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.

Confident Cross Country

Last weekend I had a very enjoyable and satisfying cross country lesson. We were focusing on developing the partnership, building their confidence and ultimately overcoming the inevitable refusal on the first attempt to every jump.

Their last session with me hadn’t gone particularly well. The last time I’d seen her cross country she’d been flying round, but unbeknown to me she had had a blip and we had a miscommunication. So once warmed up over some logs, I sent her towards a house. Where they had a problem.

So, knowing the full story, we met up again. After she warmed up, and had a look at the jumps to see what intimidated her, and what looked to be within her comfort zone, I sent them to trot over a plain, natural pheasant feeder style fence. It was inviting, well within their comfort zone. The pony refused.

They approached again in trot, with my rider being a bit more positive, and the pony stopped again. Ultimately, I realised that the pony had lost faith in his rider, who was now losing faith in both herself and him.

I explained that if he refuses, he can’t run away from the jump. He has to stop and breathe before being re-presented. Then I reminded her how her hands and reins channel him straight, preventing him opening a side door and dodging around the jump. But the hand shouldn’t discourage him from going forwards, through the front door. Her legs supported the reins in keeping the side doors firmly shut, but along with the seat they also keep the back door shut too, so he can’t slow down.

With this in mind, and taking sitting trot just before the jump, they were successful. I had them repeat the same jump until they were both approaching it happily, in a positive rhythm, and enjoying it.

The pony loves to jump, but he does need his rider to tell him to jump; you can’t be a total passenger. But equally, he doesn’t like it if you ride too strongly or aggressively to a fence, pushing him out of his rhythm. My rider knows this, but when coupled with cross country nerves, she has the tendency to “panic-smack” him on the shoulder with the whip. I made light of the panic-smack so that it raised a smile when I warned her off doing it, or told her off if she did it. She soon realised the difference between gently supporting him throughout the approach to a fence, compared to being a passenger and then suddenly interfering on the penultimate stride.

So we’d established how she needed to ride towards a jump, and her go-to’s when she got worried. Which means she can plan her approach to fences, remind herself of what not to do, and hopefully then be successful.

Next up, we had to restore her pony’s faith in her as a rider and leader. We moved around the course, jumping new jumps, still within their comfort zone. Initially, we had that first refusal at a new jump, but within a couple of goes my rider was consistent to the fence and responded quicker to her pony’s second thoughts. Which meant that he backed off the fences less and began to trust her.

Then they were flying together, and we linked the jumps together, used some steps, traversed the water, jumped out of, and in the water. The jumps stayed quite straightforward, but they had to link combinations together. I was pleased that the pair were starting to work in synchronisation with each other. This meant that even if my rider got her line slightly wrong, the pony was still committed to jumping, and not thinking how he could slip past the obstacle.

Every so often, they did have a run out. But we knew the reason – poor presentation to the fence, or my rider having a moment and regressing to panic-smacking. But on the whole, there was real improvement. My rider knew how to approach the fence, rode quietly yet positively, and her pony believed in her leadership in choosing a jump, and his ability to clear it.

It was a very rewarding lesson to teach because you could see things clicking into place for each half of the partnership, and how much happier they were at the end. It was progressive, confidence building, and the fact they made my final questions look very straightforward showed just how much progress had been made. Next up is to consolidate this work at another venue, and progress to asking slightly trickier questions, which will leave them in good stead to practice on their own.

Finding the Fun

It’s hard being a teenager, I’ve decided. Everyone expects you to be grown up, yet still treat you like a child. You’re expected to know exactly how to spend your life, yet don’t have many chances to experience each avenue. You’re trying to find yourself as a person, and everyone pulls you in different directions so that you lose sight of who or what you are.

One of my clients is going through that awkward, stressful teenage phase when serious “life decisions” have to be made at school, exams have to be passed, friends have to be socialised with, and Saturday jobs have to be attended. All of these stressors make pony time much harder. 

I had noticed a change in her just before Christmas, but more recently her Mum and I have been worried about her confidence with her share horse, and her eagerness about riding in general.

So we came up with a plan! Her horse isn’t the easiest in that he can be fresh and quite strong and spooky, so the first port of call was to make sure he was getting enough work. Winter is always harder to motivate yourself to ride, and horses have more energy, so combine that with less time due to school exams and you’ve got a problem. My suggestion was that her Mum lunged him once a week, and that each time she rode she made sure he went back to his stable tired. So instead of a half hour flat work session, extend it to forty five minutes and put in a bit more canter work, or perhaps go for a longer hack on the weekends. This combination should help keep on top of his energy levels, which takes one stress factor out of the equation as a less fresh horse isn’t as strong or spooky.

The next part of the predicament was to sort out the confidence crisis and bring back the fun part of riding. Enjoying being with my horses was what motivated me to get through my exams when I was younger, but unfortunately I see so many kids selling their ponies and giving up because of school, and whilst I still think education is invaluable, I think it’s sad that horses are pushed away. Perhaps it’s the parental pressures, of wanting their child to compete and ride every day that does it, or the financial pressures of not wanting a field ornament for the fortnight of exams. But anyway, I think reducing the amount of time spent at the yard, by riding fewer times, or by parents helping out, means that revision can still be fitted in to the equation, but when needed, the pony is there for physical exercise, or getting fresh air, or having a reward for revising all morning. After all, adult life is all about balancing, so why not learn to balance from an early age! 

Not that this is the case for this client of mine, I’m just beginning to ramble!

Together, I came up with another plan with my clients mum. Hacking! This should help build the relationship between teenager and horse, work the horse adequately, and provide useful social time. However, when you’re feeling nervous a hack is one of your least favourite things! But pacified by the fact that I was riding a solid, reliable, calm little cob, my rider agreed to hack out. She led the way as I don’t know the area, and we chatted and I observed for the first half. Then I got to work.

We talked about managing her horse’s exercise regime and working out how to do it without causing her more stress with time and revision, and then I persuaded her to lengthen her reins. We’ve all been there; that anxious, foetal position or leaning forwards, shortening the reins and clamping on the legs like a limpet. By lengthening the reins by an inch or two she could sit up, with her shoulders back and parked squarely on her bum. Sat like this, her legs came off her horse and his walk and whole demeanour relaxed. She felt the swing in his back and could see him looking around with curiosity. She began to realise that he wasn’t interested in spooking, rather just being nosey! 

Does anyone know why the foetal position aggravates the vicious cycle of lost confidence? A horse is trained to move away from pressure, so you squeeze your legs and when they move you release. If you’ve clamped your legs around your horse they will want to move faster, which causes the rider more panic because they are losing control. Trust yourself to release your vice like grip. Leaning forwards gives your horse all the go faster cues with your upper body, so it’s not wonder they jig around underneath you. Try making the front half of your torso longer than the back half; even sitting in this way tells your horse you are in control and confident. So he relaxes and slows down. To counteract all these accelerating signals, we then hold the reins short and tight. Feeling restricted, like he has nowhere to go, causes a horse to jig around and become frustrated. Again, you need to be the grown up and trust your horse by giving him another inch of reins and let him stretch his head out a bit.

It’s hard, because the correct thing to do to diffuse stressful situations as a nervous rider are the exact opposite to our body’s automatic reaction.

We got back to the yard and I was pleased that our last trot was more relaxed, and less of an impression of a pogo stick, with no spooking. My rider was sat comfortably and relaxed, as she used to a few months ago and most importantly she could feel the increased relaxation in her horse.

I really hope that she and Mum can build on this hack over the weekend, and perhaps make it a regular thing, building up duration and speed if necessary, and then with this new found approach to riding, she can better balance life between revision and horses so that her down time really causes her to relax as opposed to adding stress to more stress, because I’m pretty sure that helps get good grades too.

I’m looking forwards to hearing about their progress next week, and seeing them both happy again!