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.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

A couple of weeks ago I booked a cross country venue for the afternoon, for a variety of clients to come for private, semi private and group lessons. Mostly, it was successful. But one session in particular really challenged me, taking all my teaching skills as well as human and equine skills, to make a success of it.

Unfortunately, I think there was a bit of bad timing involved. This horse can get a bit, err, over excited in company, and a little clingy to other horses. He has a solitary life – more on that another day – because he’s such a playful acrobat in the field that no one wants to risk their horse being injured (understandably). Which means that he gets a bit silly when in the company of others. I put him at the beginning of my day so that we’d only have horses arriving towards the end. We had just started calmly walking him around the field, letting his eyes pop back into his head, when a horse trotted up the road adjacent to the far side of the field. This acrobat immediately started turning himself inside out in an attempt to look at, and go over to the happy hacker. I really think the lesson would have gone totally differently if this horse hadn’t trotted past at the beginning. Lesson learnt for next time – use acoustic ears, even if they don’t match the cross country outfit.

As you can see, it was an explosive start. We managed to get a bit of trotting done on a circle, but his rider soon felt he was unpredictable and she wasn’t happy. Neither was I. I know this horse well, but it did seem like his brain had well and truly fallen out from between his ears, and if we had any chance of recovering the situation, we needed to change tactic.

We got his rider off and lunged the horse. He had a couple of bucks, but actually settled on the lunge. So my rider remounted and we started on the lunge. I reminded her how his insecurities come out in bolshy, thuggish behaviour, and that he’s actually needing lots of reassurance at the moment.

We created a comfort zone on the lunge, where both horse and rider were close to me, their comfort blanket, and felt safe. We moved the circle out a bit, pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone, and moved around the field a bit.

The other thing I know about this horse is that he’s clever. And gets bored easily. And when he’s bored he misbehaves. When we were rehabbing him last winter he was a nightmare during the long reining and walk with short trots ridden work. We introduced poles fairly early to provide a focus, but as soon as we did proper polework, canter and raised poles his behaviour improved dramatically. After all, he had to concentrate on his work.

So we headed towards the smallest steps in the field and I lead them up it. We repeated this a few times, with the pair of them relaxing and getting more confident each time.

We expanded their comfort zone by me holding the lunge rein further away, before unclipping the lunge line and pretend leading them up the step. Slowly I drifted away and they did it a couple of times on their own. The horse was settling because he had something to think about, and as he relaxed so did his rider.

Before they got bored, we went over to the small jumps. I explained that yes, we hadn’t cantered or fully warmed up, but it was a warm day and the jumps titchy so they’d be fine. We started by trotting “on the lunge” then increasingly expanding the circle, moving around the small jumps, changing the rein and asking the horse lots on directional questions.

When my rider felt he was focused on her, and a small jump was nearby, she should trot calmly over it. Ride quietly away and resume circling in trot. The horse can jump, so our attention was on the quality of his behaviour before and after jumps. I talked continuously to my rider to help them both maintain a relaxed air. They popped over a teeny log happily, but when she came back round to do it again he had a moment of mischievousness. So I had her trot past the jump and move slightly away so that he was less sure of our intentions, and she calmly popped him over a different log.

We continued in this vein for the rest of the session. Quiet flat work, circling and figure of eighting before a jump, and then resuming calm flatwork afterwards. They expanded their comfort zone to most of the area around the cluster of small jumps. We had another blip, when he heard a walker passing the other side of the hedge, but because we were doing a more interesting subject, he soon refocused. Which I don’t think we can ask any more with this particular horse.

I was really pleased with how they finished the session; stringing a few jumps together, approaching in canter, and the jumps being the focus of their ride rather than subtly throwing them into the mix.

Unfortunately we ran out of time, as I think if we’d had another half an hour, they’d have progressed to bigger jumps, and linking combinations together, moving around the field. However, I was still very pleased and proud with how they both overcame their start and nerves to have a positive experience, finishing off in a really good mindset to pick up from next time.

Safety Stirrups

I’ve come to realise that I have a couple of hang ups when teaching. One is chin straps being tight enough to stop the children talking. I joke. But they mustn’t be able to get the strap in front of their chin as their hat becomes loose. Or spend their time chewing the end of the strap.

My other hang up is stirrups. I hate seeing kids riding in non safety stirrups. I prefer to see adults using them too, particularly when jumping, but I understand that they can make their own informed decision. Kids though, have far less control at keeping their stirrup iron on the ball of their foot, with the iron often getting close to the ankle. So I’d much rather have the option of the foot coming out sideways in an emergency, particularly when jumping.

The traditional peacock stirrups are my usual go to for kids as they are affordable and as soon as pressure is applied to the outside of the stirrup iron the rubber pops off, freeing the foot. Of course there’s always the odd band with a life of it’s own which is forever springing off.

For adults, there’s the bent leg stirrup irons, which I have on my jump saddle. Stronger because they’ve iron on both sides of the foot, the shape means the foot is able to come out easily. I bent a pair once, whilst hacking Matt out. He spooked, slipped on some mud at the side of the lane and fell onto his side. My leg was between him and the tarmac. I survived with just a bruised foot, but the stirrup iron was bent. When a similar incident happened a month later when I was schooling without stirrups my foot had much more of a squash injury.

Anyway, I digress. Bent leg irons are still popular, and I definitely prefer to see my riders in them as opposed to fillis irons.

You may remember a month or so ago Harry Meade had a fall cross country, which resulted in his foot getting caught and he was dragged along. Regardless of his stirrup irons (I have no idea what stirrups he uses so not passing any judgment) if a rider as good as Harry can get their foot stuck in a stirrup it should serve as a warning to all of us. Use safety stirrups!

The two safety stirrups I’m familiar with have been around for donkeys years. Incidentally, did you know that donkey originally rhymed with monkey when it first came into general usage in the 18th century because it derived from the word dun, describing the colour? I.e. It was dunkey, not donkey.

More digression, apologies. Since hearing about Harry Meade’s accident I’ve done some research into safety stirrups on the market now because technology has moved on in recent years and there’s bound to be more modern alternatives which I’d like to be more informed about.

Modern safety stirrups, such as the Acavello or Equipe, have a release mechanism on the outer strut. When pressure is applied to the outside the strut pops out and the foot is released. The strut can then be clicked back into place. Some makes have magnetic clips, others have springs, others have a silicon outer strut. From what I can tell, it’s important to keep the stirrup irons clean and free of grit as this might cause the mechanism to become stuck. And to monitor the condition of any springs or magnets so they don’t weaken and damage the integrity of the product.

I’ve a couple of clients starting to use Acavello safety stirrups, attracted also by their grippy tread, and they certainly seem to have been extensively tested for safety. Definitely some for me to consider when I need new jump stirrups, or am asked for my opinion.

I think in light of Harry Meade’s accident, it’s worth checking our own stirrups. Do they need new treads, peacock rubbers etc? Are they the best design for our foot? Are they the right size for us? Are they safety stirrups?

Stagefright!

This summer I’ve been taking Phoenix out cross country training regularly, and she’s become much more confident and consistent; popping over 90cm and 1m fences, and taking combinations, steps, ditches and water in her stride. So it was time to take the next step in her training and take her to a hunter trial.

We went schooling to the venue a couple of weeks ago but disappointingly not many fences were out, but at least we got a feel for the venue.

I walked the course on Saturday morning, was happy that the jumps were well within Phoenix’s comfort zone. There was a step, a ditch, water. All of which she’s done numerous times in training, but she does sometimes take her time teetering at the edge of them. The rest of the jumps were mainly logs and houses. There was one jump, a parallel of two logs painted white which I fully expected Phoenix to do a Health and Safety assessment before jumping it. Everything else should be straightforward for her.

Phoenix was on her toes but warmed up calmly with plenty of petrol in the tank. She flew over the warm up fences, really taking me into them but with control afterwards. I didn’t do too much, but just before we went down to the start box we popped over the bigger warm up jump and then kept her “in the zone” as the countdown started. As it was her first experience of going out the start box I wasn’t sure how much warm up she’d need, how much of a breather she needed, and how best to keep her mentally ready for the start whistle.

The first jump was quite close to the start box, parallel to the warm up and number two was just beyond the warm up. There were a lot of refusals and dodgy cat leaps over the first couple of jumps. I think it was because they were close to the warm up, going away from home. Anyway, Phoenix backed right off both jumps, leaping them from a sticky trot. She did the same over the white rails at three (although this fence I was just pleased that she didn’t stop) and then over the log at four.

I felt like Phoenix wasn’t really looking at the jumps, but rather the horses walking to the warm up, the fence judges and their cars.

However, going towards the house at number five, Phoenix was clearly gawping at the decorative feature to the left of the jump, not clocking the jump until too late. She flew over it when I re-presented. After the steps she stopped at every fence until we were pulled up, eliminated. Typically, she actually jumped our final fence on the first attempt, even with a steward waving a red flag at us. We took the walk of shame back to the car park.

I spent our walk home trying to make sense of events, and decided that the best course of action would be to return the next day and school over the flagged course. I was concerned that we’d undone all our cross country training and she’d lost confidence. Then I started wondering if I’d over ridden in my attempt to ride positively, combined with nervous anticipation, and overcooked things. After all, she’s a very sensitive soul.

Ultimately, I felt that Phoenix had been overwhelmed by the competition environment – she was definitely paying a lot of attention to what was going on outside of the roped area, and looking at the jumps of every height. Which didn’t leave a lot of brain power to focus on the jumps.

Today, we returned and the course was like the Marie Celeste with not a single soul there. Eerily, I kept to the competition concept, popping two warm up fences and then going down to the start box.

Phoenix flew around the course! Confident over the first six, peering down the step before cautiously hopping off. She felt so much more focused on the course. She insisted on walking through the water, and I let her have a walk break before picking her back up for the rest of the course, which she hadn’t done yesterday. This was quite a good test because it was more of the unseen, competition environment. Which she passed easily. She stopped to look at the ditch momentarily, but skipped over comfortably once she’d assessed it. Phoenix did stop at the last fence, but it was a stop of tiredness rather than not wanting to do the jump. She did it on the second attempt and then we walked home. I think Saturday had taken more out of her physically and mentally.

I know it wasn’t a clear round, but she proved to me today that she is capable, and is back to being confident over solid fences. She just needs more experience in the competition environment so she learns to focus on the jumps, rather than the wider picture. We’ll continue with arena cross country through the winter and then try to get some competition experience under her belt.

Although this weekend was disappointing in the fact that she is more than capable of getting round, I am relieved that she suffered a minimal dent to her confidence in her own ability and in me on Saturday, and I have a clearer idea of the next stage in her training – performing to a crowd!

Keeping the Momentum Going

This year has been very stop start for a number of reasons, mimicking the stop-start of Phoenix’s cross country training the last couple of years.

I was determined this spring to improve Phoenix’s cross country CV with regular training outings and her competitive debut. Covid had other ideas, but since being released from lockdown I’ve made a concertive effort to get her out and about.

We went to an arena cross country lesson in June, which was full of suspicious health and safety checks at each fence before flying them the second time. She wants to do it for me; but equally wants to make sure she’s read the question thoroughly and risk assessed. Then I took her to a local schooling venue with a friend and had fewer stops, but upon reflection, I realised that I was starting to expect the first stop, and at times froze and became passive on the approach. No wonder she was suspicious of the jumps!

I gave myself a kick up the bum and went to another venue a few weeks later with another friend. Again, better. I actually rode positively to the fences and Phoenix took more of it in her stride. Interestingly, ditches and steps were becoming easy and Phoenix was no longer spending minutes tottering on the edge before committing to navigating the obstacle. Water was also becoming less of an issue, with her trotting through happily. Canter was still out of her comfort zone, but I wasn’t overly concerned about this as she just hadn’t quite worked out how to move through water. Towards the end of this session I felt like I was starting to jump out of a cross country canter rather than showjumping into each fence.

We were making steady progress, but when you’re on your own it’s very easy to sit within your comfort zone, and work your way up to doing a jump. Which of course you can’t do at a competition. Realistically, I needed to start looking at going to a competition. But I’m reluctant when there’s such a high risk of either a cricket score or being disqualified.

Next up, was riding club camp. Where we had a good cross country session, where Phoenix had jumped some meaty fences and grew in confidence. I of course had some tips to take away – mainly that I shouldn’t hesitate with the leg or hold back with the hands. Even if my brain was reluctant to commit until Phoenix did! Keeping my upper body back would save me.

What I actually realised this summer is that the motivation to go cross country schooling comes from making it a social event. Yes of course, we aren’t supposed to socialise currently but there’s less than 6 of us and we can’t get much closer than two metres whilst mounted, so we’re as low risk as you come. Going schooling with someone, who doesn’t have to be working on the same trajectory as you, gives you some support. And encouragement to challenge yourself with a slightly bigger obstacle, or trickier line. They can provide a lead if needed, or you can discuss and feedback on performance and how to improve. I think ultimately, that the attraction of going out with friends is the ulterior motive for getting out and about.

So when a friend spoke about forming a WhatsApp group of those who want to keep up the momentum of cross country schooling during winter, I realised that whilst I rarely feel a desire to go cross country in the winter, it’s exactly what Phoenix and I need. I need to keep the ball rolling with her cross country so we don’t go back to square one next spring. And there’s no reason to regress with so many arena cross country venues available to hire.

Today we had our first cross country club lesson. We’re all at different levels, but as I joked with our instructor “a good coach can manage several different levels of abilities within the same lesson”. Which doesn’t make it any easier! Phoenix was awesome. She took on the various step and jump combinations; skipped over the ditches; took on some trickier lines and flew over the couple of BE100 fences I aimed her for. I need to push with the height as it’s nearing the edge of my comfort zone as well as Phoenix’s. But equally I don’t want to just face Phoenix at huge meaty jumps as she could easily tire, make a mistake and lose confidence. But adding in the odd fence challenges us both. I felt she tackled these more easily than only a fortnight ago at camp. My job, when approaching these, is to keep riding forwards, straight, and keep my body balanced so I don’t inhibit Phoenix at all. She can get a little deep if necessary, but ultimately she is able to work the question out herself.

In the last third of the lesson we treated it as a competition by stringing some fences that we hadn’t yet jumped, including the water complex, so mimicking the competition environment. Overall, I was pleased. We stopped at the second fence, but I was slightly worried about it and I didn’t feel that Phoenix had quite gotten into her stride, still with her mind on her group of friends behind us. But she did it the second time and then flew over the next few questions, albeit feeling slightly tired by now. However, she stopped at the simple tyres just before the water. Once over it, she cantered boldly through the water. The next fences were great, but she stopped at the other jump going into the water, and then she ran out of steam at the final one before jumping it second time around.

On paper, it doesn’t sound great, but I think it was tiredness kicking in for the last fence, partly my fault for the first one, and the distraction of the water just behind the jump which caused her to have a closer inspection of them prior to jumping the other two. So after a long breather, I finished our session by jumping both jumps into water and the final hanging log. She cleared them all easily this time, so I felt we’d consolidated the subject of jumping towards water.

Overall, however, I was really pleased with Phoenix’s development across country, feeling that the stops we have are fewer, and more excusable. Plus, once she’s assessed, she is very willing to take on the challenge, and has learnt the lesson.

We’re going to try to have monthly outings to practice our cross country, either in an arena or out in the open when possible, using our group to encourage and support each other, as well as motivating us in the depths of winter. It has definitely motivated me to look at some hunter trials this autumn, and hopeful for our one day event debut next year.

I think it’s easy to underestimate the benefits of a supportive social circle, even if you are focused and ambitious, with our hectic lives, but actually it’s your horsey friends who help you achieve your dreams, no matter how diverse the dreams are within a friendship.

So if you’re struggling to find the motivation to develop your riding definitely find some friends with similar ambitions to egg each other on. We’re all on different journeys, but we can all help each other reach our destinations.

Phoenix and Cross Country

Phoenix’s cross country education has been a bit stop-start due to one thing and another. Her first summer with me I didn’t feel she was ready to go cross country schooling and the ground was rock hard. The second summer she was bolting in canter in the spring so with cracks in our relationship and very hard grouuhnd I only got her out a couple of times over solid fences. My plan of getting her over solid fences last autumn and this spring were scuppered with storms and covid respectively.

Anyway, now hopefully we’re back to some normality, I’m hoping to further her education across country over the next three months.

So how do you plan a progressive cross country session? You don’t want to out face a green horse, but equally they need to learn new skills and build confidence. It’s a skill I’m working on from both a rider and a teaching perspective, so I can develop inexperienced riders on the cross country as well as give inexperienced horses valuable, positive training.

I use the warm up as time to play around with the gears of the trot and canter, getting the horse responsive to the aids, checking the steering, and assessing how the horse feels on the terrain. Are they confident under foot, slipping, or finding it hard to keep their balance down hill. Then I focus on any weak areas for the rest of the warm up. With a green horse I’ll ride them near the jumps, circling round them and settling them so their eyes aren’t out on stalks. Last weekend when I took Phoenix out cross country schooling she was much less “looky” at all the jumps during our warm up, settling into a rhythm immediately and being attentive to my aids.

If a horse hasn’t seen water then I won’t do this, but I usually incorporate water into the warm up; trotting and cantering through the water. This helps teach a horse that water is no big deal, and for the greener horse it reminds them of the water question.

Once warmed up I find an inviting, plain jump well within their comfort zone height wise and then jump that a few times until the horse settles into cross country mode. The first jump should be done from a showjumping perspective; upright, three point position and a balanced, controlled canter. Just in case the horse hasn’t got the memo about it being cross country, and has a stop, or thinks twice about it. Last week Phoenix hadn’t gotten the cross country memo and was very green over the first few jumps with me ending up by her ears a couple of times! With an inexperienced horse, it is best to approach in the three point position as you are more secure with any sticky moments or awkward leaps over the jump. Approaching in a steadier canter gives the horse more time to assess and process the jump, which hopefully leads to better understanding by them and they grow in confidence.

I start to string some straightforward jumps together, starting to open up into a cross country canter and two point position as the jumps become more familiar, but revert to the showjumping approach over new, fences which might cause the horse to back off. I find it best with green horses to get them started with the first fences so that they find their rhythm and then add in a couple of new fences. Each subsequent “course” uses jumps the horse has already jumped before introducing new jumps, as they’re more likely to pop straight over because they’re travelling forwards and in “the zone”.

After riding a few courses, I then do something less physically challenging for the horse, but still mentally stimulating. I’ll go and play at the steps. We walk up and down some steps, taking it steadily so that the horse has the opportunity to study and understand the question. For some reason, steps seem to puzzle Phoenix so I take it back to basics each schooling session and give her plenty of time to process the steps. Each time it’s taking her less time to work out where her legs go and how. By walking the steps you give a horse time to look at, process and understand the situation. This means that they will be confident in similar situations because they know the correct response. Whilst this takes time and patience, in the long run you’ll never be caught out with a sudden stop or hesitation.

I develop the step work so that the horse is trotting up and down them, linking it in with a course, and then cantering them when they feel bold and confident.

Next is another short course, using familiar jumps as well as posing new questions and perhaps linking in the water to remind the horse what it is. Before I find another technical challenge for them. Of course, this assumes that they horse has coped well with everything so far.

With ditches, I use the same approach of walking over them a few times, before trotting and then linking jumps in and cantering over them. The idea is to go as far as the horse is comfortable. So if walking over a ditch is enough of a drama for today then that’s fine. Jumps can be integrated, but the ditch can still be walked over.

By then I usually feel that both horse and rider are reaching the limits of their learning capacity for the session, but if I have time then I will finish with one or two courses which revise what they have learnt over the session. The jumps don’t have to be the biggest they’ve jumped all day, or new questions, but a simple course popping through the water, over the ditch and steps will mimic a cross country course and prove a horse’s understanding and confidence to finish on a very positive note.

The next time I go out with them I fully expect to have to revise the technical elements, but the plan is to give them such a positive, confidence building experience that they come out next time bolder and less looky. So we start from stage 2 rather than stage 1. And progress through the stages quicker, with only a short revision session, and then we can build on the size and technicality of the lines between fences and make that step from just cantering through water to jumping into or out of water and so on.

Breaking Up A Course

I was working with a young rider and her fairly new pony a couple of weeks ago on riding in a open field. They’ve spent lockdown getting to know each other thoroughly, but the pony came with the warning that he got very excited in open fields so now it was time to broach the subject.

With her parents she’s walked around their riding field and it’s become boring for her pony so he doesn’t get excited when on his own. They’ve popped over the odd log but the rider doesn’t feel she can control him when stringing jumps together, or approaching jumps in more than a very steady trot, and the pony is known to get faster and faster throughout a cross country course.

I took the pair out into the riding field and started by getting my young rider to walk some school shapes around the logs, trees, bushes and other obstacles. The idea being to fill her pony’s brain with where they were going next rather than the speed they were travelling at. We made a plan of a sequence of movements so my rider could plan her route and didn’t have to think on the spot, which is quite difficult when you’re ten years old.

Once they were riding a calm, steady walk meandering around our corner of the field we moved up to trot. The circles and serpentines helped keep a steady rhythm with my rider feeling in control. With trot established and them both warmed up, I got my rider to adjust her circle so that a little log just happened to be in their way. They trotted over the log, which wasn’t really big enough for the pony to jump, and then carried on round their circle. No big deal. The idea being that the jump was part of their flatwork.

We continued in this vein, over a couple of tiny logs using circles on both reins, progressing from trot to canter. As soon as the pony started to get excited towards a log, the circle my rider was on changed line so that they avoided the jump. It was important that my rider wasn’t pulling out of the jump so teaching her pony to refuse, but she was riding a different line to remain in control.

We worked out way around the field over different logs, using circles before and after to keep the pony in a controlled rhythm without stopping and starting all the time.

With my rider growing in confidence, I started to link some logs together and get her moving around the field much more. However, instead of just telling her a course – so she had a route to take – I gave her movements to do between the jumps. She started with a circle before popping over the first log, and then rode a circle in either direction as she travelled to the second log. She could ride as many circles as she wanted to feel in control before jumping the second log. Between the second and third log, I told her to ride a transition. From canter to trot, and then back into canter. My theory was that if there’s a question before and after every jump it takes the pony’s focus away from jumping and he doesn’t anticipate that the next obstacle he sees is what he’s jumping.

We built the pair up to jumping longer courses of small logs around the field, linking a couple of jumps without the questions in between, ensuring my rider could bring her pony back after each long stretch. At key points on their course she had to ask him a big question to re-establish her authority, so breaking the course up into bitesize chunks.

I think if they continue schooling in this manner, making the jumps progressively bigger and more technical, but with questions between jumps, then when they need to jump a course, at a hunter trial or something, the pony will be expecting to do something between jumps so should not accelerate to the same extent that he used to. Additionally, my rider can ride a transition which won’t incur 20 penalties; possibly gain a couple of time penalties but I’d rather time penalties than them going dangerously fast. I think this is the way forwards for this pair at the moment and as their relationship grows they can start to link fences together straight with ease because they maintain a steady yet forwards rhythm rather than starting and stopping for each jump.

Adaptability

I attended a webinar last week – attended is quite a strong word considering I was sat in my pyjamas on the sofa – but anyway, I listened to a talk about different arena surfaces and the risk of injury. The take home message was that it doesn’t matter hugely on your arena surface so long as it is consistent throughout as your horse will adapt to it (of course extremes of surfaces will cause injuries, but don’t feel you have to have the same surface from the Olympics), and to train on a variety of surfaces to make your horse adaptable so they perform to the same level regardless of the surface they are on (e.g. a different surface at a competition compared to at home).

This made interesting listening, and actually linked well to something I discussed with a client last week about her horse’s adaptability to the terrain.

Before lockdown we’d worked a lot on her horse maintaining his balance when cantering before and after fences as he can get a bit lumbering and onto the forehand, causing him to get too close and trip over the jumps. She’s got the feel for the right balance that he needs on the approach to jumps, and can subtly adjust him – i.e. rebalancing without putting on the brakes when the surface and terrain is consistent and therefore they’re jumping out of a good rhythm, with more successful, confident building jumps.

Taking this out into the open field brought a new level of adaptability for this horse. As they warmed up, you could see how difficult it was for her horse to adjust his body weight to keep his balance going uphill then downhill. It seems to take him several strides to adjust and he needs his hand holding by his rider. This may well improve as he gets more practice in, but to be honest, I think some horses are just more surefooted and quick thinking to adjust their balance in response to the terrain so need less assistance from their rider. His rider is always likely to need to help him balance, but it will become more autonomic as they do more.

Firstly we discussed, and put into practice, keeping her horse balanced as they cantered around the field, using both a two point and three point seat. A two point, or light seat, helps a horse move over their back and often horses travel faster because of the increased freedom. But it is harder to discreetly rebalance a horse without your seat in contact with the saddle and they can get long and onto the forehand if they find that the easiest way to travel. Travelling uphill or in the long spaces between fences she could take light seat, but going downhill and before jumps she needed to be in a three point position to help keep him off his forehand and in an uphill canter ready for the jump.

Throughout our session, my rider got more in tune with her horse’s balance and started to correct him before he lost his balance, which makes a jumping round much more fluid. She was surprised at how much help her horse needed to keep his balance and how much attention she had to pay to this factor. When we discussed jumps and linking them together we talked not only of the jump, but of the terrain before and after. I also noticed how she started to use the grey area between 2 point and 3 point positions to rebalance as we got further into the session. For example, after an open, uphill canter stretch she went from her two point position to still hovering her seat out the saddle but bringing her upper body up and back slightly which rebalanced him sufficiently for the change in terrain as it plateaued.

We spent the session jumping some straightforward cross country fences, focusing on setting the canter up and evaluating the effect of the terrain on the approach to the jump. The trickiest combination for this pair is jumping downhill because this horse needs a lot of help from his rider in order to keep his balance in the canter. If he gets onto his forehand and loses energy then he will bury himself into the base of the jump and struggle to clear it.

I had the pair jumping several short courses of jumps on the flat or uphill, and travelling over different inclines and declines between jumps. As we went through the lesson their courses became much more balanced and fluid, with smoother jumps so they both grew in confidence. Their final course had them cantering down a little valley and then jumping a fence on the uphill. They managed this question really well; if the canter fell apart on the downhill they’d struggle to regroup in time for the jump. Next time, we’ll progress to jumping downhill. As my rider gets more in tune with feeling slight changes in her horse’s canter and subtly changes her position to help him, and as he gets more practiced at adapting to different terrains, they will find it easier to ride a flowing, confident, successful cross country course. Which is my aim!

A Sustainable Gait

Once you’ve mastered control of the basic gaits, things get harder and you have to master a range of gears in each gait. Furthermore, your horse has to develop the strength, balance and stamina to work in each gear. This was illustrated perfectly at the Pony Club Conference a couple of weeks ago.

The demo riders were riding a simulated cross country exercise; jumping a triple bar at speed to imitate jumping a simple cross country fence, before making a turn and jumping two bounce fences from a slower canter.

The first rider galloped at the triple bar, popping it easily, and slowed down a bit for the bounce, but jumped it a bit too fast really and it was only her pony’s deftness which got them over the two elements. She rode the exercise again, this time circling between the two questions until she’d collected the canter sufficiently. It took her a few circles but she really collected the canter up. She approached the bounce, but her pony refused.

The reason? Her new collected canter wasn’t sustainable. He could collect that much on the flat, but he didn’t have the impulsion and strength to jump from this canter. She rode the exercise again, and circled until she got the collection. Then she opened up the canter slightly, relaxing so that she moved up half a gear. The pony jumped the bounce beautifully. Because the canter was sustainable and the balance between collection and impulsion was right for jumping.

I thought it was a brilliant example of how the gears to your canter will vary as to whether you’re on the flat or jumping, and in relation to your horse’s level of training. For example, a horse who works at prelim level may be able to collect their canter slightly, but will struggle to have the energy and balance to jump from that slightly collected canter, whereas an elementary level horse will be able to sustain that slightly collected canter for longer and with less effort, so will be able to jump easily out of it.

I’ve already mentioned the word “sustainable” to some clients, but I think it’s a worthwhile term to bring into every day conversation. It can be a measure of development too because a canter gear will feel more sustainable as the horse improves their balance, suppleness and impulsion. We can talk about shortening or lengthening strides; feeling if the horse stays in balance, and also how long they can remain in this balance. A horse learning how to collect may only sustain collection for a couple of strides whereas a more established horse will maintain the collection for a full circuit of the arena. So add “sustainable” to your equine dictionary, and start taking it into consideration when you reflect on your horse’s work.

Kids Going Cross Country

I taught a cross country clinic for Pony Club last weekend, aimed at the younger, less experienced members. They all enjoyed themselves, and after a large glass of wine that evening, I decided that I had too.

I’ll leave out the thrills and spills, but I wanted to discuss how I warmed them up as safely as possible.

In my first group most of them were nervous. I didn’t know many of the riders, and some of the ponies were new or had been cheeky in the past. My second group was more confident but, as I’ll tell you later, the ponies were more mischievous!

I started the group walking in a ride in a fairly large square to assess that the ponies. None were jogging or tossing their head in anticipation, so whilst the ride was walking up the hill I asked them to trot on. I hoped that any keen ponies would soon slow down with the extra effort of the hill. Thankfully they all trotted sensibly around, so I kept them all trotting until my riders visibly relaxed and the ponies definitely lost any cheeky spark.

Next, I needed to ensure the kids would be safe when we moved onto jumping a course. Ponies are herd animals by instinct and I didn’t want any to return to the ride at speed. One little rider in particular had been bolted with the last time she’d gone cross country so I needed to build her confidence up. Another rider had a new pony so we didn’t have a clue how he would behave, so I needed to quietly test him without giving him an excuse to fail the tests.

Keeping the ride in a group at the bottom of the hill, I sent them one at a time to trot up the hill, away from the ride, walk around a jump and walk back. This was to establish the fact that the ponies don’t return to their friends quickly, and that they left their friends at the speed requested by their rider. It also helped to build the riders’ confidence and self-belief in themselves. The pony who had bolted previously tried to jog on the way home, but his rider sat tall and positively half halted to stay in control. She became more aware of her pony quickening so reacted before he actually got faster.

Once they’d all done this exercise a few times and the ponies weren’t expecting to hurry home, we stepped it up. They cantered up the hill and then walked back to the others. Once I was sure of their control, they practised their cross country position, and by this time the ponies understood the rules of walking calmly home and were less fizzy. I don’t like to rush incorporating the light seat because it reduces a child’s control because they do not have their weight in the saddle to anchor them in when they apply a rein aid so a pony is more likely to put their head down and ignore their rider.

I did a very similar exercise with the next group, but one pony was nappy. He would gallop back to his friends, even halfway round a course! So I sent one rider on a calm pony away and asked her to wait at the far point. Then I sent off the nappy pony, and the two walked back together. The pony napped due to anxiety and I needed to manage the situation so my rider was safe and this kept everyone happy. The girl on the calm pony felt special because she had been given a particular job, so she was more than happy to oblige.

We started jumping in a similar way. The first jump, a simple, plain log, was jumped away from the ride, and then the children had to ride forwards to walk before returning calmly to the ride.

For the majority of the lessons I did courses which went away from the ride to encourage the riders to return steadily, and to ensure they could keep an energetic yet steady canter. Towards the end I started putting in jumps which went past the ride, and then a couple of jumps towards them. I still insisted that the riders pulled up and rejoined in walk.

It doesn’t always go to plan, but I find this technique for warming up horses and riders safest for taking the edge off excited horses, relaxing nervous riders, and establishing ground rules, which means their jumping becomes more enjoyable for both parties.