Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

A couple of weeks ago I booked a cross country venue for the afternoon, for a variety of clients to come for private, semi private and group lessons. Mostly, it was successful. But one session in particular really challenged me, taking all my teaching skills as well as human and equine skills, to make a success of it.

Unfortunately, I think there was a bit of bad timing involved. This horse can get a bit, err, over excited in company, and a little clingy to other horses. He has a solitary life – more on that another day – because he’s such a playful acrobat in the field that no one wants to risk their horse being injured (understandably). Which means that he gets a bit silly when in the company of others. I put him at the beginning of my day so that we’d only have horses arriving towards the end. We had just started calmly walking him around the field, letting his eyes pop back into his head, when a horse trotted up the road adjacent to the far side of the field. This acrobat immediately started turning himself inside out in an attempt to look at, and go over to the happy hacker. I really think the lesson would have gone totally differently if this horse hadn’t trotted past at the beginning. Lesson learnt for next time – use acoustic ears, even if they don’t match the cross country outfit.

As you can see, it was an explosive start. We managed to get a bit of trotting done on a circle, but his rider soon felt he was unpredictable and she wasn’t happy. Neither was I. I know this horse well, but it did seem like his brain had well and truly fallen out from between his ears, and if we had any chance of recovering the situation, we needed to change tactic.

We got his rider off and lunged the horse. He had a couple of bucks, but actually settled on the lunge. So my rider remounted and we started on the lunge. I reminded her how his insecurities come out in bolshy, thuggish behaviour, and that he’s actually needing lots of reassurance at the moment.

We created a comfort zone on the lunge, where both horse and rider were close to me, their comfort blanket, and felt safe. We moved the circle out a bit, pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone, and moved around the field a bit.

The other thing I know about this horse is that he’s clever. And gets bored easily. And when he’s bored he misbehaves. When we were rehabbing him last winter he was a nightmare during the long reining and walk with short trots ridden work. We introduced poles fairly early to provide a focus, but as soon as we did proper polework, canter and raised poles his behaviour improved dramatically. After all, he had to concentrate on his work.

So we headed towards the smallest steps in the field and I lead them up it. We repeated this a few times, with the pair of them relaxing and getting more confident each time.

We expanded their comfort zone by me holding the lunge rein further away, before unclipping the lunge line and pretend leading them up the step. Slowly I drifted away and they did it a couple of times on their own. The horse was settling because he had something to think about, and as he relaxed so did his rider.

Before they got bored, we went over to the small jumps. I explained that yes, we hadn’t cantered or fully warmed up, but it was a warm day and the jumps titchy so they’d be fine. We started by trotting “on the lunge” then increasingly expanding the circle, moving around the small jumps, changing the rein and asking the horse lots on directional questions.

When my rider felt he was focused on her, and a small jump was nearby, she should trot calmly over it. Ride quietly away and resume circling in trot. The horse can jump, so our attention was on the quality of his behaviour before and after jumps. I talked continuously to my rider to help them both maintain a relaxed air. They popped over a teeny log happily, but when she came back round to do it again he had a moment of mischievousness. So I had her trot past the jump and move slightly away so that he was less sure of our intentions, and she calmly popped him over a different log.

We continued in this vein for the rest of the session. Quiet flat work, circling and figure of eighting before a jump, and then resuming calm flatwork afterwards. They expanded their comfort zone to most of the area around the cluster of small jumps. We had another blip, when he heard a walker passing the other side of the hedge, but because we were doing a more interesting subject, he soon refocused. Which I don’t think we can ask any more with this particular horse.

I was really pleased with how they finished the session; stringing a few jumps together, approaching in canter, and the jumps being the focus of their ride rather than subtly throwing them into the mix.

Unfortunately we ran out of time, as I think if we’d had another half an hour, they’d have progressed to bigger jumps, and linking combinations together, moving around the field. However, I was still very pleased and proud with how they both overcame their start and nerves to have a positive experience, finishing off in a really good mindset to pick up from next time.

Working the Older Horses

I have a few clients with older horses; the older horse has many advantages of experience, reliability, patience and steadfastness to teach and build confidences. But with that comes an aging body and the associated problems that come with old age. They are usually still enthusiastic to work, but can be slightly stiff.

Every older horse, I believe, deserves someone (like one or two of my clients) who will dote on them. Give them everything they need; treat any ailment; have tack adjusted to compensate for an aging body; groom and fuss them to within an inch of their life; and lightly ride them to maintain fitness and mobility. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a riding school horse retired to this life of Riley.

Teaching with the older horse is different too. For instance, they often need a longer warm up, or a light seat canter early on to loosen them up. It’s also about recognising their limitations and working within them. We always strive to improve a horse’s way of going, but with an older horse you have to be aware of pushing too hard and triggering a problem, and be ready to accept their limitations.

A classic example of this is polework. Trotting poles aim to improve rhythm, cadence and length of stride. With a young horse or one in their prime, you can use the distance between the poles to encourage them to stride out. When I set the distance between poles for an older horse I adjust it based on how they’re looking that day, and aim to encourage good strides over the poles, rather than pushing them to lengthen. If they’re finding it a stretch today, I roll the poles in. It’s about maintaining their range of movement rather than improving it. Usually by encouraging several consistent good strides of trot, they will improve their range of movement slightly.

As older horses are more experienced and established I find it useful to focus on the rider position, which puts them in good stead when they ride a younger horse. So apologies clients with veterans; expect lots of no stirrup work!

We also still work on improving the horse. Older horses can vary in their performance depending on the day – some days they’re a little stiffer, other days they’re like a spring chicken! It depends on the temperature, if they’ve been stood in, or what they did the previous days. So the first part of my lessons are always spent assessing the veteran and deciding if they’re okay to do Plan A, or if Plan B would be better. I also think it’s really important for the rider to be able to evaluate their horse’s way of going each day so that they work them appropriately and pick up on any changes quickly. We talk about the Scales of Training, and how to improve the horse relative to their abilities. For example, we compare their suppleness between left and right, and to their work last week. We can them improve their symmetry a bit, and ensure they aren’t becoming stiffer than previous weeks without a good reason. Knowing the theory of equitation, even if it’s not always possible to practise it all, creates a good foundation for riding future horses.

I’m working a lot with a client on straightness with her older horse in preparation for her new horse. The veteran is crooked, because he has lots of niggles and the result is that his rider is a bit crooked and most importantly, unaware of the crookedness. It’s a tricky situation because I think if we straighten the horse like I would approach a six year old, we’ll open a can of worms and his niggles will become issues. But equally, we don’t want him to become more and more wonky. So I’ve mainly highlighted to my rider the assymetry in his way of going and the differences between the two canter leads and his lateral work on each rein. Then we’ve worked on reducing his assymetry by improving his rider’s straightness. By getting her to sit straighter, be more even in the saddle and with the leg and rein aids her horse will start to adjust his body. By doing these adjustments indirectly, we won’t achieve perfect straightness. But I don’t want perfect straightness with a horse carrying niggles. But we will hopefully lengthen his working life as he will straighten his body by degrees.

By improving my rider’s awareness of asymmetry and straightness, she will be in a better position to school her new horse. I’ve done lots of grid work jumping and pole exercises on this subject of straightness. Improving her awareness, minimising any drifting over jumps, and encouraging even muscle development. Whilst accepting a certain level of crookedness. For example, when jumping from the right canter, the horse can stay on a straight line and balanced, until the jump is a little big or the takeoff a little long. Whereby he changes to the left lead and drifts left. At the edge of his comfort zone, he’s showing that he favours his left canter. If he were a five or six year old we’d develop and strengthen the right canter. But to be honest, I find this totally acceptable in an older horse and am quite happy if he shifts to his preference in these circumstances. If he stopped staying straight and balanced in the right canter over small jumps or poles I’d be concerned, but he’s managing the top end of his work load in this way, so as long as my rider is aware for her future then we’ll go with the flow.

Keeping an older horse in work is all about making small improvements to their way of going and focusing on the longevity of their working life rather than upping the workload and putting demands on a body which is perhaps carrying old age ailments and previous injuries. And of course making sure they are comfortable with their workload – medicating hocks if necessary and weighing up the pros and cons of feeding daily bute. By developing a relationship and seeing the horse regularly, and working them consistently to a level, it is easier to spot any deterioration, which then allows them to be checked out and cared for as quickly as possible.

A Shallow Loop Over Trotting Poles

I’ve enjoyed playing around with a tricky exercise over trotting poles with several clients recently. No longer are they going in a straight line perpendicular over the poles, but rather riding a shallow loop over them.

I laid out about nine poles with a conservative distance and had my rider begin by trotting straight over the poles, centrally at first and then if I wanted to check their adaptability or accuracy, I had them trot over the left then right end of the poles. This is where coloured poles come in useful as they can aim for a specific band of colour.

Then I mark out a shallow loop over the poles using cones, or even potties. The markers need to be clearly seen above the poles. The diagram below shows the placing of the poles.

So that they don’t run before they can walk, I begin this next phase by asking them to trot from between the first set of markers to between the second set, and then straight over the second half of the poles. This is usually fairly straightforward, especially if we’ve started on their easy rein. The distance between the poles is now marginally longer because they’re riding the hypotenuse of a triangle, so stuffy horses sometimes need a wake up call and to be ridden with more leg to encourage the longer stride that is required. There’s an adaptability and balance question as they go through the second set of markers because they are changing their bend and line slightly, which is trickier for the horse and requires more rider balance when they have an increased cadence over the poles.

Once the first half of the loop is established, I ask the rider’s to ride from first set of cones to the second, then back to the third. This is when the horse’s balance and suppleness is really questioned. It usually takes a couple of goes to get the exercise correct. If a horse were to really struggle I’d add a couple of extra trot poles and another set of markers so that the change of bend happened over three poles rather than one, as show below.

To make it easier initially, the markers can be quite wide apart, and the loop more shallow. As they understand the exercise and improve the timing of their aids and accuracy, the shallow loop can become deeper with greater accuracy needed between the markers.

After riding the shallow loop over the poles on both reins it becomes apparent which is their more supple rein, as the increased cadence shows up any weaknesses in both their balance and range of movement.

The rider usually notices an improvement in the horse’s general way of going after this gymnastic exercise. I usually finish by trotting straight over the poles to rediscover straightness of both horse and rider, especially if they’ve found the exercise quite challenging. And then we play around with normal shallow loops, and my horses and riders are usually lighter and using their back muscles better.

Horses and Heat

Horses and Heat don’t mix very well do they? Poo picking, stable chores and riding are sweaty work in average temperatures.

The trouble in the UK is that we aren’t geared up for hot weather. Our native breeds have dense coats all year round, and the temperatures tend to sky rocket for days at a time before dropping again, which makes it hard for everyone to acclimatise.

If we are due only a couple of days of hot weather then I think I sit with the majority of equestrians in either riding early in the morning or giving the horses a day off. It’s also then easy to rearrange my work onto cooler days.

However, if the heat is here to stay, then there’s a degree of acclimatising to do. Especially if you compete. It’s all very well avoiding the heat and riding early in the morning, but what if your class falls at midday? As painful as it is pulling jodhpurs on over slippery, sun creamed legs, you do need to ride during the day so you are both prepared to ride a dressage test in the scorching heat. If a horse is in rehab, or needs to be exercised in order to lose weight then long periods of down time aren’t conducive, so it’s better to do lower intensity work for a few days than nothing at all. For example, I’d say that this week it is acceptable for a pony on fat camp to do less work because he’s unfit and finding it difficult to work and plateau in terms of building fitness and losing weight. Weight is maintained rather than lost, or even worse put on! When it gets cooler, his workload and weight loss can increase again.

However, exercise does need to be adapted in this heat, taking into account humidity, horse and rider fitness, taking lots of breaks, seeking shade, avoiding fast work and jumping in the heat of the day. Some horses cope better with the heat – usually finer coated animals, and those with no excess fat. Older horses tend to struggle with the heat too.

My lessons this week, working around the heatwave, have involved;

  • Hacking with a young client and teaching her about the ground, where it is suitable to trot, how to ride up and down hills, and what to look out for when riding in woods and fields. All the time building her confidence to trot independently on hacks.
  • Long reining and in hand work.
  • Walk poles.
  • Teaching the different types of walk so that rider and pony don’t waste the elongated walk breaks, and to encourage them to have slow and steady schooling sessions for the rest of the week.
  • Taking a horse into the jump paddock and desensitising him to traffic on the other side of the hedge, and riding him around and between jump fillers.
  • Stable management.
  • No stirrup work, as riders are usually happier with shorter bursts of work.
  • Transitions, especially halt transitions.
  • Lateral work and rein back.
  • Bareback.

I like having lessons at an enforced steady pace. Walk is so often overlooked, and improving the walk makes dramatic improvements to the quality of the trot and the transitions. I was really pleased with how one lady started to get a longer striding, swinging walk and then floated along in the trot, truly using his back and looking very supple through his ribcage.

The important thing to remember is that everyone copes with the hot weather differently, and to remember frequent breaks, sun cream, modified riding attire (I’ve not used gloves all week), and to drink lots of water. Each lesson has begun with me asking my client where their water is, and to say if they feel unwell or need to stop for a break. Then I know the lesson will run more smoothly.

Prix Caprilli

You know I always like a challenge, and this spring I’ve had the challenge of training a dozen keen Pony Clubbers for the Area Prix Caprilli competition.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Prix Caprilli is a riding test, akin to a dressage test, with two jumps in. It’s a dying competition which I think is a shame because having two jumps helps disguise the fact they’re doing dressage, and the fact it’s a ridden test means it is welcoming to everyone; young horses, hairy natives, the elderly schoolmasters, and riders of all ages. It doesn’t matter your mount, it’s how you ride them.

As you can see, it’s a challenging test. Especially when my youngest rider is only six years old. So my first challenge was to work out how to teach the different elements of the test to a group of primary school age children in a group setting whilst keeping them engaged and interested.

I decided that props were the best way to go, and to split each lesson up so that the last twenty minutes was spent jumping – even though I knew they were all capable of jumping the small height of the prix caprilli jumps. It would reward them for their hard work on the flat. I ensured they approached the jumps straight and in a rhythm, practising establishing the correct canter quickly after the jump. In one lesson we had a bit of fun doing a Chase Me Charlie.

For the flatwork, I chose a couple of different elements of the test to work on in each lesson.

  1. In the first session I laid out a 20m circle using little sports cones at A. Throughout the warm up, they practised trotting the 20m circle. With the cones they semi taught themselves, as they could see for themselves when their pony deviated from the circle. This meant we could keep the lesson moving. We also practised the change of rein across the diagonal and then cantering the circle individually.
  2. The next session we practised the centre lines. I used a tramline of poles at X and then cones at A and C. They did numerous changes of rein up and down the centre line. We added in halts at X, using the poles to stay straight. I think I also worked them in sitting trot and without stirrups, and nit picked how they rode their corners.
  3. The trickiest part to this test, and the hardest for children to understand, is the two shallow loops up the centre line, so I used two cones at X for them to ride through, and then used a jump pole to mark each shallow loop. The warm up was based around changing the rein with the loops, as well as revising other movements in the test. Then I used a handful of cones to mark out the two half ten metre circles and had them all trotting and walking it to learn the size and shape of the half circles.
  4. The penultimate training session focused on the canter sequence. It’s quite a fast paced section of the test and the movements come up quickly so I wanted my riders to know this part of the test really well, and then start riding tactically. For example, riding from left canter to trot close to B to give them as much time as possible to prepare for the “wiggle” as we nicknamed the double shallow loop. This exercise also allowed me to link the jumps into their flatwork for the first time.
  5. Then, just before the competition we had a dry run. They made a warm up plan with me, then warmed up as they would at the competition and they all rode through the whole test individually a couple of times to fine tune it. Then they went away to practise at home!

I enjoyed the challenge of finding exercises which kept the children engaged whilst helping them learn the test movements, which were simple enough for them to replicate at home.

But what I think I enjoyed the most about training the Prix Caprilli teams was competition day. The straightening of ties; warming them up; quelling any nerves; calling their tests; bacon butties afterwards, and most importantly watching them all pull off smart tests! I felt very proud of the young riders and their ponies.

One child asked me to read for him, sacking his Mum as he did. As we walked towards his ring he said “I’m feeling a bit nervous.” and privately, I had to agree! I definitely had butterflies in my stomach for all my riders!

Another thing for the CV, and whilst I was some what reluctant to take on yet another project, it was certainly enjoyable and I guess I’ll be doing it again next year!

But I am wondering, why can’t adults have Prix Caprilli competitions too?

Using All Senses

One of my young clients has dyspraxia. I won’t say suffers from, because it doesn’t hold him back. It just means I peep through my fingers as he canters around in a very loose position.

But because he finds it difficult to balance I try to do lots of little exercises each week to keep working on improving his proprioception and balance because he needs more time to develop the coordination and strength in his little body.

From very early on we’ve done bits without stirrups and are currently doing sitting trot without stirrups for five minutes each lesson (those of you who had 40 minutes without stirrups this week will be cursing me as you read this. But you’re old enough and ugly enough to survive!).

I’ve done quite a lot of no rein work, as has his Mum with him on the lunge, developing core stability and balance. Hands out to the side like an aeroplane now comes easily in rising trot, and you can see a steady improvement because his arms do not wobble around as much as they did.

I want to push boundaries though, and help him reach his current limits in the relative safety of a lesson, so that he’s in a better position to recover from anything his whizzy pony throws at him.

To improve his balance further, a few weeks ago I had him trotting around the indoor school in rising trot. With his eyes closed. Taking away a sense heightens other senses, so I hoped to improve his feel and balance with his pony by temporarily blinding him. Of course if he needed to, he could open his eyes immediately to help stay in the saddle. But he didn’t need to.

I also used this time with his eyes closed to draw his attention to the 1-2 rhythm of the trot because, somehow he has random days when he’s rising at a different tempo to his pony. So I’m trying to improve his awareness of and feel for rhythm and tempo, despite his young age. With his eyes closed he can also listen more carefully to the footfalls of his pony, which will help teach him rhythm too.

A couple of lessons ago I introduced cantering with one arm out to the side. His seat is very nearly established in canter, but considering how bouncy his pony’s strides are he does very well. We did do one canter with both arms out like an aeroplane. But it was a bit faster than I liked and my heart could only take one viewing.

Last lesson, I had a request to do no arms in canter and trotting with no eyes.

We duly did this. Trotting without stirrups for a bit, then taking the stirrups back and doing rising trot with his eyes closed. He was more secure in his pony’s tempo today and it was interesting that when his eyes were closed his core muscles kicked in because his elbows stayed closer to his sides and his rising trot was less “loose”.

We moved onto cantering, and after making a couple of positional corrections, I tied a knot in his reins. We skipped stage one of just one hand out, and held both arms out to the side, confidently. The next canter I called, “one arm out, then the other… Eyes closed!”

I was impressed. He stayed in a good balance and the pony fell into trot after the long side. Then I realised I had to tell him to open his eyes again!

We spent a while doing this exercise, with my rider starting to sit into the saddle for longer between bounces. He spent the entire time grinning and laughing loudly.

He’s not ready for no stirrups whilst cantering, but my plan over the next couple of lessons is to do some trotting on the lunge without reins or stirrups, and possibly with his eyes closed. I’d also like to try bareback riding with him to improve his feel and balance, which I think will really improve his coordination and muscle strength as his stronger side won’t be able to compensate for his weaker, less coordinated side, which will then become stronger and he’ll be more balanced and have greater stability in the saddle.

Jumping Circles

I’ve recently used quite a simple layout of jumps which has been quite enlightening for those riders who have problems landing on one canter lead, or riding tight turns to a fence, akin to a jump off.

Up the centre line I laid three jumps. One at X, facing E, and the other two on the inner track by A and C, parallel to the one at X.

Starting with poles on the ground, I started with my rider trotting then cantering a circle over two jumps. It’s about a 17 metre circle, and initially I’m aiming to establish rhythm, a round circle, and for my rider to do a position check for themselves.

Then we change the rein, doing the circle at the other end of the arena. Often there is very little difference to be felt between the two reins at this stage. Sometimes a rider will already identify that one circle is sausage-like, or it’s harder for them to turn on one rein than the other. Or that the horse keeps changing canter lead.

The next step is putting the fences up as cross poles. They need to be sufficiently big that the horse jumps them, but this lesson is all about repetition so not too big the horse will fatigue. The cross helps to keep the rider central.

The horse and rider I did this with last year have been focusing on biomechanics and straightness over the last few months. The rider sits twisted to the left, and the horse struggles to bend right. Chicken and egg as to who caused who to become wonky, but that doesn’t matter at the moment.

Firstly, they cantered some circles on the right rein, popping over the two jumps as they came to them. The circle was reasonably round, the horse stayed on the right canter lead (he often lands left lead if given the opportunity) and the rider was looking in the direction of the next circle. However, when I stood so I could see straight on to one of the fences I could see that the horse was actually jumping the fence at an angle; in order to ride a curve on the approach to the fence the horse jumped straight, at a 45 degree angle. He landed with his body on a tangent to the circle. Which meant my rider had to over correct to return to the line of the circle.

Then we changed the rein, and my rider realised how clunky the right rein circle felt as the left circle flowed in a consistent rhythm, the jumps felt effortless and the circle round. From my vantage point I could see the horse jumping on the line of the circle, so on landing they were already heading in the right direction which made it easier to turn.

We spent more time on the right rein circle, making small corrections to help both horse and rider jump straighter, and begin to improve their right bend before and after fences, even starting to get them both looking slightly right over the jump. To do this, we made the circle slightly more oval so that my rider had a couple of straight strides on the approach and getawa before arcing round. It’s better to have the straight stretch in order for the horse to jump straighter than for him to come off the circle, find it difficult, and then jump diagonally off on a tangent. As his suppleness improves less time will be needed on the straight.

In this session we mainly focused on their rhythm and balance on the circles. It was nice to see the jumps becoming more regular – no half strides taken out or extra ones added in – and the horse staying consistently on the correct canter lead. With this extended knowledge of her horse’s suppleness and the way he jumps, my rider can better plan any jumping courses, knowing that she needs to spend more time on the approach preparing her horse if they are to turn right after a fence.

A further exercise, which I did later in the week, was to have my rider ride a figure of eight over the three jumps, so changing their canter lead over the fence. This requires a greater degree of suppleness and balance in order to ride fluidly and rhythmically over the central fence. It is also a useful exercise to improve the rider’s ability to plan their route, and the horse’s response to their rider’s position over jumps, which helps them ride a smoother, more accurate jumping round.

7 Years

It has been seven years of Starks Equitation this month, so I’ve been doing some reflecting.

They talk about a seven year itch, but it’s not something I’m feeling. I think that’s because I have so much variety to my job.

Starks Equitation has changed significantly over the last seven years. I’ve changed significantly. I’ve more experience, more qualifications. I’m older. My values and opinions have shifted slightly. And Starks Equitation doesn’t just offer schooling and lessons now. There’s Demi Dressage, Pony Club, BHS stages training; let alone the other roles of confidant, advice guru, Prix Caprilli trainer, and anything else that’s asked of me.

I think it’s the ever changing challenges that keep me fresh. Sure if I were in any one role I’d rapidly get bored or stale in my job, but the fact that I teach all different ages and abilities, and across a range of activities definitely keeps me on my toes.

Although the ever changing nature of being self employed always makes me nervous. What if I lose all my clients? Well in the early days that was definitely a risk – a combination of fewer clients and the risks of injury, lameness, financial changes etc could potentially leave me with an empty diary. But now I have a finger in a few pies and lots of contacts I feel more secure in this area. In fact, now if I happen to have a couple of cancellations, or someone is away one week, I breathe a sigh of relief and use that free time to catch up on the rest of life’s admin.

One thing I don’t think I’ll ever get used to though, is the emotional involvement of teaching. I see all of my private clients at least once a fortnight, and see many Pony Clubbers regularly. I am on their riding journey with them. Whether it’s buying their first horse, or taking them from lead rein through to a one day event, or building their confidence from a nervous wreck to a shining star. I am there each step of the way. I like getting messages about their amazing hack when they felt confident enough to go solo. Or their competition results, or a super schooling session between lessons.

I don’t think clients always realise this emotional involvement. Perhaps it’s a fault of mine and I should be more business-like and leave each client in a box between their lessons. Social media doesn’t help this, as they pop up. But equally, I think it makes me a better teacher for being personally involved.

Possibly one of the hardest parts of this job is losing clients. Often it’s by no fault of anyone – they outgrow the pony, retire the horse, move away, either party gets injured. But sometimes you get dropped as an instructor. They want to try a different direction, they’ve jumped on the yard band wagon with a different instructor. Or sometimes, it’s just unexplained. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Sure, if you’ve taken a rider to the highest heights of your teaching skills and they are ambitious then often they move from towards a specialist coach; then so long as you all part with a “thank you” and “keep in touch” everything is funky dory. The tough bit is seeing, physically or on social media, them falling into bad habits or not progressing as you imagined their trajectory to be. It can be gut wrenching. And I know it’s not just me, but other instructors have this level of emotional involvement with their riders. I think more so at grassroots level, when you are involved weekly and get asked advice on a host of other management questions, as well as celebrating their milestones.

This emotion is what gives us the drive to stand outside in all weathers shouting “heels down” until we’re hoarse, and enables us to give 110% to every lesson. It makes freelancing a roller-coaster of emotions for which the highs (thankfully) usually outweigh the lows. But it’s nice to feel appreciated every now and again as we shadow you along your yellow brick road to success.

That’s not to say I feel under-appreciated. In fact I usually feel I’m being given too much credit by most of my clients! It’s just something that I’m very aware of, and know how detrimental it can have on your confidence as a coach.

Tramlines of Poles

I’m quite aware of the lack of teaching related posts recently on here. I’ve been as busy as ever with teaching, but just haven’t been inspired to relive exercises or lesson subjects here. Perhaps I’m getting boring in my old age.

I’ve done quite a lot of experimenting with props in my teaching recently, especially with Pony Club. I’ve been training the Prix Caprilli team over the spring and have found the easiest method to teach a group of children and get them riding accurately is to use props to direct them. Then I can focus on the big corrections, rather than having to talk at length to each child. For example, I used cones to make a round circle, which meant we could then ride circles as a ride on both reins easily and everyone could improve their circle shape and size over a short period of time. To learn the half ten metre circles across the arena, we used tramlines at X and cones to get the circles round. For the centre lines, we used cones and poles to guide them all straight.

Which brings me to the exercise I thought worth sharing because I’ve used it for many riders of varying abilities.

Depending on the width of the arena, lay a tramline of poles on the centre or three quarter line. Ideally the rider won’t be coming off a ten metre half circle as that makes the exercise much harder.

If a rider turns using their inside rein only, they are turning the horse from the nose, leaving the rest of the body wiggling along like a snake. When they turn in this way towards the tramlines they will “bounce” from side to side, much like a bowling ball bounces against the bumpers as it zig zags down the lane.

With any rider who struggles to understand the concept of turning with the outside aids, or over uses their inside rein, riding through the tramlines is invaluable in helping them understand the difference in balance and straightness of a horse being turned from the inside rein. Often I will get a rider to turn down the tramlines using just the inside rein to experience the bowling ball bounce, and then to turn using the outside aids so that they can compare the two extremes. This usually helps them better understand balance and the aids; and to maintain an outside rein contact throughout a turn, which improves their general outside rein contact.

Once my rider comprehends turning correctly, we compare turning from each direction to see if the horse is stiffer, or even if the rider is stiffer, in one direction. This exercise subconsciously improves the rider’s accuracy of turns, particularly the centre line turn, but they start to prepare better, feel a loss of balance earlier, and to steer the body of the horse rather than the head.

For some, the tramlines are enough of a learning curve at this point. But I like to take the poles forward from this point to help teach a rider to ride straight transitions, and to help them learn and understand any asymmetry in their horse.

Initially, I use a variety of progressive transitions – walk to halt, walk to trot – with only one transition within the tramlines so my rider can really concentrate and not rush. First, they ride the transition as normal and we notice. Does the pony drift, do they collapse one side. Then we start checking that they are applying even aids and are of course staying sat centrally in the saddle. If the horse still loses straightness through the transition, we then look at how my rider can prevent any drifting by altering their preparation and execution of the aids.

Once single, progressive transitions are mastered, I put multiple transitions in as then the rider has to prepare each one more quickly and if the horse loses straightness and balance in the first they have to work hard to correct them both for the second. Which may very well happen in a dressage test.

Usually a horse starts to travel straighter with just the guidance of the poles, which helps the rider learn the feel of straightness and to improve their own symmetry. However, if the horse consistently drifts it is probably because he is crooked in some way; perhaps one diagonal pair is stronger than the other, perhaps there’s assymetry in their pelvis, perhaps there’s an underlying issue in a limb. Then I suggest a check over by the physio or chiropractor to eliminate any actual issues, and then hopefully training will resolve the crookedness.

My next challenge is for my rider to ride canter transitions in a straight line. If a horse has a preferred canter lead then they will pick that one up more often than not. Again, it’s a really useful exercise to get to know your horse a bit better as often a rider is unaware of the extent of their horse’s canter lead preference. Horses are far more likely to drift in the canter transition, and when they stay straight they utilise their hindquarters better and the transition becomes much more uphill.

Then finally, we test the rein back. Most horses will drift slightly, and using the tramlines will improve the quality of the rein back and their overall strength.

The tramlines are so useful in improving centre lines, teaching a rider the feel of being straight, and reducing the asymmetry of the horse, in a far better way than I can with just words. Definitely a useful set up to repeat regularly with riders and horses at all stages of training.

Teaching Small People

I’m embarking on my biggest challenge to date – teaching an independent, strong minded three year old to ride. So far I’ve had mixed success.

I’ve been fending off questions for months about when we’re getting a pony; learning to ride; joining Pony Club. But I’ve had my reservations. I don’t want to push equestrianism onto her. I want her to choose to love horses. Which I think she does at the moment. I’m also very aware of pressure. Pressure from outsiders for her to ride, and for her to be accomplished. Unbeknown pressure from me because of my profession.

I’ve opted for a share agreement with a friend’s pony, Tangle, initially, of just once a week with the potential to increase to two in the future. It’s her pony time, and we can do whatever she wants to do, at her speed. It’s all about her.

We go on Tuesday mornings, after our Phoenix and Otis chores. We catch, she leads in at pace with the poor pony jogging along behind. Outside the stable, there’s a haynet waiting for Tangle who tucks in hungrily. Mallory goes straight to the treat bin – she knows how to get onto Tangle’s good books! I groom, Mallory selects her favourite brush, gives a couple of cursory strokes. She gets the hoof grease and insists on painting all four hooves. This usually takes less than ten minutes and I try to follow her lead at the speed we go. We can do more grooming afterwards if she wants.

While I tack up, I try to find out what riding we’re doing today.

The first option is going into the arena, walking over the rainbow poles, trotting a couple of laps, and then invariably losing interest and wanting to go for a walk around the fields.

The second option, which is usually the chosen one, is to hack to the duck pond, incorporating a few trots along the way. The odd dismount and walk; an ooh and ahh at a sleeping duck. And some waving at pedestrians and drivers.

She isn’t hugely receptive to the idea of being taught on Tangle. Just getting her to hold the reins is a challenge.

"Hold onto the green bit here."
"No, actually. I'll hold the orange bit."

She’s keen, and repeatedly asks to be taught on her rocking horse. Although equally she doesn’t take kindly to being told to do something she doesn’t want to do!

How much teaching should I be doing with her? How much success should I be having? Thinking of the young kids I taught in riding schools, I had mixed success with pre-schoolers. But then again, I know some Pony Club children of a similar age who have an established rising trot and are cantering.

I try not to compare. After all, each time her confidence improves, as does her balance in the saddle. She learns nuggets of information like the colours of the horses; to lean backwards when going down hill; where the withers are; and that ponies eat hay.

I guess following her lead will keep her most engaged with caring for a pony and riding. And one day, she’ll ask for a proper riding lesson… Whereby I will be asking a friend to teach her!