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.

The High Jump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jumping Fillers

One of my clients has a lovely pony who has a great, scopey jump. At only 14hh he easily pops 105cm, and we’ve been doing a lot of work improving his bascule, confidence and building muscle. They’re ready to go out and have fun at competitions… except for his diva-esque reaction to fillers.

After seeing his overly dramatic reaction to a little filler one lesson I’ve made it my goal to get them jumping fillers confidently.

The next lesson I got out a couple of props and laid out a combination in the school. I left the poles on the floor, and asked my rider to contemplate how she rode fillers. Was it different to how she approached plain jumps?

The answer was yes, she knew her pony would refuse and throw his toys out the pram so rode defensively and nervously. This means we have a vicious cycle: the pony lacks confidence with the fillers, his rider rides defensively but doesn’t fill the pony with confidence, so he stops, and then she expects him to stop next time.

We need to stop thinking of fillers as special, or different, and learn to ride them in exactly the same way as we ride plain fences. Which is easier said than done when you know there’s a high chance of your horse refusing them. I know, because Matt was exactly the same. He’d jump beautifully until there was a filler, and then I couldn’t get him less than ten foot to the fence.

I had this enlightening lesson on him at college, and realised that my approach was half the problem. So I repeated this lesson with my client and pony.

Throughout their warm up I had them trot and canter over the poles, with the fillers at either wing. I moved them progressively closer as both pony and rider started to ignore the fillers and relax so that they was just enough room for the pony to pass between.

Then I built the jumps up slowly, one by one, only changing one thing at a time, and focusing my rider on her riding positively and calmly to each fence as if the fillers weren’t there.

Soon they were jumping the fences confidently and in a flowing way, with no backing off or chipping in on take off. And they didn’t falter when I rearranged my props to make the jumps seem different.

The next few lessons I plan on getting different fillers out and building them up to jumping the fillers quicker and quicker until my rider doesn’t tense up with the thought of fillers, and the pony is more confident, and unfazed by their presence. Then we’ll have a trip to a schooling venue to practice jumping new fillers away from home and then they’re ready for competition.

Riding Camp

In recent years horse-loving adults have been taking a leaf out of their kid’s books, and started going camping. It’s like Pony Club camp, with as much fun, and more alcohol.

My riding club runs a summer camp as well as dressage and showjumping mini camps during the year, but this year was the first that I managed to go. I wasn’t sure about going until after Easter, when I’d got on top of Phoenix’s tension issues, but I decided it would benefit both of us.

Camp started for us on the Friday morning, with a jump lesson. We were with the green horses, and Phoenix was one of the most experienced horses, but this suited us both as I was definitely uptight and unsure of how she’d behave at a busy venue. I wanted a quiet, calm lesson to settle us both. The lesson focused on quietly approaching small fences in a steady rhythm, and calmly riding away. Phoenix was great, and it did the job of setting us up for the weekend.

I spent a lot of time in the run up to camp worrying about how Phoenix would cope with being stabled and ensuring she ate sufficient forage. I was really pleased that she seemed to settle immediately into the stable, and started munching on her haylage. I planned to hand graze her as much as possible, but the fact that Phoenix was so chilled definitely helped me relax.

Our second lesson, on Friday afternoon, was flatwork. We worked on shoulder fore in trot and canter, and I felt that Phoenix had an epiphany on the right rein: riding right shoulder fore really helped her uncurl her body and improved her balance on right turns. She had previously been resisting my attempts at creating right bend and scooting forwards in panic as she lost her balance, but she seemed to thrive off the challenge of shoulder fore, even managing it in canter to my surprise.

I was up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning so had the pleasure of waking up the horses. It was cross country day, and I was thrilled with how Phoenix took on each challenge. Considering that she’s only been cross country schooling twice and seen some rustic fences on sponsored rides. We had a few stops, but it was as though she needed to study the question as when I re-presented she locked on and flew it confidently. We focused on Phoenix not rushing or panicking over the jumps to build her confidence. I wanted her to have a positive experience, and then I can develop her confidence over steps and through water over the summer. Phoenix was the bravest of our group too, getting up close and personal with the life size model elephant!

I spent most of Saturday afternoon hand grazing Phoenix and chatting to friends. The part of camp that I was most enjoying was the uninterrupted time I had with Phoenix. I wasn’t against the clock, or distracted by my little helper. I felt it really helped us bond. She’s still very aloof, which made the little nicker she gave every time I came into sight much more rewarding.

Our camp also had the weighbridge come, which I found useful for getting an accurate weight for Phoenix for worming and travelling. She weighs 495kgs, which I’m happy with. There were also off-horse Pilates sessions we could join in. Under the impression that it would be a light workout to take into consideration how much riding we were doing over the weekend, I signed up for two sessions. A minute into the plank I was regretting this decision …

On Sunday morning we could choose our lesson format. I opted for another showjumping lesson as I felt that was most beneficial to us. After all, I have regular flat lessons and have a progression plan in that area, and with a showjumping competition on the horizon, my choice was obvious really. Phoenix jumped the course confidently and boldly over all the fillers. It was the biggest course I’d jumped her over without building it up gradually in height and “scare-factor” so I felt it was a good test for her, and a positive note to end camp on.

It’s easy to see why adult camps are growing in popularity; I felt I came away from camp feeling like I had a better relationship with my horse, with a few new exercises to work on, and some new training goals. It was great being surrounded by friends, getting support, encouraging others, and putting the world to rights over our banquets (that’s the only way to describe the quality of the catering!).

I’d better start negotiating childcare for next year’s camp!

Bug Bears

We all have bug bears don’t we; little things which cause us far more agitation than they should. Well, I’ve worked out my equestrian bug bear, and that is stirrups. Or more specifically, inappropriate stirrups.

There are so many designs of stirrups available now that I think it’s easy to lose sense of the safety aspect of stirrups, as we try to match stirrup treads to saddle cloths or follow the latest fashion.

I hate seeing children riding in non-safety stirrups. We always had stirrups with peacock rubber on the outside, which pop off with the slightest pressure. Sure, that can be annoying when a child has little control over their lower leg and foot, but it’s of paramount importance when they tumble off the side as their foot comes straight out of the stirrup and they won’t be dragged along by the pony.

The Pony Club I teach for insist on all children having this type of stirrup, but I do think it’s a shame this level of safety hasn’t reached the general population. In my opinion, it should be mandatory for riding schools to use these stirrups on ponies. If kids want to be matchy matchy then you can buy coloured stirrup treads for the stirrups. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a traditionalist.

These stirrups only have one metal side, so aren’t that strong, the same as free-jumps. Which means they aren’t an appropriate design for adults and teenagers as they can bend with the downward force exerted on the stirrup when doing rising trot or cross country position. Instead, you can buy bent leg irons, which have a forward facing curve on the outer side of the stirrup, so allowing your foot to easily come out of the stirrup. I have these on my jump saddle, and can’t imagine going cross country without some form of safety stirrup. It always amazes me that I don’t see more of this style amongst leisure riders.

There are so many different designs of adult stirrups now; lightweight, flexible types, and of course different styles of safety stirrups. And of course they have their benefits, but there’s still safety factors to consider. Stirrup irons need to be the correct size for your foot so that you have the best chance of losing your stirrups in a fall or accident. Even stirrups which claim to be safety ones cannot work effectively if they are too small for your foot. To check that your stirrup iron is the correct width for your foot place your boot-clad foot into the iron and there should be half an inch either side of your boot. Any less and you risk your boot getting jammed. It’s worth remembering that yard boots tend to be chunkier than jodhpur boots so if you swap between the two types of boots you should ensure the stirrups are wide enough for both types of boots.

Unfortunately, it’s something I see all too often. Chunky boots jammed into too narrow stirrup irons, and riders using stirrups that are not strong enough for their weight. There’s a reason free-jumps have a weight limit! Who wants a stirrup to break halfway round a course?! It probably does irk me more than it should do, but I think it’s such a simple thing to get right which makes the difference between a fall and a serious injury. And surely our safety is more important than the latest fashion?

Changing the Approach

A quality of a good jumping horse is having an adjustable canter. So they can adjust the length of their stride in order to fit in a whole number of strides between two jumping elements so that they can jump comfortably. This may mean shortening the canter, or lengthening it.

So when you’re walking courses, and planning your lines to jumps, you want to bear in mind your horse’s length of canter stride. But when you’re working through an exercise at home, do you ever find that no matter what you do you just can’t meet the first element well?

Of course, you can look at adjusting the canter. But we are working with our all-rounder leisure horses, who may or may not be jumping supremos. So we have limitations as to how adjustable their canter is.

Let me put it another way; a top class showjumper has numerous gears to their canter. Let’s say working canter is gear five, and they have a range of canters between one and nine. They can jump out of each gear. Our average horse has a working canter of five too, but only a range between four and seven, per se, that they can comfortably jump out of.

When you consider your approach to an exercise, think about the quality and the gear to your canter, but also consider the distance of your approach. If you have adjusted your canter on the approach, but you still meet the first element half a stride too far or too close to it, then start playing around with the distance of your approach.

You don’t want to push the horse out of their jumping canter, but by riding a slightly inner line than previously, you may well find you meet the exercise in a better place. It may be that you need to ride a wider line, so giving your horse an extra three foot of room to play with as they approach the jump.

You need to be careful at this point, that you don’t just let your horse fall in on turns or cut corners. You are still riding your set line and balanced turns and canter. You are still approaching the fences in the middle and straight, not jumping off a curve or at an angle.

Quite a lot recently I’ve discussed with clients the benefits of changing the distance of their turn onto a line of jumps or poles rather than trying to adjust the canter outside of the horse’s comfort zone.

Our Journey

I thought I should give you a little update on how Phoenix and I have been getting on.

Phoenix has settled into her summer routine and is definitely happier living out all the time. Her body language is much more relaxed. She did spend the first week up to her knees in grass and in full season, flirting with the boys next door which didn’t give me full confidence that her summer routine would sort her out.

Out hacking, she seems to have regained her previous confidence and feels much happier exploring the woods. I’ve been playing around with leg yield and shoulder in whilst out because she’s so much more accepting of my aids to change her balance and body position. I’ve been using our hacks to relax Phoenix and to strengthen our relationship. I was very pleased with her earlier this week when out on a hack we met a large articulated lorry. We were at the front of our little group and the lorry was very intimidating; I could feel Phoenix trying really hard to be brave, resisting her instinct to turn tail and flee, barely flinching as the lorry roared past. Meanwhile our equine friend behind us jumped sideways into a ditch!

Schooling has still been a bit of a challenge. I tried a different tack for my last lesson, by taking Phoenix for an hours hack before our lesson. My aim was to relax her and to warm her up outside the arena, perhaps taking the edge off her too in the process. She is a naturally fit horse and runs off adrenaline so there’s no way I can tire her out physically. We did seem to have a bit of a breakthrough then, with her starting off working in a much more relaxed fashion on the left rein, only getting uptight when we began working on the right rein. Small steps.

I feel that Phoenix is challenging my leadership in the initial trot transition of any session; trying to scoot off and get tense when I apply the aids. As soon as I get the first trot she becomes more amenable. Since having the conversation with her that she will trot, and I am still on top giving the aids, she has been less challenging in each schooling session. I think it’s just a test that I need to be aware of, and ensure she doesn’t get ideas above her station in that area.

I also think that she isn’t happy when her body is manipulated into a position that she’s not comfortable with. For example, when she sets herself into left bend (akin to our foetal position) and I try to straighten her or ask for right bend, she tries to scoot off in a little panic. It’s like she’s afraid of moving outside her comfort zone. During our last two lessons, and subsequent schooling sessions she has stopped trying to run away so much from my questions so much, now tensing and stopping to think, before trying to answer my question. So in that respect I am pleased, although I still feel we have a long way to go.

Each schooling session I start in walk on both reins; circles, leg yield, shoulder in. Then begin trotting on the left rein, establishing the rhythm and balance, and waiting for her to relax a bit. Then I change the rein in a “whoops, oh dear we’re on the right rein” sort of way. Ride some circles and movements to eek her out of her left bend and into right bend (or at least straight!). When she gives I ride for a couple more strides before rewarding her by going back onto the left rein. My aim is to spend more time on the right rein, get less of a panic over the change of bend, and less time on the left rein. I do think this behaviour stems from the winter when she was sore and right bend was difficult.

In trying not to get bogged down in our schooling woes, last week we went on a sponsored ride to Windsor. We rode around the Queen’s back garden and had a great day. Phoenix’s behaviour was great, she wasn’t sure what to make of the hundreds of deer who decided to cross our path, but took everything in her stride. She jumped well, and didn’t gallop off when a trio in front of us did. And I hate to say it, but she still had plenty of energy at the end of ten miles! As always, she loaded and travelled like a dream.

Next weekend we’re going showjump schooling, and I’ve signed us up for a showjumping competition in July, as well as riding club camp in a couple of weeks time.

There is a livery space at our yard for a mare, who would join Phoenix’s field to make a herd of three. I’m hoping we get one soon as whilst she’s very happy with her field companion, I do wonder if she needs bossing around in the field, or the dynamics diluting. She’s not a particularly dominant mare, last year she was number two out of six, so I do wonder if her leadership duties are causing a distraction – either by making her less submissive to being ridden, or by causing her to focus less or to be anxious about leaving her domain.

Who knows. All I know is that Phoenix is an enigma.

A Lot of Poles

I went to a gridwork clinic last week with a client’s horse. It was great fun, and as ever there were some exercises I could borrow and adapt when teaching myself. This week I’ve had great fun using a long line of poles with some clients.

You need a long arena for this, I was lucky to have access to a 50m and 60m long one when teaching. Begin by laying out as many canter poles as you can fit along the length of the arena. I used about 12. Ensure there is enough space at each end for the horse to turn.

I warmed all my riders up over the poles on the flat for quite a long time. We started off in trot, aiming to get two trot stride between each pole, and the important thing was that the trot stayed rhythmical. This work improved the activity of the trot and helped my riders tune into the feel of improved power to the gait and how to maintain it. Then we did the same for canter. The poles dictated the stride length, so a lazy wakes up, puts some effort in and the canter becomes much more energetic and jumpable. A horse who tends to rush, is encouraged to slow down so the energy is maintained. With all the horses I worked with, I felt that cantering over the poles improved the cadence and impulsion to the canter. The horses were forwards without rushing, and all the riders could feel how much rounder and bouncier the canter was. When I say rounder, I’m not talking about the horse’s frame, but rather the movement seemed rounder. The hindquarters were more active which will improve the horse’s bascule and jump. Using the poles to create this canter helped my riders learn the feel for it, and also helped the horses learn to maintain this canter.

From here, you can adapt the lesson to meet the individual requirements of the horse and rider in relation to their training.

For the horse I took on the clinic, using the poles with a simple jump at each end helped encourage him to look between the wings and take me into a fence. He’s recently lost his confidence jumping, so it was a real confidence building exercise.

The first client I taught with this exercise needed help seeing her stride. Her horse can do a kangaroo impression on the approach to fences, partly because he loses his balance on the turn and he finds it difficult to maintain sufficient impulsion in the canter to jump. The poles established the jumping canter for both horse and rider. I the made the second canter pole into a fairly small cross pole. So they had a placing pole, jump and then canter poles on the getaway. This meant that they were guaranteed to meet the cross on a good stride, which would help my rider develop her feel for a good jump, and she could get more in sync with her horse, and then they were both encouraged to ride positively away from the jump.

Once they had mastered maintaining the canter rhythm throughout the exercise, I put the penultimate canter pole up as a cross, and had the pair ride the exercise on both reins. The second jump was always better than the first because the canter was so much better because of the poles, but the exercise really benefitted my rider in that she started riding positively between the jumps so linking them together nicely. We analysed the differences between the two canter leads, discussed which was the easier rein, and generally improved my rider’s awareness and understanding of the way her horse jumps.

I repeated the exercise on both reins until the duo were consistent throughout the exercise. Knowing how this rider can back off an upright jump, I put the second fence as an upright and we repeated the exercise until it flowed nicely. I finished the exercise here with them as I felt they were benefiting most from the poles creating their jumping canter.

The next couple of lessons I used this set-up with was with more established jumpers. With one, she tends to rush albeit she finds it difficult to stop her canter getting flat and long striding, and the other needed to improve his consistency to the canter as he can suddenly lack energy.

Once we’d worked through the exercise with a jump at each end, I started to add in some questions. It was about getting the rushing horse to slow down and think about each pole, and the other horse to improve his gymnastic ability.

I raised the two canter poles before the upright fence so that the horses were encouraged to sit back on their haunches and lighten their forehand, which improved the bascule over the upright.

Next up, I made a low upright three canter poles after the cross. This really helped make the rushing horse slow down, and stopped her flattening her canter and playing Pick-Up-Sticks with the canter poles. The other horse used the little upright to give his canter a little boost, which helped him negotiate the rest of the grid.

The best thing I found with this exercise, apart from the fact I didn’t need to go to the gym after setting it out, was that there are so many levels to the exercise it is very adaptable to all riders and horses, and all will feel a benefit from using a line of poles to create and maintain a jumping canter.

Rule Of Three

At baby swimming last year I noticed that there was a theme of threes. Each exercise or song was repeated three times. Since then, it’s been in the back of my mind and I’ve noticed this occurring in other areas of learning, and even with my own teaching. I’ve found that whilst I don’t have to explain something three times, it usually takes clients three attempts to fully grasp an exercise, or I have to remind or make a correction three times in quick succession before they manage to make a long term adjustment to their riding.

I googled it to see if there is a learning theory for threes, and there doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted one, but I saw several articles citing that learners need to be given three opportunities to learn something.

I don’t think you want to stick too closely to repeating an exercise three times, in case it goes wrong. You almost want three decent attempts at an exercise before increasing its difficulty or changing it. Ignore the duff ones when horse or rider lost concentration at the beginning. Likewise, if a rider has tried an exercise three times unsuccessfully, it might be wise to change your explanation or simplify things. If you’re just warming up, for example when moving from flat to jumping I usually trot or canter over some poles first, purely to change the horse’s focus. An established horse and rider only need do that once, especially when used to using poles as a subject transition.

Last week I was teaching a young girl who is growing in confidence in her riding, and I keep mentioning the C-word. Cantering, you rude readers!! Until now she’s baulked at the idea, but this time she said she was “nervous but not scared”.

Great. So I talked her through where we were going to trot, what she was going to hold on to, and what to do whilst cantering. I didn’t worry her five year old brain with the transition aids at this moment, after all, I was leading her.

We set off and the first attempt had one stride of canter. Maybe. But on the plus side, no shrieking and she seemed happy enough. Second time we had half a dozen canter strides and her au pair got it on video for her Mum. I announced we were going to do it one more time.

“Why? I don’t want to do it again.”

“Ah well, we have to do it three times because the first is really wobbly and not very good, the second one is better, and the third time even better!”

“Oh okay. Why don’t we do it five times?”

“Because I don’t have enough puff to run that fast five times.”

“Okay.”

The third canter was longer, and she was starting to find her seat. So I left it on a positive note. She can reflect on the canter when telling her parents over dinner.

We moved on to jumping. Well practising our jumping position over tiny cross poles, to finish the lesson. My rider told me she wanted to do level four jumping. That means a cross on the fourth from bottom hole. Which we haven’t done before. So I humoured her, saying we needed to start lower and build up to it. I put the cross on the second hole and we went over it a couple of times. Three probably, let’s face it. And she was staying balanced over the jump and quiet! When I put the cross pole up a hole, my rider said she didn’t want to do level four. So I said that was fine. We did it once, successfully, and called her au pair to watch the second go. Unfortunately she didn’t get it on video. This was the conversation we had:

“We need to do it again so she gets it on video. But. But, what if she doesn’t get it … will you have enough puff to do it again so I do get a video to show Mummy?”

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll have enough energy to do the jump twice more if we need to. Now, are you ready?”

How sweet is that?! I was then that I realised I tended to use the rule of three when teaching. Perhaps I should be developing the Learning Theory of Three. Publish a book and make my fortune …

Our Story

This isn’t easy to write, but it’s taken me long enough to stop being an ostrich and burying my head in the sand. This is the missing piece to Phoenix’s story of the last few months.

You may remember in January that she started shooting off in canter in the arena, which I discovered was caused by muscle adhesions and tightness in her left hind so she had a course of physio therapy. In April, this limb got a clean bill of health.

In February I was working on Phoenix’s walk and trot in the arena, and cantering in straight lines out on hacks. Until her left hind was sorted, I didn’t really want to canter her in the arena.

Phoenix’s uncontrolled right canters in the arena in January had unnerved me a bit. I’ll be honest. Whilst I could ride the eight laps of fast, uncontrolled canter calmly round the arena, I didn’t enjoy it. So I decided that I would ensure she wasn’t in any pain before readdressing the canter, and just focus on improving her trot, work the canter on the lunge so that she was calm and balanced throughout the transition. We were enjoying our hacks, and she was behaving perfectly.

Then it happened. I took her for a hack one afternoon. We were on our own, and I decided to trot across the patch of grass which cuts off a junction. That trot turned into canter, which turned into a flat out gallop. She jumped the ditch onto the road, turned left. Slipped over, and we parted company.

Ok, so I wasn’t particularly hurt. A couple of grazes and bruises, but nothing a hot bath won’t cure. But I was gutted. I felt betrayed. A bit like if you overhear a friend talking behind your back. It hurts much more than a stranger saying the same words. I think Phoenix scared herself too. I wish I knew what had triggered her bolt. But she definitely changed towards me after that incident. I led her home, lunged her hard and then got back on.

The rest of that week I beat myself up. Why was I being so pathetic? We had a tumultuous week weatherwise, with constant gales, so each day I weighed up the pros and cons of riding. And inevitably chickened out each day. I was tense and worried, and she was equally stressed out.

When the weather settled, a whole week later, I got back on and hacked round the block with a friend. It took both me and Phoenix most of the hack to relax. The next day I went in the arena, but I was so worked up about it I ended up getting another friend to lunge me to get the first trot, and then just stand there talking about the weather to me as a distraction.

I felt so disappointed in myself. My riding of clients’ horses on the other hand was feeling better and I was getting good results. But I couldn’t ride my own horse without stressing out.

It was about this time I began investigating Phoenix’s nutrition, and the possibility of ulcers. And decided to come up with a rescue plan for myself.

Firstly, what I’d tell my clients, I took the pressure off myself.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that it had to be me who solved this problem. There was no point getting someone else to ride her because that wouldn’t stop my qualms, and given Phoenix’s current mental state she wasn’t trusting of anyone. And as a friend said, she is actually very attached to me. You can see by the way she watches me and follows me round.

Someone described her as a cat pony. Which is totally true! Phoenix is affectionate, but on her terms and can be a bit aloof. Which I think makes it harder to build a relationship. You can’t kiss and make up, so to speak.

So I was sorting out Phoenix’s diet, she was having regular physio sessions, saddles had been checked, and I was focusing on spending more time grooming and just being with Phoenix so that we became friends again. I worked her on the lunge, and she was behaving perfectly here.

I decided to box over to my instructor to have some lessons to remove any environmental stimuli. I needed some advice to overcome Phoenix’s tension in the school, and to develop some tactics to stop her scooting off. After all, every time she scooted off I tensed, and that made her more jumpy. It was a vicious circle.

The hacks were getting back on track: we’ve been out alone again, and she’s been on her best behaviour ever since.

I hoped that a change of arena would help reset our flatwork. It seemed to work, and after two lessons we had a short canter on both reins. In the third lesson, the canter was beautifully calm and balanced, like it was at Christmas. I felt like we were back on track.

Just before the second lesson, Phoenix had had the all clear from the physio, and as I couldn’t find any physical excuses for her to be stressed about cantering I decided to take her on a sponsored ride. I hoped the long canters would build some muscle, and she had plenty of time to find her rhythm and balance. And of course she would realise that it didn’t hurt. She was phenomenal, and I was euphoric. We were friends again!

Since the sponsored ride I felt like we’ve been on an up; we had a great third lesson at my instructor’s. I still wasn’t getting the same level of relaxation at home, and was sticking to walk and trot. But then I think we are both aware that that particular arena is where she’s misbehaved.

This takes us up to last weekend. I was feeling happier, getting better work from Phoenix and we were making progress. I was schooling last Saturday and getting the best trot work I’ve had for a long time, just doing a last circle when Phoenix had what can only be described as a panic attack. Halfway round the circle she shot into canter, heading towards the corner of the arena. I pulled her round and we cantered a few panicked circles and she started putting her head down. But I pulled her up, then dismounted because she felt like she was about to explode. Her back was up, the saddle had shifted forwards. What caused what, who knows. Once deflated and with the saddle adjusted, I got back on and we had a tense trot. I was pretty disappointed, as I should’ve finished a circle before!

On Sunday I had a very disappointing ride. Phoenix was scooting off each time I asked for trot, and wouldn’t relax in walk. She behaved perfectly on the lunge, but her jumping and scooting made me jumpy so the vicious cycle was back (I did observe her to be in season too). I wrote it off, but wasn’t happy as I was going cross country schooling the following day!

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get in the cross country field, but Phoenix was again, phenomenal. She jumped everything I asked her to, and felt incredibly bold and rideable!

It’s like a rollercoaster at the moment. Phoenix behaves so well out of the arena, but we’ve taken a few steps back again inside the boards. She’s living out now and whilst she has plenty of fresh grass, she seems happier so hopefully the nutrition and management side settles down now. I think that whilst she’s had some issues over the winter (left hind and not eating enough forage) Phoenix has started to try it on. Her scooting off was initially from discomfort, but she is now doing it to get out of work. So I’ve got my work cut out being consistent in the arena and teaching her that she’s not going to get away with not working. She’s trying to be in control in the arena. Out of her comfort zone on hacks or cross country, she’s happy for me to take control and is submissive.

This weekend is being spent repeating the lessons of last week and trotting with a softer neck, and relaxing through her body. Hopefully a few days of this and proud Phoenix will back down and submit to me in the arena. Then we can get our competing again!

I’ve signed us up for riding club camp in June too, so I’ve got a goal, a focus, and I shall keep plugging away; keeping consistent, putting the boundaries in place, and waiting for Phoenix to settle back down. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, the good days are fantastic, I just need to iron out the bad days, but hopefully now things will start to come together.