Working the Older Horses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horses and Heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prix Caprilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jumping Circles

I’ve recently used quite a simple layout of jumps which has been quite enlightening for those riders who have problems landing on one canter lead, or riding tight turns to a fence, akin to a jump off.

Up the centre line I laid three jumps. One at X, facing E, and the other two on the inner track by A and C, parallel to the one at X.

Starting with poles on the ground, I started with my rider trotting then cantering a circle over two jumps. It’s about a 17 metre circle, and initially I’m aiming to establish rhythm, a round circle, and for my rider to do a position check for themselves.

Then we change the rein, doing the circle at the other end of the arena. Often there is very little difference to be felt between the two reins at this stage. Sometimes a rider will already identify that one circle is sausage-like, or it’s harder for them to turn on one rein than the other. Or that the horse keeps changing canter lead.

The next step is putting the fences up as cross poles. They need to be sufficiently big that the horse jumps them, but this lesson is all about repetition so not too big the horse will fatigue. The cross helps to keep the rider central.

The horse and rider I did this with last year have been focusing on biomechanics and straightness over the last few months. The rider sits twisted to the left, and the horse struggles to bend right. Chicken and egg as to who caused who to become wonky, but that doesn’t matter at the moment.

Firstly, they cantered some circles on the right rein, popping over the two jumps as they came to them. The circle was reasonably round, the horse stayed on the right canter lead (he often lands left lead if given the opportunity) and the rider was looking in the direction of the next circle. However, when I stood so I could see straight on to one of the fences I could see that the horse was actually jumping the fence at an angle; in order to ride a curve on the approach to the fence the horse jumped straight, at a 45 degree angle. He landed with his body on a tangent to the circle. Which meant my rider had to over correct to return to the line of the circle.

Then we changed the rein, and my rider realised how clunky the right rein circle felt as the left circle flowed in a consistent rhythm, the jumps felt effortless and the circle round. From my vantage point I could see the horse jumping on the line of the circle, so on landing they were already heading in the right direction which made it easier to turn.

We spent more time on the right rein circle, making small corrections to help both horse and rider jump straighter, and begin to improve their right bend before and after fences, even starting to get them both looking slightly right over the jump. To do this, we made the circle slightly more oval so that my rider had a couple of straight strides on the approach and getawa before arcing round. It’s better to have the straight stretch in order for the horse to jump straighter than for him to come off the circle, find it difficult, and then jump diagonally off on a tangent. As his suppleness improves less time will be needed on the straight.

In this session we mainly focused on their rhythm and balance on the circles. It was nice to see the jumps becoming more regular – no half strides taken out or extra ones added in – and the horse staying consistently on the correct canter lead. With this extended knowledge of her horse’s suppleness and the way he jumps, my rider can better plan any jumping courses, knowing that she needs to spend more time on the approach preparing her horse if they are to turn right after a fence.

A further exercise, which I did later in the week, was to have my rider ride a figure of eight over the three jumps, so changing their canter lead over the fence. This requires a greater degree of suppleness and balance in order to ride fluidly and rhythmically over the central fence. It is also a useful exercise to improve the rider’s ability to plan their route, and the horse’s response to their rider’s position over jumps, which helps them ride a smoother, more accurate jumping round.

Holding Rubber

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

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

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

In either situation, the rein contact becomes inconsistent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One After The Other…

I’ve decided that I’m not a huge fan of running clinics because of number of potential unknowns in a group. And what if my lesson plan is totally unsuitable for a rider and horse?

What I have discovered that I like doing though, is doing a series of consecutive private lessons at one venue. With the same theme, but it means that I can tweak the exercise to best suit that client. It leads to quite an intense, but very satisfying day.

I regularly go to a yard where several Pony Club members livery, and teach consecutive 30 minute lessons all morning, using this format.

Last time I went I laid out a straight forward exercise of a placing pole to a jump, then three canter strides away a second fence. Before the placing pole and between the two jumps I laid tramlines.

With my first little jockey I warmed her up focusing on not flapping like a windmill when trying to keep her pony in trot, by having her carry a horizontal whip. I think kids can get so carried away by wanting to jump and go fast they often don’t connect how improving the little things helps the big things. With quieter hands the pony seemed happier and more forwards, so I drove the message home by focusing on this with the poles. I had her planning a better turn towards the exercise so that she started straight, and then channeling her pony with still hands, using the leg to keep him travelling forwards. We worked in trot in both directions, really focusing on her preparation and then just applying the accelerator. As we built the exercise up to jumps my rider started to see the benefits of quieter hands in that her pony almost picked up canter and gave enthusiastic pops over the jump. The feeling of easier jumps will hopefully motivate her to practice keeping her hands still on the flat.

My next rider and pony were a comfortable pair. Neither are hugely ambitious and enjoy being in the comfort zones. Which means the pony often jumps from an idle canter which feels jarring, upright and uncomfortable, as well as being height limited. I had them cantering around the arena finding the “Friday Afternoon” canter such as on the way home from school. Concentrating on riding forwards before and after jumps will help the bascule flow and feel easier. Then my rider could fold into a more balanced jumping position. The tramlines weren’t hugely relevant to this lesson, but just their presence helped keep the pair on their jumping line. For these two I converted the placing pole into a low upright to make a bounce to improve the suppleness of my rider as she had to rapidly switch between her two point and three point position.

Another lesson with a more novice rider, had trot poles instead of jumps, and used transitions between the tramlines to improve control and accuracy. Switching between light seat over the poles and rising trot improves the rider’s balance and familiarity with the jumping position in preparation for jumping. It could be developed into just the one jump at the end of the exercise, or cantering through the exercise as required.

One of the other riders tends to over think pole arrangements, riding to each pole individually instead of the exercise as a whole. I was fully prepared to simplify the layout if her brain threatened to implode, but started her off trotting and cantering through the exercise with the poles on the floor. My main focus was on my rider looking ahead, not at each pole, and understanding that if she rode a good turn and aimed for the end of the exercise, she didn’t have to worry about the tramlines (yes, her tubby pony did fit easily between them!). We built up the jumps using crosses to help focus her straight ahead, emphasising that my rider looks at the second jump just before she jumps the first, and so on. The pony stopped chipping in and getting too deep to the jump, and my rider didn’t get in front of the pony, loading the shoulders. Again, I made the placing pole into a small bounce to further develop the feel for an uphill jump, and to help my rider start to feel that she was behind the pony over fences instead of in front. I didn’t end up simplifying the exercise as my rider comprehended it well; it was a really good session to help her learn to filter out the less important parts of an exercise or course, and to ride to the end of a line. I was really pleased with how things slotted into place for these two.

My last client has a pony who tends to drift and go crooked, so the tramlines were ideal to improve the rider’s awareness of drifting, and to help her correct it. Using cross poles to further help them stay straight I soon discovered that my rider didn’t ride after the jump. So instead of riding the five stages of a jump – approach, take off, bascule, landing, get away – she forgot to do anything on landing! The tramlines between the jumps then had a second use. I had my rider approach the exercise in a steady trot, quietly pop over the first fence, land in canter and then sit up and ride into trot between the poles so that they had a steady approach to the second jump, and were more likely to stay on the jumping line. Having a physical marker to ride to helps make a rider commit to a transition, or movement as it’s easier to judge their accuracy. After focusing on riding after a jump, they began to stay straighter and steadier, which will really help them as they progress to riding a course.

This set up gave me hundreds of different options for teaching, and could be easily adjusted between clients as needed. Possibly my new favourite sort of day – one exercise, lots of different private lessons so I can hone into each individual’s requirements.

Phoenix’s 2021 Plans

During the first lockdown in the spring I was really motivated and focused on Phoenix – she benefitted from six days a week of consistent work and really got to grips with half pass.

Then followed a summer of fun – long hacks, jump training, camp. I really felt that our relationship was strong and secure. She was jumping confidently up to 1m over coloured poles and cross country.

I affiliated her with British Dressage in the summer, and took her to a couple of competitions, where she placed each time at Novice, with scores over 65% each time. I have mixed reactions to competing her; the range of scores is frustrating – 8, 8, 8, 8, 4. I mean, was the spook at the shadow really necessary? I always feel that we haven’t performed at our best, and I feel the 70 scores are within grasping distance as soon as we get the consistency. She scores above average, but I know we can do better so I’m never satisfied. My plan was to do our first elementary test in the autumn.

However, lockdown in November cancelled that and since then I’ve felt a bit aimless. Is there any point in preparing for competitions that will probably be cancelled? What’s the point in training if there’s no where to go? Is she even improving? We accidentally qualified for the Novice Winter Area Festival, but I immediately decided not to go. I’d planned to aim for them at elementary level, so to qualify without trying to gives me hope that we can qualify if we put some effort in!

We’re in full on winter Phoenix mode, which whilst manageable now, often leads to frustrating rides when she’s tense and scooty. I’m having a quarter sheet made to measure as she’s between sizes and the bigger ones spook her when they touch below her stifle, whilst the smaller ones don’t sit comfortably over her quarters so restrict her movement. This should help as Phoenix is definitely happier with a warm bottom, protected from the wind and rain. She also has bags of energy which, I’ve recently discovered, can be controlled by being exercised twice a day, or by taking her for a hack followed by working her in the school. Of course, this risks getting stuck in a vicious cycle where she just gets fitter and fitter… So I’m keeping this trick up my sleeve for times when I need her a little tired.

Feeling aimless is not me. Not having a goal or focus doesn’t do well for my state of mind, and doesn’t do well for getting the best out of Phoenix. So over Christmas I’ve enjoyed lots of hacks, and then got a schooling session filmed so I could see how she’s going. It wasn’t the best day for filming – very cold and frosty – so she was a little tense, but I was pleased to see that she is looking strong and established in the trot, more uphill, but could cover the ground more. When she relaxes she opens up in her frame; I just need to get that relaxation quicker! With this elusive relaxation I can also refine her medium trot, which is very fragile and prone to going crooked when she gets tense. As she can fly along on the lunge in medium trot I have no concerns about her ability, she just needs to relax and embrace the bigger strides.

Phoenix’s canter work is looking better; more rhythmical and established. But she needs to learn to wait and not rush so much. I need to sit into her more, which I had been trying to do before Winter Phoenix arrived, and she needs to accept this change of position so I can use my seat more effectively. I was pleased that her canter half pass looks as good as it feels, and it helped to balance the canter whilst taking out the tension.

Phoenix seems happier when being asked something complicated; i.e. Cantering half pass instead of cantering in a straight line. Which means I need to ride through the silly moments and focus her mind on the harder stuff before addressing the quality of the easy movements. Being able to visually see her working, has given me a boost of motivation. I’ll keep plugging away at her lateral work, developing her consistency, and then aim for some elementary classes when restrictions are lifted with the aim of trying our hand at a medium test or two in 2021. Now to hope that we have some pony parties to go to!

Riding With Sponges

In 2021 I’m planning on attending a course of whatever sort is allowed to happen with Covid guidelines on the Franklin Method. My pilates teacher is an avid fan, and a lot of the ball and band work I’ve seen compliments my teaching and would benefit my clients. I’m not interested in running clinics, but a better understanding and knowledge of the props will give me some more tools to help my clients achieve their goals.

Starting with sponges. I saw a social media post using them and promptly hopped on the band wagon.

Several of my clients have now endured the sponges, and all have felt the benefit of the instant feedback the sponges provide.

The large sponges sit on the stirrup tread, underneath the foot and can be ridden on the flat and over jumps. I’m yet to use them over jumps, but I will, don’t worry, I will!

I start the session with the sponges by getting my rider to walk round on both reins, getting used to the feel of them under the foot and tuning in to their feet. Improving their proprioception. We talk about whether one sponge is more easily squashed than the other. If so, then it suggests the rider has more weight going down that leg, often coming from asymmetry in the seat. Which we can then address.

Once we’ve raised awareness for any discrepancies between the legs, I get my clients to “squash the sponges” as they walk round the arena. Rhythmically pressing down on the sponges increases the movement in the ankle, so is very useful for anyone who tends to brace the lower leg. For those at the opposite end of the spectrum, who struggle to get their heels down, find that pulsating the sponges starts to lengthen the calf muscles. Squashing the sponges isn’t a big movement – I don’t want to see the lower leg swinging – it is just activating the ankle so it becomes bouncy, or spring like.

We then move up into trot, where I focus my client on what the sponges feel like; if they draw the leg up the sponge will feel like it’s moving around. The rider becomes more aware of any stiffness in the ankle, and if they overload one leg. We then play around with pressure in the foot to improve their balance and coordination.

For riders who’s heels draw up, I’ve found that dropping the heel every time they rise is an effective exercise to improve the lower leg, lengthening the calves and dropping their weight into the heel.

For the riders who brace their ankles, I get to wriggle their toes as they sit into the saddle. We don’t want toes pointing down, but squashing the sponge and wriggling the toes reduces ankle stiffness. Usually there’s some moans and groans by now, but my riders have springs in their ankles which gives them a softer lower leg and improved leg aids because they can close the leg around the horse’s barrel better, as well as being stiller so more precise with the aids.

The canter is the interesting gait to ride with sponges. Because it is asymmetric riders often have one leg behaving whilst the other runs errant. The outside leg often draws up and the stirrup start to rattle about on the foot.

My clients have all done better than expected when cantering with the sponges, with less movement of the sponges than I’d read about when planning this exercise. I know that smaller sponges would be less stable, but equally I don’t think they’d have twisted much with my clients. They could feel the weight coming out of their foot sufficiently, and then by squashing the sponge or wriggling the toes we could correct. With one client in particular, using the sponges really got her reaching down to the stirrups so deepening her seat and stabilising her lower leg. Others have just become more aware of the weight coming out of the outside leg and a result sat more centrally in the canter. It also helps highlight the difference between the left rein and the right rein.

So how do the sponges work? They aren’t forcing feet into certain positions or anything. But they do increase a rider’s awareness of that area of their body and provide instant feedback when changes are made. Which makes it easier to make and maintain corrections. I found that whilst all my riders noticed the sponges at the beginning of the ride, by the end they had forgotten about them because their leg position had improved and the squashiness of the sponges more consistent.

Their purpose when jumping is to ensure the rider folds straight and evenly into their jumping position, not leaning on one leg more than the other, and ensuring the ankle is flexible whilst jumping.

I think the sponges could be improved by being denser, which would give more scope for squashing them and softening the ankle. Also some riders would benefit from the sponges being slightly smaller and so more likely to shift position in the stirrup if the rider draws their leg up or rolls onto the outside of their foot so the weight distribution is uneven. I’ll have to look out for some different sponges!

In the meantime clients, you’ll be seeing more of those yellow sponges!

Safety Stirrups

I’ve come to realise that I have a couple of hang ups when teaching. One is chin straps being tight enough to stop the children talking. I joke. But they mustn’t be able to get the strap in front of their chin as their hat becomes loose. Or spend their time chewing the end of the strap.

My other hang up is stirrups. I hate seeing kids riding in non safety stirrups. I prefer to see adults using them too, particularly when jumping, but I understand that they can make their own informed decision. Kids though, have far less control at keeping their stirrup iron on the ball of their foot, with the iron often getting close to the ankle. So I’d much rather have the option of the foot coming out sideways in an emergency, particularly when jumping.

The traditional peacock stirrups are my usual go to for kids as they are affordable and as soon as pressure is applied to the outside of the stirrup iron the rubber pops off, freeing the foot. Of course there’s always the odd band with a life of it’s own which is forever springing off.

For adults, there’s the bent leg stirrup irons, which I have on my jump saddle. Stronger because they’ve iron on both sides of the foot, the shape means the foot is able to come out easily. I bent a pair once, whilst hacking Matt out. He spooked, slipped on some mud at the side of the lane and fell onto his side. My leg was between him and the tarmac. I survived with just a bruised foot, but the stirrup iron was bent. When a similar incident happened a month later when I was schooling without stirrups my foot had much more of a squash injury.

Anyway, I digress. Bent leg irons are still popular, and I definitely prefer to see my riders in them as opposed to fillis irons.

You may remember a month or so ago Harry Meade had a fall cross country, which resulted in his foot getting caught and he was dragged along. Regardless of his stirrup irons (I have no idea what stirrups he uses so not passing any judgment) if a rider as good as Harry can get their foot stuck in a stirrup it should serve as a warning to all of us. Use safety stirrups!

The two safety stirrups I’m familiar with have been around for donkeys years. Incidentally, did you know that donkey originally rhymed with monkey when it first came into general usage in the 18th century because it derived from the word dun, describing the colour? I.e. It was dunkey, not donkey.

More digression, apologies. Since hearing about Harry Meade’s accident I’ve done some research into safety stirrups on the market now because technology has moved on in recent years and there’s bound to be more modern alternatives which I’d like to be more informed about.

Modern safety stirrups, such as the Acavello or Equipe, have a release mechanism on the outer strut. When pressure is applied to the outside the strut pops out and the foot is released. The strut can then be clicked back into place. Some makes have magnetic clips, others have springs, others have a silicon outer strut. From what I can tell, it’s important to keep the stirrup irons clean and free of grit as this might cause the mechanism to become stuck. And to monitor the condition of any springs or magnets so they don’t weaken and damage the integrity of the product.

I’ve a couple of clients starting to use Acavello safety stirrups, attracted also by their grippy tread, and they certainly seem to have been extensively tested for safety. Definitely some for me to consider when I need new jump stirrups, or am asked for my opinion.

I think in light of Harry Meade’s accident, it’s worth checking our own stirrups. Do they need new treads, peacock rubbers etc? Are they the best design for our foot? Are they the right size for us? Are they safety stirrups?

Layering an Exercise

When planning a Pony Club rally I try to have a theme running through; such as working on sitting trot, riding serpentines, polework or jumping exercises. Sometimes I choose to focus on a couple of different subject areas. I find the day flows if there’s minimal adjustments between lessons, and those watching the lessons before or after theirs can start to join the dots in their education.

Last weekend I had a really satisfying layout of poles, which allowed me to layer exercises for a range of abilities. On the centre line I laid out three trot poles then a pair of tramlines before another three trot poles. The distance between the two sets of trot poles was approximately two pony strides.

With the lead rein riders, we used the poles predominantly in walk, practising their steering and feeling the bigger steps that their ponies were making over each pole. They also rode the line in trot, improving their balance. It was a useful change of rein and occupied them for most of the lesson along with other balance related exercises.

For the riders who are off the lead rein, establishing their control in trot, this is a really useful exercise, especially as a change of rein during the warm up. The tramlines can be made wider or narrower as needed, and once the riders had got the hang of walking and trotting through the exercise I had them hovering in jumping position over the second set of poles. The next step is to do jumping position over both sets of poles, sitting up and steering in between. This is really good for improving their balance and developing their jump position as repeatedly going into jumping position familiarises them with the feel and increases their security in the saddle.

If suitable, I could have adjusted the poles to canter poles and have riders canter through the exercise. But this weekend it wasn’t necessary for the other ideas I had planned. Besides, often ponies with small riders find it difficult to canter over multiple poles so it’s a can of worms to reluctantly open when I’m feeling brave!

With my first jumping group, who are jumping up to 60cm and starting to link jumps together, I used the exercise in trot as a change of rein in the warm up and once we’d had a canter developed the exercise into jumps.

I made the second set of trot poles into a cross pole and my riders trotted over the poles, between the tramlines and then over the centre of the jump. Once established, I allowed them to pick up canter after the trotting poles. The cross got bigger, and then I changed the first set of poles into a cross pole.

The riders worked on riding a good turn onto the centre line, keeping straight between the jumps as the jumps became bigger crosses, and then eventually uprights. Uprights are harder to stay central than cross poles, as the V of the cross pole draws the rider’s eye to the middle.

In this session I didn’t complicate the exercise any further, but looked to improve their confidence, encouraging them to approach in canter when appropriate, and give them time to get the feel for linking two jumps together nicely – feeling the rhythm and flow.

Another jumping session followed this one, with very confident kids on very competent ponies. A combination which invariably leads to big jumps negotiated in a less than stylish fashion. They used the exercise to warm up, declaring it easy whilst I tried to draw their attention to their rhythm, balance, and accuracy of their turns.

In a bid to avoid ending up in a Chase Me Charlie exercise, I fairly rapidly built up the exercise from poles to narrow tramlines to jump, to two fences with the tramlines. They became more aware of their pony’s tendency to drift, and by starting the exercise with a better turn noticed the improvement in their ability to hold a straight line. Although it was apparently still far too easy.

I answered them by adding a third element to the exercise, two canter strides after the second jump. It was a jump, but it was a skinny fence!

Those riders who had heeded my directives about setting themselves up with a balanced turn, and continued to correct their pony so they jumped the centre of each jump had no problem. Those who were lax in their approach and expected their pony to fly over the third fence, were surprised when they had a run out.

After some tweaks to their riding and getting them to think about their technique and approach to the exercise, it soon flowed nicely, with my riders getting a lovely, fluent rhythm clearing the jumps neatly and easily. Proving to be a very simple exercise if ridden well, yet problematic if ridden sloppily.

To further challenge riders and ponies, the exercise can be closed up so there’s only one canter stride between the elements. That will be next time!