Tack Cheats for Little People

I don’t often have an opinion on a pony’s tack. I may recommend some form of grass rein if the pony snatches at the reins, or I may comment on the size of stirrup iron or leathers if they’re unsuitable, but I don’t like too many gadgets on a pony because although the gadgets may solve the initial problem, they don’t allow the rider, however small, to learn correct habits which means that they will run into difficulties later on in their riding career.

As long as the tack is safe, I don’t tend to change things. However, recently I’ve found myself making little adjustments to tack to help my little riders.

My most common suggestion at the moment is that my young riders have a piece of electric tape wrapped around their reins so they know when a) their reins are the correct length, and b) that their holding the hands level. Often children have one hand which has a longer rein and sits back, just above the saddle, a throwback to when they were holding on to balance. Others will shorten one rein more than the other, especially if feeling nervous. Putting a visual cue helps correct this subconscious habit. You can buy multicoloured reins which do a similar thing, but electrical tape is free and quick to apply. As soon as a rider’s hands are held level they begin to sit straighter and their pony responds to a more even rein contact so becomes easier to control. Most of my Pony Clubbers have tape on their reins.

The other bit of tack which I’ve been tweaking recently are knee rolls. Most saddles nowadays have velcro knee rolls, which means they can be adjusted so that they support a rider’s leg. Sometimes, as in the case of inherited ponies, the knee rolls were adjusted for the tall previous rider, and the new, shorter jockey ends up swinging their legs around as they try to find their balance in rising trot. A quick adjustment of the knee rolls means that they have some support at the knee which discourages the knee from reaching forwards and subsequently stops the chair position developing. It’s worth reviewing the positioning of knee rolls as children’s legs grow, and as they develop their muscles and balance they become less reliant on knee rolls anyway.

Last week I was working on jumping position with a young rider. We’d managed to get her folding nicely, but her lower leg started to look insecure. When I looked closely I noticed she didn’t have any knee rolls on her saddle. So I’ve dispatched her Mum off to buy some velcro knee rolls, which I believe will solve the wobbly leg problem and help this rider feel more secure folding into her jumping position.

Another cheat I’ve suggested recently, which is also useful for slight adults riding big ponies, is that if the saddle seat is a bit big for the rider – because a child has moved up a pony size or a family pony means everyone has to try to make fit – a seat saver can help reduce the size of the saddle seat. It does not need to be extra grippy, or memory foam or anything in particular, but the aim is to shorten the distance from pommel to cantle so that a rider with a small seat, especially one developing their balance, doesn’t feel the need to push their bottom backwards to feel the cantle and get some support from it as the learn to rise to the trot. This should help stop the lower leg going forwards and them developing a chair seat.

Saddlers should always fit tack to both horse and rider, so in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to make these cheats, but new saddles are expensive and situations less than perfect with young riders having growing room on new ponies, so we need to think outside the box and make adjustments to develop good habits, which is far easier than correcting ingrained bad habits as a result of not having support from tack in the right places.

Getting Back into Jumping

I had my first jump with Phoenix for three months last weekend. I didn’t jump her initially during lockdown and then the ground has been so hard I haven’t wanted to use the jumping paddock. I was going to hire a training venue, but then saw a local gridwork clinic so decided that was a better option. Phoenix benefits from lots of grids to stop her rushing and engaging her brain, but it always involves so much getting on and off to adjust poles! Yes, I am lazy!

Anyway, the layout was excellent and I shall be using it for my own clients, so watch out!

There was a grid of three jumps placed on the centre line, one stride between each one and the middle jump on X. Then across the diagonals, between M and X, and H and X, were three canter poles, before one stride and the pole at X.

The session was all about straightness so we warmed up cantering straight across the diagonals, obviously traversing the pole at X on an angle. We worked on riding the corner in a balanced way so that we were straight over the poles and didn’t drift. Then the second and third canter poles were converted into bounces, as alternate diagonal poles. This meant that if you drifted towards the lower side over the first pole you had to jump the higher side of the next pole.

Once the raised canter poles were established and the horses confident over them and staying fairly straight the jump at X was raised to an upright and we jumped diagonally across the arena a few times.

Phoenix tends to load her right shoulder when jumping. She used to do it on the flat but as she’s getting stronger she’s carrying it more, but when caught up in the excitement of jumping she will regress to loading it. Which means that this exercise, particularly off the left rein, is highly beneficial.

The exercise is actually very straightforward if you can ride a straight line. The bounces help lift the shoulders, engage the hocks, and subsequently the upright is cleared easily and neatly. Sometimes when jumping on an angle a horse is inclined to drift through the open side. Partly because of the visual effect of the jump drawing them outwards, partly because the horse is crooked, and partly because the rider isn’t channelling their horse straight with the leg and hand. If you have the foundation right in your flatwork then the jumps will follow.

The next exercise was building the centre line grid up to two uprights and an oxer. The work across the diagonals developing straightness was put to the test with uprights and very little to guide the eye. The improved bascule and confidence in the horse’s jump also shows the benefits of improving their straightness.

We rode courses, linking all three lines up, and then finally changed the angled bounces to an upright, making a one stride double with the jump at X.

Having a lot of poles definitely helped Phoenix slow down and think about the job in hand, and the straightness work improved her bascule and ability to make related distances easy in a regular rhythm. Watch out clients, you’ll see some similar exercises soon!

Exercise Boots

Otis wore protective boots for all forms of exercise, but in the last couple of years I’ve done a complete U-turn on my approach to leg protection.

It started when I was doing in hand and lunging work with Phoenix whilst heavily pregnant. She was barefoot and a clean mover and not in hard work. Plus I could hardly bend down to put boots on her. Then I just progressed to riding without brushing boots.

I put them on when we jump or go cross country, but as she’s still barefoot and shows no signs of knocking herself I haven’t used boots or bandages for the majority of her work.

My reason for moving away from leg protection was mainly the research that was coming to light about the problems caused by boots warming up tendons and having a negative effect on their tensile strength.

And I was quite happy with this simpler approach to riding, and confident in my reasoning. Until recently.

During lockdown Phoenix has progressed in her flatwork and is now working on collection, half pass in trot and canter, walk pirouettes, as well as doing direct transitions as the norm. I’ve recently started doubting my logic. But it’s a minefield nowadays trying to find the right leg protection.

The big downside to leg protection is that it heats up the legs so reduces rge functionality of the tendons. So boots need to be as lightweight and breathable as possible. However, the lighter the material, the less protection the boots will provide.

I wrestled with the pros and cons for each argument but finally decided that I’d never forgive myself if Phoenix knocked herself whilst dancing, causing a wound that would have been protected by lightweight boots.

The expert guidance on the subject of leg protection now is that they should only be on for the minimal length of time, should be as breathable as possible, and the legs should be cooled as quickly as possible after work. I also learnt a lot about the type of boots. A lot of dressage wraps are marketed as “supportive” but in reality, they offer very little support. And you don’t necessarily want support because if you restrict the movement of the fetlock the forces are transmitted to another joint in the leg, which could cause more injury. In terms of protection, boots either provide an armour like protection to stop injury from sharp objects, and others dissipate shock forces of a strike or impact. No boot does both forms of protection. For my situation, I want softer boots which won’t stop wounds from sharp objects but will reduce the effect of a knock as Phoenix is learning to dance Valegro style.

I’m still very much on the fence about using leg protection on a daily basis, because it isn’t a straightforward decision as we were taught a decade ago, but owners and riders have to weigh up the benefits of providing protection with the effect of heating up and weakening the tendons. And once your decision is made there is the challenge of finding the boot which provides a sufficient level of the correct type of protection whilst reducing the heating effect.

Breaking Up A Course

I was working with a young rider and her fairly new pony a couple of weeks ago on riding in a open field. They’ve spent lockdown getting to know each other thoroughly, but the pony came with the warning that he got very excited in open fields so now it was time to broach the subject.

With her parents she’s walked around their riding field and it’s become boring for her pony so he doesn’t get excited when on his own. They’ve popped over the odd log but the rider doesn’t feel she can control him when stringing jumps together, or approaching jumps in more than a very steady trot, and the pony is known to get faster and faster throughout a cross country course.

I took the pair out into the riding field and started by getting my young rider to walk some school shapes around the logs, trees, bushes and other obstacles. The idea being to fill her pony’s brain with where they were going next rather than the speed they were travelling at. We made a plan of a sequence of movements so my rider could plan her route and didn’t have to think on the spot, which is quite difficult when you’re ten years old.

Once they were riding a calm, steady walk meandering around our corner of the field we moved up to trot. The circles and serpentines helped keep a steady rhythm with my rider feeling in control. With trot established and them both warmed up, I got my rider to adjust her circle so that a little log just happened to be in their way. They trotted over the log, which wasn’t really big enough for the pony to jump, and then carried on round their circle. No big deal. The idea being that the jump was part of their flatwork.

We continued in this vein, over a couple of tiny logs using circles on both reins, progressing from trot to canter. As soon as the pony started to get excited towards a log, the circle my rider was on changed line so that they avoided the jump. It was important that my rider wasn’t pulling out of the jump so teaching her pony to refuse, but she was riding a different line to remain in control.

We worked out way around the field over different logs, using circles before and after to keep the pony in a controlled rhythm without stopping and starting all the time.

With my rider growing in confidence, I started to link some logs together and get her moving around the field much more. However, instead of just telling her a course – so she had a route to take – I gave her movements to do between the jumps. She started with a circle before popping over the first log, and then rode a circle in either direction as she travelled to the second log. She could ride as many circles as she wanted to feel in control before jumping the second log. Between the second and third log, I told her to ride a transition. From canter to trot, and then back into canter. My theory was that if there’s a question before and after every jump it takes the pony’s focus away from jumping and he doesn’t anticipate that the next obstacle he sees is what he’s jumping.

We built the pair up to jumping longer courses of small logs around the field, linking a couple of jumps without the questions in between, ensuring my rider could bring her pony back after each long stretch. At key points on their course she had to ask him a big question to re-establish her authority, so breaking the course up into bitesize chunks.

I think if they continue schooling in this manner, making the jumps progressively bigger and more technical, but with questions between jumps, then when they need to jump a course, at a hunter trial or something, the pony will be expecting to do something between jumps so should not accelerate to the same extent that he used to. Additionally, my rider can ride a transition which won’t incur 20 penalties; possibly gain a couple of time penalties but I’d rather time penalties than them going dangerously fast. I think this is the way forwards for this pair at the moment and as their relationship grows they can start to link fences together straight with ease because they maintain a steady yet forwards rhythm rather than starting and stopping for each jump.

Adaptability

I attended a webinar last week – attended is quite a strong word considering I was sat in my pyjamas on the sofa – but anyway, I listened to a talk about different arena surfaces and the risk of injury. The take home message was that it doesn’t matter hugely on your arena surface so long as it is consistent throughout as your horse will adapt to it (of course extremes of surfaces will cause injuries, but don’t feel you have to have the same surface from the Olympics), and to train on a variety of surfaces to make your horse adaptable so they perform to the same level regardless of the surface they are on (e.g. a different surface at a competition compared to at home).

This made interesting listening, and actually linked well to something I discussed with a client last week about her horse’s adaptability to the terrain.

Before lockdown we’d worked a lot on her horse maintaining his balance when cantering before and after fences as he can get a bit lumbering and onto the forehand, causing him to get too close and trip over the jumps. She’s got the feel for the right balance that he needs on the approach to jumps, and can subtly adjust him – i.e. rebalancing without putting on the brakes when the surface and terrain is consistent and therefore they’re jumping out of a good rhythm, with more successful, confident building jumps.

Taking this out into the open field brought a new level of adaptability for this horse. As they warmed up, you could see how difficult it was for her horse to adjust his body weight to keep his balance going uphill then downhill. It seems to take him several strides to adjust and he needs his hand holding by his rider. This may well improve as he gets more practice in, but to be honest, I think some horses are just more surefooted and quick thinking to adjust their balance in response to the terrain so need less assistance from their rider. His rider is always likely to need to help him balance, but it will become more autonomic as they do more.

Firstly we discussed, and put into practice, keeping her horse balanced as they cantered around the field, using both a two point and three point seat. A two point, or light seat, helps a horse move over their back and often horses travel faster because of the increased freedom. But it is harder to discreetly rebalance a horse without your seat in contact with the saddle and they can get long and onto the forehand if they find that the easiest way to travel. Travelling uphill or in the long spaces between fences she could take light seat, but going downhill and before jumps she needed to be in a three point position to help keep him off his forehand and in an uphill canter ready for the jump.

Throughout our session, my rider got more in tune with her horse’s balance and started to correct him before he lost his balance, which makes a jumping round much more fluid. She was surprised at how much help her horse needed to keep his balance and how much attention she had to pay to this factor. When we discussed jumps and linking them together we talked not only of the jump, but of the terrain before and after. I also noticed how she started to use the grey area between 2 point and 3 point positions to rebalance as we got further into the session. For example, after an open, uphill canter stretch she went from her two point position to still hovering her seat out the saddle but bringing her upper body up and back slightly which rebalanced him sufficiently for the change in terrain as it plateaued.

We spent the session jumping some straightforward cross country fences, focusing on setting the canter up and evaluating the effect of the terrain on the approach to the jump. The trickiest combination for this pair is jumping downhill because this horse needs a lot of help from his rider in order to keep his balance in the canter. If he gets onto his forehand and loses energy then he will bury himself into the base of the jump and struggle to clear it.

I had the pair jumping several short courses of jumps on the flat or uphill, and travelling over different inclines and declines between jumps. As we went through the lesson their courses became much more balanced and fluid, with smoother jumps so they both grew in confidence. Their final course had them cantering down a little valley and then jumping a fence on the uphill. They managed this question really well; if the canter fell apart on the downhill they’d struggle to regroup in time for the jump. Next time, we’ll progress to jumping downhill. As my rider gets more in tune with feeling slight changes in her horse’s canter and subtly changes her position to help him, and as he gets more practiced at adapting to different terrains, they will find it easier to ride a flowing, confident, successful cross country course. Which is my aim!

Choosing Your Line

I chose a straightforward jumping exercise for a couple of my riders this last couple of weeks. They haven’t jumped for a while due to lockdown and with no lessons so I wanted to get them all back in to the swing of things whilst being aware that they’ve lost their jumping fitness.

I laid out a one stride double of jumps with tramlines between the two jumps down the centre line. After trotting and cantering over the poles, revising straightness and riding lines before and after jumps. I built the jumps up as crosses, still requiring my riders to ride to the centre of each fence, and to stay straight between them. Then I made the jumps into uprights, which makes it harder to stay central. Both of my riders have been my clients for a while so found this exercise very straightforward as I regularly use tramlines in lessons. But it was useful for settling the horses and rediscovering their jumping rhythm.

Next, I discussed with them how sometimes it is beneficial to not jump the centre of a jump. Perhaps on a course the turn is quite tight, or the turn after is tricky. Or you need to shave nanoseconds off your time. Or the previous fence and turn went wrong and you’ve overshot the next jump.

In any of those cases, it’s very useful to be able to chose a different line to ride; be it the inside line that F1 drivers talk about, or the outside line.

I moved the tramlines, leaving one pole in the middle of the combination, dividing the jump into left and right. Then I put a pole before and after the combination to give a visual line to my riders.

Firstly, I had them coming off the right rein, but jumping the left side of the fences i.e. the outside line. Afterward the jumps we alternated between turning left and right, so my riders could get a feel of the effect of jumping off centre. Riding the outside line is slightly easier than the inside line, but if a horse tends to drift around corners then they often continue drifting out along the line of jumps and it is harder to get them straight before the fence. Turning left after jumping the left line of a fence is tighter, which saves precious moments in a jump off, but could have a detrimental effect at the next fence if it’s a short line or your horse is likely to lose balance on a tight left turn.

Next, we stayed in the right rein, but jumped the inside line; again alternating between turning left and right afterwards. This was a tighter turn on the approach which may make it harder for the horse to stay balanced, especially if insufficient outside aids are used. However, the jump itself may be better because the horse’s hindquarters are more underneath them. Turning right afterwards is a tighter turn than turning left when jumping this inside line.

I wanted my riders to compare how easy or difficult it was riding the inside line and the outside line from different directions, and to understand this in relation to their training on the flat and how this might affect their choices when jumping a course.

For exactly, a horse who is stiffer on the right rein will find it harder to jump the right line of jumps from a right turn. This might cause the horse to be unbalanced before the jump and potentially knock the jump down. This can of course be improved by focusing on suppleness on the flat and making the stiffer side of the horse more supple. In an ideal world, a horse will find it as easy to turn tightly from the left rein and the right, but whilst you’re training it’s useful to know which turn is harder so you focus on improving that, but also from a tactical perspective you can choose the lines of your jumping course which are most economical on time with the greatest chance of jumping clear.

With my clients having mastered riding different lines through combinations the next step is putting this theory into practice on a course of jumps. Getting a feel for the difference that riding an outside or inside line can make to how well a course flows, stays intact, and the time it’s ridden in.

Continued Professional Development

As part of my accreditation as a BHS and PC coach I have to attend CPD days annually. They can often be a pain because of the effort involved in rescheduling my diary, travelling to the venue, and finding an appealing course at the right time in the right place which actually counts as a CPD course.

I was up to date with all my certificates, so thankfully won’t be affected by the cancellations surrounding lockdown, but I have seen a huge rise in webinars and online lectures this spring. With the extra time I have, I’ve been quite busy expanding my professional knowledge.

Ros Canter and Caroline Moore did a three session lecture over the course of a fortnight which was very reasonably priced and had the attraction that the lectures were recorded so I could “catch up” during the week. They were fascinating, and really useful – some clients have already started to see the exercises popping up in lessons. It was a combination of a PowerPoint, a series of YouTube video clips, and the experts discussing the subject. I’ve actually still got the last one to finish owing to a broken laptop, so I’m looking forwards to catching up on that soon. There is also a sports psychology talk for me to catch up on as well when I have a functioning laptop.

I’ve also just completed a mental health course, which was very straight forward to complete and meant I could pick it up and put it down easily around toddler challenges. This course was about helping coaches know how to help people with mental health problems, remove the stigma, and make our sport more accessible to them. As a coach, I often find the first few minutes of a lesson is a client unloading their woes so that they can forget about it for an hour and get the best out of their time with me. And now I have a few more tools in my toolkit to help if anything more serious than a “I got stuck behind a tractor which made me late so I haven’t groomed his tail” moan.

I’ve got a talk tomorrow night about arena surfaces which will be interesting, plus my riding club is organising an online rider biomechanics talk – a personal favourite subject of mine.

I don’t want to overload my brain with too many talks, but I really like how equestrians are embracing virtual education and are offering all these courses for horse owners and professionals. Whilst it means that not all subjects can be covered, it definitely opens up opportunities for us to learn whilst social restrictions are in place.

With the BHS requiring annual CPD days, a more flexible arrangement of alternating between courses which you attend in person, and online courses totalling sufficient hours, would definitely give coaches more ability to learn about the subjects which interest them as well as the ability to fit training around their busy working lives.

I hope that now we have the ball rolling with virtual lectures they continue to be offered after lockdown and social distancing is reduced. After all, more accessible education can only benefit our horses. It will also enable us to listen to a wider range of experts, perhaps who are out of our area or who do very exclusive talks.

The Left Hand Knowing What The Right Hand Is Doing

I discussed this subject with a teenage client last week as we focus on improving her pony’s straightness and her rein contact.

I asked her if she was aware of the jobs of the inside and outside hand, and if she felt that her hands were as good as each other at each job.

She knew that the outside rein is a stabilising rein, it needs to be steady and consistent to prevent the horse falling in, losing vertical balance, or bending too much through the neck. The inside rein is used to flex the horse and indicate the direction of movement. As a result, the inside rein is more mobile (not to the extent of dancing around) but not quite so steadfast as the outside rein.

With my rider understanding the concept of the different roles of the inside and outside rein, I asked her to evaluate her rein contact and hands in each direction. Did her right hand find it easier to be the outside rein than the inside? Did her left hand provide a better outside rein contact than the left?

She correctly identified that her right rein was a better outside contact than her left hand as it stayed steady without hanging off the mouth. Her left hand found it easier to soften her pony into a left bend. In this case, the more dextrous hand was her writing hand, but this isn’t always the case. In my observations, I’ve noticed that everyone has a stabilising hand, which is used for example to hold a nail, and everyone has a hand which is more adept at finer movements – the one which uses the hammer. Perhaps that isn’t the best description. The stabilising hand holds the paper still whilst the motor hand draws the picture – how’s that? Most of the time the motor hand is your dominant hand, but it’s not a golden rule.

Once we’d established the different jobs of the outside and inside rein, we talked about how to improve the hands. I asked my rider if she felt there was an even weight in both hands, or if one was always heavier. A lot of riders carry more weight in their stabilising hand, which when it is the inside rein means that the horse is more likely to motorbike around turns and lean in. So I had my rider assess the weight in her hands on both reins to see if one was significantly more. Her right hand was slightly heavier, but not a huge amount so on the right rein I just kept reminding her to balance out the feel in her hands – taking more weight with the left hand and lightening the right. This immediately began to help create a better outside rein contact on the right rein as the left hand became more stable.

I kept the focus on the right rein (clockwise around the school); keeping the left hand more stable and consistent as the outside aid, and then as I don’t want the right hand to suddenly start leaping around we mainly worked on lightening the wrist, keeping the weight of the arm in the slightly more bent elbow. As my rider’s hands became better at each job and the weight more even between left and right, her pony started to move straighter, staying more balanced on turns and giving more of a uniform bend throughout his body. She could then add in the inside leg aid to improve his inside hind leg engagement and balance.

With her new knowledge and understanding of the job of the inside and outside reins, my rider found it easier to change their bend when we started to work on serpentines and figures of eight. Her pony then kept his balance during changes of rein and became more symmetrical in his way of going because he was giving more bend on his stiffer rein and less bend on his hollow side.

With ambidextrous hands a rider is more able to ride evenly in both directions, and with a greater understanding of the purpose of the inside and outside rein the horse can be more easily corrected in their way of going. A rider can balance the horse between leg, seat and hand more subtly and effectively when a rider has more understanding and control over their rein aids.When learning lateral work, greater control over the reins as individuals means more correct movements will be ridden because the horse can be set up on the correct bend and it can be maintained whilst moving sideways.

Back To Fitness

As lockdown is easing in the UK, many horse owners will start to look at bringing their horses back into work and increasing their fitness.

How long this takes depends on your fitness goal and your horse’s current level of fitness, age and previous injuries.

If your horse has been turned away in a sizeable field with companions it will be surprising how much fitness he has retained walking around the field and playing with friends. However, if your horse has an old injury or is stabled overnight with individual turnout they won’t have retained as much fitness.

Whilst not riding, some owners have continued long reining or lunging their horse, so will have a slight advantage over the furloughed horses.

Something to consider though, is your fitness as a rider. This has probably deteriorated with staying at home as well as doing less equine activities.

One of my client’s horses has had seven weeks off, but he’s now coming back into work as he lives at home and I don’t need to see anyone when I go to ride. We need to consider his mental well-being as well as his physical health. He is looking plump, but is also bored only being in his field. Well, that’s what I like to think as he trotted over to me when I appeared with his saddle today!

To use him as an example, he has some fitness from being in a field 24/7, so I started with a generous half hour walk around the village, with no terrain. He returned home with a little sweat on his girth area and had obviously worked without stressing his body. This will steadily increase on hackd, in duration and incorporate terrain over the next couple of weeks before short periods of trot are introduced. As with the walk, the trot periods will increase in duration, frequency and include terrain.

Depending on how we’re getting on with his fitness, the ground and lockdown in general, I’ll look at starting some canter work in week four.

This horse has no previous injuries for me to worry about, and we aren’t in a rush to get him fit for a competition deadline, so I will take it steadily with him. Aiming for him to come back from each ride slightly sweaty, and having increased his pulse and respiration rate during the ride.

Schooling for short periods can be introduced early on, to provide variety to the work. If you jump, then you’ll want to introduce trot polework when the trot is established, and canter poles and jumping once the canter work has been introduced, always monitoring how well your horse is coping with the exercise.

I think it’s most important to listen to the horse when fittening them; assess their recovery after work, keep a close eye on their body and behaviour for signs of fatigue, and for any signs of soreness or injury afterwards. Even if you have a fitness deadline, such as a competition, it is better not to rush the fittening, and plateau for a while if necessary until your horse’s body is managing with the current workload.