Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.

A Sustainable Gait

Once you’ve mastered control of the basic gaits, things get harder and you have to master a range of gears in each gait. Furthermore, your horse has to develop the strength, balance and stamina to work in each gear. This was illustrated perfectly at the Pony Club Conference a couple of weeks ago.

The demo riders were riding a simulated cross country exercise; jumping a triple bar at speed to imitate jumping a simple cross country fence, before making a turn and jumping two bounce fences from a slower canter.

The first rider galloped at the triple bar, popping it easily, and slowed down a bit for the bounce, but jumped it a bit too fast really and it was only her pony’s deftness which got them over the two elements. She rode the exercise again, this time circling between the two questions until she’d collected the canter sufficiently. It took her a few circles but she really collected the canter up. She approached the bounce, but her pony refused.

The reason? Her new collected canter wasn’t sustainable. He could collect that much on the flat, but he didn’t have the impulsion and strength to jump from this canter. She rode the exercise again, and circled until she got the collection. Then she opened up the canter slightly, relaxing so that she moved up half a gear. The pony jumped the bounce beautifully. Because the canter was sustainable and the balance between collection and impulsion was right for jumping.

I thought it was a brilliant example of how the gears to your canter will vary as to whether you’re on the flat or jumping, and in relation to your horse’s level of training. For example, a horse who works at prelim level may be able to collect their canter slightly, but will struggle to have the energy and balance to jump from that slightly collected canter, whereas an elementary level horse will be able to sustain that slightly collected canter for longer and with less effort, so will be able to jump easily out of it.

I’ve already mentioned the word “sustainable” to some clients, but I think it’s a worthwhile term to bring into every day conversation. It can be a measure of development too because a canter gear will feel more sustainable as the horse improves their balance, suppleness and impulsion. We can talk about shortening or lengthening strides; feeling if the horse stays in balance, and also how long they can remain in this balance. A horse learning how to collect may only sustain collection for a couple of strides whereas a more established horse will maintain the collection for a full circuit of the arena. So add “sustainable” to your equine dictionary, and start taking it into consideration when you reflect on your horse’s work.

The Art of Repetition

I’m working with a client who’s teaching a green horse to jump. The mare is quite happy over simple crosses and uprights, so we’re at the stage that she needs to learn to read the question with simple exercises and start knowing where she’s putting her feet before we progress to more complicated shaped jumps or grids or distances. I want her to be cleverer about getting to the jump, going over, and getting away from the jump so that we create an intelligent jumper, rather one that is over reliant on her rider or one who wings it each time.

Last lesson I set up two jumps, three strides apart. Starting with poles on the floor, I had them trot then canter over the poles from each direction. I’m looking for the horse to maintain her rhythm, forwardsness and confidence towards the poles. Most green horses will alter their gait as they look cautiously and assess the question. We want a horse to be able to quickly and correctly assess the jump in question so they are best able to clear it comfortably. As she is inexperienced with poles, I’d expect her to back off the poles slightly.

This is when there’s an art to knowing how many times to repeat an exercise. I want an exercise repeated enough times that the horse and rider are confident and competent through it, but I don’t want to repeat it so that they become complacent. It’s exactly the same with flat exercises as jump exercises. I also want to repeat the exercise enough times that it proves it’s not a fluke. I went to a demo with Paul Tapner this week and his rule is that he wants an exercise performed “twice, nice” to prove the first wasn’t a fluke, and to ensure the lesson stays progressive. To an extent, I agree, but I often find a third repetition really useful for cementing the learning.

Anyway, with this mare, I wanted to repeat each stage just enough times that she proved she was happy with the question. She only needed to trot over the poles twice in each direction to become consistent from A to B. Cantering over the poles, she did it perhaps three times in total on each rein. The first time she wobbled and fell into a bit of a heap, and then she sorted her legs out.

Once I was happy with her at this stage I made the second element a cross pole. A height within her comfort zone, but the question had changed. I wasn’t looking to challenge her jumping ability, but rather her ability to judge the jump and get it right first time. I think it was a bit of a mess first time round, as she slowed to look at it, wobbled and the launched over it. The second time was better, and she got it the third.

So I changed the question, putting the first cross up. This time, her first attempt was better and she didn’t back off to study the jumps. Rinse and repeat until she understood.

Then I changed direction, and I was pleased that she reached stage two quicker and seemingly more confident.

I was rattling through the stages but without rushing the mare. Previously, we’ve repeated the exercise more times than necessary to build muscle memory, confidence and practice. Now, I wanted her to complete a task well a couple of times and then move on. But I needed her to achieve the previous stage and be confident about it before moving on otherwise she will lose confidence later on.

Once the mare had negotiated the cross poles I changed the shapes of the jumps. Making one jump an upright, then once this successfully negotiated, the other one too. Then we changed the rein and had the upright first and cross pole second. And then changed it round.

I was pleased that the mare began confidently taking her rider into each set-up, unfazed when the jumps changed. Of course, she was still green and put in the odd wobble and didn’t always get a good take off spot. But that will come as her canter develops and with future sessions to improve her straightness and rhythm. The important thing was that she wasn’t backing off the jumps when they changed.

To finish the session, I steadily built the second jump into an oxer; by putting an upright behind the cross, so that it was inviting and my rider could continue aiming for the centre easily.

I feel it’s important to teach horses to read and process simple jump exercises quickly when training them so that they learn to think for themselves and adjust their canter and bascule as appropriate. I think a horse’s ability to adapt to new jump exercises is related to their confidence, which is why I wouldn’t move onto the next phase before the horse is competent at the previous one. One horse which I ride always backs off an exercise the first time, even when the jump has only changed by a small amount. We’ve worked a lot on progressing exercises steadily and repeating the exercise twice from the off and he is less sticky the first time now, but his general confidence over jumps is also improving.

Building a horse’s confidence when jumping is related to the number of times they have repeated am exercise – it’s a big circle! And I stick to the theory that a horse needs to repeat the exercise until they have done it well two or three times, but have not started to become complacent or anticipate the exercise with detrimental effects. There’s no point mindlessly repeating an exercise with no improvement. Changing it, however slight, will keep both horse and rider thinking about the job in hand.

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.

Containing The Excitement

I’m working separately with two teenagers at the moment to try to retrain their (funnily enough, both) mares so that their jumping isn’t so fast and furious. Both horses are experienced jumpers, but very quick in the air, and very fast on the approach.

Now, I don’t think you’re ever going to completely change a horse’s way of jumping, in that some have more scope than others, some prefer a slower, more collected canter approach, and others like the leg applied on take-off more than others, and so on. However, correct training can enhance a horse’s jumping technique, and there are lots of exercises to help correct undesirable jumping behaviours. I don’t expect either horse to stop being forwards to a fence, but I aim to have them politer and steadier on the approach so that it is safer and less hair-raising for their riders.

With one mare, I started off with a pole on the ground between two wings and incorporated it into their warm up. I had my rider walk and trot over the pole, using it within circles, and basically doing flatwork around the pole, going over it every so often calmly, and when it’s least expected. This takes away the novelty factor of jumping and poles, and reduces the amount of repetition and so stops her anticipating jumping.

Initially, she made quite a thing about the pole, jumping it and cantering off. So we repeated the calm and quiet approach, with my rider staying positive but neutral. She just went with the pony over the jump before calmly slowing her down. Then there was no negative connotation between the rider and the jump.

What I liked about this mare, and I don’t know her very well, was that she was very obedient to her rider’s downward aids. She was happy to let her rider influence her. I did think that her jumping was almost a bit panicked, so I hope that by slowing her down she learns to read and understand the question, so begin to enjoy jumping more. The important thing though, is that she was willing to work with her rider, and seems to become steadier each time.

I built the jump up slowly, and we focused on my rider aiming to trot the approach to the jump by half halting strongly until a couple of strides out when the hand is softened and the seat and leg tells the horse to go and jump. After the jump, my rider had to sit up quickly and ask the pony to come back to trot.

We varied this basic approach by using circles on the approach, transitions to walk (a good exercise was trotting towards the pole on the ground, walking over the pole, and trotting away), and varying the length of the approach. She started to listen to her rider and stayed in trot until a couple of strides off the jump, and was fairly quick to trot again after the jump. I emphasised to her rider that she shouldn’t interfere on the last couple of strides so that her pony could sort her legs out. The pony should be at the tempo and rhythm set by her rider on the approach and getaway, but ultimately they have to jump the jump so shouldn’t be hindered.

The other mare will jump an exercise very calmly the first time, but then she gets over excited and gets quicker and quicker. So I change the exercise promptly, only doing each level once or twice – making a cross an upright, or changing the rein, adding in another element etc. And my rider tries to keep the trot and rides a circle or two, or three, on the approach until the mare stops anticipating the jump. The circle shouldn’t be too close to the jump that the pony thinks she is being pulled out of the jump, and it should be planned by the rider. Using a combination of changing the exercise and using numerous circles on the approach we managed to get a steadier approach, but there was a fine balance between containing the excitement and not frustrating this mare as she then has the tendency to explode and go even faster to the jump!

With both mares, I’ve found that avoiding simple jumps helps slow them down and get them thinking about the obstacles. This week, I built a grid of one pole and a canter stride to a small upright, then one canter stride to a cross. I had my rider walk over the first pole, then ride forwards to the little upright. I was really pleased that the pony walked happily over the pole and my rider could then ride positively to the jumps, instead of having to restrain the mare. We only did this grid twice because she jumped it so calmly and quietly. I want to build up to trotting over the first pole and then calmly cantering the grid.

When working with a horse who tends to rush fences it’s important that the rider has an unflappable demeanour, and a strong core so that they can hold the horse together before and after jumps, yet calmly stay in balance over the fence and don’t pull the horse in the mouth or get left behind in the air.

It can be difficult to retrain a horse to jump, but with a consistent approach of calm, quiet riding and using a variety of approaches to keep the horse focused on their rider and not rushing to the jumps. I also find that not repeating exercises too often, and returning to flatwork for a few minutes between jumps to resettle the horse has beneficial effects. As a horse starts to slow down and keep a more rhythmical approach to a jump their bascule will improve as well, which will help improve their posture and muscle tone, so making their jumping easier and prolonging their working life.

Finding the Problem

When you have an undesirable behaviour in the horse, such as refusing jumps, napping etc it can be so difficult to find the cause.

Once a horse has had their saddles, feet, legs, backs, teeth checked for ill fit or injury, very often the unwanted behaviour is labelled as a ‘behavioural problem’ and has very negative connotations. All to often I see aggressive reactions to the unwanted behaviour, which often compounds the problem.

Once you’ve identified that there’s no physical cause for a behaviour then it’s a matter of understanding the horse’s mental state. Horses react to the current situation, they don’t plan in advance to cause trouble or refuse to comply with their rider. An interesting article went round social media last week which explained this well – take a look here.

So if you have a behaviour, such as napping or rearing, and you’ve found the underlying cause to be an injury or poorly fitting saddle; you’ve fixed the physical cause, but your horse still naps, then it is caused by their mental state and in order to correct the behaviour you need to get inside their head and do it slowly.

I’ve just started working with a horse who started refusing or grinding to a halt before a fence and cat leaping it. After some weeks of troublesome jumping, a small injury was diagnosed and he was subsequently rested and then brought back into work. However, his behaviour whilst jumping continued.

Unfortunately, he can’t speak English and tell us the problem, but we can listen and respond to his body language. I believe that the horse had pain association with jumping, because of the injury, and then because he was cat leaping he wasn’t comfortable jumping, regardless of the fact his injury had healed. Whilst he had his injury, he’d have had a physical limitation when jumping, and if faced with jumps beyond this ability (even if they were within his usual ability) he would have lost confidence in both himself and his rider. This creates a vicious cycle of him not wanting to jump, despite the fact he has been given a clean bill of health.

Because he hasn’t wanted to jump, he’s become rather backwards thinking on the flat, so the first thing I did when I rode him was get him thinking forwards. I’ve given him very light hands, to support him as necessary, but in no way acting as a handbrake. Every transition has prioritised over him responding to the aids, and going forwards, even if his head isn’t in the ideal position. I want him to move his body as required in order to do the requested movement so that he realises that it doesn’t hurt and that he can do it. We can tweak movements in the future to improve his way of going.

This week, to help his jumping, we used canter poles to encourage the canter to stay forwards, and then once he was taking me into the poles, we added a jump to the end of the poles. The jump wasn’t too small that he would trip over it, nor was it too big to be outside his comfort zone. The poles kept the canter forwards, regulated his stride and positioned the horse in the correct place to take off. This would give the horse some positive experiences over the jump, so rebuilding his confidence and ensuring he didn’t have any twinges from jumping awkwardly. As the horse became bolder, I lengthened the poles so that he wasn’t quite so close to the jump on take off. Starting with the poles closer than ideal and lengthening the distances slowly stopped the horse even thinking about chipping in before the jump.

Once he was confident in cantering three poles to a jump with no strides between, I removed the third pole, so that the two poles set up his canter, and he just had to keep the momentum going for one stride before the jump. We repeated this work off both reins, until I felt he’d done enough. He needed a certain amount of repetition to build good associations with jumping, but not so many that he became tired and be more likely to falter.

Next time, the plan is to build a simple related distance. There will be two poles on the approach to the first jump, as we’ve already done, which will put him in a good canter and give him a good jump over the first element. Then he has to maintain that canter for two strides before the second jump. Then we’ll increase it to three strides between the two jumps, then four and so on. The purpose of this is so that he learns to jump the single fence without poles to help, but by setting him up at the beginning with poles we can ensure he isn’t likely to fail or back off the jump. Again, the jumps won’t be big, but I may make them uprights instead of cross poles to give him something else to think about. Not having them high means that as well as not having any pain association from jumping awkwardly, his injured leg will get stronger and hopefully he’ll stop anticipating any pain from that site. Then we’ll continue along this theme with other grid work type exercises until he doesn’t have negative associations with jumping, and is confident in his own ability again.

With any “behavioural” problem I think it’s best to identify the triggers for the behaviour and then work on calmly and quietly giving your horse a few positive experiences so that the habit is broken, and they begin to build trust in their rider and themselves in that situation, then you can adjust the situation; for example if your horse naps at a particular spot out hacking on their own, ride, long line or lead past the spot in company until they have had some good experiences there, before perhaps riding first past that spot in a group instead of following their friend, and then venture there on your own. Strip back the environment/activity and provide emotional support from your horse from others, people on the ground, anything, and then as the event becomes calmer and stress-free, take away their support slowly as they become more confident and less reactive to that set of triggers.

Teaching a Range of Abilities

One thing being a Pony Club instructor teaches you is to think on your feet and teach multiple abilities in one lesson.This is what happened to me today. Although, I did have the advantage of knowing most of the children and having been briefed on them all a couple of days in advance so I could make a plan.

The secret, I think, to managing multiple abilities in one group, is to have a layered lesson plan. This means that there is something for each rider to do or learn. For the lower level riders part of the content will go straight over their head. And for the more able, some will be revision. But you can keep them involved by asking them to demonstrate or explain to the others.

Today’s ride consisted of one fairly confident rider, jumping 60-70cm, a more nervous jockey on her new pony currently jumping 50cm. A very nervous rider jumping 40cm, and two young brothers – one just off the lead rein in walk and trot.

I put four yellow cones in the corners of the arena, to ensure none of them were cutting their corners. The older ones needed the odd reminder when they got complacent, and the younger ones liked having a visual point to steer round.

They all warmed up as a ride, with the led pony at the back so that they could walk before his leader went into cardiac arrest. They could also cut the corners and stand in the middle to rest without disrupting the flow of the ride. Whilst they trotted I made individual positional corrections, and then I started teaching them to turn with their shoulders and look where they are going more. They had to imagine there were headlights on their shoulders and they had to light up the track in front of the pony. This is something even the youngest could grasp. I asked the more experienced ones which direction was easier to turn so that they started thinking about their riding and could make their own improvements. Of course, I asked the youngest two too so that they felt included, and as I think it’s important to encourage a flow of conversation. The fact that they picked left or right at random was neither here nor there. They spoke to me, and felt part of the lesson which was the important part.

They cantered individually. The older three trotted circles before the canter, the boys were led. Canter wasn’t the main focus of the lesson, and working individually meant I could tailor it to suit everyone whilst remaining safe. If I hadn’t cantered the more advanced three would have felt short changed.

Jumping is where it gets tricky to manage different heights, so I laid out two exercises. On the three quarter line I put three fences, and put a pair of cones on the approach, getaway, and between each jump. This was to focus the riders on steering straight throughout the exercise.

On the centre line I laid three trot poles, then a fairly big gap, before a jump. Again, with cones to help them stay straight.

The trio of jumps were for the more competent jumpers, whilst the trot pole formation was for the lead rein and nervous ones.

My instructions and aims were the same, but I could build the jumps up to accommodate the two groups. The hardest part for everyone was steering straight after the jumps, and my poor cones got some battering there. Because we had the focus of the jumping on their steering the height of the jumps became irrelevant.

The three jumps were used for the two riders jumping over 50cm. For the final go, I left it so the girl on her new pony could have a more confident turn and ended on a positive note, before putting it up a bit higher for the more able rider on her last turn.

My very nervous rider started off confident and trying to keep up with her friends, going over the warm up three, but as they got bigger she diverted to the other set up. Which was fine; she didn’t feel belittled because she’d chosen the smaller exercise, yet was happy that she’d been comfortable enough to try the bigger exercise.

The trotting poles were aimed at the younger boys; the poles tested their balance and the jump was minute so they could start moving their hands forwards over the fence before we develop their jumping position. The ponies just trotted through, but the boys liked having a different shaped pole to go over.

I think all the children took away the same points from the lesson; such as turning their shoulders in the direction of movement, and the importance of steering straight when jumping. Sure, the little ones were only be following my directions without really understanding the concept, whereas the older riders were starting to grasp the theory and can now begin to apply it at home by themselves. The cones gave them all instant feedback; the older ones cringed when they knocked a cone over, realising they needed to work harder to maintain straightness. The younger ones just grinned and giggled as they trotted between the cones with the help of their leaders and hopefully they will remember riding between cones in the future for when they’re taking more ownership of their riding.

Developing layered lesson plans definitely takes practice, and they’re not the easiest to deliver, but they’re the most rewarding when you have so many happy and satisfied riders and parents.

A First Jumping Lesson

I gave a pair their first jumping lesson this week. The rider has jumped before, but is bringing on her ex-broodmare slowly. We loose jumped her a couple of months ago to see if she actually knew what to do, but otherwise have focused on her flatwork to build her muscle and strength. Canter is coming along slowly with the help of poles to help her find the rhythm.Anyway, they had a go jumping over the weekend and felt it was a bit chaotic, so I decided to give them a better experience of leaving the ground.After focusing on transitions within the gaits whilst warming up, and getting the mare bending and thinking about her rider’s aids. I laid out three canter poles between K and E on the track. I used the track to maximise the arena so that the mare was most able to stay in balance on the turns. Her right canter is her weakest so I positioned the poles just off the corner to help them keep the canter rhythm until the poles. They could have a longer straight approach on the left canter because the mare can keep left canter together in straight lines.As is with horses, I rapidly had to move onto Plan B, when the mare decided that right canter was out of the question today. She often strikes off incorrectly, but can be helped out by a trot 10m circle before the canter transition. Not today though! There was no point banging our heads against a brick wall, getting frustrated. We’d jump out of left canter and try right another day. If she continues to struggle with it we’ll investigate further.So after trotting over the poles on the right rein, and then once on the left rein, I had them canter over the poles. The mare’s canter is currently very flat and verges on the point of four beat, so I kept the poles wide to improve her rhythm, and once her canter rhythm is established we can begin to balance it so that her haunches are under her body and she’s working her body correctly.Now it was time to leave the ground. I rolled the two poles closest to K together to make a teeny tiny cross pole. Then I rolled the third pole out so that it was a whole canter stride away from the fence. I wanted them to canter over the pole, have a whole canter stride and then pop the jump. This setup wouldn’t phase an inexperienced horse, but would put her in the right take off spot.They did it once, and met the first pole badly. With the mare only having one canter gear we have to adjust the distance of the approach so that she can fit several whole canter strides in. Which will help her jump confidently and neatly. A horse who has several gears to the canter can be adjusted to accommodate a set distance. I got my rider to ride deeper into the corner, which meant that they met the pole well the second time. I built the jump up to a bigger cross once we knew the striding and their line was right, and they flew over a couple of times, growing in confidence each time.To finish, I converted the cross pole into an upright. The biggest they’d jumped to date, but as the mare was already jumping that big over the cross pole, it was a mind over matter element for her rider. To know that they could jump it.And they did!

The plan now is to keep working on right canter, and do more canter polework to help establish the rhythm, and then using poles to help set up the mare for jumping, and to tell her where to take off until she is more experienced and has more understanding of the idea of flying.

Circles and Jumping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightening the Forehand

Feedback I’ve had when jumping Phoenix, and what I know to be true, is that I need to get her stronger in canter and get her nose off her chest. This isn’t because I put her in an overbent frame, but more to do with the fact her confirmation allows her to do this easily and when she’s finding the canter work harder she leans on my hands and gets a bit on the forehand.

On the flat we’ve been focusing on relaxation and self carriage, ignoring the canter unless she’s in the right frame of mind because she can get uptight and a bit panicky if you do too much correcting to her way of going. She doesn’t like to be interfered with.

I’ve kept the idea of her taking her nose out in any canter work we’ve done on hacks and any other time, but I decided this week to give her more of a challenge.

I laid out three canter poles, then one canter stride to a final pole. Phoenix is getting much more confident in her footwork through pole exercises so I wanted the three poles to help establish her rhythm and discourage her from rushing. As she can sometimes drift through grids I laid two poles as an arrow with the tip touching the final pole. I wanted to jump an A-frame but wanted to introduce the question early so that Phoenix could process it and be confident.

After trotting and cantering the poles from each rein I put the final fence up, leaning the diagonal poles in the middle. I approached in canter, and whilst Phoenix was spot on over the jump, really lifting her shoulders and staying straight, she kept giving a hop, skip and a jump over the canter poles.

I felt like she was getting herself in a bit of a stew on the approach because she was a bit too fast and unbalanced in canter. So I trotted into the exercise, letting her pick up canter over the first pole. Then, she was foot perfect and wasn’t as quick. Which felt better as it felt more controlled, like she understood the exercise more.

I continued to approach in trot, and gradually raised the second and third canter poles to little bounces. Now I actually wanted her to give a little skip over the poles, so that she lifted her shoulders, engaged her hindquarters and lifted her nose so that she was looking where she was going.

The final jump immediately felt better, as she pinged over them, really coming up in front.

I raised the A-frame fence gradually, but Phoenix took each height in her stride, feeling very correct in her bascule and technique. I loved the feel of the canter now – the balance and power that I had – and it was only when the jump reached 1.05m did she feel like she was having to work over it. I only did it once before leaving our session on a very positive note. She had jumped her biggest to date comfortably, and was confident in her approach. I felt there was an improvement to the canter, which she will hopefully take forward to the flatwork and allow me to adjust her to re-create that canter next time I ride.

My plans now are to do more of the bounce work, perhaps a line of six or so, to strengthen Phoenix’s hindquarters and improve her canter, as she seems to respond better to the poles dictating her canter rather than me interfering. She’s already schooling over 90cm courses, so I won’t push it any higher without getting her some more competition experience and getting her stronger. But hopefully the combination of the bounce work and more canter work on the flat will improve her performance around courses.