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!

Snaking Leg Yield

I’ve been using a tricky little exercise recently with several clients recently. It’s all about balance, straightness, and understanding of the aids. Plus the fact that less is more.

Starting on the left rein in walk, because it’s more complicated than first appears, turn onto the centre line at C. Leg yield to the right for about three strides. Ride straight and then leg yield to the left for about six strides. Then leg yield back to the right onto the centre line. Turning right at A to change the rein.

When coming off the right rein, leg yield to the left first.

The secret to this exercise, and I usually let my rider have a couple of goes before letting them in on the secret, is that less is more.

If you’re too ambitious and ask for too much leg yield, the horse invariably loses balance and has too much bend in their body. Which makes it harder for them to straighten, change their bend and start to leg yield in the opposite direction. Then it takes longer to change direction and you run out of centre line.

Once my rider starts to be more conservative with their leg yield there is usually just the small task of tidying up the transitions between the leg yields and then they’ll crack the exercise.

If leg yielding from right leg to left hand, the rider needs to use the left rein to balance the horse and use their left leg to stop the leg yield and ride straight. Then they need to change their position into position left (left seat bone slightly deeper, left leg on the girth, right leg behind; right rein becomes the outside rein) before asking for very slight left flexion and then the leg yield back to the right.

The straighter the horse stays in leg yield the easier it is to change direction. Less is more.

Holding Rubber

I’ve done this exercise a few times recently with various clients, for various reasons, and it’s had some good results. In itself, it’s quite an easy thing to do while working on other parts of their riding.

Some riders ride with their hands curled lightly around the reins. Of course we don’t want to be holding the reins particularly tightly, but if we aren’t holding the reins firmly enough they have a tendency to slip through. For some people, one rein tends to slip through. For others, both. And for some it is the horse (or pony) who discreetly sneaks the rein through the rider’s hand.

Some riders interpret the “squeeze and release” of a half halt or a flexion aid, as squeezing the rein and then letting go. Perhaps the words need to change to “squeeze and relax”…

In either situation, the rein contact becomes inconsistent.

My analogy for this situation, because I like analogies, is to imagine walking down a busy street with a toddler, holding hands.

Hold the hand too tightly and the guy toddler shouts and digs their heels in. They won’t move forwards happily.

Hold their hand, letting go at random intervals and dropping them. They become disconcerted with the insecurity of your guidance.

Now imagine you are holding their hand slightly more firmly, and give the odd reassuring squeeze. You’ve not dropped them or left them hanging, but you have changed the pressure of the hand holding and exchanged a secret message.

This is the sort of rein contact we’re aiming for. Consistent, clear communication, and even.

For my riders who hold the reins tightly I remind them to relax their arms and fingers, and will do no rein exercises to ensure they aren’t using their hands subconsciously to balance.

For my riders who have loose fingers, especially the children, I will take two pieces of flat arena rubber (if they have a sand arena I try to find a small flat pebble. One father uses a penny with his daughter when practising this) and get my rider to hold it in their hands as well as the reins. It’s small enough that it doesn’t fill their hands up and make holding the reins and whip difficult, but they will become acutely aware of when they loosen their fingers and drop it!

We then have ten minutes of laughter as they invariably drop the rubber and I have to replace it. Depending on the rider, their age and approach to riding, this can become as fun and as silly as required. I remember with one young client there was lots of “uh-ohing” and me flouncing around looking for replacement rubber to keep the exercise like a game.

Within minutes, I find that my riders are usually holding the reins in a more consistent way; either both hands are now holding with the same amount of hold, or the reins have stopped creeping through their hands. Once they’ve stopped dropping the rubber, I do some work on circles, transitions, changes of rein, or whatever movement usually causes them to loosen their fingers. With older riders they start to see the positive effects and can begin to ride between leg and hand more easily, and they can improve the bend of their horse as they can ride inside leg to outside rein, and control the outside shoulder.

Once my rider has found the correct rein contact they don’t drop the rubber as frequently, so I usually move on with my lesson plan, accidentally-on-purpose forgetting to remove the rubber from their hands to see how far we get before they drop it, or realise they’ve dropped it.

I often find that holding the rubber only needs to be done once or twice to teach a rider the right amount of feel, and to help them understand the concept and effect of a consistent rein contact, which for kids improves their overall control over their pony’s speed and steering, and for adults helps them improve their horse’s rhythm, balance and create impulsion.

Self Carriage Success

Self carriage is the ultimate aim for all of us horse riders, but in trying to get there many of us are guilty of micromanaging our horses and their way of going.

You know the sort of thing: you’re working on your horse giving some inside flexion and before you know it you’re holding them in place. Then they begin to rely on you nagging and you become a noisy rider.

I frequently remind my riders to go quiet and still when their horse is softening and doing as they should. They don’t need to drop the contact or take the leg and seat off completely, just soften and reduce the strength of the aids.

With one of my clients I’ve been paying special attention to getting her to hand over the reins, literally, and putting the onus onto her horse to carry himself as she can become too busy and he gets a bit reliant on her putting him in the right place. It goes against my client’s nature, but she’s starting to hand over control.

We warm them both up using circles and school movements to develop vertical balance, whilst reminding my client to give moments of peace. Then when her horse is working in good balance and is supple and rhythmical, I get them to ride large with the odd large circle. Simple school movements than what we have done in the previous fifteen minutes, but with the aim of my rider doing less and her horse carrying himself.

It struck me a couple of weeks ago, when hiking across frozen, poached fields with a two year old, that teaching self carriage is similar to teaching independence to a toddler.

“Don’t hold my hand, I don’t need help!” she says stepping into a frozen mud valley of the field. The divots are big enough for me to feel precarious whilst crossing, let alone when the valleys are knee height. I let go of her hand, but it hovers just behind, ready to catch. She’s every chance of success by the way I’ve prepared her, but I’m ready to catch her before she falls.

With a horse, you use the aids to guide them into the right frame and balance. Then you take away the scaffolding as they perform a task well within their abilities. But you’re still there, ready to step in the moment they flounder. Initially it may be a reduction of the frequency of the aids, or it may be a lighter aid, but all of your reductions are focused on making your horse more independent and less reliant on you holding them onto the springy, engaged trot or canter.

When your horse, just like a toddler, succeeds in a simple task they grow in confidence in their own abilities, they relax and develop self carriage. It may only be a couple of strides before you take back their hand, but eventually they’ll be that balanced (emotionally and physically), fully fledged young adult, we aim our toddlers to become.

But we have to trust ourselves enough that our preparations will let them fly off with success when we let go.

One After The Other…

I’ve decided that I’m not a huge fan of running clinics because of number of potential unknowns in a group. And what if my lesson plan is totally unsuitable for a rider and horse?

What I have discovered that I like doing though, is doing a series of consecutive private lessons at one venue. With the same theme, but it means that I can tweak the exercise to best suit that client. It leads to quite an intense, but very satisfying day.

I regularly go to a yard where several Pony Club members livery, and teach consecutive 30 minute lessons all morning, using this format.

Last time I went I laid out a straight forward exercise of a placing pole to a jump, then three canter strides away a second fence. Before the placing pole and between the two jumps I laid tramlines.

With my first little jockey I warmed her up focusing on not flapping like a windmill when trying to keep her pony in trot, by having her carry a horizontal whip. I think kids can get so carried away by wanting to jump and go fast they often don’t connect how improving the little things helps the big things. With quieter hands the pony seemed happier and more forwards, so I drove the message home by focusing on this with the poles. I had her planning a better turn towards the exercise so that she started straight, and then channeling her pony with still hands, using the leg to keep him travelling forwards. We worked in trot in both directions, really focusing on her preparation and then just applying the accelerator. As we built the exercise up to jumps my rider started to see the benefits of quieter hands in that her pony almost picked up canter and gave enthusiastic pops over the jump. The feeling of easier jumps will hopefully motivate her to practice keeping her hands still on the flat.

My next rider and pony were a comfortable pair. Neither are hugely ambitious and enjoy being in the comfort zones. Which means the pony often jumps from an idle canter which feels jarring, upright and uncomfortable, as well as being height limited. I had them cantering around the arena finding the “Friday Afternoon” canter such as on the way home from school. Concentrating on riding forwards before and after jumps will help the bascule flow and feel easier. Then my rider could fold into a more balanced jumping position. The tramlines weren’t hugely relevant to this lesson, but just their presence helped keep the pair on their jumping line. For these two I converted the placing pole into a low upright to make a bounce to improve the suppleness of my rider as she had to rapidly switch between her two point and three point position.

Another lesson with a more novice rider, had trot poles instead of jumps, and used transitions between the tramlines to improve control and accuracy. Switching between light seat over the poles and rising trot improves the rider’s balance and familiarity with the jumping position in preparation for jumping. It could be developed into just the one jump at the end of the exercise, or cantering through the exercise as required.

One of the other riders tends to over think pole arrangements, riding to each pole individually instead of the exercise as a whole. I was fully prepared to simplify the layout if her brain threatened to implode, but started her off trotting and cantering through the exercise with the poles on the floor. My main focus was on my rider looking ahead, not at each pole, and understanding that if she rode a good turn and aimed for the end of the exercise, she didn’t have to worry about the tramlines (yes, her tubby pony did fit easily between them!). We built up the jumps using crosses to help focus her straight ahead, emphasising that my rider looks at the second jump just before she jumps the first, and so on. The pony stopped chipping in and getting too deep to the jump, and my rider didn’t get in front of the pony, loading the shoulders. Again, I made the placing pole into a small bounce to further develop the feel for an uphill jump, and to help my rider start to feel that she was behind the pony over fences instead of in front. I didn’t end up simplifying the exercise as my rider comprehended it well; it was a really good session to help her learn to filter out the less important parts of an exercise or course, and to ride to the end of a line. I was really pleased with how things slotted into place for these two.

My last client has a pony who tends to drift and go crooked, so the tramlines were ideal to improve the rider’s awareness of drifting, and to help her correct it. Using cross poles to further help them stay straight I soon discovered that my rider didn’t ride after the jump. So instead of riding the five stages of a jump – approach, take off, bascule, landing, get away – she forgot to do anything on landing! The tramlines between the jumps then had a second use. I had my rider approach the exercise in a steady trot, quietly pop over the first fence, land in canter and then sit up and ride into trot between the poles so that they had a steady approach to the second jump, and were more likely to stay on the jumping line. Having a physical marker to ride to helps make a rider commit to a transition, or movement as it’s easier to judge their accuracy. After focusing on riding after a jump, they began to stay straighter and steadier, which will really help them as they progress to riding a course.

This set up gave me hundreds of different options for teaching, and could be easily adjusted between clients as needed. Possibly my new favourite sort of day – one exercise, lots of different private lessons so I can hone into each individual’s requirements.

Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.

Learning to Canter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Lead Rein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoenix’s 2021 Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding With Sponges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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