The Rider’s Seat

I refined one of my rider’s understanding of her seat earlier this week.

In walk she sits squarely, nicely upright, but in trot she collapses her lower back. After a quick chat, it became apparent that the collapsing is when she’s trying to use her seat to send her horse forwards. But this was counterproductive as her shift in position hinders him.

I used two analogies to begin with. The first, is to think of a bucket of water sat in your pelvis. Sitting squarely and correctly, the bucket can be brimful and not spill a drop. My rider keeps her bucket of water full in walk, but in trot, the water spills out the back.

The other thing that I wanted her to think about were the four corners of her seat bones. We only have two seat bones, but I think it’s better to think of them as having four points. Sitting correctly in halt a rider should feel that they are sat evenly left to right, and front to back. I.e. they can feel all four corners of their seat bones. When they can feel all four seat bones that bucket of water is brimful.

I sent them off in trot, tweaking their position slightly so that my rider kept feeling all four seat bones and didn’t spill her bucket. This is when the seat is in a neutral position. It’s not hugely effective, but it’s the best place to start. In order to keep her horse trotting forwards she used more voice, more leg, and a couple of little taps with the schooling whip. We had to break the cycle of her feeling the need to collapse her core when in the sitting phase of rising trot. With a more active trot she could keep her seat in neutral until she recognised when she deviated, and started to build some muscle memory.

Once my rider felt she was keeping the bucket of water inside her hips steady and could feel all four corners of her seat bones, we revised how a rider should weight the inside seat bones slightly on turns before putting that into practice.

Next up, we returned to the original discussion about using the seat. The horse was more forwards now, so more responsive to changes to her seat, which makes the learning process more rewarding as she gets instant feedback.

To send a horse on, or drive them forwards with your seat, you want to rock onto the back two corners of your seat bones. This opens up the front of your body and allows your seat to swing with the horse and encourage the energy to flow from the hindquarters to the front. If you rock your pelvis from neutral onto the back two seat bones in halt, you soon realise how slight a movement it is. When my rider tried this, she realised how she’d been trying too hard when she’d collapsed her lower back.

You can also think about that bucket of water. It’s no longer brimful, let’s say an inch from the top. When you rock onto the back of your seat bones to encourage more impulsion, the bucket will tip slightly. But you don’t want that water to slosh out the back. It’s a refined movement.

They practised changing between a neutral seat and a driving seat, until my rider could feel the slight differences in her position and could control it, and then the horse was responding to her seat aids.

Finally, we discussed the seat as a downward aid; rocking onto the front two seat bones, without spilling the bucket of water out the front, to help collect her horse, and to help ride a downward transition.

Then we put it all into practice, buy thinking of the bucket of water and the four corners of the seat bones, they rode transitions within the trot, circles and serpentines (making sure they didn’t slosh the water out the side of the bucket) until my rider felt in control of her seat aids, understood what slight movements they are, and was getting the correct response from her horse, who also started moving in a more forwards manner because he had clearer seat aids and she was carrying herself in a balanced way.

Trying Bits

Last time I was showjumping Phoenix I wasn’t 100% happy with the bit and our approaches to jumps. She wasn’t overly strong, but the canter got a bit flat as she got confident and bold, so we almost ran downhill into the jumps. Which either meant her taking a flyer, or taking the front rail down with her knees. Or having a lucky escape! Before I start jumping her much bigger, I wanted to sort this out.

I felt there was a schooling or strength issue; if I could improve her balance in the canter then she’d find it easier to remain uphill on the approach to jumps. She’s an independent lady though, and doesn’t accept help easily. It has to be subtly offered otherwise she panics. Yes, special, I know!

I felt I needed some help with the contact to help me help her. Nothing too strong, but just different to her loose ring, double jointed lozenge snaffle.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a trip to a local showjumping venue, which has an extensive bit bank. I’d have a lesson and try alternative mouthpieces.

I explained my predicament, and was given a loose ring snaffle, with two joints. But with slightly thinner, more contoured bars, and a full moon centrepiece. So what’s the difference, I hear you say? Well, to Phoenix, it’s a slightly less friendly bit of metal in her mouth, which will discourage her from leaning on my hand, and mean I can give lighter aids. Which should help me create the more uphill canter and help her to maintain it.

We spent a lot of time on the flat – more about this subject on another blog – allowing me to get the feel for the bit, and for her to accept its feel. To be honest, I didn’t feel a huge difference initially, she was fairly relaxed and accepting of the contact, but I did feel that she was more up in front of me, and less inclined to lean on the bit when I half halted. Which she sometimes does to evade sitting on her hocks and containing that powerful engine.

In the trot and canter work we played around with transitions within the gait. I needed to feel that I could adjust Phoenix easily, without her stressing, and that she used her hindquarters throughout. Particularly when she lengthens, she tends to go onto the forehand and leave her back end out behind her. Which is exactly what happens before jumps. By teaching her to shorten and lengthen in an uphill fashion, her hindquarters stay engaged and she’s lighter in my hand and in a better position to jump cleanly.

We then put this into practice with single fences and related distances, which highlight this weakness well. We jumped focusing on me helping her keep the balance of her canter throughout the approach, and after a couple of failed attempts when I held more than I needed to, and she panicked, we got it together, and she jumped beautifully out of a much better canter.

Moving onto related distances, I found that Phoenix was meeting the second element in a more uphill canter, which meant she pinged over them. Then I found that I could close my leg and ride her forwards if necessary to make the striding, without her nose diving or losing power.

It was a great session, really showing that you don’t want to be too quick to change tack, as often improvements on the flatwork will improve the jumping performance, but also that tiny changes to a bit can enhance communication between horse and rider.

Going to a bit specialist and trialling bits is definitely they way forward as more and more variations of bits come onto the market. It’s mind boggling, and can take a lot of time and money finding the perfect bit for your horse. Perhaps we’ll start to see some more bitting clinics in the calendar; where you go to a venue and have a meeting with a bit specialist, perhaps followed by a lesson to try it out?

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.

Cones and Circles

Mum asked for my expertise over the weekend as she’d been struggling with an exercise she’d been given last week.

I quite like the exercise though, so thought I’d share it with you.

Place three cones along the centre line, one at X and the other two ten metres either side.

From the right rein, turn down the centre line in trot and ride a ten metre circle around the first cone. You want to aim to stay equidistant from the cone the whole way round the circle. Continue round the circle until you’ve ridden a complete circle and the next time you cross the centre line change the rein and circle around the second cone in the opposite direction. One and a half circles later, move on to riding a circle in the original direction around the third cone. It’s a really good suppling sequence to ride.

Initially, you’re aiming for the three circles to be similar in size, and for it to flow between circles. Hopefully you’ll notice if one rein is harder than the other and you can spend some time improving the circles on that rein before coming back to the exercise.

You’ll remember a few weeks ago I blogged about how to ride a change of bend? If you feel that the circle sequence is going wrong at the change of rein, break down the change of bend and ensure you are switching from position left to position right (or vice versa) to allow your horse to change their bend and are supporting them as they do.

Now that the circles are hopefully feeling similar in shape and fairly round, we can step it up a notch. Try counting the number of strides you get on each half circle in the exercise. You want to get the same number. This means that your circles are round and not egg-shaped, and that your right and left circles are the same size. You’ll also discover if the change of rein between the circles affects the size and shape of your circles.

It sounds like a simple exercise, but the fact you’re working away from the fence means you as a rider, need to support your horse more as they will more often than not drift towards the fence. Which should mean that you notice any weakness in your aids. It also serves to improve your horse’s symmetry and suppleness hugely.

Riding Dog Legs

I did the keyhole jumping exercise with a client a couple of weeks ago, and we discovered that she and her pony found riding left dog legs significantly harder than riding right dog legs.The pony is a left banana, and will drift through his right shoulder at every opportunity, but we’ve been addressing both of their straightness and it’s improving all the time. However, jumping and turning left highlights the fact there’s still a weakness here.So this week I decided to tackle left dog legs. I warmed them up with the focus on riding squares, my rider using her outside aids to turn, and keeping the inside rein open without going back towards her, and the pony turning from the outside aids. I see this a lot and for whatever reason, a rider may apply the correct aids to turn, but the horse doesn’t obey immediately, and then in a panic that they aren’t going to make the turn, the rider resorts to pulling them round with the inside rein. They know they’re doing it, but you can’t help it if you’re going to miss the turn! This then creates a cycle that the horse doesn’t turn until the inside rein is utilised, which causes the outside aids to fall by the wayside.My rider has identified in previous lessons that she sometimes forgets to use her right leg to push her pony to the left, so a lot of our flatwork looks at switching that leg on. Furthermore, as she reverts to her left rein, her right hand disappears up her pony’s neck, thus allowing him to drift out of that shoulder. Now I’m not saying she’s to blame – it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But she’s the bigger person, the one I can explain things to, so we have to address her aids first. This is where the flatwork is so helpful; riding the squares and leg yielding, to identify her asymmetry in her aids, and to ensure her pony is responding to the right leg before we add in jumps.Once warmed up, I had them canter a three stride, left dog leg of poles, of which I’d laid dressage boards on the outside of the curve. The visual aid will encourage the pony to turn left, which breaks the cycle of her resorting to the inside rein. She could focus on applying the correct aids and get the correct response from him which would help his understanding.They cantered through the exercise a few times until the canter stayed forwards and the turn was balanced with the correct aids. Interestingly, when the pony was asked to turn left correctly, his evasion technique was to slow down, so my rider had to keep her foot on the accelerator whilst turning and ensure her hands were positive aids.The aids she was giving, or was aiming to give, was a bit of weight into the left stirrup to keep left canter, opening the left rein wide (but not backwards), using the right leg to turn him, whilst keeping her right hand near the base of his neck to provide a wall to support his right shoulder. The trick is for the outside rein to be reactive: not pulling back and causing him to slow, and not slipping forward as he starts to drift, but rather being “there” until he starts to lean on the right shoulder, and then firming the contact to prevent the drift. She’s reacting to his body rather than blocking him with an immobile rein.Next, I built the fences up to crosses. This was to guide both of them to the centre, and to ensure they were totally accurate. This was when the pony started putting in four strides. They were getting the line, but he was becoming sticky in the canter. A check that the reins weren’t restricting him, and then she could apply more leg to keep the power.Once they’d mastered the line, the aids, and planning the turn, I removed the white boards. This made it a bit trickier, as we realised how much the visual line was helping them. So I popped one board in the middle to help them, and once they’d negotiated it successfully then I removed it, and they managed to ride the dog leg line. There was an element of my rider needing to start riding her turn earlier in the exercise; because the pony found it harder that turning right, he needed more setting up and more time to find his line.We ended the session with two steep crosses, getting the dog leg line perfectly and maintaining the canter rhythm to get three strides between the jumps. Hopefully we can build on this in the next few weeks with different exercises.

Submission or Stress?

White lips in the ridden horse has always been seen as a sign that the horse is working well and has submitted to their rider. However, recently I’ve seen a couple of articles which has found that stressed horses lick their lips and produce white froth, and it is not linked to submissive behaviours.

Here is an interesting article. Do a quick Google search for other articles and debates on the subject.

As ever, our norms and beliefs are challenged as our knowledge increases.

I’ve done a bit of observational research with the horses I work with. Just observing whether they have white lips in consideration to how they have worked.

My thoughts began at Christmas, when I stopped and thought about the fact that Phoenix had a fairly dry mouth when I schooled her. There was a bit of moisture, but very little white. In terms of how she was going, I felt she was 80% committed to me; she did everything I asked but was not quite coming through from behind. Almost, but not quite. I was five pieces away from completing the 1000 piece jigsaw.

Then in March, when she was very tense whilst being ridden she foamed at the mouth like a rabid dog. However I didn’t feel she had been particularly submissive during our session. She’d been good in the sense that we’d contained her flight instinct and she had started to relax, but she was still very anxious. And I could see this in her body language – her eyes looked worried, she had her head up, muscles tensed, and generally a very alert stance. To me, this was far more suggestive of the theory that a stressed horse foams white at the mouth.

Over the last couple of months Phoenix has become happier in herself, with a softer, more relaxed stance. When working she’s improved dramatically in that she allows me to position her, accepts the aids, and is more relaxed in her work. She’s coming through from behind better and using her back more, as well as happy to walk on a long rein at the end to cool off. When I dismount, her head stays low, her eyes soft, and a little bit of white lipstick. She’s worked with me, submitted to my requests, and tried her hardest.

I’ve been watching other horses, whether I ride them or teach their rider, and I’ve noticed that there is definitely individual differences between horses. Some horses will have very white lips whilst the rest of their body language suggests they are relaxed and happy; others will only have moist mouths when working well for their rider.

Horses who aren’t asked to work to a contact or with a softer frame always had dry mouths. When more of a contact is taken up with these horses and they’re asked to soften into a frame they all get moist mouths because they’ve been chewing the bit and using their mouth, tongue and jaw muscles. By the time these horses are working from behind and using themselves correctly they usually have a little bit of white lipstick. The rest of their body language is accepting, relaxed, and submissive.

Some horses, who have a drier mouth than others and do appear to be working well, seem to be the ones who are a little fixed in their frame. Not from anything in particular that the rider has done, but they accept the contact and keep their mouths and necks as still as possible, which means they don’t create much saliva. This is perhaps just the way they have been trained or ridden, or it is potentially a stiffness in a muscle area which stops them using themselves to the best of their ability so they are holding themselves in a way which doesn’t enable them to mouth the bit.

The horses I see, often just working in the school around me if I’m honest, who have a lot of white around their mouths, and flecks along their neck, look anxious and tense. I don’t know these horses and their characters, but I think it’s interesting to see that even though the horse is obeying their rider’s aids and in theory doing everything correctly, their body language is tense and they foam at the mouth. They’re submissive on paper, but not happy about the submission – like the unrest in a population before a revolt.

So what exactly are we looking for? As I said before, I think there’s a huge variation between individuals, so it’s worth having a quick look each time you ride so you get to know what’s normal for your horse. I think that you want to see some moisture on the lips, which suggests movement of the jaw which can only be done if the horse is accepting the hand (a horse not accepting the hand at all will not produce any moisture, whilst a horse who is anxiously accepting the contact will excessively chomp at the bit and produce too much foam) and working from behind. Whether it’s just a darkening of the lips or white foam is dependent on that particular horse. But also study the rest of the horse’s body language – do they look happy and accepting at the end of a ride? A horse with very alert, or flighty, body language has not worked well for you, regardless of how much white foam is pouring from their mouth. I think it’s a useful clue, and a good way of gauging how much your horse gave to a session, but only when taking the rest of their body language into account. And with everything in life, we want to see white foam in moderation.

Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.

Left Anchors

I’ve done a few lessons this last week, strangely enough, correcting various riders on their hand position. And particularly, their left hand.

I’m not sure why it seems that so many riders are fixing their left hands down; I can only suggest that society’s bias towards right handedness causes people to use their left hand to stabilise themselves whilst their right hand does the dexterity work.

Anyway, I’ve had several riders this week who ride with their left hand held further back than the right, and low to the wither, like an anchor. This positioning has more impact on a horse’s way of going than many people realise, which is why I’ve been drumming on about it so much.

Let’s take a closer look at the effect of anchoring your left hand down.

On the left rein, you usually find the horse bends more easily and you find it easier to ride round the turns. Having the left rein fixed onto the wither creates left bend in the horse’s neck, which is why it can seem like they are going better in this direction, but when you pay attention to the hindquarters they usually are not following left curves. Riders who fix their left hand usually use this rein to steer, and so their right leg is less effective at pushing the horse left.

This becomes a cycle in that the horse doesn’t respond to the right leg so the rider is more inclined to rescue the situation by pulling their left rein, which means the horse becomes less responsive or understanding of the outside aids.

The left rein needs to be improved by reducing the amount of left bend. I usually ask the rider to take up more contact with the right rein and to raise their left and carry it further forwards. So it feels like it’s much further forwards than the right rein (then they become level) and then to focus on the right leg turning the horse round each turn and the left rein merely indicating.

I quite often ride squares or diamonds with riders who fix their inside rein as it focuses them on their outside aids and encourages them to ride their horse with a straighter neck. I also experiment with counter flexion to increase their awareness of how their horse tends to give too much inside bend in the neck.

On the right rein, an anchored left hand gives a more stable outside rein which I find the horse tends to prefer and they definitely look more settled, but if there is too much anchorage in the left rein it will encourage the horse to look to the outside and to fall onto the inside shoulder and so fall in. They will find it harder to produce right bend, purely because they are restricted. When working on the right rein I encourage my riders to soften the left arm to allow the horse to look right. Then I get them to focus on using the right leg to keep their horse out round the track, on circles etc. Most riders in this scenario fall into the trap of pulling even more with the left rein to try and pull their horse back out to the track. So I do some leg yielding exercises to improve the horse’s response to the right leg and to change my rider’s thinking so they are riding from inside leg into outside rein, rather than using their hand first. This usually triggers an epiphany moment, when they feel the horse begin to give right bend because the right hind is coming under their body more and to feel more balanced.

Some horses try to rush off when the left anchor is released, which is understandable as effectively the handbrake is being taken off. I often suggest the rider half halts with the right rein, even though it is the inside one, because it stops them anchoring the left rein back down, and also encourages the right hand to be a stabilising rein which has huge benefits on the left rein.

After working each rein independently, I then incorporate serpentines and figures of eight to help the rider feel the improved straightness and symmetry in their horse, and for them to tune in to the actions of their hands, when they are the outside and the inside rein.

By now, most riders are beginning to understand the consequences of fixing their left rein down, and with a few gentle reminders here and there, they are beginning to carry their hands and are more even in the contact. Sometimes it’s a matter of practice to retrain their muscle memory.

Correcting the left hand position improves the horse’s way of going, and usually the effect is instantaneous, but as an instructor I then need to work out why the left hand feels the need to fix down so much. Is it related to their confidence? Their balance?

The majority of the time, riders who anchor their left rein sit to the left. Which of course means they’re encouraging their horse to give left bend and will find it harder to apply their right leg. Both of which are symptoms of the situation I described earlier.

Chicken or Egg?

This leads me nicely onto my next teaching subject: working without stirrups and focusing the rider on sitting evenly on their seat bones and the correct aids. Hopefully in a couple of lessons both rider and horse will be working straighter, more correctly, and more symmetrically, which means the rest of their ridden work will improve.

Shallow Loops

Every so often I remember an exercise and utilise it with various clients of all ages and abilities. Currently, it’s shallow loops.

Quite often they’re overlooked in favour of serpentines or figures of eights, but they have their own benefits as a movement which tests a horse’s balance.

First appearing at novice level, shallow loops are ridden down the long side of the arena, as perfectly illustrated by my friend’s sketch for Demi Dressage, below.

The criteria for a shallow loop is to ride a smooth, flowing line from F towards X and then return to the track at M. They become an easier movement if you only leave the track by five metres – that is, you cross the E-B line five metres from the track. Riding FXM makes the turns more acute so requires greater suppleness from your horse. As with everything, start easy and once you’ve mastered level one, up the ante.

So what are the benefits of riding shallow loops? Firstly, they stop horses getting too track bound, and ensure they are listening to the rider’s outside aids. They are good at teaching riders to be less reliant on the fence line, and they show up any erratic steering issues! If you don’t plan and ride subtly, you end up staggering across the arena. For the horse, you are changing their bend in quick succession so it is a test of their balance and suppleness as they shift from one hind leg to the other.

Riding trot shallow loops are really helpful for improving the trot-canter transitions as in the shallow loops the horse changes from the inside hind (in relation to the inside of the arena) to the outside hind (the one nearest the fenceline) as they return to the track. In the trot to canter transition the horse shifts from the inside hind leg in trot to the outside hind in canter.

Riding shallow loops in canter introduces counter canter, further testing a horse’s balance.

When introducing shallow loops I find the hardest aspect of the movement is getting the loop to flow smoothly with an even incline to and from the track, so the most useful thing is to provide visual cues for riders. By guiding their eyes they automatically begin to flow away and towards the track. I use cones or jump blocks to show riders where to go. I place one cone near the corner, where the rider needs to go round the outside of before they leave the track, then another on the E-B line which they need to pass on the inside, and the final cone in the next corner to encourage the rider to return to the track and ride into their corner. As we develop the movement we increase the shallow loop from five metres towards ten metres.

How do you ride shallow loops? Begin by riding into your corner to give yourself plenty of space, and then using the outside aids, ride off the track. Almost imagine you’re riding across the diagonal, so turn your body to look across the arena, sit into your inside seat bone as you open the inside rein and close your outside leg. As you approach the E-B line, and the innermost part of the shallow loop, start riding parallel to the long side. Aim for three or four strides, during which use the leg nearest the fence on the girth, and open that rein to change the horse’s bend and engage that hind leg. Then return to the track and upon reaching it change the bend back to the original direction with the leg nearest the centre of the school acting on the girth to engage that hind leg and opening that rein. Ride into your corner ensuring your horse stays balanced.

The biggest faux pas I see when riding shallow loops is riders having dramatic changes of bend, which unbalances their horse. Minimise the bend and take your time in the middle of the loop and the loops will begin to flow and feel balanced, with the horse able to maintain their rhythm. If a rider doesn’t spend sufficient time in the middle of the loop; riding straight lines to and from X, then it may be useful to replace the cone with a pole, which forces some straight strides.

I’ve been putting shallow loops into my warm ups to give variation, and to help riders move around the arena. Instead of trotting the long side, we’ve put in a shallow loop to keep the horse’s focus. Have fun incorporating them into your workouts!

Eyes Closed!

Trot to canter transitions have been a sticky point for one of my clients and her pony. Both the trot and canter work has come on in leaps and bounds, but the upward transition is still sticky – like a smudge on a drawing.

I think it stems from when the pony was more on the forehand and my rider less of an adult rider and more of a child rider so had less finesse over the subtlety of her aids. After all, it’s a huge transition from child rider (leg means go, hand means stop) to an adult rider (leg and hand together mean go,stop,left or right!).

I decided that we would have a session taking apart the trot to canter transition, to see how and where it could be improved.

After warming up, I put them on the lunge. She rode a couple of canter transitions as normal, but thinking about what her body is doing.

Then, I took her reins away. As this rider asks for canter, her upper body gets quite active, yet is also stiff, which comes out in her arms. As her arms stiffen in the transition, so her pony raises her head and blocks through her back.

I had her relax her shoulders and arms and then ride some transitions on the lunge without her reins. This helped improve the transition by keeping the pair relaxed and in sync. Then the pony was more forwards. Having no reins, it was obvious to my rider as her hands came up and her arms stiffened.

Staying without reins, we moved on to looking at my rider’s seat aids. To help her tune in to what she could feel and what she was doing, I got her to close her eyes for the canter transition. This was enlightening, and once she’d recovered from the feeling of not being fully in control (hence why I was there at the end of the lunge line!) she could tell me a little about her seat aids.

I reminded her that during the trot to canter transition her hips have to go from an up-down motion to a circular one, akin to doing the hula hoop. She then focused on this movement of her seat through the next couple of transitions with her eyes closed.

We also checked the angle of her pelvis; sometimes she sits a little onto the front of her seatbones, and whilst I don’t want her collapsing her lower back, by tucking her tail between her legs and sitting towards the back of her seat bones, her seat became a more forward thinking aid, so encouraging the energy to flow up from the hindquarters and through to the front end.

The upwards transitions were looking better, but we were still missing something. I asked where her weight was distributed between seat bones and asked her to put a little more weight onto her inside seat bone as she transitioned from the up-down hip movement to the hula-hooping movement.

Voila!

They got it! The transition suddenly looked like the completed jigsaw, and lost any resistance from either party, and meant they could immediately get a balanced, relaxed and rideable canter rather than wasting a few strides.

I made them repeat the transitions with no reins and eyes closed a few times on both reins. I considered taking her stirrups away but decided to save her that torture, as I thought my rider might tense her seat without stirrups and so undo all our progress.

With her reins back, I unclipped them and we worked on the trot to canter transitions around the arena. Every so often, to draw her attention to her seat, I got my rider to close her eyes for the transition. This was only possible because we were in a standard arena on our own with a very well behaved pony!

The transitions gained in consistency and became much more fluid. We didn’t focus very much on the leg aids because the improvement to her seat aids made such a difference, but in a few weeks I’d like to progress to minimising the leg aids, but my rider needs to strengthen and get more awareness over her seat aids first before we reduce the support of the legs. I really enjoyed the challenge of fine-tuning the aids and discovering the element which isn’t quite perfect.

If ever there’s an “blemish” to your riding, taking it apart and putting it back together piece by piece until you find the weak links and then spending some time focusing on improving that area with pay dividends in not only improving your blemish, but also having a positive impact on other areas of your riding, and in the future too. It’s far better from a long term point of view to find the cause and treat it, rather than put a plaster over that area and cover it up because that plaster will trip you up later on!