What I've been coaching this month

Coaching in the big arena on a January afternoon

It feels like it's been January for ages, but we're finally at the end of the month. Perhaps the only good thing about a long month is the amount of coaching I've managed to fit into it, and I've been happy with the outcomes for a few different exercises I've used in my lessons. From my blog stats I've found that people consistently come back to view a lesson ideas post I wrote way back in 2020, so hopefully sharing my "what's hot" for this chilly month will be of use to other coaches. I'm not an expert - I learn every time I step into an arena, and try to top that up with learning from other places in the interim - but I like my lessons to be fun, to work riders hard, and to promote progress, so why not share...

Helping hands

I feel like the "holding a whip under your thumbs" exercise (see here) was old school when my instructor made me do it as a teenager, but it's been one of my most productive exercises for a number of different riders this month. It's also suitable for any rider who holds their reins with two hands, and who can be trusted not to use the whip as a weapon for brandishing! Holding the whip horizontally means you become very aware of how level your hands are, and where they go when you do pretty much anything, but especially when you are turning or making transitions. 

It's really interesting to see the difference this makes when asking riders to ride twists and turns: lines of cones which become closer together; turning in and out of poles like a mini serpentine; and figures of eights are my favourites. More advanced riders might like to try it out in paces above a walk too. I found in the course of a single day's teaching that this exercise helped riders whose hands were typically too low, typically too high, inclined to turning over into fists (I am not qualified to teach anyone to ride a motorbike), and in the case of my blind rider, who can't see her hands at all. With some riders I have also tried getting them to ride with their thumbs sticking straight up. I'm pretty sure I took this one from a dressage video on YouTube that suggested it was good for developing softer hands, but I would struggle to reference it precisely - in any case, it's also worked well for reinforcing a correct hand position and is quite a fun challenge for the right rider, as it's a surprisingly strange sensation not to have thumb contact on the reins.

Pole position

I love polework in lessons, but will admit that my own inspiration isn't boundless, and I'm also often working with a fair but not huge number of poles and a vanishingly small window of time to set them out.  I like following polework accounts on Instagram, and was quite chuffed to find RDA directly referenced by this reel. The zig zag or winding road is a frequent flier at my group, but I decided to try the first two exercises: two "C" shapes, one forwards and one backwards, which interlock to make a small serpentine-like path, and a "Y" shape. They ticked a lot of boxes for me: they didn't take absolutely tonnes of trotting poles to set up, and I was able to adapt them for use in multiple different sessions, which is really handy for the kind of breadth my schedule usually has on a Saturday! Some of the exercises I've got in this post, like the hand exercises and standing in stirrups on the move, can also be used to make them a bit trickier.

Plus, from a practical perspective, having an Instagram post to show to a band of volunteers or send to a group chat makes delegating setup really easy. Putting this out here for the people like me who sometimes need a reminder not to try and do every single task with their own hands...

Working with a pole layout while standing - you can almost see the extra thinking going on!


No stirrup November isn't for another ten months (I hear some of my older and more cynical riders thanking the dressage gods) but I have actually always been inclined towards no stirrup work for at least part of January. My group rides all year round, so the Christmas holidays are the only weeks of the year where none of my riders at all are riding. It can be surprising, how much of a difference a couple of weeks off (plus cold weather) can make to a rider's strength, suppleness, and balance. Even (especially) for the riders who like to try and convince me that the stirrupless agenda is cruelty (if it's good enough for Paralympic gold medallists, kids...), the first couple of weeks of the year made for some really productive work in even the most gentle of exercises without them. It's good for pretty much every rider's body and mind, even if it means aching legs at the dismount phase. 

What I've really found elevates this is to pair half a lesson of work without stirrups with another portion focusing on standing with them. Personally, I'd choose a nice stretch without stirrups over trying to go places stood up in them on anything but the bounciest of horses, but staying balanced while standing up seems to ignite this competitive streak in almost all of my riders. It's great - "how long can you stay balanced, we'll all count" can be used for so many different types of class, and balancing on the move can be done on or off the lead rein, in any pace and direction - for one class, I've had them progress to basic transitions and off-track steering (including in some of the pole exercises above) off the lead rein while standing up, and how great their riding looked for it when they got back in the saddle and rode "normally" the following week. My unscientific, unqualified opinion is that riding without stirrups is great for the seat and core (I don't think anyone would deny this), then standing is great for the lower leg and the hamstrings. Both are fantastic for the inner thighs and quads, so using both ideas in the same lesson is a really thorough workout for all of our typical "riding muscles". We are raising strong riders here!


You will note that I have been picking up these exercises from other places and people rather than trying to invent something totally new myself, and this one comes from Sue and Janine, two fellow Saturday coaches, both qualified in the last year and both doing a truly wonderful job. I've seen the crossroads pop up in a few of their lessons - set out with small or large poles, cones, or any other markers as they are found on roads - and tried it in one of my lessons (an energetic group of five) the other week.  The riders keep moving around the outside track while a coach or volunteer at the centre of the crossroads calls out to each rider in turn to give them their directions: straight ahead, turn left, turn right and then back around to me, stop, etc. 

Mine seemed to enjoy this most when I was in character as a chaotic traffic cop (you may be more convincing than I am) and for the most part didn't realise that I was getting them to think faster and faster about their aids to turn in each direction. Like many of the best RDA exercises, it's very simple on paper, but effective at keeping a whole class of the right kind of level active and engaged for longer than I had planned for. Lots of fun!


We were lucky enough to have Anna Miller at the stables at the end of last year for a training day, and after hearing her explanation of how useful serpentines are for making your riding more productive I didn't need telling twice to make more of them in my lessons. The things I've done with them over the last month include but are not limited to:

  • Find your line: work out where the turns for your serpentine need to be, without copying the rider in front
  • Halt each time you cross over the centre line (from walk or trot)
  • Trot only on the straight sections of the serpentine, with clean transitions at each end
  • Trot half the serpentine and walk the other half
  • Try steering the serpentine only with your legs, with the reins either held loosely or (if there are helpers nearby) not held at all
  • Ride a different "gear" in walk or trot for each loop of the serpentine
This can be particularly fun when switched on RDA ponies think they are one step ahead of the game and try to auto-pilot some of the changes of direction and pace: I've really enjoyed using serpentines to get horses and riders thinking.

And another thing...

There's been a big new development in what I'm coaching and aiming for this January which has filled me with so much excitement for the future. I'm not going to write about it until I've got a few more miles under my belt, but if you follow Abingdon RDA on Instagram you might get a bit of a hint...

In the mean time, happy February - lighter, warmer days are coming! - and happy coaching/riding/supporting. If you end up using any of these ideas in your lessons, or if you have any you'd like to give me, I am all ears!

Looking settled an elegant on a new horse - in many ways thanks to some of the exercises in this post!