In The Box

I’ve been working on a new analogy recently, which has been positively received and greatly helped several riders. So here it is.

So often riders get overly focused on what’s going on at the front end of their horse, as it’s easier to see that rather than feel what’s going on behind them, that they become handy and forget to ride from leg to hand.

Some horses, when a contact is taken up, shrink in the neck and try to hide behind the bridle, either by hollowing or becoming overbent.

Putting the two together makes a difficult combination.

In walk, I get the rider to gather their reins – not too short, but not slack – and this is the rein length that they will maintain. I ask them to imagine that they have created a box with each rein being the long side of the box, and the short sides of the box are created by the bit and the space between the hands. The box is going to stay fairly square, and this size.

I ask my rider to push their horse forwards in the walk, focusing on the idea of filling the box in front of them with the head and neck. This encourages the rider to use their leg rather than their hand to improve the horse’s gait. It also discourages the rider from shortening the reins, and the horse shrinking behind the bridle.

Once this is established in walk, we move into trot. The aim is to keep the horse filling the box in front of the rider. This encourages the rider to keep using the leg and have a softer hand, which creates a more positive and consistent rein contact. The horse tends to stay longer in the neck, and the rider feels that they have more horse in front of them than they do behind.

I find that thinking of this box helps change the rider’s thought process and they start to apply the leg before the hand.

Of course, the size of the box can be changed as necessary – if the horse carries themselves in a shorter frame in one gait, or they are being asked to stretch longer and lower – but adjustments to the rein length should be planned and not fussy with micro adjustments. This also helps create a more stable connection between mouth and hand.

Once a rider understands and visualises the box, it becomes a useful reminder when the horse drops behind the leg, becomes over bent, or shortens the neck. I find it particularly useful to improve the canter, helping the rider to use their seat and leg to increase the energy in the canter.

Floppy Thumbs

With a lot of my teaching I try to come up with catchphrases, so I can say a word to trigger my rider to make a certain correction or check. They often aren’t very technically correct, such as a “squashy trot” for collecting the trot.

This catchphrase has developed over this week due to some recent observations I’ve made, and I think it works quite well.

Most riders don’t carry their hands with the thumbnail pointing vertically up – even if you think you do your thumbs will still point slightly inwards. Now, don’t pretend to hold the reins and say they’re 100% correct, have a look next time you’re in the saddle.

With riders who have the classic “pram pushing” hands with knuckles facing skywards, they often have the elbows sticking out slightly. They may not be flapping like chicken wings, but they will be loose. With loose elbows, the core is weaker and less engaged.

In a nutshell, I find if I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top, I also have 5o tell them to keep the elbows snug to their sides. The two faults are linked.

When I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top there is usually an improvement, but only a 90% improvement at most, and they very quickly let the thumbs flop in slightly.

So I needed a phrase to correct both parts of a rider’s anatomy. The next time you are riding, rotate your hands outwards so that your fingernails point upwards. Can you feel your elbows squeezing against your rib cage? Can you feel your core slightly more engage? No huge clenching of muscles, but your posture and deportment improves.

Yes I agree, riding with your fingers up is a bit extreme, and not very correct, but if you over correct your hands in this way, as soon as your mind drifts to your next circle or change of rein, your hands start to revert. But because of the extreme positioning of the hands, the thumbs end up pointing to the sky, and the elbows snug by your ribs.

Now for the catchphrase. “Flop your thumbs out” seemed to work quite well for my clients this week. It’s short and sweet, draws a smile, no one feels like their being reprimanded, isn’t technical, and gets the desired result.

Now for the core effect. Once my riders have gotten the idea of flopping thumbs, I ask them how their seat and core feels. Often, they don’t notice a thing, so I get them to ride a normal trot-walk transition (with sitting trot beforehand). I haven’t corrected their position or aids for half a lap or so. I ask them how it feels. Then we repeat the transition, but this time I remind them to flop their thumbs out just before taking sitting trot, and then explain how different it feels.

With one rider this week, she noticed a huge change in her balance in the downward transitions, and could feel her core working harder to stabilise her when her elbows were by her side. We took it forwards to the canter transitions, and by the end of the lesson she could feel an ache in her abdomen, which showed she’d worked harder and differently that usual. Like I said earlier, there isn’t a huge visible change to a rider’s torso when flopping their thumbs, but they feel more stable and secure without being tense when the elbows are closed against the ribcage, and it is definitely more noticeable during transitions and sitting trot.

Try it; flop your thumbs out slightly every so often when you’re riding or are about to ride a movement or transition, and see the difference it makes to your balance, stability, and contact.

Holding Rubber

I’ve done this exercise a few times recently with various clients, for various reasons, and it’s had some good results. In itself, it’s quite an easy thing to do while working on other parts of their riding.

Some riders ride with their hands curled lightly around the reins. Of course we don’t want to be holding the reins particularly tightly, but if we aren’t holding the reins firmly enough they have a tendency to slip through. For some people, one rein tends to slip through. For others, both. And for some it is the horse (or pony) who discreetly sneaks the rein through the rider’s hand.

Some riders interpret the “squeeze and release” of a half halt or a flexion aid, as squeezing the rein and then letting go. Perhaps the words need to change to “squeeze and relax”…

In either situation, the rein contact becomes inconsistent.

My analogy for this situation, because I like analogies, is to imagine walking down a busy street with a toddler, holding hands.

Hold the hand too tightly and the guy toddler shouts and digs their heels in. They won’t move forwards happily.

Hold their hand, letting go at random intervals and dropping them. They become disconcerted with the insecurity of your guidance.

Now imagine you are holding their hand slightly more firmly, and give the odd reassuring squeeze. You’ve not dropped them or left them hanging, but you have changed the pressure of the hand holding and exchanged a secret message.

This is the sort of rein contact we’re aiming for. Consistent, clear communication, and even.

For my riders who hold the reins tightly I remind them to relax their arms and fingers, and will do no rein exercises to ensure they aren’t using their hands subconsciously to balance.

For my riders who have loose fingers, especially the children, I will take two pieces of flat arena rubber (if they have a sand arena I try to find a small flat pebble. One father uses a penny with his daughter when practising this) and get my rider to hold it in their hands as well as the reins. It’s small enough that it doesn’t fill their hands up and make holding the reins and whip difficult, but they will become acutely aware of when they loosen their fingers and drop it!

We then have ten minutes of laughter as they invariably drop the rubber and I have to replace it. Depending on the rider, their age and approach to riding, this can become as fun and as silly as required. I remember with one young client there was lots of “uh-ohing” and me flouncing around looking for replacement rubber to keep the exercise like a game.

Within minutes, I find that my riders are usually holding the reins in a more consistent way; either both hands are now holding with the same amount of hold, or the reins have stopped creeping through their hands. Once they’ve stopped dropping the rubber, I do some work on circles, transitions, changes of rein, or whatever movement usually causes them to loosen their fingers. With older riders they start to see the positive effects and can begin to ride between leg and hand more easily, and they can improve the bend of their horse as they can ride inside leg to outside rein, and control the outside shoulder.

Once my rider has found the correct rein contact they don’t drop the rubber as frequently, so I usually move on with my lesson plan, accidentally-on-purpose forgetting to remove the rubber from their hands to see how far we get before they drop it, or realise they’ve dropped it.

I often find that holding the rubber only needs to be done once or twice to teach a rider the right amount of feel, and to help them understand the concept and effect of a consistent rein contact, which for kids improves their overall control over their pony’s speed and steering, and for adults helps them improve their horse’s rhythm, balance and create impulsion.