Teaching Outside The Box

I had been doing some gridwork with a young pony clubber who’s pony is pretty fast to a fence, with a choppy stride and tends to get very close to the jump. Over a couple of lessons we’d used canter poles and raised canter poles on a grid to improve their rhythm and subsequently the pony jumped out of a much better canter – a consistent rhythm and a better length of stride – with a neater bascule. But towards the end of each session we had a blip. My rider stopped riding so positively; she turned her pony out of the jump, and then in the last lesson flatly refused to do the same exercise which she’d already done perfectly.

It was that last one where my rider left her lesson unhappy and I was equally unhappy for a number of reasons. I was puzzled. I was disappointed in myself for not managing to give her a good time. I was frustrated that we had had the desired results, and then it had seemingly all unravelled without me dropping the reel. I did lots of reflection on the way home, and after a long chat with my rider’s Mum afterwards I started to understand the situation, and could make a plan to get out of it.

My rider told her Mum that she got confused by the poles, and couldn’t work out how to ride each pole individually. This is, so I’ve learnt in my research, a trait of some on the autism spectrum. They can’t see the picture as a whole, but tend to focus too much on the little details. I can only relate it to a photo mosaic jigsaw I once had. When you stood back, it was an image of a lion, but when you looked closely you saw it was made up of lots of small images of lions. My rider couldn’t see the main image. This led to her literally trying to ride every pole as a separate element. I did some research into teaching children with autism to look for ideas or explanations which might help my rider, who whilst isn’t autistic seems to interpret gridwork in a different way to most people. There I was told that they can often become upset by patterns or colours, so I decided to ensure I used muted poles in matching pairs to hopefully reduce any sensory overload my rider was having when faced with a line of poles.

I made the most detailed lesson plan I’ve ever done when getting ready for her next lesson, to make sure I had some different explanations, several ideas and back up plans. I was actually a bit nervous, because I felt I’d let her down last time.

Once she’d warmed up and I’d put a pile of poles and jumps in the middle of the school, I brought her into the middle and talked to her. I talked to her like she was nineteen, not nine, or however old she is. I mean, only she knows exactly what’s going on in her head, and I needed her to be able to explain it to me. She needed to feel comfortable talking to me, and one way of ensuring this with children is to give them respect and talk to them as adults. I told her that we were going to play around with poles and jumps, and if anything made her worried, or confused, then she had to tell me immediately and I would remove it. I wanted her to understand what we were doing, why we were doing it, and to gauge her triggers for becoming overwhelmed.

Then I asked her what her job was when jumping. She listed lots of things – jumping position, not pulling her pony in the mouth, getting straight, riding to the middle. Then I asked her what her pony’s job was. She answered that it was to go over the poles and jumps. So I simplified things. Yes, she needs to do all the details she mentioned, but they’re becoming autonomic now she’s more experienced. The important thing for my rider to remember is that her job is to organise them both on the approach and getaway to and from a jump. Her pony’s job was to jump the jump.

We started cantering over a single pole on the floor with jump wings. We discussed canter rhythm and straightness. Then I put out four cones. Two on either side of the jump, about a stride from take off. As she cantered between each pair of cones they signified the point where her pony took charge, and where she took charge again.

With this “zone” in place, my rider could focus on riding a straight approach, picking up canter and keeping it steady, and stopped thinking too hard about the jump as it was in her pony’s zone. Then afterwards she regrouped easily. Of course, a single pole and then a single jump was well within her comfort zone and not something that usually overwhelms her. But that was the point, I wanted her to focus on the transfer of responsibility between herself and her pony.

Once they were jumping the single fence well, and you could see that already the pony wasn’t getting quite so deep into the jump, I added in a second fence, four strides away. I wanted to give them enough space between the jumps that they could easily be separate elements. I made a zone around that jump too. And discussed with my rider that between the zones she needed to sit up and steady the canter as it was her area of responsibility, and given the pony’s love of jumping, we always need to be careful of not going too fast. The jumps stayed within her comfort zone as I got them riding through the related distance, keeping our focus on the zones.

This seemed to be working quite well, so I started talking to my rider about the reason we use the poles. Theoretically, we’ve already discussed it whilst building the grid, but I wanted her to understand the purpose of using poles. She could remember the feel of the canter rhythm over the poles, and was trying to replicate it without the poles. We then discussed her pony’s balance. My rider could feel that the canter was less bouncy and uphill without the poles to help, and whilst their jumping was better, they were still getting a bit deep into the fences.

I suggested putting a placing pole in front of the jump, and my client agreed. Once the pole was down, I emphasised how it was still within her pony’s zone. She seemed happy, and although their first go was a little hesitant, she seemed to understand and not be fazed by the additional pole. Once she’d ridden it a few times I could see her visible relaxing and then they got a better take off point. My rider could feel the benefit of having the pole.

We progressed to having a placing pole in front of the second fence too, and my rider rode really positively and confidently. Their striding wasn’t quite perfect between the fences, so the second didn’t feel quite as nice as the first, but it was definite progress towards a steadier, rhythmical canter and improved shape over the jump. The important part being that my rider understood the benefits of using poles, could manage the exercise and didn’t get overwhelmed.

I was really pleased with how the lesson developed; I think the key points to focus on are keeping the zones, and building exercises as we go. With the majority of riders, you lay the exercise out and build it progressively upwards (one jump, two jump etc etc), but with this young rider I think it’s best to start with nothing and introduce a pole at a time, ensuring it’s within the pony’s zone. I do think over a few months we will get to a point where we can use a small number of poles to help create and improve their canter rhythm in a related distance and not overload her. The important thing is to listen to her and respect her emotions and feedback so that she continues to progress and stays confident.

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