By Ariane Schirmer
Most equestrians don’t enter the sport thinking about how they’ll be trying to count the rhythm of a gait or avoid bouncing around without stirrups like a fish out of water. Instead there are grand visions of galloping through open fields, soaring over oxers, and adorning bridles with blue ribbons. But building strong basics is important for the safety of both horse and rider and essential for progress. Below are 3 exercises that I love for beginners of all ages and even revisit on my own time to curb bad habits and reinforce the good.
Eyes Up, Heels Down
Lunge line exercises allow the rider to put a majority of their focus on themselves. There are some days I wish I could hop on a lunge line just for a little fine tuning. Riders can stretch, work on balance, and strengthen some of those muscles they’re probably just discovering they had. Trotting while in a gallop or half seat allows the rider to stretch down through their heel and establish the feel of proper contact with the lower leg. Have them focus on keeping their chest and chin/eyes up, while stretching their heels down as they wrap their legs around the barrel of their horse. This exercise can be done off the lunge line as well but I think it using it can give added support to beginners or those working to improve confidence. P.S. this is also a great way to help break in new boots!
Count On It
It’s never too early to start learning how to count strides. For students that are comfortable cantering, this is a great, no-frills introduction to what can be a rather lofty or intimidating skill. Utilizing a single ground pole can help remove some stigma and simplify the concept. Place the ground pole along the track of a 20 meter circle so the student will be able to canter over it from a smooth approach. Instruct the student to try and count when they are 3 strides out from the pole. Have them countdown aloud—3, 2, 1—and soon, with a bit of trial and effort, the rhythm will begin to develop. Sometimes they’ll start too soon, sometimes a touch too late, but practice makes perfect and is essential to develop the eye of the rider. I think this is a concept that often gets unnecessarily pushed out into the later years of training
but if a student can count and safely canter, why not incorporate the exercise into early canter work?
A Lesson In Shapes
Circles and serpentines are pretty basic shapes ridden in a variety of disciplines. These exercises work on bending, straightness, and balance. Have students think about riding circles one quarter at a time; breaking the shape down into a series of bending lines can make it less overwhelming and result in a rounder, less amoeba-like appearance. Use serpentines to continue working on bending while also encouraging riders to focus on straightness. While crossing the arena the student should visualize a destination point on the other side – aim for it and go. Keeping a target in mind can help make all the difference. I also suggest that my students think as though they are riding down a narrow hallway. Thinking about straightness (or even imaginary barriers) will encourage straightness. Sometimes enlightening a student can be as simple as shifting the way they visual a question or the task at hand.
Keeping students focused can sometimes be a challenge in itself. Work to engage their minds, not just their riding muscles, and soon they will be on their way to growing into confident, educated, and thoughtful equestrians.
Try asking differently. Sometimes as riders we struggle because of how we interpret what is being asked of us, just like our equine counterparts. Change the way you ask your student to do or visualize something. Example: Instead of instructing a rider to keep their heels down, encourage toes up.
Step it up!
For an added challenge to the basic circle is to work on spiraling in, making the circle smaller, then spiraling back out, expanding the circle back to the original size. Riders should work on staying balanced and keeping their horses rhythm consistent.