Individual Journeys

One of the most important, and intuitive, characteristics of a teacher of any sort, is the ability to know how to to push their pupil out of their comfort zone so that they progress and develop their skills and confidence smoothly. This is particularly important with the more timid types of people as a knock to their confidence can halt their learning for a while and can make them reluctant to try new or harder lessons.

I’ve been working with one horse and rider over the last few months who have made me think outside the box. She came to me wanting help with her share horse; wanting to build up his muscles and to encourage him to work more correctly from behind, as well as build her confidence riding him.

I know this rider from when she was a teenager, and whilst perfectly competent she was never the most confident or gung-ho rider. But, with a good level of understanding and the knowledge of the importance of establishing the basics and tweaking the small details. I don’t mind this approach to riding, in fact I possibly prefer it to overconfidence, because I know the horse’s welfare is priority, and the rider never minds revising an exercise to help or reinforce a new lesson.

We began with addressing the horse’s crookedness, and as he’s become straighter he’s become more forward going, and his length of stride has increased. Once his engine is engaged he drops his nose, taking the contact forwards into an outline nicely. We’re getting this result quicker each session, and with more consistency, which is great.

However, with the horse’s medical injury and his age and conformation, I felt that the canter work would really help loosen him over the back and improve their trot work because some days he can just be very stuffy. Unfortunately, this is where I hit a block and had to get my thinking cap on.

Whilst my rider wanted to start the canter work, and is perfectly capable of cantering, she seemed to have developed a mental block with cantering her share horse. She gave all the correct aids to canter, but was only 80% committed to the transition, and so her horse did not oblige. Which led to the cycle of my rider asking, horse going to canter, then not quite cantering, unbalancing the rider with a big trot, and the rider losing faith in her ability. In the next transition attempt the horse is more hesitant to canter, so making my rider work harder.

I had a couple of sessions of warming my rider up so she had a lovely forwards trot and felt confident, and then broaching the subject of canter. With lots of verbal encouragement we managed a couple of strides of canter a few times, but I didn’t feel this was the most effective way for this duo to progress because too many times we ended up in the cycle mentioned above.

My rider hadn’t done much cantering for a while due to rehabbing her share horse, which combined with the fact he has quite a big, bouncy canter, and has been known to buck, was putting her at a disadvantage because she was out of practice and not confident in his behaviour or sitting to his stride. I sent her off to borrow a friend’s horse to practice cantering so that she’d find her canter seat.

Which she did, and felt perfectly happy cantering her friend’s horse, but when back on her share horse we still didn’t get canter. There was a mind block here, and I needed to work out how to break it down.

With a pony, you can lead them in canter, but there’s no way I can keep up with a 16hh thoroughbred cross! I asked my rider if she thought watching her horse canter would put her mind at ease. By watching him go into canter, with no bucks, and seeing the activity in his hindquarters, could help her realise that the big transition is just the way her horse moves, and he’s not being naughty. If you’re used to a short striding, minimalistic canter, then an active strike off can unbalance you and put you off.

My rider lunges this horse regularly and was happy with his transitions from the ground, so I narrowed the problem down to a saddle based issue.

Really, my rider just needed to canter, so she had got the first one under her belt, as there was no physical reason why she couldn’t. This is when it’s important to understand how your rider learns and what type of personality they have because different techniques at this stage can have a detrimental effect. For example, a confident rider might benefit from a bit of a push, lots of encouragement but thrown into the deep end so that they swim. But a timid rider might freeze if put in that position. Sometimes I’ve dared a young client to do something. This works for the competitive but slightly hesitant kids. For example, when asking them to let go with one hand when trotting, they may not want to but when faced with a challenge, they’ll often have a go. But this approach doesn’t work for the timid riders.

I suggested that I lunged her horse at the beginning of the next lesson. My thoughts were that I could assess her horse on the lunge as I could lunge her in canter. Alternatively, being warmed up on the lunge may help her horse become more supple so my rider could get used to a more active gait and be less unseated by the canter transition, and he may be more willing to canter from her aids.

The horse was much more active on the lunge and very well behaved in the canter, so with his rider mounted, I started lunging them in the trot. Initially, it was about getting her to relax and go with his bigger trot stride. Then we just talked about cantering; whether she’d rather be a passenger and I’d get her horse cantering, or whether she’d rather ride the transition. She opted for the latter, which was fine, I think being on the lunge distracted her from the canter transition. Or possibly she felt safer as she was connected to me.

The result was a few short canters on each rein, with me reinforcing her canter aids the first couple of times to make sure she got into canter. The canters were short, but each time my rider seemed happier about the process. She wasn’t tipping forwards so much, was breathing throughout the canter, and was giving with her hands.

By the end of the session, she was much more confident about the whole canter subject, so we’ve decided that every lesson for a few weeks will start on the lunge, doing a few canters, until both horse and rider are comfortable with the transitions and can maintain the canter for longer. I’m looking for my rider to be able to be able to sit a bit deeper in her saddle during the transition, and then to relax in her knee so that she doesn’t tip forwards when in canter, which will allow her to ride her horse forwards in the canter. But this comes with confidence, and for this rider I think this is the best approach to helping her on her equestrian journey. Hopefully she’ll either have a go at cantering one day whilst schooling, or she’ll ask me to remove the lunge line one lesson. Then in a couple of months struggling to canter will be a distant memory!

I always find it very satisfying when I work out how a horse and rider ticks, and which coaching methods will best help them achieve their goals.

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