A Lockdown Layout of Poles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Half Halts

At what point in a rider’s education do you introduce half halts?

I discussed it with some of my younger clients last week, with their parents being surprised at their grasp of the concept by the end of their lesson.

I like to bring in the idea of half halts fairly early on, once a rider is holding a steady rein contact, even if the reins are slightly long, and when they’re fairly balanced. If they have a vague knowledge of the phrase early on then it becomes much easier for them to learn how and when to do them later on.

I tend to layer the concept of a half halt in relation to a rider’s age, current level of riding, level of understanding, and what they actually need to achieve with half halts on their particular pony. As they develop as a rider, so their half halts evolve from dictating the rhythm to connecting a horse from back to front and the many other uses of a half halt.

So my explanation to last week’s eight year old was that half halts are a rider’s way of getting the pony’s attention. In a crowded room, you’d start talking to someone by using their name at the beginning of the phrase in order to get their attention. The half halt is a rider’s way of getting their pony’s attention before asking them to do something. By attracting their pony’s attention before a movement the pony is more obedient, the movement itself will be more balanced and accurate. At this stage, I get them to start factoring in half halts before transitions and turns.

As the rider becomes more adept at applying half halts at specific points during their ride, and develops an awareness for their pony’s way of going; the use of half halts can then be expanded to help them keep their pony in a steady rhythm. This relies more in feel, so is often slower to be developed. For example, it’s easier to remember to half halt before every turn then it is to half halt at the first sign of your pony speeding up or losing balance.

And so, the use and understanding of the half halt evolves as a rider matures in feel, ability and understanding.

So as well as the uses of the half halt developing over time, so does the half halt itself. It’s a complex aid when not autonomous. Again, I break it down and introduce it piece by piece. There are three components; the squeeze of the outside rein, the close of the leg, and the adjustment of the upper body.

Kids usually find the squeeze of the rein the easiest aid to apply; a squeeze like they’re squidging a sponge. Squeezing the leg is usually fairly straightforward too, but the upper body action often catches a young rider out.

In the textbook half halt, the upper body resists with the core engaging, to “pause” the horse. Try explaining this to a child! I use phrases like “sit up taller”, “lean back” (which brings them onto the vertical), “touch the sky with your head”, “slow your rising”, or “make your tummy hard”. Usually one phrase hits home with a rider and makes total sense to them, so I play around with phrases, demonstrations and any other idea I have to find what works for them.

So when introducing the half halt, I start with just a squeeze on the outside rein. It’s the easiest for them to understand as it ties in with slowing their pony for a turn, or if they’re running on. When the squeeze on the rein becomes second nature and they’ve developed a feel for the right amount of squeeze for a half halt, I bring in the second element.

Which element I bring in next depends on rider and pony. If the pony is lazy then I add the leg aid to the crude half halts. If the rider tends to collapse their upper body then I will teach the upper body aids.

With the lazy pony, I’ll say that as we want to maintain the energy, we need to add in a leg aid immediately after a squeeze down the rein. It’s like “rolling” a chord in music. The hand and leg act together, but not quite together. We’ll then play around until my rider has got the timing right and getting the correct response from the pony. Then we will refine the half halt by utilising the seat and upper body.

With a quick pony, or a rider who tends to collapse forward onto their hands, once the rein aid for the half halt is established, I focus my attention on getting them to sit tall and engage their tummy muscles. This makes their core stronger and stops them being over reliant on the reins in the long term, and also means that they are more effective at half halting and stopping a speeding pony. In this situation, very often only a teeny bit of leg is needed in the half halt, but I’ll still mention it so that when they move onto another pony they can actually keep them trotting!

So long as a rider has a basic knowledge of a half halt, you can adjust the aids and frequency to best suit their mount, and when they ride other horses they can make their own adjustments to find out the new horse’s buttons. You can also use the half halt to convey different messages, depending on the situation and the conversation pony and rider need to have. In my opinion, they earlier (within reason!) a rider hears the phrase and starts to learn about the principle of the half halt, the better for their long term education and success.

Teaching Outside The Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Busy Life!

The last few weeks have been so busy I’m afraid I’ve neglected my blog a bit. But I have been reflecting since restarting work, how lucky I am to enjoy such a varied working week.

Lockdown gave me the chance to rest, recharge, study, and reorganise things. And coming out of lockdown I’ve enjoyed picking up where we left off with existing private clients, getting some structure back into my week. I feel like I have some new exercises and better explanations from my own learning and reflecting in lockdown. It’s also been great to see an improved relationship and confidence between some clients and their horses purely as a result of having more hours in the saddle or cuddles in the stable.

But I’ve now got more variety into my work because, since lockdown, I’ve been teaching more Pony Club rallies, and helping members privately too. Teaching more children definitely gives me more to think about, and lots of anecdotes! With the regular rallies, and seeing the children and their ponies more frequently I’m getting an immense sense of satisfaction watching them forming new, strong partnerships and develop as riders. I’m also enjoying planning and delivering different types of group lessons. It’s all a challenge, but a very satisfying challenge! One little girl I almost burst with pride each time I watch her ride, no longer flaps her legs nineteen to the dozen and bounces in canter; she now has effective leg aids, better balance and it stuck like glue to her saddle in canter.

Here’s an anecdote while I remember. I was teaching a lead rein lesson and wanted the children to focus on keeping their thumbs on top, so I asked them to imagine that they’re carrying a mug of their favourite drink. Of course I asked what their favourite drink was … Apple juice, hot chocolate, and … Beer! I’m not sure what any passers-by thought when I shouted “don’t spill your beer” to a six year old boy as he trotted around the arena!

During lockdown I started doing some stable management lectures via Zoom. I’ve been teaching the BHS Challenge Award booklets. A lot of it can be done virtually, talking about the subject, and Google is ever helpful in finding videos to further my explanation, or demonstrate something. To test my clients, I’ve been getting them to video themselves doing tasks; such as tying up a haynet or tacking up. At the end of each booklet I’ve been putting together a pub quiz for them. Upon successful completion, they receive a certificate. We can now start doing the more practical awards, such as learning to lunge. Hopefully leisure riders keep up this interest in learning more about the non riding side of horse ownership as it only benefits their horse.

With normal competitions on hold, and future ones cancelled because they’re not logistically viable whilst maintaining social distancing, online competing has really taken off! My friend runs Demi Dressage, which is online dressage aimed at children. She writes her own tests so they all have a theme and really help children learn a school movement. Last month it was the ice cream test – I watched hundreds of demi voltes! It has been lovely to see so many children enjoying dressage, improving between the months and really progressing. I have a slightly different approach to judging these tests; I judge what I see, but try to make lots of constructive comments, and phrase things in a developmental way so that the children learn the error of their way, but also know how to improve this (for example, instead of “cut the corner” saying “try to ride into the corner to help you turn accurately at F”). The judges comment box also has a suggestion for improvement in, rather than just summising the test. I think that’s the teacher in me! When it’s Demi judging week it’s a lot of late nights, especially as I’m now working again and not helped a few weeks ago by split lip requiring surgery. I didn’t require the surgery, but Mum cuddles were high on the agenda! Demi Dressage definitely gives me some variety to my work.

Adding in my upcoming Pony Club camp in a couple of weeks, I feel like I have a lot of exciting projects keeping me thoroughly occupied. In fact, organising camp is the main reason my blog is taking a back seat for a few weeks as my brain if full to overflowing with thinking of groups, instructors and timetables.

It’s definitely a busy, yet varied job I have, but having an enforced break has made me appreciate how much I enjoy my work.

Tack Cheats for Little People

I don’t often have an opinion on a pony’s tack. I may recommend some form of grass rein if the pony snatches at the reins, or I may comment on the size of stirrup iron or leathers if they’re unsuitable, but I don’t like too many gadgets on a pony because although the gadgets may solve the initial problem, they don’t allow the rider, however small, to learn correct habits which means that they will run into difficulties later on in their riding career.

As long as the tack is safe, I don’t tend to change things. However, recently I’ve found myself making little adjustments to tack to help my little riders.

My most common suggestion at the moment is that my young riders have a piece of electric tape wrapped around their reins so they know when a) their reins are the correct length, and b) that their holding the hands level. Often children have one hand which has a longer rein and sits back, just above the saddle, a throwback to when they were holding on to balance. Others will shorten one rein more than the other, especially if feeling nervous. Putting a visual cue helps correct this subconscious habit. You can buy multicoloured reins which do a similar thing, but electrical tape is free and quick to apply. As soon as a rider’s hands are held level they begin to sit straighter and their pony responds to a more even rein contact so becomes easier to control. Most of my Pony Clubbers have tape on their reins.

The other bit of tack which I’ve been tweaking recently are knee rolls. Most saddles nowadays have velcro knee rolls, which means they can be adjusted so that they support a rider’s leg. Sometimes, as in the case of inherited ponies, the knee rolls were adjusted for the tall previous rider, and the new, shorter jockey ends up swinging their legs around as they try to find their balance in rising trot. A quick adjustment of the knee rolls means that they have some support at the knee which discourages the knee from reaching forwards and subsequently stops the chair position developing. It’s worth reviewing the positioning of knee rolls as children’s legs grow, and as they develop their muscles and balance they become less reliant on knee rolls anyway.

Last week I was working on jumping position with a young rider. We’d managed to get her folding nicely, but her lower leg started to look insecure. When I looked closely I noticed she didn’t have any knee rolls on her saddle. So I’ve dispatched her Mum off to buy some velcro knee rolls, which I believe will solve the wobbly leg problem and help this rider feel more secure folding into her jumping position.

Another cheat I’ve suggested recently, which is also useful for slight adults riding big ponies, is that if the saddle seat is a bit big for the rider – because a child has moved up a pony size or a family pony means everyone has to try to make fit – a seat saver can help reduce the size of the saddle seat. It does not need to be extra grippy, or memory foam or anything in particular, but the aim is to shorten the distance from pommel to cantle so that a rider with a small seat, especially one developing their balance, doesn’t feel the need to push their bottom backwards to feel the cantle and get some support from it as the learn to rise to the trot. This should help stop the lower leg going forwards and them developing a chair seat.

Saddlers should always fit tack to both horse and rider, so in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to make these cheats, but new saddles are expensive and situations less than perfect with young riders having growing room on new ponies, so we need to think outside the box and make adjustments to develop good habits, which is far easier than correcting ingrained bad habits as a result of not having support from tack in the right places.