Dressage Judging

I’ve been thinking a lot about judging dressage. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about doing in the future, but at the moment I’m quite happy dabbling in my Demi Dressage judging. Which has a scale of 1 to 10, but focusing much more on the teaching side of things – taking the time to comment on how the movement has gone well or how to improve. And the scale isn’t comparable to British Dressage. For example, there’s no way we’re going to be giving out 4.0s and 5.0 to the tiny tots doing their first test. So the marks used tend to be higher than you’d expect, with 9.0s dotted around. But we want to be encouraging, give them a good experience and help them improve both themselves and their pony.

It’s an approach to judging I think should be universal. Aim to give positive and constructive feedback, encourage riders of all ages to improve and have another try at a test. After all, the judge sitting as C doesn’t know their journey. Sure, they may be full of confidence and able to take a tough judge. But they may also be nervous and spent months building up to this moment. It may only be a prelim test, but to them it’s their Olympics.

Phoenix and I have been plugging away at affiliated dressage this summer; being very comfortable and bored in novice, we pushed up to elementary.

Our first elementary test wasn’t an easy one – typical – but we could ride each element and I felt that so long as she didn’t anticipate anything, or spook then we should make a respectable debut. The test itself, she rode everything as I asked. Conservative, and sometimes a little wobbly, but as well as she could. I was pleased.

However, when the scores came through I was really disappointed. Expecting 62% ish, with what I thought to be realistic expectations, we’d scored 57%.

Initially, I was gutted. The score was much lower than I felt we really deserved. Yes it hadn’t taken us out the placings, but it just felt very unfair. Phoenix has quality gaits and usual marks are 6.5 when she’s going in a very average way. Of course, if she jogs the walk or spooks she picks up a 4.0. But that’s fair.

Anyway, I looked at the score sheet for some feedback, and it was very disappointing. Little to no feedback or justification for the low scores. I looked at the rest of the class, and there were more scores than usual in the 50s, so it seemed to be a general theme of the day. I was very frustrated and disappointed, moping around for a couple of days feeling like I’d been wasting my time.

Then I saw a friend who had been volunteering and supporting her friends at the competition. We had a moan, but most importantly, she told me that those competing regularly at elementary had received a score approximately 5% lower than their normal. Which made me feel better, and that another judge would have put us in the low 60s that I’d anticipated for our first time, and it wasn’t a personal vendetta.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the repercussions of judging negatively. Yes, I respect that you need to use a range of marks, but no decent feedback and for the whole class to be scored low is not good for anyone.

It’s not good for the competitor. My first experience of an elementary test did not inspire me to continue trying. I wanted to give up. I lost my confidence and self belief. And I wouldn’t be the only competitor in this position. Leisure riders who spend hours of time and lots of money training towards a test, perhaps it’s at the top of their game, are in it for fun. Reading those score sheets are not fun. These riders, who go to British Dressage competitions regularly actually make up a large proportion of BD membership, and make these show days financially viable. Don’t put them off.

It isn’t a good advert for British Dressage – why would you opt to go to a BD show if you regularly received unfair judging when there are perfectly acceptable Riding Club options, which a more inviting and supportive atmosphere.

It’s not great for the judge. I looked her up and I won’t be going to the BD venue she’s associated with. Nor will I put her name forward to judge at any Riding Club or Pony Club competitions. If I learn she’s judging a class I’m entered in, I’m not sure I’d even bother going. I’d rather forfeit the entry fee. And I definitely will not be looking for lessons or clinics with her, or recommending her to anyone else.

The venue. It’s very local to me, and whilst the venue was great, it will be quite a risk returning there in case she judges again, so the venue has certainly lost out from that perspective.

No one benefits from this situation, and as I said before, it may be the first rung on the BD ladder, but to some this is a massive achievement – training, overcoming nerves, travelling, riding in a new environment, and then learning the test.

Depending on your point of view, fortunately or unfortunately I had already entered another elementary test at another show. Which meant I had to pick myself up and brush ourselves off.

I sent the test video and sheet to my coach, and then ripped up the score sheet. I’d rather put my trust in her to guide me in my next training steps, than dwell on those low numbers. I knew already what our weaker areas were, so started practising those before our next lesson. I also did some fun hacks and jumps to remember why I ride Phoenix.

It was definitely a test of resilience. I really didn’t want to go to our next competition, and had to dig deep to practice. It was also interesting to note that my general confidence with riding and work took a dip. I thought of attending some clinics, but didn’t want to ride in front of anyone unknown. The risk of taking another battering I guess.

But it was fine. We weren’t hugely well prepared, and the second test had some mistakes. But the scores were fair, and justified, and we came home with a first and second. This inspired me a bit more, so I entered another two tests to keep the ball rolling. Last weekend the scores increased further, although there were still some mistakes (like riding canter to halt instead of canter to walk in the simple changes, and me forgetting where the final halt transition was on the centre line and wobbling around), and we had another first and second.

I feel like we’ve established ourselves at elementary level, and it feels the right level of difficulty – not perfect, but challenging enough. So now I’m planning a few weeks of training to consolidate what we’ve learnt from the competitions. And really focus on our weaker points, such as finding and maintaining the balance in medium trot. Then we’ll get out between the white boards again and hopefully have some more successful outings.

Group Canter Exercises

One thing I enjoyed last week at Pony Club camp, was utilising some long forgotten group exercises. I had a young senior group, so whilst they were all competent to ride independently, there needed to be some structure to the lessons otherwise they’d meander around the arena aimlessly and crash into each other.

I also had a young horse with a tendency to nap, and another couple who tended to accelerate towards the rest of the ride when asked to work independently, so I wanted to challenge these and help the riders improve their control.

An exercise I use a lot with junior members is the ride walking around the track (sometimes in trot if it’s cold or the ponies a little fresh) and lead file rides into canter and canters around the outside of the arena to the rear of the ride. I sometimes specify the upwards transition (direct or progressive) and encourage my riders to maintain a consistent rhythm and to plan their return to the track so that they don’t career up behind the ride.

The next step up from this exercise is to have the rider who is cantering to pass the ride on the inside in canter and canter around the arena again. This ensures they are focused, and apply the aids sufficiently early enough that their pony doesn’t fall into trot and slip into rear file.

If the group are on the verge of being ready to ride in open order, and I want to challenge their initiative and awareness of others, then another extension of this canter exercise is for the cantering rider to canter a 20m circle at the free end of the arena. This takes planning and thinking ahead from them, and a helpful awareness from the new lead file to adjust the pace and avoid hindering the canter circle.

My favourite two canter exercises from last week, however, involved my riders to listen and think. And by day four of camp, this skill is somewhat deteriorating! I asked the ride to trot a twenty metre circle at C on the right rein, ensuring they were riding a round circle and not drifting or idly following the rider in front. When I called their name they were to leave the circle at M, pick up canter on the long side. They had to canter a twenty metre circle at A before returning to trot at E and rejoining the circle. Sloppy circles meant a risk of crashing! This has a couple of challenges – a canter transition on a straight line, obedience from the horse not to nap towards his friends, the use of the outside aids to remain balanced on the circle, and adjusting the canter so that they didn’t cause the rest of the ride to adjust their trot or line of the circle when they rejoined. I found this really enlightening as it challenged my riders on several levels.

The final exercise starts in the same was – trotting on a circle in open order. When instructed to, the rider had to leave the circle at X, changing the rein and picking up canter. Canter a twenty metre circle from X, before rejoining the ride on the circle in trot. Here they had to ride forwards away from the ride, which is a good lesson for nappy ponies, and slows the transition for the whizzy ones. The rider also had to change their pony’s bend just before the transition, which highlighted if the pony was actually listening to their rider and helped develop their understanding of the aids and timing of them.

I will keep adding to my repertoire of group canter exercises, but hopefully these keep you busy for a few days. If anyone has one they’d like to add then comment below!

Working the Older Horses

I have a few clients with older horses; the older horse has many advantages of experience, reliability, patience and steadfastness to teach and build confidences. But with that comes an aging body and the associated problems that come with old age. They are usually still enthusiastic to work, but can be slightly stiff.

Every older horse, I believe, deserves someone (like one or two of my clients) who will dote on them. Give them everything they need; treat any ailment; have tack adjusted to compensate for an aging body; groom and fuss them to within an inch of their life; and lightly ride them to maintain fitness and mobility. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a riding school horse retired to this life of Riley.

Teaching with the older horse is different too. For instance, they often need a longer warm up, or a light seat canter early on to loosen them up. It’s also about recognising their limitations and working within them. We always strive to improve a horse’s way of going, but with an older horse you have to be aware of pushing too hard and triggering a problem, and be ready to accept their limitations.

A classic example of this is polework. Trotting poles aim to improve rhythm, cadence and length of stride. With a young horse or one in their prime, you can use the distance between the poles to encourage them to stride out. When I set the distance between poles for an older horse I adjust it based on how they’re looking that day, and aim to encourage good strides over the poles, rather than pushing them to lengthen. If they’re finding it a stretch today, I roll the poles in. It’s about maintaining their range of movement rather than improving it. Usually by encouraging several consistent good strides of trot, they will improve their range of movement slightly.

As older horses are more experienced and established I find it useful to focus on the rider position, which puts them in good stead when they ride a younger horse. So apologies clients with veterans; expect lots of no stirrup work!

We also still work on improving the horse. Older horses can vary in their performance depending on the day – some days they’re a little stiffer, other days they’re like a spring chicken! It depends on the temperature, if they’ve been stood in, or what they did the previous days. So the first part of my lessons are always spent assessing the veteran and deciding if they’re okay to do Plan A, or if Plan B would be better. I also think it’s really important for the rider to be able to evaluate their horse’s way of going each day so that they work them appropriately and pick up on any changes quickly. We talk about the Scales of Training, and how to improve the horse relative to their abilities. For example, we compare their suppleness between left and right, and to their work last week. We can them improve their symmetry a bit, and ensure they aren’t becoming stiffer than previous weeks without a good reason. Knowing the theory of equitation, even if it’s not always possible to practise it all, creates a good foundation for riding future horses.

I’m working a lot with a client on straightness with her older horse in preparation for her new horse. The veteran is crooked, because he has lots of niggles and the result is that his rider is a bit crooked and most importantly, unaware of the crookedness. It’s a tricky situation because I think if we straighten the horse like I would approach a six year old, we’ll open a can of worms and his niggles will become issues. But equally, we don’t want him to become more and more wonky. So I’ve mainly highlighted to my rider the assymetry in his way of going and the differences between the two canter leads and his lateral work on each rein. Then we’ve worked on reducing his assymetry by improving his rider’s straightness. By getting her to sit straighter, be more even in the saddle and with the leg and rein aids her horse will start to adjust his body. By doing these adjustments indirectly, we won’t achieve perfect straightness. But I don’t want perfect straightness with a horse carrying niggles. But we will hopefully lengthen his working life as he will straighten his body by degrees.

By improving my rider’s awareness of asymmetry and straightness, she will be in a better position to school her new horse. I’ve done lots of grid work jumping and pole exercises on this subject of straightness. Improving her awareness, minimising any drifting over jumps, and encouraging even muscle development. Whilst accepting a certain level of crookedness. For example, when jumping from the right canter, the horse can stay on a straight line and balanced, until the jump is a little big or the takeoff a little long. Whereby he changes to the left lead and drifts left. At the edge of his comfort zone, he’s showing that he favours his left canter. If he were a five or six year old we’d develop and strengthen the right canter. But to be honest, I find this totally acceptable in an older horse and am quite happy if he shifts to his preference in these circumstances. If he stopped staying straight and balanced in the right canter over small jumps or poles I’d be concerned, but he’s managing the top end of his work load in this way, so as long as my rider is aware for her future then we’ll go with the flow.

Keeping an older horse in work is all about making small improvements to their way of going and focusing on the longevity of their working life rather than upping the workload and putting demands on a body which is perhaps carrying old age ailments and previous injuries. And of course making sure they are comfortable with their workload – medicating hocks if necessary and weighing up the pros and cons of feeding daily bute. By developing a relationship and seeing the horse regularly, and working them consistently to a level, it is easier to spot any deterioration, which then allows them to be checked out and cared for as quickly as possible.

A Shallow Loop Over Trotting Poles

I’ve enjoyed playing around with a tricky exercise over trotting poles with several clients recently. No longer are they going in a straight line perpendicular over the poles, but rather riding a shallow loop over them.

I laid out about nine poles with a conservative distance and had my rider begin by trotting straight over the poles, centrally at first and then if I wanted to check their adaptability or accuracy, I had them trot over the left then right end of the poles. This is where coloured poles come in useful as they can aim for a specific band of colour.

Then I mark out a shallow loop over the poles using cones, or even potties. The markers need to be clearly seen above the poles. The diagram below shows the placing of the poles.

So that they don’t run before they can walk, I begin this next phase by asking them to trot from between the first set of markers to between the second set, and then straight over the second half of the poles. This is usually fairly straightforward, especially if we’ve started on their easy rein. The distance between the poles is now marginally longer because they’re riding the hypotenuse of a triangle, so stuffy horses sometimes need a wake up call and to be ridden with more leg to encourage the longer stride that is required. There’s an adaptability and balance question as they go through the second set of markers because they are changing their bend and line slightly, which is trickier for the horse and requires more rider balance when they have an increased cadence over the poles.

Once the first half of the loop is established, I ask the rider’s to ride from first set of cones to the second, then back to the third. This is when the horse’s balance and suppleness is really questioned. It usually takes a couple of goes to get the exercise correct. If a horse were to really struggle I’d add a couple of extra trot poles and another set of markers so that the change of bend happened over three poles rather than one, as show below.

To make it easier initially, the markers can be quite wide apart, and the loop more shallow. As they understand the exercise and improve the timing of their aids and accuracy, the shallow loop can become deeper with greater accuracy needed between the markers.

After riding the shallow loop over the poles on both reins it becomes apparent which is their more supple rein, as the increased cadence shows up any weaknesses in both their balance and range of movement.

The rider usually notices an improvement in the horse’s general way of going after this gymnastic exercise. I usually finish by trotting straight over the poles to rediscover straightness of both horse and rider, especially if they’ve found the exercise quite challenging. And then we play around with normal shallow loops, and my horses and riders are usually lighter and using their back muscles better.

Horses and Heat

Horses and Heat don’t mix very well do they? Poo picking, stable chores and riding are sweaty work in average temperatures.

The trouble in the UK is that we aren’t geared up for hot weather. Our native breeds have dense coats all year round, and the temperatures tend to sky rocket for days at a time before dropping again, which makes it hard for everyone to acclimatise.

If we are due only a couple of days of hot weather then I think I sit with the majority of equestrians in either riding early in the morning or giving the horses a day off. It’s also then easy to rearrange my work onto cooler days.

However, if the heat is here to stay, then there’s a degree of acclimatising to do. Especially if you compete. It’s all very well avoiding the heat and riding early in the morning, but what if your class falls at midday? As painful as it is pulling jodhpurs on over slippery, sun creamed legs, you do need to ride during the day so you are both prepared to ride a dressage test in the scorching heat. If a horse is in rehab, or needs to be exercised in order to lose weight then long periods of down time aren’t conducive, so it’s better to do lower intensity work for a few days than nothing at all. For example, I’d say that this week it is acceptable for a pony on fat camp to do less work because he’s unfit and finding it difficult to work and plateau in terms of building fitness and losing weight. Weight is maintained rather than lost, or even worse put on! When it gets cooler, his workload and weight loss can increase again.

However, exercise does need to be adapted in this heat, taking into account humidity, horse and rider fitness, taking lots of breaks, seeking shade, avoiding fast work and jumping in the heat of the day. Some horses cope better with the heat – usually finer coated animals, and those with no excess fat. Older horses tend to struggle with the heat too.

My lessons this week, working around the heatwave, have involved;

  • Hacking with a young client and teaching her about the ground, where it is suitable to trot, how to ride up and down hills, and what to look out for when riding in woods and fields. All the time building her confidence to trot independently on hacks.
  • Long reining and in hand work.
  • Walk poles.
  • Teaching the different types of walk so that rider and pony don’t waste the elongated walk breaks, and to encourage them to have slow and steady schooling sessions for the rest of the week.
  • Taking a horse into the jump paddock and desensitising him to traffic on the other side of the hedge, and riding him around and between jump fillers.
  • Stable management.
  • No stirrup work, as riders are usually happier with shorter bursts of work.
  • Transitions, especially halt transitions.
  • Lateral work and rein back.
  • Bareback.

I like having lessons at an enforced steady pace. Walk is so often overlooked, and improving the walk makes dramatic improvements to the quality of the trot and the transitions. I was really pleased with how one lady started to get a longer striding, swinging walk and then floated along in the trot, truly using his back and looking very supple through his ribcage.

The important thing to remember is that everyone copes with the hot weather differently, and to remember frequent breaks, sun cream, modified riding attire (I’ve not used gloves all week), and to drink lots of water. Each lesson has begun with me asking my client where their water is, and to say if they feel unwell or need to stop for a break. Then I know the lesson will run more smoothly.

Prix Caprilli

You know I always like a challenge, and this spring I’ve had the challenge of training a dozen keen Pony Clubbers for the Area Prix Caprilli competition.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Prix Caprilli is a riding test, akin to a dressage test, with two jumps in. It’s a dying competition which I think is a shame because having two jumps helps disguise the fact they’re doing dressage, and the fact it’s a ridden test means it is welcoming to everyone; young horses, hairy natives, the elderly schoolmasters, and riders of all ages. It doesn’t matter your mount, it’s how you ride them.

As you can see, it’s a challenging test. Especially when my youngest rider is only six years old. So my first challenge was to work out how to teach the different elements of the test to a group of primary school age children in a group setting whilst keeping them engaged and interested.

I decided that props were the best way to go, and to split each lesson up so that the last twenty minutes was spent jumping – even though I knew they were all capable of jumping the small height of the prix caprilli jumps. It would reward them for their hard work on the flat. I ensured they approached the jumps straight and in a rhythm, practising establishing the correct canter quickly after the jump. In one lesson we had a bit of fun doing a Chase Me Charlie.

For the flatwork, I chose a couple of different elements of the test to work on in each lesson.

  1. In the first session I laid out a 20m circle using little sports cones at A. Throughout the warm up, they practised trotting the 20m circle. With the cones they semi taught themselves, as they could see for themselves when their pony deviated from the circle. This meant we could keep the lesson moving. We also practised the change of rein across the diagonal and then cantering the circle individually.
  2. The next session we practised the centre lines. I used a tramline of poles at X and then cones at A and C. They did numerous changes of rein up and down the centre line. We added in halts at X, using the poles to stay straight. I think I also worked them in sitting trot and without stirrups, and nit picked how they rode their corners.
  3. The trickiest part to this test, and the hardest for children to understand, is the two shallow loops up the centre line, so I used two cones at X for them to ride through, and then used a jump pole to mark each shallow loop. The warm up was based around changing the rein with the loops, as well as revising other movements in the test. Then I used a handful of cones to mark out the two half ten metre circles and had them all trotting and walking it to learn the size and shape of the half circles.
  4. The penultimate training session focused on the canter sequence. It’s quite a fast paced section of the test and the movements come up quickly so I wanted my riders to know this part of the test really well, and then start riding tactically. For example, riding from left canter to trot close to B to give them as much time as possible to prepare for the “wiggle” as we nicknamed the double shallow loop. This exercise also allowed me to link the jumps into their flatwork for the first time.
  5. Then, just before the competition we had a dry run. They made a warm up plan with me, then warmed up as they would at the competition and they all rode through the whole test individually a couple of times to fine tune it. Then they went away to practise at home!

I enjoyed the challenge of finding exercises which kept the children engaged whilst helping them learn the test movements, which were simple enough for them to replicate at home.

But what I think I enjoyed the most about training the Prix Caprilli teams was competition day. The straightening of ties; warming them up; quelling any nerves; calling their tests; bacon butties afterwards, and most importantly watching them all pull off smart tests! I felt very proud of the young riders and their ponies.

One child asked me to read for him, sacking his Mum as he did. As we walked towards his ring he said “I’m feeling a bit nervous.” and privately, I had to agree! I definitely had butterflies in my stomach for all my riders!

Another thing for the CV, and whilst I was some what reluctant to take on yet another project, it was certainly enjoyable and I guess I’ll be doing it again next year!

But I am wondering, why can’t adults have Prix Caprilli competitions too?

Opening Up The Thighs

In my weekly pilates class we’ve been doing a lot of stretches to open up the front of the hips – muscles which become tight when sat at a desk all day and subsequently prevent you from sitting upright and having the long leg desired in the dressage arena.

I’ve made a few observations over recent months about adjusting stirrups, which link into these exercises.

Let me explain.

When I was a teenager helping at the local riding school and had to adjust a client’s stirrup length, we would ask them to take their foot out of the iron and swing their leg back. Then you can access the buckle at the front of their thigh. There’s also no weight on the skirt of the saddle and you can see what you’re doing, so it’s a straightforward adjustment. I didn’t think much of it, apart from the occasional beginner or mature adult who was a bit stiff the first few times.

Fast forward almost two decades (when did I get so OLD?!) and now anytime I see anyone having assistance to adjust their stirrup length, brings their leg forward, akin to adjusting the girth. Why has this trend changed? Or maybe the leg back approach was just a Welsh thing… Perhaps our increasingly sedentary lifestyles has made us all stiffer in the hips?

Anyway, let’s not go down the route of discussing keeping the foot in the stirrup whilst adjusting the leathers, because that technique actually helps stretch out the inner thigh (one of the reasons many people struggle to use this technique if not brought up with it). We’re talking about assisted stirrup adjustments.

Based on my observations, that riders prefer to draw the leg forward to make adjustments, and the fact that many leisure riders find it difficult to ride with a long leg, either relying on knee rolls to hold their leg in the correct position or pitching forwards at the seat. Or both.

Linking back to pilates; when we prepare to ride and do some leg stretches, or when we do leg stretches in the saddle whilst first walking around, should we also be considering how we adjust the stirrups, using any adjustments as an opportunity to stretch out the front of the hips?

It would be interesting to do a study with those riders who usually move the leg forward when stirrups are adjusted, and instead get them to move their leg back each time they ride and adjust the stirrups. Over the course of a few weeks, do they find this movement easier, and does their seat and leg position improve? Then, how much effect do the pilates stretches have on seat and leg position if done before every ride?

Food for thought…

Snaking Leg Yield

I’ve been using a tricky little exercise recently with several clients recently. It’s all about balance, straightness, and understanding of the aids. Plus the fact that less is more.

Starting on the left rein in walk, because it’s more complicated than first appears, turn onto the centre line at C. Leg yield to the right for about three strides. Ride straight and then leg yield to the left for about six strides. Then leg yield back to the right onto the centre line. Turning right at A to change the rein.

When coming off the right rein, leg yield to the left first.

The secret to this exercise, and I usually let my rider have a couple of goes before letting them in on the secret, is that less is more.

If you’re too ambitious and ask for too much leg yield, the horse invariably loses balance and has too much bend in their body. Which makes it harder for them to straighten, change their bend and start to leg yield in the opposite direction. Then it takes longer to change direction and you run out of centre line.

Once my rider starts to be more conservative with their leg yield there is usually just the small task of tidying up the transitions between the leg yields and then they’ll crack the exercise.

If leg yielding from right leg to left hand, the rider needs to use the left rein to balance the horse and use their left leg to stop the leg yield and ride straight. Then they need to change their position into position left (left seat bone slightly deeper, left leg on the girth, right leg behind; right rein becomes the outside rein) before asking for very slight left flexion and then the leg yield back to the right.

The straighter the horse stays in leg yield the easier it is to change direction. Less is more.

Holding Rubber

I’ve done this exercise a few times recently with various clients, for various reasons, and it’s had some good results. In itself, it’s quite an easy thing to do while working on other parts of their riding.

Some riders ride with their hands curled lightly around the reins. Of course we don’t want to be holding the reins particularly tightly, but if we aren’t holding the reins firmly enough they have a tendency to slip through. For some people, one rein tends to slip through. For others, both. And for some it is the horse (or pony) who discreetly sneaks the rein through the rider’s hand.

Some riders interpret the “squeeze and release” of a half halt or a flexion aid, as squeezing the rein and then letting go. Perhaps the words need to change to “squeeze and relax”…

In either situation, the rein contact becomes inconsistent.

My analogy for this situation, because I like analogies, is to imagine walking down a busy street with a toddler, holding hands.

Hold the hand too tightly and the guy toddler shouts and digs their heels in. They won’t move forwards happily.

Hold their hand, letting go at random intervals and dropping them. They become disconcerted with the insecurity of your guidance.

Now imagine you are holding their hand slightly more firmly, and give the odd reassuring squeeze. You’ve not dropped them or left them hanging, but you have changed the pressure of the hand holding and exchanged a secret message.

This is the sort of rein contact we’re aiming for. Consistent, clear communication, and even.

For my riders who hold the reins tightly I remind them to relax their arms and fingers, and will do no rein exercises to ensure they aren’t using their hands subconsciously to balance.

For my riders who have loose fingers, especially the children, I will take two pieces of flat arena rubber (if they have a sand arena I try to find a small flat pebble. One father uses a penny with his daughter when practising this) and get my rider to hold it in their hands as well as the reins. It’s small enough that it doesn’t fill their hands up and make holding the reins and whip difficult, but they will become acutely aware of when they loosen their fingers and drop it!

We then have ten minutes of laughter as they invariably drop the rubber and I have to replace it. Depending on the rider, their age and approach to riding, this can become as fun and as silly as required. I remember with one young client there was lots of “uh-ohing” and me flouncing around looking for replacement rubber to keep the exercise like a game.

Within minutes, I find that my riders are usually holding the reins in a more consistent way; either both hands are now holding with the same amount of hold, or the reins have stopped creeping through their hands. Once they’ve stopped dropping the rubber, I do some work on circles, transitions, changes of rein, or whatever movement usually causes them to loosen their fingers. With older riders they start to see the positive effects and can begin to ride between leg and hand more easily, and they can improve the bend of their horse as they can ride inside leg to outside rein, and control the outside shoulder.

Once my rider has found the correct rein contact they don’t drop the rubber as frequently, so I usually move on with my lesson plan, accidentally-on-purpose forgetting to remove the rubber from their hands to see how far we get before they drop it, or realise they’ve dropped it.

I often find that holding the rubber only needs to be done once or twice to teach a rider the right amount of feel, and to help them understand the concept and effect of a consistent rein contact, which for kids improves their overall control over their pony’s speed and steering, and for adults helps them improve their horse’s rhythm, balance and create impulsion.

Self Carriage Success

Self carriage is the ultimate aim for all of us horse riders, but in trying to get there many of us are guilty of micromanaging our horses and their way of going.

You know the sort of thing: you’re working on your horse giving some inside flexion and before you know it you’re holding them in place. Then they begin to rely on you nagging and you become a noisy rider.

I frequently remind my riders to go quiet and still when their horse is softening and doing as they should. They don’t need to drop the contact or take the leg and seat off completely, just soften and reduce the strength of the aids.

With one of my clients I’ve been paying special attention to getting her to hand over the reins, literally, and putting the onus onto her horse to carry himself as she can become too busy and he gets a bit reliant on her putting him in the right place. It goes against my client’s nature, but she’s starting to hand over control.

We warm them both up using circles and school movements to develop vertical balance, whilst reminding my client to give moments of peace. Then when her horse is working in good balance and is supple and rhythmical, I get them to ride large with the odd large circle. Simple school movements than what we have done in the previous fifteen minutes, but with the aim of my rider doing less and her horse carrying himself.

It struck me a couple of weeks ago, when hiking across frozen, poached fields with a two year old, that teaching self carriage is similar to teaching independence to a toddler.

“Don’t hold my hand, I don’t need help!” she says stepping into a frozen mud valley of the field. The divots are big enough for me to feel precarious whilst crossing, let alone when the valleys are knee height. I let go of her hand, but it hovers just behind, ready to catch. She’s every chance of success by the way I’ve prepared her, but I’m ready to catch her before she falls.

With a horse, you use the aids to guide them into the right frame and balance. Then you take away the scaffolding as they perform a task well within their abilities. But you’re still there, ready to step in the moment they flounder. Initially it may be a reduction of the frequency of the aids, or it may be a lighter aid, but all of your reductions are focused on making your horse more independent and less reliant on you holding them onto the springy, engaged trot or canter.

When your horse, just like a toddler, succeeds in a simple task they grow in confidence in their own abilities, they relax and develop self carriage. It may only be a couple of strides before you take back their hand, but eventually they’ll be that balanced (emotionally and physically), fully fledged young adult, we aim our toddlers to become.

But we have to trust ourselves enough that our preparations will let them fly off with success when we let go.