The Way The Mane Lies

I read a really interesting article about what the lay of the mane tells you about a horse’s body.

In a nutshell, a foal is curled inside the womb either to the left or to the right. The side they curl to is their naturally more bendy side before undergoing training (as don’t forget that a lot of training focuses on straightness) and this is also the way their mane falls. The mane, so long as it’s not trained to lay on the offside because it’s more traditional, falls to the side the horse bends more easily to, even over bending in some instances. It’s to do with muscle fascia, but I’m afraid that’s getting far too complicated for my little brain to comprehend so for that information I’d recommend asking a physio or Google.

I had never heard of this before, having just presumed horses who’s manes fell left were the left handers of the equine world. Phoenix’s mane falls left and I hadn’t even made the connection between her softer left rein and more resistant right rein.

After reading this article, which you can find here I started to pay attention to all the horses I see and their manes. Of course my observations are limited by the fact that we still subconsciously lay the mane right, and neck rugs compound this laying, so like a lot of lefties, left lay manes can often pass as right lay manes. This limits my observations a bit, but when grooming Phoenix s couple of weeks ago I had a light bulb moment.

She doesn’t wear a rug at the moment and her mane has gone from a very definite left lay, to sitting either left or right with minimal effort and if anything going upright or favouring lying to the right. It’s almost as though her mane has been blow dried to increase the volume by encouraging the roots to stand up. Ladies, you’ll understand what I mean. Before it was very flat to her crest. Thinking about her current way of going, she is much straighter and stronger so presumably the improvement in her muscle tone and strength is causing her mane to change it’s lay. It will be interesting to see whether it stays right, upright, or reverts left as she continues to develop.

I asked a friend who’s a physiotherapist for her opinion on mane lay. Apparently it’s quite common for a young horse’s mane to switch sides as they go through their training and favour one bend more than the other. Additionally, sometimes half the mane flips sides, which indicates neck dysfunction, and the muscles working incorrectly.

In this not particularly brilliant photo of Phoenix you can see that her mane is very much undecided which way it wants to go, and you can see the shorter part of her mane at the bottom goes fairly straight up.

I would say that observing the way the mane lies is not a foolproof way of identifying their supple side, because heavy breeds offen have so much mane it has to part down the middle, and rugs with necks encourage the mane onto one side or the other, and some people put a lot of effort into training the mane onto the off side. However, during a schooling session the mane will usually try to revert to it’s natural lay, as I observed whilst teaching last night. But having an understanding for the mane lay and the possible effect on the horse’s way of going, hopefully you can use your observations to successfully feed back into your training plan.

Canter Exercises with Groups

I’ve been doing quite a lot of Pony Club teaching recently, and have been playing around with canter exercises which can be done individually so that the ponies get a breather but without boring the rider’s who’s turn it is.

I’ve developed several layers to the exercise so that I can use it with all abilities and riders can see their progression. Ultimately, I’ve borrowed the basis of these exercises from my childhood instructor.

The first exercise is to have the ride in halt on the long side of the arena and one at a time, having them canter to the rear of the ride. This is aimed at the rider staying in control, learning to sit to the canter, and keeping their pony on the outside track. It’s a good exercise for those just learning to canter. Sometimes I tell them the letter which they are going to canter, and the letter where they need to be trotting. This tests their accuracy and starts to focus them on riding the transition rather than just kicking and praying.

Sometimes, like today, I have a keen, unruly pony who likes to take control of the situation. Or I have a rider who merrily canters around in dreamland and I need to keep their focus, I make this exercise more challenging. They have to ride four transitions on their lap of the arena – for example, trot to canter at E, trot at A, canter at B and trot at F. This keeps the ponies switched on, usually improves their canter transitions because the pony is more forwards, and helps a rider begin to feel more in control. Plus the short canters means a pony can’t get too quick!

If I have a big ride, or they are more in control, or it’s a cold day, I will keep the ride in walk instead of halt. This also means the riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t bomb up the back of the ride and can ensure a correct strike off.

A development of cantering to the rear of the ride, is putting in a circle. Again, I have the ride halted on the track about M, for example, and individually they have to go into trot, trot a 20m circle at A before picking up canter between A and F and cantering to the rear of the ride. The circle is a good test of control as ponies will try to nap back to the ride, and if the rider doesn’t plan their circle it ends up rather egg shaped. Once the circle is established in trot, I get riders to make a canter transition over X, building up to cantering the whole circle. Easier said than done as many ponies are indoctrinated to canter a straight line near the outside track so resist a rider’s plea to turn across the arena.

When riders are more established but for whatever reason I don’t want to canter them all together, I will keep the ride trotting and have them individually set off into canter. This tests the second horse as much as anything as they may try to follow the leader. It also gives other riders chance to be lead file. Having the ride trotting means a longer canter, and if building a ride up to cantering as a group a second rider can be sent off into canter before the first has reached the rear of the ride.

A particularly tricky exercise, which tests the use of the outside leg, is to have the ride walking large, and the leader canter large around the arena before passing the ride on the inside and cantering a second lap. Again, this is great for nappy ponies, and keeps a rider focused while cantering. It can be made harder by having the ride trotting instead of walking.

By the time a young rider can do all of these exercises independently in a balanced, rhythmical canter, I would be confident that they can hold their own working in canter in open order, and that they have full control of their pony. It helps when looking at jumping too, because they’ll be able to ride balanced turns in canter, their pony will be less inclined to nap and more responsive to the aids. Which leads to a fluid, balanced approach to a jump which will give them a higher success rate.

Exercise Boots

Otis wore protective boots for all forms of exercise, but in the last couple of years I’ve done a complete U-turn on my approach to leg protection.

It started when I was doing in hand and lunging work with Phoenix whilst heavily pregnant. She was barefoot and a clean mover and not in hard work. Plus I could hardly bend down to put boots on her. Then I just progressed to riding without brushing boots.

I put them on when we jump or go cross country, but as she’s still barefoot and shows no signs of knocking herself I haven’t used boots or bandages for the majority of her work.

My reason for moving away from leg protection was mainly the research that was coming to light about the problems caused by boots warming up tendons and having a negative effect on their tensile strength.

And I was quite happy with this simpler approach to riding, and confident in my reasoning. Until recently.

During lockdown Phoenix has progressed in her flatwork and is now working on collection, half pass in trot and canter, walk pirouettes, as well as doing direct transitions as the norm. I’ve recently started doubting my logic. But it’s a minefield nowadays trying to find the right leg protection.

The big downside to leg protection is that it heats up the legs so reduces rge functionality of the tendons. So boots need to be as lightweight and breathable as possible. However, the lighter the material, the less protection the boots will provide.

I wrestled with the pros and cons for each argument but finally decided that I’d never forgive myself if Phoenix knocked herself whilst dancing, causing a wound that would have been protected by lightweight boots.

The expert guidance on the subject of leg protection now is that they should only be on for the minimal length of time, should be as breathable as possible, and the legs should be cooled as quickly as possible after work. I also learnt a lot about the type of boots. A lot of dressage wraps are marketed as “supportive” but in reality, they offer very little support. And you don’t necessarily want support because if you restrict the movement of the fetlock the forces are transmitted to another joint in the leg, which could cause more injury. In terms of protection, boots either provide an armour like protection to stop injury from sharp objects, and others dissipate shock forces of a strike or impact. No boot does both forms of protection. For my situation, I want softer boots which won’t stop wounds from sharp objects but will reduce the effect of a knock as Phoenix is learning to dance Valegro style.

I’m still very much on the fence about using leg protection on a daily basis, because it isn’t a straightforward decision as we were taught a decade ago, but owners and riders have to weigh up the benefits of providing protection with the effect of heating up and weakening the tendons. And once your decision is made there is the challenge of finding the boot which provides a sufficient level of the correct type of protection whilst reducing the heating effect.

The Left Hand Knowing What The Right Hand Is Doing

I discussed this subject with a teenage client last week as we focus on improving her pony’s straightness and her rein contact.

I asked her if she was aware of the jobs of the inside and outside hand, and if she felt that her hands were as good as each other at each job.

She knew that the outside rein is a stabilising rein, it needs to be steady and consistent to prevent the horse falling in, losing vertical balance, or bending too much through the neck. The inside rein is used to flex the horse and indicate the direction of movement. As a result, the inside rein is more mobile (not to the extent of dancing around) but not quite so steadfast as the outside rein.

With my rider understanding the concept of the different roles of the inside and outside rein, I asked her to evaluate her rein contact and hands in each direction. Did her right hand find it easier to be the outside rein than the inside? Did her left hand provide a better outside rein contact than the left?

She correctly identified that her right rein was a better outside contact than her left hand as it stayed steady without hanging off the mouth. Her left hand found it easier to soften her pony into a left bend. In this case, the more dextrous hand was her writing hand, but this isn’t always the case. In my observations, I’ve noticed that everyone has a stabilising hand, which is used for example to hold a nail, and everyone has a hand which is more adept at finer movements – the one which uses the hammer. Perhaps that isn’t the best description. The stabilising hand holds the paper still whilst the motor hand draws the picture – how’s that? Most of the time the motor hand is your dominant hand, but it’s not a golden rule.

Once we’d established the different jobs of the outside and inside rein, we talked about how to improve the hands. I asked my rider if she felt there was an even weight in both hands, or if one was always heavier. A lot of riders carry more weight in their stabilising hand, which when it is the inside rein means that the horse is more likely to motorbike around turns and lean in. So I had my rider assess the weight in her hands on both reins to see if one was significantly more. Her right hand was slightly heavier, but not a huge amount so on the right rein I just kept reminding her to balance out the feel in her hands – taking more weight with the left hand and lightening the right. This immediately began to help create a better outside rein contact on the right rein as the left hand became more stable.

I kept the focus on the right rein (clockwise around the school); keeping the left hand more stable and consistent as the outside aid, and then as I don’t want the right hand to suddenly start leaping around we mainly worked on lightening the wrist, keeping the weight of the arm in the slightly more bent elbow. As my rider’s hands became better at each job and the weight more even between left and right, her pony started to move straighter, staying more balanced on turns and giving more of a uniform bend throughout his body. She could then add in the inside leg aid to improve his inside hind leg engagement and balance.

With her new knowledge and understanding of the job of the inside and outside reins, my rider found it easier to change their bend when we started to work on serpentines and figures of eight. Her pony then kept his balance during changes of rein and became more symmetrical in his way of going because he was giving more bend on his stiffer rein and less bend on his hollow side.

With ambidextrous hands a rider is more able to ride evenly in both directions, and with a greater understanding of the purpose of the inside and outside rein the horse can be more easily corrected in their way of going. A rider can balance the horse between leg, seat and hand more subtly and effectively when a rider has more understanding and control over their rein aids.When learning lateral work, greater control over the reins as individuals means more correct movements will be ridden because the horse can be set up on the correct bend and it can be maintained whilst moving sideways.

Back To Fitness

As lockdown is easing in the UK, many horse owners will start to look at bringing their horses back into work and increasing their fitness.

How long this takes depends on your fitness goal and your horse’s current level of fitness, age and previous injuries.

If your horse has been turned away in a sizeable field with companions it will be surprising how much fitness he has retained walking around the field and playing with friends. However, if your horse has an old injury or is stabled overnight with individual turnout they won’t have retained as much fitness.

Whilst not riding, some owners have continued long reining or lunging their horse, so will have a slight advantage over the furloughed horses.

Something to consider though, is your fitness as a rider. This has probably deteriorated with staying at home as well as doing less equine activities.

One of my client’s horses has had seven weeks off, but he’s now coming back into work as he lives at home and I don’t need to see anyone when I go to ride. We need to consider his mental well-being as well as his physical health. He is looking plump, but is also bored only being in his field. Well, that’s what I like to think as he trotted over to me when I appeared with his saddle today!

To use him as an example, he has some fitness from being in a field 24/7, so I started with a generous half hour walk around the village, with no terrain. He returned home with a little sweat on his girth area and had obviously worked without stressing his body. This will steadily increase on hackd, in duration and incorporate terrain over the next couple of weeks before short periods of trot are introduced. As with the walk, the trot periods will increase in duration, frequency and include terrain.

Depending on how we’re getting on with his fitness, the ground and lockdown in general, I’ll look at starting some canter work in week four.

This horse has no previous injuries for me to worry about, and we aren’t in a rush to get him fit for a competition deadline, so I will take it steadily with him. Aiming for him to come back from each ride slightly sweaty, and having increased his pulse and respiration rate during the ride.

Schooling for short periods can be introduced early on, to provide variety to the work. If you jump, then you’ll want to introduce trot polework when the trot is established, and canter poles and jumping once the canter work has been introduced, always monitoring how well your horse is coping with the exercise.

I think it’s most important to listen to the horse when fittening them; assess their recovery after work, keep a close eye on their body and behaviour for signs of fatigue, and for any signs of soreness or injury afterwards. Even if you have a fitness deadline, such as a competition, it is better not to rush the fittening, and plateau for a while if necessary until your horse’s body is managing with the current workload.

Planning Your Polework

With the majority of us not jumping at the moment and needing ideas to entertain us and our four legged friends more of us are looking at polework exercises.

Polework exercises that are being shared on social media are becoming increasingly complex and imaginative. I’m not against them in any way, but I think it’s important that riders don’t blindly copy the layouts, and take the time to plan, prepare and focus on your aims so that they don’t run into problems.

With any pole work layouts there are one or more themes:

  • Straightness
  • Accuracy
  • Cadence
  • Rhythm
  • Engagement of topline muscles

Before deciding on the pole layout you want to use, have a think about why you’re wanting to use the poles. What part of your horse’s way of going are you looking to develop?

It might be that a simpler pole layout is just as effective as a complex one.

If you are focusing on your horse’s weakest area, or your horse is weak or green, it might be better to only focus on one theme and keep the layout simple. Once they’re stronger, more established and confident you can start to use multiple themes in your pole layouts.

It’s also important to know the correct striding for your horse for trot and canter poles, and how to assess if the distance is too long or too short. The distance between trot poles is 4’6″ for the average horse, and if it is the correct distance for your horse their feet will hit the floor in the middle of the gap between the poles. If the distance is too close, then your horse will place their foot down closer to the upcoming pole. If the distance is too long, they will place their foot down closer to the pole they’ve just stepped over. The distance between canter poles is on average 9′, but it’s important to measure and calculate the distances like you would for trot when setting up the pole layouts.

Once you know your horse’s striding and can lay out straightforward trot and canter poles correctly for your horse you will get the most out of the any pole layout; reducing the risk of them injuring themselves or tripping over, and increasing the benefits of the polework to the horse’s way of going. Then you’re more likely to reproduce layouts you’ve seen online correctly.

I think there’s a real risk of people copying pole layouts they’ve seen in videos online without the correct knowledge to build it suitable for their horse and pony. Furthermore, without a thorough explanation of the aims of the polework layout or how to develop the exercises progressively; unknowledgeable riders may come a cropper by outfacing and confusing the horse, doing it too fast or in an unbalanced way, with the horse using his body incorrectly, and thus the polework is of no benefit at all.

I think it’s great that everyone is focusing on improving their horse’s way of going and utilising polework, but equally I think it’s important to share the “inside information” of distances, routes through the poles and the reasons, as well as riders themselves asking for advice from their coach or the author of the polework layout so that they are fully informed to the purpose of the polework and how to know if it is benefitting or not benefitting their horse and needs adapting during the session. And then of course the polework is safer for everyone.

Poles for Shallow Loops

I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.

Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.

On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.

The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.

The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.

To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?

Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?

I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.

This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!

Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.

In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.

Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.

I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.

As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.

Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.

From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.

I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.

Should We Be Riding?

Since lockdown began and normal life ceased, I’ve been plagued by all sorts of emotions regarding riding in “these unprecedented times”.

Many people I know have decided not to ride, many have decided to continue, and many have had the decision made for them by livery rules. The pressure not to ride comes from the British Equestrian bodies which are strongly advising horse owners not to ride so as to not add to the burden on the already overstretched emergency services. Fair enough, and the pressure will have been removed immensely by the cessation of organised equestrian competition. Paramedics and ambulances are usually present at events, so by cancelling our spring programmes we are freeing up personnel and vehicles without any accidents even happening. Let alone the beds we’re not occupying with injured riders.

But should we be stopping riding altogether? In Spain and Italy the government have banned it. So we are lucky. At the moment!

The biggest question I’ve been pondering these last weeks is the psychological effect being told not to ride because of unnecessarily pressuring the emergency services will have on riders. I mean, do you get on your horse to go to the school for a flatwork session and think “I might fall off today and need an ambulance.”

I hope you don’t, and if you do I question whether you should be riding at all. But now, everyone is ultra aware that there is a risk to horse riding and it could happen to them. Of course, you do get those freak accidents which happen in the arena during flatwork, but they are exactly that – freak. You could have a freak accident getting out of your car, or carrying something upstairs, or doing the gardening.

I wonder how riders, particularly the less confident and more insecure riders, will be after this is over. Will they ever get rid of that niggling thought? Will there be a sudden decrease in leisure riders jumping and competing? Although this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in that I often see riders competing at the top edge of their ability, which is more risky. But I think it will be a bad thing for the less confident ones. Will some people give it all up as a result of the Covid pandemic?

Of course I’m not advocating that life continues as normal, I just wonder what the net result of this new line of thought is.

I think everyone has to balance out their needs, their horse’s needs, and being sensibly safe, when they come to their own decision.

One big factor, which my GP friend said to me about the emergency services issue, is that if you continue to ride, or do whatever sport or DIY you want to, and take risks then you have to accept that the level of care you will receive will be below the usual standard. It might be that you have to wait longer for an ambulance. After all, they need thorough disinfecting after transporting a potential Covid case, which takes time. Or your injury or treatment might be managed at home, when in an ideal world you should be in hospital. So you have to accept a drop in the level of care you will receive. However, you could have just as serious an accident climbing up 25′ ladders to clean the guttering which you are doing instead of riding your horse.

Start by evaluating your horse’s needs. If they are fit and ready for the competition season you can’t just turn them away. They might do themselves an injury in the field burning off excess energy, or injure their handler because of said excess energy. If they are a horse currently in rehab then is it detrimental to stop halfway? If they suffer with weight issues coming out of the winter are you risking obesity and laminitis by stopping riding them? Do they have a previous injury which actually benefits from steady exercise to maintain muscle tone and strength? If the answer to any of those is “yes” then exercise needs to continue in some form or another. Additionally, take into account your horse’s nature. Are they a mature, sensible horse used to being ridden, used to their environment, or are they flighty, spooky, unpredictable? If they’re the latter then there is obviously more risk involved in each ride. But that goes for your ride in February as well as April!

Now let’s look at you. Do you have a lot of exterior stress in your life and need to unwind by riding your horse? Do you struggle with your fitness which would benefit from continuing to ride? Do you suffer from depression, and without riding need to resort to increased medication? If the answer is “yes”, then you need to try to do some form of riding for your personal well-being. I would add here, that if you regularly fall off then you want to assess the reason (if you tend to fall off jumping then remove jumping from the equation) and try to avoid it.

Once you’ve assessed yours and your horse’s needs, you should be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement which keeps you both happy and healthy. My decision, and how I have come to it is as follows: Phoenix is better in consistent work, so continuing to work her is beneficial. It’s spring time, and she would get too fat if turned away. I don’t think she’d become rude and bargy if not in work, but with a toddler around I don’t really want to try it out. I am now looking after a toddler 24/7 and for my sanity I need some time in the saddle. I also want to keep a reasonable level of riding fitness ready for returning to work, so need to consider this. Phoenix is now working in the school under saddle three or four times a week. She is lunged once or twice, either in the school or the field. I’m not jumping her under saddle because it’s unnecessary at the moment, but I am lunging her over poles and little grids to provide variety to her work. Phoenix will hack alone, but until they’re turned out 24/7 and the north wind disappears, I don’t think it’s sensible to hack her because she is not as relaxed and the risk of finding gremlins in the hedge is higher. But I usually finalise my solo hacking decision when I’ve checked the actual weather and felt how coiled a spring she is, so in reality this hasn’t changed much from normal. I don’t think we should hack in company unless we’re from the same household because there’s no way we can stay two metres apart. Having said that, last weekend I was desperate for a hack, so went out with a lady who I see from a distance at the yard each morning. And kept our distance. So reducing the risks of Covid whilst giving myself a much needed time out. But I can’t see that happening again in the near future.

This arrangement and routine seems to be working well, and Phoenix is definitely benefitting from the increased routine and consistency. Plus my morning pony time sets me up for all the thrills and spills a toddler in potty training throws at you!

I think it’s important to know your horse, and what will keep them sensible. Some horses need a canter in the school to warm them up, particularly veterans, and others need a steady canter to get their brain engaged and eliminate any tension. So you need to work out what level of work your horse needs to keep their bodies and minds healthy. I’ve heard of some yards banning cantering at all, which is all very well but I’d be concerned that the horses would maintain a relatively good level of fitness, but not be able to release their tension and energy through canter so could become explosive when cantering is permitted or when the bottle of pop is shaken and the lid opened…

The way I see it, for myself, and for any clients who I’ve discussed exercise programs with, is that you have to think of your riding education like a growing tree. Usually, we are focused on growing upwards, with a few willowy branches going out to the side. Now, we are going to focus on increasing those branches. Growing more of them, and strengthening them. Our tree will become denser and stronger as our skills develop, knowledge increases, and foundations for later work is built.

Let’s say that you are currently working towards Novice level dressage. You can continue to develop the movements you have already introduced, but it wouldn’t be wise to introduce a new movement or concept. Instead, look back at your last prelim tests – was you free walk as good as it could be? Could you improve your centre lines? The answer is most likely “yes”, and if not I’m sure you can find a couple of movements which only received a 6 instead of a 7. Spend a week focusing on those movements to make those branches more robust. Then when you’re allowed, they will grow upwards more easily. For example, giving and retaking the reins is a weak spot of Phoenix’s, so I have been working on her maintaing her trot rhythm and balance whilst I give either the inside rein or both reins, and extending the amount of time I am giving the reins. Another area to improve could be your sitting trot, or your transitions. Think of developing and improving your current level of work rather than stepping up a level.

You can also use this time to practice a new skill, such as long reining, or to spend the time improving your lunging technique, which will help keep both you and your horse fit, provide variety to the workload, and improve your knowledge and understanding.

So whilst I’m very much leaning towards continuing to ride in a sensible and safe way; developing current knowledge and ability rather then stepping up, I think it’s important to consider how your actions are viewed by external people. That doesn’t mean the keyboard warriors who aren’t riding, either because their yard has stopped them, or through their own decision (they can get off their high horses and support those who can ride because yards are permitting it or their horses are sensible instead of going green with envy). I mean the non horsey passers by. And let’s face it, there is increased pedestrian traffic at the moment. Does it really look good if there’s three or four of you hacking out together? Does it look good that walkers see you jumping? Not really, in either case. I think if we want to continue to have the ability to ride we need to be seen to be obeying social distancing guidelines and to being precautionary in our activities.

Walk to Canter Transitions

I did this exercise a couple of weeks ago in my lesson to help Phoenix get the hang of walk to canter transitions, and have found it really useful, so thought I’d share it here.

Down the long side, ride shoulder out. That is, reverse shoulder in. The horse is bent to the outside with the outside (in relation to the arena) hind leg in line with the inside front leg. I find it easiest to start on the inner track so you have space to move the shoulders towards the fence. Once you’ve perfected shoulder out in walk, move up to trot. Pay particular attention to feeling the outside hindleg coming under your horse’s body, and not letting him give too much bend in his neck to the outside as that allows him to fall onto the inside shoulder. Already, you should feel an improvement along the short sides as it helps your horse create a uniform bend on the turns.

Once you can trot shoulder out down the full length of the long side, put a ten metre circle in at the end. The circle requires your horse to flip from one bend to the other, so is a good test of balance and suppleness. Don’t rush to blend the two movements: straighten up out of the shoulder out and ride a couple of strides before the circle. As you both improve, you can reduce the number of strides between the shoulder out and the circle. A bit like how you reduce the number of straight strides in your changes of bend as your horse becomes more balanced. I found the circles felt very balanced and I didn’t find that Phoenix bent excessively with her neck to try and drift through her outside shoulder, which she sometimes does on the left rein.

Now comes the fun part. Halfway around the ten metre circle, ride forwards to walk. Then as you reach the track and the corner of the school, ask for canter. Because of the shoulder out, the outside hind is engaged ready to push into canter, but the circle sets up the correct bend so you will get the correct canter lead.

The short period of walk stops the horse switching off from work, and the small circle helps keep the walk active and together.

Previously, Phoenix had been running and scrambling into canter from walk, but this exercise really helped her jump up into canter – quite literally jump as the first time she leapt straight up in the air while she tried to use her body differently. She soon cracked it, learning to push from behind more. Riding the canter transition from trot still helps improve your transition.

Unfortunately, I can’t repeat exercises too often with Phoenix as she starts to anticipate, so I’ve mixed things up a bit by taking out the circle; riding a demi volte then shoulder in as I incline towards the track and then the circle (if needed) before the transition into walk and then canter. I’m just doing the same movements in the same order, but in different areas of the arena. Have a go at this exercise and mix it up as much as you want.

Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.