Skill-Building: A Stitch at a Time

Like a master quilt maker, Janice Green creates patterns to help her students sew the fabric of good horsemanship.
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Like a master quilt maker, Janice Green creates patterns to help her students sew the fabric of good horsemanship.
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Have you ever watched riders work patterns at dressage shows, reining competitions, or jumping events? Done well, the performances look effortless. And while those patterns may seem like strictly a competitive pursuit, guess what? Riding patterns offers each of us a way to improve how we communicate with our horses-and how they respond to us-even if we never set hoof in a show ring.

Lifelong horsewoman Janice Green has developed pattern riding as a way to help her students stitch together an even closer bond with their equine buddies. She is the owner of J Bar 4 Ranch in Watkins, Colorado, a teaching, training, and boarding facility east of Denver. For more than 20 years, she has worked to give students and horses the tools they need to learn and grow together.

Janice has always enjoyed creating and riding patterns, a trait no doubt left over from her early days riding on drill teams. This extensive experience also helped her realize what a great skill-builder pattern riding can be.

Many of her students are highly motivated beginner-level to novice-level adult riders. Janice wanted to cater to their needs. She envisioned a progressive program that would help them set goals and feel good about their accomplishments.

"While we all like going for trail rides, I've noticed that when many riders head into the arena, they're a bit lost," Janice says.

As she developed her program, Janice found it was easy to break patterns down into fun, learnable segments. Starting with the basics, each new pattern requires different skills that build on the previous one, so there's great potential for growth. Established patterns allow riders to practice on their own; and knowing that they'll be tested provides incentive to work through the various elements.

"My students seem to find the most success when they work in a system that's both flexible and accountable," Janice explains.

Creating a Process
Janice's program currently consists of seven levels. She starts with simple patterns first, just walk/trot exercises, and builds from there.

"At the beginning, riders have so much to learn. They need to learn to read the pattern, remember the pattern, and practice working the elements of the pattern. This early skill-building is the cornerstone for long-term, continued improvement," she explains.

Janice schedules once-a-month testing dates for anyone who feels ready to be evaluated. She judges each rider using her own scoring system. It is similar to the scoring system used in reining, trail, and dressage competitions, but with her own priorities added to the mix.

"I use 70 as a base score, just like in reining and trail competitions," Janice explains. "So each rider starts with a 70. Plus and minus points accumulate throughout the ride and are then tallied into the score."

Secrets of Learning and Memorizing Patterns

Don't shy away from this unique and fun skill-building tool because you think that memorizing patterns is too difficult. Remember the old adage, "You're only good at what you do a lot of." Just as we ask our horses to learn by repetition, we need to do the same as riders. Janice Green offers these hints to help you learn and memorize patterns:

• Redraw the pattern yourself. Take the drawing you made or your instructor gave you and redraw it. Try to visualize you and your horse in the arena performing the pattern as you draw.

• Color your drawing. Some riders use a different color for each gait. The color association can help with reading a pattern and turning the visual image into physical results. Color can help you remember what goes where when you're trying to visualize the sequence in your head or ride the pattern on your horse.

• Write a sequence list. Turn the pattern into a list of maneuvers. Some people can memorize a list even though they can't memorize a picture.

• Walk through the pattern. Leave your horse at the tie rail and actually walk through the pattern yourself. You can trot where appropriate and canter, as well. There's something about the act of physically performing the pattern yourself that helps lodge it in your brain.

• Ride the pattern with a caller. When you're mounted, get a riding buddy to talk you through the routine. For some people, hearing the pattern described out loud helps lodge it in their brains.

Some of these ideas will work better for you than others. Try one, try them all, and try them in different combinations. "Keep trying until you find what works for you," Janice urges. "It is well worth it!"

To perform a pattern successfully, riders usually go through a three-phase process which involves learning the pattern, eliminating mistakes, and strategizing to earn extra points. Here's what testing entails:

1. Learning the pattern. The rider must work the pattern in proper sequence. Going off course gives the rider a "0" score.

2. Working to eliminate negative scores. Janice gives negative points for any pattern part that's less than perfect. These are things like a break of gait, a missed diagonal, the wrong lead, excessive cueing, or poor execution of a maneuver. By reducing the number of mistakes, the rider achieves a cleaner ride, fewer penalties, and a score that hovers around that 70 starting point.

3. Strategizing to earn plus points. Since scoring is a plus-and-minus affair, it's important to emphasize the parts of the pattern you and your horse do really well. The goal is to get an above-average score. Remember, 70 is "average."

"To pass one pattern and move on to the next, a rider needs to score 75 points and achieve a really flawless ride, with lightness of cues, nicely maintained gaits, and everything forming a pretty picture," Janice explains. "To meet these criteria, you need to perform some parts of each pattern exceptionally well to get plus points."

For instance, say you're able to perform a trot along the rail with your feet out of the stirrups, maintaining a good solid seat while ensuring that your horse doesn't speed up. Then you reinsert your feet in the stirrups in a smooth, easy gesture that gets no reaction from your horse. This would earn you a +1 score for that sequence of the pattern.

But it's not just about the score. Strategizing about the best way to ride the pattern is a great teaching technique as well.

"The process allows riders to work on the quality of the parts to achieve a polished whole," Janice confirms. Working through the process of perfecting a pattern is a project unto itself. "Don't be surprised if it takes you months to be able to accomplish a solid, finished ride," she advises.

Skill Development
Janice's program challenges riders to improve on a variety of fronts, including such things as:

• Gait consistency. Maintaining a gait without constant cueing is the basis of all pattern work. Riders learn to achieve cadence and rhythm within the walk, trot, and canter, with the horse maintaining each gait on his own until asked for a change.

• Gait transitions. Riders must change gaits where indicated in the pattern. For example, if you're supposed to move from a jog to a lope in the center of the arena, you need to develop the horse's responsiveness to your cues to get the transitions at the designated location. You also need to improve your feel and timing, giving the cues to achieve this precision as you move up and down through gaits.

• Steering. Pattern work typically involves riding in circles, boxes, serpentines, and the like, all of which need to be a certain size and performed in a certain location. Sometimes, riders need to match the size of two circles or the many bends in a serpentine, steering the horse in such a way that he stays between your reins and your legs.

• Negotiating obstacles. Some patterns require you to negotiate obstacles-things like poles, cavalettis, bridges, or other trail course elements. This can be a huge skill-builder. You and your horse must develop trust in order to perform well over obstacles.

• Communicating with different parts of the horse's body. You may be required to execute pivots, sidesteps, and lateral work. An advanced pattern might even ask you to perform counter-canters and lead changes. All of these maneuvers call for a high level of understanding and mastery of how to make certain parts of your horse's body move.

• Equitation. To improve as a rider, you need as much saddle time as you can get. Better equitation comes as you learn to feel how the horse moves under you. You may need to post on the correct diagonal or lope your horse in the correct lead, which requires that you learn more about the mechanics of the trot and canter so you know if you're doing these steps correctly. Pattern riding can help you learn and practice skills beyond the basics. As you develop a feel through your seat, you will develop better hands-that is, slower and smoother cues that work with the horse, not against him. Riding patterns leads you to feel the difference in your horse and your own body as equitation starts to improve.

• Focus. Because you must think ahead to the next segment of the pattern, you actually improve both mental and physical focus by pattern riding. You must concentrate physically and mentally on what you're doing at the moment and remember what comes up next. Your horse will understand and respond well to both of these improvements.

• Overall Communication. As you work to achieve all that's listed above, you can't help but improve how you communicate with your horse, using lighter cues and getting greater responsiveness.

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Test Day Jitters
Test day at J Bar 4 Ranch always elicits some jitters. Each rider performs the pattern individually in front of Janice and any spectators who may be there as the cheering squad. Testing gives everyone a chance to experience that feeling of being in the show ring. Being able to work a pattern undisturbed by this added pressure is another task to master-and great preparation for anyone who wants to take their riding to the competitive show ring.

At Janice's barn, most of the spectators are fellow boarders and lesson students. They provide great moral support for those riding on test day. While the arena may be as still as a library during the performance, cheers and calls of "good job" and "nice ride" afterward always make riders feel positive and more confident, and build camaraderie.

After each test run, Janice completes a written score sheet, which is a mini-lesson in itself. On one page, it gives the rider a numeric score for each segment, an overall score, along with comments on what went well and how to improve. Janice also reviews the score sheets one-on-one with riders, while everything is still fresh in everyone's mind.

"I write down comments for riders to keep and refer back to as they practice," she says. That way, riders have a record of which skills they've acquired, and suggestions for exercises and skills to work on to improve any problem areas in the pattern.

Sharing the Program
You can implement pattern riding at your barn in a couple of ways.

Instructors: If you're an instructor, you can use pattern riding as a short-term tool in lessons. Make up a short pattern that includes skills you've been working on in class with your students. Spend time at the beginning of a lesson working on the parts of the pattern, so students can practice these skills. Then, have students work the whole pattern two to three times during the lesson. Give them something specific to improve upon during each run. The short-term goal is to see adjustments and improvement every time the rider goes through the pattern.

Or you can take a long-term view of pattern riding, as Janice has done. "The long-term goal is to build confident, responsive, bonded horse-and-rider teams while having fun along the way," she says.

Start with one pattern, then add another, then another. Before you know it, you'll have your own long-term program going at your barn.

Pattern Work = Better Performance, Fewer Problems

Do you need your horse to be more responsive to slow-down cues on the trail? Do you need to improve your mare's gait transitions to be more competitive in the western pleasure show ring? Are you trying to despook a jumpy horse? Take these goals and design patterns that highlight the weak links in your horse's training. Developing a pattern that you can practice over and over will help you develop a better broke horse. Build a pattern that requires many transitions from point to point, or put together a pattern with a variety of scary obstacles that you must learn to negotiate together. You can even build groundwork patterns to help work on confidence and control issues.

If you break down your patterns and work on them segment by segment, your horse will show definite improvement. It's what Janice calls "purposeful riding." She urges everyone to "Have fun and go for it!"

For information on Janice Green's skill-building patterns and how to judge them, you can contact her at jbar4ranch@netecin.net.

Be creative in designing your own patterns. Make a list of skills you or your students are working on, or would like to work on. Put these skills into maneuvers and then connect them.

Go to horse shows to get ideas on how to use the entire riding space to create movement in your pattern. Your goal is to create a flow around the arena.

"I advise keeping the patterns short to begin with," Janice adds. This speeds up learning time and helps to increase pattern retention. "You also can take a look at dressage tests-available in books or online-and modify them to fit your needs."

Riders: If you train with an instructor, work with her to develop a plan that focuses on the improvements you want to make. (You might share this article with your trainer as a first step.)

If you generally ride or train alone, enlist a friend to help you with the evaluation portion of the program. Share the pattern and explain it, then ask your cohort to evaluate you while you ride through it. Try to find somebody who will be good at giving you constructive ideas and will congratulate you for what you do well. Make sure your judge understands that this is a skill-building tool for you and that you appreciate complete candor in evaluating your ride.

The Value of Goals
The biggest benefit to pattern riding is that it gives you goals to work toward. Having goals keeps you improving as a rider and benefits your relationship with your horse.

As you break a pattern down and work on the separate parts of it, think of mastering each piece as a separate goal. Ride each piece over and over until that element is smooth and polished. Think of putting all the parts back together again as another goal, and work on it so you can ride a beautiful complete pattern. Then aim toward that next pattern. Approach the learning process in small steps (as you do with your horse's training), making sure you master each step before moving on. Directed practice and repetition are key.

"The sense of satisfaction my students feel when they successfully complete a pattern is great to see," says Janice. "They know that they've reached a goal to improve their level of communication and understanding with their horses."