Visual Learners

Teaching these days is all about providing information in a variety of forms. Years ago teachers would teach verbally, but nowadays they offer pictures and videos, physical activities and social activities to support their verbal lectures.

In an arena I predominantly use verbal explanations, but I also use videos and photos to feedback to clients, and have been known to get a nearby rider to demonstrate an exercise (especially rising canter). I will also walk any lines to help demonstrate an exercise. Sometimes physical feedback, such as adjusting a foot’s position in the stirrup, is as useful teaching tool.

I’ve been teaching a young boy, who has high functioning autism, and he’s really testing my imagination in terms of effectively getting my message across to him in a format he understands. I know not everyone likes to label children, but from a teaching perspective it’s very useful to know of any problems, if that’s the right term, so I can better understand their reactions or behaviour, and adjust my approach so that they get the best out of the lesson.

He’s very literal, so I have to be careful not to use figurative language. Today I said, “tell Tilly to go round the edge” as his pony started to cut the corner. So he said, “Tilly, go round the edge.” Of course I meant to tell the pony with his legs and hands, not to literally tell her! So I’m having to adapt my words and phrases so that there’s no room for misinterpretation.

I also have to explain exercises very explicitly so that he understands them. For example, I tell him at which letter we will go into trot, and then I have to list each letter he will ride past, and at which letter he needs to ride a downward transition. Otherwise he trots from the start letter across the school to the final letter!

To help me direct him, I use a variety of cones and poles. For example, he must ride past the yellow cone before he turns, or he should halt between the poles. These props are easy to adjust to make an exercise easier or harder, and seem to really help him focus on where he’s going. He also has immediate feedback as to whether he’s achieved the aim because he’s either the right side of the prop, or he’s not.

This is a useful approach for visual learners, so definitely one for me to bear in mind when teaching others. I have one client (who knows who she is) who always cuts the corner after poles, so when we progress to jumping she is going to have cones to go round so that I can break this bad habit!

With this young boy, I’ve also had to get creative to help improve his riding position. Sticking to visual cues, I put red electric tape onto his reins which he must hold in order to have the correct length of rein and to have the reins the same length. He tends to, like all beginners, to hold his hands close to his tummy. So I sprayed purple spray onto his pony’s withers to show him where his hands should be. Of course this works best on the greys and palominos.

When we’ve been practising jumping position, to improve his balance and lower leg stability, I’ve been putting a plait in his pony’s mane for him to hold so that he is moving his hands the correct distance up her neck.

He has some special gloves on order, which have an L and R on to help him learn his left and rights. I know many adults who would also like these gloves!

I’m sure as he progresses through his riding I will need to become even more imaginative – suggestions on postcards! I think I will mark a line along each shoulder in a different colour to help him learn his trot diagonals and to see the shoulder moving. It’s all about finding ways to help him understand different concepts which makes sense to him.

But I’m up for a challenge!

Circles and Jumping

I’ve been focusing recently on jumping dog legs with a client since we discovered how difficult she and her pony found riding left dog legs were. They often drifted from their jumping line and lost the fluidity by chipping in a stride.We’ve worked hard at this and last week the dog legs were far more even between the reins.This week I decided they needed more of a challenge to make sure my rider was riding actively and accurately between jumps, using her lazy right leg (the cause of the left dog leg problems), and to improve their suppleness.

I love this exercise and providing you have enough space it’s so useful for getting riders to link fences together. I placed four cross poles on a 25m circle at 12,3,6 and 9 o’clock. Initially, I asked the pair to canter a circle over the jumps in both directions. They had to ride the circle until it felt consistent and flowing. They were supposed to get five canter strides between each jump. In order to ride this exercise well you have to be continuously riding towards the next jump. The outside aids need to push the horse round so that they stay balanced, and you want to be jumping the centre of each jump – hence why I used cross poles to help guide horse and rider. I was pleased that both reins were fairly consistent from the start, and my rider didn’t feel that one direction was significantly harder than the other. This proves they are becoming straighter and more symmetrical in their work.

The next challenge was to improve the quality of the canter and their suppleness. They had to ride the large circle of jumps and after jumping every second fence they had to ride and 10m circle within the big circle before re-jumping the fence and continuing around the circle. The smaller circle gets the horse’s hocks underneath them and improves their suppleness, as well as making them neater over the next jump. The rider has to turn more, opening the inside rein more and using more outside leg to get the turn, so it will highlight any weakness on the rider’s part. We put two small circles within the big circle, but you could do a small circle at every jump to increase the difficulty. I find it useful to have a jump to aim for, especially a cross, because it’s very easy for riders to accept a wider turn on the flat as there’s no marker to cross, whereas a jump will encourage them to be more active and determined in their riding.

With the smaller circles my rider started to plan ahead more, turning whilst in the air, and her pony started to bring his hocks underneath him more, improving his canter.

Challenge number three was a bit harder. Instead of riding a small circle towards the middle of the big circle, on every other cross pole, my rider had to ride a small circle outwards. This required a change of canter lead over the jump. Something they are perfectly capable of, but sometimes it takes a minute or two for the switch to click. I got my rider to exaggerate her turns, really pushing the weight into her new inside leg and opening the rein so that her pony changed over the jump. We had a few attempts with no change of lead and so am unbalanced small circle, but they started to get it together and when it worked, the sequence flowed seamlessly with no loss of balance or rhythm.

We spent more time on this challenge, bringing the different aspects together, and then finally they progressed to the ultimate challenge!Alternating between internal and external small circles on the big circle. Below is a rough diagram of their route on the left rein. For this, my rider had to be on the ball; riding each stride with purpose and positivity because her pony didn’t know where he was going! It was a good test of how rideable the pony is, his suppleness and their ability to ride rhythmically and fluidly between fences.

I was really pleased that the circles were all fairly even in terms of size, shape and balance. Although they didn’t manage to change canter leads each time, all the elements started to come together and it was only tiredness and minor miscommunication holding them back, which will improve with practice. Hopefully after riding this quick thinking exercise the pair will find it easier to ride flowing courses of jumps.

Improving Symmetry

I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.

Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.

Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.

We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.

The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.

I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.

My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.

Working a Young Horse

There’s such extreme opinions and attitudes towards working young horses; when they should be backed, first jumped etc. Racehorses are still on the track as two year olds, and some people leave a horse feral until they’re five.

Despite scientific evidence about when a horse’s skeleton is matured, there is still a lot of pressure for talented, well bred sports horses to be produced for four year old classes. Which causes all sorts of problems later in life for them. It’s a society of instantaneous gratification; in which horses who are capable of performing today do, rather than waiting until they are mature enough to in five years time.

In this sense, lesser quality horses – perhaps with less talent or with a less favourable conformation – actually fare better because they are produced at a slower rate and usually later in their lives.

Anyway, I’ve come to my own conclusion about how I feel an intelligent, talented young horse with a trainable temperament and good work ethic should be nurtured. It’s important to introduce brain work early in their lives, without doing too much physical work.

Mental stimulation can involve introducing a young horse to different environments, showing them poles, fillers, tarpaulins etc, in hand work to establish good manners, taking them to in hand shows, leading them out along quiet lanes, and meeting cars and bicycles. This sort of enrichment builds a bond with their handler, which should make the backing process less stressful for the horse, and builds the horse’s confidence when out and about.

I’ve got a new client, with her new four year old. The mare was produced in Ireland before being sold at a sales, and has a very clever mind as well as talent to boot. Whilst she needs to mature and increase condition, she also needs work to keep her busy brain occupied so that she stops jumping out her field or box walking.

They had their first lesson this week. The mare is fussy to mount, quite anxious and tense. This behaviour stems from anxiety so we have formulated a plan to overcome this. As it’s not rudeness, I don’t think the mare will benefit from a confrontational approach, but we do need to encourage her to stand more quietly to mount. It’s a long term approach, of mounting and allowing the horse to walk until she relaxes slightly and then asking her to halt momentarily. Hopefully each time she’s mounted the walk period gets shorter and halt gets longer. Time can also be spent standing by the mounting block with nothing further happening. We don’t want to add to the tension, but we need to introduce the concept of better mounting manners. Hopefully within two months she is less anxious about the mounting procedure and only needs walk a couple of steps before halting for as long as her rider needs her to. Racehorses have a similar problem with mounting because they’re used to being legged up and hurried into work.

The mare, as with all youngsters, walked into the arena and immediately started calling and looking for her friends, drifting back towards the gate. She’d left her brain in the stable. Add this to her tense, quick walk, and there’s nothing to work with. So we began the lesson by my rider just walking around the arena, circling around every jump she passed. I told her not to worry about the quality of the walk, or the bend. We just wanted to use the circles to draw the mare’s focus to her rider, forgetting about her friends in the stable. My rider could start to think about her aids and assess the mare’s understanding and response, but we didn’t want to start changing the mare until her brain was on side and she had begun to relax. It took a good few minutes of walking for the mare to take her mind off the gate and stables, and to relax into a longer striding walk. You could see she was starting to concentrate on what was going on in the arena.

Now that the mare was starting to relax we could introduce halt transitions. Reluctant to stop, she opens her mouth and tries to barge through the hand. She’s in a Micklem bridle, with a Neue schule eggbutt snaffle with bit stabilisers, which means she isn’t fussing as much with her tongue or gaping her mouth as wide as she did when viewed, so I’m hoping this habit reduces more when she settles fully into her new home. Anyway, I asked my rider to vibrate the rein as the mare set against her hand so that we diffused the tug of war situation. After a couple of halts, the vibrations were less because the mare was starting to understand the question and responded to my riders’ initial aids.

With this starting to fall into place, and the mare focused on her work, we could then take a five minute break. They halted and stood still for almost five minutes, taking in the scenery, and most importantly, relaxing. This halt is the type I’d like them to get upon mounting, so it’s good to see the concept is there. We repeated the halt frequently throughout the rest of the lesson to give the mare time to assimilate each exercise.

Staying in walk, as I now wanted to ask the mare a couple of questions to see how trainable she is, we began to introduce the idea of straightness. Now I know it’s halfway up the Scales of Training, but the mare was showing preference for left bend and unless we iron out her banana-ness, we won’t be able to start at the bottom of the Scale.

On the right rein, the one which the mare bent outwards, we started riding a square. Again, we weren’t making a huge change to the mare’s way of going, but rather showing her that there was a different way of moving. Riding straight lines emcourages the mare to straighten out of her left bend, and start to think about bending to the right. Her rider could also check she was sitting straight and giving even aids.

As with all youngsters, the mare wobbled along the sides of our square, so we made sure the reins and hands were channeling the mare straight without being claustrophobic, and the legs hung round her barrel to guide her between the reins. Just with a little more support from her rider and the mare started to move straighter, stride out and relax.

We repeated the square on the left rein to show the mare that she didn’t have to curl up to the left. Then we did some more circles around jumps and my rider felt the mare was better balanced and she had more influence over their direction. I was pleased with the improvement in the mare’s walk. As she relaxed she was exhaling in big snorts, lengthening her stride, lowering her neck and generally looking happier.

We finished by trotting a gentle square on both reins, aiming for a consistent rhythm and the mare relaxing into trot, stretching herself into a longer frame as she and her rider found their balance together.

Despite spending most of the lesson in walk the mare was mentally drained. She stood with her head low, ears floppy. You could see that she was tired. Her working routine will be two schooling sessions a week; one a lesson similar to this one and the other a shorter revision session with her owner. The rest of the week will be spent either in hand walks, some in hand work, such as pole mazes, or short ridden hacks. She’s a very clever horse so we need to keep her brain ticking over in order for her to be more manageable in the field and stable, but we do need to be careful not to stress her body physically, but I think this arrangement should benefit her best.

A Flexible Mindset

I’m not sure if it’s my history of working with ponies, or my experience with Welsh Cobs, that has given me this skill, but it’s such a useful tactic when training horses and I love the satisfaction I get when I’ve outwitted them.

Last week I was doing some canter poles with a client and after they’d gone over the three poles nicely it all started to go wrong. The mare got quick, tried to cut the corner, and her rider froze in the saddle. So we stopped and took five, to chat about what was happening and where we were going next.

My client told me that this was why she didn’t like doing canter poles. Because the mare got excited and she felt out of control.

The mare has a history of being in a riding school, which I think possibly contributes to the behaviour as she’s used to repetition. But basically, she’s anticipating the exercise. Which causes her to rush or to motorbike round the corner on the approach.

We can predict the behaviour, and we know the reason why it’s happening. The important thing is to make my rider feel in control and confident. So let’s trick this mare!

I got them to walk up over the poles, then trot over them. Doesn’t matter that they’re canter poles, the point is that the horse goes at the requested speed. Then we changed the approach. Coming off either rein, taking a long approach then a short approach. The mare soon stopped anticipating canter over the poles. So then we cantered over the poles! My rider was still expecting to be tanked off over the poles so had the handbrake on a bit. But now that she was realising our tactics, she started to ride the canter and relax her arms.

We then added in circles. If the mare tried to rush on the approach, my rider had to immediately ride a 10m circle. She could repeat the circle as many times as needed so that she felt in control as she turned towards the poles.

With all the variety of approaches to the poles, it started to come together nicely in that the mare was waiting to be told what to do and when, and my rider felt more confident. I also told her that another option whilst schooling is that she leaves the poles and works on the flat for five minutes before returning to the canter poles to diffuse the mare’s ability to predict the exercise.

This got me thinking about where I’d learnt these tactics, and then I remembered King. He was a riding school pony when I learnt to ride who fidgeted and pawed at the floor whenever he was at the front of the ride. I should explain that when we did canter or jump exercises (depending on the lesson level) we’d halt at B in a long line. Anyway, King just anticipated the cantering or the jumping, so to keep him calm and the rider settled, when King was second in line at B, he would overtake the first horse, do the exercise with perfect manners, and then when the first horse had returned to the rear of the ride, they slotted in in front of King. Quite often fidgety horses, especially youngsters, would do this for a few weeks if they showed signs of impatience, and it really worked well.

Another outwitting exercise I remember was with Aries, who loved jumping but got very excitable and usually cantered sideways towards the jump before being straightened three strides away and he’d bomb over. I loved riding him, and know exactly what I’d do to break this habit now, but times and attitudes change. Anyway, to stop Aries predicting the bombing to the jump a few strides away, I remember his owner cantering a circle around the jump, and only when he stayed calm on the turn to the jump, was she allowed to let him jump. She must’ve done twenty circles that first time!

Then I think about Phoenix and how sensitive she is. Some days, an exercise will work really well for her, but others she’ll get her knickers in a twist about. So very often I have to ride a movement once, assess whether her brain has fallen out, and it has, try a slightly different exercise which will have the same results.

It’s the same in lessons sometimes. I may have a plan, but if rider or horse are struggling with one of the first steps I either have to change my goal for the end of the lesson, pushing my original plan back a week or two, or I have to divert in order to get over this stepping stone.

It’s all about having a plan, but knowing the three or four optional routes which will get you there, and then responding quickly to the horse you have on the day, so that you keep them on your side and maximise your training session.

A Thelwell Moment

I had a Thelwell moment this week which made me feel all the emotions at once – horror as I could see it unfold in my mind’s eye and laughter as it was a comic moment.

My little rider was trotting along, having recently come off the lead rein, when her pony stopped and put his head down to scratch his nose.

Now this rider is only little, and not that experienced or strong in her position. We’ve been working on her keeping her heels lower than her toes in recent lessons.

Anyway, as her pony put his head down he pulled her forwards so that her shoulders were on his withers, her legs had swung back so her toes were pointing down.

Time seemed to freeze.

The pony continued to scratch his nose, oblivious.

His rider was hovering at that critical point. She could go either way at any moment.

I couldn’t run up to the pony as he’d shy away from me. I started edging closer, telling my rider to sit up, whilst hoping her pony would just lift his head and push her back upright into the saddle.

He didn’t. He didn’t do anything other than continue to scratch his nose in his own little world. But before I could reach them without making the situation worse, his rider slowly tipped further forward, until, to his great surprise, she somersaulted down her pony’s neck.

He jumped sideways in surprise, as she hit the floor. Unhurt, you’ll be pleased to know, but shocked. She got back on and continued the lesson happily, with the specific instructions that if he put his head down again she needed to push her heels down and slip her reins. We’re getting some balance reins for next week to try to stop this reoccurring as we build up her core strength.

I wish I’d had a camera as it was comical as she hovered at the point of no return.

Recommendations

In my line of work I’m always being asked for recommendations for equine dentists, farriers, chiropractors, saddlers.

I work on the basis that I can and will recommend those who I use for my horses. But sometimes I know that a client may be out of that professional’s area, so I have to have some alternative names up my sleeve.

I like to know who my clients use, for shoeing or saddle checks or massages. Because over time I can see the effect of their work, and get feedback from my clients if they are happy with the service they’ve had. Which means that when I’m asked for a recommendation I can say, “I have seen and heard good things about so-and-so who covers your area”, or “so-and-so has done a great job with a client’s horse who had a similar issue. Might be worth contacting them?”

Regardless of recommendations clients have though, I always suggest that they do their own research and make sure the name they’ve been given is a member of the society of their profession. For example, qualified saddlers should be members of the Society of Master Saddlers. According to the website, “The Society of Master Saddlers aims to ensure and achieve a high quality of workmanship through setting standards and overseeing the training of the membership’s workforce to give their customers a professional and quantified service. It continues its work to carry these standards through build, repair & fit, and to work towards the complete comfort and safety of horse and rider.In layman’s terms, a master saddler attends regular training days and has certain standards to adhere to, which means you know you are going to get good service.

Equine dentists should be members of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians; a list of members is found on the website, just as master saddlers are on their website. Again, you know that they are attending training days, have undergone numerous exams, and have a network of support from other professionals. This means that you could ring up one member, and whilst they may be too busy or not come out as far as your yard, they will be able to put you in contact with a qualified dentist who can help you.

Farriers have a more complicated set up as they invite vets to be part of their club too. But the Worshipful Company of Farriers is a good place to start your research, as it lists the various qualifications farriers can achieve, but doesn’t have a concise list of professionals that you can search from. In which case individually research the farrier you’ve been recommended to see that they’ve passed their qualifications and if they’re training towards further exams. A lot of farriers have independent businesses, even when fresh from an apprenticeship, which I see no reason to avoid. Being fresh out of college means that they will have had access to the latest technology and knowledge. However, experience is important and can only be gained with time, so I would want my fresh faced farrier to have a supervisor. Perhaps a more experienced farrier whom they work with once a week/month and who they can ask for advice should they come across a problem they haven’t encountered before. You can only find this out by talking to individual farriers though, and making your own assessment as to whether they are able to shoe your horse well. This is more of a consideration if your horse has special foot care requirements, such as being laminitic or having a conformational defect.

Physiotherapists, chiropractors, and equine masseuses all have their own governing bodies, so it is worth spending some time looking individuals up to see their credentials, be it examinations or experiences.

Of course, instructors have the BHS to govern us; provide training days, insurance, and support the exam system. There are also databases for Pony Club, British Dressage, British Eventing, British Showjumping etc trainers, who are also required to stay up to date with their first aid, child protection, and professional training. Regular training days ensures that we stay abreast of any training developments, new equipment to aid performance, and any rule changes to disciplines. The same goes for saddlers attending seminars where they will see new designs of tack, or witness new materials which are being developed. Dentists or physiotherapists will be introduced to new techniques or tools to help them do their job.

I would also say that it is important to chat to the professional you are considering using and see if you like them; get good vibes and find them personable. Qualifications count for a lot I feel, not only because they have the correct foundations to work from, but because they will have a network of support, both of which will help them get a vast range of experience to enhance their qualifications.

So my advice to anyone looking for a professional for any aspect of your horse’s care, is to ask a couple of friends or mentors, who’s opinion you trust and who knows your horse, and then do your own research to ensure that they are qualified, experienced enough to work with your horse, and part of a society or association which ensures they will continue to provide the best service that they can.

Riding Dog Legs

I did the keyhole jumping exercise with a client a couple of weeks ago, and we discovered that she and her pony found riding left dog legs significantly harder than riding right dog legs.The pony is a left banana, and will drift through his right shoulder at every opportunity, but we’ve been addressing both of their straightness and it’s improving all the time. However, jumping and turning left highlights the fact there’s still a weakness here.So this week I decided to tackle left dog legs. I warmed them up with the focus on riding squares, my rider using her outside aids to turn, and keeping the inside rein open without going back towards her, and the pony turning from the outside aids. I see this a lot and for whatever reason, a rider may apply the correct aids to turn, but the horse doesn’t obey immediately, and then in a panic that they aren’t going to make the turn, the rider resorts to pulling them round with the inside rein. They know they’re doing it, but you can’t help it if you’re going to miss the turn! This then creates a cycle that the horse doesn’t turn until the inside rein is utilised, which causes the outside aids to fall by the wayside.My rider has identified in previous lessons that she sometimes forgets to use her right leg to push her pony to the left, so a lot of our flatwork looks at switching that leg on. Furthermore, as she reverts to her left rein, her right hand disappears up her pony’s neck, thus allowing him to drift out of that shoulder. Now I’m not saying she’s to blame – it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But she’s the bigger person, the one I can explain things to, so we have to address her aids first. This is where the flatwork is so helpful; riding the squares and leg yielding, to identify her asymmetry in her aids, and to ensure her pony is responding to the right leg before we add in jumps.Once warmed up, I had them canter a three stride, left dog leg of poles, of which I’d laid dressage boards on the outside of the curve. The visual aid will encourage the pony to turn left, which breaks the cycle of her resorting to the inside rein. She could focus on applying the correct aids and get the correct response from him which would help his understanding.They cantered through the exercise a few times until the canter stayed forwards and the turn was balanced with the correct aids. Interestingly, when the pony was asked to turn left correctly, his evasion technique was to slow down, so my rider had to keep her foot on the accelerator whilst turning and ensure her hands were positive aids.The aids she was giving, or was aiming to give, was a bit of weight into the left stirrup to keep left canter, opening the left rein wide (but not backwards), using the right leg to turn him, whilst keeping her right hand near the base of his neck to provide a wall to support his right shoulder. The trick is for the outside rein to be reactive: not pulling back and causing him to slow, and not slipping forward as he starts to drift, but rather being “there” until he starts to lean on the right shoulder, and then firming the contact to prevent the drift. She’s reacting to his body rather than blocking him with an immobile rein.Next, I built the fences up to crosses. This was to guide both of them to the centre, and to ensure they were totally accurate. This was when the pony started putting in four strides. They were getting the line, but he was becoming sticky in the canter. A check that the reins weren’t restricting him, and then she could apply more leg to keep the power.Once they’d mastered the line, the aids, and planning the turn, I removed the white boards. This made it a bit trickier, as we realised how much the visual line was helping them. So I popped one board in the middle to help them, and once they’d negotiated it successfully then I removed it, and they managed to ride the dog leg line. There was an element of my rider needing to start riding her turn earlier in the exercise; because the pony found it harder that turning right, he needed more setting up and more time to find his line.We ended the session with two steep crosses, getting the dog leg line perfectly and maintaining the canter rhythm to get three strides between the jumps. Hopefully we can build on this in the next few weeks with different exercises.

The High Jump

It seems to be an uphill battle to teach children that they don’t have to jump the highest or the fastest to be the best.

Last week I had to ask my Pony Clubbers how high they usually jump at the beginning of the week to assess them, and inevitably they all wanted to jump their maximum every day.

I like to know the height of the jumps that they have done, but that doesn’t mean we’ll jump that high, as I don’t want the weaker jumpers to feel inferior or worried about the lesson. And there are plenty of things we can work on without jumping big, such as their position, lines to the jump, quality of the canter before and after the jumps.

At the end of camp they have a showjumping competition; the children in each ride compete against each other but they don’t all have to jump the same height. I ended up doing two heights. Doing the smaller height was my nervous rider as I wasn’t sure how her confidence level would be on the final morning and I wanted her to ride the course independently and finish camp on a high. One pony had had a confidence crisis at the beginning of the week so I’d really focused his rider on not restricting his head over jumps, so I had her doing small fences where the pony was less likely to need to “jump” and his rider could concentrate on her position, without risk of being left behind so that again, they finished camp on a positive note. This rider was disappointed with the height of the jumps, but did accept my explanation, and said the jumps felt smoother. The final pair doing the little jumps were capable of jumping bigger but the pony was looking tired, and as they’d had problems with her refusing jumps in the winter, I told my rider that I thought it best they did a smaller course clear, than get into problems due to the tired pony stopping at bigger jumps. She agreed with me, which was great to hear as she was sensitive to her pony’s needs.

The three which jumped the bigger course were all fairly confident; one of them was being pushed towards her limit over the oxers, but actually rode the best lines and approaches to each jump. One of them was capable of jumping bigger, but as she lacked control over the speed, I’d rather the fences weren’t too big so that the pony could get herself out of trouble until her rider had mastered the brakes. The other rider was probably the most competent out of all of my ride, but I actually felt that her pony had worked hard all week so didn’t need to prove herself over a 70cm course as opposed to a 60cm course. Also, I felt the focus needed to move away from the height and towards being able to create a jumping canter and maintain it all the way to a fence, rather than sloppily falling round corners and falling into trot.

My aim was to emphasise style, which they were judged on, with unexpected results I feel.

It’s a difficult concept for your children to grasp; the fact jumping should be stylish, but I think it’s the job of us as instructors and parents to stand firm in our belief that it’s better to jump a smaller course in style and safely, than to get round a bigger course by the skin of their teeth.

It’s not just the kids who want to jump high. At camp the senior kids do a one day event competition, and we set the maximum height at 90cm. Their instructors choose the height which each rider can do, but invariably we get some parents complaining that their children jump much higher at home. But that’s not on grass, which is invariably hard in August, or after five days of being ridden for a couple of hours each day. The aim of Friday’s competition is to round off the week with fun, and not create problems by facing a tired pony at a big jump and wonder why they refuse, or injure themselves from repetitive strain on their legs.

So what can we as teachers do to educate leisure riders that it is not all about jumping fast and high? Firstly, build tricky schooling exercises which takes the rider’s eye off the height and onto other aspects so that they negotiate the exercise successfully. We can talk about the the strains of jumping on a horse’s legs and why jumping bigger or jumping too frequently can be detrimental to them. We can discuss fittening a horse and implementing a work routine correctly so that they are able to jump sufficiently. We can emphasise how improving our flatwork helps improve our jumping. We can teach our riders that horses aren’t machines and can have confidence issues too.

Finally, I think there should be more jumping competitions that are judged on style and performance, rather than speed and height. At bigger competitions you don’t see so much bad riding in an attempt to get a fast clear, but you do at the lower levels. And I’m talking the local, unaffiliated showjumping competitions, not so much the grassroots level. This leads to poor riding, long-suffering horses and ponies, and to be frank, some dangerous situations. We want to make horse riding as safe and fun as can be, yet encourage riders to jump fast and big in order to be successful. Surely it’s a recipe for disaster?

Pony Club Camp

My blog has been a bit quiet this week as I’ve been at Pony Club camp; I’d forgotten how exhausting it is as I’ve spent every evening comatosed on the sofa, contemplating whether I need wine or chocolate. I then finished off the week thinking it was a great idea to surprise my friend by having her horse at her wedding reception. She loved it, but I needed that lie in!

Anyway, I thought you’d appreciate a run down of the highs and lows of camp. Just in case you’d forgotten how fun pony club is!

I actually had a lovely group of girls, aged between eight and ten, most of who I’d met in previous years, but had all grown and some had new ponies. Each ride is assigned a meeting point, underneath a tree; at which point the children learn who their instructor for the week is. I was secretly very chuffed when I was greeted with cheers and squeals of delight as the girls had been hoping to have me. Although there is then a lot of pressure to meet their expectations!

I started as I always do, by getting them to introduce themselves to each other, and myself. They always have first day nerves so I try to get them opening up by telling us their name, their pony’s name, one thing they enjoy about riding, and what area they want to improve on during camp. This helps me get to know them and also assess their confidence as well as getting any suspicions about the areas that they may need a bit more TLC in so I can tread carefully then.

At this camp there is a lot of walking; from the meeting place, to an arena at one end of a ginormous field, to the woods, to another field, so I find the most efficient and effective approach is to put the kids in an order. They have to stay in this order when we walk between sessions, and during each lesson. It helps me learn names, speeds up the process of getting started each lesson, and really helps settle the ponies as they learn which tail they are following and so it doesn’t become a race back to the pony lines. I quickly put them in order, with the reliable pony with the capable rider at the front, the next quickest ponies, then the one who had the tendency to kick at the back. The girls stayed in this order all week and I found that the fast pony (more about her later) who was on her first camp soon stopped racing past the others, and walked calmly third in line. Which helped relax her little jockey.

We do a tack and turnout inspection every day, and I have to say that they always look very smart! It’s so difficult to judge, but my winner at the end of the week went to the girl who had learnt to plait herself, and who managed to avoid getting grass stains on her light jodhpurs each day!

On Monday morning our first session was showjumping, so I used the warm up to assess them all. We ride on grass and the ponies can be a bit fresh on day one, so I try to get them all trotting in a ride (easier said than done!) to allow me to assess them, make some corrections, and take the edge off the ponies. I check their jumping position and steering. The first canter can be nerve-racking so I give explicit instructions of where to trot, where to canter, and where they must trot again. The aim is to check their control and that the ponies won’t bolt back to the ride.

My first pony was a lovely leg at each corner, predictable, kick along type who trotted and cantered at the correct points. I decided at this point that my aim for the week was to get this rider using her seat more and being less flappy.

The next pony was a bit quick in the canter; his rider has just moved up on to him and found him a bit strong, but I wanted to work on her sitting on her bum and carrying her hands so that the pony couldn’t put his head down and pull. She hadn’t done any cross country with him, so my aim for the week was to give her a good experience at new disciplines and give her the chance to go out her comfort zone should she want to, by offering two height options.

I had been warned that my third rider and pony were very fast. In the trot she’d struggled to maintain trot and had been breathing down the neck of the pony in front. I covered my face and peered through my fingers as they galloped around the arena. The pony does stop eventually, but I started to get my rider to think about steadying her pony before she set of as the pony responded well to the voice and rein, we just needed to curb the speed. For once, I wanted her to ride with the handbrake on. This partnership was again new, so it was about finding out about each other and working out how the manage the pony.

Behind this pair, I had another new partnership. This girl I taught last year and she lacks confidence. Unfortunately, her pony was quite excited on Monday and whilst he didn’t do anything wrong, his bouncy walk and quick trot unnerved her. I knew this was my most fragile partnership, so I decided to focus on getting my rider to sit up and “look at the top of the trees” and be prepared to hold her hand the first time they did any exercise, but hope that helps giving her the good experience she’d try slightly faster, or go for longer, or jump higher.

My next pony was a very sweet, willing type who was unfortunately overbitted. It was their first camp so her parents were being a bit cautious, but it did unfortunately mean that the pony started backing off jumps. He has a good little pop in him, but that often caused his rider to be left behind over fences, which when a strong bit was factored in meant the pony was pulled in the mouth. I soon changed him back to his snaffle and started to focus his rider on giving with her hands over fences.

Finally, I had a sweet mare at the back who did unfortunately kick. However, her rider was very switched on to this and she wore a red ribbon so this didn’t cause any problems throughout the week. They were an established partnership, and whilst not the most confident on the first day, I didn’t feel there would be a problem. I did notice that the rider pinned her hands down to the wither, and had very short reins, as if worried the pony would shoot off. Once I could see that they were settling, I started work on encouraging a longer length of rein and independent hand carriage, which actually made an instant difference to the pony’s stride length, which my rider felt.

During the week we did showjumping, handy pony, dressage, cross country, and mounted games. Here are a few highlights.

  • In our warm up for our second showjumping lesson, rider number two cantered to the rear of the ride, yet her pony had other ideas and put his head between his knees and bronced down the slope back to the others. How my rider stayed on, I have no idea! From then on I had my lead file stop halfway around any arena and wait for her friend so that the pony couldn’t get any ideas. This seemed to work well.
  • The pony who had been overbitted on day one still refused to jump when back in the snaffle, so on day two I got one of the junior helpers (16 year olds) to hop on. With the stirrups at their maximum and her knees still by her ears I had her trotting over some small showjumps with minimal contact to rebuild his confidence. I had to do this during our cross country session too, but it was really helpful for his rider to see him jumping and for him to then pop over jumps happily so she could concentrate on holding her neck strap.
  • During our flat session I had all six riders trotting in a ride, looking like they were enjoying themselves, looking like they were all in control. It all went wrong moments later when I mentioned the “c” word (canter!) but I will treasure the memory of those first few minutes.
  • On Monday we had glorious sunshine. On Tuesday we had stairrods coming at us sideways. We were all absolutely drenched. But my girls were still grinning at the end of the day, and they all worked really hard on our musical ride.
  • I decided to do a pop quiz for stable management, mixing the girls into two teams to help them bond. One team had a whistle to blow, the other a triangle to ding (don’t ask why there was a triangle at camp!). I was actually very impressed with their knowledge, but so deaf by the end of the hour!
  • One of the ponies decided to nap back to the others when they were practising their dressage tests. He just set his neck and turned round and returned to his friends, upsetting his rider in the process. Cue another junior helpers hopping on and reminding him that he had to leave his friends and only return when he was told to. This gave me a real predicament for their dressage competition. How could we stop him trotting back to his friends in the corner? In the end we sent the rest of the ride away so that they could watch in the distance but the ponies were out of sight. And then helpers and parents positioned themselves strategically around the arena to catch the pony if he decided that dressage wasn’t for him. However, my rider did me proud and determinedly kept that pony in trot and inside the white boards!
  • I did a polework session, hijacking the seniors’ jumping arena. That was a memorable lesson. In part the wobbles some had trotting over a line of poles. Partly the very fast pony doing two VERY FAST laps of the very large arena. Partly the seniors cheering my nervous rider on until she kicked into canter, and then her asking to canter again because she loved it so much! Partly the fast pony walking towards the line of poles, doing two strides of trot before the poles and then getting faster and faster over the trot poles to exit the poles in canter. Lastly, seeing them all pop over a little jump with a much more stable jumping position was very satisfying.
  • I warmed up my ride in an enclosed arena (that very fast pony still hasn’t slowed down!) before heading out into the woods for cross country on Thursday, taking lots of helpers to build a human wall to stop said fast pony. The girls all jumped in a controlled manner, jumping some little and not so little, logs and riding some tricky lines around the trees. When we got to the end of the woods I sidestepped the little dingy water feature as I didn’t fancy wading through the green slime. Instead, I asked them if they wanted to canter up the very steep hill. One poor helper ran up that steep hill with my nervous rider, before I sent the others up in twos and threes. They had to start in walk, trot on my cue then canter when I shouted. Unfortunately my second rider (remember the one who bucked?) turned a circle in walk and the very fast pony missed out the trot part. Which meant the second pony got his knickers in a twist and gave a couple of hops in the air before realising that the hill was very steep and settling into canter! This meant my rider didn’t enjoy it as much as she should’ve and refused to do it again. However, the next day my nervous rider cantered up that hill with the others, so it was a success!
  • We were scheduled to do mounted games after cross country, so I hoped the ponies would be tired and not lose their heads. However, after the second game in which one girl stood there crying and the very fast pony had cantered a couple of laps, I called it a day, even refusing to do a mounted games competition on the Friday.
  • Instead, I let the girls swap ponies, which they all loved. It was great seeing how they all rode different ponies, and what weaknesses or strengths were shown up on different ponies. And yes, I did find two other riders who would be happy on the very fast pony! I think this was the session that they learnt the most.
  • My proudest moment was during the showjumping competition on Friday when my nervous rider cantered over some jumps, didn’t let her pony nap, and enjoyed herself. Then my rider who had overbitted her pony rode a very sweet round, remembering to keep her hands forwards for longer over each fence and, I felt, finishing the week with better trust with her horse. One rider rode beautiful lines in a lovely rhythm … Then sailed past number six! My lead file managed to maintain a balanced canter throughout her round. Then the very fast pony walked in. I was just looping the string back up after letting out the previous rider when I heard “tell her to slow down!” I turned to see them galloping towards the first jump – the pony had gotten bored of walking! It was a very fast round, with a hair raising moment when they had to turn back on themselves but were going so fast they almost didn’t make it and narrowly missed jumping the wings. My heart was in my mouth!
  • Everyone’s favourite part of the week is undoubtedly the musical ride. My girls worked hard on our routine, we had some unrequited canter but given how they started the week, the independent and confident routine made up for it. They also dressed up as cats because our music was Mr Mistoffolees from the musical.

In all, camp had some nail-biting moments, and plenty when I had to think on my feet, but I think the girls finished the week more confident than they started, and all took something away from the week to practice at home. On my feedback sheets I gave all of them a piece of homework, which tied in with my focus of the week for each rider. They also had a party bag from me with lots of sweets, and an armful of rosettes for all the competitions. In return, I had a lovely thank you card, telling me how I was the best teacher ever (it’s official!), a voucher and some chocolate.

The week absolutely flew by, and was tiring, but great fun as always, and I’m already looking forwards to next year!