Going With The Movement

I’ve done some work on seat aids with a client in the last few months, getting her more aware of using her seat to reinforce her leg and hand aids.

However, she’s fallen into the trap of a lot of riders as they learn about the seat. They overuse it. Which doesn’t always help when you have a backward thinking horse. Since Christmas, I’ve noticed there’s been a bit too much wiggling in the saddle, which has become ineffective and now inhibits her horse’s movement – think about trying to give a child a piggy back while they’re wriggling around!

Studying my rider at the beginning of her lesson I noticed that the crux of the problem is coming from her hips and inner thighs. Her thighs were close to her saddle, but at the expense of tight gluteals and a fixed point which caused her upper body to move with her seat, but her lower leg to counteract this movement and the leg aids to become wooly and less effective.

I brought her to the middle of the school and asked her to halt. We were going to do an exercise I spent many hours doing on the lunge at college, and similar to our hip opening warm up at Pilates. I got her to draw her knees up to the pommel of her saddle and then take them out to the sides before slowly lowering them into the usual position. This plonks you squarely onto your seatbones so helps identify them if they’re lost, but also stretches and loosens the thigh-hip joint. The thighs then relax and the legs drape around the horse’s barrel more comfortably (this has more of a noticeable effect on larger barrelled horses). Initially there may be daylight seen between the knee and saddle flap. It’s not ideal, but go with it for a minute or two.

Once we’d repeated this hip opening exercise, I got my rider to walk on. She could still use her seat aids, but I wanted her to reduce them, and to think about how her thighs and seat stay relaxed whilst using these aids. Then I asked her to try to use her seat to complement her horse’s gait, rather than to dominate it. It was like they were playing the same tune but at different speeds, so had moments of togetherness, but were mostly working against each other.

As soon as my rider reduced her movements and got in time with her horse, her seat and leg aids became more effective, so there was no need to over egg it. Her horse moved more freely and they looked more together. She still had daylight between her knees and knee rolls, and subsequently felt a bit loose in the saddle, so I told her to gently close her legs so they were close to the saddle but without tensing the thighs. Then she had more contact with her horse so could stay in sync more easily without tension.

We moved on to some trot and canter work, with my rider feeling more effective with her aids, was stiller in her lower leg, and her horse moving in a less inhibited way.

This rider has been on a Franklin Method Clinic, and specifically found sitting on the balls helped her relax her gluteal muscles and so sit deeper in the saddle. So we are going to use a combination of the Franklin balls and hip opening exercises to switch off her naturally tight thighs and gluteals so that she can really feel the way her horse moves and apply aids which are well timed and effective. As her body is more relaxed, when she is not actively applying aids she is not giving any conflicting or restrictive instructions so then her horse becomes more responsive and reactive to her aids.

Pole Star

I did a fun polework lesson over the weekend, in the shape of a five pointed star.

It was harder than I anticipated to make star-shaped – I could’ve done with a drone to help me get it perfectly aligned! But once it was set up I could see the multitude of uses for it!

Once my two riders had warned up in trot and canter I had them working on opposite points of the star. They had to ride a 10-15m circle on the outside of the star, trotting over the two poles which formed the point of the star. I had my riders adjust their circle so that they found the perfect striding between the poles for their horse. The horse shouldn’t be skipping or stretching for the second pole, neither should they be chipping in and tripping over it. Riding the poles on a curve increases the step of the inside hind, so activating it so that it works harder on a normal circle. When the inside hind comes further under the body the abdominals work harder and thus the horse lifts their back.

My riders rode these circles on both reins, feeling the improvement, and also the difference between reins as by asking the horse to work harder it highlights any weakness or evasion tactic. They both felt that the trot was more co-ordinated and together after this exercise.

Examples of the circle exercise and straightness exercise lines ridden by my riders.

Next, we turned our attention to their accuracy and straightness by riding across the star, over the points. I had my riders find their line, focus on a point, channel the horse between the reins using the legs and seat. The aim is that the horse trots over the point of the poles. This tests their balance and straightness, as well as improving their cadence and suppleness.

These two exercises kept us busy for the level of horse that I had in this lesson, as we combined them into a little course at the end, but they could also be done in canter. Both horses improved dramatically in their way of going, looking much more balanced and active in their trot work.

Next time I do this exercise, I want to add in some trot and canter poles on a curve across the arena, so the star becomes a shooting star.

Containing The Excitement

I’m working separately with two teenagers at the moment to try to retrain their (funnily enough, both) mares so that their jumping isn’t so fast and furious. Both horses are experienced jumpers, but very quick in the air, and very fast on the approach.

Now, I don’t think you’re ever going to completely change a horse’s way of jumping, in that some have more scope than others, some prefer a slower, more collected canter approach, and others like the leg applied on take-off more than others, and so on. However, correct training can enhance a horse’s jumping technique, and there are lots of exercises to help correct undesirable jumping behaviours. I don’t expect either horse to stop being forwards to a fence, but I aim to have them politer and steadier on the approach so that it is safer and less hair-raising for their riders.

With one mare, I started off with a pole on the ground between two wings and incorporated it into their warm up. I had my rider walk and trot over the pole, using it within circles, and basically doing flatwork around the pole, going over it every so often calmly, and when it’s least expected. This takes away the novelty factor of jumping and poles, and reduces the amount of repetition and so stops her anticipating jumping.

Initially, she made quite a thing about the pole, jumping it and cantering off. So we repeated the calm and quiet approach, with my rider staying positive but neutral. She just went with the pony over the jump before calmly slowing her down. Then there was no negative connotation between the rider and the jump.

What I liked about this mare, and I don’t know her very well, was that she was very obedient to her rider’s downward aids. She was happy to let her rider influence her. I did think that her jumping was almost a bit panicked, so I hope that by slowing her down she learns to read and understand the question, so begin to enjoy jumping more. The important thing though, is that she was willing to work with her rider, and seems to become steadier each time.

I built the jump up slowly, and we focused on my rider aiming to trot the approach to the jump by half halting strongly until a couple of strides out when the hand is softened and the seat and leg tells the horse to go and jump. After the jump, my rider had to sit up quickly and ask the pony to come back to trot.

We varied this basic approach by using circles on the approach, transitions to walk (a good exercise was trotting towards the pole on the ground, walking over the pole, and trotting away), and varying the length of the approach. She started to listen to her rider and stayed in trot until a couple of strides off the jump, and was fairly quick to trot again after the jump. I emphasised to her rider that she shouldn’t interfere on the last couple of strides so that her pony could sort her legs out. The pony should be at the tempo and rhythm set by her rider on the approach and getaway, but ultimately they have to jump the jump so shouldn’t be hindered.

The other mare will jump an exercise very calmly the first time, but then she gets over excited and gets quicker and quicker. So I change the exercise promptly, only doing each level once or twice – making a cross an upright, or changing the rein, adding in another element etc. And my rider tries to keep the trot and rides a circle or two, or three, on the approach until the mare stops anticipating the jump. The circle shouldn’t be too close to the jump that the pony thinks she is being pulled out of the jump, and it should be planned by the rider. Using a combination of changing the exercise and using numerous circles on the approach we managed to get a steadier approach, but there was a fine balance between containing the excitement and not frustrating this mare as she then has the tendency to explode and go even faster to the jump!

With both mares, I’ve found that avoiding simple jumps helps slow them down and get them thinking about the obstacles. This week, I built a grid of one pole and a canter stride to a small upright, then one canter stride to a cross. I had my rider walk over the first pole, then ride forwards to the little upright. I was really pleased that the pony walked happily over the pole and my rider could then ride positively to the jumps, instead of having to restrain the mare. We only did this grid twice because she jumped it so calmly and quietly. I want to build up to trotting over the first pole and then calmly cantering the grid.

When working with a horse who tends to rush fences it’s important that the rider has an unflappable demeanour, and a strong core so that they can hold the horse together before and after jumps, yet calmly stay in balance over the fence and don’t pull the horse in the mouth or get left behind in the air.

It can be difficult to retrain a horse to jump, but with a consistent approach of calm, quiet riding and using a variety of approaches to keep the horse focused on their rider and not rushing to the jumps. I also find that not repeating exercises too often, and returning to flatwork for a few minutes between jumps to resettle the horse has beneficial effects. As a horse starts to slow down and keep a more rhythmical approach to a jump their bascule will improve as well, which will help improve their posture and muscle tone, so making their jumping easier and prolonging their working life.

Instant Feedback

One of the most useful tools I took away from the Franklin Method clinic I attended in November was riding with resistance bands.

I find myself repeating the subject of not giving the outside rein away to all of my riders, but for whatever reason, my teaching isn’t as effective as it could be. I’ve worked on different explanations for the importance of supporting the outside shoulder, using that rein to bring that shoulder around the turn, and for preventing an over-bend in the neck to improve the bend through their barrel. I’ve explained about a positive inside rein, thinking of opening a door away from you rather than bringing the hand back towards your stomach to help maintain impulsion and balance. I’ve used exercises like turn on the forehand and discussed the biomechanics of the inside hind to help riders understand the importance of keeping the outside rein. I’ve used the exercise of carrying the whip horizontally over the index fingers, which helps riders see their outside hand creeping forwards on turns, but it seems to be limited to just acknowledging the movement. My riders all understand what they should be doing and why, but breaking any bad habits is easier said than done.

When I did the Franklin Method clinic we rode with resistance bands around our lower arms. The resistance bands were the lightest option, and were placed around the wrist just above the cuff of the gloves. The purpose in the Franklin Clinic was to ride keeping the hands apart so that the slack was taken out of the band. It wasn’t to force the hands out into the resistance of the band and create tension in the shoulders and arms, but to keep the hands a consistent distance apart.

The result of keeping the hands five inches apart, where there’s least pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, is that as you turn your horse you keep the hands working as a pair, akin to carrying a tray (you may have heard that analogy elsewhere). If a rider tends to bring the inside hand back and let the outside hand forwards on turns, they will instantly feel pressure from the band.

I liked how the band provided instant feedback to a rider when they let their outside rein creep forward, or even if they were dropping a hand, or holding it further back, regardless of whether it was the inside or outside. Usually I find that a rider will acknowledge that their hands are asymmetric or wander forwards, but only become aware of it when the hand has moved to the extreme and is now ineffective.

But it’s no good correcting an error once it’s gone wrong, you need to correct at the first deviation in order to retrain the muscle memory and to improve the subtlety of the aids to control the horse. The bands gave an earlier signal than visually seeing the outside hand, or me reminding them not to move it.

After the Franklin Method clinic I found a light resistance band at home, and went armed with it to my next few lessons. I had all my riders ride with it during their warm up focusing them on their hand position, make them aware of discrepancies between the reins, and to improve their outside rein contact. All of my riders realised that their hands moved more they thought. It encouraged more use of the seat and leg aids, as well as creating an even, more consistent rein contact.

The difference in the horses was amazing; they moved straighter, started to use their inside hind leg, carried themselves better and were stiller in the hand and taking the contact forwards happily because as soon as the rider’s outside hand started to creep forward they felt pressure on their wrist so corrected themselves. Having a band is an easy accessory to keep in your pocket, and means that riders can practice riding with the band in their own time so will improve their hand position more quickly then having me cue their corrections and then them self-correcting on their own once their hand position had moved significantly.

I’ve not used the bands since before Christmas, but I think it’s time to get it out again for warm ups in the next few weeks … So watch out clients!

Something a Bit Different

My normal work finished for Christmas last week, and I’ve got a nice long week to try to tick off some of my to-do list without adding to the bottom of it. However, today was the final Pony Club rally of the year.

Having only just taken over the role of chief instructor for this branch of the Pony Club, I’m still working out what members want in terms of rallies, as well as how I can improve their knowledge and ability within the equestrian world.

I had thought early on that I would like to see more stable management rallies, and to improve the children’s off horse knowledge. The obvious place to start is with the achievement badge scheme, run by the Pony Club. Fabric badges are available for a huge variety of subjects – points of the horse, poisonous plants, first aid, to name a few. They’re aimed at primary school aged children, and as they love receiving souvenirs, we decided to begin doing more badge rallies. I’ve also designed a rewards system for when the children achieve five, ten, fifteen, twenty and so on badges. A little prize or gift will be a great motivator for them, and hopefully by learning through the badge rallies their efficiency tests will seem easier.

With this in mind, we planned a stable management rally for the Christmas holidays. I suggested that because the weather was risky, the evenings dark, and parents so busy in the run up to Christmas, that we combined the lecture with an off horse, indoor activity. Then it doesn’t matter on the weather, parents can use those couple of hours for some last minute shopping or wrapping, and the children can have some fun.

So I sweet talked my farrier into providing me with some pony sized horse shoes. He cleaned them up for me and I had them sprayed silver so they won’t rust. Then I bought some ribbon, beads, glue and a lot of glitter!

I decided to teach the kids about the native breeds of the United Kingdom, so they could go home with that badge. Of course I had to revise my own knowledge, but I didn’t want to bore them to tears by just talking at them. I decided to ask them questions to engage them, to bring along one or my breed books which has photographs of all the native breeds, and to show them when the different breeds originated on a map.

As we discussed each breed, a child came and put the label on the correct area on the map.

To finish the lecture, I decided on a group exercise. I printed out a photo of each breed with six statements – the name of the breed, their height, two statements of distinguishing features (usually colour and something about their body shape), their original job, and what they are used for nowadays. Within each statement I tried to provide clues (e.g.”this Scottish breed of horse stands 13.2-14.2hh, slightly bigger than it’s cousin the Eriskay”). I laminated everything and cut the statements out into small strips.

Then of course I couldn’t match the statements to the picture myself, so I had to make the exercise easier! In the end I split the children into three groups and gave each group five sets of cards, all muddled up. Within each group I put one draught horse, and divided the other breeds up so that the similar ones weren’t in the same group. For example, I separated Fells and Dales, and Exmoor and Dartmoors.

I was really pleased with the children’s attempts at this exercise. There was some level of deduction, some debating about the meanings of the phrases, and some even remembered the facts I’d just told them!

Each group had an older helper to assist them, and read out the sentences if necessary, and I circulated, checking how they were getting on, and giving hints and encouragement to the sometimes lively debates. They soon matched all of the cards to the correct breed and then we did the fun bit!

Let’s just say that glitter went everywhere! But the shoes looked brilliant and the children had great fun.

Feedback was very positive, with happy parents, and the children proudly showed off their badges and horse shoes.

Today was a different rally, but really fun to do. I don’t think we’ll do crafts at every badge rally, but it’s certainly one to remember for next winter. I thought I might do a colouring competition, or design a poster, at a future badge rally where they can put their new found knowledge to good use. Then when the weather is warmer we can do the outdoor stable management, such as the grooming badge, and tie it in with a lesson.

My Phoenix-versary

Last week marked two years since we brought Phoenix home so I took a moment to reflect upon that time.

It’s been an eventful journey, but certainly since the spring it has been a predominantly positive one. When I got her she was physically six, but mentally four years old. Now, she’s eight years physically and probably closer to seven years old in her head.

She had done very little apart from being backed, lightly hacked under saddle or led from another horse, had no concept of canter, and was very suspicious of life.

This year, she has been perfectly behaved on sponsored rides, jumped cross country fences confidently, competed showjumping and represented the riding club (I’m still not over having the final fence of the second round down and losing the ticket to the champs!). She’s confident, powerful, has a great, springy jump, and is a lot of fun to jump.

Dressage wise, we still aren’t really where I anticipated us to be after two years. She’s so sensitive, and has bad days when she’s more tense than a bow just before the arrow is released. She also needs to be shown an idea or concept and allowed to think about it until it becomes her own idea, which slows down the teaching process. Although she’s a quick learner. However, unlike last winter, I can use the canter work to relax her, loosen her up, and fatigue her. Which is a definite improvement!

Phoenix is still great to hack, although on windy days I tend to err on the cautious side as she can be silly, especially on her own.

I’m still working this enigma of a horse out, in terms of how to reduce her tension. She’s living in overnight at the moment and is far happier than last year. She isn’t racing round the stable waiting to be turned out, and has even been spotted lying down asleep in there! However, some days I mount and she’s like a ticking bomb who’s brain has fallen out of her ear, and I have to spend twenty minutes replacing the brain and defusing the bomb. Cantering her helps, but you have to get her in the right frame of mind to canter for it to be beneficial. Lunging doesn’t diffuse the situation as she’s beautifully relaxed then.

Initially, I thought that when she’d had two days off she was tense and buzzy to ride, but this theory was disproved when she was scooting from my leg and blocking over her back when I’d worked her eight days in a row! And this week she had the weekend off yet was lovely and settled to ride on Monday.

Now, I’m beginning to think it’s the weather. She’s more uptight when it’s wet and rainy, blowing around her hindquarters. She accepted the exercise sheet for a couple of weeks but then decided any rustling on her back was terrifying and she must run away from it. Only giving her a blanket clip has definitely helped matters here. In Princess Phoenix’s world, she’d have an elaborate indoor arena for the winter.

I think I can guarantee to have a calm, sensible ride with Phoenix’s brain firmly stuck between her ears on a mild, still winter’s day when she’s been worked regularly in the days leading up to it. Wet, cold and windy days are just a survival challenge!

I think Phoenix has now got herself an all round CV. She’s had positive experiences of most things, and is definitely improving in terms of her acceptance of the aids and I feel I have a stronger relationship with her. It may have taken longer than I expected, but I think she’s got a solid foundation to build upon now. We’ve come further in our journey than we think we have.

What are my goals for the next year? Without putting too much pressure on either of us, I want to consolidate the novice dressage movements – we’re at the showing her and letting her think it’s her idea stage – and get out and do more dressage. I wanted to affiliate her originally, so that may be on the cards. I’d like to do a one day event with her, but she still needs a bit more experience cross country. Otherwise, it’s just continuing to give her a good education, and for me to continue to enjoy her, as she is my downtime and I need to make the most of it before she’s borrowed by the next generation (you wouldn’t believe how soft, gentle and tolerant of a certain little person Phoenix is).

Clues From Rugs

Have you ever had a horse who’s rug constantly slips to one side?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Just like shoulder straps constantly fall off a woman’s dropped shoulder, a rug which constantly slides off one hindquarter suggests that all is not well in that area.

If a horse’s pelvis has dropped or rotated on one side then that will cause a rug to slip to that side, and likewise if they have muscle wastage on one side, the rug will slip that way.

Horses who are evenly balanced in terms of posture and musculature, rarely have a rug shifting to one side (especially with today’s rug technology), even if they have a preferred hindleg to rest. Therefore, if you notice that you are always correcting your horse’s rug it might be wise to cast a critical eye over his muscle development and get him checked by a chiropractor or physiotherapist.

I made some interesting observations with a horse being ridden in an exercise sheet this week.

As she warmed up the sheet slipped drastically to the right. Now, I know the mare is weaker in her right hind and holds herself crookedly when she can, so it was interesting to see the exercise sheet reflecting this. After straightening the sheet, we did some work on leg yield, turn on the forehand, and other straightening exercises to correct her crookedness and to even up the rein contact. Firstly, we worked on the right rein, so activating the weaker right hind, and as soon as the mare engaged that leg her exercise sheet did not move an inch! It stayed level working in trot on both reins, and then in right canter, but it slipped again in the left canter. The right hind is the propulsion leg in left canter, which would explain why the sheet slipped more in left canter, as well as the fact the mare found it harder to bend to the left so motorbikes around turns on her left shoulder.

It was interesting that I already knew the issues this mare had, so could make the link between the exercise sheet moving and her way of going. I explained my observations to her rider, and it’s going to be something she takes into consideration in future, rather than just moaning about the sheet slipping as she straightens it. It can also help her evaluate how well the mare worked, the change in her posture and straightness after any treatment, and her muscle development.

The Franklin Method

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I go to Equestrian Pilates every week. Earlier this year my Pilates teacher went on an intensive course to learn about the Franklin Method, and has since applied it to our classes.

Intrigued, and curious to know more about the logic of hitting yourself with an orange ball, I decided to organise a clinic at my yard.

In Pilates, we’ve tapped any tight muscles with balls to stimulate nerves and increase our range of movement during the warm up. But other than that, the Franklin Method was a completely new concept to me.

The clinic started with an off horse session where we learnt that the Franklin Method focuses on reconditioning the body and movement to improve function. Using props and imagery it helps improve your proprioception and posture by activating unused muscles. We learnt a little bit about anatomy, with the help of a spine, then we were introduced to the props. There were a variety of sized balls, spiky and smooth, and peanut shaped balls, as well as some resistance bands. We discussed the ideal riding position and talked about how using our core, having our pelvis level, the correct lower leg position and arm position can improve our stability in the saddle. Some of this I’ve seen before, in demos, teaching books, and used it myself when teaching, but using resistance bands to help with the explanations was really useful too. Finally, I sat on a saddle and we were shown the different way we’d use the props once aboard our horses.

I really wasn’t sure how sensitive little Phoenix would cope with me riding with balls, but I’d ridden her for an hour the day before with plenty of canter work and luck was on my side as she seemed to have her brain firmly wedged between her ears as I warmed her up in the arena, and was remarkably relaxed.

After settling the horses and warming ourselves up, we walked a straight line away from the camera to assess our straightness and symmetry before getting started with the props. The first prop that we used was a squishy peanut shaped ball, and we sat on it so it was evenly sat underneath our seat bones. Then we walked round. Sitting on a wobbly seat makes you use your core muscles, which is useful if any of yours have switched off; it also makes you very aware of each seat bone, and if you are wobbling more onto one side than the other.

There was no pressure to do anything outside your comfort zone with any of the props. If you wanted to trot or canter then do so, but if not just walking was equally beneficial.

We then sat on just one round, smooth ball, putting it under first one seat bone, and then the other. This is particularly useful if you sit crookedly in the saddle. I like to think that I’ve got a good sense of where my body is in space, and am fairly symmetrical as a rider, but I didn’t find a huge difference between seat bones when I sat on just one ball. Which is good, but I could see how it would be useful for anyone unaware that they are sitting to one side.

Still focusing on our seats, we sat on a heavier, water filled peanut ball. Again, only in walk as I felt that was the limit to Phoenix’s acceptance of it, I found my hips really loosening up. The water ball exaggerated Phoenix’s movement, causing me to move my seat more. Afterwards I really felt like I was sitting inside my saddle, not sitting on top. I then worked in sitting trot, and was astounded in the improvement. I sat deeper, absorbed Phoenix’s movements more, and consequently she relaxed and stepped out more and I felt her really swinging over her back.

We moved on to working on our legs with small softly spiky balls. One was placed on the inside of the top of the thigh, so it sat between the saddle and my leg. A second ball was placed closer to the knee on the opposite leg. For me, this was particularly painful as I got cramp on the outside of my thigh, but tapping it with a ball helped dissipate it. I did some work in walk, before swapping the balls round. They had the effect of loosening my hips and helping lengthen my leg and let it wrap around Phoenix.

Finally, we moved on to the arms. I didn’t have a go with a resistance band wrapped round my shoulders, running to the hands, which is useful for encouraging riders to carry their hands more correctly, and to connect their shoulders to the reins, which improves the subtlety of their half halts and stabilises the hands. We felt this would be a step too far for Phoenix, so I used a circular resistance band round my wrists, which helps keep the hands as a pair and gives instant visual feedback if one hand goes for a little wander. I really liked this exercise, and could see how the visual cue and the pressure of the band would really help some of my clients who struggle with their outside rein, or have a wandering hand.

To encourage elbows to hang closer to our sides, we rode for a few minutes with a ball in each armpit. Upon taking the balls away, your elbows return to your torso like iron filings to a magnet. Again, useful for anyone with sticky out elbows!

The Franklin Method had an immediate effect in correcting positions, and making you as a rider aware of different, switched off, areas of your body. You could see the horses responding to the changes in position, releasing of tight knees and hips, and the reduction in crookedness. The other thing that I liked about the Franklin Method is that it complemented my teaching methods and biomechanical explanations, so I will definitely be encouraging all my clients to have a go at riding with balls.

For more information, check out the website www.ridewithballs.com.