A Canter Sequence

I’ve been working on upping the canter work with Phoenix; increasing my standards, pushing her boundaries, improving her balance and strength. Last night I had a play with one of the canter sequences from an elementary test, and whilst it’s definitely work in progress, it was good to feel how hard Phoenix had to work to keep her balance. I want to start using bits of this in trot and canter for some of my clients – so watch out!

The sequence is nicknamed the PIG from elementary 59 as those are the letters you ride to, but as I was in a short arena I adapted the exercise slightly to suit her current level of training.

In canter on the left rein, ride from M to X to D, then cantered a left ten metre circle. At D, ride a simple change before a right ten metre circle in canter. Finish the sequence by riding from D to A and then turn right to change the rein.

The line MXD requires balance because the horse has to change their propulsion leg, akin to counter canter. I found that it helped lighten Phoenix’s forehand and collect her canter slightly.

In elementary 59 you continue along the centre line to A, but it is easier to ride a ten metre circle at D, or just before, at Phoenix’s current level of training. As she finds the MXD line easier, I will extend the centre line and ride a left turn at A. The canter becomes more collected and elevated after X, which actually really helps prepare her so that she stays balanced on the circles.

At the end of the left ten metre circle, ride a simple change before a right ten metre circle. This is particularly useful for Phoenix as in the downward transition she often swings her hindquarters to the right, so the quick change of bend and strike off into right canter helps resolve this. Simple changes also come into elementary level so it’s a good opportunity to practice these. After the right circle, I rode a straight line to A then turned right.

The exercise can be repeated off the right rein using the HXD line, with the right canter circle first. It can also be ridden from the A end of the school – using the KXG and FXG lines.

At elementary level, movements come up quickly in tests, so whilst Phoenix may be perfecting the individual movements, with plenty of preparation time, and in ideal locations around the arena, it is the art of putting different movements together in rapid succession which will really cement her at this level.

I really like how this sequence flowed, so may well incorporate it into more of my teaching and schooling of horses as the changes of bend improve a horse’s balance immensely.

Straightness is Fundamental

I always talk about straightness with clients far earlier than the Scales of Training would suggest that it needs discussing and have had conversations with dressage trainers about it’s location on the training pyramid. But this week I had the perfect demonstration of why straightness often comes before rhythm.

A new client approached me last month, wanting help rebuilding her confidence and getting back into cantering. She felt out of control of her horse, and worried by his lack of balance in the canter. Of course I was happy to help and looked forward to a new challenge.

During their first lesson the thing which became most apparent was how the horse curled up to the right, leaning on his left shoulder, and falling in drastically on the left rein. The trot was choppy and unbalanced on both reins. To me, before we can address the canter we need to improve the balance in the trot which ultimately comes from the horse being straighter. The rider’s lack or confidence comes from, I believe, the feeling of a lack of control and her horse not responding as expected to her aids.

We spent the first couple of lessons checking she was straight, evening out the hand position because the right hand came back and the left went forwards. We also really worked on her horse staying straight in walk and during short trots. On the right rein he’d fling himself through the left shoulder going into trot but the fence line prevented too much drift, but on the right rein he fell in, and caused his rider to twist which exacerbated the horse’s crookedness. My aim initially was to reduce the bend to the right before increasing the bend to the left.

We chatted about saddle and physio checks, but the more I observed the more I felt that it was a control issue rather than a problem with the horse. He was trying to control the situation and his rider, who ultimately backed off as soon as he resisted her aids and twisted his body. Then the horse got away with not trotting, so tried this on every time and soon got the upper hand.

I helped my rider adjust her horse’s body, and most importantly have the self belief that she was doing it correctly so needed to stick to her guns as her horse explored the different avenues of evasion.

During the first two lessons we focused on reducing the right bend in walk and even getting some good left bend at times. On the right rein we worked in trot, as the fence prevented the over bend, and my rider learnt to use her left rein and left leg to reduce the right bend. On turns I concentrated her on using the left leg and reducing the right rein. She started to feel his left shoulder coming around each turn and his vertical balance improving.

Once the right rein was getting straighter we turned our attention to the left. We couldn’t just go straight into trot on the left rein because of the evasion twist during the transition. I put together a little exercise, focusing on straightness and not making a big deal on going onto the left rein. They started in trot on the right rein, turned across the short diagonal, focusing on bringing the left shoulder round the turn and using the left leg to keep him straight. They aimed to ride onto the left rein without losing this straightness and then riding a transition to walk before they lost the straightness, then immediately a ten metre left circle before two half circles to change the rein and begin the exercise again. The idea was that they progressively did more and more trot strides without falling onto the left shoulder.

We ran through this exercise a few times, with improving results. I was pleased with their progress over the last couple of lessons, but felt there was a bit of a block for future progress. I didn’t think there was a problem with the horse, but he was still determinedly evading his rider by twisting to the right in transitions. She was correcting him well, but lacked the determination to stand her ground, so ended up yielding to the horse, who effectively won that conversation so continued with his evasion tactic. I suggested that I sat on at the beginning of the next lesson to reinforce the boundaries and also to check that I couldn’t feel an issue that would cause the extreme right bend. As soon as I sat on, I secured the left rein and did a couple of leg yields to the right and within minutes the horse accepted my aids and stopped trying to fall through his left shoulder. Of course, he still felt stiffer to the left, but he was reactive to the left leg and much straighter through his body. I rode him for a few minutes longer until he’d proved that he wasn’t looking for an evasion. He also felt great so no underlying issues to my mind.

Then his rider mounted, and we picked up where we left off last lesson. Now she’d seen her horse stay straight she had more self belief in herself and her riding. He’d been firmly put back in his box by me so was less argumentative with her. We soon got a straighter trot on the right rein, and then managed to keep this balance onto the left rein. We developed the right rein work with circles, and focused on staying straight and on the track on the left rein. Finally, we started using demi voltes and consecutive changes of rein to improve their balance and reduce any tendency for the horse to fall into right bend.

Anyway, what’s the purpose of my witterings? As soon as the horse started to work in a straighter way, with improved vertical balance, his stride length opened, the rhythm improved and the trot became lighter and freer. From this straighter trot, we can start to establish a consistent rhythm, improve his suppleness and balance and progress up the Training Scale. However, if we didn’t correct his lack of straightness we would be fighting a losing battle. So really, a horse and rider need to be fairly straight before they can begin to work correctly and improve their way of going. In which case, shouldn’t straightness be the first training block? Or perhaps the Scales of Training should come with a caveat that you are starting with a fairly straight and evenly sided horse and rider?

My plan for the next few lessons is to really establish the straightness of both horse and rider; improving their suppleness on the left rein, ensuring my rider feels very confident and in control; able to manoeuvre him easily, and then start introducing the canter work, again with the focus being on the horse staying straight initially.

Jumping Away From Home

August started off with an absolutely crazy week recovering from Pony Club camp week and judging Demi Dressage tests. Which means my blog has been neglected. But let’s start afresh with one of my latest challenges.

One of my clients has a lovely pony who is perfectly capable jumping at home, but gets a cricket score whenever they go out jumping. Since lockdown they’ve been focusing on arena hire, getting him out and about. But they’ve found themselves stuck in the cycle of one refusal, then he jumps the jump fine. By the end of the session he’s jumping beautifully, but of course that’s not the way a showjumping competition works!

This week I went along with them to see if we can break the cycle.

I had my rider warm up quickly, purposefully keeping away from the fillers and jumps. Meanwhile, I put all the jumps at about 50-60cm, with a central gap between the fillers.

We used the first, plain jump as a warm up fence and made a plan. My rider expects her pony to refuse so rides expecting a stop. The pony stops and once he’s stopped he uses it as an excuse to stop at the next jump. A self fulfilling prophecy. With the jumps as low as they were, he could jump them from a standstill. Therefore the pony learnt that he only had one option – forwards – and that going left, right or backwards wasn’t an option. My rider had to set him up in a straight line, use her seat to send him forwards and channel him straight with the leg and hand. She needed to ride slightly defensively yet positively so that she wasn’t giving him any vibes to have second thoughts. If he stopped, he had to walk over the jump between the fillers. So there was no turning away.

My rider jumped the first, plain fence to set them both up into a positive, rhythmical canter. They came around the corner and he screeched to a halt at the fillers on the first part of the double. She sat back, used her legs and he jerked over the fence unelegantly before trotting over the second element. They picked up canter and approached number three on a long dog leg, with bright, white fillers. He backed off, thought about stopping, but my rider rode so determinedly that he cat leapt over it from a slow trot.

But then the penny dropped. And for the rest of the round, the pony started taking his rider into the fences, fillers and all, without hesitation. Of course, his rider still had to be on the ball and not become complacent, but they seemed to be reading from the same page.

I adjusted the jumps for their second round, bringing the fillers closer and the jumps higher. Again, this went smoothly. Number two caused a problem again, but it was because their approach wasn’t straight rather than anything else. The rest of the course was confident and flowed very nicely.

The third round was up at 70-80cm, with all the fillers underneath the jumps, so much more like a showjumping competition. They flew this time, with my rider not looking twice at the fences.

Finally, I put some oxers in and turned two fillers around so it was a different image at the front. I didn’t want to have them repeating the jumps too many times as they had nothing to prove with the height, but I wanted to keep putting in new questions now that we’d changed both mindsets and broken the cycle.

The ninth jump didn’t cause an issue at all with the change of filler and addition of a back rail, but number two did. When he stopped, I moved the fillers slightly and put the pole down so he could still walk forwards over the jump. Turning around wasn’t an option. As the rest of the course flowed so nicely, with no hesitation, I turned our attention to jump two before we finished.

As the pony was getting tired, I lowered the first jump to a cross as it’s purpose was to set up the canter and start the jumping course. We focused on having counter flexion on the turn to stop him falling through his outside shoulder, and then channelled him positively. He stopped again, but it looked to be more of a test of rider than anything else. I moved the fence again so he wasn’t turned in a circle, and jumped it. We repeated the exercise and then he jumped boldly over, although my rider couldn’t let her guard down! After the double she jumped the third jump, so that they were finishing on a fence where he wasn’t backing off at all.

Next time, I want to start in a similar fashion, with only one warm up fence, and the fillers will start at the side, but closer together and the fences slightly bigger. But still small enough that they can be jumped from a sticky trot. Then hopefully we will progress to jumping with the fillers underneath the jumps quicker. My aim is to give the pony a positive, confidence building experience whilst ensuring that he learns that forwards is the only way to go when cantering towards a jump. In the meantime I want my rider to continue riding so positively, be more aware of how she is setting him up in terms of straightness and the use of her aids, yet starting to change her mindset from “he’s going to stop” to “he will jump it”. Once they can get to a training venue and jump a clear round straight away they can progress to clear rounds and competitions.

Phoenix and Cross Country

Phoenix’s cross country education has been a bit stop-start due to one thing and another. Her first summer with me I didn’t feel she was ready to go cross country schooling and the ground was rock hard. The second summer she was bolting in canter in the spring so with cracks in our relationship and very hard grouuhnd I only got her out a couple of times over solid fences. My plan of getting her over solid fences last autumn and this spring were scuppered with storms and covid respectively.

Anyway, now hopefully we’re back to some normality, I’m hoping to further her education across country over the next three months.

So how do you plan a progressive cross country session? You don’t want to out face a green horse, but equally they need to learn new skills and build confidence. It’s a skill I’m working on from both a rider and a teaching perspective, so I can develop inexperienced riders on the cross country as well as give inexperienced horses valuable, positive training.

I use the warm up as time to play around with the gears of the trot and canter, getting the horse responsive to the aids, checking the steering, and assessing how the horse feels on the terrain. Are they confident under foot, slipping, or finding it hard to keep their balance down hill. Then I focus on any weak areas for the rest of the warm up. With a green horse I’ll ride them near the jumps, circling round them and settling them so their eyes aren’t out on stalks. Last weekend when I took Phoenix out cross country schooling she was much less “looky” at all the jumps during our warm up, settling into a rhythm immediately and being attentive to my aids.

If a horse hasn’t seen water then I won’t do this, but I usually incorporate water into the warm up; trotting and cantering through the water. This helps teach a horse that water is no big deal, and for the greener horse it reminds them of the water question.

Once warmed up I find an inviting, plain jump well within their comfort zone height wise and then jump that a few times until the horse settles into cross country mode. The first jump should be done from a showjumping perspective; upright, three point position and a balanced, controlled canter. Just in case the horse hasn’t got the memo about it being cross country, and has a stop, or thinks twice about it. Last week Phoenix hadn’t gotten the cross country memo and was very green over the first few jumps with me ending up by her ears a couple of times! With an inexperienced horse, it is best to approach in the three point position as you are more secure with any sticky moments or awkward leaps over the jump. Approaching in a steadier canter gives the horse more time to assess and process the jump, which hopefully leads to better understanding by them and they grow in confidence.

I start to string some straightforward jumps together, starting to open up into a cross country canter and two point position as the jumps become more familiar, but revert to the showjumping approach over new, fences which might cause the horse to back off. I find it best with green horses to get them started with the first fences so that they find their rhythm and then add in a couple of new fences. Each subsequent “course” uses jumps the horse has already jumped before introducing new jumps, as they’re more likely to pop straight over because they’re travelling forwards and in “the zone”.

After riding a few courses, I then do something less physically challenging for the horse, but still mentally stimulating. I’ll go and play at the steps. We walk up and down some steps, taking it steadily so that the horse has the opportunity to study and understand the question. For some reason, steps seem to puzzle Phoenix so I take it back to basics each schooling session and give her plenty of time to process the steps. Each time it’s taking her less time to work out where her legs go and how. By walking the steps you give a horse time to look at, process and understand the situation. This means that they will be confident in similar situations because they know the correct response. Whilst this takes time and patience, in the long run you’ll never be caught out with a sudden stop or hesitation.

I develop the step work so that the horse is trotting up and down them, linking it in with a course, and then cantering them when they feel bold and confident.

Next is another short course, using familiar jumps as well as posing new questions and perhaps linking in the water to remind the horse what it is. Before I find another technical challenge for them. Of course, this assumes that they horse has coped well with everything so far.

With ditches, I use the same approach of walking over them a few times, before trotting and then linking jumps in and cantering over them. The idea is to go as far as the horse is comfortable. So if walking over a ditch is enough of a drama for today then that’s fine. Jumps can be integrated, but the ditch can still be walked over.

By then I usually feel that both horse and rider are reaching the limits of their learning capacity for the session, but if I have time then I will finish with one or two courses which revise what they have learnt over the session. The jumps don’t have to be the biggest they’ve jumped all day, or new questions, but a simple course popping through the water, over the ditch and steps will mimic a cross country course and prove a horse’s understanding and confidence to finish on a very positive note.

The next time I go out with them I fully expect to have to revise the technical elements, but the plan is to give them such a positive, confidence building experience that they come out next time bolder and less looky. So we start from stage 2 rather than stage 1. And progress through the stages quicker, with only a short revision session, and then we can build on the size and technicality of the lines between fences and make that step from just cantering through water to jumping into or out of water and so on.

Teaching Outside The Box

I had been doing some gridwork with a young pony clubber who’s pony is pretty fast to a fence, with a choppy stride and tends to get very close to the jump. Over a couple of lessons we’d used canter poles and raised canter poles on a grid to improve their rhythm and subsequently the pony jumped out of a much better canter – a consistent rhythm and a better length of stride – with a neater bascule. But towards the end of each session we had a blip. My rider stopped riding so positively; she turned her pony out of the jump, and then in the last lesson flatly refused to do the same exercise which she’d already done perfectly.

It was that last one where my rider left her lesson unhappy and I was equally unhappy for a number of reasons. I was puzzled. I was disappointed in myself for not managing to give her a good time. I was frustrated that we had had the desired results, and then it had seemingly all unravelled without me dropping the reel. I did lots of reflection on the way home, and after a long chat with my rider’s Mum afterwards I started to understand the situation, and could make a plan to get out of it.

My rider told her Mum that she got confused by the poles, and couldn’t work out how to ride each pole individually. This is, so I’ve learnt in my research, a trait of some on the autism spectrum. They can’t see the picture as a whole, but tend to focus too much on the little details. I can only relate it to a photo mosaic jigsaw I once had. When you stood back, it was an image of a lion, but when you looked closely you saw it was made up of lots of small images of lions. My rider couldn’t see the main image. This led to her literally trying to ride every pole as a separate element. I did some research into teaching children with autism to look for ideas or explanations which might help my rider, who whilst isn’t autistic seems to interpret gridwork in a different way to most people. There I was told that they can often become upset by patterns or colours, so I decided to ensure I used muted poles in matching pairs to hopefully reduce any sensory overload my rider was having when faced with a line of poles.

I made the most detailed lesson plan I’ve ever done when getting ready for her next lesson, to make sure I had some different explanations, several ideas and back up plans. I was actually a bit nervous, because I felt I’d let her down last time.

Once she’d warmed up and I’d put a pile of poles and jumps in the middle of the school, I brought her into the middle and talked to her. I talked to her like she was nineteen, not nine, or however old she is. I mean, only she knows exactly what’s going on in her head, and I needed her to be able to explain it to me. She needed to feel comfortable talking to me, and one way of ensuring this with children is to give them respect and talk to them as adults. I told her that we were going to play around with poles and jumps, and if anything made her worried, or confused, then she had to tell me immediately and I would remove it. I wanted her to understand what we were doing, why we were doing it, and to gauge her triggers for becoming overwhelmed.

Then I asked her what her job was when jumping. She listed lots of things – jumping position, not pulling her pony in the mouth, getting straight, riding to the middle. Then I asked her what her pony’s job was. She answered that it was to go over the poles and jumps. So I simplified things. Yes, she needs to do all the details she mentioned, but they’re becoming autonomic now she’s more experienced. The important thing for my rider to remember is that her job is to organise them both on the approach and getaway to and from a jump. Her pony’s job was to jump the jump.

We started cantering over a single pole on the floor with jump wings. We discussed canter rhythm and straightness. Then I put out four cones. Two on either side of the jump, about a stride from take off. As she cantered between each pair of cones they signified the point where her pony took charge, and where she took charge again.

With this “zone” in place, my rider could focus on riding a straight approach, picking up canter and keeping it steady, and stopped thinking too hard about the jump as it was in her pony’s zone. Then afterwards she regrouped easily. Of course, a single pole and then a single jump was well within her comfort zone and not something that usually overwhelms her. But that was the point, I wanted her to focus on the transfer of responsibility between herself and her pony.

Once they were jumping the single fence well, and you could see that already the pony wasn’t getting quite so deep into the jump, I added in a second fence, four strides away. I wanted to give them enough space between the jumps that they could easily be separate elements. I made a zone around that jump too. And discussed with my rider that between the zones she needed to sit up and steady the canter as it was her area of responsibility, and given the pony’s love of jumping, we always need to be careful of not going too fast. The jumps stayed within her comfort zone as I got them riding through the related distance, keeping our focus on the zones.

This seemed to be working quite well, so I started talking to my rider about the reason we use the poles. Theoretically, we’ve already discussed it whilst building the grid, but I wanted her to understand the purpose of using poles. She could remember the feel of the canter rhythm over the poles, and was trying to replicate it without the poles. We then discussed her pony’s balance. My rider could feel that the canter was less bouncy and uphill without the poles to help, and whilst their jumping was better, they were still getting a bit deep into the fences.

I suggested putting a placing pole in front of the jump, and my client agreed. Once the pole was down, I emphasised how it was still within her pony’s zone. She seemed happy, and although their first go was a little hesitant, she seemed to understand and not be fazed by the additional pole. Once she’d ridden it a few times I could see her visible relaxing and then they got a better take off point. My rider could feel the benefit of having the pole.

We progressed to having a placing pole in front of the second fence too, and my rider rode really positively and confidently. Their striding wasn’t quite perfect between the fences, so the second didn’t feel quite as nice as the first, but it was definite progress towards a steadier, rhythmical canter and improved shape over the jump. The important part being that my rider understood the benefits of using poles, could manage the exercise and didn’t get overwhelmed.

I was really pleased with how the lesson developed; I think the key points to focus on are keeping the zones, and building exercises as we go. With the majority of riders, you lay the exercise out and build it progressively upwards (one jump, two jump etc etc), but with this young rider I think it’s best to start with nothing and introduce a pole at a time, ensuring it’s within the pony’s zone. I do think over a few months we will get to a point where we can use a small number of poles to help create and improve their canter rhythm in a related distance and not overload her. The important thing is to listen to her and respect her emotions and feedback so that she continues to progress and stays confident.

A Busy Life!

The last few weeks have been so busy I’m afraid I’ve neglected my blog a bit. But I have been reflecting since restarting work, how lucky I am to enjoy such a varied working week.

Lockdown gave me the chance to rest, recharge, study, and reorganise things. And coming out of lockdown I’ve enjoyed picking up where we left off with existing private clients, getting some structure back into my week. I feel like I have some new exercises and better explanations from my own learning and reflecting in lockdown. It’s also been great to see an improved relationship and confidence between some clients and their horses purely as a result of having more hours in the saddle or cuddles in the stable.

But I’ve now got more variety into my work because, since lockdown, I’ve been teaching more Pony Club rallies, and helping members privately too. Teaching more children definitely gives me more to think about, and lots of anecdotes! With the regular rallies, and seeing the children and their ponies more frequently I’m getting an immense sense of satisfaction watching them forming new, strong partnerships and develop as riders. I’m also enjoying planning and delivering different types of group lessons. It’s all a challenge, but a very satisfying challenge! One little girl I almost burst with pride each time I watch her ride, no longer flaps her legs nineteen to the dozen and bounces in canter; she now has effective leg aids, better balance and it stuck like glue to her saddle in canter.

Here’s an anecdote while I remember. I was teaching a lead rein lesson and wanted the children to focus on keeping their thumbs on top, so I asked them to imagine that they’re carrying a mug of their favourite drink. Of course I asked what their favourite drink was … Apple juice, hot chocolate, and … Beer! I’m not sure what any passers-by thought when I shouted “don’t spill your beer” to a six year old boy as he trotted around the arena!

During lockdown I started doing some stable management lectures via Zoom. I’ve been teaching the BHS Challenge Award booklets. A lot of it can be done virtually, talking about the subject, and Google is ever helpful in finding videos to further my explanation, or demonstrate something. To test my clients, I’ve been getting them to video themselves doing tasks; such as tying up a haynet or tacking up. At the end of each booklet I’ve been putting together a pub quiz for them. Upon successful completion, they receive a certificate. We can now start doing the more practical awards, such as learning to lunge. Hopefully leisure riders keep up this interest in learning more about the non riding side of horse ownership as it only benefits their horse.

With normal competitions on hold, and future ones cancelled because they’re not logistically viable whilst maintaining social distancing, online competing has really taken off! My friend runs Demi Dressage, which is online dressage aimed at children. She writes her own tests so they all have a theme and really help children learn a school movement. Last month it was the ice cream test – I watched hundreds of demi voltes! It has been lovely to see so many children enjoying dressage, improving between the months and really progressing. I have a slightly different approach to judging these tests; I judge what I see, but try to make lots of constructive comments, and phrase things in a developmental way so that the children learn the error of their way, but also know how to improve this (for example, instead of “cut the corner” saying “try to ride into the corner to help you turn accurately at F”). The judges comment box also has a suggestion for improvement in, rather than just summising the test. I think that’s the teacher in me! When it’s Demi judging week it’s a lot of late nights, especially as I’m now working again and not helped a few weeks ago by split lip requiring surgery. I didn’t require the surgery, but Mum cuddles were high on the agenda! Demi Dressage definitely gives me some variety to my work.

Adding in my upcoming Pony Club camp in a couple of weeks, I feel like I have a lot of exciting projects keeping me thoroughly occupied. In fact, organising camp is the main reason my blog is taking a back seat for a few weeks as my brain if full to overflowing with thinking of groups, instructors and timetables.

It’s definitely a busy, yet varied job I have, but having an enforced break has made me appreciate how much I enjoy my work.

The Way The Mane Lies

I read a really interesting article about what the lay of the mane tells you about a horse’s body.

In a nutshell, a foal is curled inside the womb either to the left or to the right. The side they curl to is their naturally more bendy side before undergoing training (as don’t forget that a lot of training focuses on straightness) and this is also the way their mane falls. The mane, so long as it’s not trained to lay on the offside because it’s more traditional, falls to the side the horse bends more easily to, even over bending in some instances. It’s to do with muscle fascia, but I’m afraid that’s getting far too complicated for my little brain to comprehend so for that information I’d recommend asking a physio or Google.

I had never heard of this before, having just presumed horses who’s manes fell left were the left handers of the equine world. Phoenix’s mane falls left and I hadn’t even made the connection between her softer left rein and more resistant right rein.

After reading this article, which you can find here I started to pay attention to all the horses I see and their manes. Of course my observations are limited by the fact that we still subconsciously lay the mane right, and neck rugs compound this laying, so like a lot of lefties, left lay manes can often pass as right lay manes. This limits my observations a bit, but when grooming Phoenix s couple of weeks ago I had a light bulb moment.

She doesn’t wear a rug at the moment and her mane has gone from a very definite left lay, to sitting either left or right with minimal effort and if anything going upright or favouring lying to the right. It’s almost as though her mane has been blow dried to increase the volume by encouraging the roots to stand up. Ladies, you’ll understand what I mean. Before it was very flat to her crest. Thinking about her current way of going, she is much straighter and stronger so presumably the improvement in her muscle tone and strength is causing her mane to change it’s lay. It will be interesting to see whether it stays right, upright, or reverts left as she continues to develop.

I asked a friend who’s a physiotherapist for her opinion on mane lay. Apparently it’s quite common for a young horse’s mane to switch sides as they go through their training and favour one bend more than the other. Additionally, sometimes half the mane flips sides, which indicates neck dysfunction, and the muscles working incorrectly.

In this not particularly brilliant photo of Phoenix you can see that her mane is very much undecided which way it wants to go, and you can see the shorter part of her mane at the bottom goes fairly straight up.

I would say that observing the way the mane lies is not a foolproof way of identifying their supple side, because heavy breeds offen have so much mane it has to part down the middle, and rugs with necks encourage the mane onto one side or the other, and some people put a lot of effort into training the mane onto the off side. However, during a schooling session the mane will usually try to revert to it’s natural lay, as I observed whilst teaching last night. But having an understanding for the mane lay and the possible effect on the horse’s way of going, hopefully you can use your observations to successfully feed back into your training plan.

Tack Cheats for Little People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Back into Jumping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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