Outgrowing Ponies

It’s inevitable with kids really. They grow. And whilst it’s easy to buy new trousers, and give the outgrown pair to charity, the same cannot be said about ponies.

This is where learning in a riding school has it’s advantages. You get used to riding a variety of horses and can easily be put on one the next size up. However if you loan, own or share your own then the transition can be made all the harder.

One of my clients has been looking a bit leggy on her share pony for the last six months. Far from being too heavy, her legs just resemble Puddleglum’s (Narnia reference for anyone who’s childhood is far forgotten). I mentioned a few months ago about have to consider upgrading from her veteran school master. He’s lovely and a real confidence giver, but with his age and near perfect manners there’s a limit to what she can learn from him now.

I want her to be challenged more, so she isn’t complacent about her riding and learns to think about the horse and begins to influence and improve the way the horse goes rather than just directing them. We’re doing the theory, but it’s hard to put it into practice when her pony is limited by his good manners and expertise.

I suggested she asked around her yard to see if anyone would be willing to let her have a lesson on their horse so that she got a feel for riding taller, thinner, wider, faster, slower horses which means that she’s in a better position to find a share horse and to transition successfully.

But it’s very hard to find the right horse to try. Going from your ultimate schoolmaster, you need a bigger (but not too big) horse, who will tolerate a slightly heavier leg aid and not take the mickey if she makes a mistake or isn’t clear enough in her aids. Yet can be geed up and give her something to think about in her riding.

With me stopping work in a couple of weeks, I thought we’d better get the plan put into motion. One of my friends keeps her Connemara at that yard, so I asked her if he would be suitable to try, if she was willing to offer him, or if she could suggest a horse.

She told me a bit about him and offered him for a lesson. He’s six or seven, can be cheeky over jumps but on the flat works fairly quietly, although can have a bit of a spook. And is a hand bigger than my client’s pony, so not too much of a leap up. I decided that he was our best option, and with my rider getting increasingly nervous about riding an unknown horse, I knew we had to just get it over and done with, before she could mull over the idea.

First off, my client realised that she needed to be a bit more awake on the ground – no more daydreaming as she leads in from the field because this Connemara will stop for a cheeky snack of grass. Once tacked up, she mounted in the school.

She had gone mute, with nerves, so I got her to walk round the edge of the arena and to tell me her thoughts of him so far: how his size compared to her pony’s, how the walk felt, could she feel any tension in his neck, was he focusing on her or the dog walker on the far side of the field? As she started thinking and talking, she relaxed and so did the Connemara. After all, he was probably wondering who on Earth we were and where his Mum was!

We then started looking at his controls.

I used the analogy of cars to my rider, even though she can’t drive I think she can still appreciate the theory. Her pony is like a corsa. This horse is an upgrade … perhaps a golf or something (can you tell cars aren’t my strong point?). Some horses can be Ferraris. I told my rider that she wouldn’t need as strong an aid on this pony, but as we didn’t know the precise level of squeeze, it would be best to apply a Ferrari light aid, and if nothing happened then progress to a BMW level aid, and so forth until she got the response she wanted. It’s like learning to balance the clutch and accelerator on a new car.

In the walk we did some transitions to halt and back into walk, before some changes of rein and circles so that she could get the feel for him and felt more confident.

Progressing into the trot, I reminded her about the importance of preparation – her biggest complacency with her schoolmaster is that she’ll kick for trot then half a dozen strides later organise her reins. Once she was organised we went through the lightest aid, which didn’t get a response, to a firmer squeeze which did propel them into a steady trot.

I let her trot around a couple of times to get the feel for him, before getting her to assess and describe the trot in relation to her pony. This horse was bouncier, bigger striding and more energetic. Once she’d ridden some circles I got her to ride some serpentines, which highlighted to her how she needs to prepare a little earlier because he’s younger, slightly greener, and a bigger moving animal.

Then I addressed the fact that this horse was easily distracted. So far, I’d overcome the issue by telling her to ride a transition or school movement. I drew my rider’s attention to how the ears were pointing, and any turning to the outside as the horse looked off into the distance. Then I told her to try to be more aware of his body language, and if she felt he had lost focus, then she should draw him back into the arena by asking him to do something, such as a transition or circle so that he had to think about what she wanted him to do. I then got her to do some independent riding – choosing her own movements and changes of rein – to check that she was starting to think about the horse and how he was going.

They got the hang of the trot fairly quickly. I didn’t do too much about the quality of the trot and how to improve it, but I did make her aware of the fact that a younger horse needs reminding more frequently than a schoolmaster of the tempo, rhythm and not cutting corners, so she needed to stay on the ball about that too.

Towards the end of the lesson I suggested we tried a canter. Again, I checked she was preparing, and used the light aids until he reacted, although she was getting a feel for him now and almost immediately got canter. In the canter, this horse did try to fall in on the left rein, but after reminding my rider that he wasn’t remote control and she wasn’t a passenger, she managed to used her inside leg and outside rein to keep him going large. They had a couple of sloppy downward transitions when they fell into trot, which was largely to do with the fact that the horse needed a little more riding in the canter to maintain his balance and rhythm which my rider hadn’t quite mastered. It wasn’t bad though, and she did start to feel when he was about to fall into trot, so corrected him a couple of times.

The right rein was more interesting. Basically, the horse heard something in the distance and just cantered a bit faster, which caused my rider to clamp a bit with her legs, which didn’t decrease the speed. However, she remained calm and reacted to my instructions about dropping the heel, relaxing her calves, sitting up and half halting. Obviously I made her have another canter, which went much more smoothly and the important part was that she understood why he had cantered a bit faster and the effect she had on him and what to do next time.

All in all, it was a very useful lesson. My rider has come away with an awareness of how she needs to improve in order to upgrade from her corsa; she had a good experience so hopefully now feels more confident about trying another horse, and will hopefully get another couple of offers from other liveries there. The downside? She’s fallen in love with the Connemara!

In the meantime, I need to find another couple of horses for her to try before I get too fat to go to work.

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