The action of taking small rocks form one spot to the next causes students to exercise multiple skills. I call this “The Rocks Game”.
Set Up is Simple
Place 5 or 6 rocks (you can choose the number of rocks you like best), that are about the size of a golf ball, on the top of a fifty five gallon barrel. (I prefer to use the plastic barrels over the metal ones, as they are a little gentler if bumped.)
Then place a bucket at ground level about 60 feet away. (Change the distance according to the skill level of your rider or to the size of your arena)
How to Play
Your student will ride at a walk to the 55 gallon barrel, pick up a rock, carry it to the bucket on the ground and drop the rock in the bucket. They will repeat the process until all of the rocks are in the bucket
The Skills That Come Into Play
Navigation: it takes work to learn to get a pony (or horse) close enough to a barrel for a rider to reach a rock. It also requires the ability to stop the horse in just the right spot.
Confidence and Flexibility: Taking the reins in one hand and leaning away from the horse to reach a rock can be challenging for the beginner who is concerned about falling. The farther away from the barrel that the student stops the horse the bigger the stretch. Tall horses provide an additional challenge for bending and stretching. Bending and reaching are opportunities to develop flexibility on a horse. It should be no surprise that as confidence is gained, flexibility increases. When students are fearful they tend to hold their bodies more tightly.
Coordination: Having to carry a rock with the reins, re-adjusting the reins now that they’ve been in one hand, turning back toward the bucket on the ground and making the pony walk on requires coordination.
Critical Thinking: I leave it up to the student to figure out how to get the pony close enough to the barrel or bucket and how to get it to stop at the right time. I only intervene if it appears that the pony is afraid. I like to give the kids a chance to figure and reason things out, even if they have to make several approaches the first few times.
Hand/Eye Skills: Lining the pony up to get the best drop into the bucket and then placing the rock in the bucket may seem like minimal skills to an advanced rider, but to the beginner it is an achievement and uses hand/eye coordination.
A Word of Caution:
Students can be very creative about how to carry a rock and you can choose what you’ll allow. I’ve seen students successfully tuck a rock in their pocket or belt, ride one handed with the rock in the other, or ride with two hands and the rein and rock in one of them. But watch (for obvious reasons) that your student doesn’t try to tuck the rock in the chin strap of their helmet. Also, watch that they do not try to tuck the rock under the pommel where it could work it’s way into the gullet of the saddle. Explain that the clearance in the gullet and pommel are to give space to the pony’s withers and spine, and that the rock could cause pain.
How to Increase the Challenge:
Don’t miss the bucket: There’s nothing like having the child’s rock miss the bucket and see the child sigh and look towards you like you are supposed to race over after the rock like a squirrel looking for nuts! Except for the very youngest students, mine know that if they miss the bucket (even if their rock bounces out) they will have to dismount, retrieve the rock, remount and drop in in the bucket from their pony. This increases the desire to get the rock into the bucket and you’ll see students bending lower to make sure they don’t miss. From an instructor’s standpoint, it’s not so bad if they miss. A miss gives the opportunity to practice a few more skills such as leading the pony to find the rock, coordinating reins, and mounting. I’ll go as far as bring the mounting block close by and will assist in the mounting with beginners.
Start & Finish Line: If you add a start and finish line (it will be the same line) you can make a time challenge, even if you only have one student. Let them beat their own time or set up a time for the student to beat. This feeds the competitive spirit.
Speed: The easiest/safest speed increase is to have the student trot up to the 55 gallon barrel. When they have “mastered” getting to the at a trot and stopping the horse at the right time, close enough to pick up their rock, then you can add the more difficult task of trotting to the bucket while holding the rock.
Competition: Make it a competition by setting up 2 sets of rocks, barrels, buckets and start/finish lines at equal distances. This will allow 2 students to compete for accuracy and speed. Be sure not to over face timid riders with a race. Keep it slow at first.
Teams: The Rocks game can be a simple relay game for teams. Everyone starts behind their respective start/finish lines. Make sure your students are aware of safety so there are not any pony arguments. The first rider takes off, retrieves her rock from the barrel and puts it in the bucket. The second her pony’s feet begins to cross the start/finish line the next rider may take off to retrieve their rock. This continues, with each rider starting and ending behind the start/finish line, until all the rocks are in the bucket and the last rider’s pony crosses the finish line.
You ad variety by determining the gait at which the riders may proceed, even assigning one to trot and another to walk, making sure it is equal for both teams. You can also work on their team skills by letting the students decide who will go first, 2nd and so forth. Or who will walk and who will trot. Keep a sharp eye on students who will be trotting back toward their team mates, making sure their ponies stay in control. Ponies and riders get excited even during a simple game like The Rocks Game.
Always stress safety and awareness with your students, especially while they are waiting for their turn to go. Watch for those who get too excited and forget that their bouncing and cheering for team mates can be unpleasant for their ponies.
Ages and Abilities:
The Rocks Game it can be adapted for everyone. It can be used for lead liners. Add cantering for advanced riders or increase the distance between the bucket and the barrel and add a jump on the way to retrieve the rock. Do you have riders on young or green horses? How about a horse that needs a break from collection or lateral work? With a little imagination you can take this one simple game and make it fun and beneficial for all of your students.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox