Canter Exercises with Groups

I’ve been doing quite a lot of Pony Club teaching recently, and have been playing around with canter exercises which can be done individually so that the ponies get a breather but without boring the rider’s who’s turn it is.

I’ve developed several layers to the exercise so that I can use it with all abilities and riders can see their progression. Ultimately, I’ve borrowed the basis of these exercises from my childhood instructor.

The first exercise is to have the ride in halt on the long side of the arena and one at a time, having them canter to the rear of the ride. This is aimed at the rider staying in control, learning to sit to the canter, and keeping their pony on the outside track. It’s a good exercise for those just learning to canter. Sometimes I tell them the letter which they are going to canter, and the letter where they need to be trotting. This tests their accuracy and starts to focus them on riding the transition rather than just kicking and praying.

Sometimes, like today, I have a keen, unruly pony who likes to take control of the situation. Or I have a rider who merrily canters around in dreamland and I need to keep their focus, I make this exercise more challenging. They have to ride four transitions on their lap of the arena – for example, trot to canter at E, trot at A, canter at B and trot at F. This keeps the ponies switched on, usually improves their canter transitions because the pony is more forwards, and helps a rider begin to feel more in control. Plus the short canters means a pony can’t get too quick!

If I have a big ride, or they are more in control, or it’s a cold day, I will keep the ride in walk instead of halt. This also means the riders have to plan their transitions so that they don’t bomb up the back of the ride and can ensure a correct strike off.

A development of cantering to the rear of the ride, is putting in a circle. Again, I have the ride halted on the track about M, for example, and individually they have to go into trot, trot a 20m circle at A before picking up canter between A and F and cantering to the rear of the ride. The circle is a good test of control as ponies will try to nap back to the ride, and if the rider doesn’t plan their circle it ends up rather egg shaped. Once the circle is established in trot, I get riders to make a canter transition over X, building up to cantering the whole circle. Easier said than done as many ponies are indoctrinated to canter a straight line near the outside track so resist a rider’s plea to turn across the arena.

When riders are more established but for whatever reason I don’t want to canter them all together, I will keep the ride trotting and have them individually set off into canter. This tests the second horse as much as anything as they may try to follow the leader. It also gives other riders chance to be lead file. Having the ride trotting means a longer canter, and if building a ride up to cantering as a group a second rider can be sent off into canter before the first has reached the rear of the ride.

A particularly tricky exercise, which tests the use of the outside leg, is to have the ride walking large, and the leader canter large around the arena before passing the ride on the inside and cantering a second lap. Again, this is great for nappy ponies, and keeps a rider focused while cantering. It can be made harder by having the ride trotting instead of walking.

By the time a young rider can do all of these exercises independently in a balanced, rhythmical canter, I would be confident that they can hold their own working in canter in open order, and that they have full control of their pony. It helps when looking at jumping too, because they’ll be able to ride balanced turns in canter, their pony will be less inclined to nap and more responsive to the aids. Which leads to a fluid, balanced approach to a jump which will give them a higher success rate.

Breaking Up A Course

I was working with a young rider and her fairly new pony a couple of weeks ago on riding in a open field. They’ve spent lockdown getting to know each other thoroughly, but the pony came with the warning that he got very excited in open fields so now it was time to broach the subject.

With her parents she’s walked around their riding field and it’s become boring for her pony so he doesn’t get excited when on his own. They’ve popped over the odd log but the rider doesn’t feel she can control him when stringing jumps together, or approaching jumps in more than a very steady trot, and the pony is known to get faster and faster throughout a cross country course.

I took the pair out into the riding field and started by getting my young rider to walk some school shapes around the logs, trees, bushes and other obstacles. The idea being to fill her pony’s brain with where they were going next rather than the speed they were travelling at. We made a plan of a sequence of movements so my rider could plan her route and didn’t have to think on the spot, which is quite difficult when you’re ten years old.

Once they were riding a calm, steady walk meandering around our corner of the field we moved up to trot. The circles and serpentines helped keep a steady rhythm with my rider feeling in control. With trot established and them both warmed up, I got my rider to adjust her circle so that a little log just happened to be in their way. They trotted over the log, which wasn’t really big enough for the pony to jump, and then carried on round their circle. No big deal. The idea being that the jump was part of their flatwork.

We continued in this vein, over a couple of tiny logs using circles on both reins, progressing from trot to canter. As soon as the pony started to get excited towards a log, the circle my rider was on changed line so that they avoided the jump. It was important that my rider wasn’t pulling out of the jump so teaching her pony to refuse, but she was riding a different line to remain in control.

We worked out way around the field over different logs, using circles before and after to keep the pony in a controlled rhythm without stopping and starting all the time.

With my rider growing in confidence, I started to link some logs together and get her moving around the field much more. However, instead of just telling her a course – so she had a route to take – I gave her movements to do between the jumps. She started with a circle before popping over the first log, and then rode a circle in either direction as she travelled to the second log. She could ride as many circles as she wanted to feel in control before jumping the second log. Between the second and third log, I told her to ride a transition. From canter to trot, and then back into canter. My theory was that if there’s a question before and after every jump it takes the pony’s focus away from jumping and he doesn’t anticipate that the next obstacle he sees is what he’s jumping.

We built the pair up to jumping longer courses of small logs around the field, linking a couple of jumps without the questions in between, ensuring my rider could bring her pony back after each long stretch. At key points on their course she had to ask him a big question to re-establish her authority, so breaking the course up into bitesize chunks.

I think if they continue schooling in this manner, making the jumps progressively bigger and more technical, but with questions between jumps, then when they need to jump a course, at a hunter trial or something, the pony will be expecting to do something between jumps so should not accelerate to the same extent that he used to. Additionally, my rider can ride a transition which won’t incur 20 penalties; possibly gain a couple of time penalties but I’d rather time penalties than them going dangerously fast. I think this is the way forwards for this pair at the moment and as their relationship grows they can start to link fences together straight with ease because they maintain a steady yet forwards rhythm rather than starting and stopping for each jump.

Adaptability

I attended a webinar last week – attended is quite a strong word considering I was sat in my pyjamas on the sofa – but anyway, I listened to a talk about different arena surfaces and the risk of injury. The take home message was that it doesn’t matter hugely on your arena surface so long as it is consistent throughout as your horse will adapt to it (of course extremes of surfaces will cause injuries, but don’t feel you have to have the same surface from the Olympics), and to train on a variety of surfaces to make your horse adaptable so they perform to the same level regardless of the surface they are on (e.g. a different surface at a competition compared to at home).

This made interesting listening, and actually linked well to something I discussed with a client last week about her horse’s adaptability to the terrain.

Before lockdown we’d worked a lot on her horse maintaining his balance when cantering before and after fences as he can get a bit lumbering and onto the forehand, causing him to get too close and trip over the jumps. She’s got the feel for the right balance that he needs on the approach to jumps, and can subtly adjust him – i.e. rebalancing without putting on the brakes when the surface and terrain is consistent and therefore they’re jumping out of a good rhythm, with more successful, confident building jumps.

Taking this out into the open field brought a new level of adaptability for this horse. As they warmed up, you could see how difficult it was for her horse to adjust his body weight to keep his balance going uphill then downhill. It seems to take him several strides to adjust and he needs his hand holding by his rider. This may well improve as he gets more practice in, but to be honest, I think some horses are just more surefooted and quick thinking to adjust their balance in response to the terrain so need less assistance from their rider. His rider is always likely to need to help him balance, but it will become more autonomic as they do more.

Firstly we discussed, and put into practice, keeping her horse balanced as they cantered around the field, using both a two point and three point seat. A two point, or light seat, helps a horse move over their back and often horses travel faster because of the increased freedom. But it is harder to discreetly rebalance a horse without your seat in contact with the saddle and they can get long and onto the forehand if they find that the easiest way to travel. Travelling uphill or in the long spaces between fences she could take light seat, but going downhill and before jumps she needed to be in a three point position to help keep him off his forehand and in an uphill canter ready for the jump.

Throughout our session, my rider got more in tune with her horse’s balance and started to correct him before he lost his balance, which makes a jumping round much more fluid. She was surprised at how much help her horse needed to keep his balance and how much attention she had to pay to this factor. When we discussed jumps and linking them together we talked not only of the jump, but of the terrain before and after. I also noticed how she started to use the grey area between 2 point and 3 point positions to rebalance as we got further into the session. For example, after an open, uphill canter stretch she went from her two point position to still hovering her seat out the saddle but bringing her upper body up and back slightly which rebalanced him sufficiently for the change in terrain as it plateaued.

We spent the session jumping some straightforward cross country fences, focusing on setting the canter up and evaluating the effect of the terrain on the approach to the jump. The trickiest combination for this pair is jumping downhill because this horse needs a lot of help from his rider in order to keep his balance in the canter. If he gets onto his forehand and loses energy then he will bury himself into the base of the jump and struggle to clear it.

I had the pair jumping several short courses of jumps on the flat or uphill, and travelling over different inclines and declines between jumps. As we went through the lesson their courses became much more balanced and fluid, with smoother jumps so they both grew in confidence. Their final course had them cantering down a little valley and then jumping a fence on the uphill. They managed this question really well; if the canter fell apart on the downhill they’d struggle to regroup in time for the jump. Next time, we’ll progress to jumping downhill. As my rider gets more in tune with feeling slight changes in her horse’s canter and subtly changes her position to help him, and as he gets more practiced at adapting to different terrains, they will find it easier to ride a flowing, confident, successful cross country course. Which is my aim!

The Left Hand Knowing What The Right Hand Is Doing

I discussed this subject with a teenage client last week as we focus on improving her pony’s straightness and her rein contact.

I asked her if she was aware of the jobs of the inside and outside hand, and if she felt that her hands were as good as each other at each job.

She knew that the outside rein is a stabilising rein, it needs to be steady and consistent to prevent the horse falling in, losing vertical balance, or bending too much through the neck. The inside rein is used to flex the horse and indicate the direction of movement. As a result, the inside rein is more mobile (not to the extent of dancing around) but not quite so steadfast as the outside rein.

With my rider understanding the concept of the different roles of the inside and outside rein, I asked her to evaluate her rein contact and hands in each direction. Did her right hand find it easier to be the outside rein than the inside? Did her left hand provide a better outside rein contact than the left?

She correctly identified that her right rein was a better outside contact than her left hand as it stayed steady without hanging off the mouth. Her left hand found it easier to soften her pony into a left bend. In this case, the more dextrous hand was her writing hand, but this isn’t always the case. In my observations, I’ve noticed that everyone has a stabilising hand, which is used for example to hold a nail, and everyone has a hand which is more adept at finer movements – the one which uses the hammer. Perhaps that isn’t the best description. The stabilising hand holds the paper still whilst the motor hand draws the picture – how’s that? Most of the time the motor hand is your dominant hand, but it’s not a golden rule.

Once we’d established the different jobs of the outside and inside rein, we talked about how to improve the hands. I asked my rider if she felt there was an even weight in both hands, or if one was always heavier. A lot of riders carry more weight in their stabilising hand, which when it is the inside rein means that the horse is more likely to motorbike around turns and lean in. So I had my rider assess the weight in her hands on both reins to see if one was significantly more. Her right hand was slightly heavier, but not a huge amount so on the right rein I just kept reminding her to balance out the feel in her hands – taking more weight with the left hand and lightening the right. This immediately began to help create a better outside rein contact on the right rein as the left hand became more stable.

I kept the focus on the right rein (clockwise around the school); keeping the left hand more stable and consistent as the outside aid, and then as I don’t want the right hand to suddenly start leaping around we mainly worked on lightening the wrist, keeping the weight of the arm in the slightly more bent elbow. As my rider’s hands became better at each job and the weight more even between left and right, her pony started to move straighter, staying more balanced on turns and giving more of a uniform bend throughout his body. She could then add in the inside leg aid to improve his inside hind leg engagement and balance.

With her new knowledge and understanding of the job of the inside and outside reins, my rider found it easier to change their bend when we started to work on serpentines and figures of eight. Her pony then kept his balance during changes of rein and became more symmetrical in his way of going because he was giving more bend on his stiffer rein and less bend on his hollow side.

With ambidextrous hands a rider is more able to ride evenly in both directions, and with a greater understanding of the purpose of the inside and outside rein the horse can be more easily corrected in their way of going. A rider can balance the horse between leg, seat and hand more subtly and effectively when a rider has more understanding and control over their rein aids.When learning lateral work, greater control over the reins as individuals means more correct movements will be ridden because the horse can be set up on the correct bend and it can be maintained whilst moving sideways.

Planning Your Polework

With the majority of us not jumping at the moment and needing ideas to entertain us and our four legged friends more of us are looking at polework exercises.

Polework exercises that are being shared on social media are becoming increasingly complex and imaginative. I’m not against them in any way, but I think it’s important that riders don’t blindly copy the layouts, and take the time to plan, prepare and focus on your aims so that they don’t run into problems.

With any pole work layouts there are one or more themes:

  • Straightness
  • Accuracy
  • Cadence
  • Rhythm
  • Engagement of topline muscles

Before deciding on the pole layout you want to use, have a think about why you’re wanting to use the poles. What part of your horse’s way of going are you looking to develop?

It might be that a simpler pole layout is just as effective as a complex one.

If you are focusing on your horse’s weakest area, or your horse is weak or green, it might be better to only focus on one theme and keep the layout simple. Once they’re stronger, more established and confident you can start to use multiple themes in your pole layouts.

It’s also important to know the correct striding for your horse for trot and canter poles, and how to assess if the distance is too long or too short. The distance between trot poles is 4’6″ for the average horse, and if it is the correct distance for your horse their feet will hit the floor in the middle of the gap between the poles. If the distance is too close, then your horse will place their foot down closer to the upcoming pole. If the distance is too long, they will place their foot down closer to the pole they’ve just stepped over. The distance between canter poles is on average 9′, but it’s important to measure and calculate the distances like you would for trot when setting up the pole layouts.

Once you know your horse’s striding and can lay out straightforward trot and canter poles correctly for your horse you will get the most out of the any pole layout; reducing the risk of them injuring themselves or tripping over, and increasing the benefits of the polework to the horse’s way of going. Then you’re more likely to reproduce layouts you’ve seen online correctly.

I think there’s a real risk of people copying pole layouts they’ve seen in videos online without the correct knowledge to build it suitable for their horse and pony. Furthermore, without a thorough explanation of the aims of the polework layout or how to develop the exercises progressively; unknowledgeable riders may come a cropper by outfacing and confusing the horse, doing it too fast or in an unbalanced way, with the horse using his body incorrectly, and thus the polework is of no benefit at all.

I think it’s great that everyone is focusing on improving their horse’s way of going and utilising polework, but equally I think it’s important to share the “inside information” of distances, routes through the poles and the reasons, as well as riders themselves asking for advice from their coach or the author of the polework layout so that they are fully informed to the purpose of the polework and how to know if it is benefitting or not benefitting their horse and needs adapting during the session. And then of course the polework is safer for everyone.

Poles for Shallow Loops

I’ve been doing a lot of lesson plans during lockdown; some for private clients to give them some structure to their riding whilst they can’t have lessons, and some for Pony Club, which is a challenge in itself providing a lesson plan with sufficient layers of exercises to accommodate riders aged 5 to 20.

Anyway, I saw a similar layout online and immediately stole it and adapted it slightly to suit my needs.

On the inner track I laid out 3 poles parallel to the long side. One at K, one at E and the other at H in a straight line.

The purpose of these exercises is to improve the suppleness of the horse; discourage a rider from over steering and to encourage the use of the outside aids; improve the rider’s control over their horse; and to introduce the concept of shallow loops and counter canter.

The poles at K and H encourage the rider to ride deep, correct corners as an added bonus.

To begin, ride in and out of the poles in walk and trot, so that if you’re on the right rein the first and third poles are to your right as you pass them and the second pole is on your left. Assess how easy it is for your horse, whether going left is as easy as going right. Do they maintain their rhythm or do they lose their balance and either rush or slow down? Ideally, the wiggle should be fluid and rhythmical, with no changes from left bend to right bend and vice versa. I also like to focus riders on their aids at this point; are they using their seat, are their aids as quiet as possible, are they turning their upper body in the direction of travel?

Once this is mastered, which shouldn’t take too long, the middle pole can be rolled towards X by a couple of feet. Riding in and out of these poles now requires a greater degree of balance and suppleness. Because I’m not present when my riders are using this exercise I’m trying to layer it so that they establish the basics and will develop the exercise progressively so reducing the chance of going wrong, reducing the risk of creating bad habits, and increasing their chances of success. And who doesn’t need an ego boost in these times?

I’m sure you can see how the shallow loop is developing now. This is the ideal time to tell the rider about shallow loops as they can now visualise it which will help their understanding. I would then continue riding the exercise whilst rolling the centre pole closer to X. Ideally, I’d want to finish the session riding an accurate shallow loop around the poles, and then recreating it along the opposite long side without the help of poles, but as soon as the horse is starting to find it difficult and is losing their balance past the middle pole, the exercise should plateau. It can be repeated until either the horse starts to tire or masters it. Next session he will be able to do the next level of difficulty but it’s important not to overface him.

This exercise should teach a rider a good eye and feel for riding correct shallow loops in walk and trot. The next step is canter!

Putting the poles back to their original position, I would introduce the concept of counter canter to make sure the rider knows what it is, how it benefits the horse, and how to ride it. For those of you feeling a bit puzzled as you read, counter canter is basically cantering on the wrong leg. Riding right canter but travelling left, for example.

In this exercise the line between the first and second poles is correct canter, and the line from the second to third pole is counter canter. Some horses will try and be clever and either do a flying change, change their lead in front, or just fall into trot. I don’t tend to ask my riders to make a big deal out of the counter canter, but to just ensure they are maintain position right if on the right canter lead as they return to the track. That is, weight into the inside seatbone, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind, try to keep the horse looking slightly to the inside and just turn their head to look back at the track. This doesn’t guarantee that a horse won’t do a flying change, but it makes it very difficult for him to do so.

Again, riding this exercise from the very very shallow loop means a horse is less likely to change his leg, and also means he builds confidence and balance in his counter canter slowly. He is then more likely to give counter canter when the middle pole is rolled towards X.

I would then have the rider cantering the very very shallow loop, focusing on their position and ensuring the leg that is on the girth is pushing the horse back to the track rather than the outside rein. Invariably, they’re usually successful in maintaining the canter lead.

As in the trot, the exercise can be developed by rolling the middle pole steadily towards X until the horse is at the edge of his comfort zone. Again, the idea is not to push him until he wobbles and goes disunited or scrambles a flying change, it’s to increase his suppleness and improve his balance.

Once the shallow loop starts to get deeper the rider should start to feel an improvement in their horse’s canter; it should feel straighter, lighter on the forehand, more three beat and active.

From the shallow loops of counter canter changes of rein can be introduced and riding corners of the school in counter canter used to develop the movement.

I’ve found that using poles can really help a rider visualise and ride a movement accurately, which makes a schooling session safer and more progressive when I’m not present to supervise and explain. So far, I’ve seen good progress and had positive feedback from this pole layout and lesson plan. Hopefully it helps some of you during lockdown.

Befuddled

I started working with a young rider before lockdown who’d lost confidence in her intelligent Welsh Section A, who whilst isn’t naughty likes to be in charge.

My rider had lost her confidence cantering in the school, and when they start trotting her pony just goes into a quick trot, unnerving her rider.

I felt that my rider needed a change of scenery, to sit on a steady neddy, and finally to feel in control of her pony. So she had a couple of weeks hacking a lovely veteran mare, and then started hacking out her own pony again, before doing a little bit of trot work in their riding paddock, building her confidence in herself and trust in her pony.

The last time I saw them, I worked her on the lunge in the paddock, doing some transitions to help my little jockey feel in control. If she knows how to execute a good, balanced transition and can plan it then she will feel more confident in her own ability and so ride more positively. We even finished over trot poles, again planning where she wanted to trot and where she wanted to walk.

She’s started going into the school again, but still had a block about cantering. She was getting a good, steady trot on the left rein, but the right rein got faster and ended up in numerous circles with the pony getting unbalanced and breaking into a steady canter. From what I could see and understood from conversations with both rider and mother, it seemed to be that there was a power struggle. The pony wasn’t being nasty or dangerous, but just challenged her rider’s leadership by trotting quicker than she was comfortable with, and ignoring the aids.

We needed to confuse, bewilder, and muddle the pony so that she wanted her rider to take control. Mind over matter because there’s no way a little jockey can win a tug of war with a pony!

I explained to my little rider that she needed to have a plan when she started trotting, so that her pony didn’t know where she was going and couldn’t quicken her trot because there were multiple changes in direction. I gave her several exercises – serpentines with circles within the loops, my favourite demi volte bow tie, and a shallow loop with circles. My rider needed to practice these in walk so she was confident of her lines, and then as soon as she went into trot she needed to start riding one of the exercises. She needed to ride the exercise until she felt the rhythm was more consistent and that her pony was waiting for her directives. She could then work through each exercise separately before working them all together in a mish mash, with her pony listening and waiting for her aids.

It didn’t take long for her quick pony to pause and listen to her rider. Because my rider had a plan she felt more in control and confident, as well as the fact she had a plan so continued to ride positively and was less likely to freeze.

I also explained to my rider that she needed to be a step ahead of her pony. So when she went into trot, she needed to be ready to steady her pony, rather than wait for the trot to get fast and then try to rein it in. Preventing a situation rather than reacting to it. It’s a tricky concept for kids to learn, but it makes a huge difference to a pony as they can’t begin to get the upper hand.

Finally, I gave my rider one more exercise to stop her pony racing off into trot on the right rein. I told her to walk a ten metre circle and as she was approaching the fence to go into trot. The fence would back the pony off. She should trot to the next letter before riding to walk. Walk for a bit and then repeat. Short trots would build my riders self-belief and feeling of control, and would break the cycle of the pony whizzing off into turbo trot because a transition to walk was coming up shortly. As the pony started to expect the downward transition, her rider could trot for longer, maintaining the rhythm and tempo. So breaking the cycle.

By all accounts, the exercises were very helpful and they had a canter at the end of their session. The rider felt more in control because she had a plan to her trotting, and was subsequently more confident. This confidence fed down to the pony, who was also a but befuddled with all the changes of rein, and she accepted her rider’s leadership.

Of course, they’ll probably still have to have this discussion at the beginning of each ride to make sure the pony is put calmly back into her box, but I think in time she will more readily settle to her work, because that is the norm, and because her rider exudes confidence. But that’s ponies for you! You really have to get inside their brain and work out what makes them tick and then find a way of getting them on side and putting their wily brains to work!

Creating Positivity

I was looking back at my notes from the Pony Club Coaching Conference back in February and was reminded of the subject of creating positivity in lessons.

You create a positive atmosphere within the teaching environment from your body language, tone of voice, having a progressive lesson plan, and most importantly with the language you use.

The words and phrases you use when talking to a client is what builds a confident, strong mentality of self-belief, which leads to success. It also makes them resilient when things don’t go as planned, and give them a firmer mindset and set of beliefs.

So what words and phrases are more positive to use when teaching?

It’s not saying things like “don’t do this” or “that’s wrong”. It’s giving an instruction to alter something which will improve their performance by focusing on the good bits.

For example, let’s say that the left rein is too long with a flimsy contact. Don’t berate the fact that this is wrong as it creates a negative cycle of thoughts. Equally, the rider needs to know that the left rein needs to be improved so don’t ignore it altogether. Say things like, “you have a good right rein contact, but you tend to have a longer left rein…” And “before starting, check your left hand is as good as your right”. Or even, “shorten your left rein” as this is an action and results in a positive response from the rider. They shorten that rein without thinking about how bad it is. Yet if you were to ask them later which hand was their weaker one, they would subconsciously know.

Another situation would be if an exercise is ridden too fast, you would tell your rider that it was too fast – don’t beat around the bush – but before they try it again, you don’t send them off with the phrase “not as fast as last time”, because that plants a seed of negativity and prevents them from riding in a forwards manner, which could create other problems. Instead, phrases like “find a steadier tempo before you start”, or “this time I’d like you to give yourself as much time as you can” will send them off with a plan. Ride the exercise in a more steady fashion; they will still ride positively and actively, but they are focused more on their new, steadier tempo. And because they have a positive mental attitude, they are more likely to succeed.

You’re reminding your rider of their fault, but without detracting from their focus to an exercise.

I like to think that I used positive phrases to my teaching before the conference, but certainly since then I’ve been cross checking myself to make sure I spend as little time telling riders “don’t do this” as possible, and instead say “do that” to counteract their “this”.

Instead of saying “don’t let your lower leg swing backward as you trot”, saying “keep your feet going down to the floor as you trot” or “relax your knee and drop your heel to keep your lower leg still”. There’s a solution within my corrections. I know I’m not perfect, and I keep having to change my tact mid sentence, but I hope my clients are noticing and feeling that they come away from lessons with a can-do attitude, fully knowledgeable about how to improve their and their horse’s performance.

Have you ever noticed, and felt that a teacher (of whatever subject) had an overly negative effect on your confidence with just a few poorly chosen words? Or have you noticed a change in your approach to riding as a result of your support network using, well, supportive language?

Feeling Trot Diagonals and Canter Leads

Now, be honest, who can feel their trot diagonal?

Did you even know it was possible to know without looking down at your horse’s shoulder?

This last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on feeling the trot diagonals with several clients. What are the benefits? Well, firstly, you don’t waste time and accuracy in your changes of rein looking down; secondly, it improves your feel and awareness of your horse’s strides, keeping your head up doesn’t unbalance your horse, and finally, it becomes autonomic. You check your diagonal as you go into trot without thinking, so leaving more brain space to prepare and ride your next movement, or to correct your horse’s way of going.

When I ask riders if they can feel their trot diagonal I often get a surprised and confused look. Almost as if I’d asked them if they could hear the smell of bacon. But when we get down to it, it doesn’t take them long to pick it up.

When I learnt to ride, in our group lessons on the lead rein, we had to go into trot, counting “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise”. We had to do sitting trot until the word “rise”, when we commenced rising trot. No one ever explained the reasons behind this, so as a shy child I hated having to shout about elephants. But the reason behind it is that nine times out of ten, you end up on the correct diagonal. Don’t ask me how!

It also taught us our sitting trot early in our ridden education, and by remaining sitting for a few strides after the transition you can adjust and establish the trot. How often does a horse become unbalanced by their rider standing up on the first trot stride?

Anyway, this is an aside and certainly something I try to teach beginner riders to do. And when I’m nit-picking more established rider’s transitions it invariably comes up.

To teach a rider to feel their trot diagonal I get them to stay on a 20m circle. They go sitting and I ask them to think about how it feels, and see if they can identify different legs moving forwards. Then I get them to go into rising trot, and without looking, tell me if they are on the correct (this is where left and right, and right or wrong get confusing) diagonal or not. A circle or turn is easier to feel the diagonal on because the outside limbs move further forward so there is a difference between sides. sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But it is a 50:50 question, so we repeat it a few times so that I know it’s not a fluke and they start to feel more confident in what they’re feeling.

I find that different riders find it easier to feel different limbs, and different horses make it easier or harder to feel a hindlimb stepping under. Instead of telling them which limb they should be feeling for, I ask if they can feel the outside shoulder moving forwards, or the inside hind coming under, giving the options to focus on. I used to feel my diagonal from the outside shoulder, but then that was on high stepping Welsh ponies! Nowadays I feel the diagonal pair working together, but my awareness and feel for the hindquarters has grown exponentially since I was eleven. I don’t really mind how my rider’s identify their trot diagonal, as long as they can tell me what they’re feeling and how that tells them which diagonal they are on.

If a rider cannot identify their trot diagonal on a circle I often ask them to change their diagonal and compare the two. Riding a turn on the wrong diagonal feels, well, wrong! Usually this helps them identify the correct diagonal, and is a useful step to take so that they don’t resort to looking down and checking immediately.

Often I find that just by identifying the fact that it is possible to feel trot diagonals, a rider becomes more aware of their subconscious feel for the trot. Once they can identify the correct diagonal the majority of the time on the circle, we try it on straight lines. Sitting trot for a minute or two and then rising and checking their diagonal by feel in straight lines.

Finally, I move on to transitions, asking my riders to ride up into trot from walk, sit for a few strides and start rising on the correct diagonal. This is more efficient than blindly going rising, checking and changing, and causes less unbalance to the horse. All that’s left then is for them to practice and for me to do spot checks to reinforce the lesson.

Closely linked to this subject, is feeling the canter leads. I think most people find it easier to feel than trot diagonals, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of the instructor informing the rider of a wrong lead before they’ve had a chance to figure it out for themselves. I know this because I see the incorrect strike off before the first canter stride is done and am always biting my tongue to give my riders chance to work it out.

I start by establishing what my riders know already of the canter gait; sequence of footfalls and if they are aware of the inside shoulder seemingly moving further forwards. That was where we were always taught to look as kids. I send them off into canter on a circle, getting them to feel and think about their horse underneath them. Then we work large, picking up the canter in the corner before the long side, and identifying as quickly as possible if they’re on the correct lead. Most of the time they will be, so I move the transition to E or B. The rider still has their influence of asking for the correct lead in the transition, but the horse is more likely to throw in an incorrect canter lead. We ride these exercises on both reins, so that my rider starts to build up an understanding for their horse’s preferential leading leg, and any asymmetries to the two canter leads.

I like to get my riders thinking more about the hindquarters in the canter as eventually I’d like them to feel the outside hindleg propelling the horse into the first canter stride and so correct their horse during a transition, which helps a horse keep their balance and means you can prevent a wrong leg catastrophe in a dressage test!

Improving a rider’s awareness during and immediately after a canter transition means that they can correct the lead nice and early – think about the benefit of correcting a canter lead before a turn on a showjumping round rather than losing balance round the turn, scrabbling back into canter and a couple of strides later jumping a fence. Eventually, they’ll correct a canter lead before the transition is finished.

The big test now for my riders, is to ride the centre line, asking for alternate canter leads and identifying which lead they are on. Putting in multiple transitions within a fixed distance encourages the rider to think and assess their canter leads quicker, and react faster to correct themselves.

It’s a useful tool to have; to automatically and subconsciously feel for your trot diagonal or canter lead; you can get away with visual checking at the lower levels, but it makes it much easier to ride a higher level dressage test or unrelenting jumping course successfully.

A Sustainable Gait

Once you’ve mastered control of the basic gaits, things get harder and you have to master a range of gears in each gait. Furthermore, your horse has to develop the strength, balance and stamina to work in each gear. This was illustrated perfectly at the Pony Club Conference a couple of weeks ago.

The demo riders were riding a simulated cross country exercise; jumping a triple bar at speed to imitate jumping a simple cross country fence, before making a turn and jumping two bounce fences from a slower canter.

The first rider galloped at the triple bar, popping it easily, and slowed down a bit for the bounce, but jumped it a bit too fast really and it was only her pony’s deftness which got them over the two elements. She rode the exercise again, this time circling between the two questions until she’d collected the canter sufficiently. It took her a few circles but she really collected the canter up. She approached the bounce, but her pony refused.

The reason? Her new collected canter wasn’t sustainable. He could collect that much on the flat, but he didn’t have the impulsion and strength to jump from this canter. She rode the exercise again, and circled until she got the collection. Then she opened up the canter slightly, relaxing so that she moved up half a gear. The pony jumped the bounce beautifully. Because the canter was sustainable and the balance between collection and impulsion was right for jumping.

I thought it was a brilliant example of how the gears to your canter will vary as to whether you’re on the flat or jumping, and in relation to your horse’s level of training. For example, a horse who works at prelim level may be able to collect their canter slightly, but will struggle to have the energy and balance to jump from that slightly collected canter, whereas an elementary level horse will be able to sustain that slightly collected canter for longer and with less effort, so will be able to jump easily out of it.

I’ve already mentioned the word “sustainable” to some clients, but I think it’s a worthwhile term to bring into every day conversation. It can be a measure of development too because a canter gear will feel more sustainable as the horse improves their balance, suppleness and impulsion. We can talk about shortening or lengthening strides; feeling if the horse stays in balance, and also how long they can remain in this balance. A horse learning how to collect may only sustain collection for a couple of strides whereas a more established horse will maintain the collection for a full circuit of the arena. So add “sustainable” to your equine dictionary, and start taking it into consideration when you reflect on your horse’s work.