Spirals

It’s a classic exercise to introduce leg yield, and can help increase a horse’s bend, but I find that spiralling in and out on a circle can encourage bad rider habits to form and is so often detrimental to both horse and rider, rather than achieving the desired effect of increasing the engagement of the inside hind leg.

The basis of the exercise is that you establish a twenty metre circle before spiralling in towards the centre and then spiralling out again.

I begin teaching this exercise by standing at X, and asking my rider to ride a twenty metre circle from either E or B. We spend some time establishing the roundness, and identifying points where their horse is liable to drift out (usually at E and B), or fall in (usually as they cross the centre line). Then I ask them to slowly decrease the size of the circle by moving the horse’s outside shoulder in first. This reduces the rider using the inside rein to pull their horse onto a smaller circle, and encourages the use of the outside leg. Decreasing the circle slowly requires more balance and more subtle aids. The inside rein opens slightly to indicate moving across whilst the outside leg pushes the horse over, outside rein prevents the horse overturning with their head and supports the outside shoulder. The inside leg maintains the correct bend, and the rider turning their shoulders into the circle with their weight in their inside seat bone helps the horse stay in the correct bend.

By spiralling in slowly, and almost adopting a shoulder fore position the horse will bring his inside hind leg under his body, propel himself forwards more correctly and feel lighter and more engaged. The smaller circles require more suppleness and balance from the horse. I often tell my rider to stay on a certain sized circle, or not to spiral in any further because I can see that the horse has reached their limit in terms of suppleness so are better staying at this point instead of going smaller but losing the quality to their gait.

From the small circle, I ask the rider to sidestep out onto a bigger circle before riding a few strides on this circle and then sidestepping again. This makes a series of concentric circles, rather than a spiral. This helps control the movement and keep it correct. By only leg yielding a couple of strides at a time the rider doesn’t lose their horse’s outside shoulder, the inside hind continues to push the horse sideways so they stay engaged. The rider’s outside aids continue to be effective and the horse stays balanced.

Some horses are more likely to rush back to the track, so pulling themselves across in the leg yield from the outside shoulder. In this case, I get the rider to “ride smart”: as they start to ride towards E or B they have to apply the outside aids before their horse drifts and takes control of the movement, and then ask for the leg yield as they move towards the centre line, when the horse has no inclination to fall out. This ensures that the leg yield comes from the rider’s aids and is not the horse anticipating.

Ridden correctly, the horse becomes more supple and engaged, and it is an excellent warm up exercise for gently stretching them and unlocking and tight or resistant spots. I find it incredibly useful when Phoenix gets her knickers in a twist (when the wind blows or the something is out of place) as when I move her body around subtly she releases through her barrel and becomes more rideable. It’s also useful for identifying a stiffer side in rider or horse, as well as fine tuning the rider’s aids and control through a movement.

So often I see the spirals being ridden badly; the head and neck over bending as the horse spirals in, with too much inside rein, and them falling rapidly through the outside shoulder in a race to get back out to the bigger circle. Which doesn’t help engage the inside hind leg, or promote the rider using their outside aids correctly or effectively.

Next time you ride this exercise, try changing your approach to it, and critique yourself to make sure you aren’t letting either yourself or your horse cheat by drifting in and out on the circle. How many times do you pass B as you move in or out? Can you increase that number? Slowing down the movement requires more balance and more obedience from your horse.

Cones and Circles

Mum asked for my expertise over the weekend as she’d been struggling with an exercise she’d been given last week.

I quite like the exercise though, so thought I’d share it with you.

Place three cones along the centre line, one at X and the other two ten metres either side.

From the right rein, turn down the centre line in trot and ride a ten metre circle around the first cone. You want to aim to stay equidistant from the cone the whole way round the circle. Continue round the circle until you’ve ridden a complete circle and the next time you cross the centre line change the rein and circle around the second cone in the opposite direction. One and a half circles later, move on to riding a circle in the original direction around the third cone. It’s a really good suppling sequence to ride.

Initially, you’re aiming for the three circles to be similar in size, and for it to flow between circles. Hopefully you’ll notice if one rein is harder than the other and you can spend some time improving the circles on that rein before coming back to the exercise.

You’ll remember a few weeks ago I blogged about how to ride a change of bend? If you feel that the circle sequence is going wrong at the change of rein, break down the change of bend and ensure you are switching from position left to position right (or vice versa) to allow your horse to change their bend and are supporting them as they do.

Now that the circles are hopefully feeling similar in shape and fairly round, we can step it up a notch. Try counting the number of strides you get on each half circle in the exercise. You want to get the same number. This means that your circles are round and not egg-shaped, and that your right and left circles are the same size. You’ll also discover if the change of rein between the circles affects the size and shape of your circles.

It sounds like a simple exercise, but the fact you’re working away from the fence means you as a rider, need to support your horse more as they will more often than not drift towards the fence. Which should mean that you notice any weakness in your aids. It also serves to improve your horse’s symmetry and suppleness hugely.

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.

Everything in Moderation

There’s been a few articles circulating recently about the detrimental effects of lunging. But before we condemn lunging forever more, let’s look at it from both sides.

Lunging is coming under criticism because studies are finding a positive correlation between horses working on circles and joint injuries. So perhaps lunging isn’t the problem here, it’s the number of circles a horse does?

I’m a great believer in doing everything in moderation; the horses I know with the longest active lives and fewest injuries are those who have a varied work load. They lunge, they hack, they do flatwork, they do polework, they jump.

From what I can see, if you do a lot of flatwork and lunge a couple of times a week then this combination puts your horse at risk of joint injuries because of the number of circles the horse does. But if you predominantly hack or jump so ride fewer circles, then lunging a similar amount has less cumulative stress on the joints.

Then of course, there is your lunging technique. There’s the old adage that lunging for twenty minutes is the equivalent of riding for an hour. I think this is an important guideline to bear in mind so your horse isn’t trotting in endless circles for an hour.

Also, do you lunge continuously on the same size circle, or do you vary the size and walk around the school in order to incorporate straight lines? Do you use transitions and variations to the gait, or just keep the horse moving in their comfort zone? Do you divide your lunging session up into periods of walk, in-hand work, such a lateral work or rein back? Trotting for twenty minutes on a fifteen metre circle stresses the joints much more than a varied lunge session.

Think about why you want to lunge? For a tense horse like Phoenix, I find lunging once a week is beneficial as she is more likely to relax and stretch over her back, which is then taken forward to her ridden work. She can do this naked, and not having my weight or the saddle on her back helps her stretch her back muscles. Some people love gadgets, others detest them; I think they are useful in the short term when used correctly to help direct the horse into working in the right frame. This is something an experienced rider may be able to do from the saddle, but a novice rider can’t, and in order to improve their horse’s way of going and increase their working lifespan, they need help to develop the correct musculature.

For some horses lunging can be useful for warming them up before you ride. They may be cold backed, or a bit sharp. But this type of lunge shouldn’t be much more than five minutes. Equally, if you think your horse is feeling fresh one day, it’s safer to lunge and get rid of their excess energy rather than have an accident riding.

Lunging is useful for assessing lameness as it is usually more pronounced on a circle or turn. Also, without the rider you can see more clearly if it is a bridle lameness or not.

So there are valid reasons for lunging, and I think we can reduce the risk of joint injuries by not lunging for too long or too often, and improving our lunge technique.

We’ve already said that it’s the number of circles a horse does which damages their legs, so let’s change our approach to a lunging session to reduce the number of circles.

Start in walk on a large circle, walking yourself so that the circle becomes less round and has a few straight lines on it. Then go into trot and work on the same principle; some circles where you stand still, mixed with some wanderings. Use transitions and spiraling in and out to give variety to the circle. Use poles on a straight line to add to the variety. The only time I don’t do a huge variety in terms of transitions is when a horse is learning to carry himself differently (for example taking his nose down and out) or needs to improve his rhythm. But then I use wanderings to break up the circles. Think of doing short bursts of canter, and focus on improving the quality of the transitions rather than having a stamina workout.

After a few minutes of trot or canter work have a walk break, getting your horse to relax out on a big circle. When you change the rein, take the opportunity to do some in hand work with them. It may be rein back, shoulder in or other lateral work. But equally it could be some general ground manners such as standing still as you move around them.

I think my pet hate, and what I think would be a large contributor to horses having joint issues and a routine of being lunged, is when a horse is literally allowed to gallop round, fly buck, and turn them inside out at the end of the lunge line. These short bursts of acceleration and deceleration on a turn are far more likely to cause injuries than when a calm, well-mannered horse being lunged. Apart from the fact it’s dangerous to the handler, it’s poor manners and in my opinion a recipe for disaster. They aren’t working correctly, and you can’t check for soundness or any other issue, so the lunging is of no benefit to anyone.

I’d be interested to read more about the studies into lunging and lameness to learn more about the quality of the lunging technique, as well as hearing more about the study horses conformation, age, workload and routine, to see what other factors could be contributing to any lameness. Then we know if lunging is as detrimental to our horse’s wellbeing as is being suggested. But otherwise I will continue to believe in everything in moderation, including moderation.

Preparation is the Key

I`ve been doing some research and reading, and have got some new schoolwork exercises to play around with in my lessons – so watch out everyone!

I`ll list the exercises here briefly, but the main point I want to make in this post is the importance of preparation.

Exercise 1 – Stay on a twenty metre circle. Ride a ten metre circle within the bigger circle, so that the larger circle acts as a tangent to the smaller circle. The exercise becomes harder when small circles are ridden more frequently, and you can also ride a downwards transition immediately before the small circle, and an upwards transition upon finishing.

Exercise 2 – Stay on a twenty metre circle in the centre of the school. As you cross the centre line, ride a ten metre circle in the opposite direction before rejoining the large circle. To make this exercise harder, ride a ten metre circle in the same direction as the twenty metre circle at B and E, so you are alternating direction on the smaller circles.

Exercise 3 – Ride a twenty metre circle in trot. Spiral into the centre and make a walk transition. Immediately ride a half ten metre circle outwards to change the rein, upon reaching the larger circle make an upwards transition. Again, to make it harder it can be ridden in canter with direct transitions.

All of these circles really test the horse`s suppleness and ability to change their bend without losing their balance and falling onto the forehand. In order to best help the horse, it is vital that the rider prepares them.

So what preparation is needed?

A half halt to start with. I find that everyone thinks of half halts in a slightly different way, but in this instance I think it`s best to think of a half halt as a pause, or rebalance. When riding from a large circle to a small circle, the horse`s hindlegs need to come under them a bit more, and they need to lift the shoulder slightly. Thus, they are rebalancing their bodyweight so that more of it is carried by the hindquarters and less on the shoulders. The rider should apply the half halt with this in mind. So when they close the rein, they lift slightly, bring their shoulders back and shift their bodyweight so that it is closer to the cantle. You can think of sitting towards the back of your seat bones. Of course, the leg also needs to be applied in order to keep the energy and to encourage the hindleg to step under and propel the horse along.

The rider needs to be clear on where they are going. I always start these exercises by establishing the large circle first so that they get their eye in. It`s important that you don`t lose the basic shapes, such as ending up with an oval twenty metre circle, or drifting through the change of bend. As soon as the shapes are lost then you should go back a couple of paces. Perhaps walk it to get your eye in again, or remove the little circles. The rider needs to be looking in the direction they are going, apply the steering aids are the right time – immediately after the rebalance, and ensure that the aids are clear. Otherwise they risk panicking and grabbing the inside rein to haul their horse around the small circle.

I think these exercises are really useful for developing the rider`s balance and co-ordination; timing the half-halt, and giving clear turning aids so that the bend through the horse`s body adjust fluently. It raises awareness of the horse`s balance, and the action of the hindlegs. The transitions on the circles encourage the horse to step under more with the inside hind leg, so the rider will be able to feel it more which will help with transitions on a straight line. Because the circles and transitions come up so quickly they make the rider think ahead, and plan; encouraging multi-tasking. To me, it is a step towards riding elementary dressage tests. I notice that a lot of people struggle to make the step from novice to elementary, and I think it is because the movements are harder and come up quicker. Riding these exercises engages the rider`s brain and should make elementary dressage more achievable. Certainly, I`ve noticed an improvement to the riders that I`ve used these exercises with and the horses I`ve worked on this have become more flexible straighter; staying on two tracks around the circles and being less likely to fall out through the outside shoulder or wobbly on the changes of bends.

 

Cornering

If you ever find yourself losing impulsion on turns or circles then this post is especially for you!

One movement that comes up a lot at novice level is a trot change of rein through two half ten metre circles. At elementary level you need to do them in canter, so it’s worth paying attention to the finer details of the movement so you can ride it in your sleep. In order to do two circles, or half circles, in different directions almost immediately it is important to maintain impulsion around the circles, otherwise your horse will fall onto their forehand and struggle.

In order to maintain impulsion you need an analogy. For car drivers, this will make a lot of sense. When you approach a corner, you brake the car, and as you go around the corner, you accelerate slightly. Now let’s apply this to riding a horse. Before the corner, or circle, half halt. I’m sure we all know we should half halt before turning anyway, but if you are actively losing impulsion on turns then it is vitally important. The half halt shifts the horse’s weight onto their hindquarters, and lifts the head and shoulders. Then as you ride around your turn you should apply the inside leg to drive the horse forwards. Hopefully, you should come out of the turn with as much energy as you went into it with.

I’ve used this analogy a few times recently. Once, with a teenager whilst jumping. Her turns off the track left them lacking impulsion and then affected the canter and subsequent jump. By collecting the canter, half halting, and riding deep into the corner, whilst riding forwards around it, meant that they approached the jump straighter, with a better canter, and had a much better bascule over the fence.

Another horse and rider that I’ve used this with tend to lose impulsion and energy on turns because the horse is very stiff through his body. Now circles and serpentine so will help supple him up, but only if he doesn’t grind to a halt halfway around. Just by thinking about accelerating around the corners of the school helped this horse get a longer stride, and more active hind leg. Once the corners were better balanced and he maintained impulsion we did the same with circles and serpentines. He just needs a lot of circle work to improve his way of going  and by the end of the lesson he was more forwards, with a bigger stride, and he even wanted to stretch at the end.

I’ve used this concept  with a horse I school because the half ten metre circles have been letting us down in novice tests. In order to get her thinking forwards as she comes out the turn I’ve done a lot of half ten metre circles in trot, before striking off into canter as I come out of the turn. This changed her mindset about turning, and she stopped dropping onto the forehand on the way out of turns. Riding a full circle before a transition up, either to medium trot or canter, also helped her balance herself.  I did a couple of sessions focusing on these circles and half turns and when I returned to the two half circles she seemed to find it much easier. This means that I can bring in more exercises to further improve her suppleness without sacrificing the rest of her work.

Try it, next time you’re schooling. Brake before the turn, and accelerate through it; hopefully you will feel the difference! 

Chain Reaction

Sometimes it can be monotonous doing circle after circle in the arena, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and not push you and your horse’s ability.

I developed this exercise today with a cob who tends to lose speed and energy when turns are involved. It’s like the handbrake has gone on. We’ve used straight sides and diagonals to build the quality of the trot, and corners and half twenty metre circles to teach him to move from the outside aids and to maintain propulsion. He’s getting there so I introduced three loop serpentines.

He really struggled with a smaller turns so I needed to go back half a step. Full circles of a smaller diameter would help as there isn’t a change of bend to worry about.

I also wanted to work this cob off the track a bit more to help establish the outside leg and his respect for it, so I combined the two on this chain exercise.

Starting from A, ride a 13-15m circle, remembering to stay at least 2.5m away from the long sides. Ride the circle until the horse feels balanced, relaxed and is bending correctly around the inside leg. Then when you cross the centre line between D and X, change the bend and ride a 13-15m circle around X. When this circle is established, ride another changed of bend between X and G to ride a circle at C.

If you’re lucky enough to have a 60m long arena then each circle will be 15m in diameter, but in a 40m long arena each circle will need to be 13m, with a metre spare for wiggle room.

The benefit of this exercise is that you aren’t rushing to change the bend, so you can afford to be picky about the quality of each circle. You can aim to ride one whole circle at each point, and then only a half circle when the horse finds this easy. 

It can be made harder by slowly reducing the size of the circles and gravitating away from A and C, so they are ten metres, and then an extra circle can be added in.

I revisited the three loop serpentine with this cob after working through the above exercise and he definitely found it easier to keep his trot around the turns and changes of bend. 

Riding the smaller circles will improve his suppleness and that will help him maintain his balance and rhythm on turns so that his trot doesn’t deteriorate. Using just the middle of the school also checks your aids and eye for a round circle, as well as teaching your horse to be independent from the fenceline and obey your outside leg.

Ever Decreasing Circles

An article a read yesterday, talked about schooling consisting of “ever decreasing circles”. For some, it might be true, but I see schooling as full of half circles, triangles, squares, complete circles or any other shape you can think of and made more interesting when they are linked together or combined.

However, you should never underestimate the power of riding a good circle, and this is what today’s exercise is all about.

Starting at A (or C) ride a twenty metre circle, and then immediately ride a fifteen metre circle, and then immediately ride a ten metre circle from the same point. This exercise can be done in walk, trot or even canter for the brave.

It sounds easy, but give it a go. I think you’ll be surprised, and be critical here, how your second and third circles have drifted from your starting point. Additionally, you’ve probably ended up with egg shaped circles and a deteriorating gait because the inside handled hasn’t increased it’s workload to carry more weight on the smaller circles.

I used the exercise with a client today, and whilst the twenty metre circle came easily to her she did need to watch that the corners didn’t draw her horse in, distorting the symmetry of the circle. It was fairly easy to maintain the rhythm throughout the circle, and keep her horse straight (hindquarters following front legs) with the correct amount of bend.

However, when they moved onto the fifteen metre circle it began to go askew. The first quarter began on much the same track as the twenty metre circle, before she corrected herself at the halfway point, however they had lost their rhythm and balance. To begin the fifteen metre circle more correctly, she just had to prepare for it whilst riding the last quarter of the twenty metre circle and have her outside aids ready to increase the bend through her horses body as they reached the starting point. It helped when she imagined the letter A to be a tangent, only touching the very edge of the circle for one stride. 

In much the same way we looked at improving her ten metre circle. To help, I got her to ride each size circle a couple of times so she was secure with them before changing the question. Changing the amount of bend and engagement of the hindquarters with different circles really tests the suppleness and strength of the horse as the rhythm needs to stay the same, and the impulsion shouldn’t drop on a smaller circle.

Once this is mastered on both reins it can be tried at the letter E or B so that the rider has to gauge the correct size circle in different areas of the arena. Improving the eye for circles helps enormously in dressage tests, where you don’t have your personal visual cues (the pink flower along the fenceline for example), which means you’ll gain accuracy marks.

A harder version, which I may try tomorrow with one of my rides, is to go from a twenty metre circle directly onto a ten metre circle and then back again. This requires a higher degree of control and accuracy by the rider and a more supple, balanced horse.