One Step Ahead

It’s a tricky process when teaching a child rider and a pony when the pony is clever. And keen to work.

Recently I’ve been helping one of the Pony Club members who is in this situation. Her lovely pony has the expected attitude of a Welsh chestnut mare, and is easily offended if the rider is heavy handed. And likes to work. They’ve had a couple of bad experiences in their short relationship, which has made her rider nervous, which is how I ended up being involved.

The crux of their problems, I believe, is that the mare anticipates what they’re going to do next, gets faster or turns sharply, and worries her rider who puts the handbrake on. Which then makes the exercise awkward and the mare likely to put in a frustrated buck.

I warmed them up in walk and trot, using circles, changes of rein, and other school movements as well as transitions to get my rider relaxing and the pony listening to her rider. My rider was happy in the trot, so I explained how we should ask her pony lots of questions to keep her focused on her rider. The questions didn’t need to be difficult, but should be varied and in different places around the arena. This is a steep learning curve for most kids as they have to use a bit of initiative, start to think outside the box, and generally put some thought into their riding. Once my rider got into this mindset, we moved onto canter.

The first transition is usually fine, but after that the mare anticipates, quickens in the trot, and my rider starts to tense up and over think the transition. We made a plan.

They rode a canter transition in the corner before the short side. First transition, so easy peasy. When they rode into trot, I got my rider to immediately ride a circle. Then they changed the rein. Then we cantered again. Upon trotting, they started a serpentine. Then the mare tried to quicken into the corner in anticipation of canter. So they walked. Then trotted another circle. Then cantered. Then trotted, turned across the arena to change the rein, walked in the next corner and then rode a 20m circle at A in trot. As they crossed the centre line, they cantered.

You get the picture. My rider felt more in control, her pony was listening to her so wasn’t rushing. My rider relaxed, the pony relaxed. We repeated the transitions so she stopped over thinking them. The transitions became more consistent and everyone was generally much happier.

The next problem was jumping. Again, the first jump was usually trouble free, but the mare likes jumping so can land a bit fast and if half halted too sharply will spin her tail like a wind turbine and generally be upset. She also anticipates any exercises.

I placed a pole on the floor between two wings on the three quarter line, and we started by riding school movements which accidentally-on-purpose went over the pole. We also trotted a normal approach on the three quarter line, but kept varying things to help make going over poles uneventful and keep my rider in control and relaxed. I also had them ride a serpentine, with the central loop going over the pole.

Again, as my rider relaxed, they both improved. We made the pole into a little jump and continued in this theme of varying the approach and mixing in different questions to prevent any anticipation.

This works really well with small jumps or trotting poles, but as the jumps increase in size, you can’t approach with only two straight strides!

I raised the jump slightly, and we stuck to the three-quarter line approach, but started to use more questions to keep the attention of the pony, and ultimately, stay in control. On the approach to the jump, my rider rode a fifteen metre circle. This stopped the pony locking onto the jump and accelerating. After the jump, my rider asked another question – a transition or a circle. Then we varied the approach to have two circles, or a transition, or to ride onto the three-quarter line but after three strides, ride to the left or right of the jump. This is a tricky tactic because we don’t want to encourage the pony to learn to run out. Which is why my rider had to turn away from the jump before the pony had locked on, make it a definite movement with intention, keep riding positively, and to not repeat it too frequently. It’s just another tactic which can be a useful alternative to circles.

We talked about how to take this forward to linking jumps together. I told my rider to not be afraid to ride transitions between jumps, or circle once, twice or thrice if needed. Of course, this wouldn’t be a clear round, but if the pony expects a question between jumps then when they attempt a course a half halt will be sufficient to keep the pony focused. And she will be steadier because she’ll be anticipating a circle or transition.

They finished the lesson on a positive note, knowing how to take these tactics forward so that this rider could stay one step ahead of her pony.

A week later, we took them for their first experience cross country. The aim was to be in control on the flat in an open field, pop over a couple of jumps in a calm fashion. And finish with a smile!

I only did a couple of canters in our warm up, but we used the same approach of asking lots of little questions, and varying the space we used to ensure the pony stayed focused on her rider.

The first couple of jumps went smoothly, but then the mare got a bit quicker, and my rider started to over think things. So we used the circle on the approach tactic to limit the speed of their approach, and when we linked a couple of logs together, there were a couple of circles in between.

Then my rider started to over think things, and get anxious towards the fence which frustrated the pony so she leapt a couple of jumps awkwardly because the trot lacked impulsion. I took them away from the jumps and had them trot a circle around me, slowly increasing the size of the circle and the tempo of the trot so that it was suitable to jump out of. Then we migrated the circle so that they were circling around the log jump. There were a few circles here as the ever hopeful mare pricked her ears going towards the jump, and my rider wasn’t in the right place mentally. But then they did it!

We repeated these circles as required around the jumps to settle my rider as much as anything.

We took a break from jumping, to have a go at the mini steps up and down, and the water. All these were taken in their stride, especially as they could be approached in walk initially, and trot as they grew in confidence.

We finished this successful introduction to cross country by jumping a log (circling beforehand to quell nerves and to get the balance in the trot), then the steps up and down (walking as required), into the water, trotting out and over another little log. I was pleased that we’d started to link things together, but I think it will take a couple more cross country experiences for them to be happy linking jumps together. However, I will continue to use obstacles like water in the interim so that my rider doesn’t feel that every jump needs several circles beforehand to prepare. When we have a few more options of obstacles (because they’ve jumped other jumps that we didn’t do this time) it will be easier to change approaches and courses so that the pony doesn’t anticipate and worry her rider by her eagerness.

Confident Cross Country

Last weekend I had a very enjoyable and satisfying cross country lesson. We were focusing on developing the partnership, building their confidence and ultimately overcoming the inevitable refusal on the first attempt to every jump.

Their last session with me hadn’t gone particularly well. The last time I’d seen her cross country she’d been flying round, but unbeknown to me she had had a blip and we had a miscommunication. So once warmed up over some logs, I sent her towards a house. Where they had a problem.

So, knowing the full story, we met up again. After she warmed up, and had a look at the jumps to see what intimidated her, and what looked to be within her comfort zone, I sent them to trot over a plain, natural pheasant feeder style fence. It was inviting, well within their comfort zone. The pony refused.

They approached again in trot, with my rider being a bit more positive, and the pony stopped again. Ultimately, I realised that the pony had lost faith in his rider, who was now losing faith in both herself and him.

I explained that if he refuses, he can’t run away from the jump. He has to stop and breathe before being re-presented. Then I reminded her how her hands and reins channel him straight, preventing him opening a side door and dodging around the jump. But the hand shouldn’t discourage him from going forwards, through the front door. Her legs supported the reins in keeping the side doors firmly shut, but along with the seat they also keep the back door shut too, so he can’t slow down.

With this in mind, and taking sitting trot just before the jump, they were successful. I had them repeat the same jump until they were both approaching it happily, in a positive rhythm, and enjoying it.

The pony loves to jump, but he does need his rider to tell him to jump; you can’t be a total passenger. But equally, he doesn’t like it if you ride too strongly or aggressively to a fence, pushing him out of his rhythm. My rider knows this, but when coupled with cross country nerves, she has the tendency to “panic-smack” him on the shoulder with the whip. I made light of the panic-smack so that it raised a smile when I warned her off doing it, or told her off if she did it. She soon realised the difference between gently supporting him throughout the approach to a fence, compared to being a passenger and then suddenly interfering on the penultimate stride.

So we’d established how she needed to ride towards a jump, and her go-to’s when she got worried. Which means she can plan her approach to fences, remind herself of what not to do, and hopefully then be successful.

Next up, we had to restore her pony’s faith in her as a rider and leader. We moved around the course, jumping new jumps, still within their comfort zone. Initially, we had that first refusal at a new jump, but within a couple of goes my rider was consistent to the fence and responded quicker to her pony’s second thoughts. Which meant that he backed off the fences less and began to trust her.

Then they were flying together, and we linked the jumps together, used some steps, traversed the water, jumped out of, and in the water. The jumps stayed quite straightforward, but they had to link combinations together. I was pleased that the pair were starting to work in synchronisation with each other. This meant that even if my rider got her line slightly wrong, the pony was still committed to jumping, and not thinking how he could slip past the obstacle.

Every so often, they did have a run out. But we knew the reason – poor presentation to the fence, or my rider having a moment and regressing to panic-smacking. But on the whole, there was real improvement. My rider knew how to approach the fence, rode quietly yet positively, and her pony believed in her leadership in choosing a jump, and his ability to clear it.

It was a very rewarding lesson to teach because you could see things clicking into place for each half of the partnership, and how much happier they were at the end. It was progressive, confidence building, and the fact they made my final questions look very straightforward showed just how much progress had been made. Next up is to consolidate this work at another venue, and progress to asking slightly trickier questions, which will leave them in good stead to practice on their own.

Changing the Rein

At what point do you introduce the complications of trot diagonals in a child’s riding journey?

For me, the right time is when a child can maintain rising trot for a decent period. That is, they’re sufficiently balanced they don’t regularly double bounce, and the pony is sufficiently forwards that it doesn’t break into walk and the rider doesn’t have to give huge pony club kicks to keep the pony going (which causes double bouncing) Then of course, you factor in the child’s cognitive level and if they are able to understand the concept of trot diagonals, and will be able to think about navigating their pony as well as checking their trot diagonal regularly.

I have a rule that my riders should know their trot diagonals before learning to jump. They may need plenty of reminding to check them, but they should be balanced enough to sit for two beats. Over the years I’ve had the odd exception; if the pony is particularly lazy or the child has the attention span of a gnat and wouldn’t be able to think of trot diagonals as well as everything else. But I try to keep an eye on the pony’s strength and if they continually push their rider only the same diagonal I’ll introduce the idea of trot diagonals for the pony’s benefit, emphasing that being on the correct trot diagonal makes it easier for their pony.

Once a child has learnt about their trot diagonals the next learning curve is teaching them to remember to change their trot diagonal with each change of rein. Initially, and with younger children, I instruct them to change the rein, let them concentrate on steering, and once they are on the new rein and established – going into their corners and the pony is trotting with sufficient energy – I remind them to check their diagonal and change it if necessary.

As they develop their proficiency, I bring the diagonal change earlier into the change of rein. So I remind them as soon as they go onto the new rein, to change their diagonal. It will then start to become autonomic, and I find I need to remind my rider less frequently to “sit for two beats”. At some point, usually when my riders are a bit older and will understand more about their horse’s balance I will explain the subtle differences between their position on the left and right reins, and encourage them to think about changing from position left to position right and vice versa on their changes of rein. Then they can tie in changing their trot diagonal with changing their position and changing the bend of the horse when we get to that stage.

The other complication when changing the rein with young riders is changing their whip over. When first introducing a whip I don’t worry too much about my young rider changing it over. After all, they usually drop the reins and chaos ensues! I do try to make sure they hold the whip in alternate hands each lesson so that they become ambidextrous and as competent holding and using a whip in their dominant and non dominant hands.

I once taught a boy who only held his whip in his right hand. His pony used to run out to the left. I remember one particular instance when his pony ran out to the left so I told him to change his whip over so he could place it against the left shoulder and keep his pony straight. He did so, but as he was turning around to re-present to the jump, he changed the whip back into his right hand! The pony ran out to the left again!

Anyway. Once coordination has improved and their hands are big enough to make changing the whip over, I teach them the correct way to switch it from side to side. I then start reminding them on all changes of rein. The Pony Club Manual of Horsemanship states that the whip should be swapped to the inside hand on the first long side after a change of rein. I tend to agree with this for young children. Get one thing done at a time. Change the rein, change the trot diagonal, change the whip over. As with checking their trot diagonals, they can start to change their whip over during the change of rein as they get more proficient.

One of my frustrations when I see parents helping their child ride, whether it be helpful reminders from the sidelines, or directing them from the middle of the arena, is the overloading of instructions. “change the rein, don’t forget your diagonal. Why haven’t you changed your whip?” The child ends up flustered and doesn’t do any task well. Let them concentrate on an accurate change of rein before the next two steps. They’re more likely to successfully sit for two beats to change diagonal first time without the pony falling into walk, and then they’re less likely to drop their reins and lose rhythm and balance when changing their whip over. These will happen simultaneously soon enough.

Group Canter Exercises

One thing I enjoyed last week at Pony Club camp, was utilising some long forgotten group exercises. I had a young senior group, so whilst they were all competent to ride independently, there needed to be some structure to the lessons otherwise they’d meander around the arena aimlessly and crash into each other.

I also had a young horse with a tendency to nap, and another couple who tended to accelerate towards the rest of the ride when asked to work independently, so I wanted to challenge these and help the riders improve their control.

An exercise I use a lot with junior members is the ride walking around the track (sometimes in trot if it’s cold or the ponies a little fresh) and lead file rides into canter and canters around the outside of the arena to the rear of the ride. I sometimes specify the upwards transition (direct or progressive) and encourage my riders to maintain a consistent rhythm and to plan their return to the track so that they don’t career up behind the ride.

The next step up from this exercise is to have the rider who is cantering to pass the ride on the inside in canter and canter around the arena again. This ensures they are focused, and apply the aids sufficiently early enough that their pony doesn’t fall into trot and slip into rear file.

If the group are on the verge of being ready to ride in open order, and I want to challenge their initiative and awareness of others, then another extension of this canter exercise is for the cantering rider to canter a 20m circle at the free end of the arena. This takes planning and thinking ahead from them, and a helpful awareness from the new lead file to adjust the pace and avoid hindering the canter circle.

My favourite two canter exercises from last week, however, involved my riders to listen and think. And by day four of camp, this skill is somewhat deteriorating! I asked the ride to trot a twenty metre circle at C on the right rein, ensuring they were riding a round circle and not drifting or idly following the rider in front. When I called their name they were to leave the circle at M, pick up canter on the long side. They had to canter a twenty metre circle at A before returning to trot at E and rejoining the circle. Sloppy circles meant a risk of crashing! This has a couple of challenges – a canter transition on a straight line, obedience from the horse not to nap towards his friends, the use of the outside aids to remain balanced on the circle, and adjusting the canter so that they didn’t cause the rest of the ride to adjust their trot or line of the circle when they rejoined. I found this really enlightening as it challenged my riders on several levels.

The final exercise starts in the same was – trotting on a circle in open order. When instructed to, the rider had to leave the circle at X, changing the rein and picking up canter. Canter a twenty metre circle from X, before rejoining the ride on the circle in trot. Here they had to ride forwards away from the ride, which is a good lesson for nappy ponies, and slows the transition for the whizzy ones. The rider also had to change their pony’s bend just before the transition, which highlighted if the pony was actually listening to their rider and helped develop their understanding of the aids and timing of them.

I will keep adding to my repertoire of group canter exercises, but hopefully these keep you busy for a few days. If anyone has one they’d like to add then comment below!

Prix Caprilli

You know I always like a challenge, and this spring I’ve had the challenge of training a dozen keen Pony Clubbers for the Area Prix Caprilli competition.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Prix Caprilli is a riding test, akin to a dressage test, with two jumps in. It’s a dying competition which I think is a shame because having two jumps helps disguise the fact they’re doing dressage, and the fact it’s a ridden test means it is welcoming to everyone; young horses, hairy natives, the elderly schoolmasters, and riders of all ages. It doesn’t matter your mount, it’s how you ride them.

As you can see, it’s a challenging test. Especially when my youngest rider is only six years old. So my first challenge was to work out how to teach the different elements of the test to a group of primary school age children in a group setting whilst keeping them engaged and interested.

I decided that props were the best way to go, and to split each lesson up so that the last twenty minutes was spent jumping – even though I knew they were all capable of jumping the small height of the prix caprilli jumps. It would reward them for their hard work on the flat. I ensured they approached the jumps straight and in a rhythm, practising establishing the correct canter quickly after the jump. In one lesson we had a bit of fun doing a Chase Me Charlie.

For the flatwork, I chose a couple of different elements of the test to work on in each lesson.

  1. In the first session I laid out a 20m circle using little sports cones at A. Throughout the warm up, they practised trotting the 20m circle. With the cones they semi taught themselves, as they could see for themselves when their pony deviated from the circle. This meant we could keep the lesson moving. We also practised the change of rein across the diagonal and then cantering the circle individually.
  2. The next session we practised the centre lines. I used a tramline of poles at X and then cones at A and C. They did numerous changes of rein up and down the centre line. We added in halts at X, using the poles to stay straight. I think I also worked them in sitting trot and without stirrups, and nit picked how they rode their corners.
  3. The trickiest part to this test, and the hardest for children to understand, is the two shallow loops up the centre line, so I used two cones at X for them to ride through, and then used a jump pole to mark each shallow loop. The warm up was based around changing the rein with the loops, as well as revising other movements in the test. Then I used a handful of cones to mark out the two half ten metre circles and had them all trotting and walking it to learn the size and shape of the half circles.
  4. The penultimate training session focused on the canter sequence. It’s quite a fast paced section of the test and the movements come up quickly so I wanted my riders to know this part of the test really well, and then start riding tactically. For example, riding from left canter to trot close to B to give them as much time as possible to prepare for the “wiggle” as we nicknamed the double shallow loop. This exercise also allowed me to link the jumps into their flatwork for the first time.
  5. Then, just before the competition we had a dry run. They made a warm up plan with me, then warmed up as they would at the competition and they all rode through the whole test individually a couple of times to fine tune it. Then they went away to practise at home!

I enjoyed the challenge of finding exercises which kept the children engaged whilst helping them learn the test movements, which were simple enough for them to replicate at home.

But what I think I enjoyed the most about training the Prix Caprilli teams was competition day. The straightening of ties; warming them up; quelling any nerves; calling their tests; bacon butties afterwards, and most importantly watching them all pull off smart tests! I felt very proud of the young riders and their ponies.

One child asked me to read for him, sacking his Mum as he did. As we walked towards his ring he said “I’m feeling a bit nervous.” and privately, I had to agree! I definitely had butterflies in my stomach for all my riders!

Another thing for the CV, and whilst I was some what reluctant to take on yet another project, it was certainly enjoyable and I guess I’ll be doing it again next year!

But I am wondering, why can’t adults have Prix Caprilli competitions too?

Using All Senses

One of my young clients has dyspraxia. I won’t say suffers from, because it doesn’t hold him back. It just means I peep through my fingers as he canters around in a very loose position.

But because he finds it difficult to balance I try to do lots of little exercises each week to keep working on improving his proprioception and balance because he needs more time to develop the coordination and strength in his little body.

From very early on we’ve done bits without stirrups and are currently doing sitting trot without stirrups for five minutes each lesson (those of you who had 40 minutes without stirrups this week will be cursing me as you read this. But you’re old enough and ugly enough to survive!).

I’ve done quite a lot of no rein work, as has his Mum with him on the lunge, developing core stability and balance. Hands out to the side like an aeroplane now comes easily in rising trot, and you can see a steady improvement because his arms do not wobble around as much as they did.

I want to push boundaries though, and help him reach his current limits in the relative safety of a lesson, so that he’s in a better position to recover from anything his whizzy pony throws at him.

To improve his balance further, a few weeks ago I had him trotting around the indoor school in rising trot. With his eyes closed. Taking away a sense heightens other senses, so I hoped to improve his feel and balance with his pony by temporarily blinding him. Of course if he needed to, he could open his eyes immediately to help stay in the saddle. But he didn’t need to.

I also used this time with his eyes closed to draw his attention to the 1-2 rhythm of the trot because, somehow he has random days when he’s rising at a different tempo to his pony. So I’m trying to improve his awareness of and feel for rhythm and tempo, despite his young age. With his eyes closed he can also listen more carefully to the footfalls of his pony, which will help teach him rhythm too.

A couple of lessons ago I introduced cantering with one arm out to the side. His seat is very nearly established in canter, but considering how bouncy his pony’s strides are he does very well. We did do one canter with both arms out like an aeroplane. But it was a bit faster than I liked and my heart could only take one viewing.

Last lesson, I had a request to do no arms in canter and trotting with no eyes.

We duly did this. Trotting without stirrups for a bit, then taking the stirrups back and doing rising trot with his eyes closed. He was more secure in his pony’s tempo today and it was interesting that when his eyes were closed his core muscles kicked in because his elbows stayed closer to his sides and his rising trot was less “loose”.

We moved onto cantering, and after making a couple of positional corrections, I tied a knot in his reins. We skipped stage one of just one hand out, and held both arms out to the side, confidently. The next canter I called, “one arm out, then the other… Eyes closed!”

I was impressed. He stayed in a good balance and the pony fell into trot after the long side. Then I realised I had to tell him to open his eyes again!

We spent a while doing this exercise, with my rider starting to sit into the saddle for longer between bounces. He spent the entire time grinning and laughing loudly.

He’s not ready for no stirrups whilst cantering, but my plan over the next couple of lessons is to do some trotting on the lunge without reins or stirrups, and possibly with his eyes closed. I’d also like to try bareback riding with him to improve his feel and balance, which I think will really improve his coordination and muscle strength as his stronger side won’t be able to compensate for his weaker, less coordinated side, which will then become stronger and he’ll be more balanced and have greater stability in the saddle.

Tramlines of Poles

I’m quite aware of the lack of teaching related posts recently on here. I’ve been as busy as ever with teaching, but just haven’t been inspired to relive exercises or lesson subjects here. Perhaps I’m getting boring in my old age.

I’ve done quite a lot of experimenting with props in my teaching recently, especially with Pony Club. I’ve been training the Prix Caprilli team over the spring and have found the easiest method to teach a group of children and get them riding accurately is to use props to direct them. Then I can focus on the big corrections, rather than having to talk at length to each child. For example, I used cones to make a round circle, which meant we could then ride circles as a ride on both reins easily and everyone could improve their circle shape and size over a short period of time. To learn the half ten metre circles across the arena, we used tramlines at X and cones to get the circles round. For the centre lines, we used cones and poles to guide them all straight.

Which brings me to the exercise I thought worth sharing because I’ve used it for many riders of varying abilities.

Depending on the width of the arena, lay a tramline of poles on the centre or three quarter line. Ideally the rider won’t be coming off a ten metre half circle as that makes the exercise much harder.

If a rider turns using their inside rein only, they are turning the horse from the nose, leaving the rest of the body wiggling along like a snake. When they turn in this way towards the tramlines they will “bounce” from side to side, much like a bowling ball bounces against the bumpers as it zig zags down the lane.

With any rider who struggles to understand the concept of turning with the outside aids, or over uses their inside rein, riding through the tramlines is invaluable in helping them understand the difference in balance and straightness of a horse being turned from the inside rein. Often I will get a rider to turn down the tramlines using just the inside rein to experience the bowling ball bounce, and then to turn using the outside aids so that they can compare the two extremes. This usually helps them better understand balance and the aids; and to maintain an outside rein contact throughout a turn, which improves their general outside rein contact.

Once my rider comprehends turning correctly, we compare turning from each direction to see if the horse is stiffer, or even if the rider is stiffer, in one direction. This exercise subconsciously improves the rider’s accuracy of turns, particularly the centre line turn, but they start to prepare better, feel a loss of balance earlier, and to steer the body of the horse rather than the head.

For some, the tramlines are enough of a learning curve at this point. But I like to take the poles forward from this point to help teach a rider to ride straight transitions, and to help them learn and understand any asymmetry in their horse.

Initially, I use a variety of progressive transitions – walk to halt, walk to trot – with only one transition within the tramlines so my rider can really concentrate and not rush. First, they ride the transition as normal and we notice. Does the pony drift, do they collapse one side. Then we start checking that they are applying even aids and are of course staying sat centrally in the saddle. If the horse still loses straightness through the transition, we then look at how my rider can prevent any drifting by altering their preparation and execution of the aids.

Once single, progressive transitions are mastered, I put multiple transitions in as then the rider has to prepare each one more quickly and if the horse loses straightness and balance in the first they have to work hard to correct them both for the second. Which may very well happen in a dressage test.

Usually a horse starts to travel straighter with just the guidance of the poles, which helps the rider learn the feel of straightness and to improve their own symmetry. However, if the horse consistently drifts it is probably because he is crooked in some way; perhaps one diagonal pair is stronger than the other, perhaps there’s assymetry in their pelvis, perhaps there’s an underlying issue in a limb. Then I suggest a check over by the physio or chiropractor to eliminate any actual issues, and then hopefully training will resolve the crookedness.

My next challenge is for my rider to ride canter transitions in a straight line. If a horse has a preferred canter lead then they will pick that one up more often than not. Again, it’s a really useful exercise to get to know your horse a bit better as often a rider is unaware of the extent of their horse’s canter lead preference. Horses are far more likely to drift in the canter transition, and when they stay straight they utilise their hindquarters better and the transition becomes much more uphill.

Then finally, we test the rein back. Most horses will drift slightly, and using the tramlines will improve the quality of the rein back and their overall strength.

The tramlines are so useful in improving centre lines, teaching a rider the feel of being straight, and reducing the asymmetry of the horse, in a far better way than I can with just words. Definitely a useful set up to repeat regularly with riders and horses at all stages of training.

Teaching Small People

I’m embarking on my biggest challenge to date – teaching an independent, strong minded three year old to ride. So far I’ve had mixed success.

I’ve been fending off questions for months about when we’re getting a pony; learning to ride; joining Pony Club. But I’ve had my reservations. I don’t want to push equestrianism onto her. I want her to choose to love horses. Which I think she does at the moment. I’m also very aware of pressure. Pressure from outsiders for her to ride, and for her to be accomplished. Unbeknown pressure from me because of my profession.

I’ve opted for a share agreement with a friend’s pony, Tangle, initially, of just once a week with the potential to increase to two in the future. It’s her pony time, and we can do whatever she wants to do, at her speed. It’s all about her.

We go on Tuesday mornings, after our Phoenix and Otis chores. We catch, she leads in at pace with the poor pony jogging along behind. Outside the stable, there’s a haynet waiting for Tangle who tucks in hungrily. Mallory goes straight to the treat bin – she knows how to get onto Tangle’s good books! I groom, Mallory selects her favourite brush, gives a couple of cursory strokes. She gets the hoof grease and insists on painting all four hooves. This usually takes less than ten minutes and I try to follow her lead at the speed we go. We can do more grooming afterwards if she wants.

While I tack up, I try to find out what riding we’re doing today.

The first option is going into the arena, walking over the rainbow poles, trotting a couple of laps, and then invariably losing interest and wanting to go for a walk around the fields.

The second option, which is usually the chosen one, is to hack to the duck pond, incorporating a few trots along the way. The odd dismount and walk; an ooh and ahh at a sleeping duck. And some waving at pedestrians and drivers.

She isn’t hugely receptive to the idea of being taught on Tangle. Just getting her to hold the reins is a challenge.

"Hold onto the green bit here."
"No, actually. I'll hold the orange bit."

She’s keen, and repeatedly asks to be taught on her rocking horse. Although equally she doesn’t take kindly to being told to do something she doesn’t want to do!

How much teaching should I be doing with her? How much success should I be having? Thinking of the young kids I taught in riding schools, I had mixed success with pre-schoolers. But then again, I know some Pony Club children of a similar age who have an established rising trot and are cantering.

I try not to compare. After all, each time her confidence improves, as does her balance in the saddle. She learns nuggets of information like the colours of the horses; to lean backwards when going down hill; where the withers are; and that ponies eat hay.

I guess following her lead will keep her most engaged with caring for a pony and riding. And one day, she’ll ask for a proper riding lesson… Whereby I will be asking a friend to teach her!

Holding Rubber

I’ve done this exercise a few times recently with various clients, for various reasons, and it’s had some good results. In itself, it’s quite an easy thing to do while working on other parts of their riding.

Some riders ride with their hands curled lightly around the reins. Of course we don’t want to be holding the reins particularly tightly, but if we aren’t holding the reins firmly enough they have a tendency to slip through. For some people, one rein tends to slip through. For others, both. And for some it is the horse (or pony) who discreetly sneaks the rein through the rider’s hand.

Some riders interpret the “squeeze and release” of a half halt or a flexion aid, as squeezing the rein and then letting go. Perhaps the words need to change to “squeeze and relax”…

In either situation, the rein contact becomes inconsistent.

My analogy for this situation, because I like analogies, is to imagine walking down a busy street with a toddler, holding hands.

Hold the hand too tightly and the guy toddler shouts and digs their heels in. They won’t move forwards happily.

Hold their hand, letting go at random intervals and dropping them. They become disconcerted with the insecurity of your guidance.

Now imagine you are holding their hand slightly more firmly, and give the odd reassuring squeeze. You’ve not dropped them or left them hanging, but you have changed the pressure of the hand holding and exchanged a secret message.

This is the sort of rein contact we’re aiming for. Consistent, clear communication, and even.

For my riders who hold the reins tightly I remind them to relax their arms and fingers, and will do no rein exercises to ensure they aren’t using their hands subconsciously to balance.

For my riders who have loose fingers, especially the children, I will take two pieces of flat arena rubber (if they have a sand arena I try to find a small flat pebble. One father uses a penny with his daughter when practising this) and get my rider to hold it in their hands as well as the reins. It’s small enough that it doesn’t fill their hands up and make holding the reins and whip difficult, but they will become acutely aware of when they loosen their fingers and drop it!

We then have ten minutes of laughter as they invariably drop the rubber and I have to replace it. Depending on the rider, their age and approach to riding, this can become as fun and as silly as required. I remember with one young client there was lots of “uh-ohing” and me flouncing around looking for replacement rubber to keep the exercise like a game.

Within minutes, I find that my riders are usually holding the reins in a more consistent way; either both hands are now holding with the same amount of hold, or the reins have stopped creeping through their hands. Once they’ve stopped dropping the rubber, I do some work on circles, transitions, changes of rein, or whatever movement usually causes them to loosen their fingers. With older riders they start to see the positive effects and can begin to ride between leg and hand more easily, and they can improve the bend of their horse as they can ride inside leg to outside rein, and control the outside shoulder.

Once my rider has found the correct rein contact they don’t drop the rubber as frequently, so I usually move on with my lesson plan, accidentally-on-purpose forgetting to remove the rubber from their hands to see how far we get before they drop it, or realise they’ve dropped it.

I often find that holding the rubber only needs to be done once or twice to teach a rider the right amount of feel, and to help them understand the concept and effect of a consistent rein contact, which for kids improves their overall control over their pony’s speed and steering, and for adults helps them improve their horse’s rhythm, balance and create impulsion.

One After The Other…

I’ve decided that I’m not a huge fan of running clinics because of number of potential unknowns in a group. And what if my lesson plan is totally unsuitable for a rider and horse?

What I have discovered that I like doing though, is doing a series of consecutive private lessons at one venue. With the same theme, but it means that I can tweak the exercise to best suit that client. It leads to quite an intense, but very satisfying day.

I regularly go to a yard where several Pony Club members livery, and teach consecutive 30 minute lessons all morning, using this format.

Last time I went I laid out a straight forward exercise of a placing pole to a jump, then three canter strides away a second fence. Before the placing pole and between the two jumps I laid tramlines.

With my first little jockey I warmed her up focusing on not flapping like a windmill when trying to keep her pony in trot, by having her carry a horizontal whip. I think kids can get so carried away by wanting to jump and go fast they often don’t connect how improving the little things helps the big things. With quieter hands the pony seemed happier and more forwards, so I drove the message home by focusing on this with the poles. I had her planning a better turn towards the exercise so that she started straight, and then channeling her pony with still hands, using the leg to keep him travelling forwards. We worked in trot in both directions, really focusing on her preparation and then just applying the accelerator. As we built the exercise up to jumps my rider started to see the benefits of quieter hands in that her pony almost picked up canter and gave enthusiastic pops over the jump. The feeling of easier jumps will hopefully motivate her to practice keeping her hands still on the flat.

My next rider and pony were a comfortable pair. Neither are hugely ambitious and enjoy being in the comfort zones. Which means the pony often jumps from an idle canter which feels jarring, upright and uncomfortable, as well as being height limited. I had them cantering around the arena finding the “Friday Afternoon” canter such as on the way home from school. Concentrating on riding forwards before and after jumps will help the bascule flow and feel easier. Then my rider could fold into a more balanced jumping position. The tramlines weren’t hugely relevant to this lesson, but just their presence helped keep the pair on their jumping line. For these two I converted the placing pole into a low upright to make a bounce to improve the suppleness of my rider as she had to rapidly switch between her two point and three point position.

Another lesson with a more novice rider, had trot poles instead of jumps, and used transitions between the tramlines to improve control and accuracy. Switching between light seat over the poles and rising trot improves the rider’s balance and familiarity with the jumping position in preparation for jumping. It could be developed into just the one jump at the end of the exercise, or cantering through the exercise as required.

One of the other riders tends to over think pole arrangements, riding to each pole individually instead of the exercise as a whole. I was fully prepared to simplify the layout if her brain threatened to implode, but started her off trotting and cantering through the exercise with the poles on the floor. My main focus was on my rider looking ahead, not at each pole, and understanding that if she rode a good turn and aimed for the end of the exercise, she didn’t have to worry about the tramlines (yes, her tubby pony did fit easily between them!). We built up the jumps using crosses to help focus her straight ahead, emphasising that my rider looks at the second jump just before she jumps the first, and so on. The pony stopped chipping in and getting too deep to the jump, and my rider didn’t get in front of the pony, loading the shoulders. Again, I made the placing pole into a small bounce to further develop the feel for an uphill jump, and to help my rider start to feel that she was behind the pony over fences instead of in front. I didn’t end up simplifying the exercise as my rider comprehended it well; it was a really good session to help her learn to filter out the less important parts of an exercise or course, and to ride to the end of a line. I was really pleased with how things slotted into place for these two.

My last client has a pony who tends to drift and go crooked, so the tramlines were ideal to improve the rider’s awareness of drifting, and to help her correct it. Using cross poles to further help them stay straight I soon discovered that my rider didn’t ride after the jump. So instead of riding the five stages of a jump – approach, take off, bascule, landing, get away – she forgot to do anything on landing! The tramlines between the jumps then had a second use. I had my rider approach the exercise in a steady trot, quietly pop over the first fence, land in canter and then sit up and ride into trot between the poles so that they had a steady approach to the second jump, and were more likely to stay on the jumping line. Having a physical marker to ride to helps make a rider commit to a transition, or movement as it’s easier to judge their accuracy. After focusing on riding after a jump, they began to stay straighter and steadier, which will really help them as they progress to riding a course.

This set up gave me hundreds of different options for teaching, and could be easily adjusted between clients as needed. Possibly my new favourite sort of day – one exercise, lots of different private lessons so I can hone into each individual’s requirements.