The Accuracy Clinic

I had the third of my winter clinics this weekend, and for once the rain stayed away!

The theme was accuracy, which developed the straightness work of the first clinic, using skinny fences and jumping on an angle.

In the centre of the school I placed the skinny fence. Then I strode out three horse canter strides to a jump in front and behind the centre jump, which meant there was a grid of three fences with three strides between each jump. A pony would get four strides between the jumps.

Then, from the skinny jump, I walked diagonally, again for three canter strides, and built another fence. The line I walked meant that the fences were jumped on an angle. I added another three fences so that they formed two diagonal lines of three fences, with the skinny jump in the centre. To help my riders find their line, I used narrow white rails as tramlines.

I warmed up the riders in trot and canter, getting them to ride the lines so that the horses stopped looking at the tramlines or wobbling as they stepped over the poles on an angle. The riders could also focus on how they rode their corners on the approach and getaway without the complication of having fences.

Once everyone’s lines were flowing over the poles, I put up the fences. I had the skinny jump as an upright and all of the others as crosses to help guide my riders’ eye to the middle of the fences. We started by jumping the central line. Having the skinny jump in the middle meant that riders had to maintain their straightness between the jumps, not letting their horse drift slightly. As long as they had an even rein contact with legs draped evenly around their horse, this line flowed nicely and was fairly straightforward. Horses sometimes back off a narrow fence, so in order to keep the line flowing, the riders had to be positive between the first and second fence without chasing them out of their rhythm.

If a rider steers predominantly with their reins, they end up with a snake like effect, wiggling between the jumps, so this is a useful exercise for encouraging riders to use their legs to steer the body of the horse and keep a stiller hand.

Next, we progressed to riding the diagonal lines. The secret was to ride deep into the corner before the first jump, and focus on the final cross. Think of riding the fences as one combination, rather than separate elements, as this helps the line flow. The horses naturally back off when jumping on an angle as the ground lines can be a bit deceiving, and they usually fitted in an extra stride. Once my riders had gotten their eye in, they could use more leg between the fences to encourage their horse to take them to the next fence. The riders had to commit The reins were usually quieter by now, and the horse travelling between leg and hand, which improved the shape they made over jumps, improved their rhythm and tempo, and the rider became more in sync with the horse and the lines rode more fluidly and accurately, I put together a course. Jump the centre line, turn left and jump on her diagonal line followed by the other diagonal line and finally back up the centre line in reverse. This turned the focus to linking the jumps together, getting a good jumping canter immediately, using all of the arena to set up the line.

The improvement in all the horses and riders was great to see; the jumping rhythm improved, and both horse and rider were committed to their jumping line, and jumping in a straighter fashion over the fences, with a cleaner bascule because they thought they were jumping on an angle so the take of point wasn’t as clear as it could have been. Definitely a good challenge for anyone who feels they they or their horse drift whilst jumping or between elements.

Centre Lines

After accidentally entering two dressage competitions with three centre lines in each test I dug around for some centre line exercises, for both Phoenix and my lovely clients.

To be able to ride a good centre line you and your horse need to be as straight and symmetrical as possible. But you also need to be comfortable on the centre line. So many horse and riders feel vulnerable on the centre line, with no fence to support them.

So initially, I began working on an inner track and using the centre line as a change of rein. Working away from the fence line encourages the rider to use their outside aids, and makes you more aware of any crookedness in your horse, or them drifting. I also like to ride lateral movements such as shoulder in or travers on the inner track as it emphasises any cheating on you or your horse’s behalf, as well as improving your feel for the movement and it’s correctness.

Once Phoenix was happy turning onto the centre line from both reins and staying straight throughout, I added in transitions.

A horse has to be as rideable as possible on the centre line, so it’s useful to get them used to riding various movements on the centre line. You also don’t want a horse to anticipate a halt transition at X every time they trot down the centre line. With both Phoenix and my clients I used a variety of transitions – halt, walk, rein back – to keep the horse’s attention on their rider and to get them riding straight transitions without the help of the fence. A pair of tramlines can be a useful intermediary measure to support the horse as they learn to stay straight.

One thing I noticed with many of my riders was that they could turn accurately onto the centre line, but then they were unaware of their slight drift down the centre line, which stemmed from the crookedness in their initial turn.

After some work on bringing the outside shoulder round on turns, I got them to ride the following exercise.

On the left rein in trot, turn onto the centre line and at X ride a 10m circle left. Continue down the centre line before turning right at the track. Right turn onto the centre line and this time ride a right 10m circle at X before continuing along the centre line and turning left.

A horse who turns onto the centre line in a slightly crooked way will not carry themselves straight so are liable to drift through the outside shoulder. This may be a minimal drift, but the lack of straightness will compromise the quality of their gait and their turn at the end.

The 10m circles towards the wall will improve the rider’s accuracy as they won’t want to crash into the fence, so will engage their outside aids and ride the outside shoulder around the circle more. As they return to the centre line, it will become apparent if they’ve forgotten the outside aids as their horse will overshoot the centre line, and wobble along it. If they forget to ride straight out of the circle they will struggle to turn at the end because the horse is bending the wrong way.

To ride this exercise well, the rider needs to ride accurately with their outside aids onto the centre line, and focus on channelling the horse along the centre line, before minimising the bend through their neck on the circle, and using the outside aids to turn. Focusing on straightening the horse as they ride out of the circle improves the second half of the centre line and then, because the horse is not in counter bend, they will turn onto their new rein in a more balanced way.

I like this exercise for assessing straightness, before doing some other exercises to ensure the horse is working on two tracks and then using lateral work to establish the outside rein and engage the inside hind leg, before finishing the session with the original centre line exercise so that the rider gets a feeling for a horse is travelling straight in a good balance. Increasing familiarity with the centre line will improve test marks, and improving the finishing strides of a circle will improve accuracy marks and the marks of the next movement.

Dogs and Me

One of the things I hate most when hacking is meeting dogs. Which is really annoying because they are one of the most commonly encountered things whilst riding out.

I`m sure many of you are wondering what has happened in the past, and there have been a couple of incidents, that Matt kindly reminded me of. Just for the record, he didn’t do anything, his presence reminded me!

We used to hack through a village, which was a lovely single track, straight hill. We`d encounter various spooky things, and it was always a good spook-busting hack. At the top the lane turned into a green lane, ironically with National Speed Limit signs at the grassy cusp of the lane which bordered the local golf course. We`d walk down and through the twisty wooded track before turning on our heels and bombing along, ducking branches, skipping over the stream that ran in winter. At the end we had to slow down, turn a sharp right and gallop back up the hill to the National Speed Limit signs, dodging stray golf balls as they flew over.

The last house in the village had a stone wall around the garden, which was at the side of the house. Every time a horse (and probably a walker) passed, the resident dog, a large black Labrador, would bound out over the wall and bark loudly at us while the middle aged owner mildly called it to heel. And every single time without fail, Matt would jump a mile.

I remember I used to anticipate the dog as much as he did. Then one day, the dog went too far. He bounded over the garden wall, barking loudly, and ran straight over to Matt. Who kicked him pretty sharpish. The owner looked quite upset, so I just shrugged at him. He hadn`t bothered to train the dog properly! After that, the dog didn’t go further than the wall when horses passed, so it obviously learnt it`s lesson!

Another Matt story, which involves a dog, was one Christmas. I had cycled to the yard so it must have been the holidays and a weekday because Mum was visiting Granddad and Dad was working. My friends and I decided to go on a pre Christmas hack, one of the longer routes, but still a favourite because it included the Green Lane and the hair-raising track to the village on the way home. There hadn`t been any snow yet, so the world was muddy and dreary.

We blasted along the green lane, spraying mud at the one behind us, and then calmly walked past the little house (which we were always convinced some sort of hermit lived in) before turning right. We walked up the lane, then down the lane, past some sheep peeking through the fence, around the corner and …

As we passed a stone wall and gated drive a sheepdog suddenly started barking, nose sticking under the gate. We all jumped. Matt especially, and as he landed he slipped on the mud at the side of the lane and down we both went, my leg squashed between road and pony. He got up, unhurt, but my leg was pretty painful and numb. So we had to try to get some phone signal to ring for help, and I got a lift back to the yard, while another friend rode Matt back. After the bag of peas treatment and rest, my leg was fine.

However, my stirrup iron was bent! The bottom of it was almost at forty five degrees from where it had been squashed, protecting my foot. I only realised how much protection the stirrup had given my foot when I was working without stirrups in the indoor arena a couple of months later and a dog emerged from the shadows. We were on a corner, so obviously Matt slipped as he shied, and this time I had a very squashed foot! Sidelined from games for a few days, much to my netball coach`s disgust if I remember correctly.

So yeah. Dogs and I don`t really go well together. I feel better when I see owners holding them, getting them to sit, or putting them on leads, but I still have to make an effort to squash any anxiety so that the horse I am riding stays unperturbed.

Only a couple of weeks ago I met someone walking five dogs in the woods, and she clipped all but one onto a lead, holding the other one. Once I`d gotten around the corner and down the hill a bit I heard hysterical screaming. The dog was only chasing me and my horse! Thankfully, the process of me turning the horse to face the sprinting dog was enough for it to stop, cower, and turn tail.

This is by no means me having a go at dog walkers, it is just a trip down memory lane, and an explanation as to why I will always pull up and wait for dogs to be controlled before I get too close.

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Things That Haunt Us

I ride a lot of horses; this week I’ve already ridden seven different horses. I hack some of them and I’ve noticed that I have one angst that goes with me, on every horse.

I don’t like dogs. More specifically, I don’t like hacking past houses which have a dog in the garden.

This stems back to an accident I had about ten years ago. It was the week before Christmas and I was hacking my young pony with two friends. We were walking along a narrow lane and as we passed a farm drive, complete with gates, and suddenly a nose appeared under the gate, it’s  owner yapping loudly. Both my pony and I jumped, sidestepped and slipped on the mud on the side of the road. I found myself on my side with my pony lying on my leg. He got up hurriedly and I soon followed.

Thankfully my leg and foot was unharmed – we later found out the my adult safety stirrup had saved me as the actual iron had become distorted in the fall. This was highlighted a month later when I was working without stirrups in the indoor and one of the yard dogs loomed out of the dark, causing my pony to leap sideways on the corner, before slipping over onto me again. This time, my foot didn’t come off so well! Which is another reason to use stirrups.

Back to the dog accident. It took me and my pony a few hacks before we would go past that driveway, and we were both very tense. After my accident my friends and I always used to make a noise as we approached the driveway in order to get the dog to bark before we got there.

I never really liked hacking that route again, and I was surprised last autumn when I went for a bus mans holiday to Wales, to hear that the dog was still alive.

Even today when I approach large houses and drives, with the potential of dogs running round I feel myself tense, and have to really concentrate on exhaling slowly to help the horse stay relaxed.