Going With The Movement

I’ve done some work on seat aids with a client in the last few months, getting her more aware of using her seat to reinforce her leg and hand aids.

However, she’s fallen into the trap of a lot of riders as they learn about the seat. They overuse it. Which doesn’t always help when you have a backward thinking horse. Since Christmas, I’ve noticed there’s been a bit too much wiggling in the saddle, which has become ineffective and now inhibits her horse’s movement – think about trying to give a child a piggy back while they’re wriggling around!

Studying my rider at the beginning of her lesson I noticed that the crux of the problem is coming from her hips and inner thighs. Her thighs were close to her saddle, but at the expense of tight gluteals and a fixed point which caused her upper body to move with her seat, but her lower leg to counteract this movement and the leg aids to become wooly and less effective.

I brought her to the middle of the school and asked her to halt. We were going to do an exercise I spent many hours doing on the lunge at college, and similar to our hip opening warm up at Pilates. I got her to draw her knees up to the pommel of her saddle and then take them out to the sides before slowly lowering them into the usual position. This plonks you squarely onto your seatbones so helps identify them if they’re lost, but also stretches and loosens the thigh-hip joint. The thighs then relax and the legs drape around the horse’s barrel more comfortably (this has more of a noticeable effect on larger barrelled horses). Initially there may be daylight seen between the knee and saddle flap. It’s not ideal, but go with it for a minute or two.

Once we’d repeated this hip opening exercise, I got my rider to walk on. She could still use her seat aids, but I wanted her to reduce them, and to think about how her thighs and seat stay relaxed whilst using these aids. Then I asked her to try to use her seat to complement her horse’s gait, rather than to dominate it. It was like they were playing the same tune but at different speeds, so had moments of togetherness, but were mostly working against each other.

As soon as my rider reduced her movements and got in time with her horse, her seat and leg aids became more effective, so there was no need to over egg it. Her horse moved more freely and they looked more together. She still had daylight between her knees and knee rolls, and subsequently felt a bit loose in the saddle, so I told her to gently close her legs so they were close to the saddle but without tensing the thighs. Then she had more contact with her horse so could stay in sync more easily without tension.

We moved on to some trot and canter work, with my rider feeling more effective with her aids, was stiller in her lower leg, and her horse moving in a less inhibited way.

This rider has been on a Franklin Method Clinic, and specifically found sitting on the balls helped her relax her gluteal muscles and so sit deeper in the saddle. So we are going to use a combination of the Franklin balls and hip opening exercises to switch off her naturally tight thighs and gluteals so that she can really feel the way her horse moves and apply aids which are well timed and effective. As her body is more relaxed, when she is not actively applying aids she is not giving any conflicting or restrictive instructions so then her horse becomes more responsive and reactive to her aids.

Pole Star

I did a fun polework lesson over the weekend, in the shape of a five pointed star.

It was harder than I anticipated to make star-shaped – I could’ve done with a drone to help me get it perfectly aligned! But once it was set up I could see the multitude of uses for it!

Once my two riders had warned up in trot and canter I had them working on opposite points of the star. They had to ride a 10-15m circle on the outside of the star, trotting over the two poles which formed the point of the star. I had my riders adjust their circle so that they found the perfect striding between the poles for their horse. The horse shouldn’t be skipping or stretching for the second pole, neither should they be chipping in and tripping over it. Riding the poles on a curve increases the step of the inside hind, so activating it so that it works harder on a normal circle. When the inside hind comes further under the body the abdominals work harder and thus the horse lifts their back.

My riders rode these circles on both reins, feeling the improvement, and also the difference between reins as by asking the horse to work harder it highlights any weakness or evasion tactic. They both felt that the trot was more co-ordinated and together after this exercise.

Examples of the circle exercise and straightness exercise lines ridden by my riders.

Next, we turned our attention to their accuracy and straightness by riding across the star, over the points. I had my riders find their line, focus on a point, channel the horse between the reins using the legs and seat. The aim is that the horse trots over the point of the poles. This tests their balance and straightness, as well as improving their cadence and suppleness.

These two exercises kept us busy for the level of horse that I had in this lesson, as we combined them into a little course at the end, but they could also be done in canter. Both horses improved dramatically in their way of going, looking much more balanced and active in their trot work.

Next time I do this exercise, I want to add in some trot and canter poles on a curve across the arena, so the star becomes a shooting star.

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.

Instant Feedback

One of the most useful tools I took away from the Franklin Method clinic I attended in November was riding with resistance bands.

I find myself repeating the subject of not giving the outside rein away to all of my riders, but for whatever reason, my teaching isn’t as effective as it could be. I’ve worked on different explanations for the importance of supporting the outside shoulder, using that rein to bring that shoulder around the turn, and for preventing an over-bend in the neck to improve the bend through their barrel. I’ve explained about a positive inside rein, thinking of opening a door away from you rather than bringing the hand back towards your stomach to help maintain impulsion and balance. I’ve used exercises like turn on the forehand and discussed the biomechanics of the inside hind to help riders understand the importance of keeping the outside rein. I’ve used the exercise of carrying the whip horizontally over the index fingers, which helps riders see their outside hand creeping forwards on turns, but it seems to be limited to just acknowledging the movement. My riders all understand what they should be doing and why, but breaking any bad habits is easier said than done.

When I did the Franklin Method clinic we rode with resistance bands around our lower arms. The resistance bands were the lightest option, and were placed around the wrist just above the cuff of the gloves. The purpose in the Franklin Clinic was to ride keeping the hands apart so that the slack was taken out of the band. It wasn’t to force the hands out into the resistance of the band and create tension in the shoulders and arms, but to keep the hands a consistent distance apart.

The result of keeping the hands five inches apart, where there’s least pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, is that as you turn your horse you keep the hands working as a pair, akin to carrying a tray (you may have heard that analogy elsewhere). If a rider tends to bring the inside hand back and let the outside hand forwards on turns, they will instantly feel pressure from the band.

I liked how the band provided instant feedback to a rider when they let their outside rein creep forward, or even if they were dropping a hand, or holding it further back, regardless of whether it was the inside or outside. Usually I find that a rider will acknowledge that their hands are asymmetric or wander forwards, but only become aware of it when the hand has moved to the extreme and is now ineffective.

But it’s no good correcting an error once it’s gone wrong, you need to correct at the first deviation in order to retrain the muscle memory and to improve the subtlety of the aids to control the horse. The bands gave an earlier signal than visually seeing the outside hand, or me reminding them not to move it.

After the Franklin Method clinic I found a light resistance band at home, and went armed with it to my next few lessons. I had all my riders ride with it during their warm up focusing them on their hand position, make them aware of discrepancies between the reins, and to improve their outside rein contact. All of my riders realised that their hands moved more they thought. It encouraged more use of the seat and leg aids, as well as creating an even, more consistent rein contact.

The difference in the horses was amazing; they moved straighter, started to use their inside hind leg, carried themselves better and were stiller in the hand and taking the contact forwards happily because as soon as the rider’s outside hand started to creep forward they felt pressure on their wrist so corrected themselves. Having a band is an easy accessory to keep in your pocket, and means that riders can practice riding with the band in their own time so will improve their hand position more quickly then having me cue their corrections and then them self-correcting on their own once their hand position had moved significantly.

I’ve not used the bands since before Christmas, but I think it’s time to get it out again for warm ups in the next few weeks … So watch out clients!

Something a Bit Different

My normal work finished for Christmas last week, and I’ve got a nice long week to try to tick off some of my to-do list without adding to the bottom of it. However, today was the final Pony Club rally of the year.

Having only just taken over the role of chief instructor for this branch of the Pony Club, I’m still working out what members want in terms of rallies, as well as how I can improve their knowledge and ability within the equestrian world.

I had thought early on that I would like to see more stable management rallies, and to improve the children’s off horse knowledge. The obvious place to start is with the achievement badge scheme, run by the Pony Club. Fabric badges are available for a huge variety of subjects – points of the horse, poisonous plants, first aid, to name a few. They’re aimed at primary school aged children, and as they love receiving souvenirs, we decided to begin doing more badge rallies. I’ve also designed a rewards system for when the children achieve five, ten, fifteen, twenty and so on badges. A little prize or gift will be a great motivator for them, and hopefully by learning through the badge rallies their efficiency tests will seem easier.

With this in mind, we planned a stable management rally for the Christmas holidays. I suggested that because the weather was risky, the evenings dark, and parents so busy in the run up to Christmas, that we combined the lecture with an off horse, indoor activity. Then it doesn’t matter on the weather, parents can use those couple of hours for some last minute shopping or wrapping, and the children can have some fun.

So I sweet talked my farrier into providing me with some pony sized horse shoes. He cleaned them up for me and I had them sprayed silver so they won’t rust. Then I bought some ribbon, beads, glue and a lot of glitter!

I decided to teach the kids about the native breeds of the United Kingdom, so they could go home with that badge. Of course I had to revise my own knowledge, but I didn’t want to bore them to tears by just talking at them. I decided to ask them questions to engage them, to bring along one or my breed books which has photographs of all the native breeds, and to show them when the different breeds originated on a map.

As we discussed each breed, a child came and put the label on the correct area on the map.

To finish the lecture, I decided on a group exercise. I printed out a photo of each breed with six statements – the name of the breed, their height, two statements of distinguishing features (usually colour and something about their body shape), their original job, and what they are used for nowadays. Within each statement I tried to provide clues (e.g.”this Scottish breed of horse stands 13.2-14.2hh, slightly bigger than it’s cousin the Eriskay”). I laminated everything and cut the statements out into small strips.

Then of course I couldn’t match the statements to the picture myself, so I had to make the exercise easier! In the end I split the children into three groups and gave each group five sets of cards, all muddled up. Within each group I put one draught horse, and divided the other breeds up so that the similar ones weren’t in the same group. For example, I separated Fells and Dales, and Exmoor and Dartmoors.

I was really pleased with the children’s attempts at this exercise. There was some level of deduction, some debating about the meanings of the phrases, and some even remembered the facts I’d just told them!

Each group had an older helper to assist them, and read out the sentences if necessary, and I circulated, checking how they were getting on, and giving hints and encouragement to the sometimes lively debates. They soon matched all of the cards to the correct breed and then we did the fun bit!

Let’s just say that glitter went everywhere! But the shoes looked brilliant and the children had great fun.

Feedback was very positive, with happy parents, and the children proudly showed off their badges and horse shoes.

Today was a different rally, but really fun to do. I don’t think we’ll do crafts at every badge rally, but it’s certainly one to remember for next winter. I thought I might do a colouring competition, or design a poster, at a future badge rally where they can put their new found knowledge to good use. Then when the weather is warmer we can do the outdoor stable management, such as the grooming badge, and tie it in with a lesson.

Clues From Rugs

Have you ever had a horse who’s rug constantly slips to one side?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Just like shoulder straps constantly fall off a woman’s dropped shoulder, a rug which constantly slides off one hindquarter suggests that all is not well in that area.

If a horse’s pelvis has dropped or rotated on one side then that will cause a rug to slip to that side, and likewise if they have muscle wastage on one side, the rug will slip that way.

Horses who are evenly balanced in terms of posture and musculature, rarely have a rug shifting to one side (especially with today’s rug technology), even if they have a preferred hindleg to rest. Therefore, if you notice that you are always correcting your horse’s rug it might be wise to cast a critical eye over his muscle development and get him checked by a chiropractor or physiotherapist.

I made some interesting observations with a horse being ridden in an exercise sheet this week.

As she warmed up the sheet slipped drastically to the right. Now, I know the mare is weaker in her right hind and holds herself crookedly when she can, so it was interesting to see the exercise sheet reflecting this. After straightening the sheet, we did some work on leg yield, turn on the forehand, and other straightening exercises to correct her crookedness and to even up the rein contact. Firstly, we worked on the right rein, so activating the weaker right hind, and as soon as the mare engaged that leg her exercise sheet did not move an inch! It stayed level working in trot on both reins, and then in right canter, but it slipped again in the left canter. The right hind is the propulsion leg in left canter, which would explain why the sheet slipped more in left canter, as well as the fact the mare found it harder to bend to the left so motorbikes around turns on her left shoulder.

It was interesting that I already knew the issues this mare had, so could make the link between the exercise sheet moving and her way of going. I explained my observations to her rider, and it’s going to be something she takes into consideration in future, rather than just moaning about the sheet slipping as she straightens it. It can also help her evaluate how well the mare worked, the change in her posture and straightness after any treatment, and her muscle development.

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.

The Franklin Method

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I go to Equestrian Pilates every week. Earlier this year my Pilates teacher went on an intensive course to learn about the Franklin Method, and has since applied it to our classes.

Intrigued, and curious to know more about the logic of hitting yourself with an orange ball, I decided to organise a clinic at my yard.

In Pilates, we’ve tapped any tight muscles with balls to stimulate nerves and increase our range of movement during the warm up. But other than that, the Franklin Method was a completely new concept to me.

The clinic started with an off horse session where we learnt that the Franklin Method focuses on reconditioning the body and movement to improve function. Using props and imagery it helps improve your proprioception and posture by activating unused muscles. We learnt a little bit about anatomy, with the help of a spine, then we were introduced to the props. There were a variety of sized balls, spiky and smooth, and peanut shaped balls, as well as some resistance bands. We discussed the ideal riding position and talked about how using our core, having our pelvis level, the correct lower leg position and arm position can improve our stability in the saddle. Some of this I’ve seen before, in demos, teaching books, and used it myself when teaching, but using resistance bands to help with the explanations was really useful too. Finally, I sat on a saddle and we were shown the different way we’d use the props once aboard our horses.

I really wasn’t sure how sensitive little Phoenix would cope with me riding with balls, but I’d ridden her for an hour the day before with plenty of canter work and luck was on my side as she seemed to have her brain firmly wedged between her ears as I warmed her up in the arena, and was remarkably relaxed.

After settling the horses and warming ourselves up, we walked a straight line away from the camera to assess our straightness and symmetry before getting started with the props. The first prop that we used was a squishy peanut shaped ball, and we sat on it so it was evenly sat underneath our seat bones. Then we walked round. Sitting on a wobbly seat makes you use your core muscles, which is useful if any of yours have switched off; it also makes you very aware of each seat bone, and if you are wobbling more onto one side than the other.

There was no pressure to do anything outside your comfort zone with any of the props. If you wanted to trot or canter then do so, but if not just walking was equally beneficial.

We then sat on just one round, smooth ball, putting it under first one seat bone, and then the other. This is particularly useful if you sit crookedly in the saddle. I like to think that I’ve got a good sense of where my body is in space, and am fairly symmetrical as a rider, but I didn’t find a huge difference between seat bones when I sat on just one ball. Which is good, but I could see how it would be useful for anyone unaware that they are sitting to one side.

Still focusing on our seats, we sat on a heavier, water filled peanut ball. Again, only in walk as I felt that was the limit to Phoenix’s acceptance of it, I found my hips really loosening up. The water ball exaggerated Phoenix’s movement, causing me to move my seat more. Afterwards I really felt like I was sitting inside my saddle, not sitting on top. I then worked in sitting trot, and was astounded in the improvement. I sat deeper, absorbed Phoenix’s movements more, and consequently she relaxed and stepped out more and I felt her really swinging over her back.

We moved on to working on our legs with small softly spiky balls. One was placed on the inside of the top of the thigh, so it sat between the saddle and my leg. A second ball was placed closer to the knee on the opposite leg. For me, this was particularly painful as I got cramp on the outside of my thigh, but tapping it with a ball helped dissipate it. I did some work in walk, before swapping the balls round. They had the effect of loosening my hips and helping lengthen my leg and let it wrap around Phoenix.

Finally, we moved on to the arms. I didn’t have a go with a resistance band wrapped round my shoulders, running to the hands, which is useful for encouraging riders to carry their hands more correctly, and to connect their shoulders to the reins, which improves the subtlety of their half halts and stabilises the hands. We felt this would be a step too far for Phoenix, so I used a circular resistance band round my wrists, which helps keep the hands as a pair and gives instant visual feedback if one hand goes for a little wander. I really liked this exercise, and could see how the visual cue and the pressure of the band would really help some of my clients who struggle with their outside rein, or have a wandering hand.

To encourage elbows to hang closer to our sides, we rode for a few minutes with a ball in each armpit. Upon taking the balls away, your elbows return to your torso like iron filings to a magnet. Again, useful for anyone with sticky out elbows!

The Franklin Method had an immediate effect in correcting positions, and making you as a rider aware of different, switched off, areas of your body. You could see the horses responding to the changes in position, releasing of tight knees and hips, and the reduction in crookedness. The other thing that I liked about the Franklin Method is that it complemented my teaching methods and biomechanical explanations, so I will definitely be encouraging all my clients to have a go at riding with balls.

For more information, check out the website www.ridewithballs.com.

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.

Poles and Transitions

I adapted this exercise last week for my clients to improve their canter transitions.

When you aren’t working to a dressage test, or set of quick directions, it can be easy to spend too long preparing for a canter transition, aborting at the first corner, and then in the downward transition it’s easy to spend half a dozen strides recovering and finding their balance.

I wanted my riders to be in the position that they could strike off into canter with instant preparation, and can ride into a balanced trot immediately. After all, once you get to elementary level, the movements start coming up very quickly!

I laid out five trotting poles on the track on the long side; with a fairly short distance between each one. I wanted the horses to be on the verge of collecting over the trot poles. With the mare who struggles to get the correct canter lead I placed the poles so that the last pole was at the quarter marker and she could use the corner to get the correct strike off. The other, more established horses, had the poles in the middle of the long side so that the canter transitions were in a straight line.

I worked each combination through the poles until they were balanced, and the trot had become more together and uphill, with increased cadence. Then we added in the canter.

After riding the trotting poles, I asked them to ride forwards to canter before the corner (or at the corner for the less established mare). Then they had to ride forwards to trot at the corner before the poles.

We repeated the exercise a few times, moving the transitions so that they were closer to the poles.

The result was that my riders started riding more quickly, and I don’t mean rushing; the time between preparing and riding the transitions, and then reacting to the outcome, decreased. The horses became more responsive to the aids and then more active in the transitions.

The trotting poles engaged the hindquarters, which helped the horse push upwards into canter, so it felt like a pop into a steadier, more powerful canter. The mare who tends to run into canter suddenly began to almost jump into it, which resulted in a less harum-scarum canter.

Having the trotting poles in the near distance when riding into trot encouraged the riders to sit tall and hold in their core so that the horse sat on his hocks and didn’t fall onto the forehand after a couple of strides, unable to contain all this energy. Often a horse and rider will go into a powerful, energetic trot, pushing nicely from behind, but after a few strides they both seem to collapse and lose energy, so losing the quality of the trot as they bowl onto their forehand. However, the poles require the horse to maintain the initial trot for longer so builds up their strength and balance. Again, the horse and rider have to be thinking and react quickly to correct any loss of rhythm or balance.

Having to ride a downwards transition before some poles doesn’t give a rider the opportunity to accept a sloppy, unbalanced transition, nor does it mean they can do it “when the time is right”. The time is now, and they have to make it right. If they do get an unbalanced transition, for whatever reason, the looming poles encourages them to react and correct it; which is very important around showjumping courses, and so that the next dressage movement is not impeded.

I was really impressed with the improvement to both the horse’s transitions, the quality of the canter and trot, and of the positive, quick thinking way that my riders were now riding.