After a very quiet year, with no outings so far, but working hard and saving up to give the terrible arena at my new place a total facelift, I had my first lesson with legendary trainer John Thelwall last week, and what a HUGE relief to find someone who is exactly what I need: who has immense understanding, patience and experience, knows exactly which exercises to set to help the horse to use its body better, and gives spot-on pointers to help the rider improve. I had no idea that when I’m still looking for my distance on the approach I tilt my head right back, hollowing my back and stiffening (the last thing either I or the horse need.) Apparently this is a very typical bad habit… good to know, now I can work on eradicating it! I remember John’s glory days as a 4* rider and trainer, as well as following him on Facebook and enjoying his frequent, very sane comments about horses and training, and was hugely looking forward to this session.
Daisy has only jumped once this year – a few fences on the new surface two weeks ago, feeling great – after some truly dramatic changes to her way of going made by the Horsebackvet (Rob Jackson) this spring made me totally rethink my plans for 2016 and decide to concentrate on really consolidating her new way of using her body, rather than risking pushing, and possibly breaking her. I’ve been hacking her around and working a lot on the flat and she is definitely finding it far easier than ever before to go in a round, soft way.
So, both she and I were rather rusty! I warmed up as normal, and we did some work on the canter, with John advising me to use a half-piri in walk, to canter, to really engage the inside hind leg, which worked well. We then played over a single fence, a cross pole which was soon changed to placing pole to a decent upright, really encouraging the mare to bascule around the fence. The great thing for me was that after a couple of goes she was landing waiting, rather than scooting off, her previous bad habit. And the bascule was totally unlike her previous style, which gives me a lot of hope!
We moved on to a grid, cleverly set up to really help the horse to improve the jump. The good news is that when I walked the distances after the session (I deliberately didn’t ask what they were before riding them, I wanted to see how we coped with what was obviously carefully calculated to have certain effects) they were far shorter than I had expected. Daisy (who used to find shortening so difficult) had coped perfectly with short distances, not opening her stride past them, as previously. The grid was approached from trot, and comprised a placing pole, small rail on bounce distance to X pole (to encourage straightness and carefulness) to an upright with V poles. We were encouraged to ride calmly forward to the upright and let the distance and the poles do their job, rather than the rider going to the hand, or driving strongly. It is a great grid and was a huge help.
One of the best exercises we used was to teach/improve the flying changes. The grid was set up down the middle of the school, and at the end (about 6 or so full horse strides after the last fence, not on any set distance) was this configuration. You ride straight into the box and turn over the angled pole, in the opposite direction to the leg you are on. So, if you’re on the left lead, you turn right.
As John explained, the horses naturally back off the ‘box’, putting them on their hocks, and the angled pole encourages a clean change.
For the horse who didn’t get it after a few trips through, the more emphatic version of the exercise was this configuration, to get the change from left to right:
Aim for the end of the first pole, let the horse go left down the straight side of the poles, and turn right over the angled pole. If the first one didn’t do it, the second angled pole was an extra help – which worked perfectly every time.
This shows the distance of the ‘flying change box’ from the final fence of the grid.
Simple, really well thought out, and very effective. The poles make it very clear and easy for the horse to do the right thing.
There were lots of other gems of wisdom that John shared during the sessions. It was hugely worthwhile and I can’t wait for the next session. We are hoping to make this a fairly regular clinic, either midweek or at weekends if people can’t make the Wednesday slots. Please contact me (on kerilli at gmail dot com) for details if you are interested.
Huge thanks to Miranda Harrison for hosting the clinic at her lovely yard in Leics.