Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sustainable Gait

Once you’ve mastered control of the basic gaits, things get harder and you have to master a range of gears in each gait. Furthermore, your horse has to develop the strength, balance and stamina to work in each gear. This was illustrated perfectly at the Pony Club Conference a couple of weeks ago.

The demo riders were riding a simulated cross country exercise; jumping a triple bar at speed to imitate jumping a simple cross country fence, before making a turn and jumping two bounce fences from a slower canter.

The first rider galloped at the triple bar, popping it easily, and slowed down a bit for the bounce, but jumped it a bit too fast really and it was only her pony’s deftness which got them over the two elements. She rode the exercise again, this time circling between the two questions until she’d collected the canter sufficiently. It took her a few circles but she really collected the canter up. She approached the bounce, but her pony refused.

The reason? Her new collected canter wasn’t sustainable. He could collect that much on the flat, but he didn’t have the impulsion and strength to jump from this canter. She rode the exercise again, and circled until she got the collection. Then she opened up the canter slightly, relaxing so that she moved up half a gear. The pony jumped the bounce beautifully. Because the canter was sustainable and the balance between collection and impulsion was right for jumping.

I thought it was a brilliant example of how the gears to your canter will vary as to whether you’re on the flat or jumping, and in relation to your horse’s level of training. For example, a horse who works at prelim level may be able to collect their canter slightly, but will struggle to have the energy and balance to jump from that slightly collected canter, whereas an elementary level horse will be able to sustain that slightly collected canter for longer and with less effort, so will be able to jump easily out of it.

I’ve already mentioned the word “sustainable” to some clients, but I think it’s a worthwhile term to bring into every day conversation. It can be a measure of development too because a canter gear will feel more sustainable as the horse improves their balance, suppleness and impulsion. We can talk about shortening or lengthening strides; feeling if the horse stays in balance, and also how long they can remain in this balance. A horse learning how to collect may only sustain collection for a couple of strides whereas a more established horse will maintain the collection for a full circuit of the arena. So add “sustainable” to your equine dictionary, and start taking it into consideration when you reflect on your horse’s work.

The Art of Repetition

I’m working with a client who’s teaching a green horse to jump. The mare is quite happy over simple crosses and uprights, so we’re at the stage that she needs to learn to read the question with simple exercises and start knowing where she’s putting her feet before we progress to more complicated shaped jumps or grids or distances. I want her to be cleverer about getting to the jump, going over, and getting away from the jump so that we create an intelligent jumper, rather one that is over reliant on her rider or one who wings it each time.

Last lesson I set up two jumps, three strides apart. Starting with poles on the floor, I had them trot then canter over the poles from each direction. I’m looking for the horse to maintain her rhythm, forwardsness and confidence towards the poles. Most green horses will alter their gait as they look cautiously and assess the question. We want a horse to be able to quickly and correctly assess the jump in question so they are best able to clear it comfortably. As she is inexperienced with poles, I’d expect her to back off the poles slightly.

This is when there’s an art to knowing how many times to repeat an exercise. I want an exercise repeated enough times that the horse and rider are confident and competent through it, but I don’t want to repeat it so that they become complacent. It’s exactly the same with flat exercises as jump exercises. I also want to repeat the exercise enough times that it proves it’s not a fluke. I went to a demo with Paul Tapner this week and his rule is that he wants an exercise performed “twice, nice” to prove the first wasn’t a fluke, and to ensure the lesson stays progressive. To an extent, I agree, but I often find a third repetition really useful for cementing the learning.

Anyway, with this mare, I wanted to repeat each stage just enough times that she proved she was happy with the question. She only needed to trot over the poles twice in each direction to become consistent from A to B. Cantering over the poles, she did it perhaps three times in total on each rein. The first time she wobbled and fell into a bit of a heap, and then she sorted her legs out.

Once I was happy with her at this stage I made the second element a cross pole. A height within her comfort zone, but the question had changed. I wasn’t looking to challenge her jumping ability, but rather her ability to judge the jump and get it right first time. I think it was a bit of a mess first time round, as she slowed to look at it, wobbled and the launched over it. The second time was better, and she got it the third.

So I changed the question, putting the first cross up. This time, her first attempt was better and she didn’t back off to study the jumps. Rinse and repeat until she understood.

Then I changed direction, and I was pleased that she reached stage two quicker and seemingly more confident.

I was rattling through the stages but without rushing the mare. Previously, we’ve repeated the exercise more times than necessary to build muscle memory, confidence and practice. Now, I wanted her to complete a task well a couple of times and then move on. But I needed her to achieve the previous stage and be confident about it before moving on otherwise she will lose confidence later on.

Once the mare had negotiated the cross poles I changed the shapes of the jumps. Making one jump an upright, then once this successfully negotiated, the other one too. Then we changed the rein and had the upright first and cross pole second. And then changed it round.

I was pleased that the mare began confidently taking her rider into each set-up, unfazed when the jumps changed. Of course, she was still green and put in the odd wobble and didn’t always get a good take off spot. But that will come as her canter develops and with future sessions to improve her straightness and rhythm. The important thing was that she wasn’t backing off the jumps when they changed.

To finish the session, I steadily built the second jump into an oxer; by putting an upright behind the cross, so that it was inviting and my rider could continue aiming for the centre easily.

I feel it’s important to teach horses to read and process simple jump exercises quickly when training them so that they learn to think for themselves and adjust their canter and bascule as appropriate. I think a horse’s ability to adapt to new jump exercises is related to their confidence, which is why I wouldn’t move onto the next phase before the horse is competent at the previous one. One horse which I ride always backs off an exercise the first time, even when the jump has only changed by a small amount. We’ve worked a lot on progressing exercises steadily and repeating the exercise twice from the off and he is less sticky the first time now, but his general confidence over jumps is also improving.

Building a horse’s confidence when jumping is related to the number of times they have repeated am exercise – it’s a big circle! And I stick to the theory that a horse needs to repeat the exercise until they have done it well two or three times, but have not started to become complacent or anticipate the exercise with detrimental effects. There’s no point mindlessly repeating an exercise with no improvement. Changing it, however slight, will keep both horse and rider thinking about the job in hand.

The Wise Man

The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …

I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.

If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.

My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.

For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.

It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.

Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?

Stepping It Up

I did quite a lot of adventuring in the autumn with Phoenix, of all disciplines to give her more experience, but the wet ground cut it short and with Christmas getting out and about went on the back burner a bit. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though, as it gives you time to focus on stepping up a level. Which is what I’ve been doing.

The flatwork side of things I’m slowly introducing novice movements, letting Phoenix think that they’re her idea. Medium trot is coming along nicely, she reins back well, direct transitions between halt and trot are sussed. It’s the dreaded walk to canter which keeps upsetting our canter work which is holding us back at the moment.

On the jumping side, I’ve done a lot of work on the canter and just before Christmas jump schooled her at a lovely, local venue. Through the autumn she was doing the 70cm and 80cm class so that she had a warm up before her level of jumping. However, now a 70cm course involves speed as she overreacts to my aids and is overly confident. Sure she goes clear, but it doesn’t feel controlled or like I have any say in how we go. In December, after jumping a course of 80cm I put the jumps up to 90-95cm. Then, it got interesting. Phoenix backed off the jumps, not enough that it all went wrong, but she had to think about the fences, and then she let me help her out. I could balance the canter and apply the leg on the approach. There were a couple of green errors, a pole down, the odd stop when she didn’t quite have the right canter and take off spot. But nothing unexplainable, and I found that I preferred the feel I had around a bigger course. It was time to step up a level!

With Christmas and the EHV outbreak over, I’m planning Phoenix’s adventures over the next few months. We’ve entered a combined training in a couple of weeks – a pre-novice dressage test and 85cm course. But the next showjumping competition I have in the diary has classes of 70,80,90cm. The first option is too simple for Phoenix, but the 90cm seems like such a jump up. I mean, she’s only jumped a couple of courses at that height non-competitively. Would I be throwing her into the deep end and creating a problem for myself if she scrambles round and loses her confidence?

When I take Phoenix jump schooling I try to go with a companion who will push me without pressure. Who will encourage the jumps to be raised appropriately, but doesn’t apply peer pressure to push us beyond our limits. I think this is really important for ensuring sessions are positive, confidence building, yet progressive.

For some reason, the 90cm class seems more daunting than when I entered Phoenix into her first 80cm. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not regularly jumped her at that height or higher, or perhaps it’s because it’s been almost four years since I was seriously jumping with Otis. And that was completely different: I was younger, had less to lose if it went wrong, was much more confident, knew Otis inside out, etc. I think there’s an element of my nerves as much as anything.

I want to step up a level with Phoenix, so before I made a decision, I decided to take Phoenix schooling again, with the aim of testing both of us around a bigger course to see how she coped and whether I felt that I was ready to give her the support that she needed round a bigger course. After all, it’s counter productive to wing it and get around a course by the skin of our teeth, than to give ourselves another few weeks of schooling at that level. Phoenix warmed up a little wildly over some smaller fences, doing her usual trick of ignoring my half halts and balancing aids and rushing to the fences. So after riding a course of 80-85cm, we built the jumps up so that they were 95cm high and the full width.

I was very pleased with how she jumped. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, she got a bit fast and flat on a related distance and took down the back rail, and we ended on a half stride to the final jump so just brought it down. But she felt powerful, confident, and jumped the height with ease, they were just errors which won’t happen with more experience. And when I rode the fences we’d faulted at again, she jumped them easily. So, decision made, we’re doing our first 90cm class at the end of the month, which should be fine with a warm up competition in the meantime. Wish us luck!

I Blame the Mud

Personally, I lay all blame squarely on the mud for this subject, but I have to say that I’m so proud of my clients, and pleased to have such a good bunch who listen closely to what their horse is saying and so averts a potentially expensive and time consuming treatment and rehabilitation programme.

On an aside, I’ve have several clients who have been on long term rehabilitation programmes for their horse’s injury, which in some cases their horse came to them with, and they are coming through the other side. One lady proudly told me that the physio feels that her horse no longer needs treatment to mend her long term problems, but now needs treatment to maintain her excellent muscle tone. Just like a normal horse! Another lady was told that her horse is moving well, and has better muscle tone than previously so it’s time to crack on and work him that little bit harder so that he starts to develop this muscle. I’m so pleased when I hear this positive feedback from physios. My riders are doing the right thing!

Back to my initial subject of listening to your horse. In their first lesson back after Christmas, one of my riders had a problem jumping. Her pony jumped beautifully over some smaller jumps, especially as we were working on jumping a tarpaulin. He did give a couple of bucks on landing when he basculed particularly nicely, but this isn’t uncommon for him. However, he jumped very erratically over some 90cm fences, even stopping. This is well within his comfort zone so I felt it was odd. We discussed the oddness, but he felt fine to his rider so we decided to monitor it.

The following week, I built a simple grid. If he’d lost his confidence, although I couldn’t work out why, this would help. They flew the grid at 80cm, although he wasn’t happy turning left after the grid and was marginally better with a right canter lead approach. Again, this isn’t unusual with his way of going. But as soon as I put the jump up a notch he threw in the towel. We reverted to the lower grid and just popped him through to finish on a positive note. As I couldn’t see any lameness or sign of soreness, my only suggestion was that he saw a physio or chiropractor in case he’d tweaked something and flatwork and low jumping didn’t affect it, but the extra effort of a bigger jump caused a twinge.

Anyway, she booked the Mctimoney chiropractor and just lightly rode him in the interim. I had feedback from the treatment yesterday – a slightly tilted pelvis, but more interestingly, a pulled muscle between his ribs and pelvis. Possibly due to careering around a slippery field. Which would explain everything. Thankfully, this pony doesn’t need any more treatment, just an easy week building him back up. But his refusing and erratic jumps could so easily be misinterpreted as naughty behaviour and disciplined, or ignored for a few weeks. Whereas by paying close attention to what he was telling her, my rider averted any major incident, either by his behaviour escalating so that it was dangerous, or by his injury worsening or a subsequent injury occuring from him trying to protect the pulled muscle.

Another rider had something similar just after Christmas when I noticed her horse’s right hind being slightly short in stride length, and not picking it up as much as usual. I was riding him and wasn’t happy with the trot, although I hadn’t noticed it in his walk around the tracks to warm up. He wasn’t lame to the bystander, but it wasn’t normal for this horse. I text my client to tell her and she immediately contacted her chiropractor, who came out a couple of days later and found a very sore fetlock and tight muscles all over – again, she put it down to field antics, but this time suggested that it happened because the mud is so claggy, he literally left a leg behind whilst showing off and wrenched it. But because his owner acted swiftly he only needed one treatment, and was completely recovered within a week.

So you can see why I’m blaming the mud! My final casualty to it felt off in walk when I hacked him. Not lame, although he definitely wasn’t comfortable in trot, but wobbly and uncoordinated. I reduced his work to walk only on as flat a ground as I could provide until we waited for his chiropractic appointment. By walking him out in a long and low frame he started to feel much better, more together and stronger. I did find that he was leaning on the right leg though, so much so that his winter coat was rubbing off with friction. Initially I thought it was something I was doing (moving my leg excessively etc) but after paying close attention to the matter, I felt that he was pushing right as he walked, so pushing into my right leg. His treatment showed very tight, sore muscles over his hindquarters and lumbar area, which ties in with slipping in the field. Hopefully he won’t do anymore field acrobatics, and I can start to build him up again, although I’ll be limited with the lack of dry bridleways!

I actually feel very grateful to have clients who pay so much attention to changes in their horse’s behaviour and try to find out why before labelling the behaviour as naughty. I’m equally grateful that they respect my opinion, based on observations and feelings from the saddle. Of course, I’m not an expert in this area but I like to think that I know these horses well enough, and have a good relationship with their owners, that when they aren’t themselves yet look normal from a distance, we can have a conversation about the different possible causes (be it back, saddle, bridle, teeth, feet) and can investigate them. Then between us we can nip any issues in the bud, get them treated before secondary problems develop, and with the minimal disruption to their activity plan.

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!