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Friday, 30 December 2011

Achieve Your Goals

Have you made your New Year's Resolutions for 2012? Have you got great plans for your horse? Perhaps you’ve decided to make better use of your school? Before you get too carried away with New Year enthusiasm - stop! Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve spend a bit of time thinking about how you’re going to achieve it.

So many riders moan that schooling is boring. It is if you don’t know what you want to do! There’s no point deciding to school your horse three nights a week if you’re going to spend the whole time trotting aimlessly round in circles.

A huge part of schooling is down to your attitude. Treat it as something interesting and your horse will do the same. Allow him to slop into the school on the buckle whilst you yawn and moan about it and how do you expect him to react?

If you hacked out every day would you expect your horse to be bored? It’s doubtful. If he gets strong on a hack do you put it down to excitement? BUT when he does exactly the same thing in the school do you say he’s bored?

The school is just another place to ride. OK it’s smaller and the view isn’t as good but it shouldn’t be any less interesting. Vary each session and you’ll keep your horse’s mind occupied. Fill it full of your ideas and stop him filling it with ideas of his own!

Your horse’s job is to do as you ask. Your job is to make life interesting enough for him to want to. Rather than planning to do something every day for a week try working to a rota. Don’t think in terms of Tuesdays – Wednesdays – Thursdays. Think in terms of Sessions 1, 2 and 3 which you repeat and repeat.

Session 1 – use this to improve a problem or teach your horse something new. Work out in advance what your subject is and how you’re going to tackle it. Use the search box on this blog (top right) to find an exercise to work with.

It’s important to realise that ‘on the bit’ is an end product of schooling NOT an exercise to work on. Think of your horse as a jigsaw – the finished picture can only be seen if you put all the pieces together in the right order. Work on something that will improve his way of going and he’ll work onto the bit naturally. Check out this page full of links -

It’s important to allow enough time for mistakes. This is a session you can’t do in a hurry. If you’re short of time give it a miss – go straight to Session 2. Nobody learns anything under pressure.

Session 2 - do something completely different so your horse doesn’t feel that he’s always under pressure when you take him in the school. Try lunging, pole work, grid work or even circuit training ( ) so he has to use different muscles and think in a different way. A change really is as good as a rest.

Remember whatever you do should be constructive. Stay focused on your horse’s balance and rhythm whether you’re cantering circuits of the school or lunging. Things shouldn’t change because you’ve put a few poles down either. Stay calm and relaxed – your approach will always affect his.

Session 3 - do something your horse finds easy. It’s a confidence boost for him. This session is all about you. Your position affects everything he does. The better your position the more beneficial your schooling will be. If he enjoys walk to canter transitions then ride some figures of eight with transitions at X. If trot is his best pace then try riding 10m circles at every point in the school. While he’s busy feeling clever you can focus on your position. Check out -

This rota of sessions works well whether you ride three times a week or three times a month. It’s a structure which is easy to stick to unlike some New Year’s Resolutions that start off with good intentions but soon fade.

Whatever you do in 2012 make sure you enjoy it. This is your hobby and it’s meant to be fun. Be positive - ride forward and never pull yourself or your horse back.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 23 December 2011

In Need of Inspiration?

Planning on doing a bit of riding over the festive season? In need of a few ideas? Here’s a selection that should keep you busy whatever your plans may be.

No school? No problem! Nothing is impossible if you want it enough. Check this out –

Whether you’re at a show or schooling at home your warm up sets the standard for the rest of your session. Check this out –

If the weather is against you or you’re just not in the mood for circles try this -

But don’t forget – if you’re out for a hack to enjoy yourself – let your horse do the same! Check this out -

Is your horse on box rest? Isn’t that just typical when you have time to ride?! Don’t waste time worrying about it. Put your feet up, grab a mince pie or two and try this –

Is your horse -

Don’t forget that your horse’s problems are often caused by you! Try this (your body) -

Fancy a go at lateral work? Try this easy exercise -

Want to know how to get your horse on the bit? Try this -

The main aim of schoolyourhorse was to give all riders ideas and inspiration. Hopefully there’s something on here for everyone but if you can’t find what you’re looking for there are at least another 50 waiting to be read. Key your problem in to the search box and see what comes up.

Happy Christmas and enjoy your schooling!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Use Your Head to Warm Up

Most horses vary a little from one session to the next but some are worse than others Is your horse different every time you get on? Ever thought it might be you?

You may think your warm up is a means to an end – the boring but necessary bit at the start of a session – but there’s more to it than that. The way you start every session sets the standard for your horse. It tells him how you’re feeling and what you’re going to accept. If you change your mind each time you ride how can he behave in exactly the same way?

It’s important to get warmed up properly especially at this time of year. Not only do you want to get your horse’s muscles stretched and loosened up you really do need to warm him up. A cold horse (or rider) can’t possibly concentrate or work correctly.

There’s a great warm up routine here -
It gives you a set plan you can use every time you ride in the school. A nervous horse will settle quicker if you use the same routine. This means you won’t waste time trying to get him settled. Having a set pattern allows you to concentrate on what really matters – riding your horse forward into a steady hand.

Do you usually allow your horse time to trot round on a long or a loose rein? Why? The warm up is a time to generate energy. You want to get his hocks underneath him so he can drive himself forward. If there’s no contact the energy has nowhere to go – his strides will be flat and he’ll fall onto his shoulders.

Ideally you want to use all three paces. No one pace is more important than the next. Trot is the pace most riders spend hours in but don’t! Horses find it easier to set themselves in trot. It’s the only pace in which they keep their head and neck still.

Canter uses muscles forward and over your horse’s back. The head nod makes it harder for him to set himself which explains why most horses feel better after a canter. Older, stiffer horses respond well to a period of canter at the start of a session.

However - sometimes canter is the last thing you want to do. Does it worry you? If it does it can spoil the whole session. Your horse will feel your tension and that won’t make it any easier. If canter worries you don’t do it. Replace the canter section in the warm up with walk. A good, active walk will get his muscles moving and it will do wonders for your confidence. It’s your hobby – make sure you enjoy it!

Tempting as it can be to get the canter out of the way with a young horse be patient. Give him a chance to relax and find his balance. The most important part of the warm up is getting his attention. Replace the canter section with transitions between walk and trot. Ride a set number of strides in each pace. Start with 20 and whittle it down to five. It’s enough to make him concentrate but not too difficult to upset him.

At a show everything changes. Warming up can often be more stressful than the actual class. Often you’re inside in a standard arena. Don’t be put off by other people. There are always going to be better riders than you – maybe your local professional. Don’t worry. They’ll be far too busy remembering what test they’re doing on which horse to be worried about you!

You have every right to be in the warm up arena but stick to the rules. Do that and most people will forgive you the odd mistake. Remember to pass left to left and move to the inside if someone is on the same rein as you but in a faster pace.  Looking where you’re going is a must! Don’t get in someone’s way just because you’re looking at the floor. THAT you won’t be forgiven for.

If you move up a level you could share the warm up with riders doing lateral movements. It can be unsettling but don’t panic. Look up and watch what’s going on. If it’s obvious someone is coming straight up the track in travers do the gracious thing and circle away – don’t hang onto the track because the rules say pass left to left!

Don’t make the mistake of trying to practise your test at the show. You don’t need to.  Get your horse going forward from your leg, working into both reins and moving straight. Use transitions - they’re important. Have you ever counted how many you ride in a test? A lot more than the serpentines or circles you have to do. They’ll get your horse on his hocks and that can only improve your score.

If you’re nervous about cantering amongst so many horses wait until you’re riding around the arena waiting for the bell. It is allowed and it will be far better for your horse than a short flurry of tense strides in the warm up.

Whether you’re at a show or at home your horse will benefit from consistency. Have a warm up plan and stick to it. Stay calm, avoid nervous situations and use your head. Keep things simple and the problems always take care of themselves.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Get Your Horse Connected

Does your horse feel a bit flat? Are you going through the motions but struggling to set the world on fire? He may feel fairly light in your hand – perhaps he moves from your leg too – but if that’s the case why aren’t you getting better marks at dressage and why is your canter so flat? You need to get better connected.

Your horse has two ends and a middle. Those three parts are joined together by bone, tendon and muscle. Tendons and muscles are meant to stretch but allow them to get too far apart and you’ll struggle to keep him together. When he gets strung out it’s impossible for him to push himself forward correctly. Push on and you’ll generate speed but no power. Both ends will move faster - just not together.

You can tell a disconnected horse because his back is long and flat. He may not be on his forehand but he’s not sat back on his hocks either. He may have a ‘4 time’ canter too. It’s often overlooked as it feels similar to an ordinary canter. You may just think something’s not quite right but be unable to put your finger on it.  Listen carefully to the beat of the canter and you’ll hear four beats not three because the inside hind and outside fore aren’t moving as a pair.

To improve a four time canter the last thing you need to do is canter! Get your horse working between your leg and hand in walk and trot first and he’ll be better balanced and able to canter correctly.

Riding round the school trying to push your horse forward to your hand won’t work. It’s human nature to try too hard. You’ll end up pulling too hard and tightening his back or pushing him on so much that he falls onto his shoulders and rushes. You need to give him something to do which does it for you. Try this.

Direct transitions from trot to halt and halt to trot are perfect for pushing your horse together. Learn to use your thigh and knee to bring him back to you. The less you rely on your hand the better. If he’s relaxed in his mouth he’ll soften and round his back and work correctly. Check out -

You may be using halt but this needs to be a forward thinking exercise. Ask for your transitions on a long side at E and B so your horse has had time to get straight and balanced and has room in front of him to feel he can go forward again.

Turn onto the long side and focus on riding forward from both legs into a steady contact in both reins. Keep your hands level and in front of your body to keep your horse’s shoulders pointing down the track. Make sure, if you’ve had an inside bend, you always straighten him up on the long sides.

Never back off a downward transition – especially one to halt. Halt needs to be full of energy so your horse is back on his hocks and ready to move on again. Ride forward towards E/B and look up. Never underestimate the influence your weight has on your transitions. The further back you lean the more weight you’ll put on his hocks.

Two strides before E/B squeeze with your thighs to warn your horse the transition is coming. On the marker push your knees in as hard as you can and sit back on your seat. Keep your lower leg on to keep his hocks under his body. Come out of the saddle at this point and you’ll tip him into his shoulders and lose all the energy from your trot. Keep your contact in both reins.

Once your horse has settled in halt move straight into trot again. Don’t shuffle your seat in the saddle, shorten your reins or move your legs – you haven’t got time for that! Halt and move on again. Get it sharp enough and you’ll feel your horse rock back onto his hocks in readiness for the trot again. That’s where you want him.

The upward transition should be as sharp as the downward. Sit back, look up, take your knee off and use a nudge with both heels. If your horse doesn’t go the instant you ask tap him up with your whip bit don’t lean forward! That will put all your weight over his shoulders and make it impossible for him to engage his hocks.

You will never improve an upward transition by loosening your reins – just as you won’t improve a downward one by taking your leg off. Keep your contact even in both reins. Be careful you’re not focusing on an inside bend. Do that and unwittingly you’ll pull back on the inside rein. That sends your horse off to the inside. A crooked horse can’t use his hocks correctly to push himself forward.

Don’t just ride a couple of half decent transitions and move on. Spend the whole session doing them. Start on the long sides. When your horse is really halting and moving off with the slightest touch of your knee or heel you can move on to different places. Turn across the school, halting over the centre line. Ride figures of eight with halt transitions at X. Turn down the centre line and halt at X. Do anything you can to keep him thinking.

By the end of a good session you should feel your horse is more in your hand. You’ll have more weight at the end of your rein but in a positive way. He should be bouncier in his trot and itching to go forward when you halt. That’s connected. And the four time canter? Well that will be better but do yourself a favour. Leave it for another day.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 2 December 2011

He'll Bend - if you let him

Are you struggling to keep your horse out on a circle? When you return to the track does it take you three strides to get straight again? When you ask for canter do you find yourself heading across the school rather than up the track? You’re not alone. It’s a common problem. The good news is it’s easily solved.

If you ride a 20m circle at A or C the chances are everything feels fine. But do the same at E or B and suddenly you find you can’t quite get your horse out to the track on both sides. Kick as you might with your inside leg he just won’t step onto the track. It’s all you can do not to get off and drag him there, isn’t it?

Most riders come up against this problem at some stage. It stems from focusing too much on the inside bend. Without thinking about it the pressure on the inside rein gets stronger and stronger whilst the contact in the outside rein gets weaker. Lighten up a bit on the inside rein and you’ll notice a huge difference but take a look at the rest of your body to see why your horse reacts like he does.

The more you focus on the bend the more your inside hand tightens and draws back. As your arm draws back your shoulder drops down towards your hip. Your horse will start to fall in and you’ll need more inside leg to keep him out. As you do that your leg will creep up towards your hip. Within a few circuits your whole body will be curled up around your inside hip.

Your horse is a master of mimicry. Whatever you do with your body he’ll copy and do with his. If you’re curled inwards around your inside hip he’s going to do the same around his. This tightens his body making it harder for him to move forward or across. It’s not that he doesn’t want to listen to your leg it’s just that he can’t!

Put yourself on a 20m circle at E/B in walk. Establish the circle and focus on your position before moving on into trot. Look directly between your horse’s ears and straight ahead. It’s easy to end up looking at the floor about twenty yards ahead but keep your eyes up. If you’re not looking where you’re going is it any wonder you end up off line?

To maintain the shape of the circle turn your body from your waist onto the line you want to take. Pay particular attention to the distance between your hip and your bottom rib. It should be the same on both sides. Pull up through your body and lean back until you feel your stomach muscles pull. Then trot.

At each quarter of the circle – E, B and as you cross the centre line – ride two strides in a straight line. Turn your body so your shoulders and hips face the front and your horse will do the same. As you straighten up make a conscious effort to push your inside hand forwards an inch. This doesn’t mean you lose the contact. What it will do is release any tension you’ve got in your arm. Your horse will relax in his neck and you’ll feel him rebalance onto the outside rein.

Hold onto that feeling as you turn your body back onto the line of the circle again. Check the distance between your hip and your hand on each side. If you’re drawing your hand back the distance on the inside will be shorter than the outside.

This is a simple thing to do but it will have an immediate effect. You’ll find you reach the track at E and B easily. Your horse will move forward and be more relaxed because you’re not scrunching his neck to the inside and you won’t draw your inside leg up because you won’t be trying desperately to kick him out.

When you come to go large from the circle all you have to do is maintain the straightness in your body and keep your inside hand forward. Push on with both legs so your horse is in no doubt that you want him to go straight.

Try some canter transitions. As you ask for canter push your inside hand forwards an inch. (Remember NOT to lose the contact) If your horse hasn’t got to move into canter with his body scrunched to the inside he’ll be straighter in the transition and he won’t come in off the track as he strikes off either.

Try changing leg through trot between the ¼ and ¾ lines. Turn onto the diagonal, pull up through your body and look directly ahead. As you ask for trot push your inside hand forward, keep it there through the trot and as you ask for canter again. You’ll find the transition is straighter and you’ll hit the track just before the marker instead of struggling to keep your horse out.

An inside bend is important on a circle but only if it isn’t affecting everything else. Remove the pressure and your horse will bend naturally around your inside leg because he can. The more you practise the easier it will be to feel when you’re tightening up. When you can feel a problem nine times out of ten you can solve it.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Energetically Challenged?

Would ‘energetically challenged’ be an apt description of your horse? You’re not on your own. Many riders prefer to be in control of the forward gears but as your confidence grows it’s only natural you start to feel a bit frustrated.

Many people think the less excitable equines just need a kick or a smack and everything’s fine. If only it was that easy! There’s a knack to drawing your equine tortoise out of his shell. The good news is it’s something you can learn.

If you want your horse to change his ways the first thing you have to do is change yours. You’re going to need bucket loads of energy and self discipline. He doesn’t need a telling off. He needs a reason to get excited and you have to give it to him.

Your arrival on the yard should be energetic and cheerful. Even if you feel like curling up in front of the fire you need to bounce down the yard and greet him with a grin on your face. Inspire him from the second he sees you.

Once tacked up make sure he walks with purpose to the mounting block or school. Walk alongside him and use your whip behind you to chivvy him along. Never allow him to shuffle to the school. This is FUN! Start as you mean to go on.

You can be forgiven for thinking you need to go as fast as possible to inspire your horse but stop right there! The only thing that will do is tire you out and unbalance him. Walk is your ideal pace. Get him motivated in walk and the rest is easy.

Lazy horses will often ‘offer’ the next pace up. How often has your horse jogged when you’ve kicked him on in walk or hopped into canter when you’re trying to get him trotting on? Don’t be too grateful! If he offers a pace you don’t want be quick to correct him. He needs to work harder at the pace you’re in not do the next one badly.  

The way you use your leg, spurs and whip is essential to your horse’s training. Your calf muscle is the part of your leg that sends him forward. Your heel, spur and whip are there to back it up NOT get him going. Check out – before you ride. It shows you how to get the best out of your horse without kicking.

If your horse ignores a squeeze from both calf muscles use both heels together. Use them once – hard. He should shoot forward. Be quick to praise him. If he doesn’t use your whip once directly behind your leg. Don’t be tempted to use your whip on his quarters. That’s just telling him off. You’re teaching him to move off your leg. Smack him on his quarters and he won’t understand your exact reason. Repeat the heels together and then the whip as quickly and sharply as you can until you get a reaction. The instant you feel any forward movement on his part use your voice to praise him and keep your leg still.

Your rein contact is essential. Without it you’re wasting your time. Imagine a bottle of coke. Shake it up with the lid on and the drink fizzes inside and the bottle expands. The energy is contained within the bottle and by slowly opening the lid you can release it. Take the lid off and what happens? The drink fizzes and goes flat. The energy you create with your legs needs to be contained too. Your hands are that lid.

A lazy horse is often unfit. Regular exercise will get him fitter and his energy levels will increase naturally. Keep schooling sessions short and intense. Half an hour of focused full on exercise twice a week is better than an hour once a week of half hearted enthusiasm.

Do everything in short bursts. Trot a 20m circle and then canter one. Walk two circuits and go again. It may not seem like a lot but done well it will have a huge effect on your horse. If everything he does from now on is done quickly and positively he’s less likely to feel like it’s an effort.

Walk in between exercises – even on a long rein - should always be forward. It’s your time to get your breath back not your horse’s. If you’re feeling tired you can guarantee he’ll decide he is too. If you’re up there geeing him up he’s far more likely to feel inspired.

The more you can do to encourage your horse to put his hocks underneath him the better. Use 10m circles and three loop serpentines which encourage him to work harder with less effort from you. It’s essential to remember not to kick constantly. He must go forward from a squeeze from your calf. Every time you find yourself kicking go back to walk and re-establish the aids.

Direct transitions are good to get your horse going but only if he’s listening to your leg. Start with simple walk to trot or trot to canter transitions. Limit yourself to ten strides in each pace as you work your way round the school. The quick changes will motivate him without you having to kick on too hard.

Never compromise your position to get your horse going. Leaning forward, flapping with your legs or throwing your reins at him will only unbalance him. That not only makes things harder for him it also gives him the perfect excuse! Read - to see how to use your body to maximum effect.

It can take weeks to convince your horse you really mean it but it works on all horses – even yours! You have to be consistent and really want to sort it out. If you put in the time you’ll still have a horse that wants you to tell him when to go but you’ll also have one that doesn’t expect you to work harder than him!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Do You Swing Both Ways?

Is your horse one sided? Most have a stiffer side. He may choose one canter lead over the other, have a diagonal that’s more comfortable or go round corners on one rein with his head stuck to the outside but whatever it is don’t be so quick to blame him!

Think about the way you’re sat in the chair right now. Are your legs crossed? Which leg is on top? Is it always that way? 9 times out of 10 you’ll do one rather than the other. That means one hip gets more exercise than the other. If you have a drink at the computer which side is it on? Do you find it more natural to turn to the left or the right to pick it up? How about if you go upstairs? Or climb over a fence. Which leg do you lead with? (Chances are it’s the one you’ve got on top if you’re sitting with your legs crossed!)

How about when you’re riding? Do you find it easier to turn your body to the left or the right? One way is always easier. When you warm up which way do you go to start with? Left or right? Do you go back to that rein for your first canter? Given the choice would you turn left to a fence or right? These are little things but things that you can change to help your horse.

Make a conscious effort to change the way you do things. Cross your legs the other way, put your mug on the wrong side of the desk for a week and lead with your other leg when you run up the stairs. By doing that you’ll even out your body and help your horse to even out the way he uses his. 

When you’re out hacking you probably carry your whip between you and the traffic. Why wouldn’t you? The problem with that is your horse will naturally bend around that whip putting him in a permanent right bend. Is it any wonder he’s stiff to the left?

When you ride out try to carry your whip in the left hand when you’re off road. Use both diagonals too. It’s too easy to opt for the ‘good’ one but use the uncomfortable one often enough and you’ll find it hard to tell between the two. You don’t have to be on the bit to do these things. There’s no need for your horse to even realise you’re schooling him. Keep it simple and he’ll even out without knowing you’re trying.

How often do you see someone bending and flexing their horse one way and then the other? It’s OK if you really understand what you’re trying to achieve but if you’re doing it because you think it will ‘soften’ your horse’s stiff side you’re unfortunately wasting your time.

If your body was stiff to the right no amount of neck bending would loosen it up. You’d need to bend through your waist and stretch the muscles on the other side which aren’t used to working. So does your horse.

Don’t think you can get rid of your horse’s stiff side by working on that rein the whole time. Imagine if someone stood over you and made you write with the wrong hand. You may start off with good intentions but it would be hard work and uncomfortable - eventually your enthusiasm would dwindle. 

Think about how you’d feel if you had to write with the wrong hand and you’ll understand why your horse needs to be schooled in stages on the stiffer side. You can’t just turn his head in that direction and kick him through the stiffness. He can’t bend because he’s struggling not because he doesn’t want to! You have to gradually increase the bend you ask for bit by bit.

In the school use serpentines so you use both sides. On a three loop serpentine ride it so the first and last loops are on the easier rein when you start off. When you turn onto the middle loop keep your horse looking straight forward in his head and neck and concentrate on pushing his body out. The more he stretches the outside of his body the more supple his back will be. Bending his neck won’t do that.

Riding your horse straight is more beneficial than riding with an exceptional bend on one side and stiff and stilted on the other. Figures of eight using long diagonals are ideal. This way your focus is on keeping him straight across the school, asking for a slight bend round the half circle and then straightening him up again. When he’s balanced you’ll be able to stretch his body from your leg without tension.

The slower your pace the better for your horse on his stiff side too. Imagine having to write a sentence with the wrong hand at speed? By concentrating and writing slowly most people could at least write legibly. Your horse needs you to be understanding and patient. Little and often will win the day. Change your ways as much as you want him to change his and you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Ride Forward not Back

Does the thought of winter schooling fill you with dread? Don’t let it! Winter is the best time for you and your horse to brush up on your schooling and iron out some of those problems you’ve been having.

If your horse is forward going he’s not always an easy ride. As he gets warmed up does he start to lean more and more on your hand? Does he speed up every time you put your leg on? Or set his neck and trot off down the long side regardless of what you may be doing on top? There’s a reason for this. Strange as it may sound he’s not really moving forward.

It’s easy to think because your horse is taking you round the school at speed that he’s working hard but it’s not always the case. Whether he’s hollow and tense or leaning on the bit expecting you to carry him the cause is the same. He’s not using his hocks correctly. There’s only one way to get him to do that. Although every bone in your body will be screaming “Stop!” you need to ride forward not back.

Of course there’s little point in trotting round and round the ménage pushing him on. You’ll only end up pulling to slow him down and that never works. Your horse will always be stronger than you. You need something which makes him slow himself down. How? Try this –

Corners are the rider’s best friend. Use them to your advantage and you’ll find your horse will be transformed within a few sessions. Not only can you ride corners around the school you can square up figures of eight, circles and serpentines. There’s nothing quite like a corner to either back off a tanking horse (or engage a lazy one).

Start by riding large round the school in walk. Your aim is to ride directly at the fence until your horse turns. Push forward with both legs in their usual place and hold your contact but don’t pull back. Don’t even think about taking a check. That’s his job.

When he finds the fence in front of him your horse will back off. In doing so he’ll sit back on his hocks. Enjoy that feeling because now you actually need to put your legs on! Ride forward into a steady contact but keep your body facing the front. If he stops in front of it your contact is too tight or you haven’t pushed on hard enough.

In a normal turn you’d encourage your horse to turn by turning your body but with this exercise you want him to hesitate – to sit back on his hocks rather than flow forward round the turn. Don’t turn your body or even look round the corner until he moves. Then turn with him.

Move on into trot and canter in exactly the same way. Ride forward at the fence, keeping the contact even. Often riders focus on inside bend and the outside rein gets forgotten about. In this exercise it’s more important to have the outside than the inside. Your sole job is to ride him at the fence in front of you. Dare him to jump it!

From start to finish your schooling session should focus on the corners. When you change the rein use the centre line or EXB so you have straight lines and corners. Avoid long diagonals where corners may unintentionally get cut off.

A turn from E to B or A to C is different. You don’t have the fence to ride at. Practise in walk. Your hands become the fence by tightening around the reins so your horse knows you don’t want him to go forward. Close your thighs around him as if you’re asking him to slow down but use your lower leg to keep him going forward. As his shoulders draw level with the marker take both hands across to the inside and push hard with your outside leg. (Your outside hand should be above his crest)  When he gets onto the line you want ‘catch’ him with your inside leg and ride forward.

Put these two styles of cornering together by riding 20m squares or three and four loop serpentines. Run through them in walk so you’re sure what you’re doing and then move on into trot and canter. Make yourself ride him forward and any time you have the fence ahead of you use it! The more chances you have to make him slow himself down the better. It’s moments like those which allow you to get your leg on. Until you can do that it’s impossible for you to push his hocks under his body.

This is something you can always go back to if your horse starts to get strong in the future. If you stay calm it’s guaranteed to get him back on his hocks and allow you to get your leg on. When the penny drops it’s a great feeling. Instead of a frantic charge round the school you’ll have a horse that is not only going at half the speed he’ll be lighter on his shoulders and in your hand too. Once he accepts your leg you’ll find everything so much easier and all because you rode him forward not backwards.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Blow Away Your Winter Blues

Your horse’s temperament will define how best to school him. He’s likely to fall into one of two categories. Is he a hare or a tortoise?

Every rider has their preference. Some like to kick on. It can be nice to feel nothing’s going to happen if you don’t ask for it. Others, however, veer away from the ‘keeps-you-fit’ equine. They’d rather sit still and have a horse that’s raring to go at all times. When it comes to schooling each type responds to a completely different approach. One horse’s entertainment can be another’s worst nightmare.

So with that in mind are you looking for something to get you through the dark nights of winter? Winter offers little respite from the school during the week. Don’t be a martyr to the cause. A couple of nights schooling is more than enough for any horse. He won’t lose fitness overnight. Two good workmanlike sessions midweek are far more beneficial than riding every night and achieving nothing.

Whatever your horse’s temperament if you’re just looking for something to do check out this page -

Tortoise training
The lazy horse requires inspiration. He needs you to get on board every time with enough energy for the pair of you. Everything you do or ask has to be the most exciting thing you’ve ever asked for. BUT your legs should only rest lightly against his sides at all times so he knows you’re there - they should never kick. Do that and he’ll switch off as quickly as you would if someone droned on and on about nothing.

The perfect type of schooling exercises for this type of horse are short, quick bursts of speed or energy. Quick transitions and turns. Serpentines in canter with changes of leg through trot or walk over the centre line. Halt to trot transitions across the school. Halt to canter even. Anything that makes him sit up and listen, get his hocks under his body and inspires him. Even the laziest horse will respond if you’re prepared to meet him halfway. Supply the enthusiasm and you’ll be surprised how much he gives back.

For your own sake remember to take several short breaks to get your breath back. Never allow him to rest for a moment though. Walk on a long rein using regular taps with the whip to maintain his energy. A forward walk can be as motivating for him as a canter – and for you it’s a chance to recharge the batteries.

Taming the Hare
The adrenalin junkie is a different ball game completely. Assuming he’s just sharp – not naughty – you need to be his calming influence. Anything you can do to show him life is dull will help your schooling. Allow this type of horse to switch off and before you know it you’ll have a horse you can get your leg on.

Sharp horses need repetition. Too many sudden changes will only get your horse more excited. Never think a ‘good canter or blast’ will calm him down. It’s the last thing you need to do. He has enough trouble getting rid of pent up adrenalin without making more!

The perfect exercise for this type of horse requires patience. Stick your self on a 20m circle and either change pace or change shape but never both at the same time. That will be too much for his active brain to cope with. Try trotting 20m circles followed by 15m and 10m and back out again. Do that for twenty minutes without changing anything other than the circle size and without even thinking about it you’ll find yourself pushing him forward.

To a sharp horse your leg should be a comfort not a shock. It’s there to ‘hold his hand’ not surprise him. Take your leg off because you think it’s exciting him and he’ll get such a shock when you do put it on that he’ll be off down the school before you can say ‘steady’.

A ‘sharp-naughty’ horse needs something between the two. The most important thing with him is to keep him away from straight lines and too much repetition. He needs to be kept busy without the addition of excitement. This isn’t too difficult to do. Ride serpentines, changes of rein and figures of eight in one pace. Every time you feel him tighten ride a turn across the school or a small circle. Keep his brain full of your ideas and stop him filling it with ones of his own.

Winter is right here now and it’s important to keep yourself inspired. Understanding your horse’s temperament and schooling needs will get you halfway there. Your consistency will do the rest. Never school if you’re in a foul mood. It’s better for both of you if you take the night off. You’ll only spoil things and get off feeling guilty.

When it’s cold, dark and miserable out there it’s important not to lose sight of the reason you’re doing this. It’s your hobby and it’s supposed to be fun! Don’t pressure yourself or your horse into doing anything you don’t want to do. It won’t help you and it certainly won’t do anything for him either.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Pull Up to Ride Forward

How often are you told to sit up, look up or get your shoulders back? Aren’t you just a bit fed up with constantly having to readjust your position? Imagine how your horse feels! Your position affects everything he does. The more balanced you are the better.

When you’re told to sit up what do you actually do? Lean back a bit? In doing so your back probably rounds leaving your shoulders forward. Then you’re told to stick your shoulders back. You do but your head stays where it is.  Your chin sticks out and you end up looking at the ground a few strides ahead of your horse. Sound familiar?

Instead of thinking ‘lean back’ think ‘pull up’. Pull up through your whole body. Imagine you’re trying to pull your vertebrae away from each other. Pull the bottom of your rib cage out and forward and take a deep breath in. Now feel where your shoulders and head are in relation to your hips. They should be directly above them. For your horse this is perfect. He can carry you easily because you’re in balance.

But you’re not done yet! Now you have to lean back to the point when you feel your weight at the back of your head. Try it while you’re sitting reading this. Allow your arms to drop down by your sides. Where do your elbows go? Down next to your sides. In the shoulders forward position your arms stiffen and your elbows tighten. If your reins get too long you end up sticking your elbows out and rounding your wrists.

There’s another wonderful thing about the ‘pull up’ method. You look up! As you lean back your head and shoulders go with you. Instead of leaving your head where it was and ending up looking at the floor your head tips back and you’ll find yourself looking down the track about 20m further ahead. It’s a feeling you’ll quickly get used to as you realise when you’re looking ahead you can plan ahead.

When you next ride your horse pull up through your body before you even move off into walk. He won’t recognise you. Don’t forget to lean backwards. The chances are you’ll feel as if you’re leaning too far back but you won’t be. Get a friend to take a picture of you or put your phone on video mode and prop it up on a fence post so you can see yourself. You’ll be surprised to find that you’re only sitting up straight.

Try walking round the school. Pull up through your body and feel what happens in your seat. Firstly your hips will swing with your horse without you having to make them. Secondly – and more importantly - they’ll push forward ahead of your shoulders when your horse pushes his hind legs under his body.  

Practice trotting circles and serpentines while you’re in this position. Before you ask your horse to turn pull up through your body first, let your hips move in front of your shoulders. Think of it as an aid which is guaranteed to sit him back on his hocks.

Canter large round the school and focus on leaning as far back as you can. Feel the difference in your lower back and seat when your hips move ahead of your shoulders. Don’t allow your body to collapse. Pull up and look up and your horse’s back will come up under the saddle which in turn brings his hocks further under his body.

Play with some transitions on the centre line. Ask for trot to walk transitions as you go through X. Pull up through your body as you ask and concentrate on allowing your hips to move in front of your shoulders as your horse walks.

It may seem strange asking for an upwards transition just before a turn but your horse knows the turn is coming. It won’t come as a surprise to him! From an active walk ask for trot at D/G. Pull up, ride forward and don’t pull back. The tight turn will increase the energy in your trot.

With the change of the clocks and winter really on its way now is the perfect time to make some positive changes to your position. If it takes a few sessions it doesn’t matter. Before you ask your horse to do anything remember to pull up through your body. Get a feel for it and you’ll never look back.

Your position will affect your horse whatever you do. Lean forward and he’ll fall onto his forehand. Slip to the side and he’ll fall in or out. But lean back and the worst thing that can happen is you put his weight back on his hocks. Isn’t that what you’ve been trying to do all this time?

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Problem Solving - cause and effect

If you have a problem with your horse what do you do? Ask your instructor? A friend? Or turn to a book? It’s the right thing to do. A problem shared is a problem halved but unfortunately it’s always after the event. Wouldn’t it be great if you could solve it while you were still in the saddle?

There’s only one cause of any problem with your horse. You! That’s a fact not an insult. Whatever you do with your body affects him. Divide your horse – and the aids that affect him – into three sections. 1 - Your hands and his shoulders/neck/mouth. 2 – His body and yours. 3 – His hindquarters and your legs.

If something’s not right in one of those sections it will have a negative effect on the others. So although your horse is lifting his head up it might not be your hands that started it – it might be that you’re sitting too heavily on his back. If he’s tight in his back he’ll stop using his hocks and up comes his head.  What started in one section quickly affects the other two. However hard you try to keep your hands still and ride forward if you’re making his back uncomfortable you won’t cure your problem.

If you have a problem while you’re riding think through the following lists and be honest! Ask yourself “Am I doing that?” If the answer is “Yes” to any one of the following points then you’ve found your cause.

Common problems with Section 1 –
  1. If your hands are uneven your horse’s shoulders will match them. If one shoulder (hand) is higher than the other he’ll fall towards the lower side. If one hand is further back than the other his shoulders will be crooked.
  2. Drop your hands and your horse will drop both shoulders and carry his weight on his forehand. Lift them too high and he’ll stiffen in his neck as his shoulders struggle to rise any higher.
  3. Hold your contact too tight and your horse will tighten his jaw against the pressure. That sends tension down the rest of his spine. BUT if your reins are too long you won’t contain the energy you create, he won’t use his hocks and he’ll fall onto his shoulders. Hold but don’t pull back.
  4. If your rein contact is stronger on one side that’s the way your horse’s shoulders are heading. If you’re trying to circle, corner or turn you need his shoulders on the line you’re taking not going off to one side. (falling out/in)

Problems with Section 2 –
  1. Your horse will be crooked if you are. Your shoulders and hips should be turned in the direction you’re moving or face the front on a straight line. If you’re left or right sided and turn naturally to one side you’ll find he does the same. That’s great on the good side but you’ll find he’s crooked and tight on the stiff side.
  2. He’ll fall in or out if your weight slips to one side in the saddle. (He’ll move away from the heavier side) OR you collapse to the inside. The distance between your bottom rib and the top of your hip should be the same on both sides. Drop your hip or your shoulder and he’ll do exactly the same.
  3. He’ll fall onto his forehand if you tip forward.  If you lean too far back your leg will swing forward and come off his sides. That means you’ll stop riding him forward and that leads you nicely onto -

Problems with Section 3 –
  1. If your legs aren’t pushing him forward then your horse won’t bring his hocks underneath him. He won’t be able to balance on his hindquarters and he’ll fall onto his forehand.
  2. If one leg is further back than the other you’re telling your horse to move his quarters over. A classic example of this is failing to move your outside leg forward once you’re in canter. He’ll move his quarters in and be crooked until you tell him otherwise.
  3. Are you kicking too hard? This lifts you up out of the saddle in sitting trot and canter. In rising trot it sends you far too high on the rise. Both are uncomfortable to your horse and get you out of balance with the rhythm of the pace. Tap him up with the whip if he’s lazy. It’s for his own good.
  4. If you use one leg harder than the other you’re giving your horse clear aids to step sideways. Always use your legs together and with the same amount of pressure unless you’re doing lateral work.

So there are the most obvious problems. It gives you somewhere to start when things go wrong. It’s only what your instructor does when he/she assesses you and your horse in the warm up. They’ll look at these three sections, see what’s going wrong and that’s what they base your lesson on. This way you can teach yourself for a while.

Next time your horse feels lazy in a downward transition think about what you might be doing to cause it. Are your reins too long? Are you leaning forward or just not using enough leg? That’s three different reasons for a downward transition that’s on the forehand – one from each section.

Is your canter crooked? Are your hands level and at the same height? Are you sitting square in the saddle and have you remembered to move your outside leg forward after the transition? Again three causes. Three sections.

Do you struggle to get your horse out into the corners? Is your contact even in both hands? Are you keeping your weight equal on both sides of the saddle? Are you pushing him forward from both legs?

Whatever your problem remember who started it! Your horse can only do what you’re telling him to do. It’s true that a problem shared is a problem halved but a problem divided into three might just get solved before you leave the school next time.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling. 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Your Whole Horse in Your Hands?

Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve got the whole weight of your horse in your hands? Does his head get lower and lower the further you go? The chances are he’s carrying himself on his forehand – or shoulders. He’s not the only horse to do it. It’s a common problem but it’s one that can be easily avoided.  If you know where to look.

When a horse is on the forehand he’s carrying about ¾ of his weight on his shoulders. There are many reasons he might be doing it but only one true cause - he’s not using his hocks correctly.

In walk it’s less obvious. On a road you might hear it when your horse’s front feet hit the ground with more force than his hind feet. He might trip in front more than behind. Because you’re not travelling at speed it probably goes unnoticed. The faster you go the more unbalanced he’ll become.

In trot things feel more obvious. Imagine running down a steep hill. You’d want to put out a hand to stop yourself falling over - right? Your horse will feel the same only he doesn’t have hands. Instead he has a bit in his mouth and attached to it he has your hands! That’s one of the first things you’ll notice about a horse on the forehand – the dead weight in your hands – and no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to get him off them.

In canter your horse will not only be uncomfortable to ride he’ll also be less responsive. The speed of the canter means more of his weight will be falling forwards onto your hands making it difficult for you to turn or vary his speed.

You wouldn’t be the first to think the best way to deal with it is to plug away in trot or canter until your horse sits back on his hocks but before you do just think about this -

When your horse unbalances onto his forehand there’s a strong chance he did it before you started the pace you feel it in. He may well have been trotting around quite nicely before you found yourself cantering the wall of death round the arena. So what happened in between the two? Try looking at your transition.

If your horse is prone to going on his forehand you’ll have heard the phrase ‘ride him uphill’. The theory is sound – you do want to think of his body sitting down at the back and lifting in front. BUT think how you ride when you ride uphill. You lean forward and give your horse his head. Try thinking of riding down a steep hill. Then you’d be sitting right back, pushing his hocks underneath him and holding the contact.

Whether you’re asking for walk to canter or trot to canter your body should remain the same. Your horse will copy exactly what you do. If you tip forward he’ll do the same. Lean further back than you feel comfortable doing. Exaggerate it. This will put all your weight over his hocks and encourage him to sit.

If you keep your hands up in front of you and your contact consistent in both hands then your horse will stay off his shoulders. Your contact contains energy allowing you to drive his hocks under his body.

When you’re asking for canter don’t make the mistake of throwing your hands forward in the hope your horse will go into canter quicker. Actually all you’re doing is throwing him straight onto his shoulders and making his life more difficult. Nag at yourself to keep your fingers closed around the reins as you ask. Then as you put your inside leg on for the strike off keep the contact between your thumb and first finger and relax the other three to allow him to canter.

If this is a regular problem ask your horse for canter going into a corner not on it. The fact you’re not on a bend will mean you’re less inclined to lean to the inside and unbalance him. Riding towards a fence will stop him running into canter and unbalancing himself too.

Before you go remember not to canter for too long! When you’re trying to solve a problem use canter in short bursts so you can concentrate on the quality of the transition and the first few strides. It’s the cause of the problem you need to look at not the end result.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 7 October 2011

To Rise or not to Rise?

Whether you’re learning to ride or starting to compete at dressage you can guarantee rising trot will become an issue. For those learning to ride getting up out of the saddle is a problem. Yet the more you learn the harder it is to sit!

For new riders it can feel as if rising trot will never feel natural but like everything it really does get easier. There’s a knack to it that only comes with time. The rise comes as much from your horse as it does from you. When he’s going forward you’ll find the spring of the trot helps to push you up out of the saddle.

It’s tempting to put your whole weight onto the stirrup to push yourself up. Don’t do it! The first thing that happens is your leg shoots forward throwing you straight back into the saddle. If you get enough control of your balance to stop that happening you’ll find you stand on the ball of your foot. Result? Your heel comes up and you fall forward.

You’re not expected to rise miles out of the saddle. A couple of inches will do. You only need to clear your horse’s back for a stride and sit back down. The object of rising trot is to stay in rhythm with your horse. Standing straight up takes time. By the time you sit back down you meet him on the wrong beat. That gets you bouncing out of rhythm. Who hasn’t experienced the ‘double bounce’?

Instead of rising from your stirrup imagine you have no lower leg at all. Put your weight onto the top of your knee and squeeze the thigh muscle just above it into the saddle to push yourself up. It’s worth practising out on a hack with a horse in front of you to keep your horse going. Don’t look at its rider though. Their horse will have a completely different rhythm to yours. Your rising is unique to your trot.

When you are in a school don’t forget to turn your body in line with the curve of a circle in rising trot. It’s easy to rise and straighten up without realising. As you sit back in the saddle your outside shoulder and hip should be slightly ahead of the inside ones so you stay in line with your horse until you ride straight.

Diagonals are your next challenge. Trot has two beats to it – it’s 2 time. When your horse trots he moves one hind leg and the front leg diagonally opposite at the same time. (Right hind/left front and left hind/right front) Hence the term ‘diagonal’.

You rise on a particular diagonal so you’re out of the saddle as your horse’s inside hind leg steps forward under his body. That’s the leg that pushes him forward. You should use your leg as you sit. By using your leg before he lifts his hind foot up off the floor you’ll encourage him to stretch it further under his body as he lifts it.

It’s important to remember to change your diagonal every time you change the rein. To do this you sit for one extra stride. Up, down – down, up. That brings you up as the new inside hind leg is going forward.

So you’re supposed to rise when the outside front leg and inside hind are going forward - how do you know? Look at the outside shoulder. Rise as it goes forward and sit as it comes back.  Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t see it. Some riders take years to get it right. Try sticking bandage or electrical tape on the point of one of your horse’s shoulder. That way you can see clearly when it moves away and towards you.

The best place to practise is out on a hack. Trot up a road in a straight line. That gives you time to focus solely on the shoulder. Look down and keep your eyes on it. Forget about ups and downs. Just concentrate on whether that shoulder is going forward or back. When you can do that can you worry about the timing of your rising.

Out hacking there’s no right or wrong time to rise but try to use both sides. Sticking to the ‘more comfortable one’ will only make the stiffer side worse.

For the more experienced rider the choice of sitting or rising trot comes in when you’re either showing or competing at dressage. In the early dressage levels it’s not compulsory to sit so unless you can sit on your horse and be totally relaxed don’t do it. Rising trot performed well looks as good as sitting trot and it will look much nicer than a horse that is tight because he is unhappy with his rider’s weight on his back.

Tension in your seat has a dramatic effect on your horse and your ability to sit. Try tightening the muscles in your seat in rising trot. You’ll feel your legs move away from your horse’s sides and forward. Your weight is tipped backwards.

Do the same in sitting trot and it has exactly the same effect. You may not feel it but your horse will. He’ll hollow and tighten his back which will make him uncomfortable to sit on. Result? You tighten your seat even more.

You are the only one who can change this. Practise going from rising trot to sitting for as little as ten strides. Concentrate on keeping your seat as relaxed as possible. When you sit in the saddle sit straight down. You should feel your weight on your two seat bones but also a little on your fork. Gradually increase the length of time you sit. The instant you feel your back or seat tighten start rising.

A final thought for all riders - don’t forget to breathe! Stupid as it may sound who hasn’t held their breath when they’re concentrating hard? The problem with that is it tightens every muscle in your body. That’s not going to help whether you’re rising or sitting.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Let Your Horse Work for You

No matter how much you love your horse you’re bound to have days when you wish he’d just exercise himself. Any exercise is better than no exercise so, with that in mind, why don’t you choose something that will make him work harder than you?

The easiest thing to do is reduce the size of your circles. 20m circles are useful but don’t really require your horse to exert himself. 10m circles are ideal. Ride them from each marker in the school, the four points of a 20m circle or change the rein by riding half 10m circles from E to X to B. He’ll have to push his hocks further under his body just to get round which will use the muscles in his back as well as his hindquarters.

10m circles are a big ask for a young horse. Use 15m circles instead. Or slow down and ride some in walk. They’ll be good for his balance and keep his attention too.

Four loop serpentines are a great way of making your horse do more work with less effort from you. You’ll be riding more half 10m circles but this time with straight lines joining them across the school. Spend a session riding them up and down the school. You’ll use both reins equally, keep his attention and get him using his hocks.

Diamonds are really useful shapes. They’re often overlooked or perhaps not even thought about. They can be ridden in all three paces and in two different sizes. The most obvious is a diamond using the four points of a 20m circle. Technically it’s a square but working away from the fence at each point means your horse has to stay focused on you.

A true diamond can be ridden between C, B, A and E. The points at A and C are sharp. They encourage your horse to sit on his hocks and move his shoulders as one unit. They’re not beyond the capabilities of any horse. Even a youngster can cope with one in walk. It’s an ideal way for you to get control of his shoulders before moving on to lateral work.

To turn your horse in walk around a point on a diamond sit back and close your fingers around the reins. This tells him not to go forward. Move both hands to the inside (Your outside hand should be above his withers) and push with both legs. He can’t go forward so he’ll follow the direction of your hands and move his body and shoulders around his quarters and across to the inside.

Used behind the girth your leg specifically controls your horse’s quarters. Used by the girth it controls his barrel. If he starts to move his quarters round as well as his shoulders and barrel swing your outside leg back and give him a nudge with your heel. That will tell him to keep his quarters still.

When you move your hands to the inside your horse moves his shoulders across. Your hands are then back to their original position – one either side of his withers. To move him across again move your hands over and push with both legs. When he’s on the line you want to take relax your fingers on the reins and allow him to go forward.

There’s one significant difference between asking your horse to move laterally (sideways) and just turning. To turn you use your body to tell him which way you want to go. Your body turns before his. When you move him sideways your hands and legs direct him but your body stays still. His body turns before yours.

The sequence of legs in trot makes it impossible for your horse to move his shoulders around his quarters so the points must be ridden as a turn. It may be less accurate but it will still be enough to make him step further under his body with his hocks.

As you approach each point turn your upper body and hands in the direction you want to go. Push forward with both legs. Keep your fingers relaxed on your reins to encourage him to go forward.

Riding diamonds in canter isn’t beyond the capabilities of any horse with practice. Try a 20m diamond where the turns are less sharp. Treat each turn as you would a corner. Sit up and turn your body. Keep your hands directly in front of you as he turns to keep his shoulders together. Ride forward to keep him back on his hocks and be ready to nudge him with your outside leg back if he swings his quarters.

Next time you feel less than enthusiastic try something different that will challenge your horse more than it will challenge you. Nobody said schooling had to be hard work all the time. Not for you anyway.  

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A Contradiction in Terms?

How often have you read ‘keep your hands still’ only to read ‘take a check’, ‘move your fingers on the reins’ or ‘squeeze’ two paragraphs later? With so many references to hands, reins and fingers is it any wonder many riders get confused?

The first thing you need to understand is your fingers are a part of your hands not the same thing. So your fingers can move although your hands stay still.

There’s never a time when your hands need to move away or back from their position in front of your body. They should stay above your horse’s withers to keep control of his shoulders. When your body turns your arms and hands should go too. This moves his shoulders whilst your legs push his body and quarters behind them.

No pace or movement benefits from your reins being too long. Clamp your reins between your thumb and first finger and don’t let go!

Pull back on your reins and your horse will tighten his back. When he does that his hocks can’t step underneath him and he loses impulsion. Nag at yourself to ride forward and never pull back. Holding a contact is the same as holding a toddler’s hand. You’re there to guide them not to break their fingers.

If your horse has been leaning on the bit your fingers stiffen up. Is it his weight or your tension that makes them ache? He can only lean on something if it’s solid. If he can’t lean on your hand he’ll have to sit on his hocks. Move your second, third and little finger as if you’re drumming them on a table or dabbling them in water. That small amount of movement stops you tensing your hands.

Your contact is ‘soft’ when your fingers are mobile. You can still feel your horse at the end of your reins but he isn’t a dead weight. Push him forward into a soft contact and he’ll relax, round his back and go naturally onto the bit.

If your horse resists your hands then your contact should be restrictive. Imagine you’ve got a wet sponge in each hand and have to squeeze all the water out. Squeeze both reins together. This gives him an even but pressured feeling in his mouth. It’s enough to say “Don’t do it.” Keep up the pressure until he relaxes his jaw.

Many riders get confused when they start trying to get their horse on the bit. They squeeze one rein and then the other swinging their horse’s head from side to side. It gets a result of sorts because the horse puts his head in to avoid the discomfort BUT he isn’t on the bit – the second they swap a whip or do something different he pops straight back up again. (Imagine for a second how distracting it would be when you’re trying to read this if someone was pulling your head from side to side.)

Compare your horse to a bottle of coke. Shake the bottle with the lid on and the drink inside fizzes but can’t escape. Your rein contact is that lid. If it stays consistent it contains the energy your legs create. When his hocks are under him and the length of his neck is determined by the length of your reins his back has to round. Without so much as a squeeze or a pull he’s on the bit.

Imagine if you opened and closed the lid of the bottle. In time the fizz would escape and the drink would become flat. Releasing and taking your contact has exactly the same effect on your horse. When his hocks aren’t under his body he can’t go onto the bit because his energy has dropped and his back will hollow.

If your horse is heavy on one rein the chances are he’s not in the other. Never ‘drop’ him off the heavy side. Always put him onto the lighter side. You need an even pressure on both sides of his mouth to contain his energy and keep him on his hocks. 

Here’s something to try –

Take up your reins and stay in walk. Now ride forward, move your fingers but don’t pull back. Follow the movement of your horse’s head in walk. Your hands and arms should move forward and back to keep the same weight in each rein.

Some horses accept a contact instantly. Others are less trusting. Never resort to a quick pull because that’s exactly why your horse won’t settle in the first place!

Try putting your leg on and moving your hand two inches forward. Your horse should ‘look’ for the contact. This means the weight in your hand stays the same because he stretches his neck to find the contact. So instead of pulling him back into a contact you’re pushing him to one and because he’s relaxed he’ll actively look for it.

You may be wondering how you should ask him to bend if you can’t tug, pull one rein and not the other or squeeze. A horse bends through his body around your leg – not from your inside rein. And that’s a topic for another day.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.