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Friday, 25 February 2011

It's in Your Hands

Does your horse fall in or out on a turn or circle? Does he tip his head to one side just as you finally get him ‘on the bit’? These problems all stem from one thing. Your hands.

Your hands should be level and the same distance apart as your horse’s mouth. They control everything in front of your saddle. Drop a hand and your horse will drop a shoulder. Move one hand to the side and your horse’s shoulder will to do the same.

Next time you ride bridge your reins or ride with a whip pushed under your thumbs to keep your hands the same distance apart. It won’t take long for you to realise how mobile your hands usually are. Every movement you make affects your horse.

Ride a circle with your hands up and together. Don’t be tempted to open your hands to turn him. The minute you do you’ll allow your horse to move his shoulders apart. Did you know horses don’t have a collar bone? Their shoulders can move independently of each other. When you open your hands you allow your horse to move his shoulders apart. He can fall in or out as he pleases. Keeping your hands together will keep his shoulders together as one unit.

Use your legs when you need to but not every stride. A push here and there is all you need to keep him on track. Riders often do too much to steer their horse. Use your outside leg to push your horse off the track and then just turn your body and look where you want to go. Let him do the rest.

Horse’s which tip their nose to one side can be frustrating but before you blame them have a look at your hands. If one hand is higher than the other then it’s you that’s at fault. This is good news! It means you can sort out the problem.

Your horse mirrors what you do with your hands. Carry your left hand lower than your right and your horse will do the same with his shoulders and his mouth. If the left hand side of his mouth is lower than his right his nose will tip out to the right.

Often this is a well established habit and will need more work than just levelling out your hands. Your horse has got used to holding himself like this so when you lift your hand he’ll lean against it. A common reaction is for the rider to throw away the rein and take it back again. It doesn’t work. This affirms what your horse was thinking. If he resists you remove the pressure. Try the opposite.

Assuming your horse’s head is tipped to the right increase the pressure on your right rein. Your horse is focused on leaning on the left rein and will be surprised to feel you on the right. This will even out the pressure on both sides of his mouth and straighten his head. Now use both legs together and ride forward.

All habits require patience and self discipline to break them. Be consistent and keep an eye on your hands. Keep them up and together to keep everything in front of your saddle in its rightful place.

Be consistent and you’ll win in the end. It takes two to create a habit but only one to break it. Good luck.

Monday, 21 February 2011

You've Started so You'll Finish

If you’ve read Prepare to Improve Your Score you’ll have read all about the importance of your centre line at the start of a dressage test. It’s the most important part of any test. It sets the standard in the judge’s eye for the rest of your marks.

A straight centre line is a great start. An accurately ridden test will score you some high marks. There’s one thing, however, which can make or break those all important double-scoring collective marks at the end. Your final halt.

A sloppy, crooked halt isn’t the best way to finish. It leaves the judge feeling disappointed rather than inspired. If you were about to score sixes or sevens in those final boxes you could well end up with fives and sixes. A bad halt can cost you as many as eight marks. That’s the difference between winning and losing.

A good square halt is easily achievable with any horse. As with all downwards transitions it’s the energy of the previous pace which is important. In a test horses often anticipate the halt and slow down. The rider panics and pushes on which makes the horse jolt forwards. Result? A less than tidy finish.

Try this.

Practice riding the centre line in trot and not halting. Get straight and push on in the fastest trot you can get without cantering. Sit up and push on round the turn at the end.

If you have trouble in tests with your halts never practice on the centre line. Instead practice on the ¾ line in the opposite direction. Leave your halt at G for show days.

Once you’ve established a straight line practice halting as you get level with D (Between F and K). Ride forward until you reach the marker. Squeeze as hard as you can with your knee and thigh to bring him to a standstill. (See The Other Way of Stopping – popular posts) Don’t stop pushing with your lower leg until you move off.

Your horse will stop if you keep your knees clamped in. The less you rely on your reins the less chance of him tipping his head up and hollowing. The more you practice the sharper the halt will become. If you sit back and keep your lower leg on you’ll keep his hocks underneath him and the halt will be straight and square.

A straight centre line always make a great first impression but a good final halt will be the last thing the judge remembers. Good luck.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Other Way of Turning

Most riders feel as if they should leave the school puffing and sweating. If you’re not pushing and tweaking, checking and flexing you’re not trying hard enough, right?

Wrong! If you were a horse what would you prefer? Someone who sat still, allowed you to do your job with minimal interference or someone who felt they had to hold your hoof every step of the way?

Horses are unbelievably sensitive. Your slightest move can alter things dramatically. Think how hysterical they get if a fly, which is a millionth of their size, dares to land on them. You’ll be surprised how little you have to do to have an affect.

If you’ve read The Other Way of Stopping (see popular posts) you’ll know how to stop and collect your horse without using your hand. If you’ve read Be a Lazy Rider (December 2010) you’ll know how to get your horse to go forward with less leg from you. This is The Other Way of Turning.

Try this.

In walk ride large round the school. Have a contact but keep your horse’s head straight in front of you. On the long side turn your head to look directly across the school.

Now turn your upper body – your shoulders and your hips - to the inside. Your outside shoulder and hip should be further forward than your inside.

Concentrate on keeping your shoulders above your hips and your weight on your seat so you stay balanced.

Keep your body in this position and wait for your horse’s response. It may take him a few strides to start with but all horses have the same reaction. They’ll turn to the inside. If you stay in this position you’ll find he comes round in a complete circle.

Try the same from the centre line. In walk ride down the centre line and turn your upper body and your head to the left or right. Stay in that position until you’ve ridden a complete circle and continue down the centre line.

To change the rein from E to B turn to the inside to get off the track at E and straighten your body when you’re facing B. Your horse will straighten up too. Ride across the school and use your body to tell him which way you want to go at B.

The more you practice the more you’ll achieve. The angle that you turn your body tells your horse how tight to turn. You can make him do a 10m or a 20m circle just by changing the angle of your body. Try riding a serpentine only using your upper body. You’ll be surprised how much you can do without using your leg or hand.

Once your horse starts to pick up what you’re doing he’ll really start to listen to you. It’s amazing to think by doing so little you can have such an effect. Bear this in mind the next time your canter is crooked or your halt isn’t quite square. Are you sure your horse is at fault?

It’s true that the more you can do to help him the better. Just remember that sometimes less is more. Have fun.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

A Pain in the Neck?

Is your horse a tortoise or a giraffe?

Giraffes, as most riders know, have telescopic necks. They get their heads way above the angle of control making steering and stopping almost impossible.
Tortoises, like their namesakes, have an incredible ability to contract their necks right back into their bodies and set themselves. They’ll set their necks, stick their ears up your nostrils and plough on regardless of any pulling and flapping you may do.

Giraffe or tortoise, your horse is doing this for one reason. To avoid your contact. The cause of it could be many things but it’s most likely to stem from discomfort. Make sure you aren’t the cause of the problem.

Become more aware of your hands when you ride. In rising trot do your hands stay still or do they go up and down with you? Do you pull back every time you use your legs? You may not mean to do any of these things but over time your horse learns to avoid the pressure they cause. Keeping your elbow bent and your fingers moving will keep your hands as soft and relaxed as possible.

There are a million gadgets on the market which offer a quick fix but many of them don’t actually solve the problem. Many slide through the bit so the horse can’t lean bringing his head down and in. That’s all very pretty but the second you remove the gadget up pops his head again. You need something which allows you to concentrate on your contact.

For a giraffe try a standing martingale. Running martingales are ok but, when your horse resists, the pressure still goes to the bit. The only pressure from a standing martingale is to his nose. Ride forward from your leg into a steady but soft contact (keep your fingers moving). Be patient. He’ll accept the contact and relax his neck.

In time you can lengthen the martingale so it’s only there for emergencies. Eventually you’ll be able to do without it altogether.

No gadget or martingale works with a tortoise. You’ll never win a battle of strength but in a battle of wits you have the trump card. You are more intelligent and you know what he’s going to do.

Tortoises have a habit of shrinking their necks as you go up a pace. Most often from walk to trot. Before you trot the walk probably feels soft and submissive. It’s when you ask for it that the softness converts to concrete and the jaw becomes solid.

In walk practice bending his head from the outside to the middle to the inside. Take your time. You’re not swinging his head from side to side. You’re turning his head and neck one way and then the other to stop him setting his muscles. Take three strides to bend him to the outside, three to bring him back to the centre and three to take him to the inside. Use the leg on the side you are turning towards to stop him turning his body. Put your other leg back to stop him swinging his quarters out. He’s a master of evasion so cover all options!

To start with he’ll still try to set his neck. Keep turning his head from side to side and he can’t. If you have to take your hand away from his neck to turn his head then do it. Stay calm even when he’s not. A tug or yank at this stage will just remind him why he started all this in the first place!

Once you’re able to do this without too much of a fight ask for trot. Ask as his head’s turned to the outside. It may take a few strides because he’ll think you’ve gone crazy but you’ll find he won’t be able to shrink back into his shell when you’re bending him one way and then the other.

Once you’re in trot relax but be ready. The second he tries to set his neck bend him to the outside.

These methods may not be ideal for a dressage test but they’re there to break a habit. They’re useful and kinder than many gadgets claim to be. Whether it’s a giraffe or a tortoise you have on your hands there’s only one way to change them and that’s practice and patience. Keep calm, stay consistent and soon you’ll have a horse with a neck that bends the right way! Good luck.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

It Takes Two

We’ve all ridden horses that put their entire weight on the bit. Frustrating as it is, it’s not only their fault. You can’t lean on anything that isn’t solid. Neither can they.

Your horse leans because he’s unbalanced. Too much of his weight is on his shoulders. He uses you to stop himself tipping onto his nose. You need to rebalance him. Put his weight onto his hocks. Then he can carry himself.

To do this you have to sit back. When you think you’re upright lean back an extra inch. You’ll feel as if you’re leaning over backwards but if you check in a mirror you’ll be upright. Now look straight ahead not at the floor ten metres ahead of you. Lift your hands, keep your elbows bent and use plenty of leg to push his hocks under his body.

Ride through your paces and pay attention to your position and your hands. If you keep your wrists straight and your fingers moving on the reins then you’ll give him nothing to lean on.

Still think it’s his fault? Put your reins through your hands the wrong way or lay your whip down his shoulder and ride with it there. Both methods stop you rounding your wrists and fixing on him. It might feel odd but he won’t be leaning. He can’t if you don’t set against him. Now you have something to work towards.

It’s not the solution that’s difficult, it’s keeping it up. Your horse will still try to lean. He’s got used to it. It’s easier than carrying himself. After the initial ten minutes of enthusiasm you could well slip your reins a bit longer, start looking at the floor, drop your shoulders forward or even forget to move your fingers on the reins. All these things have one end result. They put his weight on his shoulders and he’s back to leaning on you.

Sometimes schooling can be harder on you than it is on your horse. Nag at yourself. Sit up, look up and keep your hands up. Keep trying and you’ll soon have a horse that will carry himself.

It does takes two to lean but the good news is that it only takes one to break the habit. The bad news is it won’t be him! Stay calm, stay consistent and don’t give in.

Good luck.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Get Those Hocks in Gear.

How often has your horse given you the choice of head down or hocks under? You trot around the school, you know he looks pretty but you also know that his hocks are nowhere to be seen. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both?

There is an answer. It’s called canter. It’s the best pace in the world for unlocking those rigid back muscles. Because of the way his legs move in canter – one hind, a diagonal pair and a foreleg – his muscles have to stretch from side to side and front to back. The best news is there’s very little he can do to stop them.

Try this.

Establish your canter around the arena. Keep your weight back on your seat and lift your hands up. If your hands are too low then his weight will fall onto his shoulders making it impossible for him to get his hocks working correctly.

At the start of a long side ride a 10m circle. Sit up and push on. All horses can canter small circles it’s their riders who think they can’t.

Come out of the circle and push on up the long side. Don’t throw the reins at him. Keep your contact, sit back and kick on. At the end bring him back using your knee and thigh not your hand (See The Other Way of Stopping) and put him onto a 10m circle.  Now ride to the next corner and run through the whole exercise again.

Do this at every corner and on every long side. Ride as many as you feel fit enough to do making sure you do equal amounts on each rein. The important thing is to get him really moving on the long sides and coming back on the 10m circles. This is what gets his back muscles shortening and stretching. This loosens up his back allowing his hocks to step further under his body.

When you trot ask with your knee and thigh, sit back and keep your contact steady without pulling back. This is the most crucial part. Your horse will move into trot and his back will be soft. The last thing you need to do is pull him in the mouth and upset him!  Keep the bend in your elbow and your fingers moving so he doesn’t lean but leave the rest to him.

This is a great exercise and it works with most horses however stubborn they might be. Canter for long enough and they forget why they were arguing in the first place. Suddenly they’re trotting around the arena as if there was never a problem in the first place. Good luck!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Forwards not Downwards.

(suggested reading -  The Other Way of Stopping)

Imagine yourself riding an upward transition. What do you think of first? The chances are you think of putting your leg on. Why wouldn’t you? It’s only natural to put your leg on when you’re going up a pace.

Now think about riding a downwards transition. What comes to mind? Most riders’ first reaction is to sit still. Think of the two or three strides of the actual transition and you’ll realise that at that point you hardly dare breathe let alone push on!

In truth you should use as much leg, if not more, on the downwards transitions as the up. As a horse comes in to a lower pace he needs to sit on his hocks. By doing this he keeps his hips lower than his withers. He’s in an uphill position and he can balance.

It’s important to keep yourself balanced too. Keep your head above your shoulders and sit back. Look straight ahead, not at the ground ten yards ahead. If you look down you’ll take your head forward which will take the weight off your seat.

Horses which tip their heads up into a transition do it because you’ve stopped pushing from leg into hand. Keep your hands up and practice using your legs on every stride of the transition. Keep your fingers moving so he can’t set his jaw. You’ll soon notice the difference.

Canter to trot causes most trouble. It’s common for horses to run through the transition. Their weight falls onto their shoulders and they run on for the next eight or nine strides. The rider then gets pulled forward and takes half a circuit to regain some control. Sound familiar?

Try this.

Ride transitions from canter to trot at E or B. Prepare for the transition by sitting up and putting both legs on as you come onto the long side. Clamp your thighs and knees on at E or B, hold your hands up and nag at yourself to keep using your leg as your horse goes forward into trot. Keep your knee and thigh in until you reach the next corner marker. Then gradually release the pressure around the corner when you feel you’ve regained your control.

If your horse still runs through your transitions then ride some canter to halt transitions at E or B. Be positive. Horses do this for fun in the field. Imagine you have to halt on the end of a cliff. You’d stop then!

Be firm. Tighten the muscles in your lower back and your seat. Clamp your knees and thighs in hard and use your outside rein to back it up. Don’t forget to keep your lower leg on until he halts. Ride at least ten so he anticipates having to stop.

Now ask for canter to trot. Your horse will anticipate the halt so you should find you actually have to push on to stop him halting. Practice both to keep him guessing. If he starts to revert back to tanking in trot ask for halt as soon as you feel him start to run. It will remind him just who’s in charge.

Your horse will always be stronger than you. You can never win a pulling match. You have the benefit of knowing what you want to achieve so you can plan ahead. Use it to your advantage.