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.