Using All Senses

One of my young clients has dyspraxia. I won’t say suffers from, because it doesn’t hold him back. It just means I peep through my fingers as he canters around in a very loose position.

But because he finds it difficult to balance I try to do lots of little exercises each week to keep working on improving his proprioception and balance because he needs more time to develop the coordination and strength in his little body.

From very early on we’ve done bits without stirrups and are currently doing sitting trot without stirrups for five minutes each lesson (those of you who had 40 minutes without stirrups this week will be cursing me as you read this. But you’re old enough and ugly enough to survive!).

I’ve done quite a lot of no rein work, as has his Mum with him on the lunge, developing core stability and balance. Hands out to the side like an aeroplane now comes easily in rising trot, and you can see a steady improvement because his arms do not wobble around as much as they did.

I want to push boundaries though, and help him reach his current limits in the relative safety of a lesson, so that he’s in a better position to recover from anything his whizzy pony throws at him.

To improve his balance further, a few weeks ago I had him trotting around the indoor school in rising trot. With his eyes closed. Taking away a sense heightens other senses, so I hoped to improve his feel and balance with his pony by temporarily blinding him. Of course if he needed to, he could open his eyes immediately to help stay in the saddle. But he didn’t need to.

I also used this time with his eyes closed to draw his attention to the 1-2 rhythm of the trot because, somehow he has random days when he’s rising at a different tempo to his pony. So I’m trying to improve his awareness of and feel for rhythm and tempo, despite his young age. With his eyes closed he can also listen more carefully to the footfalls of his pony, which will help teach him rhythm too.

A couple of lessons ago I introduced cantering with one arm out to the side. His seat is very nearly established in canter, but considering how bouncy his pony’s strides are he does very well. We did do one canter with both arms out like an aeroplane. But it was a bit faster than I liked and my heart could only take one viewing.

Last lesson, I had a request to do no arms in canter and trotting with no eyes.

We duly did this. Trotting without stirrups for a bit, then taking the stirrups back and doing rising trot with his eyes closed. He was more secure in his pony’s tempo today and it was interesting that when his eyes were closed his core muscles kicked in because his elbows stayed closer to his sides and his rising trot was less “loose”.

We moved onto cantering, and after making a couple of positional corrections, I tied a knot in his reins. We skipped stage one of just one hand out, and held both arms out to the side, confidently. The next canter I called, “one arm out, then the other… Eyes closed!”

I was impressed. He stayed in a good balance and the pony fell into trot after the long side. Then I realised I had to tell him to open his eyes again!

We spent a while doing this exercise, with my rider starting to sit into the saddle for longer between bounces. He spent the entire time grinning and laughing loudly.

He’s not ready for no stirrups whilst cantering, but my plan over the next couple of lessons is to do some trotting on the lunge without reins or stirrups, and possibly with his eyes closed. I’d also like to try bareback riding with him to improve his feel and balance, which I think will really improve his coordination and muscle strength as his stronger side won’t be able to compensate for his weaker, less coordinated side, which will then become stronger and he’ll be more balanced and have greater stability in the saddle.

Jumping Circles

I’ve recently used quite a simple layout of jumps which has been quite enlightening for those riders who have problems landing on one canter lead, or riding tight turns to a fence, akin to a jump off.

Up the centre line I laid three jumps. One at X, facing E, and the other two on the inner track by A and C, parallel to the one at X.

Starting with poles on the ground, I started with my rider trotting then cantering a circle over two jumps. It’s about a 17 metre circle, and initially I’m aiming to establish rhythm, a round circle, and for my rider to do a position check for themselves.

Then we change the rein, doing the circle at the other end of the arena. Often there is very little difference to be felt between the two reins at this stage. Sometimes a rider will already identify that one circle is sausage-like, or it’s harder for them to turn on one rein than the other. Or that the horse keeps changing canter lead.

The next step is putting the fences up as cross poles. They need to be sufficiently big that the horse jumps them, but this lesson is all about repetition so not too big the horse will fatigue. The cross helps to keep the rider central.

The horse and rider I did this with last year have been focusing on biomechanics and straightness over the last few months. The rider sits twisted to the left, and the horse struggles to bend right. Chicken and egg as to who caused who to become wonky, but that doesn’t matter at the moment.

Firstly, they cantered some circles on the right rein, popping over the two jumps as they came to them. The circle was reasonably round, the horse stayed on the right canter lead (he often lands left lead if given the opportunity) and the rider was looking in the direction of the next circle. However, when I stood so I could see straight on to one of the fences I could see that the horse was actually jumping the fence at an angle; in order to ride a curve on the approach to the fence the horse jumped straight, at a 45 degree angle. He landed with his body on a tangent to the circle. Which meant my rider had to over correct to return to the line of the circle.

Then we changed the rein, and my rider realised how clunky the right rein circle felt as the left circle flowed in a consistent rhythm, the jumps felt effortless and the circle round. From my vantage point I could see the horse jumping on the line of the circle, so on landing they were already heading in the right direction which made it easier to turn.

We spent more time on the right rein circle, making small corrections to help both horse and rider jump straighter, and begin to improve their right bend before and after fences, even starting to get them both looking slightly right over the jump. To do this, we made the circle slightly more oval so that my rider had a couple of straight strides on the approach and getawa before arcing round. It’s better to have the straight stretch in order for the horse to jump straighter than for him to come off the circle, find it difficult, and then jump diagonally off on a tangent. As his suppleness improves less time will be needed on the straight.

In this session we mainly focused on their rhythm and balance on the circles. It was nice to see the jumps becoming more regular – no half strides taken out or extra ones added in – and the horse staying consistently on the correct canter lead. With this extended knowledge of her horse’s suppleness and the way he jumps, my rider can better plan any jumping courses, knowing that she needs to spend more time on the approach preparing her horse if they are to turn right after a fence.

A further exercise, which I did later in the week, was to have my rider ride a figure of eight over the three jumps, so changing their canter lead over the fence. This requires a greater degree of suppleness and balance in order to ride fluidly and rhythmically over the central fence. It is also a useful exercise to improve the rider’s ability to plan their route, and the horse’s response to their rider’s position over jumps, which helps them ride a smoother, more accurate jumping round.

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.

Rehab – a Secret Blessing?

Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.

Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.

But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.

Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.

It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.

I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.

Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.

We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.

It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.

The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.

Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.

Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.

Diagonal Limbs

I often talk about vertical balance with my riders as it’s one of the easiest ways to feel if a horse is unbalanced on turns. Have I blogged about it? I shall check as it was definitely on my list to do but I don’t actually remember writing it.

Old age.

Anyway, when looking at improving vertical balance I use the concept of diagonal aids. That is, the inside leg works in conjunction with the outside rein and vice versa.

Riding a horse is all about a balancing act. From day one, a rider is balancing the horse between going forwards from the leg and not going too fast by using the hands. Yes, the seat is also involved but as that works for both teams we’ll ignore it for the moment. It’s like having clutch control; every car is slightly different and there’s a skill involved.

Once we start talking about vertical balance the balancing act becomes a side to side one.

Initially, I ask my riders to ride some turns in walk, identifying the aids they’re using. Sometimes they get it right, after all I teach “indicate with the inside rein, instigate with the outside leg” when steering, but sometimes they’ll use one limb more than another, compensate for their or their horse’s crookedness, or have totally forgotten about one particular aid. Then, we discuss how the diagonal pairs work together to turn a horse, and to keep them upright on turns.

The left rein and right leg work as opposites to the right rein and left leg to keep the horse vertically balanced.

For example, the inside rein indicates the direction of turn as the outside leg pushes the horse in. The outside rein and inside leg work to prevent over steering and the horse falling in around a turn.

When a rider starts to think about their diagonal limbs working as pairs it becomes easier for them to work on a grey scale. Instead of it being black and white, putting the steering wheel onto full lock, they can now steer by degrees. Just as learning a half halt provides them with gears to each gait.

Half halts then begin to develop from a speed regulator to asking for bend, and correcting balance subconsciously. The rein contact becomes more consistent and because a leg aid is always applied with a rein aid the horse is ridden in a more forwards manner. Using diagonal pairs helps develop the feel and timing for aids too, which helps with refining the way of going.

Developing the concept of riding with diagonal pairs naturally leads on to riding inside leg to outside rein, which is a precursor to leg yield.

I enjoyed introducing the idea of diagonal pairs to one of my young riders a couple of weeks ago to help her transition from riding off the inside rein as a child usually does to riding with the outside aids. She had fabulous results as her pony started pushing through from behind, was more balanced on all their turns and taking the contact forwards. Thinking in diagonal pairs allowed her to position her pony wherever she wanted, and to correct him if they went off course. It was a very satisfying lesson to teach as I felt they both benefitted hugely from the rider’s new found understanding, feel, and knowledge.

Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.

Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.

Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.

You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.

So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).

That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.

So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.

This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.

I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.

I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.

This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.

There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!

Jumping is Dressage with Speed Bumps

I’ve been working with a new combination over the summer; an eleven year old girl and her new 15hh horse, with a history of showing and showjumping.

They have been the perfect example of how improving the flatwork improves the jumping. Initially, they could barely get over a line of trot or canter poles. Not because the horse was green, but because he needs to be ridden correctly. Which is a big learning curve for any child moving up from kick and point ponies.

We started the summer improving their relationship on the flat; exploring the concept of rhythm, improving rider position, developing the idea of riding leg to hand. These all began to improve their straightness and balance.

As this improved, the jumping and polework became easier; they had fewer run outs, maintained a rhythm to and from a fence and were more balanced. We did gridwork which helped the transition from polework to jumping, and helped my rider adjust from a pony’s pop to a horse’s bascule.

I then turned my attention to the quality of the gaits, and improving my rider’s feel for a poor trot or canter and her ability to improve them. I mainly did this on the flat, but then I started to notice (which is very common) that my rider was improving on the flat, but not making the connection to that work with her jumping. She got more confident, wanted to jump bigger, and then little problems started to creep in.

With the typical “urgh flatwork” reaction that a lot of kids give, I decided to do a jump lesson without focusing on the jumps. Of course, she went over the jumps, but all my critiquing was on the flat, to hopefully help my rider understand the importance of her flatwork.

I erected the jumps to a reasonable size – big enough that if she didn’t ride the approach correctly then her horse would politely duck out, yet small enough that she wasn’t concerned about the height. As she warmed up we discussed rhythm, impulsion, how reactive he was to the aids, riding from leg to hand, balance on the turns etc.

She warmed up over a simple cross pole on a diagonal line across the school; the first time off the left rein the canter was a bit flat but she got away with it. The second time she held a better rhythm and kept the canter together and rounder so that the jump was more of an extreme canter stride with a better bascule. I focused her on the quality of the canter and let the feel over the jump do the teaching.

We changed the rein, so she was coming off a right turn. Now, I’ve been drumming into her all summer about her pony drifting through the left shoulder, improving her left contact and use of the left leg. Which is improving on the flat but goes out the window once jumps come on the scene.

As expected, they drifted left, her pony loaded his left shoulder and they had a clunky jump. I put myself on the outside of the turn the next time and had her ride a squarer turn without using her right rein. This kept her horse in slight outside bend, controlled the shoulder, and improved their vertical balance and accuracy to the fence. Which led to a much better jump.

We repeated this a few times, made the fence an upright, and it started to come together nicely.

Next, was a double off the dreaded right rein. They jumped it fine when it wasn’t particularly big, and could get away with a crooked, flat canter approach, but once the fence increased to 80cm, when my rider drifted around her right turn and let the canter fall apart her pony either skirted left around it, or got in very deep. Again, I focused on the flatwork and as soon as my rider was riding from leg to hand, riding squarer corners, and kept the impulsion and rhythm balance to the take off point, they flew the fences nicely, making the horse striding easily. He’s only a little horse so easily falls into pony strides if he gets deep to the first fence but the jumps are awkward and he risks knocking the front rail.

I turned my rider’s attention briefly to her recovery after the fence; sitting up quicker and assessing the quality of the canter. It was more to increase her awareness and give her something to mull over in the next couple of weeks rather than a big teaching subject for the day.

Next, we started to link the course together, discussing the time and space between the fences rather than the time in the air. As my rider rode around the course I talked her through the balance of the canter, the outside aids, the straightness of their approach. When she got it, they flew!

However, when she let the canter get sloppy, for want of a better term, they got in deep to the jump and scrambled over it. When she stopped riding around the turn and presumed her pony would take her over the jump, he drifted left around it. There were good parts to the course, and this really emphasised the importance of her approach and canter, and equally she could really see the contrast between the great parts and the “get over by the skin of your teeth” jumps.

We then rode the elements she’d found hardest, talking through the changes she needed to make before going, and there was a definite improvement by the end.

I’m hoping that the takeaway message from today’s jumping lesson was not jump orientated, but more of an awareness of the quality of her canter and her horse’s balance on turns.. She can practice this on the flat and as part of her warm up, and it will in turn benefit her dressage. Which I think she’ll focus more on it when she understands how much it helps her ride a smooth, flowing, balanced course clear.

After all, showjumping is just dressage with speed bumps. Get the bits on the flat right, and the jumping is easy. Sneaking flatwork into a jump lesson is often the only way to get young riders to see purpose to their flatwork and motivate them to improve it for the sake or their jumping.

Straightness is Fundamental

I always talk about straightness with clients far earlier than the Scales of Training would suggest that it needs discussing and have had conversations with dressage trainers about it’s location on the training pyramid. But this week I had the perfect demonstration of why straightness often comes before rhythm.

A new client approached me last month, wanting help rebuilding her confidence and getting back into cantering. She felt out of control of her horse, and worried by his lack of balance in the canter. Of course I was happy to help and looked forward to a new challenge.

During their first lesson the thing which became most apparent was how the horse curled up to the right, leaning on his left shoulder, and falling in drastically on the left rein. The trot was choppy and unbalanced on both reins. To me, before we can address the canter we need to improve the balance in the trot which ultimately comes from the horse being straighter. The rider’s lack or confidence comes from, I believe, the feeling of a lack of control and her horse not responding as expected to her aids.

We spent the first couple of lessons checking she was straight, evening out the hand position because the right hand came back and the left went forwards. We also really worked on her horse staying straight in walk and during short trots. On the right rein he’d fling himself through the left shoulder going into trot but the fence line prevented too much drift, but on the right rein he fell in, and caused his rider to twist which exacerbated the horse’s crookedness. My aim initially was to reduce the bend to the right before increasing the bend to the left.

We chatted about saddle and physio checks, but the more I observed the more I felt that it was a control issue rather than a problem with the horse. He was trying to control the situation and his rider, who ultimately backed off as soon as he resisted her aids and twisted his body. Then the horse got away with not trotting, so tried this on every time and soon got the upper hand.

I helped my rider adjust her horse’s body, and most importantly have the self belief that she was doing it correctly so needed to stick to her guns as her horse explored the different avenues of evasion.

During the first two lessons we focused on reducing the right bend in walk and even getting some good left bend at times. On the right rein we worked in trot, as the fence prevented the over bend, and my rider learnt to use her left rein and left leg to reduce the right bend. On turns I concentrated her on using the left leg and reducing the right rein. She started to feel his left shoulder coming around each turn and his vertical balance improving.

Once the right rein was getting straighter we turned our attention to the left. We couldn’t just go straight into trot on the left rein because of the evasion twist during the transition. I put together a little exercise, focusing on straightness and not making a big deal on going onto the left rein. They started in trot on the right rein, turned across the short diagonal, focusing on bringing the left shoulder round the turn and using the left leg to keep him straight. They aimed to ride onto the left rein without losing this straightness and then riding a transition to walk before they lost the straightness, then immediately a ten metre left circle before two half circles to change the rein and begin the exercise again. The idea was that they progressively did more and more trot strides without falling onto the left shoulder.

We ran through this exercise a few times, with improving results. I was pleased with their progress over the last couple of lessons, but felt there was a bit of a block for future progress. I didn’t think there was a problem with the horse, but he was still determinedly evading his rider by twisting to the right in transitions. She was correcting him well, but lacked the determination to stand her ground, so ended up yielding to the horse, who effectively won that conversation so continued with his evasion tactic. I suggested that I sat on at the beginning of the next lesson to reinforce the boundaries and also to check that I couldn’t feel an issue that would cause the extreme right bend. As soon as I sat on, I secured the left rein and did a couple of leg yields to the right and within minutes the horse accepted my aids and stopped trying to fall through his left shoulder. Of course, he still felt stiffer to the left, but he was reactive to the left leg and much straighter through his body. I rode him for a few minutes longer until he’d proved that he wasn’t looking for an evasion. He also felt great so no underlying issues to my mind.

Then his rider mounted, and we picked up where we left off last lesson. Now she’d seen her horse stay straight she had more self belief in herself and her riding. He’d been firmly put back in his box by me so was less argumentative with her. We soon got a straighter trot on the right rein, and then managed to keep this balance onto the left rein. We developed the right rein work with circles, and focused on staying straight and on the track on the left rein. Finally, we started using demi voltes and consecutive changes of rein to improve their balance and reduce any tendency for the horse to fall into right bend.

Anyway, what’s the purpose of my witterings? As soon as the horse started to work in a straighter way, with improved vertical balance, his stride length opened, the rhythm improved and the trot became lighter and freer. From this straighter trot, we can start to establish a consistent rhythm, improve his suppleness and balance and progress up the Training Scale. However, if we didn’t correct his lack of straightness we would be fighting a losing battle. So really, a horse and rider need to be fairly straight before they can begin to work correctly and improve their way of going. In which case, shouldn’t straightness be the first training block? Or perhaps the Scales of Training should come with a caveat that you are starting with a fairly straight and evenly sided horse and rider?

My plan for the next few lessons is to really establish the straightness of both horse and rider; improving their suppleness on the left rein, ensuring my rider feels very confident and in control; able to manoeuvre him easily, and then start introducing the canter work, again with the focus being on the horse staying straight initially.

Planning Your Polework

With the majority of us not jumping at the moment and needing ideas to entertain us and our four legged friends more of us are looking at polework exercises.

Polework exercises that are being shared on social media are becoming increasingly complex and imaginative. I’m not against them in any way, but I think it’s important that riders don’t blindly copy the layouts, and take the time to plan, prepare and focus on your aims so that they don’t run into problems.

With any pole work layouts there are one or more themes:

  • Straightness
  • Accuracy
  • Cadence
  • Rhythm
  • Engagement of topline muscles

Before deciding on the pole layout you want to use, have a think about why you’re wanting to use the poles. What part of your horse’s way of going are you looking to develop?

It might be that a simpler pole layout is just as effective as a complex one.

If you are focusing on your horse’s weakest area, or your horse is weak or green, it might be better to only focus on one theme and keep the layout simple. Once they’re stronger, more established and confident you can start to use multiple themes in your pole layouts.

It’s also important to know the correct striding for your horse for trot and canter poles, and how to assess if the distance is too long or too short. The distance between trot poles is 4’6″ for the average horse, and if it is the correct distance for your horse their feet will hit the floor in the middle of the gap between the poles. If the distance is too close, then your horse will place their foot down closer to the upcoming pole. If the distance is too long, they will place their foot down closer to the pole they’ve just stepped over. The distance between canter poles is on average 9′, but it’s important to measure and calculate the distances like you would for trot when setting up the pole layouts.

Once you know your horse’s striding and can lay out straightforward trot and canter poles correctly for your horse you will get the most out of the any pole layout; reducing the risk of them injuring themselves or tripping over, and increasing the benefits of the polework to the horse’s way of going. Then you’re more likely to reproduce layouts you’ve seen online correctly.

I think there’s a real risk of people copying pole layouts they’ve seen in videos online without the correct knowledge to build it suitable for their horse and pony. Furthermore, without a thorough explanation of the aims of the polework layout or how to develop the exercises progressively; unknowledgeable riders may come a cropper by outfacing and confusing the horse, doing it too fast or in an unbalanced way, with the horse using his body incorrectly, and thus the polework is of no benefit at all.

I think it’s great that everyone is focusing on improving their horse’s way of going and utilising polework, but equally I think it’s important to share the “inside information” of distances, routes through the poles and the reasons, as well as riders themselves asking for advice from their coach or the author of the polework layout so that they are fully informed to the purpose of the polework and how to know if it is benefitting or not benefitting their horse and needs adapting during the session. And then of course the polework is safer for everyone.

Poles for Shallow Loops

I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.

Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.

On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.

The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.

The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.

To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?

Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?

I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.

This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!

Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.

In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.

Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.

I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.

As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.

Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.

From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.

I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.