Spirals

It’s a classic exercise to introduce leg yield, and can help increase a horse’s bend, but I find that spiralling in and out on a circle can encourage bad rider habits to form and is so often detrimental to both horse and rider, rather than achieving the desired effect of increasing the engagement of the inside hind leg.

The basis of the exercise is that you establish a twenty metre circle before spiralling in towards the centre and then spiralling out again.

I begin teaching this exercise by standing at X, and asking my rider to ride a twenty metre circle from either E or B. We spend some time establishing the roundness, and identifying points where their horse is liable to drift out (usually at E and B), or fall in (usually as they cross the centre line). Then I ask them to slowly decrease the size of the circle by moving the horse’s outside shoulder in first. This reduces the rider using the inside rein to pull their horse onto a smaller circle, and encourages the use of the outside leg. Decreasing the circle slowly requires more balance and more subtle aids. The inside rein opens slightly to indicate moving across whilst the outside leg pushes the horse over, outside rein prevents the horse overturning with their head and supports the outside shoulder. The inside leg maintains the correct bend, and the rider turning their shoulders into the circle with their weight in their inside seat bone helps the horse stay in the correct bend.

By spiralling in slowly, and almost adopting a shoulder fore position the horse will bring his inside hind leg under his body, propel himself forwards more correctly and feel lighter and more engaged. The smaller circles require more suppleness and balance from the horse. I often tell my rider to stay on a certain sized circle, or not to spiral in any further because I can see that the horse has reached their limit in terms of suppleness so are better staying at this point instead of going smaller but losing the quality to their gait.

From the small circle, I ask the rider to sidestep out onto a bigger circle before riding a few strides on this circle and then sidestepping again. This makes a series of concentric circles, rather than a spiral. This helps control the movement and keep it correct. By only leg yielding a couple of strides at a time the rider doesn’t lose their horse’s outside shoulder, the inside hind continues to push the horse sideways so they stay engaged. The rider’s outside aids continue to be effective and the horse stays balanced.

Some horses are more likely to rush back to the track, so pulling themselves across in the leg yield from the outside shoulder. In this case, I get the rider to “ride smart”: as they start to ride towards E or B they have to apply the outside aids before their horse drifts and takes control of the movement, and then ask for the leg yield as they move towards the centre line, when the horse has no inclination to fall out. This ensures that the leg yield comes from the rider’s aids and is not the horse anticipating.

Ridden correctly, the horse becomes more supple and engaged, and it is an excellent warm up exercise for gently stretching them and unlocking and tight or resistant spots. I find it incredibly useful when Phoenix gets her knickers in a twist (when the wind blows or the something is out of place) as when I move her body around subtly she releases through her barrel and becomes more rideable. It’s also useful for identifying a stiffer side in rider or horse, as well as fine tuning the rider’s aids and control through a movement.

So often I see the spirals being ridden badly; the head and neck over bending as the horse spirals in, with too much inside rein, and them falling rapidly through the outside shoulder in a race to get back out to the bigger circle. Which doesn’t help engage the inside hind leg, or promote the rider using their outside aids correctly or effectively.

Next time you ride this exercise, try changing your approach to it, and critique yourself to make sure you aren’t letting either yourself or your horse cheat by drifting in and out on the circle. How many times do you pass B as you move in or out? Can you increase that number? Slowing down the movement requires more balance and more obedience from your horse.

Adjustability to the Canter

I’ve talked recently about transitions within the gait, and using the idea of a scale of 1-10 to help get the idea of different gears and transitioning between them.

This month’s clinic had the theme gears to the gait, so I concocted an exercise and lesson plan to improve the rider’s feel for their canter, improve their horse’s adjustability, as well as improving their overall canter.

I had my riders warm up in working trot, working between a 4-trot and a 6-trot while I assessed them and made corrections to their position and way of going. We did the same in canter, and even just by riding small transitions the horses started to use their hindquarters more, to lift their shoulders and get more power to their trot and canter.

Next up we started working through a related distance: it was walked as three horse strides and four pony strides to accommodate all sizes and stride lengths. I had them jumping the related distance, with reasonably sized cross poles until the horses had settled into their usual jumping rhythm and were jumping the fences appropriately. Not too big, yet not being complacent and tripping over the fence. Once we knew how many strides a horse got between the two fences when in canter gear five, we could start to make some changes.

Firstly, I asked my riders to approach the related distance in a more collected canter – fourth gear – and to see if they could hold the canter together between the fences to get an extra stride in. Some horses manage this easily, but others who lock on to a line are less adjustable and tend to launch over the second jump rather than fit in a small stride. Not naming any names Phoenix…

To help anyone who struggled to keep a shorter canter between two fences I had a slightly different experience. I asked them to jump the first fence and then ride a circle away from the second jump, of 10-15m before jumping the second element. I laid a pole out to help them scribe a circle. It could become a jump if necessary.

Doing this circle exercise a few times helps the horse maintain a more collected canter, teaches them not to lock on to a jump too early, they become more responsive to the rider’s half halts, and pretty soon they start to fit in that extra stride in the related distance.

When the exercise is ridden well in fourth gear, there should be four regular strides between the two fences. It’s vital that the rider sets up the more collected canter early in the approach, rather than trying to adjust the canter in the middle. It usually takes a couple of attempts to get the four regular strides, rather than progressively shorter strides between the jumps.

Then it’s time to lengthen the canter over the jumps. When you jump from a more extended canter the horse’s bascule will change as their take off point moves further back and the arc they make becomes longer. Think of steeplechasers. A lot of horses here will fall onto the forehand as they try to pull themselves along, and then they aren’t in the best position to jump so can either chip in or bring the fence down with their front legs. The answer is to practice lengthening the canter on the flat and over canter poles to build the strength in the hindquarters.

Once my riders could adjust the number of strides between the related distance we moved on towards dog legs and built a simple course, but with the added challenge of trying to get a different number of strides in each related distance. The dog leg distances were all walked as three horse strides or four pony strides as well, so I challenged my riders to jump round changing between their fourth, fifth and sixth gear canters.

Each jump could be jumped from each direction, and the easiest course was to progressively lengthen the canter throughout. Starting in fourth gear and then finishing in sixth gear. Harder, was starting in sixth gear, dropping straight to fourth and then back up again.

By the end of the sessions the horses were all more adjustable in their canter, were better balanced and more uphill in all the gears. And the riders had a better feel and understanding of the canter they needed to create before jumps.

So how does this impact your course riding? Well, at competitions there is a measured distance between jumps, but when you’re walking the course and striding out the distances you may discover that the distance is a bit short or long for your horse’s normal jumping canter. In order to jump smoothly and be in the best position to go clear the stride length of your canter needs to be adjusted to best fit the distance. So when you walk the course you can start to plan your gears on the approach to jumps to best ride the getaway and hopefully go clear!

Cones and Circles

Mum asked for my expertise over the weekend as she’d been struggling with an exercise she’d been given last week.

I quite like the exercise though, so thought I’d share it with you.

Place three cones along the centre line, one at X and the other two ten metres either side.

From the right rein, turn down the centre line in trot and ride a ten metre circle around the first cone. You want to aim to stay equidistant from the cone the whole way round the circle. Continue round the circle until you’ve ridden a complete circle and the next time you cross the centre line change the rein and circle around the second cone in the opposite direction. One and a half circles later, move on to riding a circle in the original direction around the third cone. It’s a really good suppling sequence to ride.

Initially, you’re aiming for the three circles to be similar in size, and for it to flow between circles. Hopefully you’ll notice if one rein is harder than the other and you can spend some time improving the circles on that rein before coming back to the exercise.

You’ll remember a few weeks ago I blogged about how to ride a change of bend? If you feel that the circle sequence is going wrong at the change of rein, break down the change of bend and ensure you are switching from position left to position right (or vice versa) to allow your horse to change their bend and are supporting them as they do.

Now that the circles are hopefully feeling similar in shape and fairly round, we can step it up a notch. Try counting the number of strides you get on each half circle in the exercise. You want to get the same number. This means that your circles are round and not egg-shaped, and that your right and left circles are the same size. You’ll also discover if the change of rein between the circles affects the size and shape of your circles.

It sounds like a simple exercise, but the fact you’re working away from the fence means you as a rider, need to support your horse more as they will more often than not drift towards the fence. Which should mean that you notice any weakness in your aids. It also serves to improve your horse’s symmetry and suppleness hugely.

Pole Triangles

This is a pole layout I did a few weeks ago now with clients, which had numerous exercises within it to benefit a wide range of horses and riders. Lay out a triangle of poles, then place a pole four foot away from each pole. Then build another triangle with outer poles next to it, so that there are three trotting poles in the centre.

The first exercise I used with my riders was in their warm up, getting them to trot and canter between a pair of poles. This really helped identify any crookedness in the horse, and encouraged the riders to minimise their inside rein aids. Initially, I only had them riding through one pair of poles but towards the end of the warm up I got some riders to ride an arc through the two tramlines on one side of the formation, a bit like a shallow loop. This started to get the horses stepping under with the inside hind and using it correctly because they couldn’t drift through their outside shoulder due to the second pair of poles.

Just by using these poles in the warm up I found both horse and rider were more focused and their way of going improved by making them straighter.

The next exercise I utilised was getting my combinations to trot over the tramlines and then over the apex of the triangle. The tramlines were set as trot poles, and both horse and rider had to be accurate to the apex. I had my riders ride across the pole layout from various points, integrating the poles into their flatwork circles and shapes. This means the horses are less likely to anticipate the exercise and the rider can then take the benefit of the polework onto their flatwork and feel the improvement immediately.

If a horse persistently drifts one way or the other over the poles it tells you which hind leg is stronger, which leads me to developing some exercises to improve them. Likewise, it can help to identify any asymmetry in the rider’s seat or aids.

You can also ride from the apex to the trot poles, which is a harder accuracy question because the poles draw the horse away from the point, rather then funnelling them towards the apex.

With my more balanced horses and riders I rolled the tramlines out so they were nine foot apart, which meant they could canter over the poles and apexes.

To add a layer of difficulty to this route, some riders rode curves through the triangles, entering over the trot poles of one triangle, trotting the three trot poles in the centre before either trotting out over the apex, or left or right over another pair of poles.

The final route I had my riders take was along the length of the pole formation; trotting over an apex, over three trot poles and then over the other apex. This was a good test of their straightness, and by removing the middle pole of the trio it could be cantered.

Basically, have a play around with these pole triangles, taking as many different routes as you can, focusing on riding rhythmically, accurately, aiming to the centre of each pole, and straight. You should feel your horse’s cadence and balance improve as they start to lift their feet higher over the poles, lift through their abdominals, lighten the forehand, improve their proprioception and become more interested in their work.

Rhythm

Rhythm is the first stage in the Scales of Training, so I thought it was worth writing a blog post about it so that everyone understands the equestrian version of the word.

The Oxford Dictionary gives many definitions of the word rhythm, one if which is:

“A strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound

Now to equestrians, this is extrapolated to mean “the regularity of the gait” and that means that the speed of the horse`s gait does not change whether the horse is going around a corner or on a straight line. Rhythm also means that the gait is regular – four beats in the walk, two in the trot, and three in the canter.

When I first start riding a horse, or teaching a lesson, I assess the rhythm of the horse in walk and trot.

In the walk I`m looking for the horse to be walking purposefully, and have an active stride. That means he`s not dragging his toes. Often people mistake active for fast, and the horse develops a rushed, choppy stride whilst dragging themselves along on the forehand. When this happens I look at transitions between walk and halt. By slowing the speed of the walk the horse begins to take the weight off his forehand and stops rushing. This improves the horse`s balance as well. Then by pushing the walk on, but remembering to keep a consistent rein contact so that the energy doesn`t flow out the front end. Almost imagine you are filling a sink with water. If the plug isn`t in then the sink doesn`t fill up. If the rein contact is slack or non existent then the horse doesn`t fill up with energy. Back to improving the rhythm of the walk. A transition from halt into walk will encourage the horse to push with their hindquarters so it will improve the quality of the walk from the off. Once the walk becomes regular you can wrap your legs around and generate a bit of activity into the strides, whilst being careful not to change the rhythm. Adding in circles and changes of rein will check that your horse can maintain this level of walk consistently, and not lose his balance on a circle.

Moving up into trot. The principles are the same, and I like to use transitions within the trot to help the horse find his natural rhythm in the trot. Again, you want to keep the trot steady until the rhythm is established, and then you can generate a bit more activity and energy as the horse is less likely to fall onto the forehand. Once the rhythm is established around the arena I start putting in some 20m circles and once the horse can maintain his rhythm on this size circle I begin making things harder – smaller circles and serpentines. All the time checking that the horse can maintain the quality to his trot. When they rush or slow down they have lost their balance, so take the time to re-establish the rhythm and try again, or make the movement slightly bigger until the horse finds this simple.

The canter is a three beat rhythm, which can be harder to improve. Initially, I look at the horse maintaining the speed of the canter in straight lines, corners and then half circles across the school. I build this up and sometimes add in a little counter canter with shallow loops to make sure the rhythm is fully established. Then I look at ensuring the canter is three beat. Again, counter canter can help this as the inside hind leg (being the one which is part of the diagonal pair) has to travel further in counter canter, so the muscles and tendons are stretched. Then back on normal canter the diagonal pair tend to hit the floor in sync.

Poles can be used to help improve the rhythm of a gait, as well as improving the arc of the stride. I used raised poles with a client in canter to improve the rhythm of the horse`s canter. The horse tends to fall into a four beat rhythm, so the poles encouraged him to step under with his inside hind, as well as encouraging him to use his abdominals and lift his back. With his back lifted slightly more there is a bit more room for his inside hind leg to come through, so he is more likely to have a correct three beat gait. My rider felt the improvement for a few strides after the raised poles, and it gave her the correct feeling to strive to achieve around the rest of the arena.

Once the three beat canter is established the rider can bring the canter back and push it on, to help the hindquarters become the motor and then to generate some impulsion – that is, energy without speed. Then of course the whole thing can begin again on circles of decreasing sizes.

Hopefully the word rhythm is now clearer in your head, and each schooling session can have time spent on ensuring that your horse has a good and consistent rhythm and then from there you can look at the second stage of training, suppleness.

Figures of Eight

Last week I did a useful exercise in my lesson on Otis.

We began with tramline poles between E and B, and then there were four poles at each end to make two funnels to help shape a figure of eight.

In my warm up we focused on keeping a completely consistent rhythm thoughout the figure of eight. One of the comments on my last dressage test was that Otis had gone into his shoulder slightly on the serpentine loops. I soon discovered that the minutest pause in my rise at the beginning of the first pole I got to helped keep Otis balanced and consistent.

It was a useful warm up exercise which was surprisingly taxing, mentally. I hadn’t used poles in this layout, but thought it would be interesting when teaching kids or improving the movement.

We moved on to adding a couple of strides of walk over X; so keeping the rhythm and balance on a turn and transition, maintaining the even, consistent rein contact, and then picking up the new bend during the upwards transition.

For something that sounds very simple, there were lots of little things I had to consider in order to make it perfect.

From this we did a direct transition into canter after X, which produced a really balanced canter from Otis. After half the circle I rode into trot before walking between the poles. Obviously this can be made harder by introducing a direct transition down into walk. 

Otis worked beautifully during that lesson, but my brain started ticking. For such a simple set up there was a myriad of exercises.

A couple of days later I was teaching a jump lesson, and wanted to work on the canter rhythm before and after. So I put a jump in the centre of the figure of eight. We could change the rein over the fence, or stay on one circle. We worked both ways and the little mare worked hard, but you could really see her weaker rein, and the rider had to keep her rhythm and keep the quality of her canter in order to get a better bascule over the jump. Having the funnel poles stopped them cutting the corners!

I look forward to trying the exercise with a few other clients over the next few weeks!

Maintaining a Rhythm

“Showjumping is dressage with speed bumps” is a phrase I have on the back of one of my hoodies, and it’s very true. Get a good rhythm and the jumps just happen smoothly.

However, things don’t usually go to plan. Recently I taught a girl and her pony, working on jumping a course with some scary fillers, so that we could focus on riding good lines and linking the fences together smoothly. We had a number of issues to overcome though.

The pony is a bit backwards thinking so can be slow to react to her rider’s legs, which means the canter loses its impulsion quite easily. So they do a lot of opening up the trot and lengthening and shortening strides in the warm up, and when her Mum rides, and try to be consistent and quick to back the leg up with a sharp tap with the stick so that the pony begins the session by listening to her rider. If you let her ignore the leg and dawdle around in the first five minutes she’s a nightmare to refocus and work with. This delayed reaction has caused problems recently because the pony sometimes backs off the fence, but then doesn’t respond to the rider saying “go” which results in a steep, uncomfortable bascule for both horse and rider. 

So whilst we want to set up the canter we want to jump out of at the beginning, maintaining it to the fence can be hard work, but the pony is gradually listening to the aids a bit quicker. At least once in this lesson I saw her back off but then go forwards again when told, which resulted in a slightly dodgy jump, but not a refusal and not a really steep bascule. The next time round she was better.

Another issue we had to overcome was the fact that the “spooky” end of the school was busier than normal, which the pony used to her advantage. She slowed right down towards that end of the arena and then fell in from the fence and galloped back to the safe end of the school. I explained to my rider that the pony needs to maintain her focus on the rider, so keep her busy with lots of movements or transitions, and remember to ignore the monsters herself so the pony had less of an excuse. After a few circles on both reins the pony relaxed a bit, and didn’t shoot off. When she did shoot off I suggested the rider called her bluff. Up until then the pony cantered across the school before stopping abruptly. Then my rider tried slowing the canter down a bit, but maintaining it so the pony found the spook harder work than anticipated so didn’t bother spooking next time round. Also, with a backwards thinking pony you want to utilise any forwards impulsion, so half halting to balance the gait but keeping the momentum can be more beneficial than stopping and trying to start again.

The trouble with having a spookier end of the arena was that any jumps towards that end the pony backed off and my rider had to work hard, yet any fences away from the spooky end my rider had to balance her pony and wait for the fences.

This meant that it was actually really difficult to maintain a consistent rhythm around the whole course because the pony alternated so dramatically between full speed and dead slow. A couple of times she caught my rider by surprise by shooting off away from the spooky end towards the jumps, so the jumps were rushed and she got too deep. Of course whilst this made it interesting, my rider had to be quick to gauge the pony’s speed and correct her. Ultimately my rider will become better for it as she cannot be a passenger.

Even with all these distractions, which are actually very similar to what could happen in a show, the pair rode each fence nicely a few times and the pony got less reactive to her surroundings and kept the rhythm a bit better.

I think when both of them get into the mindset of riding a course they will perform better as they are inside their little bubble of focus so won’t become distracted. In the meantime my rider just needs to keep a metronome on her and quickly react to all her pony throws at her and then their canter rhythm will become consistent and the courses will flow.