Breaking Up A Course

I was working with a young rider and her fairly new pony a couple of weeks ago on riding in a open field. They’ve spent lockdown getting to know each other thoroughly, but the pony came with the warning that he got very excited in open fields so now it was time to broach the subject.

With her parents she’s walked around their riding field and it’s become boring for her pony so he doesn’t get excited when on his own. They’ve popped over the odd log but the rider doesn’t feel she can control him when stringing jumps together, or approaching jumps in more than a very steady trot, and the pony is known to get faster and faster throughout a cross country course.

I took the pair out into the riding field and started by getting my young rider to walk some school shapes around the logs, trees, bushes and other obstacles. The idea being to fill her pony’s brain with where they were going next rather than the speed they were travelling at. We made a plan of a sequence of movements so my rider could plan her route and didn’t have to think on the spot, which is quite difficult when you’re ten years old.

Once they were riding a calm, steady walk meandering around our corner of the field we moved up to trot. The circles and serpentines helped keep a steady rhythm with my rider feeling in control. With trot established and them both warmed up, I got my rider to adjust her circle so that a little log just happened to be in their way. They trotted over the log, which wasn’t really big enough for the pony to jump, and then carried on round their circle. No big deal. The idea being that the jump was part of their flatwork.

We continued in this vein, over a couple of tiny logs using circles on both reins, progressing from trot to canter. As soon as the pony started to get excited towards a log, the circle my rider was on changed line so that they avoided the jump. It was important that my rider wasn’t pulling out of the jump so teaching her pony to refuse, but she was riding a different line to remain in control.

We worked out way around the field over different logs, using circles before and after to keep the pony in a controlled rhythm without stopping and starting all the time.

With my rider growing in confidence, I started to link some logs together and get her moving around the field much more. However, instead of just telling her a course – so she had a route to take – I gave her movements to do between the jumps. She started with a circle before popping over the first log, and then rode a circle in either direction as she travelled to the second log. She could ride as many circles as she wanted to feel in control before jumping the second log. Between the second and third log, I told her to ride a transition. From canter to trot, and then back into canter. My theory was that if there’s a question before and after every jump it takes the pony’s focus away from jumping and he doesn’t anticipate that the next obstacle he sees is what he’s jumping.

We built the pair up to jumping longer courses of small logs around the field, linking a couple of jumps without the questions in between, ensuring my rider could bring her pony back after each long stretch. At key points on their course she had to ask him a big question to re-establish her authority, so breaking the course up into bitesize chunks.

I think if they continue schooling in this manner, making the jumps progressively bigger and more technical, but with questions between jumps, then when they need to jump a course, at a hunter trial or something, the pony will be expecting to do something between jumps so should not accelerate to the same extent that he used to. Additionally, my rider can ride a transition which won’t incur 20 penalties; possibly gain a couple of time penalties but I’d rather time penalties than them going dangerously fast. I think this is the way forwards for this pair at the moment and as their relationship grows they can start to link fences together straight with ease because they maintain a steady yet forwards rhythm rather than starting and stopping for each jump.


I attended a webinar last week – attended is quite a strong word considering I was sat in my pyjamas on the sofa – but anyway, I listened to a talk about different arena surfaces and the risk of injury. The take home message was that it doesn’t matter hugely on your arena surface so long as it is consistent throughout as your horse will adapt to it (of course extremes of surfaces will cause injuries, but don’t feel you have to have the same surface from the Olympics), and to train on a variety of surfaces to make your horse adaptable so they perform to the same level regardless of the surface they are on (e.g. a different surface at a competition compared to at home).

This made interesting listening, and actually linked well to something I discussed with a client last week about her horse’s adaptability to the terrain.

Before lockdown we’d worked a lot on her horse maintaining his balance when cantering before and after fences as he can get a bit lumbering and onto the forehand, causing him to get too close and trip over the jumps. She’s got the feel for the right balance that he needs on the approach to jumps, and can subtly adjust him – i.e. rebalancing without putting on the brakes when the surface and terrain is consistent and therefore they’re jumping out of a good rhythm, with more successful, confident building jumps.

Taking this out into the open field brought a new level of adaptability for this horse. As they warmed up, you could see how difficult it was for her horse to adjust his body weight to keep his balance going uphill then downhill. It seems to take him several strides to adjust and he needs his hand holding by his rider. This may well improve as he gets more practice in, but to be honest, I think some horses are just more surefooted and quick thinking to adjust their balance in response to the terrain so need less assistance from their rider. His rider is always likely to need to help him balance, but it will become more autonomic as they do more.

Firstly we discussed, and put into practice, keeping her horse balanced as they cantered around the field, using both a two point and three point seat. A two point, or light seat, helps a horse move over their back and often horses travel faster because of the increased freedom. But it is harder to discreetly rebalance a horse without your seat in contact with the saddle and they can get long and onto the forehand if they find that the easiest way to travel. Travelling uphill or in the long spaces between fences she could take light seat, but going downhill and before jumps she needed to be in a three point position to help keep him off his forehand and in an uphill canter ready for the jump.

Throughout our session, my rider got more in tune with her horse’s balance and started to correct him before he lost his balance, which makes a jumping round much more fluid. She was surprised at how much help her horse needed to keep his balance and how much attention she had to pay to this factor. When we discussed jumps and linking them together we talked not only of the jump, but of the terrain before and after. I also noticed how she started to use the grey area between 2 point and 3 point positions to rebalance as we got further into the session. For example, after an open, uphill canter stretch she went from her two point position to still hovering her seat out the saddle but bringing her upper body up and back slightly which rebalanced him sufficiently for the change in terrain as it plateaued.

We spent the session jumping some straightforward cross country fences, focusing on setting the canter up and evaluating the effect of the terrain on the approach to the jump. The trickiest combination for this pair is jumping downhill because this horse needs a lot of help from his rider in order to keep his balance in the canter. If he gets onto his forehand and loses energy then he will bury himself into the base of the jump and struggle to clear it.

I had the pair jumping several short courses of jumps on the flat or uphill, and travelling over different inclines and declines between jumps. As we went through the lesson their courses became much more balanced and fluid, with smoother jumps so they both grew in confidence. Their final course had them cantering down a little valley and then jumping a fence on the uphill. They managed this question really well; if the canter fell apart on the downhill they’d struggle to regroup in time for the jump. Next time, we’ll progress to jumping downhill. As my rider gets more in tune with feeling slight changes in her horse’s canter and subtly changes her position to help him, and as he gets more practiced at adapting to different terrains, they will find it easier to ride a flowing, confident, successful cross country course. Which is my aim!

Back To Fitness

As lockdown is easing in the UK, many horse owners will start to look at bringing their horses back into work and increasing their fitness.

How long this takes depends on your fitness goal and your horse’s current level of fitness, age and previous injuries.

If your horse has been turned away in a sizeable field with companions it will be surprising how much fitness he has retained walking around the field and playing with friends. However, if your horse has an old injury or is stabled overnight with individual turnout they won’t have retained as much fitness.

Whilst not riding, some owners have continued long reining or lunging their horse, so will have a slight advantage over the furloughed horses.

Something to consider though, is your fitness as a rider. This has probably deteriorated with staying at home as well as doing less equine activities.

One of my client’s horses has had seven weeks off, but he’s now coming back into work as he lives at home and I don’t need to see anyone when I go to ride. We need to consider his mental well-being as well as his physical health. He is looking plump, but is also bored only being in his field. Well, that’s what I like to think as he trotted over to me when I appeared with his saddle today!

To use him as an example, he has some fitness from being in a field 24/7, so I started with a generous half hour walk around the village, with no terrain. He returned home with a little sweat on his girth area and had obviously worked without stressing his body. This will steadily increase on hackd, in duration and incorporate terrain over the next couple of weeks before short periods of trot are introduced. As with the walk, the trot periods will increase in duration, frequency and include terrain.

Depending on how we’re getting on with his fitness, the ground and lockdown in general, I’ll look at starting some canter work in week four.

This horse has no previous injuries for me to worry about, and we aren’t in a rush to get him fit for a competition deadline, so I will take it steadily with him. Aiming for him to come back from each ride slightly sweaty, and having increased his pulse and respiration rate during the ride.

Schooling for short periods can be introduced early on, to provide variety to the work. If you jump, then you’ll want to introduce trot polework when the trot is established, and canter poles and jumping once the canter work has been introduced, always monitoring how well your horse is coping with the exercise.

I think it’s most important to listen to the horse when fittening them; assess their recovery after work, keep a close eye on their body and behaviour for signs of fatigue, and for any signs of soreness or injury afterwards. Even if you have a fitness deadline, such as a competition, it is better not to rush the fittening, and plateau for a while if necessary until your horse’s body is managing with the current workload.

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.

Walk to Canter Transitions

I did this exercise a couple of weeks ago in my lesson to help Phoenix get the hang of walk to canter transitions, and have found it really useful, so thought I’d share it here.

Down the long side, ride shoulder out. That is, reverse shoulder in. The horse is bent to the outside with the outside (in relation to the arena) hind leg in line with the inside front leg. I find it easiest to start on the inner track so you have space to move the shoulders towards the fence. Once you’ve perfected shoulder out in walk, move up to trot. Pay particular attention to feeling the outside hindleg coming under your horse’s body, and not letting him give too much bend in his neck to the outside as that allows him to fall onto the inside shoulder. Already, you should feel an improvement along the short sides as it helps your horse create a uniform bend on the turns.

Once you can trot shoulder out down the full length of the long side, put a ten metre circle in at the end. The circle requires your horse to flip from one bend to the other, so is a good test of balance and suppleness. Don’t rush to blend the two movements: straighten up out of the shoulder out and ride a couple of strides before the circle. As you both improve, you can reduce the number of strides between the shoulder out and the circle. A bit like how you reduce the number of straight strides in your changes of bend as your horse becomes more balanced. I found the circles felt very balanced and I didn’t find that Phoenix bent excessively with her neck to try and drift through her outside shoulder, which she sometimes does on the left rein.

Now comes the fun part. Halfway around the ten metre circle, ride forwards to walk. Then as you reach the track and the corner of the school, ask for canter. Because of the shoulder out, the outside hind is engaged ready to push into canter, but the circle sets up the correct bend so you will get the correct canter lead.

The short period of walk stops the horse switching off from work, and the small circle helps keep the walk active and together.

Previously, Phoenix had been running and scrambling into canter from walk, but this exercise really helped her jump up into canter – quite literally jump as the first time she leapt straight up in the air while she tried to use her body differently. She soon cracked it, learning to push from behind more. Riding the canter transition from trot still helps improve your transition.

Unfortunately, I can’t repeat exercises too often with Phoenix as she starts to anticipate, so I’ve mixed things up a bit by taking out the circle; riding a demi volte then shoulder in as I incline towards the track and then the circle (if needed) before the transition into walk and then canter. I’m just doing the same movements in the same order, but in different areas of the arena. Have a go at this exercise and mix it up as much as you want.

Pole Triangle

I used this pole layout last week and found it very useful so thought I’d share it for anyone struggling for ideas at the moment. You could also long rein or lunge over it.

The layout is quite simple; create an equilateral triangle with three poles, and then lay a pole perpendicular to each apex.

The first exercise is to ride straight through the layout – over the base of the triangle and then out over the apex opposite. It’s an excellent test of straightness (pick a point in the distance to focus on, keep the reins even and steady, and squeeze your horse down the tunnel created by your reins with the our legs). The apex encourages horses to pick up their feet. Often they’ll look down as they step over the apex, which helps develop their topline.

The poles I used are 10′ long, which means that the distance between the base and apex is a canter stride for the average horse (I’ll let any bored A-level student work out the precise distance using trigonometry. Let me know if you take up the challenge!). You can ride the line in both trot and canter, in both directions. It is slightly harder to be accurate riding from the apex to the base pole.

A harder exercise, which focuses on riding a smooth turn between two poles, encourages the horse to increase the cadence of their inside hind which improves their strength and suppleness. Ride, in trot, from the base pole to either of the other sides of the triangle, aiming to ride over the centre of each pole. Make sure you ride straight over each pole, so ensuring you ride a definite curve through the triangle. I had a few clients ride a straight line between the poles, so going over each one at an angle. I then stood in their way and made them trot around me, which soon helped.

You can then think of riding a circle around each point of the triangle, the external pole helps prevent the circle becoming too small. You could also try cantering the circle, but you would need to increase the size of your circle and so the curve within the triangle.

Finally, I concocted a twisty exercise for my more advanced riders, to really test their horse’s balance and suppleness.

Trotting (or walking until you get your head around the sequence) straight over the baseline pole, then curve right. Over the second pole then ride a big curve left. Trot over the next side of the triangle you reach (the side you’re yet to go over) and then curve right. As you exit the triangle curve left again. Eventually, you end up at the beginning.

The key is to not override the turns, and to maintain an even rein contact. Too much inside rein and the horse will fall onto their inside shoulder and struggle round the next turn. Additionally, you should keep the curves outside the triangle fairly big so you can prepare for the next chicane. Make sure you cross each pole in the centre, and perpendicularly. The external poles help prevent drifting as you leave the triangle. It’s not easy, but you can really see the improvement in the horse’s way of going afterwards.

Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.

A Sustainable Gait

Once you’ve mastered control of the basic gaits, things get harder and you have to master a range of gears in each gait. Furthermore, your horse has to develop the strength, balance and stamina to work in each gear. This was illustrated perfectly at the Pony Club Conference a couple of weeks ago.

The demo riders were riding a simulated cross country exercise; jumping a triple bar at speed to imitate jumping a simple cross country fence, before making a turn and jumping two bounce fences from a slower canter.

The first rider galloped at the triple bar, popping it easily, and slowed down a bit for the bounce, but jumped it a bit too fast really and it was only her pony’s deftness which got them over the two elements. She rode the exercise again, this time circling between the two questions until she’d collected the canter sufficiently. It took her a few circles but she really collected the canter up. She approached the bounce, but her pony refused.

The reason? Her new collected canter wasn’t sustainable. He could collect that much on the flat, but he didn’t have the impulsion and strength to jump from this canter. She rode the exercise again, and circled until she got the collection. Then she opened up the canter slightly, relaxing so that she moved up half a gear. The pony jumped the bounce beautifully. Because the canter was sustainable and the balance between collection and impulsion was right for jumping.

I thought it was a brilliant example of how the gears to your canter will vary as to whether you’re on the flat or jumping, and in relation to your horse’s level of training. For example, a horse who works at prelim level may be able to collect their canter slightly, but will struggle to have the energy and balance to jump from that slightly collected canter, whereas an elementary level horse will be able to sustain that slightly collected canter for longer and with less effort, so will be able to jump easily out of it.

I’ve already mentioned the word “sustainable” to some clients, but I think it’s a worthwhile term to bring into every day conversation. It can be a measure of development too because a canter gear will feel more sustainable as the horse improves their balance, suppleness and impulsion. We can talk about shortening or lengthening strides; feeling if the horse stays in balance, and also how long they can remain in this balance. A horse learning how to collect may only sustain collection for a couple of strides whereas a more established horse will maintain the collection for a full circuit of the arena. So add “sustainable” to your equine dictionary, and start taking it into consideration when you reflect on your horse’s work.

Finding the Problem

When you have an undesirable behaviour in the horse, such as refusing jumps, napping etc it can be so difficult to find the cause.

Once a horse has had their saddles, feet, legs, backs, teeth checked for ill fit or injury, very often the unwanted behaviour is labelled as a ‘behavioural problem’ and has very negative connotations. All to often I see aggressive reactions to the unwanted behaviour, which often compounds the problem.

Once you’ve identified that there’s no physical cause for a behaviour then it’s a matter of understanding the horse’s mental state. Horses react to the current situation, they don’t plan in advance to cause trouble or refuse to comply with their rider. An interesting article went round social media last week which explained this well – take a look here.

So if you have a behaviour, such as napping or rearing, and you’ve found the underlying cause to be an injury or poorly fitting saddle; you’ve fixed the physical cause, but your horse still naps, then it is caused by their mental state and in order to correct the behaviour you need to get inside their head and do it slowly.

I’ve just started working with a horse who started refusing or grinding to a halt before a fence and cat leaping it. After some weeks of troublesome jumping, a small injury was diagnosed and he was subsequently rested and then brought back into work. However, his behaviour whilst jumping continued.

Unfortunately, he can’t speak English and tell us the problem, but we can listen and respond to his body language. I believe that the horse had pain association with jumping, because of the injury, and then because he was cat leaping he wasn’t comfortable jumping, regardless of the fact his injury had healed. Whilst he had his injury, he’d have had a physical limitation when jumping, and if faced with jumps beyond this ability (even if they were within his usual ability) he would have lost confidence in both himself and his rider. This creates a vicious cycle of him not wanting to jump, despite the fact he has been given a clean bill of health.

Because he hasn’t wanted to jump, he’s become rather backwards thinking on the flat, so the first thing I did when I rode him was get him thinking forwards. I’ve given him very light hands, to support him as necessary, but in no way acting as a handbrake. Every transition has prioritised over him responding to the aids, and going forwards, even if his head isn’t in the ideal position. I want him to move his body as required in order to do the requested movement so that he realises that it doesn’t hurt and that he can do it. We can tweak movements in the future to improve his way of going.

This week, to help his jumping, we used canter poles to encourage the canter to stay forwards, and then once he was taking me into the poles, we added a jump to the end of the poles. The jump wasn’t too small that he would trip over it, nor was it too big to be outside his comfort zone. The poles kept the canter forwards, regulated his stride and positioned the horse in the correct place to take off. This would give the horse some positive experiences over the jump, so rebuilding his confidence and ensuring he didn’t have any twinges from jumping awkwardly. As the horse became bolder, I lengthened the poles so that he wasn’t quite so close to the jump on take off. Starting with the poles closer than ideal and lengthening the distances slowly stopped the horse even thinking about chipping in before the jump.

Once he was confident in cantering three poles to a jump with no strides between, I removed the third pole, so that the two poles set up his canter, and he just had to keep the momentum going for one stride before the jump. We repeated this work off both reins, until I felt he’d done enough. He needed a certain amount of repetition to build good associations with jumping, but not so many that he became tired and be more likely to falter.

Next time, the plan is to build a simple related distance. There will be two poles on the approach to the first jump, as we’ve already done, which will put him in a good canter and give him a good jump over the first element. Then he has to maintain that canter for two strides before the second jump. Then we’ll increase it to three strides between the two jumps, then four and so on. The purpose of this is so that he learns to jump the single fence without poles to help, but by setting him up at the beginning with poles we can ensure he isn’t likely to fail or back off the jump. Again, the jumps won’t be big, but I may make them uprights instead of cross poles to give him something else to think about. Not having them high means that as well as not having any pain association from jumping awkwardly, his injured leg will get stronger and hopefully he’ll stop anticipating any pain from that site. Then we’ll continue along this theme with other grid work type exercises until he doesn’t have negative associations with jumping, and is confident in his own ability again.

With any “behavioural” problem I think it’s best to identify the triggers for the behaviour and then work on calmly and quietly giving your horse a few positive experiences so that the habit is broken, and they begin to build trust in their rider and themselves in that situation, then you can adjust the situation; for example if your horse naps at a particular spot out hacking on their own, ride, long line or lead past the spot in company until they have had some good experiences there, before perhaps riding first past that spot in a group instead of following their friend, and then venture there on your own. Strip back the environment/activity and provide emotional support from your horse from others, people on the ground, anything, and then as the event becomes calmer and stress-free, take away their support slowly as they become more confident and less reactive to that set of triggers.

Poles and Transitions

I adapted this exercise last week for my clients to improve their canter transitions.

When you aren’t working to a dressage test, or set of quick directions, it can be easy to spend too long preparing for a canter transition, aborting at the first corner, and then in the downward transition it’s easy to spend half a dozen strides recovering and finding their balance.

I wanted my riders to be in the position that they could strike off into canter with instant preparation, and can ride into a balanced trot immediately. After all, once you get to elementary level, the movements start coming up very quickly!

I laid out five trotting poles on the track on the long side; with a fairly short distance between each one. I wanted the horses to be on the verge of collecting over the trot poles. With the mare who struggles to get the correct canter lead I placed the poles so that the last pole was at the quarter marker and she could use the corner to get the correct strike off. The other, more established horses, had the poles in the middle of the long side so that the canter transitions were in a straight line.

I worked each combination through the poles until they were balanced, and the trot had become more together and uphill, with increased cadence. Then we added in the canter.

After riding the trotting poles, I asked them to ride forwards to canter before the corner (or at the corner for the less established mare). Then they had to ride forwards to trot at the corner before the poles.

We repeated the exercise a few times, moving the transitions so that they were closer to the poles.

The result was that my riders started riding more quickly, and I don’t mean rushing; the time between preparing and riding the transitions, and then reacting to the outcome, decreased. The horses became more responsive to the aids and then more active in the transitions.

The trotting poles engaged the hindquarters, which helped the horse push upwards into canter, so it felt like a pop into a steadier, more powerful canter. The mare who tends to run into canter suddenly began to almost jump into it, which resulted in a less harum-scarum canter.

Having the trotting poles in the near distance when riding into trot encouraged the riders to sit tall and hold in their core so that the horse sat on his hocks and didn’t fall onto the forehand after a couple of strides, unable to contain all this energy. Often a horse and rider will go into a powerful, energetic trot, pushing nicely from behind, but after a few strides they both seem to collapse and lose energy, so losing the quality of the trot as they bowl onto their forehand. However, the poles require the horse to maintain the initial trot for longer so builds up their strength and balance. Again, the horse and rider have to be thinking and react quickly to correct any loss of rhythm or balance.

Having to ride a downwards transition before some poles doesn’t give a rider the opportunity to accept a sloppy, unbalanced transition, nor does it mean they can do it “when the time is right”. The time is now, and they have to make it right. If they do get an unbalanced transition, for whatever reason, the looming poles encourages them to react and correct it; which is very important around showjumping courses, and so that the next dressage movement is not impeded.

I was really impressed with the improvement to both the horse’s transitions, the quality of the canter and trot, and of the positive, quick thinking way that my riders were now riding.