Back To Basics

A fellow coach and I were discussing this subject a couple of weeks ago, and we thought it should move into the public eye more.

There’s a huge trend at the moment for grassroots riders to have one off lessons with different coaches. These might be clinics organised by riding clubs, or camps.

I firmly believe that a rider should have one regular instructor until they reach the point when they are knowledgeable and confident enough in their own goals and abilities, with a thorough all-round grounding, that they can choose the specialist lessons which will complement their aims, learning style, and current instructor. I’m currently reading a book “Two Minds, One Aim” by Eric Smiley, and I thought it was interesting that he didn’t promote the idea of going to lots of different teachers.

The trouble with going to different instructors for one-off lessons is that they have to assess you very quickly, and have to deliver something near to the lesson on offer. When actually the horse and rider combination may not be at a suitable level, or it’s a bad day for both.

What I mean is that, if a showjumping coach is offering a jumping clinic and a pair turn up who are not established enough on the flat or as a partnership to successfully achieve the jumping exercise planned then the lesson could go badly wrong.

Now there are two options for the coach. Firstly, they can ignore the weaknesses of the pair and hope that they don’t crash and burn over the jumping exercise. The client will feel that they’ve had their value for money because they’ve done lots of jumps, jumped high, or have completed a tricky exercise.

Whether they can replicate it in future, or did it in any great style is left unsaid.

Alternatively, the coach can go right back to basics, make some adjustments and have the majority of the lesson on the flat, before jumping lower than the rider might have expected to, but with much more style and ease.

I recently went for a jump lesson with a BS trainer. I tend to always use her, but lessons are infrequent. The first half hour is always focusing on our flatwork. The flatwork content differs from what we do in our dressage lessons, but only in topics; the fundamentals are the same. What I mean, is that currently in my dressage lessons we’ve worked on lateral work and encouraging Phoenix to let me position her body in different ways. In the last jump lesson I had we focused on transitions within the gaits, which is also helping me teach Phoenix to allow me to adjust her, but is aiming to improve our performance in the air rather than on the flat.

Some people would be disappointed that so long was spent on the flat, but by fine tuning the flatwork, the jumping section went smoothly and built confidence because each question we were asked was achieved easily. This means that less time needs to be spent jumping because fewer attempts are needed to perfect the exercise, and you risk falling into the trap of repetition. Did the jumps go to her maximum height? No. But as the focus was on our approach rather than proving how big she can jump, they didn’t need to be big, and if anything needed to be a height that it didn’t matter if she made a mistake on the approach.

However, some people would come away disappointed with this special one-off jump lesson because in their eyes they failed the lesson requirement: they didn’t jump the height they’re capable of, and they spent more time on the flat than jumping. But actually, this sort of lesson is safer for all involved, reinforces the basic building blocks which means that the jumping comes easily, builds confidence because the jumping goes smoothly, and provides homework which can be practised with whatever facilities you have available at home, and sets both horse and rider up for a longer, active partnership.

Unfortunately, trying to give immediate lesson satisfaction means that some trainers who run clinics, end up bypassing the basics, losing the quality to their teaching, and putting horse and rider in potentially compromising positions. Yet, they get positive feedback because the riders jumped “their biggest fence ever!” or felt that they got sufficient jumps for their money.

How can this be changed? Firstly, by educating the rider on the fact that “showjumping is dressage with speed bumps” and that improving their flatwork will improve their jumping. And that they will learn something from a clinic, even if it is in an unexpected area.

Then we need to encourage trainers, most of whom know the value of correct basics, to be confident enough in themselves to spend the time with one-off clients on the basics and setting them up for long term success over jumps, rather than putting a sticky plaster over the flatwork weaknesses and letting them scramble through the jumping exercise. This is difficult though, because the trainer risks a less than flourishing report unless they have one of the enlightened riders I mentioned in the paragraph before.

It needs to be discussed though, because in our current society of musical coaches, there is a real risk of a horse and rider having an accident because the coach has failed to revise and instill the basics.

Trying Bits

Last time I was showjumping Phoenix I wasn’t 100% happy with the bit and our approaches to jumps. She wasn’t overly strong, but the canter got a bit flat as she got confident and bold, so we almost ran downhill into the jumps. Which either meant her taking a flyer, or taking the front rail down with her knees. Or having a lucky escape! Before I start jumping her much bigger, I wanted to sort this out.

I felt there was a schooling or strength issue; if I could improve her balance in the canter then she’d find it easier to remain uphill on the approach to jumps. She’s an independent lady though, and doesn’t accept help easily. It has to be subtly offered otherwise she panics. Yes, special, I know!

I felt I needed some help with the contact to help me help her. Nothing too strong, but just different to her loose ring, double jointed lozenge snaffle.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a trip to a local showjumping venue, which has an extensive bit bank. I’d have a lesson and try alternative mouthpieces.

I explained my predicament, and was given a loose ring snaffle, with two joints. But with slightly thinner, more contoured bars, and a full moon centrepiece. So what’s the difference, I hear you say? Well, to Phoenix, it’s a slightly less friendly bit of metal in her mouth, which will discourage her from leaning on my hand, and mean I can give lighter aids. Which should help me create the more uphill canter and help her to maintain it.

We spent a lot of time on the flat – more about this subject on another blog – allowing me to get the feel for the bit, and for her to accept its feel. To be honest, I didn’t feel a huge difference initially, she was fairly relaxed and accepting of the contact, but I did feel that she was more up in front of me, and less inclined to lean on the bit when I half halted. Which she sometimes does to evade sitting on her hocks and containing that powerful engine.

In the trot and canter work we played around with transitions within the gait. I needed to feel that I could adjust Phoenix easily, without her stressing, and that she used her hindquarters throughout. Particularly when she lengthens, she tends to go onto the forehand and leave her back end out behind her. Which is exactly what happens before jumps. By teaching her to shorten and lengthen in an uphill fashion, her hindquarters stay engaged and she’s lighter in my hand and in a better position to jump cleanly.

We then put this into practice with single fences and related distances, which highlight this weakness well. We jumped focusing on me helping her keep the balance of her canter throughout the approach, and after a couple of failed attempts when I held more than I needed to, and she panicked, we got it together, and she jumped beautifully out of a much better canter.

Moving onto related distances, I found that Phoenix was meeting the second element in a more uphill canter, which meant she pinged over them. Then I found that I could close my leg and ride her forwards if necessary to make the striding, without her nose diving or losing power.

It was a great session, really showing that you don’t want to be too quick to change tack, as often improvements on the flatwork will improve the jumping performance, but also that tiny changes to a bit can enhance communication between horse and rider.

Going to a bit specialist and trialling bits is definitely they way forward as more and more variations of bits come onto the market. It’s mind boggling, and can take a lot of time and money finding the perfect bit for your horse. Perhaps we’ll start to see some more bitting clinics in the calendar; where you go to a venue and have a meeting with a bit specialist, perhaps followed by a lesson to try it out?

An Unlucky Pole

I took Phoenix showjumping today. She stormed round the 70cm clear, pushed into third place by some whizzy kids. In her first 80cm class, she had a pole down. But was still the fastest four faulter to be placed seventh.

On a side note, before I return to my main reel of thought, I’d like to well, boast really, about how amazing she is to take out. Loads herself, waits patiently and quietly for her class, warms up calmly, waits quietly, jumps her best, and then stands round while her little fan hugs and kisses her neck. She really makes the day enjoyable from that perspective.

Back to my original topic of conversation. That pole we had down. It reminded me of a conversation recently held between friends. One friend was suggesting that there is no such thing as an unlucky pole, and it is becoming an excuse for sloppy riding and a lack of clear rounds.

After every jumping round I do, I come away planning my improvements. Even the clear rounds. Last time we competed and had the last jump of last round – yes, annoying because we were a good ten seconds faster than our rivals – I knew exactly what had gone wrong. In trying not to upset Phoenix’s fairly fragile canter I hadn’t half halted between the last two fences and she needed it. So she had bounded on in a flat canter and basically went through the jump. I beat myself up then for letting her down more than anything, and went away to strengthen the canter and ride related distances properly. That wasn’t an unlucky pole.

Today; what went wrong? I’m yet to see the video, but it was a related distance on a slight left curve. We had the second element down. Phoenix’s canter felt much stronger throughout the day and she wasn’t towing me onto her forehand. She’d jumped big into the related distance because it was a loud filler and I’d really pressed the go button, and I think that this meant the distance between the fences along with the line I rode, and the stage she’s at in her training meant that she just got too close to the second element and brought down the front rail of the oxer.

Now was that unlucky? I think it could have gone either way today. We could have gotten away with it. Neither of us did anything wrong, she wasn’t tired, her technique was neat, and it’s perfectly within her capabilities, but the sequence of events just didn’t flow on the day. It was unlucky in the sense that she was jumping very well and confidently so didn’t really deserve to knock one with such a slight error.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for me to learn from today. Her canter still needs improvement as if I had more scope to collect her I could have adjusted her enough to correct her bold jump into the related distance. I could’ve ridden a wider line, but it’s hard to change course once you’re on it. I also think I over-rode the first element, but I think the more competitive experience we both get together the better as I’ll know exactly how much leg to use and she’ll be less likely to have a second look at a fence. I also think she’ll benefit from a few jumping exercises I’ve got planned to help teach her not to bowl on quite so much through a related distance, as that is a common theme. But we’ll do our homework for next time.

So is there such a thing as an unlucky pole? I think you can be unlucky as a pair in that you deserved to go clear from the way you rode the rest of the round and the minor error which caused the pole to come down. You’ve tried your best with your ability on that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. After all, a clear round is the goal and a pole down is a less than perfect result, so improvements can be made at home.

We riders need to walk away from a knock down and try to work out how we can improve on it. Be it riding better lines, improving the canter, practising on different surfaces and inclines, practising with fillers or water trays, changing tack, boots or studs if they’re becoming a hindrance or any other weakness you feel you and your horse have. Then, we will achieve perfection.

The video from the 80cm class has just come through, so I thought I’d share it so you can see our slight error. It was a straightforward course, but full of related distances, which is the area we have we working on most recently so it was a useful test.

Lightening the Forehand

Feedback I’ve had when jumping Phoenix, and what I know to be true, is that I need to get her stronger in canter and get her nose off her chest. This isn’t because I put her in an overbent frame, but more to do with the fact her confirmation allows her to do this easily and when she’s finding the canter work harder she leans on my hands and gets a bit on the forehand.

On the flat we’ve been focusing on relaxation and self carriage, ignoring the canter unless she’s in the right frame of mind because she can get uptight and a bit panicky if you do too much correcting to her way of going. She doesn’t like to be interfered with.

I’ve kept the idea of her taking her nose out in any canter work we’ve done on hacks and any other time, but I decided this week to give her more of a challenge.

I laid out three canter poles, then one canter stride to a final pole. Phoenix is getting much more confident in her footwork through pole exercises so I wanted the three poles to help establish her rhythm and discourage her from rushing. As she can sometimes drift through grids I laid two poles as an arrow with the tip touching the final pole. I wanted to jump an A-frame but wanted to introduce the question early so that Phoenix could process it and be confident.

After trotting and cantering the poles from each rein I put the final fence up, leaning the diagonal poles in the middle. I approached in canter, and whilst Phoenix was spot on over the jump, really lifting her shoulders and staying straight, she kept giving a hop, skip and a jump over the canter poles.

I felt like she was getting herself in a bit of a stew on the approach because she was a bit too fast and unbalanced in canter. So I trotted into the exercise, letting her pick up canter over the first pole. Then, she was foot perfect and wasn’t as quick. Which felt better as it felt more controlled, like she understood the exercise more.

I continued to approach in trot, and gradually raised the second and third canter poles to little bounces. Now I actually wanted her to give a little skip over the poles, so that she lifted her shoulders, engaged her hindquarters and lifted her nose so that she was looking where she was going.

The final jump immediately felt better, as she pinged over them, really coming up in front.

I raised the A-frame fence gradually, but Phoenix took each height in her stride, feeling very correct in her bascule and technique. I loved the feel of the canter now – the balance and power that I had – and it was only when the jump reached 1.05m did she feel like she was having to work over it. I only did it once before leaving our session on a very positive note. She had jumped her biggest to date comfortably, and was confident in her approach. I felt there was an improvement to the canter, which she will hopefully take forward to the flatwork and allow me to adjust her to re-create that canter next time I ride.

My plans now are to do more of the bounce work, perhaps a line of six or so, to strengthen Phoenix’s hindquarters and improve her canter, as she seems to respond better to the poles dictating her canter rather than me interfering. She’s already schooling over 90cm courses, so I won’t push it any higher without getting her some more competition experience and getting her stronger. But hopefully the combination of the bounce work and more canter work on the flat will improve her performance around courses.

Riding Dog Legs

I did the keyhole jumping exercise with a client a couple of weeks ago, and we discovered that she and her pony found riding left dog legs significantly harder than riding right dog legs.The pony is a left banana, and will drift through his right shoulder at every opportunity, but we’ve been addressing both of their straightness and it’s improving all the time. However, jumping and turning left highlights the fact there’s still a weakness here.So this week I decided to tackle left dog legs. I warmed them up with the focus on riding squares, my rider using her outside aids to turn, and keeping the inside rein open without going back towards her, and the pony turning from the outside aids. I see this a lot and for whatever reason, a rider may apply the correct aids to turn, but the horse doesn’t obey immediately, and then in a panic that they aren’t going to make the turn, the rider resorts to pulling them round with the inside rein. They know they’re doing it, but you can’t help it if you’re going to miss the turn! This then creates a cycle that the horse doesn’t turn until the inside rein is utilised, which causes the outside aids to fall by the wayside.My rider has identified in previous lessons that she sometimes forgets to use her right leg to push her pony to the left, so a lot of our flatwork looks at switching that leg on. Furthermore, as she reverts to her left rein, her right hand disappears up her pony’s neck, thus allowing him to drift out of that shoulder. Now I’m not saying she’s to blame – it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But she’s the bigger person, the one I can explain things to, so we have to address her aids first. This is where the flatwork is so helpful; riding the squares and leg yielding, to identify her asymmetry in her aids, and to ensure her pony is responding to the right leg before we add in jumps.Once warmed up, I had them canter a three stride, left dog leg of poles, of which I’d laid dressage boards on the outside of the curve. The visual aid will encourage the pony to turn left, which breaks the cycle of her resorting to the inside rein. She could focus on applying the correct aids and get the correct response from him which would help his understanding.They cantered through the exercise a few times until the canter stayed forwards and the turn was balanced with the correct aids. Interestingly, when the pony was asked to turn left correctly, his evasion technique was to slow down, so my rider had to keep her foot on the accelerator whilst turning and ensure her hands were positive aids.The aids she was giving, or was aiming to give, was a bit of weight into the left stirrup to keep left canter, opening the left rein wide (but not backwards), using the right leg to turn him, whilst keeping her right hand near the base of his neck to provide a wall to support his right shoulder. The trick is for the outside rein to be reactive: not pulling back and causing him to slow, and not slipping forward as he starts to drift, but rather being “there” until he starts to lean on the right shoulder, and then firming the contact to prevent the drift. She’s reacting to his body rather than blocking him with an immobile rein.Next, I built the fences up to crosses. This was to guide both of them to the centre, and to ensure they were totally accurate. This was when the pony started putting in four strides. They were getting the line, but he was becoming sticky in the canter. A check that the reins weren’t restricting him, and then she could apply more leg to keep the power.Once they’d mastered the line, the aids, and planning the turn, I removed the white boards. This made it a bit trickier, as we realised how much the visual line was helping them. So I popped one board in the middle to help them, and once they’d negotiated it successfully then I removed it, and they managed to ride the dog leg line. There was an element of my rider needing to start riding her turn earlier in the exercise; because the pony found it harder that turning right, he needed more setting up and more time to find his line.We ended the session with two steep crosses, getting the dog leg line perfectly and maintaining the canter rhythm to get three strides between the jumps. Hopefully we can build on this in the next few weeks with different exercises.

The High Jump

It seems to be an uphill battle to teach children that they don’t have to jump the highest or the fastest to be the best.

Last week I had to ask my Pony Clubbers how high they usually jump at the beginning of the week to assess them, and inevitably they all wanted to jump their maximum every day.

I like to know the height of the jumps that they have done, but that doesn’t mean we’ll jump that high, as I don’t want the weaker jumpers to feel inferior or worried about the lesson. And there are plenty of things we can work on without jumping big, such as their position, lines to the jump, quality of the canter before and after the jumps.

At the end of camp they have a showjumping competition; the children in each ride compete against each other but they don’t all have to jump the same height. I ended up doing two heights. Doing the smaller height was my nervous rider as I wasn’t sure how her confidence level would be on the final morning and I wanted her to ride the course independently and finish camp on a high. One pony had had a confidence crisis at the beginning of the week so I’d really focused his rider on not restricting his head over jumps, so I had her doing small fences where the pony was less likely to need to “jump” and his rider could concentrate on her position, without risk of being left behind so that again, they finished camp on a positive note. This rider was disappointed with the height of the jumps, but did accept my explanation, and said the jumps felt smoother. The final pair doing the little jumps were capable of jumping bigger but the pony was looking tired, and as they’d had problems with her refusing jumps in the winter, I told my rider that I thought it best they did a smaller course clear, than get into problems due to the tired pony stopping at bigger jumps. She agreed with me, which was great to hear as she was sensitive to her pony’s needs.

The three which jumped the bigger course were all fairly confident; one of them was being pushed towards her limit over the oxers, but actually rode the best lines and approaches to each jump. One of them was capable of jumping bigger, but as she lacked control over the speed, I’d rather the fences weren’t too big so that the pony could get herself out of trouble until her rider had mastered the brakes. The other rider was probably the most competent out of all of my ride, but I actually felt that her pony had worked hard all week so didn’t need to prove herself over a 70cm course as opposed to a 60cm course. Also, I felt the focus needed to move away from the height and towards being able to create a jumping canter and maintain it all the way to a fence, rather than sloppily falling round corners and falling into trot.

My aim was to emphasise style, which they were judged on, with unexpected results I feel.

It’s a difficult concept for your children to grasp; the fact jumping should be stylish, but I think it’s the job of us as instructors and parents to stand firm in our belief that it’s better to jump a smaller course in style and safely, than to get round a bigger course by the skin of their teeth.

It’s not just the kids who want to jump high. At camp the senior kids do a one day event competition, and we set the maximum height at 90cm. Their instructors choose the height which each rider can do, but invariably we get some parents complaining that their children jump much higher at home. But that’s not on grass, which is invariably hard in August, or after five days of being ridden for a couple of hours each day. The aim of Friday’s competition is to round off the week with fun, and not create problems by facing a tired pony at a big jump and wonder why they refuse, or injure themselves from repetitive strain on their legs.

So what can we as teachers do to educate leisure riders that it is not all about jumping fast and high? Firstly, build tricky schooling exercises which takes the rider’s eye off the height and onto other aspects so that they negotiate the exercise successfully. We can talk about the the strains of jumping on a horse’s legs and why jumping bigger or jumping too frequently can be detrimental to them. We can discuss fittening a horse and implementing a work routine correctly so that they are able to jump sufficiently. We can emphasise how improving our flatwork helps improve our jumping. We can teach our riders that horses aren’t machines and can have confidence issues too.

Finally, I think there should be more jumping competitions that are judged on style and performance, rather than speed and height. At bigger competitions you don’t see so much bad riding in an attempt to get a fast clear, but you do at the lower levels. And I’m talking the local, unaffiliated showjumping competitions, not so much the grassroots level. This leads to poor riding, long-suffering horses and ponies, and to be frank, some dangerous situations. We want to make horse riding as safe and fun as can be, yet encourage riders to jump fast and big in order to be successful. Surely it’s a recipe for disaster?

Jumping Fillers

One of my clients has a lovely pony who has a great, scopey jump. At only 14hh he easily pops 105cm, and we’ve been doing a lot of work improving his bascule, confidence and building muscle. They’re ready to go out and have fun at competitions… except for his diva-esque reaction to fillers.

After seeing his overly dramatic reaction to a little filler one lesson I’ve made it my goal to get them jumping fillers confidently.

The next lesson I got out a couple of props and laid out a combination in the school. I left the poles on the floor, and asked my rider to contemplate how she rode fillers. Was it different to how she approached plain jumps?

The answer was yes, she knew her pony would refuse and throw his toys out the pram so rode defensively and nervously. This means we have a vicious cycle: the pony lacks confidence with the fillers, his rider rides defensively but doesn’t fill the pony with confidence, so he stops, and then she expects him to stop next time.

We need to stop thinking of fillers as special, or different, and learn to ride them in exactly the same way as we ride plain fences. Which is easier said than done when you know there’s a high chance of your horse refusing them. I know, because Matt was exactly the same. He’d jump beautifully until there was a filler, and then I couldn’t get him less than ten foot to the fence.

I had this enlightening lesson on him at college, and realised that my approach was half the problem. So I repeated this lesson with my client and pony.

Throughout their warm up I had them trot and canter over the poles, with the fillers at either wing. I moved them progressively closer as both pony and rider started to ignore the fillers and relax so that they was just enough room for the pony to pass between.

Then I built the jumps up slowly, one by one, only changing one thing at a time, and focusing my rider on her riding positively and calmly to each fence as if the fillers weren’t there.

Soon they were jumping the fences confidently and in a flowing way, with no backing off or chipping in on take off. And they didn’t falter when I rearranged my props to make the jumps seem different.

The next few lessons I plan on getting different fillers out and building them up to jumping the fillers quicker and quicker until my rider doesn’t tense up with the thought of fillers, and the pony is more confident, and unfazed by their presence. Then we’ll have a trip to a schooling venue to practice jumping new fillers away from home and then they’re ready for competition.

Riding a Course

I taught a Pony Club rally the other day, which can be a challenge because there will be a variety of ages and abilities within each group, plus the fact that the instructor will inevitably have some unknown ponies and riders.

This club has the totally brilliant idea of having club coats with the child’s name on, so all I had to do was wait until they’d trotted past me to be reminded of their name! I always spend a couple of minutes asking the children how their riding is going – if they’ve managed to ride much through the winter, if they’re feeling confident, and how big they’ve been jumping. Even the ones that I saw last summer, I need to check how much progress they’ve made.

I find the best approach to pony club rallies is to find a lesson theme that can be layered according to what you see on the day, and each rider can hopefully take something away from the lesson.

I decided for this occasion, to work on the approach and getaway from jumps. Children and ponies are renowned for cutting corners so hopefully they would all have something to work on, and I could easily teach different levels within the same lesson.

I set up a short course of jumps, which formed a basic figure of eight. It was fairly tight as the arena wasn’t huge, but that played to my advantage.

I warmed up horses and riders as a ride in trot and cantered then individually before working on their jumping position over some poles.

Then I got the children to ride around the course as poles on the ground, focusing on demonstrating their jumping position and riding good lines to each jump.

As predicted, a few corners were cut and some jumps were done on the angle. So I explained, whilst walking the course, the path my riders should be taking. For the younger children, physical cues are important, and for the older children a physical object to go around helps increase their satisfaction in completing a task. It also proves that a rider and pony has ridden the correct line.

So I positioned some plastic jump blocks at pivotal turns on the course, and got the children to ride the course with their improved lines before putting the jumps up one by one. I put one block after the last jump, to send the riders into the corner as they all wanted to canter to the rear of the ride, but winged it round the corner so atrociously after such a beautifully ridden course, I had to do something about it!

Lead rein riders benefit from this exercise in that they learn the correct approach and getaway to fences whilst building confidence with little cross poles. By putting up the jumps slowly they won’t be fazed by a whole course of jumps.

Riders just off the lead rein benefit from having obstacles to steer round as it can make them more determined to try steering, and they learn to ride the correct lines whilst still being able to focus on the jumps.

For more competent riders, you can talk about the horse’s balance around the turns and when the ponies should be trotting or cantering, as well as canter leads.

To add in a further level of complication, I made one jump a skinny. This was a good test for the complacent riders who just aimed and fired, and for the confident ones who didn’t think they needed to get straight, realised the consequences when the jump became harder.

Overall, I had two good teaching sessions, with something for each child to work on, and hopefully practice at home.

Circles Within A Grid

Sometimes horses can lock on to fences quite strongly, and not always at the rider’s choice. Many times I remember coming round a corner on the showjumping course and Otis locking onto the wrong fence and we had to have serious words to take his eye off that one and to focus on the correct jump. Additionally, horses can get a bit fast and flat through a course.

To improve a horse’s responsiveness to the aids while jumping, to stop them rushing and flattening their canter through combinations, and to improve their bascule by encouraging them to sit on their hocks with a more collected and round canter, I built this grid earlier this week.

The grid was positioned on the three quarter line, and consisted of three cross poles, two canter strides apart. The jumps don’t want to be particularly large.

Once my horse and rider had cantered over the poles on the floor and the crosses on each rein, we started to get a bit more technical. The horse was getting a bit fast and flat as they travelled through the grid. Not unrideable, but her technique over the jumps had deteriorated by the third cross pole.

I asked my rider to jump fences one and two, then ride a circle to approach fence two again, before jumping the third fence. I left the size of the circle up to them, but they were limited to a maximum of 15m due to the size of the arena. The first time, my rider really had to pull her horse out of the grid and onto the circle. By the second half of the circle the canter had returned to its usual balanced self, and the second time over the second fence was much neater and less rushed.

We repeated this a couple of times in both directions so that the circle was round, fluid, and the canter consistent. Initially, my rider was landing then riding onto the circle, but by getting her to prepare whilst in the air, her horse expected a turn on landing so reacted quicker to her aids. I explained to her that landing and changing their direction of course felt to the horse like a change of mind, which can knock their confidence if they think the rider doesn’t want to jump and possibly lead to run outs. If my rider jumps the second fence the first time planning to turn away onto the circle then she’s already set their course, and if the horse doesn’t react or resists then the horse is in the wrong, and learns that they need to listen to the rider continuously. This makes the grid less confusing to the horse – the rider has set the course from the beginning and there are no moments when the horse can interpret a change of mind from the rider.

The next step, was to ride a circle after each jump, which meant that each fence was jumped twice. The first time, the pair had a little argument for the first circle, but as my rider was riding for the circle earlier, it was a smaller period of resistance and she managed to rebalance her canter quickly. The canter stayed much more rhythmical throughout the grid, and the mare made a cleaner shape over each fence.

We repeated this on both reins, to work the canters evenly, and then I got them to just ride straight through the grid. Whereas before we’d used this exercise, the horse was making the distance between the second and third fence look small (due to her flatter, longer striding canter), this time the distances looked the same as the canter stayed consistent.

I next raised all the fences to 90cm uprights, and had them jump through the grid on both reins. Their bascules were neater, and the grid didn’t feel as rushed.

I’d like to do this exercise, or a similar one, in the near future with this pair, but focusing more on improving the canter and riding smaller circles to bring the hocks underneath her, which will help them ping over the larger fences.

One Year On

Last weekend marked one year since I bought Phoenix so I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on our journey together so far.

Initially, I didn’t think there has been a huge change in her physically. I mean, she’s put on muscle, but she’s not grown taller or bulked out like a youngster does. If anything, she’s a leaner frame, and less barrel shaped. Having said that, due to the fact she’s now fully clipped and had her mane pulled, she’s almost unrecognisable to the bystander.

So what have we achieved in the last twelve months? Quite a lot really I think.

To begin with, she’s done some travelling to clinics, competitions and lessons, and has progressed from cautiously edging up the trailer ramp, to almost running me over in her excitement to get loaded. She travels quietly and calmly, and has excellent manners both in the trailer and away from home.

I did quite a lot of groundwork for the first four months with Phoenix. Initially, she couldn’t canter on the lunge, and was quite unbalanced. Here’s two photos to compare the changes in her trot from the lunge. Her trot now is more uphill, and whilst the photos don’t really illustrate it very well her hindquarters are more engaged so her trot has a slower tempo whilst maintaining the same level of energy. Her back and topline also looks much stronger now. Now on the lunge she’s proficient at raised poles, canter and is developing a range of trots in preparation for Novice level.

Phoenix had been introduced to poles before I bought her, but hadn’t really done any jumping. I started with some jumps on the lunge, and since then she’s really taken to it. I only jump a couple of times a month, but she’s now confident with fillers and showjumps up to 85cm, enjoying it and showing a good technique. I had a jump lesson a couple of weeks ago, where we had very positive feedback and she jumped very well, growing in confidence over the related distances and fillers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any photos because it was pouring with rain. She’s also been cross country schooling, which again was a positive experience for her. Next year, my plan is to build on her competition experience over showjumps, and to do more cross country with her, on sponsored rides and training, in preparation for a hunter trial in the autumn. Weather dependent, of course!

In her ridden flatwork, Phoenix has gone from being a bit tucked in in her head and neck, and with quite a choppy trot, to carrying herself in a longer frame, in self carriage and with more impulsion from behind. Unfortunately there aren’t any recent ridden photos – I’m sure you’ll see some soon. She’s been to some dressage competitions, and definitely has the talent to succeed here. Marks have been high, with some low due to her greenness, and excited anticipation. This is an area we’re currently working on. She’s rather fresh at the moment, but after ten minutes work will settle into a lovely trot and work beautifully. Then I walk and give her a breather. Unfortunately, she then anticipates canter so it takes another ten minutes to re-establish the trot. On a positive note, the canter to trot transition is much calmer and more balanced, so we are getting there slowly! I’m looking forwards to cracking this as then we can move up a level and develop her lateral work, because the moments of good work are really good! She’s teaching me a lot, as I’ve never ridden a horse where I have to sit quite so quietly and have such minuscule aids. The slightest aid can get a huge reaction, so I’m on a learning curve (especially while she’s so lively) to stay relaxed whilst sitting quietly, and trying to remember not to back off my aids when she gets tense or scoots off as that makes her even more sensitive to the aids. For example, when she tries to rush in the trot it’s tempting to sit even more lightly. But that means I can’t use my seat without her acting like I’ve electrocuted her. I have to remember to keep sitting into her and trust that she will relax in a few strides. Then I can use my seat to half halt effectively.

Other experiences that Phoenix has had, and accepted, over this last year, are clipping, babies, pushchairs, massages and bareback riding. Clipping is still quite a stressful experience for her, but everything else she’s taken to like a fish to water.

Phoenix had done a fair bit of hacking before coming to me, and I don’t get her out as much as I’d like, but she’s brought the fun back into hacking for me. I hadn’t realised how on edge hacking spooky horses had made me last year. Now, I’m finding our hacks very relaxing and fun, either in company or on our own, especially as she’s so well mannered in open fields and is rock solid on roads. I’m looking forwards to doing some sponsored rides next year, especially as Otis had a lifetime ban for his continuous airs above the ground on these rides.

Looking back, I think we’ve made a solid start to our relationship and journey together. We’ve made a good start to all areas of leisure riding, and whilst we may not be perfect yet, a solid foundation is being built, so that hopefully we have a successful competitive career, whilst having a lot of fun. Phoenix is everything I wanted from my next horse, so I’m glad I took the gamble and bought her without trying her myself and before I was supposed to be purchasing. I’m really excited to see what the future brings for us.

Watch this space!