Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.

The Art of Repetition

I’m working with a client who’s teaching a green horse to jump. The mare is quite happy over simple crosses and uprights, so we’re at the stage that she needs to learn to read the question with simple exercises and start knowing where she’s putting her feet before we progress to more complicated shaped jumps or grids or distances. I want her to be cleverer about getting to the jump, going over, and getting away from the jump so that we create an intelligent jumper, rather one that is over reliant on her rider or one who wings it each time.

Last lesson I set up two jumps, three strides apart. Starting with poles on the floor, I had them trot then canter over the poles from each direction. I’m looking for the horse to maintain her rhythm, forwardsness and confidence towards the poles. Most green horses will alter their gait as they look cautiously and assess the question. We want a horse to be able to quickly and correctly assess the jump in question so they are best able to clear it comfortably. As she is inexperienced with poles, I’d expect her to back off the poles slightly.

This is when there’s an art to knowing how many times to repeat an exercise. I want an exercise repeated enough times that the horse and rider are confident and competent through it, but I don’t want to repeat it so that they become complacent. It’s exactly the same with flat exercises as jump exercises. I also want to repeat the exercise enough times that it proves it’s not a fluke. I went to a demo with Paul Tapner this week and his rule is that he wants an exercise performed “twice, nice” to prove the first wasn’t a fluke, and to ensure the lesson stays progressive. To an extent, I agree, but I often find a third repetition really useful for cementing the learning.

Anyway, with this mare, I wanted to repeat each stage just enough times that she proved she was happy with the question. She only needed to trot over the poles twice in each direction to become consistent from A to B. Cantering over the poles, she did it perhaps three times in total on each rein. The first time she wobbled and fell into a bit of a heap, and then she sorted her legs out.

Once I was happy with her at this stage I made the second element a cross pole. A height within her comfort zone, but the question had changed. I wasn’t looking to challenge her jumping ability, but rather her ability to judge the jump and get it right first time. I think it was a bit of a mess first time round, as she slowed to look at it, wobbled and the launched over it. The second time was better, and she got it the third.

So I changed the question, putting the first cross up. This time, her first attempt was better and she didn’t back off to study the jumps. Rinse and repeat until she understood.

Then I changed direction, and I was pleased that she reached stage two quicker and seemingly more confident.

I was rattling through the stages but without rushing the mare. Previously, we’ve repeated the exercise more times than necessary to build muscle memory, confidence and practice. Now, I wanted her to complete a task well a couple of times and then move on. But I needed her to achieve the previous stage and be confident about it before moving on otherwise she will lose confidence later on.

Once the mare had negotiated the cross poles I changed the shapes of the jumps. Making one jump an upright, then once this successfully negotiated, the other one too. Then we changed the rein and had the upright first and cross pole second. And then changed it round.

I was pleased that the mare began confidently taking her rider into each set-up, unfazed when the jumps changed. Of course, she was still green and put in the odd wobble and didn’t always get a good take off spot. But that will come as her canter develops and with future sessions to improve her straightness and rhythm. The important thing was that she wasn’t backing off the jumps when they changed.

To finish the session, I steadily built the second jump into an oxer; by putting an upright behind the cross, so that it was inviting and my rider could continue aiming for the centre easily.

I feel it’s important to teach horses to read and process simple jump exercises quickly when training them so that they learn to think for themselves and adjust their canter and bascule as appropriate. I think a horse’s ability to adapt to new jump exercises is related to their confidence, which is why I wouldn’t move onto the next phase before the horse is competent at the previous one. One horse which I ride always backs off an exercise the first time, even when the jump has only changed by a small amount. We’ve worked a lot on progressing exercises steadily and repeating the exercise twice from the off and he is less sticky the first time now, but his general confidence over jumps is also improving.

Building a horse’s confidence when jumping is related to the number of times they have repeated am exercise – it’s a big circle! And I stick to the theory that a horse needs to repeat the exercise until they have done it well two or three times, but have not started to become complacent or anticipate the exercise with detrimental effects. There’s no point mindlessly repeating an exercise with no improvement. Changing it, however slight, will keep both horse and rider thinking about the job in hand.

Pole Star

I did a fun polework lesson over the weekend, in the shape of a five pointed star.

It was harder than I anticipated to make star-shaped – I could’ve done with a drone to help me get it perfectly aligned! But once it was set up I could see the multitude of uses for it!

Once my two riders had warned up in trot and canter I had them working on opposite points of the star. They had to ride a 10-15m circle on the outside of the star, trotting over the two poles which formed the point of the star. I had my riders adjust their circle so that they found the perfect striding between the poles for their horse. The horse shouldn’t be skipping or stretching for the second pole, neither should they be chipping in and tripping over it. Riding the poles on a curve increases the step of the inside hind, so activating it so that it works harder on a normal circle. When the inside hind comes further under the body the abdominals work harder and thus the horse lifts their back.

My riders rode these circles on both reins, feeling the improvement, and also the difference between reins as by asking the horse to work harder it highlights any weakness or evasion tactic. They both felt that the trot was more co-ordinated and together after this exercise.

Examples of the circle exercise and straightness exercise lines ridden by my riders.

Next, we turned our attention to their accuracy and straightness by riding across the star, over the points. I had my riders find their line, focus on a point, channel the horse between the reins using the legs and seat. The aim is that the horse trots over the point of the poles. This tests their balance and straightness, as well as improving their cadence and suppleness.

These two exercises kept us busy for the level of horse that I had in this lesson, as we combined them into a little course at the end, but they could also be done in canter. Both horses improved dramatically in their way of going, looking much more balanced and active in their trot work.

Next time I do this exercise, I want to add in some trot and canter poles on a curve across the arena, so the star becomes a shooting star.