A New Year brings the idea of a new start, but we’re not talking diets and gym memberships! With help from riders and instructors across the region, Charlotte Johnson looks at how a fresh approach could help your riding.
We are all guilty of getting stuck in a rut at one time or another. It may come from repeating the same hack too regularly, using the same schooling exercises or jumping layout again and again. While practice makes perfect, repetition can make it all very boring – for us as well as our horses!
When it comes to riding, having a fresh start is incredibly useful for pulling us out of ruts and habits. It allows us to consider our goals and ambitions and work towards them in a positive way. However, a fresh start isn’t just for those looking to compete – everyone can benefit from rethinking their methods or routines!
In order to improve, you must first understand the basics – something that applies to all walks of life. With riding, before you are able to tackle big fences, technical combinations or complex lateral work, you and your horse need to understand the basics of schooling and working with a consistent carriage.
While this is often referred to as ‘on the bit’, Sara Carew of Poll Position Equestrian Coaching, feels this is misleading riders into believing that as long as their horses head is on the vertical, they are working correctly. Rather than resorting to gadgets to position the head, Sara advises riders to ignore the head and concentrate on other areas. “The head should be on the vertical solely as by-product of the horse engaging its hind quarter and core, and working up and over its back,” Sara explains. In order to achieve this, you must first engage the hind end – ensuring the horse is tracking up and taking its weight behind.
“An easy way to start building up the hind quarters is to school over raised trotting poles,” Sara begins, “this encourages the lift and spring action from behind. Also uphill work is very good for building hind end muscle. Once this is achieved, we can then move on to the core. A horse that does not work correctly through the core is at risk of issues such as kissing spines due to the back falling hollow and the vertebrae becoming too close.”
Engaging the core causes the back to lift in a rainbow shape, rather than hollowed. Sara continues, “A way to help achieve core engagement is by transitions, transitions and more transitions! Starting with walk, trot, walk transitions and working your way up to trot, canter, trot or walk to canter transitions. Just remember, you are seeking a forward downwards transition. If you feel a sudden, jerky transition, which causes you to tilt forward in your saddle, your horse is falling hollow. We want a nice smooth downward transition whereby you can stay tall and upright in the saddle without feeling like you are being thrust forward. Another good exercise for core engagement is long and low work, achieving a stretch over the back as your horse lowers its head and stretches out in front, while staying impulsive.”
Although teaching correct carriage and building the necessary muscle takes time, it makes all the difference when you start asking your horse more complex questions.
While they might sound like basic movements, straight lines and circles can cause problems for even experienced riders. Sara thinks the key to being precise is to stop relying on the fence line. “It is very easy to depend on the outside fence to get you around those A and C ends, but when they are taken away, you may find that your horse starts to fall out through the outside shoulder as they have also learnt to be guided by the fence and not the rider aid. Practicing your bending aids is very important!”
Focusing on controlling your horses shoulders, teach your horse to bend around your leg – squeezing with your inside leg while controlling the hindquarters with your outside. Dressage rider Jade Holleman adds, “One of the best exercises I have ever ridden, and still use today, is placing four poles to form a square and ride the circle within it. For example, put a pole at A and at X and two either side between the corner and centre markers forming a 20 metre box. Then ride your circle making sure you ride to the middle point of the pole (tangent point) looking up and keeping your horse on a turning aid so that you keep the curve of the circle.”
Moving up a level
Competing is all about enjoyment. It takes hard work, dedication and above all, a determination to succeed. Some horse owners are not interested in competing, preferring their own pace or choosing to take part in a variety of different disciplines rather than just one. However, for those interested in competing and moving up a class, make sure you and your horse are confident working at the initial level before making the change. “Never run before you can walk and always see the bigger picture,” advises Sara.
Once you have mastered the basics of schooling and your horse is using his body to full affect, jumping will be far simpler. Even if you prefer other disciplines and have no interest in competitive showjumping, poles provide important gymnastic exercises that help with rhythm, elevation and keep the brain ticking over.
Many issues with jumping revolve around the ability to see a stride. Riding a course becomes far easier when you can count down to each fence, and incorporate the jumps into your stride pattern. Unless you are lucky enough to be born with the ability, teaching yourself to see a stride takes time and practice – but remember it is possible!
Eventer Caroline March has a great exercise for developing the skill. “Start with an active working canter, concentrating on the rhythm. Ride over a set of poles on the ground, counting each stride. Don’t progress to a fence until you hit the correct spot every time, then do the same with two poles on a related distance, then progress to fences – let the fence come to you.”
Sara adds, “Trainers or a friend on the ground who can see your stride and count you down aloud is always helpful. If you can’t see your stride because your horse sometimes takes off way too close or far too early, even if they are on the correct stride, then a trainer is probably a good idea to help you get consistency in your take off.
It is wonderful to know a horse is enjoying his jumping work, but a very keen horse may be off-putting for some riders. Sara feels this is all down to the approach; “For horses that tend to get excited and raise their head on the approach to fences, this usually coincides with a rushed approach. Canter poles into the fence or a setup of grid work will help to combat this issue. A combination of bounces, one stride and two strides throughout your grid work combination will help to relax the horse. Once your horse successfully works through this setup staying relaxed and supple, you can then heighten your fences and take more poles away until you are just left with one fence.”
Caroline has another handy exercise to combat overexcitement. “Put little fences up around in the school and walk until you are a few metres away. Trot over the fence and pull up quickly but not roughly after the fence, and do the same again. Create an element of surprise so they don’t have time to rush and get away from you, and be very quick to praise.”
Fit for the job
No matter what you are planning with your horse, ensuring they are fit and active will benefit them hugely. Not only will it help keep their weight in check, but also maintaining a constant level of fitness will help protect them from injury after ‘over doing it’. “When it comes to building your horses fitness levels up, most people think of this in terms of stamina and overlook the muscle build up aspect of it,” explains Sara. “Fitness increasing comes with muscle increasing and time spent working on this will pay off for you.
“Muscle and fitness can be gained even through walk work so don’t feel that in a few weeks’ time you will need to be cantering round and round the school for half an hour. Hill work (in walk and trot), transition work in the school and making your horse really work while schooling (meaning achieving true engagement and lifting through the back over a variety of pole setups) will all be positive for fitness levels. Just remember your warm up and cool down periods are crucial to performance. A good warm up (20 minutes) will help achieve the best schooling results, and a cool down of the same time will prevent stiffness and tension being created unnecessarily.”
Struggles with confidence can seriously hamper your happiness in the saddle, as well as your riding ability – many people feel you can will yourself into having issues. While it takes time, getting your confidence back after a fall or bad experience is far better than hanging up your boots! Caroline advises, “Go out as much as you can but keep everything little so that you and your horse find everything easy. The more you practice, the more it becomes habit and second nature.”
Sara adds, “The best way to overcome nerves is to not push yourself too fast and never compare yourself to others. Remember, your story is very different to other people and everyone’s equestrian journey is different.”
Motivation is key
As practice makes perfect, you have to get yourself in the saddle regularly. Battling through all weathers can be tricky – with Britain’s torrential downpours, we would all rather be at home in the warm and dry! However our experts have plenty of ideas for staying motivated. Jade says, “You don’t always have to ride, you could lunge, long rein or do ground work with your horse. It saves your saddle getting wet and you are still exercising your horse – if you feel braver, then invest in some good waterproofs!”
Sara adds, “If you are not motivated by other people on your yard to keep you going, try looking into clinics and lessons being held either at your yard or at external venues to keep you out and about. These will give you valuable hints and tips to work on between lessons, setting goals are great to help keep you motivated.”
Ready to ride
A horse is only as good as its rider and improving your own fitness will shine through tremendously in your riding. Jade explains, “Core strength is the biggest issue I see in riders. Pilates and yoga are a great way to improve it and you don’t even have to go to the gym. YouTube have some great exercise videos you can do at home.”
“Rider fitness is crucial to getting maximum performance from your horse but is also something that can be tricky to find the time to do,” adds Sara. “There are lots of home exercises that you can do to help you out in the saddle and can be done whilst watching EastEnders. These exercises do not have to be strenuous and contrary to belief; do not even need to bring you out in a sweat. They are aimed at core strength and balance. Seeing a physiotherapist regularly is also beneficial to keeping symmetrical and straight in the saddle. The impact a slightly un-level seat can have on your horse is amazing.”
Enjoying your time
With all the hard work we put into our horses, be that time spent training or simply caring for them, it is important we enjoy every minute. We needn’t focus on goals all the time, it is good to relax and let your horse relax too.
“There are lots of ways to have fun with your horse as well as show jumping, cross country and dressage,” explains Sara. “Different clinics and courses can be attended such as pole work, agility, gymnastics, yoga on horseback and barrel racing. It’s always fun to try something new so why not try something a little different and outside of your comfort zone, you never know, you might just find your new forte.
“If you’re thinking of something to strengthen your bond, Parelli and natural horsemanship clinics have proven successful for some,” she continues. “It is important to remember that our horses are our hobby and should be enjoyed in whatever way we can, even if it is simply spending an hour laying in the field with our furry friend. Life can be hectic and busy and our horses are our outlet from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Try your hardest to remember this whilst you are trudging through that knee high mud pit on your military style mission to turn your horse out.”
For those of you yet to think of goals for the year ahead, our experts came up with a few ideas.
Sara says, “My advice to you would be try something new. Anything you like, no matter how big or small, just try one thing that you have yet tried with your horse. Whatever you decide to do with your year, enjoy yourselves and stay positive.”
“Aim to consolidate your results at the level you are competing at, with the aim to step up a level at he end of the year,” suggests Caroline. “Have regular lessons and remember, horses are supposed to be fun if it becomes a chore you won’t enjoy it, make it fun!”
Jade adds, “You don’t have to have goals to improve yourself or your horse. I always say pick one thing to work on and improve and once you have it, start on something else. That way you are always progressing.”
A happy horse makes for a happy rider, and hopefully you have found something to add to your bucket of tricks.