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!