Confident Cross Country

Last weekend I had a very enjoyable and satisfying cross country lesson. We were focusing on developing the partnership, building their confidence and ultimately overcoming the inevitable refusal on the first attempt to every jump.

Their last session with me hadn’t gone particularly well. The last time I’d seen her cross country she’d been flying round, but unbeknown to me she had had a blip and we had a miscommunication. So once warmed up over some logs, I sent her towards a house. Where they had a problem.

So, knowing the full story, we met up again. After she warmed up, and had a look at the jumps to see what intimidated her, and what looked to be within her comfort zone, I sent them to trot over a plain, natural pheasant feeder style fence. It was inviting, well within their comfort zone. The pony refused.

They approached again in trot, with my rider being a bit more positive, and the pony stopped again. Ultimately, I realised that the pony had lost faith in his rider, who was now losing faith in both herself and him.

I explained that if he refuses, he can’t run away from the jump. He has to stop and breathe before being re-presented. Then I reminded her how her hands and reins channel him straight, preventing him opening a side door and dodging around the jump. But the hand shouldn’t discourage him from going forwards, through the front door. Her legs supported the reins in keeping the side doors firmly shut, but along with the seat they also keep the back door shut too, so he can’t slow down.

With this in mind, and taking sitting trot just before the jump, they were successful. I had them repeat the same jump until they were both approaching it happily, in a positive rhythm, and enjoying it.

The pony loves to jump, but he does need his rider to tell him to jump; you can’t be a total passenger. But equally, he doesn’t like it if you ride too strongly or aggressively to a fence, pushing him out of his rhythm. My rider knows this, but when coupled with cross country nerves, she has the tendency to “panic-smack” him on the shoulder with the whip. I made light of the panic-smack so that it raised a smile when I warned her off doing it, or told her off if she did it. She soon realised the difference between gently supporting him throughout the approach to a fence, compared to being a passenger and then suddenly interfering on the penultimate stride.

So we’d established how she needed to ride towards a jump, and her go-to’s when she got worried. Which means she can plan her approach to fences, remind herself of what not to do, and hopefully then be successful.

Next up, we had to restore her pony’s faith in her as a rider and leader. We moved around the course, jumping new jumps, still within their comfort zone. Initially, we had that first refusal at a new jump, but within a couple of goes my rider was consistent to the fence and responded quicker to her pony’s second thoughts. Which meant that he backed off the fences less and began to trust her.

Then they were flying together, and we linked the jumps together, used some steps, traversed the water, jumped out of, and in the water. The jumps stayed quite straightforward, but they had to link combinations together. I was pleased that the pair were starting to work in synchronisation with each other. This meant that even if my rider got her line slightly wrong, the pony was still committed to jumping, and not thinking how he could slip past the obstacle.

Every so often, they did have a run out. But we knew the reason – poor presentation to the fence, or my rider having a moment and regressing to panic-smacking. But on the whole, there was real improvement. My rider knew how to approach the fence, rode quietly yet positively, and her pony believed in her leadership in choosing a jump, and his ability to clear it.

It was a very rewarding lesson to teach because you could see things clicking into place for each half of the partnership, and how much happier they were at the end. It was progressive, confidence building, and the fact they made my final questions look very straightforward showed just how much progress had been made. Next up is to consolidate this work at another venue, and progress to asking slightly trickier questions, which will leave them in good stead to practice on their own.

Dressage Judging

I’ve been thinking a lot about judging dressage. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about doing in the future, but at the moment I’m quite happy dabbling in my Demi Dressage judging. Which has a scale of 1 to 10, but focusing much more on the teaching side of things – taking the time to comment on how the movement has gone well or how to improve. And the scale isn’t comparable to British Dressage. For example, there’s no way we’re going to be giving out 4.0s and 5.0 to the tiny tots doing their first test. So the marks used tend to be higher than you’d expect, with 9.0s dotted around. But we want to be encouraging, give them a good experience and help them improve both themselves and their pony.

It’s an approach to judging I think should be universal. Aim to give positive and constructive feedback, encourage riders of all ages to improve and have another try at a test. After all, the judge sitting as C doesn’t know their journey. Sure, they may be full of confidence and able to take a tough judge. But they may also be nervous and spent months building up to this moment. It may only be a prelim test, but to them it’s their Olympics.

Phoenix and I have been plugging away at affiliated dressage this summer; being very comfortable and bored in novice, we pushed up to elementary.

Our first elementary test wasn’t an easy one – typical – but we could ride each element and I felt that so long as she didn’t anticipate anything, or spook then we should make a respectable debut. The test itself, she rode everything as I asked. Conservative, and sometimes a little wobbly, but as well as she could. I was pleased.

However, when the scores came through I was really disappointed. Expecting 62% ish, with what I thought to be realistic expectations, we’d scored 57%.

Initially, I was gutted. The score was much lower than I felt we really deserved. Yes it hadn’t taken us out the placings, but it just felt very unfair. Phoenix has quality gaits and usual marks are 6.5 when she’s going in a very average way. Of course, if she jogs the walk or spooks she picks up a 4.0. But that’s fair.

Anyway, I looked at the score sheet for some feedback, and it was very disappointing. Little to no feedback or justification for the low scores. I looked at the rest of the class, and there were more scores than usual in the 50s, so it seemed to be a general theme of the day. I was very frustrated and disappointed, moping around for a couple of days feeling like I’d been wasting my time.

Then I saw a friend who had been volunteering and supporting her friends at the competition. We had a moan, but most importantly, she told me that those competing regularly at elementary had received a score approximately 5% lower than their normal. Which made me feel better, and that another judge would have put us in the low 60s that I’d anticipated for our first time, and it wasn’t a personal vendetta.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the repercussions of judging negatively. Yes, I respect that you need to use a range of marks, but no decent feedback and for the whole class to be scored low is not good for anyone.

It’s not good for the competitor. My first experience of an elementary test did not inspire me to continue trying. I wanted to give up. I lost my confidence and self belief. And I wouldn’t be the only competitor in this position. Leisure riders who spend hours of time and lots of money training towards a test, perhaps it’s at the top of their game, are in it for fun. Reading those score sheets are not fun. These riders, who go to British Dressage competitions regularly actually make up a large proportion of BD membership, and make these show days financially viable. Don’t put them off.

It isn’t a good advert for British Dressage – why would you opt to go to a BD show if you regularly received unfair judging when there are perfectly acceptable Riding Club options, which a more inviting and supportive atmosphere.

It’s not great for the judge. I looked her up and I won’t be going to the BD venue she’s associated with. Nor will I put her name forward to judge at any Riding Club or Pony Club competitions. If I learn she’s judging a class I’m entered in, I’m not sure I’d even bother going. I’d rather forfeit the entry fee. And I definitely will not be looking for lessons or clinics with her, or recommending her to anyone else.

The venue. It’s very local to me, and whilst the venue was great, it will be quite a risk returning there in case she judges again, so the venue has certainly lost out from that perspective.

No one benefits from this situation, and as I said before, it may be the first rung on the BD ladder, but to some this is a massive achievement – training, overcoming nerves, travelling, riding in a new environment, and then learning the test.

Depending on your point of view, fortunately or unfortunately I had already entered another elementary test at another show. Which meant I had to pick myself up and brush ourselves off.

I sent the test video and sheet to my coach, and then ripped up the score sheet. I’d rather put my trust in her to guide me in my next training steps, than dwell on those low numbers. I knew already what our weaker areas were, so started practising those before our next lesson. I also did some fun hacks and jumps to remember why I ride Phoenix.

It was definitely a test of resilience. I really didn’t want to go to our next competition, and had to dig deep to practice. It was also interesting to note that my general confidence with riding and work took a dip. I thought of attending some clinics, but didn’t want to ride in front of anyone unknown. The risk of taking another battering I guess.

But it was fine. We weren’t hugely well prepared, and the second test had some mistakes. But the scores were fair, and justified, and we came home with a first and second. This inspired me a bit more, so I entered another two tests to keep the ball rolling. Last weekend the scores increased further, although there were still some mistakes (like riding canter to halt instead of canter to walk in the simple changes, and me forgetting where the final halt transition was on the centre line and wobbling around), and we had another first and second.

I feel like we’ve established ourselves at elementary level, and it feels the right level of difficulty – not perfect, but challenging enough. So now I’m planning a few weeks of training to consolidate what we’ve learnt from the competitions. And really focus on our weaker points, such as finding and maintaining the balance in medium trot. Then we’ll get out between the white boards again and hopefully have some more successful outings.

Making an Event Uneventful

I spend a lot of time working with riders and horses who have angst over a certain area in their riding. So whilst building their confidence in that area I also need to help them set themselves up for success when they do broach their weak area when riding.

For example, I was helping a girl with her horse who had lost her confidence in canter. There were a couple of issues in that the horse lacked straightness in trot which was exacerbated in canter. The horse also played off her nerves, rushing in the canter and then anticipated the second and third canters so became a bit strong and fast, which then worried my rider so she felt out of control.

We built the foundations in trot over the course of a few lessons and then they had a short canter in a tactical place (short side of the arena) which was successful and then I discussed with my rider how it felt and what she should try to do the next time. Then we worked on the trot to reestablish their balance and control. Once settled and not expecting another canter transition, we did one.

Over the next few lessons we worked on making canter uneventful; so it became normal and just part of their schooling sessions. By incorporating it into a sequence of movements, working on the trot until there was no anticipation and choosing different places to ride the transition will all help my rider to feel most in control and give her a positive canter experience.

Then the canter work becomes less eventful and with it less anxiety or nerves, and then a positive experience for both parties and good habits are created.

It’s the same if a horse anticipates an exercise. One girl I teach has a new horse who gets very excited about poles and jumping. We’re still building their relationship on the flat and over poles, but the second time they ride through an exercise the mare gets very quick in anticipation. So we’ve made the polework boring. They ride over the poles and then do some flatwork – circles, transitions etc – and when the mare isn’t expecting to go over the poles they go again. They’re also changing the approach; turning later or earlier and coming in different gaits. So the focus is shifted from the poles, and they become boring as they’re part of the course, and she doesn’t know when or how they are going to do it. It’s uneventful. But my rider remains in full control so we are not creating a situation where the horse knows they can take control after a line of poles.

One horse I ride can be very opinionated about returning to her stable afterwards. So instead of putting myself in a confrontational situation, which is potentially quite dangerous, I’ve been skirting around the subject. Initially, what the mare did was march back to her stable, and have a tantrum when asked to halt, tossing her head around and dancing about, threatening to rear.

So each time I returned from hacks I’d get off halfway along the drive and walk her in hand back to the yard. I halted her before she was expecting it, and before she began to get antsy. I’d have a calm dismount, run the stirrups up and walk calmly back to her stable. Once this was a calm scenario, I’d add in some halts on the way to the stable. Then I’d dismount closer to the stable, but each time before she started her quick march back.

I also started doing a a similar thing on the way back from the arena; getting a calm dismount closer and closer to the stable yard. I feel we’ve broken the cycle of anxious rushing back to the stable without making a big issue out of it and today she walked calmly all the way to the stable yard. Stood patiently while I dismounted and faffed around, before returning to her stable.

It may have taken longer with this approach but I feel it’s a much calmer environment and will have a lasting positive result than engaging in an argument at the point the horse wants to rush back to her stable. Hopefully new habits are created and the memory of the bad ones erased.

My approach to any issues with both horse or rider is to take a periphery tactic. Look at other behaviours and have physical checks to ensure that they aren’t contributing to the issue, then circumnavigate the problem until you find the best tactic and then make your move. Taking the event out of the, well, event I guess, so it’s as stress free as possible for everyone is vital. After all, if the rider or handler becomes stressed it will feed down to the horse, and if the horse becomes stressed they will worry their owner. Additionally, if any problems do arise it’s very simple to take a step back to redress the horse-rider relationship or to reestablish confidence levels in other areas before trying again.

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!

The Island of Comfort

I have this theory, or metaphor, about comfort zones which I use a lot when working with riders and horses who are not the most confident.

I tend to think of someone’s comfort zone as an island. It may be round, elongated, any shape really, because we know our confidences are not always logical or predictable. At the beginning of a lesson or relationship with a rider or horse of low esteem I aim to get them confident and happy on their island. I explore the perimeter of their island, by chatting about goals, previous experiences, and using exercises to gauge their attitude, actual ability and perceived ability.

Once I begin to get a grasp on what makes them tick, I start to expand this island. Depending on the rider’s personality, learning style, level of nerves or confidence, I lead them to the perimeter, or shore line on the island, and get them to dip their toes in. I aim for them to get their feet wet and slowly the tide goes out, so the island gets bigger as their comfort zone increases.

Often, I set up an exercise which is fairly straightforward initially, and well within their comfort zone. Once horse and rider know where they are going and are riding it well, I start to layer the exercise. Depending on the difference between their perceived ability and actual ability, I will make the exercise appropriately harder. That may be introducing a transition, adding in lateral movements, increasing the gait, increasing the frequency of movements. Because we develop the exercise slowly and steadily, I usually find that my rider achieves much more than they expect they will and finishes their session on a confidence high.

Whilst my aim when working with nervous riders is to push them outside their comfort zones and to improve their confidence levels; I think it’s so important to respect when the rider says “no” or “that’s enough for today”. After all, everyone is different and if they feel they have achieved sufficient for that session, or want to go away, bottling their current feeling of elation and reflect on what they’ve achieved then so be it. After all, often it is better to take two small steps into the shallows and stand there enjoying the view, then take a further step and hit sinking sand.

Besides, I’m nudging my riders out of their comfort zones with my support, not throwing them in the deep end and hoping that they will swim and not sink. Half of the secret in developing someone’s confidence and increasing their island is giving them respect and increasing their self-esteem.

Finding the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

Phoenix`s Progress

Last weekend we took Phoenix on another adventure, but I thought it was time to give everyone an update on her progress.

I’ve still not got Otis’s saddles fitted to her – it’s keeping temptation at bay – so we’ve been continuing with the lunging and ground work.

One of the girls at the yard commented on how much improved her neck is, which caused me to stand back and critique her. Excuse the fact she’s tied (with string) to a gate, it was the only place without shadows where I could get far enough away from her without her following me to get a couple of photos. I think she’s changed a lot, even in the week since I took these. Her neck is muscling up nicely, especially when you look back at when she first arrived. Her barrel seems more toned, perhaps she’s lost a bit of weight, but I feel that she’s carrying herself with better posture. There is also a bit more muscle tone over her hindquarters, although she is definitely still in quite a soft condition. Below is a photo from when she arrived, compared to a fortnight ago.

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In terms of handling her, the yellow snake that sprays water on her legs is no longer scary, she hurries over to me in the field, she seems generally more settled. Whilst she was never difficult to handle, when the yard was busy she used to have her eyes on stalks and be quite wary of other people and horses. On Saturday, I had her in with all the others and she was far more relaxed in her demeanour – after telling the cocky 12hh gelding that he could look but he couldn’t touch, of course! When I did lunge her, she focused much more on her work, despite the distractions. Again, she’s never been silly in the arena due to distractions, but she has definitely lost her focus. So I’m really pleased with how she’s coming along in this respect.

I’m still alternating our lunging sessions, with the Pessoa to help teach her to stretch towards the contact as I feel she will be one to try to tuck behind it, and she’s accepting this really well now, showing a good stretch from the beginning. Other days she’s lunged naked, and I’m finding that she’s in a much better balance in the trot, and has a fabulous, unchanging rhythm to it now. To me, she looks more uphill and the hindquarters are getting more engaged. In the canter transitions, she’s running less and the canter is getting more three beat, and less hurried as she’s developing her balance. Hopefully my friend will get some videos of this over the weekend.

I’ve also been doing poles on a weekly basis with her, which she really enjoys. Friday she kept taking the circle out to the trotting poles that someone had left out! She also did a double on the lunge, which she seemed to really enjoy. I want to try an oxer with her on the weekend, to show her a different shaped fence, and perhaps try some fillers, but only if I feel she won’t back off them because it’s far harder to prevent a run out on the lunge than in the saddle and I don’t want her to get that idea into her head. I also want to introduce some poles on a curve.

Anyway, at home I think she’s doing really well, and I’m very excited to start riding her.

Sunday, we loaded her up and took her to a friend’s yard for a groundwork lesson. She walked straight onto the trailer ramp, which is better than last time, but then she got distracted trying to look at everything on the yard. The Chauffeur ended up giving a little push on her bum and a bossy “walk on” and she loaded. Once there, she stood quietly on the trailer for a few minutes then I led her through the barn of horses, to the arena. We had plenty of time before the lesson, so I walked her around the arena. She took it all in her stride, and just watched the neighbouring horses careering around the field.

The instructor, who was the same as when I went to dressage camp last July, watched me do the yielding on a circle which we’d learnt a few weeks ago. We discussed how the groundwork at the moment is all about getting her moving away calmly from the whip (which either mimics the leg at her girth or is an extension of my arm near her hindquarters) and improving her suppleness. This trainer wasn’t overly worried about her slight asymmetry at the moment; he seemed to think it will even out as I work her evenly on both reins and develop the muscle. I feel she’s more symmetrical than a month ago anyway.

Next, we moved on to walking a square. I’ve done this exercise from the saddle, but it’s trickier on foot! On the straight sides of the square Phoenix had to walk in shoulder in, and at the corners yield her hindquarters around on a larger turn, so a little like turn around the forehand, before walking in shoulder in again. It’s all about getting her to step under with the inside hindleg and learn to balance whilst working laterally. After a couple of attempts on the left rein, the exercise seemed to click, and she mastered it first time on the right rein.

This trainer described her as suspicious, but not in a negative way. She views a question, or new situation, from a back seat position, before processing it and then having a go. So any time that she stops during an exercise it’s because she’s thinking about what to do next, and the best thing is for me to do exactly what I’m doing, and give her a moment to pause, before reassuring her and asking again. He agreed with me that it’s probably the effect of having quite a sheltered life, and as she is exposed to more new environments she’ll become more confident.

Next, we moved onto the beginnings of turn around the haunches, which will help engage her hindquarters and lighten her forehand.

Standing on her right, with her on the right rein, I walked her up the fence line in shoulder in, before walking a half 10m circle and inclining back to the track. We were now on the left rein, with me between Phoenix and the fence, walking in a leg yield position. After a few strides I asked her to take her shoulders around on a left 10m circle, so that her hindquarters were scribing a smaller circle. The bend wasn’t correct, but she was getting the idea of moving her feet correctly. We did this three times on each rein, each time I knew where I needed to be and was quicker at positioning her, and she seemed to understand the exercise more.

Although not an aerobic workout, I think Phoenix was working her little brain cells hard. So we finished the session with some rein back, getting her to step back in more diagonal pairs and to lead more with the hindleg so that she didn’t hollow. She tends to get carried away in rein back, and the strides get bigger, which is when she loses her balance slightly and the diagonal pairing is lost, so it was all about keeping the movement slow. Finally, we asked her for a couple of square halts, before she was showered with polos from the trainer, and got lots of fuss from me!

I felt it was another successful trip out for her, and a couple more tools of the trade for me to practice, as well as giving us something else to play with in the school. I was really impressed with her impeccable behaviour and her attitude towards the exercises. She wasn’t even fazed by the cat sitting in the middle of the arena while we worked!

Realignment

As much as I like seeing my clients go out competing and succeeding, I also love helping horses and riders overcome physical problems and improve their posture, or way of going, so that they get more pleasure from their work and have a longer active life.

I've been working with a new client and her horse, who has a series of back and hock problems. The first couple of lessons were about rebalancing the trot, slowing it down and creating a consistent rhythm. We've started a little bit of suppling work, and established a quiet, still hand. The mare has shown glimpses of starting to work over her back, which is great because it's not manufactured in any way.

However, the mare is crooked through her body which I think will prevent us from improving her suppleness and getting her to release over her back. So a couple of weeks ago I gave my client some homework; to think about and try to develop an awareness of where the hindquarters were in relation to the rest of her body.

The next time I saw my client she had watched her horse under saddle, and clocked the fact her hindquarters were always slightly to the right. When she rode though, it felt normal and it took a while for her to identify the crookedness. Which is understandable; when you only ride one horse you get used to them as being normal, whether it be a crookedness, an unbalanced saddle, or one sided contact. My job is to reeducate both of them so that straight becomes the new normal.

On the left rein, where the quarters sit to the outside, we spent a bit of time feeling how her body moved on straight lines and around corners. On a straight line the hindquarters were slightly to the right, and the head and neck were also turned so they were looking out too – in a classic banana shape.

Dividing the body into two halves, we focused on straightening the hindquarters first. My rider brought her outside leg back behind the girth, keeping her inside leg on the girth, she tried pushing the mare's hindquarters in, so the they followed the tracks of the forelegs. Initially I wanted the reins to support the shoulders and neck, stopping them from wiggling out of their natural position. If the mare tried to fall in, the inside leg prevented this. The mare was very obliging, and soon the majority of the long sides were ridden with her body straight. You could see if was difficult for her, hence why we kept it in walk. Now my rider could feel this straightness, which all helps to improve the mare because she will be able to more quickly correct and straighten her.

Once the straightness on straight lines was achieved, we had a look at how the corners felt. With the mare in right banana, her hindquarters tend to swing out around corners and she doesn't look around the corner with her forehand. Now ideally, we'd get her bent around the left, inside, leg. But Rome wasn't built in a day and because of her previous medical history I want to take it slowly with her. So I just asked my rider to exaggerate her outside leg behind the girth around the corners to hopefully prevent the hindquarters swinging out. We did this a few times and it started to fall into place, so we changed the rein.

On the right rein, the mare has her quarters in, and they almost lead around the corners, so we started off having the inside leg slightly further back on straight lines to align her spine. I was really pleased to see that the straightness work on the other rein was already having an effect because my rider didn't have to correct the hindquarters as much. Just by having the horse straight before a corner, improved her balance around the turn, but now it was time to look at the straightness of the forehand.

We were on the rein that the mare naturally bends to, but where she is a little bit tight through her rib cage her outside shoulder was pointing slightly towards the fence. This is hard to explain. The hindquarters were towards the middle, but the barrel straight, causing the outside shoulder to point towards the fence and then the neck to turn in, towards the direction of movement. The easiest way to improve the suppleness of the barrel, after all the neck is already bending the correct way, is to focus on riding the outside shoulder around the turns. The outside rein works against the neck, and prevents the neck flexing too much, and the outside leg is closer to the girth to influence the shoulder more than the haunches. The inside leg is ready to support the hindquarters if they fall in, and the inside rein indicates the direction of turn, but is a very positive aid to discourage too much flexion in the neck.

After a couple of turns like this, the mare was managing to be better balanced and stayed much straighter on the long sides. My rider could also feel the improvements through her body.

We returned to the left rein, the stiffer one, and this time monitored the effect that straightening the hindquarters had on the forehand. Due to the stiffness through the barrel, as the haunches went straight the left shoulder drifted in. So we forgot about the hindquarters for a moment, and flexed the mare's neck so that she was no longer looking to the outside, and was straighter through her shoulders and neck. Once my rider had learnt to feel and correct this, we started correcting the hindquarters again. For a few minutes we had to straighten the hindquarters, and then correct the forehand as it tried to compensate. Then check the straightness behind the saddle, and then in front again. And so on, until the mare found it easier to work with her spine, from poll to dock, straight.

All of this work was done in walk, and it's something that my client needs to be aware of and quietly correct when hacking and working in the school. Then the trot will start to automatically improve.

We finished the lesson with some trot work. I explained to my rider that I just wanted her to think about and feel the straightness, or lack of, in the trot and that we wouldn't do too much correcting today. However, I think because of this new awareness, my rider automatically corrected, or at least used her aids in a more straightening way, and we ended up trotting some balanced, round circles with the mare bending through her whole body. The straight lines and corners were much improved, and my rider could feel that when she changed the rein there was very little change to her mare's balance. Because she was more symmetrical, she didn't make big changes to her body to go from a left turn to a right turn. We even had a couple of strides where the mare suddenly felt a release of energy and surged forwards with a longer stride and more impulsion, and she also softened and rounded her neck and back for a couple of strides.

I was really pleased with their progress in just half an hour, and although we will need to keep building their muscle memory and strength to work in this straight way, I'm looking forwards to developing their circles and suppleness, as well as seeing the mare learn how easy it is to propel herself forwards when the hindquarters are straight and so the legs can push the body forwards effortlessly. Then I think she will work in self carriage nicely and they'll be able to achieve their aim of going to a local dressage competition.