Steering for young riders

Building a maze of poles, cones or markers can make steering more visible and so more create a greater sense of achievement for young riders
Arenas have letter markers around their fences, and this gives riders a marker point for accurate steering, and navigation points for instructors to give exercises to help improve planning and spatial awareness.
Arenas have letter markers around their fences, and this gives riders a marker point for accurate steering, and navigation points for instructors to give exercises to help improve planning and spatial awareness.

Steering is one of the most difficult tasks for young riders to learn.  Some children battle with spatial awareness even on their own feet, never mind when having to judge a pony’s four legs and long length too.

The most common mistakes a rider can make are leaning forward or backward; pulling the steering hand too far away from the pony’s neck; bringing both hands over the pony’s neck and bringing the opposite hand above the turning hand as if using a steering wheel.

Another problem facing many young riders is not knowing right from left.  This can be helped in one of three ways.  It is possible to find gloves with large L and R on the back, the only drawback being that some riders then rotate their wrists to read the letters on the back.  The second option is to buy two pairs of gloves in different colours, and mix the pairs up.  The rider then wears odd gloves and turns towards red or blue rather then left or right.  The third option is to take this idea further, and is generally the most successful option.  This involves buying two pairs of reins in different colours and making odd pairs, as with the gloves.  So the rider uses the yellow rein or the green rein to go where they need to.

Imagining that they are riding the pony through a giant water slide into a swimming pool often helps children to understand about using their outside leg into the turn – the outside edge of the water chute pushes them around the turn rather than the inside edge pulling them.

There are lots of games and exercises to help with steering practice.  The most common is bending poles.  Put several markers, cones or jump uprights (without pole cups) in a straight line, about 6 – 10 metres apart.  The rider then has to slalom their way through the poles with touching any, passing to the right, left and right of each.  Often the easiest way to explain this is to talk about how a snake moves across the ground, in a smooth, easy pattern of looping semi circles.  They don’t jerk or make sharp corners, just flow gently around.  Practice the poles in walk and later in trot.

Another exercise is to place markers at random spots on the inner track all around the arena, about 1 metre in from the fence.  Everytime the rider gets to a marker they ride a small circle around it.  This is fun with several riders working in open order rather than in a ride.  They circle around each marker but at the same time they must be looking up and around at the other riders so that they don’t crash. Be careful here of having a pony in the lesson who kicks.  If the steering fails, it can bring ponies close together.

Confident riders are often asking to start jumping even before they can trot, while for nervous riders, the thought that they have jumped creates confidence.  The next exercise can persuade both types of riders that they have worked towards jumping even though it’s practicing steering.  Place a single pole, painted in coloured stripes, just off the track.  5 coloured stripes are ideal – a typical show jumping pole.  Begin with the riders steering over the coloured stripe in the centre, then the stripes immediately to the right and left on centre, before trying the stripes on the outer edges.  The stripe on the outside edge is generally the most difficult since most ponies will bulge out with their outside shoulder.  See if the child can work out which is the most difficult stripe to do, and why.  Once it can be done in walk on both reins, attempt it in trot and later in canter.  Again, ask the rider to work out which is the better rein, and at what speed they have the most control.  By asking questions of the rider, they begin to develop feel and start becoming thinking riders.

Learning the arena and utility dressage

Standing on plastic is especially scary
If you wish to include things like balloons in your utility dressage test, make sure you practice before a child is on board.
If you wish to include things like balloons in your utility dressage test, make sure you practice before a child is on board.

When teaching child riders the emphasis needs to be on a safe, fun lesson.  If all they are allowed to do is walk or trot round and round the outside track of the arena they are going to get bored and stop learning.  Any distraction is more interesting.  Once you have a safe pony, wearing correct tack and an enclosed area with good footing, it’s time to think about how you are going to keep lessons interesting.

A useful exercise as part of your warm up is to walk around the edge of the arena, halting at each letter.  The instructor can be as near the pony as is necessary but the rider should be the one asking the pony to halt and then walk on again.  This will encourage them to think about how they are asking, but also about when they ask.  The halt aid should be given so that the rider is level with the letter and can touch it while the pony stands still.  If the pony stops too early, the rider needs to work out how much leg they need to use to ask the pony to take one or two steps forward but not march off past the letter.  If the pony stops too late, either the rider can ask the pony to walk a small circle to try again or the instructor can help push the pony back.

Once the pony has halted, ask the child to reach over and touch the letter, saying aloud what the letter is.  They can then give a word that begins with that letter.  The list is endless but it’s fun to stick with a theme.  This could be something at the stables, (A for apples which ponies love, F for foal, B for bay etc.), friend’s names, types of animals, countries, or even words used in a project at school.  (Dinosaurs are difficult!)  At each letter, the rider repeats the whole list, making it a memory game.  The idea is to do a complete circuit of the arena, remembering all eight or twelve words, depending on whether it is a 20x40m or 20x60m arena.

After choosing a word and reciting the list, the rider then gets to practice asking the pony to walk forward, getting a quick reaction and keeping him straight as he moves off.  Too light an aid and the pony won’t move; too heavy and he’ll shoot off.  Many wise old schoolmasters cut the corners, so when asking their pony to walk forward after K, H, M and F, riders need to be clear with their steering into the corner if they want to get to A and C.

During this game, the instructor can remind the child about simple things to correct their position on the pony.  The whole game will take approx five minutes during which the basics of stop, go and turn have been revised from the last lesson.

It can also be useful to teach the young rider about the letters.  Many riders don’t realise that the letters used are the same all over the world.  If you start using the letters from the early lessons, riders become aware of them.  Giving each letter a word, shows which letters are used in the arena, but riders also need to learn the order in which they come.

The easiest method is acronyms.  Make up a sentence using the arena letters as the first letter of each word, in the correct order.  These can be simple – Fat Bay Mare, My Big Feet.  Or a longer sentence to use the entire arena – All King Edward’s Horses Can Make Big Fences.

X is usually remembered if you show that all the lines pass through it – the centre line, long and short diagonals and E to B.  X marks the spot on the treasure map where the lines all cross.

Following on from lessons using arena letters, make up a dressage test using props to help the rider remember the test and make the test fun to ride.  The only two limitations are the instructor’s imagination and the pony’s ability to deal with strange things.  Whatever you decide to use, practice with the pony in-hand before trying anything new or possibly scary with a little rider on board.  If the pony is uncertain about something, don’t do it.  The test can be as simple or as difficult as you choose.  The following is a sample test.

Enter at A and continue walking to X.  Halt inside a box of jumping poles and count to 5.

Between X and C, cross over the blue plastic river.

C     Turn right towards the stables / field / car park.

M     Trot down the fence, past B to F.

F      Walk.  Between F and A pick up the big teddy bear and let him ride in front of the


K      Turn across the diagonal and ride straight to M.  At M put Teddy on the fence.

C      Ride a circle, passing through the jumping pole box that was over X.

C     Halt next to a helper who will hold the pony.  Take your feet out of your stirrups and

do “Around the World”.  Feet back in the stirrups and pick up the reins.  Carry on in


H     Halt and pick up an item of the grooming kit.  Say what it is and show how you’d

use it on your pony.  Put it down.  Continue at walk.

E     Trot

K     Walk

A     Turn up the middle.  Halt in the box over X.  Salute.

The variations are endless, only dependant on the riders lever of experience, and the patience of the pony.  Other ideas could include

  • Trotting poles
  • A small jump
  • Line of bending poles
  • Riding with the reins in one hand
  • Picking up a piece of “washing” off a line and putting it back on another line
  • Dismounting, leading and mounting
  • 10m circles around cones / boxes / markers
  • Canter
  • Picking up a polo mallet (or broom) and knocking a ball along the ground the next marker
  • Filling a plastic cup with water from a bucket and carrying it without spilling any

By starting and stopping each activity at a maker, the rider is practicing accurate dressage test riding.

Once the riders are happily doing “utility dressage”, make the tests harder by increasing the numbers of movements, the difficulty or the speed in which the movements come upon them.   Riders in group lesson can have a competition if a non-biased “judge” is available.

Teaching child riders presents a whole different range of challenges compared to teaching adults.  Concentration does not come as well and so lessons need to be fun, interesting and simple enough to be obtainable without being boringly easy.

Simon Says

"Simon Says" is best played with friends. Bramble and Merv are grooming each other here...
Simon Says Sit down...
Simon Says Sit down…

When teaching very young children to ride, the hardest thing is to keep their attention.  The easiest way to do this is to keep the lesson moving, constantly changing what you are doing.  Use various exercises and games to do this.  These also teach the child, as they concentrate on the task at hand, they naturally develop balance, co-ordination and confidence.

Begin very simply, by asking the rider to let go of the saddle / neck strap with one hand.  Give them tasks to do with this hand – hand on their head, shoulder, tummy, knee, toes.  Hand on the toe is most difficult, very few children are immediately confident enough to lean down and touch their toes.  Then ask them to touch the opposite knee and toes.  (Right hand to left knee / toes).  Lean forward and touch the pony’s ears, you may need to help by turning the pony’s head towards them or asking the pony to lift their head up.  Lean back and touch the tail.  (Check that the pony doesn’t buck).  Then test the rider’s knowledge by asking them to touch the saddle, stirrups and reins.  When they are confident with one hand, repeat with the other hand or move on to using both hands.  All of this can be done at halt initially or in walk with a leader.

Move on to riding without stirrups.  At first just ask the rider to take one foot out of the stirrup and put it back, without using hands or eyes to help.  They must rather just wiggle their toes in their boots, move the toe of the boot until they feel where the stirrup is and slide their foot back in.  This is a very important exercise rather then just a game.  If they are confident and quick about finding a stirrup in halt and walk then when they are trotting or cantering alone later and lose a stirrup, they won’t panic.

While they are walking without stirrups, give them exercises to do.  A simple one is to pretend that the pony is a bicycle.  Rather then squeezing / kicking with their legs they need to pedal, bringing alternate legs up, round and down.  The up part should be high, knee close to the pommel, the down part really stretching the leg long.  This develops co-ordination, strength and confidence.

Pretending their pony is an elephant is great for thigh and core muscles but can be tough so should be introduced slowly.  The rider rests their hands on the pommel but shouldn’t actively press against them.  Both legs are raised, up and away from the saddle so that only the rider’s two seat bones are in contact, the leg in riding position but several centimetres away from the saddle.  The knee is kept bent, the heel is down.  The most common “cheat” is that the rider leans too far backwards, remind them to stay straight.

Try the arm exercises again, this time without the security of having stirrups.  The rider stays upright and still purely through balance and core muscles.

Most young children love to play Simon Says.  Work through a list of instructions, E.g., touch your nose, touch the pony’s ears, take you foot out the stirrup, put your foot in the stirrup, both feet out and pedal etc.  Every command that starts with “Simon Says” should be followed.  Simon says put your hands on your head, the child puts their hands on their head.  When Simon says isn’t used before a command, the child ignores it and continues with the last instruction.  If they do something that Simon didn’t say, they are out.  This is more fun with more then one child but it can be played with just the instructor.