It’s just under two weeks now until the closing date for the brand new July ‘Unicorn Waterfall’ tests. We didn’t run these tests last year, but it always saddened me that the test calendar didn’t allow for a test with serpentines in, as they’re such a fun movement for kids!
Our Unicorn Waterfall tests include a three-loop serpentine, which is generally the most popular one to be ridden in a 20x40m arena. You can also ride a four-loop serpentine, which is an alternative way to change the rein too!
Often for children, you’ll hear a serpentine referred to as riding a ‘snake’ (and I almost went for a Snakes and Ladders test theme – but MiniD was desperate to have a unicorn-themed test, and she’s got to be allowed some Mini Director privileges after all!) So ours is a waterfall…. The pole channels form ‘bridges’, and help guide your rider to make their loops the correct size, so pay attention when setting them out. Have you been slack on your home-schooling over lockdown? This is a great opportunity to include some maths 😉 A standard ‘small dressage arena’ is 20m wide, and 40m long. A three-loop serpentine has to equally divide that 40m into three equal loops. 40 divided by 3 is 13.3m…. so you want the centre of each of your pole channels to be 13.3m down the centre line from A and from C!
Knowing where the straight lines of your serpentine must fall is only half the battle – a serpentine is made up of half circles, connected by these straight lines through the ‘bridges’ on the centre line. We’re looking for three smooth and even half circles (each with a 13.3m diameter – or thereabouts!)
Serpentines are a fantastic exercise for developing suppleness in your pony – they have to switch from the alternating bends of the half circles, to being straight on the connecting lines across the centre. Older/more experienced riders (Blue/Red level) should be starting to really influence their ponies here. We’re looking for the rider to be using their aids correctly to help the pony bend around the curve of the half circle – here’s a reminder of the aids needed for riding a circle/curving line:
- inside leg – in simplistic terms, this gives the pony something to bend around, and should be used ‘on the girth’ (in reality this is actually just behind where the girth is – the natural place where the lower leg should sit if the rider’s position is correct) The inside leg keeps the pony out on the circle and stops it ‘falling in’.
- outside leg – this comes a little further back behind the girth to help control the turn of the pony’s hindquarters, and is also responsible for maintaining forward movement.
- inside rein – this is the ‘indicator’ – it asks the pony for the bend required for the circle, but should NOT be the main turning aid as if used too strongly it will either cause the pony to ‘fall in’ onto a circle path that is too small, or bend too much through the neck and therefore ‘fall out’ by drifting through the outside shoulder.
- outside rein – this maintains a soft contact to control the speed of the pony (and for those more experienced, also prevents too much neck bend that would cause the pony to ‘fall out’ as above)
It helps to think of ‘pushing’ the pony around the turn using the outside aids, rather than ‘pulling’ him round the turn using the inside rein. Think of pushing a channel of water!
This all sounds like a lot to cope with for younger/less experienced riders – and it is! Circles are one of the hardest things to ride correctly, even for adults! However, even the smallest of riders can be encouraged to turn their head to look around the path of the curve they are riding, and this will help align their shoulders and body (seat/hips) in the correct way to help aid the pony – meaning that as they progress up the levels and become more experienced at using all their aids correctly, they will already have the basic foundations in place. I think many of our Lead Rein riders will be familiar with the comment ‘don’t forget to look where you are going’ on their test sheet! It is never too early to start looking properly in the direction of travel, and as the head proportionally weighs a fair bit, it really can help accuracy even if the rein/leg aids are yet to be fully understood.