Perfecting the Jump Position

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

So what is the perfect jumping position?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jumping is Dressage with Speed Bumps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buying Horses

One of my clients is currently on the search for her first horse, moving up from her share pony.

I forget how much of a minefield buying horses is. I’m very lucky that all of ours has just happened. Mum asked my instructor to keep an eye out for a youngster I could bring on and she had a friend who had bred Matt. Not going to lie, seeing a feral 2 year old colt on the side of the Welsh mountains one blustery day didn’t strike me as a perfect pony! But he’s turned out pretty good. Otis was also from another friend of hers. Phoenix, I’d decided we’d look in the spring and her advert appeared on my social media a couple of days later. Fate? Perhaps it struck three times for me.

But when you’re actively looking for horses, there’s a lot of dross to sift through.

I’ve often helped clients look for horses, or been to view them, or been sent videos for feedback. It’s not my favourite job because I feel quite a lot of pressure to get it right. I also feel that entering the world of horse ownership is often underestimated, and not without potholes, so it’s not only important to find the right horse, but also nurture the relationship as it develops. I’ve had several experiences of people asking my advice, bought a horse, then neglected regular lessons or supervision from a professional before getting into a pickle and losing confidence in each other.

How best to start the search for a new horse? I tend to have the conversation about what the rider is realistically looking for. Sometimes this involves some home truths in that the horse a rider is dreaming of is not what their abilities and ambitions needs. I’ve seen a purchase go wrong because the rider has insisted on overhorsing themselves, so I am not afraid to try to talk sense into prospective purchasers. However, I do usually let the purchaser lead the search. They can send me the adverts for feedback. This allows me to get a feel for their likes in a horse too.

I will also ask my contacts, to see if I can find a suitable horse through word of mouth as we go along, and keep my ears to the ground if anyone tells me about a horse.

In the initial browsing of adverts, I tend to encourage purchasers to look beyond their budget and outside the travel zone. This allows them to gauge the market, get a better understanding of adverts and the points to look for.

Once adverts start coming to me, I’ll feedback as to whether more info is needed, and if not, what I don’t like about the advert. After all, I don’t want to turn down a dozen adverts which all say “sharp” for a novice rider. Better to explain the meaning of the word and let them filter other sharp horses out. It’s an educational process as well. For example, my client sent me an advert for a 16hh Clydesdale cross. 15-16hh is our height criteria, but a chunky horse at the top end of the height will be too much horse for my rider. Therefore when she’s looking at horses she needs to consider breed/type as well as height.

The next learning curve for prospective purchasers is speaking to the owners of the advertised horse, asking the relevant questions and interpreting the answers. We also look at the videos. When I feedback on adverts I’ll often suggest questions to ask and what information is missing or incomplete.

It’s amazing how quickly you learn to read an advert and write off a horse due to vague blurb, missing information, photos only of the horse’s head or when stationary, or poor videos. By the time you’ve whittled down the unsuitable ones, the ones too far away, and the ones with unsaid problems, then unfortunately you aren’t left with many to choose from!

Next up, is viewing a horse. It’s always recommended that you take someone knowledgeable with you, and for those not used to viewings or riding different horses then I think the most useful person to take is your instructor. They can ride the horse as well, and they can effectively give you a lesson. I find that just me standing in the middle of the arena will quell any nerves from the rider, and I can talk through the horse’s behaviour, subtle signs I’ve spotted, explain what assessments the rider needs to make, and get them talking about what they’re feeling underneath them. I can also tweak my rider so that hopefully they get a better tune out of the horse, which is realistically more like what they will be working on at home. Then I also get a feel for the horse’s trainability. It doesn’t matter if they encounter a problem, such as refusing a jump, but rather how they both deal with it afterwards. Often the first jumps aren’t the best as they’re getting used to each other. The prospective horse should be ridden in the arena first, from a safety point of view, and then if it passes this test, out in the open and on a hack. I also like my client to have some time on the ground with the horse, to get a feel for them as a person.

Once the viewing is over, I remind my client that they don’t have to like this horse. There’s no pressure for it to be “the one”. No time wasted, nothing lost but an experience gained. I then try and get them to evaluate and analyse the horse, giving their likes and questions or worries. We talk about what the horse needs – for example, if the jumping didn’t go as planned, would the horse benefit from gridwork, or polework? What can the prospective owner expect from the first couple of months of ownership? I also want to know the rider’s gut feeling, and if they “clicked” with the horse. After getting the purchasers views I’ll add mine, and then we follow up with any new questions, possibly arrange a second viewing and make a decision before organising vettings and other new horse preparations.

As with any major, life changing decisions, it is worth investing the time and effort into doing the research, asking all the questions, necessary or unnecessary. Asking for help and guidance, and then being prepared to ask for help over the next few months as your new horse settles in and you settle into horse ownership.

A Canter Sequence

I’ve been working on upping the canter work with Phoenix; increasing my standards, pushing her boundaries, improving her balance and strength. Last night I had a play with one of the canter sequences from an elementary test, and whilst it’s definitely work in progress, it was good to feel how hard Phoenix had to work to keep her balance. I want to start using bits of this in trot and canter for some of my clients – so watch out!

The sequence is nicknamed the PIG from elementary 59 as those are the letters you ride to, but as I was in a short arena I adapted the exercise slightly to suit her current level of training.

In canter on the left rein, ride from M to X to D, then cantered a left ten metre circle. At D, ride a simple change before a right ten metre circle in canter. Finish the sequence by riding from D to A and then turn right to change the rein.

The line MXD requires balance because the horse has to change their propulsion leg, akin to counter canter. I found that it helped lighten Phoenix’s forehand and collect her canter slightly.

In elementary 59 you continue along the centre line to A, but it is easier to ride a ten metre circle at D, or just before, at Phoenix’s current level of training. As she finds the MXD line easier, I will extend the centre line and ride a left turn at A. The canter becomes more collected and elevated after X, which actually really helps prepare her so that she stays balanced on the circles.

At the end of the left ten metre circle, ride a simple change before a right ten metre circle. This is particularly useful for Phoenix as in the downward transition she often swings her hindquarters to the right, so the quick change of bend and strike off into right canter helps resolve this. Simple changes also come into elementary level so it’s a good opportunity to practice these. After the right circle, I rode a straight line to A then turned right.

The exercise can be repeated off the right rein using the HXD line, with the right canter circle first. It can also be ridden from the A end of the school – using the KXG and FXG lines.

At elementary level, movements come up quickly in tests, so whilst Phoenix may be perfecting the individual movements, with plenty of preparation time, and in ideal locations around the arena, it is the art of putting different movements together in rapid succession which will really cement her at this level.

I really like how this sequence flowed, so may well incorporate it into more of my teaching and schooling of horses as the changes of bend improve a horse’s balance immensely.

Straightness is Fundamental

I always talk about straightness with clients far earlier than the Scales of Training would suggest that it needs discussing and have had conversations with dressage trainers about it’s location on the training pyramid. But this week I had the perfect demonstration of why straightness often comes before rhythm.

A new client approached me last month, wanting help rebuilding her confidence and getting back into cantering. She felt out of control of her horse, and worried by his lack of balance in the canter. Of course I was happy to help and looked forward to a new challenge.

During their first lesson the thing which became most apparent was how the horse curled up to the right, leaning on his left shoulder, and falling in drastically on the left rein. The trot was choppy and unbalanced on both reins. To me, before we can address the canter we need to improve the balance in the trot which ultimately comes from the horse being straighter. The rider’s lack or confidence comes from, I believe, the feeling of a lack of control and her horse not responding as expected to her aids.

We spent the first couple of lessons checking she was straight, evening out the hand position because the right hand came back and the left went forwards. We also really worked on her horse staying straight in walk and during short trots. On the right rein he’d fling himself through the left shoulder going into trot but the fence line prevented too much drift, but on the right rein he fell in, and caused his rider to twist which exacerbated the horse’s crookedness. My aim initially was to reduce the bend to the right before increasing the bend to the left.

We chatted about saddle and physio checks, but the more I observed the more I felt that it was a control issue rather than a problem with the horse. He was trying to control the situation and his rider, who ultimately backed off as soon as he resisted her aids and twisted his body. Then the horse got away with not trotting, so tried this on every time and soon got the upper hand.

I helped my rider adjust her horse’s body, and most importantly have the self belief that she was doing it correctly so needed to stick to her guns as her horse explored the different avenues of evasion.

During the first two lessons we focused on reducing the right bend in walk and even getting some good left bend at times. On the right rein we worked in trot, as the fence prevented the over bend, and my rider learnt to use her left rein and left leg to reduce the right bend. On turns I concentrated her on using the left leg and reducing the right rein. She started to feel his left shoulder coming around each turn and his vertical balance improving.

Once the right rein was getting straighter we turned our attention to the left. We couldn’t just go straight into trot on the left rein because of the evasion twist during the transition. I put together a little exercise, focusing on straightness and not making a big deal on going onto the left rein. They started in trot on the right rein, turned across the short diagonal, focusing on bringing the left shoulder round the turn and using the left leg to keep him straight. They aimed to ride onto the left rein without losing this straightness and then riding a transition to walk before they lost the straightness, then immediately a ten metre left circle before two half circles to change the rein and begin the exercise again. The idea was that they progressively did more and more trot strides without falling onto the left shoulder.

We ran through this exercise a few times, with improving results. I was pleased with their progress over the last couple of lessons, but felt there was a bit of a block for future progress. I didn’t think there was a problem with the horse, but he was still determinedly evading his rider by twisting to the right in transitions. She was correcting him well, but lacked the determination to stand her ground, so ended up yielding to the horse, who effectively won that conversation so continued with his evasion tactic. I suggested that I sat on at the beginning of the next lesson to reinforce the boundaries and also to check that I couldn’t feel an issue that would cause the extreme right bend. As soon as I sat on, I secured the left rein and did a couple of leg yields to the right and within minutes the horse accepted my aids and stopped trying to fall through his left shoulder. Of course, he still felt stiffer to the left, but he was reactive to the left leg and much straighter through his body. I rode him for a few minutes longer until he’d proved that he wasn’t looking for an evasion. He also felt great so no underlying issues to my mind.

Then his rider mounted, and we picked up where we left off last lesson. Now she’d seen her horse stay straight she had more self belief in herself and her riding. He’d been firmly put back in his box by me so was less argumentative with her. We soon got a straighter trot on the right rein, and then managed to keep this balance onto the left rein. We developed the right rein work with circles, and focused on staying straight and on the track on the left rein. Finally, we started using demi voltes and consecutive changes of rein to improve their balance and reduce any tendency for the horse to fall into right bend.

Anyway, what’s the purpose of my witterings? As soon as the horse started to work in a straighter way, with improved vertical balance, his stride length opened, the rhythm improved and the trot became lighter and freer. From this straighter trot, we can start to establish a consistent rhythm, improve his suppleness and balance and progress up the Training Scale. However, if we didn’t correct his lack of straightness we would be fighting a losing battle. So really, a horse and rider need to be fairly straight before they can begin to work correctly and improve their way of going. In which case, shouldn’t straightness be the first training block? Or perhaps the Scales of Training should come with a caveat that you are starting with a fairly straight and evenly sided horse and rider?

My plan for the next few lessons is to really establish the straightness of both horse and rider; improving their suppleness on the left rein, ensuring my rider feels very confident and in control; able to manoeuvre him easily, and then start introducing the canter work, again with the focus being on the horse staying straight initially.

Jumping Away From Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoenix and Cross Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Outside The Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tack Cheats for Little People

I don’t often have an opinion on a pony’s tack. I may recommend some form of grass rein if the pony snatches at the reins, or I may comment on the size of stirrup iron or leathers if they’re unsuitable, but I don’t like too many gadgets on a pony because although the gadgets may solve the initial problem, they don’t allow the rider, however small, to learn correct habits which means that they will run into difficulties later on in their riding career.

As long as the tack is safe, I don’t tend to change things. However, recently I’ve found myself making little adjustments to tack to help my little riders.

My most common suggestion at the moment is that my young riders have a piece of electric tape wrapped around their reins so they know when a) their reins are the correct length, and b) that their holding the hands level. Often children have one hand which has a longer rein and sits back, just above the saddle, a throwback to when they were holding on to balance. Others will shorten one rein more than the other, especially if feeling nervous. Putting a visual cue helps correct this subconscious habit. You can buy multicoloured reins which do a similar thing, but electrical tape is free and quick to apply. As soon as a rider’s hands are held level they begin to sit straighter and their pony responds to a more even rein contact so becomes easier to control. Most of my Pony Clubbers have tape on their reins.

The other bit of tack which I’ve been tweaking recently are knee rolls. Most saddles nowadays have velcro knee rolls, which means they can be adjusted so that they support a rider’s leg. Sometimes, as in the case of inherited ponies, the knee rolls were adjusted for the tall previous rider, and the new, shorter jockey ends up swinging their legs around as they try to find their balance in rising trot. A quick adjustment of the knee rolls means that they have some support at the knee which discourages the knee from reaching forwards and subsequently stops the chair position developing. It’s worth reviewing the positioning of knee rolls as children’s legs grow, and as they develop their muscles and balance they become less reliant on knee rolls anyway.

Last week I was working on jumping position with a young rider. We’d managed to get her folding nicely, but her lower leg started to look insecure. When I looked closely I noticed she didn’t have any knee rolls on her saddle. So I’ve dispatched her Mum off to buy some velcro knee rolls, which I believe will solve the wobbly leg problem and help this rider feel more secure folding into her jumping position.

Another cheat I’ve suggested recently, which is also useful for slight adults riding big ponies, is that if the saddle seat is a bit big for the rider – because a child has moved up a pony size or a family pony means everyone has to try to make fit – a seat saver can help reduce the size of the saddle seat. It does not need to be extra grippy, or memory foam or anything in particular, but the aim is to shorten the distance from pommel to cantle so that a rider with a small seat, especially one developing their balance, doesn’t feel the need to push their bottom backwards to feel the cantle and get some support from it as the learn to rise to the trot. This should help stop the lower leg going forwards and them developing a chair seat.

Saddlers should always fit tack to both horse and rider, so in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to make these cheats, but new saddles are expensive and situations less than perfect with young riders having growing room on new ponies, so we need to think outside the box and make adjustments to develop good habits, which is far easier than correcting ingrained bad habits as a result of not having support from tack in the right places.

Canter Exercises with Groups

I’ve been doing quite a lot of Pony Club teaching recently, and have been playing around with canter exercises which can be done individually so that the ponies get a breather but without boring the rider’s who’s turn it is.

I’ve developed several layers to the exercise so that I can use it with all abilities and riders can see their progression. Ultimately, I’ve borrowed the basis of these exercises from my childhood instructor.

The first exercise is to have the ride in halt on the long side of the arena and one at a time, having them canter to the rear of the ride. This is aimed at the rider staying in control, learning to sit to the canter, and keeping their pony on the outside track. It’s a good exercise for those just learning to canter. Sometimes I tell them the letter which they are going to canter, and the letter where they need to be trotting. This tests their accuracy and starts to focus them on riding the transition rather than just kicking and praying.

Sometimes, like today, I have a keen, unruly pony who likes to take control of the situation. Or I have a rider who merrily canters around in dreamland and I need to keep their focus, I make this exercise more challenging. They have to ride four transitions on their lap of the arena – for example, trot to canter at E, trot at A, canter at B and trot at F. This keeps the ponies switched on, usually improves their canter transitions because the pony is more forwards, and helps a rider begin to feel more in control. Plus the short canters means a pony can’t get too quick!

If I have a big ride, or they are more in control, or it’s a cold day, I will keep the ride in walk instead of halt. This also means the riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t bomb up the back of the ride and can ensure a correct strike off.

A development of cantering to the rear of the ride, is putting in a circle. Again, I have the ride halted on the track about M, for example, and individually they have to go into trot, trot a 20m circle at A before picking up canter between A and F and cantering to the rear of the ride. The circle is a good test of control as ponies will try to nap back to the ride, and if the rider doesn’t plan their circle it ends up rather egg shaped. Once the circle is established in trot, I get riders to make a canter transition over X, building up to cantering the whole circle. Easier said than done as many ponies are indoctrinated to canter a straight line near the outside track so resist a rider’s plea to turn across the arena.

When riders are more established but for whatever reason I don’t want to canter them all together, I will keep the ride trotting and have them individually set off into canter. This tests the second horse as much as anything as they may try to follow the leader. It also gives other riders chance to be lead file. Having the ride trotting means a longer canter, and if building a ride up to cantering as a group a second rider can be sent off into canter before the first has reached the rear of the ride.

A particularly tricky exercise, which tests the use of the outside leg, is to have the ride walking large, and the leader canter large around the arena before passing the ride on the inside and cantering a second lap. Again, this is great for nappy ponies, and keeps a rider focused while cantering. It can be made harder by having the ride trotting instead of walking.

By the time a young rider can do all of these exercises independently in a balanced, rhythmical canter, I would be confident that they can hold their own working in canter in open order, and that they have full control of their pony. It helps when looking at jumping too, because they’ll be able to ride balanced turns in canter, their pony will be less inclined to nap and more responsive to the aids. Which leads to a fluid, balanced approach to a jump which will give them a higher success rate.