Get A Leg Up On Your Riding
Sometimes, taking the next step in riding can be scary. Whether it is learning to canter, trotting for the first time without a longe line, or moving up to jumps, a rush of excitement and also terror, especially in youth students, is bound to happen. Nicole Eastman, Director of Equine Facilities and head coach of the equestrian team at Becker College in Paxton, MA, along with Mel Fretschl, barn manager and instructor at Grazing Fields Farm in Buzzards Bay, MA, give advice on how students can prepare for the next level of their riding and some common issues they may face.
The Longe Line
Many instructors use the longe line as a training tool for students of all levels. This useful tool can help riders focus more on themselves, rather than the horse, which is especially important in the early stages of learning to ride.
Before the longe line, Mel teaches students to “walk, stop, and turn at the walk with me walking backwards in front of the horse at first. Then I have them stay on the rail while I am nearby, eventually getting further away as they gain confidence.” As the student prepares for the trot, she leads them a few steps the first time, so they can feel the rhythm. Once they are comfortable, she moves to the longe line to learn posting.
Nicole has a similar approach to the longe line, “I include some longe lessons, but I will also take them off the longe line for some lessons early on. I like to encourage independence and confidence in my riders as early as possible.” Like Mel, Nicole also tries to move to the center of the ring as the rider gains confidence.
Perhaps some of the biggest issues students may have on the longe line have to do with balance, according to both instructors. Learning to post, a tough milestone for beginner students, is commonly done on the longe line. Mel has her students start at either the sitting trot and learn that posting is “controlled bouncing,” or she has them post at the walk and she asks the horse to trot. She says, “You just have to be ready to try a few different techniques and adapt as you go.”
Mel also mentions that nerves may be an issue; in that case, helping the student settle into the rhythm of the horse will make them more comfortable. Adding singing as a distraction is a tool that Mel utilizes with her students, stating that it helps them “relax and breathe.”
Once the student has mastered the trot, the next step instructors often take is teaching the canter. Both Mel and Nicole say that it is imperative that the student is fully confident in steering, controlling the speed of the trot, trotting poles, and must be comfortable with figurative exercises before moving to the next gait. After they have accomplished this, both instructors say they will start to incorporate cantering into the lessons.
Nicole states that one of the biggest issues she sees in her students is a problem with confidence, even when they are comfortable with the transition to canter. At this point, she may put the student back on the longe line, or she may give her students goals at the canter, “such as a specific number of strides to hold at the canter. [Small goals] can help the rider clearly visualize the task at hand and better accomplish it,” says Nicole.
Mel finds that students may struggle with collecting the horse before cantering, and therefore the horse rushes forward in a strung-out trot. She has a three-step process to teach her students to canter: “Sit, bend, and canter.” First, she makes them deepen their seat and halfhalt to collect the horse, she then tells them to bend the horse using their inside leg and inside rein to ask for the correct lead, and finally, she has them ask for the canter with the outside leg for the transition. According to Mel, the routine of repeating these words for the three-step process is a “methodical and deliberate way to ride the transition, and sets the horse up for a balanced, rhythmic canter.”
Having control over all three gaits in a strong two-point position and confidence over trotting poles are both imperative before jumping, according to Mel and Nicole. Nicole will be sure that her students are not only able to confidently go over a pole, but also a pole course, and be sure that they are able to maintain pace and control. “At this point, I will start modifying some of the pole exercises they are confident in to be worked as small cross rails instead,” states Nicole. Mel adds that having the student be able to understand and correct leads and canter without stirrups are key before beginning to jump.
When a student is struggling with jumping, Nicole often finds it, again, may be an issue with the rider’s confidence. Therefore, she takes them back to the basics to seek out where there may be a lack of confidence or proper riding. “The more a student can develop strength and confidence in their flatwork and their ability to find and maintain a good forward rhythm, the more comfortable I find them to be over fences,” says Nicole.
Once the basics are not a problem for the rider, they may run into a few other difficulties. Mel finds her students have trouble with getting the approach right and need to familiarize themselves with the feeling of jumping. “If they can ride and turn with a steady rhythm, and maintain the rhythm on the straight line to the jump, the actual jump is no big deal,” says Mel. “For learning about timing and maintaining a correct position, it’s all about repetition over small jumps.”
Though experiencing something new in the saddle may seem scary at first, instructors help prepare their students for the next step. By learning the basics, such as having a balanced seat, steering, and being familiar with the walk and eventually trot, will help students be more comfortable with the horse’s rhythm. Building your confidence and independence will help make you ready to tackle your next milestone.