Learning to Canter

I had a few of my young riders have their first canter just before Christmas, and I’ve decided that the first canter stage is the most nerve wracking thing to teach.

There’s so much groundwork and preparation to do, and if you get the timing wrong it can have catastrophic results.

Before I even think of a rider having their first canter, they need to be confident in sitting trot, have experienced working without stirrups – how much no stirrup work they do depends on how big the child and how bouncy the pony is. I like them to be very confident in trot, and to happily ride a “fast trot” in a balanced way.

In a riding school there are usually two or three ponies with perfect learn-to-canter canters. Economical in stride length and cadence, steady, and voice controlled. So I would familiarise the rider with this pony in a couple of lessons beforehand, and then they would ride this pony for a few weeks to establish their canter seat and confidence.

With privately owned ponies, I like to do some research. Either I’ll lunge them without a rider, or I’ll observe an older rider cantering them. Sometimes, ground work needs to be done with the pony, so that they canter next to a leader (from either side), or canter quietly and are balanced on the lunge. Often I will set the parents some homework to do with the pony before the child has their first canter so the environment can be as controlled as possible.

It’s important to choose the right day for the first canters, and equally feel that the rider doesn’t need to canter everytime they ride; base the decision on the child’s state of mind that day, as well as the pony’s way of going, and any environmental factors.

I’m probably a bit too cautious, with my riders spending a long time on the lead rein or lunge in canter; until they stay balanced without holding in to the pommel. I like to think all the running is good for me, but in reality it’s very easy to send them solo before they are ready and they have the skill set to steer and stop. Then they get a problem – usually a bit too fast, or not stopping on cue – and take a few steps back in the confidence stakes. Which overall makes their learning to canter journey more challenging. I predominantly canter them on the lead rein because the straight lines are easier for the rider, and very few ponies are balanced enough to canter circles on the lunge. However, it’s a very useful tool for particularly nervous riders or sharp ponies. Plus I like to revisit cantering on the lunge once they’re fairly established to refine position and work without reins or stirrups.

I don’t think a rider needs to have many canters each time they ride. Again, I base it on their energy levels, and how the pony is responding to the lesson. They might only do two canters, or half a dozen on each rein. Regularly cantering keeps the feeling fresh in their minds so keeps confidence levels up, but not overdoing it when they’d actually benefit from more focus on their trot work is important to remember too.

The first few canters I do with a rider, I get them to have longer reins and hold the pommel. Once they’ve found the rhythm and are fairly in sync with the pony, I get them to take the outside hand off the pommel but still hold the rein loosely. Then they work on keeping the hand still in canter. Then they can start to use the outside rein to help keep pony on the track, and to make the downwards transition. At this stage, I start to lead without a lead rope, just resting a hand on the rein and letting go for a few strides to introduce the concept of going solo. It’s also a good opportunity to check the rider can bring the pony back to trot easily. Because we’ve worked off both reins, the rider should be happy letting go with either hand, so a natural progression is to let go of the pommel with the outside hand and then follow with the inside hand. This may only be for a stride before they cling on again, but I make it progressive. Let go for the count of three, then four, then seven. Get them to let go earlier. Let go during the transition. All these baby steps will gradually build confidence until they are cantering without holding on without realising.

Only then do I seriously start letting them canter independently. The last couple of strides initially, then just leading for the transition and first couple of strides. Then just running alongside. And without realising, they’re off!

I think the reason I find it so nerve wracking is that it’s so easy to get carried away and move through the stages too quickly, not allowing the foundations to set fully. Plus, kids bounce out the saddle so much in canter I’m always holding my breath hoping that the homing device is fully functional!

On The Lead Rein

From which side should you lead a child riding a pony?

The traditionalist in me says from the near side, and that’s always the side we led from when helping out at the local riding school as teenagers. In the showing world lead rein ponies are led from the near side.

Ultimately, a pony needs to be happy being led from either side, as it is correct to lead from the off side on a road, and a child may need more assistance on one side than the other. Perhaps a leg which draws up so they tend to lose that stirrup more.

Equally, the leader needs to be proficient at leading from both sides; there’s definitely some skill in running slightly sideways with one hand on the lead rope and the other on the rider’s leg!

When you turn a horse around, you turn them away from you to avoid being stood on, so for me it is logical to lead on the outside of the pony. That is, from the near side on the right rein, and off side on the left. Particularly when cantering as you’re sprinting and want to minimise the risk of legs entangling.

This all means that there is a degree of leading from both sides. But I have to say that my bug bear is when leaders switch sides on every change of rein, interfering with the rider’s steering or the pony’s balance. I cringe every time I see a leader run quicker than the pony, go round the head, and resume leading from the new side. It’s distracting to the observer and distracting to the pony and child. Often you seem them actually move off their flight path as the leader darts about.

When leading a pony and beginner child the purpose is to be totally in control initially, and then reduce your influence over the pony as the rider develops their skill set. So initially a leader needs to direct every stride, but they should become more laissez-faire as the rider starts to be able to steer, start and stop independently. But it’s at this point where the leader switching sides can cause the most disruption because the rider’s aids are quite fragile and their concentration at it’s highest. They’re also learning the cause and effect – how much rein is needed to turn or how much leg is needed to go at that speed – so a leader walking in front of the pony affects this learning process.

Personally, I prefer to predominantly lead from the near side, so don’t switch sides at each change of rein. If I needed to switch sides, I’d wait until we were walking or halting. However, I always lead on the outside when cantering because I feel safer and less likely to get knocked by a stray leg.

I’m by no means correct, and I’m interested to know what experienced leaders tend to do. Especially as I’ve got a couple of years of lead rein coming up! But my observations from teaching are that it is best to pick one side and stick to it as much as possible so as not to distract the young jockey from their work.

Phoenix’s 2021 Plans

During the first lockdown in the spring I was really motivated and focused on Phoenix – she benefitted from six days a week of consistent work and really got to grips with half pass.

Then followed a summer of fun – long hacks, jump training, camp. I really felt that our relationship was strong and secure. She was jumping confidently up to 1m over coloured poles and cross country.

I affiliated her with British Dressage in the summer, and took her to a couple of competitions, where she placed each time at Novice, with scores over 65% each time. I have mixed reactions to competing her; the range of scores is frustrating – 8, 8, 8, 8, 4. I mean, was the spook at the shadow really necessary? I always feel that we haven’t performed at our best, and I feel the 70 scores are within grasping distance as soon as we get the consistency. She scores above average, but I know we can do better so I’m never satisfied. My plan was to do our first elementary test in the autumn.

However, lockdown in November cancelled that and since then I’ve felt a bit aimless. Is there any point in preparing for competitions that will probably be cancelled? What’s the point in training if there’s no where to go? Is she even improving? We accidentally qualified for the Novice Winter Area Festival, but I immediately decided not to go. I’d planned to aim for them at elementary level, so to qualify without trying to gives me hope that we can qualify if we put some effort in!

We’re in full on winter Phoenix mode, which whilst manageable now, often leads to frustrating rides when she’s tense and scooty. I’m having a quarter sheet made to measure as she’s between sizes and the bigger ones spook her when they touch below her stifle, whilst the smaller ones don’t sit comfortably over her quarters so restrict her movement. This should help as Phoenix is definitely happier with a warm bottom, protected from the wind and rain. She also has bags of energy which, I’ve recently discovered, can be controlled by being exercised twice a day, or by taking her for a hack followed by working her in the school. Of course, this risks getting stuck in a vicious cycle where she just gets fitter and fitter… So I’m keeping this trick up my sleeve for times when I need her a little tired.

Feeling aimless is not me. Not having a goal or focus doesn’t do well for my state of mind, and doesn’t do well for getting the best out of Phoenix. So over Christmas I’ve enjoyed lots of hacks, and then got a schooling session filmed so I could see how she’s going. It wasn’t the best day for filming – very cold and frosty – so she was a little tense, but I was pleased to see that she is looking strong and established in the trot, more uphill, but could cover the ground more. When she relaxes she opens up in her frame; I just need to get that relaxation quicker! With this elusive relaxation I can also refine her medium trot, which is very fragile and prone to going crooked when she gets tense. As she can fly along on the lunge in medium trot I have no concerns about her ability, she just needs to relax and embrace the bigger strides.

Phoenix’s canter work is looking better; more rhythmical and established. But she needs to learn to wait and not rush so much. I need to sit into her more, which I had been trying to do before Winter Phoenix arrived, and she needs to accept this change of position so I can use my seat more effectively. I was pleased that her canter half pass looks as good as it feels, and it helped to balance the canter whilst taking out the tension.

Phoenix seems happier when being asked something complicated; i.e. Cantering half pass instead of cantering in a straight line. Which means I need to ride through the silly moments and focus her mind on the harder stuff before addressing the quality of the easy movements. Being able to visually see her working, has given me a boost of motivation. I’ll keep plugging away at her lateral work, developing her consistency, and then aim for some elementary classes when restrictions are lifted with the aim of trying our hand at a medium test or two in 2021. Now to hope that we have some pony parties to go to!

Riding With Sponges

In 2021 I’m planning on attending a course of whatever sort is allowed to happen with Covid guidelines on the Franklin Method. My pilates teacher is an avid fan, and a lot of the ball and band work I’ve seen compliments my teaching and would benefit my clients. I’m not interested in running clinics, but a better understanding and knowledge of the props will give me some more tools to help my clients achieve their goals.

Starting with sponges. I saw a social media post using them and promptly hopped on the band wagon.

Several of my clients have now endured the sponges, and all have felt the benefit of the instant feedback the sponges provide.

The large sponges sit on the stirrup tread, underneath the foot and can be ridden on the flat and over jumps. I’m yet to use them over jumps, but I will, don’t worry, I will!

I start the session with the sponges by getting my rider to walk round on both reins, getting used to the feel of them under the foot and tuning in to their feet. Improving their proprioception. We talk about whether one sponge is more easily squashed than the other. If so, then it suggests the rider has more weight going down that leg, often coming from asymmetry in the seat. Which we can then address.

Once we’ve raised awareness for any discrepancies between the legs, I get my clients to “squash the sponges” as they walk round the arena. Rhythmically pressing down on the sponges increases the movement in the ankle, so is very useful for anyone who tends to brace the lower leg. For those at the opposite end of the spectrum, who struggle to get their heels down, find that pulsating the sponges starts to lengthen the calf muscles. Squashing the sponges isn’t a big movement – I don’t want to see the lower leg swinging – it is just activating the ankle so it becomes bouncy, or spring like.

We then move up into trot, where I focus my client on what the sponges feel like; if they draw the leg up the sponge will feel like it’s moving around. The rider becomes more aware of any stiffness in the ankle, and if they overload one leg. We then play around with pressure in the foot to improve their balance and coordination.

For riders who’s heels draw up, I’ve found that dropping the heel every time they rise is an effective exercise to improve the lower leg, lengthening the calves and dropping their weight into the heel.

For the riders who brace their ankles, I get to wriggle their toes as they sit into the saddle. We don’t want toes pointing down, but squashing the sponge and wriggling the toes reduces ankle stiffness. Usually there’s some moans and groans by now, but my riders have springs in their ankles which gives them a softer lower leg and improved leg aids because they can close the leg around the horse’s barrel better, as well as being stiller so more precise with the aids.

The canter is the interesting gait to ride with sponges. Because it is asymmetric riders often have one leg behaving whilst the other runs errant. The outside leg often draws up and the stirrup start to rattle about on the foot.

My clients have all done better than expected when cantering with the sponges, with less movement of the sponges than I’d read about when planning this exercise. I know that smaller sponges would be less stable, but equally I don’t think they’d have twisted much with my clients. They could feel the weight coming out of their foot sufficiently, and then by squashing the sponge or wriggling the toes we could correct. With one client in particular, using the sponges really got her reaching down to the stirrups so deepening her seat and stabilising her lower leg. Others have just become more aware of the weight coming out of the outside leg and a result sat more centrally in the canter. It also helps highlight the difference between the left rein and the right rein.

So how do the sponges work? They aren’t forcing feet into certain positions or anything. But they do increase a rider’s awareness of that area of their body and provide instant feedback when changes are made. Which makes it easier to make and maintain corrections. I found that whilst all my riders noticed the sponges at the beginning of the ride, by the end they had forgotten about them because their leg position had improved and the squashiness of the sponges more consistent.

Their purpose when jumping is to ensure the rider folds straight and evenly into their jumping position, not leaning on one leg more than the other, and ensuring the ankle is flexible whilst jumping.

I think the sponges could be improved by being denser, which would give more scope for squashing them and softening the ankle. Also some riders would benefit from the sponges being slightly smaller and so more likely to shift position in the stirrup if the rider draws their leg up or rolls onto the outside of their foot so the weight distribution is uneven. I’ll have to look out for some different sponges!

In the meantime clients, you’ll be seeing more of those yellow sponges!

Looking After Ourselves

We all put so much effort into the wellbeing of our beloved equines, that it’s ironic how little attention we pay to our own bodies and lifestyles.

Recently I’ve been giving myself a kick up the butt and taking time for self-care.

I have a Friday evening routine of chocolate, wine and a hot bath. Except last night apparently when the hot water has all been used up… Which is downtime for me, where I process the week, think of and plan the weekend, and as much as I can, relax. That along with my early morning rides are my emotional self care and everyone knows not to disturb me during this time!

I used to regularly visit a sports masseuse and osteopath, but post pregnancy it’s gone out the window and then I tried a new osteopath and came away poorer, but not feeling the benefit. However, with shooting pain running up my femoral nerve when I rode anything wider than a hat rack, I took the plunge and tried a Mctimoney chiropractor. Who incidentally treats Phoenix. She declared me very broken, with a tilted pelvis and tight muscles; but a couple of (painful) sessions later and I can feel the benefits. Definitely won’t leave it as long to get myself straightened up and I instantly felt the benefits to my riding. I’d been struggling with Phoenix’s right half pass, which retrospectively isn’t surprising given that my seat was blocking her. It’s still her weaker side but at least now I’m helping her.

At the beginning of the year, a friend told me that their metabolism had slowed down as soon as she’d hit 30 and she’s fought her weight ever since. Bearing in mind that I hit the big three-oh this year, her comment stuck with me. I also feel fairly big on Phoenix; I’m not too big, but I’m very aware that I don’t need to weigh her down with extra baggage. During the first UK lockdown and into the summer I tried to do more exercise, but lacked the motivation to watch a Joe Wicks YouTube video. No one held me accountable if I didn’t do it, and I hadn’t lost out by not doing it. Equally, I didn’t particularly push myself on the few that I did do because no one was cracking the whip.

So I decided that really I should join a fitness class and get myself a personal trainer of some sort. However, I already have an active job and go to Pilates weekly so I needed to compliment this. Plus there’s the whole time, childcare juggling act to factor in.

I’ve also been teaching a lot of children recently, involving a lot of lead rein work, which made me aware that I’m not fit from a cardiovascular point of view and running in canter was far more tiring than it should be!

I eventually plucked up the courage to ask a trainer, recommended by a client, and who I vaguely knew, if I could join a weekly class of hers. This coincided with lockdown #2 so became an online class, as did my Pilates.

I’m not sure how well online exercise classes will fare long term. For me, I gain a bit of extra time in the day – that spent travelling to the class – and I don’t have to worry about childcare. Just some strategic planning with snacks and activities. However, if you aren’t used to doing exercise, or have previous injuries I can imagine you could do yourself some damage as your trainer can’t monitor you as closely on screen as in person. You also miss out on the social side, and if you’re an office worker, the outdoors time. Neither of which affects me, as I can moan about the number of burpees we had to do with my client who signed me up and actually enjoy the opportunity to be warm and dry for an hour! There’s probably a balance to be struck between online classes and face to face ones; but it will be interesting to see what happens when restrictions lift and social distancing reduced.

The first week was agony. It took me three days to be able to walk upstairs. But each week is feeling easier and I can definitely feel muscles developing. I’m sure this cardio and strength work will help my overall fitness, and I think one class of this and another of pilates combined with more than ten hours in the saddle a week is enough focused exercise.

It’s amazing the difference a little bit of self care makes in terms of energy levels, quality of sleep, quality of work and enthusiasm. I’m also having two early morning rides at the yard each week which takes the pressure off me needing to ride when a certain toddler isn’t feeling cooperative, and means Phoenix gets two decent workouts which means she’s less of an activated grenade to ride for the rest of the week should work and weather limit my opportunities to ride. Plus, I enjoy those mornings of peace.

I tend to make small changes to create new habits rather than going all in and causing problems, so after Christmas my self care resolutions will be to adjust my diet to help maximise my energy levels and then having my hair cut (sorely neglected because I don’t like going to salons and the whole pandemic situation). Maybe I’ll cut it all off and donate it to charity to make a wig…

Anyway, make a couple of changes for yourself, and put as much effort into making yourself feel and perform at your best that we do with our horses!

A Lockdown Layout of Poles

I love having the opportunity to teach consecutive lessons at the same venue as it means I can play around with one setup of poles or jumps and utilise a variety of exercises. If I had a base to teach from I’d probably have a layout for a couple of weeks which could be used for flat, pole and jump lessons. Which would give the opportunity for clients to get some continuity and to develop the exercises over a couple of lessons.

For anyone bored during lockdown, this is a fabulous arrangement of poles which can be used umpteen times without becoming boring.

The pole at X is used in both circles, and the 3 poles at each end are laid out to make an accurately sized circle of about 18 metres. It’s useful to have the outer track free from debris.

The first use for this layout is to make circles rounder. For some young riders they tend to ride EB in a straight line, so the poles help teach them how to ride an arc across the school.

For more established riders, I usually discuss and encourage them ro to evaluate the quality of their circles and compare them to the opposite rein. Then we discuss stiffness; why one rein is harder than the other to get a round circle.

Once the circles are round and symmetrical in trot the same work can be repeated in canter. Often a pony will drift out on a canter circle without their rider noticing. Well with the poles it’s obvious when your circle isn’t round!

The poles can be raised on the inner end to improve cadence, help prevent them from falling in and improve vertical balance.

Finally, the poles can be converted to cross poles which tests jumping from a rhythm and improves suppleness.

With the exercise as poles on the floor, raised poles (although the pole at X needs to be raised at both ends) or jumps, a figure of eight can be ridden over the circle of poles which helps with flying changes; teaches a rider to plan their route and use their seat and body to affect their horse.

Apart from improving circles, this layout has another use – teaching gears to the gaits. Using the two poles on each three quarter line, ride straight over them in working trot, counting the strides. Then try to lengthen the strides into medium trot, getting fewer strides between the poles. Then collect the trot and increase the number of strides between the poles.

Again, this can be done in canter, and then as jumps instead of poles. With young kids you can keep it simple and just teach them to count strides which increases their awareness of rhythm. And with older kids it becomes a game, with them becoming more determined to get a set number of strides.

You can then also discuss the way the bascule changes shape depending on the type of canter – how when jumping from a medium canter the take off and landing points are further away from the base of the fence, giving rise to a long, shallow bascule. From collected canter those points are closer to the fence so creating a steeper, shorter bascule.

I love the versatility of this layout and how each subject can be layered to suit all abilities and all levels of understanding. It gives me so much variation between individual clients with the exact same lesson plan.

Making an Event Uneventful

I spend a lot of time working with riders and horses who have angst over a certain area in their riding. So whilst building their confidence in that area I also need to help them set themselves up for success when they do broach their weak area when riding.

For example, I was helping a girl with her horse who had lost her confidence in canter. There were a couple of issues in that the horse lacked straightness in trot which was exacerbated in canter. The horse also played off her nerves, rushing in the canter and then anticipated the second and third canters so became a bit strong and fast, which then worried my rider so she felt out of control.

We built the foundations in trot over the course of a few lessons and then they had a short canter in a tactical place (short side of the arena) which was successful and then I discussed with my rider how it felt and what she should try to do the next time. Then we worked on the trot to reestablish their balance and control. Once settled and not expecting another canter transition, we did one.

Over the next few lessons we worked on making canter uneventful; so it became normal and just part of their schooling sessions. By incorporating it into a sequence of movements, working on the trot until there was no anticipation and choosing different places to ride the transition will all help my rider to feel most in control and give her a positive canter experience.

Then the canter work becomes less eventful and with it less anxiety or nerves, and then a positive experience for both parties and good habits are created.

It’s the same if a horse anticipates an exercise. One girl I teach has a new horse who gets very excited about poles and jumping. We’re still building their relationship on the flat and over poles, but the second time they ride through an exercise the mare gets very quick in anticipation. So we’ve made the polework boring. They ride over the poles and then do some flatwork – circles, transitions etc – and when the mare isn’t expecting to go over the poles they go again. They’re also changing the approach; turning later or earlier and coming in different gaits. So the focus is shifted from the poles, and they become boring as they’re part of the course, and she doesn’t know when or how they are going to do it. It’s uneventful. But my rider remains in full control so we are not creating a situation where the horse knows they can take control after a line of poles.

One horse I ride can be very opinionated about returning to her stable afterwards. So instead of putting myself in a confrontational situation, which is potentially quite dangerous, I’ve been skirting around the subject. Initially, what the mare did was march back to her stable, and have a tantrum when asked to halt, tossing her head around and dancing about, threatening to rear.

So each time I returned from hacks I’d get off halfway along the drive and walk her in hand back to the yard. I halted her before she was expecting it, and before she began to get antsy. I’d have a calm dismount, run the stirrups up and walk calmly back to her stable. Once this was a calm scenario, I’d add in some halts on the way to the stable. Then I’d dismount closer to the stable, but each time before she started her quick march back.

I also started doing a a similar thing on the way back from the arena; getting a calm dismount closer and closer to the stable yard. I feel we’ve broken the cycle of anxious rushing back to the stable without making a big issue out of it and today she walked calmly all the way to the stable yard. Stood patiently while I dismounted and faffed around, before returning to her stable.

It may have taken longer with this approach but I feel it’s a much calmer environment and will have a lasting positive result than engaging in an argument at the point the horse wants to rush back to her stable. Hopefully new habits are created and the memory of the bad ones erased.

My approach to any issues with both horse or rider is to take a periphery tactic. Look at other behaviours and have physical checks to ensure that they aren’t contributing to the issue, then circumnavigate the problem until you find the best tactic and then make your move. Taking the event out of the, well, event I guess, so it’s as stress free as possible for everyone is vital. After all, if the rider or handler becomes stressed it will feed down to the horse, and if the horse becomes stressed they will worry their owner. Additionally, if any problems do arise it’s very simple to take a step back to redress the horse-rider relationship or to reestablish confidence levels in other areas before trying again.

Diagonal Limbs

I often talk about vertical balance with my riders as it’s one of the easiest ways to feel if a horse is unbalanced on turns. Have I blogged about it? I shall check as it was definitely on my list to do but I don’t actually remember writing it.

Old age.

Anyway, when looking at improving vertical balance I use the concept of diagonal aids. That is, the inside leg works in conjunction with the outside rein and vice versa.

Riding a horse is all about a balancing act. From day one, a rider is balancing the horse between going forwards from the leg and not going too fast by using the hands. Yes, the seat is also involved but as that works for both teams we’ll ignore it for the moment. It’s like having clutch control; every car is slightly different and there’s a skill involved.

Once we start talking about vertical balance the balancing act becomes a side to side one.

Initially, I ask my riders to ride some turns in walk, identifying the aids they’re using. Sometimes they get it right, after all I teach “indicate with the inside rein, instigate with the outside leg” when steering, but sometimes they’ll use one limb more than another, compensate for their or their horse’s crookedness, or have totally forgotten about one particular aid. Then, we discuss how the diagonal pairs work together to turn a horse, and to keep them upright on turns.

The left rein and right leg work as opposites to the right rein and left leg to keep the horse vertically balanced.

For example, the inside rein indicates the direction of turn as the outside leg pushes the horse in. The outside rein and inside leg work to prevent over steering and the horse falling in around a turn.

When a rider starts to think about their diagonal limbs working as pairs it becomes easier for them to work on a grey scale. Instead of it being black and white, putting the steering wheel onto full lock, they can now steer by degrees. Just as learning a half halt provides them with gears to each gait.

Half halts then begin to develop from a speed regulator to asking for bend, and correcting balance subconsciously. The rein contact becomes more consistent and because a leg aid is always applied with a rein aid the horse is ridden in a more forwards manner. Using diagonal pairs helps develop the feel and timing for aids too, which helps with refining the way of going.

Developing the concept of riding with diagonal pairs naturally leads on to riding inside leg to outside rein, which is a precursor to leg yield.

I enjoyed introducing the idea of diagonal pairs to one of my young riders a couple of weeks ago to help her transition from riding off the inside rein as a child usually does to riding with the outside aids. She had fabulous results as her pony started pushing through from behind, was more balanced on all their turns and taking the contact forwards. Thinking in diagonal pairs allowed her to position her pony wherever she wanted, and to correct him if they went off course. It was a very satisfying lesson to teach as I felt they both benefitted hugely from the rider’s new found understanding, feel, and knowledge.