One Step Ahead

It’s a tricky process when teaching a child rider and a pony when the pony is clever. And keen to work.

Recently I’ve been helping one of the Pony Club members who is in this situation. Her lovely pony has the expected attitude of a Welsh chestnut mare, and is easily offended if the rider is heavy handed. And likes to work. They’ve had a couple of bad experiences in their short relationship, which has made her rider nervous, which is how I ended up being involved.

The crux of their problems, I believe, is that the mare anticipates what they’re going to do next, gets faster or turns sharply, and worries her rider who puts the handbrake on. Which then makes the exercise awkward and the mare likely to put in a frustrated buck.

I warmed them up in walk and trot, using circles, changes of rein, and other school movements as well as transitions to get my rider relaxing and the pony listening to her rider. My rider was happy in the trot, so I explained how we should ask her pony lots of questions to keep her focused on her rider. The questions didn’t need to be difficult, but should be varied and in different places around the arena. This is a steep learning curve for most kids as they have to use a bit of initiative, start to think outside the box, and generally put some thought into their riding. Once my rider got into this mindset, we moved onto canter.

The first transition is usually fine, but after that the mare anticipates, quickens in the trot, and my rider starts to tense up and over think the transition. We made a plan.

They rode a canter transition in the corner before the short side. First transition, so easy peasy. When they rode into trot, I got my rider to immediately ride a circle. Then they changed the rein. Then we cantered again. Upon trotting, they started a serpentine. Then the mare tried to quicken into the corner in anticipation of canter. So they walked. Then trotted another circle. Then cantered. Then trotted, turned across the arena to change the rein, walked in the next corner and then rode a 20m circle at A in trot. As they crossed the centre line, they cantered.

You get the picture. My rider felt more in control, her pony was listening to her so wasn’t rushing. My rider relaxed, the pony relaxed. We repeated the transitions so she stopped over thinking them. The transitions became more consistent and everyone was generally much happier.

The next problem was jumping. Again, the first jump was usually trouble free, but the mare likes jumping so can land a bit fast and if half halted too sharply will spin her tail like a wind turbine and generally be upset. She also anticipates any exercises.

I placed a pole on the floor between two wings on the three quarter line, and we started by riding school movements which accidentally-on-purpose went over the pole. We also trotted a normal approach on the three quarter line, but kept varying things to help make going over poles uneventful and keep my rider in control and relaxed. I also had them ride a serpentine, with the central loop going over the pole.

Again, as my rider relaxed, they both improved. We made the pole into a little jump and continued in this theme of varying the approach and mixing in different questions to prevent any anticipation.

This works really well with small jumps or trotting poles, but as the jumps increase in size, you can’t approach with only two straight strides!

I raised the jump slightly, and we stuck to the three-quarter line approach, but started to use more questions to keep the attention of the pony, and ultimately, stay in control. On the approach to the jump, my rider rode a fifteen metre circle. This stopped the pony locking onto the jump and accelerating. After the jump, my rider asked another question – a transition or a circle. Then we varied the approach to have two circles, or a transition, or to ride onto the three-quarter line but after three strides, ride to the left or right of the jump. This is a tricky tactic because we don’t want to encourage the pony to learn to run out. Which is why my rider had to turn away from the jump before the pony had locked on, make it a definite movement with intention, keep riding positively, and to not repeat it too frequently. It’s just another tactic which can be a useful alternative to circles.

We talked about how to take this forward to linking jumps together. I told my rider to not be afraid to ride transitions between jumps, or circle once, twice or thrice if needed. Of course, this wouldn’t be a clear round, but if the pony expects a question between jumps then when they attempt a course a half halt will be sufficient to keep the pony focused. And she will be steadier because she’ll be anticipating a circle or transition.

They finished the lesson on a positive note, knowing how to take these tactics forward so that this rider could stay one step ahead of her pony.

A week later, we took them for their first experience cross country. The aim was to be in control on the flat in an open field, pop over a couple of jumps in a calm fashion. And finish with a smile!

I only did a couple of canters in our warm up, but we used the same approach of asking lots of little questions, and varying the space we used to ensure the pony stayed focused on her rider.

The first couple of jumps went smoothly, but then the mare got a bit quicker, and my rider started to over think things. So we used the circle on the approach tactic to limit the speed of their approach, and when we linked a couple of logs together, there were a couple of circles in between.

Then my rider started to over think things, and get anxious towards the fence which frustrated the pony so she leapt a couple of jumps awkwardly because the trot lacked impulsion. I took them away from the jumps and had them trot a circle around me, slowly increasing the size of the circle and the tempo of the trot so that it was suitable to jump out of. Then we migrated the circle so that they were circling around the log jump. There were a few circles here as the ever hopeful mare pricked her ears going towards the jump, and my rider wasn’t in the right place mentally. But then they did it!

We repeated these circles as required around the jumps to settle my rider as much as anything.

We took a break from jumping, to have a go at the mini steps up and down, and the water. All these were taken in their stride, especially as they could be approached in walk initially, and trot as they grew in confidence.

We finished this successful introduction to cross country by jumping a log (circling beforehand to quell nerves and to get the balance in the trot), then the steps up and down (walking as required), into the water, trotting out and over another little log. I was pleased that we’d started to link things together, but I think it will take a couple more cross country experiences for them to be happy linking jumps together. However, I will continue to use obstacles like water in the interim so that my rider doesn’t feel that every jump needs several circles beforehand to prepare. When we have a few more options of obstacles (because they’ve jumped other jumps that we didn’t do this time) it will be easier to change approaches and courses so that the pony doesn’t anticipate and worry her rider by her eagerness.

A Lockdown Layout of Poles

I love having the opportunity to teach consecutive lessons at the same venue as it means I can play around with one setup of poles or jumps and utilise a variety of exercises. If I had a base to teach from I’d probably have a layout for a couple of weeks which could be used for flat, pole and jump lessons. Which would give the opportunity for clients to get some continuity and to develop the exercises over a couple of lessons.

For anyone bored during lockdown, this is a fabulous arrangement of poles which can be used umpteen times without becoming boring.

The pole at X is used in both circles, and the 3 poles at each end are laid out to make an accurately sized circle of about 18 metres. It’s useful to have the outer track free from debris.

The first use for this layout is to make circles rounder. For some young riders they tend to ride EB in a straight line, so the poles help teach them how to ride an arc across the school.

For more established riders, I usually discuss and encourage them ro to evaluate the quality of their circles and compare them to the opposite rein. Then we discuss stiffness; why one rein is harder than the other to get a round circle.

Once the circles are round and symmetrical in trot the same work can be repeated in canter. Often a pony will drift out on a canter circle without their rider noticing. Well with the poles it’s obvious when your circle isn’t round!

The poles can be raised on the inner end to improve cadence, help prevent them from falling in and improve vertical balance.

Finally, the poles can be converted to cross poles which tests jumping from a rhythm and improves suppleness.

With the exercise as poles on the floor, raised poles (although the pole at X needs to be raised at both ends) or jumps, a figure of eight can be ridden over the circle of poles which helps with flying changes; teaches a rider to plan their route and use their seat and body to affect their horse.

Apart from improving circles, this layout has another use – teaching gears to the gaits. Using the two poles on each three quarter line, ride straight over them in working trot, counting the strides. Then try to lengthen the strides into medium trot, getting fewer strides between the poles. Then collect the trot and increase the number of strides between the poles.

Again, this can be done in canter, and then as jumps instead of poles. With young kids you can keep it simple and just teach them to count strides which increases their awareness of rhythm. And with older kids it becomes a game, with them becoming more determined to get a set number of strides.

You can then also discuss the way the bascule changes shape depending on the type of canter – how when jumping from a medium canter the take off and landing points are further away from the base of the fence, giving rise to a long, shallow bascule. From collected canter those points are closer to the fence so creating a steeper, shorter bascule.

I love the versatility of this layout and how each subject can be layered to suit all abilities and all levels of understanding. It gives me so much variation between individual clients with the exact same lesson plan.