Spirals

It’s a classic exercise to introduce leg yield, and can help increase a horse’s bend, but I find that spiralling in and out on a circle can encourage bad rider habits to form and is so often detrimental to both horse and rider, rather than achieving the desired effect of increasing the engagement of the inside hind leg.

The basis of the exercise is that you establish a twenty metre circle before spiralling in towards the centre and then spiralling out again.

I begin teaching this exercise by standing at X, and asking my rider to ride a twenty metre circle from either E or B. We spend some time establishing the roundness, and identifying points where their horse is liable to drift out (usually at E and B), or fall in (usually as they cross the centre line). Then I ask them to slowly decrease the size of the circle by moving the horse’s outside shoulder in first. This reduces the rider using the inside rein to pull their horse onto a smaller circle, and encourages the use of the outside leg. Decreasing the circle slowly requires more balance and more subtle aids. The inside rein opens slightly to indicate moving across whilst the outside leg pushes the horse over, outside rein prevents the horse overturning with their head and supports the outside shoulder. The inside leg maintains the correct bend, and the rider turning their shoulders into the circle with their weight in their inside seat bone helps the horse stay in the correct bend.

By spiralling in slowly, and almost adopting a shoulder fore position the horse will bring his inside hind leg under his body, propel himself forwards more correctly and feel lighter and more engaged. The smaller circles require more suppleness and balance from the horse. I often tell my rider to stay on a certain sized circle, or not to spiral in any further because I can see that the horse has reached their limit in terms of suppleness so are better staying at this point instead of going smaller but losing the quality to their gait.

From the small circle, I ask the rider to sidestep out onto a bigger circle before riding a few strides on this circle and then sidestepping again. This makes a series of concentric circles, rather than a spiral. This helps control the movement and keep it correct. By only leg yielding a couple of strides at a time the rider doesn’t lose their horse’s outside shoulder, the inside hind continues to push the horse sideways so they stay engaged. The rider’s outside aids continue to be effective and the horse stays balanced.

Some horses are more likely to rush back to the track, so pulling themselves across in the leg yield from the outside shoulder. In this case, I get the rider to “ride smart”: as they start to ride towards E or B they have to apply the outside aids before their horse drifts and takes control of the movement, and then ask for the leg yield as they move towards the centre line, when the horse has no inclination to fall out. This ensures that the leg yield comes from the rider’s aids and is not the horse anticipating.

Ridden correctly, the horse becomes more supple and engaged, and it is an excellent warm up exercise for gently stretching them and unlocking and tight or resistant spots. I find it incredibly useful when Phoenix gets her knickers in a twist (when the wind blows or the something is out of place) as when I move her body around subtly she releases through her barrel and becomes more rideable. It’s also useful for identifying a stiffer side in rider or horse, as well as fine tuning the rider’s aids and control through a movement.

So often I see the spirals being ridden badly; the head and neck over bending as the horse spirals in, with too much inside rein, and them falling rapidly through the outside shoulder in a race to get back out to the bigger circle. Which doesn’t help engage the inside hind leg, or promote the rider using their outside aids correctly or effectively.

Next time you ride this exercise, try changing your approach to it, and critique yourself to make sure you aren’t letting either yourself or your horse cheat by drifting in and out on the circle. How many times do you pass B as you move in or out? Can you increase that number? Slowing down the movement requires more balance and more obedience from your horse.

Adjustability to the Canter

I’ve talked recently about transitions within the gait, and using the idea of a scale of 1-10 to help get the idea of different gears and transitioning between them.

This month’s clinic had the theme gears to the gait, so I concocted an exercise and lesson plan to improve the rider’s feel for their canter, improve their horse’s adjustability, as well as improving their overall canter.

I had my riders warm up in working trot, working between a 4-trot and a 6-trot while I assessed them and made corrections to their position and way of going. We did the same in canter, and even just by riding small transitions the horses started to use their hindquarters more, to lift their shoulders and get more power to their trot and canter.

Next up we started working through a related distance: it was walked as three horse strides and four pony strides to accommodate all sizes and stride lengths. I had them jumping the related distance, with reasonably sized cross poles until the horses had settled into their usual jumping rhythm and were jumping the fences appropriately. Not too big, yet not being complacent and tripping over the fence. Once we knew how many strides a horse got between the two fences when in canter gear five, we could start to make some changes.

Firstly, I asked my riders to approach the related distance in a more collected canter – fourth gear – and to see if they could hold the canter together between the fences to get an extra stride in. Some horses manage this easily, but others who lock on to a line are less adjustable and tend to launch over the second jump rather than fit in a small stride. Not naming any names Phoenix…

To help anyone who struggled to keep a shorter canter between two fences I had a slightly different experience. I asked them to jump the first fence and then ride a circle away from the second jump, of 10-15m before jumping the second element. I laid a pole out to help them scribe a circle. It could become a jump if necessary.

Doing this circle exercise a few times helps the horse maintain a more collected canter, teaches them not to lock on to a jump too early, they become more responsive to the rider’s half halts, and pretty soon they start to fit in that extra stride in the related distance.

When the exercise is ridden well in fourth gear, there should be four regular strides between the two fences. It’s vital that the rider sets up the more collected canter early in the approach, rather than trying to adjust the canter in the middle. It usually takes a couple of attempts to get the four regular strides, rather than progressively shorter strides between the jumps.

Then it’s time to lengthen the canter over the jumps. When you jump from a more extended canter the horse’s bascule will change as their take off point moves further back and the arc they make becomes longer. Think of steeplechasers. A lot of horses here will fall onto the forehand as they try to pull themselves along, and then they aren’t in the best position to jump so can either chip in or bring the fence down with their front legs. The answer is to practice lengthening the canter on the flat and over canter poles to build the strength in the hindquarters.

Once my riders could adjust the number of strides between the related distance we moved on towards dog legs and built a simple course, but with the added challenge of trying to get a different number of strides in each related distance. The dog leg distances were all walked as three horse strides or four pony strides as well, so I challenged my riders to jump round changing between their fourth, fifth and sixth gear canters.

Each jump could be jumped from each direction, and the easiest course was to progressively lengthen the canter throughout. Starting in fourth gear and then finishing in sixth gear. Harder, was starting in sixth gear, dropping straight to fourth and then back up again.

By the end of the sessions the horses were all more adjustable in their canter, were better balanced and more uphill in all the gears. And the riders had a better feel and understanding of the canter they needed to create before jumps.

So how does this impact your course riding? Well, at competitions there is a measured distance between jumps, but when you’re walking the course and striding out the distances you may discover that the distance is a bit short or long for your horse’s normal jumping canter. In order to jump smoothly and be in the best position to go clear the stride length of your canter needs to be adjusted to best fit the distance. So when you walk the course you can start to plan your gears on the approach to jumps to best ride the getaway and hopefully go clear!

Teaching a Range of Abilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To Basics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A First Jumping Lesson

I gave a pair their first jumping lesson this week. The rider has jumped before, but is bringing on her ex-broodmare slowly. We loose jumped her a couple of months ago to see if she actually knew what to do, but otherwise have focused on her flatwork to build her muscle and strength. Canter is coming along slowly with the help of poles to help her find the rhythm.Anyway, they had a go jumping over the weekend and felt it was a bit chaotic, so I decided to give them a better experience of leaving the ground.After focusing on transitions within the gaits whilst warming up, and getting the mare bending and thinking about her rider’s aids. I laid out three canter poles between K and E on the track. I used the track to maximise the arena so that the mare was most able to stay in balance on the turns. Her right canter is her weakest so I positioned the poles just off the corner to help them keep the canter rhythm until the poles. They could have a longer straight approach on the left canter because the mare can keep left canter together in straight lines.As is with horses, I rapidly had to move onto Plan B, when the mare decided that right canter was out of the question today. She often strikes off incorrectly, but can be helped out by a trot 10m circle before the canter transition. Not today though! There was no point banging our heads against a brick wall, getting frustrated. We’d jump out of left canter and try right another day. If she continues to struggle with it we’ll investigate further.So after trotting over the poles on the right rein, and then once on the left rein, I had them canter over the poles. The mare’s canter is currently very flat and verges on the point of four beat, so I kept the poles wide to improve her rhythm, and once her canter rhythm is established we can begin to balance it so that her haunches are under her body and she’s working her body correctly.Now it was time to leave the ground. I rolled the two poles closest to K together to make a teeny tiny cross pole. Then I rolled the third pole out so that it was a whole canter stride away from the fence. I wanted them to canter over the pole, have a whole canter stride and then pop the jump. This setup wouldn’t phase an inexperienced horse, but would put her in the right take off spot.They did it once, and met the first pole badly. With the mare only having one canter gear we have to adjust the distance of the approach so that she can fit several whole canter strides in. Which will help her jump confidently and neatly. A horse who has several gears to the canter can be adjusted to accommodate a set distance. I got my rider to ride deeper into the corner, which meant that they met the pole well the second time. I built the jump up to a bigger cross once we knew the striding and their line was right, and they flew over a couple of times, growing in confidence each time.To finish, I converted the cross pole into an upright. The biggest they’d jumped to date, but as the mare was already jumping that big over the cross pole, it was a mind over matter element for her rider. To know that they could jump it.And they did!

The plan now is to keep working on right canter, and do more canter polework to help establish the rhythm, and then using poles to help set up the mare for jumping, and to tell her where to take off until she is more experienced and has more understanding of the idea of flying.

The Big Debate

There was a really energetic debate on the BHS coaches forum a couple of weeks ago about qualified coaches versus unqualified coaches.

There are a lot of BHS qualified coaches in this industry. But there’s also a lot of people teaching without BHS qualifications.

The BHS provides insurance to their coaches, but unqualified coaches can get their own independent insurance based on industry experience. I’m not sure how the two compare in terms of level of cover and cost, but I like the simplicity of having the BHS organise it for me!

So what are the pros and cons of each? Or rather, why is the debate raging hot?

A person who has trained their way up the BHS ladder has invested a lot of time and money into their career. I calculated that in exam fees alone, £2000 has been spent on my getting qualified, either by my college, employer or myself to a level 4 coach or BHS II in old terms. That doesn’t include any resits or training. Or even travel and accommodation in order to take the exam. The letters behind our names is proof of our dedication to our profession.

The BHS exams consist of several modules: ridden, lunging, stable management, coaching principles, theory of riding, and practical assessments. Which means that you know you are getting a well rounded teacher, who can advise on all areas.

Let’s turn our attention to the unqualified coaches. These are often high level professional competition riders, which means their ridden experience and knowledge of training horses far outweighs that of the majority of BHS coaches. However, you can be a good rider but unless you can impart your knowledge in a clear and concise manner you are not a good coach. For these people, the UKCC qualifications is where they can learn how to share their knowledge to students, and this can complement their ridden experience nicely.

There are also non-BHS coaches without the riding CV, which is the concerning area to the majority of the BHS coaches on this forum. A lot of the BHS qualified instructors felt that average horse-people teaching put our industry at risk of a bad reputation. Yes, they can get insurance, but have they been taught how to manage a ride of children, adults or horses so that everyone remains safe? This is an insurance risk which penalises the rest of us as premiums rise due to claims against such dangerous situations.

Another concern was that coaches not on the BHS register do not have the overheads of qualified ones: CPD days, DBS checks, first aid training, APC membership, and child protection training. This means that they can afford to undercut the qualified professionals. Which doesn’t sit well with people who have invested time and money into their training.

The general consensus, after a long debate, was that BHS coaches accept and like the training opportunities offered by the likes of Lucinda Fredericks and William Fox-Pitt, knowing that their riding experience far outweighs that of their own. Some coaches even train with them themselves to help improve their competitive performance. However, these people have a lot of industry experience to support themselves.

What didn’t go down so well was the unqualified coach with decidedly average knowledge and experience. In one of the most dangerous sports, they increase the risk further. They charge less, don’t provide quality knowledge or lesson content, and potentially put riders in dangerous situations.

The general consensus was that the BHS should help us promote the benefits of using qualified coaches, and to encourage riders and parents to do their research and ensure the coaches they use are qualified and insured. Otherwise, what’s the point in training for BHS exams?

Below is a succinct comment from one of the BHS coaches which sums up the debate well, and how we should move forwards with it.

Times are changing – it is a competitive world out there and people will compare costings.
There are some excellent non qualified yet insured coaches out there, but there are also some very poor ones, and some totally uninsured. There are some cracking ‘names’ coaching in our area who do a great job, but also some who, because they find it easy, have absolutely no idea how to coach and which tools to use to draw out the best from those who don’t. Their observations and corrections are distorted by their own ability.
There are Pony Club members who teach, with no training or experience whatsoever, who lobby and coach younger members privately and uninsured.
For me, the safety and welfare element is key. Stakeholders should be using their resources and expertise to lobby INSURANCE companies to tighten up. It would be interesting to know the statistics of claims comparatively, as all insurance is based on risk factor. There should be a minimum safety and risk awareness certification built into existing qualifications (it is) but possibly available as a stand alone in order to gain insurance, alongside safeguarding and first aid qualifications. Mandatory. Period.
I am actively involved in PC, and we circulate to our memberships the dangers of using uninsured, unqualified coaches, but it falls on deaf ears – surprisingly often with intelligent, affluent people, not those who want to save money!
If insurance is cheaper and more easily available elsewhere, as it is and without jumping through the hoops, then why wouldn’t people go down that route? All we can do is promote and practice with excellence, we do not have control of other people’s actions. We must also be open minded in some areas.
BHS are doing a great job, but need to escalate this in conjunction with other bodies…

All in all, my advice is to research your instructor to ensure they are insured, have sufficient industry experience, and the ability to impart their knowledge – proved by either the UKCC or BHS qualifications.

Meanwhile, qualified instructors will continue to pressurise the BHS to do more to protect us and give more young people a reason sit exams and train. It’s a tough situation, but as a dangerous sport we need to tighten up on teaching standards so that we make it as safe as possible for all participants.

Figures of Eight

For some reason I’ve been doing a lot of figure of eight work in lessons. I think it’s because I’ve been focusing my clients on changing their horse’s bend, and staying balanced throughout, but I’m enjoying seeing the horses strengthen as they switch between hind legs.

I was teaching one lady on her horse, who can be a bit lazy and not engage his engine, but where we’re building up his topline and trying to strengthen his hindquarters it’s important that we get him thinking forwards at the beginning of the session. So we’ve been using trot poles as an incentive.

After a short trot to warm up on each rein, I started them working over five trotting poles. This increased their impulsion immediately, and the stride length started to improve, but because the poles were on a straight line the horse could avoid bringing his inside hind underneath him, which makes it harder for us to improve his suppleness and strength. He needs more circle work, but without overstressing him. So we began to put the poles onto an oval.

The poles were still ridden in a straight line, but my rider curved away just after them, to ride a distorted circle before curving back to the poles with a short approach. This improved the horse’s cadence over the poles as he started to flex more through his knees and hocks and couldn’t sneak onto his forehand in the straight lines.

Next, we started to alternate which way they turned after the poles, so we were riding a figure of eight. This had the benefit that it made my rider ride straight over the poles, and not accept the slight bend her horse left himself in on straight lines. Which improved their balance round the turns because he wasn’t pretending to be a motorbike and stayed vertical.

Next up, we incorporated canter transitions. After the trotting poles, as they turned left my rider asked for left canter. The aim was to have a positive response from the canter aids, have a forwards canter round the bigger oval, and then ride a transition into an active, balanced trot ready for the poles again. Having the poles after the transition helped maintain impulsion and stopped him trying to drop his forehand.

We developed this into a figure of eight exercise with one circle in canter and the other in trot. Which improved his suppleness and stopped him predicting the canter transitions. Especially when we turned the same way consecutively!

I’d like to develop the exercise further with them so that both circles are in canter, and the poles are raised. This will get him more responsive to his rider because there are a few questions in quick succession, and it will improve his balance, strength and suppleness. He will also begin to work more consistently over his back, engaging his abdominals and bridging. This will help his rider learn the feeling of him working correctly so that she can recreate it without the help of the poles as he gets stronger.

It’s a really simple exercise which has immediate, positive effects, and I loved the way it stopped this horse anticipating and rushing the poles, or the canter transitions.

Visual Learners

Teaching these days is all about providing information in a variety of forms. Years ago teachers would teach verbally, but nowadays they offer pictures and videos, physical activities and social activities to support their verbal lectures.

In an arena I predominantly use verbal explanations, but I also use videos and photos to feedback to clients, and have been known to get a nearby rider to demonstrate an exercise (especially rising canter). I will also walk any lines to help demonstrate an exercise. Sometimes physical feedback, such as adjusting a foot’s position in the stirrup, is as useful teaching tool.

I’ve been teaching a young boy, who has high functioning autism, and he’s really testing my imagination in terms of effectively getting my message across to him in a format he understands. I know not everyone likes to label children, but from a teaching perspective it’s very useful to know of any problems, if that’s the right term, so I can better understand their reactions or behaviour, and adjust my approach so that they get the best out of the lesson.

He’s very literal, so I have to be careful not to use figurative language. Today I said, “tell Tilly to go round the edge” as his pony started to cut the corner. So he said, “Tilly, go round the edge.” Of course I meant to tell the pony with his legs and hands, not to literally tell her! So I’m having to adapt my words and phrases so that there’s no room for misinterpretation.

I also have to explain exercises very explicitly so that he understands them. For example, I tell him at which letter we will go into trot, and then I have to list each letter he will ride past, and at which letter he needs to ride a downward transition. Otherwise he trots from the start letter across the school to the final letter!

To help me direct him, I use a variety of cones and poles. For example, he must ride past the yellow cone before he turns, or he should halt between the poles. These props are easy to adjust to make an exercise easier or harder, and seem to really help him focus on where he’s going. He also has immediate feedback as to whether he’s achieved the aim because he’s either the right side of the prop, or he’s not.

This is a useful approach for visual learners, so definitely one for me to bear in mind when teaching others. I have one client (who knows who she is) who always cuts the corner after poles, so when we progress to jumping she is going to have cones to go round so that I can break this bad habit!

With this young boy, I’ve also had to get creative to help improve his riding position. Sticking to visual cues, I put red electric tape onto his reins which he must hold in order to have the correct length of rein and to have the reins the same length. He tends to, like all beginners, to hold his hands close to his tummy. So I sprayed purple spray onto his pony’s withers to show him where his hands should be. Of course this works best on the greys and palominos.

When we’ve been practising jumping position, to improve his balance and lower leg stability, I’ve been putting a plait in his pony’s mane for him to hold so that he is moving his hands the correct distance up her neck.

He has some special gloves on order, which have an L and R on to help him learn his left and rights. I know many adults who would also like these gloves!

I’m sure as he progresses through his riding I will need to become even more imaginative – suggestions on postcards! I think I will mark a line along each shoulder in a different colour to help him learn his trot diagonals and to see the shoulder moving. It’s all about finding ways to help him understand different concepts which makes sense to him.

But I’m up for a challenge!

Working a Young Horse

There’s such extreme opinions and attitudes towards working young horses; when they should be backed, first jumped etc. Racehorses are still on the track as two year olds, and some people leave a horse feral until they’re five.

Despite scientific evidence about when a horse’s skeleton is matured, there is still a lot of pressure for talented, well bred sports horses to be produced for four year old classes. Which causes all sorts of problems later in life for them. It’s a society of instantaneous gratification; in which horses who are capable of performing today do, rather than waiting until they are mature enough to in five years time.

In this sense, lesser quality horses – perhaps with less talent or with a less favourable conformation – actually fare better because they are produced at a slower rate and usually later in their lives.

Anyway, I’ve come to my own conclusion about how I feel an intelligent, talented young horse with a trainable temperament and good work ethic should be nurtured. It’s important to introduce brain work early in their lives, without doing too much physical work.

Mental stimulation can involve introducing a young horse to different environments, showing them poles, fillers, tarpaulins etc, in hand work to establish good manners, taking them to in hand shows, leading them out along quiet lanes, and meeting cars and bicycles. This sort of enrichment builds a bond with their handler, which should make the backing process less stressful for the horse, and builds the horse’s confidence when out and about.

I’ve got a new client, with her new four year old. The mare was produced in Ireland before being sold at a sales, and has a very clever mind as well as talent to boot. Whilst she needs to mature and increase condition, she also needs work to keep her busy brain occupied so that she stops jumping out her field or box walking.

They had their first lesson this week. The mare is fussy to mount, quite anxious and tense. This behaviour stems from anxiety so we have formulated a plan to overcome this. As it’s not rudeness, I don’t think the mare will benefit from a confrontational approach, but we do need to encourage her to stand more quietly to mount. It’s a long term approach, of mounting and allowing the horse to walk until she relaxes slightly and then asking her to halt momentarily. Hopefully each time she’s mounted the walk period gets shorter and halt gets longer. Time can also be spent standing by the mounting block with nothing further happening. We don’t want to add to the tension, but we need to introduce the concept of better mounting manners. Hopefully within two months she is less anxious about the mounting procedure and only needs walk a couple of steps before halting for as long as her rider needs her to. Racehorses have a similar problem with mounting because they’re used to being legged up and hurried into work.

The mare, as with all youngsters, walked into the arena and immediately started calling and looking for her friends, drifting back towards the gate. She’d left her brain in the stable. Add this to her tense, quick walk, and there’s nothing to work with. So we began the lesson by my rider just walking around the arena, circling around every jump she passed. I told her not to worry about the quality of the walk, or the bend. We just wanted to use the circles to draw the mare’s focus to her rider, forgetting about her friends in the stable. My rider could start to think about her aids and assess the mare’s understanding and response, but we didn’t want to start changing the mare until her brain was on side and she had begun to relax. It took a good few minutes of walking for the mare to take her mind off the gate and stables, and to relax into a longer striding walk. You could see she was starting to concentrate on what was going on in the arena.

Now that the mare was starting to relax we could introduce halt transitions. Reluctant to stop, she opens her mouth and tries to barge through the hand. She’s in a Micklem bridle, with a Neue schule eggbutt snaffle with bit stabilisers, which means she isn’t fussing as much with her tongue or gaping her mouth as wide as she did when viewed, so I’m hoping this habit reduces more when she settles fully into her new home. Anyway, I asked my rider to vibrate the rein as the mare set against her hand so that we diffused the tug of war situation. After a couple of halts, the vibrations were less because the mare was starting to understand the question and responded to my riders’ initial aids.

With this starting to fall into place, and the mare focused on her work, we could then take a five minute break. They halted and stood still for almost five minutes, taking in the scenery, and most importantly, relaxing. This halt is the type I’d like them to get upon mounting, so it’s good to see the concept is there. We repeated the halt frequently throughout the rest of the lesson to give the mare time to assimilate each exercise.

Staying in walk, as I now wanted to ask the mare a couple of questions to see how trainable she is, we began to introduce the idea of straightness. Now I know it’s halfway up the Scales of Training, but the mare was showing preference for left bend and unless we iron out her banana-ness, we won’t be able to start at the bottom of the Scale.

On the right rein, the one which the mare bent outwards, we started riding a square. Again, we weren’t making a huge change to the mare’s way of going, but rather showing her that there was a different way of moving. Riding straight lines emcourages the mare to straighten out of her left bend, and start to think about bending to the right. Her rider could also check she was sitting straight and giving even aids.

As with all youngsters, the mare wobbled along the sides of our square, so we made sure the reins and hands were channeling the mare straight without being claustrophobic, and the legs hung round her barrel to guide her between the reins. Just with a little more support from her rider and the mare started to move straighter, stride out and relax.

We repeated the square on the left rein to show the mare that she didn’t have to curl up to the left. Then we did some more circles around jumps and my rider felt the mare was better balanced and she had more influence over their direction. I was pleased with the improvement in the mare’s walk. As she relaxed she was exhaling in big snorts, lengthening her stride, lowering her neck and generally looking happier.

We finished by trotting a gentle square on both reins, aiming for a consistent rhythm and the mare relaxing into trot, stretching herself into a longer frame as she and her rider found their balance together.

Despite spending most of the lesson in walk the mare was mentally drained. She stood with her head low, ears floppy. You could see that she was tired. Her working routine will be two schooling sessions a week; one a lesson similar to this one and the other a shorter revision session with her owner. The rest of the week will be spent either in hand walks, some in hand work, such as pole mazes, or short ridden hacks. She’s a very clever horse so we need to keep her brain ticking over in order for her to be more manageable in the field and stable, but we do need to be careful not to stress her body physically, but I think this arrangement should benefit her best.

A Flexible Mindset

I’m not sure if it’s my history of working with ponies, or my experience with Welsh Cobs, that has given me this skill, but it’s such a useful tactic when training horses and I love the satisfaction I get when I’ve outwitted them.

Last week I was doing some canter poles with a client and after they’d gone over the three poles nicely it all started to go wrong. The mare got quick, tried to cut the corner, and her rider froze in the saddle. So we stopped and took five, to chat about what was happening and where we were going next.

My client told me that this was why she didn’t like doing canter poles. Because the mare got excited and she felt out of control.

The mare has a history of being in a riding school, which I think possibly contributes to the behaviour as she’s used to repetition. But basically, she’s anticipating the exercise. Which causes her to rush or to motorbike round the corner on the approach.

We can predict the behaviour, and we know the reason why it’s happening. The important thing is to make my rider feel in control and confident. So let’s trick this mare!

I got them to walk up over the poles, then trot over them. Doesn’t matter that they’re canter poles, the point is that the horse goes at the requested speed. Then we changed the approach. Coming off either rein, taking a long approach then a short approach. The mare soon stopped anticipating canter over the poles. So then we cantered over the poles! My rider was still expecting to be tanked off over the poles so had the handbrake on a bit. But now that she was realising our tactics, she started to ride the canter and relax her arms.

We then added in circles. If the mare tried to rush on the approach, my rider had to immediately ride a 10m circle. She could repeat the circle as many times as needed so that she felt in control as she turned towards the poles.

With all the variety of approaches to the poles, it started to come together nicely in that the mare was waiting to be told what to do and when, and my rider felt more confident. I also told her that another option whilst schooling is that she leaves the poles and works on the flat for five minutes before returning to the canter poles to diffuse the mare’s ability to predict the exercise.

This got me thinking about where I’d learnt these tactics, and then I remembered King. He was a riding school pony when I learnt to ride who fidgeted and pawed at the floor whenever he was at the front of the ride. I should explain that when we did canter or jump exercises (depending on the lesson level) we’d halt at B in a long line. Anyway, King just anticipated the cantering or the jumping, so to keep him calm and the rider settled, when King was second in line at B, he would overtake the first horse, do the exercise with perfect manners, and then when the first horse had returned to the rear of the ride, they slotted in in front of King. Quite often fidgety horses, especially youngsters, would do this for a few weeks if they showed signs of impatience, and it really worked well.

Another outwitting exercise I remember was with Aries, who loved jumping but got very excitable and usually cantered sideways towards the jump before being straightened three strides away and he’d bomb over. I loved riding him, and know exactly what I’d do to break this habit now, but times and attitudes change. Anyway, to stop Aries predicting the bombing to the jump a few strides away, I remember his owner cantering a circle around the jump, and only when he stayed calm on the turn to the jump, was she allowed to let him jump. She must’ve done twenty circles that first time!

Then I think about Phoenix and how sensitive she is. Some days, an exercise will work really well for her, but others she’ll get her knickers in a twist about. So very often I have to ride a movement once, assess whether her brain has fallen out, and it has, try a slightly different exercise which will have the same results.

It’s the same in lessons sometimes. I may have a plan, but if rider or horse are struggling with one of the first steps I either have to change my goal for the end of the lesson, pushing my original plan back a week or two, or I have to divert in order to get over this stepping stone.

It’s all about having a plan, but knowing the three or four optional routes which will get you there, and then responding quickly to the horse you have on the day, so that you keep them on your side and maximise your training session.