Saturday, 1 January 2011

Case Study # 4: What Academy Can Offer to Teenage Enthusiasts

Photo: Katya and one of the ponies she regularly rides at a local riding school.

"Equestrian art, perhaps more than any other, is closely related to the wisdom of life. Many of the same principles may be applied as a line of conduct to follow. The horse teaches us self-control, constancy, and the ability to understand what goes on in the mind and the feelings of another creature, qualities that are important throughout our lives. Moreover, from this relationship with his horse the rider will learn that only kindness and mutual understanding will bring about achievements of highest perfection."

Alois Podhajsky, Former Director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna

Horse Riding can be a wonderful, rewarding sport for any teenager. Being an outdoor, varied activity it is a great way to keep fit and healthy while enjoying relationship with very intuitive, sensitive animals.

Whether you are passionately academic or prefer life outside of school, equestrian sports bring a variety of different challenges and contrary to popular belief, provide a great activity not just for the girls but for the boys too!

One of the most rewarding elements of taking part in any sport is to see and feel an improvement in your skills, knowledge and technical understanding.

There are many very good riding establishments in the country that have a clear, progressive programmes or courses for young riders. However, there are also many that have no structure in place at all. A riding school can have qualified instructors, state of the art facilities and nice horses but if they have no progressive system in place you will find yourself riding at the same level for many years.

If you are after pony rides it might not be necessary to be too worried but if you are serious about getting the most out this fabulous sport, make sure you find out HOW the lessons are taught, WHAT is being taught and WHETHER there are courses/programmes in place that will allow you to trace your/your daughter's or son's progress. If you have very little experience of horse riding think about other sports and browse football schools, tennis schools or swimming classes and assess how do they deliver their services. The activity might be very different depending on the kind of sport but generic coaching system should always be easy to identify.

Aspire Equestrian Riding Academy is just one such system. It offers Quality riding Education that is Progressive and Enjoyable.

Photo: Angela on Saffron having a short break for a drink of water.

As with training for adults, there are 5 Training Programmes and the only difference for teen riders is that the sessions are primarily shared (2-4 riders sharing the lessons). The exception is the Start Programme which is conducted on a private lessons basis simply because most of the sessions are lunge lessons which requires a one-to-one teaching.

The reason for shared sessions is that it helps young riders to learn from one another, it gives them a feeling of team work as well as individual effort and increases the enjoyment and motivation to attend the training.

Here are some snippets from Foundation Programme with two of my regular riders: Angela and Katya.


Both girls mostly ride once a week at a local riding school and none of them have their own pony although Angela helps out at the yard whenever she can. They've been riding for several years: Angela is quite a gang-ho rider with very little worry but when I first started teaching her we had to focus a lot on her position and riding technique as she picked up decent amount of bad habits. Being tall with long legs and long arms, she struggles to find a good position on smaller ponies but is a determined rider always willing to learn more. Once her balance perception improves she will be able to be significantly more effective. Angela does get a fair amount of drilling from me but that is mainly because I know she can be very good!

Katya has been riding with me for the last three years but only recently we began more focused training. She has a good position for a recreational rider and a very good feel for the horse but lacks confidence and assertiveness with often opinionated ponies. Having said that, she likes to prove me wrong now and then and rides with surprising determination!  Riding a familiar pony brings the best out of Katya's abilities and she feels more at home doing flatwork than jumping.


As most of the lessons that the girls usually have are on the flat we decided to focus on pole work and preparation for jumping as a main task for our 5 week Case Study training plan.

We've been doing occasional pole work and light seat/jumping position training as part of usual lessons but I wanted the girls to experience a structured series of progressive, themed lessons so I've made arrangements with the riding school to make sure we had the same ponies over several weeks. Although this is rarely possible on regular basis, riding the same horse over a period of time helps experience a connection with particular animal that is absolutely necessary in this sport.

WEEK 1 & 2: We went back to basics and learned about the importance of a correct pace, well thought out approaches ending with straight lines and always heading into the middle of the pole. We worked on the rhythm of the trot coming in, going over and away from the poles making sure the horses remained in the same tempo. The aim was to feel when the trot was becoming slower and weaker or speedy and rushed and act on those feels accordingly. This sort of work helps the rider to concentrate on the quality of the line to, over and away from the jump. It is their job to "navigate" the horse in the best possible balance and best possible line. I always tell them that the actual jump is not the rider's job - it's the horse's job. The horse can only do their part of the job if the rider does theirs. Such focus also helps less confident riders as it takes their mind off the scary bit (the going over the jump).

We also focused on the stability of the lower legs in canter and the technique in the light seat in trot and canter. This in turn let the girls work or independent hands so needed in jumping.

Video 1 showing the work described above. The girls aren't riding their regular ponies here. We did an Intensive Training Day as part of the training so they could practice on unknown horses as well as on those they knew well.

You will notice that not everything is going according to the plan but both girls remain calm, focused on keeping the horse going while maintaining quiet hand position and looking up and ahead. At their level they don't have much influence over the horse's balance or shape but they are learning to feel the difference between being in control of the tempo or starting to lose it, between enough and insufficient impulsion etc.

Katya (blue t-shirt, cream jods) has some difficulty adjusting to Molly, a very big moving mare she is on, but she is doing a great job by letting her legs relax and avoiding the gripping. Many riders feel unbalanced on big moving horses due to weak core stability. They compensate for lack of balance by squeezing with inner thighs in an attempt to stabilise themselves. Unfortunately that causes more discomfort and even greater loss of balance.  It takes some courage for novice riders to believe there is no need for gripping.

Angela (navy blue t-shirt, black jods) is on Saffron, smaller, fairly highly strung TB mare which she adored but it took her a while to get used to the mare's erratic way of going. You can see when I zoom in that there is no stability in the rider's lower leg which we worked on a lot with some very good results.

How important it is to anchor your lower leg and remain independent of the reins shows this sequence:

You can see Saffron here taking off on a long stride which Angela wasn't ready for. This causes her to stay behind the movement with no rein release on the take off and over the jump. However, notice that she managed to remain reasonably secure in her lower leg position and this enabled her to advance both arms forwards and let Saffron use her neck upon landing. The mare's mouth stayed quiet and closed and she dealt with the whole thing as if nothing happened.

Getting left behind the movement is something that will always happen to every novice rider from time to time but it's how they deal with it that's important. I like to teach an absolute respect for horse's mouth over the jump which is why I do a lot of work on automatic release in light seat, over the poles or even as part of flatwork lessons. Whatever happens the rider has to give the horse the freedom to use its neck. Under any circumstances  should the rider hang onto the horse's mouth when being left behind - it's not only dangerous but highly unpleasant for the horse. If I see that the rider can't immediately push their hands forwards when in trouble, I take them back on the lunge for some balance training.

Week 3 & 4: The following two weeks were dedicated to control. Control of the canter, of the horse's body in the corners of the arena, control of the rider's seat and reaction in front of the jump and further control of the lines. The poles were replaced with small jumps and we rode variety of very simple courses focusing on everything we learned in Week 1 & 2 i.e. the pace, rhythm and lines. Unfortunately I managed to video the ground instead of the girls doing the exercises so no video footage.

We also continued with variety of exercises on the flat targeting the riders balance and core strength. Here is a short clip of a fun little exercise where the riders pretends to be cycling whilst sitting centered in the saddle. This exercises really underlines the role of the upper body position and how straight, vertical back improves general stability. The leg movements keep the hips mobile.

Video 2: You can see Angela doing it in walk here but if you have a suitable horse and an instructor to see to your safety you can try this in trot and canter to further challenge your balance!

Week 5: Intensive Training Day.

The Training Day is an action packed experience and the task for the girls was to test their skills on horses they weren't used to. It was a very hot summer day and we had to make frequent breaks to grab some water and rest the horses but both girls rode really well and proved the training they doing had paid off.

Each rider had some off-horse exercises to do to help with their performance in the saddle. For example, Katya had a tendency to ride with her heals up a little so she had to go up any stairs she found in a way that slowly stretched her calves.

Angela, battling with weak core and leg muscles had to cycle on her bicycle without sitting on the seat for 10 minutes a few days a week. She wasn't a big fan of this routine but it does do wonders for jump training ;)

Both Angela and Katya improved their technique and strength throughout those 5 weeks. Jumping position remained a bit of a weak spot for Angela for further few months but by the end of November 2010, after determined practice she now as a secure light seat position which she can stay in comfortably.

Video 3: Field Session. Riding & Jumping in the large open field is often very exciting for both the horses and the riders. The terrain, being uneven, rides very different to a manicured surface of the arena and there is a lot to be learned about balance when cantering on the grass! The size of the field means that the riders can't rely on my help every minute and they have to start making own decisions. I like doing those sessions with riders who are ready for some independence as these are the moments when the rider can experience that wonderful feeling of being out there "on their own" with the horse. It is great for the horses too as it provides them with variety and breaks monotony of arena schooling.

Young Riders are also encouraged to keep a simple Training Log Book and make short notes on what they've learned during each training session, what they found difficult, what felt easy.

The riders are videoed for visual feedback purposes and they can keep the DVD to compare their riding skills as the training progresses.


Did you like this way of training/improving your riding? Here is how you can learn with the Academy.

We can travel to your yard if there are 2-4 teenagers with own ponies interested in the training. Get together and feel free to contact us for any further information.

The regular sessions run throughout term-time with optional Intensive Training Days during school holidays.

Don't own a pony? Not a problem. We use some lovely horses at Hall-Place Equestrian Centre near Reading for the non-horse owners.

Photo: Riding is one thing. Another is being able to look after the horse or pony that you train on. All the riders on the Academy Programmes learn Horse Knowledge and Care (relevant to the Programme they are on).


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