The Left Hand Knowing What The Right Hand Is Doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poles for Shallow Loops

I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.

Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.

On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.

The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.

The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.

To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?

Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?

I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.

This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!

Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.

In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.

Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.

I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.

As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.

Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.

From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.

I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.

Walk to Canter Transitions

I did this exercise a couple of weeks ago in my lesson to help Phoenix get the hang of walk to canter transitions, and have found it really useful, so thought I’d share it here.

Down the long side, ride shoulder out. That is, reverse shoulder in. The horse is bent to the outside with the outside (in relation to the arena) hind leg in line with the inside front leg. I find it easiest to start on the inner track so you have space to move the shoulders towards the fence. Once you’ve perfected shoulder out in walk, move up to trot. Pay particular attention to feeling the outside hindleg coming under your horse’s body, and not letting him give too much bend in his neck to the outside as that allows him to fall onto the inside shoulder. Already, you should feel an improvement along the short sides as it helps your horse create a uniform bend on the turns.

Once you can trot shoulder out down the full length of the long side, put a ten metre circle in at the end. The circle requires your horse to flip from one bend to the other, so is a good test of balance and suppleness. Don’t rush to blend the two movements: straighten up out of the shoulder out and ride a couple of strides before the circle. As you both improve, you can reduce the number of strides between the shoulder out and the circle. A bit like how you reduce the number of straight strides in your changes of bend as your horse becomes more balanced. I found the circles felt very balanced and I didn’t find that Phoenix bent excessively with her neck to try and drift through her outside shoulder, which she sometimes does on the left rein.

Now comes the fun part. Halfway around the ten metre circle, ride forwards to walk. Then as you reach the track and the corner of the school, ask for canter. Because of the shoulder out, the outside hind is engaged ready to push into canter, but the circle sets up the correct bend so you will get the correct canter lead.

The short period of walk stops the horse switching off from work, and the small circle helps keep the walk active and together.

Previously, Phoenix had been running and scrambling into canter from walk, but this exercise really helped her jump up into canter – quite literally jump as the first time she leapt straight up in the air while she tried to use her body differently. She soon cracked it, learning to push from behind more. Riding the canter transition from trot still helps improve your transition.

Unfortunately, I can’t repeat exercises too often with Phoenix as she starts to anticipate, so I’ve mixed things up a bit by taking out the circle; riding a demi volte then shoulder in as I incline towards the track and then the circle (if needed) before the transition into walk and then canter. I’m just doing the same movements in the same order, but in different areas of the arena. Have a go at this exercise and mix it up as much as you want.

The Wise Man

The Wise Man Built His House Upon The Rock was playing in the car last week. Although this time at least I had the toddler with me! There’s nothing worse than realising you’re listening to nursery rhymes when alone in the car …

I digress. It struck me that the Wise Man is very relevant to the approach to training a horse and rider. The rocks are the foundations of the house, and in the same way that you choose to build a house on firm standing, it’s important to build your ridden skills on firm foundations. Establish the basics, reinforce them as necessary, and don’t try to run before you can walk.

If you have a firm foundation when you encounter a problem – a fall whilst jumping for example – then it is easier to pick yourself up and there is less long term or catastrophic damage and the recovery period is quicker. It’s a bit of damage limitation; in the sense that when you have solid foundations beneath you, you will only wobble and fall a couple of rungs down the ladder, rather than if you were standing atop a sand dune when you will fall down many rungs.

My friend is looking to buy a new horse, and we’ve been discussing the merits of getting a schoolmaster versus a green horse. One she viewed last week has talent, can jump, but is obviously lacking the basics. Which isn’t a problem if you approach the horse with the knowledge that the first six months need to be spent establishing the jumping basics; improving the jumping canter, using canter poles and grids to improve her technique before progressing up the levels. To some, this can be frustrating, but in the long run, the horse is less likely to injure themselves because they are using their body more correctly and are physically stronger; they are more confident so are more likely to encounter little wobbles along their jumping journey rather than major blips which ultimately makes a smoother road to travel.

For this reason, every so often my clients revisit one of the more straightforward subjects of their riding, which once practiced usually vastly improves their performance in a trickier exercise.

It’s also a reason that I feel it’s so important for riders to have regular lessons and instructors. If an instructor regularly sees a pair then they can pick up on problems before they develop, nipping them in the bud, and can ensure that the foundations are firmly established. That’s always my worry with clinics and Pony Club rallies. If a rider goes to various clinics with different instructors they can end up with a bitty education and holes in their foundations. That’s not to say that clinics aren’t a positive thing, as they have their place in terms of a social environment, getting a horse and rider confident riding away from home, but they are best used to complement regular lessons.

Do you think your riding is built upon firm foundations? Or are they a little bit fragile?

Arc of Poles

I only ever blog about exercises or lesson subjects which I feel have gone particularly well, would benefit others, and require a more in-depth explanation. A few of my clients will recognise this exercise from the last couple of weeks.

Riding trot and canter poles in a straight line is fairly, well straightforward, but putting them onto a curve makes it trickier, and is useful for highlighting a horse’s strengths and weaknesses. Using a twenty metre circle, I laid three or five trot poles on the curve, with the middle of each pole the correct distance for that horse’s working trot.

Firstly, I like to work a horse on both reins over the curve of poles. Having to increase the cadence of the inside hind requires a greater degree of balance, and if a horse finds this difficult then they may well drift out on the curve. At this point, it is really useful to compare the two reins to see if one is significantly easier than the other. Riding the curves and exaggerating the stride and push from the inside hind starts to improve the quality of the trot around the rest of the arena, and circles feel easier and more balanced.

I like to use the poles to improve medium and collected trot, by riding a smaller and larger arc. The poles encourage the strides to be adjusted and consistent over the poles, whilst the engagement of the inside hind leg encourages a lightness of the forehand. I used this exercise to good result with a duo, which really helped the balance of their medium trot and for the first time my rider felt the lengthening of her mare’s stride without an increase in speed or loss of balance onto the forehand.

For those horses who tend to fall into their inside shoulder on circles raising the inner end of the pole can really help them. If they have to lift their inside foreleg higher over the raised pole then they are less likely to load that limb. It almost acts like a jack, propping up the inside shoulder. The horse will feel more level, with vertical balance, as a result, and is then able to give a more through bend around the rest of the arena.

Raising the poles helps strengthen and increase the suppleness of the inside hind leg. It is also very beneficial to improving the stability of the pelvis because of the increased range of movement in the hips, so is very useful for horses coming back into work, mares after a pregnancy, and those with hindquarter asymmetry and muscle atrophy.

Next up, is canter poles, which is very useful for reinforcing a three beat rhythm, increasing the cadence of the inside hind, and creating a more uphill canter. A lot of horses will jump the raised poles, or try to canter a straight line across the poles. However, once the horse relaxes through their rib cage, they will find it easier and be able to maintain their curving line over the poles.

I find this exercise very useful for improving a horse’s vertical balance so that they feel more level, strengthening and suppling them, and getting them to work into a even contact with a bend throughout their whole body, which improves their general gait in terms of stride length, cadence, engagement of the haunches and lightens the forehand. Plus, it’s a fun exercise for both horse and rider!

I Blame the Mud

Personally, I lay all blame squarely on the mud for this subject, but I have to say that I’m so proud of my clients, and pleased to have such a good bunch who listen closely to what their horse is saying and so averts a potentially expensive and time consuming treatment and rehabilitation programme.

On an aside, I’ve have several clients who have been on long term rehabilitation programmes for their horse’s injury, which in some cases their horse came to them with, and they are coming through the other side. One lady proudly told me that the physio feels that her horse no longer needs treatment to mend her long term problems, but now needs treatment to maintain her excellent muscle tone. Just like a normal horse! Another lady was told that her horse is moving well, and has better muscle tone than previously so it’s time to crack on and work him that little bit harder so that he starts to develop this muscle. I’m so pleased when I hear this positive feedback from physios. My riders are doing the right thing!

Back to my initial subject of listening to your horse. In their first lesson back after Christmas, one of my riders had a problem jumping. Her pony jumped beautifully over some smaller jumps, especially as we were working on jumping a tarpaulin. He did give a couple of bucks on landing when he basculed particularly nicely, but this isn’t uncommon for him. However, he jumped very erratically over some 90cm fences, even stopping. This is well within his comfort zone so I felt it was odd. We discussed the oddness, but he felt fine to his rider so we decided to monitor it.

The following week, I built a simple grid. If he’d lost his confidence, although I couldn’t work out why, this would help. They flew the grid at 80cm, although he wasn’t happy turning left after the grid and was marginally better with a right canter lead approach. Again, this isn’t unusual with his way of going. But as soon as I put the jump up a notch he threw in the towel. We reverted to the lower grid and just popped him through to finish on a positive note. As I couldn’t see any lameness or sign of soreness, my only suggestion was that he saw a physio or chiropractor in case he’d tweaked something and flatwork and low jumping didn’t affect it, but the extra effort of a bigger jump caused a twinge.

Anyway, she booked the Mctimoney chiropractor and just lightly rode him in the interim. I had feedback from the treatment yesterday – a slightly tilted pelvis, but more interestingly, a pulled muscle between his ribs and pelvis. Possibly due to careering around a slippery field. Which would explain everything. Thankfully, this pony doesn’t need any more treatment, just an easy week building him back up. But his refusing and erratic jumps could so easily be misinterpreted as naughty behaviour and disciplined, or ignored for a few weeks. Whereas by paying close attention to what he was telling her, my rider averted any major incident, either by his behaviour escalating so that it was dangerous, or by his injury worsening or a subsequent injury occuring from him trying to protect the pulled muscle.

Another rider had something similar just after Christmas when I noticed her horse’s right hind being slightly short in stride length, and not picking it up as much as usual. I was riding him and wasn’t happy with the trot, although I hadn’t noticed it in his walk around the tracks to warm up. He wasn’t lame to the bystander, but it wasn’t normal for this horse. I text my client to tell her and she immediately contacted her chiropractor, who came out a couple of days later and found a very sore fetlock and tight muscles all over – again, she put it down to field antics, but this time suggested that it happened because the mud is so claggy, he literally left a leg behind whilst showing off and wrenched it. But because his owner acted swiftly he only needed one treatment, and was completely recovered within a week.

So you can see why I’m blaming the mud! My final casualty to it felt off in walk when I hacked him. Not lame, although he definitely wasn’t comfortable in trot, but wobbly and uncoordinated. I reduced his work to walk only on as flat a ground as I could provide until we waited for his chiropractic appointment. By walking him out in a long and low frame he started to feel much better, more together and stronger. I did find that he was leaning on the right leg though, so much so that his winter coat was rubbing off with friction. Initially I thought it was something I was doing (moving my leg excessively etc) but after paying close attention to the matter, I felt that he was pushing right as he walked, so pushing into my right leg. His treatment showed very tight, sore muscles over his hindquarters and lumbar area, which ties in with slipping in the field. Hopefully he won’t do anymore field acrobatics, and I can start to build him up again, although I’ll be limited with the lack of dry bridleways!

I actually feel very grateful to have clients who pay so much attention to changes in their horse’s behaviour and try to find out why before labelling the behaviour as naughty. I’m equally grateful that they respect my opinion, based on observations and feelings from the saddle. Of course, I’m not an expert in this area but I like to think that I know these horses well enough, and have a good relationship with their owners, that when they aren’t themselves yet look normal from a distance, we can have a conversation about the different possible causes (be it back, saddle, bridle, teeth, feet) and can investigate them. Then between us we can nip any issues in the bud, get them treated before secondary problems develop, and with the minimal disruption to their activity plan.

Pole Star

I did a fun polework lesson over the weekend, in the shape of a five pointed star.

It was harder than I anticipated to make star-shaped – I could’ve done with a drone to help me get it perfectly aligned! But once it was set up I could see the multitude of uses for it!

Once my two riders had warned up in trot and canter I had them working on opposite points of the star. They had to ride a 10-15m circle on the outside of the star, trotting over the two poles which formed the point of the star. I had my riders adjust their circle so that they found the perfect striding between the poles for their horse. The horse shouldn’t be skipping or stretching for the second pole, neither should they be chipping in and tripping over it. Riding the poles on a curve increases the step of the inside hind, so activating it so that it works harder on a normal circle. When the inside hind comes further under the body the abdominals work harder and thus the horse lifts their back.

My riders rode these circles on both reins, feeling the improvement, and also the difference between reins as by asking the horse to work harder it highlights any weakness or evasion tactic. They both felt that the trot was more co-ordinated and together after this exercise.

Examples of the circle exercise and straightness exercise lines ridden by my riders.

Next, we turned our attention to their accuracy and straightness by riding across the star, over the points. I had my riders find their line, focus on a point, channel the horse between the reins using the legs and seat. The aim is that the horse trots over the point of the poles. This tests their balance and straightness, as well as improving their cadence and suppleness.

These two exercises kept us busy for the level of horse that I had in this lesson, as we combined them into a little course at the end, but they could also be done in canter. Both horses improved dramatically in their way of going, looking much more balanced and active in their trot work.

Next time I do this exercise, I want to add in some trot and canter poles on a curve across the arena, so the star becomes a shooting star.

My Phoenix-versary

Last week marked two years since we brought Phoenix home so I took a moment to reflect upon that time.

It’s been an eventful journey, but certainly since the spring it has been a predominantly positive one. When I got her she was physically six, but mentally four years old. Now, she’s eight years physically and probably closer to seven years old in her head.

She had done very little apart from being backed, lightly hacked under saddle or led from another horse, had no concept of canter, and was very suspicious of life.

This year, she has been perfectly behaved on sponsored rides, jumped cross country fences confidently, competed showjumping and represented the riding club (I’m still not over having the final fence of the second round down and losing the ticket to the champs!). She’s confident, powerful, has a great, springy jump, and is a lot of fun to jump.

Dressage wise, we still aren’t really where I anticipated us to be after two years. She’s so sensitive, and has bad days when she’s more tense than a bow just before the arrow is released. She also needs to be shown an idea or concept and allowed to think about it until it becomes her own idea, which slows down the teaching process. Although she’s a quick learner. However, unlike last winter, I can use the canter work to relax her, loosen her up, and fatigue her. Which is a definite improvement!

Phoenix is still great to hack, although on windy days I tend to err on the cautious side as she can be silly, especially on her own.

I’m still working this enigma of a horse out, in terms of how to reduce her tension. She’s living in overnight at the moment and is far happier than last year. She isn’t racing round the stable waiting to be turned out, and has even been spotted lying down asleep in there! However, some days I mount and she’s like a ticking bomb who’s brain has fallen out of her ear, and I have to spend twenty minutes replacing the brain and defusing the bomb. Cantering her helps, but you have to get her in the right frame of mind to canter for it to be beneficial. Lunging doesn’t diffuse the situation as she’s beautifully relaxed then.

Initially, I thought that when she’d had two days off she was tense and buzzy to ride, but this theory was disproved when she was scooting from my leg and blocking over her back when I’d worked her eight days in a row! And this week she had the weekend off yet was lovely and settled to ride on Monday.

Now, I’m beginning to think it’s the weather. She’s more uptight when it’s wet and rainy, blowing around her hindquarters. She accepted the exercise sheet for a couple of weeks but then decided any rustling on her back was terrifying and she must run away from it. Only giving her a blanket clip has definitely helped matters here. In Princess Phoenix’s world, she’d have an elaborate indoor arena for the winter.

I think I can guarantee to have a calm, sensible ride with Phoenix’s brain firmly stuck between her ears on a mild, still winter’s day when she’s been worked regularly in the days leading up to it. Wet, cold and windy days are just a survival challenge!

I think Phoenix has now got herself an all round CV. She’s had positive experiences of most things, and is definitely improving in terms of her acceptance of the aids and I feel I have a stronger relationship with her. It may have taken longer than I expected, but I think she’s got a solid foundation to build upon now. We’ve come further in our journey than we think we have.

What are my goals for the next year? Without putting too much pressure on either of us, I want to consolidate the novice dressage movements – we’re at the showing her and letting her think it’s her idea stage – and get out and do more dressage. I wanted to affiliate her originally, so that may be on the cards. I’d like to do a one day event with her, but she still needs a bit more experience cross country. Otherwise, it’s just continuing to give her a good education, and for me to continue to enjoy her, as she is my downtime and I need to make the most of it before she’s borrowed by the next generation (you wouldn’t believe how soft, gentle and tolerant of a certain little person Phoenix is).