Canter Exercises with Groups

I’ve been doing quite a lot of Pony Club teaching recently, and have been playing around with canter exercises which can be done individually so that the ponies get a breather but without boring the rider’s who’s turn it is.

I’ve developed several layers to the exercise so that I can use it with all abilities and riders can see their progression. Ultimately, I’ve borrowed the basis of these exercises from my childhood instructor.

The first exercise is to have the ride in halt on the long side of the arena and one at a time, having them canter to the rear of the ride. This is aimed at the rider staying in control, learning to sit to the canter, and keeping their pony on the outside track. It’s a good exercise for those just learning to canter. Sometimes I tell them the letter which they are going to canter, and the letter where they need to be trotting. This tests their accuracy and starts to focus them on riding the transition rather than just kicking and praying.

Sometimes, like today, I have a keen, unruly pony who likes to take control of the situation. Or I have a rider who merrily canters around in dreamland and I need to keep their focus, I make this exercise more challenging. They have to ride four transitions on their lap of the arena – for example, trot to canter at E, trot at A, canter at B and trot at F. This keeps the ponies switched on, usually improves their canter transitions because the pony is more forwards, and helps a rider begin to feel more in control. Plus the short canters means a pony can’t get too quick!

If I have a big ride, or they are more in control, or it’s a cold day, I will keep the ride in walk instead of halt. This also means the riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t bomb up the back of the ride and can ensure a correct strike off.

A development of cantering to the rear of the ride, is putting in a circle. Again, I have the ride halted on the track about M, for example, and individually they have to go into trot, trot a 20m circle at A before picking up canter between A and F and cantering to the rear of the ride. The circle is a good test of control as ponies will try to nap back to the ride, and if the rider doesn’t plan their circle it ends up rather egg shaped. Once the circle is established in trot, I get riders to make a canter transition over X, building up to cantering the whole circle. Easier said than done as many ponies are indoctrinated to canter a straight line near the outside track so resist a rider’s plea to turn across the arena.

When riders are more established but for whatever reason I don’t want to canter them all together, I will keep the ride trotting and have them individually set off into canter. This tests the second horse as much as anything as they may try to follow the leader. It also gives other riders chance to be lead file. Having the ride trotting means a longer canter, and if building a ride up to cantering as a group a second rider can be sent off into canter before the first has reached the rear of the ride.

A particularly tricky exercise, which tests the use of the outside leg, is to have the ride walking large, and the leader canter large around the arena before passing the ride on the inside and cantering a second lap. Again, this is great for nappy ponies, and keeps a rider focused while cantering. It can be made harder by having the ride trotting instead of walking.

By the time a young rider can do all of these exercises independently in a balanced, rhythmical canter, I would be confident that they can hold their own working in canter in open order, and that they have full control of their pony. It helps when looking at jumping too, because they’ll be able to ride balanced turns in canter, their pony will be less inclined to nap and more responsive to the aids. Which leads to a fluid, balanced approach to a jump which will give them a higher success rate.

Breaking Up A Course

I was working with a young rider and her fairly new pony a couple of weeks ago on riding in a open field. They’ve spent lockdown getting to know each other thoroughly, but the pony came with the warning that he got very excited in open fields so now it was time to broach the subject.

With her parents she’s walked around their riding field and it’s become boring for her pony so he doesn’t get excited when on his own. They’ve popped over the odd log but the rider doesn’t feel she can control him when stringing jumps together, or approaching jumps in more than a very steady trot, and the pony is known to get faster and faster throughout a cross country course.

I took the pair out into the riding field and started by getting my young rider to walk some school shapes around the logs, trees, bushes and other obstacles. The idea being to fill her pony’s brain with where they were going next rather than the speed they were travelling at. We made a plan of a sequence of movements so my rider could plan her route and didn’t have to think on the spot, which is quite difficult when you’re ten years old.

Once they were riding a calm, steady walk meandering around our corner of the field we moved up to trot. The circles and serpentines helped keep a steady rhythm with my rider feeling in control. With trot established and them both warmed up, I got my rider to adjust her circle so that a little log just happened to be in their way. They trotted over the log, which wasn’t really big enough for the pony to jump, and then carried on round their circle. No big deal. The idea being that the jump was part of their flatwork.

We continued in this vein, over a couple of tiny logs using circles on both reins, progressing from trot to canter. As soon as the pony started to get excited towards a log, the circle my rider was on changed line so that they avoided the jump. It was important that my rider wasn’t pulling out of the jump so teaching her pony to refuse, but she was riding a different line to remain in control.

We worked out way around the field over different logs, using circles before and after to keep the pony in a controlled rhythm without stopping and starting all the time.

With my rider growing in confidence, I started to link some logs together and get her moving around the field much more. However, instead of just telling her a course – so she had a route to take – I gave her movements to do between the jumps. She started with a circle before popping over the first log, and then rode a circle in either direction as she travelled to the second log. She could ride as many circles as she wanted to feel in control before jumping the second log. Between the second and third log, I told her to ride a transition. From canter to trot, and then back into canter. My theory was that if there’s a question before and after every jump it takes the pony’s focus away from jumping and he doesn’t anticipate that the next obstacle he sees is what he’s jumping.

We built the pair up to jumping longer courses of small logs around the field, linking a couple of jumps without the questions in between, ensuring my rider could bring her pony back after each long stretch. At key points on their course she had to ask him a big question to re-establish her authority, so breaking the course up into bitesize chunks.

I think if they continue schooling in this manner, making the jumps progressively bigger and more technical, but with questions between jumps, then when they need to jump a course, at a hunter trial or something, the pony will be expecting to do something between jumps so should not accelerate to the same extent that he used to. Additionally, my rider can ride a transition which won’t incur 20 penalties; possibly gain a couple of time penalties but I’d rather time penalties than them going dangerously fast. I think this is the way forwards for this pair at the moment and as their relationship grows they can start to link fences together straight with ease because they maintain a steady yet forwards rhythm rather than starting and stopping for each jump.

Control

At the Pony Club conference I attended in February I picked up lots of useful hints and tips. One useful thing that Paul Tapner said, was that when he was young and went off to be taught by top level instructors for months at a time he would put aside everything that he knew and unquestioningly lap up everything he was told. He wouldn’t forget his previous knowledge, but it was filed away until after the training when he would piece together all of his knowledge. When teaching, you want your students to do exactly what you say, not harp back to what a previous adult has told them because it may not be an appropriate tactic or exercise for that day. I took that approach with the conference, writing down everything that was said, regardless of my initial reaction. Later, I could reflect on my notes and use my previous knowledge and experience to develop my own opinion and approach. For example, I liked the fact that when the demo riders (all Pony Clubbers) were told to halt they did immediately. This has safety benefits and shows respect for their instructor, but I didn’t like how it caused them to pull hard on the reins in an attempt to get a direct transition. So I will try a modified approach when I next teach a group of children.

Anyway, one quote which I’ve taken from the beginning of the day is:

It is the coach’s job to control the rider and the rider’s job to control the pony.

Basically, when you learn to ride you learn to control your horse or pony, be it at the lowest level of steering around the edge of an arena, keeping in trot, or at the highest level of controlling the size of circles, pirouettes, degree of lateral movements, and the precise speed of the gaits. At whatever level I’m teaching at, if the rider can perform an exercise or movement competently, they have mastered control at that level.

I taught a new rider this week, only a little girl, with her own pony. She’s had trouble learning to canter, is now feeling nervous and has had a couple of gentle tumbles to boot.

I started her off in walk and trot, assessing her steering and knowledge of school movements, trot diagonals, changesof rein etc, and her pony was very sweet. Forwards but without being sharp, but as we went through the warm up the pony started getting faster and doing a turbo trot. It wasn’t an accelerating movement, just a huge striding gait with a set neck. Then of course, her rider began to get worried. She told me that the reason she didn’t like cantering was because of the speed.

It struck me that the crux of their problem is that the rider doesn’t feel in control of her pony, and therefore lacks confidence and doesn’t feel safe, and the pony (whilst not being naughty) was taking the opportunity to take control of the speed.

I brought them into the middle of the school and put her stirrups up a hole to give her leg a bit more security and so she had something to brace her feet against when we did step two. I then explained to her how to squeeze and release the reins rather than take a static pull so her pony didn’t lean on her hands. Finally, I showed her how to bend her elbows and use her shoulders and upper body to half halt down the reins, and to stabilise her upper body. As with a lot of people, when a pony pulls down the arms go forward, elbows straighten, and upper body tips forward. This is not a strong position, and the pony has the upper hand. By using her upper body to support her rein aids the pony cannot pull her forwards and put her position into jeopardy. Because the pony is not going to like this new, stronger approach from her rider, she will argue for a few strides, which is where the slightly shorter stirrups will help keep her rider in place. I put in some trigger words; “strong tummy”, “squeeze, release” and “elbows” so that I could quickly correct my rider and help her regain control because each phrase meant an action to her.

My rider asked to go on the lunge, so I obliged, if only that knowing I was at the end of the lunge line gave her the confidence to stand her ground with her slowing aids. We talked about how their normal trot was a level five, and a slow trot was a level four, whilst turbo trot was a six. We wanted a five trot, or sometimes a four, the majority of the time.

She set off in trot, and in all fairness to her, the lunge line was slack as I didn’t really need to do anything. The pony went off into a five trot, so we practiced her strong tummy and squeezing rein aids to slow to a four trot. The pony tried to set against her rider but once she realised she wasn’t going to budge, the pony came back nicely to her. We did this transition a couple of times and then the pony decided to turbo trot. But my rider reacted quicker to the acceleration, so nipping it in the bud, and become she gave firmer, more decisive aids, after a few her pony came back nicely. We repeated this on the lunge in both directions and once my rider had earnt her pony’s respect, she got a reaction from her first, milder aid.

As my rider started to feel in control, she grew in confidence and happily agreed to canter on the lunge. Although the pony doesn’t tank off in the canter, she has a big stride and it can feel uncontrolled to someone not yet in sync with her, so I needed to know that my rider felt she could stop her pony at any time. Without hanging off her mouth of course! I ran through the downwards aids and then they cantered. I didn’t have to do anything in the middle, and after a few transitions back to trot my rider began to feel more comfortable about cantering and could start to relax.

To finish the lesson, they went off the lunge and practiced riding with a strong tummy and firm, clear rein aids, using her upper body to support. The pony anticipated cantering, tried to turbo trot, but my rider applied her aids and sat perfectly upright and balanced until her pony came back to her in a few strides. We used transitions within trot to improve control, and within minutes her pony had stopped testing her, instead responding to her first aid.

This meant that my rider could ride a more energetic trot without the speed, and relaxed into her riding. She felt in control.

Of course, they’re going to have to repeat this conversation a few times for the pony to really accept her newly bossy rider, and for this little girl to learn to correct their speed before it reaches turbo level. And for it to become second nature. Having a contingency plan as well as buzz words really help build confidence and make a proactive rider. We might not have got her cantering independently, but I’m sure she will once she feels that she’s in full control.

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.

The Big Debate

There was a really energetic debate on the BHS coaches forum a couple of weeks ago about qualified coaches versus unqualified coaches.

There are a lot of BHS qualified coaches in this industry. But there’s also a lot of people teaching without BHS qualifications.

The BHS provides insurance to their coaches, but unqualified coaches can get their own independent insurance based on industry experience. I’m not sure how the two compare in terms of level of cover and cost, but I like the simplicity of having the BHS organise it for me!

So what are the pros and cons of each? Or rather, why is the debate raging hot?

A person who has trained their way up the BHS ladder has invested a lot of time and money into their career. I calculated that in exam fees alone, £2000 has been spent on my getting qualified, either by my college, employer or myself to a level 4 coach or BHS II in old terms. That doesn’t include any resits or training. Or even travel and accommodation in order to take the exam. The letters behind our names is proof of our dedication to our profession.

The BHS exams consist of several modules: ridden, lunging, stable management, coaching principles, theory of riding, and practical assessments. Which means that you know you are getting a well rounded teacher, who can advise on all areas.

Let’s turn our attention to the unqualified coaches. These are often high level professional competition riders, which means their ridden experience and knowledge of training horses far outweighs that of the majority of BHS coaches. However, you can be a good rider but unless you can impart your knowledge in a clear and concise manner you are not a good coach. For these people, the UKCC qualifications is where they can learn how to share their knowledge to students, and this can complement their ridden experience nicely.

There are also non-BHS coaches without the riding CV, which is the concerning area to the majority of the BHS coaches on this forum. A lot of the BHS qualified instructors felt that average horse-people teaching put our industry at risk of a bad reputation. Yes, they can get insurance, but have they been taught how to manage a ride of children, adults or horses so that everyone remains safe? This is an insurance risk which penalises the rest of us as premiums rise due to claims against such dangerous situations.

Another concern was that coaches not on the BHS register do not have the overheads of qualified ones: CPD days, DBS checks, first aid training, APC membership, and child protection training. This means that they can afford to undercut the qualified professionals. Which doesn’t sit well with people who have invested time and money into their training.

The general consensus, after a long debate, was that BHS coaches accept and like the training opportunities offered by the likes of Lucinda Fredericks and William Fox-Pitt, knowing that their riding experience far outweighs that of their own. Some coaches even train with them themselves to help improve their competitive performance. However, these people have a lot of industry experience to support themselves.

What didn’t go down so well was the unqualified coach with decidedly average knowledge and experience. In one of the most dangerous sports, they increase the risk further. They charge less, don’t provide quality knowledge or lesson content, and potentially put riders in dangerous situations.

The general consensus was that the BHS should help us promote the benefits of using qualified coaches, and to encourage riders and parents to do their research and ensure the coaches they use are qualified and insured. Otherwise, what’s the point in training for BHS exams?

Below is a succinct comment from one of the BHS coaches which sums up the debate well, and how we should move forwards with it.

Times are changing – it is a competitive world out there and people will compare costings.
There are some excellent non qualified yet insured coaches out there, but there are also some very poor ones, and some totally uninsured. There are some cracking ‘names’ coaching in our area who do a great job, but also some who, because they find it easy, have absolutely no idea how to coach and which tools to use to draw out the best from those who don’t. Their observations and corrections are distorted by their own ability.
There are Pony Club members who teach, with no training or experience whatsoever, who lobby and coach younger members privately and uninsured.
For me, the safety and welfare element is key. Stakeholders should be using their resources and expertise to lobby INSURANCE companies to tighten up. It would be interesting to know the statistics of claims comparatively, as all insurance is based on risk factor. There should be a minimum safety and risk awareness certification built into existing qualifications (it is) but possibly available as a stand alone in order to gain insurance, alongside safeguarding and first aid qualifications. Mandatory. Period.
I am actively involved in PC, and we circulate to our memberships the dangers of using uninsured, unqualified coaches, but it falls on deaf ears – surprisingly often with intelligent, affluent people, not those who want to save money!
If insurance is cheaper and more easily available elsewhere, as it is and without jumping through the hoops, then why wouldn’t people go down that route? All we can do is promote and practice with excellence, we do not have control of other people’s actions. We must also be open minded in some areas.
BHS are doing a great job, but need to escalate this in conjunction with other bodies…

All in all, my advice is to research your instructor to ensure they are insured, have sufficient industry experience, and the ability to impart their knowledge – proved by either the UKCC or BHS qualifications.

Meanwhile, qualified instructors will continue to pressurise the BHS to do more to protect us and give more young people a reason sit exams and train. It’s a tough situation, but as a dangerous sport we need to tighten up on teaching standards so that we make it as safe as possible for all participants.

Kids Going Cross Country

I taught a cross country clinic for Pony Club last weekend, aimed at the younger, less experienced members. They all enjoyed themselves, and after a large glass of wine that evening, I decided that I had too.

I’ll leave out the thrills and spills, but I wanted to discuss how I warmed them up as safely as possible.

In my first group most of them were nervous. I didn’t know many of the riders, and some of the ponies were new or had been cheeky in the past. My second group was more confident but, as I’ll tell you later, the ponies were more mischievous!

I started the group walking in a ride in a fairly large square to assess that the ponies. None were jogging or tossing their head in anticipation, so whilst the ride was walking up the hill I asked them to trot on. I hoped that any keen ponies would soon slow down with the extra effort of the hill. Thankfully they all trotted sensibly around, so I kept them all trotting until my riders visibly relaxed and the ponies definitely lost any cheeky spark.

Next, I needed to ensure the kids would be safe when we moved onto jumping a course. Ponies are herd animals by instinct and I didn’t want any to return to the ride at speed. One little rider in particular had been bolted with the last time she’d gone cross country so I needed to build her confidence up. Another rider had a new pony so we didn’t have a clue how he would behave, so I needed to quietly test him without giving him an excuse to fail the tests.

Keeping the ride in a group at the bottom of the hill, I sent them one at a time to trot up the hill, away from the ride, walk around a jump and walk back. This was to establish the fact that the ponies don’t return to their friends quickly, and that they left their friends at the speed requested by their rider. It also helped to build the riders’ confidence and self-belief in themselves. The pony who had bolted previously tried to jog on the way home, but his rider sat tall and positively half halted to stay in control. She became more aware of her pony quickening so reacted before he actually got faster.

Once they’d all done this exercise a few times and the ponies weren’t expecting to hurry home, we stepped it up. They cantered up the hill and then walked back to the others. Once I was sure of their control, they practised their cross country position, and by this time the ponies understood the rules of walking calmly home and were less fizzy. I don’t like to rush incorporating the light seat because it reduces a child’s control because they do not have their weight in the saddle to anchor them in when they apply a rein aid so a pony is more likely to put their head down and ignore their rider.

I did a very similar exercise with the next group, but one pony was nappy. He would gallop back to his friends, even halfway round a course! So I sent one rider on a calm pony away and asked her to wait at the far point. Then I sent off the nappy pony, and the two walked back together. The pony napped due to anxiety and I needed to manage the situation so my rider was safe and this kept everyone happy. The girl on the calm pony felt special because she had been given a particular job, so she was more than happy to oblige.

We started jumping in a similar way. The first jump, a simple, plain log, was jumped away from the ride, and then the children had to ride forwards to walk before returning calmly to the ride.

For the majority of the lessons I did courses which went away from the ride to encourage the riders to return steadily, and to ensure they could keep an energetic yet steady canter. Towards the end I started putting in jumps which went past the ride, and then a couple of jumps towards them. I still insisted that the riders pulled up and rejoined in walk.

It doesn’t always go to plan, but I find this technique for warming up horses and riders safest for taking the edge off excited horses, relaxing nervous riders, and establishing ground rules, which means their jumping becomes more enjoyable for both parties.

Teaching Trot Diagonals

This week I was given the challenge of teaching one of my young riders her trot diagonals. I laid the foundations in her last lesson, giving her some homework to practice before taking the plunge this week.

Before I teach a child their trot diagonals I like them to be able to maintain trot whilst rising. Some beginners do a double bounce when using their legs. They also need to be able to differentiate between sitting and rising, and for rising to be autonomous. Before even introducing the idea of diagonals I use a simple exercise to introduce the double sit to change diagonal. With my young rider trotting around in an up-down-up-down rhythm, I ask them to change the rhythm to up-down-down-up-down, which tests their balance and core strength as well. I also get them familiar with the sequence of legs in trot and feeling the movement of the legs.

This rider had been practising her double sits, but has fallen into the trap of sitting for three beats. I established that she could do it correctly when she applied herself, but I felt that she didn’t see the point in perfecting the exercise. Sitting for three was close enough, wasn’t it?

She needed to start to see the bigger picture. Why I was making her do a double sit. She is also mature for her age, and likes to have the explanation for everything, so I knew I’d have to discuss it in depth. But on the level of a six year old.

I began by checking she knew the sequence of the legs in trot, and then told her that on circles and corners of the arena the inside hind leg has to work hardest to keep the pony trotting. So to make her pony’s job easier we should stand up when that leg is moving forwards. I then checked she’d been listening earlier by asking which other leg is going forwards at the same time that the inside hind is (the outside fore, if anyone’s having a blonde moment).

My little rider correctly identified the front leg, so we then watched her pony’s shoulder moving. If she couldn’t see it I was going to put a strip of tape along the shoulder blade to emphasise the movement. But she could see the shoulders move in walk.

Next, we went up into trot and studied the shoulders moving in trot. I did say she might be able to feel the hind legs moving forwards, but the visual cue is easier for children to process and link steps together.

I asked my rider which front leg was moving forwards as she rose. And therefore which hind leg was. Then I asked if she was helping her pony, or making it harder for her. I find that linking a movement to a pony’s welfare encourages children to pay attention because they don’t want to hurt their pony so will be more likely to practice and perfect what we’re doing.

Once we’d established the shoulder that was going forwards when she rose, and if it was the right one or not, we talked about how to change the trot diagonal so that she was on the correct one. Of course, it was the double sit exercise we’d practiced last week!

Now she still does the odd triple sit, but there was more determination in my little rider to just sit for two beats and to change her diagonal. With practice, she’ll crack it, but now I know she will try harder at it.

We spent the rest of the lesson doing quick checks. For example, every time they changed the rein I asked what did she need to do – change her whip and sit for two! Then when they had a sneaky walk I asked her to check her diagonal. It’s important that a rider doesn’t get used to being told they’re on the incorrect diagonal, but rather by asking them if they are right or wrong as they will become more thoughtful and independent riders, as well as fully understanding the concept. Also, it’s important to choose the moment to correct trot diagonals. Don’t do it before canter, or on a tricky school movement. Wait until they can devote their full attention to the outside shoulder and double sitting.

This rider took to my explanation, and seemed to really understand it. I l her that her Mum will be able to tell if she’s right or wrong, so hopefully World War Three doesn’t break out when they’re practising! Some children need more explanation than others, but I think by breaking it down into small steps of verbal explanation, visual guides, and demonstrations, you can pinpoint when it starts to go over their head. Then you can change tact, or leave teaching diagonals until they have fully grasped the previous step.

Visual Learners

Teaching these days is all about providing information in a variety of forms. Years ago teachers would teach verbally, but nowadays they offer pictures and videos, physical activities and social activities to support their verbal lectures.

In an arena I predominantly use verbal explanations, but I also use videos and photos to feedback to clients, and have been known to get a nearby rider to demonstrate an exercise (especially rising canter). I will also walk any lines to help demonstrate an exercise. Sometimes physical feedback, such as adjusting a foot’s position in the stirrup, is as useful teaching tool.

I’ve been teaching a young boy, who has high functioning autism, and he’s really testing my imagination in terms of effectively getting my message across to him in a format he understands. I know not everyone likes to label children, but from a teaching perspective it’s very useful to know of any problems, if that’s the right term, so I can better understand their reactions or behaviour, and adjust my approach so that they get the best out of the lesson.

He’s very literal, so I have to be careful not to use figurative language. Today I said, “tell Tilly to go round the edge” as his pony started to cut the corner. So he said, “Tilly, go round the edge.” Of course I meant to tell the pony with his legs and hands, not to literally tell her! So I’m having to adapt my words and phrases so that there’s no room for misinterpretation.

I also have to explain exercises very explicitly so that he understands them. For example, I tell him at which letter we will go into trot, and then I have to list each letter he will ride past, and at which letter he needs to ride a downward transition. Otherwise he trots from the start letter across the school to the final letter!

To help me direct him, I use a variety of cones and poles. For example, he must ride past the yellow cone before he turns, or he should halt between the poles. These props are easy to adjust to make an exercise easier or harder, and seem to really help him focus on where he’s going. He also has immediate feedback as to whether he’s achieved the aim because he’s either the right side of the prop, or he’s not.

This is a useful approach for visual learners, so definitely one for me to bear in mind when teaching others. I have one client (who knows who she is) who always cuts the corner after poles, so when we progress to jumping she is going to have cones to go round so that I can break this bad habit!

With this young boy, I’ve also had to get creative to help improve his riding position. Sticking to visual cues, I put red electric tape onto his reins which he must hold in order to have the correct length of rein and to have the reins the same length. He tends to, like all beginners, to hold his hands close to his tummy. So I sprayed purple spray onto his pony’s withers to show him where his hands should be. Of course this works best on the greys and palominos.

When we’ve been practising jumping position, to improve his balance and lower leg stability, I’ve been putting a plait in his pony’s mane for him to hold so that he is moving his hands the correct distance up her neck.

He has some special gloves on order, which have an L and R on to help him learn his left and rights. I know many adults who would also like these gloves!

I’m sure as he progresses through his riding I will need to become even more imaginative – suggestions on postcards! I think I will mark a line along each shoulder in a different colour to help him learn his trot diagonals and to see the shoulder moving. It’s all about finding ways to help him understand different concepts which makes sense to him.

But I’m up for a challenge!

A Thelwell Moment

I had a Thelwell moment this week which made me feel all the emotions at once – horror as I could see it unfold in my mind’s eye and laughter as it was a comic moment.

My little rider was trotting along, having recently come off the lead rein, when her pony stopped and put his head down to scratch his nose.

Now this rider is only little, and not that experienced or strong in her position. We’ve been working on her keeping her heels lower than her toes in recent lessons.

Anyway, as her pony put his head down he pulled her forwards so that her shoulders were on his withers, her legs had swung back so her toes were pointing down.

Time seemed to freeze.

The pony continued to scratch his nose, oblivious.

His rider was hovering at that critical point. She could go either way at any moment.

I couldn’t run up to the pony as he’d shy away from me. I started edging closer, telling my rider to sit up, whilst hoping her pony would just lift his head and push her back upright into the saddle.

He didn’t. He didn’t do anything other than continue to scratch his nose in his own little world. But before I could reach them without making the situation worse, his rider slowly tipped further forward, until, to his great surprise, she somersaulted down her pony’s neck.

He jumped sideways in surprise, as she hit the floor. Unhurt, you’ll be pleased to know, but shocked. She got back on and continued the lesson happily, with the specific instructions that if he put his head down again she needed to push her heels down and slip her reins. We’re getting some balance reins for next week to try to stop this reoccurring as we build up her core strength.

I wish I’d had a camera as it was comical as she hovered at the point of no return.

Pony Club Camp

My blog has been a bit quiet this week as I’ve been at Pony Club camp; I’d forgotten how exhausting it is as I’ve spent every evening comatosed on the sofa, contemplating whether I need wine or chocolate. I then finished off the week thinking it was a great idea to surprise my friend by having her horse at her wedding reception. She loved it, but I needed that lie in!

Anyway, I thought you’d appreciate a run down of the highs and lows of camp. Just in case you’d forgotten how fun pony club is!

I actually had a lovely group of girls, aged between eight and ten, most of who I’d met in previous years, but had all grown and some had new ponies. Each ride is assigned a meeting point, underneath a tree; at which point the children learn who their instructor for the week is. I was secretly very chuffed when I was greeted with cheers and squeals of delight as the girls had been hoping to have me. Although there is then a lot of pressure to meet their expectations!

I started as I always do, by getting them to introduce themselves to each other, and myself. They always have first day nerves so I try to get them opening up by telling us their name, their pony’s name, one thing they enjoy about riding, and what area they want to improve on during camp. This helps me get to know them and also assess their confidence as well as getting any suspicions about the areas that they may need a bit more TLC in so I can tread carefully then.

At this camp there is a lot of walking; from the meeting place, to an arena at one end of a ginormous field, to the woods, to another field, so I find the most efficient and effective approach is to put the kids in an order. They have to stay in this order when we walk between sessions, and during each lesson. It helps me learn names, speeds up the process of getting started each lesson, and really helps settle the ponies as they learn which tail they are following and so it doesn’t become a race back to the pony lines. I quickly put them in order, with the reliable pony with the capable rider at the front, the next quickest ponies, then the one who had the tendency to kick at the back. The girls stayed in this order all week and I found that the fast pony (more about her later) who was on her first camp soon stopped racing past the others, and walked calmly third in line. Which helped relax her little jockey.

We do a tack and turnout inspection every day, and I have to say that they always look very smart! It’s so difficult to judge, but my winner at the end of the week went to the girl who had learnt to plait herself, and who managed to avoid getting grass stains on her light jodhpurs each day!

On Monday morning our first session was showjumping, so I used the warm up to assess them all. We ride on grass and the ponies can be a bit fresh on day one, so I try to get them all trotting in a ride (easier said than done!) to allow me to assess them, make some corrections, and take the edge off the ponies. I check their jumping position and steering. The first canter can be nerve-racking so I give explicit instructions of where to trot, where to canter, and where they must trot again. The aim is to check their control and that the ponies won’t bolt back to the ride.

My first pony was a lovely leg at each corner, predictable, kick along type who trotted and cantered at the correct points. I decided at this point that my aim for the week was to get this rider using her seat more and being less flappy.

The next pony was a bit quick in the canter; his rider has just moved up on to him and found him a bit strong, but I wanted to work on her sitting on her bum and carrying her hands so that the pony couldn’t put his head down and pull. She hadn’t done any cross country with him, so my aim for the week was to give her a good experience at new disciplines and give her the chance to go out her comfort zone should she want to, by offering two height options.

I had been warned that my third rider and pony were very fast. In the trot she’d struggled to maintain trot and had been breathing down the neck of the pony in front. I covered my face and peered through my fingers as they galloped around the arena. The pony does stop eventually, but I started to get my rider to think about steadying her pony before she set of as the pony responded well to the voice and rein, we just needed to curb the speed. For once, I wanted her to ride with the handbrake on. This partnership was again new, so it was about finding out about each other and working out how the manage the pony.

Behind this pair, I had another new partnership. This girl I taught last year and she lacks confidence. Unfortunately, her pony was quite excited on Monday and whilst he didn’t do anything wrong, his bouncy walk and quick trot unnerved her. I knew this was my most fragile partnership, so I decided to focus on getting my rider to sit up and “look at the top of the trees” and be prepared to hold her hand the first time they did any exercise, but hope that helps giving her the good experience she’d try slightly faster, or go for longer, or jump higher.

My next pony was a very sweet, willing type who was unfortunately overbitted. It was their first camp so her parents were being a bit cautious, but it did unfortunately mean that the pony started backing off jumps. He has a good little pop in him, but that often caused his rider to be left behind over fences, which when a strong bit was factored in meant the pony was pulled in the mouth. I soon changed him back to his snaffle and started to focus his rider on giving with her hands over fences.

Finally, I had a sweet mare at the back who did unfortunately kick. However, her rider was very switched on to this and she wore a red ribbon so this didn’t cause any problems throughout the week. They were an established partnership, and whilst not the most confident on the first day, I didn’t feel there would be a problem. I did notice that the rider pinned her hands down to the wither, and had very short reins, as if worried the pony would shoot off. Once I could see that they were settling, I started work on encouraging a longer length of rein and independent hand carriage, which actually made an instant difference to the pony’s stride length, which my rider felt.

During the week we did showjumping, handy pony, dressage, cross country, and mounted games. Here are a few highlights.

  • In our warm up for our second showjumping lesson, rider number two cantered to the rear of the ride, yet her pony had other ideas and put his head between his knees and bronced down the slope back to the others. How my rider stayed on, I have no idea! From then on I had my lead file stop halfway around any arena and wait for her friend so that the pony couldn’t get any ideas. This seemed to work well.
  • The pony who had been overbitted on day one still refused to jump when back in the snaffle, so on day two I got one of the junior helpers (16 year olds) to hop on. With the stirrups at their maximum and her knees still by her ears I had her trotting over some small showjumps with minimal contact to rebuild his confidence. I had to do this during our cross country session too, but it was really helpful for his rider to see him jumping and for him to then pop over jumps happily so she could concentrate on holding her neck strap.
  • During our flat session I had all six riders trotting in a ride, looking like they were enjoying themselves, looking like they were all in control. It all went wrong moments later when I mentioned the “c” word (canter!) but I will treasure the memory of those first few minutes.
  • On Monday we had glorious sunshine. On Tuesday we had stairrods coming at us sideways. We were all absolutely drenched. But my girls were still grinning at the end of the day, and they all worked really hard on our musical ride.
  • I decided to do a pop quiz for stable management, mixing the girls into two teams to help them bond. One team had a whistle to blow, the other a triangle to ding (don’t ask why there was a triangle at camp!). I was actually very impressed with their knowledge, but so deaf by the end of the hour!
  • One of the ponies decided to nap back to the others when they were practising their dressage tests. He just set his neck and turned round and returned to his friends, upsetting his rider in the process. Cue another junior helpers hopping on and reminding him that he had to leave his friends and only return when he was told to. This gave me a real predicament for their dressage competition. How could we stop him trotting back to his friends in the corner? In the end we sent the rest of the ride away so that they could watch in the distance but the ponies were out of sight. And then helpers and parents positioned themselves strategically around the arena to catch the pony if he decided that dressage wasn’t for him. However, my rider did me proud and determinedly kept that pony in trot and inside the white boards!
  • I did a polework session, hijacking the seniors’ jumping arena. That was a memorable lesson. In part the wobbles some had trotting over a line of poles. Partly the very fast pony doing two VERY FAST laps of the very large arena. Partly the seniors cheering my nervous rider on until she kicked into canter, and then her asking to canter again because she loved it so much! Partly the fast pony walking towards the line of poles, doing two strides of trot before the poles and then getting faster and faster over the trot poles to exit the poles in canter. Lastly, seeing them all pop over a little jump with a much more stable jumping position was very satisfying.
  • I warmed up my ride in an enclosed arena (that very fast pony still hasn’t slowed down!) before heading out into the woods for cross country on Thursday, taking lots of helpers to build a human wall to stop said fast pony. The girls all jumped in a controlled manner, jumping some little and not so little, logs and riding some tricky lines around the trees. When we got to the end of the woods I sidestepped the little dingy water feature as I didn’t fancy wading through the green slime. Instead, I asked them if they wanted to canter up the very steep hill. One poor helper ran up that steep hill with my nervous rider, before I sent the others up in twos and threes. They had to start in walk, trot on my cue then canter when I shouted. Unfortunately my second rider (remember the one who bucked?) turned a circle in walk and the very fast pony missed out the trot part. Which meant the second pony got his knickers in a twist and gave a couple of hops in the air before realising that the hill was very steep and settling into canter! This meant my rider didn’t enjoy it as much as she should’ve and refused to do it again. However, the next day my nervous rider cantered up that hill with the others, so it was a success!
  • We were scheduled to do mounted games after cross country, so I hoped the ponies would be tired and not lose their heads. However, after the second game in which one girl stood there crying and the very fast pony had cantered a couple of laps, I called it a day, even refusing to do a mounted games competition on the Friday.
  • Instead, I let the girls swap ponies, which they all loved. It was great seeing how they all rode different ponies, and what weaknesses or strengths were shown up on different ponies. And yes, I did find two other riders who would be happy on the very fast pony! I think this was the session that they learnt the most.
  • My proudest moment was during the showjumping competition on Friday when my nervous rider cantered over some jumps, didn’t let her pony nap, and enjoyed herself. Then my rider who had overbitted her pony rode a very sweet round, remembering to keep her hands forwards for longer over each fence and, I felt, finishing the week with better trust with her horse. One rider rode beautiful lines in a lovely rhythm … Then sailed past number six! My lead file managed to maintain a balanced canter throughout her round. Then the very fast pony walked in. I was just looping the string back up after letting out the previous rider when I heard “tell her to slow down!” I turned to see them galloping towards the first jump – the pony had gotten bored of walking! It was a very fast round, with a hair raising moment when they had to turn back on themselves but were going so fast they almost didn’t make it and narrowly missed jumping the wings. My heart was in my mouth!
  • Everyone’s favourite part of the week is undoubtedly the musical ride. My girls worked hard on our routine, we had some unrequited canter but given how they started the week, the independent and confident routine made up for it. They also dressed up as cats because our music was Mr Mistoffolees from the musical.

In all, camp had some nail-biting moments, and plenty when I had to think on my feet, but I think the girls finished the week more confident than they started, and all took something away from the week to practice at home. On my feedback sheets I gave all of them a piece of homework, which tied in with my focus of the week for each rider. They also had a party bag from me with lots of sweets, and an armful of rosettes for all the competitions. In return, I had a lovely thank you card, telling me how I was the best teacher ever (it’s official!), a voucher and some chocolate.

The week absolutely flew by, and was tiring, but great fun as always, and I’m already looking forwards to next year!