Adjustability to the Canter

I’ve talked recently about transitions within the gait, and using the idea of a scale of 1-10 to help get the idea of different gears and transitioning between them.

This month’s clinic had the theme gears to the gait, so I concocted an exercise and lesson plan to improve the rider’s feel for their canter, improve their horse’s adjustability, as well as improving their overall canter.

I had my riders warm up in working trot, working between a 4-trot and a 6-trot while I assessed them and made corrections to their position and way of going. We did the same in canter, and even just by riding small transitions the horses started to use their hindquarters more, to lift their shoulders and get more power to their trot and canter.

Next up we started working through a related distance: it was walked as three horse strides and four pony strides to accommodate all sizes and stride lengths. I had them jumping the related distance, with reasonably sized cross poles until the horses had settled into their usual jumping rhythm and were jumping the fences appropriately. Not too big, yet not being complacent and tripping over the fence. Once we knew how many strides a horse got between the two fences when in canter gear five, we could start to make some changes.

Firstly, I asked my riders to approach the related distance in a more collected canter – fourth gear – and to see if they could hold the canter together between the fences to get an extra stride in. Some horses manage this easily, but others who lock on to a line are less adjustable and tend to launch over the second jump rather than fit in a small stride. Not naming any names Phoenix…

To help anyone who struggled to keep a shorter canter between two fences I had a slightly different experience. I asked them to jump the first fence and then ride a circle away from the second jump, of 10-15m before jumping the second element. I laid a pole out to help them scribe a circle. It could become a jump if necessary.

Doing this circle exercise a few times helps the horse maintain a more collected canter, teaches them not to lock on to a jump too early, they become more responsive to the rider’s half halts, and pretty soon they start to fit in that extra stride in the related distance.

When the exercise is ridden well in fourth gear, there should be four regular strides between the two fences. It’s vital that the rider sets up the more collected canter early in the approach, rather than trying to adjust the canter in the middle. It usually takes a couple of attempts to get the four regular strides, rather than progressively shorter strides between the jumps.

Then it’s time to lengthen the canter over the jumps. When you jump from a more extended canter the horse’s bascule will change as their take off point moves further back and the arc they make becomes longer. Think of steeplechasers. A lot of horses here will fall onto the forehand as they try to pull themselves along, and then they aren’t in the best position to jump so can either chip in or bring the fence down with their front legs. The answer is to practice lengthening the canter on the flat and over canter poles to build the strength in the hindquarters.

Once my riders could adjust the number of strides between the related distance we moved on towards dog legs and built a simple course, but with the added challenge of trying to get a different number of strides in each related distance. The dog leg distances were all walked as three horse strides or four pony strides as well, so I challenged my riders to jump round changing between their fourth, fifth and sixth gear canters.

Each jump could be jumped from each direction, and the easiest course was to progressively lengthen the canter throughout. Starting in fourth gear and then finishing in sixth gear. Harder, was starting in sixth gear, dropping straight to fourth and then back up again.

By the end of the sessions the horses were all more adjustable in their canter, were better balanced and more uphill in all the gears. And the riders had a better feel and understanding of the canter they needed to create before jumps.

So how does this impact your course riding? Well, at competitions there is a measured distance between jumps, but when you’re walking the course and striding out the distances you may discover that the distance is a bit short or long for your horse’s normal jumping canter. In order to jump smoothly and be in the best position to go clear the stride length of your canter needs to be adjusted to best fit the distance. So when you walk the course you can start to plan your gears on the approach to jumps to best ride the getaway and hopefully go clear!

Back To Basics

A fellow coach and I were discussing this subject a couple of weeks ago, and we thought it should move into the public eye more.

There’s a huge trend at the moment for grassroots riders to have one off lessons with different coaches. These might be clinics organised by riding clubs, or camps.

I firmly believe that a rider should have one regular instructor until they reach the point when they are knowledgeable and confident enough in their own goals and abilities, with a thorough all-round grounding, that they can choose the specialist lessons which will complement their aims, learning style, and current instructor. I’m currently reading a book “Two Minds, One Aim” by Eric Smiley, and I thought it was interesting that he didn’t promote the idea of going to lots of different teachers.

The trouble with going to different instructors for one-off lessons is that they have to assess you very quickly, and have to deliver something near to the lesson on offer. When actually the horse and rider combination may not be at a suitable level, or it’s a bad day for both.

What I mean is that, if a showjumping coach is offering a jumping clinic and a pair turn up who are not established enough on the flat or as a partnership to successfully achieve the jumping exercise planned then the lesson could go badly wrong.

Now there are two options for the coach. Firstly, they can ignore the weaknesses of the pair and hope that they don’t crash and burn over the jumping exercise. The client will feel that they’ve had their value for money because they’ve done lots of jumps, jumped high, or have completed a tricky exercise.

Whether they can replicate it in future, or did it in any great style is left unsaid.

Alternatively, the coach can go right back to basics, make some adjustments and have the majority of the lesson on the flat, before jumping lower than the rider might have expected to, but with much more style and ease.

I recently went for a jump lesson with a BS trainer. I tend to always use her, but lessons are infrequent. The first half hour is always focusing on our flatwork. The flatwork content differs from what we do in our dressage lessons, but only in topics; the fundamentals are the same. What I mean, is that currently in my dressage lessons we’ve worked on lateral work and encouraging Phoenix to let me position her body in different ways. In the last jump lesson I had we focused on transitions within the gaits, which is also helping me teach Phoenix to allow me to adjust her, but is aiming to improve our performance in the air rather than on the flat.

Some people would be disappointed that so long was spent on the flat, but by fine tuning the flatwork, the jumping section went smoothly and built confidence because each question we were asked was achieved easily. This means that less time needs to be spent jumping because fewer attempts are needed to perfect the exercise, and you risk falling into the trap of repetition. Did the jumps go to her maximum height? No. But as the focus was on our approach rather than proving how big she can jump, they didn’t need to be big, and if anything needed to be a height that it didn’t matter if she made a mistake on the approach.

However, some people would come away disappointed with this special one-off jump lesson because in their eyes they failed the lesson requirement: they didn’t jump the height they’re capable of, and they spent more time on the flat than jumping. But actually, this sort of lesson is safer for all involved, reinforces the basic building blocks which means that the jumping comes easily, builds confidence because the jumping goes smoothly, and provides homework which can be practised with whatever facilities you have available at home, and sets both horse and rider up for a longer, active partnership.

Unfortunately, trying to give immediate lesson satisfaction means that some trainers who run clinics, end up bypassing the basics, losing the quality to their teaching, and putting horse and rider in potentially compromising positions. Yet, they get positive feedback because the riders jumped “their biggest fence ever!” or felt that they got sufficient jumps for their money.

How can this be changed? Firstly, by educating the rider on the fact that “showjumping is dressage with speed bumps” and that improving their flatwork will improve their jumping. And that they will learn something from a clinic, even if it is in an unexpected area.

Then we need to encourage trainers, most of whom know the value of correct basics, to be confident enough in themselves to spend the time with one-off clients on the basics and setting them up for long term success over jumps, rather than putting a sticky plaster over the flatwork weaknesses and letting them scramble through the jumping exercise. This is difficult though, because the trainer risks a less than flourishing report unless they have one of the enlightened riders I mentioned in the paragraph before.

It needs to be discussed though, because in our current society of musical coaches, there is a real risk of a horse and rider having an accident because the coach has failed to revise and instill the basics.

Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Cancellation Policies 

I saw a thread last week on an instructors forum about cancellation policies and how everyone was coping with the decline in business through the winter. It seems that a lot of instructors see a demise in their businesses through the winter month.

It’s an interesting and sensitive subject. If the weather is atrocious you can’t expect to have a productive lesson in an outdoor arena and you don’t want to stand out there either! Likewise, if the forecast is awful, such as a storm arriving, are you better off cancelling lessons the evening before or hanging around and waiting to see what happens?

Then of course there’s the fact that people get ill. That’s instructors included! No one wants to be ill, but it can’t be helped.

I put on my website that I’ve got a 24 hour cancellation fee. Not that I’ve ever had to use it. I think I must have very dedicated and robust clients because either we’ve weathered the wind and rain, cancelled because of a flooded arena or waterlogged cross country course; or if they’ve been ill I’ve schooled the horse instead for them. All of which are reasonable reasons of ways of overcoming the obstacle.

Some of the instructors on the forum were saying that they’d had numerous cancellations within that week and were suffering financially. I guess the best way to explain it to your clients is that if they cancel because of a sniffle or the wind is blowing from the east, then it is not like being employed. The wage packet doesn’t stay the same, it decreases. £30 say for a lesson, well that could be the difference between eating sufficiently and going hungry that week. I think once people realise that they have a direct effect on your quality of lifestyle they will either be more organised to rearrange lessons, or will look for alternatives, such as you schooling or teaching them to lunge properly. It’s a bit like the public being encouraged to buy from individual retailers on the high street as opposed to chain stores.

I guess ideally instructors should get into the position that it doesn’t matter if they have one cancellation a week. You probably won’t have one every week in the summer, but save up all those bonus sessions and that will tide you over on a rainy day. Alternatively, offering clipping services and doing yard work through the winter months will help add strings to your bow so you are less affected by the winter weather. Perhaps it’s worth running some stable management lectures, learn to lunge sessions, or off-horse Pilates-type sessions? Ultimately as an instructor you have to adapt to your audience and provide the services they require.

Like I said earlier, I am very lucky in that my clients rarely cancel, and any cancellations are for good reason – such as the cross country lesson at 9am after a heavy thunderstorm, with high winds still raging. I was more than happy with that rearrangement! So I haven’t had to adapt my business services away from teaching, schooling and clipping, to give me a full diary.

With regard to cancellation policies, they can actually be difficult to enforce. It’s awkward asking for money at the best of times. I find that it’s easiest to let my client book arenas or cross country courses so that they are directly responsible for those costs should they cancel. Any last minute cancellations I’ve ever had have been clients who’ve always offered to pay, which I may accept part if I’ve travelled there, but if it’s a regular client I’d rather waive it as a gesture of good will. Building a rapport with clients means they’ll feel a sense of loyalty to you, and won’t want to cancel or mess you around.

Which brings me onto my next topic. What happens when you arrive and the horse comes out lame? Or has thrown a shoe? Or the arena has been double booked? Or the horse needs sedating to be clipped? 

Today I went to clip a new horse. It was terrified of the clippers, and  after fifteen minutes of trying to desensitise it, it was still very upset by the prospect. Now I have to make the call. I don’t think it’s safe to start clipping. I think it’s going to panic, barge through it’s owner, and cause one of us three an injury. It’s also not fair on the horse who is clearly afraid, not rude. So we discuss sedation, finding out it’s clipping history, and trying again in January.

No money was offered to me for my petrol and time. No, I wouldn’t have accepted the full fee, but I did have to drive to a different yard to a stranger. I think, to be honest, that it didn’t occur to the naive, teenage owner, and I just thought “I suppose it’s Christmas”, also hoping that if I appeared to be a nice, honest person, she may approach me for lessons in the future, and if she doesn’t at least I’ve come across in a positive light so may get a recommendation out of it. There’s also a lesson to be learnt: if someone asks you to clip a horse that may never have been clipped before then I should specify the cost of the clip and the travel/time costs of introducing and desensitising the horse to clippers should I be unsuccessful in clipping it.

So yeah, cancellation fees. Where do you start? It’s a bit of a minefield with lots of varied circumstances to cover, but I think the most important aspect is to create a good relationship with your clients so that they know the direct and immediate effect that them cancelling their session has.

Booking Arena Time

I teach at numerous yards, and right from the beginning of my self employed career I decided that my clients needed to be responsible for ensuring that we had somewhere to ride as I didn’t want to have to liaise with half a dozen yard managers. 

It’s been interesting to observe different yard rules, and how they try to ensure liveries are kept happy.

One yard has a white board where liveries write their name in the time slots to book the arena out. This means that others can check if they can ride in the arena or not. I have heard of people rubbing others off the board at other yards, but I think this reflects badly on the people, not the system.

Another yard has the rule “no lessons between 4 and 7 on weekdays”. Now this leads to antisocial teaching hours for instructors, but when I thought about it, many people now work weekends and shift work, so they can organise lessons during the day in the week. It is a sensible rule for a yard of adults with limited arena space as it means everyone can exercise their horses after work.

Other yards just seem to muddle along, with the person having the lesson sharing the arena, yet having priority. This is usually pretty straightforward for an instructor to adapt their lesson content, but it does require sensible riders who are aware of the rules of the school. Flat lessons are more easily adapted to a shared arena.

Then of course is the case of paying for hiring the arena. For some yards livery bills are broken down into “stable/grass livery” and “arena use” which means that retired or happy hackers save £50 a month. Others include arena use in the standard fee. Then some yards charge extra to hire the arena for a lesson, whilst others feel that you’ve already paid to use the arena in your monthly bill.

I still haven’t worked out the best approach to booking out arenas but I do know that ….

A) everyone wants to know if there has been a booking so they don’t plan to ride at 2pm only to find the arena is full.

B) if there is an extra charge for hiring out the arena then people want to feel that they have the space to themselves and all the facilities, such as jumps, are available for use.

C) liveries who don’t have lessons  still want to opportunity to ride at peak times and not feel like second class citizens.

I think if I had my own yard I would ensure I had a large enough arena, or two, that if someone is having a lesson there is space for others to ride too. Then I would look into limiting or ignoring lessons at peak times; it would depend on my audience as to the exact times, and of course my facilities, but I think this is really helpful in keeping liveries happy. After all, they ride for pleasure and to take away the blues so making riding difficult means liveries become grumpy and stressed. 

I think dividing a livery bill up into components is really useful too as you can ensure that it is fair, and people can choose the exact package they want, with no grey areas. Then of course I wouldn’t charge extra to book the arena if they are already paying to use the arena.

I’d really like to know other yard policies and how liveries feel they work, or don’t work if that’s they case!

Budgeting

When you start going down the route of buying a horse you take various financial pressures into consideration, such as livery fees, farrier costs, buying tack and rugs. But how many people include the price of lessons and schooling of the horse?

A client of mine has just purchased a horse – quite green and inexperienced – but she has budgeted one weekly lesson into the equation, so that she can improve her riding, her horse`s schooling, and has guidance from her instructor, i.e. me. The idea is that I can give her exercises to work on during the week and check their progression, as well as being a sounding board for any teething problems she may encounter. It is far easier to save questions for a weekly lesson, than struggle on and the issue becomes a problem. And believe me, an instructor is far happier to have  a panicked phone call from a new horse owner if they teach them frequently than someone who has ad hoc lessons.

I think this client is doing the right thing, getting help from the beginning, as it is much harder to correct poor training than it is to establish good habits. Hopefully her foresight means that the lessons can be consistent and so the progression of her horse is consistent and his training structured.

Teething problems are often encountered with a new horse; it could be that he doesn`t settle immediately into his new routine, or you find he is less accepting of the bit, or needs a different type of bit. This can all be discussed in lessons, and perhaps stable management sessions organised, or even a schooling session by the instructor.

There is a real difference between riding riding school horses and your own. The buttons on a private horse are more specific (think about where your legs sit compared to someone with very long legs. The pressure points are on different parts of the horse`s barrel) and are more sensitive. A new horse owner should take time to get to know their horse in different areas – schooling, hacking, jumping.

I`ve noticed recently a teething problem that many first time owners have, and often in their naivity don`t address immediately. When you ride riding school horses you ride in a very reactive way. By this I mean that the horse slows down, you use your legs. The horse falls in, you ride to the outside of the school. The rider is responding to the horse`s behaviour. These horses are usually established in their bad habits, and y riding once a week a rider can hardly hope to improve the riding school horse`s way of going and manners – this is worked on by the staff. If you were to do this with a private, or green, horse you allow them to get into bad habits. By permitting the horse to cut the corner and then correct him he becomes lazy and requires propping up around each corner. If you begin by riding proactively; that is, anticipating cutting corners in the first few weeks of training and riding him correctly into them you instill good habits so that in three months time the horse is carrying himself around the corners, and not falling in. Additionally, private horses can be more spooky and unpredicatble, especially younger horses, so the rider needs to be proactive in their riding – ride positively towards traffic or spooky objects, ride lots of transitions and movements so the horse stays focused, anticipate poor behaviour so the horse learns he cannot repeat it. In this last instance, I`m thinking of that horse who naps to the gate everytime he passes it. As the rider you are allowed to experience the first nap – after all, you don`t know the horse very well – but each time you ride past the gate you need to be positive, anticipate the napping, and after a couple of sessions the horse should forget about napping and behave accordingly, which means he is much easier to ride!

As I said before, it is much easier to prevent bad behaviour than it is to retrain a horse – which is why it is so important to get into good habits from the beginning, and use your instructor to help this.