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.