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

saddle.

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

walk.

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.

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