Always Learning

Some of my favourite horse and rider combinations to teach aren’t always the ones with big dreams or high ambitions, it’s the ones who’s goal is to do the best by their horse in order to prolong their relationship and ridden work for as long as possible. Often these riders exceed their own expectations after a few months of work.

I’ve been working with a lady and her mare for a while now, which gives me plenty to think about. The mare is complicated in that she’s got a weak back from her early life so is prone to getting sore there, and she’s got mild arthritis in her hocks. The exercises I choose need to be adapted to accommodate her physical abilities and build up her strength slowly. Having said that, the mare is very amenable and always tries to please so is rewarding to work with.

Before Christmas we did a lot of work on the lunge with the Pessoa, building up her topline and improving her trot and canter in the school as her rider was off injured. Now we’ve progressed to under saddle work, which is all starting to come together.

Initially, I wanted to improve my rider’s awareness of her horse and how she moves, and to not just accept this as normal. After all, gaining an awareness of a good walk as opposed to a bad walk will lead to you subconsciously improving the walk on hacks, which leads to better balance and muscle tone. We looked at the walk being fractionally steadier so that the rhythm improved, and the mare stopped pulling herself along on the forehand. We also took this up into the trot work. We aren’t going to dramatically change the walk overnight, and we don’t want to make too many drastic changes so that the mare can cope physically with the work and build her strength up slowly. Their homework is to bear the balance of the walk and trot in mind whilst out hacking so that this becomes normal.

After improving the awareness of my rider to the quality of the walk and trot we then moved on to looking at their suppleness. Again, we want to make little adjustments and improve my rider’s awareness for the asymmetry in her mare so that we can begin straightening work in all areas.

Walking along the long side of the school, I asked my rider to think about where her horse’s body was in relation to her rider. Improving her awareness of whether the hindquarters are behind the saddle, or to one side. And does the neck come out of the middle of their chest, or are they looking to one side or the other?

After walking on both reins we came to the conclusion that the mare likes to walk on the wonk; her hindquarters always stay to the left and her forehand towards the right. This means that on the right rein, the hindquarters tend to swing out on turns and circles, and on the left rein the mare finds it difficult to bring her outside shoulder round and bend to the inside.

Again, developing an awareness means that my rider will encourage her mare to walk straight on hacks and so develop the muscle symmetry, which will hopefully take the pressure off her hocks and develop her topline. Since then, lessons have revolved around circles, straight lines, correcting the bend and improving the mare’s suppleness. We’ve used transitions to improve the balance of the trot, circles spiralling between 20m and 15m circles (not too small because of the hocks) to help the suppleness, and using the three quarter line to assess straightness. The work isn’t overly complicated but by working on a variety of different areas we will steadily improve the mare as a whole without stressing one area of her body, which should help maintain her soundness.

In terms of how the mare carries herself, we’re focusing on a quiet, steady contact to support the mare in her tempo and bend, whilst using transitions and balancing the aids to encourage the mare to use her hindquarters and to come off the forehand so she works in a relaxed and balanced way. This will ensure that eventually the mare will learn self carriage without tension and as she’s learning and building the muscles she won’t overload an area of her body.

I’m pleased with our progress. They are starting off much straighter – so much so that I couldn’t remember which way the mare swings her quarters at the beginning of this week’s lesson! My rider is learning to feel and to correct the way the mare is going quicker so we’re improving the bend. We’ll carry on in this theme, improving the suppleness and evenness on each rein and then hopefully the quality of the trot improves.

This week I mentioned the word “canter”. My client looked a bit doubtful. It’s been a long time since she’s cantered and the mare’s canter was unbalanced and very flat. However, the lunge work has improved the canter, so I felt confident that the mare would manage a reasonably balanced, three beat canter down the long side of the school. I sent them off into trot, talking through the canter transition and encouraging my rider to breathe. No problem! The canter was actually very balanced and not too fast on the left rein, and the right rein was slightly rushed but the experience was still a positive one for my rider.

We’ve now got a plan for how to develop the pair of them. The aim is to improve the way the mare works so that she’s stronger over her back and will have less problems with her hocks so we will prolong her soundness. Then I want to increase my rider’s confidence, knowledge in how a horse moves anatomically, and riding skills. We will increase the canter work, so some lessons in the field, and use trotting poles to further develop the mare’s muscles and rider’s confidence. This will enable her to feel more able to hack out – going further afield and in bigger company – and to have a go at some unaffiliated intro and prelim tests. At that point I know they will be having plenty of fun and will go beyond their initial aspirations, which is very rewarding and satisfying to me as a coach.

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