At what point do you introduce the complications of trot diagonals in a child’s riding journey?
For me, the right time is when a child can maintain rising trot for a decent period. That is, they’re sufficiently balanced they don’t regularly double bounce, and the pony is sufficiently forwards that it doesn’t break into walk and the rider doesn’t have to give huge pony club kicks to keep the pony going (which causes double bouncing) Then of course, you factor in the child’s cognitive level and if they are able to understand the concept of trot diagonals, and will be able to think about navigating their pony as well as checking their trot diagonal regularly.
I have a rule that my riders should know their trot diagonals before learning to jump. They may need plenty of reminding to check them, but they should be balanced enough to sit for two beats. Over the years I’ve had the odd exception; if the pony is particularly lazy or the child has the attention span of a gnat and wouldn’t be able to think of trot diagonals as well as everything else. But I try to keep an eye on the pony’s strength and if they continually push their rider only the same diagonal I’ll introduce the idea of trot diagonals for the pony’s benefit, emphasing that being on the correct trot diagonal makes it easier for their pony.
Once a child has learnt about their trot diagonals the next learning curve is teaching them to remember to change their trot diagonal with each change of rein. Initially, and with younger children, I instruct them to change the rein, let them concentrate on steering, and once they are on the new rein and established – going into their corners and the pony is trotting with sufficient energy – I remind them to check their diagonal and change it if necessary.
As they develop their proficiency, I bring the diagonal change earlier into the change of rein. So I remind them as soon as they go onto the new rein, to change their diagonal. It will then start to become autonomic, and I find I need to remind my rider less frequently to “sit for two beats”. At some point, usually when my riders are a bit older and will understand more about their horse’s balance I will explain the subtle differences between their position on the left and right reins, and encourage them to think about changing from position left to position right and vice versa on their changes of rein. Then they can tie in changing their trot diagonal with changing their position and changing the bend of the horse when we get to that stage.
The other complication when changing the rein with young riders is changing their whip over. When first introducing a whip I don’t worry too much about my young rider changing it over. After all, they usually drop the reins and chaos ensues! I do try to make sure they hold the whip in alternate hands each lesson so that they become ambidextrous and as competent holding and using a whip in their dominant and non dominant hands.
I once taught a boy who only held his whip in his right hand. His pony used to run out to the left. I remember one particular instance when his pony ran out to the left so I told him to change his whip over so he could place it against the left shoulder and keep his pony straight. He did so, but as he was turning around to re-present to the jump, he changed the whip back into his right hand! The pony ran out to the left again!
Anyway. Once coordination has improved and their hands are big enough to make changing the whip over, I teach them the correct way to switch it from side to side. I then start reminding them on all changes of rein. The Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship states that the whip should be swapped to the inside hand on the first long side after a change of rein. I tend to agree with this for young children. Get one thing done at a time. Change the rein, change the trot diagonal, change the whip over. As with checking their trot diagonals, they can start to change their whip over during the change of rein as they get more proficient.
One of my frustrations when I see parents helping their child ride, whether it be helpful reminders from the sidelines, or directing them from the middle of the arena, is the overloading of instructions. “change the rein, don’t forget your diagonal. Why haven’t you changed your whip?” The child ends up flustered and doesn’t do any task well. Let them concentrate on an accurate change of rein before the next two steps. They’re more likely to successfully sit for two beats to change diagonal first time without the pony falling into walk, and then they’re less likely to drop their reins and lose rhythm and balance when changing their whip over. These will happen simultaneously soon enough.