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Saturday, 25 February 2012

Thumbs Up or Down?

Thumbs Up!

Great news! On Thursday 1st of March a new schoolyourhorse site opens at  This blog will still be a central part of it but there are two new additions. With massive support from a new range of downloadable schooling guides will be launched from the SYH shop.

The Get Started, Teach Yourself and Read to Succeed series are perfect if you need to brush up your skills, you’re looking for help with a problem or you want to know the finer details of a dressage test.  At 99p they’re sure to suit everyone’s budget.

It’s early days and there are just two guides per series at present but more guides are in the pipeline. The aim is to produce at least one new title per month. There ought to be something that suits you or your horse but if it’s not there - ask! It could be in the pipeline or you could inspire a new idea.

Regular readers of this blog will appreciate it’s all about positive thinking and riding. Have you succeeded with your horse when those around you were sure you’d fail? Why not share your story on the schoolyourhorse forum? Or if you do buy one of the guides please share your thoughts on its contents, how the series could be improved or any new ideas that you think would be helpful.

I’d just like to thank everyone who has supported the blog so well over the last year. Riding is all about confidence and self belief – so is writing! Those of you who have been so positive about SYH  have given me just that. THANK YOU J

Anyway – back to business -

Thumbs Down

Most riders have heard the expression “Thumbs on top” but on top of what exactly? There are two things guaranteed to have a negative effect on your horse. One is the where you put your thumb. The other is how you hold it.

All riders know they shouldn’t carry their hands as if they’re pushing a pram. Their thumbs should be on top of their fist. That’s the general position anyway. But the more you relax in the saddle and start to trust your horse the more habits you get.

Next time you ride concentrate on your hands. Where is your thumb exactly? Is it on top of your rein or your hand? It’s easy to wrap your thumb around your rein rather than clamp it on top. Don’t think it matters? Are your reins always too long? How many times do you shorten them in a session? Where does your whip point? It should be pointing diagonally back and down towards your horse’s hocks. Is it lying straight down his shoulder like a baton? Are your fingers closed around your reins or open?

A loose or intermittent contact isn’t a good one. Nor is it kind to your horse. Imagine having a bit in your mouth and not knowing when the next tug is coming. Take hold of both reins, clamp your thumb down on top of the reins and let him know exactly where you are. Then he’ll be able to relax.

If your elbows are bent and next to your body there should be a straight line from your elbow through your arm, down your rein to the bit. If your reins are too long you’ll draw your hands back to get a contact. Your elbows have to go somewhere so they stick out to the side. Instantly the line is broken and the tension in your arms goes straight down the reins to the bit. Your horse will tighten his mouth round the bit to avoid the pressure. The next time he pulls think twice before you blame him.

Your thumb should point towards the bit. It will have a huge effect on your horse. Take a look at yours. There’s every chance it points upward towards his eye or his ear. If it does your rein will be supported by your third finger. There will be a ‘kink’ in your wrist that tips your hand up and back breaking the direct line to the bit.

The pressure from this ‘kink’ creates a backward pressure on the bit. Your horse will tighten his mouth against it and tighten his jaw and poll. Tip your thumb forward and down so it’s pointing towards the bit. Your wrist will straighten up and relax which removes any tension from your arm. Your horse’s reaction will be instant. He’ll relax.

Breaking any habit is hard work but this is one that will have a dramatic effect on your horse. It will take as much effort as jumping twenty fences or practising trot to halt transitions but it’s worth it. Put yourself on this simple exercise to try it.

Ride a 20m circle at E/B in any pace. (It’s well worth spending time in walk while you get a feel for it.) As your body turns onto the line of the circle your arms should move with it. Your hands should stay directly in front of your body. Push your thumb down onto the rein and tip it slightly forward so it’s pointing to the bit. Nag at yourself to keep at it. Your horse’s response should be encouragement enough.

Go large for half a circuit and return to the circle. It’s a simple thing but it’s enough to send you back to old habits. If your wrist is in line with the rein it stays relaxed and so does your horse. Tip your thumb towards the bit and keep it there.

This is such a small thing to change but it’s one that affects everything in such a positive way. You’ll find your horse is more willing to accept the contact in upward and downward transitions. Instead of pulling him back to a contact you’ll be pushing him forward to it.

In walk ride large round the school and get your leg on! If your wrist is in line with your elbow, rein and bit you’ll find your horse going into your hand – not coming back at you or jogging. Instead of pulling back when he nods his head you’ll start to feel as if you’re pushing him forward.

If you’re struggling to keep your horse in a steady outline, if he resists your hand the second you take up the reins or you think getting him on the bit is physically impossible try it. You’ve got very little to lose and everything to gain.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling. (And if you get a minute on or after the First of March come over to and say hi!)

Friday, 17 February 2012

Don't Fall Out - Get Even!

If your horse falls in or out do you bend him to the outside? Many riders do. In fact some seem to spend more time ‘flexing’ than they do riding forward. It works, of course, but why? It’s all to do with your contact on the outside rein – or lack of it. You take it up to flex him, balance out your contact and straighten him up. So if you’d had an even contact to start with … you get the idea.

Unlike you your horse doesn’t have a collar bone. His shoulders can go in two directions at the same time. Whatever you do with your hands he’ll do with his shoulders. Allow your hands to drift apart and so will his shoulders. 

Wherever your hands point your horse will go. Things get complicated if they point in different directions. If your left hand is ‘pointing’ to the inside but your right hand is pointing straight on that’s what he’ll do. His inside shoulder goes left but his outside shoulder (and the rest of his body) goes straight on.

If your hands are together but your rein contact is uneven it has a similar effect on your horse. If the pressure is stronger on your inside rein he’ll lean towards it. His outside shoulder has nothing to bring it round so it carries on up the track. Eventually it has to turn but by then it’s too late. In a dressage test it’s a 4. In a round of jumps it’s probably 4 faults.

If your horse falls in he turns inside the line you want him to take. It’s caused by an uneven rein contact (a stronger inside rein) or by moving your inside hand to the inside. Turn your body to show him where you want him to go. Keep your contact even in both reins. Turn his shoulders before you turn his head by moving both hands together not by putting pressure on the inside rein.

If your horse falls out his head and neck turn before his outside shoulder. He takes a wider line than you wanted. It won’t matter how much outside leg you use – if you haven’t got a contact in your outside rein he’ll still fall out.

It can seem illogical keeping hold of a rein you want your horse to move away from but think of your reins as a pair of tram lines that keep your horse’s shoulders together. Keep his shoulders between those lines and whether you want an accurate turn, a square halt or a shoulder in you’ll have a much better chance of getting it.

Don’t use your hands to make corrections to your horse’s body or quarters. Use both legs. The more forward he is the straighter he’ll be. Increase the pressure from your outside leg if he doesn’t leave the track when you ask. If he tries to cut the corner a sharp nudge with your inside heel should pick him back up again.

Practise in walk and trot on a figure of eight. Use the two long diagonals rather than two circles. The two ends of the figure of eight are half circles but forget about asking for an inside bend. Focus on keeping an even amount of weight in both reins and pushing your horse forward to it from both legs.

As you reach a corner marker turn your body towards the marker at the end of the diagonal. Your horse will copy what you do and turn. Your contact shouldn’t change. Make a conscious effort to close your fingers around your outside rein as you leave the track.

The second your horse turns onto the diagonal straighten your body and hands to straighten him. Squeeze both reins to tell him to stop turning and push forward. And don’t get any ideas about lengthening his strides! Get him back on his hocks and into your hand. Leave the medium for another day.

As you reach the other side don’t do anything. The diagonal naturally takes him onto the new rein. Hold your contact and push him forward. He’ll go into your hand and – more importantly – his shoulders will turn onto the track together.

In canter ride half 10m circles between the ¾ and ¼ lines. With a younger horse ride half 15m circles from the track to the ¾ line. The lack of track or fence will make you aware of his shoulders and straightness.

As you start the half circles focus on holding both reins. Turn your body onto the line you want to take bringing your hands round in front of you.  And look where you want to go! There is no better way of getting somewhere than looking at it.

Keep your horse’s head and neck straight in front of you until you’re sure you have total control of both sides. When you do introduce an inside bend do it by increasing the pressure from your inside leg NOT by increasing the pressure on your rein.

Many schooling problems are caused by lack of control of the shoulders. When things go wrong don’t panic. Forgetting about bend and getting your horse straight isn’t a backward step. It’s a giant leap forward towards a far more exciting level of riding.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling. 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Don't Stop into Trot!

When you ask your horse for a canter to trot transition does he tip his head up? Tuck his chin into his chest? Poke his nose? Tank off?  Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why?

The easy answer is because he’s resisting your hand but surely there’s more to it than that? Why does he choose to resist your contact at that particular time? Could it be the instant you think about trotting you stop riding?

Riders have an uncanny knack of taking their legs off at the very moment they need them! You may be trying to stop your horse rushing off into trot by sitting as still as possible but that’s exactly why he can. Keep your body moving through your transitions and you’ll find his will too.

Establish canter on a 20m circle at E/B. It’s the best place to use as your horse won’t have the fence to guide him and you won’t be able to rely on it. Avoid using unnecessary aids and turn your body in line with the curve you want him to follow. He’ll copy what you do with your body. When his shoulders and hips are turned to the inside his body will bend round the circle.  

Stay in canter for at least three circles. Think of the number of circles you’d do in trot without thinking and start to use your canter in the same way. It’s just a pace. Use it as such and you’ll find problems with transitions disappear as your horse starts to think canter is (depending on his temperament) less exciting or less exhausting.

The trick to this exercise is positive riding – and thinking. You have to believe your horse can do it. He can, of course, as long as you ride him forward – which is exactly what you haven’t been doing before. Your position is vital to keep his weight back on his hocks. Pull up through your body to get yourself as balanced as possible.

When your canter is settled the idea is to ask for trot as you cross the ¼ line (still on the 20m circle) and whatever happens change the rein onto a 10m circle as you cross the centre line. Sound impossible? It isn’t if you get your legs on! With a young horse just make the circle slightly bigger but keep the change of rein in.

Ask your horse to trot by closing your fingers around both reins to create a restrictive contact. Think of yourself as a clothes peg and press into the saddle with your thighs and knees to restrict his shoulder muscles. (Check this out to see how ) As you feel him trot hold the pressure until you’re happy with the speed. Releasing him too quickly allows him to rush, making him unbalanced, which is why he tightens his back, lifts his head or pokes his nose and tanks.

Never take your lower leg off because you’re slowing down. Push harder to keep your horse’s hocks under his body. When he steps under his body with his hind legs he stretches his back muscles (so he can’t tense or hollow) and he’s in a much better position to stay balanced.

As you approach the centre line be quick to turn your body towards the new rein. Turn your head so you’re looking at least half a circle ahead. Your horse will pick up this change in your body and copy you. Keep your contact even in both hands. But DON’T lift your inside hand! Do that and it won’t stop him falling in on the circle – it will only make him tip his nose to the inside. Support him with a strong inside leg and draw him away from the 20m circle with your outside leg.

Using a small circle to steady a horse isn’t a new idea but it can make matters worse if it’s on the same rein. Riders often get hung up on the inside bend and unwittingly start to draw their inside hand back - especially in canter. That draws their hand towards their hip and they curl their body to the inside. Their horse does the same.

If you’ve got this problem turning onto a small circle on the same rein just accentuates it. The smaller the circle the tighter you both curl up. This puts your horse out of balance and he’ll get faster and faster. (This is why when your instructor tells you to sit up it works. You sit up and straighten out your body and your horse instantly relaxes his.)

The change of rein stops horse or rider fixing on the inside simply because the inside suddenly becomes the outside. Even if you should make a grab for the new inside rein you’ll just balance out the pressure and your horse will go straight – and be balanced.

Ride the 10m circle for as long as it takes to settle your horse. The first few are likely to come as a bit of a shock to you both but he’ll settle quicker the more you do. In time you’ll be able to ride one circle and rejoin the 20m circle immediately. Ask for canter again and ride at least three circles before repeating.

With a more advanced horse you can move this exercise to the centre line. Canter down the centre line, trot after D/G and change the rein onto a 10m circle at X. Rejoin the centre line and ask for canter before the turn at the end. Put your horse to the test by varying the lead you ask for.

Having to ride the instant change of rein will really make you realise how little you usually do as you trot. This exercise is all about your faults not your horse’s. It’s one thing admitting that his problems are caused by you but how often do you really try to find out why? 

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Halt - The Stationary Pace

Will your horse stand still? Nobody likes a fidget, especially at the end of a dressage test, but before you blame him stop and think about what you do as you halt. There’s a strong possibility you’re trying to avoid him fidgeting. And that’s the problem!

If your horse is fairly sharp the chances are as you ask him to halt you relax your legs and hold your breath. If you don’t move he won’t move – right? Wrong! The trouble is the minute your legs leave his sides he’ll be thinking “What’s going on?” he’ll also tense up in anticipation of the next bit of leg that comes on to say walk or trot on.

However much your head is telling you not to when you ask your horse to halt you need to keep your legs on. This has two effects. It will reassure him – he’ll know where you are and be able to relax. It will also keep him listening. If your leg is there he’ll know something is about to happen and he’ll be waiting for your next aid.

Don’t think you’re immune if your horse is lazy either! There’s a fair chance that as he halts you both collapse in a heap because “at least you can stop pushing then”. Think again. Halt doesn’t just mean die. It needs energy and he needs to be ready to either move forward or rein back.

In any pace you know to ride your horse from your leg to your hand. Halt is no exception. Your contact is essential to contain the energy your legs create. Imagine a bottle of coke shaken up. With the lid on the drink fizzes and the bottle expands. With the lid off the drink leaks out and goes flat. Your hands are that lid. No contact = flat paces.

Think of halt as a stationary pace. Your horse should be so charged up that his back rounds as the energy inside him tries to escape but can’t. Tighten your fingers around your reins and keep them closed. Keep your calf muscles against his sides but leave your heels away.

If you’ve read  you’ll know if you press your thighs and knees into the saddle you can bring a horse to a standstill. Try it from walk to halt. Walk round the arena and try halting at E and B. Get straight on the long side before you push your thighs into the saddle as hard as you can. This puts pressure against his shoulder muscles and he will slow down. As you reach E/B press both knees in tight and he’ll stop. You may need a slight squeeze on both reins to start with but he’ll soon learn.

To move on again release your thigh and knee and use a nudge with both heels. If your contact and calf muscles have kept your horse on the ball he should move straight into walk or trot.

Use the E/B line or the ¾ lines to practise walking or trotting into halt and out of it. Avoid the centre line as the last thing you need is your horse thinking he should halt halfway through your entry centre line.

When your horse stands in halt you must have some pressure in your hand. A horse that is light or nonexistent on your rein has no contained energy. He may swing his quarters to one side or ignore your aid to walk on again. The more you push him into the contact the more likely he is to stand still.

Sharpen him up by riding large round the school and asking for halt at every marker. Halt, count to three and then release your knee and use both heels. Soon he’ll be as attentive in halt as he ever is in trot and canter. When the halt is good you’ll feel him rock back onto his hocks. Keep your weight on your seat to help him stay balanced.

If your horse is crooked as he halts then it’s probably down to your position. He copies whatever you do with your body with his. If you’ve turned your body to the inside to come round a corner he’ll have done the same. If you straightened your shoulders up but forgot your hips then he’ll have done the same. As he halts his shoulders will be square on the track but his quarters will be to the inside.

If your horse moves after he’s halted it’s more likely to be uneven pressure. Most riders have a stronger and a weaker side. Be aware of yours. If the contact is heavier in one hand he’ll move his shoulders towards it. If the pressure from one leg is greater or one leg is further back than the other he’ll swing his quarters away from it.

Most dressage tests ask for immobility, salute. Be proud of the fact your horse will stand still. It’s a sign of engagement. Only a horse that is balanced on his hocks and moving forward into the rider’s hand can halt square, straight and still. Halt and immobility need as much energy as trot or canter – you just need to be prepared to create it.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.