Winter is Coming

I have been looking towards winter with some trepidation for the last couple of months, dreading a potential repeat of last year’s emotionally unstable Phoenix.

So as with everything, I made a plan.

I decided to maximise on the fact that she’s come on so well in her training over the summer, and reap the rewards by booking a few competitions. Having something to focus on would also help distract me too.

So in the last five weekends, Phoenix and I have been adventuring four times, and have two more adventures before November. She’s entered four showjumping classes, doing three double clears and being placed in all four. She’s been placed first and second in dressage tests, which whilst they weren’t her best work felt much more established than her last test and the consistency had improved. She’s also been on the Badminton sponsored ride to get in some cross country practice. Our next two outings are hunter trials, which will hopefully put us in good stead for some one day events next year.

So we’ve had a lovely few outings, thoroughly enjoying ourselves and building on her CV.

I planned to make some changes to Phoenix’s management this year, but I wanted to ensure I did it step by step so that I learnt which aspect she didn’t appreciate and what stressed her. She’s continued to spend time in her stable over the summer so that it is a familiar environment, which would hopefully reduce any stress there.

I decided to get her saddle checked before she started living in, and to buy her a dressage saddle that I’d promised myself, so that I knew there wasn’t an issue with either saddle or back. Phoenix’s regular massages mean I know that her overall muscle tone is healthier and better than last year, with any problems being ironed out quickly.

I have come to realise over the summer that Phoenix doesn’t cope well in the wind and rain. She gets chilly very quickly, even when we’ll rugged up, and when ridden is more tense and “scooty” in the wind and rain. I retrieved my exercise sheet which when Otis grew out of it several years ago I loaned to Mum and Matt, who rarely used it. Over the last week I’ve used it a few times and definitely found Phoenix to be more settled and rideable with it in adverse weather.

With this sensitivity to wind and rain, I decided to give her a blanket clip, not a full clip, so that her loins had extra protection. Additionally, she found clipping a very stressful experience last year, so I planned to clip her before she started living in. Then I could gauge her reaction to clipping without the factor of being stabled. We actually had a much more positive experience last week; Phoenix ate her bucket of feed, and let my friend gibber in her ear while I clipped away. It’s not my best work of art, as I quit while I was ahead and stopped clipping when she ran out of food! But it was a positive experience, and there hasn’t been a change to her behaviour under saddle.

So I’ve ticked off clipping, saddles, and back, and still had a lovely, happy horse to ride. Next on my list was feed. Phoenix didn’t eat well last year, not tucking into her hay, or drinking sufficient. She’s happily eaten hay in the field the last month so I decided not to change her forage unless she went off it when she started staying in. And then I would immediately introduce haylage. However, I bought some Allen and Page Fast Fibre a couple of weeks ago and have introduced it alongside her chaff based bucket feed. This has a low calorific value, but will fill her tummy up and hydrate her, which will hopefully mean she is less skittish as a result of gastric discomfort. I’ve recently increased her magnesium the level she had in the spring, and maintained her daily dose of gut balancer.

My plan was to get all of these steps established before Phoenix came in at night, but the fates were against me as last weekend she and her field mates started living in due to the atrocious weather conditions. I haven’t been able to exercise her as much as I wanted to this first week due to family problems, but I was thrilled when I have that Phoenix has been lovely to ride, and that she seems happy in her new routine.

It may be that Phoenix is more settled this year; in her ridden work, at the yard, with me, and having experienced a winter living in, so is less likely to become a stress head this winter. But by taking these steps I feel I’ve done my best not to overload her system with simultaneous changes, and could identify triggers that upset her.

I’m not so anxious about winter now as I feel in control, yet ready to make positive changes at the first sign of stress from Phoenix.

Improving Symmetry

I hacked a client’s horse earlier this week while she was on holiday. I often lunge her, but never school for a couple of reasons. The mare has several weaknesses – stiff hocks, previous suspensory injuries, and a weak back – so I’d rather train her rider to improve the mare’s strength, muscle tone and way of going from the ground because I’d be worried that I’d ask too much too quickly from her and cause an old injury to flare up. I’m pleased to hear that the physio reports back up my observations in that the mare’s muscle is becoming more even and healthier, which is down to her rider being consistent and improving them both steadily.

Anyway, I hacked the mare out to exercise her this week, and whilst I focused on her working in a long and low frame, pushing with her hindquarters, I knew the lack of circles was a benefit in this situation as I could concentrate on working her topline in one direction so there was less risk of me overworking her.

Once in the woods I had a few short trots, which was very enlightening. The mare threw me up so I was rising when the left fore and right hind stepped forward. I changed my trot diagonal, and it felt completely different; weaker and less coordinated. This isn’t noticeable from the floor, highlighting how useful it is for an instructor to occasionally sit on client’s horses.

We’ve been working on the mare’s straightness, and her default position is taking her hindquarters to the left. Although she doesn’t do it as frequently or to such an extent now, I did wonder if the assymetry in her trot diagonals is related to this crookedness.

The stronger hind leg is the right hind, as that’s the stronger diagonal. If the right hind naturally sits closer to the centre of her body when she’s in her comfort zone of left bend.

I mentioned this to my client when she got home, and she was aware that the two diagonals felt different and regularly swapped between her trot diagonals when hacking to make sure she built both diagonal pairs up evenly. Which I always advocate to prevent asymmetry arising. However, in this case, I wonder if we can improve the mare’s straightness and symmetry by favouring the weaker trot diagonal whilst hacking to build the strength in the left hind and to encourage it to come under the body more to propel her forwards.

My client agreed, and is going to do more rising on the weaker trot diagonal in her next few hacks, and hopefully we’ll start to see the mare getting straighter in her school work, which can only be of benefit to her.

A Hole In The Market

I think I’ve found a hole in the market. A gaping big hole filled with equine owners needing advice.

When I was doing GCSEs and had no idea what I wanted to do as a career my Dad organised me to have a day out with one of his customers, getting an insight to his job. I think Dad was hoping I’d be inspired to follow in his (Dad’s, not the unknown man) footsteps and do a degree in soil science.

I wasn’t. It was quite an interesting day, but I wasn’t inspired. I spent the day visiting farms, and having meetings with the farmers about their soil pH levels, appropriate fertilisers and what crops to grow where. I can’t really remember the job title of this man, but it was along the lines of soil analysis advisor.

Anyway, it’s come to my attention recently, probably stemming from my experience with the independent equine nutritionist, that a lot of horse owners need help with managing their land.

The trouble is, as I see it, that there is less rotation nowadays of horses, sheep and cattle, who all eat different types of grasses which results in stressed paddocks. The fields are usually not rested sufficiently, or people have limited acreage with relation to the number of horses.

Additionally, horse owners may take on land which hasn’t been used for horses before, or even take over very poor grazing, and without the right care these types of land never become suitable for horses.

How great would it be if you could approach a consultant of sorts. Who would run a soil analysis, look at the land, and advise how best to fertilise and care for the land?

Did you know that buttercups (which are poisonous to horses) grow in acidic soil. So if your pasture is full of buttercups you could spray them annually (and what of the environmental impact of this?) or you could slake the field, and apply limestone to raise the pH level and so deter the buttercups from growing next year. Or, if your field is full of clover and previously used as cattle grazing it will be high in nitrogen levels, so you want to apply a fertiliser which has lower levels of nitrogen.

Someone well versed in caring for soil, and have an interest and understanding of equine requirements could easily do a report for you, using the results of a soil test, photographs and maps of the land. They could tell you what to do this year, including harrowing, topping and reseeding (such as what grasses will grow best on your land and be most suited to your horse), and could tell you what action to take in the future for the long term health of your fields. Perhaps, they could also be involved in helping you ascertain how best to rotate your paddocks with regard to drainage and shelter. Or with limited acreage, help you design an effective pattern of electric fencing so that you can adequately rotate grazing. Not only would individuals with their couple of horses on their own land be interested (in my opinion), but livery yards may well be interested in having a plan drawn up for field management. After all, we work with, or own horses because we like riding and caring for the horse; caring for the land is an aside and often overlooked.

If I had my time again would I see this as an alternative career? Possibly, after all I come from a family who sit in a coffee shop and notice that the molecule of coffee painted on the wall is both incomplete and unstable, and then have a twenty minute conversation about it. But ultimately I think I’d have stuck with teaching. So maybe if you’re looking for a career, or niche in the market, you should be investigating this avenue.

Rule Of Three

At baby swimming last year I noticed that there was a theme of threes. Each exercise or song was repeated three times. Since then, it’s been in the back of my mind and I’ve noticed this occurring in other areas of learning, and even with my own teaching. I’ve found that whilst I don’t have to explain something three times, it usually takes clients three attempts to fully grasp an exercise, or I have to remind or make a correction three times in quick succession before they manage to make a long term adjustment to their riding.

I googled it to see if there is a learning theory for threes, and there doesn’t seem to be a widely accepted one, but I saw several articles citing that learners need to be given three opportunities to learn something.

I don’t think you want to stick too closely to repeating an exercise three times, in case it goes wrong. You almost want three decent attempts at an exercise before increasing its difficulty or changing it. Ignore the duff ones when horse or rider lost concentration at the beginning. Likewise, if a rider has tried an exercise three times unsuccessfully, it might be wise to change your explanation or simplify things. If you’re just warming up, for example when moving from flat to jumping I usually trot or canter over some poles first, purely to change the horse’s focus. An established horse and rider only need do that once, especially when used to using poles as a subject transition.

Last week I was teaching a young girl who is growing in confidence in her riding, and I keep mentioning the C-word. Cantering, you rude readers!! Until now she’s baulked at the idea, but this time she said she was “nervous but not scared”.

Great. So I talked her through where we were going to trot, what she was going to hold on to, and what to do whilst cantering. I didn’t worry her five year old brain with the transition aids at this moment, after all, I was leading her.

We set off and the first attempt had one stride of canter. Maybe. But on the plus side, no shrieking and she seemed happy enough. Second time we had half a dozen canter strides and her au pair got it on video for her Mum. I announced we were going to do it one more time.

“Why? I don’t want to do it again.”

“Ah well, we have to do it three times because the first is really wobbly and not very good, the second one is better, and the third time even better!”

“Oh okay. Why don’t we do it five times?”

“Because I don’t have enough puff to run that fast five times.”

“Okay.”

The third canter was longer, and she was starting to find her seat. So I left it on a positive note. She can reflect on the canter when telling her parents over dinner.

We moved on to jumping. Well practising our jumping position over tiny cross poles, to finish the lesson. My rider told me she wanted to do level four jumping. That means a cross on the fourth from bottom hole. Which we haven’t done before. So I humoured her, saying we needed to start lower and build up to it. I put the cross on the second hole and we went over it a couple of times. Three probably, let’s face it. And she was staying balanced over the jump and quiet! When I put the cross pole up a hole, my rider said she didn’t want to do level four. So I said that was fine. We did it once, successfully, and called her au pair to watch the second go. Unfortunately she didn’t get it on video. This was the conversation we had:

“We need to do it again so she gets it on video. But. But, what if she doesn’t get it … will you have enough puff to do it again so I do get a video to show Mummy?”

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll have enough energy to do the jump twice more if we need to. Now, are you ready?”

How sweet is that?! I was then that I realised I tended to use the rule of three when teaching. Perhaps I should be developing the Learning Theory of Three. Publish a book and make my fortune …

Shallow Loops

Every so often I remember an exercise and utilise it with various clients of all ages and abilities. Currently, it’s shallow loops.

Quite often they’re overlooked in favour of serpentines or figures of eights, but they have their own benefits as a movement which tests a horse’s balance.

First appearing at novice level, shallow loops are ridden down the long side of the arena, as perfectly illustrated by my friend’s sketch for Demi Dressage, below.

The criteria for a shallow loop is to ride a smooth, flowing line from F towards X and then return to the track at M. They become an easier movement if you only leave the track by five metres – that is, you cross the E-B line five metres from the track. Riding FXM makes the turns more acute so requires greater suppleness from your horse. As with everything, start easy and once you’ve mastered level one, up the ante.

So what are the benefits of riding shallow loops? Firstly, they stop horses getting too track bound, and ensure they are listening to the rider’s outside aids. They are good at teaching riders to be less reliant on the fence line, and they show up any erratic steering issues! If you don’t plan and ride subtly, you end up staggering across the arena. For the horse, you are changing their bend in quick succession so it is a test of their balance and suppleness as they shift from one hind leg to the other.

Riding trot shallow loops are really helpful for improving the trot-canter transitions as in the shallow loops the horse changes from the inside hind (in relation to the inside of the arena) to the outside hind (the one nearest the fenceline) as they return to the track. In the trot to canter transition the horse shifts from the inside hind leg in trot to the outside hind in canter.

Riding shallow loops in canter introduces counter canter, further testing a horse’s balance.

When introducing shallow loops I find the hardest aspect of the movement is getting the loop to flow smoothly with an even incline to and from the track, so the most useful thing is to provide visual cues for riders. By guiding their eyes they automatically begin to flow away and towards the track. I use cones or jump blocks to show riders where to go. I place one cone near the corner, where the rider needs to go round the outside of before they leave the track, then another on the E-B line which they need to pass on the inside, and the final cone in the next corner to encourage the rider to return to the track and ride into their corner. As we develop the movement we increase the shallow loop from five metres towards ten metres.

How do you ride shallow loops? Begin by riding into your corner to give yourself plenty of space, and then using the outside aids, ride off the track. Almost imagine you’re riding across the diagonal, so turn your body to look across the arena, sit into your inside seat bone as you open the inside rein and close your outside leg. As you approach the E-B line, and the innermost part of the shallow loop, start riding parallel to the long side. Aim for three or four strides, during which use the leg nearest the fence on the girth, and open that rein to change the horse’s bend and engage that hind leg. Then return to the track and upon reaching it change the bend back to the original direction with the leg nearest the centre of the school acting on the girth to engage that hind leg and opening that rein. Ride into your corner ensuring your horse stays balanced.

The biggest faux pas I see when riding shallow loops is riders having dramatic changes of bend, which unbalances their horse. Minimise the bend and take your time in the middle of the loop and the loops will begin to flow and feel balanced, with the horse able to maintain their rhythm. If a rider doesn’t spend sufficient time in the middle of the loop; riding straight lines to and from X, then it may be useful to replace the cone with a pole, which forces some straight strides.

I’ve been putting shallow loops into my warm ups to give variation, and to help riders move around the arena. Instead of trotting the long side, we’ve put in a shallow loop to keep the horse’s focus. Have fun incorporating them into your workouts!

The Inside Hind

I’ve been on a mission recently to try to improve the feel of my riders. Some people say that talented riders have a “good feel”. Yes they may do, but for those of us less talented at equitation, don’t lose hope. You may have to work on your balance and coordination of aids, but you can still feel. Everyone can. It’s one of our five senses. You just might need a little more help in understanding what you can feel when riding and how to respond appropriately.

This is why I’m forever asking clients to tell me what they can feel. I’m not looking for correct terminology, or long winded descriptions, but I want to know if the rider can tell the difference between a long stride, a short stride, one full or impulsion, or one dragging their toes. I want to know if they’re aware that they have a heavier right rein, or if they can feel their horse bending or not.

Sometimes I’ll ask, “what can you feel?” Or “how does that trot feel now?”

Other times, I’ll give more leading questions such as “can you feel your horse leaning on your outside hand?” Or “can you feel a bit more push from the hindlegs?”

It’s never a problem if someone answers no. We just revise what we are aiming for in this session and where the rider should be feeling the change. Usually just by focusing their attention on that one area of the horse, they start to feel what I am explaining, and understand the subject more clearly. Occasionally, videos help. I’ve videoed jumps before, which haven’t been perfectly executed, and replayed them to the rider so that they can relate what they feel in the saddle to how it looks from the ground and the final result.

So in my quest to further my riders’ feel for what their horse’s legs are doing, and their ability to enhance their horse’s way of going, I have been encouraging them to think about the hind legs and what they can feel in terms of power and stride length.

When trotting the inside hind leg is the propulsion leg. It powers the horse forwards. In order to do this efficiently, the horse needs to step under their body with it, sit on that leg so that it takes the weight, and then push their weight up and forwards from the leg. It’s similar to the mechanics of human walking.

On curves the inside hind leg has to work extra hard, and this is where horses often lose their balance. If the inside hind leg is weak or lazy then it will step short, and the horse won’t be able to sit on that leg so well in the stance phase. This causes the horse to lose the balance in their body, and to load the outside shoulder in compensation.

For novice riders who are developing their feel, trotting corners are often when they first begin to feel the action of the hind leg, so I use lots of circles and turns to get them feeling. Sitting trot is useful at this stage so long as the rider can maintain it comfortably and the horse doesn’t brace against them or slow down.

Then I explain the mechanics of the horse, their particular strengths and weaknesses, and how improving the stride of the inside hind will improve the whole gait by engaging the abdominals and topline muscles, maintaining a consistent bend and contact, and increasing impulsion.

Then I link the footfall of the horse to their rising trot. When the rider is rising on the correct diagonal, the inside hind leg is stepping forwards. We are trying to encourage the inside hind leg to step further underneath the body, especially if it’s a little lazy, so that it can then propel the horse forwards more easily and powerfully. Therefore, we have to influence that hindleg whilst it is in the swing phase. As my riders are about to rise, and that inside hind about to come off the floor, they need to encourage it to come forward with a bit more vigour. A squeeze of some description with the inside leg is usually enough to make all the difference. Of course each horse is different, so you have to play around with the leg aids, and perhaps a flick of a schooling whip, on that haunch, to find the button which works for horse and rider.

Riders can learn to time their aids by linking it to their rising, and you can test their feel by working in sitting trot. But by at least applying the aids at the correct time, the rider will start to feel an improvement in the horse’s way of going, and the more active hind step should increase the feeling of movement to the rider, so further establish what they are aiming to feel. Once a rider has begun to become aware of what’s going on behind the saddle, you can start to dissect the walk and canter, and then fine tune the timing of their aids to improve their quality.

I’ve reminded several riders recently, of different abilities, to think about and to enhance the inside hind leg action, which has resulted in their horses maintaining impulsion, balance and consistency, which means the rider can ride more accurately and with a better quality of gait. Improving awareness of the inside hind is particularly important when changing the rein and changing the bend through the horse’s body. By focusing on the new inside hind leg propelling the horse forwards, the horse changes the rein more fluidly.

Juggling Babies and Horses

I’ve survived my first winter juggling horses and babies, and it is possible! So I thought I’d share a few hints and tips for anyone about to undergo this challenge.

I have two major tips.

Firstly, get a baby carrier. We started with the Baby Bjorn and now have a Little Life on loan. It makes things so easy, plus lugging a toddler round burns off some serious calories! With them in a carrier you can catch or turn out, groom the body (nothing below the elbow else you risk toppling over), feed, muck out, poo pick, lunge. Rugs are tricky though. This means that when they’re clingy or the pushchair isn’t cutting it, you can still do a few chores. And get some you time. This is often how I get her to sleep too, so it’s a useful strategy to have.

Secondly, get a great support team! I honestly feel so lucky with who I have supporting me. The girls on my yard are very good at keeping an eye on the pushchair for me whilst I turn out, or muck out, so that she’s never unattended. If I’m riding in the school and she’s fussing, someone usually comes along to borrow her, and entertains her on the yard watching the farrier, watching the guinea fowl or stroking the dogs. Plus I’m always having much appreciated offers to babysit so I can hack. The other week we had a bad night, just falling asleep as my alarm was about to go. After cancelling my alarm, I sent a message to the yard Facebook group pleading for someone to turn out for me, and instantly I had messages of “of course, now get some rest” which I was very grateful for.

Then of course is my chauffeur slash babysitter, who manages to multitask (he is a man, remember!) and looks after her, whilst mucking out for me! I’m so lucky! It does mean less video footage of lessons, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

In terms of managing chores and routine, sharing catch and turn out duties with a friend makes life so much simpler. I usually do the mornings because evenings are a race against the clock to get home for tea.

I’ve used wood pellets for bedding, as I’ve used previously for Otis and Matt, which means that if we’re having a bad day, or a clingy one, I can skip out. Then on a child free day, I can put in the new bedding and do a thorough job. Phoenix is very clean, which means her bed is dustier than I’d like, and she’d probably be better suited to shavings. But as I never muck out with her in there I’m not too worried.

A hay bar means it’s quick and easy to give her forage – again helpful on those clingy mornings. Mixing dinner and breakfast and leaving them in her stable and ready for the morning round respectively, and having one feed of fibre and balancer means less faffing with measurements.

I think it’s also important to have a flexible routine. Plan when you hack, because that requires childcare, but if you’re planning to ride and baby isn’t playing ball, don’t beat yourself up that you haven’t ridden, just lunge. Or if you suddenly have some time to yourself, jump on board. Even if today was supposed to be a non riding day. Or if you’re having a bad day and the baby’s tired, jump in the car, do a bit of rocking in the pushchair at the yard, and use this nap time to ride. I still feel very smug if I’ve managed to time my ride to coincide with a nap. It’s a longer, more peaceful schooling session and I feel like I’ve had a break. And if you haven’t managed any saddle time this week, guilt trip the other parent into babysitting.

A few times over the winter I got up at 5am and went to ride under the lights. In the summer I’m hoping to squeeze in an evening ride or two in the week. This is only really an option with a yard that’s nice and close to home so you don’t waste precious baby free time in the car.

I also take a few snacks and toys to the yard, after all you know what a time warp yards can be. And you don’t want your chat, or ride, cut short because of hunger or boredom!

Yes, horses and babies can both be done, but be prepared to relax your mucking out standards, bend your routine, and get yourself some amazing, supportive friends!

Mounting Manners

What are your expectations of your horse while you mount?

Everyone seems to have varying opinions on how a horse should behave when their rider is climbing aboard.

Being aware of normal mounting behaviour for your horse means you should be alerted to any changes and what he is trying to tell you.

I’ve known some horses who begin to fuss at the mounting block when they’re sore somewhere. One client’s horse was very fidgety during mounting although behaved well whilst ridden, but when examined by a physio found to be very sore in his back. Now that he’s been sorted, he’s a total gentleman to mount!

Some disciplines, such as racing, mount on the move, so it is ridiculous to expect an ex-racer to stand still to be mounted without some considerable retraining. So it’s worth assessing how the horse is used to being mounted before you first ride them – even if they’re used to one particular mounting block – so that you start on a positive note. You can then start to adapt this procedure to best suit you.

I expect a horse to stand by the mounting block without twisting away or fidgeting. A horse who usually stands quietly at the block, and suddenly starts fussing is telling you something, so it’s worth being aware of their body language. Unless of course you’re somewhere exciting, such as a sponsored ride, when your horse might be a little more of their toes.

I remember at a riding school I used to work at, there was a large rider (just physically tall and broad as opposed to overweight) and he used to ride this horse who struggled to carry him. As the rider mounted, the horse would groan and literally buckle. I hated it.

Some people like their horses to stand stock still whilst they mount, and yes this is ideal but I don’t mind a horse taking a step or two as the rider mounts. After all, of a heavy lump was getting on your back, however gracefully, it is fully acceptable that you may need to adjust your balance. This is particularly important when working with youngsters. You can encourage them to stand square, but ultimately if they need to step forwards in order to keep their balance then they should be allowed to so that mounting does not become an issue. If a horse does walk forwards as I mount, I just quietly pull them up and we pause. Over a period of time I accept fewer forward steps, and a longer halt. They’ll learn to stand in a way that means they can accept a rider’s weight easily soon enough, and understand that they wait until the rider is ready to walk on.

What I don’t like when getting on a horse though, is for their back to come up or for them to scoot off. Cold backed used to be the term for this, but I think with better understanding of the equine back and better fitting saddles, there is a reduction in “cold backed horses” and those showing these signs are generally trying to tell you something is wrong. Of course, some are just sensitive so like you to sit down lightly, but these ones usually stand calmly when you hover momentarily whilst mounting.

If a horse does show either of these signs then I want help mounting, so that it becomes less stressful for all involved, and we can start to retrain them to get positive associations to mounting, whilst investigating possible causes such as the saddle not fitting or them needing some form of physiotherapy or chiropractic treatment. If you’re convinced that the tension associated with mounting is from pain whilst ridden then I would get that sorted first, but I would simultaneously spend time wearing the saddle (not me – the horse!), and standing by the mounting block while you faff around doing stirrups, girths, climbing the steps, patting their back, sides, rump, saddle, to just help reduce the fear and desensitise them to an extent to the whole process. Then hopefully the horse will be in a better frame of mind about mounting, which combined with being more comfortable, should lead to better mounting manners.

Teaching a horse mounting manners takes time and consistency, and is often overlooked in the grand scheme of getting on and riding so that you can return quickly to your hectic life.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Positive, Neutral and Negative Riders

I heard an interesting analogy last week, which I thought I would share with you as it’s a good attitude to have each time you go to ride your horse.

There are three types of rider: those who have a positive effect on their horse, those who have a neutral effect, and those who have a negative effect on their horse.

It doesn’t sound very nice really, does it, saying that you have a negative or detrimental effect on your horse. But we all started off as negative riders. When we were bumbling around with clumsy steering aids and heavy rising, those riding school horses tolerated us and accepted our mistakes as we learnt. But this comes at a cost. The horse’s way of going will deteriorate over time by them losing topline muscles and learning to compensate by working in a hollow manner; they may lose the level of impulsion and cadence to their gaits.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and have control over your aids, and can maintain your balance you begin to become a neutral rider. That means that the time you spend riding your horse (assuming you are appropriately matched) won’t cause their way of going to deteriorate, yet you also won’t improve their level of schooling.

Finally, there is the positive rider. These are more experienced riders who can enhance the horse’s way of going; teach them new movements or fine tune their current skills.

Throughout our riding careers you can find yourself as all three types of rider at some point. If you are overhorsed, you may be a negative rider for the short term but with the right help you can improve your skills so that you become a neutral rider. You may find yourself riding a young or green horse, in which case you need to be a positive rider to further their education.

As a rider, horse owner and horse lover, you should want to do the best by your horse, and that means that on a bad day you want to have a neutral effect on your horse – perhaps you’ve had a busy day at work and just need to hack or lightly school. But every other day, you are a positive rider, and enhancing your horse with every ride. Be that by improving a certain movement, building their self confidence, or by riding exercises to improve their muscle tone.

It’s a good ambition to have, regardless of whether you want to ride an advanced medium test, event internationally, or hack confidently or enter your local riding club competitions; you should aim to be a positive rider for the benefit of your horse.