Containing The Excitement

I’m working separately with two teenagers at the moment to try to retrain their (funnily enough, both) mares so that their jumping isn’t so fast and furious. Both horses are experienced jumpers, but very quick in the air, and very fast on the approach.

Now, I don’t think you’re ever going to completely change a horse’s way of jumping, in that some have more scope than others, some prefer a slower, more collected canter approach, and others like the leg applied on take-off more than others, and so on. However, correct training can enhance a horse’s jumping technique, and there are lots of exercises to help correct undesirable jumping behaviours. I don’t expect either horse to stop being forwards to a fence, but I aim to have them politer and steadier on the approach so that it is safer and less hair-raising for their riders.

With one mare, I started off with a pole on the ground between two wings and incorporated it into their warm up. I had my rider walk and trot over the pole, using it within circles, and basically doing flatwork around the pole, going over it every so often calmly, and when it’s least expected. This takes away the novelty factor of jumping and poles, and reduces the amount of repetition and so stops her anticipating jumping.

Initially, she made quite a thing about the pole, jumping it and cantering off. So we repeated the calm and quiet approach, with my rider staying positive but neutral. She just went with the pony over the jump before calmly slowing her down. Then there was no negative connotation between the rider and the jump.

What I liked about this mare, and I don’t know her very well, was that she was very obedient to her rider’s downward aids. She was happy to let her rider influence her. I did think that her jumping was almost a bit panicked, so I hope that by slowing her down she learns to read and understand the question, so begin to enjoy jumping more. The important thing though, is that she was willing to work with her rider, and seems to become steadier each time.

I built the jump up slowly, and we focused on my rider aiming to trot the approach to the jump by half halting strongly until a couple of strides out when the hand is softened and the seat and leg tells the horse to go and jump. After the jump, my rider had to sit up quickly and ask the pony to come back to trot.

We varied this basic approach by using circles on the approach, transitions to walk (a good exercise was trotting towards the pole on the ground, walking over the pole, and trotting away), and varying the length of the approach. She started to listen to her rider and stayed in trot until a couple of strides off the jump, and was fairly quick to trot again after the jump. I emphasised to her rider that she shouldn’t interfere on the last couple of strides so that her pony could sort her legs out. The pony should be at the tempo and rhythm set by her rider on the approach and getaway, but ultimately they have to jump the jump so shouldn’t be hindered.

The other mare will jump an exercise very calmly the first time, but then she gets over excited and gets quicker and quicker. So I change the exercise promptly, only doing each level once or twice – making a cross an upright, or changing the rein, adding in another element etc. And my rider tries to keep the trot and rides a circle or two, or three, on the approach until the mare stops anticipating the jump. The circle shouldn’t be too close to the jump that the pony thinks she is being pulled out of the jump, and it should be planned by the rider. Using a combination of changing the exercise and using numerous circles on the approach we managed to get a steadier approach, but there was a fine balance between containing the excitement and not frustrating this mare as she then has the tendency to explode and go even faster to the jump!

With both mares, I’ve found that avoiding simple jumps helps slow them down and get them thinking about the obstacles. This week, I built a grid of one pole and a canter stride to a small upright, then one canter stride to a cross. I had my rider walk over the first pole, then ride forwards to the little upright. I was really pleased that the pony walked happily over the pole and my rider could then ride positively to the jumps, instead of having to restrain the mare. We only did this grid twice because she jumped it so calmly and quietly. I want to build up to trotting over the first pole and then calmly cantering the grid.

When working with a horse who tends to rush fences it’s important that the rider has an unflappable demeanour, and a strong core so that they can hold the horse together before and after jumps, yet calmly stay in balance over the fence and don’t pull the horse in the mouth or get left behind in the air.

It can be difficult to retrain a horse to jump, but with a consistent approach of calm, quiet riding and using a variety of approaches to keep the horse focused on their rider and not rushing to the jumps. I also find that not repeating exercises too often, and returning to flatwork for a few minutes between jumps to resettle the horse has beneficial effects. As a horse starts to slow down and keep a more rhythmical approach to a jump their bascule will improve as well, which will help improve their posture and muscle tone, so making their jumping easier and prolonging their working life.

The Accuracy Clinic

I had the third of my winter clinics this weekend, and for once the rain stayed away!

The theme was accuracy, which developed the straightness work of the first clinic, using skinny fences and jumping on an angle.

In the centre of the school I placed the skinny fence. Then I strode out three horse canter strides to a jump in front and behind the centre jump, which meant there was a grid of three fences with three strides between each jump. A pony would get four strides between the jumps.

Then, from the skinny jump, I walked diagonally, again for three canter strides, and built another fence. The line I walked meant that the fences were jumped on an angle. I added another three fences so that they formed two diagonal lines of three fences, with the skinny jump in the centre. To help my riders find their line, I used narrow white rails as tramlines.

I warmed up the riders in trot and canter, getting them to ride the lines so that the horses stopped looking at the tramlines or wobbling as they stepped over the poles on an angle. The riders could also focus on how they rode their corners on the approach and getaway without the complication of having fences.

Once everyone’s lines were flowing over the poles, I put up the fences. I had the skinny jump as an upright and all of the others as crosses to help guide my riders’ eye to the middle of the fences. We started by jumping the central line. Having the skinny jump in the middle meant that riders had to maintain their straightness between the jumps, not letting their horse drift slightly. As long as they had an even rein contact with legs draped evenly around their horse, this line flowed nicely and was fairly straightforward. Horses sometimes back off a narrow fence, so in order to keep the line flowing, the riders had to be positive between the first and second fence without chasing them out of their rhythm.

If a rider steers predominantly with their reins, they end up with a snake like effect, wiggling between the jumps, so this is a useful exercise for encouraging riders to use their legs to steer the body of the horse and keep a stiller hand.

Next, we progressed to riding the diagonal lines. The secret was to ride deep into the corner before the first jump, and focus on the final cross. Think of riding the fences as one combination, rather than separate elements, as this helps the line flow. The horses naturally back off when jumping on an angle as the ground lines can be a bit deceiving, and they usually fitted in an extra stride. Once my riders had gotten their eye in, they could use more leg between the fences to encourage their horse to take them to the next fence. The riders had to commit The reins were usually quieter by now, and the horse travelling between leg and hand, which improved the shape they made over jumps, improved their rhythm and tempo, and the rider became more in sync with the horse and the lines rode more fluidly and accurately, I put together a course. Jump the centre line, turn left and jump on her diagonal line followed by the other diagonal line and finally back up the centre line in reverse. This turned the focus to linking the jumps together, getting a good jumping canter immediately, using all of the arena to set up the line.

The improvement in all the horses and riders was great to see; the jumping rhythm improved, and both horse and rider were committed to their jumping line, and jumping in a straighter fashion over the fences, with a cleaner bascule because they thought they were jumping on an angle so the take of point wasn’t as clear as it could have been. Definitely a good challenge for anyone who feels they they or their horse drift whilst jumping or between elements.

Finding the Problem

When you have an undesirable behaviour in the horse, such as refusing jumps, napping etc it can be so difficult to find the cause.

Once a horse has had their saddles, feet, legs, backs, teeth checked for ill fit or injury, very often the unwanted behaviour is labelled as a ‘behavioural problem’ and has very negative connotations. All to often I see aggressive reactions to the unwanted behaviour, which often compounds the problem.

Once you’ve identified that there’s no physical cause for a behaviour then it’s a matter of understanding the horse’s mental state. Horses react to the current situation, they don’t plan in advance to cause trouble or refuse to comply with their rider. An interesting article went round social media last week which explained this well – take a look here.

So if you have a behaviour, such as napping or rearing, and you’ve found the underlying cause to be an injury or poorly fitting saddle; you’ve fixed the physical cause, but your horse still naps, then it is caused by their mental state and in order to correct the behaviour you need to get inside their head and do it slowly.

I’ve just started working with a horse who started refusing or grinding to a halt before a fence and cat leaping it. After some weeks of troublesome jumping, a small injury was diagnosed and he was subsequently rested and then brought back into work. However, his behaviour whilst jumping continued.

Unfortunately, he can’t speak English and tell us the problem, but we can listen and respond to his body language. I believe that the horse had pain association with jumping, because of the injury, and then because he was cat leaping he wasn’t comfortable jumping, regardless of the fact his injury had healed. Whilst he had his injury, he’d have had a physical limitation when jumping, and if faced with jumps beyond this ability (even if they were within his usual ability) he would have lost confidence in both himself and his rider. This creates a vicious cycle of him not wanting to jump, despite the fact he has been given a clean bill of health.

Because he hasn’t wanted to jump, he’s become rather backwards thinking on the flat, so the first thing I did when I rode him was get him thinking forwards. I’ve given him very light hands, to support him as necessary, but in no way acting as a handbrake. Every transition has prioritised over him responding to the aids, and going forwards, even if his head isn’t in the ideal position. I want him to move his body as required in order to do the requested movement so that he realises that it doesn’t hurt and that he can do it. We can tweak movements in the future to improve his way of going.

This week, to help his jumping, we used canter poles to encourage the canter to stay forwards, and then once he was taking me into the poles, we added a jump to the end of the poles. The jump wasn’t too small that he would trip over it, nor was it too big to be outside his comfort zone. The poles kept the canter forwards, regulated his stride and positioned the horse in the correct place to take off. This would give the horse some positive experiences over the jump, so rebuilding his confidence and ensuring he didn’t have any twinges from jumping awkwardly. As the horse became bolder, I lengthened the poles so that he wasn’t quite so close to the jump on take off. Starting with the poles closer than ideal and lengthening the distances slowly stopped the horse even thinking about chipping in before the jump.

Once he was confident in cantering three poles to a jump with no strides between, I removed the third pole, so that the two poles set up his canter, and he just had to keep the momentum going for one stride before the jump. We repeated this work off both reins, until I felt he’d done enough. He needed a certain amount of repetition to build good associations with jumping, but not so many that he became tired and be more likely to falter.

Next time, the plan is to build a simple related distance. There will be two poles on the approach to the first jump, as we’ve already done, which will put him in a good canter and give him a good jump over the first element. Then he has to maintain that canter for two strides before the second jump. Then we’ll increase it to three strides between the two jumps, then four and so on. The purpose of this is so that he learns to jump the single fence without poles to help, but by setting him up at the beginning with poles we can ensure he isn’t likely to fail or back off the jump. Again, the jumps won’t be big, but I may make them uprights instead of cross poles to give him something else to think about. Not having them high means that as well as not having any pain association from jumping awkwardly, his injured leg will get stronger and hopefully he’ll stop anticipating any pain from that site. Then we’ll continue along this theme with other grid work type exercises until he doesn’t have negative associations with jumping, and is confident in his own ability again.

With any “behavioural” problem I think it’s best to identify the triggers for the behaviour and then work on calmly and quietly giving your horse a few positive experiences so that the habit is broken, and they begin to build trust in their rider and themselves in that situation, then you can adjust the situation; for example if your horse naps at a particular spot out hacking on their own, ride, long line or lead past the spot in company until they have had some good experiences there, before perhaps riding first past that spot in a group instead of following their friend, and then venture there on your own. Strip back the environment/activity and provide emotional support from your horse from others, people on the ground, anything, and then as the event becomes calmer and stress-free, take away their support slowly as they become more confident and less reactive to that set of triggers.

Adjustability to the Canter

I’ve talked recently about transitions within the gait, and using the idea of a scale of 1-10 to help get the idea of different gears and transitioning between them.

This month’s clinic had the theme gears to the gait, so I concocted an exercise and lesson plan to improve the rider’s feel for their canter, improve their horse’s adjustability, as well as improving their overall canter.

I had my riders warm up in working trot, working between a 4-trot and a 6-trot while I assessed them and made corrections to their position and way of going. We did the same in canter, and even just by riding small transitions the horses started to use their hindquarters more, to lift their shoulders and get more power to their trot and canter.

Next up we started working through a related distance: it was walked as three horse strides and four pony strides to accommodate all sizes and stride lengths. I had them jumping the related distance, with reasonably sized cross poles until the horses had settled into their usual jumping rhythm and were jumping the fences appropriately. Not too big, yet not being complacent and tripping over the fence. Once we knew how many strides a horse got between the two fences when in canter gear five, we could start to make some changes.

Firstly, I asked my riders to approach the related distance in a more collected canter – fourth gear – and to see if they could hold the canter together between the fences to get an extra stride in. Some horses manage this easily, but others who lock on to a line are less adjustable and tend to launch over the second jump rather than fit in a small stride. Not naming any names Phoenix…

To help anyone who struggled to keep a shorter canter between two fences I had a slightly different experience. I asked them to jump the first fence and then ride a circle away from the second jump, of 10-15m before jumping the second element. I laid a pole out to help them scribe a circle. It could become a jump if necessary.

Doing this circle exercise a few times helps the horse maintain a more collected canter, teaches them not to lock on to a jump too early, they become more responsive to the rider’s half halts, and pretty soon they start to fit in that extra stride in the related distance.

When the exercise is ridden well in fourth gear, there should be four regular strides between the two fences. It’s vital that the rider sets up the more collected canter early in the approach, rather than trying to adjust the canter in the middle. It usually takes a couple of attempts to get the four regular strides, rather than progressively shorter strides between the jumps.

Then it’s time to lengthen the canter over the jumps. When you jump from a more extended canter the horse’s bascule will change as their take off point moves further back and the arc they make becomes longer. Think of steeplechasers. A lot of horses here will fall onto the forehand as they try to pull themselves along, and then they aren’t in the best position to jump so can either chip in or bring the fence down with their front legs. The answer is to practice lengthening the canter on the flat and over canter poles to build the strength in the hindquarters.

Once my riders could adjust the number of strides between the related distance we moved on towards dog legs and built a simple course, but with the added challenge of trying to get a different number of strides in each related distance. The dog leg distances were all walked as three horse strides or four pony strides as well, so I challenged my riders to jump round changing between their fourth, fifth and sixth gear canters.

Each jump could be jumped from each direction, and the easiest course was to progressively lengthen the canter throughout. Starting in fourth gear and then finishing in sixth gear. Harder, was starting in sixth gear, dropping straight to fourth and then back up again.

By the end of the sessions the horses were all more adjustable in their canter, were better balanced and more uphill in all the gears. And the riders had a better feel and understanding of the canter they needed to create before jumps.

So how does this impact your course riding? Well, at competitions there is a measured distance between jumps, but when you’re walking the course and striding out the distances you may discover that the distance is a bit short or long for your horse’s normal jumping canter. In order to jump smoothly and be in the best position to go clear the stride length of your canter needs to be adjusted to best fit the distance. So when you walk the course you can start to plan your gears on the approach to jumps to best ride the getaway and hopefully go clear!

Teaching a Range of Abilities

One thing being a Pony Club instructor teaches you is to think on your feet and teach multiple abilities in one lesson.This is what happened to me today. Although, I did have the advantage of knowing most of the children and having been briefed on them all a couple of days in advance so I could make a plan.

The secret, I think, to managing multiple abilities in one group, is to have a layered lesson plan. This means that there is something for each rider to do or learn. For the lower level riders part of the content will go straight over their head. And for the more able, some will be revision. But you can keep them involved by asking them to demonstrate or explain to the others.

Today’s ride consisted of one fairly confident rider, jumping 60-70cm, a more nervous jockey on her new pony currently jumping 50cm. A very nervous rider jumping 40cm, and two young brothers – one just off the lead rein in walk and trot.

I put four yellow cones in the corners of the arena, to ensure none of them were cutting their corners. The older ones needed the odd reminder when they got complacent, and the younger ones liked having a visual point to steer round.

They all warmed up as a ride, with the led pony at the back so that they could walk before his leader went into cardiac arrest. They could also cut the corners and stand in the middle to rest without disrupting the flow of the ride. Whilst they trotted I made individual positional corrections, and then I started teaching them to turn with their shoulders and look where they are going more. They had to imagine there were headlights on their shoulders and they had to light up the track in front of the pony. This is something even the youngest could grasp. I asked the more experienced ones which direction was easier to turn so that they started thinking about their riding and could make their own improvements. Of course, I asked the youngest two too so that they felt included, and as I think it’s important to encourage a flow of conversation. The fact that they picked left or right at random was neither here nor there. They spoke to me, and felt part of the lesson which was the important part.

They cantered individually. The older three trotted circles before the canter, the boys were led. Canter wasn’t the main focus of the lesson, and working individually meant I could tailor it to suit everyone whilst remaining safe. If I hadn’t cantered the more advanced three would have felt short changed.

Jumping is where it gets tricky to manage different heights, so I laid out two exercises. On the three quarter line I put three fences, and put a pair of cones on the approach, getaway, and between each jump. This was to focus the riders on steering straight throughout the exercise.

On the centre line I laid three trot poles, then a fairly big gap, before a jump. Again, with cones to help them stay straight.

The trio of jumps were for the more competent jumpers, whilst the trot pole formation was for the lead rein and nervous ones.

My instructions and aims were the same, but I could build the jumps up to accommodate the two groups. The hardest part for everyone was steering straight after the jumps, and my poor cones got some battering there. Because we had the focus of the jumping on their steering the height of the jumps became irrelevant.

The three jumps were used for the two riders jumping over 50cm. For the final go, I left it so the girl on her new pony could have a more confident turn and ended on a positive note, before putting it up a bit higher for the more able rider on her last turn.

My very nervous rider started off confident and trying to keep up with her friends, going over the warm up three, but as they got bigger she diverted to the other set up. Which was fine; she didn’t feel belittled because she’d chosen the smaller exercise, yet was happy that she’d been comfortable enough to try the bigger exercise.

The trotting poles were aimed at the younger boys; the poles tested their balance and the jump was minute so they could start moving their hands forwards over the fence before we develop their jumping position. The ponies just trotted through, but the boys liked having a different shaped pole to go over.

I think all the children took away the same points from the lesson; such as turning their shoulders in the direction of movement, and the importance of steering straight when jumping. Sure, the little ones were only be following my directions without really understanding the concept, whereas the older riders were starting to grasp the theory and can now begin to apply it at home by themselves. The cones gave them all instant feedback; the older ones cringed when they knocked a cone over, realising they needed to work harder to maintain straightness. The younger ones just grinned and giggled as they trotted between the cones with the help of their leaders and hopefully they will remember riding between cones in the future for when they’re taking more ownership of their riding.

Developing layered lesson plans definitely takes practice, and they’re not the easiest to deliver, but they’re the most rewarding when you have so many happy and satisfied riders and parents.

Back To Basics

A fellow coach and I were discussing this subject a couple of weeks ago, and we thought it should move into the public eye more.

There’s a huge trend at the moment for grassroots riders to have one off lessons with different coaches. These might be clinics organised by riding clubs, or camps.

I firmly believe that a rider should have one regular instructor until they reach the point when they are knowledgeable and confident enough in their own goals and abilities, with a thorough all-round grounding, that they can choose the specialist lessons which will complement their aims, learning style, and current instructor. I’m currently reading a book “Two Minds, One Aim” by Eric Smiley, and I thought it was interesting that he didn’t promote the idea of going to lots of different teachers.

The trouble with going to different instructors for one-off lessons is that they have to assess you very quickly, and have to deliver something near to the lesson on offer. When actually the horse and rider combination may not be at a suitable level, or it’s a bad day for both.

What I mean is that, if a showjumping coach is offering a jumping clinic and a pair turn up who are not established enough on the flat or as a partnership to successfully achieve the jumping exercise planned then the lesson could go badly wrong.

Now there are two options for the coach. Firstly, they can ignore the weaknesses of the pair and hope that they don’t crash and burn over the jumping exercise. The client will feel that they’ve had their value for money because they’ve done lots of jumps, jumped high, or have completed a tricky exercise.

Whether they can replicate it in future, or did it in any great style is left unsaid.

Alternatively, the coach can go right back to basics, make some adjustments and have the majority of the lesson on the flat, before jumping lower than the rider might have expected to, but with much more style and ease.

I recently went for a jump lesson with a BS trainer. I tend to always use her, but lessons are infrequent. The first half hour is always focusing on our flatwork. The flatwork content differs from what we do in our dressage lessons, but only in topics; the fundamentals are the same. What I mean, is that currently in my dressage lessons we’ve worked on lateral work and encouraging Phoenix to let me position her body in different ways. In the last jump lesson I had we focused on transitions within the gaits, which is also helping me teach Phoenix to allow me to adjust her, but is aiming to improve our performance in the air rather than on the flat.

Some people would be disappointed that so long was spent on the flat, but by fine tuning the flatwork, the jumping section went smoothly and built confidence because each question we were asked was achieved easily. This means that less time needs to be spent jumping because fewer attempts are needed to perfect the exercise, and you risk falling into the trap of repetition. Did the jumps go to her maximum height? No. But as the focus was on our approach rather than proving how big she can jump, they didn’t need to be big, and if anything needed to be a height that it didn’t matter if she made a mistake on the approach.

However, some people would come away disappointed with this special one-off jump lesson because in their eyes they failed the lesson requirement: they didn’t jump the height they’re capable of, and they spent more time on the flat than jumping. But actually, this sort of lesson is safer for all involved, reinforces the basic building blocks which means that the jumping comes easily, builds confidence because the jumping goes smoothly, and provides homework which can be practised with whatever facilities you have available at home, and sets both horse and rider up for a longer, active partnership.

Unfortunately, trying to give immediate lesson satisfaction means that some trainers who run clinics, end up bypassing the basics, losing the quality to their teaching, and putting horse and rider in potentially compromising positions. Yet, they get positive feedback because the riders jumped “their biggest fence ever!” or felt that they got sufficient jumps for their money.

How can this be changed? Firstly, by educating the rider on the fact that “showjumping is dressage with speed bumps” and that improving their flatwork will improve their jumping. And that they will learn something from a clinic, even if it is in an unexpected area.

Then we need to encourage trainers, most of whom know the value of correct basics, to be confident enough in themselves to spend the time with one-off clients on the basics and setting them up for long term success over jumps, rather than putting a sticky plaster over the flatwork weaknesses and letting them scramble through the jumping exercise. This is difficult though, because the trainer risks a less than flourishing report unless they have one of the enlightened riders I mentioned in the paragraph before.

It needs to be discussed though, because in our current society of musical coaches, there is a real risk of a horse and rider having an accident because the coach has failed to revise and instill the basics.

A First Jumping Lesson

I gave a pair their first jumping lesson this week. The rider has jumped before, but is bringing on her ex-broodmare slowly. We loose jumped her a couple of months ago to see if she actually knew what to do, but otherwise have focused on her flatwork to build her muscle and strength. Canter is coming along slowly with the help of poles to help her find the rhythm.Anyway, they had a go jumping over the weekend and felt it was a bit chaotic, so I decided to give them a better experience of leaving the ground.After focusing on transitions within the gaits whilst warming up, and getting the mare bending and thinking about her rider’s aids. I laid out three canter poles between K and E on the track. I used the track to maximise the arena so that the mare was most able to stay in balance on the turns. Her right canter is her weakest so I positioned the poles just off the corner to help them keep the canter rhythm until the poles. They could have a longer straight approach on the left canter because the mare can keep left canter together in straight lines.As is with horses, I rapidly had to move onto Plan B, when the mare decided that right canter was out of the question today. She often strikes off incorrectly, but can be helped out by a trot 10m circle before the canter transition. Not today though! There was no point banging our heads against a brick wall, getting frustrated. We’d jump out of left canter and try right another day. If she continues to struggle with it we’ll investigate further.So after trotting over the poles on the right rein, and then once on the left rein, I had them canter over the poles. The mare’s canter is currently very flat and verges on the point of four beat, so I kept the poles wide to improve her rhythm, and once her canter rhythm is established we can begin to balance it so that her haunches are under her body and she’s working her body correctly.Now it was time to leave the ground. I rolled the two poles closest to K together to make a teeny tiny cross pole. Then I rolled the third pole out so that it was a whole canter stride away from the fence. I wanted them to canter over the pole, have a whole canter stride and then pop the jump. This setup wouldn’t phase an inexperienced horse, but would put her in the right take off spot.They did it once, and met the first pole badly. With the mare only having one canter gear we have to adjust the distance of the approach so that she can fit several whole canter strides in. Which will help her jump confidently and neatly. A horse who has several gears to the canter can be adjusted to accommodate a set distance. I got my rider to ride deeper into the corner, which meant that they met the pole well the second time. I built the jump up to a bigger cross once we knew the striding and their line was right, and they flew over a couple of times, growing in confidence each time.To finish, I converted the cross pole into an upright. The biggest they’d jumped to date, but as the mare was already jumping that big over the cross pole, it was a mind over matter element for her rider. To know that they could jump it.And they did!

The plan now is to keep working on right canter, and do more canter polework to help establish the rhythm, and then using poles to help set up the mare for jumping, and to tell her where to take off until she is more experienced and has more understanding of the idea of flying.

Trying Bits

Last time I was showjumping Phoenix I wasn’t 100% happy with the bit and our approaches to jumps. She wasn’t overly strong, but the canter got a bit flat as she got confident and bold, so we almost ran downhill into the jumps. Which either meant her taking a flyer, or taking the front rail down with her knees. Or having a lucky escape! Before I start jumping her much bigger, I wanted to sort this out.

I felt there was a schooling or strength issue; if I could improve her balance in the canter then she’d find it easier to remain uphill on the approach to jumps. She’s an independent lady though, and doesn’t accept help easily. It has to be subtly offered otherwise she panics. Yes, special, I know!

I felt I needed some help with the contact to help me help her. Nothing too strong, but just different to her loose ring, double jointed lozenge snaffle.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a trip to a local showjumping venue, which has an extensive bit bank. I’d have a lesson and try alternative mouthpieces.

I explained my predicament, and was given a loose ring snaffle, with two joints. But with slightly thinner, more contoured bars, and a full moon centrepiece. So what’s the difference, I hear you say? Well, to Phoenix, it’s a slightly less friendly bit of metal in her mouth, which will discourage her from leaning on my hand, and mean I can give lighter aids. Which should help me create the more uphill canter and help her to maintain it.

We spent a lot of time on the flat – more about this subject on another blog – allowing me to get the feel for the bit, and for her to accept its feel. To be honest, I didn’t feel a huge difference initially, she was fairly relaxed and accepting of the contact, but I did feel that she was more up in front of me, and less inclined to lean on the bit when I half halted. Which she sometimes does to evade sitting on her hocks and containing that powerful engine.

In the trot and canter work we played around with transitions within the gait. I needed to feel that I could adjust Phoenix easily, without her stressing, and that she used her hindquarters throughout. Particularly when she lengthens, she tends to go onto the forehand and leave her back end out behind her. Which is exactly what happens before jumps. By teaching her to shorten and lengthen in an uphill fashion, her hindquarters stay engaged and she’s lighter in my hand and in a better position to jump cleanly.

We then put this into practice with single fences and related distances, which highlight this weakness well. We jumped focusing on me helping her keep the balance of her canter throughout the approach, and after a couple of failed attempts when I held more than I needed to, and she panicked, we got it together, and she jumped beautifully out of a much better canter.

Moving onto related distances, I found that Phoenix was meeting the second element in a more uphill canter, which meant she pinged over them. Then I found that I could close my leg and ride her forwards if necessary to make the striding, without her nose diving or losing power.

It was a great session, really showing that you don’t want to be too quick to change tack, as often improvements on the flatwork will improve the jumping performance, but also that tiny changes to a bit can enhance communication between horse and rider.

Going to a bit specialist and trialling bits is definitely they way forward as more and more variations of bits come onto the market. It’s mind boggling, and can take a lot of time and money finding the perfect bit for your horse. Perhaps we’ll start to see some more bitting clinics in the calendar; where you go to a venue and have a meeting with a bit specialist, perhaps followed by a lesson to try it out?

My Gridwork Clinic

I’ve planned a series of polework and gridwork clinics over the winter, approximately one a month, at a beautiful local showjumping venue. They’re designed to run independently, so people don’t feel they have to attend all six, and I’ve given each date a theme. This helps me plan, and also helps riders chose which clinics to come to as they have a rough idea of what we’ll be working on.For my first clinic, I chose straightness as the theme.I wanted to work evenly off both reins as symmetry improves straightness, and often riders find it harder to ride straight when turning off one rein more than the other, so in order to ensure everyone had a chance to improve their stiffer rein, I used the centre line.I laid two tramlines just onto the centre line, to focus the riders on their turn so they didn’t drift, and were set up straight for the grid. With a fairly short approach I laid out a jump, followed by another one canter stride away. The third jump was two canter strides away, with a pair of tramlines in the middle to correct horse and rider if they’d drifted. Then there was a fourth and fifth fence one canter stride apart. The fifth fence was an oxer, and there were tramlines on the landing side and the then just before the turn at the track.The tramlines ensured they started and finished straight, and stopped any cutting of corners after the grid, so improving the getaway.I warmed up all the riders by getting them to trot through the grid with the poles on the ground, alternating the reins they’re coming off. Initially, all the horses had a good look at the arrangement of poles, but after a couple of goes, they started going straighter, my riders were channelling them forwards because they’d stopped looking down, and the horse’s stride length opened and rhythm became consistent. The riders could also start to think about whether it was easier to turn off the left rein or the right rein and make corrections.We then cantered through the poles from both reins. All horses will struggle to get the distances while there are no jumps, but as they got straighter and more forwards they started to work out how best to place their feet. So long as the horses are going through in a positive, rhythmical canter, I’m happy at this stage.I built the grid up slowly, starting with a cross as the first jump. The centre of the cross meant we knew if there was any drifting on the approach. The second fence was also a cross to help straightness, and then the tramlines corrected any drifting on the getaway and over the rest of the poles.The third jump was an upright, and once they’d jumped it confidently once, I made it into an A-frame. The apex emphasised the centre of the jump, and encouraged the horses to be neater over the jump. Of course, the horses and riders back off this slightly intimidating set-up, so I encouraged the riders to sit up after the second cross and ride positively in order to get the two strides. Once the horses have jumped it a couple of times it doesn’t cause any problems. The fourth jump also became an upright. With some groups I also made this into an A-frame, but if I felt that the first A-frame improved the horse’s technique over subsequent jumps I didn’t bother. And finally, we built the fifth fence into an oxer.Everyone found that the tramlines were incredibly helpful at helping both horse and rider stay straight, and the crosses highlighted any drifting so the riders’ knew how and when to correct over the last three elements. They could all feel the difference in their horses as their straightness improved because the distances were easier and the hindquarters more efficient at pushing the horse over the fence. They also landed in a more balanced way, ready for the next obstacle. When the horses were going straighter the riders could feel the effects of any twisting by themselves through the grid, which helped them fine tune their position.

All in all, it was a great, rewarding morning, with lots of progress from each partnership. Now I need to plan next month’s “Gears to the Gaits” clinic!

Kids Going Cross Country

I taught a cross country clinic for Pony Club last weekend, aimed at the younger, less experienced members. They all enjoyed themselves, and after a large glass of wine that evening, I decided that I had too.

I’ll leave out the thrills and spills, but I wanted to discuss how I warmed them up as safely as possible.

In my first group most of them were nervous. I didn’t know many of the riders, and some of the ponies were new or had been cheeky in the past. My second group was more confident but, as I’ll tell you later, the ponies were more mischievous!

I started the group walking in a ride in a fairly large square to assess that the ponies. None were jogging or tossing their head in anticipation, so whilst the ride was walking up the hill I asked them to trot on. I hoped that any keen ponies would soon slow down with the extra effort of the hill. Thankfully they all trotted sensibly around, so I kept them all trotting until my riders visibly relaxed and the ponies definitely lost any cheeky spark.

Next, I needed to ensure the kids would be safe when we moved onto jumping a course. Ponies are herd animals by instinct and I didn’t want any to return to the ride at speed. One little rider in particular had been bolted with the last time she’d gone cross country so I needed to build her confidence up. Another rider had a new pony so we didn’t have a clue how he would behave, so I needed to quietly test him without giving him an excuse to fail the tests.

Keeping the ride in a group at the bottom of the hill, I sent them one at a time to trot up the hill, away from the ride, walk around a jump and walk back. This was to establish the fact that the ponies don’t return to their friends quickly, and that they left their friends at the speed requested by their rider. It also helped to build the riders’ confidence and self-belief in themselves. The pony who had bolted previously tried to jog on the way home, but his rider sat tall and positively half halted to stay in control. She became more aware of her pony quickening so reacted before he actually got faster.

Once they’d all done this exercise a few times and the ponies weren’t expecting to hurry home, we stepped it up. They cantered up the hill and then walked back to the others. Once I was sure of their control, they practised their cross country position, and by this time the ponies understood the rules of walking calmly home and were less fizzy. I don’t like to rush incorporating the light seat because it reduces a child’s control because they do not have their weight in the saddle to anchor them in when they apply a rein aid so a pony is more likely to put their head down and ignore their rider.

I did a very similar exercise with the next group, but one pony was nappy. He would gallop back to his friends, even halfway round a course! So I sent one rider on a calm pony away and asked her to wait at the far point. Then I sent off the nappy pony, and the two walked back together. The pony napped due to anxiety and I needed to manage the situation so my rider was safe and this kept everyone happy. The girl on the calm pony felt special because she had been given a particular job, so she was more than happy to oblige.

We started jumping in a similar way. The first jump, a simple, plain log, was jumped away from the ride, and then the children had to ride forwards to walk before returning calmly to the ride.

For the majority of the lessons I did courses which went away from the ride to encourage the riders to return steadily, and to ensure they could keep an energetic yet steady canter. Towards the end I started putting in jumps which went past the ride, and then a couple of jumps towards them. I still insisted that the riders pulled up and rejoined in walk.

It doesn’t always go to plan, but I find this technique for warming up horses and riders safest for taking the edge off excited horses, relaxing nervous riders, and establishing ground rules, which means their jumping becomes more enjoyable for both parties.