Control

At the Pony Club conference I attended in February I picked up lots of useful hints and tips. One useful thing that Paul Tapner said, was that when he was young and went off to be taught by top level instructors for months at a time he would put aside everything that he knew and unquestioningly lap up everything he was told. He wouldn’t forget his previous knowledge, but it was filed away until after the training when he would piece together all of his knowledge. When teaching, you want your students to do exactly what you say, not harp back to what a previous adult has told them because it may not be an appropriate tactic or exercise for that day. I took that approach with the conference, writing down everything that was said, regardless of my initial reaction. Later, I could reflect on my notes and use my previous knowledge and experience to develop my own opinion and approach. For example, I liked the fact that when the demo riders (all Pony Clubbers) were told to halt they did immediately. This has safety benefits and shows respect for their instructor, but I didn’t like how it caused them to pull hard on the reins in an attempt to get a direct transition. So I will try a modified approach when I next teach a group of children.

Anyway, one quote which I’ve taken from the beginning of the day is:

It is the coach’s job to control the rider and the rider’s job to control the pony.

Basically, when you learn to ride you learn to control your horse or pony, be it at the lowest level of steering around the edge of an arena, keeping in trot, or at the highest level of controlling the size of circles, pirouettes, degree of lateral movements, and the precise speed of the gaits. At whatever level I’m teaching at, if the rider can perform an exercise or movement competently, they have mastered control at that level.

I taught a new rider this week, only a little girl, with her own pony. She’s had trouble learning to canter, is now feeling nervous and has had a couple of gentle tumbles to boot.

I started her off in walk and trot, assessing her steering and knowledge of school movements, trot diagonals, changesof rein etc, and her pony was very sweet. Forwards but without being sharp, but as we went through the warm up the pony started getting faster and doing a turbo trot. It wasn’t an accelerating movement, just a huge striding gait with a set neck. Then of course, her rider began to get worried. She told me that the reason she didn’t like cantering was because of the speed.

It struck me that the crux of their problem is that the rider doesn’t feel in control of her pony, and therefore lacks confidence and doesn’t feel safe, and the pony (whilst not being naughty) was taking the opportunity to take control of the speed.

I brought them into the middle of the school and put her stirrups up a hole to give her leg a bit more security and so she had something to brace her feet against when we did step two. I then explained to her how to squeeze and release the reins rather than take a static pull so her pony didn’t lean on her hands. Finally, I showed her how to bend her elbows and use her shoulders and upper body to half halt down the reins, and to stabilise her upper body. As with a lot of people, when a pony pulls down the arms go forward, elbows straighten, and upper body tips forward. This is not a strong position, and the pony has the upper hand. By using her upper body to support her rein aids the pony cannot pull her forwards and put her position into jeopardy. Because the pony is not going to like this new, stronger approach from her rider, she will argue for a few strides, which is where the slightly shorter stirrups will help keep her rider in place. I put in some trigger words; “strong tummy”, “squeeze, release” and “elbows” so that I could quickly correct my rider and help her regain control because each phrase meant an action to her.

My rider asked to go on the lunge, so I obliged, if only that knowing I was at the end of the lunge line gave her the confidence to stand her ground with her slowing aids. We talked about how their normal trot was a level five, and a slow trot was a level four, whilst turbo trot was a six. We wanted a five trot, or sometimes a four, the majority of the time.

She set off in trot, and in all fairness to her, the lunge line was slack as I didn’t really need to do anything. The pony went off into a five trot, so we practiced her strong tummy and squeezing rein aids to slow to a four trot. The pony tried to set against her rider but once she realised she wasn’t going to budge, the pony came back nicely to her. We did this transition a couple of times and then the pony decided to turbo trot. But my rider reacted quicker to the acceleration, so nipping it in the bud, and become she gave firmer, more decisive aids, after a few her pony came back nicely. We repeated this on the lunge in both directions and once my rider had earnt her pony’s respect, she got a reaction from her first, milder aid.

As my rider started to feel in control, she grew in confidence and happily agreed to canter on the lunge. Although the pony doesn’t tank off in the canter, she has a big stride and it can feel uncontrolled to someone not yet in sync with her, so I needed to know that my rider felt she could stop her pony at any time. Without hanging off her mouth of course! I ran through the downwards aids and then they cantered. I didn’t have to do anything in the middle, and after a few transitions back to trot my rider began to feel more comfortable about cantering and could start to relax.

To finish the lesson, they went off the lunge and practiced riding with a strong tummy and firm, clear rein aids, using her upper body to support. The pony anticipated cantering, tried to turbo trot, but my rider applied her aids and sat perfectly upright and balanced until her pony came back to her in a few strides. We used transitions within trot to improve control, and within minutes her pony had stopped testing her, instead responding to her first aid.

This meant that my rider could ride a more energetic trot without the speed, and relaxed into her riding. She felt in control.

Of course, they’re going to have to repeat this conversation a few times for the pony to really accept her newly bossy rider, and for this little girl to learn to correct their speed before it reaches turbo level. And for it to become second nature. Having a contingency plan as well as buzz words really help build confidence and make a proactive rider. We might not have got her cantering independently, but I’m sure she will once she feels that she’s in full control.