Filling the Gaps

Do you ever watch someone doing an activity and think “oh if they just did this and that it would be finished quicker/look better/be so much easier”. Apparently this is something that happens on a daily basis with children learning to tie shoelaces, get dressed, eat dinner etc so I’ve got this to look forwards to.

I try to step back and bite my tongue until I’m asked for help or advice. Over the last few months I’ve seen a girl and pony riding regularly while I’ve been working. And it was one of those situations where I knew exactly what I would teach them, and what exercises I’d use if they were to have a lesson with me. It wasn’t so much that it was going wrong for the pair of them, I just knew how to make them better. Now, you can’t (well, I can’t) just walk up to someone and demand they have lessons with you just to satisfy your yearning to impart knowledge. I didn’t stand and stare while they rode – that’s rude – but inquired to how they were getting on and showed an interest in their progress. So making myself approachable if she wanted lessons or advice but without being overbearing.

Then, to my delight, she mentioned having some lessons and we got talking about their jumping. I think I mentioned one thing I’d work on with them, and she booked a lesson. Now of course the pressure is on to deliver!

They had their first lesson last week and from my observations I felt that the pony was a bit behind the leg, didn’t have a steady contact to work into, and because he was then thinking backwards all the time he had the tendency to chip in at fences. The basics and his way of going were there, just bad habits were hiding them.

On the flat, I asked my rider to shorten her reins significantly so she could feel his mouth lightly, and to feel like her seat and legs were driving her pony into the contact, and then feel that he was taking her hand forwards as he moved. As soon as the contact was offered, he took it, stretching his neck out a bit and lengthening his stride. Immediately he started using his hindquarters and using his back. Most of our flatwork in this session was focused on establishing the contact. When the pony was taking the contact forwards, my riders hands stayed still, but when the reins were slack she was fussing to find the connection while her pony also fumbled for it.

We worked on feeling that the trot and canter were bigger striding, and had more energy. She needed to use her aids more effectively and the pony needed to react to them. However, now he had the security of the hand he was far happier going more forwards. I also did a check of her outside aids on circles to help the pony stay straight and balanced. As soon as the outside rein supported his shoulder he maintained the impulsion better. Which will pay off when riding a course if fences.

I didn’t want to overload them, and make too many tweaks that they wouldn’t remember or be able to practice them, so we applied the new flatwork to jumping a simple grid.

14.2hh ponies can be tricky to stride out distances for: if they’re a bit stuffy or backwards thinking they tend to need a pony stride count, whereas if they are more excitable or scopey then they prefer the horse stride. As I’ve said earlier, this pony tended to chip in, so I built the distance short, for a pony, and decided that as his confidence and strength improved I could lengthen the distances to him. I didn’t want him to feel that he couldn’t make the distance and so encourage him to chip in. I also put out a placing pole to get him to the correct take off point at the first fence.

We worked on the turn and approach, feeling that the pony was really taking his rider towards the grid, and that she wasn’t dropping the contact nor letting him hide behind it. I told her to feel that she had 80% of her pony in front of her at all times. This brought her shoulders back and made her use her seat and legs to improve the canter. With the placing pole, they were soon flying through the grid of about 75cm. The height was enough for him to focus on the fences, but not to make life too hard for him. After all, I wanted to build his confidence at taking off a bit earlier and to build his strength so it’s best to keep the heights within his comfort zone. The grid was also training my rider’s eye so that she rode for the better stride, rather than expecting the chip in at the last minute. A couple of times the pony took off correctly but my rider expected him to put in another stride, so it was a learning curve for her as much as him. When I took the placing pole away they found it harder to meet the first fence correctly, but what I liked was that the pony was now meeting the subsequent fences perfectly, almost making the distance look short.

I left my rider with the correct feeling of the length of stride, and contact so she could practice and improve their consistency.

In their next lesson, the flatwork started off far better than the start of the first lesson, and we used transitions to start getting the pony off the leg, and kept focusing on keeping the contact consistent, so that the transitions became more balanced and the gaits more forward thinking.

We talked about generating the impulsion in the trot and canter. When my rider rode an upwards transition I got her to think of riding into the medium gait, and once she had this speed and energy, she could half halt and balance the gait back to a working gait so that she had impulsion, i.e. energy without the speed.

This time I built a grid of three bounces and then an oxer one stride afterwards. The aim is to build the pony’s hindquarters and to get them both riding forwards towards the fences. They met the first fence much more consistently and negotiated the bounces perfectly each time. I half expected the pony to try to fit a stride in, but I think the flatwork was paying off. They jumped the oxer nicely too, making a better shape over the fence too.

We’ll continue working on their flatwork, developing their balance on circles as well as direct transitions which will help their turns on courses, as well as improving his hindleg strength and getting the pony more responsive to the leg aids, so that when he backs off a fence his rider can get them out of trouble. Then we’ll move on from jumping grids to putting courses together.

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