To enjoy your riding to the full, you want a pony that is well mannered, supple, forward going and obedient. Some schooling is necessary to achieve this aim and, even with few facilities, there is plenty you can do to improve your pony’s all-round performance.
How to begin
When you’re starting your schooling programme it’s helpful to take advice from a properly qualified riding instructor. A professional can assess your riding and your pony’s natural ability and level of training. It might also be important to run through some common horse health questions and answers before you commence training. It’s a good idea to return for ‘top-up’ lessons every month or so, to help you as you progress to more advanced movements.
On the lunge
Lungeing is an excellent way of keeping your pony light and supple when your time and space are limited. Be aware, however, that it is hard work for a pony and he must already be in fairly fit condition before you start this type of schooling. Also bear in mind the strain on the pony’s legs if your lunge circle has become boggy or hard with frost.
Keep your lungeing sessions short not more than about 20 minutes – making sure that you work the same amount of time on both reins.
Aim to have the pony working actively from his quarters up into a contact with the side-reins if you are using these. Don’t use side-reins to force the pony into an outline they should never be so short that his face comes behind the vertical. Adjust them so that they are just long enough to encourage him to round his back and seek down for the contact. Keep the side-reins of equal length on each side.
All ponies are different and some need more work than others you must know your own pony. However, don’t forget that you can do useful work while out hacking. In the relaxed atmosphere outside the arena you may find the pony more receptive to your commands than when you are struggling in the school. One essential to remember while trotting is to change your diagonal regularly -riding the same number of strides on each diagonal. Most ponies prefer you to sit on a particular diagonal as they tend to be more supple on one side. It may seem strange at first to use the opposite one, but you must if your pony is to become straight and balanced. As you trot along the track, decide which rein you are on (depending on your diagonal) and think about riding your pony forward from your inside leg to your outside hand. Ride him straight, encouraging him to take the contact with the bit and your hand.
Along bridleways or across fields you could try some leg-yielding two or three steps out from the side, ride straight for two or three steps and then leg-yield back to the side again. Do this in walk as well as trot. As you progress, you can use the hedges or fences as the outside track and practise steps in shoulder-in, travers or renvers. This is probably easiest after coming around a corner which serves as your preparatory circle. (Never try to do dressage movements on roads) If you have to stop on your hacks to open and close gates, take the opportunity to practise a turn about the forehand. Make a change of direction by asking for a quarter or half pirouette to encourage the pony to engage his hooks fully this helps to keep him supple.
Such schooling sessions can be good fun and much more interesting for you both than confining yourselves to the dressage arena.
These exercises help the pony to become more supple and obedient as well as straightening him and improving his performance. Remember to let him relax, however, and don’t spend the entire hack asking him to work.
As you walk and trot along, think about the quality of your transitions, remembering that they should all be ridden forward. When you canter, ask for a particular lead and don’t let the pony simply strike off on his favourite.
A few good canter paces followed by trot and walk and then more upward transitions make a stiff pony supple.
If frequent changes of pace excite him, you may need to work him a little more beforehand, or give the pony a good canter to settle him. The same goes in the school; if your pony is not in the frame of mind for work or is bursting out of his skin you can wake him up or settle him down by cantering in the forward seat until he’s beginning to blow a bit.
Knowing what your pony needs is important here, as is taking professional advice from someone who can see you both working together. All riders, at whatever level, need a pair of eyes on the ground.
Warming up The ideal schooling ground is an all weather arena of 20 X 40m (66 X 132ft), with dressage markers. Riding schools usually have these facilities, so see if your local school rents its arena for winter use when conditions can be difficult at home.
If you are aiming at competition work, schooling hacks won’t be enough and you need to do more formal work.
Always remember to warm up your pony thoroughly before starting concentrated work. He is just like an athlete or gymnast who has to limber up so that his muscles are working at maximum efficiency.
Take a gradual contact through a series of large turns and circles. Make sure that you ride through each corner as though it is part of a circle. Use the inside leg to make him take a contact on the outside rein. As he begins to settle, you can take up the contact and go through your work programme. Practising the movements from a preliminary or novice dressage test is fun and gives you a helpful structure to work around.
It’s just as important to allow your pony to cool down after a schooling session. Let him take the rein and stretch down his head and neck while trotting and walking large circles. If he stretches readily then you know he’s worked hard!
Be critical of yourself and learn to ‘feel’ when the pony is going well or badly. If something doesn’t seem to be working, leave it for a while and return to a simple exercise which you and your pony do well be flexible in your approach. The time to finish a session is when schooling is going well you should never end on a bad note. Remember that you may be the reason for a bad day, not your pony!