Guinea-pig Riding

When I was at college and an apprentice I frequently had to ride for coaches training for their teaching exams, or at demos. I don’t like people watching me ride, or strangers critiquing me, so it’s not something I particularly enjoy.

I also happen to be quite difficult to teach. I don’t like being shouted at, and as I’m a trier and detest doing something wrong, if I’m shouted at by an instructor when I’m trying my best I get sulky and close down. I can’t help it, but I appreciate it makes difficult teaching so if someone’s being assessed it’s not an ideal situation.

However, just down the road from Phoenix’s yard is a British Dressage venue, which were looking for guinea-pig riders at novice and elementary level for coaches training for their next exam. Feeling more confident in ourselves, wanting to get Phoenix out to other venues, and wanting more feedback from BD judges, I signed us up.

It’s a bit of a pot luck exercise, but as you don’t pay for your lesson and are only giving your time,it’s a risk you have to take.

I had a shared lesson, with a horse competing at novice level, who was the complete opposite to Phoenix! He was heavier in build, had a workmanlike way of going with a tendency to get behind the leg. In all fairness to the coach, providing a lesson to benefit both horses was a tall order.

We worked on transitions, which are always useful. For the other horse, it was useful for getting him in front of the leg and more active. For Phoenix, there was a bit of work on my aid timing to help her step through in the transitions and not brace in her neck.

I was pleased with Phoenix, who showed how much she’s matured mentally in that she settled to work immediately, wasn’t spooky, but could’ve relaxed a bit earlier into the session. At home I do lots of movements, lateral work and transitions to keep her brain active and attentive to me; but this lesson just used a 20m circle which while she didn’t connect like she does at home, she did settle into a consistent rhythm and remained accepting of the aids, with her transitions improving in softness and balance.

By taking out the complex school movements I could focus on the quality of our transitions. Something I don’t do enough of. But I came away realising that I can simplify my schooling in order to focus on one area without detriment to Phoenix’s way of going.

At the end of the lesson, the rider’s have to feedback to the coach and their assessor. Which is a test to your articulation as much as anything!

For me, I found the day’s exercise useful in that Phoenix worked calmly and focused in a new environment. I realised that she’s matured mentally and I can have productive sessions in a short amount of time. The trainee coach used a couple of explanations which will be useful in my teaching, as another explanation if my clients don’t comprehend my analogy. I didn’t have a ground breaking lesson, but that’s not really to be expected as they’re in training, don’t know me or Phoenix, and I didn’t pay for the lesson!

I think if you are confident at your level of training and understand the correct way of going and how to get the best out of your horse, then these guinea-pig riding sessions are a useful exercise. You only contribute your time and effort, the coaches are all BD trained, many of them judges, so it’s useful to get another point of view and feedback on your horse’s work, and of course you’re doing your bit to help the future of coaching. It’s also useful for young horses. However, if you’re going through a training blip, or aren’t technically secure then it could be detrimental to you and your horse’s state of mind if the trainee coach gives conflicting advice or explanations to your current trainer.

I think I will volunteer again, especially at such a local venue, because there’s very little to lose in the exercise, and the potential to get a few hints and tips.

Times A Changing

The last thirty six hours has thrown the British equine world into disarray. Covid-19 has been coming a while, infringing on all areas of our lives, but now we’ve moved into unchartered territory.

We’d discussed it at Pony Club and Riding Club – talking about reducing the risk of infection at events and providing hand washing facilities. But it was business as normal with just a couple of adjustments to our routines.

However, on Monday the PM released a statement bringing more stringent methods into daily life – minimising social contact, reducing unnecessary travel, self isolating. This was closely followed by statements from British Eventing and Pony Club stating that all competition and training has been suspended. On Tuesday, British Dressage, British Showjumping, and British Riding clubs followed suit.

It’s incredible to think that there will be no equine competitions for the majority of this year, and is very disappointing for those who rely on it professionally, and who plan their training with a particular competition goal in mind.

Disappointing as it is, at least we are still allowed to ride. Italy has banned riding and high risk sports to reduce the number of accidents needing treatment in their overstretched hospitals. Phoenix was going to have a go at her first novice test this weekend. No matter; we will keep up the training so that she will be working at elementary level by the summer, and I’m still able to take her out schooling to get some cross country practice in and keep up her jumping training. The important thing is to find some alternative goals and aims to keep us motivated and to keep spirits up.

I made the suggestion to my riding club committee, that we should run our spring dressage competitions online. It’s not the same as going out to a competition, but it’s better than nothing and I think there will be lots of interest. Of course clinics are also being cancelled, so I think we will have to put our heads together to come up with some challenges we can give to members to help everyone keep in touch and motivated. Perhaps get everyone to share a photo or talk about their riding that day. There’s no restrictions on hacking, so perhaps we should make a hacking challenge?

With the Pony Club, I already have some ideas for the kids. They’re going to have a lot of extra time on their hands, so it would be good to give them some ridden exercises – a bit like online lessons – or stable management quizzes to keep up their knowledge. I’m keen that those working towards an efficiency test don’t regress or lose motivation due to tests being delayed and training cancelled. But we’re going to let everyone acclimatise to this new, strange normal, and then get our thinking caps on.

I judge for Demi Dressage – an online dressage competition for under 16s – and I think that will become really popular in the coming months, as a way to focus children on developing their riding. Already I’ve seen more and more online competitions cropping up, including jumping competitions. They’ve been in the pipeline for a while I think, but this current climate has brought them to the fore.

Finding the fun that we can do safely, will help us survive the emotional challenges the coronavirus brings. We’re lucky that equestrianism is an outdoor activity as even if competition venues close, we still have our riding areas at home.

With everyone being encouraged to work from home, I was starting to dread enforced time with an energetic toddler in an enclosed space. But we’re lucky enough to have a garden at least, and I’ve drawn myself up a list of jobs to do. Regardless of any quarantining, we will be spending more time at home, so it’s an ideal time to do the jobs you never get around to doing. Maybe that room will get painted, and the garden will be perfectly manicured?! Or perhaps we’ll actually eat those emergency tins of soup at the back of the cupboard?

I was very relieved when the BHS released a statement saying that coaches should continue to work where possible. I only interact with fit and healthy people outdoors, not getting too close to them; and by following the suggested hygeine and social distancing guidelines, as well as both sides reacting to the first symptoms, the risk should be minimal.

I think it’s important to maintain as much of a normal life as possible for our own sanity, whilst being sensible and sensitive to the situation. Of course, my work may not be vital to the infrastructure of the country, but horses are many people’s saviours. Their down time in a busy world; the thing which turns their day from doom and gloom to sun and laughter. Their coping mechanism for the rest of their life. It’s easy to overlook the importance of a good riding session (or any exercise) to someone’s mental health.

Just like many hobbies; gym classes, book clubs, sports clubs, social clubs. Not only do the clients need these to balance out their lives, but those who run them need the financial reward in order to feed their families. So yes, let’s reduce close contact with others, but in a world where everything’s at a click of a button, let’s make sure we continue to stay in touch with ingenious ways. Summer is coming; move clubs outdoors if possible; use online videos, conference calls, and social media to keep this side of life going.

It’s the start of a new normal, which will take some adjusting to, but hopefully by everyone being sensible (you’ve bought all your toilet roll now, haven’t you?!) and by keeping an eye out for others (we don’t know many at risk people locally, but I’ve offered to organise online shopping for my Granny, and plan to send her bits and pieces in the post over the next few months as well as regular emails to stop her feeling so isolated), we will survive.

Centre Lines

After accidentally entering two dressage competitions with three centre lines in each test I dug around for some centre line exercises, for both Phoenix and my lovely clients.

To be able to ride a good centre line you and your horse need to be as straight and symmetrical as possible. But you also need to be comfortable on the centre line. So many horse and riders feel vulnerable on the centre line, with no fence to support them.

So initially, I began working on an inner track and using the centre line as a change of rein. Working away from the fence line encourages the rider to use their outside aids, and makes you more aware of any crookedness in your horse, or them drifting. I also like to ride lateral movements such as shoulder in or travers on the inner track as it emphasises any cheating on you or your horse’s behalf, as well as improving your feel for the movement and it’s correctness.

Once Phoenix was happy turning onto the centre line from both reins and staying straight throughout, I added in transitions.

A horse has to be as rideable as possible on the centre line, so it’s useful to get them used to riding various movements on the centre line. You also don’t want a horse to anticipate a halt transition at X every time they trot down the centre line. With both Phoenix and my clients I used a variety of transitions – halt, walk, rein back – to keep the horse’s attention on their rider and to get them riding straight transitions without the help of the fence. A pair of tramlines can be a useful intermediary measure to support the horse as they learn to stay straight.

One thing I noticed with many of my riders was that they could turn accurately onto the centre line, but then they were unaware of their slight drift down the centre line, which stemmed from the crookedness in their initial turn.

After some work on bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, I got them to ride the following exercise.

On the left rein in trot, turn onto the centre line and at X ride a 10m circle left. Continue down the centre line before turning right at the track. Right turn onto the centre line and this time ride a right 10m circle at X before continuing along the centre line and turning left.

A horse who turns onto the centre line in a slightly crooked way will not carry themselves straight so are liable to drift through the outside shoulder. This may be a minimal drift, but the lack of straightness will compromise the quality of their gait and their turn at the end.

The 10m circles towards the wall will improve the rider’s accuracy as they won’t want to crash into the fence, so will engage their outside aids and ride the outside shoulder around the circle more. As they return to the centre line, it will become apparent if they’ve forgotten the outside aids as their horse will overshoot the centre line, and wobble along it. If they forget to ride straight out of the circle they will struggle to turn at the end because the horse is bending the wrong way.

To ride this exercise well, the rider needs to ride accurately with their outside aids onto the centre line, and focus on channelling the horse along the centre line, before minimising the bend through their neck on the circle, and using the outside aids to turn. Focusing on straightening the horse as they ride out of the circle improves the second half of the centre line and then, because the horse is not in counter bend, they will turn onto their new rein in a more balanced way.

I like this exercise for assessing straightness, before doing some other exercises to ensure the horse is working on two tracks and then using lateral work to establish the outside rein and engage the inside hind leg, before finishing the session with the original centre line exercise so that the rider gets a feeling for a horse is travelling straight in a good balance. Increasing familiarity with the centre line will improve test marks, and improving the finishing strides of a circle will improve accuracy marks and the marks of the next movement.

Team Quest

A couple of years ago British Dressage noticed that membership numbers were dwindling and came up with this innovative idea to boost the profile of low level competitive dressage and try to draw it away from it’s ‘stressage’ association.

People seem to think that affiliated dressage is poncy, and that you have to have a certain type of horse to be successful. For some it’s an excuse for not jumping, “we just do dressage”, or it’s a secondary career for the elderly (horse, not rider). However it really is not. I’m a bit of a weirdo amongst the eventing world in that I enjoy dressage far more than showjumping and would like to see dressage tests at the lower levels made harder so it has more influence over the scoreboard. Whilst dressage is something everyone can do, even Shires, it is very rewarding to move up the levels and to feel the benefit in your horse when hacking or jumping because he is that much more balanced.

Back to Team Quest.

British Dressage decided that running a team competition would attract the masses, and friends would rope less keen friends into it, and hopefully get the bug so do some individual competitions. By relaxing the clothing rules everyone can get into the team spirit by colour coordinating their saddle cloths and gilets, as well as cheering each other on at the side lines. With less focus on smartness you also attract those less confident or with fewer resources as they don’t need the latest jacket.

This year an individual competition, called My Quest, has been introduced to run alongside Team Quest which should improve attendance as competitors will feel it’s more worthwhile giving up their weekend to ride two tests. Plus it’s an opportunity to push yourself! They also have an elementary My Quest to encourage people up the levels.

Last month I was roped into joining the Riding Club’s Team Quest team. Today was our first competition with them and it wasn’t what I expected.

This week has been a nightmare to begin with, by being incredibly busy (five hours in the saddle each day minimum plus two or three lessons to boot); and problems with my entry for today (no one told me I had to join BD so Friday morning my Mum was filling out the forms and sending them off so that I had numbers for myself and Otis by that afternoon); then I only had time to practice on Thursday morning as I had a showjumping lesson on Friday and wasn’t told which tests I was doing until Wednesday night …

Anyway, this lack of practice and my inability to sleep in and catch up on some sleep meant I wasn’t in the best frame of mind. It occurs rarely, but I didn’t want to compete today. I had also been asked to ride a prelim test as I was eligible for it and a good score would really help the team. I found it really difficult to motivate myself for this test, which sounds egotistical, but I know the novice tests well and both Otis and I have our heads firmly in the quick fire elementary routines. 

At the venue I was surprised how quiet it was. There weren’t as many teams as I expected, and many riders hadn’t opted to do the My Quest test. It appears to me that there are two types of team: the coordinated ones with all the gear and matchy-matchy, and those with no gear who just seem to be muddling along, laughing. There seems to be more team spirit amongst the matchy-matchy riders. I didn’t feel much team spirit from my end, but then I don’t know my team mates very well, and we come from all over the county so don’t have the morale-boosting bacon roll at the yard before leaving. They were all lovely though, and hopefully next time there will be a bit more team spirit.

Otis was tense for his first test and tired for the second as it was almost immediately after. I hated every minute of the prelim test, knowing I was riding badly and throwing away marks, and hating how it rubbed off on him. I felt happier and far more relaxed in the novice test, it’s just a shame we were running on empty. The scores were fair, and on the way home I realised that although I was disappointed by my rides the scores were those that six months ago I would have been pleased with, so I need to stop being quite so hard on myself, and try to begin the day by getting out of bed on the right side! The team were fourth so together with my individual third, it wasn’t a totally wasted outing. If anything, it was a leveller to me that even though we’ve been winning at novice and elementary recently, not every day is a good day!

I was also thinking about the Team Quest mentality. Yes, it encourages people to get out and about to give it a go, but the focus on having the highest team score doesn’t push people up the levels. Furthermore it encourages people to drop down a level in the hope of getting a higher percentage. Perhaps having a rule that there needs to be at least one competitor at each level; intro, prelim and novice, will even out the teams and cause people to be more ambitious. I am going to insist on riding the novice test next time because riding a prelim does no good for my motivation, focus or competitive edge (which is fairly blunt at the best of times). I think the theory behind Team Quest is great, but there’s something no quite right in the way it runs.