Teaching a Range of Abilities

One thing being a Pony Club instructor teaches you is to think on your feet and teach multiple abilities in one lesson.This is what happened to me today. Although, I did have the advantage of knowing most of the children and having been briefed on them all a couple of days in advance so I could make a plan.

The secret, I think, to managing multiple abilities in one group, is to have a layered lesson plan. This means that there is something for each rider to do or learn. For the lower level riders part of the content will go straight over their head. And for the more able, some will be revision. But you can keep them involved by asking them to demonstrate or explain to the others.

Today’s ride consisted of one fairly confident rider, jumping 60-70cm, a more nervous jockey on her new pony currently jumping 50cm. A very nervous rider jumping 40cm, and two young brothers – one just off the lead rein in walk and trot.

I put four yellow cones in the corners of the arena, to ensure none of them were cutting their corners. The older ones needed the odd reminder when they got complacent, and the younger ones liked having a visual point to steer round.

They all warmed up as a ride, with the led pony at the back so that they could walk before his leader went into cardiac arrest. They could also cut the corners and stand in the middle to rest without disrupting the flow of the ride. Whilst they trotted I made individual positional corrections, and then I started teaching them to turn with their shoulders and look where they are going more. They had to imagine there were headlights on their shoulders and they had to light up the track in front of the pony. This is something even the youngest could grasp. I asked the more experienced ones which direction was easier to turn so that they started thinking about their riding and could make their own improvements. Of course, I asked the youngest two too so that they felt included, and as I think it’s important to encourage a flow of conversation. The fact that they picked left or right at random was neither here nor there. They spoke to me, and felt part of the lesson which was the important part.

They cantered individually. The older three trotted circles before the canter, the boys were led. Canter wasn’t the main focus of the lesson, and working individually meant I could tailor it to suit everyone whilst remaining safe. If I hadn’t cantered the more advanced three would have felt short changed.

Jumping is where it gets tricky to manage different heights, so I laid out two exercises. On the three quarter line I put three fences, and put a pair of cones on the approach, getaway, and between each jump. This was to focus the riders on steering straight throughout the exercise.

On the centre line I laid three trot poles, then a fairly big gap, before a jump. Again, with cones to help them stay straight.

The trio of jumps were for the more competent jumpers, whilst the trot pole formation was for the lead rein and nervous ones.

My instructions and aims were the same, but I could build the jumps up to accommodate the two groups. The hardest part for everyone was steering straight after the jumps, and my poor cones got some battering there. Because we had the focus of the jumping on their steering the height of the jumps became irrelevant.

The three jumps were used for the two riders jumping over 50cm. For the final go, I left it so the girl on her new pony could have a more confident turn and ended on a positive note, before putting it up a bit higher for the more able rider on her last turn.

My very nervous rider started off confident and trying to keep up with her friends, going over the warm up three, but as they got bigger she diverted to the other set up. Which was fine; she didn’t feel belittled because she’d chosen the smaller exercise, yet was happy that she’d been comfortable enough to try the bigger exercise.

The trotting poles were aimed at the younger boys; the poles tested their balance and the jump was minute so they could start moving their hands forwards over the fence before we develop their jumping position. The ponies just trotted through, but the boys liked having a different shaped pole to go over.

I think all the children took away the same points from the lesson; such as turning their shoulders in the direction of movement, and the importance of steering straight when jumping. Sure, the little ones were only be following my directions without really understanding the concept, whereas the older riders were starting to grasp the theory and can now begin to apply it at home by themselves. The cones gave them all instant feedback; the older ones cringed when they knocked a cone over, realising they needed to work harder to maintain straightness. The younger ones just grinned and giggled as they trotted between the cones with the help of their leaders and hopefully they will remember riding between cones in the future for when they’re taking more ownership of their riding.

Developing layered lesson plans definitely takes practice, and they’re not the easiest to deliver, but they’re the most rewarding when you have so many happy and satisfied riders and parents.

My Gridwork Clinic

I’ve planned a series of polework and gridwork clinics over the winter, approximately one a month, at a beautiful local showjumping venue. They’re designed to run independently, so people don’t feel they have to attend all six, and I’ve given each date a theme. This helps me plan, and also helps riders chose which clinics to come to as they have a rough idea of what we’ll be working on.For my first clinic, I chose straightness as the theme.I wanted to work evenly off both reins as symmetry improves straightness, and often riders find it harder to ride straight when turning off one rein more than the other, so in order to ensure everyone had a chance to improve their stiffer rein, I used the centre line.I laid two tramlines just onto the centre line, to focus the riders on their turn so they didn’t drift, and were set up straight for the grid. With a fairly short approach I laid out a jump, followed by another one canter stride away. The third jump was two canter strides away, with a pair of tramlines in the middle to correct horse and rider if they’d drifted. Then there was a fourth and fifth fence one canter stride apart. The fifth fence was an oxer, and there were tramlines on the landing side and the then just before the turn at the track.The tramlines ensured they started and finished straight, and stopped any cutting of corners after the grid, so improving the getaway.I warmed up all the riders by getting them to trot through the grid with the poles on the ground, alternating the reins they’re coming off. Initially, all the horses had a good look at the arrangement of poles, but after a couple of goes, they started going straighter, my riders were channelling them forwards because they’d stopped looking down, and the horse’s stride length opened and rhythm became consistent. The riders could also start to think about whether it was easier to turn off the left rein or the right rein and make corrections.We then cantered through the poles from both reins. All horses will struggle to get the distances while there are no jumps, but as they got straighter and more forwards they started to work out how best to place their feet. So long as the horses are going through in a positive, rhythmical canter, I’m happy at this stage.I built the grid up slowly, starting with a cross as the first jump. The centre of the cross meant we knew if there was any drifting on the approach. The second fence was also a cross to help straightness, and then the tramlines corrected any drifting on the getaway and over the rest of the poles.The third jump was an upright, and once they’d jumped it confidently once, I made it into an A-frame. The apex emphasised the centre of the jump, and encouraged the horses to be neater over the jump. Of course, the horses and riders back off this slightly intimidating set-up, so I encouraged the riders to sit up after the second cross and ride positively in order to get the two strides. Once the horses have jumped it a couple of times it doesn’t cause any problems. The fourth jump also became an upright. With some groups I also made this into an A-frame, but if I felt that the first A-frame improved the horse’s technique over subsequent jumps I didn’t bother. And finally, we built the fifth fence into an oxer.Everyone found that the tramlines were incredibly helpful at helping both horse and rider stay straight, and the crosses highlighted any drifting so the riders’ knew how and when to correct over the last three elements. They could all feel the difference in their horses as their straightness improved because the distances were easier and the hindquarters more efficient at pushing the horse over the fence. They also landed in a more balanced way, ready for the next obstacle. When the horses were going straighter the riders could feel the effects of any twisting by themselves through the grid, which helped them fine tune their position.

All in all, it was a great, rewarding morning, with lots of progress from each partnership. Now I need to plan next month’s “Gears to the Gaits” clinic!

Right Footed? Or Left Footed?

One of the interesting topics that was discussed at the Horses Inside Out day that I attended, was the subject of right footed, or left footedness.

The horses limbs work in diagonal pairs, which means that if they’re dominant with one hindlimb it will have a knock on effect on the forelegs and the horse’s straightness. The reason for this asymmetry? Perhaps an old injury, or simply the same reason you or I are right or left handed.

Watching your horse working on both reins, you may be able to identify their stronger hind leg from their preferred rein, or stride length (especially over trot poles). You may also be able to feel the hindleg which is pushing more when you’re riding. Try changing your trot diagonal in a straight line and see if one feels stronger than the other. Some horses have such a preference to one diagonal pair that they will always throw the rider up on to that diagonal.

If your horse is left footed, with a stronger left hind leg, then their right shoulder will be more developed. On the left rein, the trot will feel better as the dominant hindleg is on the inside so better able to step under and take the horse’s weight before propelling them forward.

However, in the canter the outside hindleg is the first leg in the canter sequence so with a stronger left hindleg with have a more correct and stronger right canter.

This is where things can get confusing. If a horse is trotting on the right rein, with a stronger right hindleg then they often drift through their left shoulder. This is for one of two reasons: the rider isn’t using enough outside rein to support the outside of the horse’s body, and the horse hasn’t got sufficient strength and balance to use their inside hindleg to it’s full potential.

Earlier this week I used some poles to help my clients get a greater feel and understanding of their horse’s stronger diagonal pair.

I used trot poles to an apex to make them aware if their horse drifted as they trotted over the poles. Poles make a horse lift their limbs higher which tests their balance and highlights any difference in limb strength as the stronger hindleg will push more, so the horse will drift away from that leg. For example, a horse with a stronger left hindleg will drift to the right.

With some horses it was immediately obvious with the poles in the direction that they tended to drift in. For others, I had to raise the poles and exaggerate the trot strides to get the horse to drift so that my rider could better understand the biomechanics of their horse. Then we worked on riding the horse straight, and in future lessons will work on strengthening their weaker diagonal pair.

Another exercise I did was using tramlines for canter transitions. The tramlines kept the horse straight through the upward transition. This makes the transition more active and uphill. Now, remember what I was saying earlier about the outside hindleg being the strike off leg?

I got my riders to ask for different canter leads through the tramlines and compare the transitions.

The pony who has a stronger left hindleg (and has a better right rein canter) produced a far improved left canter transition because the pony had to engage his right hind leg in the transition. His rider could feel the difference in the quality of the left canter as a result of a more active and straight transition.

The horse with the stronger right hindleg pretty much refused to give right canter between the poles because she couldn’t use her weaker left hindleg without compromising on her straightness. She has issues with straightness anyway, which we’re working on, but it was really useful for her rider to see and feel the difference between the two canter leads when the horse is straight.

Using visual aids such as poles can really drive home a point to riders and help them get the feeling of the correct way of going which helps them reproduce it in future. Next time you ride, have a feel for your horse’s preferred diagonal pair, and use tramlines and poles to help you improve their straightness and then you can tailor your schooling sessions to build up the strength in their weaker diagonal pair.

The Importance of Straightness 

Straightness comes quite high up in the Scales of Training, but I feel it is often overlooked with novice riders, which can often cause problems later on in their training, or cause injuries due to over stressing a limb.

I wouldn’t expect a child or novice rider to be able to straighten a horse, and correct them very easily, but I would want them to be aware of what straightness is in it’s most basic form.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the importance of riding evenly on each rein, and changing diagonals whilst hacking to help the horse develop symmetrically. A horse with even muscle tone is more likely to travel straight. Straight being when the left hind foot follows the path of the left fore foot, and the same with the right limbs.

Lessons and guided schooling usually instils this to riders quite easily.

Another area I like to work on, which ties in nicely with Pilates, is proprioception. I like my riders to be aware of their body; which side is stronger, where they tend to tense and where they tend to collapse. Then together we can work on creating a more symmetrical rider, which will help the horse stay symmetrical. I’m a huge advocator of having regular physio or osteopathy sessions. Everything we do in our daily life encourages us to twist and carry ourselves crookedly. If you sit at a desk all day then your right shoulder will slump forward because it’s using the mouse. If your other hobby is fencing then you will have a very developed dominant side. Regularly straightening yourself out will ease muscle tension, reduce risk of injury, and improve your posture. All of this will benefit your riding, and most importantly if you are as symmetrical as possible then you will not stress one side of your horse’s body and cause him to compensate with his body in order to stay in balance.

A lot of people lack proprioception. They think they are standing straight, when really they are leaning on one leg more than the other. Try standing up tall, closing your eyes and identifying where your weight is in your body. Then adjust yourself until you feel the weight is even down both legs and you aren’t loading your toes or heels. You’ll probably feel like you’re at a forty five degree slant! The other thing to do is assess the upper body with your eyes closed: are the hip bones level, are the shoulders level, is one hip further forward than the other? Again once you even yourself up you’ll feel wonky. But that’s because your perception of straight is crooked, and you need to adapt that.

With so many asymmetric riders, it’s not surprising that horse’s backs are suffering and the horse physio/chiro/osteo industry is booming. 

Back to my original point. I spend a lot of time in lessons tweaking riders’ positions to improve their straightness, and encouraging the correct feel. Often they can see the immediate difference in the horse because they have stopped blocking them.

So a straighter rider will encourage a straighter horse; even a horse who needs regular back treatment will benefit because his muscles will develop evenly and will hold his skeleton in place for longer.

Most of my riders will understand straightness at this level quite easily. Now it’s time to expand their proprioception to include their horse. Riders can see the head and neck, so this is a good place to start. Is the horse looking one way or the other when trotting down the long side, or the centre line? Once my riders can see the lack of straightness we can correct it by adjusting the weight in the reins, position of the riders hands and shoulders. Next we can look at their feeling for what the shoulders are doing; are both shoulders moving around the circle, or is the horse drifting through the outside one? Again, checking the symmetry of the rein aids, seat aids and leg aids will allow them to start to influence the horse’s shoulder position. Finally, and this is usually the hardest for riders to learn to feel because there is no visual cues, is developing an awareness of where the hindquarters are positioned. Then a combination of leg and seat aids can begin to influence this.

So far, the idea of straightness is still more of an awareness, but I will talk to riders about the exercises we are doing and how it is improving the suppleness of the horse, which will improve their ability to stay straight. However, there is no point trying to supple a horse if he is allowed to carry himself in a crooked way.

If a client still doesn’t understand the importance of having a symmetrical horse and rider then I like using transitions within a gait to highlight this. 

A few weeks ago I was working on shortening and lengthening with a client, who was finding her horse lost rhythm and balance, but the exercise highlighted the importance of being straight very well. We spent most of the lesson focusing on the proprioception of the rider; using circles, serpentines and shallow loops to get her maintaining straightness, and most importantly being aware of their loss of straightness. 

Then we began lengthening the trot. As they came round the corner, I made my rider establish straightness for a stride before asking the horse to lengthen. When she did, the mare opened her frame and went into a lovely, balanced medium trot with all the power coming from behind and the forehand light. This is because when the horse is straight and pushes off the ground with a hind leg they are pushing towards their centre of gravity, meaning the energy is free to flow in a straight line from the hind leg through the body and forwards. If the horse is crooked then energy (or propulsion ) is lost as it travels through the kinks in the horse’s body.

This rider really noticed a difference when she established the straightness first. On one rein she had to make sure the shoulders had travelled the full corner, and on the other rein she needed to prevent the hindquarters from swinging out through the turn.

We took this forward into collecting the trot, and extending the canter, but the most important bit of homework for this rider to take away was the straightening to prepare for the transition.

Whilst straightness is near the top of the training pyramid, I still think an awareness of symmetry and proprioception is vital in the early stages of a rider’s development and will stand them in good stead for riding higher levels of dressage and training their own horse.

Water in the Gutter

You know how water will flow along the gutter easily when it’s following the side of the building, but when it turns the corner at the end the water slows and the debris collects here first? Well it’s exactly the same with horses.

When a horse is straight through their body their energy propels them forwards much for efficiently and easily. I saw an excellent example last week when I was teaching.

This dun gelding had a driving accident years ago which has resulted in treatment in his neck and poll this year, so after lots of hacking over the summer his owner has started taking him into the school again.

Over our few lessons I’ve focused on  this rider being straight herself, having a correct length of rein and even contact. Then we’ve worked both reins evenly to establish preparation for transitions and movements, and the horses response to the correct aids. One lesson was spent doing numerous changes of rein to try to reduce the change in both horse and rider as they moved onto their harder, right rein.

Last week I noticed a real improvement in the horse on the left rein at the beginning of the lesson, he was no longer short and tight in the neck, but trusting the more consistent and even contact. His strides had gotten longer and he was really swinging through his body. It looked much more effortless for both horse and rider, as well as being more harmonious. Energy was flowing, like water in a gutter, straight through the horse’s body so propulsion was easy.

However, when they went onto the right rein the strides became choppy and the neck became tight. The water was turning the corner in the gutter. With them trotting large, I asked my rider to focus on the straight lines; ensuring her horse’s neck and head was straight in front of her, not to the outside as he liked to do. To do this she needed to use her inside leg to push him over to the track, not use her outside rein, but also ensure her right rein was supportive of his right shoulder so he wasn’t inclined to fall in through it. Round the corners the right rein still needed to support that shoulder and not open too much on the turn. When he is a little stronger and straighter the inside rein can open more to encourage him to bend right, but as he chronically bends left, we need to establish straight before right bend so he isn’t outfaced.

As she rode one corner correctly, suddenly the strides matched those on the left rein, and they almost flew up the long side it was so effortless.

Obviously this horse needs lots of little and often to build the correct muscle, and then when he can maintain a quality rhythm, length of stride and relaxed frame on both reins the we can look at more supplying exercises to improve right bend and engage the right hind leg.

We will be continuing to focus on finding that straightness in trot, and when riding large circles. On the right rein he falls in, so the inside rein needs to support his inside shoulder while the inside leg reminds him to stay out. The outside rein may need to give forwards slightly more than ideal to help the horse realise he can stretch the muscles over his left shoulder and not look so much around to the left. On the left rein, they tend to have too much inside bend so the right rein still needs to support the right shoulder, and remind the horse that he can’t bulge out through it. Then my rider doesn’t want to try to create too much inside bend on the circle, as riding him slightly straighter will encourage him to step under with his left hind leg and not throw his weight out of the right shoulder, but rather learn to carry himself. Having a straighter horse makes this easier for him initially as he strengthens his inside hind.

I’m looking forwards to seeing this combination progress as their confidence and knowledge increases. By taking these baby steps and finding the straightness of his body first we can reduce the chance of his old injury flaring up. Then we can work on suppling  him with the hindquarters working correctly, which will further improve his muscle tone and fitness.