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Friday, 28 October 2011

Pull Up to Ride Forward

How often are you told to sit up, look up or get your shoulders back? Aren’t you just a bit fed up with constantly having to readjust your position? Imagine how your horse feels! Your position affects everything he does. The more balanced you are the better.

When you’re told to sit up what do you actually do? Lean back a bit? In doing so your back probably rounds leaving your shoulders forward. Then you’re told to stick your shoulders back. You do but your head stays where it is.  Your chin sticks out and you end up looking at the ground a few strides ahead of your horse. Sound familiar?

Instead of thinking ‘lean back’ think ‘pull up’. Pull up through your whole body. Imagine you’re trying to pull your vertebrae away from each other. Pull the bottom of your rib cage out and forward and take a deep breath in. Now feel where your shoulders and head are in relation to your hips. They should be directly above them. For your horse this is perfect. He can carry you easily because you’re in balance.

But you’re not done yet! Now you have to lean back to the point when you feel your weight at the back of your head. Try it while you’re sitting reading this. Allow your arms to drop down by your sides. Where do your elbows go? Down next to your sides. In the shoulders forward position your arms stiffen and your elbows tighten. If your reins get too long you end up sticking your elbows out and rounding your wrists.

There’s another wonderful thing about the ‘pull up’ method. You look up! As you lean back your head and shoulders go with you. Instead of leaving your head where it was and ending up looking at the floor your head tips back and you’ll find yourself looking down the track about 20m further ahead. It’s a feeling you’ll quickly get used to as you realise when you’re looking ahead you can plan ahead.

When you next ride your horse pull up through your body before you even move off into walk. He won’t recognise you. Don’t forget to lean backwards. The chances are you’ll feel as if you’re leaning too far back but you won’t be. Get a friend to take a picture of you or put your phone on video mode and prop it up on a fence post so you can see yourself. You’ll be surprised to find that you’re only sitting up straight.

Try walking round the school. Pull up through your body and feel what happens in your seat. Firstly your hips will swing with your horse without you having to make them. Secondly – and more importantly - they’ll push forward ahead of your shoulders when your horse pushes his hind legs under his body.  

Practice trotting circles and serpentines while you’re in this position. Before you ask your horse to turn pull up through your body first, let your hips move in front of your shoulders. Think of it as an aid which is guaranteed to sit him back on his hocks.

Canter large round the school and focus on leaning as far back as you can. Feel the difference in your lower back and seat when your hips move ahead of your shoulders. Don’t allow your body to collapse. Pull up and look up and your horse’s back will come up under the saddle which in turn brings his hocks further under his body.

Play with some transitions on the centre line. Ask for trot to walk transitions as you go through X. Pull up through your body as you ask and concentrate on allowing your hips to move in front of your shoulders as your horse walks.

It may seem strange asking for an upwards transition just before a turn but your horse knows the turn is coming. It won’t come as a surprise to him! From an active walk ask for trot at D/G. Pull up, ride forward and don’t pull back. The tight turn will increase the energy in your trot.

With the change of the clocks and winter really on its way now is the perfect time to make some positive changes to your position. If it takes a few sessions it doesn’t matter. Before you ask your horse to do anything remember to pull up through your body. Get a feel for it and you’ll never look back.

Your position will affect your horse whatever you do. Lean forward and he’ll fall onto his forehand. Slip to the side and he’ll fall in or out. But lean back and the worst thing that can happen is you put his weight back on his hocks. Isn’t that what you’ve been trying to do all this time?

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Problem Solving - cause and effect

If you have a problem with your horse what do you do? Ask your instructor? A friend? Or turn to a book? It’s the right thing to do. A problem shared is a problem halved but unfortunately it’s always after the event. Wouldn’t it be great if you could solve it while you were still in the saddle?

There’s only one cause of any problem with your horse. You! That’s a fact not an insult. Whatever you do with your body affects him. Divide your horse – and the aids that affect him – into three sections. 1 - Your hands and his shoulders/neck/mouth. 2 – His body and yours. 3 – His hindquarters and your legs.

If something’s not right in one of those sections it will have a negative effect on the others. So although your horse is lifting his head up it might not be your hands that started it – it might be that you’re sitting too heavily on his back. If he’s tight in his back he’ll stop using his hocks and up comes his head.  What started in one section quickly affects the other two. However hard you try to keep your hands still and ride forward if you’re making his back uncomfortable you won’t cure your problem.

If you have a problem while you’re riding think through the following lists and be honest! Ask yourself “Am I doing that?” If the answer is “Yes” to any one of the following points then you’ve found your cause.

Common problems with Section 1 –
  1. If your hands are uneven your horse’s shoulders will match them. If one shoulder (hand) is higher than the other he’ll fall towards the lower side. If one hand is further back than the other his shoulders will be crooked.
  2. Drop your hands and your horse will drop both shoulders and carry his weight on his forehand. Lift them too high and he’ll stiffen in his neck as his shoulders struggle to rise any higher.
  3. Hold your contact too tight and your horse will tighten his jaw against the pressure. That sends tension down the rest of his spine. BUT if your reins are too long you won’t contain the energy you create, he won’t use his hocks and he’ll fall onto his shoulders. Hold but don’t pull back.
  4. If your rein contact is stronger on one side that’s the way your horse’s shoulders are heading. If you’re trying to circle, corner or turn you need his shoulders on the line you’re taking not going off to one side. (falling out/in)

Problems with Section 2 –
  1. Your horse will be crooked if you are. Your shoulders and hips should be turned in the direction you’re moving or face the front on a straight line. If you’re left or right sided and turn naturally to one side you’ll find he does the same. That’s great on the good side but you’ll find he’s crooked and tight on the stiff side.
  2. He’ll fall in or out if your weight slips to one side in the saddle. (He’ll move away from the heavier side) OR you collapse to the inside. The distance between your bottom rib and the top of your hip should be the same on both sides. Drop your hip or your shoulder and he’ll do exactly the same.
  3. He’ll fall onto his forehand if you tip forward.  If you lean too far back your leg will swing forward and come off his sides. That means you’ll stop riding him forward and that leads you nicely onto -

Problems with Section 3 –
  1. If your legs aren’t pushing him forward then your horse won’t bring his hocks underneath him. He won’t be able to balance on his hindquarters and he’ll fall onto his forehand.
  2. If one leg is further back than the other you’re telling your horse to move his quarters over. A classic example of this is failing to move your outside leg forward once you’re in canter. He’ll move his quarters in and be crooked until you tell him otherwise.
  3. Are you kicking too hard? This lifts you up out of the saddle in sitting trot and canter. In rising trot it sends you far too high on the rise. Both are uncomfortable to your horse and get you out of balance with the rhythm of the pace. Tap him up with the whip if he’s lazy. It’s for his own good.
  4. If you use one leg harder than the other you’re giving your horse clear aids to step sideways. Always use your legs together and with the same amount of pressure unless you’re doing lateral work.

So there are the most obvious problems. It gives you somewhere to start when things go wrong. It’s only what your instructor does when he/she assesses you and your horse in the warm up. They’ll look at these three sections, see what’s going wrong and that’s what they base your lesson on. This way you can teach yourself for a while.

Next time your horse feels lazy in a downward transition think about what you might be doing to cause it. Are your reins too long? Are you leaning forward or just not using enough leg? That’s three different reasons for a downward transition that’s on the forehand – one from each section.

Is your canter crooked? Are your hands level and at the same height? Are you sitting square in the saddle and have you remembered to move your outside leg forward after the transition? Again three causes. Three sections.

Do you struggle to get your horse out into the corners? Is your contact even in both hands? Are you keeping your weight equal on both sides of the saddle? Are you pushing him forward from both legs?

Whatever your problem remember who started it! Your horse can only do what you’re telling him to do. It’s true that a problem shared is a problem halved but a problem divided into three might just get solved before you leave the school next time.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling. 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Your Whole Horse in Your Hands?

Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve got the whole weight of your horse in your hands? Does his head get lower and lower the further you go? The chances are he’s carrying himself on his forehand – or shoulders. He’s not the only horse to do it. It’s a common problem but it’s one that can be easily avoided.  If you know where to look.

When a horse is on the forehand he’s carrying about ¾ of his weight on his shoulders. There are many reasons he might be doing it but only one true cause - he’s not using his hocks correctly.

In walk it’s less obvious. On a road you might hear it when your horse’s front feet hit the ground with more force than his hind feet. He might trip in front more than behind. Because you’re not travelling at speed it probably goes unnoticed. The faster you go the more unbalanced he’ll become.

In trot things feel more obvious. Imagine running down a steep hill. You’d want to put out a hand to stop yourself falling over - right? Your horse will feel the same only he doesn’t have hands. Instead he has a bit in his mouth and attached to it he has your hands! That’s one of the first things you’ll notice about a horse on the forehand – the dead weight in your hands – and no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to get him off them.

In canter your horse will not only be uncomfortable to ride he’ll also be less responsive. The speed of the canter means more of his weight will be falling forwards onto your hands making it difficult for you to turn or vary his speed.

You wouldn’t be the first to think the best way to deal with it is to plug away in trot or canter until your horse sits back on his hocks but before you do just think about this -

When your horse unbalances onto his forehand there’s a strong chance he did it before you started the pace you feel it in. He may well have been trotting around quite nicely before you found yourself cantering the wall of death round the arena. So what happened in between the two? Try looking at your transition.

If your horse is prone to going on his forehand you’ll have heard the phrase ‘ride him uphill’. The theory is sound – you do want to think of his body sitting down at the back and lifting in front. BUT think how you ride when you ride uphill. You lean forward and give your horse his head. Try thinking of riding down a steep hill. Then you’d be sitting right back, pushing his hocks underneath him and holding the contact.

Whether you’re asking for walk to canter or trot to canter your body should remain the same. Your horse will copy exactly what you do. If you tip forward he’ll do the same. Lean further back than you feel comfortable doing. Exaggerate it. This will put all your weight over his hocks and encourage him to sit.

If you keep your hands up in front of you and your contact consistent in both hands then your horse will stay off his shoulders. Your contact contains energy allowing you to drive his hocks under his body.

When you’re asking for canter don’t make the mistake of throwing your hands forward in the hope your horse will go into canter quicker. Actually all you’re doing is throwing him straight onto his shoulders and making his life more difficult. Nag at yourself to keep your fingers closed around the reins as you ask. Then as you put your inside leg on for the strike off keep the contact between your thumb and first finger and relax the other three to allow him to canter.

If this is a regular problem ask your horse for canter going into a corner not on it. The fact you’re not on a bend will mean you’re less inclined to lean to the inside and unbalance him. Riding towards a fence will stop him running into canter and unbalancing himself too.

Before you go remember not to canter for too long! When you’re trying to solve a problem use canter in short bursts so you can concentrate on the quality of the transition and the first few strides. It’s the cause of the problem you need to look at not the end result.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 7 October 2011

To Rise or not to Rise?

Whether you’re learning to ride or starting to compete at dressage you can guarantee rising trot will become an issue. For those learning to ride getting up out of the saddle is a problem. Yet the more you learn the harder it is to sit!

For new riders it can feel as if rising trot will never feel natural but like everything it really does get easier. There’s a knack to it that only comes with time. The rise comes as much from your horse as it does from you. When he’s going forward you’ll find the spring of the trot helps to push you up out of the saddle.

It’s tempting to put your whole weight onto the stirrup to push yourself up. Don’t do it! The first thing that happens is your leg shoots forward throwing you straight back into the saddle. If you get enough control of your balance to stop that happening you’ll find you stand on the ball of your foot. Result? Your heel comes up and you fall forward.

You’re not expected to rise miles out of the saddle. A couple of inches will do. You only need to clear your horse’s back for a stride and sit back down. The object of rising trot is to stay in rhythm with your horse. Standing straight up takes time. By the time you sit back down you meet him on the wrong beat. That gets you bouncing out of rhythm. Who hasn’t experienced the ‘double bounce’?

Instead of rising from your stirrup imagine you have no lower leg at all. Put your weight onto the top of your knee and squeeze the thigh muscle just above it into the saddle to push yourself up. It’s worth practising out on a hack with a horse in front of you to keep your horse going. Don’t look at its rider though. Their horse will have a completely different rhythm to yours. Your rising is unique to your trot.

When you are in a school don’t forget to turn your body in line with the curve of a circle in rising trot. It’s easy to rise and straighten up without realising. As you sit back in the saddle your outside shoulder and hip should be slightly ahead of the inside ones so you stay in line with your horse until you ride straight.

Diagonals are your next challenge. Trot has two beats to it – it’s 2 time. When your horse trots he moves one hind leg and the front leg diagonally opposite at the same time. (Right hind/left front and left hind/right front) Hence the term ‘diagonal’.

You rise on a particular diagonal so you’re out of the saddle as your horse’s inside hind leg steps forward under his body. That’s the leg that pushes him forward. You should use your leg as you sit. By using your leg before he lifts his hind foot up off the floor you’ll encourage him to stretch it further under his body as he lifts it.

It’s important to remember to change your diagonal every time you change the rein. To do this you sit for one extra stride. Up, down – down, up. That brings you up as the new inside hind leg is going forward.

So you’re supposed to rise when the outside front leg and inside hind are going forward - how do you know? Look at the outside shoulder. Rise as it goes forward and sit as it comes back.  Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t see it. Some riders take years to get it right. Try sticking bandage or electrical tape on the point of one of your horse’s shoulder. That way you can see clearly when it moves away and towards you.

The best place to practise is out on a hack. Trot up a road in a straight line. That gives you time to focus solely on the shoulder. Look down and keep your eyes on it. Forget about ups and downs. Just concentrate on whether that shoulder is going forward or back. When you can do that can you worry about the timing of your rising.

Out hacking there’s no right or wrong time to rise but try to use both sides. Sticking to the ‘more comfortable one’ will only make the stiffer side worse.

For the more experienced rider the choice of sitting or rising trot comes in when you’re either showing or competing at dressage. In the early dressage levels it’s not compulsory to sit so unless you can sit on your horse and be totally relaxed don’t do it. Rising trot performed well looks as good as sitting trot and it will look much nicer than a horse that is tight because he is unhappy with his rider’s weight on his back.

Tension in your seat has a dramatic effect on your horse and your ability to sit. Try tightening the muscles in your seat in rising trot. You’ll feel your legs move away from your horse’s sides and forward. Your weight is tipped backwards.

Do the same in sitting trot and it has exactly the same effect. You may not feel it but your horse will. He’ll hollow and tighten his back which will make him uncomfortable to sit on. Result? You tighten your seat even more.

You are the only one who can change this. Practise going from rising trot to sitting for as little as ten strides. Concentrate on keeping your seat as relaxed as possible. When you sit in the saddle sit straight down. You should feel your weight on your two seat bones but also a little on your fork. Gradually increase the length of time you sit. The instant you feel your back or seat tighten start rising.

A final thought for all riders - don’t forget to breathe! Stupid as it may sound who hasn’t held their breath when they’re concentrating hard? The problem with that is it tightens every muscle in your body. That’s not going to help whether you’re rising or sitting.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Let Your Horse Work for You

No matter how much you love your horse you’re bound to have days when you wish he’d just exercise himself. Any exercise is better than no exercise so, with that in mind, why don’t you choose something that will make him work harder than you?

The easiest thing to do is reduce the size of your circles. 20m circles are useful but don’t really require your horse to exert himself. 10m circles are ideal. Ride them from each marker in the school, the four points of a 20m circle or change the rein by riding half 10m circles from E to X to B. He’ll have to push his hocks further under his body just to get round which will use the muscles in his back as well as his hindquarters.

10m circles are a big ask for a young horse. Use 15m circles instead. Or slow down and ride some in walk. They’ll be good for his balance and keep his attention too.

Four loop serpentines are a great way of making your horse do more work with less effort from you. You’ll be riding more half 10m circles but this time with straight lines joining them across the school. Spend a session riding them up and down the school. You’ll use both reins equally, keep his attention and get him using his hocks.

Diamonds are really useful shapes. They’re often overlooked or perhaps not even thought about. They can be ridden in all three paces and in two different sizes. The most obvious is a diamond using the four points of a 20m circle. Technically it’s a square but working away from the fence at each point means your horse has to stay focused on you.

A true diamond can be ridden between C, B, A and E. The points at A and C are sharp. They encourage your horse to sit on his hocks and move his shoulders as one unit. They’re not beyond the capabilities of any horse. Even a youngster can cope with one in walk. It’s an ideal way for you to get control of his shoulders before moving on to lateral work.

To turn your horse in walk around a point on a diamond sit back and close your fingers around the reins. This tells him not to go forward. Move both hands to the inside (Your outside hand should be above his withers) and push with both legs. He can’t go forward so he’ll follow the direction of your hands and move his body and shoulders around his quarters and across to the inside.

Used behind the girth your leg specifically controls your horse’s quarters. Used by the girth it controls his barrel. If he starts to move his quarters round as well as his shoulders and barrel swing your outside leg back and give him a nudge with your heel. That will tell him to keep his quarters still.

When you move your hands to the inside your horse moves his shoulders across. Your hands are then back to their original position – one either side of his withers. To move him across again move your hands over and push with both legs. When he’s on the line you want to take relax your fingers on the reins and allow him to go forward.

There’s one significant difference between asking your horse to move laterally (sideways) and just turning. To turn you use your body to tell him which way you want to go. Your body turns before his. When you move him sideways your hands and legs direct him but your body stays still. His body turns before yours.

The sequence of legs in trot makes it impossible for your horse to move his shoulders around his quarters so the points must be ridden as a turn. It may be less accurate but it will still be enough to make him step further under his body with his hocks.

As you approach each point turn your upper body and hands in the direction you want to go. Push forward with both legs. Keep your fingers relaxed on your reins to encourage him to go forward.

Riding diamonds in canter isn’t beyond the capabilities of any horse with practice. Try a 20m diamond where the turns are less sharp. Treat each turn as you would a corner. Sit up and turn your body. Keep your hands directly in front of you as he turns to keep his shoulders together. Ride forward to keep him back on his hocks and be ready to nudge him with your outside leg back if he swings his quarters.

Next time you feel less than enthusiastic try something different that will challenge your horse more than it will challenge you. Nobody said schooling had to be hard work all the time. Not for you anyway.  

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.