In my weekly pilates class we’ve been doing a lot of stretches to open up the front of the hips – muscles which become tight when sat at a desk all day and subsequently prevent you from sitting upright and having the long leg desired in the dressage arena.
I’ve made a few observations over recent months about adjusting stirrups, which link into these exercises.
Let me explain.
When I was a teenager helping at the local riding school and had to adjust a client’s stirrup length, we would ask them to take their foot out of the iron and swing their leg back. Then you can access the buckle at the front of their thigh. There’s also no weight on the skirt of the saddle and you can see what you’re doing, so it’s a straightforward adjustment. I didn’t think much of it, apart from the occasional beginner or mature adult who was a bit stiff the first few times.
Fast forward almost two decades (when did I get so OLD?!) and now anytime I see anyone having assistance to adjust their stirrup length, brings their leg forward, akin to adjusting the girth. Why has this trend changed? Or maybe the leg back approach was just a Welsh thing… Perhaps our increasingly sedentary lifestyles has made us all stiffer in the hips?
Anyway, let’s not go down the route of discussing keeping the foot in the stirrup whilst adjusting the leathers, because that technique actually helps stretch out the inner thigh (one of the reasons many people struggle to use this technique if not brought up with it). We’re talking about assisted stirrup adjustments.
Based on my observations, that riders prefer to draw the leg forward to make adjustments, and the fact that many leisure riders find it difficult to ride with a long leg, either relying on knee rolls to hold their leg in the correct position or pitching forwards at the seat. Or both.
Linking back to pilates; when we prepare to ride and do some leg stretches, or when we do leg stretches in the saddle whilst first walking around, should we also be considering how we adjust the stirrups, using any adjustments as an opportunity to stretch out the front of the hips?
It would be interesting to do a study with those riders who usually move the leg forward when stirrups are adjusted, and instead get them to move their leg back each time they ride and adjust the stirrups. Over the course of a few weeks, do they find this movement easier, and does their seat and leg position improve? Then, how much effect do the pilates stretches have on seat and leg position if done before every ride?
Self carriage is the ultimate aim for all of us horse riders, but in trying to get there many of us are guilty of micromanaging our horses and their way of going.
You know the sort of thing: you’re working on your horse giving some inside flexion and before you know it you’re holding them in place. Then they begin to rely on you nagging and you become a noisy rider.
I frequently remind my riders to go quiet and still when their horse is softening and doing as they should. They don’t need to drop the contact or take the leg and seat off completely, just soften and reduce the strength of the aids.
With one of my clients I’ve been paying special attention to getting her to hand over the reins, literally, and putting the onus onto her horse to carry himself as she can become too busy and he gets a bit reliant on her putting him in the right place. It goes against my client’s nature, but she’s starting to hand over control.
We warm them both up using circles and school movements to develop vertical balance, whilst reminding my client to give moments of peace. Then when her horse is working in good balance and is supple and rhythmical, I get them to ride large with the odd large circle. Simple school movements than what we have done in the previous fifteen minutes, but with the aim of my rider doing less and her horse carrying himself.
It struck me a couple of weeks ago, when hiking across frozen, poached fields with a two year old, that teaching self carriage is similar to teaching independence to a toddler.
“Don’t hold my hand, I don’t need help!” she says stepping into a frozen mud valley of the field. The divots are big enough for me to feel precarious whilst crossing, let alone when the valleys are knee height. I let go of her hand, but it hovers just behind, ready to catch. She’s every chance of success by the way I’ve prepared her, but I’m ready to catch her before she falls.
With a horse, you use the aids to guide them into the right frame and balance. Then you take away the scaffolding as they perform a task well within their abilities. But you’re still there, ready to step in the moment they flounder. Initially it may be a reduction of the frequency of the aids, or it may be a lighter aid, but all of your reductions are focused on making your horse more independent and less reliant on you holding them onto the springy, engaged trot or canter.
When your horse, just like a toddler, succeeds in a simple task they grow in confidence in their own abilities, they relax and develop self carriage. It may only be a couple of strides before you take back their hand, but eventually they’ll be that balanced (emotionally and physically), fully fledged young adult, we aim our toddlers to become.
But we have to trust ourselves enough that our preparations will let them fly off with success when we let go.
From which side should you lead a child riding a pony?
The traditionalist in me says from the near side, and that’s always the side we led from when helping out at the local riding school as teenagers. In the showing world lead rein ponies are led from the near side.
Ultimately, a pony needs to be happy being led from either side, as it is correct to lead from the off side on a road, and a child may need more assistance on one side than the other. Perhaps a leg which draws up so they tend to lose that stirrup more.
Equally, the leader needs to be proficient at leading from both sides; there’s definitely some skill in running slightly sideways with one hand on the lead rope and the other on the rider’s leg!
When you turn a horse around, you turn them away from you to avoid being stood on, so for me it is logical to lead on the outside of the pony. That is, from the near side on the right rein, and off side on the left. Particularly when cantering as you’re sprinting and want to minimise the risk of legs entangling.
This all means that there is a degree of leading from both sides. But I have to say that my bug bear is when leaders switch sides on every change of rein, interfering with the rider’s steering or the pony’s balance. I cringe every time I see a leader run quicker than the pony, go round the head, and resume leading from the new side. It’s distracting to the observer and distracting to the pony and child. Often you seem them actually move off their flight path as the leader darts about.
When leading a pony and beginner child the purpose is to be totally in control initially, and then reduce your influence over the pony as the rider develops their skill set. So initially a leader needs to direct every stride, but they should become more laissez-faire as the rider starts to be able to steer, start and stop independently. But it’s at this point where the leader switching sides can cause the most disruption because the rider’s aids are quite fragile and their concentration at it’s highest. They’re also learning the cause and effect – how much rein is needed to turn or how much leg is needed to go at that speed – so a leader walking in front of the pony affects this learning process.
Personally, I prefer to predominantly lead from the near side, so don’t switch sides at each change of rein. If I needed to switch sides, I’d wait until we were walking or halting. However, I always lead on the outside when cantering because I feel safer and less likely to get knocked by a stray leg.
I’m by no means correct, and I’m interested to know what experienced leaders tend to do. Especially as I’ve got a couple of years of lead rein coming up! But my observations from teaching are that it is best to pick one side and stick to it as much as possible so as not to distract the young jockey from their work.
In 2021 I’m planning on attending a course of whatever sort is allowed to happen with Covid guidelines on the Franklin Method. My pilates teacher is an avid fan, and a lot of the ball and band work I’ve seen compliments my teaching and would benefit my clients. I’m not interested in running clinics, but a better understanding and knowledge of the props will give me some more tools to help my clients achieve their goals.
Starting with sponges. I saw a social media post using them and promptly hopped on the band wagon.
Several of my clients have now endured the sponges, and all have felt the benefit of the instant feedback the sponges provide.
The large sponges sit on the stirrup tread, underneath the foot and can be ridden on the flat and over jumps. I’m yet to use them over jumps, but I will, don’t worry, I will!
I start the session with the sponges by getting my rider to walk round on both reins, getting used to the feel of them under the foot and tuning in to their feet. Improving their proprioception. We talk about whether one sponge is more easily squashed than the other. If so, then it suggests the rider has more weight going down that leg, often coming from asymmetry in the seat. Which we can then address.
Once we’ve raised awareness for any discrepancies between the legs, I get my clients to “squash the sponges” as they walk round the arena. Rhythmically pressing down on the sponges increases the movement in the ankle, so is very useful for anyone who tends to brace the lower leg. For those at the opposite end of the spectrum, who struggle to get their heels down, find that pulsating the sponges starts to lengthen the calf muscles. Squashing the sponges isn’t a big movement – I don’t want to see the lower leg swinging – it is just activating the ankle so it becomes bouncy, or spring like.
We then move up into trot, where I focus my client on what the sponges feel like; if they draw the leg up the sponge will feel like it’s moving around. The rider becomes more aware of any stiffness in the ankle, and if they overload one leg. We then play around with pressure in the foot to improve their balance and coordination.
For riders who’s heels draw up, I’ve found that dropping the heel every time they rise is an effective exercise to improve the lower leg, lengthening the calves and dropping their weight into the heel.
For the riders who brace their ankles, I get to wriggle their toes as they sit into the saddle. We don’t want toes pointing down, but squashing the sponge and wriggling the toes reduces ankle stiffness. Usually there’s some moans and groans by now, but my riders have springs in their ankles which gives them a softer lower leg and improved leg aids because they can close the leg around the horse’s barrel better, as well as being stiller so more precise with the aids.
The canter is the interesting gait to ride with sponges. Because it is asymmetric riders often have one leg behaving whilst the other runs errant. The outside leg often draws up and the stirrup start to rattle about on the foot.
My clients have all done better than expected when cantering with the sponges, with less movement of the sponges than I’d read about when planning this exercise. I know that smaller sponges would be less stable, but equally I don’t think they’d have twisted much with my clients. They could feel the weight coming out of their foot sufficiently, and then by squashing the sponge or wriggling the toes we could correct. With one client in particular, using the sponges really got her reaching down to the stirrups so deepening her seat and stabilising her lower leg. Others have just become more aware of the weight coming out of the outside leg and a result sat more centrally in the canter. It also helps highlight the difference between the left rein and the right rein.
So how do the sponges work? They aren’t forcing feet into certain positions or anything. But they do increase a rider’s awareness of that area of their body and provide instant feedback when changes are made. Which makes it easier to make and maintain corrections. I found that whilst all my riders noticed the sponges at the beginning of the ride, by the end they had forgotten about them because their leg position had improved and the squashiness of the sponges more consistent.
Their purpose when jumping is to ensure the rider folds straight and evenly into their jumping position, not leaning on one leg more than the other, and ensuring the ankle is flexible whilst jumping.
I think the sponges could be improved by being denser, which would give more scope for squashing them and softening the ankle. Also some riders would benefit from the sponges being slightly smaller and so more likely to shift position in the stirrup if the rider draws their leg up or rolls onto the outside of their foot so the weight distribution is uneven. I’ll have to look out for some different sponges!
In the meantime clients, you’ll be seeing more of those yellow sponges!
I often talk about vertical balance with my riders as it’s one of the easiest ways to feel if a horse is unbalanced on turns. Have I blogged about it? I shall check as it was definitely on my list to do but I don’t actually remember writing it.
Anyway, when looking at improving vertical balance I use the concept of diagonal aids. That is, the inside leg works in conjunction with the outside rein and vice versa.
Riding a horse is all about a balancing act. From day one, a rider is balancing the horse between going forwards from the leg and not going too fast by using the hands. Yes, the seat is also involved but as that works for both teams we’ll ignore it for the moment. It’s like having clutch control; every car is slightly different and there’s a skill involved.
Once we start talking about vertical balance the balancing act becomes a side to side one.
Initially, I ask my riders to ride some turns in walk, identifying the aids they’re using. Sometimes they get it right, after all I teach “indicate with the inside rein, instigate with the outside leg” when steering, but sometimes they’ll use one limb more than another, compensate for their or their horse’s crookedness, or have totally forgotten about one particular aid. Then, we discuss how the diagonal pairs work together to turn a horse, and to keep them upright on turns.
The left rein and right leg work as opposites to the right rein and left leg to keep the horse vertically balanced.
For example, the inside rein indicates the direction of turn as the outside leg pushes the horse in. The outside rein and inside leg work to prevent over steering and the horse falling in around a turn.
When a rider starts to think about their diagonal limbs working as pairs it becomes easier for them to work on a grey scale. Instead of it being black and white, putting the steering wheel onto full lock, they can now steer by degrees. Just as learning a half halt provides them with gears to each gait.
Half halts then begin to develop from a speed regulator to asking for bend, and correcting balance subconsciously. The rein contact becomes more consistent and because a leg aid is always applied with a rein aid the horse is ridden in a more forwards manner. Using diagonal pairs helps develop the feel and timing for aids too, which helps with refining the way of going.
Developing the concept of riding with diagonal pairs naturally leads on to riding inside leg to outside rein, which is a precursor to leg yield.
I enjoyed introducing the idea of diagonal pairs to one of my young riders a couple of weeks ago to help her transition from riding off the inside rein as a child usually does to riding with the outside aids. She had fabulous results as her pony started pushing through from behind, was more balanced on all their turns and taking the contact forwards. Thinking in diagonal pairs allowed her to position her pony wherever she wanted, and to correct him if they went off course. It was a very satisfying lesson to teach as I felt they both benefitted hugely from the rider’s new found understanding, feel, and knowledge.
When planning a Pony Club rally I try to have a theme running through; such as working on sitting trot, riding serpentines, polework or jumping exercises. Sometimes I choose to focus on a couple of different subject areas. I find the day flows if there’s minimal adjustments between lessons, and those watching the lessons before or after theirs can start to join the dots in their education.
Last weekend I had a really satisfying layout of poles, which allowed me to layer exercises for a range of abilities. On the centre line I laid out three trot poles then a pair of tramlines before another three trot poles. The distance between the two sets of trot poles was approximately two pony strides.
With the lead rein riders, we used the poles predominantly in walk, practising their steering and feeling the bigger steps that their ponies were making over each pole. They also rode the line in trot, improving their balance. It was a useful change of rein and occupied them for most of the lesson along with other balance related exercises.
For the riders who are off the lead rein, establishing their control in trot, this is a really useful exercise, especially as a change of rein during the warm up. The tramlines can be made wider or narrower as needed, and once the riders had got the hang of walking and trotting through the exercise I had them hovering in jumping position over the second set of poles. The next step is to do jumping position over both sets of poles, sitting up and steering in between. This is really good for improving their balance and developing their jump position as repeatedly going into jumping position familiarises them with the feel and increases their security in the saddle.
If suitable, I could have adjusted the poles to canter poles and have riders canter through the exercise. But this weekend it wasn’t necessary for the other ideas I had planned. Besides, often ponies with small riders find it difficult to canter over multiple poles so it’s a can of worms to reluctantly open when I’m feeling brave!
With my first jumping group, who are jumping up to 60cm and starting to link jumps together, I used the exercise in trot as a change of rein in the warm up and once we’d had a canter developed the exercise into jumps.
I made the second set of trot poles into a cross pole and my riders trotted over the poles, between the tramlines and then over the centre of the jump. Once established, I allowed them to pick up canter after the trotting poles. The cross got bigger, and then I changed the first set of poles into a cross pole.
The riders worked on riding a good turn onto the centre line, keeping straight between the jumps as the jumps became bigger crosses, and then eventually uprights. Uprights are harder to stay central than cross poles, as the V of the cross pole draws the rider’s eye to the middle.
In this session I didn’t complicate the exercise any further, but looked to improve their confidence, encouraging them to approach in canter when appropriate, and give them time to get the feel for linking two jumps together nicely – feeling the rhythm and flow.
Another jumping session followed this one, with very confident kids on very competent ponies. A combination which invariably leads to big jumps negotiated in a less than stylish fashion. They used the exercise to warm up, declaring it easy whilst I tried to draw their attention to their rhythm, balance, and accuracy of their turns.
In a bid to avoid ending up in a Chase Me Charlie exercise, I fairly rapidly built up the exercise from poles to narrow tramlines to jump, to two fences with the tramlines. They became more aware of their pony’s tendency to drift, and by starting the exercise with a better turn noticed the improvement in their ability to hold a straight line. Although it was apparently still far too easy.
I answered them by adding a third element to the exercise, two canter strides after the second jump. It was a jump, but it was a skinny fence!
Those riders who had heeded my directives about setting themselves up with a balanced turn, and continued to correct their pony so they jumped the centre of each jump had no problem. Those who were lax in their approach and expected their pony to fly over the third fence, were surprised when they had a run out.
After some tweaks to their riding and getting them to think about their technique and approach to the exercise, it soon flowed nicely, with my riders getting a lovely, fluent rhythm clearing the jumps neatly and easily. Proving to be a very simple exercise if ridden well, yet problematic if ridden sloppily.
To further challenge riders and ponies, the exercise can be closed up so there’s only one canter stride between the elements. That will be next time!
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.
One of the lessons I did at camp was using walk poles to improve the quality of the walk and the upward transitions afterwards.
It was a useful exercise, so I used it with some clients the following week.
I laid five poles out at 3 feet apart and had my client walk actively over the poles. Depending on the length of their stride, I may roll the poles out closer to 4 foot apart. I’m aiming to improve the quality of the walk, which often benefits from lengthening the stride slightly. Once a horse has been over the poles a couple of times they usually step out with more impulsion anyway. The poles encourage the horse to increase their cadence, which helps generate impulsion and activates the hindquarters.
Then I raise the poles at alternate ends, which makes the horse really think about their foot placement; lower their head and use their back muscles as they exaggerate lifting each hind leg. Often a horse slows down through poles, so it’s useful to remind the rider to keep using their leg and seat, as well as looking up!
Once the horse is confident over the poles and the walk is more active, engaged, and the horse working over their back, it’s time to add in transitions.
I get the horse and rider to walk over the poles and two or three strides after the last pole ride an upwards transition into trot. The transition shouldn’t be rushed and too soon, so the hindquarters have finished stepping over the last pole, but don’t leave it so many steps that the benefit of the raised poles is lost.
The upward transitions should feel more powerful, more uphill and balanced. Once trotting, I get my rider to ride a circle, or leg yield, or whatever they’ve been working on so they can feel the improvement in the movement as a result of a better quality trot. Then they ride a transition to walk a few strides before doing the poles again.
I’ve used these raised walk poles on the lunge, and you could also long rein a horse over them, asking for an upwards transition afterwards. With some clients I’ve got them to ride direct transitions into canter after the last pole. Again the improved wall improved the quality of the canter.
Walk poles are definitely something to use during rehab, fittening work, or if you just want to improve their walk.
One of my clients is currently on the search for her first horse, moving up from her share pony.
I forget how much of a minefield buying horses is. I’m very lucky that all of ours has just happened. Mum asked my instructor to keep an eye out for a youngster I could bring on and she had a friend who had bred Matt. Not going to lie, seeing a feral 2 year old colt on the side of the Welsh mountains one blustery day didn’t strike me as a perfect pony! But he’s turned out pretty good. Otis was also from another friend of hers. Phoenix, I’d decided we’d look in the spring and her advert appeared on my social media a couple of days later. Fate? Perhaps it struck three times for me.
But when you’re actively looking for horses, there’s a lot of dross to sift through.
I’ve often helped clients look for horses, or been to view them, or been sent videos for feedback. It’s not my favourite job because I feel quite a lot of pressure to get it right. I also feel that entering the world of horse ownership is often underestimated, and not without potholes, so it’s not only important to find the right horse, but also nurture the relationship as it develops. I’ve had several experiences of people asking my advice, bought a horse, then neglected regular lessons or supervision from a professional before getting into a pickle and losing confidence in each other.
How best to start the search for a new horse? I tend to have the conversation about what the rider is realistically looking for. Sometimes this involves some home truths in that the horse a rider is dreaming of is not what their abilities and ambitions needs. I’ve seen a purchase go wrong because the rider has insisted on overhorsing themselves, so I am not afraid to try to talk sense into prospective purchasers. However, I do usually let the purchaser lead the search. They can send me the adverts for feedback. This allows me to get a feel for their likes in a horse too.
I will also ask my contacts, to see if I can find a suitable horse through word of mouth as we go along, and keep my ears to the ground if anyone tells me about a horse.
In the initial browsing of adverts, I tend to encourage purchasers to look beyond their budget and outside the travel zone. This allows them to gauge the market, get a better understanding of adverts and the points to look for.
Once adverts start coming to me, I’ll feedback as to whether more info is needed, and if not, what I don’t like about the advert. After all, I don’t want to turn down a dozen adverts which all say “sharp” for a novice rider. Better to explain the meaning of the word and let them filter other sharp horses out. It’s an educational process as well. For example, my client sent me an advert for a 16hh Clydesdale cross. 15-16hh is our height criteria, but a chunky horse at the top end of the height will be too much horse for my rider. Therefore when she’s looking at horses she needs to consider breed/type as well as height.
The next learning curve for prospective purchasers is speaking to the owners of the advertised horse, asking the relevant questions and interpreting the answers. We also look at the videos. When I feedback on adverts I’ll often suggest questions to ask and what information is missing or incomplete.
It’s amazing how quickly you learn to read an advert and write off a horse due to vague blurb, missing information, photos only of the horse’s head or when stationary, or poor videos. By the time you’ve whittled down the unsuitable ones, the ones too far away, and the ones with unsaid problems, then unfortunately you aren’t left with many to choose from!
Next up, is viewing a horse. It’s always recommended that you take someone knowledgeable with you, and for those not used to viewings or riding different horses then I think the most useful person to take is your instructor. They can ride the horse as well, and they can effectively give you a lesson. I find that just me standing in the middle of the arena will quell any nerves from the rider, and I can talk through the horse’s behaviour, subtle signs I’ve spotted, explain what assessments the rider needs to make, and get them talking about what they’re feeling underneath them. I can also tweak my rider so that hopefully they get a better tune out of the horse, which is realistically more like what they will be working on at home. Then I also get a feel for the horse’s trainability. It doesn’t matter if they encounter a problem, such as refusing a jump, but rather how they both deal with it afterwards. Often the first jumps aren’t the best as they’re getting used to each other. The prospective horse should be ridden in the arena first, from a safety point of view, and then if it passes this test, out in the open and on a hack. I also like my client to have some time on the ground with the horse, to get a feel for them as a person.
Once the viewing is over, I remind my client that they don’t have to like this horse. There’s no pressure for it to be “the one”. No time wasted, nothing lost but an experience gained. I then try and get them to evaluate and analyse the horse, giving their likes and questions or worries. We talk about what the horse needs – for example, if the jumping didn’t go as planned, would the horse benefit from gridwork, or polework? What can the prospective owner expect from the first couple of months of ownership? I also want to know the rider’s gut feeling, and if they “clicked” with the horse. After getting the purchasers views I’ll add mine, and then we follow up with any new questions, possibly arrange a second viewing and make a decision before organising vettings and other new horse preparations.
As with any major, life changing decisions, it is worth investing the time and effort into doing the research, asking all the questions, necessary or unnecessary. Asking for help and guidance, and then being prepared to ask for help over the next few months as your new horse settles in and you settle into horse ownership.
I always talk about straightness with clients far earlier than the Scales of Training would suggest that it needs discussing and have had conversations with dressage trainers about it’s location on the training pyramid. But this week I had the perfect demonstration of why straightness often comes before rhythm.
A new client approached me last month, wanting help rebuilding her confidence and getting back into cantering. She felt out of control of her horse, and worried by his lack of balance in the canter. Of course I was happy to help and looked forward to a new challenge.
During their first lesson the thing which became most apparent was how the horse curled up to the right, leaning on his left shoulder, and falling in drastically on the left rein. The trot was choppy and unbalanced on both reins. To me, before we can address the canter we need to improve the balance in the trot which ultimately comes from the horse being straighter. The rider’s lack or confidence comes from, I believe, the feeling of a lack of control and her horse not responding as expected to her aids.
We spent the first couple of lessons checking she was straight, evening out the hand position because the right hand came back and the left went forwards. We also really worked on her horse staying straight in walk and during short trots. On the right rein he’d fling himself through the left shoulder going into trot but the fence line prevented too much drift, but on the right rein he fell in, and caused his rider to twist which exacerbated the horse’s crookedness. My aim initially was to reduce the bend to the right before increasing the bend to the left.
We chatted about saddle and physio checks, but the more I observed the more I felt that it was a control issue rather than a problem with the horse. He was trying to control the situation and his rider, who ultimately backed off as soon as he resisted her aids and twisted his body. Then the horse got away with not trotting, so tried this on every time and soon got the upper hand.
I helped my rider adjust her horse’s body, and most importantly have the self belief that she was doing it correctly so needed to stick to her guns as her horse explored the different avenues of evasion.
During the first two lessons we focused on reducing the right bend in walk and even getting some good left bend at times. On the right rein we worked in trot, as the fence prevented the over bend, and my rider learnt to use her left rein and left leg to reduce the right bend. On turns I concentrated her on using the left leg and reducing the right rein. She started to feel his left shoulder coming around each turn and his vertical balance improving.
Once the right rein was getting straighter we turned our attention to the left. We couldn’t just go straight into trot on the left rein because of the evasion twist during the transition. I put together a little exercise, focusing on straightness and not making a big deal on going onto the left rein. They started in trot on the right rein, turned across the short diagonal, focusing on bringing the left shoulder round the turn and using the left leg to keep him straight. They aimed to ride onto the left rein without losing this straightness and then riding a transition to walk before they lost the straightness, then immediately a ten metre left circle before two half circles to change the rein and begin the exercise again. The idea was that they progressively did more and more trot strides without falling onto the left shoulder.
We ran through this exercise a few times, with improving results. I was pleased with their progress over the last couple of lessons, but felt there was a bit of a block for future progress. I didn’t think there was a problem with the horse, but he was still determinedly evading his rider by twisting to the right in transitions. She was correcting him well, but lacked the determination to stand her ground, so ended up yielding to the horse, who effectively won that conversation so continued with his evasion tactic. I suggested that I sat on at the beginning of the next lesson to reinforce the boundaries and also to check that I couldn’t feel an issue that would cause the extreme right bend. As soon as I sat on, I secured the left rein and did a couple of leg yields to the right and within minutes the horse accepted my aids and stopped trying to fall through his left shoulder. Of course, he still felt stiffer to the left, but he was reactive to the left leg and much straighter through his body. I rode him for a few minutes longer until he’d proved that he wasn’t looking for an evasion. He also felt great so no underlying issues to my mind.
Then his rider mounted, and we picked up where we left off last lesson. Now she’d seen her horse stay straight she had more self belief in herself and her riding. He’d been firmly put back in his box by me so was less argumentative with her. We soon got a straighter trot on the right rein, and then managed to keep this balance onto the left rein. We developed the right rein work with circles, and focused on staying straight and on the track on the left rein. Finally, we started using demi voltes and consecutive changes of rein to improve their balance and reduce any tendency for the horse to fall into right bend.
Anyway, what’s the purpose of my witterings? As soon as the horse started to work in a straighter way, with improved vertical balance, his stride length opened, the rhythm improved and the trot became lighter and freer. From this straighter trot, we can start to establish a consistent rhythm, improve his suppleness and balance and progress up the Training Scale. However, if we didn’t correct his lack of straightness we would be fighting a losing battle. So really, a horse and rider need to be fairly straight before they can begin to work correctly and improve their way of going. In which case, shouldn’t straightness be the first training block? Or perhaps the Scales of Training should come with a caveat that you are starting with a fairly straight and evenly sided horse and rider?
My plan for the next few lessons is to really establish the straightness of both horse and rider; improving their suppleness on the left rein, ensuring my rider feels very confident and in control; able to manoeuvre him easily, and then start introducing the canter work, again with the focus being on the horse staying straight initially.