One Step Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individual Journeys

One of the most important, and intuitive, characteristics of a teacher of any sort, is the ability to know how to to push their pupil out of their comfort zone so that they progress and develop their skills and confidence smoothly. This is particularly important with the more timid types of people as a knock to their confidence can halt their learning for a while and can make them reluctant to try new or harder lessons.

I’ve been working with one horse and rider over the last few months who have made me think outside the box. She came to me wanting help with her share horse; wanting to build up his muscles and to encourage him to work more correctly from behind, as well as build her confidence riding him.

I know this rider from when she was a teenager, and whilst perfectly competent she was never the most confident or gung-ho rider. But, with a good level of understanding and the knowledge of the importance of establishing the basics and tweaking the small details. I don’t mind this approach to riding, in fact I possibly prefer it to overconfidence, because I know the horse’s welfare is priority, and the rider never minds revising an exercise to help or reinforce a new lesson.

We began with addressing the horse’s crookedness, and as he’s become straighter he’s become more forward going, and his length of stride has increased. Once his engine is engaged he drops his nose, taking the contact forwards into an outline nicely. We’re getting this result quicker each session, and with more consistency, which is great.

However, with the horse’s medical injury and his age and conformation, I felt that the canter work would really help loosen him over the back and improve their trot work because some days he can just be very stuffy. Unfortunately, this is where I hit a block and had to get my thinking cap on.

Whilst my rider wanted to start the canter work, and is perfectly capable of cantering, she seemed to have developed a mental block with cantering her share horse. She gave all the correct aids to canter, but was only 80% committed to the transition, and so her horse did not oblige. Which led to the cycle of my rider asking, horse going to canter, then not quite cantering, unbalancing the rider with a big trot, and the rider losing faith in her ability. In the next transition attempt the horse is more hesitant to canter, so making my rider work harder.

I had a couple of sessions of warming my rider up so she had a lovely forwards trot and felt confident, and then broaching the subject of canter. With lots of verbal encouragement we managed a couple of strides of canter a few times, but I didn’t feel this was the most effective way for this duo to progress because too many times we ended up in the cycle mentioned above.

My rider hadn’t done much cantering for a while due to rehabbing her share horse, which combined with the fact he has quite a big, bouncy canter, and has been known to buck, was putting her at a disadvantage because she was out of practice and not confident in his behaviour or sitting to his stride. I sent her off to borrow a friend’s horse to practice cantering so that she’d find her canter seat.

Which she did, and felt perfectly happy cantering her friend’s horse, but when back on her share horse we still didn’t get canter. There was a mind block here, and I needed to work out how to break it down.

With a pony, you can lead them in canter, but there’s no way I can keep up with a 16hh thoroughbred cross! I asked my rider if she thought watching her horse canter would put her mind at ease. By watching him go into canter, with no bucks, and seeing the activity in his hindquarters, could help her realise that the big transition is just the way her horse moves, and he’s not being naughty. If you’re used to a short striding, minimalistic canter, then an active strike off can unbalance you and put you off.

My rider lunges this horse regularly and was happy with his transitions from the ground, so I narrowed the problem down to a saddle based issue.

Really, my rider just needed to canter, so she had got the first one under her belt, as there was no physical reason why she couldn’t. This is when it’s important to understand how your rider learns and what type of personality they have because different techniques at this stage can have a detrimental effect. For example, a confident rider might benefit from a bit of a push, lots of encouragement but thrown into the deep end so that they swim. But a timid rider might freeze if put in that position. Sometimes I’ve dared a young client to do something. This works for the competitive but slightly hesitant kids. For example, when asking them to let go with one hand when trotting, they may not want to but when faced with a challenge, they’ll often have a go. But this approach doesn’t work for the timid riders.

I suggested that I lunged her horse at the beginning of the next lesson. My thoughts were that I could assess her horse on the lunge as I could lunge her in canter. Alternatively, being warmed up on the lunge may help her horse become more supple so my rider could get used to a more active gait and be less unseated by the canter transition, and he may be more willing to canter from her aids.

The horse was much more active on the lunge and very well behaved in the canter, so with his rider mounted, I started lunging them in the trot. Initially, it was about getting her to relax and go with his bigger trot stride. Then we just talked about cantering; whether she’d rather be a passenger and I’d get her horse cantering, or whether she’d rather ride the transition. She opted for the latter, which was fine, I think being on the lunge distracted her from the canter transition. Or possibly she felt safer as she was connected to me.

The result was a few short canters on each rein, with me reinforcing her canter aids the first couple of times to make sure she got into canter. The canters were short, but each time my rider seemed happier about the process. She wasn’t tipping forwards so much, was breathing throughout the canter, and was giving with her hands.

By the end of the session, she was much more confident about the whole canter subject, so we’ve decided that every lesson for a few weeks will start on the lunge, doing a few canters, until both horse and rider are comfortable with the transitions and can maintain the canter for longer. I’m looking for my rider to be able to be able to sit a bit deeper in her saddle during the transition, and then to relax in her knee so that she doesn’t tip forwards when in canter, which will allow her to ride her horse forwards in the canter. But this comes with confidence, and for this rider I think this is the best approach to helping her on her equestrian journey. Hopefully she’ll either have a go at cantering one day whilst schooling, or she’ll ask me to remove the lunge line one lesson. Then in a couple of months struggling to canter will be a distant memory!

I always find it very satisfying when I work out how a horse and rider ticks, and which coaching methods will best help them achieve their goals.