A Group Exercise

I did this exercise with my Pony Clubbers last week; we used to to it a lot when I was learning to ride as a child, but I don’t see it utilised very often now, nor unfortunately do I use it much myself as I don’t teach many groups.

It’s a very good layering exercise which introduces independent riding, and ensures the horse or pony is listening to their rider’s aids.

Starting with the ride in closed order on the track in walk. The first rider moves up into trot, trots around the arena until they reach the rear of the ride. Then, they should take the inner track and trot past the ride before trotting back to the rear. With more experienced riders, you can have the ride trotting, and the individual cantering around and past them.

This exercise is useful in the following ways:

  • It allows every rider in the ride to experience being lead file.
  • It teaches awareness of the change in a horse when they move from following the tail in front of them, to going off the rider’s aids.
  • It teaches the rider how to pass other horses at the correct distance.
  • Riders need to use their outside aids to stop their horse rejoining the ride instead of passing them, otherwise the horse just falls out and slows down to slot in behind the ride.
  • The horse is encouraged to work independently and the rider taught to plan their route in advance, otherwise their horse tucks in behind the ride.
  • Riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t crash into the ride.
  • It’s a useful precursor to riding in open order. Once a group are familiar with the exercise the lead file can be sent off before the previous horse has reached the back of the ride.

A different exercise, which I find quite useful for testing horses who are a little bit herd-bound, is to have the ride trotting around and the rear file ride a transition to either walk or halt. When the ride catches up, they ride forwards to trot and become the leader. Some horses can be reluctant to be left behind, so it’s a useful education for them, which pays off in other areas, such as hacking or cross country. It also teaches patience, as horse and rider have to wait calmly for the rest of the ride. The rider also has to plan their upward transition so that the rhythm of the ride is not disrupted, and they also experience lead file. I find you can allow the new lead file to do a few movements, such as circles, serpentines or changes of rein, which develops their independence and confidence.

If the weather’s cold, or it’s wet, and you don’t want a group of riders standing still for too long, these exercises are useful for keeping everyone moving and keeping them warm. I’d like to see instructors incorporating these exercises into their group sessions because they are definitely underappreciated.

Getting Ready For Camp

I’ve spent the last week prepping for Pony Club camp: organising childcare, informing all clients and making sure their next lesson is booked in (it’s the one time of the year that my diary is organised for a whole fortnight!), choosing my musical ride music, and planning my lessons. But I’ve also been helping some clients prepare for their own Pony Club camp.

A kid’s first camp can be a nerve wracking experience, so I use the few weeks leading up to camp to prepare them as much as possible so that they don’t feel out of their depth and can enjoy camp to the maximum.

Firstly, they will be riding in a group, which some children with their own ponies aren’t used to, so I work with my little riders to make sure they know to keep a ponies distance away from the one in front, and that they know the basic etiquette of riding in a group. Last year I had a lovely little rider who I suspected would be used as lead file, so I taught her about checking that she was going the correct speed for everyone to keep up, and how to adjust her pony’s trot to accommodate everyone else.

I try to make sure my riders understand instructions that an unfamiliar instructor may use, and are familiar with the letters of the school and changes of rein or school movements. This is particularly important for my riders who only have fields to ride in. I want my riders to understand the basic commands and movements so that they don’t panic about riding it in a different environment.

I then run through exercises which I think the instructors may use to assess the children and ponies, such as sitting trot, taking away their stirrups, replacing their feet in their stirrups. Again, so that first day nerves don’t kick in too much. We do canter work, trot poles, and some jumps. With a young rider this week I’ve had her jumping over a small double as previously she’s lacked confidence over fences. I’ve lead her over some slightly bigger jumps, and then had her jumping smaller cross poles and uprights on her own. I don’t want her to have grandiose ideas about her ability, but I want her to be able to demonstrate a good approach and balanced jump position and not feel overwhelmed by any jumping exercises at camp. The pre-camp lesson needs to be a confidence building session so that they arrive feeling confident about their riding and can them cope better with the qualms which come with riding in company and in a new environment.

I also check that their tack is Pony Club legal; safety stirrups, grass reins etc. And that tack is in good condition for camp. A lot of parents use camp as a good opportunity to replace worn tack, but you want to have a test run before camp to make sure it all fits correctly and you don’t need extra holes punched in stirrup leathers! Sometimes I suggest changes to tack which may help my rider in a different environment. For example, one girl I teach holds her reins at different lengths, so her left hand sits further back than her right. In a one-to-one lesson I can monitor and correct this habit, but for camp I suggested using tape to show her where to hold her reins so that it doesn’t get overlooked and develop into a real problem.

While some of my clients don’t carry whips because it’s just one more thing for their little hands to carry, I do sometimes introduce them to one ready for camp. I explain how to use it correctly, how to hold it and how to change it from hand to hand. This is because their pony may be less forwards in a different setting, or when they’re tired towards the end of camp, and I would rather my little riders were told how to carry a whip with consideration to their pony than just given one in a hurry at camp. Plus, one of the ponies I teach has a phobia of lunge whips so I don’t want the unknown instructor to feel that they need to chivvy or chase the pony along with one as that will shatter my rider’s confidence.

I also try to make sure my rider knows what is expected of them at camp in terms of behaviour, and how they should ask for help if they need it. Sometimes children can be very shy about asking for assistance. Then finally, I try to make sure my riders are confident around their ponies. They will all have help, but by the very nature of the camp environment they will have less support than at home with either their parents or me supervising. It’s only little things such as knowing their girth needs to be checked before they mount, knowing how to dismount whilst holding onto their reins, and to run up their stirrups. Having children who are able to do this makes an instructor’s life much easier whilst keeping them all a little safer.

Of course, camp is all about learning and I look forward to getting my kids back with new found confidence and competence, but I find that the right preparation really helps them get the most out of their camping experience.

Riding Camp

In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.

My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.

Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.

I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.

Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.

I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!

I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.

Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …

On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.

It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).

I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!

What’s In Store For Us?

I had a bit of an epiphany earlier. Or rather a realisation of what’s to come.

Now the kids have gone back to school it’s quieter. Well, I’m not sure if it is quieter or if it just seems quieter as things get back into their normal groove. To fill my time, I decided last weekend that I would repaint the garage door frame. And next weekend the door. Of course, living in Britain the weather never helps us fulfil our plans, and it ended up being too wet to prep the frame over the weekend, so the job is dragging into this week.

I’ve just put on the first coat of gloss, and as I put everything away I realised that I had more paint on my hands than on the frame. It’s a talent worthy of Britain’s Got Talent really, that I can manage to make that much mess and make it to adulthood.

Anyway, as I was in the bathroom scrubbing the white gloss off my hands with a pumice stone, I suddenly remembered the time when I was seven.

I’m sure this story will still be etched crystal clear on my parents memory because it’s perfectly clear in my mind!

My Dad was painting the side door one March Sunday, while I cycled my bike up and down the drive. I loved my bike, it’s yellow and purple was my pride and joy. Dad was supervising me. Or perhaps I was supposed to be helping him. But if you know my Dad, you don’t want to help him painting because he’s very particular about not dipping your brush in too far, or not brushing the wrong way, etc etc.

Anyway, with a burst of inspiration, I asked if I could paint my hands. Dad said “yes, yes”. In hindsight, he most definitely wasn’t listening to me.

So I cycled over to the tin of white gloss and proceeded to dip both hands in it, all the way up to my wrists. So with hands that resembled Caspar’s, I proudly showed my Dad.

I think he took it pretty well, because I carried on cycling around while he finished painting, covering my bike handles in white.

Once he’d finished the side door, we went inside and tried washing my hands. Half a bottle of fairy liquid and my Dad’s best attempts with the pumice stone, and my hands were no longer thick with gloss, but rather a washed out, sticky off-white. My finger nails being edged with white.

The only problem? It was school picture day the next day!

Despite my parents’ best attempts, my hands were still off-white the next day, which is why one of my school photos has me with my arms cleverly folded to hide my hands.

Today, all I could wonder was what scrapes and predicaments am I going to see, be the rescuer, or have to prevent? And that’s just my husband, let alone the baby! Perhaps I’ll be starting a new blog to record it all!

Bilingual Horses?

Sometimes I wonder if horses do understand English better than we give them credit for.

Last week, for example, I was cantering around the outside on the arena on the left rein, opening up the canter with some rising and using the scattered poles to get the mare thinking forwards.

As I cantered towards this lone pole, on a perfectly straight line as I followed the fence, a woman in the middle of the school shouted to her friend, “now ask for a right change”. Simultaneously to her instruction, I was going over the pole and I felt the mare change her canter from left to right underneath me.

Weird! I definitely hadn`t asked for a change, if anything I was thinking of turning left, and the mare isn`t really educated enough to know changes, or the aids, or to be balanced enough to do them cleanly. However, she had definitely done a clean flying change over that pole as per the lady in the middle`s directions.

I don`t think the other horse got the requested change though!

As I started writing this I had a flashback to over a decade ago (not that makes me feel old…) when I was still on my little grey pony and in fifth group (we had six groups of lessons, with the sixth group being called top group and the ultimate aim of all of us) – I was between eleven and thirteen years old. We were in one of the far fields because it was too hot for a proper cross country lesson, so we were doing banks and ditches. We had meandered though three fields, jumping the stream and navigating various tracks along the stream and tree line. In the final field, with a derelict barn at the end, we had to canter along the bottom of the field, up the slope next to the barn, along the top fenceline and then down the steep hill back to the rest off the group. It was an anti-clockwise direction and one of the older girls went first. She was at least one generation of helpers older than me, and had recently returned with her horse to the yard (perhaps after university?). Any ways, she and her horse cantered easily around to the top fenceline and she brough him back to trot to come down the hill.

As we watched her lean back and steady the gelding, our instructor jokingly said “And sit down Maldwin”. To which, the large horse did indeed sit down and slip the rest of the way down the hill! His hindlegs were completely underneath his body and his quarters grazed against the grass until he managed to stop and stand back up.

He and his rider were completely unhurt. I`ve a feeling she fell off later in that lesson but that part is a bit hazy. I just clearly remember Maldwin seemingly understanding our instructors words.

After School 

The last couple of days I’ve been racing against nightfall to teach. Tonight wasn’t so bad as they have floodlights in the arena, but yesterday’s clients unfortunately don’t.

As we finished the lesson the bats were coming out, and it reminded me of our after school races against time.

In the spring, summer and autumn, there used to be lessons after school so we’d either join them or hack, and there wasn’t as much pressure, but at this time of year we used to fight the losing battle against darkness.

My comprehensive school finished at 3.25pm so we would meet and walk half a mile to a house – the one of the girl who lived the closest – get changed, and take over the living room, watching kids TV – Balamory was a favourite because of the catchy theme song (…what’s the story in Balamory? Wouldn’t you like to know?…) – until 3.50pm when we would be picked up by our riding instructor in her discovery. We’d all pile in for the short journey to the yard, where we would spill out like worms out of a can at 4.05pm. I’ll always remember watching the older girls tumble out of the car when I was in primary school, yearning to be like one of them!

Then we would throw our school bags in the tea room before hurtling up the fields. And I mean fields, not these silly paddocks we have nowadays, we had 40 acres to scour for our ponies. 

In the summer we would often be allowed to ride in the 4.30pm lesson, which meant we really got a wriggle on to catch, groom and rack up in 25 minutes. We daren’t be late though!

So in the winter we’d try and do the same, riding at 4.30 because at least we had half an hour in the outdoor before being consigned to the small indoor. We also had bigger feeds for our ponies, which meant we wanted to have finished riding and be feeding them by 5.30pm in order to be picked up by 6pm. When the horses were stabled we would usually have at least one more stable to do, usually for a friend, and we all used to pull together to muck out and carry waters before 6pm.

My parents were notorious for being tardy though, so I used to ride for longer. I can remember still being at the yard, albeit up the house with our instructor, at 9pm in January because my parents were late closing the shop, collecting my brother, and running errands.

Another poignant memory I have was one February when the bugs were rife. Instead of eight of us being picked up there were only two of us. We still rode for half an hour, caught everything before dark and mucked out ten boxes by 6pm!

Things got easier when our school changed its timetable and we finished at 3.10pm, and the house we’d used was no longer available so we walked to a corner shop and got picked up earlier – giving us an extra ten minutes at the yard! Later on we got picked up from outside school and were much earlier at the yard, but I don’t think I ever lost that feeling of racing against time.

One of the best feelings when we were on the way to the yard was the announcement by our instructor that “so-and-so had followed her in” which meant that if our pony was indeed so-and-so, they had been in for a few hours, had a feed and were dry! If we were lucky we’d sit, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, knowing we didn’t have to run up the field!

From my after school experiences I never understand how kids can faff around and end up riding in the dark and cold. But I think unless you have those pressures you don’t learn to walk quickly or to be efficient.

By the way, are you singing the Balamory theme tune? I’ve had it in my head all day, since I drafted this post in my head!