Logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords. I love all sorts of puzzles, and one of my favourite things when teaching is working out what exercise suits a horse or rider, and why. Why have they developed that way of going, and how can we improve it? Where is there weakness and how do we hone in on it?
So with one of my young clients, who’s really forged a great relationship with her new pony over the summer, I wanted to get her brain going. She’s a very thoughtful rider, with good feel, so I wanted to get her to deduce their weak points. I find that if a rider feels and understands the weak area then they are more motivated to improve it, and will focus more of their energy into practicing and self-correcting, which leaves me with more lesson time to focus on more exciting things.
In our lessons we’ve discussed the stages of training; rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion, but now she has more of a feel for a steady and consistent contact, and an understanding of the correct way a horse propels themselves forwards I wanted to re-address suppleness.
Whilst she warmed herself up with the criteria of working evenly on each rein, using circles of various sizes, serpentines and shallow loops, I set up four pole exercises. I should probably add that she’s only nine years old.
The first exercise we did was the S-bend, often seen in TREC competitions. All they had to do was walk through the path through the poles without touching or stepping over the poles. I’ve seen an agile Belgian Draft horse do this perfectly, so a 12.2hh pony has no excuse!
They had a few attempts to wiggle their way through, but in all but one time the pony stepped over the pole with a hindleg. There were a couple of teaching points such as looking up, and not down at the turn. It’s important to use the outside aids to turn as when she forgot about her outside rein (outside leg worked well) and overused the inside rein the pony was more likely to step over a pole. We ended the exercise with a discussion about whether one direction was easier for the pony than the other. She correctly identified that turning left was harder for him.
We moved on to a trio of trotting poles on a curve. On each rein, they aimed to trot over the centre of each pole. We also tried making the trot shorter striding and trotting over the poles closer to the centre of the circle.
As anticipated, the clever pony trotted a straight line over the poles, so I positioned myself to help guide my rider’s eye, and encouraged her to keep riding positively around the turn. As soon as they managed to trot the poles on the curve she could feel the increased activity of the inside hindleg. Again, I asked her which rein was easier, and she again said the right.
Next up was the house exercise. We began by focusing on straightness through the middle of the trot poles and trotting over the apex of the triangle.
Initially my rider was turning too close to the poles so started off drifting over the first pole. She also felt the exaggerated step her pony did over apex, and she had to maintain the active trot she got over the poles before the apex which will hopefully help her generate and maintain a more energetic trot on the flat.
Next, we worked on trotting over the centre of the trotting poles and then riding a curve to the centre of either of the angled (purple in the picture) poles. It took a couple of tries to perfect each turn: getting straight for the poles, using her outside aids to turn and not losing momentum. And of course I had to position myself to help guide them. Perhaps I need to invest in some cones for when I do similar exercises with bigger horses!
At the end, I asked my rider two questions.
“Which way did your pony find hardest?”
And “which way did you find hardest?”
Correctly, she replied that her pony found going left hardest, but she found it harder to ride right.
I was really impressed with her summation, and it meant that I could begin to explain why. The pony is older, I think having had a busy working life or perhaps an old injury has caused some stiffness which has led to the pony favouring the right rein. There’s not a huge amount we can do about it except ensure we work him evenly on both reins and sympathetically to his weaker area.
For my rider though, we can definitely help. I’m always reminding her to keep her left thumb on top, and to imagine her left elbow being Velcro-ed to her side. She’s right hand dominant, so when she turns right her left rein, the outside one, doesn’t support her pony’s outside shoulder and so, despite it being his easier rein, he drifts through the left shoulder. We need to focus on her using her outside aids, and building an awareness for what her left hand is doing. Or not doing. But I know some exercises which will help, and now she understands the implications of her weak rein I believe she will be more focused on correcting and improving herself.
To finish the lesson, I wanted to give my rider a feel for an elevated trot and to get her feeling a perfect straight line, so I introduced her to the grid of poles.
Firstly, they trotted on the lower poles, with the raised poles acting as tramlines to help pony and rider stay straight throughout the poles – no drifting! My rider could feel both hindlegs pushing evenly over the poles and felt the straightness in his head, neck and shoulders.
Finally, they worked over the raised poles. The pony really picked his feet up, giving my rider a lovely feel of an elevated trot, which again will help her create more impulsion in her flat work as she’s had a feel for the extreme.
In all, a really good lesson which I felt taught my little rider a lot about both her and her pony, which will enable me to put together some exercises on both the flat and over jumps which will improve the pair of them, and more to the point, my rider will understand why we’re doing them.