Jec Ballou

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    Santa Cruz, CA
  1. Western Dressage Exercise – Circle Square Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou Last weekend, I had the good fortune to absorb Dr. Kerry Ridgway’s sage advice at the “Optimizing Straightness, Balance, and Performance Symposium” here in California. Dr. Ridgway presented over two decades’ worth of biomechanical insights from studying performance horses. Hands-down, the most common problem he encounters is how horses’ natural crookedness affects their performance. Especially when carrying a rider, this natural crookedness creates gait deficiencies, weakness, and hindrances to performance. Well ridden circles are the best way to help fix a horse’s asymmetry, but they also bring the risk of leading to compromises. When asked to ride a circle, the crooked horse develops sore muscles, bracing patterns, shorter strides, and stiffness. So, how then should we proceed? This is where I like to recommend my Circle-Square Exercise. Not only does this improve your horse’s symmetry without riding around in endless circles, but it also requires constant adjustment and skillfulness from the rider. This is a simple exercise, but let me recommend that you set up cones to be SURE that your square is actually… well, square. We tend to fool ourselves otherwise. Set up a cone at each corner of a 20-meter square. Let’s get started. This exercise can be ridden in all three gaits. “Circle-Square” Begin in working jog, traveling left. Ride one 20-meter circle. Then immediately ride a 20-meter square. Ride your initial circle again. Continue repeating. Variations: First, confirm this pattern in jog (both posting and sitting) and lope in each direction. Then, try altering the size of each circle/square. Then, try riding your circle at a jog, followed by a square at a lope. Accurate geometry is the first priority of this exercise, followed closely by your horse bending properly. Assess this as you go, being sure not to forget that each corner of your square should be ridden like a quarter of an 8-meter circle — your horse should show clear lateral spinal flexion with his inside hind leg stepping under his mass.
  2. Western Dressage Weekly Exercise- The Clock Posted June 14, 2012 authored by Jec Ballou Without dispute, a horse’s ability to flex his sacroiliac joint and lower his haunches entirely determines his success and progress as a performance horse. Flexion and strength here are critical not only for collection, powerful movement, and advanced maneuvers but also for the basic requirement of carrying his rider on a lifted and supple back. This flexion and suppleness comes from a horse properly using his psoas muscles, those deep interior structures that stabilize his pelvis. The following exercise helps a horse achieve the right tone combined with relaxation that is a cornerstone of good Western Dressage riding. It combines the elements of steady rhythm, bend, rounded topline, and balance. It is suitable for both jogging and loping. I recommend riding it ten times in each direction. “The Clock” You will need 4 ground poles, ideally wood ones that do not roll when knocked into. Mark out a twenty meter circle in your riding arena. On this 20-meter circle, place a ground pole (lying on the ground, not raised) at 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 9 o’clock. Place each pole such that you will ride directly over the center of each while riding around your 20-meter circle. Remember to look up and cross the CENTER of each pole. Many riders find themselves crossing the outer edge of the pole. You must plan your line at least 20 feet ahead to avoid this. Now count the number of strides between each pole. Be sure that the number is exactly the same between each pole. Keep your hands steady and low on the reins. Ideally, you will keep a soft contact with the horse’s mouth over the poles and he will cross the pole smoothly without lifting his head and neck. Make sure your horse bends to the inside around your entire circle. Have fun! This deceptively simple exercise usually takes riders several repetitions to really master. Once you are riding it smoothly and consistently, there are a number of ways to vary it. You can alternate posting the jog vs. sitting it. You can try riding it in faster and slower tempos, just making sure to keep a consistent rhythm in whichever tempo you choose. And eventually you can raise the poles up off the ground to a height of 6-8 inches. I consider this exercise a great foundation tool. I return to it with advanced horses to re-confirm basics, and I use it with young ones to secure basics before moving on to more complicated gymnastics.
  3. A Western Dressage Exercise--Schaukel

    Western Dressage Exercise – Schaukel Written by Jec Ballou on March 21, 2013 · In dressage we talk a lot about the broad subject of strengthening the horse’s hindquarters, but the specifics of what we actually mean by this are sometimes vague. I won’t bore you with an anatomy lecture here, but on this topic it is worth knowing one small fact about the horse’s muscular and skeletal system: joint flexion determines correct strength building. The horse’s hip and stifle joints closely effect one another. These two important parts are connected by a cord-like muscle called the tensor fascia lata. In order for the stifle to flex well—and therefore draw the hind legs under the body for engagement—the hip must flex. Trying to accomplish engagement of the hindquarters without ensuring good flexion in both of these areas will only create torque and strain at the junction of the horse’s pelvis and spine. In developing any equine athlete, a rider needs to continually think about where the hind legs are. First of all, this demands riding in the correct tempo to build strength. When your horse jogs, watch the motion of his hind legs. Are they swinging forward and landing under his belly or trailing out behind him and landing behind his hip line? If you observe the latter, this indicates poor stifle flexion and you should increase your tempo during schooling sessions to activate these joints. The same rule applies to loping, which is why trainers caution riders not to slow the lope tempo before a horse is ready. Without adequate flexion of the joints to draw his hind legs under his belly, it becomes nearly impossible to strengthen his hindquarters. Once you are riding in the correct tempo for good use of the hind joints, you then want to choose exercises that increase strength in the horse’s hip flexors, biceps, and quads. As with any gymnastic exercise, I recommend using an interval format for the following exercise. Ride it in short doses followed by rest periods of equal duration. SCHAUKEL From a balanced, square halt with the horse stretching softly towards the bit, ask him to back up 4-6 steps. Make sure the rein-back remains very straight and that the horse marches backwards with an active step. After your final step backwards, ask the horse to promptly walk forward 4 steps. Ask for a brisk energetic walk. Then halt briefly and walk backwards again. Continue riding backwards and forwards for 5 repetitions. As this exercise improves, it should feel smooth and easy for the horse like a rocking horse. Pointers: The horse’s topline should remain level as you go backwards and forwards. There should be no lowering or raising of his neck. After each rein back, the horse should march vigorously forward. The purpose is to refresh his forward energy and thoughts so that he is prepared and balanced to flex the hind joints. If your horse gets crooked in either the rein-back or the halt, walk forward several meters until he is straight through the body again. Always regain straightness by riding forward.