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Friday, 25 November 2011

Energetically Challenged?

Would ‘energetically challenged’ be an apt description of your horse? You’re not on your own. Many riders prefer to be in control of the forward gears but as your confidence grows it’s only natural you start to feel a bit frustrated.

Many people think the less excitable equines just need a kick or a smack and everything’s fine. If only it was that easy! There’s a knack to drawing your equine tortoise out of his shell. The good news is it’s something you can learn.

If you want your horse to change his ways the first thing you have to do is change yours. You’re going to need bucket loads of energy and self discipline. He doesn’t need a telling off. He needs a reason to get excited and you have to give it to him.

Your arrival on the yard should be energetic and cheerful. Even if you feel like curling up in front of the fire you need to bounce down the yard and greet him with a grin on your face. Inspire him from the second he sees you.

Once tacked up make sure he walks with purpose to the mounting block or school. Walk alongside him and use your whip behind you to chivvy him along. Never allow him to shuffle to the school. This is FUN! Start as you mean to go on.

You can be forgiven for thinking you need to go as fast as possible to inspire your horse but stop right there! The only thing that will do is tire you out and unbalance him. Walk is your ideal pace. Get him motivated in walk and the rest is easy.

Lazy horses will often ‘offer’ the next pace up. How often has your horse jogged when you’ve kicked him on in walk or hopped into canter when you’re trying to get him trotting on? Don’t be too grateful! If he offers a pace you don’t want be quick to correct him. He needs to work harder at the pace you’re in not do the next one badly.  

The way you use your leg, spurs and whip is essential to your horse’s training. Your calf muscle is the part of your leg that sends him forward. Your heel, spur and whip are there to back it up NOT get him going. Check out – before you ride. It shows you how to get the best out of your horse without kicking.

If your horse ignores a squeeze from both calf muscles use both heels together. Use them once – hard. He should shoot forward. Be quick to praise him. If he doesn’t use your whip once directly behind your leg. Don’t be tempted to use your whip on his quarters. That’s just telling him off. You’re teaching him to move off your leg. Smack him on his quarters and he won’t understand your exact reason. Repeat the heels together and then the whip as quickly and sharply as you can until you get a reaction. The instant you feel any forward movement on his part use your voice to praise him and keep your leg still.

Your rein contact is essential. Without it you’re wasting your time. Imagine a bottle of coke. Shake it up with the lid on and the drink fizzes inside and the bottle expands. The energy is contained within the bottle and by slowly opening the lid you can release it. Take the lid off and what happens? The drink fizzes and goes flat. The energy you create with your legs needs to be contained too. Your hands are that lid.

A lazy horse is often unfit. Regular exercise will get him fitter and his energy levels will increase naturally. Keep schooling sessions short and intense. Half an hour of focused full on exercise twice a week is better than an hour once a week of half hearted enthusiasm.

Do everything in short bursts. Trot a 20m circle and then canter one. Walk two circuits and go again. It may not seem like a lot but done well it will have a huge effect on your horse. If everything he does from now on is done quickly and positively he’s less likely to feel like it’s an effort.

Walk in between exercises – even on a long rein - should always be forward. It’s your time to get your breath back not your horse’s. If you’re feeling tired you can guarantee he’ll decide he is too. If you’re up there geeing him up he’s far more likely to feel inspired.

The more you can do to encourage your horse to put his hocks underneath him the better. Use 10m circles and three loop serpentines which encourage him to work harder with less effort from you. It’s essential to remember not to kick constantly. He must go forward from a squeeze from your calf. Every time you find yourself kicking go back to walk and re-establish the aids.

Direct transitions are good to get your horse going but only if he’s listening to your leg. Start with simple walk to trot or trot to canter transitions. Limit yourself to ten strides in each pace as you work your way round the school. The quick changes will motivate him without you having to kick on too hard.

Never compromise your position to get your horse going. Leaning forward, flapping with your legs or throwing your reins at him will only unbalance him. That not only makes things harder for him it also gives him the perfect excuse! Read - to see how to use your body to maximum effect.

It can take weeks to convince your horse you really mean it but it works on all horses – even yours! You have to be consistent and really want to sort it out. If you put in the time you’ll still have a horse that wants you to tell him when to go but you’ll also have one that doesn’t expect you to work harder than him!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Do You Swing Both Ways?

Is your horse one sided? Most have a stiffer side. He may choose one canter lead over the other, have a diagonal that’s more comfortable or go round corners on one rein with his head stuck to the outside but whatever it is don’t be so quick to blame him!

Think about the way you’re sat in the chair right now. Are your legs crossed? Which leg is on top? Is it always that way? 9 times out of 10 you’ll do one rather than the other. That means one hip gets more exercise than the other. If you have a drink at the computer which side is it on? Do you find it more natural to turn to the left or the right to pick it up? How about if you go upstairs? Or climb over a fence. Which leg do you lead with? (Chances are it’s the one you’ve got on top if you’re sitting with your legs crossed!)

How about when you’re riding? Do you find it easier to turn your body to the left or the right? One way is always easier. When you warm up which way do you go to start with? Left or right? Do you go back to that rein for your first canter? Given the choice would you turn left to a fence or right? These are little things but things that you can change to help your horse.

Make a conscious effort to change the way you do things. Cross your legs the other way, put your mug on the wrong side of the desk for a week and lead with your other leg when you run up the stairs. By doing that you’ll even out your body and help your horse to even out the way he uses his. 

When you’re out hacking you probably carry your whip between you and the traffic. Why wouldn’t you? The problem with that is your horse will naturally bend around that whip putting him in a permanent right bend. Is it any wonder he’s stiff to the left?

When you ride out try to carry your whip in the left hand when you’re off road. Use both diagonals too. It’s too easy to opt for the ‘good’ one but use the uncomfortable one often enough and you’ll find it hard to tell between the two. You don’t have to be on the bit to do these things. There’s no need for your horse to even realise you’re schooling him. Keep it simple and he’ll even out without knowing you’re trying.

How often do you see someone bending and flexing their horse one way and then the other? It’s OK if you really understand what you’re trying to achieve but if you’re doing it because you think it will ‘soften’ your horse’s stiff side you’re unfortunately wasting your time.

If your body was stiff to the right no amount of neck bending would loosen it up. You’d need to bend through your waist and stretch the muscles on the other side which aren’t used to working. So does your horse.

Don’t think you can get rid of your horse’s stiff side by working on that rein the whole time. Imagine if someone stood over you and made you write with the wrong hand. You may start off with good intentions but it would be hard work and uncomfortable - eventually your enthusiasm would dwindle. 

Think about how you’d feel if you had to write with the wrong hand and you’ll understand why your horse needs to be schooled in stages on the stiffer side. You can’t just turn his head in that direction and kick him through the stiffness. He can’t bend because he’s struggling not because he doesn’t want to! You have to gradually increase the bend you ask for bit by bit.

In the school use serpentines so you use both sides. On a three loop serpentine ride it so the first and last loops are on the easier rein when you start off. When you turn onto the middle loop keep your horse looking straight forward in his head and neck and concentrate on pushing his body out. The more he stretches the outside of his body the more supple his back will be. Bending his neck won’t do that.

Riding your horse straight is more beneficial than riding with an exceptional bend on one side and stiff and stilted on the other. Figures of eight using long diagonals are ideal. This way your focus is on keeping him straight across the school, asking for a slight bend round the half circle and then straightening him up again. When he’s balanced you’ll be able to stretch his body from your leg without tension.

The slower your pace the better for your horse on his stiff side too. Imagine having to write a sentence with the wrong hand at speed? By concentrating and writing slowly most people could at least write legibly. Your horse needs you to be understanding and patient. Little and often will win the day. Change your ways as much as you want him to change his and you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Ride Forward not Back

Does the thought of winter schooling fill you with dread? Don’t let it! Winter is the best time for you and your horse to brush up on your schooling and iron out some of those problems you’ve been having.

If your horse is forward going he’s not always an easy ride. As he gets warmed up does he start to lean more and more on your hand? Does he speed up every time you put your leg on? Or set his neck and trot off down the long side regardless of what you may be doing on top? There’s a reason for this. Strange as it may sound he’s not really moving forward.

It’s easy to think because your horse is taking you round the school at speed that he’s working hard but it’s not always the case. Whether he’s hollow and tense or leaning on the bit expecting you to carry him the cause is the same. He’s not using his hocks correctly. There’s only one way to get him to do that. Although every bone in your body will be screaming “Stop!” you need to ride forward not back.

Of course there’s little point in trotting round and round the ménage pushing him on. You’ll only end up pulling to slow him down and that never works. Your horse will always be stronger than you. You need something which makes him slow himself down. How? Try this –

Corners are the rider’s best friend. Use them to your advantage and you’ll find your horse will be transformed within a few sessions. Not only can you ride corners around the school you can square up figures of eight, circles and serpentines. There’s nothing quite like a corner to either back off a tanking horse (or engage a lazy one).

Start by riding large round the school in walk. Your aim is to ride directly at the fence until your horse turns. Push forward with both legs in their usual place and hold your contact but don’t pull back. Don’t even think about taking a check. That’s his job.

When he finds the fence in front of him your horse will back off. In doing so he’ll sit back on his hocks. Enjoy that feeling because now you actually need to put your legs on! Ride forward into a steady contact but keep your body facing the front. If he stops in front of it your contact is too tight or you haven’t pushed on hard enough.

In a normal turn you’d encourage your horse to turn by turning your body but with this exercise you want him to hesitate – to sit back on his hocks rather than flow forward round the turn. Don’t turn your body or even look round the corner until he moves. Then turn with him.

Move on into trot and canter in exactly the same way. Ride forward at the fence, keeping the contact even. Often riders focus on inside bend and the outside rein gets forgotten about. In this exercise it’s more important to have the outside than the inside. Your sole job is to ride him at the fence in front of you. Dare him to jump it!

From start to finish your schooling session should focus on the corners. When you change the rein use the centre line or EXB so you have straight lines and corners. Avoid long diagonals where corners may unintentionally get cut off.

A turn from E to B or A to C is different. You don’t have the fence to ride at. Practise in walk. Your hands become the fence by tightening around the reins so your horse knows you don’t want him to go forward. Close your thighs around him as if you’re asking him to slow down but use your lower leg to keep him going forward. As his shoulders draw level with the marker take both hands across to the inside and push hard with your outside leg. (Your outside hand should be above his crest)  When he gets onto the line you want ‘catch’ him with your inside leg and ride forward.

Put these two styles of cornering together by riding 20m squares or three and four loop serpentines. Run through them in walk so you’re sure what you’re doing and then move on into trot and canter. Make yourself ride him forward and any time you have the fence ahead of you use it! The more chances you have to make him slow himself down the better. It’s moments like those which allow you to get your leg on. Until you can do that it’s impossible for you to push his hocks under his body.

This is something you can always go back to if your horse starts to get strong in the future. If you stay calm it’s guaranteed to get him back on his hocks and allow you to get your leg on. When the penny drops it’s a great feeling. Instead of a frantic charge round the school you’ll have a horse that is not only going at half the speed he’ll be lighter on his shoulders and in your hand too. Once he accepts your leg you’ll find everything so much easier and all because you rode him forward not backwards.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Blow Away Your Winter Blues

Your horse’s temperament will define how best to school him. He’s likely to fall into one of two categories. Is he a hare or a tortoise?

Every rider has their preference. Some like to kick on. It can be nice to feel nothing’s going to happen if you don’t ask for it. Others, however, veer away from the ‘keeps-you-fit’ equine. They’d rather sit still and have a horse that’s raring to go at all times. When it comes to schooling each type responds to a completely different approach. One horse’s entertainment can be another’s worst nightmare.

So with that in mind are you looking for something to get you through the dark nights of winter? Winter offers little respite from the school during the week. Don’t be a martyr to the cause. A couple of nights schooling is more than enough for any horse. He won’t lose fitness overnight. Two good workmanlike sessions midweek are far more beneficial than riding every night and achieving nothing.

Whatever your horse’s temperament if you’re just looking for something to do check out this page -

Tortoise training
The lazy horse requires inspiration. He needs you to get on board every time with enough energy for the pair of you. Everything you do or ask has to be the most exciting thing you’ve ever asked for. BUT your legs should only rest lightly against his sides at all times so he knows you’re there - they should never kick. Do that and he’ll switch off as quickly as you would if someone droned on and on about nothing.

The perfect type of schooling exercises for this type of horse are short, quick bursts of speed or energy. Quick transitions and turns. Serpentines in canter with changes of leg through trot or walk over the centre line. Halt to trot transitions across the school. Halt to canter even. Anything that makes him sit up and listen, get his hocks under his body and inspires him. Even the laziest horse will respond if you’re prepared to meet him halfway. Supply the enthusiasm and you’ll be surprised how much he gives back.

For your own sake remember to take several short breaks to get your breath back. Never allow him to rest for a moment though. Walk on a long rein using regular taps with the whip to maintain his energy. A forward walk can be as motivating for him as a canter – and for you it’s a chance to recharge the batteries.

Taming the Hare
The adrenalin junkie is a different ball game completely. Assuming he’s just sharp – not naughty – you need to be his calming influence. Anything you can do to show him life is dull will help your schooling. Allow this type of horse to switch off and before you know it you’ll have a horse you can get your leg on.

Sharp horses need repetition. Too many sudden changes will only get your horse more excited. Never think a ‘good canter or blast’ will calm him down. It’s the last thing you need to do. He has enough trouble getting rid of pent up adrenalin without making more!

The perfect exercise for this type of horse requires patience. Stick your self on a 20m circle and either change pace or change shape but never both at the same time. That will be too much for his active brain to cope with. Try trotting 20m circles followed by 15m and 10m and back out again. Do that for twenty minutes without changing anything other than the circle size and without even thinking about it you’ll find yourself pushing him forward.

To a sharp horse your leg should be a comfort not a shock. It’s there to ‘hold his hand’ not surprise him. Take your leg off because you think it’s exciting him and he’ll get such a shock when you do put it on that he’ll be off down the school before you can say ‘steady’.

A ‘sharp-naughty’ horse needs something between the two. The most important thing with him is to keep him away from straight lines and too much repetition. He needs to be kept busy without the addition of excitement. This isn’t too difficult to do. Ride serpentines, changes of rein and figures of eight in one pace. Every time you feel him tighten ride a turn across the school or a small circle. Keep his brain full of your ideas and stop him filling it with ones of his own.

Winter is right here now and it’s important to keep yourself inspired. Understanding your horse’s temperament and schooling needs will get you halfway there. Your consistency will do the rest. Never school if you’re in a foul mood. It’s better for both of you if you take the night off. You’ll only spoil things and get off feeling guilty.

When it’s cold, dark and miserable out there it’s important not to lose sight of the reason you’re doing this. It’s your hobby and it’s supposed to be fun! Don’t pressure yourself or your horse into doing anything you don’t want to do. It won’t help you and it certainly won’t do anything for him either.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.