If you haven’t read the Part 1 of The Canter Troubles you are best to start there (CLICK) so you have a full picture of what is being discussed.
Today in Part 2 I will look at the leg response issue that Anna has with her pony…
PART 2: ESTABLISHING LEG REACTIONS & STARTING BENDING EXERCISES
The scenario described by Anna is very common although can have many variables – horse might be active by himself yet when rider wants to refine the way of going, they find the horse has no clue what the response should be. They either don’t respond at all, go sideways, go faster or offer no reaction at all – all in reply to one and the same squeeze…Or perhaps they are “lazy”, unresponsive, uncooperative and switched off and again, this doesn’t change whether the rider’s legs are active or not.
One of the ways of re-education are groundwork exercises that make it clear to the horse what leg aids actually mean. Someone once said, “you can teach a horse to canter when you spit at his ears” and I think this rather crudely sums up a very simple fact: any reaction to rider’s aids needs to be trained. We can’t assume the horse knows that if he is tapped in the ribs it should step under himself more with his hindlegs or create more pushing power or indeed step sideways. It is way beyond the scope of this post to describe many exercises so I chose one of the simplest one:
TOUCH – REACT
1. lunge cavesson, well fitted and with a ring on top of the nose so you can apply clear instructions when you want certain head position. Headcollars with bottom ring are not suitable. If you don’t have a lunge cavesson, simple snaffle bridle will be better than a headcollar.
2. Lunge line or a lead rope
3. A dressage whip ( or any longer whip that you can easily move about without any swishing) – lunge whips are too long for in-hand work
Let’s start: Turn about the forehand with emphasis on one aid-one response principle
With practice, this very simple exercise teaches the rider the timing, precision and feel and the horse discipline, clarity and calm reaction to the whip which shouldn’t mean punishment but help the horse understand which body part he needs to shift and where. This is also a great exercise for horses that grew ignorant to the aids and for riders who tend to over-ride their horses, give them many aids/clues with their body, not giving the horse time to react etc It teaches to plan aiding, plan reaction time, plan “recovery/thinking” time.
Exercise in short:
– you touch the leg, the leg moves
Exercise in detail:
A turn about the forehand is a simpler version of the turn on the forehand (difference being: in the former the front legs can move on small circle, on the latter, the inside fore leg should lift and land on the same spot while hindquarters move around the inside foreleg).
Position your horse in the middle of the arena or in place where there are no obstruction around him that he might walk into as you do the exercise. Think about 20m diameter of free space around both of you.
Stand partially in front, partially to the side of your horse so your shoulders “close” the way forward but he still feels like slight forward movement is ok.
Decide which way you want his hindquarters to move. I’ll adjust my instructions to the photo above, so:
– You will be moving the pony’s hindquarters to the left. Head is turned slightly to the right by your hand (this is an easier version). You will touch your pony’s right hind leg with your whip (aim at fleshy parts of the leg like lower thigh – avoid tapping joints/bony parts).
– You will touch the leg until the pony does SOMETHING with it. At the beginning, it doesn’t matter if he actually moves it up and away making the first step. You want a reaction. Perhaps he will lift it and stamp it, perhaps he will kick out with it. Perhaps he will only lightly take it off the floor. Perhaps he will ignore you and search through your pockets. You want to praise all movement but kicking reaction. If he kicks out violently at simple touch, ignore it with no positive word but do not punish the horse either in any way. Ask him to stand calmly for 10 seconds and try again. He is just figuring out what you want or might be conditioned to be scared of the whip due to previous training. Repeat until he calmly just lift his leg upon you touching it.
Some horses will immediately move away 3-4 steps. This is ok at the start but not a reaction you want later. You want to touch once and the horse to give you ONE reaction (i.e. one step). He must trust you and understand you – it is not an easy exercise because you will need to remain calm and stoic when your pony walks about without knowing what on earth you want.
To make sure the clear communication happens, it is very important how you handle yourself and the whip. Whip touching the ground means no questions asked. Horse stands still. Whip lifted a little means preparation for reaction. Whip pointed towards a leg/touching a leg, means reaction is needed. This is a great exercise for riders who tend to over-ride their horses, give them many aids/clues with their body, not giving the horse time to react etc It teaches to plan aiding, plan reaction time, plan “recovery/thinking” time.
TOUCH-REACT IN THE SADDLE
For next step you will need a helper on the ground with whom you can communicate well or a helper in the saddle while you stay on the ground. The rider applies upper leg pressure (avoid heel digging) against the pony’s side while the ground person repeats the touch of the hindleg on the side of the rider’s aiding leg. It’s important to retain action-release principle. The key is to be disciplined too and not allow yourself to start kicking to get a reaction. Allow the pony to learn and figure things out. Assume you are starting from scratch. Assume he doesn’t know what “the leg means”. Imagine teaching him to bring you post from under the door. Yes. That sort of “new” 😉
When you can touch/lightly squeeze his ribs on one side and get a hind leg lift/reaction on that side you are good to move on to the next exercise.
INTRODUCTION TO BENDING
Set up some visual aids for you that mark a 20m circle (cones or jump blocks are good). You might want to keep your helper – ground person with you to make learning easy and fun for all of you. Walk your pony on the 20m circle and using opening rein bring his neck onto the line of the circle (think of him following the circle line from the poll to the tail). As you bring his neck onto the line (head in the middle of his chest), touch him once or twice with your inside leg while your helper touches the inside hind leg in tune with your leg aids (you might need to communicate to time it well). The pony should respond by stepping a little more actively and a little more forwards with his inside hindleg whilst also moving out as if doing a one step leg-yield. During these 1-3 steps he will elongate the muscles on the outside of his body (especially the muscles in between his ribs) and contract the muscles on the inside of his body i.e. will be put in a slight bend.
This at first might be a very slight bend, especially when your pony’s stiffer/more naturally contracted side is on the outside. It’s important not to drill this for too long. Think about asking for 5 steps in correct bend, 5 steps let him be as he wants, then again 5 steps bend, 5 steps let him be. Aim for his neck to remain relaxed at all times and find the length of the reins that gives you control but allows him to stretch gently down and forwards. Lateral bending helps longitudinal bending (from tail to ears) so as he stretches his side muscles he will be likely to want to stretch down too. Aim for the neck in natural position to his conformation, generally most relaxed horses will carry their necks just above the wither line but if your pony has a high set neck this might not be the case.
I would continue with these walk circles until your pony can easily hold the soft bend to the left and right for 3 consecutive circles on both reins. Once he no longer tries to carry his neck to the outside or cuts the circle to the inside, it’s time to start all over again in trot. With some very crooked ponies, this might mean starting on the ground again.
Below is a short video showing a young rider working on variation of the above exercise with a driving pony who is very one-sided and if lunged in conventional fashion, moves in inverted posture/opposite bend.
As mentioned in Part 1, all exercises should be adjusted to the handler’s skills and pony’s character. It’s impossible to give exact exercises without seeing the pony and the rider in action. Please pick and mix the advice given to suit your circumstances. In Part 3 we will look into a few more bending and flexing exercises as well as those establishing more control in the canter when ridden. Stay tuned.
All the best,
If you enjoy trying new exercises and would love to train with a supportive, knowledgeable trainer but can’t afford regular lessons/travel, try our online coaching programme! All you need is desire to improve, a camera and someone happy to film you. Click on image below to learn more!
One of the most common questions among riders who try to improve their effectiveness is how to stop the annoying issue of lost stirrups in canter and sitting trot. There are many various explanations for this problem and in fact, each rider will have slight variations in how they can correct the issue but let’s look at some things to look into:
1. Bracing against the movement?
Watch for any form of bracing through your legs and hips against the motion of the horse as it will pretty much for sure stop you from being able to retain your stirrups. Visualise the motion of the horse’s back and his sides – the ribcage swings slightly from left to right in every gait albeit differently in walk, trot and canter. Be aware that to absorb this swing you need certain amount of pelvis mobility and the bigger the motion of your horse the less you will get away with bracing/stiffening up.
To practice mobility without tension, try feeling the swing as it happens by relaxing all the muscles around your knees and allowing the lower leg to follow the movement of the ribcage – let your legs “breathe” with your horse.
2. Dance with your ankles…
It is all well to feel mobile and relaxed through your hip joints and perhaps even in your knees but if you were one of the riders taught to push your heels deep down, you are very likely blocking the suspension mechanism in your ankles. If you do, you might get away with your sitting trot and canter on fairly flat moving horses but the moment the motion increases, the blocked ankle joints will eventually cause you to bounce. You might retain your stirrups but you are unlikely to remain in harmony with your horse.
The exercise I like a lot for getting rid of “jammed” heel is allowing your ankles to “dance” – in both sitting trot and canter your seat bones lift and rise on alternate sides in the rhythm of the motion of the horse’s back. As your inside seat bone drops half an inch, so does your knee and so can your ankle/heel. A moment later, however, that seat bone will be lifted half an inch, so will your knee and so will your ankle/heel. Allowing your joints to open and close in response to the lift and fall of the seat bones create a “dancing” effect which the rider feels much more than onlookers can see.
To be able to open and close through your joints you need them to be in the middle position…think about extending your elbows to the point of them locking and then trying to catch something thrown to you. Locked joints are in their end positions, they have no rebound, no suppleness, no suspension. This is why riding with your heels jammed down at each phase of the movement will never let you also maintain a supple, deep seat in sitting trot and canter.
3. Engage outer thigh muscles
It seems that “using ones core muscles” became a bit of a fashion nowadays and although I do agree we need a healthy upper body stability and reasonable strong core, it’s not the be or not to be as far as the sitting trot and canter and retaining stirrups goes.
The key here possibly is not just the core strength but the ability to connect the stabilising effect of the use of upper legs (thighs) with the mobile, supple pelvis and stable upper body.
Try taking your legs away from the saddle (about an inch) whilst at the same time feeling them very gently taking a “knocked kneed” position (thigh bones rotating inwards ever so slightly). Keep them away like this for count of 2-3 deep breaths in and out. Release and repeat 2-3 times. Next, only start taking your legs away but quit before your inner thighs leave the saddle. Can you feel the outer thigh muscles switch on as you plan to take your legs away and rotate them inwards a few millilitres? Good, you found your stabilisers. Lightly engage these muscles in sitting trot and canter so you are in absolute control of your thigh position and you should notice a huge difference in stirrup retention.
4. Allow your legs to “drop” but one at a time…
On a standing horse, take your feet out of the stirrups and lift your knee up a couple of inches as if you were preparing to tighten your girth, then let one leg drop down as as if it completely lost use of all muscles. Repeat 10-20 times on each leg. Make movements small but let the legs truly drop with their own weight taking them down. Loose and limp.
If you have a suitable horse, jog him on and try this exercise in very slow trot. Lift your legs ever so slightly on each side in the rhythm of the trot: left-right, left-right and let the gravity take them back down. You should feel as if you were cycling on your horse 😉
Now again if your horse is suitable, canter and try to repeatedly lift and drop your inside leg in the 3 beat rhythm of the canter: 1-2-drop, 1-2-drop etc try not to “drop your legs yourself” but let the gravity take them down – if you start pushing your legs down you will be putting your joints in the stiff end positions.
Now re-take your stirrups and jog on. Feel your legs being dropped by gravityon alternate sides, the joints dancing in the rhythm of the movement. The ball of your feet feeling the stirrups irons and heels feeling heavier than the toes. Once you feel comfortable in the jog, try the same in working trot only switching on as much muscular strength as you need to maintain stability.
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We will probably all agree that there is no good jumping without good quality canter i.e. one from which the jump is relatively easy for the horse to perform.
The required tempo of the canter will wary and depend on the height of the jumps and individual power of the horse but for all average horses with average jumping talent the key to efficient jumping is how the rider rides the canter in corners and turns immediately prior the actual jump.
When I say efficient I mean riding in such way that looks after all structures of the horse: muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons. Turning sharply to a jump, allowing an unbalanced, forehand heavy canter when jumping, sitting heavily on a horse or letting it lean in or fall out in the corners all have its price even if the poles stay put…
Riding a good turn to a jump is not as easy as it often seem and if you watch show-jumping shows you will notice that the riders who rides their corners and turns well is usually the one with sounder and more supple moving horses.
Today I’ll share with you a simple exercise that you can try at home and which can literally transform your approaches and jumping style in a few months of regular practice.
You will need four simple traffic cones to work on your ability to feel, visualise and focus on every part of a 20m circle all of which you will then carry over to your jumping turns.
Start with walking 21m line one way and 21m way the other way so they cross in the middle. At each end of your imaginary lines place one cone. You will then ride on the inside of the cones.
Your mission is to ride each quarter of the circle with your horse bending gently around your inside leg whilst putting a lot of emphasis on eye-body steering i.e. you look around to the next cone and the next cone as you circle so the horse isn’t over – steered and over-directed but starts to tune in to your pelvis and upper body position as well as weight distribution in your body that follows direction of your eye contact. This is very important when jumping as you will be paying attention to leaving the horse’s head alone to some extent.
I find this exercise is of great use with riders who want to jump but are a little weary of leaving the ground. They often ride with quite tense and restricting hand when approaching the jump, trying to ride every inch of the horse and every centimetre of the stride. This sort of jumping will usually only work for very confident rider with very good eye for distance who can place the horse accurately at every jump. This style takes away horse’s choices altogether and is rather useless for nervous or novice jumper.
You want the horse to be an intelligent partner in your jumping adventures and he must be able to have freedom of its head and neck at all times. The cones circle exercise takes some of the rider’s attention from the horse to the task. It helps to teach directing the body of the horse with power of intent rather than millions of aids.
When jumping, I also ask the rider to ride every turn to the jump as part of the circle as they recall from the exercise which helps the rider stay on top of the impulsion, engagement and relaxation at each stride.
Practising trot and then canter (in full seat, half seat and rising canter) between the cones improves feel for rhythm, concentration and ability to focus rider’s eyes on an object while continuing to ride effectively.
If you try this (or have tried it already) do let me know how it went and if you found this helpful 🙂