Squirrel – a vital instruction in my arena.  What?

Think of a squirrel – cute little furry beast, sitting in his tree.  He spies an acorn down there on the floor, and has to clamber down his tree to reach the floor, safely but quickly before someone else gets his acorn.  With me so far?

Now, what seems like a great kid’s game is actually a really good way to keep riders safe.

From their very first lesson, riders should be taught the correct way to dismount – take the rein in the left hand, remove feet from stirrups, lean well forwards, swinging the right leg high, up and over the pony’s quarters without kicking him, and landing on both feet beside the horse’s left shoulder / ribs.  They should be holding the reins, still in control.  In squirrel, we practice doing this on command, first in halt, then walk, trot and eventually even in canter.

Chat to your riders, explaining what a squirrel is (in some countries there are none, so kids don’t know what they are) and that at random points throughout the lesson, you might shout SQUIRREL.  When you do, they must take their feet out of the stirrups, reins in left hand, swing the right leg over, and keep up with the pony, in whatever pace he is in.  Start in halt – whole ride prepare to halt – whole ride halt, and whole ride SQUIRREL.  The riders should follow their normal dismount routine and land on the ground, hand on the reins, keeping their feet still, so both they and their ponies remain standing still.  Start this on the left rein, so that they dismount on the normal (left) side, landing on the inner edge of their pony (towards the inside on the arena rather than out by the rail).  Once they can do this, practice on the right rein.  Here you have a choice – either they have to steer their pony a stride in, off the track, allowing space to land between the pony and the rail, or (the option I prefer) they have to dismount from the pony’s right hand side.

Once they can do this, skip out the halt part – as they are walking around the track (again, start on the left rein) – out of the blue, yell SQUIRREL – and they keep their ponies in walk, feet out, reins in left hand, swing off the saddle and land next to the pony, but as soon as they land they walk, so keeping the pony moving.  As long as they keep walking, the pony shouldn’t break stride.  Some ponies get a tad confused at this – a good school pony waits when his charge falls off, and now we as telling him to keep walking when they hit the floor?  After a few strides, the rider can stop their feet, come to a halt, tell their pony to halt, and remount.  This is repeated exactly the same in trot if they are able – very little riders on too big a pony can’t – there is simply too big a drop.  But, otherwise, the ponies are trotting, squirrel command given, riders leap off, landing in a jog and keep trotting until an instruction is given, bringing ponies and riders through walk to halt.  Advanced riders can do it in canter – not easy, so be wary of introducing this.  Why?  Why on earth would you do this?

I teach this for three main reasons;

First reason – its fun, and really good practice for gymkhana games (mounted games) when rider’s leap of at speed to do something (e.g., throw a ball, run over balance blocks etc) and vault back on.  These games ponies don’t stop for mounting and dismounting – the rider’s must learn to keep up, and bounce on and off while in motion.

Second reason – it does help to get over the fear of falling.  If you are used to deliberately bouncing off your pony, the thought of falling off him is less scary.  There are times when the rider will leap off and land on their bum instead of their feet, and find out that it doesn’t hurt all that much.

The final reason though, is the important one, and it can save you and your riders from a very dangerous situation.  I have used it twice in just this way.

The first time, I was teaching a group of 4 or 5 riders, teenagers who I had taught from beginners, all well versed in riding and in playing squirrel.  I would, once a month or so, yell out squirrel at a totally random point in their lessons to make sure they were paying attention.  During this particular lesson, I saw a strange grey, foggy looking cloud coming over the arena as we were working.  A few seconds later, I realised that this cloud was actually an enormous swarm of bees on the move.  This could have been a disaster – if that swarm had dropped down and started to sting horses with kids on board…  I dread to think what could have happened.  Squirrel – everyone was off, jogging as their horses trotted, bringing them back to walk and then halt, and looking expectantly as they all thought this was the game.  We all stood still, watched the bees fly overhead, and once they had all safely passed, hopped back on and continued our lesson.

The second time, was a semi private lesson with two riders.  One was on a young horse, who was wearing a running martingale.  Now, this bit of kit has rings that run loosely up and down the reins.  This young horse had a habit of playing with his chin and bouncing his head, trying to catch anything he could in his mouth to chew it.  We were walking on a long rein to give the horses a breather, when he started to play with his bit.  In this fuss, fuss, fuss with his mouth, he managed to hook one of the rings of his martingale onto his tooth, and within a second started to panic.  Again, squirrel, both riders on the floor in an instant, and luckily his rider was experienced and fast thinking enough to stop him, keep him calm and free his mouth.  (I already had an aversion to martingales at this point, but from that day onwards, it is rare to see me ride or work a horse in a martingale!).

Both of these situations could, potentially been bad situations to be in, and both worked out well.  It is possible that they would have been fine anyway, but I believe that it was the squirrel game that saved al involved from serious injury.  And, you can have fun too!

https://www.facebook.com/MountedGamesWorld/videos/948988078547679/ – Have a look at this video to see some vaulting in action!

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.

Children learning through play

Get outside - its a big, exciting world out there!
Get outside - its a big, exciting world out there!
Get outside – its a big, exciting world out there!

Child riders learn as much playing on ponies as having a formal lesson. When they are out, thinking about things other then how they are riding, they just get on with it and actually ride. They get their ponies stopping, going and turning, they discover balance, they look up and around their surroundings and often they become braver.
A good way of getting children out of an arena and thinking of other things is by having a treasure hunt. First, make sure all the ponies are safe and solid outside. Preferably don’t use any pony not totally quiet, or put any more forward going pony on a lead rein. Then decide the type of treasure hunt that you want to have.

A hidden treasure hunt

If you are limited with space, time or ability of riders, this is the sensible hunt to have. Decide what you are going to be hunting for, and hide things in a contained area. This could be themed to the time of year, e.g., Easter Egg hunt, Halloween Candy hunt, Carrots for Your Valentine Pony hunt, Christmas Tinsel hunt. If the hunt is during a lesson it could be a hunt made up with questions. These could include; something metal horses can wear on their hooves; something long and orange that ponies like to eat; something used to make ponies clean; something farmers use to tie up the bales of hay our ponies eat. It could be a complete grooming kit or plaiting kit and the better the rider hunts and finds objects, the better they can get the grooming / plaiting done. One that is always popular is to hunt for a black outlined colouring-in picture and the pencils to colour it. The more pencils they find, the more brightly coloured the picture can be.

A list hunt

This type of hunt is suitable if you have lots of space, trustworthy ponies and more experienced riders. Ponies can go on the lead rein, either with fit, enthusiastic runners or led from a sensible horse. The riders must go out in pairs for safety. Try to pair up more experienced, solid sensible riders with less experienced or dare-devil riders. Unless they are very experienced, restrict the pace to walk or trot. The more adult helpers available to act as stewards the better.
Look around the area and think about what could realistically be found by the riders. These could include

  • 5 types of wild flower
  • 5 types of tree leaf
  • 5 types of grass
  • 3 different coloured stones
  • An empty birds nest (emphasize not in use)
  • An old horse shoe
  • A horse’s bit, other then the one your pony is wearing (if you are in a yard)
  • Something your pony likes (tests imagination, they could come back with mud!)
  • Some sheep’s wool (caught on wire fence)
  • A shell (if close to the beach)

Check girths, stirrups and hard hats, remind riders of the safety or walk / trot rules. Send all the pairs out together or at staggered times. The winning pair will collect all the items in the fastest time. If the list is long or some of the items are tricky to find, a time limit can be used. This way you’ll get all your riders back within your time allowed. The winning pair in this case would be those who find the most treasures on the list.

A sound hunt.

As with the list hunt, this requires lots of space and quite experienced riders. Think of 5 or 6 sounds that would carry well and will be reasonably easy to hear. Someone making realistic bird sounds could go unnoticed. Musical instruments work well if you have access to people who can play them. Otherwise whistles, drumming on a saucepan, mobile phone ringing, a hunting horn, car hooter or siren all work well. Allocate one sound per person and hide them around the area that you are playing in, out of sight of each other.
Give each pair of riders a card. They must hear a sound that they think is on the hunt and track down where it is coming from. The person making the sound then marks their card. The quickest pair of riders to fill their card with marks from each sound person wins.

The most important thing with this kind of hunt id having the right venue – ideally you want forest, hills, banks, places where the sound makers can hide and the riders cannot see each other. A flat, barren area where you are constantly in sight of each other won’t work.

A paper trail.

The final type of treasure hunt, is to lay a trail, and have the ride go out as a group, following a route, rather like a real hunt. There are several ways of marking the trail, but remember that whatever you use needs to be collected up / tidied after the ride. This could be a literal paper trail, which will be very difficult to clean up. A simpler way is to use some form of marker, maybe a small ribbon tied in branches, plastic cones, cardboard arrows etc, put in less obvious places along the route to encourage the riders to keep their eyes open and look for clues. Clean up becomes easier if you know that 20 arrows were placed, and where they were put. Again, you need safe ponies, or fit leaders who will walk or run alongside.

It is important for children to get out and about, to learn to ride their ponies over different ground, up and down hills, learning balance but also staying interested in what they are doing.

Beep Beep – Get out of my Way…

A good sized, enclosed arena is ideal for playing Beep Beep.
You will need at least three ponies for this to work. Four to six are ideal.
You will need at least three ponies for this to work. Four to six are ideal.

Beep Beep – Get out of my Way…

This is one of my all-time favourite games to play with kids and ponies.  It teaches so many elements and is great fun.  Even the quietest of young rider ends up laughing and joining in.  It is a great warm up game, checking you have control over riders and ponies, everyone is moving and thinking, and as an ice breaker for a new group or new instructor.

The idea of this, is to imagine that you are driving your car or motor bike in traffic.  When there is traffic blocking your route, you beep beep your horn, and hopefully the traffic will move out of the way.  One of our riders is going to be the road block, so they are going to get beeped….

You need at least three riders, and the game can be adjusted to any level.  Beginners can play on the lead rein, improvers can play in walk and trot while more advanced kids can play in trot and canter.

Have your three riders in a ride, nose to tail, on the outside track at walk.  Rider 1, in the front, Rider 2 in the middle and Rider 3 at the back.  On a command, Rider 3 halts on the track.  Rider 2 keeps on walking, while Rider 1 picks up trot.  Rider 1 keeps trotting around the outside of the arena, when they see that Rider 3 is blocking the way.  Now, they can only yell Beep Beep, that is their only tool.  The question is their timing.  When they yell Beep Beep, the halted rider needs to ask their pony to start to trot, and keep trotting at a pony distance in front of Rider 1 until they both reach the back of Rider 2.  As if traffic on a road.  If Rider 1 yells Beep Beep too early, then Rider 3 will start to trot too early, and she will never catch up – the idea is following distance in traffic.  If they yell Beep Beep too late, they will crash into the back of Rider 3 before that rider can get their pony from halt to trot.  Each rider needs to have an idea of how long each pony takes to get going.  So, Rider 1 is approaching Rider 3, and decides when they are about 50m away, to yell Beep Beep.  Rider 3 picks up trot, and now both riders are trotting around the outside edge of the arena, approaching Rider 2 who has been patiently walking around the outside.  When they get to Rider 2, both of our trotting riders come back to walk.  So now, all three riders are in walk, on the outside track, in a file, with the order, Rider 2 in front, Rider 3 in the middle and Rider 1 now rear file at the back.

The next round is exactly the same – now, Rider 1 (who is currently the back marker of the ride) has to halt on the track, Rider 3 (who is now in the middle) keeps on walking, and patient Rider 2, gets to pick up trot, go around the outside edge and yell Beep Beep when they approach the halted rider.  Keep repeating this until all the riders have had a turn at staying in halt, staying in walk and going up to trot and yelling Beep.

The beauty of this game, is that riders are practicing what they need to learn, without having to be focused on it.  The rider in halt has, I think, the hardest job.  They have to persuade their pony to stay in halt as the pony’s friend keeps walking.  The pony needs to remain in halt, quietly waiting.  They have to wait for the trotting rider to give the instruction, and they have to have their pony attentive enough that as Beep Beep is yelled, they can give a leg aid and have the pony walk and trot in as few as strides as possible.  The walking rider has to keep their pony in a walk, although that pony will often either want (expect?) to go with his trotting friend, or stay in halt with his stopping friend.  They have to keep straight and not cut any corners, otherwise the two trotting riders won’t catch up.  And the trotting rider has to get their pony to trot, not cut the corners, keep a good pace, watch out for the halted pony road block and get their timing right to yell Beep Beep.  If they yell too early, they need to persuade their pony to trot a little faster to catch up, and if they yell it too late, or the halted pony refuses to move, they need to have good avoidance reactions so they don’t crash or haul on their reins, but turn away smoothly – playing bumper cars IS NOT part of the game.

Experienced riders can do the trot part in canter, but instructors beware – it can get hectic.  If you are not sure about the riders cantering ability or the safeness of the ponies, stick to trot, its challenging enough already.