Discover simple ways to establish control in an arena with your horse with expert advice from event rider Izzy Taylor...
Basic schooling and lateral work in an arena are vital for establishing control of your horse before you head out on a hack. Being confident that you can stop, turn or push him on when you need to will help you feel safe. When doing any schooling work, always pat your horse after he’s done something well. This will give him confidence in you and help to cement your relationship.
Put your brakes to the test
One of the most important things you need to be able to do is ask your horse to halt. If you know you can do this, you’ll have more confidence pushing him forwards while out riding. When asking for halt, sit up tall in your body and close your fingers gently around the reins to bring him to a standstill. Make sure you can do this in walk, trot and canter. It’s also useful for you to be able to do transitions from halt into walk, trot and canter to ensure your horse is listening to you.
Take control using leg-yield
Lateral work has countless benefits, one of which is the fact it allows you to gain more control of where your horse’s body is, and where it needs to be. The more supple your horse is, the easier he’ll be to manoeuvre when needed. An easy way to practise this
is to use objects in your arena to leg-yield around. Ride towards an object, then push him to one side of it, asking him to go sideways by sliding the leg nearest the object back and increasing the pressure. At the same time, put a gentle amount of pressure down the opposite rein to make sure he understands where to go, but keep his head bent slightly to the other side.
Use clutter to your advantage
Jump poles and wings cluttering your arena can be a really useful training tool as you increase your horse’s suppleness by bending and circling around them. As well as gaining control of his body, you’ll be helping him balance himself correctly as you circle around wings and pop the odd pole, which will give you a more secure seat while you’re riding at speed.
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Travers is the opposite of shoulder-in, so you ask your horse to bring his quarters in while his shoulders and front legs stay on the track. Incorporating this lateral movement into your flatwork and dressage training is a great way to encourage suppleness through your horse’s rib cage.
When you and your horse are learning travers, it can help to ride it down the long side of your arena, so you have the edge of your school to help you.
- Move your outside leg back to ask your horse to step in with his quarters.
- Keep your inside leg at the girth to stop his shoulders drifting in. It also creates forward movement and bend.
- Ask with your inside rein for a little flexion at the poll – you don’t want a lot of neck bend.
- Your outside hand controls the amount of bend.
- To help your horse stay balanced your shoulder should face down the track.
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Tailoring your horse's work will help him to build muscle safely, avoid repetitive strain and help to ensure that he has the right level of fitness for his work load.
To create a training programme for a strong horse you'll need to combine schooling and jumping with hacking. Plus, you'll need to allow time for him to recover between sessions.
Different types of training can be categorised like this:
- Cardiovascular training: Using trot, canter or gallop for periods of at least twenty minutes, depending on your horse’s fitness
- Skills training: Riding lateral work or pole work for example
- Strength training: Jumping, hill work and exercises which require your horse to work in collection, such as piaffe
Your horse’s muscles are most at risk during strength training (this may include hill work or jumping). So, to help prevent injury, you need to gradually increase the intensity of this type of work. Use the plan, below, as a rough guide as to what to do with your horse, when.
As a rule, allow at least two days between strength training sessions to give your horse’s muscles time to repair.
An example training plan
Shoulder-fore is a lateral movement which encourages your horse to take more weight onto his hindlegs and step actively underneath his body.
Although it’s not a required movement in any dressage tests it’s a really useful flatwork exercise to do with your horse. It’s great for developing straightness and improving balance.
In shoulder-fore your horse will bring his shoulders in off the track while his quarters stay where they are. The angle is about half of what you’d see in shoulder-in.
- Put a little more weight into your inside leg to encourage bend and activity, keeping your outside leg at the girth to prevent your horse’s quarters swinging out.
- Your outside rein supports your horse’s outside shoulder. Thinks straight on this rein and hold it a fraction lower than your inside rein.
- Ask for a little flexion on your inside rein to keep your horse soft through his neck.
- Keep your shoulders parallel with your horse’s shoulders – you should be in shoulder-fore too, but watch you don’t get pushed to the outside of your saddle.
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Help your horse to splash through water with confidence in four easy steps with advice from eventing pro Karen Dixon.
1. Give him confidence with company
If your horse is young or inexperienced, it’s important to go cross-country schooling with a friend on a calm, experienced schoolmaster who’ll be able to give him confidence. Choose your venue carefully – ideally it should have a variety of water jumps to practise over, of varying depths, with inviting slopes in and out that are safe underfoot.
Cross-country schooling is all about building your horse’s confidence, so let him have fun following his more experienced friend into the water for a paddle, then ride out the other side, then turn around and ride back through the water again. Repetition is key to teaching your horse that water’s nothing to be afraid of.
2 Take it slow
Start by walking your horse through the water complex and forget about any jumps that might be there. Once he’s confident at walk – both following a friend through and on his own – move into trot, then try walking in and trotting out, and so on. I always advise riders to stay in walk and trot when they’re introducing their horse to water.
3 Introduce jumps into water
Once your horse is happy to walk and trot through the water complex on his own, it’s time
to introduce a bit of jumping. While I’m not a huge fan of jumping out of water, I find
it helps to boost a horse’s confidence no end if you can pop out of the water over a little step or jump, then turn around and jump back into the water over the same jump. The fact that he’s already familiar with the fence coming out will mean he’s much more confident going back in over it. Again, do this with the lead of a confident horse at first then try it on your own – and keep it steady. Choose a tiny step or jump you can pop over in walk first, then try it in trot.
Always jump in and out of water on a completely loose rein. Use a neck strap so you’ve got something to hold onto and hang on tight! Horses will often do a really big jump into water, and it’s important you’re not hanging onto their back teeth.
4 Try the seven-day trick!
If your horse has a problem with water, or is naturally suspicious, follow the advice I was once given by a natural horsemanship trainer – and that’s to tackle seven different water fences in seven days. It really works! I had a horse who rammed the brakes on whenever he saw a water jump. Over a week I took him to several different venues – I did two one day and three the next – and within a week his confidence had grown. It’s all about encouraging your horse to perceive water as just another thing he has to deal with.
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Ahead of the Easter holidays plan some fun riding activities for kids – here we offer up some ideas.
There are plenty of ways to help kids have fun with their ponies at home and one really easy way to inject a little interest into a ridden session at home involves using poles. Create shapes for them to ride around, tunnels of poles for them to ride through or simply scatter poles around the arena for them to head to and ride over.
By simply counting down from 3 to 1 you can inject a little fun and anticipation to simple transitions. Tell the rider what transition they’re going to make then count them down at different points around the school.
Don’t underestimate the value of games - yes they’re fun for pony and rider but they also help to develop good team spirit (if played in groups) and help riders to develop their skills in new and interesting ways. Here are a few ideas from the pros at the Pony Club:
Traffic light game
This group game is nice and simple. All you need is a coach to call out different colours as the ride performs a series of different movements. Red means halt, amber is walk and green is trot.
Bean bag games
Challenge riders to ride with bean bags on their hats and watch their positions improve. Where bean bags keep falling off, help by correcting the rider’s position. They can walk, trot or, for the more experienced, canter. Lead rein riders can do this in halt and walk. Consider:
- Can they sit on bean bag in all three paces – lead reins in halt and walk?
- Can they keep bean bag between lower leg and pony – is it easier on one side or the other? What about over a jump?
- Can they keep a bean bag between their hands and still steer when riding circles?
If you have a group of young riders, this game can be lots of fun and doesn’t require much equipment. The aim of the game is to ride around until the music stops, then head for a cone or marker. There should be one less cone than there are riders and each time a rider makes it to a cone they get a point. At the end of the game, the rider with the most points wins.
Set riders up in pairs and send them off to find things beginning with a certain letter for example; things beginning with the letter B might include; bark, bottle, binder twine etc. The Pony Club recommends pairing one older rider with a younger rider and that very small riders stick to walk. Depending on the season you turn your scavenger hunt into a themed treasure hunt e.g. an Easter egg hunt, a Christmas gift hunt etc.
Apple Bobbing Race
This game can be played as individuals or as teams but you will need some helpers to hold ponies. To set it up, fill a line of buckets full of water and throw in some apples. Riders have to race to the buckets, dismount, hand their pony to the helper then bob for apples with their teeth. Once they’ve managed to get an apple out of the bucket they remount and race back to the start.
This one is by far our favourite Pony Club Game! Sammy the Snake teaches younger riders how to ride a three-loop serpentine. To set it up, place two poles at A so they can ride between them, another two poles on the centre line guiding them straight after their first loop, then another two poles on the centre guiding them straight after second loop and then finally two poles at C to finish of the exercise. Riders start at A or C (Sammy’s head!) and ride in between the poles until they finish at his tail.
For more advice and information from the Pony Club or to find Pony Club events in your area visit the Pony Club website.
Skinny fences require accuracy, confidence and plenty of practice at home. Here we share some tips to help you crack your skinny jumping technique so that you can clear them with confidence every time.
Skinny fences are tricky for horses because having eyes are on the sides of their head means that at the moment of take-off they can’t see any of the fence. With this in mind it’s important to perfect your approach and technique to enable your horse to get it right.
Create a skinny at home
To practice jumping skinnies, you don’t need your own cross-country course – in fact, all you need is a small, narrow filler, a plastic barrel or a pole short enough to create a fence that’s narrow enough to simulate this particular type of fence.
If you don’t already have a short pole, find one you’d be happy to saw to a length of just 4ft. Once you’ve got your short pole, set it up between upright – not spread – wings or on buckets. This is because you want to be able to confidently jump skinnies that are bound both by upright wings and by nothing at all, i.e. on buckets or blocks, as they’re two different problems.
Develop straightness for skinnies
Straightness and focus also have a big part to play with this type of fence, so it’s important not to rely on extra wings or guide poles to keep you straight. You need to be working on how you develop your own riding to keep a horse straight from the word go.
One way to develop straightness at home is by using tramlines. Try this simple exercise:
Whether you have access to an arena, or prefer to school in your paddock, place two trot poles, spaced 1yd apart in an area where your horse can’t rely on a fence or a hedge to keep him straight.
On a left rein, go large in trot. You need to be ready to come off the track when you’re in line with the centre of your tramlines, so start looking where you need to go early, preferably in the corner before the turn.
Go at your own pace to begin with, working your way up to canter as you get more confident. Repeat the exercise on both reins equally.
Once you’re confident that you can hold your line, introduce your skinny fence. Keep it small to start with and you can even leave your tramlines in place (although a little wider than 1yd apart). It’s also wise to widen your tramline at the end furthest away from the jump. This creates a channel into the fence.
Jump through one or two times and be sure to look straight ahead, maintaining an equal and balanced position. It’s also important to apply equal pressure with your legs to ask your horse to go forwards but to stay straight.
As you grow in confidence ask a friend to widen your tramline poles gradually until they’re no longer needed.
If your horse is unsure of the skinny fence, approach in trot to begin with – this will give him more time to work out what he’s being asked to do.
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Hacking not only offers breath-taking views on horseback, it’s also a great way to up your horse’s fitness levels and the best bit is, it doesn't have to be complicated! Here we show you how to make your hacks work hard for you.
Stretch and warm up
First things first, give your horse time to warm up, allowing him to stretch in walk before asking for more strenuous work. Also consider you and your horse’s fitness when you’re hacking making sure you don’t work your horse too hard to avoid any unnecessary injuries. Hacking has some amazing benefits for you and your horse. It offers an alternative to schooling in the arena, and is great for building fitness.
Boost his fitness
Think of your hack as a form of interval training where you can ask for a period of harder work for three or four minutes, then let him rest for a few minutes before asking for a period of harder work again. Great for improving fitness and to make sure you make the most of your hacking time. Regular changes of pace will also help keep your horse’s attention.
Use the land
Make the most of any hills out on your hack; they’re great at helping to build your horse’s strength and power. Having a good trot up a hill or if it’s safe a canter on the verge will add expression and punch to his paces as he has to use himself more.
Remember to work into your hack a cool down period, walking the last mile home on a loose rein is a great way to end your hack as well as allowing your horse time to stretch, relax and cool off. When you’re back at the yard and untacked, treat your horse to a refreshing wash down. This will help cool him down and remove any sweaty areas that may cause him irritation if left. After this your horse can enjoy the rest of his day stretching his legs and eating grass out in his field with his other horsey friends.
We want you to be safe as you get the most from your hacks so follow these three quick tips:
1. Be seen and protected
Remember your high-vis whether it’s sunny or not this is an essential piece of kit. Also, don’t forget to apply plenty of sun cream to avoid burning in the sun, and apply fly repellent to you and your horse to keep nasty flying bugs at bay if you're hacking in summer.
2. Make some final checks
Checking your tack should be part of your regular routine, but it’s always worth giving it a good look over before hacking out. Check all the stitching on your bridle, stirrup leathers and girth straps is in good order and that the leather isn’t cracked.
3. Stay safe
Always tell someone where you’re going and give an approximate time you’ll be back so people know where you are and when you’re due back. Try to stick to this and if you’re running late, let someone else know.
Use dressage trainer Vikki Hayton’s advice to combine three easy exercises and make a handy 30-minute lesson. The beauty of thisparticular lesson is that it will engage your horse and lift his forehand. Here we go...
Your horse naturally carries more weight on his shoulders, but having a rider on his back increases the pressure on his front, causing him to fall onto his forehand. Lifting from this requires your horse to re-establish the balance and move his weight onto his hindquarters. While this move would win you extra points in a dressage test, it can also improve your horse’s jump, as he’ll use more power from his rear legs to propel higher in the air.
Combine these three exercises to create a 30-minute workout that balances your horse and lifts his forehand.
Exercise 1: Half-halts
Riding a half-halt engages your horse and rebalances him. This exercise will help you to bring your horse to balance on his hindquarters, rather than his forehand.
How to ride it
Begin with an active walk, maintaining an equal and soft contact down the rein to ensure that your horse is straight and start to transition between walk and trot to get him moving. Once you feel happy that your transitions are fluid and balanced, you can focus on your half-halt.
Establish a good trot and then transition smoothly down into walk, applying pressure to the reins without pulling. Walk for four paces before trotting again. Repeat this until you achieve four clear paces of walk and then reduce the number of walking paces to three, two and then one.
The final part of the exercise needs you to imagine that your horse will take only a half step of walk from the trot. Prepare to transition down into walk, again without pulling on the reins. Maintain a light leg aid and as soon as you feel that your horse is about to walk, ride forward back up into trot. This is where you achieve your half-halt, with the horse’s hindquarters coming underneath him, lifting him off his forehand.
After perfecting this, you can up the pace and try the same in canter.
Exercise 2: Transitions
Direct transitions in your schooling will engage your horse and get him moving forward and uphill. Working on this exercise for 10 minutes is also a great way to begin working towards a flying change.
How to ride it
Start on a circle and ask your horse to halt. Keep your hands light, as too much pressure will make him fall onto the forehand. Halt for four seconds and then ask for an upward transition into trot. Repeat this several times until you feel happy with the response.
Next, try the same with walk to canter transitions. Walk for four paces on a 20m circle and then transition up into canter. Repeat this until you achieve four clear paces of walk and a smooth upward transition to canter. Mistakes can be made when the walk isn’t established, so ensure you keep a good rhythm. Counting is key to this exercise.
As you and your horse progress, try reducing the paces of walk down to three, two and then one. You can also try moving the exercise off the circle and onto a straight line.
Exercise 3: Rein back
A rein-back – a move where the horse steps backwards – will make your horse think and help him to lighten his canter, as he puts more weight onto his hindquarters and lifts off of his forehand. While it’s not recommended for youngsters, this exercise helps to engage established horses and get them going uphill.
How to ride it
Begin by using your leg contact to ask your horse to move, but maintain the pressure on the reins, squeezing gently on each rein alternately. This pressure will prevent the horse releasing energy forwards, and instead make him step back.
In the rein-back, you want the horse to step back in clear diagonal pairs. It’s important not to pull on your horse’s mouth as he’ll pull back and you’ll end up in a fight. Instead, maintain a clear aid that keeps energy on the reins, as this encourages your horse to step under and back.
Take three to four steps back, release the hand aids and transition upwards to trot.
When you feel comfortable with this, try the same in canter.
This is a useful exercise for lifting off the forehand, but it’s important to include halts in your schooling without reining-back, otherwise he’ll get into the habit of travelling backwards.
The key to feeling safe and in control, whatever your pace or discipline, lies in your core strength. Improve this and you’ll become a better, more effective rider in an instant. Want to know what sports or exercise will help you to improve your core for riding? Read on....
Straightforward Pilates offers a great way to work on your strength and flexibility, but Lindsay Wilcox-Reid has developed her own version, entirely dedicated to riders. Through Equipilates Lindsay teaches riders to control their core in order to find the best possible position. She also gives one-on-one tuition to help riders apply what they’ve learnt to their riding, in the saddle.
Here she suggests some easy-to-do-at-home exercises*.
“The core stability muscles (transversus abdominis, obliques and mid/lower trapezius) are all used to keep the body in correct alignment once established. These are particularly necessary when your horse (or you) is likely to lose balance, such as during transitions or changes of rein,” says Lindsay. “If you’re correctly aligned and balanced you’re easier for your horse to carry. So by working on the following exercises you can strengthen your core and become more aware of what your body is doing when you ride.”
First, find your neutral spine
Neutral spine, or more specifically in relation to the upcoming exercises ‘neutral pelvis’ describes the correct alignment of your body and should be the basis for every exercise you do. To achieve neutral pelvis, your pubic bone and hip bones must be on the same horizontal plane:
- Lie flat on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat to the ground (this is your start position).
- Place the heels of your hands on your hips bones while extending your index fingers to your pubic bone and flattening your thumbs to your stomach to create a triangle shape.
- Imagine that a bowl of water rests on the triangle and by tilting your pelvis back (so your spine flattens to the floor) the water would spill onto your stomach. The water will spill onto your legs when you tilt your pelvis forwards.
- Try to tilt the imaginary bowl in each direction a few times until your hip bones and pubic bone are on the same horizontal plane. In this position no water would spill form the bowl and you’re in neutral.
Ex 1. The pelvic tilt
This exercise will help to strengthen your core in a way that will improve your ability to control the position and alignment of your pelvis in the saddle.
· Adopt your start position and find your neutral pelvis.
- Take a breath, then as you exhale tilt your pelvis back (spilling the water from the bowl onto your stomach).
- Breathe in once more and as you exhale return your pelvis to neutral.
Tip: Keep your tummy very hollow – if you find that it bulges out you’re using the wrong muscles.
Ex 2. Leg float
This exercise will challenge your abdominal (transversus abdominis) and pelvic floor muscles.
- Adopt your start position and find your neutral pelvis.
- Breathe in, then as you breathe out, gently bring your left leg up into the air, with your knee bent at a 90 degree angle. Stop when your lower leg is parallel to the ground.
- Breathe in then slowly bring your foot slowly back down to the floor as you breathe out.
- Change legs and repeat.
*To increase the difficulty, lift both legs simultaneously while in a pelvic tilt.
Tip: There should be no movement of the pelvis whatsoever so to feel for any unwanted movement keep your fingers on your hips throughout.
Ex 3. Arm float
The arm float strengthens you upper abdominal muscles helping to straighten out a hollow back.
- Adopt your start position and find your neutral pelvis.
- Breathe in, then as you breathe out, gently bring your arms up into the air.
- Breathe in again then slowly bring your arms back down to the floor as you breathe out.
*To increase the difficulty, lift both arms simultaneously then lift your head up and forward.
Ex 4. Spine twist
To be able to effectively ride your horse on circles, in the correct position, you need to be able to rotate your upper body independently from your pelvis. The ‘spine twist’ can be used to strengthen and stretch your oblique muscles making this easier to do.
- Establish your start position and neutral pelvis.
- Bring your palms together as if you’re about to pray and your thumbs towards your body, pressing them to your sternum.
- Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together at the back to open your chest.
- Keeping your eyes forward and your nose in line with your thumbs, turn your upper body, as far as it will go, to the left then to the right without moving the ball.
*As seen in Your Horse magazine.
Give belly dancing a go!
Some of the skills used in pilates such as muscle rotation, flexibility and use of all the different abdominal and back muscles are also used in belly dance. So, if you’re looking for a fun alternative to pilates or the gym, find a class in your local area and give it a go.
Find out more about Lindsay Wilcox-Reid
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Ensure that you’re ready for to get this season off to a flying start with our specially designed fitness programme for event horses.
If you compete in eventing your horse will need to be fit enough to do the job. With this in mind, he’ll need plenty of road work at the start of the season. This might state with road work, for example, horses might be ridden in walk on the roads for one hour a day, for a total of four weeks. Walking is really good for your horse’s heart, lungs and for hardening his tendons and it doesn’t have to be dull. While you’re in this roadwork only stage, use the time you spend on board to ride suppling exercises such as shoulder-in. You can also work on riding transitions from medium walk to free walk on a long rein and back to medium walk.
If bad weather makes it hard for you to get out on the roads, you can work in an arena. Do lots of stretch work, ride lots of big circles and plenty of changes of rein. Use this time to get your horse soft and swinging through his back.
With four weeks of roadwork under your belt, gradually introduce hill work and light schooling once or twice a week. Alternate the days spent hacking, schooling or doing hill work with sessions on the lunge – you might like to lunge your horse, perhaps even in a pessoa or bungee. It’s important to work your horse without any weight on his back – this also gives you a good opportunity to see how they’re working from the ground.
Interval training is a great way to build up your horse’s heart rate. Use ‘Set 1’, below, for one or two weeks in the earlier stages of your fitness plan before your horse is ready for some more intense work. Then move on to SET 2.
Ride in a brisk trot, on good ground in three intervals of six minutes with a walk break in-between. As your horse’s fitness and consequent recovery rate improves, up your intervals to four minutes. Make sure your horse is working in a good, forward rhythm and that he’s straight. Change the diagonal every so often too.
When your horse is ready to work that little bit harder, try using this second set, maintaining a good rhythm in each pace:
- 20 minutes: Walk
- 10 minutes: Brisk trot
- 5 minutes: Walk
- 2 sets of 3 minutes (3 minutes of walk in-between): Forward canter
Some horses respond better to sprint work that opens their pipes rather than long intervals of strong and steady canter. On these horses, ride short bursts of fast canter instead.
When you begin your canter work you can introduce some grid work. Start with a placing pole followed by a cross pole and build up your grid with bounces and doubles. Concentrate on jumping straight and in a good rhythm to improve your horse’s balance. When your horse reaches the desired fitness level, maintain it with canter work (interval training/sprint work) every four days, regular roadwork (and time spent on a walker if you have access to one), grid work and regular schooling.
Feeding for fitness
Expert advice to keep your horse fit from the inside out:
- Pick the right feed for your horse’s job
- Only feed for the work your horse does – don’t increase feed unnecessarily
- Always introduce new feeds gradually
- Consider supplements, such as electrolytes, when your horse’s is working hard and competing
- Speak to an equine nutritionist if you’re in doubt about your horse’s diet