A Snazzy Change of Rein

Here’s a useful change of rein for you dressage divas. It incorporates shoulder fore as well as changes of bend, so is very useful for improving their balance and suppleness.

It can be ridden off either rein, but I’ll describe it beginning on the left rein.

At A, turn down the centre line and ride left shoulder fore to X. At X, ride a ten metre circle left before riding a ten metre circle right, and then continue down the centre line to C in right shoulder fore before turning right at C. If you turn off the right rein, ride right shoulder fore and the right circle first.

Shoulder fore, processing to shoulder in, on the centre line is trickier than riding it on the track because the horse has no support from the fence, so needs the rider’s support to keep them straight. Riding from shoulder fore onto the first circle will improve the inside hind leg engagement.

The second circle allows you to change your horse’s bend and help you set up the second shoulder fore.

The two circles effectively make up a figure of eight, and the quick change of bend helps improve the horse’s suppleness and balance as they have to shift their weight from the old inside hind to the new inside hind limb.

I enjoyed doing this exercise with Phoenix in my lesson this week, and could feel the benefits to her. Watch out clients as you’ll be having a go soon!

Bow Tie

I’m feeling like I’m neglecting my blogs a bit at the moment, but life seems to be taken up with work, chasing the toddler, birthday parties, hen parties, parental invasions, car services and then this week Demi Dressage judging. Which means that when all of that is done I find I need to sit in a slightly vegetative state in order to recover and prepare for the next day. Which means my to do list grows exponentially!

Here’s a quick exercise I picked up last week, which is great for focusing horse and rider, improving balance and suppleness, as well as tuning the horse in to the leg aids so that they become more manoeuvrable and accepting of the aids. I’ve used it with clients as a warm up and a way of focusing a distracted horse, with a rehab horse to improve his suppleness, and with Phoenix to help her accept the aids and improve her balance when changing the bend.

Called the Bow Tie, it can be ridden in walk and trot, so you can layer it as appropriate for the current level of ability. With the rehab horse I expanded the exercise to give him more time to change his bend and not push him out of his flexibility comfort zone.

Ride along the long side of the arena, let’s say we’re on the left rein. At K, ride a 10m demi-volte, returning to the track on the right rein at E. At E, ride a right 10m circle. Continue on the right rein to H, where you ride another 10m demi-volte and return to the track at E ready to ride a left 10m circle. And repeat.

The demi-voltes to circles provide a quick change of bend, so requires a lot of balance and strength from the horse. Using the 10m circles and half circles requires more flexibility from them, so makes the exercise harder than if they were on a serpentine or figure of eight. Going from a curve to a straight line requires a degree of balance yet also gives the horse a slight reprieve from the circles so doesn’t put too much pressure on them mentally.

I made the exercise larger by using a 60m arena and riding 15m circles and demi voltes, but you can adjust the exercise to best suit you and your horse. I’ve found it a really useful and adaptable exercise so will definitely be bringing it out of my toolbox frequently from now on.

Below is a sketch of half of the bow tie, it gets confusing to draw the second demi volte and circle on, but it should give you an idea.

Shallow Loops

Every so often I remember an exercise and utilise it with various clients of all ages and abilities. Currently, it’s shallow loops.

Quite often they’re overlooked in favour of serpentines or figures of eights, but they have their own benefits as a movement which tests a horse’s balance.

First appearing at novice level, shallow loops are ridden down the long side of the arena, as perfectly illustrated by my friend’s sketch for Demi Dressage, below.

The criteria for a shallow loop is to ride a smooth, flowing line from F towards X and then return to the track at M. They become an easier movement if you only leave the track by five metres – that is, you cross the E-B line five metres from the track. Riding FXM makes the turns more acute so requires greater suppleness from your horse. As with everything, start easy and once you’ve mastered level one, up the ante.

So what are the benefits of riding shallow loops? Firstly, they stop horses getting too track bound, and ensure they are listening to the rider’s outside aids. They are good at teaching riders to be less reliant on the fence line, and they show up any erratic steering issues! If you don’t plan and ride subtly, you end up staggering across the arena. For the horse, you are changing their bend in quick succession so it is a test of their balance and suppleness as they shift from one hind leg to the other.

Riding trot shallow loops are really helpful for improving the trot-canter transitions as in the shallow loops the horse changes from the inside hind (in relation to the inside of the arena) to the outside hind (the one nearest the fenceline) as they return to the track. In the trot to canter transition the horse shifts from the inside hind leg in trot to the outside hind in canter.

Riding shallow loops in canter introduces counter canter, further testing a horse’s balance.

When introducing shallow loops I find the hardest aspect of the movement is getting the loop to flow smoothly with an even incline to and from the track, so the most useful thing is to provide visual cues for riders. By guiding their eyes they automatically begin to flow away and towards the track. I use cones or jump blocks to show riders where to go. I place one cone near the corner, where the rider needs to go round the outside of before they leave the track, then another on the E-B line which they need to pass on the inside, and the final cone in the next corner to encourage the rider to return to the track and ride into their corner. As we develop the movement we increase the shallow loop from five metres towards ten metres.

How do you ride shallow loops? Begin by riding into your corner to give yourself plenty of space, and then using the outside aids, ride off the track. Almost imagine you’re riding across the diagonal, so turn your body to look across the arena, sit into your inside seat bone as you open the inside rein and close your outside leg. As you approach the E-B line, and the innermost part of the shallow loop, start riding parallel to the long side. Aim for three or four strides, during which use the leg nearest the fence on the girth, and open that rein to change the horse’s bend and engage that hind leg. Then return to the track and upon reaching it change the bend back to the original direction with the leg nearest the centre of the school acting on the girth to engage that hind leg and opening that rein. Ride into your corner ensuring your horse stays balanced.

The biggest faux pas I see when riding shallow loops is riders having dramatic changes of bend, which unbalances their horse. Minimise the bend and take your time in the middle of the loop and the loops will begin to flow and feel balanced, with the horse able to maintain their rhythm. If a rider doesn’t spend sufficient time in the middle of the loop; riding straight lines to and from X, then it may be useful to replace the cone with a pole, which forces some straight strides.

I’ve been putting shallow loops into my warm ups to give variation, and to help riders move around the arena. Instead of trotting the long side, we’ve put in a shallow loop to keep the horse’s focus. Have fun incorporating them into your workouts!

The Inside Hind

I’ve been on a mission recently to try to improve the feel of my riders. Some people say that talented riders have a “good feel”. Yes they may do, but for those of us less talented at equitation, don’t lose hope. You may have to work on your balance and coordination of aids, but you can still feel. Everyone can. It’s one of our five senses. You just might need a little more help in understanding what you can feel when riding and how to respond appropriately.

This is why I’m forever asking clients to tell me what they can feel. I’m not looking for correct terminology, or long winded descriptions, but I want to know if the rider can tell the difference between a long stride, a short stride, one full or impulsion, or one dragging their toes. I want to know if they’re aware that they have a heavier right rein, or if they can feel their horse bending or not.

Sometimes I’ll ask, “what can you feel?” Or “how does that trot feel now?”

Other times, I’ll give more leading questions such as “can you feel your horse leaning on your outside hand?” Or “can you feel a bit more push from the hindlegs?”

It’s never a problem if someone answers no. We just revise what we are aiming for in this session and where the rider should be feeling the change. Usually just by focusing their attention on that one area of the horse, they start to feel what I am explaining, and understand the subject more clearly. Occasionally, videos help. I’ve videoed jumps before, which haven’t been perfectly executed, and replayed them to the rider so that they can relate what they feel in the saddle to how it looks from the ground and the final result.

So in my quest to further my riders’ feel for what their horse’s legs are doing, and their ability to enhance their horse’s way of going, I have been encouraging them to think about the hind legs and what they can feel in terms of power and stride length.

When trotting the inside hind leg is the propulsion leg. It powers the horse forwards. In order to do this efficiently, the horse needs to step under their body with it, sit on that leg so that it takes the weight, and then push their weight up and forwards from the leg. It’s similar to the mechanics of human walking.

On curves the inside hind leg has to work extra hard, and this is where horses often lose their balance. If the inside hind leg is weak or lazy then it will step short, and the horse won’t be able to sit on that leg so well in the stance phase. This causes the horse to lose the balance in their body, and to load the outside shoulder in compensation.

For novice riders who are developing their feel, trotting corners are often when they first begin to feel the action of the hind leg, so I use lots of circles and turns to get them feeling. Sitting trot is useful at this stage so long as the rider can maintain it comfortably and the horse doesn’t brace against them or slow down.

Then I explain the mechanics of the horse, their particular strengths and weaknesses, and how improving the stride of the inside hind will improve the whole gait by engaging the abdominals and topline muscles, maintaining a consistent bend and contact, and increasing impulsion.

Then I link the footfall of the horse to their rising trot. When the rider is rising on the correct diagonal, the inside hind leg is stepping forwards. We are trying to encourage the inside hind leg to step further underneath the body, especially if it’s a little lazy, so that it can then propel the horse forwards more easily and powerfully. Therefore, we have to influence that hindleg whilst it is in the swing phase. As my riders are about to rise, and that inside hind about to come off the floor, they need to encourage it to come forward with a bit more vigour. A squeeze of some description with the inside leg is usually enough to make all the difference. Of course each horse is different, so you have to play around with the leg aids, and perhaps a flick of a schooling whip, on that haunch, to find the button which works for horse and rider.

Riders can learn to time their aids by linking it to their rising, and you can test their feel by working in sitting trot. But by at least applying the aids at the correct time, the rider will start to feel an improvement in the horse’s way of going, and the more active hind step should increase the feeling of movement to the rider, so further establish what they are aiming to feel. Once a rider has begun to become aware of what’s going on behind the saddle, you can start to dissect the walk and canter, and then fine tune the timing of their aids to improve their quality.

I’ve reminded several riders recently, of different abilities, to think about and to enhance the inside hind leg action, which has resulted in their horses maintaining impulsion, balance and consistency, which means the rider can ride more accurately and with a better quality of gait. Improving awareness of the inside hind is particularly important when changing the rein and changing the bend through the horse’s body. By focusing on the new inside hind leg propelling the horse forwards, the horse changes the rein more fluidly.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Square Serpentines

Following on from my square theme a few weeks ago, I’ve been doing a lot of square serpentines with clients.

I thought I’d blogged about riding squares, but apparently I only imagined that I did. Let me explain them further.

I’ve used the EB markers a lot during lessons to get clients riding corners, and practicing riding straight lines across the arena with no fence line to support them or their horse. Riding these square turns encourages the rider to indicate only with the inside rein, to maintain the outside contact and keep the neck and shoulder straight, whilst using the outside leg to instigate the turn. This causes the horse to step under with their inside hind and to take their weight onto it, which increases the impulsion and activity in the hindquarters.

Squares have become quite common in the warm up session of many of my lessons, as I’ve found they’ve improved my rider’s aids, outside rein contact, and the quality of the horse’s gait as well as establishing their awareness of straightness which helps set us up for the rest of the lesson. With the majority of clients, we’ve ridden squares in trot, but for the more established horse and rider we’ve ridden large squares in canter which really improves the inside hindleg action and quality of the canter.

Once a horse and rider can maintain a quality gait on the square, then it’s time to go up a level. Cue, square serpentines. These are three loop serpentines with square turns instead of curves across the school. This is harder than the squares because the rider and horse need to change direction, so the rider needs to be coordinated with their aids, and the horse needs to be balanced. Riding alternate square turns helps highlight which direction is easier for them, and when they can do it easily the rider will get a good feeling for straightness. It is also a good test to see if they overturn on the square corners, and are over cooking it.

When you ride a square turn to the left, for example, the left rein opens to encourage the shoulder round and the right rein limits the neck bend so that the outside shoulder travels left and the horse doesn’t drift through it. The outside leg instigates the turn by pushing the horse’s body round, and the inside leg provides a pillar for them to go around. We aren’t looking for a huge amount of bend from the horse here, but if there’s no inside leg at all then they can end up falling round the left turn. Or motor biking. This means they end up loading the inside shoulder and looking to the outside. Which is not good, and can be the end result if square turns are ridden before the horse is physically able to, or incorrectly. So should a horse turn left on the serpentine in a motorbike fashion, then when they turn right they will lead through the outside shoulder, hang their head to the right and be unable to engage the right hind. Which will highlight to the rider that they are crooked, and hopefully help them understand that whilst the outside aids are really important, so is the inside leg! If the rider was to then ride a less severe corner, but with their inside leg encouraging the inside hindleg to step under the horse’s body then they would come out of the turn straighter and more balanced.

I love riding the square turns, and the square serpentines are so useful to checking their balance and symmetry. Riding circles after square work is suddenly much easier, but the horse will then be able to give a uniform bend through their body, on a line which follows the curve of the circle, so working correctly and easily.


Two poles is all you need for this exercise to improve your horse’s straightness.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, a lot of horses carry themselves in a crooked way. For example, with their hindquarters always to the right. When I start working with a horse who is crooked in their way of going I check the rider’s position, symmetry and if they have any history of injuries which could cause them to have a weaker side. Then I cover topics such as saddle fit, chiropractic and physiotherapy treatments, dental history to make sure we rule out any of those causes.

If a horse is allowed to work in a crooked way then muscles develop asymmetrically, which can compound the problem.

I find that using poles as tramlines can be really beneficial in teaching both horse and rider what straight feels like. The physical presence of the poles can be more effective than asking the rider to do too much correcting and straightening of the horse as the effort involved in applying these aids can twist the rider’s seat, which doesn’t help the horse go straight.

In a session where I’m planning to use tramlines, I warm horse and rider up focusing on feel and straightness. I don’t necessarily want my rider to start adjusting their horse, but I want them to gain an awareness: is the horse holding their head to one side, or their hindquarters to one side? Is it always held to the same side? I tweak my rider’s position and aids so that they are minimising the crookedness, and are as symmetrical as possible.

Then I get them to trot between the two poles a few times, so that the horse is comfortable with the poles, then I roll them slightly closer so they are fractionally wider than the horse. Now, when they pass through, the horse will have to straighten their body so that the left hind follows the track of the left fore, and the same with the right legs. The rider should then feel the change in the horse’s way of going, which will help them recreate the straightness elsewhere in the arena. We repeat this until there is less of a change in the horse’s body before, during and after the poles, because they are working in a less crooked manner.

Next, I add in transitions. Horses who are crooked tend to wobble through transitions, so riding a transition between the poles encourages the horse to stay straight. Horse and rider begins in trot, and once the hindquarters have entered the poles, ride a transition to walk. Usually the first couple of times there’s a clunk on the pole, proving the horse has lost straightness. As they exit the poles, you sometimes see an exaggerated drift because the horse is so reliant on the poles to keep them straight and almost lose their balance when their support is removed. It’s a very good exercise for teaching the rider a feel for a straight transition and straight horse.

Once the downwards transition is feeling straighter and more balanced, I repeat the same exercise with upwards transitions, from walk to trot. Riding the transition between the poles usually encourages the horse to utilise their hindquarters and push up into a springy, active trot because when they are straight they hindlegs work more efficiently as their stepping towards the horse’s centre of gravity. The rider learns the feel for a more active transition, and a straighter way of going. Again, you might get the wriggle after exiting the poles, but as the horse improves their balance whilst being straight, they will be less dependent on the tramlines.

Soon, the rider should be able to ride their horse on two tracks and in a straighter frame without the help of the tramlines, and when they do travel between poles there is no change to the rhythm or balance of their gait.

I really like using the tramlines for canter, which is notoriously a crooked gait. I place the tramlines so they are ridden across the school, from E to B, and then get my horse and rider to ride straight across the school in canter. Having to ride a straight line across the school encourages the rider to use their outside aids and not their inside rein to end up riding a half circle across the arena. Once the canter has become straighter, the rider should feel the increased stride length of the inside hindleg, and the canter will become more balanced and three time in rhythm.

So long as the horse and rider can strike off into canter on the long side, on a specific canter lead, you can begin to ride trot to canter transitions between the tramlines, which most horses find quite tricky as they usually drift through the outside shoulder. As with the walk and trot transitions, the canter transitions will improve the rider’s feel for straightness, their awareness of the importance of maintaining the outside aids, and improve the quality of the transition.

The mare I used this exercise with over the weekend likes to hold her hindquarters to the right and her head to the left, so after warming her and her rider up focusing on minimising the crookedness in walk and trot before we started using the tramlines. It took a few trots through for the mare to begin to maintain the straightness without the poles – she drifted as she came out from between the poles initially. Once we started to ride transitions between the poles I noticed that the mare stayed softer in her neck and started to engage her hindquarters. This mare is very good at learning an exercise, so we only needed to do it a handful of times before moving on, and continuing to practice keeping her straight elsewhere in the school. With all this focus on straightness, my rider’s hands became more even, which helped the mare stay straight. For this pair, cantering between the poles had the most effect. The mare finds it difficult to stay together in the canter, tending to run and wiggle along; the tramlines encouraged her to be straighter, and subsequently her rider could begin to balance her more easily and then the canter looked stronger and more correct. We’ll be doing more work using tramlines as part of more elaborate polework exercises to further improve the mare’s straightness and quality of her gaits so that both horse and rider can work straight and efficiently, with less risk of overstressing and straining one area of her body.

The Polework Tree

I’ve got a new favourite pole exercise which I’ve been using with many clients over the last couple of weeks. Most people seem to like it because it resembles a Christmas tree – perfect for getting us through the last dregs of winter.

Lay two poles parallel, about two foot apart (they can be rolled closer together as you progress through the exercise) and lay a pole perpendicular to these, touching the end. Next, lay two poles diagonally from each end of this pole, so that they form a triangle. Create another triangle of poles from this apex. You can have as many triangles as you like, but I find two or three is sufficient for improving the gait without tiring the horse.

The main focus with this exercise is straightness. The tramlines (or trunk of the tree) guides horse and rider to the centre of exercise, and straightens them up should they travel crooked in the trot or canter so their hind feet follow the tracks of the front feet. The apexes of the triangles highlight if the horse drifts left or right through the exercise. If a horse has one stronger hind limb, then they can push harder with the leg over the poles (and this is exaggerated if a horse has to really stretch over a pole which they can do if they lack impulsion) which causes them to drift diagonally. So this exercise is really useful to discover if a horse has a tendency to drift in one direction, or has a stronger hindleg.

The apex of the triangles causes the horses to look down slightly and focus on the poles, which stops them rushing and encourages them to lift their belly and increase their cadence. This means that the polework tree can be useful in slowing down a horse who rushes through poles.

A couple of weeks ago I used this exercise with a very established horse who tends to be a little weak in his core so does a lot of polework. The first time he went over them, he dropped his nose to peer at the apexes, and really lifted his legs over it. When he over exaggerated his step he did wobble off our central line, but after a few times he was trotting off each rein, lifting his back and engaging his core over the poles without losing his balance and straying from the centre line. He then continued in this trot afterwards, feeling great! I also worked through the exercise from the other direction, which is slightly harder because you don’t have the tramlines to set you up straight. It still has the same elevating effect though. I found this horse especially benefitted from doing the polework tree in canter. The distance between the apexes caused him to collect his canter, which engaged his hindquarters and as he went over the apexes themselves he bounced over the poles and came away with a much more active canter.

Rolling the tramlines together improves the riders accuracy as well as the horse’s straightness. If the horse backs off and wiggles on the approach to them and the rider corrects with the hand then the horse will continue to snake towards the pole. If the rider keeps the hands steady and uses their leg to keep the horse on their line then the horse will stay straight. You could add tramlines to the top of the tree to help you ride the exercise down the tree, as you will reach the middle of the apex of the top triangle.

I’m working a lot on suppleness with one horse and she is much more balanced on circles and finds lateral work much easier. The fact that she stayed central throughout the exercise shows we have managed to improve her flexibility equally on either side. However, I want to improve her suppleness in terms of her stride length and cadence now. The apexes increased her cadence nicely, and she was tracking up better afterwards. When cantering through the exercise the mare became more elevated, which is helpful as we’re making the move from prelim to novice and she needs to learn to take a bit more weight behind.

I think most of my clients have seen this pole arrangement now, but I’ll be bringing it out again over the next few weeks and seeing if I can make any alterations so that it further improves the horses straightness, cadence, balance and suppleness.

A Christmas Cracker

For anyone feeling festively proactive, here’s a fun polework exercise I did with Phoenix this week.

It’s not the easiest to see in the grass, but I had a bit more space in the jumping paddock and it makes a nice change from the four fences of the arena at this time of year, it is shaped like a Christmas cracker. With ground conditions I did make it into a trot exercise, but by adjusting the distances between the poles in the middle, it can become a canter exercise.

I used five trot poles (4’6ish depending on your horse’s stride length) along the middle, with poles perpendicular to the ends. From the last poles I laid two more diagonally to form a triangle, and then two more to so that the point of the triangle became a cross. I’ll get a diagram …

Maybe I need a drone to take images of my exercises from the air … I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with my dodgy sketching on my phone because I am not getting up, risking waking the baby, and losing the only lie in we have booked this week just to get some paper. I’m already annoyed that I didn’t sleep beyond seven!

There are many ways to use this arrangement of poles. Ultimately the only limitation is your imagination!

I began by walking over the centre of the cross of four poles because Phoenix was quite suspicious of them and it took her a couple of attempts to walk straight over the centre and not wiggle around it. I approached from all sides, so either walked the full length of the cracker, or just went across the short side. When I started trotting it, I did the short sides first so she only had to concentrate on the cross on the floor and could get it right.Trotting the full length of the cracker, with the two crosses to keep you straight is a good check of their straightness and the trot poles improve their rhythm, stride length, cadence as well. You could raise these using caveletti blocks to engage their abdominals a bit more. I didn’t because this polework arrangement is the most complicated I’ve done with Phoenix and she found it hard enough to stay balanced over the trot poles and go straight over the crosses before and after without trying to jump them!

You can also trot across the cracker, so you are using the trotting poles as tramlines, which also helps straightness. Adding in a halt transition between them helps improve your straightness through transitions and can stop any cheeky horse from swinging their quarters.

Finally, the ends of the cracker are useful for introducing poles on a curve. This is not something I’ve done a huge amount of with Phoenix – usually it’s on the lunge and using the corner of the arena to support her – so it was a good test of her balance and suppleness. I trotted arcs of various sizes across the two poles at either end in both directions. On the right rein, where she sometimes resists bending through her whole body, she just loaded her right shoulder over the second pole. But by exaggerating the right bend before the poles and ensuring she was listening to my inside leg she started to maintain the correct bend poll to tail over the two poles. I kept the arcs a bit bigger on the right rein until she’d succeeded in staying balanced. I’m definitely thinking of doing more poles on a curve with her in the next couple of weeks as this felt like her weakest area.

Have fun with this Christmas Cracker polework, and if you crack it in trot, adjust the poles so you can do it in canter and that will really test your ability to ride straight!

A Scale of 1 to 10

I’ve been playing around with transitions within the gaits recently, to improve my riders’ feel, to increase the subtlety of their aids, to improve the balance of their horse and the quality of the gait, and to focus the horse on its rider.

It’s quite a useful warm up exercise so once you’ve loosened up horse and rider, settled their brains and they’ve settled into a trot rhythm, you can begin. It’s equally useful in the canter work too.

The trot a horse and rider are currently in is gauged as a 5. It’s important that the horse’s natural, or most comfortable stride length is in the middle of the scale. Which means that you can’t really compare the 5 trot of one horse, with the 5 trot of another. Especially if they are at different levels of training, as they have different levels of strength and balance. This also means that the 5 trot for one horse will change over time, as they get stronger and are more able to take their weight onto their hindquarters so the trot will naturally collect and become more elevated.

Anyway, I digress. I tell my riders that they need to think of their trot as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Valegro’s piaffe and 10 being Totilas’ extended trot. And no, spellcheck I did not mean the extended trot belonging to a tortilla…

Obviously none of the horses I teach are capable of a 1 trot or a 10 trot, but having a picture of the two extremes can really help a rider understand the exercise and its aims.

So, from their 5 trot, I ask the rider to try and create a smaller trot; a 4 trot. Depending on the level of rider and horse, their 4 trot may only be minutely more collected than their 5 trot, or it may be a significant change. They may only be able to maintain their 4 trot for two strides, or I might expect them to hold it for the length of the long side of the arena. Once the transitions between a 4 trot and a 5 trot have become fluid and subtle, we move on to transitioning between a 5 trot and a 6 trot. Again, only adjusting the horse’s trot within his capabilities, and only maintaining it for as long as he is able. When established, the fun begins and we play around between the three numbers of trot.

Because we’re talking about a sliding scale of trot, it then becomes easy for me to direct the rider. For example, “let’s see some 6 trot down the long side … back to 5 … how about a 4 trot on a 20m circle…”. Within a short space of time we can work through dozens of transitions because numbers are so quick to say and easily comprehended.

I can then begin to help them with their understanding of the various trots – collected, working, medium and extended. For example, if they haven’t really lengthened the trot strides into a 6 trot, a lot of people understand the line “ooh that’s only a 5.5, can you squeeze him all the way into the 6 trot?” rather than a description of stride length, cadence and tracking up. And when they’re more accomplished at this exercise and we’re moving towards Novice level dressage, we can utilise the 3 and 7 trots on our scale and we can then label a 7 trot as medium trot.

I find that using this scale of trots improves a rider’s feel for their horse’s balance, and encourages them to ride progressively between the various trots. In Novice level, the judge is looking for a progressive transition from working trot into lengthened strides. At Elementary level, the transition from working to medium need to be more direct. So with a Novice horse and rider, we’d think of riding from a 5 trot, into a 6 trot for a couple of strides, and then into a 7 trot, before back to a 6 trot and then a 5 trot at the end of the movement. With an Elementary horse, we’d be aiming to ride from a 5 trot straight into a 7 trot and back again. We can also use this theory for their canter work, and then with the Elementary horse, the collected gaits.

When riding transitions within the gaits, riders suddenly have to become more discreet and subtle with their aids so that they don’t unbalance their horse, or ride into a different gait. To shorten their trot, they need to begin to use their seat and not rely so much on the rein half halt as that is too strong and they risk falling into walk. The rider also becomes more aware of the need to apply some leg, even in a downward transition. To lengthen the gait, the rider becomes more aware of the need to maintain a steady rein contact when applying the leg and seat to push the horse on. Overall, I find riding micro transitions refines a rider’s aids, and the horse becomes more attuned to them so is more responsive. Along with improving their feel for maintaining the tempo, the rider becomes more aware of the activity in the hindquarters, and of their horse’s balance, both in their ability to maintain that particular trot and their weight distribution between hindquarters and forehand. This leads to an unconsciously ridden, better quality working trot.