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Sunday, 27 March 2011

Perfect Timing

A lot has been written about how to position and use your leg. You know how to use each part of your leg and how to get your horse moving off it but do you know when to use it? Knowing the perfect time to put your leg on can make a huge difference when you start to ride more difficult movements.

In standard paces (medium walk or working trot and canter) you shouldn’t need to use your legs just to keep your horse moving. For more on this read ‘Be a Lazy Rider’ (December 2010). Your legs are there to control the hindquarters and to generate extra energy. An extra push with your leg will increase the effort your horse puts into a pace but do it at the right time and he’ll make three times the effort.

Try this.

Walk large around the school. Ride without stirrups if you feel happy to or lengthen them so you can wrap your legs around your horse’s barrel. Make sure he’s walking forward. Keep your body as relaxed as possible. You should be able to feel his barrel swinging from one side to the other.

When a horse walks he brings his hind legs under his body. To make room for each leg he has to swing his barrel away to the side. When his right hind leg comes forward his barrel swings away to the left. When the left leg comes forward his barrel swings away to the right.

As your horse swings his barrel away from your right leg his right hind leg is coming under his body. This is the time to use your right leg. Use your left leg as his barrel swings to the right. Think of using each leg to push his barrel from side to side. Pushing as he lifts his hind leg up and forward will encourage him to stretch further under his body and his steps will become more energetic.

This is so much more accurate than just pushing. Now you can alter the effort he makes with each hind leg. The harder you push his barrel to one side the further he’ll stretch with the leg that’s leaving the floor.

Trot and canter are harder to feel. In the long term you’ll learn to feel the exact moment each hind leg leaves the floor. As with the walk the stronger you push the further he’ll stretch. Initially try something a little easier.

In trot and canter you need to be sitting. Both paces have an up stride and a down stride. Keep your seat relaxed and be patient. If your horse is going forward you’ll find it easier to feel. The time to use your legs is on the down stride. At this moment his inside hind leg is about to leave the floor. Catch it at the right time and you can encourage your horse to lift it higher and push it further under his body.

Think of using your legs to lift your horse up off the floor. The harder you push the higher his back comes up for the up stride and the more powerful his steps become.

Using your leg at the right time will have an instant effect. You may find it easier to concentrate on walk out hacking. Stay relaxed. Tension in your body will stop you from feeling anything. Be patient. It’s similar to learning about trot diagonals. Once you get it you’ll wonder why you ever had a problem. Good luck.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Counter Canter - the easy way

Counter canter is just another type of canter, like medium or collected. It’s all about confidence. Treat it as you would your usual canter and your horse will do the same.

Most problems occur on corners, turns and changes of rein. Riders freeze if their horse becomes tense hoping to sit it out until they reach the long side. It is possible to make it without going disunited or trotting but it won’t give your horse confidence.

Freezing and taking your leg off is something all riders do at some point. When you really think about it there isn’t a single situation when it’s a help to your horse. Breaking this habit by riding forward when things get tricky will make an instant difference to your counter canter.

If corners and changes of rein are the toughest why introduce counter canter there? How often have you ridden a test where the counter canter is introduced by riding a short diagonal followed by a short stretch of counter canter to the corner marker? It’s not the end of the world but there is a much easier way to introduce it. Try this.

Practice canter transitions on the centre line. Here you can ask for both legs without confusing your horse. Keep his head and neck straight (turning his nose an inch to the inside is more than enough initially) and concentrate on your aids. You need to be clear with your legs so he is quite sure which leg you are asking for.

If you want to counter canter your horse must be able to pick up canter on a straight line. Ask for transitions on the long sides. If he can’t do this spend time teaching him. Establish your basics and everything else will be easy.

Now introduce counter canter. Get straight on the long side and ask for it. It really is that simple! Don’t change anything. Ride it exactly as you would ride any canter transition. (NB. On the right rein you’re asking for left canter so remember it’s your right leg that comes back and your left leg that asks for the strike off.)  Small changes in your weight will affect your horse. As soon as you’re in counter canter return your outside leg to its usual position.

If your horse understands your aids there’s no reason why he shouldn’t give you the leg you ask for but if he gets it wrong don’t panic. Stay calm, bring him back to trot and ask again on the next long side. When he gets it right be quick to reward him.

With the transition established you need to work on the pace. The short side is the most difficult. Cut off the corners to make it smoother for your horse and you’ll find it’s easier to get round. Aim to canter two circuits before you trot. A quick spurt of unbalanced strides will do nothing to settle your horse. Shallow corners and positive riding will give him confidence.

Counter canter is a pace not a movement. Your approach to it will have a huge effect on your horse. The longer you spend in the it the more normal it will feel. If your horse gets tense don’t freeze. Relax and ride forward. The worst that can happen is he’ll break into trot. If he stays tense he’ll do that anyway. Good luck.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

On the Bit ... or Off it?

There can’t be a rider out there who hasn’t 'screwed' their horse’s head down at some stage. The problem with this ‘method’, other than the fact it’s unnecessary, is that it really doesn’t work. Ok, it makes your horse tuck his nose in but the second you try to swap your whip over, shorten your reins or even scratch your nose his head will, quite rightly, pop straight back up again.

On the bit should be self explanatory. It means what it says. Your horse should settle (not lean or hang) ON the bit. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So why do so many riders spend most of their time trying desperately to get their horse OFF it? Snatching, pulling or swinging the bit from side to side is hardly relaxing for your horse. For him to settle on the bit you have to keep your hands still.

In the last few posts you’ll have read that your hands control everything in front of the saddle. Your legs control everything behind it. Riding from leg into hand creates and then contains energy. Do it right and you can’t fail to put your horse on the bit.
Contained energy has to go somewhere. Compare your horse to a coke bottle. Shake it with the lid on and the coke fizzes. If the lid is tight the bottle expands to allow for the extra fizz. Push your horse from behind into a steady contact and you’ll create the same effect. The energy bottles up between his hindquarters and his mouth. If your contact is consistent there’s nowhere for this energy to go. His barrel, like the bottle,  will expand to allow for it.

If he’s comfortable in his mouth your horse will round his spine. His back will come up under the saddle and his head will go down onto the bit.  If he’s uncomfortable he’ll tighten his back. Now he can’t round his back so he’ll hollow it. His back will drop from under the saddle and his head will come up.

It’s your job to ensure your horse is comfortable in his mouth. Moving your hand or your whole arm puts all your weight behind each movement. Move your fingers, as if you are squeezing water from a sponge, and you create a softer feeling which he can relax onto. This movement of your fingers keeps you in contact with his mouth but prevents you both from fixing on each other.

Of course, some horses are easier than others but stay calm and consistent and you’ll get there in the end. The next time you take a pull or try to ‘get your horse’s head in’ think twice. Do you want him on the bit or off it?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

There's More to Legs than Kicking

Have you ever wondered how on earth your horse knows the difference between some of the aids you give him? There’s more going on in his head than you probably give him credit for. Refining your leg aids can make things a lot clearer for him.

If you’ve read ‘The Other Way of Stopping’ you’ll know your upper leg can control your speed. Your lower leg controls energy and direction.

If you read ‘It’s in Your Hands’ you’ll know that your hands control everything in front of the saddle. Your lower leg controls everything behind it.

There are two parts to your lower leg: the inside of your calf muscle, just below your knee, and your heel. Your calf muscle is soft and should rest against your horse’s side to guide him. Your heel is hard and should only be used for orders or corrections.

Whereas your calf guides with constant ‘pushing’ pressure your heel stays off until it’s needed. It should be used quickly and sharply. If your horse is unwilling to bend or turn then a quick nudge with a heel will usually get him back on track.

When you ask for canter your outside calf should move back to tell your horse canter is coming but your inside heel should do the asking. Note the difference. The outside leg is preparing your horse for canter but your inside leg is giving the order. (See Popular posts/The Perfect Canter Transition)

To avoid working correctly your horse may swing his quarters to one side. Your calf muscles should lie against his side to keep him straight but if his quarters drift to one side move that leg back and use a quick nudge with your heel. Corrections should be short and sharp. Don’t nag! Put your leg straight back to its original position.

When you move a leg back be careful not to take it too far. A couple of inches is more than enough. Your heel should never be higher than your toe. Your horse is incredibly sensitive to your weight. Swing your leg too far back and your weight will tip to the other side. This will unbalance him and he’ll be unable to do as you ask.

This is one exercise which has little outward effect on your horse. It’s for riders rather than horses. If you’re keen to try some lateral movements spend time refining these aids. You’ll need to know how your legs work as well as your horse’s! Good luck.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

There's Nothing You Can't Do

It’s a shame some riders think more advanced schooling is beyond their horse’s capability. It’s just not true. Schooling is all about positive riding. All horses can at least attempt more difficult things. They do them in the field after all.

Take canter to walk as an example. You have to believe you can do it. There’s no reason why not. How often has your horse galloped full tilt down his field and slid to a halt at the gate?  You know he can do it. You just need to know how to ask.

Try this.

Ride a 20m circle in canter. It’s important to have your horse on his hocks so sit up, ride forward and lift your hands to help him. When your canter is settled ask your horse to slow down to half the speed. Squeeze your thigh and knee against the saddle and sit back. (See The Other Way of Stopping/ December 2010) As your horse slows down use both legs every stride to keep him in canter.

Keep hold of your rein contact but don’t pull back. Pulling back makes your horse tighten his back which stops his hocks reaching under his body. He needs to sit down to slow down. With his hocks out behind him he can’t.

With the slower canter settled halve your speed again. This is difficult but not impossible. Be firm with your knees so he slows down and give small squeezes on both reins at the same time. Use plenty of lower leg or small taps with your whip so he knows not to trot. If he does don’t panic. Stay calm, ask for canter and try again.

Your aim is to canter so slowly that someone could walk alongside you. It’s incredibly hard for your horse so once you’ve done six or seven strides breathe out, relax your seat and leg and allow him to walk. He’ll be relieved to walk and your transition will be calm and unhurried.

Cantering at this slower speed establishes your control and teaches your horse to balance. The more you practice the stronger his hindquarters will become. Gradually build up the canter until you can ride from working canter to walk without tension.  

Riding more difficult movements is challenging but not beyond any horse or rider’s ability. Your attempts may not be worthy of an eight in a dressage test but who cares? The main thing is you have fun trying.