Control

At the Pony Club conference I attended in February I picked up lots of useful hints and tips. One useful thing that Paul Tapner said, was that when he was young and went off to be taught by top level instructors for months at a time he would put aside everything that he knew and unquestioningly lap up everything he was told. He wouldn’t forget his previous knowledge, but it was filed away until after the training when he would piece together all of his knowledge. When teaching, you want your students to do exactly what you say, not harp back to what a previous adult has told them because it may not be an appropriate tactic or exercise for that day. I took that approach with the conference, writing down everything that was said, regardless of my initial reaction. Later, I could reflect on my notes and use my previous knowledge and experience to develop my own opinion and approach. For example, I liked the fact that when the demo riders (all Pony Clubbers) were told to halt they did immediately. This has safety benefits and shows respect for their instructor, but I didn’t like how it caused them to pull hard on the reins in an attempt to get a direct transition. So I will try a modified approach when I next teach a group of children.

Anyway, one quote which I’ve taken from the beginning of the day is:

It is the coach’s job to control the rider and the rider’s job to control the pony.

Basically, when you learn to ride you learn to control your horse or pony, be it at the lowest level of steering around the edge of an arena, keeping in trot, or at the highest level of controlling the size of circles, pirouettes, degree of lateral movements, and the precise speed of the gaits. At whatever level I’m teaching at, if the rider can perform an exercise or movement competently, they have mastered control at that level.

I taught a new rider this week, only a little girl, with her own pony. She’s had trouble learning to canter, is now feeling nervous and has had a couple of gentle tumbles to boot.

I started her off in walk and trot, assessing her steering and knowledge of school movements, trot diagonals, changesof rein etc, and her pony was very sweet. Forwards but without being sharp, but as we went through the warm up the pony started getting faster and doing a turbo trot. It wasn’t an accelerating movement, just a huge striding gait with a set neck. Then of course, her rider began to get worried. She told me that the reason she didn’t like cantering was because of the speed.

It struck me that the crux of their problem is that the rider doesn’t feel in control of her pony, and therefore lacks confidence and doesn’t feel safe, and the pony (whilst not being naughty) was taking the opportunity to take control of the speed.

I brought them into the middle of the school and put her stirrups up a hole to give her leg a bit more security and so she had something to brace her feet against when we did step two. I then explained to her how to squeeze and release the reins rather than take a static pull so her pony didn’t lean on her hands. Finally, I showed her how to bend her elbows and use her shoulders and upper body to half halt down the reins, and to stabilise her upper body. As with a lot of people, when a pony pulls down the arms go forward, elbows straighten, and upper body tips forward. This is not a strong position, and the pony has the upper hand. By using her upper body to support her rein aids the pony cannot pull her forwards and put her position into jeopardy. Because the pony is not going to like this new, stronger approach from her rider, she will argue for a few strides, which is where the slightly shorter stirrups will help keep her rider in place. I put in some trigger words; “strong tummy”, “squeeze, release” and “elbows” so that I could quickly correct my rider and help her regain control because each phrase meant an action to her.

My rider asked to go on the lunge, so I obliged, if only that knowing I was at the end of the lunge line gave her the confidence to stand her ground with her slowing aids. We talked about how their normal trot was a level five, and a slow trot was a level four, whilst turbo trot was a six. We wanted a five trot, or sometimes a four, the majority of the time.

She set off in trot, and in all fairness to her, the lunge line was slack as I didn’t really need to do anything. The pony went off into a five trot, so we practiced her strong tummy and squeezing rein aids to slow to a four trot. The pony tried to set against her rider but once she realised she wasn’t going to budge, the pony came back nicely to her. We did this transition a couple of times and then the pony decided to turbo trot. But my rider reacted quicker to the acceleration, so nipping it in the bud, and become she gave firmer, more decisive aids, after a few her pony came back nicely. We repeated this on the lunge in both directions and once my rider had earnt her pony’s respect, she got a reaction from her first, milder aid.

As my rider started to feel in control, she grew in confidence and happily agreed to canter on the lunge. Although the pony doesn’t tank off in the canter, she has a big stride and it can feel uncontrolled to someone not yet in sync with her, so I needed to know that my rider felt she could stop her pony at any time. Without hanging off her mouth of course! I ran through the downwards aids and then they cantered. I didn’t have to do anything in the middle, and after a few transitions back to trot my rider began to feel more comfortable about cantering and could start to relax.

To finish the lesson, they went off the lunge and practiced riding with a strong tummy and firm, clear rein aids, using her upper body to support. The pony anticipated cantering, tried to turbo trot, but my rider applied her aids and sat perfectly upright and balanced until her pony came back to her in a few strides. We used transitions within trot to improve control, and within minutes her pony had stopped testing her, instead responding to her first aid.

This meant that my rider could ride a more energetic trot without the speed, and relaxed into her riding. She felt in control.

Of course, they’re going to have to repeat this conversation a few times for the pony to really accept her newly bossy rider, and for this little girl to learn to correct their speed before it reaches turbo level. And for it to become second nature. Having a contingency plan as well as buzz words really help build confidence and make a proactive rider. We might not have got her cantering independently, but I’m sure she will once she feels that she’s in full control.

Instant Feedback

One of the most useful tools I took away from the Franklin Method clinic I attended in November was riding with resistance bands.

I find myself repeating the subject of not giving the outside rein away to all of my riders, but for whatever reason, my teaching isn’t as effective as it could be. I’ve worked on different explanations for the importance of supporting the outside shoulder, using that rein to bring that shoulder around the turn, and for preventing an over-bend in the neck to improve the bend through their barrel. I’ve explained about a positive inside rein, thinking of opening a door away from you rather than bringing the hand back towards your stomach to help maintain impulsion and balance. I’ve used exercises like turn on the forehand and discussed the biomechanics of the inside hind to help riders understand the importance of keeping the outside rein. I’ve used the exercise of carrying the whip horizontally over the index fingers, which helps riders see their outside hand creeping forwards on turns, but it seems to be limited to just acknowledging the movement. My riders all understand what they should be doing and why, but breaking any bad habits is easier said than done.

When I did the Franklin Method clinic we rode with resistance bands around our lower arms. The resistance bands were the lightest option, and were placed around the wrist just above the cuff of the gloves. The purpose in the Franklin Clinic was to ride keeping the hands apart so that the slack was taken out of the band. It wasn’t to force the hands out into the resistance of the band and create tension in the shoulders and arms, but to keep the hands a consistent distance apart.

The result of keeping the hands five inches apart, where there’s least pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, is that as you turn your horse you keep the hands working as a pair, akin to carrying a tray (you may have heard that analogy elsewhere). If a rider tends to bring the inside hand back and let the outside hand forwards on turns, they will instantly feel pressure from the band.

I liked how the band provided instant feedback to a rider when they let their outside rein creep forward, or even if they were dropping a hand, or holding it further back, regardless of whether it was the inside or outside. Usually I find that a rider will acknowledge that their hands are asymmetric or wander forwards, but only become aware of it when the hand has moved to the extreme and is now ineffective.

But it’s no good correcting an error once it’s gone wrong, you need to correct at the first deviation in order to retrain the muscle memory and to improve the subtlety of the aids to control the horse. The bands gave an earlier signal than visually seeing the outside hand, or me reminding them not to move it.

After the Franklin Method clinic I found a light resistance band at home, and went armed with it to my next few lessons. I had all my riders ride with it during their warm up focusing them on their hand position, make them aware of discrepancies between the reins, and to improve their outside rein contact. All of my riders realised that their hands moved more they thought. It encouraged more use of the seat and leg aids, as well as creating an even, more consistent rein contact.

The difference in the horses was amazing; they moved straighter, started to use their inside hind leg, carried themselves better and were stiller in the hand and taking the contact forwards happily because as soon as the rider’s outside hand started to creep forward they felt pressure on their wrist so corrected themselves. Having a band is an easy accessory to keep in your pocket, and means that riders can practice riding with the band in their own time so will improve their hand position more quickly then having me cue their corrections and then them self-correcting on their own once their hand position had moved significantly.

I’ve not used the bands since before Christmas, but I think it’s time to get it out again for warm ups in the next few weeks … So watch out clients!

Lunging With Two Reins

I’ve fallen back in love with lunging with two reins for a number of reasons, but in all the cases I’ve used it with there has been a huge improvement.

My first victim, I mean client, was a mare who has always struggled with straightness due to previous injuries, but is becoming much better under saddle. However I don’t find her lunging sessions as beneficial to her because she drifts out, bananas her body, gets a bit stuck on the track and is a touch lazy. I felt that she needed an outside rein contact to reduce how much she could twist and pull me out on the lunge. I also hoped that the outside lunge line going around her hindquarters would be a prompt for her to go forwards.

She was not impressed. When I flicked the outside rein over her rump and she felt it come into contact with her haunches she stopped, tail facing me, swishing it angrily. I let her tell me how upset she was before asking her to walk on, and initially I had my work cut out to keep her walking and on my circle, not drifting to the fence line. After arguing with me for a circuit she started to relax, and I felt she was straighter through her body and not holding her hindquarters in so I asked her to trot. Again, she grumbled for a few minutes until she aligned herself and began to move with more impulsion and efficiency. Combined with her circles becoming rounder and her inside hind leg becoming more engaged, the trot improved in cadence and she started to use her abdominal muscles and topline.

The next time her owner rode, she felt a huge difference in her mare’s vertical balance; she had a uniform bend throughout her body and had an engaged inside hind leg. The mare was also less fixated on staying on the track, which triggered my next lesson of working on the inner track, and my rider had more of a response from her outside aids.

I suggested double lunging to another client with her young horse who long reins well, but tries to turn in on the lunge. The outside rein will prevent him turning in to his handler, which means he can be taught how to lunge and then just lunged with one rein as required. This will allow his owner to introduce canter work safely on the lunge.

Double-line lunging a little pony in rehab has really helped her learn to seek the contact forwards and stretch over her back and subsequently develop her topline.

Then last week I decided to lunge a horse who I often school, to change things up a bit. He’s a long horse, who finds it hard to connect his back end to his front end and wiggles to avoid doing so. I’ve done a lot of work improving his rider’s outside aids to help stabilise the wiggles, and I felt lunging with two reins would complement this work.

This horse was the only one I felt was ready to canter in the double lines, and where I felt would benefit the most. You can see in the video how balanced this horse is with the outside lunge line supporting him.

Lunging with two reins helps bring the outside shoulder around on the circle, so improves the horse’s straightness, understanding of the outside aids, engagement and connection. This results in an improvement to the horse’s vertical balance and way of going as they use their body correctly.

So how do you lunge with two reins? Fit a bridle and roller to the horse, and run the lunge lines from the bit through the rings on the roller. The outside lunge line then runs round the horse’s hindquarters and into your hand which is nearest the tail as you stand in the usual lunging stance. The inside rein is held in your hand closest to the horse’s head. The horse is sent forwards with the voice, a flick of the lunge whip, or the outside lunge line against the hindquarters. Once you’ve got used to handling the two reins (experience with long lining is helpful!) Lunging with double reins is not that difficult, and has remarkable benefits to the horses when ridden. Definitely worth trying as a change to your usual lunging technique.

Teaching Leg Yielding

Leg Yielding is probably the first lateral movement you will teach a client, so it`s really important that you, as an instructor, explain it succinctly and clearly. I`ve done it a few times recently, and each time I find I miss out, or don`t explain an element sufficiently, so I`ve done a bit of research to collect my thoughts.

I usually begin a couple of lessons before, introducing the idea that the horse moves away from the leg, not just forwards. So I often spend a few minutes spiralling in and out on circles. I don`t tell them about leg yielding, I just work on keeping a consistent contact, checking that they are not pulling their horse round, and that they can use their legs independently. I sometimes tell them, if I don`t think they are already aware, that the inside leg isn`t always the one furthest away from the arena fence. This is usually a mind boggler, especially when combined with the words “counter flexion”. Cue me attempting to bend my body in demonstration.
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The next time I see the client, and am planning to introduce leg yield I start off with the circles, spiralling in and then out, and then explain what leg yield is. Put simply, it is when the horse is moving forwards and sideways at the same time, producing a diagonal movement. It is a suppling exercise, and teaches the horse to move away from the leg. Likewise it teaches the rider to use their legs independently. At this point I usually suggest they YouTube “leg yielding” to get a visual interpretation of what they are aiming for. Two good ones are below. If there is a suitable livery or client nearby then I ask for a demonstration.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HcA5bw2Pqs
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUBq5clg7uA

It becomes a little bit more complicated when trying to explain to the client about how the horse`s body is positioned – i.e. bent slightly away from the direction of movement. Then I move on to explain the aids for leg yield, and help the client position their legs. A lot of people swing the outside leg back wildly and wonder why it`s ineffective. We then discuss how the horse`s legs move, almost crossing in front of the other leg.
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I use the riding school horse`s natural inclination to drift to the track, by starting to leg yield from the three quarter line to the track. Initially I find that most clients almost just turn their horse towards the fenceline and walk on two tracks. This is when I remind them that the horse needs to stay parallel with the fenceline. When the horse turns it means there is a problem with their rein contact. Too much outside rein and the horse turns; not enough outside rein contact and the horse falls through the outside shoulder and curves their body. This is usually my sticking point because the client struggles with the rein contact. I can also see that it`s pretty difficult when learning something new because you don`t know what to feel, so you can`t tell if it`s right or wrong, and you aren`t necessarily pressing the right buttons. We usually have a few attempts, while I`m telling them which buttons to press and how to correct themselves. Sometimes the client can be seen sliding to the inside in an attempt to push more with their inside leg!
Another common mistake, is losing the forwards impulsion, the client curls themselves into a ball, applying tension on the rein, and losing their seat aid. This encourages the horse even more the fall through the shoulder and curl themselves excessively round the inside leg. If this happens I send them off into trot to get some impulsion back and to reassess their horse`s rhythm.

After a couple of lessons or attempts, I hope that my client will have a light bulb moment. Either they feel the sideways step, or the correct feel down the reins and pressure on the legs. Usually this means that their aids become a bit more subtle and the leg yield becomes smoother. Once this is established in walk we progress to trot, by which time the horse is usually predicting the exercise and rushing to the track, so I revert back to spiralling in and out on a circle. Except this time it is leg-yielding out. I then ask the client how their outside contact feels. Hopefully it is more secure!

Another exercise is leg yielding away from the track, but it is usually very difficult for the client to set up counter flexion, or at least keep the horse straight coming out of the corner, so I don`t tend to use this when learning leg yield.

We can also discuss how the horse`s trot feels before and after leg yielding. I taught with a lovely, but green, horse last week, and in the trot work we did micro-yielding. That is, moving him around using the leg a step at a time, coming out of the corner, and it just unlocked him! He started stretching and lifting his back. Last night`s client found her horse`s trot more active and he was more alert. Eventually, clients come to understand how being laterally flexible can improve their way of going in straight lines, and circles, and them onto jumping. Hopefully by this point I now have their full attention and we can move on to shoulder in and studying the horse`s straightness a but more, and utilise leg yield into their warm up and improving the horse`s way of going.untitled3

Further Reading:
http://www.dressagetrainingonline.com/leg-yielding-the-most-basic-of-all-lateral-movements-by-uwe-spenlen.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leg-yield
http://www.dressage-academy.com/schooling-tips/leg-yield.php http://www.newrider.com/Library/Riding_Tips/leg_yield.html

Lunging

Lunging is an incredibly useful tool … provided we do it correctly. Otherwise it can enforce bad habits and horses can learn to “cheat” the gadgets we provide.
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Initially, we all learnt to lunge to exercise the horse; be it when they are fresh and overly excited, or if we don`t have time to ride them. After all, 20 minutes of lunging is equivalent to an hour of riding … in theory. I find that if you work the horse correctly on the lunge for 20 minutes then he has worked as hard as if he has done an hours schooling; however, if he is just allowed to trot round willy-nilly then I tend to feel that 20 minutes is only really equivalent to about half an hours riding. Which is why we all turn to gadgets to help up improve our horses.

When training for the BHS exams we`re all shown the side reins technique, how to correctly fit them and to recite their uses off by heart. Now I`m not saying they`re useless, in fact they are very good for teaching the horse to accept a steady contact, but also a horse with a particularly sensitive mouth can be desensitised a little bit so they can be ridden more easily, or if their rider`s hands aren`t yet stable enough for them. I loaned an ex-racer who I lunged with side reins because she wouldn`t accept my hand. When I clipped the side reins on (really loosely) I used to have to run backwards and send her forwards before she started rearing. It can teach horses to seek the contact, but like any gadgets they have their design pros and cons. To quote Patrick Print, “plain leather side reins are the best. With buckles, not sliders, so you can make sure they are equal in length. Those great heavy doughnuts are useless as they bounce on the horse`s mouth. Neither are those ones with elastic, as the horse takes the contact they stretch and relaxes the contact.” Before my Stage 4 I could quote him word for word when he posed the question “What do you think about your lunging equipment?” Anyway, that is in the ideal world. Have you ever tried to get these plain leather side reins?

I tried a few times to put side reins on my youngster, and found that the side reins made him tuck back and lift his head up so that the side reins were loose, emphasising his already slightly ewe neck and under developed top line. He didn`t go forwards to it because he didn`t understand them. Someone suggested attaching the side reins to the girth between his front legs, to have a similar effect to a martingale. Which was marginally better; except for the fact that he started to pull upwards on them. So I stopped lunging for a while, I was better off lightly schooling him. Then someone suggested the Pessoa. It was enlightening.
The first time a friend helped me kit him out, and it really helped him. I used it two or three times a week all winter; it helped engage his hindquarters, but also he started to drop his head and neck, the wrinkles at the base started to disappear, and you could see his back muscles starting to work. Through the summer I just tend to use it once a week. I only really used the Pessoa on the lowest setting, but then I noticed that whilst he went down and lifted his back he also dipped his nose behind the vertical. On those occasions I would put the Pessoa on a higher setting for a few minutes.
About six months ago I took him in the lunge arena in just a bridle and cavesson, and lunged him naked, to see how he was carrying himself, and to make sure he wasn`t relying on the Pessoa. I was pleasantly surprised; once he`d settled and warmed up a bit and I was sending him forwards he dropped his head an lifted his shoulders and withers; over tracked, and his abdominal muscles were working. You could also see the latissimus dorsi and longissimus dorsi twitching as they worked. The canter wasn`t too bad either, as he had to hold himself together. If he`s not going forwards then he doesn`t work correctly … which goes back to the basic ridden training.

So now when I lunge him, I still make him work correctly, and he works hard, but I don`t use any gadgets, just the cavesson and bridle, then send him forwards until he works himself. The only thing I can`t improve easily is his bend; he has the tendency to have counter flexion on the right rein. Lots of circles, and making sure I keep the rein contact, and do half halts, making the circles smaller then bigger, and pointing the whip at his shoulder too. I also love using poles and caveletti to engage his hindquarters. How high do people put caveletti poles? The older riding school horses I tend to just lift them 5″ above the ground on one side, but with my horse they can be 2` or more on one side. It really makes him think, and when he does it properly his head and neck comes right down as he has to flex the shoulders and stifles. Moral of the story? Don`t be afraid of raising cavaletti poles to improve your horse`s way of going.

The other gadgets that are available are the Chambon, the bungee, and a tail bandage wrapped around the horse`s torso … I don`t really understand how that works. I`m not against gadgets in any way and think they are of great benefit to horses, but I also think it`s important that they are temporary, and not to be relied upon as it means that you are not training your horse correctly.
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Related Articles:

http://dressage.wordpress.com/2008/01/24/the-early-lunging-of-the-young-horse/
http://www.happy-horse-training.com/lunging-a-horse.html
http://www.equilibration.co.uk/Gadgets.html
http://www.horsekeeping.com/horse_training/longeing_benefits_and_uses.htm
http://www.horsekeeping.com/horse_training/longeing_benefits_and_uses.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chambon
http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?609846-lunging-using-tail-bandage-to-engage-quarters