Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Walking The Course

This has come up a couple of times this season, but unfortunately it keeps going to the bottom of my blog list.

So often when riders walk a course, especially eventing when there’s two courses to remember on top of a dressage test, they focus on remembering the order of the jumps and where they’re going. Sound familiar?

Inexperienced riders rarely pay enough attention to the tactical aspects of riding a course. Yes, they’ll think about which fences their horse may dislike, or the gear that they need to approach a jump in, but what about the factors on course which you can’t influence so easily?

Firstly, the ground and way of going. Yes, you can’t change the fact it’s rained and the ground is soft, almost deep. But when walking the course you want to take the ground conditions into account. It may mean you ride a wider turn so your horse is less likely to slip, or if you know your horse finds one type of going easier than others you adjust your riding to best suit them. For example, accept some time penalties and take a steadier canter to help your horse out. You also want to consider the running order. If you are running towards the end of the day you should be aware that the course could become churned up and deep in places. So adjust your lines to take this into account.

Terrain. Some events have more undulating terrain than others, but as you walk the course you should be looking at all the twists and turns of the ground, and plan your ride so that you take the route which will enable your horse to stay most balanced and rhythmical. For example, a jump may be positioned at the edge of a hollow, so depending on how your horse copes with downhill, you may want to ride a longer line to the jump to give them more time to rebalance the canter after the downhill slope. Whether you are jumping uphill or downhill will also affect how you ride the fence. Going uphill you may need to put your foot on the accelerator a bit more, particularly if it’s towards the end of the course. Going downhill, you’ll need to ride a smaller canter to help keep your horse balanced and off the forehand, which will affect their take off point. Incorporating the terrain into your tactics for riding the course can make all the difference to going clear or picking up penalties as your horse will be better placed to jump confidently and successfully.

The weather conditions. One of my lasting memories of eventing Otis is when we were going cross country at 4.30pm in September. Invariably we’d been delayed, so it was after 5pm, and I was galloping up the hill directly into the evening sun, with a large table at the top. God knows how I managed to get over it as I was very disorientated and nearly steered into the hedge, but Otis got me out of trouble, as always. I hadn’t clocked the impact of the setting sun on my ride, and after that event I was always much more considerate of where the sun would be when I would be jumping, rather than where it was when I walked the course. It’s the same with shadows; if a jump is under some trees, check where the shadows are going to be. It takes horses eyes longer than ours to adjust from light to dark, so again you’ll need to adjust your riding line or gear in order to give your horse the best chance of seeing and judging the question. Equally, if it’s raining or windy, you’ll firstly be questioning your sanity, and secondly, need to adjust your riding whether you’re cantering into the rain or wind, or away from it, as your horse will find it harder when against the weather so will need more positive riding from you.

My challenge to you is the next time you are at a competition, or cross country schooling, to start to take into account the weather conditions, terrain, ground, and shadows, as well as trying to remember the order of the jumps. You should start to feel that although you are making more micro adjustments to your canter, and riding less direct lines, your round will flow more and the jumping efforts seem easier.

Continued Professional Development

In order to be part of the BHS coaches scheme, and have insurance, there are numerous hoops we have to jump through: such as child protection and first aid courses every couple of years. Which is why I was off relearning about CPR, defibrillators, and recovery positions today.

I’ve just seen an important announcement from the BHS this evening, saying that from January 2019 all accredited coaches must attend one CPD course a year. CPD stands for Continual Professional Development, and the idea of them is to encourage instructors to show an interest in expanding their knowledge, following advances within the industry, and to improve their skills. We used to have to do them every couple of years, and I think it is good to continue to expand your knowledge, even in your field of expertise. After all, you never stop learning.

Yet, I’m not sure that annual CPD courses will go down well with many coaches. For a number of reasons.

The BHS pays for our first aid and child protection courses, but we have to fund the CPD courses. These usually cost in the region of £60, but vary according to the type of training, and the trainer taking the course. Now most coaches are freelancers. Which mean that we don’t just take a day off to go to a CPD course; we have to rearrange our work onto different days (so long as the client can accommodate this) or lose out on that work. Which means that not only are we spending £60 on going on the course, we are also losing a day’s wages. Let’s say that you lose sux hours work in a riding school to go to the course. That’s a minimum of £60 wages you don’t receive. This is a minimum based on hourly rates which I’ve seen around the country. If you are self employed and lost a day’s work you are likely to be £100 out of pocket.

Additionally, a lot of the CPD courses aren’t local, and involve an hours commute. This brings in motor expenses of the best part of £10 each way.

It’s becoming expensive isn’t it? Not only are we spending in the region of £80 on attending the course, but we are losing out on wages in the region of £80.

I’m not saying that we don’t want to attend such courses, as we all like to learn, but I wonder if there’s a better way to do this. One that is more affordable, and more easier fitted into our busy working lives. For example, I go to relevant CPD days every couple of years, to tick the boxes for my APC (Accredited Professional Coaches) membership, but on a weekly basis I read articles, books, magazines, and talk to friends in the industry to share ideas and experiences. None of which technically counts as CPD, but all very much improve my knowledge and allow me to give the best lessons I can to my clients.

The variety of courses which count as BHS CPD days has increased over the last couple of years. Two years ago I struggled to find a course which was relevant to my level of training (as an AI looking to become an II) and less than two hours drive away. Now, courses like the Horses Inside Out day that I attended count. This means that we can expand our professional knowledge in a sideways fashion – looking at equine biomechanics, saddlery, and rider psychology for example, rather than purely coaching.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but perhaps CPD should be assessed with a variety of options, so that coaches are encouraged to develop their knowledge whilst being flexible to their busy working lives.

My thoughts are that over a calendar year a coach needs to amass a certain number of CPD credits. For example, a full day course could be worth 60 CPD credits, which is enough for each year. Then there could be a selection of shorter courses, or online webinars (perhaps similar to the evening talks by Gillian Higgins running in 2019 of which attending three talks counts as a CPD update) which could be worth 20 credits each. These evening talks would be on a variety of topics; lorinery, saddle fitting, dental health, vet talks, alternative therapies.

Having cheaper evening talks would be more doable for many coaches, as the cost of training is split over the year, and it’s flexible to their working week. With a variety of different subjects to choose from, you are more likely to inspire and motivate coaches to attend and learn. They will also not be losing so much work to attend an evening talk for a couple of hours so it is not as financially crippling.

I guess there would be a bit more paperwork in order to keep track of a coach’s CPD credits, but if the system is simple enough of three evening talks being the equivalent to one all day course, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of it, and I think the majority of coaches would prefer shorter CPD sessions to the intensive full day courses.

Having looked quickly at the BHS website I couldn’t see a CPD day which is at an appropriate level to my qualifications, in the south of England, so I will just have to hope that something else is organised which is of interest to me and that my professional life will benefit from. I’ll keep looking, and hoping that the BHS works out how to implement this new ruling without upsetting too many coaches.

Developing a Coaching Plan

Sorry readers, another revision-blog double whammy.

Coaching plans aren’t something I’m massively confident on. I mean, I have a plan of some sort for all my riders; for the leisure/hacking riders I have in mind improving their seat, control of the aids, confidence and knowledge. But it is done very much at their pace; adjusting the lesson speed and content to them on the day. Sometimes they’re having a confidence wobble and we need to revisit lower leg stability to help their hacking when really I wanted to improve the horse’s suppleness in canter. But ensuring my rider has a happy ride and will be safe during the next week is more important, so my lesson plan gets delayed a week. Time isn’t as issue so long as they continue learning and improving. So in that sense my coaching plan is very laid back.

For my leisure riders who are more ambitious and want to go out competing once or twice a month, I’ve got more of a structured plan in place: their flatwork is more geared towards movements and standards expected at their dressage level, with them being more aware of the scales of training and it’s application. The jumping is focused on improving technique with grids etc, and using courses to get them thinking about how they should ride at competitions. During holidays we often go cross country schooling too, to add to their repertoire. Then, they can tell me of their upcoming competitions a couple of weeks in advance. If it’s a dressage competition I like to know two or three lessons in advance so I can work on individual movements, such as a change of rein through two half 10m circles. Then they have chance to practice and for me to feedback before the competition. With jumping competitions, a lesson beforehand is usually enough to fine tune them unless they are having a particular problem, in which case I wouldn’t advise competing until it’s sorted.

As far as coaching plans go, I don’t really have any clients who are out competing every weekend, with lofty goals of climbing the dressage ladder, or stepping up their eventing, or of being on Juniors teams or anything like that. You never know, with the ITT qualification and my kidlets improving so well, I may have to up my game and have more formal coaching plans. 

Ross Algar, who’s book I’m rereading for the thirtieth time this weekend, reminded me that a coaching programme consists of a triangle between the coach, rider and horse. All three need to communicate to be able to develop and stick to a plan. With kids, parents need to play a supporting role because of transport and financial reasons, but it’s important to remain focused on the child or teenager and their ambitions.

What does a coaching plan consist off? 

  • A SMART target or two. These can be short or long term; a long term goal is usually made up of several short term goals. Targets need to meet the following criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and with a time frame. It’s important to create goals with the input of the rider; after all, there’s no point planning to get a rider to jump a Newcomers track if they’re only interested in dressage.
  • A diary. At the beginning of the season, and then once a month the client and coach need to sit down and plan upcoming competitions: these may be pencilled in eight weeks or more in advance, but as everything changes with horses it’s important to reflect that the competition is still achievable. Perhaps the ground has been very soft so the fast work is behind schedule, which may mean re-routing from an ODE and opting for a showjumping outing instead. The diary is also useful for planning the non lesson work. The coach may school the horse one day during the school day or a parent may lunge the horse. Then the rest of the week can be split into flat, jump or hack sessions with the rider. Off horse training for the rider also needs to be taken into account in the diary. Perhaps any Pilates, running or other fittening work. Other diary dates include the farrier, vaccinations, dentist, physio and saddler appointments.
  • Once the basic plan is in place, there needs to be regular reviews. These may be weekly adjustments according to the weather, school or work trips, or long term due to ground conditions or a niggling not-quite-rightness.
  • Then of course is the reflection session: how are horse and rider progressing? How did the last competition go? What improvements need to be made before the next competition? Lesson plans may need adjusting to accommodate this, or an extra cross country schooling session organised.

Coaching plans for competitive riders require a lot of dedication from a coach: you go on an emotional journey with horse and rider, and have to be flexible. Fitting in extra lessons, adjusting lesson times or venues, or going to competitions with the client. Being at a competition allows you to watch  their performance under pressure and away from home; allows you to support them and hopefully spot ways of improvement. Possibly the most important way a coach can help a client at competitions is by warming them up. A coach can get the rider in the right frame of mind to compete, can get the horse working well, and help correct problems that may occur in the warm up arena. All of which should help improve their performance and results.

Personally, I love seeing and hearing about my clients’ achievements; competitive or non-competitive. As small as having the confidence to hack alone, or to jump their first jump in ten years, repeating the lesson content on their own, or as big as being placed in their inter-schools or regional competitions. 

It gives me a lot of job satisfaction, drives me to improve and adjust my plans for the next few training lessons. Yes, I don’t have a need for strict coaching plans with ambitious competitive riders at the moment, but I think I would enjoy seeing and being involved when some of my riders spread their wings into the competitive scene.

Motivation 

Here’s another ITT subject up for discussion. Motivation. What motivates you?

Motivation is the desire to succeed, and it can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, i.e. you are the driving force. Extrinsic motivation comes from other sources; instructors, friends, parents, competition results.

A lot of highly successful and ambitious people are very intrinsically motivated. They have a strong inner desire to succeed; perhaps to prove others wrong, or to just be the best. This feeling is how they get up in the morning, how they strive to improve their performance, and how they plan their lives around success.

Extrinsic motivation comes from other people. If your coach or instructor tells you they’re pleased with your performance, you will feel more confident and want to continue to put effort into your work so that you receive more praise. 

You can also be motivated by the expectations of other people. If your parents expect you to do well, then likelihood is that you will strive to please them. Friends and other family will motivate you with their support too.

In the equestrian world, competition can also be an extrinsic motivator. Entering a competition gives you a goal, so you become motivated to learn that dressage test, or practice your jump technique. Your placings, the fact you went clear or not, or the judge’s comments on your score sheet all help motivate you. If you had a refusal then you will work harder to get a clear round. If you scored an eight for a transition, you will be motivated to maintain this standard or to improve every transition so it is worthy of an eight. Sometimes friendly competition within lessons can motivate you, or seeing your friends jump a particular height makes you want to do so too.

With everything, it’s important that motivation comes from a variety of places. If someone relies wholly on the extrinsic motivators of coach, parents or friends, then their heart isn’t really in it and they will never give one hundred percent to the task. I see this a lot with kids. Parents want them to ride; perhaps so they have a shared interest, perhaps the parent wants to give them opportunities that weren’t available to them. Whatever the reason, a child who is pushed into riding when they aren’t totally committed is at risk of hurting themselves. Anyway, I’m dipping my toes into pushy parent waters so will tiptoe away and dry my toes. I think what I’m trying to say is that the most important form of motivation is intrinsic. You have to want to partake in an activity and succeed. It’s the job of extrinsic motivators to supplement your internal drive; perhaps when you’ve had a knock of confidence, or a general bad day, or weren’t as successful in a competition as you had expected to be. 

These extrinsic motivators are important, so it’s best to surround yourself with supportive family, friends, coaches, but ultimately remember that you yourself must want to achieve.

Let’s open it up. What motivates you to ride your horse? What about if it’s a freezing cold Sunday morning? What makes you get up at silly o’clock to go competing?

Is the motivator …

  • your fitness, 
  • spending time with your horse, 
  • your competitive drive, 
  • a break from the kids and family, 
  • the fact your coach expects you to have done your homework,
  • the fact your friends expect you to ride,
  • or it’s the only opportunity you’ll have this week to ride in the daylight?

It could be anything, or a combination of several, but let me know where your main motivation comes from.

Empowerment 

Empowerment is the buzz word for coaches at the moment; the ability to empower clients is the making or breaking of a coach. So much so, that in my ITT exam I have to do a presentation on the subject.

This is where you, my lovely readers, come in. It appears that I can either talk and delve into the murky depths of my brain, or I can write to access the knowledge that otherwise eludes me whilst trying to revise.

So let’s get to it.

Empowerment has several layers of meanings. It is the delegation of authority or power; the giving of an ability. In equitation terms, it is when a coach encourages riders to fulfil their ambitions by providing the education, desire and tools for them to achieve their goals. 

To me, empowering someone is giving them knowledge whilst supporting and allowing them to develop their own opinions and theories, and helping them apply this knowledge. When I’m successful I should feel, however uncomfortable and strange it is, that I am redundant as their coach.

A coach can empower their clients in a number of ways. I think the most important way is to respect your client and their opinions, regardless of how young or inexperienced they are, and to involve them in your plans for their riding.

A client will feel empowered if at the beginning of a lesson, or after a short warm up (if you’re in a quandary as to which lesson plan is best for today), you discuss what your plans for today and what you hope to achieve. Give them chance to feedback as to their thoughts on the lesson content and how achievable they think the aims are.

SMART targets are another hot topic amongst coaching, so it’s good to bear in mind that you want to make goals specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific.

Giving clients responsibility also helps make them feel empowered. This could be in the form of homework; practising the lesson content in their own time, or researching a new concept through books, video (such as YouTube), and observation of other riders. If they don’t do their homework they won’t be able to improve and will hinder their education as riders.

As a rider develops their knowledge and ability they can become empowered by a change in their lesson format. When you teach a beginner, lessons are very much coach-led, with the instructor giving definite instructions and being slightly dictatorial. As the rider learns, for example, how to warm a horse up then the coach steps back slightly. The lessons become less about following specific instructions around the arena and more about the theory or lesson content. Then once a rider is more experienced then lessons become rider-led, by when the rider has a clear idea of what they want from a lesson – perhaps focusing on the weak areas in their last dressage test – and the coach then gives feedback on today’s performance and suggests exercises to improve them.

I find that some people take the opportunity to think for themselves willingly and confidently, so it becomes very easy for a coach to delegate some power. I think this depends on the rider’s cognitive ability (which applies more to children) and their confidence level. I like to test the waters by saying “let’s change the rein” instead of “Change the rein FXH”; or “when you’re ready, forwards to working trot … start adding in some circles when you need to” instead of “at C ride a trot transition … ride a 20m circle at E”. Very quickly you begin to see which clients are beginning to apply their knowledge to their riding, and who is unsure in taking control. Of course if they don’t take the initiative and choose a change of rein or ride a circle then I start prompting and maybe give a couple of sentences to enhance their knowledge. For example, “once you’ve settled the trot into an active, steady rhythm you can begin to put in some 20m circles to start suppling the horse. Once you’ve done a few large circles you can decrease the size of the circle to further warm up their muscles…”

After all, you don’t want to knock any confidences because a lack of confidence means you think you will fail, so you lose motivation and don’t try to take control or their riding. This can stress the coach-rider-horse relationship triangle. So it’s important to offer the opportunity for a rider to take the chance to become empowered in a safe environment.

Asking clients for feedback helps them feel that their opinion is valid and valued, and the subsequent conversation lets them develop their thoughts. Earlier this week I taught a young boy, only ten, through a grid on his new pony. It was all about getting to know the pony, find his buttons and learn to correct him. After each try through the grid, I asked him for his thoughts. Once he said, quite rightly, that they got too close to the first fence then got two small strides in before the second element. So we talked about the need to establish the jumping canter earlier. He then went away and got some more impulsion into the canter before coming again to the grid. Another time he told me before I asked that he’d leant forwards before the second fence. He’s starting to develop into an intelligent rider, knowing when they do an exercise well, when it feels right, and is making constructive criticisms of his own riding so he will actually be productive when he’s riding on his own. Yes, he needs more knowledge to be completely unsupervised, but he’s only ten and I think he’s pretty well empowered for his age.

When a rider becomes empowered, they become more independent, which means they can ride safely on their own without hindering their educational development; are less likely to cause an accident or injury to themselves, horse or others; are usually happier riders because they feel more in control of their horse and their goals; and are more likely to stay focused and interested in their hobby; and finally, are more likely to succeed in their ambitions and further their expectations. 

Right, now I just need to make a ten minute presentation all about empowering clients …