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BHS Riding and Road Safety Test

August 28, 2012

Since I decided to take my BHS stages, there’s been a long gap between taking my Stage 1 and the next exam. If I’m honest, that gap has been about three years long! Part of the problem was that my next exam was the Riding and Road Safety Test, and most test centres seemed to be a long way from me, or to offer dates that I simply couldn’t do. This year, I decided that it really was time to take the plunge if I was ever going to get anywhere. Anxious not to lose the momentum, I logged onto the BHS website, found that there was an exam not too far away in only four days time, and booked myself in.

Riders assemble for a practice session at Barnston Riding Centre. Photo courtesy of Lesley Broadhurst

The Riding and Road Safety Test is recommended for all riders who ride on the roads, and is particularly useful for young riders and non-car drivers, as it teaches an awareness of dangerous situations. Hacking out on the roads can be unnerving these days, as modern traffic tends to be fast, varied and plentiful, and the BHS test teaches riders to take control of situations and make themselves as safe as possible.

The exam is split into three parts – a theory test, a simulated road test and finally a real road test. The BHS recommend that you attend a training course – normally around six two-hour sessions – beforehand, but obviously I didn’t have time to train as I’d made such a late decision about the exam. candidates are expected to answer questions from the Highway Code, and the BHS Riding and Roadcraft manual, 12th edition, and I’d already bought and read both books.

On the day of the test, things didn’t go well. I was taking Blue with me, as my late booking meant that the Centre didn’t have a spare horse, and as I had to allow at least an hour and a half to get to the test centre, Carrington Riding Centre near Manchester, with the trailer, it meant a very early start. Janice Pickup, the trainer, was there to meet us all at reception – 15 candidates instead of the usual eight or nine meant a very full exam!

Riders wait their turn to ride the practice route at Barnston. Photo courtesy of Lesley Broadhurst.

We started with the theory test – a multiple choice exam lasting around 20 minutes. Candidates have to get at least 75%, or 15 out of 20 questions right. Sample questions include topics like how to ride on the roads in icy conditions, what equipment to use, road signs and first aid. All the candidates (including me) passed this section with flying colours, and I found it straightforward, having read both books thoroughly.

Now it was time for the practical tests. Janice had set up an examination route, which included:

  • Move off safely, ride to T-junction
  • Turn left, minor road to major
  • Turn left, major road to minor
  • Turn right, minor road to major
  • Show trot, ride round bend
  • Negotiate parked car correctly
  • Halt at traffic lights, turn right, minor to major
  • Turn right, negotiate roadworks
  • Turn left, minor to major
  • Turn left, major to minor
  • Emergency dismount and lead
  • Re-mount
  • Turn left, minor to major
  • Perform U turn

The route was marked out with plastic cups, hazards were represented by jump poles and traffic cones, and T-junctions were marked with flour for road markings. The weather was very hot and still, the horse flies were out in force and soon all the candidates were fidgeting in their formal riding clothes and fluorescent tabards.

After the simulated test, it was out on the roads to ride a very short road route in real traffic conditions, to test control in traffic, signalling, negotiation of hazards and courtesy to other road users. Under-prepared, I failed the practical session for insufficient observations and not taking control of a potentially dangerous situation fast enough. It was back to the drawing board to get some training, and try again!

I wanted to keep the momentum going, rather than wait another three years, and was relieved to find that another centre not too far away, Barnston Riding Centre on the Wirral, was holding an exam in two weeks’ time. As I was again too late to sign up for the full training course, I booked a couple of hour-long private sessions with registered freelance trainer Janice Pickup, who’d been the trainer at Carrington. Janice came out and trained Blue and me at our own yard, and also advised me to join the final session at Barnston so that I could ride a practice course before the exam.

Janice drilled me carefully on each section of the test. “Remember: Observe, Signal, Observe, Manoeuvre,” she told me. The second observation is the ‘life-saver’ look, given over the right shoulder before making any moves. I learnt to give my turning signals clearly, putting my arm out confidently at shoulder height with the palm facing forwards and the fingers closed, holding the signal for three seconds to make it visible to traffic. I learnt how to position myself at junctions so that I was clearly visible to cars, and how to check the road before crossing. Janice showed me the recommended way to pass hazards, mount and dismount, and deal with traffic lights, instructing me to observe and signal as soon as the sequence showed red/amber, so that I could move off without wasting time as soon as the lights went green.

This time, things went much more smoothly on exam day. I was booked in to ride one Barnston’s horses, a lovely coloured cob called Duke. I didn’t need to take the theory test again, having passed it already, so it was straight to the simulated test, which was set out in a field. The candidates waited at one end of the field, and we each rode the test individually.

Finally, it was out onto the road. One at a time, we rode down the driveway (treating it as a road), turned right at the T-junction then right again into a minor road. Having made a U-turn, we rode back to the centre, negotiating a handy parked car on the way.

With Janice’s training behind me, I put in a much better performance, and examiner Alison came over to tell me what a difference she’d noticed as she passed me.

Sara and Duke get some final tips from trainer Andrea during a practice session at Barnston. Photo courtesy of Lesley Broadhurst.

With the Riding and Road Safety Test finally under my belt (and a cute BHS pin badge to prove it), I’m now ready to look at my Stage 2 exam – and this time, won’t be leaving it for three years!

For details of test dates in your area, or to find a training course, visit the BHS website.

Horse Agility

August 22, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, our excellent local riding club New Barn Riders held a couple of ‘taster’ sessions to try horse agility. Horse agility is an inhand discipline where the horse and handler negotiate a series of challenges and obstacles while maintaining a close bond and excellent communication. It’s a competitive discipline, with events held all over the country, but it’s also great practice for any horse and handler. It strengthens the trust bond between you and your horse, as well as being good exercise for elderly horses or those that are out of work.

Heidi and Pip show off their skill at the S bend Photo courtesy of D. Roberts

Horse agility needs little specialist equipment, and can be practised more or less anywhere that’s secure. For early training, you can use a headcollar and leadrope. Long ropes (10 feet) are better than standard leadropes, as they give the horse space to retreat while remaining under control. The handler should wear a hat, gloves and sturdy boots, at least for the initial session. Once you’ve built up a good bond with your horse, you can remove the headcollar and have your horse at liberty, moving by your side.

The session was led by expert Dawn Roberts, of Freedom Equine in Dunham Hill, Cheshire. Blue can be quite spooky with certain obstacles, although she’s generally much better with me on the ground rather than in the saddle, so I was looking forward to seeing how she’d take to this.

Ellie and Gertie negotiate the bridge. Photo courtesy of D. Roberts

Our group contained a mixture of horses and ponies. As well as Blue, there was Trigger, a Shetland pony prone to laminitis, whose owner wanted to find more options for exercising him, and Pip, a Welsh B whose teenaged owner was a little nervous and wanted to develop a stronger trust bond with her horse.

Dawn started by laying out soft, flexible squares of matting, and asked us to lead the horses over them, placing their feet squarely on the mats. Blue was unhappy about stepping on the matting, and kept lengthening her stride to walk over it. She remained relaxed though, and after many repetitions, she was happy to place a hoof on the mat. Some of the other handlers went to walk their horses over plastic tub lids, which make more noise. I decided not to do this with Blue, as she’s very nervous about anything touching her legs, and I was worried about the lid flirting up and hitting her.

Next, Dawn placed a large hula hoop on the ground. The horses were to place their front feet in the ring and stand quietly, then walk through and leave their back feet in the ring. The hoop itself was filled with beads so that it rattled if touched.  Blue was surprisingly good, even when she knocked the hoop and made it rattle.

Barbara and Blossom demonstrate the archway. Photo courtesy of D. Roberts.

The next challenge was a ‘bridge’, made from tarpaulin laid taut between two jump poles. I thought that Blue would try to jump it, but she showed no inclination at all. She stood quietly and watched Trigger the Shetland walk backwards and forwards several times, and was then happy to walk right up to it. When I asked her to go forwards and place a foot on the tarpaulin, she retreated, but was happy to step up again without panicking. Eventually, she stood with her head hanging over the tarpaulin and her feet still in the arena. Dawn was pleased with this, as it showed that she was comfortable with exposing vulnerable areas to the obstacle. Gradually, she put a foot onto the ‘bridge’ and immediately withdrew it. I allowed her to retreat, as per Dawn’s instructions, before asking again, and waiting until she wanted to move forwards of her own accord. Suddenly, she decided to take the plunge, and moved smoothly over the obstacle. I immediately led her round and over again, and we repeated several more times in each direction until she was moving without hesitation.

The last obstacle was a rough triangle made from three jump poles, filled with empty, squashed plastic drinks bottles. The smaller ponies made short work of this, bouncing through and ignoring the jumping bottles, but I decided to let Blue finish with the bridge obstacle rather than push her too hard. Finally, Dawn stretched a rope across the arena, and asked us to trot up to it in a row, then stop with our horses’ front feet as close to the rope as possible.

Blue ended the session very relaxed, and didn’t seem phased by anything she was asked to do. I’d definitely recommend horse agility for improving the relationship between you and your horse, and also for adding a little variety to inhand schooling session.

For details of instructors, or for more information about horse agility in your area, see

Top Gymkhana Tips

August 22, 2012

Children compete in a ‘ride and lead’ gymkhana race. Photo c Bob Embleton

Danielle is a freelance BHSAI (Reg’d) instructor. Here’s what she has to say:
“I did gymkhanas as a child and loved them – then I moved on to show jumping. It was all that I was interested in until I bought a horse that I couldn’t control. He was a fantastic hunter who flew over everything but I had no brakes . I started having a few dressage lessons and then I was hooked! I have taught at Peak Pony Club for about 14 years and teach dressage, XC and SJ. I also do the gymkhana training for the club. Mostly we do fun games and encourage all members with suitably sized ponies to take part. Everyone has fun but we encourage the members to be competitive. We like healthy competition and a bit of rivalry between teams.”
Danielle’s top tips:
  1. Learn to get on and off your pony from both sides – this saves valuable seconds in a competition, and dismounting on the wrong side is harder than it looks!
  2. If possible, learn to vault on. Have someone hold your pony’s head the first time you try this.
  3. Get your horse/pony used to the equipment. You don’t need to invest in lots of expensive equipment, but practising with bending poles and cones will really pay off.
  4. Teach your horse/pony to stand still whilst a pony comes towards them. This is crucial for when one team member completes their go and rides back towards another with a baton or piece of equipment. The pony waiting to go mustn’t be scared of the other pony nor be aggressive. Stand your pony at a starting line. Then have someone ride towards you and then past you to familiarise your pony.
  5. Practise skimming bending poles, keeping as close as possible to the pole instead of making big, time-wasting movements.
  6. During a relay race, hold the baton at the bottom with the other end firmly pointing upwards or out to the side so the other team member can grab it easily.
  7. Learn to neck rein and ride/steer with reins in one hand. If neck reining, have your hands further up the pony’s neck than normal.
  8. Practise!

Summer Camp 2012 – the Gymkhana

August 13, 2012

Traditionally, summer camp comes to a rousing finale with the gymkhana. As well as being great fun, gymkhana is excellent training for your horse, as it encourages him to be balanced, supple and forward-going.

We split into three teams, and practised the half-dozen games on the Saturday afternoon. Many riders and most horses had never done any gymkhana, but everyone entered into the spirit of it, getting increasing competitive as the games wore on. Unfortunately, a couple of…ahem…minor incidents on Sunday morning left Lisa and Pam’s nerves so frazzled that they wouldn’t let us gallop in the actual competition on Sunday afternoon! In protest, we called our team the ‘New Barn Ambulance Dodgers’. The other, less fate-tempting team names were The Mouseketeers and The New Barn Nutters. Gymkhana expert Danielle Dawson was seconded to judge the event and give us some tips.


The competition started with the simplest race, the bending. Three rows of ‘bending poles’ – in our case, purpose-made plastic posts, but you could use improvise with traffic cones or sturdy canes – were set up, with the poles several feet apart. The first three horses, one from each team, lined up to wait for the start signal. On the word ‘go’, the object was to trot up the row, passing to the left of the first pole and the right of the second, etc. At the end of the row, we circled the final pole before bending back down the row in the opposite direction. As each horse passed a pre-designated point, the next horse in the team was allowed to start. The trick with this race was not to let the horses go too fast, as they risked missing the poles out, and also overshooting at the end instead of doing a small, tight, time-saving circle. Many horses proved unexpectedly brilliant at this, including Roxy the Shire cross, who was quicker and more agile than many of the smaller ponies.

Blue and I wait for our turn to start in the bending race.

Stepping Stones

Next up was the stepping stones race. This one involved riding up to the top end of the arena, passing round a marker post, riding back to the row of stepping stones (upturned flowerpots) and dismounting. The rider then walked on the stepping stones while leading the horse. This race looked deceptively simple, and many horses took exception to the stones or refused to stand still to let their riders dismount. This was one race where those on the smaller mounts definitely had an advantage.

Liz and Roxy (left), Marie and Polly (middle) and Mel and Joss show off their footwork.

Tips for this race included riding right up to the stepping stones instead of getting off too early and having to leader further, and getting off on the wrong side to save time – although this caused more trouble than it saved!


The third race of the day was the relay. Each team member rode in turn to the top of the arena, turned round the marker post and rode back before passing over the sturdy plastic baton to the next rider. As many of the horses were evenly matching in speed and agility, the trick here was to make the handover as smooth as possible. The fastest way to hand over was to do it on the move, both horses trotting towards each other with each rider leaning forwards, hands outstretched. The downside of attempting a fast handover was the chance of dropping the baton, and having to dismount to retrieve it!

Riders attempt a moving handover in the relay race.

Farmers’ Market

For this race, the first two riders in the team each carried an item – an egg box or a string of ‘sausages’ (no pigs were harmed in the making of this gymkhana game!) – in turn to the top of the arena. The rider then dropped the object into a waiting basket before hurrying back. The final member of the team rode to the basket, dismounted, loaded a shopping bag with the objects, and led back as quickly as possible. The main challenge here was riding a tight, accurate circle with hands full of egg boxes, and also the risk of dropping the object through an inaccurate throw.

Apple bobbing

The highlight of the event was definitely the apple bobbing. We hadn’t practised this on the previous day, so none of us knew quite what to expect! The first riders rode to the top of the arena and dismounted, handing their reins over to the waiting helpers. Each rider then found a large bucket half-full of water, with several floating apples. We quickly discovered that the only way to get the apples out was to get soaking wet! After retrieving an apple, we lead our horses back to the start, being far too wet to put our hats back on.  Despite being a gymkhana novice, Claire demonstrated a textbook Prince-Philip-Cup-style retrieve, diving head-first into the bucket, pinning the apple against the bottom and surfacing triumphantly, all in a couple of seconds.

Claire demonstrates her winning style.

Claire’s breathtaking performance led to our team – the Ambulance Dodgers – winning the gymkhana games overall, and ensuring a fantastic end to another Summer Camp.

Never too late to learn

August 10, 2012

We’ve all been gripped by Olympic fever this week, cheering for the equestrian Team GB as they swept the board. While most Olympic athletes have a very brief career, usually retiring in their mid-thirties at most, dressage king Carl Hester is 45, eventing supremo Mary King is 51, and top showjumper Nick Skelton is 55 . If you need any further proof that horse riding is good for you, take a look at Japanese Olympic dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu. The 71-year-old is the oldest competitor at the 2012 Games, and made his Olympic debut in Tokyo in 1964.

Hiroshi Hoketsu and his horse Whisper, then aged 15, at Bejing in 2008. Photo by TK Steven.

Riding is one of the few sports that you can take up later in life, and continue into old age. It’s an excellent low impact activity, great for toning muscles, improving core strength and maintaining balance. Like any sport, it’s more difficult to take it up from scratch at a later age than to start young and continue, but it’s certainly not impossible. Modern training methods mean that older riders can learn to ride on mechanical simulators in perfect safety, and build up the required muscle tone and balance before risking their new skills on a real horse.

Many years ago, I often used to meet a lovely lady out hacking on her elderly chestnut Arab. The lady was probably in her late seventies or early eighties, and the horse in its late twenties. Having not seen her for a few weeks, I bumped into her walking her dog, and she told me that her horse had recently died of old age. When I sympathised about the end of her riding career, she replied, “Oh no, I’m going to keep riding. I’m going to get a youngster and break it in.” Having ridden all her life, she was more worried by the effect that stopping would have on her health than the risk of starting again with a new horse.

In her blog Tales of a Middle-Aged Novice, rider Alison Barton describes the challenges of taking up riding later in life, talking about the health benefits, excitement and satisfaction of her new sport with the enthusiasm of the convert. Riding really does have something for everyone – so although you may have left it too late to win an Olympic gold medal, you probably haven’t left it too late to start learning.

Summer Camp 2012 – Orienteering

July 28, 2012

Ever been lost out riding? Scared of doing le TREC or endurance riding, because you’re worried you might not be able to find your way? Laureen Roberts, TREC and endurance expert, was taking no chances with the Ride 2 riders, and was determined to transform us into a crack team of orientation experts.

Laureen started off by talking about the various OS maps available. “Riders need the Explorer series, which shows field boundaries and gives highest level of detail,” she explained. “Horse riders are allowed to use bridleways, permissive paths, BOATs (Byways Open to All Traffic) and restricted byways.

“Lost, us? Never!” L to r Liz, Laureen, Helen, Catriona and Chrissie.

Laureen quickly ran through the procedure for competing in the orienteering phase of a TREC competition.

“Competitors are given a photocopy of the OS map, and have a few minutes to copy the master route onto their own map. Be extremely careful when doing this, as there are often little trick areas, such as the route passing on a specific side of a hedge or gateway. Good navigation markers to look out for include water – streams, ponds and so on – wooded areas and buildings, as well as landscape features like water towers and church spires.”

Laureen handed out some maps, and we all marked the route. This practice exercise was to take place on foot rather than mounted, as it involved crossing a very busy A road. Laureen took us through the proposed route, pointing out an orchard, marshy area and buildings, as well as the points where we should expect to cross a road or track, then we set off in pairs.

Liz and I set off first, crossing a small wooded area and stopping every few minutes to cross check with our maps. Unfortunately, we started chatting and got a little distracted, missing the stile that should have taken us into the orchard! We were quickly back on track, but Laureen reminded us that in a competition we could have missed out seeing the steward, and lost a lot of points. We checked off footpaths, trees, two minor roads, buildings, a small pond and a plant nursery, before crossing the main road back to the yard very pleased with ourselves. Unfortunately, we’d gone bounding off in such a hurry that we’d forgotten to put on our fluorescent tabards, and Laureen reminded us that in a competition, we’d have failed the equipment check.

As well as being great fun, orienteering obviously has a very practical application. Next time it’s raining, why not get a local OS Explorer map, make up a practice route, and see if you can navigate round it?

Summer Camp 2012 – Therapeutic polework

July 26, 2012

Blue has always been a little spooky over ground poles, and I’d more or less given up lunging her over conventional coloured poles as she got so agitated whenever she clipped one with a foot. Square poles that didn’t roll worked much better, but, even so, the slightest touch against a hind foot would send her shooting forwards. She seems to have a particular phobia for red poles, and tends to clear them with a huge leap. With this inside knowledge, I was interested to see how she’d cope with our next camp session, therapeutic polework.

This type of polework is a great for stretching the horse’s back muscles, promoting accuracy, and helping to build the trust bond. It can be carried out equally successfully inhand or under saddle, making it suitable for horses who aren’t in full work.

Our ride was split into two groups of three, most of us choosing to work our horses inhand after the rigours of the morning’s drill ride. For the first exercise, led by Debbie Robinson, the poles were laid out in a rough oblong. Debbie asked us to lead the horses right up to the pole, and have them stop just in front of it for a few seconds, before leading them over.

Debbie asks her horse Jake to stop and stand before walking over the pole. Debbie Robinson in foregournd.

This simple exercise phased several horses completely, as they were used to powering forwards over poles. After we’d all got the hang of that, we then asked our horses to walk over the pole then stop on the other side, rather than charge staight away afterwards. Finally, the horses were encouraged to step their front feet over the pole, then stop before moving their back feet.

These exercises were designed to challenge the horses’ expectations, and get them really listening to us, as well as being useful for improving transitions. Rather to my surprise, Blue followed me happily over each pole, stopping and standing as directed, and not producing the expected four-foot-leap over the red poles. Mind you, we had just done a heavy session of drill riding.

The groups then swapped over, and we moved onto the second exercise, led by Lisa Pritchard.

For this, the poles were arranged into a rough circle. Lisa asked us to walk the horses round over the poles continuously, aiming for first the exact centre of each pole, then the outside end, then the inside end. The constantly changing instructions kept the horses alert and active, and they were soon stretching down and picking their feet up over the poles.

Mel and Joss show off their footwork.

We then changed to weaving around the poles without touching them, before repeating all the exercises in trot. The more forward-going horses in the group were soon working calmly, alert for the next change of direction, while the stodgier horses were beginning to work more actively. One or two horses were even bending their hocks and lifting their legs properly from the shoulder, all in a half-hour session.

This is something I’ll definitely be carrying on with, as it’s so quick and easy to set up. It also seems to have calmed Blue’s fear of round poles and bright colours, and hopefully practice will continue to make perfect.

Summer Camp 2012- the drill ride

July 25, 2012

Although summer camp is still in its infancy, one event that’s already become a tradition is the drill ride. The first practice for this generally takes place early on the first day, to give the horses a chance to settle in their new environment and get used to being ridden in groups.

We were very lucky to have Pam Rigby’s expertise for the drill ride. Pam competed several times in the British Riding Club Quadrille at Wembley, and knows all the tricks to prevent us from crashing into each other!

We were quickly divided into two groups of six, matching horses of a similar size and pace, and set off for our first practice.

Pam lined up my group of six, and sent us trotting round the arena. When all the horses were moving along the long side, we all turned across the school simultaneously, riding side by side and trying to keep in line. When we reached the opposite side, we all turned right, so that the lead horse ended up at the back.

Ride 1 practice the drill ride. L to r Melissa with Harry, Kim with Ted and Debbie with Jake.

“When you do the turn, watch the lead horse for pace, and try to keep in line,” explained Pam. “This is called ‘dressing'”.

We had a couple of goes at the turn, which went fairly smoothly once we’d learnt not to cut the corner at the end, which was resulting in us crowding each other.

Dizzy with success, we decided to try something a little harder – the scissors manoeuvre. This involved each horse trotting diagonally across the school, and crossing with the horse coming from the opposite corner.

Riding ‘scissors’ so that the horses interlink.

Amazingly, this went quite well. “Keep plenty of distance between horses 1 and 2,” advised Pam. “This gives the leaders lots of time to cross safely, and you can close up afterwards.”

After adding in a couple of other manoeuvres – including a double circle, which it took us a while to work out how to get out of – we were ready to bring in the music. Soon, the strains of the Beatles’ When I’m 64 were floating through the arena, and the horses pricked up their ears and started to trot more jauntily, keeping time to the music. “I’m bringing in the music very quietly for these horses, who aren’t used to it,” explained Pam. “Once they’ve all settled, I’ll turn it up gradually.” A second, less energetic piece of music marked the walk sections.

Finally, we put all the movements together. The final sequence was:

  • All turn across the arena, track right
  • All turn across the arena, divide into two rides of three. One group turns right, the other left.
  • Meet at the long side of the arena and ride past each other
  • Turn across the short side of the arena side by side
  • Meet the opposite ride in the centre of the school and ride through them
  • Ride a double circle – three horses on the outside, three horses on the inside
  • Work out how to get out of double circle – not easy!
  • Still in two groups, trot a 20 metre circle at each end of the school
  • Turn across the top of the arena, side by side
  • Halt on the centre line and salute.

After a couple of goes, we were all absolutely perfect. Ahem. Fortunately the ‘live performance’ wasn’t until the next day, so there was still plenty of time to practice….