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!

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?

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 …

Eyes Closed!

Trot to canter transitions have been a sticky point for one of my clients and her pony. Both the trot and canter work has come on in leaps and bounds, but the upward transition is still sticky – like a smudge on a drawing.

I think it stems from when the pony was more on the forehand and my rider less of an adult rider and more of a child rider so had less finesse over the subtlety of her aids. After all, it’s a huge transition from child rider (leg means go, hand means stop) to an adult rider (leg and hand together mean go,stop,left or right!).

I decided that we would have a session taking apart the trot to canter transition, to see how and where it could be improved.

After warming up, I put them on the lunge. She rode a couple of canter transitions as normal, but thinking about what her body is doing.

Then, I took her reins away. As this rider asks for canter, her upper body gets quite active, yet is also stiff, which comes out in her arms. As her arms stiffen in the transition, so her pony raises her head and blocks through her back.

I had her relax her shoulders and arms and then ride some transitions on the lunge without her reins. This helped improve the transition by keeping the pair relaxed and in sync. Then the pony was more forwards. Having no reins, it was obvious to my rider as her hands came up and her arms stiffened.

Staying without reins, we moved on to looking at my rider’s seat aids. To help her tune in to what she could feel and what she was doing, I got her to close her eyes for the canter transition. This was enlightening, and once she’d recovered from the feeling of not being fully in control (hence why I was there at the end of the lunge line!) she could tell me a little about her seat aids.

I reminded her that during the trot to canter transition her hips have to go from an up-down motion to a circular one, akin to doing the hula hoop. She then focused on this movement of her seat through the next couple of transitions with her eyes closed.

We also checked the angle of her pelvis; sometimes she sits a little onto the front of her seatbones, and whilst I don’t want her collapsing her lower back, by tucking her tail between her legs and sitting towards the back of her seat bones, her seat became a more forward thinking aid, so encouraging the energy to flow up from the hindquarters and through to the front end.

The upwards transitions were looking better, but we were still missing something. I asked where her weight was distributed between seat bones and asked her to put a little more weight onto her inside seat bone as she transitioned from the up-down hip movement to the hula-hooping movement.

Voila!

They got it! The transition suddenly looked like the completed jigsaw, and lost any resistance from either party, and meant they could immediately get a balanced, relaxed and rideable canter rather than wasting a few strides.

I made them repeat the transitions with no reins and eyes closed a few times on both reins. I considered taking her stirrups away but decided to save her that torture, as I thought my rider might tense her seat without stirrups and so undo all our progress.

With her reins back, I unclipped them and we worked on the trot to canter transitions around the arena. Every so often, to draw her attention to her seat, I got my rider to close her eyes for the transition. This was only possible because we were in a standard arena on our own with a very well behaved pony!

The transitions gained in consistency and became much more fluid. We didn’t focus very much on the leg aids because the improvement to her seat aids made such a difference, but in a few weeks I’d like to progress to minimising the leg aids, but my rider needs to strengthen and get more awareness over her seat aids first before we reduce the support of the legs. I really enjoyed the challenge of fine-tuning the aids and discovering the element which isn’t quite perfect.

If ever there’s an “blemish” to your riding, taking it apart and putting it back together piece by piece until you find the weak links and then spending some time focusing on improving that area with pay dividends in not only improving your blemish, but also having a positive impact on other areas of your riding, and in the future too. It’s far better from a long term point of view to find the cause and treat it, rather than put a plaster over that area and cover it up because that plaster will trip you up later on!

The Inside Hind

I’ve been on a mission recently to try to improve the feel of my riders. Some people say that talented riders have a “good feel”. Yes they may do, but for those of us less talented at equitation, don’t lose hope. You may have to work on your balance and coordination of aids, but you can still feel. Everyone can. It’s one of our five senses. You just might need a little more help in understanding what you can feel when riding and how to respond appropriately.

This is why I’m forever asking clients to tell me what they can feel. I’m not looking for correct terminology, or long winded descriptions, but I want to know if the rider can tell the difference between a long stride, a short stride, one full or impulsion, or one dragging their toes. I want to know if they’re aware that they have a heavier right rein, or if they can feel their horse bending or not.

Sometimes I’ll ask, “what can you feel?” Or “how does that trot feel now?”

Other times, I’ll give more leading questions such as “can you feel your horse leaning on your outside hand?” Or “can you feel a bit more push from the hindlegs?”

It’s never a problem if someone answers no. We just revise what we are aiming for in this session and where the rider should be feeling the change. Usually just by focusing their attention on that one area of the horse, they start to feel what I am explaining, and understand the subject more clearly. Occasionally, videos help. I’ve videoed jumps before, which haven’t been perfectly executed, and replayed them to the rider so that they can relate what they feel in the saddle to how it looks from the ground and the final result.

So in my quest to further my riders’ feel for what their horse’s legs are doing, and their ability to enhance their horse’s way of going, I have been encouraging them to think about the hind legs and what they can feel in terms of power and stride length.

When trotting the inside hind leg is the propulsion leg. It powers the horse forwards. In order to do this efficiently, the horse needs to step under their body with it, sit on that leg so that it takes the weight, and then push their weight up and forwards from the leg. It’s similar to the mechanics of human walking.

On curves the inside hind leg has to work extra hard, and this is where horses often lose their balance. If the inside hind leg is weak or lazy then it will step short, and the horse won’t be able to sit on that leg so well in the stance phase. This causes the horse to lose the balance in their body, and to load the outside shoulder in compensation.

For novice riders who are developing their feel, trotting corners are often when they first begin to feel the action of the hind leg, so I use lots of circles and turns to get them feeling. Sitting trot is useful at this stage so long as the rider can maintain it comfortably and the horse doesn’t brace against them or slow down.

Then I explain the mechanics of the horse, their particular strengths and weaknesses, and how improving the stride of the inside hind will improve the whole gait by engaging the abdominals and topline muscles, maintaining a consistent bend and contact, and increasing impulsion.

Then I link the footfall of the horse to their rising trot. When the rider is rising on the correct diagonal, the inside hind leg is stepping forwards. We are trying to encourage the inside hind leg to step further underneath the body, especially if it’s a little lazy, so that it can then propel the horse forwards more easily and powerfully. Therefore, we have to influence that hindleg whilst it is in the swing phase. As my riders are about to rise, and that inside hind about to come off the floor, they need to encourage it to come forward with a bit more vigour. A squeeze of some description with the inside leg is usually enough to make all the difference. Of course each horse is different, so you have to play around with the leg aids, and perhaps a flick of a schooling whip, on that haunch, to find the button which works for horse and rider.

Riders can learn to time their aids by linking it to their rising, and you can test their feel by working in sitting trot. But by at least applying the aids at the correct time, the rider will start to feel an improvement in the horse’s way of going, and the more active hind step should increase the feeling of movement to the rider, so further establish what they are aiming to feel. Once a rider has begun to become aware of what’s going on behind the saddle, you can start to dissect the walk and canter, and then fine tune the timing of their aids to improve their quality.

I’ve reminded several riders recently, of different abilities, to think about and to enhance the inside hind leg action, which has resulted in their horses maintaining impulsion, balance and consistency, which means the rider can ride more accurately and with a better quality of gait. Improving awareness of the inside hind is particularly important when changing the rein and changing the bend through the horse’s body. By focusing on the new inside hind leg propelling the horse forwards, the horse changes the rein more fluidly.

Juggling Babies and Horses

I’ve survived my first winter juggling horses and babies, and it is possible! So I thought I’d share a few hints and tips for anyone about to undergo this challenge.

I have two major tips.

Firstly, get a baby carrier. We started with the Baby Bjorn and now have a Little Life on loan. It makes things so easy, plus lugging a toddler round burns off some serious calories! With them in a carrier you can catch or turn out, groom the body (nothing below the elbow else you risk toppling over), feed, muck out, poo pick, lunge. Rugs are tricky though. This means that when they’re clingy or the pushchair isn’t cutting it, you can still do a few chores. And get some you time. This is often how I get her to sleep too, so it’s a useful strategy to have.

Secondly, get a great support team! I honestly feel so lucky with who I have supporting me. The girls on my yard are very good at keeping an eye on the pushchair for me whilst I turn out, or muck out, so that she’s never unattended. If I’m riding in the school and she’s fussing, someone usually comes along to borrow her, and entertains her on the yard watching the farrier, watching the guinea fowl or stroking the dogs. Plus I’m always having much appreciated offers to babysit so I can hack. The other week we had a bad night, just falling asleep as my alarm was about to go. After cancelling my alarm, I sent a message to the yard Facebook group pleading for someone to turn out for me, and instantly I had messages of “of course, now get some rest” which I was very grateful for.

Then of course is my chauffeur slash babysitter, who manages to multitask (he is a man, remember!) and looks after her, whilst mucking out for me! I’m so lucky! It does mean less video footage of lessons, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

In terms of managing chores and routine, sharing catch and turn out duties with a friend makes life so much simpler. I usually do the mornings because evenings are a race against the clock to get home for tea.

I’ve used wood pellets for bedding, as I’ve used previously for Otis and Matt, which means that if we’re having a bad day, or a clingy one, I can skip out. Then on a child free day, I can put in the new bedding and do a thorough job. Phoenix is very clean, which means her bed is dustier than I’d like, and she’d probably be better suited to shavings. But as I never muck out with her in there I’m not too worried.

A hay bar means it’s quick and easy to give her forage – again helpful on those clingy mornings. Mixing dinner and breakfast and leaving them in her stable and ready for the morning round respectively, and having one feed of fibre and balancer means less faffing with measurements.

I think it’s also important to have a flexible routine. Plan when you hack, because that requires childcare, but if you’re planning to ride and baby isn’t playing ball, don’t beat yourself up that you haven’t ridden, just lunge. Or if you suddenly have some time to yourself, jump on board. Even if today was supposed to be a non riding day. Or if you’re having a bad day and the baby’s tired, jump in the car, do a bit of rocking in the pushchair at the yard, and use this nap time to ride. I still feel very smug if I’ve managed to time my ride to coincide with a nap. It’s a longer, more peaceful schooling session and I feel like I’ve had a break. And if you haven’t managed any saddle time this week, guilt trip the other parent into babysitting.

A few times over the winter I got up at 5am and went to ride under the lights. In the summer I’m hoping to squeeze in an evening ride or two in the week. This is only really an option with a yard that’s nice and close to home so you don’t waste precious baby free time in the car.

I also take a few snacks and toys to the yard, after all you know what a time warp yards can be. And you don’t want your chat, or ride, cut short because of hunger or boredom!

Yes, horses and babies can both be done, but be prepared to relax your mucking out standards, bend your routine, and get yourself some amazing, supportive friends!

Mounting Manners

What are your expectations of your horse while you mount?

Everyone seems to have varying opinions on how a horse should behave when their rider is climbing aboard.

Being aware of normal mounting behaviour for your horse means you should be alerted to any changes and what he is trying to tell you.

I’ve known some horses who begin to fuss at the mounting block when they’re sore somewhere. One client’s horse was very fidgety during mounting although behaved well whilst ridden, but when examined by a physio found to be very sore in his back. Now that he’s been sorted, he’s a total gentleman to mount!

Some disciplines, such as racing, mount on the move, so it is ridiculous to expect an ex-racer to stand still to be mounted without some considerable retraining. So it’s worth assessing how the horse is used to being mounted before you first ride them – even if they’re used to one particular mounting block – so that you start on a positive note. You can then start to adapt this procedure to best suit you.

I expect a horse to stand by the mounting block without twisting away or fidgeting. A horse who usually stands quietly at the block, and suddenly starts fussing is telling you something, so it’s worth being aware of their body language. Unless of course you’re somewhere exciting, such as a sponsored ride, when your horse might be a little more of their toes.

I remember at a riding school I used to work at, there was a large rider (just physically tall and broad as opposed to overweight) and he used to ride this horse who struggled to carry him. As the rider mounted, the horse would groan and literally buckle. I hated it.

Some people like their horses to stand stock still whilst they mount, and yes this is ideal but I don’t mind a horse taking a step or two as the rider mounts. After all, of a heavy lump was getting on your back, however gracefully, it is fully acceptable that you may need to adjust your balance. This is particularly important when working with youngsters. You can encourage them to stand square, but ultimately if they need to step forwards in order to keep their balance then they should be allowed to so that mounting does not become an issue. If a horse does walk forwards as I mount, I just quietly pull them up and we pause. Over a period of time I accept fewer forward steps, and a longer halt. They’ll learn to stand in a way that means they can accept a rider’s weight easily soon enough, and understand that they wait until the rider is ready to walk on.

What I don’t like when getting on a horse though, is for their back to come up or for them to scoot off. Cold backed used to be the term for this, but I think with better understanding of the equine back and better fitting saddles, there is a reduction in “cold backed horses” and those showing these signs are generally trying to tell you something is wrong. Of course, some are just sensitive so like you to sit down lightly, but these ones usually stand calmly when you hover momentarily whilst mounting.

If a horse does show either of these signs then I want help mounting, so that it becomes less stressful for all involved, and we can start to retrain them to get positive associations to mounting, whilst investigating possible causes such as the saddle not fitting or them needing some form of physiotherapy or chiropractic treatment. If you’re convinced that the tension associated with mounting is from pain whilst ridden then I would get that sorted first, but I would simultaneously spend time wearing the saddle (not me – the horse!), and standing by the mounting block while you faff around doing stirrups, girths, climbing the steps, patting their back, sides, rump, saddle, to just help reduce the fear and desensitise them to an extent to the whole process. Then hopefully the horse will be in a better frame of mind about mounting, which combined with being more comfortable, should lead to better mounting manners.

Teaching a horse mounting manners takes time and consistency, and is often overlooked in the grand scheme of getting on and riding so that you can return quickly to your hectic life.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Riding a Course

I taught a Pony Club rally the other day, which can be a challenge because there will be a variety of ages and abilities within each group, plus the fact that the instructor will inevitably have some unknown ponies and riders.

This club has the totally brilliant idea of having club coats with the child’s name on, so all I had to do was wait until they’d trotted past me to be reminded of their name! I always spend a couple of minutes asking the children how their riding is going – if they’ve managed to ride much through the winter, if they’re feeling confident, and how big they’ve been jumping. Even the ones that I saw last summer, I need to check how much progress they’ve made.

I find the best approach to pony club rallies is to find a lesson theme that can be layered according to what you see on the day, and each rider can hopefully take something away from the lesson.

I decided for this occasion, to work on the approach and getaway from jumps. Children and ponies are renowned for cutting corners so hopefully they would all have something to work on, and I could easily teach different levels within the same lesson.

I set up a short course of jumps, which formed a basic figure of eight. It was fairly tight as the arena wasn’t huge, but that played to my advantage.

I warmed up horses and riders as a ride in trot and cantered then individually before working on their jumping position over some poles.

Then I got the children to ride around the course as poles on the ground, focusing on demonstrating their jumping position and riding good lines to each jump.

As predicted, a few corners were cut and some jumps were done on the angle. So I explained, whilst walking the course, the path my riders should be taking. For the younger children, physical cues are important, and for the older children a physical object to go around helps increase their satisfaction in completing a task. It also proves that a rider and pony has ridden the correct line.

So I positioned some plastic jump blocks at pivotal turns on the course, and got the children to ride the course with their improved lines before putting the jumps up one by one. I put one block after the last jump, to send the riders into the corner as they all wanted to canter to the rear of the ride, but winged it round the corner so atrociously after such a beautifully ridden course, I had to do something about it!

Lead rein riders benefit from this exercise in that they learn the correct approach and getaway to fences whilst building confidence with little cross poles. By putting up the jumps slowly they won’t be fazed by a whole course of jumps.

Riders just off the lead rein benefit from having obstacles to steer round as it can make them more determined to try steering, and they learn to ride the correct lines whilst still being able to focus on the jumps.

For more competent riders, you can talk about the horse’s balance around the turns and when the ponies should be trotting or cantering, as well as canter leads.

To add in a further level of complication, I made one jump a skinny. This was a good test for the complacent riders who just aimed and fired, and for the confident ones who didn’t think they needed to get straight, realised the consequences when the jump became harder.

Overall, I had two good teaching sessions, with something for each child to work on, and hopefully practice at home.