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Saturday, 24 September 2011

A Contradiction in Terms?

How often have you read ‘keep your hands still’ only to read ‘take a check’, ‘move your fingers on the reins’ or ‘squeeze’ two paragraphs later? With so many references to hands, reins and fingers is it any wonder many riders get confused?

The first thing you need to understand is your fingers are a part of your hands not the same thing. So your fingers can move although your hands stay still.

There’s never a time when your hands need to move away or back from their position in front of your body. They should stay above your horse’s withers to keep control of his shoulders. When your body turns your arms and hands should go too. This moves his shoulders whilst your legs push his body and quarters behind them.

No pace or movement benefits from your reins being too long. Clamp your reins between your thumb and first finger and don’t let go!

Pull back on your reins and your horse will tighten his back. When he does that his hocks can’t step underneath him and he loses impulsion. Nag at yourself to ride forward and never pull back. Holding a contact is the same as holding a toddler’s hand. You’re there to guide them not to break their fingers.

If your horse has been leaning on the bit your fingers stiffen up. Is it his weight or your tension that makes them ache? He can only lean on something if it’s solid. If he can’t lean on your hand he’ll have to sit on his hocks. Move your second, third and little finger as if you’re drumming them on a table or dabbling them in water. That small amount of movement stops you tensing your hands.

Your contact is ‘soft’ when your fingers are mobile. You can still feel your horse at the end of your reins but he isn’t a dead weight. Push him forward into a soft contact and he’ll relax, round his back and go naturally onto the bit.

If your horse resists your hands then your contact should be restrictive. Imagine you’ve got a wet sponge in each hand and have to squeeze all the water out. Squeeze both reins together. This gives him an even but pressured feeling in his mouth. It’s enough to say “Don’t do it.” Keep up the pressure until he relaxes his jaw.

Many riders get confused when they start trying to get their horse on the bit. They squeeze one rein and then the other swinging their horse’s head from side to side. It gets a result of sorts because the horse puts his head in to avoid the discomfort BUT he isn’t on the bit – the second they swap a whip or do something different he pops straight back up again. (Imagine for a second how distracting it would be when you’re trying to read this if someone was pulling your head from side to side.)

Compare your horse to a bottle of coke. Shake the bottle with the lid on and the drink inside fizzes but can’t escape. Your rein contact is that lid. If it stays consistent it contains the energy your legs create. When his hocks are under him and the length of his neck is determined by the length of your reins his back has to round. Without so much as a squeeze or a pull he’s on the bit.

Imagine if you opened and closed the lid of the bottle. In time the fizz would escape and the drink would become flat. Releasing and taking your contact has exactly the same effect on your horse. When his hocks aren’t under his body he can’t go onto the bit because his energy has dropped and his back will hollow.

If your horse is heavy on one rein the chances are he’s not in the other. Never ‘drop’ him off the heavy side. Always put him onto the lighter side. You need an even pressure on both sides of his mouth to contain his energy and keep him on his hocks. 

Here’s something to try –

Take up your reins and stay in walk. Now ride forward, move your fingers but don’t pull back. Follow the movement of your horse’s head in walk. Your hands and arms should move forward and back to keep the same weight in each rein.

Some horses accept a contact instantly. Others are less trusting. Never resort to a quick pull because that’s exactly why your horse won’t settle in the first place!

Try putting your leg on and moving your hand two inches forward. Your horse should ‘look’ for the contact. This means the weight in your hand stays the same because he stretches his neck to find the contact. So instead of pulling him back into a contact you’re pushing him to one and because he’s relaxed he’ll actively look for it.

You may be wondering how you should ask him to bend if you can’t tug, pull one rein and not the other or squeeze. A horse bends through his body around your leg – not from your inside rein. And that’s a topic for another day.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Don't Rush into Trot - Go Forward

Do you struggle to hold your horse when you ride from canter to trot? You’re not alone. It’s a common problem and one which is often made worse by the rider’s reaction – taking their leg off and pulling.

When your horse gets strong from canter to trot no matter what his temperament the cause is the same. He’s unbalanced. Any horse who tips onto his shoulders will always rush a downwards transition.

Pulling a horse in the mouth makes him tighten and hollow his back. If he does that he’ll stop using his hocks and tip onto his shoulders. Taking your leg off has the same effect. Do the two together and your horse has little choice but to run into trot.

It’s easy to focus on the actual transition but the problem stems from the pace before it. You need an exercise which helps your horse balance and makes him sit up and listen. Try this –

Canter a 15m circle in the C/M corner. The ¾ line should be your furthest point. Any horse can canter a circle of this size. It’s the size which balances your canter and helps you to produce a steady transition. Sit up and ride forward to give your horse the confidence he needs to get his hocks underneath him.

When your canter feels settled ride off the circle and onto a diagonal line from M to A. Your horse will think you’re going from M to K. Look at A and use plenty of right leg to keep him in line with it. He’ll listen because he’s not sure where he’s going. As you cross the ¼ line ask him to trot.

Never anticipate a problem. Keep your arms relaxed and your fingers moving on the reins so you can’t set against each other. Stay soft in your body, squeeze hard with your knee and thigh (Check out  ) and ride forward.

It’s hard to kick on when you feel as if you’re being tanked off with but if you keep your knees in your leg will just tell your horse to use his hocks - not go faster. The further under his body they are the more control you’ll have.

When you reach A ride a 15m circle and pick up canter again. When your canter is settled ride across from K to C, asking for trot as you cross the ¼ line. (Make sure you change the rein regularly as this exercise focuses on one rein at a time.)

Rushing can become a habit. Your horse may find it hard to change. Try asking for some transitions to halt as you ride towards A and C. The fence will help to back him off. These transitions may not be world class but they will have a positive effect. You’ll be surprised how much control you’ll have once he’s anticipating stopping.

Poor transitions are usually caused by poor paces. Keep your horse balanced and focused and the transitions will take care of themselves.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Working Out

Are you lucky enough to have free access to a ménage whenever you need one? If you are June’s post on hacking out - - will apply to you. Whenever you’re out of the school you should allow your horse some time out. Get off his case and just enjoying riding him.

If you have to pay or travel every time you want to school your horse you probably do more schooling when you’re out for a hack. It’s unavoidable but it’s still important that your horse gets time without pressure.

Allocate one ride to schooling. Use that ride and that ride only. When you go that way your horse will know it’s time to work. If you only have one ride to use then school on it in one direction and play in the other! Don’t let excuses get in your way.

There are loads of things you can work on without the need for a school. Check out to see how you can use your knee and thigh to slow, collect or stop your horse. This is one of the best things any rider can learn. And one of the easiest. It eliminates the need to use your reins to slow down or stop. The result? Your horse is softer in your hands.

Sharpen your horse up to your leg aids. There is no reason why any horse should have to be kicked every stride just to put one foot in front of the other. Check out to find out how to liven your horse up to your leg. Instead of using school markers you’ll need some of your own. Anything - cat’s eyes, lamp posts, clumps of cow parsley – will do.

Riding uphill can improve your sitting trot. Don’t take your stirrups away but let them down a couple of holes. Sitting trot is uncomfortable if your horse hollows his back. Up a hill he’ll have to push harder with his hocks. He’ll be rounder in his back and easier for you to sit on.

Every curve in the road is an opportunity to bend your horse. If you’re trotting change your diagonal to match the bend. One diagonal is often more comfortable than the other. On a hack it’s easy to opt for the comfortable one but that will only increase his stiffness. Use them equally. You’ll be surprised how quickly his schooling improves.

Practise your canter transitions. ( Never allow your horse to take three strides to get into canter. Put your outside leg back and use your inside leg to tell him to go. When you use it he must strike off. If he doesn’t, trot and ask again.

Can you tell which canter lead you’re on? Find a long stretch to canter on and look down at your horse’s shoulders. One will be reaching further forward than the other. That’s your leading leg. If the right is reaching further forward you’re in right canter.

Ask for a specific canter lead. And make sure you get it! If you ask your horse clearly he should give you the correct leg. If he doesn’t don’t lean forward, hang off to one side or kick in a panic. Trot, get him steady again and use clear aids. The aim of schooling is to strive for perfection. You’re not expecting it every time.

Are you close to the saddle on all three beats of your canter? Many riders lift up out of the saddle on the third. This gives you less control. It affects the canter and your transitions. If your horse gets stronger and stronger the further you canter this could be why. Listen to the canter and push down into the saddle for all three beats.

On quiet lanes play with moving your horse’s quarters and shoulders. Teach him the theory of moving forward with his shoulders or quarters in a different alignment.

To move your horse’s shoulders in turn your body and hands to the right. Keep your hips facing forward. Your left hand should be in front of your right hip. If your horse moves his shoulders - not just his head - to the right your contact should stay even in both hands. If he just turns his head you’ll lose the contact in your right rein.

Look in the direction you want to go NOT in the direction your horse is looking. Push him where you’re looking with your right leg. When you feel him step across ‘catch him’ on your left leg to keep his body in line with his shoulders.

When you ask your horse to move his quarters your body and hands should stay facing forward. This keeps his head, neck and shoulders straight. Your legs control his quarters. To move them in put your outside (left) leg back and push your calf against his side. He’ll swing his quarters round until he feels your inside leg. Use your inside heel to nudge him forward and he’ll walk in the direction he’s looking with his quarters in.

Schooling out hacking can be beneficial if you keep your horse’s attention. Problems arise when your horse gets bored. He’ll come up with ways to amuse himself. Use your imagination and you’ll stop him using his!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Practice What You Preach

How many times have you halted and felt your horse’s quarters step to one side? Are you pleased with your canter to walk transition until you realise he’s swung his quarters in at the last minute? He must be tight in his back – right? Think again.

If your horse is tight in his back he can’t use his hocks correctly. He’ll tip forward onto his shoulders. Downward transitions will be rushed and unbalanced but not necessarily crooked. From the ground it will be obvious that he isn’t tracking up. (When moving forward correctly a horse’s hind feet step into or beyond the prints of its front feet)

If your horse is tight in his shoulders he doesn’t need to use his hocks correctly. It may look like he’s tracking up but this is because his front feet are taking such small steps. The paces look ‘pretty’ but lack real energy. Downward transitions are abrupt as the shoulders stop quicker than the quarters. To allow for this he has to swing his quarters to the side. Sound familiar?

The trouble with this tightness in the downward transitions is the rider’s reaction often makes matters worse! As the horse goes down to the next pace it feels as if it has stopped and then surged forward again. The rider will often take a pull to correct this surge. The trouble is the root of the problem is the rider’s hands.

Your hands affect everything in front of your saddle. Tension in your horse’s shoulders stems from tension in yours. This tension travels right down your arms to the bit. Imagine something restricting in your mouth. You’d shrink back away from it and your jaw, neck and shoulders would become rigid.

Your horse may feel light in your hand, as if he’s just behind the bit. But if he’s not in your hand how can they be the problem? It’s a defence mechanism. He’s learnt to carry himself in this way to avoid the tension from your hands.  

You may feel as if your horse isn’t giving you everything. You may kick on harder or even chase him with your whip. This won’t remove the cause. Still tight he’ll run quicker. Whilst the rhythm is regular its speed (the tempo) becomes hurried.

You can see your horse is tight in his shoulders by looking at his ‘bottom line’ – the underneath of his neck. This should be loose. When you’re on a circle his top and bottom line should follow the line of the curve. If he’s tight in his shoulders you’ll notice no matter where his top line is his bottom line will be solid and set straight.

So what can you do about it? Loosen up your shoulders. This will have more effect than anything else. Pull your shoulders up under your ears and tighten then for as long as you can. When you release them let the weight drop down through your elbow. You’ll find your shoulders are more relaxed and feel heavier than before.

Now tighten your arms in riding position. Make them both as rigid as you can. Hold that amount of tension for about a minute and then relax. Feel how soft your wrists and elbows are. This is what you’re aiming to achieve when you take up the reins.

There are many exercises to help loosen shoulders. Demi-pirouettes, shoulder-in or even pole work. Anything which makes your horse stretch his shoulders will help.

Try this -

A great exercise is yielding on a circle. It’s not technically leg yield because of the curve but the theory is the same. You’re asking your horse to step sideways away from your inside leg. The idea is he steps across with his front and hind feet. It’s this stepping and stretching across that loosens the muscles.

Ride a 10m circle in walk around X. It’s important NOT to over bend your horse to the inside. This exercise will only loosen up his shoulders if you keep them together.

Ride with your arms as soft as possible and your hands together and level. Keep an even weight in both reins. This is the most important part of the whole exercise. If you lose your horse’s shoulders he won’t stretch he’ll fall out.

Ask your horse to take one step to the outside using your inside leg by the girth and catch (stop) him with your outside leg. Stay on the new size circle for a few strides and then ask him to step over again.

Your aim is to take him one step at a time out onto a 20m circle. There is no benefit in doing it quickly. His strides will be short and hurried. You want him to take the biggest steps across that he can. He can only do this if you keep control of his shoulders and take your time.

Initially your horse’s steps will be small. Don’t worry. Focus on keeping your hands together and your arms relaxed. This is more important than his steps. As he understands the exercise and you grow in confidence you can push harder with your inside leg to encourage him to stretch further across.

If you’re wondering why you don’t just leg yield on the straight it’s because it restricts the time you have to ask your horse to step over. After one or two steps you reach the end of the school and your horse’s concentration is broken. Riding ever increasing circles gives you time to think.

Tension in backs and shoulders is only caused by one thing. You! Whatever you choose to do make sure you stay as soft and relaxed as possible. That’s what you’re asking him to do after all.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.