Circles and Circles

This week I was challenged to teach a joint jumping lesson to a mother and daughter – Mum is a happy hacker, dressage enthusiast whilst daughter mainly does jumping and eventing, with some dressage thrown in under duress. So I had two different abilities. Well four really, because the two ponies are very different too.

Luckily I had a couple of days to plan this lesson, and I came up with jumping on a circle. Yes, I`ve done it before, but it always catches people out.

Four poles were set out at 3, 6, 9, 12 o`clock on a twenty metre circle. Slightly smaller in this case as they were only ponies. After a warm up on serpentines, quick transitions and lots of circles we began with cantering over the poles on the circle.

I wanted my riders to take some responsibility for the task, so told them that they needed to enter the circle over a different pole each time, stay on the circle for a lap or two, but exit the circle when appropriate – i.e. when they felt they had had a good couple of poles. This is to increase my riders` awareness of the importance of not over-doing an exercise.

My younger rider and her jumping pony managed the poles easily; the pony is supple enough that he can maintain the circle and jump with a slight curve to his body. The mother and cob were focusing too much on riding to the poles, so lost the canter rhythm and didn`t have a smooth curve between poles.

Once we`d done the circles on both reins I put the opposite fences up as cross poles – crosses to help guide my riders to the centre of the jumps. Having alternate poles and crosses gave my riders time to correct or rebalance while they got used to the exercise. Now both ponies were starting to maintain a smoother canter around the circle and my riders weren’t trying to over correct, but rather positioning their bodies and keeping a smooth focus so that they glided around the circle, rather than focus on one specific point before moving onto the next focal point.

Once all four jumps up the cob mare was keeping a much better canter rhythm, not backing off the fences, and taking off slightly further away and not chipping in. Then her rider started to relax and go with the mare more. The jumping pony did it perfectly on the right rein, but on the left he kept changing his canter lead over the jumps.

He`s always favoured the left lead, so its important that each jump is met on a good, close stride as close to perpendicular as possible, because any long jumps, or jumps on an angle give him a good excuse to change his lead. We spent quite a lot of time trying to correct my rider`s lines to fences, her body position and aids, so that the pony maintained right canter for longer. He started to and my rider felt there was some improvement, although she still found it frustrating when he seemingly changed for no reason.

Now this is where the exercise steps up a level.

I introduced changes of canter lead over the jumps. On the left rein, they needed to enter the circle over, let`s say the blue jump. Canter around the circle and then the next time they jumped the blue jump they needed to turn right on landing, canter a 15m circle, jumping the blue jump again before continuing around the circle in left canter.

The cob mare and Mum went first. By now, the canter was a lot freer and consistent, but I wasn`t sure how she would cope with the change of lead. Starting on the left rein, I was pleased that they managed a flying change over the fence onto right canter, and then again back onto left lead to finish the exercise. The right handed circle needed a bit of work as it was a bit big, but overall they understood the concept. The jumping pony, I knew, would find this small, right circle hard, but I hoped that riding a smaller circle would encourage his change of lead. The first attempt he landed left lead. This is where the exercise is so useful for improving the rider`s awareness because that canter needs correcting immediately. The second time they tried my rider really turned, forcing herself into position right and being very clear with her aids, and the pony changed!

Using this new found feeling, I immediately sent my young rider on a change of rein and told her to canter right rein around the circle of poles exaggerating her turn over each fence, as she had for the small circle. They rode a whole circle and then some maintaining right canter. I left the lesson there for these two as I wanted them to retain the feeling and understanding of riding in position right over fences. The other pair finished the lesson repeating the exercise on the other rein.

Both pairs looked much better by the end; the canter was more rhythmical and the jumps more even, with both riders planning their route and riding more discreetly and subtly. In the future I want to progress to doing a small circle around each jump, so that in one lap of the circle there are four smaller circles, with each jump being jumped twice and a change of canter lead over each jump.

The next day I had a similar client; a young boy and his pony who love jumping but lack fluency and often get refusals. When working with boys I find it`s important to be “doing” rather than talking, and to choose your battles wisely. For example, we were doing three loop serpentines and the it was an erratic rhythm and more of a zig zag. So first of all we tried to keep the trot the same. When this had improved we tried to go straight across the arena … and ended up with a four loop serpentine! I didn’t correct him because the loops were much better than the first attempt!

Anyway, we did the circle exercise, focusing on looking up and around to the next fence. Immediately the circle became rounder and the pony stopped chipping in. His rider was quite analytical about the exercise, telling me when things went right or wrong, and how he needed to change the way he rode it the next time to improve. Repetition is the key to teaching the body to work automatically and to build muscle memory. With this client I also did the change of lead and small circle exercise. The pony knew to sort himself out, but I wanted my rider to get used to looking up whilst changing direction, and making sure he sat up on the smaller circles to help his pony keep his balance. Then of course the exercise flowed much better, which should help him in any showjumping competitions and when he goes hunting on the weekend!


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