Holding Rubber

I’ve done this exercise a few times recently with various clients, for various reasons, and it’s had some good results. In itself, it’s quite an easy thing to do while working on other parts of their riding.

Some riders ride with their hands curled lightly around the reins. Of course we don’t want to be holding the reins particularly tightly, but if we aren’t holding the reins firmly enough they have a tendency to slip through. For some people, one rein tends to slip through. For others, both. And for some it is the horse (or pony) who discreetly sneaks the rein through the rider’s hand.

Some riders interpret the “squeeze and release” of a half halt or a flexion aid, as squeezing the rein and then letting go. Perhaps the words need to change to “squeeze and relax”…

In either situation, the rein contact becomes inconsistent.

My analogy for this situation, because I like analogies, is to imagine walking down a busy street with a toddler, holding hands.

Hold the hand too tightly and the guy toddler shouts and digs their heels in. They won’t move forwards happily.

Hold their hand, letting go at random intervals and dropping them. They become disconcerted with the insecurity of your guidance.

Now imagine you are holding their hand slightly more firmly, and give the odd reassuring squeeze. You’ve not dropped them or left them hanging, but you have changed the pressure of the hand holding and exchanged a secret message.

This is the sort of rein contact we’re aiming for. Consistent, clear communication, and even.

For my riders who hold the reins tightly I remind them to relax their arms and fingers, and will do no rein exercises to ensure they aren’t using their hands subconsciously to balance.

For my riders who have loose fingers, especially the children, I will take two pieces of flat arena rubber (if they have a sand arena I try to find a small flat pebble. One father uses a penny with his daughter when practising this) and get my rider to hold it in their hands as well as the reins. It’s small enough that it doesn’t fill their hands up and make holding the reins and whip difficult, but they will become acutely aware of when they loosen their fingers and drop it!

We then have ten minutes of laughter as they invariably drop the rubber and I have to replace it. Depending on the rider, their age and approach to riding, this can become as fun and as silly as required. I remember with one young client there was lots of “uh-ohing” and me flouncing around looking for replacement rubber to keep the exercise like a game.

Within minutes, I find that my riders are usually holding the reins in a more consistent way; either both hands are now holding with the same amount of hold, or the reins have stopped creeping through their hands. Once they’ve stopped dropping the rubber, I do some work on circles, transitions, changes of rein, or whatever movement usually causes them to loosen their fingers. With older riders they start to see the positive effects and can begin to ride between leg and hand more easily, and they can improve the bend of their horse as they can ride inside leg to outside rein, and control the outside shoulder.

Once my rider has found the correct rein contact they don’t drop the rubber as frequently, so I usually move on with my lesson plan, accidentally-on-purpose forgetting to remove the rubber from their hands to see how far we get before they drop it, or realise they’ve dropped it.

I often find that holding the rubber only needs to be done once or twice to teach a rider the right amount of feel, and to help them understand the concept and effect of a consistent rein contact, which for kids improves their overall control over their pony’s speed and steering, and for adults helps them improve their horse’s rhythm, balance and create impulsion.

Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.

Poles for Shallow Loops

I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.

Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.

On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.

The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.

The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.

To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?

Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?

I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.

This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!

Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.

In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.

Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.

I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.

As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.

Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.

From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.

I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.

Spirals

It’s a classic exercise to introduce leg yield, and can help increase a horse’s bend, but I find that spiralling in and out on a circle can encourage bad rider habits to form and is so often detrimental to both horse and rider, rather than achieving the desired effect of increasing the engagement of the inside hind leg.

The basis of the exercise is that you establish a twenty metre circle before spiralling in towards the centre and then spiralling out again.

I begin teaching this exercise by standing at X, and asking my rider to ride a twenty metre circle from either E or B. We spend some time establishing the roundness, and identifying points where their horse is liable to drift out (usually at E and B), or fall in (usually as they cross the centre line). Then I ask them to slowly decrease the size of the circle by moving the horse’s outside shoulder in first. This reduces the rider using the inside rein to pull their horse onto a smaller circle, and encourages the use of the outside leg. Decreasing the circle slowly requires more balance and more subtle aids. The inside rein opens slightly to indicate moving across whilst the outside leg pushes the horse over, outside rein prevents the horse overturning with their head and supports the outside shoulder. The inside leg maintains the correct bend, and the rider turning their shoulders into the circle with their weight in their inside seat bone helps the horse stay in the correct bend.

By spiralling in slowly, and almost adopting a shoulder fore position the horse will bring his inside hind leg under his body, propel himself forwards more correctly and feel lighter and more engaged. The smaller circles require more suppleness and balance from the horse. I often tell my rider to stay on a certain sized circle, or not to spiral in any further because I can see that the horse has reached their limit in terms of suppleness so are better staying at this point instead of going smaller but losing the quality to their gait.

From the small circle, I ask the rider to sidestep out onto a bigger circle before riding a few strides on this circle and then sidestepping again. This makes a series of concentric circles, rather than a spiral. This helps control the movement and keep it correct. By only leg yielding a couple of strides at a time the rider doesn’t lose their horse’s outside shoulder, the inside hind continues to push the horse sideways so they stay engaged. The rider’s outside aids continue to be effective and the horse stays balanced.

Some horses are more likely to rush back to the track, so pulling themselves across in the leg yield from the outside shoulder. In this case, I get the rider to “ride smart”: as they start to ride towards E or B they have to apply the outside aids before their horse drifts and takes control of the movement, and then ask for the leg yield as they move towards the centre line, when the horse has no inclination to fall out. This ensures that the leg yield comes from the rider’s aids and is not the horse anticipating.

Ridden correctly, the horse becomes more supple and engaged, and it is an excellent warm up exercise for gently stretching them and unlocking and tight or resistant spots. I find it incredibly useful when Phoenix gets her knickers in a twist (when the wind blows or the something is out of place) as when I move her body around subtly she releases through her barrel and becomes more rideable. It’s also useful for identifying a stiffer side in rider or horse, as well as fine tuning the rider’s aids and control through a movement.

So often I see the spirals being ridden badly; the head and neck over bending as the horse spirals in, with too much inside rein, and them falling rapidly through the outside shoulder in a race to get back out to the bigger circle. Which doesn’t help engage the inside hind leg, or promote the rider using their outside aids correctly or effectively.

Next time you ride this exercise, try changing your approach to it, and critique yourself to make sure you aren’t letting either yourself or your horse cheat by drifting in and out on the circle. How many times do you pass B as you move in or out? Can you increase that number? Slowing down the movement requires more balance and more obedience from your horse.

Lunging With Two Reins

I’ve fallen back in love with lunging with two reins for a number of reasons, but in all the cases I’ve used it with there has been a huge improvement.

My first victim, I mean client, was a mare who has always struggled with straightness due to previous injuries, but is becoming much better under saddle. However I don’t find her lunging sessions as beneficial to her because she drifts out, bananas her body, gets a bit stuck on the track and is a touch lazy. I felt that she needed an outside rein contact to reduce how much she could twist and pull me out on the lunge. I also hoped that the outside lunge line going around her hindquarters would be a prompt for her to go forwards.

She was not impressed. When I flicked the outside rein over her rump and she felt it come into contact with her haunches she stopped, tail facing me, swishing it angrily. I let her tell me how upset she was before asking her to walk on, and initially I had my work cut out to keep her walking and on my circle, not drifting to the fence line. After arguing with me for a circuit she started to relax, and I felt she was straighter through her body and not holding her hindquarters in so I asked her to trot. Again, she grumbled for a few minutes until she aligned herself and began to move with more impulsion and efficiency. Combined with her circles becoming rounder and her inside hind leg becoming more engaged, the trot improved in cadence and she started to use her abdominal muscles and topline.

The next time her owner rode, she felt a huge difference in her mare’s vertical balance; she had a uniform bend throughout her body and had an engaged inside hind leg. The mare was also less fixated on staying on the track, which triggered my next lesson of working on the inner track, and my rider had more of a response from her outside aids.

I suggested double lunging to another client with her young horse who long reins well, but tries to turn in on the lunge. The outside rein will prevent him turning in to his handler, which means he can be taught how to lunge and then just lunged with one rein as required. This will allow his owner to introduce canter work safely on the lunge.

Double-line lunging a little pony in rehab has really helped her learn to seek the contact forwards and stretch over her back and subsequently develop her topline.

Then last week I decided to lunge a horse who I often school, to change things up a bit. He’s a long horse, who finds it hard to connect his back end to his front end and wiggles to avoid doing so. I’ve done a lot of work improving his rider’s outside aids to help stabilise the wiggles, and I felt lunging with two reins would complement this work.

This horse was the only one I felt was ready to canter in the double lines, and where I felt would benefit the most. You can see in the video how balanced this horse is with the outside lunge line supporting him.

Lunging with two reins helps bring the outside shoulder around on the circle, so improves the horse’s straightness, understanding of the outside aids, engagement and connection. This results in an improvement to the horse’s vertical balance and way of going as they use their body correctly.

So how do you lunge with two reins? Fit a bridle and roller to the horse, and run the lunge lines from the bit through the rings on the roller. The outside lunge line then runs round the horse’s hindquarters and into your hand which is nearest the tail as you stand in the usual lunging stance. The inside rein is held in your hand closest to the horse’s head. The horse is sent forwards with the voice, a flick of the lunge whip, or the outside lunge line against the hindquarters. Once you’ve got used to handling the two reins (experience with long lining is helpful!) Lunging with double reins is not that difficult, and has remarkable benefits to the horses when ridden. Definitely worth trying as a change to your usual lunging technique.

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.

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.