Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

A couple of weeks ago I booked a cross country venue for the afternoon, for a variety of clients to come for private, semi private and group lessons. Mostly, it was successful. But one session in particular really challenged me, taking all my teaching skills as well as human and equine skills, to make a success of it.

Unfortunately, I think there was a bit of bad timing involved. This horse can get a bit, err, over excited in company, and a little clingy to other horses. He has a solitary life – more on that another day – because he’s such a playful acrobat in the field that no one wants to risk their horse being injured (understandably). Which means that he gets a bit silly when in the company of others. I put him at the beginning of my day so that we’d only have horses arriving towards the end. We had just started calmly walking him around the field, letting his eyes pop back into his head, when a horse trotted up the road adjacent to the far side of the field. This acrobat immediately started turning himself inside out in an attempt to look at, and go over to the happy hacker. I really think the lesson would have gone totally differently if this horse hadn’t trotted past at the beginning. Lesson learnt for next time – use acoustic ears, even if they don’t match the cross country outfit.

As you can see, it was an explosive start. We managed to get a bit of trotting done on a circle, but his rider soon felt he was unpredictable and she wasn’t happy. Neither was I. I know this horse well, but it did seem like his brain had well and truly fallen out from between his ears, and if we had any chance of recovering the situation, we needed to change tactic.

We got his rider off and lunged the horse. He had a couple of bucks, but actually settled on the lunge. So my rider remounted and we started on the lunge. I reminded her how his insecurities come out in bolshy, thuggish behaviour, and that he’s actually needing lots of reassurance at the moment.

We created a comfort zone on the lunge, where both horse and rider were close to me, their comfort blanket, and felt safe. We moved the circle out a bit, pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone, and moved around the field a bit.

The other thing I know about this horse is that he’s clever. And gets bored easily. And when he’s bored he misbehaves. When we were rehabbing him last winter he was a nightmare during the long reining and walk with short trots ridden work. We introduced poles fairly early to provide a focus, but as soon as we did proper polework, canter and raised poles his behaviour improved dramatically. After all, he had to concentrate on his work.

So we headed towards the smallest steps in the field and I lead them up it. We repeated this a few times, with the pair of them relaxing and getting more confident each time.

We expanded their comfort zone by me holding the lunge rein further away, before unclipping the lunge line and pretend leading them up the step. Slowly I drifted away and they did it a couple of times on their own. The horse was settling because he had something to think about, and as he relaxed so did his rider.

Before they got bored, we went over to the small jumps. I explained that yes, we hadn’t cantered or fully warmed up, but it was a warm day and the jumps titchy so they’d be fine. We started by trotting “on the lunge” then increasingly expanding the circle, moving around the small jumps, changing the rein and asking the horse lots on directional questions.

When my rider felt he was focused on her, and a small jump was nearby, she should trot calmly over it. Ride quietly away and resume circling in trot. The horse can jump, so our attention was on the quality of his behaviour before and after jumps. I talked continuously to my rider to help them both maintain a relaxed air. They popped over a teeny log happily, but when she came back round to do it again he had a moment of mischievousness. So I had her trot past the jump and move slightly away so that he was less sure of our intentions, and she calmly popped him over a different log.

We continued in this vein for the rest of the session. Quiet flat work, circling and figure of eighting before a jump, and then resuming calm flatwork afterwards. They expanded their comfort zone to most of the area around the cluster of small jumps. We had another blip, when he heard a walker passing the other side of the hedge, but because we were doing a more interesting subject, he soon refocused. Which I don’t think we can ask any more with this particular horse.

I was really pleased with how they finished the session; stringing a few jumps together, approaching in canter, and the jumps being the focus of their ride rather than subtly throwing them into the mix.

Unfortunately we ran out of time, as I think if we’d had another half an hour, they’d have progressed to bigger jumps, and linking combinations together, moving around the field. However, I was still very pleased and proud with how they both overcame their start and nerves to have a positive experience, finishing off in a really good mindset to pick up from next time.

Dressage Judging

I’ve been thinking a lot about judging dressage. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about doing in the future, but at the moment I’m quite happy dabbling in my Demi Dressage judging. Which has a scale of 1 to 10, but focusing much more on the teaching side of things – taking the time to comment on how the movement has gone well or how to improve. And the scale isn’t comparable to British Dressage. For example, there’s no way we’re going to be giving out 4.0s and 5.0 to the tiny tots doing their first test. So the marks used tend to be higher than you’d expect, with 9.0s dotted around. But we want to be encouraging, give them a good experience and help them improve both themselves and their pony.

It’s an approach to judging I think should be universal. Aim to give positive and constructive feedback, encourage riders of all ages to improve and have another try at a test. After all, the judge sitting as C doesn’t know their journey. Sure, they may be full of confidence and able to take a tough judge. But they may also be nervous and spent months building up to this moment. It may only be a prelim test, but to them it’s their Olympics.

Phoenix and I have been plugging away at affiliated dressage this summer; being very comfortable and bored in novice, we pushed up to elementary.

Our first elementary test wasn’t an easy one – typical – but we could ride each element and I felt that so long as she didn’t anticipate anything, or spook then we should make a respectable debut. The test itself, she rode everything as I asked. Conservative, and sometimes a little wobbly, but as well as she could. I was pleased.

However, when the scores came through I was really disappointed. Expecting 62% ish, with what I thought to be realistic expectations, we’d scored 57%.

Initially, I was gutted. The score was much lower than I felt we really deserved. Yes it hadn’t taken us out the placings, but it just felt very unfair. Phoenix has quality gaits and usual marks are 6.5 when she’s going in a very average way. Of course, if she jogs the walk or spooks she picks up a 4.0. But that’s fair.

Anyway, I looked at the score sheet for some feedback, and it was very disappointing. Little to no feedback or justification for the low scores. I looked at the rest of the class, and there were more scores than usual in the 50s, so it seemed to be a general theme of the day. I was very frustrated and disappointed, moping around for a couple of days feeling like I’d been wasting my time.

Then I saw a friend who had been volunteering and supporting her friends at the competition. We had a moan, but most importantly, she told me that those competing regularly at elementary had received a score approximately 5% lower than their normal. Which made me feel better, and that another judge would have put us in the low 60s that I’d anticipated for our first time, and it wasn’t a personal vendetta.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the repercussions of judging negatively. Yes, I respect that you need to use a range of marks, but no decent feedback and for the whole class to be scored low is not good for anyone.

It’s not good for the competitor. My first experience of an elementary test did not inspire me to continue trying. I wanted to give up. I lost my confidence and self belief. And I wouldn’t be the only competitor in this position. Leisure riders who spend hours of time and lots of money training towards a test, perhaps it’s at the top of their game, are in it for fun. Reading those score sheets are not fun. These riders, who go to British Dressage competitions regularly actually make up a large proportion of BD membership, and make these show days financially viable. Don’t put them off.

It isn’t a good advert for British Dressage – why would you opt to go to a BD show if you regularly received unfair judging when there are perfectly acceptable Riding Club options, which a more inviting and supportive atmosphere.

It’s not great for the judge. I looked her up and I won’t be going to the BD venue she’s associated with. Nor will I put her name forward to judge at any Riding Club or Pony Club competitions. If I learn she’s judging a class I’m entered in, I’m not sure I’d even bother going. I’d rather forfeit the entry fee. And I definitely will not be looking for lessons or clinics with her, or recommending her to anyone else.

The venue. It’s very local to me, and whilst the venue was great, it will be quite a risk returning there in case she judges again, so the venue has certainly lost out from that perspective.

No one benefits from this situation, and as I said before, it may be the first rung on the BD ladder, but to some this is a massive achievement – training, overcoming nerves, travelling, riding in a new environment, and then learning the test.

Depending on your point of view, fortunately or unfortunately I had already entered another elementary test at another show. Which meant I had to pick myself up and brush ourselves off.

I sent the test video and sheet to my coach, and then ripped up the score sheet. I’d rather put my trust in her to guide me in my next training steps, than dwell on those low numbers. I knew already what our weaker areas were, so started practising those before our next lesson. I also did some fun hacks and jumps to remember why I ride Phoenix.

It was definitely a test of resilience. I really didn’t want to go to our next competition, and had to dig deep to practice. It was also interesting to note that my general confidence with riding and work took a dip. I thought of attending some clinics, but didn’t want to ride in front of anyone unknown. The risk of taking another battering I guess.

But it was fine. We weren’t hugely well prepared, and the second test had some mistakes. But the scores were fair, and justified, and we came home with a first and second. This inspired me a bit more, so I entered another two tests to keep the ball rolling. Last weekend the scores increased further, although there were still some mistakes (like riding canter to halt instead of canter to walk in the simple changes, and me forgetting where the final halt transition was on the centre line and wobbling around), and we had another first and second.

I feel like we’ve established ourselves at elementary level, and it feels the right level of difficulty – not perfect, but challenging enough. So now I’m planning a few weeks of training to consolidate what we’ve learnt from the competitions. And really focus on our weaker points, such as finding and maintaining the balance in medium trot. Then we’ll get out between the white boards again and hopefully have some more successful outings.

Group Canter Exercises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working the Older Horses

I have a few clients with older horses; the older horse has many advantages of experience, reliability, patience and steadfastness to teach and build confidences. But with that comes an aging body and the associated problems that come with old age. They are usually still enthusiastic to work, but can be slightly stiff.

Every older horse, I believe, deserves someone (like one or two of my clients) who will dote on them. Give them everything they need; treat any ailment; have tack adjusted to compensate for an aging body; groom and fuss them to within an inch of their life; and lightly ride them to maintain fitness and mobility. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a riding school horse retired to this life of Riley.

Teaching with the older horse is different too. For instance, they often need a longer warm up, or a light seat canter early on to loosen them up. It’s also about recognising their limitations and working within them. We always strive to improve a horse’s way of going, but with an older horse you have to be aware of pushing too hard and triggering a problem, and be ready to accept their limitations.

A classic example of this is polework. Trotting poles aim to improve rhythm, cadence and length of stride. With a young horse or one in their prime, you can use the distance between the poles to encourage them to stride out. When I set the distance between poles for an older horse I adjust it based on how they’re looking that day, and aim to encourage good strides over the poles, rather than pushing them to lengthen. If they’re finding it a stretch today, I roll the poles in. It’s about maintaining their range of movement rather than improving it. Usually by encouraging several consistent good strides of trot, they will improve their range of movement slightly.

As older horses are more experienced and established I find it useful to focus on the rider position, which puts them in good stead when they ride a younger horse. So apologies clients with veterans; expect lots of no stirrup work!

We also still work on improving the horse. Older horses can vary in their performance depending on the day – some days they’re a little stiffer, other days they’re like a spring chicken! It depends on the temperature, if they’ve been stood in, or what they did the previous days. So the first part of my lessons are always spent assessing the veteran and deciding if they’re okay to do Plan A, or if Plan B would be better. I also think it’s really important for the rider to be able to evaluate their horse’s way of going each day so that they work them appropriately and pick up on any changes quickly. We talk about the Scales of Training, and how to improve the horse relative to their abilities. For example, we compare their suppleness between left and right, and to their work last week. We can them improve their symmetry a bit, and ensure they aren’t becoming stiffer than previous weeks without a good reason. Knowing the theory of equitation, even if it’s not always possible to practise it all, creates a good foundation for riding future horses.

I’m working a lot with a client on straightness with her older horse in preparation for her new horse. The veteran is crooked, because he has lots of niggles and the result is that his rider is a bit crooked and most importantly, unaware of the crookedness. It’s a tricky situation because I think if we straighten the horse like I would approach a six year old, we’ll open a can of worms and his niggles will become issues. But equally, we don’t want him to become more and more wonky. So I’ve mainly highlighted to my rider the assymetry in his way of going and the differences between the two canter leads and his lateral work on each rein. Then we’ve worked on reducing his assymetry by improving his rider’s straightness. By getting her to sit straighter, be more even in the saddle and with the leg and rein aids her horse will start to adjust his body. By doing these adjustments indirectly, we won’t achieve perfect straightness. But I don’t want perfect straightness with a horse carrying niggles. But we will hopefully lengthen his working life as he will straighten his body by degrees.

By improving my rider’s awareness of asymmetry and straightness, she will be in a better position to school her new horse. I’ve done lots of grid work jumping and pole exercises on this subject of straightness. Improving her awareness, minimising any drifting over jumps, and encouraging even muscle development. Whilst accepting a certain level of crookedness. For example, when jumping from the right canter, the horse can stay on a straight line and balanced, until the jump is a little big or the takeoff a little long. Whereby he changes to the left lead and drifts left. At the edge of his comfort zone, he’s showing that he favours his left canter. If he were a five or six year old we’d develop and strengthen the right canter. But to be honest, I find this totally acceptable in an older horse and am quite happy if he shifts to his preference in these circumstances. If he stopped staying straight and balanced in the right canter over small jumps or poles I’d be concerned, but he’s managing the top end of his work load in this way, so as long as my rider is aware for her future then we’ll go with the flow.

Keeping an older horse in work is all about making small improvements to their way of going and focusing on the longevity of their working life rather than upping the workload and putting demands on a body which is perhaps carrying old age ailments and previous injuries. And of course making sure they are comfortable with their workload – medicating hocks if necessary and weighing up the pros and cons of feeding daily bute. By developing a relationship and seeing the horse regularly, and working them consistently to a level, it is easier to spot any deterioration, which then allows them to be checked out and cared for as quickly as possible.

Prix Caprilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using All Senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Years

It has been seven years of Starks Equitation this month, so I’ve been doing some reflecting.

They talk about a seven year itch, but it’s not something I’m feeling. I think that’s because I have so much variety to my job.

Starks Equitation has changed significantly over the last seven years. I’ve changed significantly. I’ve more experience, more qualifications. I’m older. My values and opinions have shifted slightly. And Starks Equitation doesn’t just offer schooling and lessons now. There’s Demi Dressage, Pony Club, BHS stages training; let alone the other roles of confidant, advice guru, Prix Caprilli trainer, and anything else that’s asked of me.

I think it’s the ever changing challenges that keep me fresh. Sure if I were in any one role I’d rapidly get bored or stale in my job, but the fact that I teach all different ages and abilities, and across a range of activities definitely keeps me on my toes.

Although the ever changing nature of being self employed always makes me nervous. What if I lose all my clients? Well in the early days that was definitely a risk – a combination of fewer clients and the risks of injury, lameness, financial changes etc could potentially leave me with an empty diary. But now I have a finger in a few pies and lots of contacts I feel more secure in this area. In fact, now if I happen to have a couple of cancellations, or someone is away one week, I breathe a sigh of relief and use that free time to catch up on the rest of life’s admin.

One thing I don’t think I’ll ever get used to though, is the emotional involvement of teaching. I see all of my private clients at least once a fortnight, and see many Pony Clubbers regularly. I am on their riding journey with them. Whether it’s buying their first horse, or taking them from lead rein through to a one day event, or building their confidence from a nervous wreck to a shining star. I am there each step of the way. I like getting messages about their amazing hack when they felt confident enough to go solo. Or their competition results, or a super schooling session between lessons.

I don’t think clients always realise this emotional involvement. Perhaps it’s a fault of mine and I should be more business-like and leave each client in a box between their lessons. Social media doesn’t help this, as they pop up. But equally, I think it makes me a better teacher for being personally involved.

Possibly one of the hardest parts of this job is losing clients. Often it’s by no fault of anyone – they outgrow the pony, retire the horse, move away, either party gets injured. But sometimes you get dropped as an instructor. They want to try a different direction, they’ve jumped on the yard band wagon with a different instructor. Or sometimes, it’s just unexplained. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Sure, if you’ve taken a rider to the highest heights of your teaching skills and they are ambitious then often they move from towards a specialist coach; then so long as you all part with a “thank you” and “keep in touch” everything is funky dory. The tough bit is seeing, physically or on social media, them falling into bad habits or not progressing as you imagined their trajectory to be. It can be gut wrenching. And I know it’s not just me, but other instructors have this level of emotional involvement with their riders. I think more so at grassroots level, when you are involved weekly and get asked advice on a host of other management questions, as well as celebrating their milestones.

This emotion is what gives us the drive to stand outside in all weathers shouting “heels down” until we’re hoarse, and enables us to give 110% to every lesson. It makes freelancing a roller-coaster of emotions for which the highs (thankfully) usually outweigh the lows. But it’s nice to feel appreciated every now and again as we shadow you along your yellow brick road to success.

That’s not to say I feel under-appreciated. In fact I usually feel I’m being given too much credit by most of my clients! It’s just something that I’m very aware of, and know how detrimental it can have on your confidence as a coach.

Tramlines of Poles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Small People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Up The Thighs

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?

Food for thought…