Teaching Teenagers

Teenagers are a special sort of client. So special in fact, that my coaching book devotes a whole section about how to teach teenagers. Whilst I don’t envy secondary school teachers having to teach a whole classroom of hormonal adolescents, I do feel I have the advantage of teaching teenagers who want to be there. And want to learn to ride. That’s got to be better than trying to teach them maths! 

Recently my geek of a husband told me a fascinating fact in that during puberty the brain undergoes huge neurological changes, similar to that of a toddler. Without listening to the whole audio book by David Eagleman (look it up, it’s really interesting), basically during puberty the prefrontal cortex changes beyond recognition which means that teenagers are more affected by social situations and show exaggerated stress responses. There’s also something about them being more inclined to take risks and “live for the moment” but as I’m getting out of my depth I’ll leave it to you to do more reading on it.

For me, the important thing I took away from hearing this is that teenagers can’t physically help their erratic behaviour or highly charged responses, and actually need a very supportive environment in order to thrive. 

Which means we need to make sure teenagers aren’t embarrassed, or made to feel socially awkward or inferior. And we should be aware that adolescents should encompass ten year olds as well as twenty five year olds, because research has shown that the brain is changing rapidly between these ages. 

I teach a few teenagers, and like I said earlier, I have the advantage of being able to develop a rapport and strong mentoring relationship with my clients who want to be there, and want to learn, as opposed to being made to be there by law.

I’ve never been one to talk down to children anyway – I’d be one of those parents who has a serious conversation about the political conundrum with their toddler – but with teenagers I think it’s even more important to treat them as adults. After all, they’re developing their own opinions and views, so if we never teach them how to discuss and negotiate then they’ll never learn to rationalise or value others’ opinions.

So when I teach the teenagers, I speak to them like adults. I explain a concept, and ask them about their understanding or opinions, as equals. If they give a wrong answer, I just elaborate and subtly correct them, as opposed to shutting them down. If they have a different suggestion to me as to what exercise or approach will help their horse, and it’s safe to try it then I’ll let them. If it goes wrong then they’ll have learnt a valuable lesson. And I’d much rather they tried it under my supervision than on their own. They can then make the decision themselves to reject their idea as a good one, and to embrace my suggestion. I also like to give them bits of homework, so that they’re taking responsibility for their own development, and I’ll tell them directly what they need to work on. That also helps them feel valued and respected. 

Even when talking to their parents about future lessons, and their progress, I always try to include them so that they feel valued and involved in their own development. After all, you need them to be on your side and making them feel important is a good way of creating a rapport. I enjoy seeing them come out of their shells as I get to know them and they get to know me. One girl I’ve been teaching for a couple of years started off quiet and said very little, but now she gives more input to lessons, starts off conversation when I arrive, and is generally more comfortable with herself. She’s really coming out of her shell and becoming a young lady.

Because adolescents are still developing, they have that balance between maturity and immaturity. The ability to cope with every day stressors and the ability to rationally respond, varies enormously. So when planning lessons for teenagers I find I often have to have a couple of options up my sleeve: so I can adjust the lesson to today’s emotions. If they overreact to a silly thing while tacking up, I know they need a fairly simple, straightforward lesson. But if they come across as being very mature today as they warm up, I will challenge them more and perhaps give them a new concept or exercise to process. 

Also with teenagers, it’s important to take into account the rest of their lives. Is it exam week in school? Have they just been on a Duke of Edinburgh weekend? Are the likely to be physically or mentally tired? I usually ask them a couple of questions about their week, and I like parents to give me the heads up during exam period, so I can adjust my teaching to get the best out of my rider on that day. 

Teenagers have a lot of emotional baggage too; falling out with friends, body image worries, boy/girlfriends, the lot. They aren’t going to tell me all their worries. Occasionally I get let into secrets, but I try to create a lesson environment where they can forget about the rest of life. I don’t usually ask about personal things, unless they’re visibly upset; I just gauge their mood by their behaviour and start a light hearted conversation about their horse or dog or whatever they’re interested in to distract them from their worries. Once they let go of those then they are more relaxed and open to learning, so the lesson will go more smoothly.

Everyone knows that teenagers clash with their parents, which can create problems within the learning environment. One mother will go and busy herself on the yard if her son is a bit fraught at the beginning of the lesson, and then she’ll watch the lesson through a hole in the stable wall. We usually then have a far more successful lesson because my rider doesn’t feel that there is any interference and focuses better. So yes parents need to be supportive, but also to know when to remove themselves from the equation and let their teen feel more independent and responsible for their own riding, whether it’s in lessons or not. 

It can be tricky to plan ahead with teenagers; you have to be flexible and fluid with lesson plans so you can get the best work out of them on that day. Then they’ll appreciate their riding time, want to work hard at it, not resent having lessons, and generally become easier to teach. As well as hopefully learning to leave the bad moods at home!

Teaching teenagers can be really rewarding as they can be fun, and up for a challenge. But they can be testing; for example when they’re grumpy and give mono-syllabic answers. But then all of a sudden you get that feeling of satisfaction when you’ve got through to them and they’ve forgotten their woes, and have a smile on their face again. It definitely keeps me on my toes!

No Escape Routes

I taught a guinea pig rider over the weekend, a completely unknown combination to test my ability to assess and teach new people with no preparation, and we definitely had a breakthrough. With new, or unknown combinations, you often make tweaks and see the beginning of improvements, but rarely do you have a game changer of a lesson. That comes later when several tweaks come together in a dot-to-dot fashion.

My rider was a young teenager on her almost outgrown Welsh section B. The pony apparently had a phobia of fillers and didn’t jump more that 2’6″ at most.

After watching them warm up on the flat I felt that the pony was doing an excellent impression of a llama – nose up and out as he pranced along. But his rider had poker straight arms, which wasn’t helping the situation. Almost as soon as we’d corrected the hand carriage the pony relaxed his neck and became a bit softer in his frame. 

We moved into jumping, and the pony looked fairly scopey to me, albeit a bit erratic on the approach. So I focused my rider’s attention on the quality of the canter and not letting the pony back off towards fences. We worked on still softening the hands and arms on the approach, with quiet, positive legs.

Once they’d jumped a few and it was flowing well, I brought in the fillers. The two fillers were just at the side of the fence, with space to jump in the centre. Then I asked my rider how she was going to ride towards the filler jump. She said a few taps with the stick and fast. I asked her to demonstrate, so I could prove my point later.

After a refusal (a dive out to the right), they popped it easily and I brought them in to discuss how we could progress.

I felt that the pony was more than capable but was a typical pony and would take the easy route if possible. Which meant that it was down to his rider to ride him so that the only, and easiest, route was over the jump. Firstly, approaching a bit slower would give her more control and hopefully more time to prevent a run out. In order to give the pony just one direction to go in, the leg needs to be hugging him ready to apply pressure if he backs off the fence. The reins need to channel him straight without discouraging him from going forwards. I got my rider to imagine the reins were train tracks, hands quite close together and carried above the wither. The legs can help tunnel the pony along the tracks; e.g. If he drifts left, close the left leg and left rein to the shoulder. Basically the legs and hands had to block the alternative, sideways, routes. Finally, the seat needed to support the legs in driving the pony forwards. 

Put all together, the rider is quietly and positively giving the pony no alternative but to jump over the fence. We put the theory into practice, and they flew! Every single jump, regardless of filler or not, had a more positive and rhythmical approach and a better take off point and bascule. The whole course flowed nicely.

To test them thoroughly, I asked them to jump the narrow, white gate fence in the arena. It was full up 2’6″ and spooky, but my rider applied the aids and the pony refused by stopping on the final stride. This was fine; I explained to my rider that he was no longer running around the jump as his previous refusals had been, because her legs and reins were more effective. He had, however, exploited a weakness. She had just been a little lax with the seat, as she anticipated the take off. On the second attempt, they flew it easily!

They made a huge improvement through the lesson, and I think the rider understood the content and felt more confident in her pony’s ability. Hopefully they can apply this technique of shutting all exit routes in a quiet way, whilst clearly offering going forwards over the jump as the only option, the pony will stop thinking about how to evade the jump and just get on with it! It’s just a shame now that I can’t help them continue their journey, because they look like they’re going to have a lot of fun! 

How We Used To Cross Country…

Cross country lessons have changed a lot now travelling is more accessible and there are now many more venues with well designed courses for all abilities. Around us we’re lucky to have half a dozen cross country courses near us (that many I can think of early on a Sunday morning anyway) ranging from teeny tiny courses for novices and kids, right up to the advanced jumps that the Olympians train over. Many coaches offer cross country clinics, and amateur riders get to practice over competition standard fences.

I was reminiscing about our cross country days whilst hacking last week. We had a cross country field. It was fairly flat in the middle, with a gentle incline into the top left corner. A stream ran on two sides of the field, and there was a bit of field on the other side of the stream.

At the beginning of the lesson we’d all walk off the yard, open the cross country field gate, cross the stream and up the hill. We warmed up around a large tree, then moved onto the jumps.

These were the days before health and safety and frangible pins, so our jumps consisted of stick piles, which were frequently added to, logs (I remember one log started off huge but due to going rotten it got smaller and smaller each year), tyres, barrels (often had to be rebuilt as horses rolled them around), pallets, water trough (this was tricky as it was next to the fence, near a tree and bordered by nettles) and anything else we could get our hands on. There were a few fixed, proper jumps like the tiger trap, or “the big one” which was three stout rails on an ascending spread, up the hill. Every spring we would go to the cross country field, retrieve barrels that had rolled into the stream, rebuilt jumps and try to make some new ones.

Our courses involved mixing up the jumps, and following the rabbit paths to cross the stream in a couple of places. This was a good test of balance because the ground was quite undulating. I used to struggle with this part of the lessons because I couldn’t see the path I should take – there were loads of little, twisty tracks – and I think because I wasn’t convinced which route we should go, my pony declined to cross. I was a child who had to have things spelt out for me.

The cross country field was also one of our grazing fields, so we often had our lessons while the horses were grazing. We would sometimes have to avoid a grazing horse on the approach to a fence – they usually moved after the first person had cantered past them. Sometimes we had a horse join us; I remember Otis coming over to the warm up when I was riding Matt once. He trotted around a bit, and then stood with us all as we took it in turns to jump.

Sometimes the jumps needed rearranging, in which case one of us would gallop over; dismount and push the barrels or tyres back into place, remount and gallop back.

We did have a ditch, well more of a gulley that we would pop that, and we also had a jump just behind it to make a more interesting fence one year. I think the wooden pole was so precariously balanced on the beer barrels that we were forever having to rebuild the jump. 

When I was ten or eleven I got to ride in top group with my friend; we weren’t really ready for top group, but we were given different courses to the big girls. I was on my 11.2hh spindly legged loan pony, called Filly – such a rubbish name! Her show name was Glebedale Sapphire but if I’m honest, she wasn’t pretty enough for that name. She was known as “the filly in the back stable” when she arrived, and Filly stuck. I digress.

We were given a course of fences, and I was told not to jump the tyres. Fair enough, it was pretty big. What my instructor didn’t clarify though, was that I shouldn’t jump the pallet fence, which was actually bigger. I told you earlier, I was a child who needed things spelt out. So off I cantered. We avoided the tyre jump, but I kicked for the 3′ pallet fence. We jumped it. We just parted company on landing. It took a while to live that down! 

We loved our cross country lessons, but when I think back about them I feel old – times have changed so much! 

Something To Get My Teeth Into …

Every so often I teach a lesson that is really rewarding. Whether it is because I’ve done mental gymnastics to work out how best to explain a concept, or had to do some research, or the satisfaction when a client “gets it”.

I had one of those lessons this week, and came away tired, but buzzing. 

One of my teenage clients has recently stepped up a level with her jumping, but they’ve had a couple of hiccoughs, which we’ve been trying to iron out.

Last week, we worked on the rein contact because a stride or so before the jump my rider was dropping the contact and getting in front of her pony. Which was causing him to refuse. But by the end of last week’s lesson she was waiting until the fence to fold and maintaining the contact nicely. Oh and she was also using the snaffle ring of the Dutch gag to minimise the effect of the loss of contact on the pony so that he didn’t lose confidence. 

Then over the weekend she had a pony club rally and got very muddled with the comments that instructor made. I’m not going into who’s right and wrong, but everyone has different ways of explaining principles and it can sometimes be overwhelming for young people to process. 

So armed with the knowledge that I needed to untangle my young rider’s  mind, I spent a couple of days thinking about it all.

She had been told that she was holding her horse back into the fence, but she was getting confused with our work on maintaining a contact, waiting for the fence, and her pony taking her to the fence.

Coincidentally, I’d read an article by Lucinda Green recently which discussed keeping 75% of the horse in front of you on the approach to a cross country fence so that you are behind the movement and in a safer position. It occurred to me that this explanation might be beneficial for this rider to help her understand not to get in front of her pony before the fence.

While she warmed up, I asked her to  think about how much of her pony was in front of her. She started feeling there was 50% in front of her, but by sitting on her bum, closing the leg and pushing the hindquarters into her much improved, steady contact she began to feel there was 75% of her pony in front of her. She found this useful to get her position correct, and to feel that her pony was taking her forwards.

I discussed with my rider the feedback from the rally, and her thoughts on her riding last week, at the rally and today, and we came to the conclusion that my rider had forgotten to close the leg towards the fence and ride positively (because I think we have been focusing on her keeping a consistent contact and not getting in front of the movement) and whilst I may have picked up on this because I know how my rider ticks, her past riding, and the pony; the rally instructor focused on the wrong aspect for my client. Not the wrong thing necessarily, but the phrase and explanation didn’t make sense to my rider at her current level of understanding. It’s also tricky because the pony behaves differently at home than away, so issues that I may not observe can occur. We’re planning an outing with me soon, so I can help my rider at a competition.

With the explanations untangled and my rider clearer in her head, we began jumping the course I had built.

As crosses and uprights at 90cm my rider flew around the course, her rein contact was steady, she kept herself upright and her pony took her into the fences nicely because she wasn’t getting in front of him. 

At this point, they were both looking confident and comfortable. So out of interest, I raised the fences to see if this changed anything. 

Now I had to get my thinking cap on, because things started to fall apart. The pony was keen, getting quicker to the fences and now I could see how my rider was holding him back. Perhaps she was worried he was going too fast to jump, or worried he would put in a sudden stop, or the jumps worried her because they were bigger, I’m not 100% sure why. The trouble is that the pony is keen so if you don’t steady him at some point whilst jumping a course he will get too fast and unbalanced which could cause other issues. It’s a fine balancing act, and one which has got out of proportion.

I reminded my rider of a principle we’ve covered many times. It’s her job to create an energetic, balanced canter and straight approach, but her pony’s job to get over the jump. That means the last three strides were his, and his alone. She remembered and understood this, so I stood in front of the jump and walked away until she told me where she relinquished control over the canter. Marking that place, I then strode out three canter strides. My rider’s point was significantly closer to the jump than the three strides I had walked. Partnered with the fact that a bigger fence has a take off point further away, my rider began to understand that she was trying to dictate the canter for too long, thus inhibiting the way her pony jumped. 

I think this is a fairly recent development, possibly due to their knock in confidence. We now jumped the course, focusing on organising the canter, and releasing the pony in sufficient time to allow him to organise himself over the jump. It was looking much better, and my rider understood everything we’d discussed and could feel how much better her pony was jumping. And how happier he felt.

But we had another problem now. In related distances, my rider was taking a steady, but still trying to slow the canter in those critical three strides prior to the next fence.  

I videoed her, and then we watched the video so my rider could clearly see where she should have released, and how she was trying to steady. I explained to her how she needs to land and try to rebalance her pony, but if she hasn’t managed to, or even if she has, it is vitally important that she releases and let’s her pony do his job. 

This worked. Okay, it was still fast through the related distances but by releasing the control over the canter in sufficient time, the pony still jumped easily and nicely. 

My rider understood everything we discussed, and could see what she needed to do to best help her pony, who after all wants to jump. Now it’s just retraining her eye and getting her to trust that he will fly the jump if she releases the handbrake before the fence. Her position was much more secure by the end, and the contact was steady, so we have resolved the getting in front of her pony issue. This means that I’ll give her some brakes next time and drop the reins down a ring on the Dutch gag, because I feel she can keep the contact consistent now, and I would like her to feel that she has some control around a course. 

We’ll spend the next few weeks focusing on when she’s in charge of the canter and when she needs to relinquish control to her pony.

A Sad Day

I think the whole of the British equestrian world is in mourning, and my international readers will be when they here why.

Facebook, Twitter, all the big wigs of GB Equestrian, have been talking non-stop about a young girl for the past year. Hannah Francis, only a teenager, was a successful eventer and had just been chosen for a rider development pathway when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. 

Cancer at sixteen years old.

Anyway, I won’t tell her story as well as her Facebook and Twitter do, but since Hannah’s diagnosis she has been raising awareness for cancer, raising money, making famous friends, and been on an incredible journey with her mascot – Wilberry Wonder Pony.

Professionals in all equine disciplines have been touched; they’ve met her, given her yard tours, let her ride their top horses, donated to her charity, and helped raise awareness for her cause. A family of Berry ponies is born as each special person takes their own mascot. In particular, Ben Hobday who battled cancer himself in 2015 rode around Badminton with Wilberry on his back. Now people are vying to replicate this at events across the country. I even saw Wanderberry yesterday at a sponsored ride.

Hannah’s cancer didn’t go away, and she was told it was terminal at the end of last year, which meant she was more determined than ever to #kickcancersbutt and tick off her bucket list – safari, skiing, riding under the GB flag…

Loads of companies came together to produce Wilberry merchandise and Hannah was given fantastic opportunities and gifts, such as a Devoucoux saddle, and asked to ride the Guinea pig dressage test at Tattersalls International Three Day Event. Meanwhile Wilberry held black tie balls, tea parties, raffles, and between them both they have raised over £115,000.

After Tattersalls Hannah went rapidly downhill with a ruptured bowel, but carried on fighting and exceeding all expectations. That is until today, when sadly she passed away. Social media is full of personal tributes, media articles, and condolences.

I’ve listed some links below so that you can read her story for yourself, perhaps donate to help her legacy continue, and to know what to cuddly toys that all the GB equestrian team are carrying around at Rio!

Horse and Hound
Willberry Merchandise
I could go on, the Internet is full of Hannah and Willberry, so have a google yourself.

In the meantime, rest in peace Hannah, and know that many have been #inspiredbyhannah.

Lots of Transitions

This is a really useful exercise for improving your transitions between gaits and your horse’s responsiveness to the aids. I used it today with a teenager and her pony to get them both thinking quickly, and maintaining their standard, instead of letting the trot or canter fall flat until I intervened. The canter looked lovely after; much more three time and balanced, and the transitions were less on the forehand.

Begin by riding a twenty metre circle in working trot at A. Once your circle is established, ride a canter transition over X. Ride a full circle before making a trot transition at X. Simple? Good, it’s supposed to be at this stage.

Using the circle, increase the frequency of the transitions. So initially the transitions will be at A and X, but once your horse is staying balanced throughout the transitions and listening to your aids, add in a third transition within the circle. When this is easy, add in a fourth and then a fifth. I’d like to see if you can fit any more transitions in.

The benefits of this exercise are that the horse engages his abdominal muscles to stabilise himself through the transitions; the new gait becomes balanced immediately; the horse goes off the slightest aid; the inside hind leg is engaged; and the horse lifts his back more. For the rider I find it useful for refining the aids, improving their balance, and their responsiveness to the horse’s way of going – if the horse falls onto the forehand in the trot and another canter transition is coming up in four strides time, you need to correct the trot immediately. I also make riders take sitting trot, which also helps improve their position and the horse’s way of going. Another error that the circle exercise highlights is the horse drifting out in the canter transition, so the rider’s attention is brought to the outside shoulder, which when kept straight makes the horse take the weight of his body onto his inside hind leg.

This exercise is so useful in that it can be used with walk-trot exercises for the more novice horse or rider, and it can also be used with direct walk-canter transitions. You can also increase or decrease the difficulty level by adjusting the number of transitions you ride within one circle. The exercise is also harder when the circle is ridden at E or B, so with less fenceline support.

If you find it hard to be precise in the transitions (or cheat by waiting until the gait is truly balanced) then putting cones on the inside of the circle will help guide you.