Learning to Canter

I had a few of my young riders have their first canter just before Christmas, and I’ve decided that the first canter stage is the most nerve wracking thing to teach.

There’s so much groundwork and preparation to do, and if you get the timing wrong it can have catastrophic results.

Before I even think of a rider having their first canter, they need to be confident in sitting trot, have experienced working without stirrups – how much no stirrup work they do depends on how big the child and how bouncy the pony is. I like them to be very confident in trot, and to happily ride a “fast trot” in a balanced way.

In a riding school there are usually two or three ponies with perfect learn-to-canter canters. Economical in stride length and cadence, steady, and voice controlled. So I would familiarise the rider with this pony in a couple of lessons beforehand, and then they would ride this pony for a few weeks to establish their canter seat and confidence.

With privately owned ponies, I like to do some research. Either I’ll lunge them without a rider, or I’ll observe an older rider cantering them. Sometimes, ground work needs to be done with the pony, so that they canter next to a leader (from either side), or canter quietly and are balanced on the lunge. Often I will set the parents some homework to do with the pony before the child has their first canter so the environment can be as controlled as possible.

It’s important to choose the right day for the first canters, and equally feel that the rider doesn’t need to canter everytime they ride; base the decision on the child’s state of mind that day, as well as the pony’s way of going, and any environmental factors.

I’m probably a bit too cautious, with my riders spending a long time on the lead rein or lunge in canter; until they stay balanced without holding in to the pommel. I like to think all the running is good for me, but in reality it’s very easy to send them solo before they are ready and they have the skill set to steer and stop. Then they get a problem – usually a bit too fast, or not stopping on cue – and take a few steps back in the confidence stakes. Which overall makes their learning to canter journey more challenging. I predominantly canter them on the lead rein because the straight lines are easier for the rider, and very few ponies are balanced enough to canter circles on the lunge. However, it’s a very useful tool for particularly nervous riders or sharp ponies. Plus I like to revisit cantering on the lunge once they’re fairly established to refine position and work without reins or stirrups.

I don’t think a rider needs to have many canters each time they ride. Again, I base it on their energy levels, and how the pony is responding to the lesson. They might only do two canters, or half a dozen on each rein. Regularly cantering keeps the feeling fresh in their minds so keeps confidence levels up, but not overdoing it when they’d actually benefit from more focus on their trot work is important to remember too.

The first few canters I do with a rider, I get them to have longer reins and hold the pommel. Once they’ve found the rhythm and are fairly in sync with the pony, I get them to take the outside hand off the pommel but still hold the rein loosely. Then they work on keeping the hand still in canter. Then they can start to use the outside rein to help keep pony on the track, and to make the downwards transition. At this stage, I start to lead without a lead rope, just resting a hand on the rein and letting go for a few strides to introduce the concept of going solo. It’s also a good opportunity to check the rider can bring the pony back to trot easily. Because we’ve worked off both reins, the rider should be happy letting go with either hand, so a natural progression is to let go of the pommel with the outside hand and then follow with the inside hand. This may only be for a stride before they cling on again, but I make it progressive. Let go for the count of three, then four, then seven. Get them to let go earlier. Let go during the transition. All these baby steps will gradually build confidence until they are cantering without holding on without realising.

Only then do I seriously start letting them canter independently. The last couple of strides initially, then just leading for the transition and first couple of strides. Then just running alongside. And without realising, they’re off!

I think the reason I find it so nerve wracking is that it’s so easy to get carried away and move through the stages too quickly, not allowing the foundations to set fully. Plus, kids bounce out the saddle so much in canter I’m always holding my breath hoping that the homing device is fully functional!

Here We Go Again!

At the beginning of last week the UK had the corona virus tier system was adjusted, coming into effect at the weekend. This led to a long conversation about the Pony Club Christmas rally. Which was popular, and highly anticipated by many.

We decided to go ahead and I busied myself with finalising times, making the invariable last minute swaps, planning the games I’d do, trying to make them as prop-less as possible. Friday I went and bought a load of chocolates, apples, baby potatoes (for the egg and spoon race). Saturday we went for a walk and cut down some branches for the Decorate the Tree game. I was ready for the fun!

Then Saturday evening came the announcement that we would be moving up into a new Tier 4, and so Pony Club activities needed to be suspended. Oh, and Christmas is cancelled.

They’re first world problems, but the punched-in-the-gut feeling was demoralising and disheartening. We moped around on Saturday night. Earlier in the week when we’d discussed cancelling the rally I’d felt fine; secretly I’d have been relieved at the prospect of more time for last minute Christmas preparations, but I then remembered how disappointed the kids would be. I then threw myself into preparations. To then have all my preparations finished and it then be cancelled was disappointing to say the least.

We spent Sunday as a family, doing a few more last minute Christmas jobs, but then by the evening with the confirmation that I could continue to teach, I had to rejig my diary around the lack of childcare. However, with nowhere to go, there’s no hurry to finish work on Wednesday lunchtime! That’s all sorted now, we’ve perked up at the thought of Christmas at home – helped by the fact we managed to buy all the necessary foodstuff yesterday – but we’ll have to scratch our heads and think how to fill our week off with a toddler and less than attractive forecast. Perhaps we can get some DIY jobs done?

The first lockdown I took on some big projects around the house – clearing out and sorting out. But I’m so over rearranging the kitchen cupboards now!

Then I remembered I hadn’t shared with you my other lockdown project. Which was actually started at the end of the first lockdown, ticked over in the summer, and then picked up again for the second lockdown.

In 2019 a friend gave me a large wooden rocking horse on gliders. Thr stuff of childhood dreams. With a tufty mane, flaked paint, and battered saddle. It sat in my garage and then I decided to take on the challenge in June. Over the summer, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, I sanded off five layers of paint.

After debating on the colour of the horse, I ordered some non toxic, tough paint. Of course I ordered too much. I also ordered a new mane and tail for the horse. More on that later. And measured the horse up for new tack.

On my initial search for rocking horse restoration I found a company and immediately bought the mane and tail pieces. Unfortunately, I’m disappointed with the product as it is real hair attached to real hide (an experience in itself) but came in several short lengths of hide, with hair of varying length (I assume from a pulled tail). My horse, being a large size, needed the full length of hide, but unfortunately this means that the mane doesn’t lie smoothly along the horse’s neck, and is shorter than I’d have liked. I’m really pleased with how the tail has come out. Once the hide had dried and hardened, I combed the hair and trimmed it.

Later on, when looking for the tack, I came across another company, The Rocking Horse Shop, and I wish I’d found them sooner. I had clear instructions on how to measure the horse for a saddle and bridle, both of which are fully adjustable and removable. It was all made to measure, and I even had a phone call from their workshop to confirm my measurements and the tack fits perfectly. Their website was also very helpful about all sorts of restoration questions I had.

I’m fairly pleased with the result of this project. I tried to do a dappling effect over the face and neck, to make an iron grey horse. But this was beyond my artistic talents. I’m still not happy with the mane, although it looks better than when I first attached it, I’d still prefer one length of hide. I might look at doing something about that next year. Some one is happy with her rocking horse though so it’s a win in that department. Not sure it’s delaying an actual pony by very long though!

Riding With Sponges

In 2021 I’m planning on attending a course of whatever sort is allowed to happen with Covid guidelines on the Franklin Method. My pilates teacher is an avid fan, and a lot of the ball and band work I’ve seen compliments my teaching and would benefit my clients. I’m not interested in running clinics, but a better understanding and knowledge of the props will give me some more tools to help my clients achieve their goals.

Starting with sponges. I saw a social media post using them and promptly hopped on the band wagon.

Several of my clients have now endured the sponges, and all have felt the benefit of the instant feedback the sponges provide.

The large sponges sit on the stirrup tread, underneath the foot and can be ridden on the flat and over jumps. I’m yet to use them over jumps, but I will, don’t worry, I will!

I start the session with the sponges by getting my rider to walk round on both reins, getting used to the feel of them under the foot and tuning in to their feet. Improving their proprioception. We talk about whether one sponge is more easily squashed than the other. If so, then it suggests the rider has more weight going down that leg, often coming from asymmetry in the seat. Which we can then address.

Once we’ve raised awareness for any discrepancies between the legs, I get my clients to “squash the sponges” as they walk round the arena. Rhythmically pressing down on the sponges increases the movement in the ankle, so is very useful for anyone who tends to brace the lower leg. For those at the opposite end of the spectrum, who struggle to get their heels down, find that pulsating the sponges starts to lengthen the calf muscles. Squashing the sponges isn’t a big movement – I don’t want to see the lower leg swinging – it is just activating the ankle so it becomes bouncy, or spring like.

We then move up into trot, where I focus my client on what the sponges feel like; if they draw the leg up the sponge will feel like it’s moving around. The rider becomes more aware of any stiffness in the ankle, and if they overload one leg. We then play around with pressure in the foot to improve their balance and coordination.

For riders who’s heels draw up, I’ve found that dropping the heel every time they rise is an effective exercise to improve the lower leg, lengthening the calves and dropping their weight into the heel.

For the riders who brace their ankles, I get to wriggle their toes as they sit into the saddle. We don’t want toes pointing down, but squashing the sponge and wriggling the toes reduces ankle stiffness. Usually there’s some moans and groans by now, but my riders have springs in their ankles which gives them a softer lower leg and improved leg aids because they can close the leg around the horse’s barrel better, as well as being stiller so more precise with the aids.

The canter is the interesting gait to ride with sponges. Because it is asymmetric riders often have one leg behaving whilst the other runs errant. The outside leg often draws up and the stirrup start to rattle about on the foot.

My clients have all done better than expected when cantering with the sponges, with less movement of the sponges than I’d read about when planning this exercise. I know that smaller sponges would be less stable, but equally I don’t think they’d have twisted much with my clients. They could feel the weight coming out of their foot sufficiently, and then by squashing the sponge or wriggling the toes we could correct. With one client in particular, using the sponges really got her reaching down to the stirrups so deepening her seat and stabilising her lower leg. Others have just become more aware of the weight coming out of the outside leg and a result sat more centrally in the canter. It also helps highlight the difference between the left rein and the right rein.

So how do the sponges work? They aren’t forcing feet into certain positions or anything. But they do increase a rider’s awareness of that area of their body and provide instant feedback when changes are made. Which makes it easier to make and maintain corrections. I found that whilst all my riders noticed the sponges at the beginning of the ride, by the end they had forgotten about them because their leg position had improved and the squashiness of the sponges more consistent.

Their purpose when jumping is to ensure the rider folds straight and evenly into their jumping position, not leaning on one leg more than the other, and ensuring the ankle is flexible whilst jumping.

I think the sponges could be improved by being denser, which would give more scope for squashing them and softening the ankle. Also some riders would benefit from the sponges being slightly smaller and so more likely to shift position in the stirrup if the rider draws their leg up or rolls onto the outside of their foot so the weight distribution is uneven. I’ll have to look out for some different sponges!

In the meantime clients, you’ll be seeing more of those yellow sponges!

Looking After Ourselves

We all put so much effort into the wellbeing of our beloved equines, that it’s ironic how little attention we pay to our own bodies and lifestyles.

Recently I’ve been giving myself a kick up the butt and taking time for self-care.

I have a Friday evening routine of chocolate, wine and a hot bath. Except last night apparently when the hot water has all been used up… Which is downtime for me, where I process the week, think of and plan the weekend, and as much as I can, relax. That along with my early morning rides are my emotional self care and everyone knows not to disturb me during this time!

I used to regularly visit a sports masseuse and osteopath, but post pregnancy it’s gone out the window and then I tried a new osteopath and came away poorer, but not feeling the benefit. However, with shooting pain running up my femoral nerve when I rode anything wider than a hat rack, I took the plunge and tried a Mctimoney chiropractor. Who incidentally treats Phoenix. She declared me very broken, with a tilted pelvis and tight muscles; but a couple of (painful) sessions later and I can feel the benefits. Definitely won’t leave it as long to get myself straightened up and I instantly felt the benefits to my riding. I’d been struggling with Phoenix’s right half pass, which retrospectively isn’t surprising given that my seat was blocking her. It’s still her weaker side but at least now I’m helping her.

At the beginning of the year, a friend told me that their metabolism had slowed down as soon as she’d hit 30 and she’s fought her weight ever since. Bearing in mind that I hit the big three-oh this year, her comment stuck with me. I also feel fairly big on Phoenix; I’m not too big, but I’m very aware that I don’t need to weigh her down with extra baggage. During the first UK lockdown and into the summer I tried to do more exercise, but lacked the motivation to watch a Joe Wicks YouTube video. No one held me accountable if I didn’t do it, and I hadn’t lost out by not doing it. Equally, I didn’t particularly push myself on the few that I did do because no one was cracking the whip.

So I decided that really I should join a fitness class and get myself a personal trainer of some sort. However, I already have an active job and go to Pilates weekly so I needed to compliment this. Plus there’s the whole time, childcare juggling act to factor in.

I’ve also been teaching a lot of children recently, involving a lot of lead rein work, which made me aware that I’m not fit from a cardiovascular point of view and running in canter was far more tiring than it should be!

I eventually plucked up the courage to ask a trainer, recommended by a client, and who I vaguely knew, if I could join a weekly class of hers. This coincided with lockdown #2 so became an online class, as did my Pilates.

I’m not sure how well online exercise classes will fare long term. For me, I gain a bit of extra time in the day – that spent travelling to the class – and I don’t have to worry about childcare. Just some strategic planning with snacks and activities. However, if you aren’t used to doing exercise, or have previous injuries I can imagine you could do yourself some damage as your trainer can’t monitor you as closely on screen as in person. You also miss out on the social side, and if you’re an office worker, the outdoors time. Neither of which affects me, as I can moan about the number of burpees we had to do with my client who signed me up and actually enjoy the opportunity to be warm and dry for an hour! There’s probably a balance to be struck between online classes and face to face ones; but it will be interesting to see what happens when restrictions lift and social distancing reduced.

The first week was agony. It took me three days to be able to walk upstairs. But each week is feeling easier and I can definitely feel muscles developing. I’m sure this cardio and strength work will help my overall fitness, and I think one class of this and another of pilates combined with more than ten hours in the saddle a week is enough focused exercise.

It’s amazing the difference a little bit of self care makes in terms of energy levels, quality of sleep, quality of work and enthusiasm. I’m also having two early morning rides at the yard each week which takes the pressure off me needing to ride when a certain toddler isn’t feeling cooperative, and means Phoenix gets two decent workouts which means she’s less of an activated grenade to ride for the rest of the week should work and weather limit my opportunities to ride. Plus, I enjoy those mornings of peace.

I tend to make small changes to create new habits rather than going all in and causing problems, so after Christmas my self care resolutions will be to adjust my diet to help maximise my energy levels and then having my hair cut (sorely neglected because I don’t like going to salons and the whole pandemic situation). Maybe I’ll cut it all off and donate it to charity to make a wig…

Anyway, make a couple of changes for yourself, and put as much effort into making yourself feel and perform at your best that we do with our horses!

Making an Event Uneventful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layering an Exercise

When planning a Pony Club rally I try to have a theme running through; such as working on sitting trot, riding serpentines, polework or jumping exercises. Sometimes I choose to focus on a couple of different subject areas. I find the day flows if there’s minimal adjustments between lessons, and those watching the lessons before or after theirs can start to join the dots in their education.

Last weekend I had a really satisfying layout of poles, which allowed me to layer exercises for a range of abilities. On the centre line I laid out three trot poles then a pair of tramlines before another three trot poles. The distance between the two sets of trot poles was approximately two pony strides.

With the lead rein riders, we used the poles predominantly in walk, practising their steering and feeling the bigger steps that their ponies were making over each pole. They also rode the line in trot, improving their balance. It was a useful change of rein and occupied them for most of the lesson along with other balance related exercises.

For the riders who are off the lead rein, establishing their control in trot, this is a really useful exercise, especially as a change of rein during the warm up. The tramlines can be made wider or narrower as needed, and once the riders had got the hang of walking and trotting through the exercise I had them hovering in jumping position over the second set of poles. The next step is to do jumping position over both sets of poles, sitting up and steering in between. This is really good for improving their balance and developing their jump position as repeatedly going into jumping position familiarises them with the feel and increases their security in the saddle.

If suitable, I could have adjusted the poles to canter poles and have riders canter through the exercise. But this weekend it wasn’t necessary for the other ideas I had planned. Besides, often ponies with small riders find it difficult to canter over multiple poles so it’s a can of worms to reluctantly open when I’m feeling brave!

With my first jumping group, who are jumping up to 60cm and starting to link jumps together, I used the exercise in trot as a change of rein in the warm up and once we’d had a canter developed the exercise into jumps.

I made the second set of trot poles into a cross pole and my riders trotted over the poles, between the tramlines and then over the centre of the jump. Once established, I allowed them to pick up canter after the trotting poles. The cross got bigger, and then I changed the first set of poles into a cross pole.

The riders worked on riding a good turn onto the centre line, keeping straight between the jumps as the jumps became bigger crosses, and then eventually uprights. Uprights are harder to stay central than cross poles, as the V of the cross pole draws the rider’s eye to the middle.

In this session I didn’t complicate the exercise any further, but looked to improve their confidence, encouraging them to approach in canter when appropriate, and give them time to get the feel for linking two jumps together nicely – feeling the rhythm and flow.

Another jumping session followed this one, with very confident kids on very competent ponies. A combination which invariably leads to big jumps negotiated in a less than stylish fashion. They used the exercise to warm up, declaring it easy whilst I tried to draw their attention to their rhythm, balance, and accuracy of their turns.

In a bid to avoid ending up in a Chase Me Charlie exercise, I fairly rapidly built up the exercise from poles to narrow tramlines to jump, to two fences with the tramlines. They became more aware of their pony’s tendency to drift, and by starting the exercise with a better turn noticed the improvement in their ability to hold a straight line. Although it was apparently still far too easy.

I answered them by adding a third element to the exercise, two canter strides after the second jump. It was a jump, but it was a skinny fence!

Those riders who had heeded my directives about setting themselves up with a balanced turn, and continued to correct their pony so they jumped the centre of each jump had no problem. Those who were lax in their approach and expected their pony to fly over the third fence, were surprised when they had a run out.

After some tweaks to their riding and getting them to think about their technique and approach to the exercise, it soon flowed nicely, with my riders getting a lovely, fluent rhythm clearing the jumps neatly and easily. Proving to be a very simple exercise if ridden well, yet problematic if ridden sloppily.

To further challenge riders and ponies, the exercise can be closed up so there’s only one canter stride between the elements. That will be next time!

Introducing Half Halts

At what point in a rider’s education do you introduce half halts?

I discussed it with some of my younger clients last week, with their parents being surprised at their grasp of the concept by the end of their lesson.

I like to bring in the idea of half halts fairly early on, once a rider is holding a steady rein contact, even if the reins are slightly long, and when they’re fairly balanced. If they have a vague knowledge of the phrase early on then it becomes much easier for them to learn how and when to do them later on.

I tend to layer the concept of a half halt in relation to a rider’s age, current level of riding, level of understanding, and what they actually need to achieve with half halts on their particular pony. As they develop as a rider, so their half halts evolve from dictating the rhythm to connecting a horse from back to front and the many other uses of a half halt.

So my explanation to last week’s eight year old was that half halts are a rider’s way of getting the pony’s attention. In a crowded room, you’d start talking to someone by using their name at the beginning of the phrase in order to get their attention. The half halt is a rider’s way of getting their pony’s attention before asking them to do something. By attracting their pony’s attention before a movement the pony is more obedient, the movement itself will be more balanced and accurate. At this stage, I get them to start factoring in half halts before transitions and turns.

As the rider becomes more adept at applying half halts at specific points during their ride, and develops an awareness for their pony’s way of going; the use of half halts can then be expanded to help them keep their pony in a steady rhythm. This relies more in feel, so is often slower to be developed. For example, it’s easier to remember to half halt before every turn then it is to half halt at the first sign of your pony speeding up or losing balance.

And so, the use and understanding of the half halt evolves as a rider matures in feel, ability and understanding.

So as well as the uses of the half halt developing over time, so does the half halt itself. It’s a complex aid when not autonomous. Again, I break it down and introduce it piece by piece. There are three components; the squeeze of the outside rein, the close of the leg, and the adjustment of the upper body.

Kids usually find the squeeze of the rein the easiest aid to apply; a squeeze like they’re squidging a sponge. Squeezing the leg is usually fairly straightforward too, but the upper body action often catches a young rider out.

In the textbook half halt, the upper body resists with the core engaging, to “pause” the horse. Try explaining this to a child! I use phrases like “sit up taller”, “lean back” (which brings them onto the vertical), “touch the sky with your head”, “slow your rising”, or “make your tummy hard”. Usually one phrase hits home with a rider and makes total sense to them, so I play around with phrases, demonstrations and any other idea I have to find what works for them.

So when introducing the half halt, I start with just a squeeze on the outside rein. It’s the easiest for them to understand as it ties in with slowing their pony for a turn, or if they’re running on. When the squeeze on the rein becomes second nature and they’ve developed a feel for the right amount of squeeze for a half halt, I bring in the second element.

Which element I bring in next depends on rider and pony. If the pony is lazy then I add the leg aid to the crude half halts. If the rider tends to collapse their upper body then I will teach the upper body aids.

With the lazy pony, I’ll say that as we want to maintain the energy, we need to add in a leg aid immediately after a squeeze down the rein. It’s like “rolling” a chord in music. The hand and leg act together, but not quite together. We’ll then play around until my rider has got the timing right and getting the correct response from the pony. Then we will refine the half halt by utilising the seat and upper body.

With a quick pony, or a rider who tends to collapse forward onto their hands, once the rein aid for the half halt is established, I focus my attention on getting them to sit tall and engage their tummy muscles. This makes their core stronger and stops them being over reliant on the reins in the long term, and also means that they are more effective at half halting and stopping a speeding pony. In this situation, very often only a teeny bit of leg is needed in the half halt, but I’ll still mention it so that when they move onto another pony they can actually keep them trotting!

So long as a rider has a basic knowledge of a half halt, you can adjust the aids and frequency to best suit their mount, and when they ride other horses they can make their own adjustments to find out the new horse’s buttons. You can also use the half halt to convey different messages, depending on the situation and the conversation pony and rider need to have. In my opinion, they earlier (within reason!) a rider hears the phrase and starts to learn about the principle of the half halt, the better for their long term education and success.

Stagefright!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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