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!

Track System Turnout

I was first introduced to the idea of track systems ten years ago, as a method of encouraging horses to move around their paddocks more. It was predominantly aimed at companions, the laminitis prone, and obese. The friend who first set it up definitely noticed an improvement in the waistlines of her unridden equines. She sets up a track around the edge of her hay field, and cuts hay from the centre of the field, while the ponies graze the edges which are harder to cut with the tractor.

But they’ve evolved. Track systems are now hugely complicated, focus on enrichment and often have different “areas”. There are social media groups for the obsessed. It’s almost a culture, like those who have barefoot horses.

As with anything, I sit firmly in no man’s land. Barefoot is great if your horse is happy without shoes. But if they’re not, then give their hooves some form of protection. The majority of horses will benefit from a track system, and if you can provide one with different zones then great. But if you can’t provide the full works then just take away the basic concept and don’t stress.

Which is?

To encourage a horse to walk around their turn out area more, to mimic the natural nomadic lifestyle of wild horses.

Now, if you have your own land, plenty of it, plus plenty of resources to build miles of fencing, then yes, go all out and build the most fantastical track system for your horse to enjoy. Providing different surfaces underfoot, hedgerow and browsing plants, shelter and everything else you’ve ever wanted your horse to have.

But that is the ideal situation.

The majority of us have rented fields with livery yard restrictions, which renders an all singing, all dancing and track system inconceivable. However, like I said, just keeping the core concept of increasing their step count, can really help you manage the weight and general fitness of your horse.

Most paddocks at livery yards are rectangular, and the usual way that people strip graze, or rest half, is to create a “front half” and a “back half” which are effectively squares. Now, what about if you were to turn that around? Instead of putting up temporary fencing across the field, parallel to the short side, what about putting the fence at ninety degrees, parallel to the long side? You then have two rectangles of turnout. The physical area of your horse’s space is the same, but the layout means there’s more walking involved whilst grazing. You can also encourage further movement by putting any hay at the far end of field to the gate and water.

I used this set up for Otis when he was in work, and when I wanted to introduce the rested area, I opened up the fencing at the far end of the field and gave it to him in small chunks. So he’d have to walk the full length of his field, go around the corner and back on himself to get fresh grazing. To rest the first half of the field, I’d just shut the fencing at the far end, and make a gateway near the metal gate. I never had a problem controlling Otis’s weight, but I’m sure it helped keep his baseline fitness up.

Now, with Otis in retirement, we often extend the boys’ paddock into the track, so they get more access to the hedgerow for browsing and have to do a bit more walking to counteract the plentiful grass as exercising him isn’t an option.

When clients talk to me about managing their paddock with the spring grass and tubby pony, I always suggest making the strips of grazing as long and thin (within reason) as possible. If a paddock is rather square, then creating an L shape is a useful way of maximising footfall. Fresh grass can then be given at the far end, eventually creating a C shape. It’s by no means a track system, but it is glorified strip grazing, working within the confines of a standard livery yard set up, and relatively quick and easy to set up and maintain each spring, and hopefully helps reduce the weight gain of the good doers.

Has anyone else found a difference in their horse’s baseline fitness and waistline by changing the configuration of their paddocks?

Floppy Thumbs

With a lot of my teaching I try to come up with catchphrases, so I can say a word to trigger my rider to make a certain correction or check. They often aren’t very technically correct, such as a “squashy trot” for collecting the trot.

This catchphrase has developed over this week due to some recent observations I’ve made, and I think it works quite well.

Most riders don’t carry their hands with the thumbnail pointing vertically up – even if you think you do your thumbs will still point slightly inwards. Now, don’t pretend to hold the reins and say they’re 100% correct, have a look next time you’re in the saddle.

With riders who have the classic “pram pushing” hands with knuckles facing skywards, they often have the elbows sticking out slightly. They may not be flapping like chicken wings, but they will be loose. With loose elbows, the core is weaker and less engaged.

In a nutshell, I find if I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top, I also have 5o tell them to keep the elbows snug to their sides. The two faults are linked.

When I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top there is usually an improvement, but only a 90% improvement at most, and they very quickly let the thumbs flop in slightly.

So I needed a phrase to correct both parts of a rider’s anatomy. The next time you are riding, rotate your hands outwards so that your fingernails point upwards. Can you feel your elbows squeezing against your rib cage? Can you feel your core slightly more engage? No huge clenching of muscles, but your posture and deportment improves.

Yes I agree, riding with your fingers up is a bit extreme, and not very correct, but if you over correct your hands in this way, as soon as your mind drifts to your next circle or change of rein, your hands start to revert. But because of the extreme positioning of the hands, the thumbs end up pointing to the sky, and the elbows snug by your ribs.

Now for the catchphrase. “Flop your thumbs out” seemed to work quite well for my clients this week. It’s short and sweet, draws a smile, no one feels like their being reprimanded, isn’t technical, and gets the desired result.

Now for the core effect. Once my riders have gotten the idea of flopping thumbs, I ask them how their seat and core feels. Often, they don’t notice a thing, so I get them to ride a normal trot-walk transition (with sitting trot beforehand). I haven’t corrected their position or aids for half a lap or so. I ask them how it feels. Then we repeat the transition, but this time I remind them to flop their thumbs out just before taking sitting trot, and then explain how different it feels.

With one rider this week, she noticed a huge change in her balance in the downward transitions, and could feel her core working harder to stabilise her when her elbows were by her side. We took it forwards to the canter transitions, and by the end of the lesson she could feel an ache in her abdomen, which showed she’d worked harder and differently that usual. Like I said earlier, there isn’t a huge visible change to a rider’s torso when flopping their thumbs, but they feel more stable and secure without being tense when the elbows are closed against the ribcage, and it is definitely more noticeable during transitions and sitting trot.

Try it; flop your thumbs out slightly every so often when you’re riding or are about to ride a movement or transition, and see the difference it makes to your balance, stability, and contact.

Leaving Lockdown

It’s been a while since I blogged. Life has been a bit crazy as lockdown has eased and the odd moment that I’ve had to myself I’ve needed to stare vacantly at an insipid TV programme. But there’s no hot water for my bath, so I thought I’d address my oversight whilst waiting for the boiler to do it’s job.

Not that I’m sure what to talk about, so let’s see where this meandering road will take me!

Has anyone else found the idea of coming out of lockdown slightly daunting? Well, very daunting to be honest.

I feel that we’ve slimmed down our diaries to the bare minimum. Essential jobs, outings etc. And realistically are only socialising with who we need to see. Yet we’ve filled our time so that we’re busy every day. How on earth will we fit in anything extra curricular?

Since Easter, I’ve been trying to get a handle on the elusive work-life balance, which has spiralled a bit out of control. We’re back up to three full days of childcare, and I’ve streamlined work into 3.5 weekdays, with Pony Club alternate weekends. Which, once the madness of going on long overdue day trips to visit family calms down, I’m hoping will feel like we have a reset day, and at least a day to do something different; be it a day at the zoo or a walk in the woods.

But then there comes the question as to what we actually want to do with this newfound freedom. I mean, what do we actually want to do? I’ve never been a fan of big crowds, and not having been in one for over a year definitely makes me wary of going out again. I think I’m also concerned about how activities and experiences will change as a result of new regulations and social distancing. I mean, I love going to the West End. But, there’s a lot of people in those narrow passageways, especially during the interval. I feel claustrophobic at the mere thought. And, will the social distancing and mask wearing affect the experience? There’s definitely an element of reluctance to dive straight in. Perhaps I’ll wait until a friend has been so they can feed back to me.

I’ve also been thinking carefully about what options life opening up will give us. And choosing one thing at a time to reintroduce. Even the simple things such as taking Phoenix out. You get out of the rhythm of it, can’t remember what equipment you need, can’t remember how to juggle child and pony. Then factor in the post-lockdown regulations I need to remember. But a few treadmill trips, hacks out with friends and clinics and I’ve refamiliarised myself with Pony adventures. However, the desire to compete hasn’t really returned yet!

Then at the same time I am really conscious of making sure we provide Mallory with stimulation, opportunities, and an education. But without creating a whirlwind lifestyle. This week, we started officially sharing a lovely Welsh section A pony. We’ll only go once a week, and I’ll follow her lead as to whether we hack (current favourite), trot around the arena (“don’t hold me Mum. I don’t need you to hold her!”), or meander over poles. Then we’re also eagerly awaiting for swimming pools to be opened for public swimming so we can make the water baby happy again and get her confident in the water again.

I’ve booked a slot to go trampolining next week; an activity that we loved before lockdown, but decided that we won’t return to her singing and dancing class until things get back to normal in terms of interaction because neither of us enjoyed the individual island like experience of before Christmas and I spent the entire time telling her not to interact with the other children. And otherwise, we’ll just hand pick activities on a weekly basis until we find the right balance for us.

I think emerging from this hibernation steadily will give us all chance to adapt, yet also make the decision as to what we actually want to do rather than being swept along with the crowd and overburdened with a hectic schedule, leaving us no time for the quiet, quality moments we’ve learnt to appreciate over the last fourteen months.

Sensitive Subjects

This is a subject I’m coming across more and more, as well as it increasingly coming to the forefront of coach training.

It’s a delicate subject, and I think one which is handled by many parents in such different ways, which I’ll explain in a moment. But I also think it’s important to see and understand a coach’s perspective. It’s taken me a few days to work out what the purpose of my blog is, and how best to phrase it.

Firstly, what on earth am I banging on about? I’m talking about riders with additional needs. Be it a physical limitation, a learning difficulty, dyspraxia, being on the autistic spectrum, etc etc. And the point that I’m trying to make is that a coach needs to be told of any additional needs so that they can create a safe teaching and riding environment, complete appropriate risk assessments, as well as planning appropriate lesson content. It’s a subject that should be talked about without the taboo or fear of stigma.

There are two extremes of parents that I come across on this subject. Those who will tell me before the first lesson an extensive list of difficulties their child encounters when being taught. And those who don’t admit that there are any differences in their child from society’s typical idea of “normal”. And no, we won’t go down the rabbit hole of what defines normal.

I think the reason some parents don’t tell about their child’s differences is because of the perceived stigma attached and they’re concerned that their child will be treated differently.

But, the thing is, that in order to teach a child with disabilities you do need to treat them differently. In the positive sense. A teacher may need to adapt their explanation, or allow more time, or use a different teaching method, to help that particular child understand. For example, a person who is wired slightly differently, needs a different sort of explanation to help them understand. In the same way a French speaker will understand an explanation in French far more than an explanation in English. And if you have a group of fluent English speakers, and one French speaker with limited understanding of English. It is a poor teaching approach to just teach in English, ostracising the French speaker; a good teacher will incorporate French in their teaching in order to be inclusive.

Teachers and coaches need to be multi lingual and be able to teach so that the different learning styles are accommodated. In which case, it’s helpful for a coach to have some inside information about any student with learning difficulties so that they can best plan and structure their lessons.

I`ve often had lessons where I`ve been trying to teach a concept, and ultimately failing, coming up with Plan B or racking my brains for alternative explanations. Then, at the end, I`m informed by the parent that the rider has a physical limitation, or doesn`t compute whatever approach I’m using. At which point I’m internally frustrated, and the rider showing signs that they’re equally frustrated. This is when it would be useful to have had insider knowledge so I could go straight to Plan C and get it right first time. There’s no judgement from my side as I want to be able to get my message across and help my rider improve from the off.

However… I do find that being told too much detail on the first lesson actually clouds my assessment of a rider. A few weeks ago I taught a one off lesson (long story), and was fully briefed by the Mum about the rider’s way of learning and processing information. I actually felt more pressure from all this insider knowledge that I overthought my lesson. Within minutes of meeting the rider and watching her ride, I disregarded most of the information from her Mum. Not because it was unimportant, but because I didn’t need to bear it in mind. Let me explain better. I was told that this rider struggled to retain lots of information and tended to switch off. Which is fine. But my teaching style is much more bitesize. Do an exercise or movement, talk about one part of it. Improve that. Do another exercise, focus on another area, be it improving the rider’s riding, or discussing the biomechanics and feel. I understand why the Mum wanted to tell me this nugget of information, because if I were a lecturing type of instructor, the rider would have struggled to retain the lesson.

So what’s the answer?

To be honest, I’m not sure, and I think it depends on the individual and what is being taught. Horse riding is physical, so actually it’s useful to know of any previous injuries, weaker limbs (from breaks etc), or poor core strength. Often I’ll make the observations, but equally it’s useful to know that there’s a reason for asymmetry, or if they’ll find it difficult to achieve my corrections, rather than bad habits.

In terms of the non physical differences, it can be harder for a coach to understand or identify them, which is where I think it’s down to the parent to inform the coach of anything on a need to know basis; whether it be a personal quirk, undiagnosed suspicion or a clinical diagnosis. I.e. In the stable management sessions, doing quizzes, it is relevant to know about them and their dyslexia. But it’s not as relevant in their ridden sessions. I also find it useful to know of any behavioural triggers when teaching. Firstly, so I can avoid triggering them, and secondly so that I’m not caught off guard, and thirdly so I’m not offended, or feel like I’ve failed in my teaching.

It’s a very sensitive subject which needs to have the stigma removed from it, and for everyone to understand that someone with additional learning, whether it has a label or diagnosis or is just their individuality, needs does need to be treated slightly differently in order to be able to learn. Sure, it’s discrimination, but it’s not exclusion. If anything, being ignorant to a person’s needs and being unable to help them leads to them being isolated and ultimately excluded from the main group.

I’d be interested to hear the viewpoints of parents on finding the balance of what to tell riding coaches about their child, and their experiences in this area, because it’s definitely an area which we can improve on, to better a rider’s experience of learning to ride and improving an instructor’s skill set.

Opening Up The Thighs

In my weekly pilates class we’ve been doing a lot of stretches to open up the front of the hips – muscles which become tight when sat at a desk all day and subsequently prevent you from sitting upright and having the long leg desired in the dressage arena.

I’ve made a few observations over recent months about adjusting stirrups, which link into these exercises.

Let me explain.

When I was a teenager helping at the local riding school and had to adjust a client’s stirrup length, we would ask them to take their foot out of the iron and swing their leg back. Then you can access the buckle at the front of their thigh. There’s also no weight on the skirt of the saddle and you can see what you’re doing, so it’s a straightforward adjustment. I didn’t think much of it, apart from the occasional beginner or mature adult who was a bit stiff the first few times.

Fast forward almost two decades (when did I get so OLD?!) and now anytime I see anyone having assistance to adjust their stirrup length, brings their leg forward, akin to adjusting the girth. Why has this trend changed? Or maybe the leg back approach was just a Welsh thing… Perhaps our increasingly sedentary lifestyles has made us all stiffer in the hips?

Anyway, let’s not go down the route of discussing keeping the foot in the stirrup whilst adjusting the leathers, because that technique actually helps stretch out the inner thigh (one of the reasons many people struggle to use this technique if not brought up with it). We’re talking about assisted stirrup adjustments.

Based on my observations, that riders prefer to draw the leg forward to make adjustments, and the fact that many leisure riders find it difficult to ride with a long leg, either relying on knee rolls to hold their leg in the correct position or pitching forwards at the seat. Or both.

Linking back to pilates; when we prepare to ride and do some leg stretches, or when we do leg stretches in the saddle whilst first walking around, should we also be considering how we adjust the stirrups, using any adjustments as an opportunity to stretch out the front of the hips?

It would be interesting to do a study with those riders who usually move the leg forward when stirrups are adjusted, and instead get them to move their leg back each time they ride and adjust the stirrups. Over the course of a few weeks, do they find this movement easier, and does their seat and leg position improve? Then, how much effect do the pilates stretches have on seat and leg position if done before every ride?

Food for thought…

Phoenix’s Hydrotherapy

I’ve recently been managing, well surviving, Phoenix in winter mode. She’s not as hyped as previous winters, and kept a lid on herself until February. Hopefully by the time she’s twenty she’ll be cool as a cucumber over winter!

Sure, she was a bit fizzy, but a good canter took the edge off. Then, a new horse went into the adjacent field, so Phoenix spent the next couple of days charging at the fence line defending her territory and herd. When I rode her she was super tense and tight over the lumbar area of her back.

So I booked her in with the chiropractor pronto, who found a slight misalignment but mostly tight muscles. About the same time, Phoenix had her first season of the year, and seemed even more sore in her lumbar, which I can only put down to period pains as it’s fairly close to her ovaries. She also had a massage the following week and definitely felt looser in that area afterwards.

Phoenix’s biggest issue when she gets a sore spot is that we then have a mental block about it. For example, this time the tension in her lumbar area caused her to almost wince when asked to bring her right hind slightly further under her body – travers, right canter, leg yield. Which then sends me down a rabbit hole as to whether there’s an underlying issue…

However, after some stretches which showed full range of movement, just moving with caution, and some lunging in just a cavesson proved that there’s nothing physically wrong, just her suspicions that it will hurt, combined with the need to canter in a straight line for several miles to burn off the excess energy. Similar to many kids coming out of lockdown!

Which means that I’m now schooling to loosen up her lumbar, getting it to work correctly, and making her realise that it doesn’t hurt and to relax into her work again. Which she’s starting to do after some canter work. The better weather is also helping and I’m pleased with her work at the end of the last few schooling sessions. They feel progressive again.

While all this has been going on, I had had thoughts about boxing her the five miles to use the water treadmill. Hydrotherapy is a very good workout for their core and my initial plan, to try and keep winter Phoenix in her box next year, is to take her weekly to the treadmill over the worse of the winter months. It’s another form of exercise; when the weather is bad riding is a calorie burning exercise rather than being particularly beneficial to her way of going, so this would take the pressure off me to ride her on wet and windy days, hopefully keep the energy levels in check, and help keep her topline (which unfortunately has deteriorated this last 6 weeks while she’s been tense and reluctant to use her back properly). I felt guilty at the thought of travelling her during lockdown as whilst travelling for hydrotherapy is permitted, Phoenix wasn’t exactly in dire need of it.

Phoenix took to the treadmill happily, walking straight on, although the look in her face when it started and she shot backwards was a picture! It was interesting watching Phoenix’s lumbar muscles begin to work over the course of the treadmill session, starting a little locked but by the end her whole back was swinging nicely.

I’m not expecting a huge transformation in her physique as a result of going on the treadmill. This month of sessions is to help get her using her back again and feeling stronger. In the summer I can work her correctly easily and get her long and low (which is not natural or easy for her, like stretching out a strong spring which likes to be on alert) but now she’s experienced the treadmill she will be ready for the winter, when she comes weekly and hopefully we have a more constructive training programme. As well as the fact we will hopefully be allowed out competing and to blow off steam on the gallops.

Roll on spring!