Carrying Mugs

Anyone who ever has a single horse riding lesson hears the phrase “thumbs on top, as if you`re holding a mug of coffee”. Or tea, or whatever takes the kid`s fancy that day.

Last week I wanted to give one of my client`s pony an easy week as he`d been very busy during half term. But try focusing a ten year old boy on flatwork or his position. I knew I had to come up with something fun to keep his attention.

My main focus with this rider has been getting him to sit on his bum and not rest his hands on the withers. This causes him to drop his shoulders forwards and then when he makes a downwards transition he hovers out of the saddle and fixes his hands.

Then I had a brainwave. I had to get his Mum on board as he was likely to get wet. She was more concerned about her saddle getting wet, so it was a go-er! I was actually genuinely excited about teaching this lesson. It was my last lesson of the day, but well worth the wait.

Neither of us said anything to my client at the start of the lesson, but I got him and his pony warmed up with his main focus being awareness of his hands. Then we brought out the mugs.


With a slightly confused look on his face, I gave him a plastic mug to hold alongside the reins in each hand, and then put a drop of water in each mug. You don`t need much water because it will slosh, I put in about a quarter of the mug, perhaps even a fifth.

Next, I challenged him to walk around without spilling the water. This was okay, but his pony has a nice steady walk, so we trotted. Water splashed everywhere! At this point I wondered if I had been too ambitious, so I encouraged my client, once we`d stopped laughing, to use this as a trial and get used to trotting holding the empty mugs upright. His left hand had a cheeky tip in, but it`s easy to shout “left is spilling” and get an instant correction. After all, there`s a visual cue for my young rider.


As soon as the mugs were staying upright I filled them up again, and this time the trotting was much more successful. We did circles, changes or rein, some sitting and some rising trot, with the majority of the water staying in the mugs. Our steering went a little to pot, but in the grand scheme of things this was a small sacrifice for the improvement in the hand carriage. There was so much giggling, cries of encouragement, and general enjoyment it was actually quite infectious and the other liveries who were riding were getting involved – cheering him on, staying out his way, and watching.

The best part, he was carrying his hands far better, yet I wasn`t lecturing or nagging him about them. He did say he felt he had to give a lot with his hands, but he could also feel the freedom in his pony`s gaits so understood the importance of carrying his hands.

As he`d mastered the trot, I suggested cantering. The initial canter transition is the hardest part, and he did lose a lot of water there on one attempt, but once he was in canter he didn’t lose a drop. And his position was so much better! His pony does have a lovely rocking horse canter, so it would be interesting to see how anyone else gets on when riding a more extravagant moving horse.


Knowing he was up for the challenge, I took one mug away and had him trot over some trotting poles; reins in one hand and holding the mug in the other. Easy Peasy! We did both hands, to check one wasn`t lazy or twisting. At this point his elder sister wanted to get involved, so we gave her a mug (with more water in than her brother`s) and had her carry it in her weaker hand – the one which looks like it`s pushing a pram. She joined in over the poles and cantering around, which then gave us a bit of competition so my client wanted to push himself more.

I put a jump up for both of them. Just a simple cross pole, and there was also a small upright at the other end of the school. Finding the cross pole easy, they both had a go over the upright too. Again, this is confidence giving as they were jumping with one hand out, but it also checks their balance and how mobile their hands are. Unbelievably, although I like to think it`s a good reflection on my teaching, neither of them spilt any water going over the jumps. We actually ended up with a bigger upright and only then did some water fly out.

We had a small intermission in the middle of jumping, when my client`s sister had a go, and her pony just carried on cantering laps in delight, while she tried to pull up with one hand and without spilling any water. Eventually, she had to drop the mug so she could stop, but she provided some light entertainment.

Once the water was depleted and the mug fun exhausted,  had my client ride on the flat and over some jumps normally, to see if he noticed a difference. The picture looked much improved; a more upright position, sitting on his bum, and hands carried and less restrictive.

The joy about this exercise is that it is fun; kids (or grown ups) don`t realise how much they are improving. The instant visual (and tactile as the water splashes you) feedback is far more effective than my voice nagging.  With groups of children you could turn it into a big game. Perhaps a jumping competition, or a handy pony course. And of course if any child gets a bit big headed about how good they are, you can always fill the mug to the brim!  I will definitely be using this exercise at Pony Club Camp this summer.

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