Lightening the Forehand

Feedback I’ve had when jumping Phoenix, and what I know to be true, is that I need to get her stronger in canter and get her nose off her chest. This isn’t because I put her in an overbent frame, but more to do with the fact her confirmation allows her to do this easily and when she’s finding the canter work harder she leans on my hands and gets a bit on the forehand.

On the flat we’ve been focusing on relaxation and self carriage, ignoring the canter unless she’s in the right frame of mind because she can get uptight and a bit panicky if you do too much correcting to her way of going. She doesn’t like to be interfered with.

I’ve kept the idea of her taking her nose out in any canter work we’ve done on hacks and any other time, but I decided this week to give her more of a challenge.

I laid out three canter poles, then one canter stride to a final pole. Phoenix is getting much more confident in her footwork through pole exercises so I wanted the three poles to help establish her rhythm and discourage her from rushing. As she can sometimes drift through grids I laid two poles as an arrow with the tip touching the final pole. I wanted to jump an A-frame but wanted to introduce the question early so that Phoenix could process it and be confident.

After trotting and cantering the poles from each rein I put the final fence up, leaning the diagonal poles in the middle. I approached in canter, and whilst Phoenix was spot on over the jump, really lifting her shoulders and staying straight, she kept giving a hop, skip and a jump over the canter poles.

I felt like she was getting herself in a bit of a stew on the approach because she was a bit too fast and unbalanced in canter. So I trotted into the exercise, letting her pick up canter over the first pole. Then, she was foot perfect and wasn’t as quick. Which felt better as it felt more controlled, like she understood the exercise more.

I continued to approach in trot, and gradually raised the second and third canter poles to little bounces. Now I actually wanted her to give a little skip over the poles, so that she lifted her shoulders, engaged her hindquarters and lifted her nose so that she was looking where she was going.

The final jump immediately felt better, as she pinged over them, really coming up in front.

I raised the A-frame fence gradually, but Phoenix took each height in her stride, feeling very correct in her bascule and technique. I loved the feel of the canter now – the balance and power that I had – and it was only when the jump reached 1.05m did she feel like she was having to work over it. I only did it once before leaving our session on a very positive note. She had jumped her biggest to date comfortably, and was confident in her approach. I felt there was an improvement to the canter, which she will hopefully take forward to the flatwork and allow me to adjust her to re-create that canter next time I ride.

My plans now are to do more of the bounce work, perhaps a line of six or so, to strengthen Phoenix’s hindquarters and improve her canter, as she seems to respond better to the poles dictating her canter rather than me interfering. She’s already schooling over 90cm courses, so I won’t push it any higher without getting her some more competition experience and getting her stronger. But hopefully the combination of the bounce work and more canter work on the flat will improve her performance around courses.

Riding Dog Legs

I did the keyhole jumping exercise with a client a couple of weeks ago, and we discovered that she and her pony found riding left dog legs significantly harder than riding right dog legs.The pony is a left banana, and will drift through his right shoulder at every opportunity, but we’ve been addressing both of their straightness and it’s improving all the time. However, jumping and turning left highlights the fact there’s still a weakness here.So this week I decided to tackle left dog legs. I warmed them up with the focus on riding squares, my rider using her outside aids to turn, and keeping the inside rein open without going back towards her, and the pony turning from the outside aids. I see this a lot and for whatever reason, a rider may apply the correct aids to turn, but the horse doesn’t obey immediately, and then in a panic that they aren’t going to make the turn, the rider resorts to pulling them round with the inside rein. They know they’re doing it, but you can’t help it if you’re going to miss the turn! This then creates a cycle that the horse doesn’t turn until the inside rein is utilised, which causes the outside aids to fall by the wayside.My rider has identified in previous lessons that she sometimes forgets to use her right leg to push her pony to the left, so a lot of our flatwork looks at switching that leg on. Furthermore, as she reverts to her left rein, her right hand disappears up her pony’s neck, thus allowing him to drift out of that shoulder. Now I’m not saying she’s to blame – it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But she’s the bigger person, the one I can explain things to, so we have to address her aids first. This is where the flatwork is so helpful; riding the squares and leg yielding, to identify her asymmetry in her aids, and to ensure her pony is responding to the right leg before we add in jumps.Once warmed up, I had them canter a three stride, left dog leg of poles, of which I’d laid dressage boards on the outside of the curve. The visual aid will encourage the pony to turn left, which breaks the cycle of her resorting to the inside rein. She could focus on applying the correct aids and get the correct response from him which would help his understanding.They cantered through the exercise a few times until the canter stayed forwards and the turn was balanced with the correct aids. Interestingly, when the pony was asked to turn left correctly, his evasion technique was to slow down, so my rider had to keep her foot on the accelerator whilst turning and ensure her hands were positive aids.The aids she was giving, or was aiming to give, was a bit of weight into the left stirrup to keep left canter, opening the left rein wide (but not backwards), using the right leg to turn him, whilst keeping her right hand near the base of his neck to provide a wall to support his right shoulder. The trick is for the outside rein to be reactive: not pulling back and causing him to slow, and not slipping forward as he starts to drift, but rather being “there” until he starts to lean on the right shoulder, and then firming the contact to prevent the drift. She’s reacting to his body rather than blocking him with an immobile rein.Next, I built the fences up to crosses. This was to guide both of them to the centre, and to ensure they were totally accurate. This was when the pony started putting in four strides. They were getting the line, but he was becoming sticky in the canter. A check that the reins weren’t restricting him, and then she could apply more leg to keep the power.Once they’d mastered the line, the aids, and planning the turn, I removed the white boards. This made it a bit trickier, as we realised how much the visual line was helping them. So I popped one board in the middle to help them, and once they’d negotiated it successfully then I removed it, and they managed to ride the dog leg line. There was an element of my rider needing to start riding her turn earlier in the exercise; because the pony found it harder that turning right, he needed more setting up and more time to find his line.We ended the session with two steep crosses, getting the dog leg line perfectly and maintaining the canter rhythm to get three strides between the jumps. Hopefully we can build on this in the next few weeks with different exercises.

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!

Lameness Diagnosis?

It’s incredibly frustrating when your horse “isn’t quite right”, which is what one of my clients is going through at the moment. There are a couple of avenues that we are exploring, but this takes time.

You end up talking about this mystery not-quite-rightness to anyone who will listen, and invariably you run of the mill suggestions, which of course you considered on Day One. But hopefully one day, someone will make a suggestion that you haven’t thought of and you can investigate its potential.

This happened to me last November. I was tacking up a client’s horse when another livery whom I knew from sight was riding in the arena next to me. I wasn’t paying particular attention except for the fact she seemed to be faffing. Trotting, then walking, then changing the rein and trotting again. So I asked if she was okay.

The rider launched into this story about how her horse had been slightly lame on and off all summer and she’d had the vet, physio, saddler, dentist and no one could shed any light on the problem.

The horse was fractionally lame, and the rider really noticed it as a reluctance to go downhill with pottery steps. After four or five days, the horse was fine for another few weeks.

I asked when was she shod. I wasn’t about to slate her farrier; as far as I could tell the mare was shod well. She had been shod the week before, and had been slightly lame last weekend.

With a bit of deduction, we worked out that the farrier had been on Wednesday, and the mare had next been ridden on the Saturday. Which suggested to me that the lameness could be due to the farrier or her feet.

My only real suggestion was that the farrier was taking the mare’s hooves a little too short for her liking so the shoes felt uncomfortable for a few days. Looking at the feet, the toes didn’t look too short, or that they’d been dumped, but I know that some horses have more sensitive feet – thinner hoof wall, sensitive laminae closer to the edge of the hoof, etc. Tight shoes could cause short strides and a reluctance to go forwards. I wasn’t sure if it would cause a reluctance down hills.

The lady went off with this suggestion and looked in her diary. Each lameness period coincided with new shoes. So she rang her farrier and talked to him.

The next time I saw her she updated me on her investigations, and said the farrier had taken on board her thoughts about the shoes and they were going to put the mare onto a seven weekly shoe cycle, and leave her with slightly longer toes.

Since then, the mare has been sound: full of energy, jumping confidently, and winning competitions.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert in horse lameness or farriery. I based my suggestion on the fact that I’ve previously seen a horse shod badly (the toes were dumped and the shoe was too small for the foot) who became reluctant to go forwards and became pottery in her stride. This is why it can be so useful to talk to others about your horse’s not-quite-rightness. They may have seen a similar situation and be able to point you in the right direction so that with the help of the right professional your horse becomes sound.

Getting Her On Side

I’ve been working with a rider and her new mare over the winter, and we’ve had to adapt our approach several times as she is quite opinionated and nappy. She was very weak upon arrival, having been a broodmare for years, so it’s been a slow journey of hacking, lunging, and working over poles from the ground. Now however, we’re at the point where we’re asking slightly more of her under saddle and she’s taking umbridge at having to work her muscles a little bit harder.

This has been our approach in recent weeks. Begin by just walking her on both reins with a light, loose contact so she is unhindered and doesn’t have an excuse to start napping to the gate. Then we progress this up into trot; a forwards thinking trot with large circles and changes of rein until she commits to work and settles into her own rhythm. At one point we were lunging her with her rider as she was far more receptive to my directives from the centre of the circle, and then we transitioned to her rider predominantly giving the aids and I backed her up if the mare baulked. Then we had an imaginary lunge line, before slowly taking the mare off the circle where she had to submit to her rider’s aids.

She behaves perfectly for the warm up part now, but as soon as you start asking questions and putting on a bit of pressure the tail swishes, the hindlegs kick out and the bunny hopping begins. So I’ve adopted the approach that we ask her questions so subtly she doesn’t even realise she’s being asked anything.

For example, the mare has a very quick, tense trot which is very much on the forehand. We want to slow the tempo, shift her weight backwards and get her pushing forwards from her hindquarters. It’s not just a simple matter of half halting with this mare as she’ll take any rein aid as an excuse to stop and mini-rear, especially if the alternative is hard. I told my rider to think of her trot being on a sliding scale, of one to ten. Currently it was a six. Quietly, whilst trotting round on both reins and using circles, I asked her to experiment with the tiniest of aids to bring the trot back to a steadier five, then back to six, then back to five. She only needed to spend a couple of strides in the five trot, but the idea was that we made these micro adjustments so that her horse didn’t notice that we were adjusting her gait and balance. The aim was to move towards a four trot, which we did after a few minutes, so that when we opened the trot back up into a five trot it was better balanced than the initial trot, but the mare would find it easier than the four trot and so be compliant.

It worked. The tempo became steadier and the mare relaxed so that her frame softened. The best part was that she stayed with her rider and continued with a good work ethic.

The next lesson, I wanted to work on improving the mare’s suppleness as she was much more balanced in her trot. She didn’t take well to the exercise I gave, which incorporated ten metre circles and stopped playing ball. Not wanting to lose the work ethic we’d created last week, I adopted Plan B. We reverted to riding large circles and when the mare felt particularly forward thinking and focused, I got my rider to ride an eighteen metre circle. Then back to the bigger circles. We repeated this, throwing in smaller circles more frequently and then the larger (normal) circles became eighteen metres and the smaller circles were fifteen metres. Eventually, the mare was happily riding ten metre circles without a second thought. She just hadn’t realised that we were asking her harder questions.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst you always have to “ask a mare”, with this one in particular you have to skirt around the subject, make suggestions and then let her take the idea and think that it’s her own so that she willingly performs the exercise!

I used the bow tie exercise (blogged earlier in the week) last lesson with them but we had to slowly build up to the rapid changes of bend and small circles in order to keep the mare on side. By the end my rider felt she was a lot more adjustable and accepting of her aids. You could start to see where she is working more correctly because the hind leg action is improving, her neck is lengthening and lowering, and she has some cadence to her stride.

Hopefully we can build on the mare’s new work ethic and begin to ask questions slightly more directly as she develops muscle and finds work easier. Then hopefully she’ll become more open to corrections to her way of going from her rider. She may always be one who has to have an indirect approach, but I feel that now we’ve grasped the smooth handle (a What Katy Did reference for other bookworms) we will see lots of good work from this mare in the future. It’s always a good challenge deciphering the workings of a horse’s mind and how best to befriend them.

Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift.

Bow Tie

I’m feeling like I’m neglecting my blogs a bit at the moment, but life seems to be taken up with work, chasing the toddler, birthday parties, hen parties, parental invasions, car services and then this week Demi Dressage judging. Which means that when all of that is done I find I need to sit in a slightly vegetative state in order to recover and prepare for the next day. Which means my to do list grows exponentially!

Here’s a quick exercise I picked up last week, which is great for focusing horse and rider, improving balance and suppleness, as well as tuning the horse in to the leg aids so that they become more manoeuvrable and accepting of the aids. I’ve used it with clients as a warm up and a way of focusing a distracted horse, with a rehab horse to improve his suppleness, and with Phoenix to help her accept the aids and improve her balance when changing the bend.

Called the Bow Tie, it can be ridden in walk and trot, so you can layer it as appropriate for the current level of ability. With the rehab horse I expanded the exercise to give him more time to change his bend and not push him out of his flexibility comfort zone.

Ride along the long side of the arena, let’s say we’re on the left rein. At K, ride a 10m demi-volte, returning to the track on the right rein at E. At E, ride a right 10m circle. Continue on the right rein to H, where you ride another 10m demi-volte and return to the track at E ready to ride a left 10m circle. And repeat.

The demi-voltes to circles provide a quick change of bend, so requires a lot of balance and strength from the horse. Using the 10m circles and half circles requires more flexibility from them, so makes the exercise harder than if they were on a serpentine or figure of eight. Going from a curve to a straight line requires a degree of balance yet also gives the horse a slight reprieve from the circles so doesn’t put too much pressure on them mentally.

I made the exercise larger by using a 60m arena and riding 15m circles and demi voltes, but you can adjust the exercise to best suit you and your horse. I’ve found it a really useful and adaptable exercise so will definitely be bringing it out of my toolbox frequently from now on.

Below is a sketch of half of the bow tie, it gets confusing to draw the second demi volte and circle on, but it should give you an idea.