The Way The Mane Lies

I read a really interesting article about what the lay of the mane tells you about a horse’s body.

In a nutshell, a foal is curled inside the womb either to the left or to the right. The side they curl to is their naturally more bendy side before undergoing training (as don’t forget that a lot of training focuses on straightness) and this is also the way their mane falls. The mane, so long as it’s not trained to lay on the offside because it’s more traditional, falls to the side the horse bends more easily to, even over bending in some instances. It’s to do with muscle fascia, but I’m afraid that’s getting far too complicated for my little brain to comprehend so for that information I’d recommend asking a physio or Google.

I had never heard of this before, having just presumed horses who’s manes fell left were the left handers of the equine world. Phoenix’s mane falls left and I hadn’t even made the connection between her softer left rein and more resistant right rein.

After reading this article, which you can find here I started to pay attention to all the horses I see and their manes. Of course my observations are limited by the fact that we still subconsciously lay the mane right, and neck rugs compound this laying, so like a lot of lefties, left lay manes can often pass as right lay manes. This limits my observations a bit, but when grooming Phoenix s couple of weeks ago I had a light bulb moment.

She doesn’t wear a rug at the moment and her mane has gone from a very definite left lay, to sitting either left or right with minimal effort and if anything going upright or favouring lying to the right. It’s almost as though her mane has been blow dried to increase the volume by encouraging the roots to stand up. Ladies, you’ll understand what I mean. Before it was very flat to her crest. Thinking about her current way of going, she is much straighter and stronger so presumably the improvement in her muscle tone and strength is causing her mane to change it’s lay. It will be interesting to see whether it stays right, upright, or reverts left as she continues to develop.

I asked a friend who’s a physiotherapist for her opinion on mane lay. Apparently it’s quite common for a young horse’s mane to switch sides as they go through their training and favour one bend more than the other. Additionally, sometimes half the mane flips sides, which indicates neck dysfunction, and the muscles working incorrectly.

In this not particularly brilliant photo of Phoenix you can see that her mane is very much undecided which way it wants to go, and you can see the shorter part of her mane at the bottom goes fairly straight up.

I would say that observing the way the mane lies is not a foolproof way of identifying their supple side, because heavy breeds offen have so much mane it has to part down the middle, and rugs with necks encourage the mane onto one side or the other, and some people put a lot of effort into training the mane onto the off side. However, during a schooling session the mane will usually try to revert to it’s natural lay, as I observed whilst teaching last night. But having an understanding for the mane lay and the possible effect on the horse’s way of going, hopefully you can use your observations to successfully feed back into your training plan.

Exercise Boots

Otis wore protective boots for all forms of exercise, but in the last couple of years I’ve done a complete U-turn on my approach to leg protection.

It started when I was doing in hand and lunging work with Phoenix whilst heavily pregnant. She was barefoot and a clean mover and not in hard work. Plus I could hardly bend down to put boots on her. Then I just progressed to riding without brushing boots.

I put them on when we jump or go cross country, but as she’s still barefoot and shows no signs of knocking herself I haven’t used boots or bandages for the majority of her work.

My reason for moving away from leg protection was mainly the research that was coming to light about the problems caused by boots warming up tendons and having a negative effect on their tensile strength.

And I was quite happy with this simpler approach to riding, and confident in my reasoning. Until recently.

During lockdown Phoenix has progressed in her flatwork and is now working on collection, half pass in trot and canter, walk pirouettes, as well as doing direct transitions as the norm. I’ve recently started doubting my logic. But it’s a minefield nowadays trying to find the right leg protection.

The big downside to leg protection is that it heats up the legs so reduces rge functionality of the tendons. So boots need to be as lightweight and breathable as possible. However, the lighter the material, the less protection the boots will provide.

I wrestled with the pros and cons for each argument but finally decided that I’d never forgive myself if Phoenix knocked herself whilst dancing, causing a wound that would have been protected by lightweight boots.

The expert guidance on the subject of leg protection now is that they should only be on for the minimal length of time, should be as breathable as possible, and the legs should be cooled as quickly as possible after work. I also learnt a lot about the type of boots. A lot of dressage wraps are marketed as “supportive” but in reality, they offer very little support. And you don’t necessarily want support because if you restrict the movement of the fetlock the forces are transmitted to another joint in the leg, which could cause more injury. In terms of protection, boots either provide an armour like protection to stop injury from sharp objects, and others dissipate shock forces of a strike or impact. No boot does both forms of protection. For my situation, I want softer boots which won’t stop wounds from sharp objects but will reduce the effect of a knock as Phoenix is learning to dance Valegro style.

I’m still very much on the fence about using leg protection on a daily basis, because it isn’t a straightforward decision as we were taught a decade ago, but owners and riders have to weigh up the benefits of providing protection with the effect of heating up and weakening the tendons. And once your decision is made there is the challenge of finding the boot which provides a sufficient level of the correct type of protection whilst reducing the heating effect.

Continued Professional Development

As part of my accreditation as a BHS and PC coach I have to attend CPD days annually. They can often be a pain because of the effort involved in rescheduling my diary, travelling to the venue, and finding an appealing course at the right time in the right place which actually counts as a CPD course.

I was up to date with all my certificates, so thankfully won’t be affected by the cancellations surrounding lockdown, but I have seen a huge rise in webinars and online lectures this spring. With the extra time I have, I’ve been quite busy expanding my professional knowledge.

Ros Canter and Caroline Moore did a three session lecture over the course of a fortnight which was very reasonably priced and had the attraction that the lectures were recorded so I could “catch up” during the week. They were fascinating, and really useful – some clients have already started to see the exercises popping up in lessons. It was a combination of a PowerPoint, a series of YouTube video clips, and the experts discussing the subject. I’ve actually still got the last one to finish owing to a broken laptop, so I’m looking forwards to catching up on that soon. There is also a sports psychology talk for me to catch up on as well when I have a functioning laptop.

I’ve also just completed a mental health course, which was very straight forward to complete and meant I could pick it up and put it down easily around toddler challenges. This course was about helping coaches know how to help people with mental health problems, remove the stigma, and make our sport more accessible to them. As a coach, I often find the first few minutes of a lesson is a client unloading their woes so that they can forget about it for an hour and get the best out of their time with me. And now I have a few more tools in my toolkit to help if anything more serious than a “I got stuck behind a tractor which made me late so I haven’t groomed his tail” moan.

I’ve got a talk tomorrow night about arena surfaces which will be interesting, plus my riding club is organising an online rider biomechanics talk – a personal favourite subject of mine.

I don’t want to overload my brain with too many talks, but I really like how equestrians are embracing virtual education and are offering all these courses for horse owners and professionals. Whilst it means that not all subjects can be covered, it definitely opens up opportunities for us to learn whilst social restrictions are in place.

With the BHS requiring annual CPD days, a more flexible arrangement of alternating between courses which you attend in person, and online courses totalling sufficient hours, would definitely give coaches more ability to learn about the subjects which interest them as well as the ability to fit training around their busy working lives.

I hope that now we have the ball rolling with virtual lectures they continue to be offered after lockdown and social distancing is reduced. After all, more accessible education can only benefit our horses. It will also enable us to listen to a wider range of experts, perhaps who are out of our area or who do very exclusive talks.

The Left Hand Knowing What The Right Hand Is Doing

I discussed this subject with a teenage client last week as we focus on improving her pony’s straightness and her rein contact.

I asked her if she was aware of the jobs of the inside and outside hand, and if she felt that her hands were as good as each other at each job.

She knew that the outside rein is a stabilising rein, it needs to be steady and consistent to prevent the horse falling in, losing vertical balance, or bending too much through the neck. The inside rein is used to flex the horse and indicate the direction of movement. As a result, the inside rein is more mobile (not to the extent of dancing around) but not quite so steadfast as the outside rein.

With my rider understanding the concept of the different roles of the inside and outside rein, I asked her to evaluate her rein contact and hands in each direction. Did her right hand find it easier to be the outside rein than the inside? Did her left hand provide a better outside rein contact than the left?

She correctly identified that her right rein was a better outside contact than her left hand as it stayed steady without hanging off the mouth. Her left hand found it easier to soften her pony into a left bend. In this case, the more dextrous hand was her writing hand, but this isn’t always the case. In my observations, I’ve noticed that everyone has a stabilising hand, which is used for example to hold a nail, and everyone has a hand which is more adept at finer movements – the one which uses the hammer. Perhaps that isn’t the best description. The stabilising hand holds the paper still whilst the motor hand draws the picture – how’s that? Most of the time the motor hand is your dominant hand, but it’s not a golden rule.

Once we’d established the different jobs of the outside and inside rein, we talked about how to improve the hands. I asked my rider if she felt there was an even weight in both hands, or if one was always heavier. A lot of riders carry more weight in their stabilising hand, which when it is the inside rein means that the horse is more likely to motorbike around turns and lean in. So I had my rider assess the weight in her hands on both reins to see if one was significantly more. Her right hand was slightly heavier, but not a huge amount so on the right rein I just kept reminding her to balance out the feel in her hands – taking more weight with the left hand and lightening the right. This immediately began to help create a better outside rein contact on the right rein as the left hand became more stable.

I kept the focus on the right rein (clockwise around the school); keeping the left hand more stable and consistent as the outside aid, and then as I don’t want the right hand to suddenly start leaping around we mainly worked on lightening the wrist, keeping the weight of the arm in the slightly more bent elbow. As my rider’s hands became better at each job and the weight more even between left and right, her pony started to move straighter, staying more balanced on turns and giving more of a uniform bend throughout his body. She could then add in the inside leg aid to improve his inside hind leg engagement and balance.

With her new knowledge and understanding of the job of the inside and outside reins, my rider found it easier to change their bend when we started to work on serpentines and figures of eight. Her pony then kept his balance during changes of rein and became more symmetrical in his way of going because he was giving more bend on his stiffer rein and less bend on his hollow side.

With ambidextrous hands a rider is more able to ride evenly in both directions, and with a greater understanding of the purpose of the inside and outside rein the horse can be more easily corrected in their way of going. A rider can balance the horse between leg, seat and hand more subtly and effectively when a rider has more understanding and control over their rein aids.When learning lateral work, greater control over the reins as individuals means more correct movements will be ridden because the horse can be set up on the correct bend and it can be maintained whilst moving sideways.

Planning Your Polework

With the majority of us not jumping at the moment and needing ideas to entertain us and our four legged friends more of us are looking at polework exercises.

Polework exercises that are being shared on social media are becoming increasingly complex and imaginative. I’m not against them in any way, but I think it’s important that riders don’t blindly copy the layouts, and take the time to plan, prepare and focus on your aims so that they don’t run into problems.

With any pole work layouts there are one or more themes:

  • Straightness
  • Accuracy
  • Cadence
  • Rhythm
  • Engagement of topline muscles

Before deciding on the pole layout you want to use, have a think about why you’re wanting to use the poles. What part of your horse’s way of going are you looking to develop?

It might be that a simpler pole layout is just as effective as a complex one.

If you are focusing on your horse’s weakest area, or your horse is weak or green, it might be better to only focus on one theme and keep the layout simple. Once they’re stronger, more established and confident you can start to use multiple themes in your pole layouts.

It’s also important to know the correct striding for your horse for trot and canter poles, and how to assess if the distance is too long or too short. The distance between trot poles is 4’6″ for the average horse, and if it is the correct distance for your horse their feet will hit the floor in the middle of the gap between the poles. If the distance is too close, then your horse will place their foot down closer to the upcoming pole. If the distance is too long, they will place their foot down closer to the pole they’ve just stepped over. The distance between canter poles is on average 9′, but it’s important to measure and calculate the distances like you would for trot when setting up the pole layouts.

Once you know your horse’s striding and can lay out straightforward trot and canter poles correctly for your horse you will get the most out of the any pole layout; reducing the risk of them injuring themselves or tripping over, and increasing the benefits of the polework to the horse’s way of going. Then you’re more likely to reproduce layouts you’ve seen online correctly.

I think there’s a real risk of people copying pole layouts they’ve seen in videos online without the correct knowledge to build it suitable for their horse and pony. Furthermore, without a thorough explanation of the aims of the polework layout or how to develop the exercises progressively; unknowledgeable riders may come a cropper by outfacing and confusing the horse, doing it too fast or in an unbalanced way, with the horse using his body incorrectly, and thus the polework is of no benefit at all.

I think it’s great that everyone is focusing on improving their horse’s way of going and utilising polework, but equally I think it’s important to share the “inside information” of distances, routes through the poles and the reasons, as well as riders themselves asking for advice from their coach or the author of the polework layout so that they are fully informed to the purpose of the polework and how to know if it is benefitting or not benefitting their horse and needs adapting during the session. And then of course the polework is safer for everyone.

Poles for Shallow Loops

I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.

Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.

On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.

The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.

The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.

To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?

Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?

I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.

This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!

Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.

In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.

Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.

I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.

As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.

Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.

From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.

I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.

Should We Be Riding?

Since lockdown began and normal life ceased, I’ve been plagued by all sorts of emotions regarding riding in “these unprecedented times”.

Many people I know have decided not to ride, many have decided to continue, and many have had the decision made for them by livery rules. The pressure not to ride comes from the British Equestrian bodies which are strongly advising horse owners not to ride so as to not add to the burden on the already overstretched emergency services. Fair enough, and the pressure will have been removed immensely by the cessation of organised equestrian competition. Paramedics and ambulances are usually present at events, so by cancelling our spring programmes we are freeing up personnel and vehicles without any accidents even happening. Let alone the beds we’re not occupying with injured riders.

But should we be stopping riding altogether? In Spain and Italy the government have banned it. So we are lucky. At the moment!

The biggest question I’ve been pondering these last weeks is the psychological effect being told not to ride because of unnecessarily pressuring the emergency services will have on riders. I mean, do you get on your horse to go to the school for a flatwork session and think “I might fall off today and need an ambulance.”

I hope you don’t, and if you do I question whether you should be riding at all. But now, everyone is ultra aware that there is a risk to horse riding and it could happen to them. Of course, you do get those freak accidents which happen in the arena during flatwork, but they are exactly that – freak. You could have a freak accident getting out of your car, or carrying something upstairs, or doing the gardening.

I wonder how riders, particularly the less confident and more insecure riders, will be after this is over. Will they ever get rid of that niggling thought? Will there be a sudden decrease in leisure riders jumping and competing? Although this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in that I often see riders competing at the top edge of their ability, which is more risky. But I think it will be a bad thing for the less confident ones. Will some people give it all up as a result of the Covid pandemic?

Of course I’m not advocating that life continues as normal, I just wonder what the net result of this new line of thought is.

I think everyone has to balance out their needs, their horse’s needs, and being sensibly safe, when they come to their own decision.

One big factor, which my GP friend said to me about the emergency services issue, is that if you continue to ride, or do whatever sport or DIY you want to, and take risks then you have to accept that the level of care you will receive will be below the usual standard. It might be that you have to wait longer for an ambulance. After all, they need thorough disinfecting after transporting a potential Covid case, which takes time. Or your injury or treatment might be managed at home, when in an ideal world you should be in hospital. So you have to accept a drop in the level of care you will receive. However, you could have just as serious an accident climbing up 25′ ladders to clean the guttering which you are doing instead of riding your horse.

Start by evaluating your horse’s needs. If they are fit and ready for the competition season you can’t just turn them away. They might do themselves an injury in the field burning off excess energy, or injure their handler because of said excess energy. If they are a horse currently in rehab then is it detrimental to stop halfway? If they suffer with weight issues coming out of the winter are you risking obesity and laminitis by stopping riding them? Do they have a previous injury which actually benefits from steady exercise to maintain muscle tone and strength? If the answer to any of those is “yes” then exercise needs to continue in some form or another. Additionally, take into account your horse’s nature. Are they a mature, sensible horse used to being ridden, used to their environment, or are they flighty, spooky, unpredictable? If they’re the latter then there is obviously more risk involved in each ride. But that goes for your ride in February as well as April!

Now let’s look at you. Do you have a lot of exterior stress in your life and need to unwind by riding your horse? Do you struggle with your fitness which would benefit from continuing to ride? Do you suffer from depression, and without riding need to resort to increased medication? If the answer is “yes”, then you need to try to do some form of riding for your personal well-being. I would add here, that if you regularly fall off then you want to assess the reason (if you tend to fall off jumping then remove jumping from the equation) and try to avoid it.

Once you’ve assessed yours and your horse’s needs, you should be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement which keeps you both happy and healthy. My decision, and how I have come to it is as follows: Phoenix is better in consistent work, so continuing to work her is beneficial. It’s spring time, and she would get too fat if turned away. I don’t think she’d become rude and bargy if not in work, but with a toddler around I don’t really want to try it out. I am now looking after a toddler 24/7 and for my sanity I need some time in the saddle. I also want to keep a reasonable level of riding fitness ready for returning to work, so need to consider this. Phoenix is now working in the school under saddle three or four times a week. She is lunged once or twice, either in the school or the field. I’m not jumping her under saddle because it’s unnecessary at the moment, but I am lunging her over poles and little grids to provide variety to her work. Phoenix will hack alone, but until they’re turned out 24/7 and the north wind disappears, I don’t think it’s sensible to hack her because she is not as relaxed and the risk of finding gremlins in the hedge is higher. But I usually finalise my solo hacking decision when I’ve checked the actual weather and felt how coiled a spring she is, so in reality this hasn’t changed much from normal. I don’t think we should hack in company unless we’re from the same household because there’s no way we can stay two metres apart. Having said that, last weekend I was desperate for a hack, so went out with a lady who I see from a distance at the yard each morning. And kept our distance. So reducing the risks of Covid whilst giving myself a much needed time out. But I can’t see that happening again in the near future.

This arrangement and routine seems to be working well, and Phoenix is definitely benefitting from the increased routine and consistency. Plus my morning pony time sets me up for all the thrills and spills a toddler in potty training throws at you!

I think it’s important to know your horse, and what will keep them sensible. Some horses need a canter in the school to warm them up, particularly veterans, and others need a steady canter to get their brain engaged and eliminate any tension. So you need to work out what level of work your horse needs to keep their bodies and minds healthy. I’ve heard of some yards banning cantering at all, which is all very well but I’d be concerned that the horses would maintain a relatively good level of fitness, but not be able to release their tension and energy through canter so could become explosive when cantering is permitted or when the bottle of pop is shaken and the lid opened…

The way I see it, for myself, and for any clients who I’ve discussed exercise programs with, is that you have to think of your riding education like a growing tree. Usually, we are focused on growing upwards, with a few willowy branches going out to the side. Now, we are going to focus on increasing those branches. Growing more of them, and strengthening them. Our tree will become denser and stronger as our skills develop, knowledge increases, and foundations for later work is built.

Let’s say that you are currently working towards Novice level dressage. You can continue to develop the movements you have already introduced, but it wouldn’t be wise to introduce a new movement or concept. Instead, look back at your last prelim tests – was you free walk as good as it could be? Could you improve your centre lines? The answer is most likely “yes”, and if not I’m sure you can find a couple of movements which only received a 6 instead of a 7. Spend a week focusing on those movements to make those branches more robust. Then when you’re allowed, they will grow upwards more easily. For example, giving and retaking the reins is a weak spot of Phoenix’s, so I have been working on her maintaing her trot rhythm and balance whilst I give either the inside rein or both reins, and extending the amount of time I am giving the reins. Another area to improve could be your sitting trot, or your transitions. Think of developing and improving your current level of work rather than stepping up a level.

You can also use this time to practice a new skill, such as long reining, or to spend the time improving your lunging technique, which will help keep both you and your horse fit, provide variety to the workload, and improve your knowledge and understanding.

So whilst I’m very much leaning towards continuing to ride in a sensible and safe way; developing current knowledge and ability rather then stepping up, I think it’s important to consider how your actions are viewed by external people. That doesn’t mean the keyboard warriors who aren’t riding, either because their yard has stopped them, or through their own decision (they can get off their high horses and support those who can ride because yards are permitting it or their horses are sensible instead of going green with envy). I mean the non horsey passers by. And let’s face it, there is increased pedestrian traffic at the moment. Does it really look good if there’s three or four of you hacking out together? Does it look good that walkers see you jumping? Not really, in either case. I think if we want to continue to have the ability to ride we need to be seen to be obeying social distancing guidelines and to being precautionary in our activities.

Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.

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.

Spirals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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