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.

Dressage Judging

I’ve been thinking a lot about judging dressage. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about doing in the future, but at the moment I’m quite happy dabbling in my Demi Dressage judging. Which has a scale of 1 to 10, but focusing much more on the teaching side of things – taking the time to comment on how the movement has gone well or how to improve. And the scale isn’t comparable to British Dressage. For example, there’s no way we’re going to be giving out 4.0s and 5.0 to the tiny tots doing their first test. So the marks used tend to be higher than you’d expect, with 9.0s dotted around. But we want to be encouraging, give them a good experience and help them improve both themselves and their pony.

It’s an approach to judging I think should be universal. Aim to give positive and constructive feedback, encourage riders of all ages to improve and have another try at a test. After all, the judge sitting as C doesn’t know their journey. Sure, they may be full of confidence and able to take a tough judge. But they may also be nervous and spent months building up to this moment. It may only be a prelim test, but to them it’s their Olympics.

Phoenix and I have been plugging away at affiliated dressage this summer; being very comfortable and bored in novice, we pushed up to elementary.

Our first elementary test wasn’t an easy one – typical – but we could ride each element and I felt that so long as she didn’t anticipate anything, or spook then we should make a respectable debut. The test itself, she rode everything as I asked. Conservative, and sometimes a little wobbly, but as well as she could. I was pleased.

However, when the scores came through I was really disappointed. Expecting 62% ish, with what I thought to be realistic expectations, we’d scored 57%.

Initially, I was gutted. The score was much lower than I felt we really deserved. Yes it hadn’t taken us out the placings, but it just felt very unfair. Phoenix has quality gaits and usual marks are 6.5 when she’s going in a very average way. Of course, if she jogs the walk or spooks she picks up a 4.0. But that’s fair.

Anyway, I looked at the score sheet for some feedback, and it was very disappointing. Little to no feedback or justification for the low scores. I looked at the rest of the class, and there were more scores than usual in the 50s, so it seemed to be a general theme of the day. I was very frustrated and disappointed, moping around for a couple of days feeling like I’d been wasting my time.

Then I saw a friend who had been volunteering and supporting her friends at the competition. We had a moan, but most importantly, she told me that those competing regularly at elementary had received a score approximately 5% lower than their normal. Which made me feel better, and that another judge would have put us in the low 60s that I’d anticipated for our first time, and it wasn’t a personal vendetta.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the repercussions of judging negatively. Yes, I respect that you need to use a range of marks, but no decent feedback and for the whole class to be scored low is not good for anyone.

It’s not good for the competitor. My first experience of an elementary test did not inspire me to continue trying. I wanted to give up. I lost my confidence and self belief. And I wouldn’t be the only competitor in this position. Leisure riders who spend hours of time and lots of money training towards a test, perhaps it’s at the top of their game, are in it for fun. Reading those score sheets are not fun. These riders, who go to British Dressage competitions regularly actually make up a large proportion of BD membership, and make these show days financially viable. Don’t put them off.

It isn’t a good advert for British Dressage – why would you opt to go to a BD show if you regularly received unfair judging when there are perfectly acceptable Riding Club options, which a more inviting and supportive atmosphere.

It’s not great for the judge. I looked her up and I won’t be going to the BD venue she’s associated with. Nor will I put her name forward to judge at any Riding Club or Pony Club competitions. If I learn she’s judging a class I’m entered in, I’m not sure I’d even bother going. I’d rather forfeit the entry fee. And I definitely will not be looking for lessons or clinics with her, or recommending her to anyone else.

The venue. It’s very local to me, and whilst the venue was great, it will be quite a risk returning there in case she judges again, so the venue has certainly lost out from that perspective.

No one benefits from this situation, and as I said before, it may be the first rung on the BD ladder, but to some this is a massive achievement – training, overcoming nerves, travelling, riding in a new environment, and then learning the test.

Depending on your point of view, fortunately or unfortunately I had already entered another elementary test at another show. Which meant I had to pick myself up and brush ourselves off.

I sent the test video and sheet to my coach, and then ripped up the score sheet. I’d rather put my trust in her to guide me in my next training steps, than dwell on those low numbers. I knew already what our weaker areas were, so started practising those before our next lesson. I also did some fun hacks and jumps to remember why I ride Phoenix.

It was definitely a test of resilience. I really didn’t want to go to our next competition, and had to dig deep to practice. It was also interesting to note that my general confidence with riding and work took a dip. I thought of attending some clinics, but didn’t want to ride in front of anyone unknown. The risk of taking another battering I guess.

But it was fine. We weren’t hugely well prepared, and the second test had some mistakes. But the scores were fair, and justified, and we came home with a first and second. This inspired me a bit more, so I entered another two tests to keep the ball rolling. Last weekend the scores increased further, although there were still some mistakes (like riding canter to halt instead of canter to walk in the simple changes, and me forgetting where the final halt transition was on the centre line and wobbling around), and we had another first and second.

I feel like we’ve established ourselves at elementary level, and it feels the right level of difficulty – not perfect, but challenging enough. So now I’m planning a few weeks of training to consolidate what we’ve learnt from the competitions. And really focus on our weaker points, such as finding and maintaining the balance in medium trot. Then we’ll get out between the white boards again and hopefully have some more successful outings.