Developing Straightness

One pony I`ve been teaching with lacks straightness. I`ve been working on the flat with his rider to develop her awareness of his tendency to curl to the left and drift through the right shoulder. She`s been working hard on ensuring her right rein is supporting the right shoulder, and not being too mobile or slack that he can push through it. We`ve also just started doing some leg yield so that she can straighten him up this way and get him more receptive to the right leg. This crookedness comes through in their jumping, which I noticed last lesson so wanted to address this week.

We started with a simple cross pole and approached from both canter leads. Last time he drifted right through the grid regardless of the canter lead he was on, but it was more severe from the left rein. Interestingly, with the cross they stayed pretty straight before, over and after the jump. I think this is because the centre of the cross guided them to the middle, and as it was also well within his comfort zone he could manage to jump it without twisting. So I made the fence into an upright of about 80cm. At this point, he suddenly started drifting on the approach and as he folding his front legs over the jump, he took them to the right, so dropping his left shoulder a bit. My rider could feel the  crookedness now.

At this point I suggested that she had his back checked after Christmas because whilst he was managing his daily routine, now that she was jumping a bit bigger and working him that much harder on the flat, we needed to make sure he was comfortable so that we got the best out of him, and he didn`t resort to naughty behaviour because of pain. Ensuring he`s physiologically aligned will also limit the chance of injury because he will not be over stressing an area of his body.

I wanted to work on the straightness of the three phases – approach, bascule and getaway – but in order to help both pony and rider they needed a visual guide.  Slowly, I built in some tramlines to guide their eyes. I began with two poles perpendicular to the fence, a stride after landing. Initially, the poles were very wide, and once the pony had jumped the fence without backing off to oogle at the poles, I rolled them in a bit. Then I added similar tramlines in the stride before the fence, rolling them in as he got used to them.

Because the pony tends to drift over the fence as well as on the approach and getaway, it`s important that the poles are close enough to the jump to influence the line he takes, yet not too close that he risks landing on them. Whilst my rider still had to work on keeping her pony straight on the approach, the tramlines gave her a good guide and she could keep him straight for them. Then the tramlines took care of his straightness on take off, in the air, and on landing, The getaway poles gave my rider chance to regroup and continue riding straight rather than having to correct the drift.

After a few times jumping the jump from both reins the pony was really starting to use himself well. He was folding his legs up to his chest, not to the side, which caused him to bascule more and where he was straight on take off he was pinging efficiently over the fence.

I added in another fence, with multiple jumping efforts the pony would be more likely to drift.  I didn`t put tramlines on the approach to the first fence, leaving it to my rider to channel him straight. From the left rein, she found she really had to work hard to bring his right shoulder around the turn and she almost had to leg yield him to the left out of the corner to get him straight. From the right rein she just had to maintain the diagonal aids of left rein and right leg to prevent the drifting on the approach.

When my rider managed to set her pony up so he met the first jump straight, he then basculed properly, and straight with his forelimbs, before landing and taking a lovely canter stride to meet the second fence nicely. Another straight bascule, and then a straight getaway.

Can you remember Pythagoras` Theorem? About the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle being the sum of the square of the other two sides? Where this pony drifts over fences, he then rides a diagonal line through combinations. This line is the hypotenuse, and because it is longer than the perpendicular path between the fences, it becomes a longer distance for him to navigate so he will either struggle to make the distance with the correct number of strides and take a long jump over the second element, or he will chip in and jump the second fence very short and steep. In this double, the pony found the distance perfect because he was taking the most efficient line between them, and that meant that he could give a much cleaner, more efficient pop over each jump.

Together with having a physio session, I hope that this straightness work helps this pony learn to use his body in the most efficient way, develops muscle symmetry, and enables him to tackle bigger and more complex jumping questions with ease. For my rider, she now has the feeling of being straight at all times when jumping so is better able to correct her pony when he starts to drift, and she will also pick up on the crookedness earlier. Her work on the flat will help hugely too because they will both get used to working straight.

It`s a shame I didn’t video the pair before and after, because the difference was incredible, and very obvious from my position at the end of the school facing the exercise. But I was too busy teaching to multi-task!

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