Befuddled

I started working with a young rider before lockdown who’d lost confidence in her intelligent Welsh Section A, who whilst isn’t naughty likes to be in charge.

My rider had lost her confidence cantering in the school, and when they start trotting her pony just goes into a quick trot, unnerving her rider.

I felt that my rider needed a change of scenery, to sit on a steady neddy, and finally to feel in control of her pony. So she had a couple of weeks hacking a lovely veteran mare, and then started hacking out her own pony again, before doing a little bit of trot work in their riding paddock, building her confidence in herself and trust in her pony.

The last time I saw them, I worked her on the lunge in the paddock, doing some transitions to help my little jockey feel in control. If she knows how to execute a good, balanced transition and can plan it then she will feel more confident in her own ability and so ride more positively. We even finished over trot poles, again planning where she wanted to trot and where she wanted to walk.

She’s started going into the school again, but still had a block about cantering. She was getting a good, steady trot on the left rein, but the right rein got faster and ended up in numerous circles with the pony getting unbalanced and breaking into a steady canter. From what I could see and understood from conversations with both rider and mother, it seemed to be that there was a power struggle. The pony wasn’t being nasty or dangerous, but just challenged her rider’s leadership by trotting quicker than she was comfortable with, and ignoring the aids.

We needed to confuse, bewilder, and muddle the pony so that she wanted her rider to take control. Mind over matter because there’s no way a little jockey can win a tug of war with a pony!

I explained to my little rider that she needed to have a plan when she started trotting, so that her pony didn’t know where she was going and couldn’t quicken her trot because there were multiple changes in direction. I gave her several exercises – serpentines with circles within the loops, my favourite demi volte bow tie, and a shallow loop with circles. My rider needed to practice these in walk so she was confident of her lines, and then as soon as she went into trot she needed to start riding one of the exercises. She needed to ride the exercise until she felt the rhythm was more consistent and that her pony was waiting for her directives. She could then work through each exercise separately before working them all together in a mish mash, with her pony listening and waiting for her aids.

It didn’t take long for her quick pony to pause and listen to her rider. Because my rider had a plan she felt more in control and confident, as well as the fact she had a plan so continued to ride positively and was less likely to freeze.

I also explained to my rider that she needed to be a step ahead of her pony. So when she went into trot, she needed to be ready to steady her pony, rather than wait for the trot to get fast and then try to rein it in. Preventing a situation rather than reacting to it. It’s a tricky concept for kids to learn, but it makes a huge difference to a pony as they can’t begin to get the upper hand.

Finally, I gave my rider one more exercise to stop her pony racing off into trot on the right rein. I told her to walk a ten metre circle and as she was approaching the fence to go into trot. The fence would back the pony off. She should trot to the next letter before riding to walk. Walk for a bit and then repeat. Short trots would build my riders self-belief and feeling of control, and would break the cycle of the pony whizzing off into turbo trot because a transition to walk was coming up shortly. As the pony started to expect the downward transition, her rider could trot for longer, maintaining the rhythm and tempo. So breaking the cycle.

By all accounts, the exercises were very helpful and they had a canter at the end of their session. The rider felt more in control because she had a plan to her trotting, and was subsequently more confident. This confidence fed down to the pony, who was also a but befuddled with all the changes of rein, and she accepted her rider’s leadership.

Of course, they’ll probably still have to have this discussion at the beginning of each ride to make sure the pony is put calmly back into her box, but I think in time she will more readily settle to her work, because that is the norm, and because her rider exudes confidence. But that’s ponies for you! You really have to get inside their brain and work out what makes them tick and then find a way of getting them on side and putting their wily brains to work!

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.

Pony Club Camp

It’s over. My first experience of a Pony Club camp. All I can say is that I’m sorry I had to wait until the grand old age of twenty four. I always wanted to be in the Pony Club when I was young but a lack of transport and club popularity (I think it had a decline in the 90s) meant I never got to experience rallies or sleeping under the stars with my pony…

This week I’ve been teaching at the Vale of Aylesbury Hunt Pony Club, in Buckinghamshire. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but thankfully I didn’t have to say it many times!

Monday was a nerve racking experience; driving a new, unknown route to work, meeting hundreds of new people and ponies, and teaching the unknown (children, ponies and parents!). I was introduced to the instructors, and learnt a couple of names (with the help of our personalised polo shirts) and then met my ride – the Maltesers. There were six giggling, aged six(ish) girls sat on a variety of ponies. They looked as nervous as I did! I introduced myself and started learning their names – never mind about the ponies at this stage – and checked their tack. Impressive! Their mums had obviously been busy scrubbing because all tack, ponies and riders were immaculate!

We went off to dressage and my first task was to get them all trotting as a ride. They were all over the place at first, but we got there. Individually they practiced their tests and then after lunch we went showjumping. There, I lost one. Into the only pile of poo in the field! She got back on without a fuss and we finished up riding a steady course with good lines to the fences (I mean, poles on the ground!) I’ll be honest, at that point I was considering turning to alcoholism before the end of the week, it was so chaotic.

Tuesday came and I got a bit tougher. They’d all cleaned their tack with me on Monday afternoon, so the tack and turnout was more interesting. I tried to reward them all for trying to do it themselves, especially their plaits. We marched to the Handy Pony ring in pairs, attempting to stay next to our partner, and then commenced a lot of wriggling, huffing, dismounting, scrambling on, grabbing flags and moving cups around. They all had a blast, and one particularly memorable moment was when the youngest tried to mount on the offside. She put her left foot in the stirrup, hauled herself up and then realised she would be sitting on backwards if she swung her right leg over. So with a flash of inspiration, she balanced on her hands and took her left foot out the stirrups, right one in, and swung her left leg over to grin at me. One of the other girls realised she could mount without assistance and didn’t stop getting on and off all week! Another girl persevered with her green pony and methodically worked out how to get her mare as close to the scary fish as possible so that she could reach over and grab one. I was impressed by her technique and determined attitude.

Exhausted by laughing, we returned for some stable management, where we learnt the parts of the pony by sticking labels all over one poor pony. I was impressed that they managed to learn so many and retain half the information.

Lunch came and went, with the instructors having a mature game of “how many maltesers can you fit in your mouth at once”. I can only manage twenty …

After lunch my little group had great fun playing mounted games, and showed a lot of support and tram spirit. One tubby pony stepped on his riders foot, and she, understandably, began sobbing. So her friend, who had crossed the finish line just before her came over and told her pony to kiss it better. Then I tried cheering the invalid up by saying she’d come a close second and the friend said “no she definitely crossed the line in front of me, so she won.” How sweet is that?!

I hadn’t turned to the bottle by Wednesday, although I suspect some other instructors may have with the number of accident forms they had to fill in! On Wednesday morning we had to practice our musical drill ride. I hadn’t planned very much as I wanted to see my ride’s ability before trying to mimic the household cavalry. I had picked the song “I’m a Believer” from Shrek so they had good fun dancing away on the ponies. I kept the routine quite simple, trotting the easy part and then walking the complex crossover. Riding in pairs and keeping level with their partners, and riding past each other. It wasn’t bad, and we finished when their concentration started to ebb, and moved on to the treasure hunt.

That is, once I’d found the correct mother who had my treasure hunt instructions! We had a paddle through the water jump in the cross country woods, and I held back the girls from cantering up the hill. Maybe next year girls! We found the treasure in the end, and made the hunt into more of a hack.

On Wednesday afternoon we went swimming. I was prepared, after another instructor had been thrown in by her kids, and wore my bikini. I like swimming anyway, so when the girls asked me to go in I readily agreed. We splashed and raced, paddled and floated for an hour. At one point in the deep end I had six limpets attached to me! It’s a good job my feet touched the bottom otherwise I’d have sunk. They loved it though, and the other instructors were impressed I’d gone in.

By Thursday we had a good routine; walking everywhere in our pairs, staying next to each other, and we could trot in a ride! First of all we practiced our musical ride, which was getting better, and then the dressage tests, which improved a hundred times. Finally, we worked on the showjumping ready for Fridays competition. Again, I lost one girl when her pony gave a big jump with his hind legs and her heels shot up. Grinning, she got back on and remembered to have “heavy heels” over the next few cross poles. The girls rode much better lines today and stronger jump positions, which was great to see. I’d taped their reins so there was much less flapping around too.

After lunch was their dressage competition, and they all rode very good tests, with a close result. I tried to watch whilst judging another ride. Here I realised that cutting the corners is a bug bear of mine, as well as flappy limbs and the incorrect diagonal. I’d like to point out here that I didn’t address diagonals with my lot otherwise I’d have been shouting diagonal every ten seconds when the ponies dawdled. I was very pleased with my rides dressage tests anyway, and they all had very positive comments. After the dressage tests they all cantered up the little hill, declaring it to be the “best gallop ever”.

The final day dawned bright and sunny, and I think i was as excited as the kids. I stopped to buy them a bag of chocolates on the way, and in the shop I suddenly remembered one of them didn’t like chocolate … Or was that sweets???
Armed with five bags of chocolate bag one bag of sweets, I arrived at camp to spend all day eavesdropping to see if I could find out which of the girls was fussy. About thirty seconds before I gave out the treats one mum confirmed it was her daughter who didn’t Iike chocolate – phew!!

The morning was spent doing the showjumping competition, which I judged on style and approaches to the fence as opposed to speed. The girl who had fallen off on Thursday took this to heart and rode beautiful lines. She had another wobble, but her homing device worked! They all jumped lovely rounds and smiled the whole way. Another girl rode her friends pony as a confidence boost as she was worried about her mare over jumping (thus was the girl who fell in poo). After the first jump she relaxed and started folding into her jump position more.

After that was round two of Handy Pony, which they all did unaided, and I judged on technique, accuracy and perseverance. Again, they all did brilliantly and their parents were impressed with their skills.

Back to camp and we untacked before running through our musical ride. Well, that was the idea anyway. I was soon jumped on and squashed beneath six surprisingly hefty girls, and not allowed to get up. Eventually I wriggled free and ran away, dropping my walkie talkie in the process. One of my cheeky children picked it up and announced over the radio “the maltesers are chasing their instructor”, complete with evil cackle. At this point I considered withholding all rosettes and prizes.

After lunch everyone gathered to watch the musical rides. There were minions, mutant ninja turtles, school kids, and of course my Shrek and Princess Fionas.
We were second to go, and complete with green ponies, they trotted down the centre line with the music. They divided and trotted down the long side before joining in pairs for the centre line again. This time they divided and then went into the cross over on the diagonal. But they forgot to walk! I closed my eyes, but they scraped through the first cross over, much to the delight of the spectators. Then they came for the second one. And it was perfect! No stopping or chopping off of noses. Everyone applauded loudly, and they came round for the centre line again, halting as the music stopped. I almost burst with pride! They had pulled it out the bag!

So here ends my week of fun. I had a brilliant time, and can’t wait for my next camp in a couple of weeks time at another pony club. The girls gave me a lovely card and photos, with some maltesers (obviously) and wine, which was a nice surprise too. I just hope they carry on having gun and enjoying their fab little ponies!

Pole Jumping

Yesterday in my four o’clock lesson I decided to have a bit of fun. The four children are really progressing and are very confident now. A fortnight ago I risked taking them for a hack which they all thoroughly enjoyed.

So today two of them showed and interest in the beginners showjumping we’re running in the holidays so I thought I’d make it the theme of the lesson. We warmed up in trot, doing the dreaded diagonals, so they could familiarise themselves with their ponies, sitting trot with and without stirrups. Tod was riding a much bigger pony than he is used to and found her very bouncy, but he sat well and worked his stomach muscles hard. Carys eventually managed to relax her shoulders and arms, I always tell her she’s driving with the handbrake on. Sally was more confident than usual, and Lilly had managed not to wobble off in sitting trot, unlike last week.

So far, so good. I worked them as a ride over trotting poles testing their jumping position. Their lower legs are definitely getting stronger and there’s no superman impressions, so to push them they had to ride jumping position with one arm out to the side. This reduced their reliance on their hands on the pony’s neck to keep them folded. Once done I brought them back to walk and explained what happens in a showjumping competition.

One of the first questions was “how big are the jumps?” To which the answer was in this competition class 1 was just poles on the ground. They seemed confident about this so I laid out 4 poles to form a basic course. Tod, as the most confident and experienced, went first. The related distance (which we’d discussed) went smoothly but after the second one he swung right towards the white pole (on the KM line) coming in at a terrible angle so got a refusal. This initiated a discussion about penalties and faults. He rode past the ride and reluctantly over the last pole before trotting right back round to the others at C.
Next was Carys, who rode smoothly round and learnt from Tod’s mistake and toed into her corners. Then it was Sally’s turn. Her pony his renowned for returning post haste to the back of the ride, so it was no surprise to me that they came round past A and he put his head down and turbo trotted towards the ride. Somehow, and I was impressed given she isn’t the most confident, Sally corrected him and whilst she had to turn a circle for the jump, he did come back to her. As soon as he was over pole 4 he stopped and turned round to go back to the ride.
Finally, it was the turn of Lilly and her pony who was described recently by one of my helpers as “the worst case of riding school-itis” she had ever seen. This pony is a gem – smooth gaits, steady and willing, but he will NOT go at the front of the ride or work independently. Which isn’t a massive problem as he’s only used for the little children and beginners, so I get around this little issue. Off Lilly went, and immediately her pony drifted towards the centre. Over the centre of pole 1, to the right of pole 2, handbrake turn to sidle past pole 3 on the diagonal then over pole 4 backwards to get back behind the other ponies tails. We had a bit of a laugh and I sent them off again over a harder and longer course (they now had seven poles to remember!).

Tod and Carys rode it smoothly and well, remembering their jumping position each time so I was pleased. Sally took charge of her steed and navigated him without too much of an argument which was great, and Then I helped Lilly by keeping her pony away from the middle and giving a helping tug on the inside rein as he trotted back to the ride, ignoring the rest of the course. Once disciplined he was hoof perfect.

We finished off with some canter, which involves a few laps from me. Today found his pony hard to sit to as her stride was much bigger. Carys took the handbrake off so her pony could skip into canter. Both Lilly and Sally let go in the canter too which hopefully means I won’t have to run for too much longer! To provide a bit of light entertainment, whilst they were cantering Sally’s pony took it into his head that the grass on the other side of the fence was exceedingly tasty and proceeded to put his head through, leaving his poor rider holding onto her reins with her face against the wooden rail! Thankfully a parent rescued her and I’ll be getting it strimmed before next week.

I found the lesson very entertaining and you could really see how far the children have come; hopefully I’ve inspired a new generation of show jumpers.