Learning to Canter

I had a few of my young riders have their first canter just before Christmas, and I’ve decided that the first canter stage is the most nerve wracking thing to teach.

There’s so much groundwork and preparation to do, and if you get the timing wrong it can have catastrophic results.

Before I even think of a rider having their first canter, they need to be confident in sitting trot, have experienced working without stirrups – how much no stirrup work they do depends on how big the child and how bouncy the pony is. I like them to be very confident in trot, and to happily ride a “fast trot” in a balanced way.

In a riding school there are usually two or three ponies with perfect learn-to-canter canters. Economical in stride length and cadence, steady, and voice controlled. So I would familiarise the rider with this pony in a couple of lessons beforehand, and then they would ride this pony for a few weeks to establish their canter seat and confidence.

With privately owned ponies, I like to do some research. Either I’ll lunge them without a rider, or I’ll observe an older rider cantering them. Sometimes, ground work needs to be done with the pony, so that they canter next to a leader (from either side), or canter quietly and are balanced on the lunge. Often I will set the parents some homework to do with the pony before the child has their first canter so the environment can be as controlled as possible.

It’s important to choose the right day for the first canters, and equally feel that the rider doesn’t need to canter everytime they ride; base the decision on the child’s state of mind that day, as well as the pony’s way of going, and any environmental factors.

I’m probably a bit too cautious, with my riders spending a long time on the lead rein or lunge in canter; until they stay balanced without holding in to the pommel. I like to think all the running is good for me, but in reality it’s very easy to send them solo before they are ready and they have the skill set to steer and stop. Then they get a problem – usually a bit too fast, or not stopping on cue – and take a few steps back in the confidence stakes. Which overall makes their learning to canter journey more challenging. I predominantly canter them on the lead rein because the straight lines are easier for the rider, and very few ponies are balanced enough to canter circles on the lunge. However, it’s a very useful tool for particularly nervous riders or sharp ponies. Plus I like to revisit cantering on the lunge once they’re fairly established to refine position and work without reins or stirrups.

I don’t think a rider needs to have many canters each time they ride. Again, I base it on their energy levels, and how the pony is responding to the lesson. They might only do two canters, or half a dozen on each rein. Regularly cantering keeps the feeling fresh in their minds so keeps confidence levels up, but not overdoing it when they’d actually benefit from more focus on their trot work is important to remember too.

The first few canters I do with a rider, I get them to have longer reins and hold the pommel. Once they’ve found the rhythm and are fairly in sync with the pony, I get them to take the outside hand off the pommel but still hold the rein loosely. Then they work on keeping the hand still in canter. Then they can start to use the outside rein to help keep pony on the track, and to make the downwards transition. At this stage, I start to lead without a lead rope, just resting a hand on the rein and letting go for a few strides to introduce the concept of going solo. It’s also a good opportunity to check the rider can bring the pony back to trot easily. Because we’ve worked off both reins, the rider should be happy letting go with either hand, so a natural progression is to let go of the pommel with the outside hand and then follow with the inside hand. This may only be for a stride before they cling on again, but I make it progressive. Let go for the count of three, then four, then seven. Get them to let go earlier. Let go during the transition. All these baby steps will gradually build confidence until they are cantering without holding on without realising.

Only then do I seriously start letting them canter independently. The last couple of strides initially, then just leading for the transition and first couple of strides. Then just running alongside. And without realising, they’re off!

I think the reason I find it so nerve wracking is that it’s so easy to get carried away and move through the stages too quickly, not allowing the foundations to set fully. Plus, kids bounce out the saddle so much in canter I’m always holding my breath hoping that the homing device is fully functional!

On The Lead Rein

From which side should you lead a child riding a pony?

The traditionalist in me says from the near side, and that’s always the side we led from when helping out at the local riding school as teenagers. In the showing world lead rein ponies are led from the near side.

Ultimately, a pony needs to be happy being led from either side, as it is correct to lead from the off side on a road, and a child may need more assistance on one side than the other. Perhaps a leg which draws up so they tend to lose that stirrup more.

Equally, the leader needs to be proficient at leading from both sides; there’s definitely some skill in running slightly sideways with one hand on the lead rope and the other on the rider’s leg!

When you turn a horse around, you turn them away from you to avoid being stood on, so for me it is logical to lead on the outside of the pony. That is, from the near side on the right rein, and off side on the left. Particularly when cantering as you’re sprinting and want to minimise the risk of legs entangling.

This all means that there is a degree of leading from both sides. But I have to say that my bug bear is when leaders switch sides on every change of rein, interfering with the rider’s steering or the pony’s balance. I cringe every time I see a leader run quicker than the pony, go round the head, and resume leading from the new side. It’s distracting to the observer and distracting to the pony and child. Often you seem them actually move off their flight path as the leader darts about.

When leading a pony and beginner child the purpose is to be totally in control initially, and then reduce your influence over the pony as the rider develops their skill set. So initially a leader needs to direct every stride, but they should become more laissez-faire as the rider starts to be able to steer, start and stop independently. But it’s at this point where the leader switching sides can cause the most disruption because the rider’s aids are quite fragile and their concentration at it’s highest. They’re also learning the cause and effect – how much rein is needed to turn or how much leg is needed to go at that speed – so a leader walking in front of the pony affects this learning process.

Personally, I prefer to predominantly lead from the near side, so don’t switch sides at each change of rein. If I needed to switch sides, I’d wait until we were walking or halting. However, I always lead on the outside when cantering because I feel safer and less likely to get knocked by a stray leg.

I’m by no means correct, and I’m interested to know what experienced leaders tend to do. Especially as I’ve got a couple of years of lead rein coming up! But my observations from teaching are that it is best to pick one side and stick to it as much as possible so as not to distract the young jockey from their work.

Riding With Sponges

In 2021 I’m planning on attending a course of whatever sort is allowed to happen with Covid guidelines on the Franklin Method. My pilates teacher is an avid fan, and a lot of the ball and band work I’ve seen compliments my teaching and would benefit my clients. I’m not interested in running clinics, but a better understanding and knowledge of the props will give me some more tools to help my clients achieve their goals.

Starting with sponges. I saw a social media post using them and promptly hopped on the band wagon.

Several of my clients have now endured the sponges, and all have felt the benefit of the instant feedback the sponges provide.

The large sponges sit on the stirrup tread, underneath the foot and can be ridden on the flat and over jumps. I’m yet to use them over jumps, but I will, don’t worry, I will!

I start the session with the sponges by getting my rider to walk round on both reins, getting used to the feel of them under the foot and tuning in to their feet. Improving their proprioception. We talk about whether one sponge is more easily squashed than the other. If so, then it suggests the rider has more weight going down that leg, often coming from asymmetry in the seat. Which we can then address.

Once we’ve raised awareness for any discrepancies between the legs, I get my clients to “squash the sponges” as they walk round the arena. Rhythmically pressing down on the sponges increases the movement in the ankle, so is very useful for anyone who tends to brace the lower leg. For those at the opposite end of the spectrum, who struggle to get their heels down, find that pulsating the sponges starts to lengthen the calf muscles. Squashing the sponges isn’t a big movement – I don’t want to see the lower leg swinging – it is just activating the ankle so it becomes bouncy, or spring like.

We then move up into trot, where I focus my client on what the sponges feel like; if they draw the leg up the sponge will feel like it’s moving around. The rider becomes more aware of any stiffness in the ankle, and if they overload one leg. We then play around with pressure in the foot to improve their balance and coordination.

For riders who’s heels draw up, I’ve found that dropping the heel every time they rise is an effective exercise to improve the lower leg, lengthening the calves and dropping their weight into the heel.

For the riders who brace their ankles, I get to wriggle their toes as they sit into the saddle. We don’t want toes pointing down, but squashing the sponge and wriggling the toes reduces ankle stiffness. Usually there’s some moans and groans by now, but my riders have springs in their ankles which gives them a softer lower leg and improved leg aids because they can close the leg around the horse’s barrel better, as well as being stiller so more precise with the aids.

The canter is the interesting gait to ride with sponges. Because it is asymmetric riders often have one leg behaving whilst the other runs errant. The outside leg often draws up and the stirrup start to rattle about on the foot.

My clients have all done better than expected when cantering with the sponges, with less movement of the sponges than I’d read about when planning this exercise. I know that smaller sponges would be less stable, but equally I don’t think they’d have twisted much with my clients. They could feel the weight coming out of their foot sufficiently, and then by squashing the sponge or wriggling the toes we could correct. With one client in particular, using the sponges really got her reaching down to the stirrups so deepening her seat and stabilising her lower leg. Others have just become more aware of the weight coming out of the outside leg and a result sat more centrally in the canter. It also helps highlight the difference between the left rein and the right rein.

So how do the sponges work? They aren’t forcing feet into certain positions or anything. But they do increase a rider’s awareness of that area of their body and provide instant feedback when changes are made. Which makes it easier to make and maintain corrections. I found that whilst all my riders noticed the sponges at the beginning of the ride, by the end they had forgotten about them because their leg position had improved and the squashiness of the sponges more consistent.

Their purpose when jumping is to ensure the rider folds straight and evenly into their jumping position, not leaning on one leg more than the other, and ensuring the ankle is flexible whilst jumping.

I think the sponges could be improved by being denser, which would give more scope for squashing them and softening the ankle. Also some riders would benefit from the sponges being slightly smaller and so more likely to shift position in the stirrup if the rider draws their leg up or rolls onto the outside of their foot so the weight distribution is uneven. I’ll have to look out for some different sponges!

In the meantime clients, you’ll be seeing more of those yellow sponges!

A Lockdown Layout of Poles

I love having the opportunity to teach consecutive lessons at the same venue as it means I can play around with one setup of poles or jumps and utilise a variety of exercises. If I had a base to teach from I’d probably have a layout for a couple of weeks which could be used for flat, pole and jump lessons. Which would give the opportunity for clients to get some continuity and to develop the exercises over a couple of lessons.

For anyone bored during lockdown, this is a fabulous arrangement of poles which can be used umpteen times without becoming boring.

The pole at X is used in both circles, and the 3 poles at each end are laid out to make an accurately sized circle of about 18 metres. It’s useful to have the outer track free from debris.

The first use for this layout is to make circles rounder. For some young riders they tend to ride EB in a straight line, so the poles help teach them how to ride an arc across the school.

For more established riders, I usually discuss and encourage them ro to evaluate the quality of their circles and compare them to the opposite rein. Then we discuss stiffness; why one rein is harder than the other to get a round circle.

Once the circles are round and symmetrical in trot the same work can be repeated in canter. Often a pony will drift out on a canter circle without their rider noticing. Well with the poles it’s obvious when your circle isn’t round!

The poles can be raised on the inner end to improve cadence, help prevent them from falling in and improve vertical balance.

Finally, the poles can be converted to cross poles which tests jumping from a rhythm and improves suppleness.

With the exercise as poles on the floor, raised poles (although the pole at X needs to be raised at both ends) or jumps, a figure of eight can be ridden over the circle of poles which helps with flying changes; teaches a rider to plan their route and use their seat and body to affect their horse.

Apart from improving circles, this layout has another use – teaching gears to the gaits. Using the two poles on each three quarter line, ride straight over them in working trot, counting the strides. Then try to lengthen the strides into medium trot, getting fewer strides between the poles. Then collect the trot and increase the number of strides between the poles.

Again, this can be done in canter, and then as jumps instead of poles. With young kids you can keep it simple and just teach them to count strides which increases their awareness of rhythm. And with older kids it becomes a game, with them becoming more determined to get a set number of strides.

You can then also discuss the way the bascule changes shape depending on the type of canter – how when jumping from a medium canter the take off and landing points are further away from the base of the fence, giving rise to a long, shallow bascule. From collected canter those points are closer to the fence so creating a steeper, shorter bascule.

I love the versatility of this layout and how each subject can be layered to suit all abilities and all levels of understanding. It gives me so much variation between individual clients with the exact same lesson plan.

Pipe Dreaming

Every so often, do you allow yourself to dream? I’m always hearing competitions on the radio – when you hear a song, ring in and win money. I never ring in. I don’t have a good track record of winning lucky dip competitions. I was always the grandchild returning from Weymouth carnival empty handed, before being given the teddy that Granny had won as compensation. The only competitions I’ve ever won are from hard work.

It doesn’t stop me from pipe dreaming though. What would I do with a sizeable lump sum of money?

I wouldn’t go crazy, stop working, travel the world, buy a brand new range rover or anything. But I’d definitely move house I think.

Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that what I want from our next house is enough space for Otis at the bottom of the garden. Just 3 acres or so. Enough for him and some sheep for company. Or possibly the pony. A slightly bigger house would be great – four bedrooms and an extra downstairs room to lighten the working from home burden. Detached. On the edge of a large village. I’d be very happy with that setup. Not too much housework, and a moderate garden. But space for Otis to join in family BBQs. Don’t worry, I’ve not forgotten Phoenix. She can come for any holidays. But she needs the facilities of a livery yard, and I like the social side.

But what if money were no object? What could I live with? It sounds such a hardship. But you know what I mean. What would be my utopia?

I love teaching, so there’s no way I’d stop. I rediscovered that today after a couple of weeks of feeling decidedly average in the coaching department. But I wouldn’t want the hassle of a livery yard. Or the invasion of privacy.

I’ve mulled it over and I think I would want a fairly small house – five bedrooms maximum. Not like these ten bedroom mansions I keep spotting online. A sensibly sized garden. Half a dozen stables. An arena – bigger than a 20x40m so it has more scope for jumping. And something like 8 acres. I could live with slightly less.

So what would I do with this? It’s too small to be a livery yard and I’ve not changed my mind on it being too much hassle. Instead, I’d have 3 permanent residents – Otis, Phoenix and a pony. Then I’d offer holiday, training and rehab livery for one or two horses. If anyone was on holiday, or out of action due to illness or injury, then their horse could come on a working holiday with me. If someone needs help training their horse, then I could offer a bootcamp, and if an owner is struggling with a rehabilitation programme – walking out twice daily or restricted turnout – then I could offer this on a quieter setting, which many horses would benefit from alongside the consistency I could provide. All alongside my freelance teaching.

I could run monthly clinics myself , or hire out the arena for Riding Club clinics and Pony Club rallies. Or I could just offer my arena for clients to come and have lessons with me. Offering clinics would then cover my need for social support with Phoenix. Equally, perhaps I have one livery who is a chosen friend who could provide some chore cover and be a friend to hack out with. Alternatively, a nice equestrian neighbour who I could hack out with would be lovely.

I think this would strike the balance for me between having privacy at home, and earning a sufficient income to cover the running costs of a small stable yard.

It slightly scares me how much livery fees are when I start thinking of the inevitable pony which will arrive in the next couple of years. Especially when you consider that during the winter small people often lose interest. If the pony could spend the winter at home with Otis (such as in scenario one) there would be less workload in terms of stable chores, less pressure to work the pony in dark evenings, and less financial pressure. In both scenarios, the pony could be ridden during school holidays and on fine weekend days either on little hacks or in the school. Surely when you factor in livery fees, this option is becoming increasingly economically viable.

Of course, it is a tie having horses at home, but with the world changing we’re spending more time at home and it wouldn’t be too expensive to have a house sitter for when we went away – solving both the cat and horse problem.

So if anyone knows a suitable property and can provide a lump sum, please get in touch! In the meantime, I’ll carry on daydreaming.

A Canter Sequence

I’ve been working on upping the canter work with Phoenix; increasing my standards, pushing her boundaries, improving her balance and strength. Last night I had a play with one of the canter sequences from an elementary test, and whilst it’s definitely work in progress, it was good to feel how hard Phoenix had to work to keep her balance. I want to start using bits of this in trot and canter for some of my clients – so watch out!

The sequence is nicknamed the PIG from elementary 59 as those are the letters you ride to, but as I was in a short arena I adapted the exercise slightly to suit her current level of training.

In canter on the left rein, ride from M to X to D, then cantered a left ten metre circle. At D, ride a simple change before a right ten metre circle in canter. Finish the sequence by riding from D to A and then turn right to change the rein.

The line MXD requires balance because the horse has to change their propulsion leg, akin to counter canter. I found that it helped lighten Phoenix’s forehand and collect her canter slightly.

In elementary 59 you continue along the centre line to A, but it is easier to ride a ten metre circle at D, or just before, at Phoenix’s current level of training. As she finds the MXD line easier, I will extend the centre line and ride a left turn at A. The canter becomes more collected and elevated after X, which actually really helps prepare her so that she stays balanced on the circles.

At the end of the left ten metre circle, ride a simple change before a right ten metre circle. This is particularly useful for Phoenix as in the downward transition she often swings her hindquarters to the right, so the quick change of bend and strike off into right canter helps resolve this. Simple changes also come into elementary level so it’s a good opportunity to practice these. After the right circle, I rode a straight line to A then turned right.

The exercise can be repeated off the right rein using the HXD line, with the right canter circle first. It can also be ridden from the A end of the school – using the KXG and FXG lines.

At elementary level, movements come up quickly in tests, so whilst Phoenix may be perfecting the individual movements, with plenty of preparation time, and in ideal locations around the arena, it is the art of putting different movements together in rapid succession which will really cement her at this level.

I really like how this sequence flowed, so may well incorporate it into more of my teaching and schooling of horses as the changes of bend improve a horse’s balance immensely.

Jumping Away From Home

August started off with an absolutely crazy week recovering from Pony Club camp week and judging Demi Dressage tests. Which means my blog has been neglected. But let’s start afresh with one of my latest challenges.

One of my clients has a lovely pony who is perfectly capable jumping at home, but gets a cricket score whenever they go out jumping. Since lockdown they’ve been focusing on arena hire, getting him out and about. But they’ve found themselves stuck in the cycle of one refusal, then he jumps the jump fine. By the end of the session he’s jumping beautifully, but of course that’s not the way a showjumping competition works!

This week I went along with them to see if we can break the cycle.

I had my rider warm up quickly, purposefully keeping away from the fillers and jumps. Meanwhile, I put all the jumps at about 50-60cm, with a central gap between the fillers.

We used the first, plain jump as a warm up fence and made a plan. My rider expects her pony to refuse so rides expecting a stop. The pony stops and once he’s stopped he uses it as an excuse to stop at the next jump. A self fulfilling prophecy. With the jumps as low as they were, he could jump them from a standstill. Therefore the pony learnt that he only had one option – forwards – and that going left, right or backwards wasn’t an option. My rider had to set him up in a straight line, use her seat to send him forwards and channel him straight with the leg and hand. She needed to ride slightly defensively yet positively so that she wasn’t giving him any vibes to have second thoughts. If he stopped, he had to walk over the jump between the fillers. So there was no turning away.

My rider jumped the first, plain fence to set them both up into a positive, rhythmical canter. They came around the corner and he screeched to a halt at the fillers on the first part of the double. She sat back, used her legs and he jerked over the fence unelegantly before trotting over the second element. They picked up canter and approached number three on a long dog leg, with bright, white fillers. He backed off, thought about stopping, but my rider rode so determinedly that he cat leapt over it from a slow trot.

But then the penny dropped. And for the rest of the round, the pony started taking his rider into the fences, fillers and all, without hesitation. Of course, his rider still had to be on the ball and not become complacent, but they seemed to be reading from the same page.

I adjusted the jumps for their second round, bringing the fillers closer and the jumps higher. Again, this went smoothly. Number two caused a problem again, but it was because their approach wasn’t straight rather than anything else. The rest of the course was confident and flowed very nicely.

The third round was up at 70-80cm, with all the fillers underneath the jumps, so much more like a showjumping competition. They flew this time, with my rider not looking twice at the fences.

Finally, I put some oxers in and turned two fillers around so it was a different image at the front. I didn’t want to have them repeating the jumps too many times as they had nothing to prove with the height, but I wanted to keep putting in new questions now that we’d changed both mindsets and broken the cycle.

The ninth jump didn’t cause an issue at all with the change of filler and addition of a back rail, but number two did. When he stopped, I moved the fillers slightly and put the pole down so he could still walk forwards over the jump. Turning around wasn’t an option. As the rest of the course flowed so nicely, with no hesitation, I turned our attention to jump two before we finished.

As the pony was getting tired, I lowered the first jump to a cross as it’s purpose was to set up the canter and start the jumping course. We focused on having counter flexion on the turn to stop him falling through his outside shoulder, and then channelled him positively. He stopped again, but it looked to be more of a test of rider than anything else. I moved the fence again so he wasn’t turned in a circle, and jumped it. We repeated the exercise and then he jumped boldly over, although my rider couldn’t let her guard down! After the double she jumped the third jump, so that they were finishing on a fence where he wasn’t backing off at all.

Next time, I want to start in a similar fashion, with only one warm up fence, and the fillers will start at the side, but closer together and the fences slightly bigger. But still small enough that they can be jumped from a sticky trot. Then hopefully we will progress to jumping with the fillers underneath the jumps quicker. My aim is to give the pony a positive, confidence building experience whilst ensuring that he learns that forwards is the only way to go when cantering towards a jump. In the meantime I want my rider to continue riding so positively, be more aware of how she is setting him up in terms of straightness and the use of her aids, yet starting to change her mindset from “he’s going to stop” to “he will jump it”. Once they can get to a training venue and jump a clear round straight away they can progress to clear rounds and competitions.

Teaching Outside The Box

I had been doing some gridwork with a young pony clubber who’s pony is pretty fast to a fence, with a choppy stride and tends to get very close to the jump. Over a couple of lessons we’d used canter poles and raised canter poles on a grid to improve their rhythm and subsequently the pony jumped out of a much better canter – a consistent rhythm and a better length of stride – with a neater bascule. But towards the end of each session we had a blip. My rider stopped riding so positively; she turned her pony out of the jump, and then in the last lesson flatly refused to do the same exercise which she’d already done perfectly.

It was that last one where my rider left her lesson unhappy and I was equally unhappy for a number of reasons. I was puzzled. I was disappointed in myself for not managing to give her a good time. I was frustrated that we had had the desired results, and then it had seemingly all unravelled without me dropping the reel. I did lots of reflection on the way home, and after a long chat with my rider’s Mum afterwards I started to understand the situation, and could make a plan to get out of it.

My rider told her Mum that she got confused by the poles, and couldn’t work out how to ride each pole individually. This is, so I’ve learnt in my research, a trait of some on the autism spectrum. They can’t see the picture as a whole, but tend to focus too much on the little details. I can only relate it to a photo mosaic jigsaw I once had. When you stood back, it was an image of a lion, but when you looked closely you saw it was made up of lots of small images of lions. My rider couldn’t see the main image. This led to her literally trying to ride every pole as a separate element. I did some research into teaching children with autism to look for ideas or explanations which might help my rider, who whilst isn’t autistic seems to interpret gridwork in a different way to most people. There I was told that they can often become upset by patterns or colours, so I decided to ensure I used muted poles in matching pairs to hopefully reduce any sensory overload my rider was having when faced with a line of poles.

I made the most detailed lesson plan I’ve ever done when getting ready for her next lesson, to make sure I had some different explanations, several ideas and back up plans. I was actually a bit nervous, because I felt I’d let her down last time.

Once she’d warmed up and I’d put a pile of poles and jumps in the middle of the school, I brought her into the middle and talked to her. I talked to her like she was nineteen, not nine, or however old she is. I mean, only she knows exactly what’s going on in her head, and I needed her to be able to explain it to me. She needed to feel comfortable talking to me, and one way of ensuring this with children is to give them respect and talk to them as adults. I told her that we were going to play around with poles and jumps, and if anything made her worried, or confused, then she had to tell me immediately and I would remove it. I wanted her to understand what we were doing, why we were doing it, and to gauge her triggers for becoming overwhelmed.

Then I asked her what her job was when jumping. She listed lots of things – jumping position, not pulling her pony in the mouth, getting straight, riding to the middle. Then I asked her what her pony’s job was. She answered that it was to go over the poles and jumps. So I simplified things. Yes, she needs to do all the details she mentioned, but they’re becoming autonomic now she’s more experienced. The important thing for my rider to remember is that her job is to organise them both on the approach and getaway to and from a jump. Her pony’s job was to jump the jump.

We started cantering over a single pole on the floor with jump wings. We discussed canter rhythm and straightness. Then I put out four cones. Two on either side of the jump, about a stride from take off. As she cantered between each pair of cones they signified the point where her pony took charge, and where she took charge again.

With this “zone” in place, my rider could focus on riding a straight approach, picking up canter and keeping it steady, and stopped thinking too hard about the jump as it was in her pony’s zone. Then afterwards she regrouped easily. Of course, a single pole and then a single jump was well within her comfort zone and not something that usually overwhelms her. But that was the point, I wanted her to focus on the transfer of responsibility between herself and her pony.

Once they were jumping the single fence well, and you could see that already the pony wasn’t getting quite so deep into the jump, I added in a second fence, four strides away. I wanted to give them enough space between the jumps that they could easily be separate elements. I made a zone around that jump too. And discussed with my rider that between the zones she needed to sit up and steady the canter as it was her area of responsibility, and given the pony’s love of jumping, we always need to be careful of not going too fast. The jumps stayed within her comfort zone as I got them riding through the related distance, keeping our focus on the zones.

This seemed to be working quite well, so I started talking to my rider about the reason we use the poles. Theoretically, we’ve already discussed it whilst building the grid, but I wanted her to understand the purpose of using poles. She could remember the feel of the canter rhythm over the poles, and was trying to replicate it without the poles. We then discussed her pony’s balance. My rider could feel that the canter was less bouncy and uphill without the poles to help, and whilst their jumping was better, they were still getting a bit deep into the fences.

I suggested putting a placing pole in front of the jump, and my client agreed. Once the pole was down, I emphasised how it was still within her pony’s zone. She seemed happy, and although their first go was a little hesitant, she seemed to understand and not be fazed by the additional pole. Once she’d ridden it a few times I could see her visible relaxing and then they got a better take off point. My rider could feel the benefit of having the pole.

We progressed to having a placing pole in front of the second fence too, and my rider rode really positively and confidently. Their striding wasn’t quite perfect between the fences, so the second didn’t feel quite as nice as the first, but it was definite progress towards a steadier, rhythmical canter and improved shape over the jump. The important part being that my rider understood the benefits of using poles, could manage the exercise and didn’t get overwhelmed.

I was really pleased with how the lesson developed; I think the key points to focus on are keeping the zones, and building exercises as we go. With the majority of riders, you lay the exercise out and build it progressively upwards (one jump, two jump etc etc), but with this young rider I think it’s best to start with nothing and introduce a pole at a time, ensuring it’s within the pony’s zone. I do think over a few months we will get to a point where we can use a small number of poles to help create and improve their canter rhythm in a related distance and not overload her. The important thing is to listen to her and respect her emotions and feedback so that she continues to progress and stays confident.

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.