A Group Exercise

I did this exercise with my Pony Clubbers last week; we used to to it a lot when I was learning to ride as a child, but I don’t see it utilised very often now, nor unfortunately do I use it much myself as I don’t teach many groups.

It’s a very good layering exercise which introduces independent riding, and ensures the horse or pony is listening to their rider’s aids.

Starting with the ride in closed order on the track in walk. The first rider moves up into trot, trots around the arena until they reach the rear of the ride. Then, they should take the inner track and trot past the ride before trotting back to the rear. With more experienced riders, you can have the ride trotting, and the individual cantering around and past them.

This exercise is useful in the following ways:

  • It allows every rider in the ride to experience being lead file.
  • It teaches awareness of the change in a horse when they move from following the tail in front of them, to going off the rider’s aids.
  • It teaches the rider how to pass other horses at the correct distance.
  • Riders need to use their outside aids to stop their horse rejoining the ride instead of passing them, otherwise the horse just falls out and slows down to slot in behind the ride.
  • The horse is encouraged to work independently and the rider taught to plan their route in advance, otherwise their horse tucks in behind the ride.
  • Riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t crash into the ride.
  • It’s a useful precursor to riding in open order. Once a group are familiar with the exercise the lead file can be sent off before the previous horse has reached the back of the ride.

A different exercise, which I find quite useful for testing horses who are a little bit herd-bound, is to have the ride trotting around and the rear file ride a transition to either walk or halt. When the ride catches up, they ride forwards to trot and become the leader. Some horses can be reluctant to be left behind, so it’s a useful education for them, which pays off in other areas, such as hacking or cross country. It also teaches patience, as horse and rider have to wait calmly for the rest of the ride. The rider also has to plan their upward transition so that the rhythm of the ride is not disrupted, and they also experience lead file. I find you can allow the new lead file to do a few movements, such as circles, serpentines or changes of rein, which develops their independence and confidence.

If the weather’s cold, or it’s wet, and you don’t want a group of riders standing still for too long, these exercises are useful for keeping everyone moving and keeping them warm. I’d like to see instructors incorporating these exercises into their group sessions because they are definitely underappreciated.

Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Getting Ready For Camp

I’ve spent the last week prepping for Pony Club camp: organising childcare, informing all clients and making sure their next lesson is booked in (it’s the one time of the year that my diary is organised for a whole fortnight!), choosing my musical ride music, and planning my lessons. But I’ve also been helping some clients prepare for their own Pony Club camp.

A kid’s first camp can be a nerve wracking experience, so I use the few weeks leading up to camp to prepare them as much as possible so that they don’t feel out of their depth and can enjoy camp to the maximum.

Firstly, they will be riding in a group, which some children with their own ponies aren’t used to, so I work with my little riders to make sure they know to keep a ponies distance away from the one in front, and that they know the basic etiquette of riding in a group. Last year I had a lovely little rider who I suspected would be used as lead file, so I taught her about checking that she was going the correct speed for everyone to keep up, and how to adjust her pony’s trot to accommodate everyone else.

I try to make sure my riders understand instructions that an unfamiliar instructor may use, and are familiar with the letters of the school and changes of rein or school movements. This is particularly important for my riders who only have fields to ride in. I want my riders to understand the basic commands and movements so that they don’t panic about riding it in a different environment.

I then run through exercises which I think the instructors may use to assess the children and ponies, such as sitting trot, taking away their stirrups, replacing their feet in their stirrups. Again, so that first day nerves don’t kick in too much. We do canter work, trot poles, and some jumps. With a young rider this week I’ve had her jumping over a small double as previously she’s lacked confidence over fences. I’ve lead her over some slightly bigger jumps, and then had her jumping smaller cross poles and uprights on her own. I don’t want her to have grandiose ideas about her ability, but I want her to be able to demonstrate a good approach and balanced jump position and not feel overwhelmed by any jumping exercises at camp. The pre-camp lesson needs to be a confidence building session so that they arrive feeling confident about their riding and can them cope better with the qualms which come with riding in company and in a new environment.

I also check that their tack is Pony Club legal; safety stirrups, grass reins etc. And that tack is in good condition for camp. A lot of parents use camp as a good opportunity to replace worn tack, but you want to have a test run before camp to make sure it all fits correctly and you don’t need extra holes punched in stirrup leathers! Sometimes I suggest changes to tack which may help my rider in a different environment. For example, one girl I teach holds her reins at different lengths, so her left hand sits further back than her right. In a one-to-one lesson I can monitor and correct this habit, but for camp I suggested using tape to show her where to hold her reins so that it doesn’t get overlooked and develop into a real problem.

While some of my clients don’t carry whips because it’s just one more thing for their little hands to carry, I do sometimes introduce them to one ready for camp. I explain how to use it correctly, how to hold it and how to change it from hand to hand. This is because their pony may be less forwards in a different setting, or when they’re tired towards the end of camp, and I would rather my little riders were told how to carry a whip with consideration to their pony than just given one in a hurry at camp. Plus, one of the ponies I teach has a phobia of lunge whips so I don’t want the unknown instructor to feel that they need to chivvy or chase the pony along with one as that will shatter my rider’s confidence.

I also try to make sure my rider knows what is expected of them at camp in terms of behaviour, and how they should ask for help if they need it. Sometimes children can be very shy about asking for assistance. Then finally, I try to make sure my riders are confident around their ponies. They will all have help, but by the very nature of the camp environment they will have less support than at home with either their parents or me supervising. It’s only little things such as knowing their girth needs to be checked before they mount, knowing how to dismount whilst holding onto their reins, and to run up their stirrups. Having children who are able to do this makes an instructor’s life much easier whilst keeping them all a little safer.

Of course, camp is all about learning and I look forward to getting my kids back with new found confidence and competence, but I find that the right preparation really helps them get the most out of their camping experience.

Everything in Moderation

There’s been a few articles circulating recently about the detrimental effects of lunging. But before we condemn lunging forever more, let’s look at it from both sides.

Lunging is coming under criticism because studies are finding a positive correlation between horses working on circles and joint injuries. So perhaps lunging isn’t the problem here, it’s the number of circles a horse does?

I’m a great believer in doing everything in moderation; the horses I know with the longest active lives and fewest injuries are those who have a varied work load. They lunge, they hack, they do flatwork, they do polework, they jump.

From what I can see, if you do a lot of flatwork and lunge a couple of times a week then this combination puts your horse at risk of joint injuries because of the number of circles the horse does. But if you predominantly hack or jump so ride fewer circles, then lunging a similar amount has less cumulative stress on the joints.

Then of course, there is your lunging technique. There’s the old adage that lunging for twenty minutes is the equivalent of riding for an hour. I think this is an important guideline to bear in mind so your horse isn’t trotting in endless circles for an hour.

Also, do you lunge continuously on the same size circle, or do you vary the size and walk around the school in order to incorporate straight lines? Do you use transitions and variations to the gait, or just keep the horse moving in their comfort zone? Do you divide your lunging session up into periods of walk, in-hand work, such a lateral work or rein back? Trotting for twenty minutes on a fifteen metre circle stresses the joints much more than a varied lunge session.

Think about why you want to lunge? For a tense horse like Phoenix, I find lunging once a week is beneficial as she is more likely to relax and stretch over her back, which is then taken forward to her ridden work. She can do this naked, and not having my weight or the saddle on her back helps her stretch her back muscles. Some people love gadgets, others detest them; I think they are useful in the short term when used correctly to help direct the horse into working in the right frame. This is something an experienced rider may be able to do from the saddle, but a novice rider can’t, and in order to improve their horse’s way of going and increase their working lifespan, they need help to develop the correct musculature.

For some horses lunging can be useful for warming them up before you ride. They may be cold backed, or a bit sharp. But this type of lunge shouldn’t be much more than five minutes. Equally, if you think your horse is feeling fresh one day, it’s safer to lunge and get rid of their excess energy rather than have an accident riding.

Lunging is useful for assessing lameness as it is usually more pronounced on a circle or turn. Also, without the rider you can see more clearly if it is a bridle lameness or not.

So there are valid reasons for lunging, and I think we can reduce the risk of joint injuries by not lunging for too long or too often, and improving our lunge technique.

We’ve already said that it’s the number of circles a horse does which damages their legs, so let’s change our approach to a lunging session to reduce the number of circles.

Start in walk on a large circle, walking yourself so that the circle becomes less round and has a few straight lines on it. Then go into trot and work on the same principle; some circles where you stand still, mixed with some wanderings. Use transitions and spiraling in and out to give variety to the circle. Use poles on a straight line to add to the variety. The only time I don’t do a huge variety in terms of transitions is when a horse is learning to carry himself differently (for example taking his nose down and out) or needs to improve his rhythm. But then I use wanderings to break up the circles. Think of doing short bursts of canter, and focus on improving the quality of the transitions rather than having a stamina workout.

After a few minutes of trot or canter work have a walk break, getting your horse to relax out on a big circle. When you change the rein, take the opportunity to do some in hand work with them. It may be rein back, shoulder in or other lateral work. But equally it could be some general ground manners such as standing still as you move around them.

I think my pet hate, and what I think would be a large contributor to horses having joint issues and a routine of being lunged, is when a horse is literally allowed to gallop round, fly buck, and turn them inside out at the end of the lunge line. These short bursts of acceleration and deceleration on a turn are far more likely to cause injuries than when a calm, well-mannered horse being lunged. Apart from the fact it’s dangerous to the handler, it’s poor manners and in my opinion a recipe for disaster. They aren’t working correctly, and you can’t check for soundness or any other issue, so the lunging is of no benefit to anyone.

I’d be interested to read more about the studies into lunging and lameness to learn more about the quality of the lunging technique, as well as hearing more about the study horses conformation, age, workload and routine, to see what other factors could be contributing to any lameness. Then we know if lunging is as detrimental to our horse’s wellbeing as is being suggested. But otherwise I will continue to believe in everything in moderation, including moderation.

Riding Camp

In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.

My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.

Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.

I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.

Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.

I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!

I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.

Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …

On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.

It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).

I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!

Giving Advice

Here’s a little riddle for you all to get your Friday brains ticking over.

Almost everyone needs it, asks for it, gives it, but almost nobody takes it. What is it?

The answer is, of course, advice.

It’s my biggest bug bear about the equestrian world. The fact that everyone has an opinion and insists on giving it to anyone who stands still long enough, whether they’ve asked for it or not.

There are numerous trains of thoughts about training or managing horses. Some of which works, some don’t, some horses thrive of a certain method, some don’t. For most pieces of equipment there are arguments to use it or not to use it.

I think it’s important that individuals, whether it’s your first horse or your fortieth, develop their own school of thought, training approach, stable routine. Whether they have one horse or several, if they develop their own opinions, which will be more rounded, researched and well-reasoned, it gives a better understanding to equines. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for advice; rather ask advice from those you trust, or ask a couple of people, or read a couple of books, and draw your own conclusions.

Some professionals in the industry naturally attract advice-seekers – vets, farriers, instructors. Which is fine, and I for one am always being asked questions about different tack, health, behaviour. Unless there’s a safety factor, I try to keep my opinions to myself unless asked, and then try to give a balanced opinion – e.g. If asked whether a certain noseband should be used, then give the pros and cons of it and let the client make the final decision. Sometimes if I’m giving feedback after teaching or riding I will advise that the owner checks something (like teeth) or suggest reasons for a behaviour (like head shaking). It’s not to say I’m right, it’s just a suggestion to help improve the horse’s comfort. It might also be that an inexperienced owner hadn’t thought of it. 

But I think it’s important that those professionals only give advice in their area of expertise, and when asked. For example; if you ask an instructor if your saddle fits they may look at the basics, but then should say “get it checked by a saddle fitter”. After all, you don’t want to be liable if your client gets bucked off because you’ve told them the saddle fits!

To me, someone who gives advice willy-nilly, about subjects they aren’t qualified or that knowledgeable in, loses  my respect. It also creates tension on yards, especially if you have two conflicting advice-givers. I always want to be the quiet person in the room who doesn’t say much, but when they do it’s very profound, and everyone should take note.

That’s probably because I don’t like being given advice. If I want advice I will ask those I trust, and I also am knowledgeable and firm enough in my convictions that I know when someone is talking out of their depth! So yeah, giving me advice when it’s not asked for is a bad idea!

If you go back to the riddle, it says that “nobody takes it”. I think this is another hard part of my job; people ask your advice, you give it, and they don’t follow it. For example; someone asks advice about their first sponsored ride, and you say “Go with one or two sensible companions” and they go in a group of six and their horse gets overly excited and they fall off. Or you give feedback after a lesson about the fact the horse should wear a flash, for example, to help when jumping, and they ignore you and find themselves being tanked off with.

I think that’s one of the hardest parts of my job: I always give feedback to clients, and when I say something I’ve thought about it (I don’t spout fresh air) long and hard, so get quite frustrated when something (an accident or safety issue) happens that could have been avoided. Likewise, I also get frustrated when I hear advice and opinions being thrown around like loose change! 

I think the best way to succeed in the equestrian world is to give well thought out, reasoned opinions and pieces of advice when asked. Because then people will start to seek your advice because they know that you have the facts or experience to support it, and that you aren’t trying to brainwash them, just educate.