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Pony Club Area 3 Instructors workshop.

Balance and the correct way of going. C+ and beyond


Hilary Wakefield.

Northallerton Equestrian Centre. May 28th 2014.


After attending an enlightening and informative talk by Hilary Wakefield as part of the pony club accreditation scheme, it was refreshing to hear someone talk about simple basics such as straightness, balance, subtlety and lightness.

Hillary pointed out that as pony club instructors it is our duty to nurture riders from the very start of their career all the way through to A test and beyond. We need to recognise the influence we have on impressionable youngsters and young adults and it is vital that we all have a uniformity in the way we teach, with the welfare of both horse and rider always in mind. 'As pony club instructors and coaches, it is our responsibility to teach and explain that the correct way of going is paramount to the welfare and well being of the ponies and horses we are lucky enough to help' (Hilary Wakefield, Instructors workshop notes).

As an instructor we need to ask our riders to consider the challenges we impose on our horses and ponies in order for them to carry us safely, in a multitude of disciplines, without injury. It is a useful starting point to educate youngsters about basic anatomy and biomechanics and encourage an acceptance that the horse is not designed to carry the weight of the rider. Hilary advised that each time we coach a group of riders, especially from C+ level and above, it is vital that we instruct them regarding the following concepts:

·         What the horse has to do with the hind legs and back in order to carry the weight of a rider efficiently.

·         How the horse needs to use his head and neck (for balance) when ridden.

·         The effect a rider's balance/ imbalance may have on the above.

·         The changes that may happen to the horse's posture and soundness if he is forced into a false outline, especially with an unbalanced rider.

The perception of what constitutes 'an outline' was briefly addressed with a general consensus that if asked to judge pony club dressage, less emphasise should be placed on head and neck positioning and greater emphasis on straightness, rhythm and balance, to try and reduce the temptation for riders (and some trainers) to manually position the head and neck, forcing their horse to work in a shortened and fixed outline, often behind the contact, or with cervical flexion shifted from the poll to further down the neck,  thus compromising lightness,  ease of movement, straightness, balance, flexibility and rhythm.

The 'scale of training' concept was also touched on, with a brief discussion to clarify that rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection, although represented on the pyramid with 'rhythm' forming the base and 'collection' the pinnacle of training, are all very closely interlinked. 'Collection' should not be ignored at lower levels of instruction just because it appears at the top of the scale, but should be integrated throughout our training sessions as it is closely interlinked with every element beneath it. A very simple example of early collection being making a transition from canter to trot: The rider needs to balance the canter before a trot transition can be made correctly, therefore an element of collection is required for the forehand to lighten with a shift of weight and balance to the hind quarters.

Hilary also quickly touched on the subject of tack, emphasising the need to explain that riding in a simple snaffle is the pinnacle of good training. Rather than instructors advising a stronger bit, (other than for younger riders on strong ponies), it is better to spend time working towards developing a training programme which perfects their riding skills and which promotes a well balanced and responsive horse. It is important to explain that a snaffle needs to be worn for dressage and therefore it is important to help our students attain a level of riding that enables them to attend a rally in a dressage legal bit. Nosebands were also a cause for concern, especially ill fitting flash nosebands that sit on the sensitive nasal cartilage, and 'crank' nosebands which are often tightened to such a degree that limits the intake of air, often leading to discomfort and exhaustion. Mouths should not be clamped shut; the welfare of the horse must always remain at the forefront of our teaching. The fit and balance of saddles was also addressed and we were all urged to check that saddles are correctly fitted and well balanced to help the rider attain balance and centrality.

Before moving into the indoor school we were asked to consider the importance of engagement by executing a simple exercise;  Standing behind our chairs with our hands on the back with and our legs stretched out behind us, we were asked to try and lift the chair off the floor without moving our legs closer to the chair. Very hard! We were then advised to move our legs closer to the chair and try lifting. So much easier! Although not a true representation of our quadrupedic friends' anatomy and biomechanics, this simple exercise elegantly demonstrated  the need for engagement of the quarters before the forehand can  lighten and lift. Asking the forehand to lighten by trying to manually position the head without engagement will most certainly lead to physiological and psychological problems!

Five riders gave up their evening to help demonstrate a 'back to basics' programme that we could all follow when teaching riders of all levels. The riders ranged from C test level to riders working towards B test with one rider who was not a pony club member. Here is a brief resume of subjects covered in this simple, but engaging lesson from Hilary:

The riders were asked to;

·         Take a moment to check the saddle sits centrally and balanced by looking at the pommel and checking it lines up with the middle of the withers. (The only time a saddle will slip is if the horse is asymmetric, the rider is unbalanced or the saddle is badly flocked.)

·         Check you are sitting straight and balanced by feeling that the weight in each seat bone is even and that the weight into each stirrup is equal. Your stirrups should be equal lengths.

·         Check you are sitting straight and balanced by making sure that the centre of your breast bone lines up with the centre of your horse by lining it up with your horse's crest and the middle of your pommel (checking your horse and saddle are straight first.)

·         Now check that your pelvis is soft and relaxed and that it gently follows the movement of your horse in all paces.

·         Check you are looking straight ahead- that you are sitting softly with a relaxed rather than a hollow back.

·         Check your head is sitting straight and square on your shoulders with no tendency for it to tip one way or the other.

·         Remember in rising trot you need to allow your body position slightly forwards to avoid riding behind the movement and interfering with the rhythm and balance of your horse.

At this point we were all asked to sit on the very edge of our seat in an upright posture and try standing up straight- it was quite hard!- We were then asked to sit on the very edge of our seats- lean slightly forwards then stand up- much easier!

The riders were then asked to:

·         Check that the weight into each hand is the same- and that your hand is always forward and allowing, that your thumbs are on top and remember that your hands should remain approximately the width of your horse's mouth apart. Check there is a soft bend in your elbows.

·         Check there is a little weight into your heels and that your legs are softly closed around your horse- but not gripping. Any tendency to grip with the knees or thighs will block the lateral swing of the rib cage.

·         Check that your contact is light, communicative and elastic and that your leg is working the horse rhythmically forwards into a consistent contact to maintain a connected outline but check also that your hand remains 'allowing' without any tendency to fix or restrict. (a fixed hand may indicate tension through the rider's back and shoulders.)

As the tempo increased or the pace changed, our riders were asked to maintain relaxation through their back and pelvis to allow fluidity to their movement- even in sitting trot!

Hilary is a great proponent of a light and balanced seat. She asked the riders to imagine that there was prickly holly in their joddies and in order to avoid discomfort they should rise and sit very softly and gently! She explained that by maintaining a soft, light seat promotes freedom to the steps and a softer back.

 Our riders were then asked to ride a right rein circle whist re-checking the lightness of their contact, the fluidity of their pelvis, softness to their seat and back and the symmetry and balance of their positions. Instead of using inside rein and inside leg, our riders were asked only to use their body by subtly turning their tummy buttons to the right to correctly position their pelvis in the direction of the circle. The size of the circle was then reduced- again not by leg or hand but by turning their tummy button more to the right. This same method was employed to increase the size of the circle with a reversal of the aids and was repeated on the left rein and in all paces. Hilary explained that by turning their tummy button in the direction you wish to go, places the pelvis in the optimum place to naturally and instinctively apply inside leg on the girth whilst the outside leg comes back a little allowing a natural lateral swing of the rib cage without compromising straightness and balance on circles and turns.

As the pace changed to canter, our riders were reminded to  retain a light seat- (Hilary advised 'go back to pretending there is holly down your joddies'), keep the hand soft and relaxed and ensure the pelvis gently follows the horse's movement to maintain softness through the horse's back and freedom to the steps.

The lesson finished with a resume of the concepts discussed and a lively question and answer session.

One rider struggled with the concept of a light seat, a relaxed pelvis and soft, allowing hands and when asked how to deal with a rider who is unwilling to implement an instructors advice, Hilary responded philosophically by saying that we must never alienate or discourage by being overly critical; we want these riders to continue attending pony club; whilst they keep coming back we have more chance of helping them and their horses and ponies. This was a very good 'take home' ending to a fabulous evening.

Thank you Area 3 for organising this Instructors workshop with special thanks to Hilary Wakefield, Robert Blane and the wonderful group of young riders who made this evening possible. I am sure we are all looking forward to the next one.






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