On The Lead Rein

From which side should you lead a child riding a pony?

The traditionalist in me says from the near side, and that’s always the side we led from when helping out at the local riding school as teenagers. In the showing world lead rein ponies are led from the near side.

Ultimately, a pony needs to be happy being led from either side, as it is correct to lead from the off side on a road, and a child may need more assistance on one side than the other. Perhaps a leg which draws up so they tend to lose that stirrup more.

Equally, the leader needs to be proficient at leading from both sides; there’s definitely some skill in running slightly sideways with one hand on the lead rope and the other on the rider’s leg!

When you turn a horse around, you turn them away from you to avoid being stood on, so for me it is logical to lead on the outside of the pony. That is, from the near side on the right rein, and off side on the left. Particularly when cantering as you’re sprinting and want to minimise the risk of legs entangling.

This all means that there is a degree of leading from both sides. But I have to say that my bug bear is when leaders switch sides on every change of rein, interfering with the rider’s steering or the pony’s balance. I cringe every time I see a leader run quicker than the pony, go round the head, and resume leading from the new side. It’s distracting to the observer and distracting to the pony and child. Often you seem them actually move off their flight path as the leader darts about.

When leading a pony and beginner child the purpose is to be totally in control initially, and then reduce your influence over the pony as the rider develops their skill set. So initially a leader needs to direct every stride, but they should become more laissez-faire as the rider starts to be able to steer, start and stop independently. But it’s at this point where the leader switching sides can cause the most disruption because the rider’s aids are quite fragile and their concentration at it’s highest. They’re also learning the cause and effect – how much rein is needed to turn or how much leg is needed to go at that speed – so a leader walking in front of the pony affects this learning process.

Personally, I prefer to predominantly lead from the near side, so don’t switch sides at each change of rein. If I needed to switch sides, I’d wait until we were walking or halting. However, I always lead on the outside when cantering because I feel safer and less likely to get knocked by a stray leg.

I’m by no means correct, and I’m interested to know what experienced leaders tend to do. Especially as I’ve got a couple of years of lead rein coming up! But my observations from teaching are that it is best to pick one side and stick to it as much as possible so as not to distract the young jockey from their work.

Riding With Sponges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lockdown Layout of Poles

I love having the opportunity to teach consecutive lessons at the same venue as it means I can play around with one setup of poles or jumps and utilise a variety of exercises. If I had a base to teach from I’d probably have a layout for a couple of weeks which could be used for flat, pole and jump lessons. Which would give the opportunity for clients to get some continuity and to develop the exercises over a couple of lessons.

For anyone bored during lockdown, this is a fabulous arrangement of poles which can be used umpteen times without becoming boring.

The pole at X is used in both circles, and the 3 poles at each end are laid out to make an accurately sized circle of about 18 metres. It’s useful to have the outer track free from debris.

The first use for this layout is to make circles rounder. For some young riders they tend to ride EB in a straight line, so the poles help teach them how to ride an arc across the school.

For more established riders, I usually discuss and encourage them ro to evaluate the quality of their circles and compare them to the opposite rein. Then we discuss stiffness; why one rein is harder than the other to get a round circle.

Once the circles are round and symmetrical in trot the same work can be repeated in canter. Often a pony will drift out on a canter circle without their rider noticing. Well with the poles it’s obvious when your circle isn’t round!

The poles can be raised on the inner end to improve cadence, help prevent them from falling in and improve vertical balance.

Finally, the poles can be converted to cross poles which tests jumping from a rhythm and improves suppleness.

With the exercise as poles on the floor, raised poles (although the pole at X needs to be raised at both ends) or jumps, a figure of eight can be ridden over the circle of poles which helps with flying changes; teaches a rider to plan their route and use their seat and body to affect their horse.

Apart from improving circles, this layout has another use – teaching gears to the gaits. Using the two poles on each three quarter line, ride straight over them in working trot, counting the strides. Then try to lengthen the strides into medium trot, getting fewer strides between the poles. Then collect the trot and increase the number of strides between the poles.

Again, this can be done in canter, and then as jumps instead of poles. With young kids you can keep it simple and just teach them to count strides which increases their awareness of rhythm. And with older kids it becomes a game, with them becoming more determined to get a set number of strides.

You can then also discuss the way the bascule changes shape depending on the type of canter – how when jumping from a medium canter the take off and landing points are further away from the base of the fence, giving rise to a long, shallow bascule. From collected canter those points are closer to the fence so creating a steeper, shorter bascule.

I love the versatility of this layout and how each subject can be layered to suit all abilities and all levels of understanding. It gives me so much variation between individual clients with the exact same lesson plan.

Making an Event Uneventful

I spend a lot of time working with riders and horses who have angst over a certain area in their riding. So whilst building their confidence in that area I also need to help them set themselves up for success when they do broach their weak area when riding.

For example, I was helping a girl with her horse who had lost her confidence in canter. There were a couple of issues in that the horse lacked straightness in trot which was exacerbated in canter. The horse also played off her nerves, rushing in the canter and then anticipated the second and third canters so became a bit strong and fast, which then worried my rider so she felt out of control.

We built the foundations in trot over the course of a few lessons and then they had a short canter in a tactical place (short side of the arena) which was successful and then I discussed with my rider how it felt and what she should try to do the next time. Then we worked on the trot to reestablish their balance and control. Once settled and not expecting another canter transition, we did one.

Over the next few lessons we worked on making canter uneventful; so it became normal and just part of their schooling sessions. By incorporating it into a sequence of movements, working on the trot until there was no anticipation and choosing different places to ride the transition will all help my rider to feel most in control and give her a positive canter experience.

Then the canter work becomes less eventful and with it less anxiety or nerves, and then a positive experience for both parties and good habits are created.

It’s the same if a horse anticipates an exercise. One girl I teach has a new horse who gets very excited about poles and jumping. We’re still building their relationship on the flat and over poles, but the second time they ride through an exercise the mare gets very quick in anticipation. So we’ve made the polework boring. They ride over the poles and then do some flatwork – circles, transitions etc – and when the mare isn’t expecting to go over the poles they go again. They’re also changing the approach; turning later or earlier and coming in different gaits. So the focus is shifted from the poles, and they become boring as they’re part of the course, and she doesn’t know when or how they are going to do it. It’s uneventful. But my rider remains in full control so we are not creating a situation where the horse knows they can take control after a line of poles.

One horse I ride can be very opinionated about returning to her stable afterwards. So instead of putting myself in a confrontational situation, which is potentially quite dangerous, I’ve been skirting around the subject. Initially, what the mare did was march back to her stable, and have a tantrum when asked to halt, tossing her head around and dancing about, threatening to rear.

So each time I returned from hacks I’d get off halfway along the drive and walk her in hand back to the yard. I halted her before she was expecting it, and before she began to get antsy. I’d have a calm dismount, run the stirrups up and walk calmly back to her stable. Once this was a calm scenario, I’d add in some halts on the way to the stable. Then I’d dismount closer to the stable, but each time before she started her quick march back.

I also started doing a a similar thing on the way back from the arena; getting a calm dismount closer and closer to the stable yard. I feel we’ve broken the cycle of anxious rushing back to the stable without making a big issue out of it and today she walked calmly all the way to the stable yard. Stood patiently while I dismounted and faffed around, before returning to her stable.

It may have taken longer with this approach but I feel it’s a much calmer environment and will have a lasting positive result than engaging in an argument at the point the horse wants to rush back to her stable. Hopefully new habits are created and the memory of the bad ones erased.

My approach to any issues with both horse or rider is to take a periphery tactic. Look at other behaviours and have physical checks to ensure that they aren’t contributing to the issue, then circumnavigate the problem until you find the best tactic and then make your move. Taking the event out of the, well, event I guess, so it’s as stress free as possible for everyone is vital. After all, if the rider or handler becomes stressed it will feed down to the horse, and if the horse becomes stressed they will worry their owner. Additionally, if any problems do arise it’s very simple to take a step back to redress the horse-rider relationship or to reestablish confidence levels in other areas before trying again.

Pipe Dreaming

Every so often, do you allow yourself to dream? I’m always hearing competitions on the radio – when you hear a song, ring in and win money. I never ring in. I don’t have a good track record of winning lucky dip competitions. I was always the grandchild returning from Weymouth carnival empty handed, before being given the teddy that Granny had won as compensation. The only competitions I’ve ever won are from hard work.

It doesn’t stop me from pipe dreaming though. What would I do with a sizeable lump sum of money?

I wouldn’t go crazy, stop working, travel the world, buy a brand new range rover or anything. But I’d definitely move house I think.

Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that what I want from our next house is enough space for Otis at the bottom of the garden. Just 3 acres or so. Enough for him and some sheep for company. Or possibly the pony. A slightly bigger house would be great – four bedrooms and an extra downstairs room to lighten the working from home burden. Detached. On the edge of a large village. I’d be very happy with that setup. Not too much housework, and a moderate garden. But space for Otis to join in family BBQs. Don’t worry, I’ve not forgotten Phoenix. She can come for any holidays. But she needs the facilities of a livery yard, and I like the social side.

But what if money were no object? What could I live with? It sounds such a hardship. But you know what I mean. What would be my utopia?

I love teaching, so there’s no way I’d stop. I rediscovered that today after a couple of weeks of feeling decidedly average in the coaching department. But I wouldn’t want the hassle of a livery yard. Or the invasion of privacy.

I’ve mulled it over and I think I would want a fairly small house – five bedrooms maximum. Not like these ten bedroom mansions I keep spotting online. A sensibly sized garden. Half a dozen stables. An arena – bigger than a 20x40m so it has more scope for jumping. And something like 8 acres. I could live with slightly less.

So what would I do with this? It’s too small to be a livery yard and I’ve not changed my mind on it being too much hassle. Instead, I’d have 3 permanent residents – Otis, Phoenix and a pony. Then I’d offer holiday, training and rehab livery for one or two horses. If anyone was on holiday, or out of action due to illness or injury, then their horse could come on a working holiday with me. If someone needs help training their horse, then I could offer a bootcamp, and if an owner is struggling with a rehabilitation programme – walking out twice daily or restricted turnout – then I could offer this on a quieter setting, which many horses would benefit from alongside the consistency I could provide. All alongside my freelance teaching.

I could run monthly clinics myself , or hire out the arena for Riding Club clinics and Pony Club rallies. Or I could just offer my arena for clients to come and have lessons with me. Offering clinics would then cover my need for social support with Phoenix. Equally, perhaps I have one livery who is a chosen friend who could provide some chore cover and be a friend to hack out with. Alternatively, a nice equestrian neighbour who I could hack out with would be lovely.

I think this would strike the balance for me between having privacy at home, and earning a sufficient income to cover the running costs of a small stable yard.

It slightly scares me how much livery fees are when I start thinking of the inevitable pony which will arrive in the next couple of years. Especially when you consider that during the winter small people often lose interest. If the pony could spend the winter at home with Otis (such as in scenario one) there would be less workload in terms of stable chores, less pressure to work the pony in dark evenings, and less financial pressure. In both scenarios, the pony could be ridden during school holidays and on fine weekend days either on little hacks or in the school. Surely when you factor in livery fees, this option is becoming increasingly economically viable.

Of course, it is a tie having horses at home, but with the world changing we’re spending more time at home and it wouldn’t be too expensive to have a house sitter for when we went away – solving both the cat and horse problem.

So if anyone knows a suitable property and can provide a lump sum, please get in touch! In the meantime, I’ll carry on daydreaming.

Diagonal Limbs

I often talk about vertical balance with my riders as it’s one of the easiest ways to feel if a horse is unbalanced on turns. Have I blogged about it? I shall check as it was definitely on my list to do but I don’t actually remember writing it.

Old age.

Anyway, when looking at improving vertical balance I use the concept of diagonal aids. That is, the inside leg works in conjunction with the outside rein and vice versa.

Riding a horse is all about a balancing act. From day one, a rider is balancing the horse between going forwards from the leg and not going too fast by using the hands. Yes, the seat is also involved but as that works for both teams we’ll ignore it for the moment. It’s like having clutch control; every car is slightly different and there’s a skill involved.

Once we start talking about vertical balance the balancing act becomes a side to side one.

Initially, I ask my riders to ride some turns in walk, identifying the aids they’re using. Sometimes they get it right, after all I teach “indicate with the inside rein, instigate with the outside leg” when steering, but sometimes they’ll use one limb more than another, compensate for their or their horse’s crookedness, or have totally forgotten about one particular aid. Then, we discuss how the diagonal pairs work together to turn a horse, and to keep them upright on turns.

The left rein and right leg work as opposites to the right rein and left leg to keep the horse vertically balanced.

For example, the inside rein indicates the direction of turn as the outside leg pushes the horse in. The outside rein and inside leg work to prevent over steering and the horse falling in around a turn.

When a rider starts to think about their diagonal limbs working as pairs it becomes easier for them to work on a grey scale. Instead of it being black and white, putting the steering wheel onto full lock, they can now steer by degrees. Just as learning a half halt provides them with gears to each gait.

Half halts then begin to develop from a speed regulator to asking for bend, and correcting balance subconsciously. The rein contact becomes more consistent and because a leg aid is always applied with a rein aid the horse is ridden in a more forwards manner. Using diagonal pairs helps develop the feel and timing for aids too, which helps with refining the way of going.

Developing the concept of riding with diagonal pairs naturally leads on to riding inside leg to outside rein, which is a precursor to leg yield.

I enjoyed introducing the idea of diagonal pairs to one of my young riders a couple of weeks ago to help her transition from riding off the inside rein as a child usually does to riding with the outside aids. She had fabulous results as her pony started pushing through from behind, was more balanced on all their turns and taking the contact forwards. Thinking in diagonal pairs allowed her to position her pony wherever she wanted, and to correct him if they went off course. It was a very satisfying lesson to teach as I felt they both benefitted hugely from the rider’s new found understanding, feel, and knowledge.

Layering an Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Half Halts

At what point in a rider’s education do you introduce half halts?

I discussed it with some of my younger clients last week, with their parents being surprised at their grasp of the concept by the end of their lesson.

I like to bring in the idea of half halts fairly early on, once a rider is holding a steady rein contact, even if the reins are slightly long, and when they’re fairly balanced. If they have a vague knowledge of the phrase early on then it becomes much easier for them to learn how and when to do them later on.

I tend to layer the concept of a half halt in relation to a rider’s age, current level of riding, level of understanding, and what they actually need to achieve with half halts on their particular pony. As they develop as a rider, so their half halts evolve from dictating the rhythm to connecting a horse from back to front and the many other uses of a half halt.

So my explanation to last week’s eight year old was that half halts are a rider’s way of getting the pony’s attention. In a crowded room, you’d start talking to someone by using their name at the beginning of the phrase in order to get their attention. The half halt is a rider’s way of getting their pony’s attention before asking them to do something. By attracting their pony’s attention before a movement the pony is more obedient, the movement itself will be more balanced and accurate. At this stage, I get them to start factoring in half halts before transitions and turns.

As the rider becomes more adept at applying half halts at specific points during their ride, and develops an awareness for their pony’s way of going; the use of half halts can then be expanded to help them keep their pony in a steady rhythm. This relies more in feel, so is often slower to be developed. For example, it’s easier to remember to half halt before every turn then it is to half halt at the first sign of your pony speeding up or losing balance.

And so, the use and understanding of the half halt evolves as a rider matures in feel, ability and understanding.

So as well as the uses of the half halt developing over time, so does the half halt itself. It’s a complex aid when not autonomous. Again, I break it down and introduce it piece by piece. There are three components; the squeeze of the outside rein, the close of the leg, and the adjustment of the upper body.

Kids usually find the squeeze of the rein the easiest aid to apply; a squeeze like they’re squidging a sponge. Squeezing the leg is usually fairly straightforward too, but the upper body action often catches a young rider out.

In the textbook half halt, the upper body resists with the core engaging, to “pause” the horse. Try explaining this to a child! I use phrases like “sit up taller”, “lean back” (which brings them onto the vertical), “touch the sky with your head”, “slow your rising”, or “make your tummy hard”. Usually one phrase hits home with a rider and makes total sense to them, so I play around with phrases, demonstrations and any other idea I have to find what works for them.

So when introducing the half halt, I start with just a squeeze on the outside rein. It’s the easiest for them to understand as it ties in with slowing their pony for a turn, or if they’re running on. When the squeeze on the rein becomes second nature and they’ve developed a feel for the right amount of squeeze for a half halt, I bring in the second element.

Which element I bring in next depends on rider and pony. If the pony is lazy then I add the leg aid to the crude half halts. If the rider tends to collapse their upper body then I will teach the upper body aids.

With the lazy pony, I’ll say that as we want to maintain the energy, we need to add in a leg aid immediately after a squeeze down the rein. It’s like “rolling” a chord in music. The hand and leg act together, but not quite together. We’ll then play around until my rider has got the timing right and getting the correct response from the pony. Then we will refine the half halt by utilising the seat and upper body.

With a quick pony, or a rider who tends to collapse forward onto their hands, once the rein aid for the half halt is established, I focus my attention on getting them to sit tall and engage their tummy muscles. This makes their core stronger and stops them being over reliant on the reins in the long term, and also means that they are more effective at half halting and stopping a speeding pony. In this situation, very often only a teeny bit of leg is needed in the half halt, but I’ll still mention it so that when they move onto another pony they can actually keep them trotting!

So long as a rider has a basic knowledge of a half halt, you can adjust the aids and frequency to best suit their mount, and when they ride other horses they can make their own adjustments to find out the new horse’s buttons. You can also use the half halt to convey different messages, depending on the situation and the conversation pony and rider need to have. In my opinion, they earlier (within reason!) a rider hears the phrase and starts to learn about the principle of the half halt, the better for their long term education and success.

Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.

Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.

Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.

You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.

So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).

That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.

So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.

This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.

I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.

I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.

This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.

There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.