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Friday, 29 July 2011

Size Matters - 1/2 10m circles explained

A ½ 10m circle from E to X and X to B crops up in many dressage tests. It’s a great way for a judge to see if a horse is staying soft in his back. Softness comes from relaxation. That’s something your horse can do if he’s sure where he’s going. He can only do that if you’re sure where you want to go.

You may think of two ½ circles joined in the middle as a ½ figure of eight, but don’t. A test will ask for each circle separately. That’s the way you should think about them. It will keep things simple and help you to avoid these common mistakes -

1.      Over riding the first half circle simply because you think a ½ 10m circle is tight. You’ll ask your horse for too much bend, be too strong with your legs, ride a ½ 8m circle and find you fall short of the centre line.
Avoid this by turning your head and looking at A (from the right rein) before you reach E. This helps you to plan your line. Once you’ve turned your head use your upper body to turn your horse onto the correct curve of the circle.

2.      When you reach the centre line you spend too long on it. The half circles should end and start at X. You don’t need to ride two or three strides on the centre line before you start the second ½ circle. Ride to X and get off it!

3.      Because of the last problem the last ½ circle is often flat. Having spent too long on the centre line you then panic when you realise you’re miles away from B. You turn across the school with a half-hearted bend as opposed to riding out and round as you should on a circle. Get the first ½ circle right and this problem disappears.

4.      You lift your inside hand because you want to stop your horse falling in. Don’t do it! Your hands affect his shoulders. If your inside hand is higher than the outside his shoulders will do the same. His weight will tip to the outside shoulder and he’ll fall out.
The best thing you can do is keep your hands level and the contact even to keep your horse’s shoulders level. Use your inside leg to push his body out and round the circle.

5.      Instead of turning your body in the direction you’re going you collapse to the inside. Whatever you do with your body your horse will do with his.
Check the gap between your last rib and the top of your hip. It should stay the same on both sides. Turn your hips and body in line with the curve of the circle and your weight will stay even in the saddle. Your horse will feel this and stay balanced.

So those are the problems but what’s the solution? Try this -

Try riding 10m circles from E and B without changing the rein through X. Notice how much wider your complete circles are. Your furthest point is X. You’ll barely touch the centre line as you pass it. You don’t ride straight up the centre line for two strides!

With the feel of the full circle in your head ride one and a half 10m circles at E. Ride straight up the centre line when you reach X for the second time. By looking straight to A or C you’ll be able to judge your turn exactly.

Introduce the change of rein at X. It can be helpful to count the beats of your trot whilst you do this. With one word per step it should sound something like Right Rein Right Rein Through X Left Rein. It’s hard to react as quickly as that but it makes a big difference to the appearance of the movement. And it’s correct.

As you change bend turn your head and upper body to the new rein. Keep your elbows against your sides and take your hands round together. Keep hold of your reins! As your horse bends to the new rein you may let the outside rein slip longer instead of following him round. This makes the pressure in his mouth uneven. He’ll tip his nose to the inside. Sound familiar?

Finally ride the full movement. Remember your key points – the size of the first ½ circle and the speed of your change through X. You’ll find you have two clear ½ 10m circles not a flat, uneven ½ figure of eight. Your horse will be relaxed because he knows exactly where you want him to go and next time you’re out the judge will get the softness she’s looking for.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

It's not the Shape, it's What you do With it

Do you think your horse is bored with going round and round in circles? Perhaps he is. The circle is after all the most obvious shape to use in the school. But have you ever considered it might not be the shape you’re using but what you’re doing with it?

Circles come in all sizes and because of that they can be ridden anywhere in the school. Be inventive! You can ride endless circles round the school without even touching the track. Repetition only becomes boring if it’s not variable. How can you repeat something that’s variable? Try this -

Ride a 20m circle at E/B. It’s the best place for schooling because without the fence to help him your horse will have to pay attention to your aids.

The aim of the exercise is to ride a 10-15m circle at each of the four points of the 20m circle. (B, E and the points where you cross the centre line) The size of circle is dependant on your horse’s experience. Use any pace but for this post assume trot.

The beauty of this exercise is the ability to repeat it. Don’t dismiss it and think your horse will soon switch off. You can still change it. You can ride it in all three paces for a start. So although you’re sticking to the same basic pattern you can swap between paces, throw in a direct transition or two when you feel like it and even peel off and go large.

Repetition has a calming effect on sharp horses. Even the most highly strung will settle once he knows what’s coming. 10m circles make all horses use their back muscles too. Once your horse starts to move his muscles he’ll start to relax his back. Once he’s relaxed you can start to work on other things.

If your horse is less than lively the 10m circle can still work in your favour. The tight curve of the circle means he’ll have to use his hocks to stay upright. It may not turn him into an Olympic hopeful but when you go large it will improve his energy.

If your horse likes to lean you’ll probably find he gets lower and lower the more circles you ride. Don’t let him! If he’s managing to get his head between his knees or his nose to the floor your reins are too long. Stick your thumbs down hard on top of your reins and don’t let them slip. Now the rest of your fingers are free to move on the reins. Do that and he can’t lean. He can only lean on something if it’s solid.

Establish your 20m circle first. Make sure your horse is moving forwards. Small circles need energy. He’ll have to sit back on his hocks so he can balance. If you’re struggling to keep him going at this stage tap him up with the whip or go large and have a canter to liven things up.

Ride forward from both legs to create energy but be ready with your outside leg if your horse drifts off the line you’re riding to. Use your heel to correct him in its usual place. Your outside leg should only be used behind the girth to correct him if his quarters are swinging out or when you’re asking for canter or quarters in.

Add one 10m circle at a time. Start with one at E/B. Here you have the track and the centre line to guide you. (With a novice horse ride 15m and take it to the ¾ line) Ride forward as you turn onto the new circle. Turn your head and upper body in line with the curve of the circle. Your horse will feel your weight change and do the same.

Your hands are crucial to your horse’s softness, straightness and balance. Keep them up in front of you, level and maintain an even contact in both reins. Your hands control his shoulders. Lose the contact on one rein and you lose control of that shoulder. You allow him to fall in or fall out. Keeping your hands together keeps his shoulders together as one unit.

Never back off a small circle. When you hesitate or take a check you lose energy for that stride. On a small circle that’s enough to tip your horse onto his shoulder. From there he’ll find it impossible to push himself forward and your circle becomes flat. If you feel the urge to interfere use your leg not your hand. You’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.

A common rider error is to draw up the inside leg. Do that and your seat slides to the outside. Your outside hip drops lower than the inside one and your horse will do the same. If his outside hip is lower than the inside one his quarters will swing to the outside. You can try to correct him using your outside leg behind the girth but you’ll only solve this problem by sitting square in the saddle.

As you ride onto or off the 10m circle ride forwards. If your horse drops onto your hand don’t be tempted to lose the contact on one rein. Using one rein causes unevenness in your hands. This will most likely lead to him tipping his nose to one side or falling in or out.

Horses have many reactions and resistances to the things riders do. An exercise like this will draw attention to them. Take time to concentrate on your own position and you’ll soon notice a change in your horse. 

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Get a Grip!

Your rein contact is crucial to the way your horse goes so it should be the first place you look when anything goes wrong. As rider habits go long reins have to be one of the most common. Do you need to get a grip?

Think back to when you were taught to ride. You’d have heard “Sit up” and “Heels down” more often than not. You’d have also heard “Thumbs on top.” This is one of the first things to fall by the wayside with many riders. Next time you get on your horse take a look at the way you hold your reins. The chances are you’ll have a fairly relaxed open hand. Your thumb may well be on top of your fist but is it on top of your rein?

It’s an easy habit to solve. In theory. All you have to do is clamp your thumb down on the rein and hold it in place. This doesn’t mean you have to tighten your fingers around your reins. They can stay as floppy as you like. The only thing that matters is your thumbs stay clamped on your reins so they can’t get longer.

When you were taught to ride your instructor no doubt told you to shorten your reins before an upward transition. As you improve there should be no need to do this unless you’ve been riding on a loose or long rein. Think of all the top riders you’ve ever watched. How many times do you see their fingers shuffling up their reins?

If this is a problem for you use a pair of continental reins. Hate them? Push some plaiting bands down your reins or stick a bit of bandage tape around them at the point you should be holding them. Your hands should be carried above your horse’s withers and your reins should be short enough for him to feel you at all times. Once you have a marker all you have to do is keep hold of it.

Constant lengthening and shortening of your reins is not only irritating to your horse it’s also completely unnecessary. It’s just another distraction. If your contact is consistent you can contain his energy and keep his weight off his shoulders and he can relax. An inconsistent contact won’t help your paces or your transitions.

In walk your arms have to be relaxed to follow your horse’s head and neck. If you’re stiff your reins will slip longer to compensate for your lack of movement. Your horse may be unaffected until you trot. In trot his head stays still and your reins will be too long. His weight will fall forward onto his shoulders and his trot will lose energy. 

You may carry on trotting with long reins until it’s time for a canter. Then, before you ask, you shorten your reins. If only they were short enough in the first place! Your trot would be better for it as would your transition and your canter.

Having got into canter your horse will need to move his head and neck so if your reins slip longer the canter will get flatter. A lazy horse will trot, a sharper one will rush. When you do ask for trot he’ll fall onto his shoulders and the trot will be hurried and tense. OK if your sit up and shorten your reins it’s easy to get him back up again but wouldn’t it be easier if they were short in the first place?

The one thing most riders do when their reins are too long is round their wrists in an attempt to find a contact. If that doesn’t work their elbows come out and their hands drop and draw back to their body. This will cause tension in your body and spine. You may think you’re relaxed but to your horse you’ll feel crooked and tight.

The shortening of your reins before an upward transition can also become an unintentional aid. Your horse will start to anticipate the second you take up the contact. What happens when he jogs or canters before he’s supposed to? He gets told off. This is tension which wouldn’t happen if you kept your reins short!

It takes time and determination to crack this habit. It’s easier to ignore than it is to solve. Use markers on your reins every time you ride, stick your thumbs on them and keep them there! Get into the habit of checking the length of your reins every time you pass A, E, C and B. Eventually you’ll find you won’t have to.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Light in Your Hand - Not Non-existent!

Does your horse spend more time looking to the outside of a circle than he does the inside? If he does he’s not going forward correctly. He may feel as if he is and you may well be using as much leg as you possibly can but if he’s not in both hands this is a battle you’ll never win.

Your horse is going forward correctly if he moves forward willingly and he accepts the contact in his mouth. If he resists your contact or you don’t maintain it you might as well stop pushing because any energy you do create will be lost.

Many riders assume if their horse is bent correctly they should have very little weight on the inside rein. They’ll push with their inside leg checking and releasing their inside rein in order to get their horse ‘off it’. In truth they should do the opposite.

Your hands control everything in front of your saddle. Drop the contact on your inside rein and your horse will drop his inside shoulder. His head and mouth will copy his shoulders. If his mouth is lower on the inside, and therefore higher on the outside, his head will tip to the outside.

With little contact on the inside rein your horse may feel heavier in your outside rein. Understandably you then feel you should lighten the outside to match the inside. You drop him off it. Now you have no real contact on either side of his mouth.

Many riders misunderstand lightness. When a horse is light in your hand it doesn’t mean nonexistent. It means he’s waiting at the end of the rein - and willing - to react to your next aid. There should always be some weight in your hand otherwise how else can you control his shoulders or contain his energy?

If your horse is heavy in one rein it means he’s not in the other. The best thing you can do is take up the contact on the other rein to match it. Don’t worry if he feels strong. (This will take more than a couple of strides to correct so don’t grab the other rein and after two steps throw it away saying “I told you it wouldn’t work!”)

Your aim is to ride large round the school with an even amount of pressure in both hands. In an ideal world that would be a fairly elastic, relaxed pressure but if this is a regular habit your horse may put up a bit of a fight. Do whatever it takes to keep the pressure even on both sides of his mouth. Follow his mouth with your hands.

Be consistent. Even pressure and level hands will keep your horse straight in his head, neck and shoulders. Keep your fingers moving on the reins so you can’t lean on each other. Bend your elbows so you don’t set your arms against him and ride forward.

Ride circles, turns and serpentines. Use a strong inside leg but forget about bend. Keep the same weight in both hands and your horse’s head and neck straight in front of you.

When he realises you’re not going to change or give in your horse will do two things. First he’ll relax his mouth which will have an instant effect on his topline. If his back relaxes he’ll start to step further under his body with his hind feet.

As his topline relaxes he’ll feel the extra pressure from your inside leg. He’ll bend his body away from it leaving his shoulders and quarters where they were. In other words he’ll bend around your inside leg. Without you pulling his head round.

The next time you’re struggling to get an inside bend change tactics. Ride your horse straight for a few circuits, put him in your hand not off it. He’ll soon come round.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Ride Forwards to Step Backwards!

Why is it when you’re taught to ride you’re never taught how to reverse?

A gate is a prime example. If you don’t know how to go backwards what do you do? Kick and pull back? Why not? The theory’s sound. The problem is nine times out of ten it has the opposite effect.

Perhaps you’ve reached a level in your schooling where rein back is a natural progression. You may follow the same pattern as many riders -
First - halt on the track. (So you only have to worry about one side – right?)
Second - shift your seat around in the saddle to get it ‘just right’ so you’re ready.
Third - fiddle with your reins so you’ve got a good contact.
Finally, lean back, put your leg on, pull on the reins and expect your horse to go back.
Looking at it like that is it any wonder nothing happens?

As flight animals horses will always run forward. They don’t enjoy going backwards. More often than not their initial reaction is to resist. Your horse is likely to hollow against your hands and your seat. When his back is tense he can’t use his hocks correctly. If he steps back at all he’ll swing his quarters to one side.

The other thing to mention with that example is you’ve just spent the best part of five minutes in halt shuffling and fiddling in the saddle. Your horse won’t be focused or expecting you to do anything other than maybe get off!

So how can you achieve a good rein back? Try this –

The first thing you need to remember is rein back is just a pace. Treat it as one. Your horse needs to carry his weight on his hocks so sit up and look up. If he’s tipped onto his shoulder he’ll only be capable of falling forwards not stepping backwards.

As with any pace the quality comes from the transition into it. The quality of that comes from the energy in the pace before it.

OK so you can only rein back from halt but even halt can be full of energy. When your horse halts from an energetic walk he’ll be ready for your next aid. If he dawdles to a standstill he’ll struggle to get into walk again let alone rein back!

Practice riding around the school in an active walk. Ask your horse for halt and the instant he does walk on again. Halt at least on every marker, more if you can to keep him thinking forward. Eventually he’ll be itching to walk as soon as he halts. That’s an energetic halt. (For ways to improve your halt and sharpen your horse up to your legs check out The Other Way of Stopping and Be a Lazy Rider)

The less you can use your hands the better. Use a ‘restrictive’ hand not a pulling one. Instead of relaxing your hand as your horse goes to step forward you tighten your fingers around the reins. This steady, non giving feeling will be enough to tell him not to move forward. It won’t be enough to make him tense up and tighten his back.

Use both legs at the same time in the usual place. Don’t be tempted to swing them back if nothing happens. That will confuse your horse. He may think you want him to move his quarters to one side. If he’s slow to respond do what you would do in any transition. Tap him up with your whip.

Avoid asking for rein back on the track. You may feel the fence helps to keep your horse straight but it actually shows him a clearer way out. If he gets tense he’ll swing his quarters to the inside if he has a fence on the other.

The ideal place to ask is with the fence in front of you so your horse has no forward option. This means you can stay soft with your hands. When you ask him to move back he should step straight back. If he swings his quarters to one side that’s the time to move your leg back and use a nudge with your heel on the side he swings to.

Although there is a technically correct way to ride any school movement there’s no reason why you can’t change things to suit your horse. If he refuses to go back try lifting your seat out of the saddle as you use your leg. This may be enough to encourage him. However small the initial steps are be quick to praise him. At this stage you want to show him that stepping back is what you want.

Remember rein back is a pace not a movement. Having taken one or two steps back don’t just stop! Relax your hand and keep your leg on to allow him to walk on. Treat it as you would any transition. Don’t lean forward and drop the contact to ‘send him forward’. That will drop him straight on his shoulder spoiling the rein back and the transition to walk.

You will never force a horse to rein back but with patience and clear aids you can teach him. If things get tense go for a canter and come back to it another day.

Rein back has more to do with the way you approach it than it has to do with the pace itself. Ride forwards to go backwards and you won’t go far wrong!
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.