My Gridwork Clinic

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

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

Centre Lines

After accidentally entering two dressage competitions with three centre lines in each test I dug around for some centre line exercises, for both Phoenix and my lovely clients.

To be able to ride a good centre line you and your horse need to be as straight and symmetrical as possible. But you also need to be comfortable on the centre line. So many horse and riders feel vulnerable on the centre line, with no fence to support them.

So initially, I began working on an inner track and using the centre line as a change of rein. Working away from the fence line encourages the rider to use their outside aids, and makes you more aware of any crookedness in your horse, or them drifting. I also like to ride lateral movements such as shoulder in or travers on the inner track as it emphasises any cheating on you or your horse’s behalf, as well as improving your feel for the movement and it’s correctness.

Once Phoenix was happy turning onto the centre line from both reins and staying straight throughout, I added in transitions.

A horse has to be as rideable as possible on the centre line, so it’s useful to get them used to riding various movements on the centre line. You also don’t want a horse to anticipate a halt transition at X every time they trot down the centre line. With both Phoenix and my clients I used a variety of transitions – halt, walk, rein back – to keep the horse’s attention on their rider and to get them riding straight transitions without the help of the fence. A pair of tramlines can be a useful intermediary measure to support the horse as they learn to stay straight.

One thing I noticed with many of my riders was that they could turn accurately onto the centre line, but then they were unaware of their slight drift down the centre line, which stemmed from the crookedness in their initial turn.

After some work on bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, I got them to ride the following exercise.

On the left rein in trot, turn onto the centre line and at X ride a 10m circle left. Continue down the centre line before turning right at the track. Right turn onto the centre line and this time ride a right 10m circle at X before continuing along the centre line and turning left.

A horse who turns onto the centre line in a slightly crooked way will not carry themselves straight so are liable to drift through the outside shoulder. This may be a minimal drift, but the lack of straightness will compromise the quality of their gait and their turn at the end.

The 10m circles towards the wall will improve the rider’s accuracy as they won’t want to crash into the fence, so will engage their outside aids and ride the outside shoulder around the circle more. As they return to the centre line, it will become apparent if they’ve forgotten the outside aids as their horse will overshoot the centre line, and wobble along it. If they forget to ride straight out of the circle they will struggle to turn at the end because the horse is bending the wrong way.

To ride this exercise well, the rider needs to ride accurately with their outside aids onto the centre line, and focus on channelling the horse along the centre line, before minimising the bend through their neck on the circle, and using the outside aids to turn. Focusing on straightening the horse as they ride out of the circle improves the second half of the centre line and then, because the horse is not in counter bend, they will turn onto their new rein in a more balanced way.

I like this exercise for assessing straightness, before doing some other exercises to ensure the horse is working on two tracks and then using lateral work to establish the outside rein and engage the inside hind leg, before finishing the session with the original centre line exercise so that the rider gets a feeling for a horse is travelling straight in a good balance. Increasing familiarity with the centre line will improve test marks, and improving the finishing strides of a circle will improve accuracy marks and the marks of the next movement.

Kids Going Cross Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Trot Diagonals

This week I was given the challenge of teaching one of my young riders her trot diagonals. I laid the foundations in her last lesson, giving her some homework to practice before taking the plunge this week.

Before I teach a child their trot diagonals I like them to be able to maintain trot whilst rising. Some beginners do a double bounce when using their legs. They also need to be able to differentiate between sitting and rising, and for rising to be autonomous. Before even introducing the idea of diagonals I use a simple exercise to introduce the double sit to change diagonal. With my young rider trotting around in an up-down-up-down rhythm, I ask them to change the rhythm to up-down-down-up-down, which tests their balance and core strength as well. I also get them familiar with the sequence of legs in trot and feeling the movement of the legs.

This rider had been practising her double sits, but has fallen into the trap of sitting for three beats. I established that she could do it correctly when she applied herself, but I felt that she didn’t see the point in perfecting the exercise. Sitting for three was close enough, wasn’t it?

She needed to start to see the bigger picture. Why I was making her do a double sit. She is also mature for her age, and likes to have the explanation for everything, so I knew I’d have to discuss it in depth. But on the level of a six year old.

I began by checking she knew the sequence of the legs in trot, and then told her that on circles and corners of the arena the inside hind leg has to work hardest to keep the pony trotting. So to make her pony’s job easier we should stand up when that leg is moving forwards. I then checked she’d been listening earlier by asking which other leg is going forwards at the same time that the inside hind is (the outside fore, if anyone’s having a blonde moment).

My little rider correctly identified the front leg, so we then watched her pony’s shoulder moving. If she couldn’t see it I was going to put a strip of tape along the shoulder blade to emphasise the movement. But she could see the shoulders move in walk.

Next, we went up into trot and studied the shoulders moving in trot. I did say she might be able to feel the hind legs moving forwards, but the visual cue is easier for children to process and link steps together.

I asked my rider which front leg was moving forwards as she rose. And therefore which hind leg was. Then I asked if she was helping her pony, or making it harder for her. I find that linking a movement to a pony’s welfare encourages children to pay attention because they don’t want to hurt their pony so will be more likely to practice and perfect what we’re doing.

Once we’d established the shoulder that was going forwards when she rose, and if it was the right one or not, we talked about how to change the trot diagonal so that she was on the correct one. Of course, it was the double sit exercise we’d practiced last week!

Now she still does the odd triple sit, but there was more determination in my little rider to just sit for two beats and to change her diagonal. With practice, she’ll crack it, but now I know she will try harder at it.

We spent the rest of the lesson doing quick checks. For example, every time they changed the rein I asked what did she need to do – change her whip and sit for two! Then when they had a sneaky walk I asked her to check her diagonal. It’s important that a rider doesn’t get used to being told they’re on the incorrect diagonal, but rather by asking them if they are right or wrong as they will become more thoughtful and independent riders, as well as fully understanding the concept. Also, it’s important to choose the moment to correct trot diagonals. Don’t do it before canter, or on a tricky school movement. Wait until they can devote their full attention to the outside shoulder and double sitting.

This rider took to my explanation, and seemed to really understand it. I l her that her Mum will be able to tell if she’s right or wrong, so hopefully World War Three doesn’t break out when they’re practising! Some children need more explanation than others, but I think by breaking it down into small steps of verbal explanation, visual guides, and demonstrations, you can pinpoint when it starts to go over their head. Then you can change tact, or leave teaching diagonals until they have fully grasped the previous step.

Working a Young Horse

I’ve been working with a young horse all summer, who has really tested the patience and determination of his owner and rider, but thankfully she’s starting to reap the benefits.

He came to her as lightly backed, but we soon discovered that he’d been missing a key element in his training: consistency.

So we took him right back to square one, and the first couple of weeks were spent with them building a relationship and him learning the routine in his new home. He’s a tense, nervous little guy, and it comes out in bolshy behaviour, so his owner had to establish ground manners and wait until he started to feel confident before starting to work him.

Now because he had already been introduced to tack, lunging and long reining, not a huge amount of time needed to be spent notching up the girth hole by hole as he got used to the feel of the saddle on his back, but we soon found out that he had some undesirable behaviours when being worked in hand, such as napping, twisting his body, bunny hopping, and charging at you. The same when he was ridden.

When I first met them they’d had some positive in hand sessions, but not so positive ridden sessions and his owner had realised she’d bitten off more than she could chew and needed help.

We decided to step back and focus on their long reining. They’d done some long reining around the farm tracks, which were going well, but weren’t doing any long reining in the arena, only riding, which wasn’t going so well. I completely agree that young horses should be educated outside the arena as much as possible, but this little horse didn’t have good associations with the arena. I believe this was because he was upset and confused about the ridden process and it was in a less familiar environment.

I think it stemmed from the lack of consistency in his backing process, as well as his individual personality, but as soon as the youngster was out of his comfort zone he displayed his “naughty behaviours” of napping and not going forwards. Starting to understand his personality and behaviour, we began to formulate a plan.

The horse wasn’t comfortable or confident in the indoor arena. Neither was he confident about being ridden. So putting the two together was a recipe for disaster. I sent my client home with the homework of long-reining in the indoor arena, doing basic circles, changes of reins and serpentines to build her horse’s confidence of being in that space. By doing some basic ridden movements from the ground they will become familiar, so hopefully when his owner rides him and rides these movements they will be more familiar and hopefully less stressful so he doesn’t exhibit any of his insecurity behaviours.

They continued to long rein out of the arena too, and the next lesson we began in his comfort zone with long-reining. They did ten minutes of this until he settled. Then his rider mounted, and we did exactly the same from the saddle as from the ground. So what he was being asked to do was familiar, but with the ridden part being unfamiliar. He was dipping his toe out of his comfort zone.

You can almost think of the comfort zone as an island, and the aim is for the sea to recede, so the island becomes bigger as the horse grows in confidence and experience.

Anyway, they had a positive ridden session, with him starting to relax. They didn’t need to trot until walking under saddle was within his comfort zone. The next few rides involved less long-reining and more in the saddle time, adding in short trots when the conditions were right.

They got to the point in the next few weeks that his owner could get on at the yard, enjoyed their rides round the farm, and were having positive sessions in the school. I think it was to their benefit not to increase the ridden work until the consistency was established. The horse began to relax into his work: he knew what to expect, was familiar with his surroundings and handlers, so stopped napping and responded correctly to the aids.

Once the consistency was established, we started to develop the ridden work. We introduced trots for longer and longer periods, transitions, circles and changes of rein. I was pleased that he was taking it all in his stride because he was growing in confidence.

Unfortunately, they had a blip and the youngster started napping again. Instead of persevering from the saddle, I suggested they returned to long-reining for a few days. I’m not sure what caused the blip, but the horse strikes me as a worrier, so it’s best to reaffirm his comfort zone and then start to ask the questions again, and be on the lookout for the first signs that he isn’t understanding, before his behaviour escalates.

It didn’t take long to get them back on track, and this will be the first thing we do if he has a sudden lack of confidence again.

Bearing in mind that this horse doesn’t have the best mindset to new experiences, and isn’t overly confident, we need to teach him to open his mind to new experiences. So we need to reduce the stress involved. I suggested that his owner introduced the outdoor arena by long-reining in there first, and then to ride in there after doing most of their work in the indoor until the horse relaxes in that environment. Then she can begin to work him properly in that arena. Hopefully by not throwing him in the deep end and asking him to swim, he will benefit in the long term because the relationship between him and his rider will strengthen as he gets more confident, and then we can ask him to step into deeper water more quickly and he won’t sink.

Next up is to continue establishing the basics, improving his rhythm and suppleness, adding in more school movements and getting the correct response from her aids. Being naturally tense, I want to see him starting to relax his topline and become more free in his body before we move on from each stage as that change in his body language tells us that he is more confident and understands his work.

Figures of Eight

For some reason I’ve been doing a lot of figure of eight work in lessons. I think it’s because I’ve been focusing my clients on changing their horse’s bend, and staying balanced throughout, but I’m enjoying seeing the horses strengthen as they switch between hind legs.

I was teaching one lady on her horse, who can be a bit lazy and not engage his engine, but where we’re building up his topline and trying to strengthen his hindquarters it’s important that we get him thinking forwards at the beginning of the session. So we’ve been using trot poles as an incentive.

After a short trot to warm up on each rein, I started them working over five trotting poles. This increased their impulsion immediately, and the stride length started to improve, but because the poles were on a straight line the horse could avoid bringing his inside hind underneath him, which makes it harder for us to improve his suppleness and strength. He needs more circle work, but without overstressing him. So we began to put the poles onto an oval.

The poles were still ridden in a straight line, but my rider curved away just after them, to ride a distorted circle before curving back to the poles with a short approach. This improved the horse’s cadence over the poles as he started to flex more through his knees and hocks and couldn’t sneak onto his forehand in the straight lines.

Next, we started to alternate which way they turned after the poles, so we were riding a figure of eight. This had the benefit that it made my rider ride straight over the poles, and not accept the slight bend her horse left himself in on straight lines. Which improved their balance round the turns because he wasn’t pretending to be a motorbike and stayed vertical.

Next up, we incorporated canter transitions. After the trotting poles, as they turned left my rider asked for left canter. The aim was to have a positive response from the canter aids, have a forwards canter round the bigger oval, and then ride a transition into an active, balanced trot ready for the poles again. Having the poles after the transition helped maintain impulsion and stopped him trying to drop his forehand.

We developed this into a figure of eight exercise with one circle in canter and the other in trot. Which improved his suppleness and stopped him predicting the canter transitions. Especially when we turned the same way consecutively!

I’d like to develop the exercise further with them so that both circles are in canter, and the poles are raised. This will get him more responsive to his rider because there are a few questions in quick succession, and it will improve his balance, strength and suppleness. He will also begin to work more consistently over his back, engaging his abdominals and bridging. This will help his rider learn the feeling of him working correctly so that she can recreate it without the help of the poles as he gets stronger.

It’s a really simple exercise which has immediate, positive effects, and I loved the way it stopped this horse anticipating and rushing the poles, or the canter transitions.

Visual Learners

Teaching these days is all about providing information in a variety of forms. Years ago teachers would teach verbally, but nowadays they offer pictures and videos, physical activities and social activities to support their verbal lectures.

In an arena I predominantly use verbal explanations, but I also use videos and photos to feedback to clients, and have been known to get a nearby rider to demonstrate an exercise (especially rising canter). I will also walk any lines to help demonstrate an exercise. Sometimes physical feedback, such as adjusting a foot’s position in the stirrup, is as useful teaching tool.

I’ve been teaching a young boy, who has high functioning autism, and he’s really testing my imagination in terms of effectively getting my message across to him in a format he understands. I know not everyone likes to label children, but from a teaching perspective it’s very useful to know of any problems, if that’s the right term, so I can better understand their reactions or behaviour, and adjust my approach so that they get the best out of the lesson.

He’s very literal, so I have to be careful not to use figurative language. Today I said, “tell Tilly to go round the edge” as his pony started to cut the corner. So he said, “Tilly, go round the edge.” Of course I meant to tell the pony with his legs and hands, not to literally tell her! So I’m having to adapt my words and phrases so that there’s no room for misinterpretation.

I also have to explain exercises very explicitly so that he understands them. For example, I tell him at which letter we will go into trot, and then I have to list each letter he will ride past, and at which letter he needs to ride a downward transition. Otherwise he trots from the start letter across the school to the final letter!

To help me direct him, I use a variety of cones and poles. For example, he must ride past the yellow cone before he turns, or he should halt between the poles. These props are easy to adjust to make an exercise easier or harder, and seem to really help him focus on where he’s going. He also has immediate feedback as to whether he’s achieved the aim because he’s either the right side of the prop, or he’s not.

This is a useful approach for visual learners, so definitely one for me to bear in mind when teaching others. I have one client (who knows who she is) who always cuts the corner after poles, so when we progress to jumping she is going to have cones to go round so that I can break this bad habit!

With this young boy, I’ve also had to get creative to help improve his riding position. Sticking to visual cues, I put red electric tape onto his reins which he must hold in order to have the correct length of rein and to have the reins the same length. He tends to, like all beginners, to hold his hands close to his tummy. So I sprayed purple spray onto his pony’s withers to show him where his hands should be. Of course this works best on the greys and palominos.

When we’ve been practising jumping position, to improve his balance and lower leg stability, I’ve been putting a plait in his pony’s mane for him to hold so that he is moving his hands the correct distance up her neck.

He has some special gloves on order, which have an L and R on to help him learn his left and rights. I know many adults who would also like these gloves!

I’m sure as he progresses through his riding I will need to become even more imaginative – suggestions on postcards! I think I will mark a line along each shoulder in a different colour to help him learn his trot diagonals and to see the shoulder moving. It’s all about finding ways to help him understand different concepts which makes sense to him.

But I’m up for a challenge!

Circles and Jumping

I’ve been focusing recently on jumping dog legs with a client since we discovered how difficult she and her pony found riding left dog legs were. They often drifted from their jumping line and lost the fluidity by chipping in a stride.We’ve worked hard at this and last week the dog legs were far more even between the reins.This week I decided they needed more of a challenge to make sure my rider was riding actively and accurately between jumps, using her lazy right leg (the cause of the left dog leg problems), and to improve their suppleness.

I love this exercise and providing you have enough space it’s so useful for getting riders to link fences together. I placed four cross poles on a 25m circle at 12,3,6 and 9 o’clock. Initially, I asked the pair to canter a circle over the jumps in both directions. They had to ride the circle until it felt consistent and flowing. They were supposed to get five canter strides between each jump. In order to ride this exercise well you have to be continuously riding towards the next jump. The outside aids need to push the horse round so that they stay balanced, and you want to be jumping the centre of each jump – hence why I used cross poles to help guide horse and rider. I was pleased that both reins were fairly consistent from the start, and my rider didn’t feel that one direction was significantly harder than the other. This proves they are becoming straighter and more symmetrical in their work.

The next challenge was to improve the quality of the canter and their suppleness. They had to ride the large circle of jumps and after jumping every second fence they had to ride and 10m circle within the big circle before re-jumping the fence and continuing around the circle. The smaller circle gets the horse’s hocks underneath them and improves their suppleness, as well as making them neater over the next jump. The rider has to turn more, opening the inside rein more and using more outside leg to get the turn, so it will highlight any weakness on the rider’s part. We put two small circles within the big circle, but you could do a small circle at every jump to increase the difficulty. I find it useful to have a jump to aim for, especially a cross, because it’s very easy for riders to accept a wider turn on the flat as there’s no marker to cross, whereas a jump will encourage them to be more active and determined in their riding.

With the smaller circles my rider started to plan ahead more, turning whilst in the air, and her pony started to bring his hocks underneath him more, improving his canter.

Challenge number three was a bit harder. Instead of riding a small circle towards the middle of the big circle, on every other cross pole, my rider had to ride a small circle outwards. This required a change of canter lead over the jump. Something they are perfectly capable of, but sometimes it takes a minute or two for the switch to click. I got my rider to exaggerate her turns, really pushing the weight into her new inside leg and opening the rein so that her pony changed over the jump. We had a few attempts with no change of lead and so am unbalanced small circle, but they started to get it together and when it worked, the sequence flowed seamlessly with no loss of balance or rhythm.

We spent more time on this challenge, bringing the different aspects together, and then finally they progressed to the ultimate challenge!Alternating between internal and external small circles on the big circle. Below is a rough diagram of their route on the left rein. For this, my rider had to be on the ball; riding each stride with purpose and positivity because her pony didn’t know where he was going! It was a good test of how rideable the pony is, his suppleness and their ability to ride rhythmically and fluidly between fences.

I was really pleased that the circles were all fairly even in terms of size, shape and balance. Although they didn’t manage to change canter leads each time, all the elements started to come together and it was only tiredness and minor miscommunication holding them back, which will improve with practice. Hopefully after riding this quick thinking exercise the pair will find it easier to ride flowing courses of jumps.

Improving Symmetry

I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.

Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.

Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.

We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.

The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.

I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.

My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.

Working a Young Horse

There’s such extreme opinions and attitudes towards working young horses; when they should be backed, first jumped etc. Racehorses are still on the track as two year olds, and some people leave a horse feral until they’re five.

Despite scientific evidence about when a horse’s skeleton is matured, there is still a lot of pressure for talented, well bred sports horses to be produced for four year old classes. Which causes all sorts of problems later in life for them. It’s a society of instantaneous gratification; in which horses who are capable of performing today do, rather than waiting until they are mature enough to in five years time.

In this sense, lesser quality horses – perhaps with less talent or with a less favourable conformation – actually fare better because they are produced at a slower rate and usually later in their lives.

Anyway, I’ve come to my own conclusion about how I feel an intelligent, talented young horse with a trainable temperament and good work ethic should be nurtured. It’s important to introduce brain work early in their lives, without doing too much physical work.

Mental stimulation can involve introducing a young horse to different environments, showing them poles, fillers, tarpaulins etc, in hand work to establish good manners, taking them to in hand shows, leading them out along quiet lanes, and meeting cars and bicycles. This sort of enrichment builds a bond with their handler, which should make the backing process less stressful for the horse, and builds the horse’s confidence when out and about.

I’ve got a new client, with her new four year old. The mare was produced in Ireland before being sold at a sales, and has a very clever mind as well as talent to boot. Whilst she needs to mature and increase condition, she also needs work to keep her busy brain occupied so that she stops jumping out her field or box walking.

They had their first lesson this week. The mare is fussy to mount, quite anxious and tense. This behaviour stems from anxiety so we have formulated a plan to overcome this. As it’s not rudeness, I don’t think the mare will benefit from a confrontational approach, but we do need to encourage her to stand more quietly to mount. It’s a long term approach, of mounting and allowing the horse to walk until she relaxes slightly and then asking her to halt momentarily. Hopefully each time she’s mounted the walk period gets shorter and halt gets longer. Time can also be spent standing by the mounting block with nothing further happening. We don’t want to add to the tension, but we need to introduce the concept of better mounting manners. Hopefully within two months she is less anxious about the mounting procedure and only needs walk a couple of steps before halting for as long as her rider needs her to. Racehorses have a similar problem with mounting because they’re used to being legged up and hurried into work.

The mare, as with all youngsters, walked into the arena and immediately started calling and looking for her friends, drifting back towards the gate. She’d left her brain in the stable. Add this to her tense, quick walk, and there’s nothing to work with. So we began the lesson by my rider just walking around the arena, circling around every jump she passed. I told her not to worry about the quality of the walk, or the bend. We just wanted to use the circles to draw the mare’s focus to her rider, forgetting about her friends in the stable. My rider could start to think about her aids and assess the mare’s understanding and response, but we didn’t want to start changing the mare until her brain was on side and she had begun to relax. It took a good few minutes of walking for the mare to take her mind off the gate and stables, and to relax into a longer striding walk. You could see she was starting to concentrate on what was going on in the arena.

Now that the mare was starting to relax we could introduce halt transitions. Reluctant to stop, she opens her mouth and tries to barge through the hand. She’s in a Micklem bridle, with a Neue schule eggbutt snaffle with bit stabilisers, which means she isn’t fussing as much with her tongue or gaping her mouth as wide as she did when viewed, so I’m hoping this habit reduces more when she settles fully into her new home. Anyway, I asked my rider to vibrate the rein as the mare set against her hand so that we diffused the tug of war situation. After a couple of halts, the vibrations were less because the mare was starting to understand the question and responded to my riders’ initial aids.

With this starting to fall into place, and the mare focused on her work, we could then take a five minute break. They halted and stood still for almost five minutes, taking in the scenery, and most importantly, relaxing. This halt is the type I’d like them to get upon mounting, so it’s good to see the concept is there. We repeated the halt frequently throughout the rest of the lesson to give the mare time to assimilate each exercise.

Staying in walk, as I now wanted to ask the mare a couple of questions to see how trainable she is, we began to introduce the idea of straightness. Now I know it’s halfway up the Scales of Training, but the mare was showing preference for left bend and unless we iron out her banana-ness, we won’t be able to start at the bottom of the Scale.

On the right rein, the one which the mare bent outwards, we started riding a square. Again, we weren’t making a huge change to the mare’s way of going, but rather showing her that there was a different way of moving. Riding straight lines emcourages the mare to straighten out of her left bend, and start to think about bending to the right. Her rider could also check she was sitting straight and giving even aids.

As with all youngsters, the mare wobbled along the sides of our square, so we made sure the reins and hands were channeling the mare straight without being claustrophobic, and the legs hung round her barrel to guide her between the reins. Just with a little more support from her rider and the mare started to move straighter, stride out and relax.

We repeated the square on the left rein to show the mare that she didn’t have to curl up to the left. Then we did some more circles around jumps and my rider felt the mare was better balanced and she had more influence over their direction. I was pleased with the improvement in the mare’s walk. As she relaxed she was exhaling in big snorts, lengthening her stride, lowering her neck and generally looking happier.

We finished by trotting a gentle square on both reins, aiming for a consistent rhythm and the mare relaxing into trot, stretching herself into a longer frame as she and her rider found their balance together.

Despite spending most of the lesson in walk the mare was mentally drained. She stood with her head low, ears floppy. You could see that she was tired. Her working routine will be two schooling sessions a week; one a lesson similar to this one and the other a shorter revision session with her owner. The rest of the week will be spent either in hand walks, some in hand work, such as pole mazes, or short ridden hacks. She’s a very clever horse so we need to keep her brain ticking over in order for her to be more manageable in the field and stable, but we do need to be careful not to stress her body physically, but I think this arrangement should benefit her best.