Teaching Outside The Box

I had been doing some gridwork with a young pony clubber who’s pony is pretty fast to a fence, with a choppy stride and tends to get very close to the jump. Over a couple of lessons we’d used canter poles and raised canter poles on a grid to improve their rhythm and subsequently the pony jumped out of a much better canter – a consistent rhythm and a better length of stride – with a neater bascule. But towards the end of each session we had a blip. My rider stopped riding so positively; she turned her pony out of the jump, and then in the last lesson flatly refused to do the same exercise which she’d already done perfectly.

It was that last one where my rider left her lesson unhappy and I was equally unhappy for a number of reasons. I was puzzled. I was disappointed in myself for not managing to give her a good time. I was frustrated that we had had the desired results, and then it had seemingly all unravelled without me dropping the reel. I did lots of reflection on the way home, and after a long chat with my rider’s Mum afterwards I started to understand the situation, and could make a plan to get out of it.

My rider told her Mum that she got confused by the poles, and couldn’t work out how to ride each pole individually. This is, so I’ve learnt in my research, a trait of some on the autism spectrum. They can’t see the picture as a whole, but tend to focus too much on the little details. I can only relate it to a photo mosaic jigsaw I once had. When you stood back, it was an image of a lion, but when you looked closely you saw it was made up of lots of small images of lions. My rider couldn’t see the main image. This led to her literally trying to ride every pole as a separate element. I did some research into teaching children with autism to look for ideas or explanations which might help my rider, who whilst isn’t autistic seems to interpret gridwork in a different way to most people. There I was told that they can often become upset by patterns or colours, so I decided to ensure I used muted poles in matching pairs to hopefully reduce any sensory overload my rider was having when faced with a line of poles.

I made the most detailed lesson plan I’ve ever done when getting ready for her next lesson, to make sure I had some different explanations, several ideas and back up plans. I was actually a bit nervous, because I felt I’d let her down last time.

Once she’d warmed up and I’d put a pile of poles and jumps in the middle of the school, I brought her into the middle and talked to her. I talked to her like she was nineteen, not nine, or however old she is. I mean, only she knows exactly what’s going on in her head, and I needed her to be able to explain it to me. She needed to feel comfortable talking to me, and one way of ensuring this with children is to give them respect and talk to them as adults. I told her that we were going to play around with poles and jumps, and if anything made her worried, or confused, then she had to tell me immediately and I would remove it. I wanted her to understand what we were doing, why we were doing it, and to gauge her triggers for becoming overwhelmed.

Then I asked her what her job was when jumping. She listed lots of things – jumping position, not pulling her pony in the mouth, getting straight, riding to the middle. Then I asked her what her pony’s job was. She answered that it was to go over the poles and jumps. So I simplified things. Yes, she needs to do all the details she mentioned, but they’re becoming autonomic now she’s more experienced. The important thing for my rider to remember is that her job is to organise them both on the approach and getaway to and from a jump. Her pony’s job was to jump the jump.

We started cantering over a single pole on the floor with jump wings. We discussed canter rhythm and straightness. Then I put out four cones. Two on either side of the jump, about a stride from take off. As she cantered between each pair of cones they signified the point where her pony took charge, and where she took charge again.

With this “zone” in place, my rider could focus on riding a straight approach, picking up canter and keeping it steady, and stopped thinking too hard about the jump as it was in her pony’s zone. Then afterwards she regrouped easily. Of course, a single pole and then a single jump was well within her comfort zone and not something that usually overwhelms her. But that was the point, I wanted her to focus on the transfer of responsibility between herself and her pony.

Once they were jumping the single fence well, and you could see that already the pony wasn’t getting quite so deep into the jump, I added in a second fence, four strides away. I wanted to give them enough space between the jumps that they could easily be separate elements. I made a zone around that jump too. And discussed with my rider that between the zones she needed to sit up and steady the canter as it was her area of responsibility, and given the pony’s love of jumping, we always need to be careful of not going too fast. The jumps stayed within her comfort zone as I got them riding through the related distance, keeping our focus on the zones.

This seemed to be working quite well, so I started talking to my rider about the reason we use the poles. Theoretically, we’ve already discussed it whilst building the grid, but I wanted her to understand the purpose of using poles. She could remember the feel of the canter rhythm over the poles, and was trying to replicate it without the poles. We then discussed her pony’s balance. My rider could feel that the canter was less bouncy and uphill without the poles to help, and whilst their jumping was better, they were still getting a bit deep into the fences.

I suggested putting a placing pole in front of the jump, and my client agreed. Once the pole was down, I emphasised how it was still within her pony’s zone. She seemed happy, and although their first go was a little hesitant, she seemed to understand and not be fazed by the additional pole. Once she’d ridden it a few times I could see her visible relaxing and then they got a better take off point. My rider could feel the benefit of having the pole.

We progressed to having a placing pole in front of the second fence too, and my rider rode really positively and confidently. Their striding wasn’t quite perfect between the fences, so the second didn’t feel quite as nice as the first, but it was definite progress towards a steadier, rhythmical canter and improved shape over the jump. The important part being that my rider understood the benefits of using poles, could manage the exercise and didn’t get overwhelmed.

I was really pleased with how the lesson developed; I think the key points to focus on are keeping the zones, and building exercises as we go. With the majority of riders, you lay the exercise out and build it progressively upwards (one jump, two jump etc etc), but with this young rider I think it’s best to start with nothing and introduce a pole at a time, ensuring it’s within the pony’s zone. I do think over a few months we will get to a point where we can use a small number of poles to help create and improve their canter rhythm in a related distance and not overload her. The important thing is to listen to her and respect her emotions and feedback so that she continues to progress and stays confident.

Getting Back into Jumping

I had my first jump with Phoenix for three months last weekend. I didn’t jump her initially during lockdown and then the ground has been so hard I haven’t wanted to use the jumping paddock. I was going to hire a training venue, but then saw a local gridwork clinic so decided that was a better option. Phoenix benefits from lots of grids to stop her rushing and engaging her brain, but it always involves so much getting on and off to adjust poles! Yes, I am lazy!

Anyway, the layout was excellent and I shall be using it for my own clients, so watch out!

There was a grid of three jumps placed on the centre line, one stride between each one and the middle jump on X. Then across the diagonals, between M and X, and H and X, were three canter poles, before one stride and the pole at X.

The session was all about straightness so we warmed up cantering straight across the diagonals, obviously traversing the pole at X on an angle. We worked on riding the corner in a balanced way so that we were straight over the poles and didn’t drift. Then the second and third canter poles were converted into bounces, as alternate diagonal poles. This meant that if you drifted towards the lower side over the first pole you had to jump the higher side of the next pole.

Once the raised canter poles were established and the horses confident over them and staying fairly straight the jump at X was raised to an upright and we jumped diagonally across the arena a few times.

Phoenix tends to load her right shoulder when jumping. She used to do it on the flat but as she’s getting stronger she’s carrying it more, but when caught up in the excitement of jumping she will regress to loading it. Which means that this exercise, particularly off the left rein, is highly beneficial.

The exercise is actually very straightforward if you can ride a straight line. The bounces help lift the shoulders, engage the hocks, and subsequently the upright is cleared easily and neatly. Sometimes when jumping on an angle a horse is inclined to drift through the open side. Partly because of the visual effect of the jump drawing them outwards, partly because the horse is crooked, and partly because the rider isn’t channelling their horse straight with the leg and hand. If you have the foundation right in your flatwork then the jumps will follow.

The next exercise was building the centre line grid up to two uprights and an oxer. The work across the diagonals developing straightness was put to the test with uprights and very little to guide the eye. The improved bascule and confidence in the horse’s jump also shows the benefits of improving their straightness.

We rode courses, linking all three lines up, and then finally changed the angled bounces to an upright, making a one stride double with the jump at X.

Having a lot of poles definitely helped Phoenix slow down and think about the job in hand, and the straightness work improved her bascule and ability to make related distances easy in a regular rhythm. Watch out clients, you’ll see some similar exercises soon!

The Wise Man

The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …

I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.

If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.

My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.

For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.

It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.

Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?

My Gridwork Clinic

I’ve planned a series of polework and gridwork clinics over the winter, approximately one a month, at a beautiful local showjumping venue. They’re designed to run independently, so people don’t feel they have to attend all six, and I’ve given each date a theme. This helps me plan, and also helps riders chose which clinics to come to as they have a rough idea of what we’ll be working on.For my first clinic, I chose straightness as the theme.I wanted to work evenly off both reins as symmetry improves straightness, and often riders find it harder to ride straight when turning off one rein more than the other, so in order to ensure everyone had a chance to improve their stiffer rein, I used the centre line.I laid two tramlines just onto the centre line, to focus the riders on their turn so they didn’t drift, and were set up straight for the grid. With a fairly short approach I laid out a jump, followed by another one canter stride away. The third jump was two canter strides away, with a pair of tramlines in the middle to correct horse and rider if they’d drifted. Then there was a fourth and fifth fence one canter stride apart. The fifth fence was an oxer, and there were tramlines on the landing side and the then just before the turn at the track.The tramlines ensured they started and finished straight, and stopped any cutting of corners after the grid, so improving the getaway.I warmed up all the riders by getting them to trot through the grid with the poles on the ground, alternating the reins they’re coming off. Initially, all the horses had a good look at the arrangement of poles, but after a couple of goes, they started going straighter, my riders were channelling them forwards because they’d stopped looking down, and the horse’s stride length opened and rhythm became consistent. The riders could also start to think about whether it was easier to turn off the left rein or the right rein and make corrections.We then cantered through the poles from both reins. All horses will struggle to get the distances while there are no jumps, but as they got straighter and more forwards they started to work out how best to place their feet. So long as the horses are going through in a positive, rhythmical canter, I’m happy at this stage.I built the grid up slowly, starting with a cross as the first jump. The centre of the cross meant we knew if there was any drifting on the approach. The second fence was also a cross to help straightness, and then the tramlines corrected any drifting on the getaway and over the rest of the poles.The third jump was an upright, and once they’d jumped it confidently once, I made it into an A-frame. The apex emphasised the centre of the jump, and encouraged the horses to be neater over the jump. Of course, the horses and riders back off this slightly intimidating set-up, so I encouraged the riders to sit up after the second cross and ride positively in order to get the two strides. Once the horses have jumped it a couple of times it doesn’t cause any problems. The fourth jump also became an upright. With some groups I also made this into an A-frame, but if I felt that the first A-frame improved the horse’s technique over subsequent jumps I didn’t bother. And finally, we built the fifth fence into an oxer.Everyone found that the tramlines were incredibly helpful at helping both horse and rider stay straight, and the crosses highlighted any drifting so the riders’ knew how and when to correct over the last three elements. They could all feel the difference in their horses as their straightness improved because the distances were easier and the hindquarters more efficient at pushing the horse over the fence. They also landed in a more balanced way, ready for the next obstacle. When the horses were going straighter the riders could feel the effects of any twisting by themselves through the grid, which helped them fine tune their position.

All in all, it was a great, rewarding morning, with lots of progress from each partnership. Now I need to plan next month’s “Gears to the Gaits” clinic!


One of the lessons I’m expected to teach for my Intermediate Teach Test is a group gridwork lesson. I only have 35 minutes to assess and teach a group of four unknown horse and rider combinations. Even if I don’t complete the lesson, I should have a clear idea of the progression of the lesson and have made an improvement to the riders.

Obviously this is a bit daunting as I need to quickly assess horse and riders, as well as manage a group environment. On a weekly basis I see the same clients, who are lovely of course, but I know them inside out and adapt distances automatically. I decided to enlist the help of my fellow riding club members.

This weekend was my second gridwork clinic with the riding club. I was surprised how popular it was; five groups of three or four riders!

I was a bit more on the ball this time, feeling more confident (it helped that I had a couple of familiar faces) and being more efficient with the warm up, assessment, and adjusting poles.

I still need to remember to check tack. I always look at girths and stirrups but I need to make more of a point of checking tack fit … I also need to remember to remove all cups from wings, as I tend to sort the poles out, make a correction to a rider as they pass, and forget to remove the cup…

Anyway, I could talk for hours about all the riders – what I liked, how they improved, what I would like to work on long term… but I’ll try to keep it brief.

I decided that the grid I would do was a cross pole, one stride, upright, one stride, upright, two strides, oxer. For the first group, at 70cm high, I did four short human strides for a non-jumping canter stride, on the basis that I could adjust it once I’d seen the horses work. After all, the jumps weren’t very big and the horses were likely to be lacking in the canter. Then through the day I could  adjust the distances between poles as necessary.

Each lesson had the same format. Warm up in open order, trot and then canter over the poles on each rein. Jump the cross pole in both directions. Then staying on the left rein, add in the first upright after the cross pole. Then the third fence. Increasing the height of the fences as necessary. Once the riders had mastered this then I added in the oxer. This filled each hour easily.

The 70cm group was one of two halves; two confident and competent riders on green or rehabbed horses, and two nervous riders on absolute gentlemen of horses. It worked quite well as the more nervous ones had more turns over the poles and initial jump to perfect the basics and build their confidence whilst the other two felt it was unnecessary to repeatedly go through once their horses had mastered the poles. Yet when the grid was completed the more nervous ones were quite happy to just jump it once or twice, and then observe the other two doing it a couple more times to correct and establish their horses through the four jumps. For me, in this lesson one rider who stood out was very nervous to begin with, almost walking over the poles, and ended up jumping from an energetic canter, with a huge smile on her face.

The first of the 80cm groups was a mixed bag too. One horse liked to gallop through the grid, but we sorted this out by using circles before and the rider sitting up quicker and using her position to half halt instead of purely the reins. Another combination was a rider who isn’t hugely confident jumping on a horse she’d only ridden once previously. Here we just worked on her not backing off the fences, and using her legs between the fences. Another rider was on her gentleman of a mount who looked after her and let her focus on allowing with her hands over the fences. The other rider was on a four year old who wasn’t quite off the leg enough on the approach and had to stretch over the jumps. So lots to occupy me, but I really liked the fact that all the riders were very supportive of each other and full of compliments. Each leaving on a high.

In the next group I had a mare who panics over jumps, but can also suddenly stop. Again, lots of circles after to rebalance, the rider calmly riding positively to the fences so the mare didn’t feel frightened over them, yet knew she had to jump. The last time through the grid she was actually very steady and calm, which pleased both me and her rider. Another rider was on her daughters experienced horse, and just needed to learn the ropes as her jumping was a bit rusty. They were good fun though, and I think with a bit of practice they’ll make a good partnership. One lady was on her young mare who tends to hang in the air over fences. The mare has a good bascule, but I think that because she is a little on the forehand and lacks the strength in her hindquarters, because as soon as the canter improved the grid flowed much better. That’s just developing muscles and strength though, which they will hopefully do at home. The other rider just needed to use her seat and direct transitions to make the canter a bit more punchy so the grid flowed more easily, but again these riders were all very supportive of each other.

In the last 80cm group there was a talented, yet explosive mare, who jumped beautifully but needed to approach in trot in order to contain the energy. I think the series of jumps were very good for her as she had to use her brain, which steadied her. Another rider on her Arab had the usual speed problem, but remembering to “think pause” upon landing (the horse didn’t like much of a rein contact so thinking about pausing uses more body and less hand so is a softer aid) gave them more space between jumps so it flowed and they didn’t flatten over the fences. This lesson was also the first time my striding didn’t work out. I couldn’t make the distance any shorter because the two horses I’ve just described needed every inch of it, but the third horse struggled to do the grid in one stride. I suggested that the rider rode a bouncier, shorter striding canter to enable them to fit two even strides between fences rather than a normal stride and then a very small one. It looked better then, but it’s a different style of riding, especially if you like to take a flyer over fences, so it takes some getting used to.

My final group, was the 90cm group, and I wasted no time building the grid up to height, and replacing the cross with an upright. One rider was on her very lovely new horse, so it was all about getting to know him, learning the brakes but he jumped beautifully and made it look easy. She’ll have a lot of fun with him! Another rider was on her pony, and we found it tricky to find the balance between the big striding canter, power, and not flattening over the jumps. He tried his heart out, and jumped nicely but I think where he’s not as fit as he usually is it showed up his weaker areas, and working on his medium canter would help. My other rider needs to work on her canter on the flat too because her honest mare just lost the energy and power through the grid. But they all jumped well and hopefully know what to work on at home.

I felt it was a really productive day for me, as well as all the riders and hopefully we’ll do more in the new year.

Jumping Bounces

One thing I took away from the cross country clinic I did with Otis a couple of weeks ago is that I need to stop backing off a fence when he backs off. I need to attack more so that he doesn’t chip in, and hopefully this will stop him jumping such a steep, high bascule.and make it easier to jump wider fences.

Back in the arena yesterday I decided to set up a row of bounces. With twelve foot between each cross pole I knew it would make Otis stretch between fences and make a shallower, wider bascule. I only used three jumps. Mainly because I ran out of puff shifting all the poles and wings, but also because I had to travel further afield (the jump store) for another couple of poles.

I gave Otis a placing pole a good nine foot away from the first fence and cantered him through the poles to open his stride and get him in the jumping frame of mind. Bounce poles on the ground are quite tricky as the horse needs to put in more effort and almost skip over each pole in order to make the striding. We managed it much more easily in right canter, which is his preference when jumping.

I built the grid up slowly and Otis took to it easily – unlike some, he knows what a bounce is. He had to stretch the first couple of times, but it quickly became easy. I raised it to higher crosses as soon as he became a bit too lazy and complacent. Whilst I want him to stretch, and not go up so high, I do want him to respect the height of the fences. I kept the bounce grid as crosses as Otis was much less likely to back off a cross, than he is an upright. I once taught a pony who easily bounced a grid as cross poles, but as soon as they became uprights he insisted on putting a stride in!

I worked Otis evenly from both reins. The left canter is getting more consistent over fences but when he puts in a lot of effort he tends to change. He did this a couple of times but once or twice he gave a good stretch and landed on his left lead. My friend, and pole putter upper, noticed that Otis jumps bigger from the right canter than the left, which I guess is due to hindleg strength. We finished with an oxer at the end of the bounces to really test Otis. The first time he out the brakes on, gawping as he clambered over the first bounce. But he soon figure it out and jumped the grid really fluidly off both reins to finish.

Jumping bounce grids are a very useful exercise to increase a horse’s agility, the riders suppleness, and also improve the canter by forcing a rhythm and improving the activity of the hindleg.

My next jumping exercise with Otis is going to be on a circle to further improve his jumping out of left canter and his confidence with it. I know he gets frustrated with himself because if I’m jumping a single jump from left canter and he lands on the right lead he shakes his head, slows down, and tries to change his lead!