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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Canter - Wrong Leg/Wrong Aid?

Do you have more trouble with your canter transition than any other? You’re not alone. Whatever your level the canter transition is likely to throw up a regular problem. The incorrect lead.

Canter is different to walk and trot in that it has a left and a right. Therefore it has a right and a wrong. The problem stems from the transition. How would you describe the aids to canter? Outside leg back, inside leg on? Correct, of course, but it doesn’t differentiate between the two sides.

Start thinking of left and right canter as two separate paces. Forget about insides and outsides. On a straight line they’re of no benefit to anyone anyway. Your horse has to understand that if your left leg goes back you’re asking him to start cantering with his left hind. BUT until you put your other leg on he shouldn’t strike off.

Swinging a leg back and kicking on isn’t a clear aid. It just says canter. It gives you a 50/50 chance of a correct lead. Increase the odds. Try this-

Ask for canter on the centre line. It will have an instant effect on your horse’s concentration. With no obvious idea of what you’re going to ask him he’ll have to give you his complete attention.

This exercise is about clarifying the canter aids not making life difficult. As your horse improves you can complicate things but to start with keep it simple. For right canter turn onto the centre line in trot from the right rein. This helps because your horse is already thinking that way. Your aim is to ask for canter at X.

Treat this transition as you would a transition from walk to trot. Don’t start fussing with your reins, trying to bend your horse to the inside. If he understands your leg aids for canter he’ll know which leg to take. It really is that simple. You just have to stay calm and make your aids clear and easy for him to understand.

Fiddling with your horse’s mouth is a guaranteed way of creating tension in his back. It also fills his head with unnecessary information. Keep your hands still and give him the space and time he needs to understand what you’re telling him.

For the purpose of this explanation assume you’re asking for right canter. Turn onto the centre line and get your horse straight. Then move your left leg back. This warns him that canter is coming and that you want him to start off with his left hind.

When you get to X use a nudge with your inside leg to tell your horse to strike off. He should respond. If not back your leg up with your whip. (He may be surprised to feel you ask for canter on the centre line but there’s no reason for him to directly ignore your aid. If he ignored you in the usual corner you wouldn’t question a tap with the whip. Don’t doubt it now.)

As your horse strikes off be quick to check your lead. This isn’t an exercise to practice until you can see or feel it within a couple of strides. If he’s correct then continue in canter to the end and maintain the canter for the turn. Tight turns aren’t a problem to him if you sit up and ride forward to help him stay balanced on his hocks.

Wrong lead? Trot immediately. He must understand that you asked for a specific canter not either or. Stay calm and ask for right canter as you turn at the bottom. If he gets it correct be quick to praise him with your voice. If he’s incorrect again ride a 20m circle and practice two or three times until he understands.

If your horse is prone to striking off incorrectly this is a great exercise to use. Incorrect leads are caused more often by riders trying too hard. When it’s an established problem you’ll see riders leaning over the inside shoulder, swinging one leg so far back it almost knocks their horse on his hip or pulling their horse’s head too far to the inside. Do any of these things on the centre line and you’ll find yourself going anywhere other than straight!

Canter transition are as much about your discipline as your horse’s response. Keep your aids simple and clear. Have a separate set of aids for left and right and your horse will soon understand them. Cloud these aids in any way by throwing your body forward or pulling his head to one side and he’s bound to strike off incorrectly.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Are You Lengthening or Rushing?

(You may like to read – The Other Way of Stopping/ More Power Less Speed/Get Those Hocks in Gear/It’s in Your Hands/Keep in Touch)

Don’t you just hate not knowing? It’s the biggest cause of tension in riders. Especially those who ride on their own. It’s amazing how easy things feel when you’re under instruction but the minute you’re on you own everything seems so much harder.

A classic rider confuser is lengthened strides. How many times have you genuinely believed you’ve performed the best medium trot of the day only to find the judge has given you a five? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way of knowing without guessing or relying on what you think feels OK?

Try this –

(This post is explained using trot but you can use any pace.)

The first thing you need to do is work out what’s normal. Ride large and count your strides on each long side between corner markers (K – H or M – F). Ride at least three times round so you know what your regular stride count is.

You can use this method for the long diagonals where you’re often asked to lengthen in a test (count from ¼ to ¾ line). Make sure you work out your normal stride count first and ride it at least three times to make sure.

Before you lengthen you should shorten your horse. This is the easiest way to get him back on his hocks and off his shoulder. If his weight is on his shoulder he can’t lengthen. Try walking leaning forward. To stop yourself falling over you’ll take short, quick, heavier steps. He’ll do the same.

To shorten your horse’s strides use your thigh and knee squeezed into the saddle. (See The Other Way of Stopping) At the same time be firm with your lower leg to keep him stepping under with his hind legs. This ‘slowing down but pushing on’ generates power or impulsion. The strides become shorter but more energetic.

To check if you’ve shortened your strides correctly count down each long side again. Your count should have increased by at least one. Check it three or four times before you move on to lengthening to make sure your horse is engaged.

The most important part of lengthening is keeping your horse on his hocks. When he truly lengthens his stride it should feel as if he’s trotting over poles. He should spring upwards and forwards. To do this you have to contain his energy with a steady rein contact. Lose it or offer your hand forward and you’ll not only allow energy to escape you’ll tip him onto his shoulder. From there he won’t be able to lengthen.

Each time you check on a rein your horse tightens his back. That’s okay for a brief half-halt but if you’re doing it every stride to steady or collect him it will have a negative effect. If his back stays tight he’ll be unable to bring his hocks underneath him. Practice using your thigh and knee as aids for slowing down and collecting. The less you rely on your hands the more relaxed he’ll be.

Ride round the short side with your knees tight on the saddle to shorten the strides. Use your lower leg to keep the trot active. Turn onto the long side and get straight. Relax your knee. As your horse feels you release the pressure from his shoulder he’ll swing forward and lengthen his strides.

As your horse lengthens his stride don’t be tempted to ask for any more. It’s important he finds and maintains his balance. Lengthened strides are often spoiled by over riding. In sitting trot the best thing you can do is sit still. Scrubbing your seat forward and back in an attempt to make him relax his back and stretch unsurprisingly has the opposite effect!

At the end of the long side shorten your horse to put him back on his hocks. Ask again when you’re happy he’s balanced. Initially it’s a good idea to ride one side of lengthened and the next of shortened strides. This makes sure you’ve kept him back on his hocks and you’re not unintentionally allowing him to fall onto his shoulders.

Count your strides when you feel they’re longer. Your count should have decreased. A tense horse takes short, quick steps. If you’ve rushed not lengthened your count will increase. Be happy if you reduce your count by one. It may not feel earth shattering but your horse will be relaxed and balanced. This gives you a solid foundation from which to ask for more.

This exercise is brilliant because it’s foolproof. It removes any doubts you may have. You’ll be able to ride on your own and know if what you’re feeling is right. Without confusion or tension from you your horse has a better chance of understanding what you want.

There is very little in life that improves if you rush it. Your horse is no exception. A dressage judge will give you a higher mark for staying rhythmical, relaxed and in balance than they will if you fire your horse across the diagonal on his shoulder!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

On the Bit or On the Buckle?

When you meet up with friends at the weekend are you the first to hold your hands up and say “Let’s not talk about work?” It’s fair enough. Whether you’re at school or work the last thing you want to do when you’re away from it is talk about it. Why do you think your horse is any different?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you must take some interest in schooling. At least you spend time in the school and you’re trying to iron out any problems you may have. Therefore when you go for a ride it should your horse’s time off. He doesn’t want to talk about work while he’s doing it so talk about something else!

If you want your horse to concentrate in the school good for you but when he’s out on a ride give him a break. You don’t want him wandering all over the place, galloping off at his leisure but does he really need his nose strapped to his chest?

Consistency is a word which crops up time and time again with horses. You have to be consistent to help your horse understand what you expect from him. Strangely most riders are fairly consistent when they go in a school but put them out on a ride in the countryside and they don’t know whether they’re on the bit or the buckle!
It’s unfair to expect your horse to spend an entire ride on the bit. Hacking should be fun, it can be disciplined but that doesn’t mean it has to be hard work. Putting your horse on the bit when you feel like it and then throwing the reins at him because you’re having a breather is hardly consistent or reasonable.

Why not leave him alone? When you’re hacking concentrate on other things. Make sure he walks forward without having to be pushed every stride. Tap him up with the whip until he walks with purpose. It’s not a lot to ask.

Work on moving him sideways from one leg to another. Push him over for a stride and then ride straight again. It’s all good practice.

Practice stopping and starting using your knee and thigh (See The Other Way of Stopping). It’s great to play with this aid whilst you’re walking along a bridleway. Make sure your horse is walking on before you attempt to stop him. Anticipating the halt by slowing him down with your hand defeats the whole object.

All horses are left or right handed. They’ll prefer to canter on a particular lead. Use the other one some of the time. It’s a good exercise to see if you can tell which lead you’re on. In trot make sure you use both diagonals. The majority of horses have a comfortable diagonal and an uncomfortable one. Use the bad one. The more you use it the more even your horse becomes. He’ll even out in the school too.

If you sense trouble ahead what’s the first thing you do? Make a grab for your reins? Pull your horse’s head down? His reaction to a pull in the mouth is always to tighten his back. So the first sign of trouble he gets comes straight from your hands! Learn to resist the urge to snatch up your reins. Put your legs on first. Then take up your contact. You can learn to do this quickly without pulling at his mouth. Push on and don’t pull back. You’ll give him confidence not a reason to spook.

Situations arise on a ride when you need to use some of your schooling. That’s why you do it after all but make sure you draw a line over which you will not cross. When you take your horse out for a ride. Do just that go out and ride him. Don’t school him!

Happy hacking.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Too Much Information?

A lot of cars have a sat nav nowadays. They’re handy if you’re lost or you’re on your own but sometimes don’t you just want to scream “SHUT UP!!” as the wretched thing tells you once too often to “Take the next right … turn right … turn right. …”?

Nagging is a destructive habit. It creates tension or ‘convenient deafness’ depending on the personality of the recipient. In the case of the sat nav at least you can switch it off. Your horse doesn’t have that luxury. You may think you don’t nag but some kinds of nagging aren’t immediately obvious. You may not know you’re doing it.

When you ride round the school and come to a corner what do you expect your horse to do? Trot straight through the fence? No? So why do you feel the need to check, squeeze or pull your reins as you ride into, round and out of a corner?

Your horse doesn’t need you to steer him round a corner. He’s perfectly capable of trotting round the school without any direction from you. Your aids are there to give orders or corrections. They’re not there to tell him what he knows already!

The trouble with this kind of nagging or over riding is it fills your horse’s head with too many unnecessary aids. With so much flying around in his head how is he meant to filter out the aids you’re really want him to respond to? He’ll find it hard to focus which will affect his rhythm. His flow from one movement to the next will be broken.

Many riders feel they should be directing their horse every step of the way. They don’t. Once a sat nav’s told you to “turn right” you know, don’t you? You don’t need to be reminded every ten metres as you drive towards the junction. You’re not stupid and nor is your horse.

Go large round the school. Concentrate on what you’re doing before, during and after each corner. You probably check before the corner, ask for more bend to the inside on the corner and push on out of it. That’s a lot of work – and fiddling – for one small corner. Is it any wonder you’re fighting for breath at the end of a test? It’s also a lot for your horse to try to understand. You want him to relax … right?

Your horse will forgive you a misjudged dig in the ribs but give him a pull in the mouth and he’ll tighten his back every time. Think of the number of checks and pulls you did on that first circuit of the school. Is it any wonder your tests don’t flow?

Now go large again but this time fight the urge to fiddle. Ride forward but don’t pull back. It’s not easy. When you feel the urge to pull back use your leg instead. Trust your horse. It’s just a corner. Seriously - he can do it!

Test yourself on turns, circles and changes of rein. Once you’ve put your horse onto a circle stop asking. He knows where you want him to go. Trust him to take you. You’ll be amazed at the difference. If your hands are still he’ll relax and move smoothly from one movement to the next.

Think of the sat nav one last time. When you’ve driven on a motorway for half an hour without a word from it doesn’t it make you sit up and listen when it suddenly pipes up with “At the next exit …”?

Give it some thought next time you ride.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.