous hands a rider is more able to ride evenly in both directions, and with a greater understanding of the purpose of the inside and outside rein the horse can be more easily corrected in their way of going. A rider can balance the horse between leg, seat and hand more subtly and effectively when a rider has more understanding and control over their rein aids.When learning lateral work, greater control over the reins as individuals means more correct movements will be ridden because the horse can be set up on the correct bend and it can be maintained whilst moving sideways.

Life After Lockdown

Now that everyone is charging out the starting box as the restrictions on lockdown are being eased I’ve been pondering about how lockdown has changed us. What have we learnt from being forced to strip back our lives?

I think big office based businesses will change dramatically as they have experienced working from home, so will now have to offer more flexible working hours. Those who travel internationally for work, such as my brother, will have learnt to do much of their work remotely so I’m sure will continue to do as much as they can from base as whilst training an Australian company over Zoom may mean that you need to be in the office at 6am, it does at least mean you can sleep in your own bed that night. Both these factors will have a knock on effect on the environment with less commuting and fewer flights. Which I think will also change business dynamics.

But what about the smaller businesses or sole traders? I think they will come out of lockdown more resilient, with more strings to their bow, and have a better back up plan for the future – be it a planned period off work for scheduled surgery or the like, or nature preventing work taking place, for example. Shops have learnt to sell online, service providers have learnt to think outside the box. I for one never dreamt that there would be a market for remote riding lessons.

Socially, how are we changing? Well I think everyone is realising what activities they miss partaking in, and who they miss seeing, the most. When we’re set free I think people will be more selective about the groups or clubs they attend, and will limit themselves to fewer outings a week. From a parents perspective, an online catch-up is very appealing as I don’t have to worry about childcare. And I can also sit in my lounging clothes, and with no commute my social evening can start at 7.30pm rather than 8.30pm. Of course there’s no atmosphere, but if you’re wanting a chinwag then you can easily create an atmosphere by synchronising rounds of drinks. I don’t think Zoom quizzes or get-togethers will replace “going out out” to quote Micky Flanagan but they’ve definitely become a viable option in the social calendar.

Then of course are the changes lockdown has made to us as individuals. I feel that I’ve done things I’d have never thought I’d try during lockdown, and enjoyed doing unexpected things. I’m a workaholic and I would never have considered taking two weeks off work, let alone two months. Of course it hasn’t meant that I’ve lounged around on the sofa all day. I had a good clean and sort out of the house, filled the garage with things to take to the charity shop and tip, blitzed the garden, applied for planning permission, made my own fly spray, finished puzzle books which have been kicking around for years, tuned my harp, caught up on my reading, re-laid the loose bricks in the garden wall (with cement), replaced the toilet seat, repainted the porch. I’ve enjoyed turning my hand to the unusual tasks, but what surprised me most was actually how much I enjoyed our Groundhog Day. Up at 6.30am, a couple of hours at the yard riding and doing chores, then entertaining the toddler until a family lunch, cooked by my husband. Then more playtime with some jobs squeezed in around teddy bears picnics, before afternoon horse chores, toddler dinner, bedtime, my dinner, and some jobbing before bed. It’s been comfortingly familiar, and enjoyable, with enough variants that I can just about distinguish between days. Really, it feels like the summer holidays of childhood; when the days drift by hazily blending into one. Time seems to stand still, yet it’s flown by.

Of course I’m one of the lucky ones; we have a house and garden which gives much more variety to play than a flat, and we’ve not had the financial worries of some families. Yes, we can’t live this way indefinitely but it’s fine for the moment. And most importantly, we enjoy each others company.

Which led me to a quandary at the beginning of the week. Of course I don’t want lockdown to continue forever, but do I want to return to life in the fast lane? As clarifications were made within the equestrian industry as to the do’s and don’ts, I started to feel this pressure. Social media was full of venues advertising hire, coaches advertising lessons. I need to be eased gently back into training and going out so that I can plan trips sufficiently and get the most out of them. Equally, most of us have been doing less riding, or less jumping and fast work, than pre-lockdown, so we have to consider our horse’s fitness too. I thought Tweseldown made a very good statement that they would not open for a couple of weeks because everyone should start jumping and fittening their horses prior to hiring a cross country venue. It’s true!

What I realised is, that I’m selfish. I want the calm, family time that comes with lockdown, yet I yearn for the satisfaction of teaching and freedom to enjoy the fresh air and countryside.

I can’t return to full work yet as I don’t have childcare, so I have decided to start doing a handful of lessons each week, and during this transition to work, I am trying to work out how to reorganise my life to accommodate the best of both worlds. Since returning to work after maternity leave, my workload has grown and diversified in ways I never imagined. I lost a bit of control and ended up doing some sort of work every day. Which happens to all self employed people. Now is my chance to take back control. Rearrange my working week and as I start to book things in, remember to keep to my days off! It’s not that I will get rid of work, merely consolidate what I have and use my time more wisely. The same can be said for planning my weekends and down time. For if nothing else, lockdown has taught us about time and making it quality.

Back To Fitness

As lockdown is easing in the UK, many horse owners will start to look at bringing their horses back into work and increasing their fitness.

How long this takes depends on your fitness goal and your horse’s current level of fitness, age and previous injuries.

If your horse has been turned away in a sizeable field with companions it will be surprising how much fitness he has retained walking around the field and playing with friends. However, if your horse has an old injury or is stabled overnight with individual turnout they won’t have retained as much fitness.

Whilst not riding, some owners have continued long reining or lunging their horse, so will have a slight advantage over the furloughed horses.

Something to consider though, is your fitness as a rider. This has probably deteriorated with staying at home as well as doing less equine activities.

One of my client’s horses has had seven weeks off, but he’s now coming back into work as he lives at home and I don’t need to see anyone when I go to ride. We need to consider his mental well-being as well as his physical health. He is looking plump, but is also bored only being in his field. Well, that’s what I like to think as he trotted over to me when I appeared with his saddle today!

To use him as an example, he has some fitness from being in a field 24/7, so I started with a generous half hour walk around the village, with no terrain. He returned home with a little sweat on his girth area and had obviously worked without stressing his body. This will steadily increase on hackd, in duration and incorporate terrain over the next couple of weeks before short periods of trot are introduced. As with the walk, the trot periods will increase in duration, frequency and include terrain.

Depending on how we’re getting on with his fitness, the ground and lockdown in general, I’ll look at starting some canter work in week four.

This horse has no previous injuries for me to worry about, and we aren’t in a rush to get him fit for a competition deadline, so I will take it steadily with him. Aiming for him to come back from each ride slightly sweaty, and having increased his pulse and respiration rate during the ride.

Schooling for short periods can be introduced early on, to provide variety to the work. If you jump, then you’ll want to introduce trot polework when the trot is established, and canter poles and jumping once the canter work has been introduced, always monitoring how well your horse is coping with the exercise.

I think it’s most important to listen to the horse when fittening them; assess their recovery after work, keep a close eye on their body and behaviour for signs of fatigue, and for any signs of soreness or injury afterwards. Even if you have a fitness deadline, such as a competition, it is better not to rush the fittening, and plateau for a while if necessary until your horse’s body is managing with the current workload.

Planning Your Polework

With the majority of us not jumping at the moment and needing ideas to entertain us and our four legged friends more of us are looking at polework exercises.

Polework exercises that are being shared on social media are becoming increasingly complex and imaginative. I’m not against them in any way, but I think it’s important that riders don’t blindly copy the layouts, and take the time to plan, prepare and focus on your aims so that they don’t run into problems.

With any pole work layouts there are one or more themes:

  • Straightness
  • Accuracy
  • Cadence
  • Rhythm
  • Engagement of topline muscles

Before deciding on the pole layout you want to use, have a think about why you’re wanting to use the poles. What part of your horse’s way of going are you looking to develop?

It might be that a simpler pole layout is just as effective as a complex one.

If you are focusing on your horse’s weakest area, or your horse is weak or green, it might be better to only focus on one theme and keep the layout simple. Once they’re stronger, more established and confident you can start to use multiple themes in your pole layouts.

It’s also important to know the correct striding for your horse for trot and canter poles, and how to assess if the distance is too long or too short. The distance between trot poles is 4’6″ for the average horse, and if it is the correct distance for your horse their feet will hit the floor in the middle of the gap between the poles. If the distance is too close, then your horse will place their foot down closer to the upcoming pole. If the distance is too long, they will place their foot down closer to the pole they’ve just stepped over. The distance between canter poles is on average 9′, but it’s important to measure and calculate the distances like you would for trot when setting up the pole layouts.

Once you know your horse’s striding and can lay out straightforward trot and canter poles correctly for your horse you will get the most out of the any pole layout; reducing the risk of them injuring themselves or tripping over, and increasing the benefits of the polework to the horse’s way of going. Then you’re more likely to reproduce layouts you’ve seen online correctly.

I think there’s a real risk of people copying pole layouts they’ve seen in videos online without the correct knowledge to build it suitable for their horse and pony. Furthermore, without a thorough explanation of the aims of the polework layout or how to develop the exercises progressively; unknowledgeable riders may come a cropper by outfacing and confusing the horse, doing it too fast or in an unbalanced way, with the horse using his body incorrectly, and thus the polework is of no benefit at all.

I think it’s great that everyone is focusing on improving their horse’s way of going and utilising polework, but equally I think it’s important to share the “inside information” of distances, routes through the poles and the reasons, as well as riders themselves asking for advice from their coach or the author of the polework layout so that they are fully informed to the purpose of the polework and how to know if it is benefitting or not benefitting their horse and needs adapting during the session. And then of course the polework is safer for everyone.

Poles for Shallow Loops

I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.

Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.

On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.

The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.

The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.

To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?

Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?

I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.

This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!

Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.

In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.

Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.

I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.

As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.

Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.

From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.

I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.

Befuddled

I started working with a young rider before lockdown who’d lost confidence in her intelligent Welsh Section A, who whilst isn’t naughty likes to be in charge.

My rider had lost her confidence cantering in the school, and when they start trotting her pony just goes into a quick trot, unnerving her rider.

I felt that my rider needed a change of scenery, to sit on a steady neddy, and finally to feel in control of her pony. So she had a couple of weeks hacking a lovely veteran mare, and then started hacking out her own pony again, before doing a little bit of trot work in their riding paddock, building her confidence in herself and trust in her pony.

The last time I saw them, I worked her on the lunge in the paddock, doing some transitions to help my little jockey feel in control. If she knows how to execute a good, balanced transition and can plan it then she will feel more confident in her own ability and so ride more positively. We even finished over trot poles, again planning where she wanted to trot and where she wanted to walk.

She’s started going into the school again, but still had a block about cantering. She was getting a good, steady trot on the left rein, but the right rein got faster and ended up in numerous circles with the pony getting unbalanced and breaking into a steady canter. From what I could see and understood from conversations with both rider and mother, it seemed to be that there was a power struggle. The pony wasn’t being nasty or dangerous, but just challenged her rider’s leadership by trotting quicker than she was comfortable with, and ignoring the aids.

We needed to confuse, bewilder, and muddle the pony so that she wanted her rider to take control. Mind over matter because there’s no way a little jockey can win a tug of war with a pony!

I explained to my little rider that she needed to have a plan when she started trotting, so that her pony didn’t know where she was going and couldn’t quicken her trot because there were multiple changes in direction. I gave her several exercises – serpentines with circles within the loops, my favourite demi volte bow tie, and a shallow loop with circles. My rider needed to practice these in walk so she was confident of her lines, and then as soon as she went into trot she needed to start riding one of the exercises. She needed to ride the exercise until she felt the rhythm was more consistent and that her pony was waiting for her directives. She could then work through each exercise separately before working them all together in a mish mash, with her pony listening and waiting for her aids.

It didn’t take long for her quick pony to pause and listen to her rider. Because my rider had a plan she felt more in control and confident, as well as the fact she had a plan so continued to ride positively and was less likely to freeze.

I also explained to my rider that she needed to be a step ahead of her pony. So when she went into trot, she needed to be ready to steady her pony, rather than wait for the trot to get fast and then try to rein it in. Preventing a situation rather than reacting to it. It’s a tricky concept for kids to learn, but it makes a huge difference to a pony as they can’t begin to get the upper hand.

Finally, I gave my rider one more exercise to stop her pony racing off into trot on the right rein. I told her to walk a ten metre circle and as she was approaching the fence to go into trot. The fence would back the pony off. She should trot to the next letter before riding to walk. Walk for a bit and then repeat. Short trots would build my riders self-belief and feeling of control, and would break the cycle of the pony whizzing off into turbo trot because a transition to walk was coming up shortly. As the pony started to expect the downward transition, her rider could trot for longer, maintaining the rhythm and tempo. So breaking the cycle.

By all accounts, the exercises were very helpful and they had a canter at the end of their session. The rider felt more in control because she had a plan to her trotting, and was subsequently more confident. This confidence fed down to the pony, who was also a but befuddled with all the changes of rein, and she accepted her rider’s leadership.

Of course, they’ll probably still have to have this discussion at the beginning of each ride to make sure the pony is put calmly back into her box, but I think in time she will more readily settle to her work, because that is the norm, and because her rider exudes confidence. But that’s ponies for you! You really have to get inside their brain and work out what makes them tick and then find a way of getting them on side and putting their wily brains to work!

Make Your Own Fly Spray

I’ve considered making my own fly spray for a couple of years now, but never gotten around to it. However, my Mum tried and tested a recipe last year and was pleased with how effective it is. So with extra time on my hands this spring, I decided to give it a go.

Once I’d sourced the ingredients (mostly online) and bought two 1L spray bottles, it was fairly straightforward.

Ingredients

  • 225ml dettol
  • 250ml Avon skin so Soft (Dry oil spray)
  • 250 ml cider vinegar or white vinegar
  • 1 squirt of washing up liquid
  • 5ml citronella essential oil
  • 5ml lavender essential oil
  • 5 ml tea tree essential oil
  • 5ml neem oil.
  • Approximately 1250ml cold tea made from 6 tea bags.

It’s very simple, I mixed all the ingredients except for cold tea in a bowl and stirred them well, then I put half into each of my 1l spray bottles (one for each horse) and filled each up to the 1l mark with cold tea.

It smells quite similar to the shop bought ones, which is a relief, although darker in colour. You need to shake the bottle well before use, but otherwise it has the same application directions. I have heard that it is effective for sweet itch sufferers, so am hoping that it really helps Otis.

I’ve just done the calculations, and aside from the £6.99 one off cost for the bottles, the ingredients to make 2l of fly spray cost £10.95. we did however have white vinegar, washing up liquid, and tea bags in stock. So you can probably round that figure to £12 to safely include all ingredients.

A quick look online shows that you can pay at least £12 for a 500ml bottle of branded fly spray. For ease of comparison, including the cost of the two bottles, 500ml of fly spray costs £4.95 to make. It’s got to be worth trying it.

I’ll let you know how we get on!

Zig Zag Poles

Here’s another polework exercise for anyone needing some inspiration at the moment.

The Rubber Curry Comb

Here’s a little suppling exercise I did today, using a combination of poles and circles.

Beginning in walk, walk over the pole on the right, then walk a right hand circle. I worked on a fifteen metre circle as that is the smallest diameter that she can stay balanced on. From the circle, walk over the pole to the left of the first pole. Walk a left hand circle before walking over the pole adjacent to pole two before riding a right hand circle and finishing by riding over the most left hand pole.

The exercise can then be repeated in trot and eventually canter, with a flying change over each pole.

The aim of the exercise is to maintain the rhythm of the gait over each pole, and for the horse to step effortlessly over the pole without changing their stride length or posture, and for them to be…

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Creating Positivity

I was looking back at my notes from the Pony Club Coaching Conference back in February and was reminded of the subject of creating positivity in lessons.

You create a positive atmosphere within the teaching environment from your body language, tone of voice, having a progressive lesson plan, and most importantly with the language you use.

The words and phrases you use when talking to a client is what builds a confident, strong mentality of self-belief, which leads to success. It also makes them resilient when things don’t go as planned, and give them a firmer mindset and set of beliefs.

So what words and phrases are more positive to use when teaching?

It’s not saying things like “don’t do this” or “that’s wrong”. It’s giving an instruction to alter something which will improve their performance by focusing on the good bits.

For example, let’s say that the left rein is too long with a flimsy contact. Don’t berate the fact that this is wrong as it creates a negative cycle of thoughts. Equally, the rider needs to know that the left rein needs to be improved so don’t ignore it altogether. Say things like, “you have a good right rein contact, but you tend to have a longer left rein…” And “before starting, check your left hand is as good as your right”. Or even, “shorten your left rein” as this is an action and results in a positive response from the rider. They shorten that rein without thinking about how bad it is. Yet if you were to ask them later which hand was their weaker one, they would subconsciously know.

Another situation would be if an exercise is ridden too fast, you would tell your rider that it was too fast – don’t beat around the bush – but before they try it again, you don’t send them off with the phrase “not as fast as last time”, because that plants a seed of negativity and prevents them from riding in a forwards manner, which could create other problems. Instead, phrases like “find a steadier tempo before you start”, or “this time I’d like you to give yourself as much time as you can” will send them off with a plan. Ride the exercise in a more steady fashion; they will still ride positively and actively, but they are focused more on their new, steadier tempo. And because they have a positive mental attitude, they are more likely to succeed.

You’re reminding your rider of their fault, but without detracting from their focus to an exercise.

I like to think that I used positive phrases to my teaching before the conference, but certainly since then I’ve been cross checking myself to make sure I spend as little time telling riders “don’t do this” as possible, and instead say “do that” to counteract their “this”.

Instead of saying “don’t let your lower leg swing backward as you trot”, saying “keep your feet going down to the floor as you trot” or “relax your knee and drop your heel to keep your lower leg still”. There’s a solution within my corrections. I know I’m not perfect, and I keep having to change my tact mid sentence, but I hope my clients are noticing and feeling that they come away from lessons with a can-do attitude, fully knowledgeable about how to improve their and their horse’s performance.

Have you ever noticed, and felt that a teacher (of whatever subject) had an overly negative effect on your confidence with just a few poorly chosen words? Or have you noticed a change in your approach to riding as a result of your support network using, well, supportive language?