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Saturday, 28 May 2011

It Works Both Ways

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘½ 10m O incline back to the track’ but when was the last time you rode one? Chances are you were practicing for a dressage test.

These are useful movements to use when you’re schooling. There are two ways to ride them. Each one creates different problems but they’re both guaranteed to improve your horse’s straightness. Once he’s straight there’s no limit to what you can do.

The obvious direction is from the track to the centre line but there’s an easier way. Try riding the ½ circle from the centre line to the track (From G to H, for example). Then ride your incline back to the centre line (D). Do the same back again so you create a figure of eight.  (½ 10m O from D to K incline back to G)

Riding in this direction takes away any problems that might arise with the ½ circle. The fence is there and will stop your horse from falling out. It’s useful but make sure you don’t depend on it. Use both legs round the curve. Then when you go in the other direction you’ll be better prepared and your horse will be paying attention.

Your turn onto the incline is important. Do it well and you’ll keep your horse straight. Get it wrong and you’ll spend the whole incline trying to straighten him up.

As you turn off the track your horse will probably assume you’re changing the rein. The angle of the incline is less than that of the long diagonal. You’ll need to be ready with your leg to stop him turning too far. Remember your hands control his shoulders not his body. Grabbing a rein in a desperate attempt to get him back on line will make matters worse not better.

It always helps if you focus on the point you are riding to. As you turn your head turn your upper body and hips round too. If your horse is concentrating he should only turn his body as far as you turn yours.

As you leave the track you want a sharp turn onto a straight line. The ½ circle stops at the marker. If you read One Step at a Time you’ll have read about thinking of your horse’s body as a ball which you throw from one leg to the other. Think of that on this turn. Use a nudge with your outside heel to push his body off the track. Use it in its usual place near the girth – you want to turn his body not his quarters. Catch him with your inside leg to stop him turning too far.

Once on the incline your horse should be straight in his head and neck as well as his body. Ride forward into a steady contact. Slowing down and fiddling is the easiest way to get a wobble. When you reach the centre line don’t hesitate. Push on round your new ½ circle and your horse will stay balanced. Hesitate and he’ll stop using his hocks and you’ll lose energy and rhythm.

A classic rider error is to lift up the inside hand on the ½ 10m O. Don’t do it! No matter where your horse is your hand position should stay the same. Your fingers may increase or release pressure but moving your hands will always affect your horse in a negative way. (See Keep in Touch & It’s in Your Hands)

Lift one hand up and your horse will lift the same shoulder. If his inside shoulder is higher than the outside his rhythm and balance will be affected. Try walking with one shoulder higher than the other. Feel what it does to your back. Imagine having to carry a rider as well?

Riding the movement in the other direction creates different problems. On the ½ 10m circle keep your eyes just ¼ of a circle ahead. Turn your head too far round and you’ll encourage your horse to turn too soon. He’ll fall in. But be careful. Without the fence to help you you’ll need plenty of outside leg to stop him falling out too.

In this direction it’s common on the incline for the horse to almost leg yield back onto the track. The line should be straight from point to point. His front feet should step into the track before his hind feet if it’s done correctly. He mustn’t swing his quarters round and sidestep into the track.

Be ready with your heel along the whole incline. If his whole body is moving across use it in its usual place by the girth. If he’s swinging his quarters round bring your heel back to straighten him.

This is a simple movement but it’s so useful. Introduce it into your schooling sessions and you’ll find it highlights any faults you may have developed. Don’t be put off by that. Problems are there to be solved. Without them schooling really would be boring!

Good luck and have fun.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Think About It

If you’ve read Prepare to Improve Your Score you’ll have read how visualising yourself riding a dressage test can really help you to learn and improve it without riding your horse through it over and over again. It works for problem solving too. It’s easy to do, you can do it anywhere you like and best of all it’s free!

Whether your horse is on box rest, you ride at a riding school once a fortnight or you’re just between horses right now why not have a go at solving some problems before you even put a foot in the stirrup?

This isn’t as silly as it first sounds. Think of every time you’ve ridden a dressage test or a round of jumps. What would you have given to go straight back in and have another go? You know you’d have done better second time round. This way when you get on your horse it will be the second time you’ve worked on the problem even if it isn’t his.

Make sure when you do sit down to think about a problem you see yourself actually riding your horse. Not watching from a spectator’s perspective but sitting up there using your legs and your hands as you would if you were mounted.

This method works well but only if you see your own faults as well as your horse’s. You need to be honest. Anyone can picture perfection but it doesn’t help you improve your riding. See everything as it really happens.

If you ride with your reins too long or your hands down on your horse’s withers picture yourself trotting round your arena doing just that. Then imagine sitting back, lifting your hands up and holding a perfect rein contact. Imagine how that would feel and how it would transform him. See him sat back on his hocks and up off his shoulders. Hold that thought. You’ll need to remember it next time you ride.

Do you have trouble with your canter transitions? Give them some thought for five minutes. Does your horse fall into trot and rush off down the school? Be honest do you tip forward as you ask for trot? Take your lower leg off or fix your hands and arms against him? Imagine yourself sitting back, looking up and riding forward into a steady rein contact. Perhaps run through a couple of canter to walks in your mind which would make your horse really sit up and listen.

Break down each problem into its cause and its solution. Imagine yourself riding through it. If your horse is likely to put up a fight see it! If that’s what he does then that’s what you’ve sat down to work through. If you have to turn him on a circle to slow him down picture yourself doing it until you have the desired effect.

When you’ve seen the problem and pictured yourself sorting it out you’re allowed to see yourself riding it to perfection. That’s your goal and it’s easily achievable if you’re already prepared before you ride.

The more you sit and think about the way you ride the more constructive you’ll become. If your horse is out of action for a few weeks take time to think about all those niggling habits you’ve been meaning to sort out for months.

This method won’t cure your problems but it does help. When you finally get to ride your horse you’ll feel more confident, know what you want from him and how you’re going to tackle it. You’ll be ready for everything he throws at you. If you’ve had an enforced lay off you’ll get back on board without feeling as rusty. You’ll be better prepared and itching to put all that you’ve thought about into practice.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Show them you can Gallop

After a clear round in a working hunter class all riders know they have to do an individual show. Ask them how many paces they need to show and they’ll tell you four. They’re right. Ask most judges how many they see. They’ll tell you three.

The one that’s missing is gallop. It’s hardly surprising is it? When did you ever get taught how to gallop?

Gallop is more than a fast canter. It’s a pace. A pace isn’t a speed. It’s a different pattern of legs. All paces are different. They have different beats to them. Canter has three beats. Gallop has four.

Gallop is different to all other paces because the hind feet both touch the ground before the front feet (i.e. Right Hind, LH, Right Fore, LF). To be able to do this your horse has to be off his shoulder and right back on his hocks.

Your horse’s balance is crucial. If he isn’t on his hocks he can’t gallop. It’s that simple. Any weight over his shoulder will mean he can’t reach under his body with his hind legs. If he can’t do that he’ll put a front leg down with a hind leg to balance himself. That’s canter.

The key to a good show gallop is the transition. You don’t have much room and you can’t build up to it. It’s essential your horse learns to go forward instantly from your aids. It’s the same as any other transition.

Try this -

The first thing you have to do is teach your horse he’s allowed to go forwards. Horses spend much of their time being told to slow down. They live a fairly restrained life. It can be hard to break the habit. When you finally ask them to gallop it can take a while for them to believe you. It also takes time to remind them how their legs should work!

You can introduce your new aids in the school. Canter large and on the short sides use your thigh and knee to slow your horse down. (See The Other Way of Stopping). As you come onto the long side straighten up, relax your knee and lift your seat out of the saddle. Now use both heels to tell your horse to go on. His reaction to your leg must be instant. Expect him to jump off your leg. If he doesn’t back it up with your whip. It’s vital he understands - knee off + lighter seat + leg = go forward.

At no point in this exercise should you let go of your contact. Your reins contain your horse’s energy, creating power not just speed. Without power he can’t accelerate. Drop your contact and he’ll drop his shoulders. If his weight is on his shoulders he’ll find it impossible to get going.

When you ask him to come back to you at the end sit into the saddle and use your knee to slow him. Don’t be too hard with your hand. This will make him tighten his back and you’ll loose the flow of your canter.

You should be able to show a big difference between these two speeds but it still won’t be gallop. To do that you need to get out in a field. You need space.

The bigger the field the better to start with. If there’s a slight incline even better. A hill will help your horse engage his hocks.

The fact you are in a field should make your horse think more forward. Ride the same exercise as you did in the school. This time from a reasonable working canter using your knee to prevent him going too fast until you ask him to gallop.

This time as you turn a corner towards the hill (if you have one) you need to get up off his back, take your knee away and give him a strong nudge with both heels. As he goes forward do the same with your heels on each of the next four strides. This may seem excessive but you need him to understand you really want him to go on.

Remember the mechanics of gallop. Your horse must stay off his shoulders. Your hands are so important. They must stay up and level to keep his shoulders up and together. As you come up out of the saddle be careful not to throw yourself forward. Lighten your seat without leaning over his shoulder. Help him to stay balanced.

What should you expect from a true gallop? A gallop is flatter than a fast canter. It’s smooth. You know you’re going much faster by the things that pass you by but it doesn’t feel as frantic as a fast canter in which your horse’s legs seem to go at 100mph! At the gallop his legs will be at full stretch so they cover as much ground as possible. When you finally achieve it he’ll be giving his all yet it will feel effortless.

Before the shows really get going take time to perfect your gallop. Give the judges what they want to see and you could find yourself at the right end of the line up. Remember, there’s more than one way to school your horse so get out in a field and have a go.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 6 May 2011

One Step at a Time

Did you read last week’s post and recognise a few of your own faults? If you did you’ll realise you need to slow down a bit, take things one step at a time.

Got any idea how? Try this –

Using the long diagonal (We’ll use KXM) you’re going to turn your horse around his quarters to get him off the track at K and turn him around his shoulders to put him back on it at M.

Any horse can do this exercise regardless of his experience. He doesn’t have to be on the bit to be able to move his shoulders or quarters around. He can do it when you move him over in the stable. If in doubt keep his head and neck straight.

The pace you use is entirely up to you but remember although you can move shoulders around his quarters in walk and canter you can only turn quarters around the forehand in walk. (Before anyone screams “That’s not true!” shoulder in and travers have different mechanics – they don’t go ‘around’ they go across.)

Start off in walk to give you and your horse the best chance of understanding the movements. At K you need to;

1.      Sit back and tighten your fingers round your reins. This is a restrictive contact, not a backwards one. It’s enough to tell your horse not to go forward but not harsh enough to make him hollow against you and step back.  
2.      Lift your hands up and across to the inside so your outside hand is above his crest. Remember he’ll copy the movements of your hands with his shoulders. When your hands move to the inside so will his shoulders. When he steps across your hands will be back in their normal position again – one either side of his neck. That’s one step.
3.      Push your outside calf against his side, in its usual place, to push his body around with his shoulders. If he moves his shoulders round without his body he’ll get stuck. Eventually he’ll throw his quarters round as well. (Sound familiar?)
4.      When he does step over ‘catch’ him with your inside leg so he stops moving sideways and relax your fingers on the reins so he walks forward to M.

Your horse will have taken one or two steps to the inside. M should now be in front of you. Walk towards it until his front feet reach the track. Now halt. His body will still be on the diagonal. All you need to do now is move his quarters over to the track.

Your aids -
1.      Tighten your fingers round your reins again. This time your contact is restrictive but your hands stay still, one either side of his neck. This keeps your horse’s shoulders in the same place.
2.      Use your inside leg in its usual place to push his body towards the track.
3.      If he’s reluctant to step across swing your inside heel/spur back and give him a quick nudge. This tells him to move his hindquarters as well as his body. You must put your leg back in its usual position immediately. Swing it back again if you need to but never leave it there. Do that and you’re asking him to bend his quarters around not step across. (More on that another day!)
4.      When his hind legs reach the track catch him with your outside leg, relax your fingers and push forward again. (Never rely on the fence to stop him. When you progress to other things he’s going to need to respect that outside leg.)

Moving shoulders at one end and quarters at the other can be too much for a novice horse to cope with initially. Break it down. Ride onto the diagonal by moving the shoulders around his quarters but ride the rest of the diagonal as you would normally do. Then try turning his quarters at the end of the diagonal but miss out the turn at the start. When he understands both sets of aids join the two together.

If you’ve read The Other Way of Turning you’ll know you can ask your horse to turn by moving your body. These aren’t normal turns. In a normal turn his hips follow the same tracks as his shoulders. So if you turn yours he copies the angle you’re sitting at and moves accordingly. In this situation his front and back end are doing separate things. Make it easy for him. Keep your body square with his and turn when he does. 

As your coordination improves and your horse starts to really understand the aids you can ask him to take more steps. Using K as your starting point you can turn from K to B. Increase the angle still further by asking him to turn 90’ from K to F.

In the case of the first turn you ask your horse to take his body one step over with your outside leg and stop him with your inside leg. You need to repeat this for every step you ask for, no matter what the lateral movement. It can be helpful to think of your horse’s body as a ball which you throw from one leg and catch with the other. When moving him across there is never a time when you should need to push with both legs together. You do that to move forward.

Take your time at this stage. Make sure you understand what and how you are doing things. Get this right and everything else will be so much easier. With all lateral work quality is more important than quantity. One step done well is 100 times better than a whole long side of nothing.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.