Four Exercises I'm Loving Right Now

Apr 13, 2018 - 9:43 AM

I’m home from Florida, completely unpacked, relatively organized, and getting back into the rhythm of having 20 horses in full training. Whee! I’m a little understaffed at the moment—we’re down a working student, AND one of my assistant trainers got launched off a young horse and isn’t able to ride for a bit—but my crack team is incredible, and while the days are long and busy, everything is getting done.

It means a lot of riding and teaching, and with a big group of young horses in the program at the moment, I’ve got a few exercises I’m loving for both myself and my students, and I thought I’d share them with you all.

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Photo by Belinda Nairn.

1. “School” walk and “school” trot. I feel like our primary job in training young horses to be good citizens is to make them a little uncomfortable every day. I don’t mean physically uncomfortable like beating on them, but just to challenge them in little and fair ways. One of my favorites right now is the idea of the “school trot,” a trot that is slow and low-power, somewhere between trot and walk. It’s not really Capital-C-Collection; the horse doesn’t necessarily bear more weight behind. And it sure as heck isn’t half steps. But it’s just this little nondescript trot where the young horse has to shift his balance back to low power mode.

For horses like Puck, who approach life like a bull in a china shop, this is a lovely way of introducing the idea of NOT powering around at Mach Two. For horses like Leo and Halle, two client horses I teach and ride weekly and who like to stiffen in the back, gathering the trot without tension is a tremendous task, and an important one. For all of them it’s the beginnings of collection, a move that will eventually become a half-halt, and really really really eventually become half steps, in a way that doesn’t require a lot of drama and excitement, and doesn’t tax young horse bodies.

I do it at the walk too, for the ones who like to lean and pull their way through transitions. It’s patience inducing, and it’s low stress.

2. Renvers at canter. This has always been a favorite of mine, for the horses who’ve made progress in collection and are starting to think about flying changes. I actually teach changes out of renvers almost 100% of the time, because it’s also an exercise that teaches patience to young horses and makes it a lot harder for them to leap and launch about in the change.

But even before the changes are a thing, it’s a tremendous straightening and core engagement exercise. To maintain renvers at canter requires a significant level of mastery of inside leg to outside rein, as well as a lot of honesty to the aids. I’ll help hold the horse into position with a lot of leg in the beginning, but once they’ve got the hang of it, I’ll take my leg away and test their ability to maintain it on their own. Boy, does that reveal a lot of dirty secrets!

It’s also a super control exercise for horses who’ve begun the changes. If you can maintain renvers on the counter lead without your horse stealing any part of the change from you, you’re basically home.

3. Riding three-and-one in the double bridle. We have a few horses and riders who are learning about the double bridle, and several of them aren’t so even in the left versus right reins. Whether it’s because the horse is considerably “handed,” or just that the rider isn’t aware of how handed they are themselves, I like to have them ride with three reins in one hand—both curb reins and the snaffle on whichever side they tend to be heavier on—and the lighter snaffle in the other. It really helps the rider become aware of how asymmetrical they are in the contact.

There are a lot of good reasons to play with three-and-one, and this is just one of them, but it’s a good one. How you hold three reins in one hand is up to you, but I do it like this: My snaffle goes between my fourth and fifth fingers, which is where I carry it all the time. The curb rein on that side goes between my third and fourth fingers, which is also where I carry it normally. And the curb rein from the far side goes between my second and third. This isn’t an exercise for the ham-handed; you need to make sure you keep your curb reins consistent and not too tight. But if you’ve got one who likes to hide from your right rein (because I find it’s the right rein more often than the left), give it a shot!

4. The Ace Bandage Trick. I forget from whom I stole this idea, but many years ago I heard an instructor tell a student to take an elastic bandage (like the ones you wrap around a bum ankle), knot the ends together, and wrap it twice around the body such that it draws the elbows into the sides. Of course from a safety perspective it needs to be loose enough that a rider could slip it if things start to go amiss, but those bandages have a lot of stretch. It’s amazing the difference it makes not just in riders who tend to ride with their “wings” out, but in riders who tend to be a bit too loose in the core.

I played with it in Florida a little differently, using it to keep my hands closer together, after I went to the Carl Hester symposium. He talked about horses who don’t meet the contact assertively, ones who tend to be a bit curly in the neck, and he used an image I like: Keep your hands close as if you were holding a child’s sippy cup, one with two handles. It was a great soundbite, and being sans children I used the ace bandage to the same effect. It really helped me keep my hands from getting too wide, which is a habit I fall into on those horses who like to curl up.

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