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.

Creating Positivity

I was looking back at my notes from the Pony Club Coaching Conference back in February and was reminded of the subject of creating positivity in lessons.

You create a positive atmosphere within the teaching environment from your body language, tone of voice, having a progressive lesson plan, and most importantly with the language you use.

The words and phrases you use when talking to a client is what builds a confident, strong mentality of self-belief, which leads to success. It also makes them resilient when things don’t go as planned, and give them a firmer mindset and set of beliefs.

So what words and phrases are more positive to use when teaching?

It’s not saying things like “don’t do this” or “that’s wrong”. It’s giving an instruction to alter something which will improve their performance by focusing on the good bits.

For example, let’s say that the left rein is too long with a flimsy contact. Don’t berate the fact that this is wrong as it creates a negative cycle of thoughts. Equally, the rider needs to know that the left rein needs to be improved so don’t ignore it altogether. Say things like, “you have a good right rein contact, but you tend to have a longer left rein…” And “before starting, check your left hand is as good as your right”. Or even, “shorten your left rein” as this is an action and results in a positive response from the rider. They shorten that rein without thinking about how bad it is. Yet if you were to ask them later which hand was their weaker one, they would subconsciously know.

Another situation would be if an exercise is ridden too fast, you would tell your rider that it was too fast – don’t beat around the bush – but before they try it again, you don’t send them off with the phrase “not as fast as last time”, because that plants a seed of negativity and prevents them from riding in a forwards manner, which could create other problems. Instead, phrases like “find a steadier tempo before you start”, or “this time I’d like you to give yourself as much time as you can” will send them off with a plan. Ride the exercise in a more steady fashion; they will still ride positively and actively, but they are focused more on their new, steadier tempo. And because they have a positive mental attitude, they are more likely to succeed.

You’re reminding your rider of their fault, but without detracting from their focus to an exercise.

I like to think that I used positive phrases to my teaching before the conference, but certainly since then I’ve been cross checking myself to make sure I spend as little time telling riders “don’t do this” as possible, and instead say “do that” to counteract their “this”.

Instead of saying “don’t let your lower leg swing backward as you trot”, saying “keep your feet going down to the floor as you trot” or “relax your knee and drop your heel to keep your lower leg still”. There’s a solution within my corrections. I know I’m not perfect, and I keep having to change my tact mid sentence, but I hope my clients are noticing and feeling that they come away from lessons with a can-do attitude, fully knowledgeable about how to improve their and their horse’s performance.

Have you ever noticed, and felt that a teacher (of whatever subject) had an overly negative effect on your confidence with just a few poorly chosen words? Or have you noticed a change in your approach to riding as a result of your support network using, well, supportive language?

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.

Walk to Canter Transitions

I did this exercise a couple of weeks ago in my lesson to help Phoenix get the hang of walk to canter transitions, and have found it really useful, so thought I’d share it here.

Down the long side, ride shoulder out. That is, reverse shoulder in. The horse is bent to the outside with the outside (in relation to the arena) hind leg in line with the inside front leg. I find it easiest to start on the inner track so you have space to move the shoulders towards the fence. Once you’ve perfected shoulder out in walk, move up to trot. Pay particular attention to feeling the outside hindleg coming under your horse’s body, and not letting him give too much bend in his neck to the outside as that allows him to fall onto the inside shoulder. Already, you should feel an improvement along the short sides as it helps your horse create a uniform bend on the turns.

Once you can trot shoulder out down the full length of the long side, put a ten metre circle in at the end. The circle requires your horse to flip from one bend to the other, so is a good test of balance and suppleness. Don’t rush to blend the two movements: straighten up out of the shoulder out and ride a couple of strides before the circle. As you both improve, you can reduce the number of strides between the shoulder out and the circle. A bit like how you reduce the number of straight strides in your changes of bend as your horse becomes more balanced. I found the circles felt very balanced and I didn’t find that Phoenix bent excessively with her neck to try and drift through her outside shoulder, which she sometimes does on the left rein.

Now comes the fun part. Halfway around the ten metre circle, ride forwards to walk. Then as you reach the track and the corner of the school, ask for canter. Because of the shoulder out, the outside hind is engaged ready to push into canter, but the circle sets up the correct bend so you will get the correct canter lead.

The short period of walk stops the horse switching off from work, and the small circle helps keep the walk active and together.

Previously, Phoenix had been running and scrambling into canter from walk, but this exercise really helped her jump up into canter – quite literally jump as the first time she leapt straight up in the air while she tried to use her body differently. She soon cracked it, learning to push from behind more. Riding the canter transition from trot still helps improve your transition.

Unfortunately, I can’t repeat exercises too often with Phoenix as she starts to anticipate, so I’ve mixed things up a bit by taking out the circle; riding a demi volte then shoulder in as I incline towards the track and then the circle (if needed) before the transition into walk and then canter. I’m just doing the same movements in the same order, but in different areas of the arena. Have a go at this exercise and mix it up as much as you want.

Pole Triangle

I used this pole layout last week and found it very useful so thought I’d share it for anyone struggling for ideas at the moment. You could also long rein or lunge over it.

The layout is quite simple; create an equilateral triangle with three poles, and then lay a pole perpendicular to each apex.

The first exercise is to ride straight through the layout – over the base of the triangle and then out over the apex opposite. It’s an excellent test of straightness (pick a point in the distance to focus on, keep the reins even and steady, and squeeze your horse down the tunnel created by your reins with the our legs). The apex encourages horses to pick up their feet. Often they’ll look down as they step over the apex, which helps develop their topline.

The poles I used are 10′ long, which means that the distance between the base and apex is a canter stride for the average horse (I’ll let any bored A-level student work out the precise distance using trigonometry. Let me know if you take up the challenge!). You can ride the line in both trot and canter, in both directions. It is slightly harder to be accurate riding from the apex to the base pole.

A harder exercise, which focuses on riding a smooth turn between two poles, encourages the horse to increase the cadence of their inside hind which improves their strength and suppleness. Ride, in trot, from the base pole to either of the other sides of the triangle, aiming to ride over the centre of each pole. Make sure you ride straight over each pole, so ensuring you ride a definite curve through the triangle. I had a few clients ride a straight line between the poles, so going over each one at an angle. I then stood in their way and made them trot around me, which soon helped.

You can then think of riding a circle around each point of the triangle, the external pole helps prevent the circle becoming too small. You could also try cantering the circle, but you would need to increase the size of your circle and so the curve within the triangle.

Finally, I concocted a twisty exercise for my more advanced riders, to really test their horse’s balance and suppleness.

Trotting (or walking until you get your head around the sequence) straight over the baseline pole, then curve right. Over the second pole then ride a big curve left. Trot over the next side of the triangle you reach (the side you’re yet to go over) and then curve right. As you exit the triangle curve left again. Eventually, you end up at the beginning.

The key is to not override the turns, and to maintain an even rein contact. Too much inside rein and the horse will fall onto their inside shoulder and struggle round the next turn. Additionally, you should keep the curves outside the triangle fairly big so you can prepare for the next chicane. Make sure you cross each pole in the centre, and perpendicularly. The external poles help prevent drifting as you leave the triangle. It’s not easy, but you can really see the improvement in the horse’s way of going afterwards.

How The Horses Have Wintered

After a couple of false starts, spring feels like it’s properly arrived. I’ve seen baby lambs and daffodils, mown the lawn, and the horses are moulting!

It’s the perfect time to assess how your horse is coming out of the winter. I’m really pleased with how Otis is looking; he wore a lightweight rug from Christmas until the beginning of March, when the storms stopped beating Britain. I took it off promptly so I could maximise his time naked before his sweet itch rug goes on. He still has a daily hard feed of chaff and they’re in their winter field currently. The summer field is ready for them, but we’re waiting for the ground to dry up so they don’t poach the ground too much. Then all hard feed will stop, they can eat the grass that is already there then eat the new grass as it comes up.

Condition wise, Otis is looking slightly ribby. I can just about see his ribs, but given that he is coming into spring,a native breed, and unable to be ridden, this is how I want him to be. He will put weight on as soon as they go into their summer paddock and I’ve limited the risk of laminitis as much as possible.

Phoenix, on the other hand, has a little too much weight. But given that she is stabled overnight I’d expect her to carry more weight than Otis. She is still having hay in the field, but that will hopefully be reduced in coming weeks as the grass starts to come through. She’s pretty fit though, so I’m not overly concerned as I will just ensure that her workload continues. Her hard feed can be cut back soon, and she won’t go into her summer field for a few weeks anyway, so I have time to trim her tummy a bit more. I do feel she’s bulked out over the winter, as her neck has really muscles up recently, and she’s much stronger in her hindquarters.

She’s had her first season of the year, which like last year was a bit more emotional than her summer seasons, but because she’s more established I have so many more buttons to play around with, which helps settle her and makes her more rideable, I only had a couple of bad rides. She’s also fitter, stronger, has a better relationship with me, and is happier in her routine, which all helps.

How has everyone else’s horses come out of the winter?

Lockdown!

Monday evening we all sat down and watched the latest news update on covid19. The UK went into lockdown. I had very mixed feelings about the situation. Over the weekend I’d been wrestling over the question of if I should be continuing to go to work. It’s outdoors, I don’t get too close to clients, exercise is being encouraged, I was following the hygeine recommendations … but everyone is being encouraged to stay home, it’s a leisure activity so not vital to the UK’s functionality, and although I don’t get up close and personal I still see a good number of people each day. But on the flip side, as a self employed individual if I’m not working then I’m not earning anything.

I’d seen online that a few coaches had decided to stop teaching from Monday because of the amount of social contact, and because horse riding is a high risk sport and they didn’t want to put more pressure on the emergency services with accidents.

Part of me was glad that the decision was made for me, but I did not relish the idea of three weeks of isolation with an energetic toddler and no income! I have never been so glad to see the sunshine and to have a garden to stop cabin fever setting in.

I’ve seen some coaches offering remote teaching – where you send in a video of you riding – a test or exercise – and they feedback to you. Others are advocating no riding at all, and others have disappeared off the face of the Earth – a well deserved sabbatical perhaps?

I’ve decided that I will offer to draw up exercise plans for my clients if they want. Basically give them a brief overview of what I was intending to focus on in their next few lessons. List points I want them to focus on, such as their position, and provide flatwork and polework exercises which build on recent lessons.

My brother also gave me the idea, or at least caused me to remember, that I am qualified to teach the BHS Challenge Awards, and some of those can be taught remotely, so I will get myself organised to offer that. Then I will occupy myself planning some remote teaching for Pony Club (I have grandiose ideas of wordsearches, quizzes, posters, and models – sorry, parents!) and then enjoying some time with Phoenix (at the moment the joy of a DIY yard is that we still need to care for the horses so it is our daily exercise and much needed change of scenery), spending quality time with my family, and starting that list of house and garden jobs which never get done. I will also try to blog a variety of exercises for anyone who is still riding. Personally, I need to keep riding for my own sanity, and I feel Phoenix is better off in work. But we’ll be playing safe and mostly working on her flatwork. But I understand why some have decided not to ride their horse. It’s a fine line between looking after your physical and mental health and staying safe.

I made a list of goals that I would like to achieve during this lockdown to help keep me motivated, because it’s amazing how slippery the slope is spiralling into slovenliness.

  1. Establish walk to canter transitions. We’ve almost nailed them, they just need a little refining.
  2. Develop her travers and trot half pass. I only introduced them in the last month so they are very much work in progress.
  3. Focus on encouraging Phoenix to work in a longer and lower frame, to help her learn to stretch more.
  4. Introduce canter to walk transitions.
  5. Tidy up Phoenix’s mane and tail, and also need to give her a much needed bath.
  6. Sort out all equine things that are in the garage and hopefully consolidate it. Anything which can be sold on will be put aside for a later date.
  7. Clean out the trailer. I was hoping to pressure wash it, but that may have to wait until restrictions are lifted slightly, but I will do what I can.
  8. Do all the spring gardening jobs and then the extra jobs, like pressure washing the patios and drive.
  9. Have a good sort out and tidy up of every room in the house.
  10. Clean my car inside and out. (This one is for if I’m really bored!)


How is everyone else planning on spending their lockdown?

Times A Changing

The last thirty six hours has thrown the British equine world into disarray. Covid-19 has been coming a while, infringing on all areas of our lives, but now we’ve moved into unchartered territory.

We’d discussed it at Pony Club and Riding Club – talking about reducing the risk of infection at events and providing hand washing facilities. But it was business as normal with just a couple of adjustments to our routines.

However, on Monday the PM released a statement bringing more stringent methods into daily life – minimising social contact, reducing unnecessary travel, self isolating. This was closely followed by statements from British Eventing and Pony Club stating that all competition and training has been suspended. On Tuesday, British Dressage, British Showjumping, and British Riding clubs followed suit.

It’s incredible to think that there will be no equine competitions for the majority of this year, and is very disappointing for those who rely on it professionally, and who plan their training with a particular competition goal in mind.

Disappointing as it is, at least we are still allowed to ride. Italy has banned riding and high risk sports to reduce the number of accidents needing treatment in their overstretched hospitals. Phoenix was going to have a go at her first novice test this weekend. No matter; we will keep up the training so that she will be working at elementary level by the summer, and I’m still able to take her out schooling to get some cross country practice in and keep up her jumping training. The important thing is to find some alternative goals and aims to keep us motivated and to keep spirits up.

I made the suggestion to my riding club committee, that we should run our spring dressage competitions online. It’s not the same as going out to a competition, but it’s better than nothing and I think there will be lots of interest. Of course clinics are also being cancelled, so I think we will have to put our heads together to come up with some challenges we can give to members to help everyone keep in touch and motivated. Perhaps get everyone to share a photo or talk about their riding that day. There’s no restrictions on hacking, so perhaps we should make a hacking challenge?

With the Pony Club, I already have some ideas for the kids. They’re going to have a lot of extra time on their hands, so it would be good to give them some ridden exercises – a bit like online lessons – or stable management quizzes to keep up their knowledge. I’m keen that those working towards an efficiency test don’t regress or lose motivation due to tests being delayed and training cancelled. But we’re going to let everyone acclimatise to this new, strange normal, and then get our thinking caps on.

I judge for Demi Dressage – an online dressage competition for under 16s – and I think that will become really popular in the coming months, as a way to focus children on developing their riding. Already I’ve seen more and more online competitions cropping up, including jumping competitions. They’ve been in the pipeline for a while I think, but this current climate has brought them to the fore.

Finding the fun that we can do safely, will help us survive the emotional challenges the coronavirus brings. We’re lucky that equestrianism is an outdoor activity as even if competition venues close, we still have our riding areas at home.

With everyone being encouraged to work from home, I was starting to dread enforced time with an energetic toddler in an enclosed space. But we’re lucky enough to have a garden at least, and I’ve drawn myself up a list of jobs to do. Regardless of any quarantining, we will be spending more time at home, so it’s an ideal time to do the jobs you never get around to doing. Maybe that room will get painted, and the garden will be perfectly manicured?! Or perhaps we’ll actually eat those emergency tins of soup at the back of the cupboard?

I was very relieved when the BHS released a statement saying that coaches should continue to work where possible. I only interact with fit and healthy people outdoors, not getting too close to them; and by following the suggested hygeine and social distancing guidelines, as well as both sides reacting to the first symptoms, the risk should be minimal.

I think it’s important to maintain as much of a normal life as possible for our own sanity, whilst being sensible and sensitive to the situation. Of course, my work may not be vital to the infrastructure of the country, but horses are many people’s saviours. Their down time in a busy world; the thing which turns their day from doom and gloom to sun and laughter. Their coping mechanism for the rest of their life. It’s easy to overlook the importance of a good riding session (or any exercise) to someone’s mental health.

Just like many hobbies; gym classes, book clubs, sports clubs, social clubs. Not only do the clients need these to balance out their lives, but those who run them need the financial reward in order to feed their families. So yes, let’s reduce close contact with others, but in a world where everything’s at a click of a button, let’s make sure we continue to stay in touch with ingenious ways. Summer is coming; move clubs outdoors if possible; use online videos, conference calls, and social media to keep this side of life going.

It’s the start of a new normal, which will take some adjusting to, but hopefully by everyone being sensible (you’ve bought all your toilet roll now, haven’t you?!) and by keeping an eye out for others (we don’t know many at risk people locally, but I’ve offered to organise online shopping for my Granny, and plan to send her bits and pieces in the post over the next few months as well as regular emails to stop her feeling so isolated), we will survive.

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.