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Teaching a child can be hard, particularly if you are used to training with a more technical approach. Amanda Berridge has a wealth of technical knowledge at her disposal from years of competing at the top level of showing and dressage. Still, it’s a ‘big kid’ herself that has given her the edge in training up-and-coming young riders. Show Circuit caught up with her to find out why teaching children is a little bit different, and to learn more about her approach.
“Kids have an incredible understanding. It’s just explaining things in a way that they can get it.”
As we head out to the arena to start the lesson, Amanda chats with us about child riders in general.
“I think many parents struggle to teach their children, as they have this expectation that everything has to be perfect from the beginning. That is not the case,” she explains.
Amanda points out that not every kid wants to be amazing, and their parents must understand what their child’s desires are, as far as riding and competition go.
“Kids do sports for different reasons. Some do it as a hobby, and some do it because they want to be the absolute best at it. Every kid, every person really, has their level of satisfaction.”
Amanda explains that she essentially instructs a child the same way as she does an adult, but uses simpler terms to achieve the same outcomes.
It doesn’t have to be perfect
Amanda has noticed that parents often expect their children to get on their pony and do things perfectly right away.
“Quite often, when I’m teaching young children, the parents will be on the sidelines calling out things like ‘oh, their hands are moving’, or ‘their legs are moving’. My reply is always ‘that’s fine’. It may not look perfect at the start, but it’s all part of doing what you must to get the ponies going correctly.”
Amanda suggests to these parents that they go and watch a warm-up ring, of any discipline, at a big show.
“You will find people moving, bending, flexing, bringing their hands higher, lower and so on, all so that they work through any problems and the horse can go its best in the ring. That’s where it is ideal to be sitting still and in the correct position. But if the child just gets on and sits still, those small problems they have in the warm-up will worsen as they enter the ring, and they won’t have the tools to correct them.”
She compares it to school athletics. “The kids don’t just run out there and start jumping high jump. The teachers will get them to warm up and do stretches, just like you should with your pony. Make sure they are forward, bending left, bending right and going off your leg, and then you can sit still and ‘look pretty’.”
On the bit!
According to Amanda, there are a lot of parents out there inventing “the weirdest and wackiest ways to get ponies on the bit,” because it’s all about the look.
“I’ve seen it all!” she laughs but is quick to point out that it is a shortcut to nowhere and in the long run will damage a rider’s position and feel.
“Often you see kids with hands locked on their knees, and with no bend in their elbows, because that’s the only way they can get their ponies ‘on the bit’, and ‘on the bit’ is what matters. It doesn’t matter how it happens; it’s just ‘get your pony on the bit’.”
“I find that it happens mostly with parents who haven’t ridden. They don’t understand feel, engagement or suppleness because these are not things easy to see to the untrained eye. But whether your pony is ‘on the bit’ – or isn’t – is!”
Teaching riders who have not yet learned any bad habits is much easier, of course. Still, often the children that Amanda coaches have already been riding for a few years, and like all of us, have accumulated a bad habit or two along the way.
Learning the right way
The priority for Amanda from the outset is a pony that is working freely, going off the rider’s leg aids and into the bridle softly. Once that is established, she can start to work on position. However, she doesn’t see the point in telling a rider to sit in a particular position, if their pony is making that more challenging than it needs to be.
“How can a rider sit up tall with her hands out lightly in front of her if the pony is bearing down and pulling her hands forward?”
Getting a pony to go forward is not always easy, especially an older or seasoned pony, but Amanda encourages people to resist the urge of using gadgets.
“It’s easy to resort to a whip and spurs,” she admits but stresses that when these aids are not used correctly, they can make the pony even duller, and before you know it, you will have a pony that is not going forward, even with the added gear.
“I would rather teach ponies and their riders that leg means forward. Later we can teach variations of that, but ponies absolutely must go off the riders’ legs.”
When the ponies are forward off the aids, they will also be lighter in front, creating self-carriage, going correctly on the bit and using their hindquarters to push.
Some children grasp the concept of trot diagonals quickly, while some adults still struggle with it. But we have all heard ‘wrong diagonal!’ screamed from the sidelines of a show at least once!
Amanda’s approach to teaching diagonals is positive reinforcement. Rather than just telling the rider when they are on the wrong one, Amanda will give them a chance to figure it out for themselves. She suggests asking the children if they are on the right diagonal and only telling them to change if they are not.
“Sometimes Charlotte can go a full lap or two of the arena before she gets it right,” she says, but explains that it is an essential part of the learning process. “Once they have the confidence to say ‘I think I’m right’, they seem to work it out quickly.”
She points out that it’s important not to tell riders off for getting it wrong. Everyone will learn at their own pace, and some find certain things easier than others. Give them a chance to figure it out and never let it worry you – or more importantly, them!
As Charlotte sets off in a trot, she glances down to the outside, and Amanda confirms what she is looking for.
“Charlotte knows that when the outside leg comes forward, she should be rising, and as it comes back, she should sit. Up and forward at the same time and then back and down.”
Like a lot of kids, when Charlotte was first learning her diagonals, she found it a little bit tricky. So, Amanda encouraged her to say ‘up…up…up…’ as the outside leg came forward to help her grasp the right time to be rising.
Now Charlotte is learning the correct diagonal by feel. “As easy as it is to jump in and say, ‘no you’re wrong, change,’ you need to allow the kids to process the movement and make a decision for themselves.”
Unless they are in Lead Rein, children don’t have someone beside them in the ring to tell them whether they are on the right or wrong diagonal, so by encouraging them to feel or see it for themselves, they will feel more confident going into the ring, knowing they can do it on their own.
“As easy as it is to jump in and say, ‘no you’re wrong, change,’ you need to allow the kids to process the movement and make a decision for themselves.”
In Amanda’s eyes, shortening the reins can fix a lot of problems in the ring, from incorrect bend to straight elbows.
“Having the reins even is important too,” she says, adding that there’s nothing wrong with getting little stoppers or making markers with tape, so the kids know where to hold the reins. If they can see the marker, then they know their reins are getting too long.
It is significant, however, to also be realistic about how short the reins can be. If you have the reins far too short, the rider will end up leaning forward or be pulled forward by the pony.
“It’s good to get them into the habit of shortening their reins before and after a canter,” Amanda advises. “Otherwise, the reins tend to get longer and longer!”
Break it down, then put it together
When asking riders to do exercises or workouts, Amanda likes to break the test down to make it as simple as possible. For example, when she asks Charlotte to do a three-loop serpentine, she explains that each loop needs to be the same size, and tells her to plan her arena to be able to fit them all in.
Amanda likes the kids to practise any workouts or tests, if they know what they are, leading up to a show.
One class that this pair is eyeing up at Equidays is the Novice Pony Challenge, which has a set workout already available online. But rather than showing Charlotte the entire test and getting her to do it over and over, Amanda breaks the workout down and makes sure they can do each movement individually.
“You see a lot of ponies going around on autopilot, bending the wrong way and falling in, with the riders sitting there like passengers. I want Charlotte to be able to ask Poppy, or any pony she is riding, for a movement when she is ready, not the other way around.”
One part of a workout that children (and some adults) seem to struggle with is a change of canter lead through trot, partly because the ponies end up doing so many of these throughout their career that they know what’s coming. The problem there is that they tend to run through the whole transition, and it can all get a bit messy.
Amanda suggests getting children to ride a 20-metre circle in canter, then go through the circle to change the rein as normal, but once the pony is back in trot, keep trotting on the new rein for a few circles. Then change the rein again, this time asking for canter where you usually would in a simple change.
Another variation of this is simply cantering on a 20-metre circle, bringing the pony back to trot for three or so strides, and then popping back into a canter on the same rein.
This all ensures the pony is doing as it’s asked, rather than going around anticipating. It is also setting the child up with valuable tools that will come in handy in the ring. If the pony drops out of canter, for example, rather than panicking, the rider is prepared to simply ask again. Or, if they get a wrong leg through the centre of a circle, they know they can come back to trot, change the bend and ask for the correct lead.
When Charlotte and Poppy do practise a complete change of rein through trot, they get a perfect one in each direction, and Amanda stops them there.
“You’ve done one nice one each way so that we won’t do anymore. Why drill the ponies and riders over and over if they have done it right the first time?”
“They tend to run through the whole transition, and it can all get a bit messy.”
Back to front
When Charlotte and Poppy head out to practise their full workout, Poppy apparently feels that she has done enough for the day. She gets a little dull to the leg and starts moving her head around. Charlotte’s initial reaction is to fiddle with her reins to get her back on the bit, but Amanda quickly reminds her to ride from the back to the front.
“Keep your hands nice and still, so that you’re not causing any of the head movement, and then ride her a little more forward.”
Amanda uses an analogy that the kids seem to like. “If you’re drinking out of a cup with a straw when the cup is full, it is easy. But when it starts to get empty, bubbles start coming up through the straw as well, which makes it harder to drink.”
She explains that this is much like a pony’s forward energy. “If they are forward, the drink is full, and everything is smooth. If it’s empty, bubbles come up – their heads start moving around, and everything gets hard again. So, fix the forward first.”
At the end of their workout, Charlotte and Poppy make a transition to halt, but it’s far from perfect the first time. Amanda points out that it is a movement that is more challenging than you would think. For her, the priority lies with the pony standing nicely still and relaxed.
When asking for the halt, make sure that there is an even weight in both reins, both stirrups, and both hips. If you are not even, then the pony is not going to halt square, as they will adjust where their feet land to counter-balance the rider.
“Sit up tall and hold your tummy muscles,” she encourages Charlotte.
Amanda likes to let the children feel where their pony’s feet land, rather than looking down to see. When riders look down, their ponies are thrown off balance and often they will take a step to fix it, making their halt worse. While riders might get away with this when they are small, that won’t be the case when they grow, so it’s best that they learn the feel from the beginning, rather than needing to look.
From the ground, a halt looks like it should be easy, but Amanda reminds parents not to get frustrated if their rider can’t quite get it. “There’s plenty of Grand Prix dressage combinations out there that can’t do a square halt either,” she laughs.
So what’s the secret to Amanda’s success in teaching children? “Just keep it simple. Don’t get angry or upset if things don’t go to plan, and keep it fun,” she says. “Enjoy your time together with your children and their ponies. And,” she adds with a smile, “saying a simple ‘I’m proud of you’ always goes a long way.”