The High Jump

It seems to be an uphill battle to teach children that they don’t have to jump the highest or the fastest to be the best.

Last week I had to ask my Pony Clubbers how high they usually jump at the beginning of the week to assess them, and inevitably they all wanted to jump their maximum every day.

I like to know the height of the jumps that they have done, but that doesn’t mean we’ll jump that high, as I don’t want the weaker jumpers to feel inferior or worried about the lesson. And there are plenty of things we can work on without jumping big, such as their position, lines to the jump, quality of the canter before and after the jumps.

At the end of camp they have a showjumping competition; the children in each ride compete against each other but they don’t all have to jump the same height. I ended up doing two heights. Doing the smaller height was my nervous rider as I wasn’t sure how her confidence level would be on the final morning and I wanted her to ride the course independently and finish camp on a high. One pony had had a confidence crisis at the beginning of the week so I’d really focused his rider on not restricting his head over jumps, so I had her doing small fences where the pony was less likely to need to “jump” and his rider could concentrate on her position, without risk of being left behind so that again, they finished camp on a positive note. This rider was disappointed with the height of the jumps, but did accept my explanation, and said the jumps felt smoother. The final pair doing the little jumps were capable of jumping bigger but the pony was looking tired, and as they’d had problems with her refusing jumps in the winter, I told my rider that I thought it best they did a smaller course clear, than get into problems due to the tired pony stopping at bigger jumps. She agreed with me, which was great to hear as she was sensitive to her pony’s needs.

The three which jumped the bigger course were all fairly confident; one of them was being pushed towards her limit over the oxers, but actually rode the best lines and approaches to each jump. One of them was capable of jumping bigger, but as she lacked control over the speed, I’d rather the fences weren’t too big so that the pony could get herself out of trouble until her rider had mastered the brakes. The other rider was probably the most competent out of all of my ride, but I actually felt that her pony had worked hard all week so didn’t need to prove herself over a 70cm course as opposed to a 60cm course. Also, I felt the focus needed to move away from the height and towards being able to create a jumping canter and maintain it all the way to a fence, rather than sloppily falling round corners and falling into trot.

My aim was to emphasise style, which they were judged on, with unexpected results I feel.

It’s a difficult concept for your children to grasp; the fact jumping should be stylish, but I think it’s the job of us as instructors and parents to stand firm in our belief that it’s better to jump a smaller course in style and safely, than to get round a bigger course by the skin of their teeth.

It’s not just the kids who want to jump high. At camp the senior kids do a one day event competition, and we set the maximum height at 90cm. Their instructors choose the height which each rider can do, but invariably we get some parents complaining that their children jump much higher at home. But that’s not on grass, which is invariably hard in August, or after five days of being ridden for a couple of hours each day. The aim of Friday’s competition is to round off the week with fun, and not create problems by facing a tired pony at a big jump and wonder why they refuse, or injure themselves from repetitive strain on their legs.

So what can we as teachers do to educate leisure riders that it is not all about jumping fast and high? Firstly, build tricky schooling exercises which takes the rider’s eye off the height and onto other aspects so that they negotiate the exercise successfully. We can talk about the the strains of jumping on a horse’s legs and why jumping bigger or jumping too frequently can be detrimental to them. We can discuss fittening a horse and implementing a work routine correctly so that they are able to jump sufficiently. We can emphasise how improving our flatwork helps improve our jumping. We can teach our riders that horses aren’t machines and can have confidence issues too.

Finally, I think there should be more jumping competitions that are judged on style and performance, rather than speed and height. At bigger competitions you don’t see so much bad riding in an attempt to get a fast clear, but you do at the lower levels. And I’m talking the local, unaffiliated showjumping competitions, not so much the grassroots level. This leads to poor riding, long-suffering horses and ponies, and to be frank, some dangerous situations. We want to make horse riding as safe and fun as can be, yet encourage riders to jump fast and big in order to be successful. Surely it’s a recipe for disaster?

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!

Getting Ready For Camp

I’ve spent the last week prepping for Pony Club camp: organising childcare, informing all clients and making sure their next lesson is booked in (it’s the one time of the year that my diary is organised for a whole fortnight!), choosing my musical ride music, and planning my lessons. But I’ve also been helping some clients prepare for their own Pony Club camp.

A kid’s first camp can be a nerve wracking experience, so I use the few weeks leading up to camp to prepare them as much as possible so that they don’t feel out of their depth and can enjoy camp to the maximum.

Firstly, they will be riding in a group, which some children with their own ponies aren’t used to, so I work with my little riders to make sure they know to keep a ponies distance away from the one in front, and that they know the basic etiquette of riding in a group. Last year I had a lovely little rider who I suspected would be used as lead file, so I taught her about checking that she was going the correct speed for everyone to keep up, and how to adjust her pony’s trot to accommodate everyone else.

I try to make sure my riders understand instructions that an unfamiliar instructor may use, and are familiar with the letters of the school and changes of rein or school movements. This is particularly important for my riders who only have fields to ride in. I want my riders to understand the basic commands and movements so that they don’t panic about riding it in a different environment.

I then run through exercises which I think the instructors may use to assess the children and ponies, such as sitting trot, taking away their stirrups, replacing their feet in their stirrups. Again, so that first day nerves don’t kick in too much. We do canter work, trot poles, and some jumps. With a young rider this week I’ve had her jumping over a small double as previously she’s lacked confidence over fences. I’ve lead her over some slightly bigger jumps, and then had her jumping smaller cross poles and uprights on her own. I don’t want her to have grandiose ideas about her ability, but I want her to be able to demonstrate a good approach and balanced jump position and not feel overwhelmed by any jumping exercises at camp. The pre-camp lesson needs to be a confidence building session so that they arrive feeling confident about their riding and can them cope better with the qualms which come with riding in company and in a new environment.

I also check that their tack is Pony Club legal; safety stirrups, grass reins etc. And that tack is in good condition for camp. A lot of parents use camp as a good opportunity to replace worn tack, but you want to have a test run before camp to make sure it all fits correctly and you don’t need extra holes punched in stirrup leathers! Sometimes I suggest changes to tack which may help my rider in a different environment. For example, one girl I teach holds her reins at different lengths, so her left hand sits further back than her right. In a one-to-one lesson I can monitor and correct this habit, but for camp I suggested using tape to show her where to hold her reins so that it doesn’t get overlooked and develop into a real problem.

While some of my clients don’t carry whips because it’s just one more thing for their little hands to carry, I do sometimes introduce them to one ready for camp. I explain how to use it correctly, how to hold it and how to change it from hand to hand. This is because their pony may be less forwards in a different setting, or when they’re tired towards the end of camp, and I would rather my little riders were told how to carry a whip with consideration to their pony than just given one in a hurry at camp. Plus, one of the ponies I teach has a phobia of lunge whips so I don’t want the unknown instructor to feel that they need to chivvy or chase the pony along with one as that will shatter my rider’s confidence.

I also try to make sure my rider knows what is expected of them at camp in terms of behaviour, and how they should ask for help if they need it. Sometimes children can be very shy about asking for assistance. Then finally, I try to make sure my riders are confident around their ponies. They will all have help, but by the very nature of the camp environment they will have less support than at home with either their parents or me supervising. It’s only little things such as knowing their girth needs to be checked before they mount, knowing how to dismount whilst holding onto their reins, and to run up their stirrups. Having children who are able to do this makes an instructor’s life much easier whilst keeping them all a little safer.

Of course, camp is all about learning and I look forward to getting my kids back with new found confidence and competence, but I find that the right preparation really helps them get the most out of their camping experience.

The Making of a Child’s Pony

I’ve got an interesting project at the moment, helping a lady back her miniature Shetland. I’ve had quite a lot of experience with young horses and ponies, but to be honest, they’ve all been of a size that a teenager or adult can ride. Preparing a small pony for a ridden career is a whole new thing.

Firstly, safety is paramount. Ponies need to be adaptable and accepting of their riders making noise, flapping, and bouncing around. Particularly the smaller ones as they are more likely to have the younger children who can be more erratic in behaviour and less aware of the consequences of their behaviour or a pony’s natural instincts. With this in mind, this poor Shetland pony has been subjected to flapping bags, loud noises, gymkhana equipment and anything you can think of that might spook a horse. We want him to be as bombproof and confident as he can be, before hem meets children.

The pony has done lots of long reining and lunging to get him used to the tack and voice aids, as well as being led in hand, around the arena and along the lane. It’s important that he has good manners when being led and lunged, as he will be predominantly ridden by beginners so needs to be used to working on the lead rein.

We made a dummy rider, dressed in bright clothes, and attached it to the saddle and led the pony round so he got used to having this “thing” on his back, just on the peripheral of his vision. After a few goes with that, weight was introduced in the form of a bag of feed. As he took all of this in his stride, we then needed to source a jockey.

The rider I was looking for needed to be small and light enough for a miniature Shetland, yet old enough to be competent and confident off the lead rein, take instructions, and be calm and relaxed whilst on board. Oh, and to take things in their stride, such as the pony quickening when he doesn’t understand, or not obeying the aids immediately as he learns the ropes.

Amazingly, I found said child. She belonged to a friend of mine, and both were happy to give it a go. So we planned a bootcamp for the Shetland to get him started.

On day one, he was long reined and then lunged quickly to ensure he wasn’t feeling fresh, and then we started leaning over him. I took the time to explain to his rider exactly how and why we were doing each step, and what I wanted her to do. Backing a horse is a good learning curve for a child, but many won’t have seen the process before so they need clear explanations.

Firstly, I got her to lean over the little pony so he felt her weight and saw her jumping up and down next to him. Apart from taking a step to balance, he stood stationary, so after a couple of lean overs, we walked him a few steps with her leaning over. Again, totally unfazed, so we repeated once more before mounting her.

I decided against stirrups as they’d have been level with his knees and I felt it would be easier to drag his rider off if she didn’t have stirrups. After explaining how I wanted her to lean over and then swing her right leg over his back whilst keeping her upper body close to his neck until she was sat in the saddle and could slowly sit up, she got on.

We spent the rest of the session walking the Shetland round, with his rider just sitting and holding the grab strap, legs long, nice and relaxed, as he found his balance with a rider. The leader controlled him as he was used to those aids; just starting and stopping him, whilst one of us walked on each side of him, just in case we needed to grab our little rider.

The next day, we repeated the procedure except that we only leant over once before mounting, as he accepted it all happily. After a walk, I unknotted the reins and explained to his rider how she should hold a light rein contact so that he could get used to the feeling in his mouth, and then we began to add in the aids. He already responds to the voice, so we used these to help him understand the introduction of the leg and hand with some turns across the arena. I had his rider apply a light aid, and then if he didn’t react, apply it slightly more strongly, so that we didn’t scare him, but her aids were effective. It took a few tries for her to build the confidence to give a firm squeeze of her leg to get him responding to her, but I’d much rather start with less and build it up than her give a classic pony club kick and the Shetland leap forwards.

At the end of this session we did the shortest of trots, for both horse and rider to take away and reflect on. The pony was very willing, but wobbled in the way that all babies do.

The Shetland had the following day off, as we don’t want him to get used to being worked daily, or for him to get stale and tired. The fourth day of bootcamp, we mounted with just one lean over, but I don’t think this step is necessary from now on as he seems very quiet. And we had stirrups! After walking round, doing some stopping and starting, and turns around poles and changes of rein, we had a bash at the trot. We started with only a few steps, but built it up as the pony began to feel more confident with his balance. I’m conscious that the Shetland isn’t particularly strong in his back, so three trots was sufficient for them both. We finished the session by walking along the lane.

Bootcamp over, I was really pleased with how adaptable the pony was as he took everything in his stride. His rider did a fab job of doing nothing initially, and then slowly introducing each step. The plan for the next few weeks is for him to be ridden twice a week, and lunged or long reined between, building the riding up so that he feels stronger, straighter, and more balanced in trot, and his rider is controlling him rather than the leader. We’ll take them off the lead when they’re ready, even if it’s just a o get the pony used to walking without an adult by his head. Bearing in mind that he will be a children’s pony, we won’t be focusing on speed or the finer arts of riding, but continue to get him bombproof by his rider shifting her weight, leaning forwards, backwards, sidewards, and doing games such as bending, dropping beanbags; whatever silly things they can think of to do. Getting him used to Pony Club-esque activities will give him a good grounding in preparation for younger, more inexperienced riders. The trot and circles will come in time, as will riding him off the lead, but at the moment it needs to be fun for everyone.

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.

Demi Dressage

I’ve blogged about it before, but I get so frustrated with the lack of child friendly dressage tests. So many British Dressage and Pony Club tests have movements above a young rider’s comprehension. Then the judge’s feedback goes over their little heads, and I feel that they don’t really benefit in any way, shape or form. Which means, unfortunately that dressage is less popular amongst young riders (with the exception of that Scottish girl who scored 93% or something outrageous. See this week’s Horse and Hound for more details).

So when a friend approached me a few months ago with the idea of running online dressage competitions with tests written for children, and focusing on using a language that they understand and using appropriate school movements (for example, many children can canter, but are unable to canter a circle at E, or pick up canter over X). And of course, promoting fun, with feedback that they understand.

Understandably, I jumped at the chance to be involved, and so Demi Dressage was born. My involvement is fairly basic; I double check the tests as they are written, and then judge the entrants at the end of the month.

There are five levels, which I think covers children of all abilities, and provides them with the groundings to enter a prelim test at the top level. And yes, I have shamelessly copied the description of the levels from the website!

  • GREEN – for riders who are riding independently in walk, and starting to become confident in trot off the lead. Tests will mostly be in walk, potentially with some very very easy movements in trot, and may include some fun mounted exercises. School movements will be very simple. (Approx expected age 4-6 years – but all ages are welcome!)

  • YELLOW – for riders who are relatively competent in walk and trot but are not yet cantering on their own. Tests will be exclusively in walk and trot, they may include some fun mounted exercises or easy movements without stirrups. School movements will be simple to execute. (Approx. expected age 6-8 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow tests may be run in the same class as Yellow-Plus tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • YELLOW-PLUS – these are Yellow tests that are slightly longer, with more trotting, for riders who are not confident to canter but are able to ride slightly more demanding school movements in walk and trot (Approx. expected age 7-10 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow-Plus tests may be run in the same class as Yellow tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • BLUE – for riders who are competent in walk and trot, and learning to canter independently. Tests will predominantly be walk and trot with some very simple canter work. School movements will build on those introduced in the earlier levels, and possibly include some fun mounted exercises. (Approx expected age 7-11 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome!)

  • RED – for older or more experienced riders getting close to progressing to BD Intro and Prelim level tests. Tests will feature walk, trot and canter, possibly some mounted exercises including work without stirrups, and school movements will start to become more complicated in line with those found in BD Prelim tests. (Approx expected age 10-13 years – but younger entrants are very welcome!)

For the Christmas competition we had a two year old on the lead rein doing the yellow test! I found it lovely to see the wide array of ponies and children entering, and all seeming to have fun. Two competitors who really stood out were brother and sister on their family pony. The sister rode off the lead rein, videoed by Mum and with the test called by Dad. The brother was led by Dad, had his sister calling for the first half of the test, and Mum videoing, with the baby strapped to her chest, and calling the second half of the test when sister got bored (Mum, I salute your multi-tasking abilities!). Anyway, it was really nice to see the competition as such a family affair.

Kids love getting rosettes, regardless of colour (I certainly remember the disappointment when I came home empty handed), so Demi Dressage feels it’s important that every competitor receives a rosette. Each class has rosettes to 6th place, every other child gets a special rosette, and there are extras each month for “Best Fancy Dress” or anything else which we feel needs applauding.

We had great fun judging the videos, making sure we were fair, provided positive and constructive comments, focused on where the children were in their riding, and gave feedback which the children understood. I tried to give each child something to focus on next time, as well as saying what I was impressed with. For example, “try to ride from letter to letter to help improve your accuracy marks”, or “practice your sitting trot to help with your canter transitions”. I was really pleased to hear back from one parent that she was very impressed with the feedback her children had received as it was exactly what they were working on at the time and not “dressage jargon”.

With the focus on making dressage fun for the kids, we’ve put in movements such as Around The World and Half Scissors, going over or between poles, and in March there’s going to be a special one-off Prix Caprilli competition. It will run slightly differently, with only three classes (lead rein, walk and trot, walk,trot and canter) and be open to under sixteens, instead of the usual age limit of thirteen. Rosettes will go to tenth place, and there are prizes to be won! Then in April there will be monthly competitions which will run as an accumulator series, and a champion awarded in September. With a sash! And prizes for all the runners up!

There’s another Demi Dressage competition coming up in February, timed to coincide with the school half terms, and I’m looking forward to judging this test! A lot of kids take a break from riding in the winter, so the test is nice and short to encourage them to get back into it even if it’s just for a week, and involves some fun elements such as Around The World, and dropping carrots on the snowman’s nose. Intrigued? Well borrow a pony and get entering! I would if I could …

So if you have a child, or know of one, who would enjoy this, please introduce them to Demi Dressage and spread the word for this fantastic fledgling of a business. Their Facebook page can be found here!

Change of Perspective

More and more I find myself looking at horse riding and equestrianism from a parent’s perspective.

I think there will be a lot of pressure on Mallory to learn to ride. People will presume that she loves horses and is good at riding because I do it for a living. I’m determined not to push her into horse riding. Of course, she’s already having plenty of exposure to horses and already smiles in pleasure when one breathes gently over her. She strokes their noses and wraps her fingers around their manes. I sit her on them, but I fully intend to be led by her. If she wants to have a ride then I will arrange it, and happily teach and encourage her. If she is serious about learning to ride then that’s the road we’ll take.

The way I see it, if Mallory is into horses then we’ll have plenty of mother-daughter time. If she doesn’t, she can have father-daughter time while I have pony time on my own!

Let’s assume she does take up horse riding. What do I want her to achieve with this hobby?

It would be fantastic if she was the next Nicola Wilson, Charlotte Dujardin or Jessica Mendoza. And if so we’ll support her on her competitive journey. But if not, she’ll be just like the rest of us.

I want horses to teach her respect for others. To care for an animal and the responsibility which comes with it. I want her to benefit from the exercise involved in caring for horses and riding; to get the fresh air and keep fit. I want her to find a best friend in an equine, to help keep her sane during her crazy teenage years when she won’t want me so much. Horses will also allow Mallory to meet and socialise with people from all walks of life: and the ability to strike up a conversation with anybody is a very useful skill.

I don’t mind whether Mallory wants to jump bigger and wider than is good for my heart, or wants to piaffe down the centre line. She can choose to compete, to ride for pleasure, to hack, or to jump. But most importantly I want her to be confident and enjoy herself. And I think that’s my job as a parent: to nurture her (hopeful) love of horses and enable her to enjoy them in the same way I do. If she’s happy, confident, understanding and respectful to horses, and achieves her own aims – be they cantering across fields or competing under the GB flag – then I think I’ll have succeeded as a parent.

Keeping Fences Low

With Pony Club Camp last week and the ground being incredibly hard this summer, there was a lot of talk amongst the instructors (which didn’t necessarily relate to me and my six year old riders) about how to keep the fences low in the jumping sessions. After all, there is a huge trend towards people (and not just the children) judging how good a rider someone is based on how high they can jump. I would much rather see a horse and rider jump a lower height safely, stylishly and confidently than “keeping up with the Joneses” and have an accident, lose confidence, and have an ugly round. Besides, none of us question Charlotte Dujardin’s riding ability and she rarely jumps.

Anyway, one exercise I did a few weeks ago was a relevant option for keeping the fences low yet still still testing the rider’s ability.

The exercise started with a cross pole at X which I had my rider jump on a steep angle from both reins. This tested that they could ride their line and the pony wasn’t trying to run out through the open side.

Then I set up a skinny fence, one canter stride away from the cross, on the line they’d been jumping. The skinny was an upright, with a plain pole, so had very little visual clues to help the rider stay on their line.

This particular pony always runs to the left so the double was first set up to be ridden from the right rein. My rider carried his whip in the right rein so if his pony drifted to the right he could use it on the shoulder to help stay on their line.

It was a tricky exercise because although the cross was a nice, encouraging fence, having only one stride to the skinny meant that the pair had to prepare properly, and set themselves up accurately to the combination as there was no time to do any repair work between jumps. In all honesty, I was surprised when they succeeded the first time and jumped the skinny very accurately and stylishly.

After riding the line a couple of times I rearranged the exercise so that they jumped it off the left rein. This would be their harder rein, because the rider has a weaker left leg and the pony tends to drift through his left shoulder which, combined with the fact the pony is encouraged to veer left through the double, means it is more problematic.

The first time they drifted left, then my rider really applied his left leg and the whip on the pony’s left shoulder. Which unfortunately meant that the pony overcompensated and ran out to the right.

So I used some poles to help guide the rider and pony. The tramlines were leant against the jump wings so that they ran diagonally down to the ground. This meant they clarified the question to the pony and helped funnel him towards the skinny. After a couple of times where they jumped the guide pole rather than the skinny they successfully rode the double. As soon as they cracked the line and stayed straight as an arrow, the double was a perfect canter stride and the pony made it look effortless. When they wobbled off their line, however fractionally, the distance between the fences became longer so the pony squeezed in an extra stride to the skinny.

This exercise really tested both horse and rider without being very high, because the rider had to have a good eye and be able to ride their line, and the pony had to be on the aids. In Pony Club jumping sessions, a course could be set up with lots of tricky lines and combinations which encourage accurate riding rather than jumping big and fast. After all, lots of jumping on hard ground will damage the horse’s legs.

Dressage with Kids

Even the easiest of dressage tests can be overly complicated for kids, which I found out this week.

Just before their dressage competition this afternoon I snuck over to the judge’s car and stuck a sign on the front with an arrow pointing left. This is because my riders don’t know their left from their right and I wanted the girls to have a successful experience to hopefully encourage them to further their dressage education.

However, I did think that you’d enjoy my adjusted commanding for the test so that the little kids could ride their best.

1. At A walk towards C … straight! … C’s over here! Halt at X … now! Salute (try not to laugh at the flamboyant salute).

2. C turn left … other left! At H walk to F … trot now!

3. At A 20 metre circle … bigger … bigger …

4. Just after K walk. Not yet, keep going … now walk.

5. C halt and count to three SLOWLY! Now walk on. Don’t let them go back to their friends!

6. At M walk towards K … trot now!

7. At A 20 metre circle …. bigger than your last one! Stay in the arena …

8. Just after F … keep trotting … now walk.

9. At H change the rein across the diagonal to F with long reins … keep walking … no, don’t trot, just walk. Short reins at F.

10. Between A and K … wait for it … yep ok, trot! Quick, trot!! At E rainbow across to B.

11. Walk in the corner … keep going, keep going. Now walk. Don’t leave the arena!

12. A turn down the centre line … keep walking … keep walking … straight … stop …. right there. And salute!

All seven of my riders managed their test, albeit with some assistance, and I was pleased with their marks and the huge improvement in their riding over the week. But commanding those tests wasn’t easy!