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Friday, 29 April 2011

A Bit of Lateral Thinking

(You may also find it useful to read – Keep in Touch, There’s More to Legs than Kicking, More Power Less Speed, It’s in Your hands, Get Straight to the Point)

Most riders have been tanked off with at some time or another. It doesn’t mean your horse has bolted or taken off. It simply means he’s doing what you asked him to do but at his own pace.

You know the type of thing. You go from canter to trot and your horse unceremoniously sets his neck and tanks to one end of the arena before your caller has had a chance to suggest that you “Circle at E, 20 metres.” Or you turn for a fence and he sticks his head down ploughing towards the jump at a speed worthy of a rocket. Ok, he jumps it but, really, wouldn’t it have looked so much better if you weren’t leaning back pulling his teeth out all the way in?

There will have been times like those that you’ve laughed about, others may have put the wind up you or frustrated you but there’s one type of tanking that you might not even have noticed. The lateral tank.

A lateral tank happens with horses of all levels. Similar to any other tank the horse is asked to do a movement, ignores any attempt to control him, and hurries through it because he thinks he knows best. It’s easy to be ‘grateful’ and sit it out until you get to the end of the movement but it won’t be correct. Does this ring a bell with you? Perhaps you didn’t know you were doing it. Now you do try asking for one step at a time.

The ability to stop a lateral movement half way through is something every rider should be able to do. Think of lateral work as a pace not a movement. If you were trotting round the school and your horse got strong you’d do something about it, right? Be brave enough to do the same in leg yield or shoulder in.

Too many riders rush round a corner and throw their horse straight into a lateral movement. Slow down! Give yourself and your horse time to think. Get straight before you even think of going sideways. Take half a long side if you have to. If you’re not straight before you ask how can you know if he’s moving correctly?

Hands cause the majority of faults in lateral work. Kept together and level they’ll have little effect but drop one, tighten up or pull back and your horse is guaranteed to resist. Resistance creates tension. If your horse is tense there’s no way he can step forwards correctly let alone sideways.

Whatever your movement – even a turn on the forehand – start off with just one step and ride out of it. Don’t be in a rush to do a whole long side of shoulder in, a 180’ pirouette or turn on the forehand. One step done correctly is a far greater achievement and it will create a solid foundation for your future lateral work.

You’ll need to be strong with your outside leg to stop your horse setting his shoulder and rushing away from your inside leg. If he ignores it carry your whip in your outside hand and don’t be afraid to use it. Older well schooled horses can think they know best and plough on regardless. A sharp nudge with your outside heel and a tap with the whip should be enough to get their attention back on you.

Never worry about spoiling a movement because you have to correct something. You’ll ruin that movement but the next one will be better. That’s why you school your horse. Making a correction midway is far more beneficial than sitting it out and trying again next time. If you don’t correct how can your horse understand what you want? If he was cantering on the wrong lead would you complete the circle or ask him to trot and start again? Lateral work is no different.

When you start out on to the lateral path it’s an exciting time. Be proud of yourself for reaching that level but don’t be in awe of it. Remember the days when you were first taught to canter? You were probably nervous but you got through it. You weren’t told to canter three circuits of the school when you first learnt either! You took one step at a time. Do that laterally and you’ll never look back.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Quarters In - Travers or Canter?

(Suggested posts – It’s in Your Hands, Get Straight to the Point, There’s More to Legs than Kicking, How to Ride the Perfect Canter Transition)

Most riders understand the term quarters-in. Of course it should mean travers - or at least the start of it - but most often it’s a term used to describe canter.

If your canter is crooked it’s true that your horse may have back trouble. His saddle may be too wide or perhaps it’s pinching him. But before you panic and reach for the phone book stop and think for a second. Do you ever see him cantering in the field with his quarters in? If you’re cantering on a hack, off his back, are his quarters in? Is he crooked in walk or trot? You know where this is going, right?

The majority of crooked horses are caused by crooked riders. Are you so sure you’re not to blame? Look on the bright side. If it is you it’s cheaper and quicker than booking an appointment with your local saddler or chiropractor.

The first thing to check is your outside leg position. Once you’re in canter what do you do with it? You should move it back to its usual place near the girth. If you don’t you’re unintentionally pushing your horse’s quarters in off the track.

Your hips have a huge influence on the position of your horse’s quarters. If they face the front so will your horse’s. But when your outside leg goes back your outside hip probably goes with it. Your inside hip is then further forward than your outside. Your horse will copy you. If his inside hip comes forward his quarters come in. That’s great. If you’re asking for travers …

The trick is to relax your hips to allow your outside leg to move forward or back without taking your hip with it. Root your seat bones to the saddle and let everything above or below move independently. It sounds simple but it takes practice. And time. Don’t worry if you can’t do it immediately. The main thing to do is put your leg straight back to its original position as soon as your horse strikes off into canter.

On a circle your horse’s body should turn to the inside. This puts his inside hip further back than his outside. Your body must do the same. If your hips are stiff they’ll stay straight instead of turning with the circle. Your inside hip will be further forward than the outside. Again your horse will copy you. Result? Quarters in.

When you come to correct your horse remember you use your leg by the girth to control his body but a few inches back to control his quarters. Use short, sharp nudges with your inside leg back to return his quarters to the track. Don’t be tempted to push. He’ll just push against you. Using your leg in short movements keeps your hips relaxed. Constant pushing can make you twist and tighten up in the saddle which only adds to the problem. (Worth remembering if you have trouble with lateral work)

Sometimes, although your canter is crooked, it’s not the quarters that are in. Just to confuse things sometimes the outside shoulder is out! This is easily solved.

Whatever you do with your hands will affect your horse’s shoulders. If your outside hand is too wide or lower than your inside hand he’ll drop his outside shoulder and fall out. Seen from the front his quarters may appear to be in but look where his feet are landing. His outside fore will be hitting the sand on the outer edge of the track.

Falling out in canter is often caused by a rider lifting their inside hand up on a tight turn or circle because they think it will help their horse stay upright. This is a misguided belief. If your inside hand is higher than the outside he won’t lift his shoulder up he’ll drop the other one down! Keep your hands level and your horse will do the same. His balance comes from his hocks not his shoulders.

(Many of you may be thinking “My instructor tells me to lift my inside hand!” They probably do but because it’s lower than the outside. If in doubt even up your hands.)

A crooked canter is one of the most common faults. It will have taken months to develop and won’t be cured overnight but with patience and attention to your own position you can make a real difference. And look on the bright side. When you come to start lateral work at last you’ll know your horse understands the aids!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Get Straight to the Point

(Suggested posts – Be a Lazy Rider, Keep in Touch, It’s in your Hands, There’s More to Legs than Kicking)

In order to bend something into the shape you want it needs to be straight in the first place. Your horse is no exception. Most riders will spend the obligatory ten minutes warming up and then take their horse up expecting an instant inside bend. That’s fine if you know you were straight in the first place but how can you be sure?

To keep a horse straight you need to keep your hands level and only as far apart as the width of the bit. You carry them up in front of you to keep a bend in your elbows. This stops you and your horse fixing on each other.

If your horse moves freely forward your heel can be used for corrections. Not to get him to go forward. Your calf muscles should rest against his sides and your heels should stay away. 

There are two sides to every horse. Do you ride both sides of yours? Try this simple exercise to make sure.

After you’ve warmed up put your horse on to the inside track. For the rest of your session that’s where you’re going to stay. Think it’s going to be easy? Think again!

When you ride in a field or even on a road you’ll use both legs equally. The trouble with riding in a ménage is that without even knowing it you get lazy with your outside leg. Why wouldn’t you? The fence does most of the work for you. You only need it for turns, circles and lateral work. Trouble is if you’re not actually riding the outside of your horse he’s likely to be crooked. The chances are this will show up in your canter. Ringing alarm bells?

Your horse will be used to hugging the fence. Put him on the inside track and the first thing he’ll do is fall back towards the track. Give him a quick nudge with your heel to correct him. Your heel should be used as you would use a whip. Use it quickly and then keep it off. After a few strides he’s bound to drift back out again. Use your heel again. It could take a few circuits just to keep him off the track.

When your legs are used by the girth – in their usual place – they control your horse’s barrel. So if his body drifts out to the right you need to give him a nudge by the girth with your right heel to stop him. If he swings his quarters out, which is more common coming out of a corner, on a turn or going down a transition, then you need to put your heel back.

Never try to pull your horse back to the inside track. Your hands only control what’s in front of the saddle not what’s under or behind it. Without your legs he’ll only turn his head. His body will stay on the track.

Control of the shoulders is important. Lose one and your horse will fall in or out. Drop one hand and your horse will drop that shoulder. If he does that he’ll fall in. Your inside heel will put him back out but if your hand stays down you’re going to be constantly nagging him to get out. Even up your hands. Problem solved.

Many riders get so hung up on inside bend that they lose the contact on the outside rein. Do that and you’ll lose the outside shoulder. Your horse will fall out. This is an enormous problem when you come to start lateral work. Keep an even contact on both reins at all times. Another problem solved.

When you can stay on the inside track in all three paces add a circle or serpentine. Remember to only ride to the inside track. A 20m circle will therefore only be 19m and a serpentine will only touch the inside track not the outside.

Your horse will be set in his ways. When you circle he’ll expect to go back on to the track. You’ll need to focus on your rein contact and be ready with your outside leg to keep him on the inside track.

When you do get back onto the track make sure your outside calf muscle is on as much as it was when you were on the inside track. And keep hold of your outside rein contact! You’ll be surprised at the difference in accuracy of your turns, circles and lateral work. That crooked canter could be another problem solved.

This week make yourself stay away from the track. It’s going to help with everything you do be it lateral work, jumping or basic transitions. Not only that, it will do wonders for the surface of your ménage too!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 8 April 2011

There's More to Schooling than Circles

Be honest. When it comes to schooling are you guilty of doing the same old thing day in day out? Do you think you’ve gone wild if you’ve put in a couple of figures of eight or a 10m circle? Is it any wonder your horse feels a bit flat when you go in the school? This week do him a favour and try something new. It doesn’t have to be difficult. A change of shape could be just the thing to get his attention back on you.

Serpentines are the perfect shape to play with. They’re just a series of half circles joined together with straight lines. The loops should be even. Plan your turns. Make the first too wide and you’ll run out of space for the others.

Horses can fall in or out on the half circles. This means the line across the school will be crooked. Push your elbows into your body, just in front of your sides. As you turn your upper body take your arms round with it. This keeps your hands together which will keep your horse’s shoulders together and stop him drifting one way or the other.

If your horse moves freely forward then you can use your leg to correct him. (If he doesn’t check out Be a Lazy Rider/December) A quick nudge with your outside leg will stop him falling out and the same from your inside leg will stop him falling in.

If your horse drops a shoulder as you turn don’t lift one hand up. Lift both! Raise one hand and he’ll lift up that side of his mouth. If one side of his mouth is higher than the other he’ll tip his head that way. Lift both hands together and push on. This will bring his shoulders up and keep them together.

Contrary to popular belief the definition of serpentine is ‘snake like’. It isn’t; three loops each reaching the side of the arena starting at A and finishing at C! A serpentine can have as many loops as you want and be any size that you want.

Ridden in walk or trot four loop serpentines are an ideal way to change the rein. They’re easy to judge too. Each loop is 10m wide. Starting at one end ride a half 10m circle. Straighten up and ride across the school. As you cross the ¾ line ride another half 10 which will put you onto the E-B line. This gives you exactly half the school in which to ride your last two loops.

Most riders have ridden a three loop serpentine in walk or trot but how about canter? There’s no reason why you can’t as long as you’re prepared and you take your time. Change leg over the centre line. Use canter to trot or canter to walk. Which ever suits you and your horse best. This is your session after all.

Transitions come up quickly in canter so take your time. Break it down onto stages. Ride the first and last loops in canter. Walk or trot the middle. This gives you more time to settle your horse before the next transition. It’s important to get him coming right back to you in the downwards transition. Use your thigh and knee to stop him running away from you. (See The Other Way of Stopping/ Dec) If he rushes you’ll struggle to find space for a transition in the middle loop. It may help to make a few transitions to halt just to back him off a bit.

Add in the middle loop when you’re ready. It doesn’t have to be the same day. You may find it helpful to ride a circle in the loop while you establish your canter. You can lose the circle when you get quicker with your aids. The main thing is you take your time. They can be fun for both horse and rider when you do them well. Rush and flap and you’ll defeat the whole object and spoil all your transitions.

Try riding three or four loop serpentines from the track to the ¾ line. You’ll need a strong outside leg on the middle loop. Your horse will expect to go on to the track.

Starting at A or C ride four loop serpentines from the ¼ to the ¾ line. These are just a succession of half 10m circles joined as you cross the centre line. Three loops are possible but the loops are harder to judge when the shape becomes narrower.

Most riders have ridden circles within the end of each loop. This is great to get your horse’s attention. An even better idea is to ride a 10m circle as you cross the centre line. Now that is guaranteed to make him sit up and listen!

Hopefully now a serpentine will mean more than the standard three loops you usually ride in trot once in a while. Use it to vary your schooling sessions. It will give you and your horse something different to think about. It’s true what they say. A change really is as good as a rest. Have fun.

Friday, 1 April 2011

C3 - Could Try Harder

How often has someone watched you schooling your horse and said “He looks fine … stop worrying.”? You smile but deep down all you really want to do is kill him! From the outside he may well look as if he’s going nicely but you’re on board and you just know he’s not giving you 100%.

This ‘passive evasion’ can be more annoying than bucking or bolting. At least then you can have a full scale row! This is much more subtle. Your horse starts off okay but as your session goes on he gets lower and heavier in your hand. He doesn’t give you quite as much bend as you’d like and he’s not quite active enough behind. You swear you’ve done everything by the book. You’ve checked, softened, half-halted and put your leg on but still he chooses to trot round the school in his own little world.

Tempting as it is to yank on one rein and give him a dig in the ribs you know it’s not the answer. Firstly you know it won’t work. It never does. Secondly (although for a split second you feel so much better) you also know that in half an hour you’ll feel so guilty you’ll end up hanging round his neck apologising!

In cases like this your horse needs something to make him sit up and listen. There’s no point getting wound up. It will only cause tension. Get clever not angry.

Try this -

Ride a 20m circle at E in trot. Get your horse settled and in a steady rhythm. After a few circles he’s bound to think he knows what’s coming and switch off. That’s when you pull out your trump card.

When you cross the centre line change the rein onto a 10m circle. That will get his attention! Ride forward and change the rein back onto the 20m circle. Ride a couple of circles and do it again.

Be careful not to do the same thing each time. Every time you return to the 20m circle do something different. Ask for canter or ride another 10m circle instead of carrying on with the 20m circle. The list is endless. Do what you like. Just keep him guessing.

On a circle at E you have four points. E, B and two as you cross the centre line. Why not ride a 10m circle at each point? You can do the ones at E and B on the same rein and with the other two you have the option to do either rein – or a 10m figure of eight.

10m circles aren’t impossible for any horse to canter as long as you sit up and ride forward. If your horse has his hocks underneath him he can balance no matter how small the circle. From canter vary the transitions you make between changes of rein. Ride canter to walk as you ride onto the 10m circle and canter to trot as you go back to the 20m.

Whilst you want to surprise your horse make sure you’re prepared yourself. Snapping him out of his daydream will sit him back on his hocks and take his weight of his shoulders. Tipping forward or collapsing to one side yourself will defeat the whole object. As you circle or make the change of rein sit up and turn your upper body. Keep your hands level and turn your head so you’re looking in the direction you are going. This will keep your weight balanced which will help him with his.

Any of those exercises can be done in walk, trot or canter. The main thing is you keep things different. Horses are prone to switch off when they’re bored. We’re not always at fault but we are the ones who decide what to do in each session. Before you criticise take a look at your schooling plan. Be honest. Have you got set in your ways? Schooling isn’t boring. Trotting endless circles is. 

Good luck and happy schooling!