Stagefright!

This summer I’ve been taking Phoenix out cross country training regularly, and she’s become much more confident and consistent; popping over 90cm and 1m fences, and taking combinations, steps, ditches and water in her stride. So it was time to take the next step in her training and take her to a hunter trial.

We went schooling to the venue a couple of weeks ago but disappointingly not many fences were out, but at least we got a feel for the venue.

I walked the course on Saturday morning, was happy that the jumps were well within Phoenix’s comfort zone. There was a step, a ditch, water. All of which she’s done numerous times in training, but she does sometimes take her time teetering at the edge of them. The rest of the jumps were mainly logs and houses. There was one jump, a parallel of two logs painted white which I fully expected Phoenix to do a Health and Safety assessment before jumping it. Everything else should be straightforward for her.

Phoenix was on her toes but warmed up calmly with plenty of petrol in the tank. She flew over the warm up fences, really taking me into them but with control afterwards. I didn’t do too much, but just before we went down to the start box we popped over the bigger warm up jump and then kept her “in the zone” as the countdown started. As it was her first experience of going out the start box I wasn’t sure how much warm up she’d need, how much of a breather she needed, and how best to keep her mentally ready for the start whistle.

The first jump was quite close to the start box, parallel to the warm up and number two was just beyond the warm up. There were a lot of refusals and dodgy cat leaps over the first couple of jumps. I think it was because they were close to the warm up, going away from home. Anyway, Phoenix backed right off both jumps, leaping them from a sticky trot. She did the same over the white rails at three (although this fence I was just pleased that she didn’t stop) and then over the log at four.

I felt like Phoenix wasn’t really looking at the jumps, but rather the horses walking to the warm up, the fence judges and their cars.

However, going towards the house at number five, Phoenix was clearly gawping at the decorative feature to the left of the jump, not clocking the jump until too late. She flew over it when I re-presented. After the steps she stopped at every fence until we were pulled up, eliminated. Typically, she actually jumped our final fence on the first attempt, even with a steward waving a red flag at us. We took the walk of shame back to the car park.

I spent our walk home trying to make sense of events, and decided that the best course of action would be to return the next day and school over the flagged course. I was concerned that we’d undone all our cross country training and she’d lost confidence. Then I started wondering if I’d over ridden in my attempt to ride positively, combined with nervous anticipation, and overcooked things. After all, she’s a very sensitive soul.

Ultimately, I felt that Phoenix had been overwhelmed by the competition environment – she was definitely paying a lot of attention to what was going on outside of the roped area, and looking at the jumps of every height. Which didn’t leave a lot of brain power to focus on the jumps.

Today, we returned and the course was like the Marie Celeste with not a single soul there. Eerily, I kept to the competition concept, popping two warm up fences and then going down to the start box.

Phoenix flew around the course! Confident over the first six, peering down the step before cautiously hopping off. She felt so much more focused on the course. She insisted on walking through the water, and I let her have a walk break before picking her back up for the rest of the course, which she hadn’t done yesterday. This was quite a good test because it was more of the unseen, competition environment. Which she passed easily. She stopped to look at the ditch momentarily, but skipped over comfortably once she’d assessed it. Phoenix did stop at the last fence, but it was a stop of tiredness rather than not wanting to do the jump. She did it on the second attempt and then we walked home. I think Saturday had taken more out of her physically and mentally.

I know it wasn’t a clear round, but she proved to me today that she is capable, and is back to being confident over solid fences. She just needs more experience in the competition environment so she learns to focus on the jumps, rather than the wider picture. We’ll continue with arena cross country through the winter and then try to get some competition experience under her belt.

Although this weekend was disappointing in the fact that she is more than capable of getting round, I am relieved that she suffered a minimal dent to her confidence in her own ability and in me on Saturday, and I have a clearer idea of the next stage in her training – performing to a crowd!

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.

Keeping the Momentum Going

This year has been very stop start for a number of reasons, mimicking the stop-start of Phoenix’s cross country training the last couple of years.

I was determined this spring to improve Phoenix’s cross country CV with regular training outings and her competitive debut. Covid had other ideas, but since being released from lockdown I’ve made a concertive effort to get her out and about.

We went to an arena cross country lesson in June, which was full of suspicious health and safety checks at each fence before flying them the second time. She wants to do it for me; but equally wants to make sure she’s read the question thoroughly and risk assessed. Then I took her to a local schooling venue with a friend and had fewer stops, but upon reflection, I realised that I was starting to expect the first stop, and at times froze and became passive on the approach. No wonder she was suspicious of the jumps!

I gave myself a kick up the bum and went to another venue a few weeks later with another friend. Again, better. I actually rode positively to the fences and Phoenix took more of it in her stride. Interestingly, ditches and steps were becoming easy and Phoenix was no longer spending minutes tottering on the edge before committing to navigating the obstacle. Water was also becoming less of an issue, with her trotting through happily. Canter was still out of her comfort zone, but I wasn’t overly concerned about this as she just hadn’t quite worked out how to move through water. Towards the end of this session I felt like I was starting to jump out of a cross country canter rather than showjumping into each fence.

We were making steady progress, but when you’re on your own it’s very easy to sit within your comfort zone, and work your way up to doing a jump. Which of course you can’t do at a competition. Realistically, I needed to start looking at going to a competition. But I’m reluctant when there’s such a high risk of either a cricket score or being disqualified.

Next up, was riding club camp. Where we had a good cross country session, where Phoenix had jumped some meaty fences and grew in confidence. I of course had some tips to take away – mainly that I shouldn’t hesitate with the leg or hold back with the hands. Even if my brain was reluctant to commit until Phoenix did! Keeping my upper body back would save me.

What I actually realised this summer is that the motivation to go cross country schooling comes from making it a social event. Yes of course, we aren’t supposed to socialise currently but there’s less than 6 of us and we can’t get much closer than two metres whilst mounted, so we’re as low risk as you come. Going schooling with someone, who doesn’t have to be working on the same trajectory as you, gives you some support. And encouragement to challenge yourself with a slightly bigger obstacle, or trickier line. They can provide a lead if needed, or you can discuss and feedback on performance and how to improve. I think ultimately, that the attraction of going out with friends is the ulterior motive for getting out and about.

So when a friend spoke about forming a WhatsApp group of those who want to keep up the momentum of cross country schooling during winter, I realised that whilst I rarely feel a desire to go cross country in the winter, it’s exactly what Phoenix and I need. I need to keep the ball rolling with her cross country so we don’t go back to square one next spring. And there’s no reason to regress with so many arena cross country venues available to hire.

Today we had our first cross country club lesson. We’re all at different levels, but as I joked with our instructor “a good coach can manage several different levels of abilities within the same lesson”. Which doesn’t make it any easier! Phoenix was awesome. She took on the various step and jump combinations; skipped over the ditches; took on some trickier lines and flew over the couple of BE100 fences I aimed her for. I need to push with the height as it’s nearing the edge of my comfort zone as well as Phoenix’s. But equally I don’t want to just face Phoenix at huge meaty jumps as she could easily tire, make a mistake and lose confidence. But adding in the odd fence challenges us both. I felt she tackled these more easily than only a fortnight ago at camp. My job, when approaching these, is to keep riding forwards, straight, and keep my body balanced so I don’t inhibit Phoenix at all. She can get a little deep if necessary, but ultimately she is able to work the question out herself.

In the last third of the lesson we treated it as a competition by stringing some fences that we hadn’t yet jumped, including the water complex, so mimicking the competition environment. Overall, I was pleased. We stopped at the second fence, but I was slightly worried about it and I didn’t feel that Phoenix had quite gotten into her stride, still with her mind on her group of friends behind us. But she did it the second time and then flew over the next few questions, albeit feeling slightly tired by now. However, she stopped at the simple tyres just before the water. Once over it, she cantered boldly through the water. The next fences were great, but she stopped at the other jump going into the water, and then she ran out of steam at the final one before jumping it second time around.

On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but I think it was tiredness kicking in for the last fence, partly my fault for the first one, and the distraction of the water just behind the jump which caused her to have a closer inspection of them prior to jumping the other two. So after a long breather, I finished our session by jumping both jumps into water and the final hanging log. She cleared them all easily this time, so I felt we’d consolidated the subject of jumping towards water.

Overall, however, I was really pleased with Phoenix’s development across country, feeling that the stops we have are fewer, and more excusable. Plus, once she’s assessed, she is very willing to take on the challenge, and has learnt the lesson.

We’re going to try to have monthly outings to practice our cross country, either in an arena or out in the open when possible, using our group to encourage and support each other, as well as motivating us in the depths of winter. It has definitely motivated me to look at some hunter trials this autumn, and hopeful for our one day event debut next year.

I think it’s easy to underestimate the benefits of a supportive social circle, even if you are focused and ambitious, with our hectic lives, but actually it’s your horsey friends who help you achieve your dreams, no matter how diverse the dreams are within a friendship.

So if you’re struggling to find the motivation to develop your riding definitely find some friends with similar ambitions to egg each other on. We’re all on different journeys, but we can all help each other reach our destinations.

Perfecting the Jump Position

I spend a lot of time tweaking my rider’s jumping position. Sometimes we have lessons using a simple exercise where I draw their attention to a body part, which may not be wrong, but could be repositioned slightly to improve their security and stability. Sometimes I get them to hover in their jumping position for several strides on the flat to ensure that they have the muscle strength and balance to stay secure over jumps. After all, it’s harder to hold yourself in a static plank than to do one which involves leg lifts. Even with experienced jumpers, it’s worth revising their position regularly to ensure they don’t slip into bad habits.

So what is the perfect jumping position?

In an ideal world, your jumping position will be such that if the horse were to be taken away from underneath you, you wouldn’t fall over. But let’s break it down to the different areas of the body.

The stirrups need to be shorter for jumping than when riding on the flat. For novice riders it may only be a couple of holes, but more advanced riders can have half a dozen holes difference or more. There shouldn’t be a change in the position of the lower leg when going from the three point position on the approach to the jump to two point position over the fence. It’s very common for the lower leg to swing backwards. I often find that getting the rider to soften the knee and allowing the weight to drop into the heel will correct this. Sometimes I’ll get them to go into their jump position in halt and I hold their ankles to prevent them swinging backwards. Often, the pressure of my hand is enough for my rider to be aware of their lower leg and to adjust the balance of their foot as they fold into their jump position so that their lower leg remains immobile.

Next, is the foot and ankle. The ankle needs to be springy; it is a shock absorber. If it is braced and rigid then the heel cannot stay lower than the toe and points down, often in conjunction with the lower leg swinging backwards in the two point position. To solve this, I like to spend a lot of time trotting and cantering in jumping position to develop a more secure lower leg and flexible ankle. A useful off horse exercise for developing ankle flexibility is standing with the balls of you feet on a step and dropping the heels, stretching the calves and achilles tendons.

With the weight into the lower leg a rider is infinitely more secure should they have a dodgy jump – either a chip in on take off, or if a stride is taken out. Next up in the security stakes, is the upper body.

In the ideal jump position, the rider should fold from the hips, with their bottom near the cantle. A lot of riders learning to jump will struggle to fold sufficiently from their hips, either curling their shoulders and hunching instead of folding, or keeping the upper body fairly upright. Over smaller jumps you don’t need to fold as much as larger jumps, but it’s still important to practise the fold from the hips to improve flexibility.

If a rider doesn’t take their bottom to the cantle they are usually tight in the knee, with the toes down and lower leg swinging backwards. This means that their centre of gravity is over the withers so if the horse puts the brakes on, or chips in a stride the rider is vulnerable. Going repeatedly into jump position on the flat helps build muscle memory and improve flexibility. Even if a rider finds it hard to fold the upper body, it’s important they still feel like they’re taking their bottom backwards into a squatting position. In fact, doing some off horse squats can help a rider identify the correct muscles. They will also realise how the foot and ankle need to work in order to stay balanced.

One of the biggest traits I see with established jump riders is a stiff back. They’re secure in the lower leg and weight is over the knee, but in a bid to fold from the hips they are holding tension in the small of their back, sometimes even arching it slightly. This actually encourages the horse to stiffen through their back and means the rider can’t absorb movement as easily so may well be jarred on an awkward landing. This comes back to having a straight upper body on the flat with poise yet no tension – sitting trot can help develop the core so the back muscles are not recruited in sitting upright.

Once the legs and upper body are in position, it’s time to correct the arms and head. A rider should be looking straight forwards over a jump, ready for the next one on the course, and not changing their weight distribution (remember, our heads are very heavy!) over the horse’s back, so making their job harder. The hands should be following the movement of the horse’s head so they are neither restricted or left with no contact.

I was always taught to hold the mane halfway up my pony’s neck, which stopped me pinning my hands on the withers and restricting them over a jump, but also taught me to keep elbows flexible and become more in tune with the neck movement over a jump. Holding the mane also gave some support as I learnt my jumping position. Nowadays, I find people quite reluctant to hold the mane, opting for the neckstrap instead. However, the neckstrap sits at the base of the neck so only encourages a rider to fold and lean on their hands for support and stability.

Ultimately, the only way to overcome this trait is to jump without reins. Which can only effectively be done if the lower leg and upper body are fairly established and balanced. I love sending my riders down a little grid with their reins tied in a knot; it makes such dramatic improvements! If a rider is not balanced enough for this I may do some jumping position on the flat or over poles with one arm out to the side, or just encourage my rider to correct the position of their hands and lift them up from the horse’s neck. At the other extreme, is the rider who throws their hands forward in a bid to ensure they don’t jab their horse in the mouth. I often see riders going from one extreme to the other before finding a happy medium. With those with overzealous hands, I find it helpful to put a band in the mane for then to grab to aim for. The band being just below the half way point to try and train the hands to “follow the movement of the head, not overtake it”. As with the upper body folding, less give with the hands is needed over smaller jumps, but I feel it still paramount to ensure novice riders understand the correct hand position so that they do not jab the horse in the mouth as the jump height increase. Finally, along with ensuring the hands follow the horse’s movement, is checking that the rider is not sticking their elbows out – pushing the hands up the mane usually prevents these chicken wings!

Of course, no one’s perfect, and our individual conformation can make the ideal jump position hard to perfect, but if we know what we are aiming for then we will be as stable and secure as possible over jumps, which helps our horses jump in a balanced and unhindered way.

Jumping is Dressage with Speed Bumps

I’ve been working with a new combination over the summer; an eleven year old girl and her new 15hh horse, with a history of showing and showjumping.

They have been the perfect example of how improving the flatwork improves the jumping. Initially, they could barely get over a line of trot or canter poles. Not because the horse was green, but because he needs to be ridden correctly. Which is a big learning curve for any child moving up from kick and point ponies.

We started the summer improving their relationship on the flat; exploring the concept of rhythm, improving rider position, developing the idea of riding leg to hand. These all began to improve their straightness and balance.

As this improved, the jumping and polework became easier; they had fewer run outs, maintained a rhythm to and from a fence and were more balanced. We did gridwork which helped the transition from polework to jumping, and helped my rider adjust from a pony’s pop to a horse’s bascule.

I then turned my attention to the quality of the gaits, and improving my rider’s feel for a poor trot or canter and her ability to improve them. I mainly did this on the flat, but then I started to notice (which is very common) that my rider was improving on the flat, but not making the connection to that work with her jumping. She got more confident, wanted to jump bigger, and then little problems started to creep in.

With the typical “urgh flatwork” reaction that a lot of kids give, I decided to do a jump lesson without focusing on the jumps. Of course, she went over the jumps, but all my critiquing was on the flat, to hopefully help my rider understand the importance of her flatwork.

I erected the jumps to a reasonable size – big enough that if she didn’t ride the approach correctly then her horse would politely duck out, yet small enough that she wasn’t concerned about the height. As she warmed up we discussed rhythm, impulsion, how reactive he was to the aids, riding from leg to hand, balance on the turns etc.

She warmed up over a simple cross pole on a diagonal line across the school; the first time off the left rein the canter was a bit flat but she got away with it. The second time she held a better rhythm and kept the canter together and rounder so that the jump was more of an extreme canter stride with a better bascule. I focused her on the quality of the canter and let the feel over the jump do the teaching.

We changed the rein, so she was coming off a right turn. Now, I’ve been drumming into her all summer about her pony drifting through the left shoulder, improving her left contact and use of the left leg. Which is improving on the flat but goes out the window once jumps come on the scene.

As expected, they drifted left, her pony loaded his left shoulder and they had a clunky jump. I put myself on the outside of the turn the next time and had her ride a squarer turn without using her right rein. This kept her horse in slight outside bend, controlled the shoulder, and improved their vertical balance and accuracy to the fence. Which led to a much better jump.

We repeated this a few times, made the fence an upright, and it started to come together nicely.

Next, was a double off the dreaded right rein. They jumped it fine when it wasn’t particularly big, and could get away with a crooked, flat canter approach, but once the fence increased to 80cm, when my rider drifted around her right turn and let the canter fall apart her pony either skirted left around it, or got in very deep. Again, I focused on the flatwork and as soon as my rider was riding from leg to hand, riding squarer corners, and kept the impulsion and rhythm balance to the take off point, they flew the fences nicely, making the horse striding easily. He’s only a little horse so easily falls into pony strides if he gets deep to the first fence but the jumps are awkward and he risks knocking the front rail.

I turned my rider’s attention briefly to her recovery after the fence; sitting up quicker and assessing the quality of the canter. It was more to increase her awareness and give her something to mull over in the next couple of weeks rather than a big teaching subject for the day.

Next, we started to link the course together, discussing the time and space between the fences rather than the time in the air. As my rider rode around the course I talked her through the balance of the canter, the outside aids, the straightness of their approach. When she got it, they flew!

However, when she let the canter get sloppy, for want of a better term, they got in deep to the jump and scrambled over it. When she stopped riding around the turn and presumed her pony would take her over the jump, he drifted left around it. There were good parts to the course, and this really emphasised the importance of her approach and canter, and equally she could really see the contrast between the great parts and the “get over by the skin of your teeth” jumps.

We then rode the elements she’d found hardest, talking through the changes she needed to make before going, and there was a definite improvement by the end.

I’m hoping that the takeaway message from today’s jumping lesson was not jump orientated, but more of an awareness of the quality of her canter and her horse’s balance on turns.. She can practice this on the flat and as part of her warm up, and it will in turn benefit her dressage. Which I think she’ll focus more on it when she understands how much it helps her ride a smooth, flowing, balanced course clear.

After all, showjumping is just dressage with speed bumps. Get the bits on the flat right, and the jumping is easy. Sneaking flatwork into a jump lesson is often the only way to get young riders to see purpose to their flatwork and motivate them to improve it for the sake or their jumping.

Jumping Away From Home

August started off with an absolutely crazy week recovering from Pony Club camp week and judging Demi Dressage tests. Which means my blog has been neglected. But let’s start afresh with one of my latest challenges.

One of my clients has a lovely pony who is perfectly capable jumping at home, but gets a cricket score whenever they go out jumping. Since lockdown they’ve been focusing on arena hire, getting him out and about. But they’ve found themselves stuck in the cycle of one refusal, then he jumps the jump fine. By the end of the session he’s jumping beautifully, but of course that’s not the way a showjumping competition works!

This week I went along with them to see if we can break the cycle.

I had my rider warm up quickly, purposefully keeping away from the fillers and jumps. Meanwhile, I put all the jumps at about 50-60cm, with a central gap between the fillers.

We used the first, plain jump as a warm up fence and made a plan. My rider expects her pony to refuse so rides expecting a stop. The pony stops and once he’s stopped he uses it as an excuse to stop at the next jump. A self fulfilling prophecy. With the jumps as low as they were, he could jump them from a standstill. Therefore the pony learnt that he only had one option – forwards – and that going left, right or backwards wasn’t an option. My rider had to set him up in a straight line, use her seat to send him forwards and channel him straight with the leg and hand. She needed to ride slightly defensively yet positively so that she wasn’t giving him any vibes to have second thoughts. If he stopped, he had to walk over the jump between the fillers. So there was no turning away.

My rider jumped the first, plain fence to set them both up into a positive, rhythmical canter. They came around the corner and he screeched to a halt at the fillers on the first part of the double. She sat back, used her legs and he jerked over the fence unelegantly before trotting over the second element. They picked up canter and approached number three on a long dog leg, with bright, white fillers. He backed off, thought about stopping, but my rider rode so determinedly that he cat leapt over it from a slow trot.

But then the penny dropped. And for the rest of the round, the pony started taking his rider into the fences, fillers and all, without hesitation. Of course, his rider still had to be on the ball and not become complacent, but they seemed to be reading from the same page.

I adjusted the jumps for their second round, bringing the fillers closer and the jumps higher. Again, this went smoothly. Number two caused a problem again, but it was because their approach wasn’t straight rather than anything else. The rest of the course was confident and flowed very nicely.

The third round was up at 70-80cm, with all the fillers underneath the jumps, so much more like a showjumping competition. They flew this time, with my rider not looking twice at the fences.

Finally, I put some oxers in and turned two fillers around so it was a different image at the front. I didn’t want to have them repeating the jumps too many times as they had nothing to prove with the height, but I wanted to keep putting in new questions now that we’d changed both mindsets and broken the cycle.

The ninth jump didn’t cause an issue at all with the change of filler and addition of a back rail, but number two did. When he stopped, I moved the fillers slightly and put the pole down so he could still walk forwards over the jump. Turning around wasn’t an option. As the rest of the course flowed so nicely, with no hesitation, I turned our attention to jump two before we finished.

As the pony was getting tired, I lowered the first jump to a cross as it’s purpose was to set up the canter and start the jumping course. We focused on having counter flexion on the turn to stop him falling through his outside shoulder, and then channelled him positively. He stopped again, but it looked to be more of a test of rider than anything else. I moved the fence again so he wasn’t turned in a circle, and jumped it. We repeated the exercise and then he jumped boldly over, although my rider couldn’t let her guard down! After the double she jumped the third jump, so that they were finishing on a fence where he wasn’t backing off at all.

Next time, I want to start in a similar fashion, with only one warm up fence, and the fillers will start at the side, but closer together and the fences slightly bigger. But still small enough that they can be jumped from a sticky trot. Then hopefully we will progress to jumping with the fillers underneath the jumps quicker. My aim is to give the pony a positive, confidence building experience whilst ensuring that he learns that forwards is the only way to go when cantering towards a jump. In the meantime I want my rider to continue riding so positively, be more aware of how she is setting him up in terms of straightness and the use of her aids, yet starting to change her mindset from “he’s going to stop” to “he will jump it”. Once they can get to a training venue and jump a clear round straight away they can progress to clear rounds and competitions.

Phoenix and Cross Country

Phoenix’s cross country education has been a bit stop-start due to one thing and another. Her first summer with me I didn’t feel she was ready to go cross country schooling and the ground was rock hard. The second summer she was bolting in canter in the spring so with cracks in our relationship and very hard grouuhnd I only got her out a couple of times over solid fences. My plan of getting her over solid fences last autumn and this spring were scuppered with storms and covid respectively.

Anyway, now hopefully we’re back to some normality, I’m hoping to further her education across country over the next three months.

So how do you plan a progressive cross country session? You don’t want to out face a green horse, but equally they need to learn new skills and build confidence. It’s a skill I’m working on from both a rider and a teaching perspective, so I can develop inexperienced riders on the cross country as well as give inexperienced horses valuable, positive training.

I use the warm up as time to play around with the gears of the trot and canter, getting the horse responsive to the aids, checking the steering, and assessing how the horse feels on the terrain. Are they confident under foot, slipping, or finding it hard to keep their balance down hill. Then I focus on any weak areas for the rest of the warm up. With a green horse I’ll ride them near the jumps, circling round them and settling them so their eyes aren’t out on stalks. Last weekend when I took Phoenix out cross country schooling she was much less “looky” at all the jumps during our warm up, settling into a rhythm immediately and being attentive to my aids.

If a horse hasn’t seen water then I won’t do this, but I usually incorporate water into the warm up; trotting and cantering through the water. This helps teach a horse that water is no big deal, and for the greener horse it reminds them of the water question.

Once warmed up I find an inviting, plain jump well within their comfort zone height wise and then jump that a few times until the horse settles into cross country mode. The first jump should be done from a showjumping perspective; upright, three point position and a balanced, controlled canter. Just in case the horse hasn’t got the memo about it being cross country, and has a stop, or thinks twice about it. Last week Phoenix hadn’t gotten the cross country memo and was very green over the first few jumps with me ending up by her ears a couple of times! With an inexperienced horse, it is best to approach in the three point position as you are more secure with any sticky moments or awkward leaps over the jump. Approaching in a steadier canter gives the horse more time to assess and process the jump, which hopefully leads to better understanding by them and they grow in confidence.

I start to string some straightforward jumps together, starting to open up into a cross country canter and two point position as the jumps become more familiar, but revert to the showjumping approach over new, fences which might cause the horse to back off. I find it best with green horses to get them started with the first fences so that they find their rhythm and then add in a couple of new fences. Each subsequent “course” uses jumps the horse has already jumped before introducing new jumps, as they’re more likely to pop straight over because they’re travelling forwards and in “the zone”.

After riding a few courses, I then do something less physically challenging for the horse, but still mentally stimulating. I’ll go and play at the steps. We walk up and down some steps, taking it steadily so that the horse has the opportunity to study and understand the question. For some reason, steps seem to puzzle Phoenix so I take it back to basics each schooling session and give her plenty of time to process the steps. Each time it’s taking her less time to work out where her legs go and how. By walking the steps you give a horse time to look at, process and understand the situation. This means that they will be confident in similar situations because they know the correct response. Whilst this takes time and patience, in the long run you’ll never be caught out with a sudden stop or hesitation.

I develop the step work so that the horse is trotting up and down them, linking it in with a course, and then cantering them when they feel bold and confident.

Next is another short course, using familiar jumps as well as posing new questions and perhaps linking in the water to remind the horse what it is. Before I find another technical challenge for them. Of course, this assumes that they horse has coped well with everything so far.

With ditches, I use the same approach of walking over them a few times, before trotting and then linking jumps in and cantering over them. The idea is to go as far as the horse is comfortable. So if walking over a ditch is enough of a drama for today then that’s fine. Jumps can be integrated, but the ditch can still be walked over.

By then I usually feel that both horse and rider are reaching the limits of their learning capacity for the session, but if I have time then I will finish with one or two courses which revise what they have learnt over the session. The jumps don’t have to be the biggest they’ve jumped all day, or new questions, but a simple course popping through the water, over the ditch and steps will mimic a cross country course and prove a horse’s understanding and confidence to finish on a very positive note.

The next time I go out with them I fully expect to have to revise the technical elements, but the plan is to give them such a positive, confidence building experience that they come out next time bolder and less looky. So we start from stage 2 rather than stage 1. And progress through the stages quicker, with only a short revision session, and then we can build on the size and technicality of the lines between fences and make that step from just cantering through water to jumping into or out of water and so on.

Teaching Outside The Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Back into Jumping

I had my first jump with Phoenix for three months last weekend. I didn’t jump her initially during lockdown and then the ground has been so hard I haven’t wanted to use the jumping paddock. I was going to hire a training venue, but then saw a local gridwork clinic so decided that was a better option. Phoenix benefits from lots of grids to stop her rushing and engaging her brain, but it always involves so much getting on and off to adjust poles! Yes, I am lazy!

Anyway, the layout was excellent and I shall be using it for my own clients, so watch out!

There was a grid of three jumps placed on the centre line, one stride between each one and the middle jump on X. Then across the diagonals, between M and X, and H and X, were three canter poles, before one stride and the pole at X.

The session was all about straightness so we warmed up cantering straight across the diagonals, obviously traversing the pole at X on an angle. We worked on riding the corner in a balanced way so that we were straight over the poles and didn’t drift. Then the second and third canter poles were converted into bounces, as alternate diagonal poles. This meant that if you drifted towards the lower side over the first pole you had to jump the higher side of the next pole.

Once the raised canter poles were established and the horses confident over them and staying fairly straight the jump at X was raised to an upright and we jumped diagonally across the arena a few times.

Phoenix tends to load her right shoulder when jumping. She used to do it on the flat but as she’s getting stronger she’s carrying it more, but when caught up in the excitement of jumping she will regress to loading it. Which means that this exercise, particularly off the left rein, is highly beneficial.

The exercise is actually very straightforward if you can ride a straight line. The bounces help lift the shoulders, engage the hocks, and subsequently the upright is cleared easily and neatly. Sometimes when jumping on an angle a horse is inclined to drift through the open side. Partly because of the visual effect of the jump drawing them outwards, partly because the horse is crooked, and partly because the rider isn’t channelling their horse straight with the leg and hand. If you have the foundation right in your flatwork then the jumps will follow.

The next exercise was building the centre line grid up to two uprights and an oxer. The work across the diagonals developing straightness was put to the test with uprights and very little to guide the eye. The improved bascule and confidence in the horse’s jump also shows the benefits of improving their straightness.

We rode courses, linking all three lines up, and then finally changed the angled bounces to an upright, making a one stride double with the jump at X.

Having a lot of poles definitely helped Phoenix slow down and think about the job in hand, and the straightness work improved her bascule and ability to make related distances easy in a regular rhythm. Watch out clients, you’ll see some similar exercises soon!

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.