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.

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!

After School 

The last couple of days I’ve been racing against nightfall to teach. Tonight wasn’t so bad as they have floodlights in the arena, but yesterday’s clients unfortunately don’t.

As we finished the lesson the bats were coming out, and it reminded me of our after school races against time.

In the spring, summer and autumn, there used to be lessons after school so we’d either join them or hack, and there wasn’t as much pressure, but at this time of year we used to fight the losing battle against darkness.

My comprehensive school finished at 3.25pm so we would meet and walk half a mile to a house – the one of the girl who lived the closest – get changed, and take over the living room, watching kids TV – Balamory was a favourite because of the catchy theme song (…what’s the story in Balamory? Wouldn’t you like to know?…) – until 3.50pm when we would be picked up by our riding instructor in her discovery. We’d all pile in for the short journey to the yard, where we would spill out like worms out of a can at 4.05pm. I’ll always remember watching the older girls tumble out of the car when I was in primary school, yearning to be like one of them!

Then we would throw our school bags in the tea room before hurtling up the fields. And I mean fields, not these silly paddocks we have nowadays, we had 40 acres to scour for our ponies. 

In the summer we would often be allowed to ride in the 4.30pm lesson, which meant we really got a wriggle on to catch, groom and rack up in 25 minutes. We daren’t be late though!

So in the winter we’d try and do the same, riding at 4.30 because at least we had half an hour in the outdoor before being consigned to the small indoor. We also had bigger feeds for our ponies, which meant we wanted to have finished riding and be feeding them by 5.30pm in order to be picked up by 6pm. When the horses were stabled we would usually have at least one more stable to do, usually for a friend, and we all used to pull together to muck out and carry waters before 6pm.

My parents were notorious for being tardy though, so I used to ride for longer. I can remember still being at the yard, albeit up the house with our instructor, at 9pm in January because my parents were late closing the shop, collecting my brother, and running errands.

Another poignant memory I have was one February when the bugs were rife. Instead of eight of us being picked up there were only two of us. We still rode for half an hour, caught everything before dark and mucked out ten boxes by 6pm!

Things got easier when our school changed its timetable and we finished at 3.10pm, and the house we’d used was no longer available so we walked to a corner shop and got picked up earlier – giving us an extra ten minutes at the yard! Later on we got picked up from outside school and were much earlier at the yard, but I don’t think I ever lost that feeling of racing against time.

One of the best feelings when we were on the way to the yard was the announcement by our instructor that “so-and-so had followed her in” which meant that if our pony was indeed so-and-so, they had been in for a few hours, had a feed and were dry! If we were lucky we’d sit, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, knowing we didn’t have to run up the field!

From my after school experiences I never understand how kids can faff around and end up riding in the dark and cold. But I think unless you have those pressures you don’t learn to walk quickly or to be efficient.

By the way, are you singing the Balamory theme tune? I’ve had it in my head all day, since I drafted this post in my head!