I’ve planned a series of polework and gridwork clinics over the winter, approximately one a month, at a beautiful local showjumping venue. They’re designed to run independently, so people don’t feel they have to attend all six, and I’ve given each date a theme. This helps me plan, and also helps riders chose which clinics to come to as they have a rough idea of what we’ll be working on.For my first clinic, I chose straightness as the theme.I wanted to work evenly off both reins as symmetry improves straightness, and often riders find it harder to ride straight when turning off one rein more than the other, so in order to ensure everyone had a chance to improve their stiffer rein, I used the centre line.I laid two tramlines just onto the centre line, to focus the riders on their turn so they didn’t drift, and were set up straight for the grid. With a fairly short approach I laid out a jump, followed by another one canter stride away. The third jump was two canter strides away, with a pair of tramlines in the middle to correct horse and rider if they’d drifted. Then there was a fourth and fifth fence one canter stride apart. The fifth fence was an oxer, and there were tramlines on the landing side and the then just before the turn at the track.The tramlines ensured they started and finished straight, and stopped any cutting of corners after the grid, so improving the getaway.I warmed up all the riders by getting them to trot through the grid with the poles on the ground, alternating the reins they’re coming off. Initially, all the horses had a good look at the arrangement of poles, but after a couple of goes, they started going straighter, my riders were channelling them forwards because they’d stopped looking down, and the horse’s stride length opened and rhythm became consistent. The riders could also start to think about whether it was easier to turn off the left rein or the right rein and make corrections.We then cantered through the poles from both reins. All horses will struggle to get the distances while there are no jumps, but as they got straighter and more forwards they started to work out how best to place their feet. So long as the horses are going through in a positive, rhythmical canter, I’m happy at this stage.I built the grid up slowly, starting with a cross as the first jump. The centre of the cross meant we knew if there was any drifting on the approach. The second fence was also a cross to help straightness, and then the tramlines corrected any drifting on the getaway and over the rest of the poles.The third jump was an upright, and once they’d jumped it confidently once, I made it into an A-frame. The apex emphasised the centre of the jump, and encouraged the horses to be neater over the jump. Of course, the horses and riders back off this slightly intimidating set-up, so I encouraged the riders to sit up after the second cross and ride positively in order to get the two strides. Once the horses have jumped it a couple of times it doesn’t cause any problems. The fourth jump also became an upright. With some groups I also made this into an A-frame, but if I felt that the first A-frame improved the horse’s technique over subsequent jumps I didn’t bother. And finally, we built the fifth fence into an oxer.Everyone found that the tramlines were incredibly helpful at helping both horse and rider stay straight, and the crosses highlighted any drifting so the riders’ knew how and when to correct over the last three elements. They could all feel the difference in their horses as their straightness improved because the distances were easier and the hindquarters more efficient at pushing the horse over the fence. They also landed in a more balanced way, ready for the next obstacle. When the horses were going straighter the riders could feel the effects of any twisting by themselves through the grid, which helped them fine tune their position.
Here’s a useful change of rein for you dressage divas. It incorporates shoulder fore as well as changes of bend, so is very useful for improving their balance and suppleness.
It can be ridden off either rein, but I’ll describe it beginning on the left rein.
At A, turn down the centre line and ride left shoulder fore to X. At X, ride a ten metre circle left before riding a ten metre circle right, and then continue down the centre line to C in right shoulder fore before turning right at C. If you turn off the right rein, ride right shoulder fore and the right circle first.
Shoulder fore, processing to shoulder in, on the centre line is trickier than riding it on the track because the horse has no support from the fence, so needs the rider’s support to keep them straight. Riding from shoulder fore onto the first circle will improve the inside hind leg engagement.
The second circle allows you to change your horse’s bend and help you set up the second shoulder fore.
The two circles effectively make up a figure of eight, and the quick change of bend helps improve the horse’s suppleness and balance as they have to shift their weight from the old inside hind to the new inside hind limb.
I enjoyed doing this exercise with Phoenix in my lesson this week, and could feel the benefits to her. Watch out clients as you’ll be having a go soon!
Recently I`ve been working a lot on flexion and improving my rider`s awareness of the straightness of their horse`s body.
Yesterday there was a scattering of snow on the ground so I took the opportunity to focus her attention on her walk work. After stretching her horse on a long rein and moving the walk on, and bringing it back with her seat she picked up the contact and started riding a twenty metre circle.
On the circle I asked her to think about where her horse`s legs were. The hind legs and the forelegs, in relation to his spine and head and neck. Initially I wanted her to assess if the inside hind leg was following the track of the inside foreleg, and not to the inside or outside. I then asked her to think about the relationship between his head and his forelegs/shoulder. The head should be central, and not to one side or the other.
Now I talked to my client about the bend in her horse`s body. When you teach someone the basics they very often have to be able to see their results in order to learn the aids and theory. This can lead to horses bending too much in front of the saddle, which is what the rider can see. I explained to my client that she needs to think about the bend her horse has on the circle in terms of the horse`s whole body. The bend of the horse`s body starts at the inside hindleg and curves up through the rib cage and through the shoulders, neck and poll. The bend should be uniform through the body, which meant that she needed to think about having less neck bend and feeling her horse`s barrel flex slightly more.
Once my client had established this feeling and the correct degree of bend I asked her to ride counter flexion for half of the circle, before straightening up and riding with correct flexion around the circle. Now, counter flexion is often achieved by people opening the outside rein and bending their horse`s neck to the outside, whilst the rest of the body continues bending to the inside. However, I asked my rider to think about the counter bend coming from the outside hind leg, curving up to the poll, and to think about her body position and weight distribution. Then, the horse started to flex to the outside and his walk slowed as he concentrated on keeping his balance.
Upon returning to correct flexion my rider had to adjust her seat, and allow her outside hip to release forwards, thus allowing the horse to flex through his rib cage and create a uniform bend through his body. After riding a few transitions from counter to true flexion my rider started to feel that she could position her horse`s body, and influence every element of it so that he was straight. Now, I don`t mean straight as a ruler, but I mean straight on the curve of the circle – moving on two tracks with a uniform bend, rather than with an over bend in the neck, and the outside shoulder falling out, causing the ribs to be inflexible and the hindlegs to trail behind the front legs.
Once my rider had practised this on both reins she found she had a very consistent and even contact and the walk was very balanced and correct. The tracks made in the snowy arena showed that her circle was incredibly round. We rode the same exercise in trot, and the first trot was very nice – the horse was taking the contact forwards, working over his back, and stepping under with his inside hind leg to create a uniform bend through his body. Soon the counter flexion was ridden in the same rhythm as the true flexion, with a smooth transition between the two.
With the feeling that she could position her horse easily I asked my rider to try alternating between shoulder-in and travers on the circle. In shoulder in, the hind legs should continue around the original circle, and the forehand come into the inner track. With her heightened awareness of his limb distribution this was easily achieved. In the travers, it is the forelegs which stay on the original circle and the hindquarters come onto the inner track. Again, this was ridden in walk and trot before finishing off with some lovely, straight work from both horse and rider.
The snow gave us the opportunity to focus on the slow work, which often gets overlooked, and when my rider thought about uniformly bending and suppling her horse in both directions on the same rein his muscles stretched and warmed up evenly, which produced a straight horse.
In the horses that I school I have also been working on counter flexion whilst warming them up to help loosen them up evenly and creating a more symmetrical horse. I read an article a couple of weeks ago which described how a horse`s stiffness may not be due to muscle stiffness on the “stiff side” but rather the difficulty in lengthening the muscles on the opposing side have. This makes perfect sense, so I have been taking this on board when I feel a horse is stiffer on one rein. Riding counter flexion on the good rein helps to stretch the stiffer muscles more gently than struggling to maintain correct bend on the stiffer rein. Once the horse has warmed up with counter flexion they will find the stiff rein much easier.
Counter flexion is also very beneficial for improving the canter, but I`ll explain how I`ve been using that for another horse, another time.