Control

At the Pony Club conference I attended in February I picked up lots of useful hints and tips. One useful thing that Paul Tapner said, was that when he was young and went off to be taught by top level instructors for months at a time he would put aside everything that he knew and unquestioningly lap up everything he was told. He wouldn’t forget his previous knowledge, but it was filed away until after the training when he would piece together all of his knowledge. When teaching, you want your students to do exactly what you say, not harp back to what a previous adult has told them because it may not be an appropriate tactic or exercise for that day. I took that approach with the conference, writing down everything that was said, regardless of my initial reaction. Later, I could reflect on my notes and use my previous knowledge and experience to develop my own opinion and approach. For example, I liked the fact that when the demo riders (all Pony Clubbers) were told to halt they did immediately. This has safety benefits and shows respect for their instructor, but I didn’t like how it caused them to pull hard on the reins in an attempt to get a direct transition. So I will try a modified approach when I next teach a group of children.

Anyway, one quote which I’ve taken from the beginning of the day is:

It is the coach’s job to control the rider and the rider’s job to control the pony.

Basically, when you learn to ride you learn to control your horse or pony, be it at the lowest level of steering around the edge of an arena, keeping in trot, or at the highest level of controlling the size of circles, pirouettes, degree of lateral movements, and the precise speed of the gaits. At whatever level I’m teaching at, if the rider can perform an exercise or movement competently, they have mastered control at that level.

I taught a new rider this week, only a little girl, with her own pony. She’s had trouble learning to canter, is now feeling nervous and has had a couple of gentle tumbles to boot.

I started her off in walk and trot, assessing her steering and knowledge of school movements, trot diagonals, changesof rein etc, and her pony was very sweet. Forwards but without being sharp, but as we went through the warm up the pony started getting faster and doing a turbo trot. It wasn’t an accelerating movement, just a huge striding gait with a set neck. Then of course, her rider began to get worried. She told me that the reason she didn’t like cantering was because of the speed.

It struck me that the crux of their problem is that the rider doesn’t feel in control of her pony, and therefore lacks confidence and doesn’t feel safe, and the pony (whilst not being naughty) was taking the opportunity to take control of the speed.

I brought them into the middle of the school and put her stirrups up a hole to give her leg a bit more security and so she had something to brace her feet against when we did step two. I then explained to her how to squeeze and release the reins rather than take a static pull so her pony didn’t lean on her hands. Finally, I showed her how to bend her elbows and use her shoulders and upper body to half halt down the reins, and to stabilise her upper body. As with a lot of people, when a pony pulls down the arms go forward, elbows straighten, and upper body tips forward. This is not a strong position, and the pony has the upper hand. By using her upper body to support her rein aids the pony cannot pull her forwards and put her position into jeopardy. Because the pony is not going to like this new, stronger approach from her rider, she will argue for a few strides, which is where the slightly shorter stirrups will help keep her rider in place. I put in some trigger words; “strong tummy”, “squeeze, release” and “elbows” so that I could quickly correct my rider and help her regain control because each phrase meant an action to her.

My rider asked to go on the lunge, so I obliged, if only that knowing I was at the end of the lunge line gave her the confidence to stand her ground with her slowing aids. We talked about how their normal trot was a level five, and a slow trot was a level four, whilst turbo trot was a six. We wanted a five trot, or sometimes a four, the majority of the time.

She set off in trot, and in all fairness to her, the lunge line was slack as I didn’t really need to do anything. The pony went off into a five trot, so we practiced her strong tummy and squeezing rein aids to slow to a four trot. The pony tried to set against her rider but once she realised she wasn’t going to budge, the pony came back nicely to her. We did this transition a couple of times and then the pony decided to turbo trot. But my rider reacted quicker to the acceleration, so nipping it in the bud, and become she gave firmer, more decisive aids, after a few her pony came back nicely. We repeated this on the lunge in both directions and once my rider had earnt her pony’s respect, she got a reaction from her first, milder aid.

As my rider started to feel in control, she grew in confidence and happily agreed to canter on the lunge. Although the pony doesn’t tank off in the canter, she has a big stride and it can feel uncontrolled to someone not yet in sync with her, so I needed to know that my rider felt she could stop her pony at any time. Without hanging off her mouth of course! I ran through the downwards aids and then they cantered. I didn’t have to do anything in the middle, and after a few transitions back to trot my rider began to feel more comfortable about cantering and could start to relax.

To finish the lesson, they went off the lunge and practiced riding with a strong tummy and firm, clear rein aids, using her upper body to support. The pony anticipated cantering, tried to turbo trot, but my rider applied her aids and sat perfectly upright and balanced until her pony came back to her in a few strides. We used transitions within trot to improve control, and within minutes her pony had stopped testing her, instead responding to her first aid.

This meant that my rider could ride a more energetic trot without the speed, and relaxed into her riding. She felt in control.

Of course, they’re going to have to repeat this conversation a few times for the pony to really accept her newly bossy rider, and for this little girl to learn to correct their speed before it reaches turbo level. And for it to become second nature. Having a contingency plan as well as buzz words really help build confidence and make a proactive rider. We might not have got her cantering independently, but I’m sure she will once she feels that she’s in full control.

Mud! Mud! Glorious Mud!

With yet another storm about to hit Britain, we have had the wettest winter since, well, forever! But what does all this rain mean for our horses?

I feel very lucky in that Otis’s field has minimal mud, so he and his friends have been happy all winter, with no concern about mud fever, tendon injury etc. Phoenix’s field isn’t so good, but even so it’s only pastern deep at the gateway. Some fields are knee deep in mud, and only last week I saw horses being evacuated from their field which was so submerged that only the top rail of fencing was visible!

So what problems are you likely to encounter with muddy fields? Firstly, the obvious problem of mud fever. Some horses are more susceptible to it than others, and once a horse has had mud fever they are more likely to get it again. How can you prevent mud fever? How long is a piece of string?

The bacteria involved in mud fever thrive on damp, warm conditions. For example, a muddy field! The best preventative is to avoid the muddy field, but this winter it is nigh on impossible. So drying the legs regularly, giving time off the mud is important. I don’t think horses with heavy feathering should have their legs clipped as it gives some protection, however if they develop mud fever it can be hard to treat with all the hair.

The next big problem that I’ve seen a lot of these last few months are field injuries. Either pulled tendons from the deep going, or slip injuries where a horse loses their footing and jars themselves, or they slide over in the field, or they do the splits. The injuries associated with slippery ground can affect the muscles of the back, hindquarters, shoulders or legs. Basically all over! In particular, the sacroiliac area is often damaged by horses slipping around, and pulling themselves through deep, heavy mud. The only real preventative is to avoid the deep going in the first place, but if you can’t then sectioning off the deepest area of the field, for example the gateway, so that at least the horses aren’t trotting or cantering through the deep mud. Checking legs daily for any signs of heat or swelling, and if your horse starts to behave abnormally (such as today’s client who fidgeted and fussed when I put the saddle on, and we believe he’s tweaked his back) then rest them and call the physiotherapist, chiropractor or whoever usually manipulates your horse. They will identify sore spots and be able to ease it if it’s been caught early enough, or refer to the vet for further diagnosis.

Some yards have stopped turn out completely for the moment, and it’s a hard balance to find between looking after the land and not wrecking it for spring, and ensuring the horses stay emotionally happy and healthy. I think it’s a balance between exercising horses sufficiently that they do not feel the need to gallop around their fields, so doing more damage to the land, and if they are staying in that day they they get out for a leg stretch at least twice. And not having miserable horses standing all day in the mud because if they’re standing there miserably, they might as well be standing in their stable! I’ve found that letting your horse guide you is the best; yesterday I rode first thing in the sleet and Phoenix didn’t seem overly keen to go out, so I gave her some hay and left her munching for an hour while I rode another horse, and likewise if she’s standing at the gate at 2pm there’s no point leaving her there for another 3 hours.

What can we learn from this winter for the future, in terms of your routine, or field management? Firstly it’s important to be critical of yourself: is your winter grazing the driest bit of land? And if not, change it! Winter grazing needs to have good drainage; it could be your most uphill piece of land, or have empty ditches on the perimeter to aid drainage. The type of grass also is important too, but I’m no expert on field management so I’ll leave that subject before I get in too deep. Could your gateways be improved? By laying hardcore if possible, or those grass mats. Is the gate in the best place? Can you use two gateways to reduce footfall and damage to the gateway and to reduce the likelihood of horses standing at the gateway expecting their next feed.

Next, it’s important to consider which horses you have in the paddock. Big horses, or heavy horses do more damage to the land because they sink down into the mud, so destabilising the land. Small, finer ponies do less damage, so they might be better in your field which doesn’t drain as well. The number of horses is also important to consider. There’s the guideline of one acre per horse, but this acre must be very fertile, have good grass and sward, and only have a 14.2hh grazing it. Who probably lives in overnight. Bigger horses need more space, and when there’s less grazing because of the time of year and the mud horses in general need more space. So if you have five acres, you don’t really want any more that two big horses in, or four small ponies in winter. The ratio may need to change in the spring and summer as ponies notoriously need less grass to avoid laminitis, in which case you might put those four ponies onto three acres, and those two big horses onto four acres. Roughly speaking anyway. The moral of the story is to have the ratio right for winter and adjust it accordingly in the summer, rather than have too many equines for your space in the winter.

I think everyone has some lessons to learn from this winter about preparing and managing their fields ready for next year, and we’ll all be busy come the spring repairing the damage to our winter paddocks; be it blown over fencing from the high winds, or the fact that fields more closely resemble a ploughed field than a grazing area. It’s been a tough winter for all horse owners, but we should try to take the problems of this year on board so that we can make improvements for next year.

Ear Warmers

The last few weeks have been so windy I’ve been very grateful for a couple of little cloth triangles which I found at the back of one of my clothes drawers a few months ago.

A couple of Christmases ago I was given a pair of ear warmers from a friend. They are small tweed triangles with Velcro on. In all honesty, I dismissed them a bit when first given them, but when I rediscovered them I thought I’d give them a try.

The triangles attach to the harness of your helmet, covering your ears. However, they don’t cover your ears at the expense of your hearing. You can still hear clearly, do not feel claustrophobic, and haven’t got your vision limited. I’ve been wearing them all winter and have really noticed over the last couple of weeks whilst riding in the blasting, icy wind. My cheeks and ears aren’t at all wind burnt. They are quite discreet too, and being colourful tweed quite stylish too.

These ear warmers aren’t the cheapest of items, but as they fasten securely and will stay on all winter (although perhaps I should take them off when competing!) I imagine they’ll last for many years.

The ear warmers can be bought online from https://www.comfyhorse.co.uk/product/harris-tweed-riding-hat-ear-muffs/. I’ve been so impressed with my ear warmers that I bought some pairs for friends at Christmas.

The Art of Repetition

I’m working with a client who’s teaching a green horse to jump. The mare is quite happy over simple crosses and uprights, so we’re at the stage that she needs to learn to read the question with simple exercises and start knowing where she’s putting her feet before we progress to more complicated shaped jumps or grids or distances. I want her to be cleverer about getting to the jump, going over, and getting away from the jump so that we create an intelligent jumper, rather one that is over reliant on her rider or one who wings it each time.

Last lesson I set up two jumps, three strides apart. Starting with poles on the floor, I had them trot then canter over the poles from each direction. I’m looking for the horse to maintain her rhythm, forwardsness and confidence towards the poles. Most green horses will alter their gait as they look cautiously and assess the question. We want a horse to be able to quickly and correctly assess the jump in question so they are best able to clear it comfortably. As she is inexperienced with poles, I’d expect her to back off the poles slightly.

This is when there’s an art to knowing how many times to repeat an exercise. I want an exercise repeated enough times that the horse and rider are confident and competent through it, but I don’t want to repeat it so that they become complacent. It’s exactly the same with flat exercises as jump exercises. I also want to repeat the exercise enough times that it proves it’s not a fluke. I went to a demo with Paul Tapner this week and his rule is that he wants an exercise performed “twice, nice” to prove the first wasn’t a fluke, and to ensure the lesson stays progressive. To an extent, I agree, but I often find a third repetition really useful for cementing the learning.

Anyway, with this mare, I wanted to repeat each stage just enough times that she proved she was happy with the question. She only needed to trot over the poles twice in each direction to become consistent from A to B. Cantering over the poles, she did it perhaps three times in total on each rein. The first time she wobbled and fell into a bit of a heap, and then she sorted her legs out.

Once I was happy with her at this stage I made the second element a cross pole. A height within her comfort zone, but the question had changed. I wasn’t looking to challenge her jumping ability, but rather her ability to judge the jump and get it right first time. I think it was a bit of a mess first time round, as she slowed to look at it, wobbled and the launched over it. The second time was better, and she got it the third.

So I changed the question, putting the first cross up. This time, her first attempt was better and she didn’t back off to study the jumps. Rinse and repeat until she understood.

Then I changed direction, and I was pleased that she reached stage two quicker and seemingly more confident.

I was rattling through the stages but without rushing the mare. Previously, we’ve repeated the exercise more times than necessary to build muscle memory, confidence and practice. Now, I wanted her to complete a task well a couple of times and then move on. But I needed her to achieve the previous stage and be confident about it before moving on otherwise she will lose confidence later on.

Once the mare had negotiated the cross poles I changed the shapes of the jumps. Making one jump an upright, then once this successfully negotiated, the other one too. Then we changed the rein and had the upright first and cross pole second. And then changed it round.

I was pleased that the mare began confidently taking her rider into each set-up, unfazed when the jumps changed. Of course, she was still green and put in the odd wobble and didn’t always get a good take off spot. But that will come as her canter develops and with future sessions to improve her straightness and rhythm. The important thing was that she wasn’t backing off the jumps when they changed.

To finish the session, I steadily built the second jump into an oxer; by putting an upright behind the cross, so that it was inviting and my rider could continue aiming for the centre easily.

I feel it’s important to teach horses to read and process simple jump exercises quickly when training them so that they learn to think for themselves and adjust their canter and bascule as appropriate. I think a horse’s ability to adapt to new jump exercises is related to their confidence, which is why I wouldn’t move onto the next phase before the horse is competent at the previous one. One horse which I ride always backs off an exercise the first time, even when the jump has only changed by a small amount. We’ve worked a lot on progressing exercises steadily and repeating the exercise twice from the off and he is less sticky the first time now, but his general confidence over jumps is also improving.

Building a horse’s confidence when jumping is related to the number of times they have repeated am exercise – it’s a big circle! And I stick to the theory that a horse needs to repeat the exercise until they have done it well two or three times, but have not started to become complacent or anticipate the exercise with detrimental effects. There’s no point mindlessly repeating an exercise with no improvement. Changing it, however slight, will keep both horse and rider thinking about the job in hand.

The Island of Comfort

I have this theory, or metaphor, about comfort zones which I use a lot when working with riders and horses who are not the most confident.

I tend to think of someone’s comfort zone as an island. It may be round, elongated, any shape really, because we know our confidences are not always logical or predictable. At the beginning of a lesson or relationship with a rider or horse of low esteem I aim to get them confident and happy on their island. I explore the perimeter of their island, by chatting about goals, previous experiences, and using exercises to gauge their attitude, actual ability and perceived ability.

Once I begin to get a grasp on what makes them tick, I start to expand this island. Depending on the rider’s personality, learning style, level of nerves or confidence, I lead them to the perimeter, or shore line on the island, and get them to dip their toes in. I aim for them to get their feet wet and slowly the tide goes out, so the island gets bigger as their comfort zone increases.

Often, I set up an exercise which is fairly straightforward initially, and well within their comfort zone. Once horse and rider know where they are going and are riding it well, I start to layer the exercise. Depending on the difference between their perceived ability and actual ability, I will make the exercise appropriately harder. That may be introducing a transition, adding in lateral movements, increasing the gait, increasing the frequency of movements. Because we develop the exercise slowly and steadily, I usually find that my rider achieves much more than they expect they will and finishes their session on a confidence high.

Whilst my aim when working with nervous riders is to push them outside their comfort zones and to improve their confidence levels; I think it’s so important to respect when the rider says “no” or “that’s enough for today”. After all, everyone is different and if they feel they have achieved sufficient for that session, or want to go away, bottling their current feeling of elation and reflect on what they’ve achieved then so be it. After all, often it is better to take two small steps into the shallows and stand there enjoying the view, then take a further step and hit sinking sand.

Besides, I’m nudging my riders out of their comfort zones with my support, not throwing them in the deep end and hoping that they will swim and not sink. Half of the secret in developing someone’s confidence and increasing their island is giving them respect and increasing their self-esteem.

A Change of Lifestyle

One of my client’s ponies has always struggled with her weight. She has too much of it!

They were doing everything right; soaking her hay, minimal hard feed, exercise, restricted grazing, but after an injury and enforced rest over the summer this plump pony was even plumper!

We started her rehab, and although she started to lose a bit of weight but then she plateaued and as winter approached it was a stalemate. Something had to change before spring, when she might actually explode on the sugary grass!

The mare needed more exercise; canter work specifically but in order to do that post injury she needed a different arena surface to work on, and it being winter they needed more dark evening friendly facilities. So they found another yard, with an arena that wasn’t as deep as her current one, and with very good floodlighting, which meant she could be ridden every evening, and the work could be faster and more intensive. More polework and jumping could then be reintroduced. With faster workouts, and more frequent ones, she will increase in muscle tone, posture, and burn off fat.

Her routine was also changed as they went onto a DIY yard, so she was turned out earlier in the morning and caught in later. This totals an extra three hours out in the field. This might not be so great in spring or summer, but on a winter paddock it’s three hours more of wandering around, nibbling at grass, rather than those three hours spent stationary, demolishing a haynet. This means she requires less soaked hay as her nights are shorter, and I think it’s had a surprisingly strong effect on her losing weight.

With the change of yard there is of course a change in the hay and type of grass in the paddocks. The grazing is slightly poorer, but this suits a good doer, and has a higher percentage of grass in it rather than her previous field, which had a lot of clover in. Clover is rich in nitrogen and very fattening. I think this will have more of an impact in the spring and summer. I think the hay the little mare is now fed is of a similar nutritional value to before, and it is still soaked overnight so I don’t think the forage has affected her weight.

In the two months since moving to their new yard, the pony has become much fitter, improved muscle tone, and has improved in posture, which will hopefully mean that she is less likely to injure herself. Her good muscles have improved, so she has a topline. The weight has literally dropped off her; she’s gone from the bottom hole on each side of the girth to top hole and it still being loose!

Before Christmas…
… today.

I find it amazing the way a couple of changes – increased workload and reduced time chomping in the stable – have had such a huge impact on this mare’s weight. I feel much happier heading into spring with her and less concerned about laminitis, as I feel we will be able to control her weight more easily. I also think that she will be finding the ridden work far easier carrying less weight,which will only improve her performance.

It does make you realise that if you struggle to get the weight off your horse then increasing workload and increasing turnout on minimal grazing but plenty of space, is paramount to the weight loss journey.

The Wise Man

The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …

I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.

If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.

My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.

For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.

It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.

Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?

Improving Joint Stability

Everyone has been doing the single pole challenge this week, where you try to halt your horse astride a single pole. It reminded me of an in hand exercise I saw last year at a demo and have subsequently used it in groundwork.

But there’s no reason why it can’t be ridden! So I challenged a couple of my clients this week to have a go, and it’s been fascinating to watch from the ground.

With the pole to step over, it’s very easy to see any discrepancies between a horse’s limb movements. With one horse in particular I found it enlightening.
He has a weaker right hind, which sometimes comes up short until he warms up and starts using his back. I’ve always thought his right rein is weaker because the inside hind is his right leg, but then I think that his leg yield to the left is better than his leg yield to the right. Watching this horse sidestepping over the poles, I noticed that he adducts his right hind easily, but finds it difficult to abduct it, usually knocking the pole or not taking the leg away from his body as much as he does with the left hind leg.

That means that leg yielding to the right is harder for him because his right hind is weaker in the abducting muscles. I think the whole leg was generally a bit weaker, or lazier, than the left, but as we’ve focused on strengthening it we’ve built up those muscles involved in moving the right hind towards the body, and now I need to find some exercises which will help strengthen and increase movement of the leg away from the body.

The Rubber Curry Comb

Remember I went to the Horses Inside Out conference in September? I’ve recently used yet another exercise that I picked up from that informative day, to help improve stability and flexibility.

At the conference, we learnt that whilst it’s important to improve the flexibility of our horses it’s also important to consider joint stability. If we only focus on our horse’s suppleness in one direction then the joints lose stability because the muscles around the joint in the other directions are weaker, which makes the horse more prone to injury from hyperflexion.

By working horses in a variety of ways and directions we improve the strength and range of movement of their limbs. Lateral work is perhaps the most obvious way of increasing a joint’s range of movement.

In the horse’s legs, it is only the shoulder and hip joints which are capable of adduction and abduction of the limbs…

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Arc of Poles

I only ever blog about exercises or lesson subjects which I feel have gone particularly well, would benefit others, and require a more in-depth explanation. A few of my clients will recognise this exercise from the last couple of weeks.

Riding trot and canter poles in a straight line is fairly, well straightforward, but putting them onto a curve makes it trickier, and is useful for highlighting a horse’s strengths and weaknesses. Using a twenty metre circle, I laid three or five trot poles on the curve, with the middle of each pole the correct distance for that horse’s working trot.

Firstly, I like to work a horse on both reins over the curve of poles. Having to increase the cadence of the inside hind requires a greater degree of balance, and if a horse finds this difficult then they may well drift out on the curve. At this point, it is really useful to compare the two reins to see if one is significantly easier than the other. Riding the curves and exaggerating the stride and push from the inside hind starts to improve the quality of the trot around the rest of the arena, and circles feel easier and more balanced.

I like to use the poles to improve medium and collected trot, by riding a smaller and larger arc. The poles encourage the strides to be adjusted and consistent over the poles, whilst the engagement of the inside hind leg encourages a lightness of the forehand. I used this exercise to good result with a duo, which really helped the balance of their medium trot and for the first time my rider felt the lengthening of her mare’s stride without an increase in speed or loss of balance onto the forehand.

For those horses who tend to fall into their inside shoulder on circles raising the inner end of the pole can really help them. If they have to lift their inside foreleg higher over the raised pole then they are less likely to load that limb. It almost acts like a jack, propping up the inside shoulder. The horse will feel more level, with vertical balance, as a result, and is then able to give a more through bend around the rest of the arena.

Raising the poles helps strengthen and increase the suppleness of the inside hind leg. It is also very beneficial to improving the stability of the pelvis because of the increased range of movement in the hips, so is very useful for horses coming back into work, mares after a pregnancy, and those with hindquarter asymmetry and muscle atrophy.

Next up, is canter poles, which is very useful for reinforcing a three beat rhythm, increasing the cadence of the inside hind, and creating a more uphill canter. A lot of horses will jump the raised poles, or try to canter a straight line across the poles. However, once the horse relaxes through their rib cage, they will find it easier and be able to maintain their curving line over the poles.

I find this exercise very useful for improving a horse’s vertical balance so that they feel more level, strengthening and suppling them, and getting them to work into a even contact with a bend throughout their whole body, which improves their general gait in terms of stride length, cadence, engagement of the haunches and lightens the forehand. Plus, it’s a fun exercise for both horse and rider!

Stepping It Up

I did quite a lot of adventuring in the autumn with Phoenix, of all disciplines to give her more experience, but the wet ground cut it short and with Christmas getting out and about went on the back burner a bit. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though, as it gives you time to focus on stepping up a level. Which is what I’ve been doing.

The flatwork side of things I’m slowly introducing novice movements, letting Phoenix think that they’re her idea. Medium trot is coming along nicely, she reins back well, direct transitions between halt and trot are sussed. It’s the dreaded walk to canter which keeps upsetting our canter work which is holding us back at the moment.

On the jumping side, I’ve done a lot of work on the canter and just before Christmas jump schooled her at a lovely, local venue. Through the autumn she was doing the 70cm and 80cm class so that she had a warm up before her level of jumping. However, now a 70cm course involves speed as she overreacts to my aids and is overly confident. Sure she goes clear, but it doesn’t feel controlled or like I have any say in how we go. In December, after jumping a course of 80cm I put the jumps up to 90-95cm. Then, it got interesting. Phoenix backed off the jumps, not enough that it all went wrong, but she had to think about the fences, and then she let me help her out. I could balance the canter and apply the leg on the approach. There were a couple of green errors, a pole down, the odd stop when she didn’t quite have the right canter and take off spot. But nothing unexplainable, and I found that I preferred the feel I had around a bigger course. It was time to step up a level!

With Christmas and the EHV outbreak over, I’m planning Phoenix’s adventures over the next few months. We’ve entered a combined training in a couple of weeks – a pre-novice dressage test and 85cm course. But the next showjumping competition I have in the diary has classes of 70,80,90cm. The first option is too simple for Phoenix, but the 90cm seems like such a jump up. I mean, she’s only jumped a couple of courses at that height non-competitively. Would I be throwing her into the deep end and creating a problem for myself if she scrambles round and loses her confidence?

When I take Phoenix jump schooling I try to go with a companion who will push me without pressure. Who will encourage the jumps to be raised appropriately, but doesn’t apply peer pressure to push us beyond our limits. I think this is really important for ensuring sessions are positive, confidence building, yet progressive.

For some reason, the 90cm class seems more daunting than when I entered Phoenix into her first 80cm. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not regularly jumped her at that height or higher, or perhaps it’s because it’s been almost four years since I was seriously jumping with Otis. And that was completely different: I was younger, had less to lose if it went wrong, was much more confident, knew Otis inside out, etc. I think there’s an element of my nerves as much as anything.

I want to step up a level with Phoenix, so before I made a decision, I decided to take Phoenix schooling again, with the aim of testing both of us around a bigger course to see how she coped and whether I felt that I was ready to give her the support that she needed round a bigger course. After all, it’s counter productive to wing it and get around a course by the skin of our teeth, than to give ourselves another few weeks of schooling at that level. Phoenix warmed up a little wildly over some smaller fences, doing her usual trick of ignoring my half halts and balancing aids and rushing to the fences. So after riding a course of 80-85cm, we built the jumps up so that they were 95cm high and the full width.

I was very pleased with how she jumped. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, she got a bit fast and flat on a related distance and took down the back rail, and we ended on a half stride to the final jump so just brought it down. But she felt powerful, confident, and jumped the height with ease, they were just errors which won’t happen with more experience. And when I rode the fences we’d faulted at again, she jumped them easily. So, decision made, we’re doing our first 90cm class at the end of the month, which should be fine with a warm up competition in the meantime. Wish us luck!