I’ve been using a tricky little exercise recently with several clients recently. It’s all about balance, straightness, and understanding of the aids. Plus the fact that less is more.
Starting on the left rein in walk, because it’s more complicated than first appears, turn onto the centre line at C. Leg yield to the right for about three strides. Ride straight and then leg yield to the left for about six strides. Then leg yield back to the right onto the centre line. Turning right at A to change the rein.
When coming off the right rein, leg yield to the left first.
The secret to this exercise, and I usually let my rider have a couple of goes before letting them in on the secret, is that less is more.
If you’re too ambitious and ask for too much leg yield, the horse invariably loses balance and has too much bend in their body. Which makes it harder for them to straighten, change their bend and start to leg yield in the opposite direction. Then it takes longer to change direction and you run out of centre line.
Once my rider starts to be more conservative with their leg yield there is usually just the small task of tidying up the transitions between the leg yields and then they’ll crack the exercise.
If leg yielding from right leg to left hand, the rider needs to use the left rein to balance the horse and use their left leg to stop the leg yield and ride straight. Then they need to change their position into position left (left seat bone slightly deeper, left leg on the girth, right leg behind; right rein becomes the outside rein) before asking for very slight left flexion and then the leg yield back to the right.
The straighter the horse stays in leg yield the easier it is to change direction. Less is more.
Self carriage is the ultimate aim for all of us horse riders, but in trying to get there many of us are guilty of micromanaging our horses and their way of going.
You know the sort of thing: you’re working on your horse giving some inside flexion and before you know it you’re holding them in place. Then they begin to rely on you nagging and you become a noisy rider.
I frequently remind my riders to go quiet and still when their horse is softening and doing as they should. They don’t need to drop the contact or take the leg and seat off completely, just soften and reduce the strength of the aids.
With one of my clients I’ve been paying special attention to getting her to hand over the reins, literally, and putting the onus onto her horse to carry himself as she can become too busy and he gets a bit reliant on her putting him in the right place. It goes against my client’s nature, but she’s starting to hand over control.
We warm them both up using circles and school movements to develop vertical balance, whilst reminding my client to give moments of peace. Then when her horse is working in good balance and is supple and rhythmical, I get them to ride large with the odd large circle. Simple school movements than what we have done in the previous fifteen minutes, but with the aim of my rider doing less and her horse carrying himself.
It struck me a couple of weeks ago, when hiking across frozen, poached fields with a two year old, that teaching self carriage is similar to teaching independence to a toddler.
“Don’t hold my hand, I don’t need help!” she says stepping into a frozen mud valley of the field. The divots are big enough for me to feel precarious whilst crossing, let alone when the valleys are knee height. I let go of her hand, but it hovers just behind, ready to catch. She’s every chance of success by the way I’ve prepared her, but I’m ready to catch her before she falls.
With a horse, you use the aids to guide them into the right frame and balance. Then you take away the scaffolding as they perform a task well within their abilities. But you’re still there, ready to step in the moment they flounder. Initially it may be a reduction of the frequency of the aids, or it may be a lighter aid, but all of your reductions are focused on making your horse more independent and less reliant on you holding them onto the springy, engaged trot or canter.
When your horse, just like a toddler, succeeds in a simple task they grow in confidence in their own abilities, they relax and develop self carriage. It may only be a couple of strides before you take back their hand, but eventually they’ll be that balanced (emotionally and physically), fully fledged young adult, we aim our toddlers to become.
But we have to trust ourselves enough that our preparations will let them fly off with success when we let go.
Your horse picking up an injury and needing long term rest and rehabilitation is everyone’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise.
Looking after a horse on box rest is exhausting, but you do get a much stronger bond from so much time spent on the ground. Useful if you’re a new partnership.
But the bit about rehab that I find so interesting is when you’re bringing a horse back into work. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s a fantastic opportunity to really correct and improve the way your horse works.
Sometimes a horse may be tight in their neck and struggle, for example, to work long and low. Well being out of work atrophies those muscles, and weeks of walking is the perfect opportunity to establish long and low, and develop their topline.
It might be something you want to work on with your own riding, and putting some focus on you can often take the pressure off your horse, which slows your rate of rehab (it stops you rushing into canter work, for example) and gives your horse more time to strengthen up. There’s nothing to stop you having lessons whilst still in rehab; just be sure your instructor knows and understands your present limitations.
I’ve started helping some clients bringing their mare back into work after an extended time off with foot problems. Before I got physically involved, they did a month of walk hacking before a couple of weeks of short trots. The mare had been signed off from the vets, but her owners didn’t know how to bring her back into work so sensibly asked for advice. I suggested a prolonged walk only period because the mare is a bit older, and I think it’s always better to spend an extra week at stage one if in doubt. Plus it was the middle of winter so why not take it steady and not put pressure on yourself to do that daily walk when it’s dark, wet and windy.
Anyway, we started at the beginning of January with me riding twice a week, and her owners riding her in between. Prior to her injury, we had started working on relaxation, and encouraging the mare to lower her neck and stop being so hollow. I also wanted to encourage her to use her hindquarters, and take a longer stride, as she was a long way from tracking up in trot. This was the ideal time to focus on that because the bad muscles had reduced, and we could take the time in the slower gaits. Of course, she may have been compensating for any pain and not using herself as well as she could. In which case now, in theoretically no pain, she should be able to use herself correctly.
We started with short trots around the outside of the arena, and I was pleased to feel that the mare felt really sound, and was starting to take her head lower, but long and low was still a long way off. We walked over poles, which are always exciting for her, but she rapidly got the idea, and slowed down, lowering her head and stretching her legs. Afterwards, both her walk and trot felt looser.
It’s only been three weeks, but already I can see the difference in the mare’s posture on the yard, and she’s carrying herself in a longer frame – head lower and neck longer. The trots have gotten longer, still predominantly straight lines but now the odd 20m circle to help her rebalance. We’ve done raised walk poles, which are quite tricky for her and the distance between walk poles is getting longer as she’s getting stronger. Five walk poles is about her maximum at the moment, otherwise she tenses and tries to rush the last one instead of stretching a little bit more – as you can see in the video below. After doing this set of poles a couple more times she figured out how to stretch over all five poles and didn’t rush.
The plan for the next few weeks is to plateau really; no canter yet, but longer trots, more big circles, more walk poles of increasing difficulty, and a longer and lower frame. I also want her owners to get more involved so they start to do more of the work, and they develop the skills to help the mare into the longer, lower frame. We don’t need to push on with the intensity of work, and I really feel both sides of the partnership will benefit from time spent building this skill set and topline muscles. The canter also fizzes this mare up, so I’m concerned the canter may temporarily undo our trot work so I want the trot to be very established before taking this step.
Although a long rehab is not what anyone wants, I really believe this mare will come out stronger than before, with a much better posture, way of going, and musculature. It will be interesting to follow.
Find the silver lining of an injury and rehabilitation programme. Find the weakest areas for both of you, and use the loss of condition as a blank canvas for you to have another go, particularly as you’ll have learnt more about your horse, more about soundness, and more how a horse should work to prolong their working life. It’s tough, but so many horses and their riders come out of rehab better and stronger.
I often talk about vertical balance with my riders as it’s one of the easiest ways to feel if a horse is unbalanced on turns. Have I blogged about it? I shall check as it was definitely on my list to do but I don’t actually remember writing it.
Anyway, when looking at improving vertical balance I use the concept of diagonal aids. That is, the inside leg works in conjunction with the outside rein and vice versa.
Riding a horse is all about a balancing act. From day one, a rider is balancing the horse between going forwards from the leg and not going too fast by using the hands. Yes, the seat is also involved but as that works for both teams we’ll ignore it for the moment. It’s like having clutch control; every car is slightly different and there’s a skill involved.
Once we start talking about vertical balance the balancing act becomes a side to side one.
Initially, I ask my riders to ride some turns in walk, identifying the aids they’re using. Sometimes they get it right, after all I teach “indicate with the inside rein, instigate with the outside leg” when steering, but sometimes they’ll use one limb more than another, compensate for their or their horse’s crookedness, or have totally forgotten about one particular aid. Then, we discuss how the diagonal pairs work together to turn a horse, and to keep them upright on turns.
The left rein and right leg work as opposites to the right rein and left leg to keep the horse vertically balanced.
For example, the inside rein indicates the direction of turn as the outside leg pushes the horse in. The outside rein and inside leg work to prevent over steering and the horse falling in around a turn.
When a rider starts to think about their diagonal limbs working as pairs it becomes easier for them to work on a grey scale. Instead of it being black and white, putting the steering wheel onto full lock, they can now steer by degrees. Just as learning a half halt provides them with gears to each gait.
Half halts then begin to develop from a speed regulator to asking for bend, and correcting balance subconsciously. The rein contact becomes more consistent and because a leg aid is always applied with a rein aid the horse is ridden in a more forwards manner. Using diagonal pairs helps develop the feel and timing for aids too, which helps with refining the way of going.
Developing the concept of riding with diagonal pairs naturally leads on to riding inside leg to outside rein, which is a precursor to leg yield.
I enjoyed introducing the idea of diagonal pairs to one of my young riders a couple of weeks ago to help her transition from riding off the inside rein as a child usually does to riding with the outside aids. She had fabulous results as her pony started pushing through from behind, was more balanced on all their turns and taking the contact forwards. Thinking in diagonal pairs allowed her to position her pony wherever she wanted, and to correct him if they went off course. It was a very satisfying lesson to teach as I felt they both benefitted hugely from the rider’s new found understanding, feel, and knowledge.
It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.
Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.
Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.
You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.
So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).
That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.
So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.
This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.
I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.
I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.
This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.
There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!
As lockdown is easing in the UK, many horse owners will start to look at bringing their horses back into work and increasing their fitness.
How long this takes depends on your fitness goal and your horse’s current level of fitness, age and previous injuries.
If your horse has been turned away in a sizeable field with companions it will be surprising how much fitness he has retained walking around the field and playing with friends. However, if your horse has an old injury or is stabled overnight with individual turnout they won’t have retained as much fitness.
Whilst not riding, some owners have continued long reining or lunging their horse, so will have a slight advantage over the furloughed horses.
Something to consider though, is your fitness as a rider. This has probably deteriorated with staying at home as well as doing less equine activities.
One of my client’s horses has had seven weeks off, but he’s now coming back into work as he lives at home and I don’t need to see anyone when I go to ride. We need to consider his mental well-being as well as his physical health. He is looking plump, but is also bored only being in his field. Well, that’s what I like to think as he trotted over to me when I appeared with his saddle today!
To use him as an example, he has some fitness from being in a field 24/7, so I started with a generous half hour walk around the village, with no terrain. He returned home with a little sweat on his girth area and had obviously worked without stressing his body. This will steadily increase on hackd, in duration and incorporate terrain over the next couple of weeks before short periods of trot are introduced. As with the walk, the trot periods will increase in duration, frequency and include terrain.
Depending on how we’re getting on with his fitness, the ground and lockdown in general, I’ll look at starting some canter work in week four.
This horse has no previous injuries for me to worry about, and we aren’t in a rush to get him fit for a competition deadline, so I will take it steadily with him. Aiming for him to come back from each ride slightly sweaty, and having increased his pulse and respiration rate during the ride.
Schooling for short periods can be introduced early on, to provide variety to the work. If you jump, then you’ll want to introduce trot polework when the trot is established, and canter poles and jumping once the canter work has been introduced, always monitoring how well your horse is coping with the exercise.
I think it’s most important to listen to the horse when fittening them; assess their recovery after work, keep a close eye on their body and behaviour for signs of fatigue, and for any signs of soreness or injury afterwards. Even if you have a fitness deadline, such as a competition, it is better not to rush the fittening, and plateau for a while if necessary until your horse’s body is managing with the current workload.
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.
I did this exercise a couple of weeks ago in my lesson to help Phoenix get the hang of walk to canter transitions, and have found it really useful, so thought I’d share it here.
Down the long side, ride shoulder out. That is, reverse shoulder in. The horse is bent to the outside with the outside (in relation to the arena) hind leg in line with the inside front leg. I find it easiest to start on the inner track so you have space to move the shoulders towards the fence. Once you’ve perfected shoulder out in walk, move up to trot. Pay particular attention to feeling the outside hindleg coming under your horse’s body, and not letting him give too much bend in his neck to the outside as that allows him to fall onto the inside shoulder. Already, you should feel an improvement along the short sides as it helps your horse create a uniform bend on the turns.
Once you can trot shoulder out down the full length of the long side, put a ten metre circle in at the end. The circle requires your horse to flip from one bend to the other, so is a good test of balance and suppleness. Don’t rush to blend the two movements: straighten up out of the shoulder out and ride a couple of strides before the circle. As you both improve, you can reduce the number of strides between the shoulder out and the circle. A bit like how you reduce the number of straight strides in your changes of bend as your horse becomes more balanced. I found the circles felt very balanced and I didn’t find that Phoenix bent excessively with her neck to try and drift through her outside shoulder, which she sometimes does on the left rein.
Now comes the fun part. Halfway around the ten metre circle, ride forwards to walk. Then as you reach the track and the corner of the school, ask for canter. Because of the shoulder out, the outside hind is engaged ready to push into canter, but the circle sets up the correct bend so you will get the correct canter lead.
The short period of walk stops the horse switching off from work, and the small circle helps keep the walk active and together.
Previously, Phoenix had been running and scrambling into canter from walk, but this exercise really helped her jump up into canter – quite literally jump as the first time she leapt straight up in the air while she tried to use her body differently. She soon cracked it, learning to push from behind more. Riding the canter transition from trot still helps improve your transition.
Unfortunately, I can’t repeat exercises too often with Phoenix as she starts to anticipate, so I’ve mixed things up a bit by taking out the circle; riding a demi volte then shoulder in as I incline towards the track and then the circle (if needed) before the transition into walk and then canter. I’m just doing the same movements in the same order, but in different areas of the arena. Have a go at this exercise and mix it up as much as you want.
I used this pole layout last week and found it very useful so thought I’d share it for anyone struggling for ideas at the moment. You could also long rein or lunge over it.
The layout is quite simple; create an equilateral triangle with three poles, and then lay a pole perpendicular to each apex.
The first exercise is to ride straight through the layout – over the base of the triangle and then out over the apex opposite. It’s an excellent test of straightness (pick a point in the distance to focus on, keep the reins even and steady, and squeeze your horse down the tunnel created by your reins with the our legs). The apex encourages horses to pick up their feet. Often they’ll look down as they step over the apex, which helps develop their topline.
The poles I used are 10′ long, which means that the distance between the base and apex is a canter stride for the average horse (I’ll let any bored A-level student work out the precise distance using trigonometry. Let me know if you take up the challenge!). You can ride the line in both trot and canter, in both directions. It is slightly harder to be accurate riding from the apex to the base pole.
A harder exercise, which focuses on riding a smooth turn between two poles, encourages the horse to increase the cadence of their inside hind which improves their strength and suppleness. Ride, in trot, from the base pole to either of the other sides of the triangle, aiming to ride over the centre of each pole. Make sure you ride straight over each pole, so ensuring you ride a definite curve through the triangle. I had a few clients ride a straight line between the poles, so going over each one at an angle. I then stood in their way and made them trot around me, which soon helped.
You can then think of riding a circle around each point of the triangle, the external pole helps prevent the circle becoming too small. You could also try cantering the circle, but you would need to increase the size of your circle and so the curve within the triangle.
Finally, I concocted a twisty exercise for my more advanced riders, to really test their horse’s balance and suppleness.
Trotting (or walking until you get your head around the sequence) straight over the baseline pole, then curve right. Over the second pole then ride a big curve left. Trot over the next side of the triangle you reach (the side you’re yet to go over) and then curve right. As you exit the triangle curve left again. Eventually, you end up at the beginning.
The key is to not override the turns, and to maintain an even rein contact. Too much inside rein and the horse will fall onto their inside shoulder and struggle round the next turn. Additionally, you should keep the curves outside the triangle fairly big so you can prepare for the next chicane. Make sure you cross each pole in the centre, and perpendicularly. The external poles help prevent drifting as you leave the triangle. It’s not easy, but you can really see the improvement in the horse’s way of going afterwards.
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.