Hierarchy of Support for Leaders & Sidewalkers

I am going through the gaps of information not on this blog, and it seems I have never posted about the types of support that leaders and sidewalkers can give their riders. By support I mean physical assistance – I already blogged about sidewalker prompting assistance in the Hierarchy of Prompts. Breaking it down like this helps me be clear  to both myself and the volunteers about how to help the rider, and the stages of progression that the rider can go through regarding support. Without further ado, here is my viewpoint on the types of physical support that volunteers can give the riders.

Note that in the explanations I only list a) the most important points that I try to pass on to volunteers, and b) the basics of when to use each hold for the TRI’s planning. This is by no means comprehensive.

The Hierarchy of Support for Sidewalkers

In short:

  1. Independent
  2. Spot
  3. Ankle Hold
  4. Thigh Hold
  5. Thigh + Ankle Hold
  6. Belt
  7. Vest/Harness (+ thigh hold)

Explained:

  1. Independent
    • no volunteer needed, or stands in center of arena
  2. Spot
    • stay near the rider’s leg but no holds – constantly ask yourself “am I close enough that if the rider were to fall off, I could catch them?”
    • your hands can be by your sides, as in the pockets could prevent you from using them in emergency, and touching the horse or saddle can be distracting
    • use when: the rider is progressing to independent riding; needs someone there just in case (slight balance issues, if horse makes unexpected movement, certain seizures); needs the moral support or additional focus/verbal prompts; needs a spot for mounting (then the volunteer can go, and return for the dismount)
  3. Ankle Hold
    • hold behind the ankle, or with a thumb on top of the ankle to add some downward weight; hold the ankle, not the shoe (or the rider’s heel/foot could come out of the shoe!)
    • use when: the rider’s lower leg needs help staying in place; the rider needs only a little balance support (enough that some downward pressure on the ankle will keep them in place); the rider’s feet tend to slide in the stirrups; a thigh hold would increase the rider’s spasticity
  4. Thigh Hold
    • you grip the front of the saddle and lay your forearm over the rider’s thigh, without resting the elbow on the horse or saddle – it naturally acts as a clamp, especially if the horse suddenly goes forward quickly
    • TRI must make sure their grip is not too tight or interfering with the rider’s posture, and that it’s even on both sides – as in the volunteers’ arms lie across the thigh in the same place on both sides – uneven location or pressure can cause a rider to lean
    • use when: rider has poor balance and/or restricted use of their legs; rider feels very insecure; always use in an emergency regardless of the rider (and make sure volunteers know to do this in an emergency regardless of whether you tell them to!); in the mounting area; when adjusting stirrups; when you don’t know the rider (always assume the most support then remove as needed)
    • don’t use when: thigh pressure increases the rider’s spasticity
  5. Thigh + Ankle Hold
    • use when: all the reasons above + a thigh hold is not enough and the rider needs additional stability of the lower leg
  6. Belt
    • hold it lightly; don’t pull or push – you don’t want to give unnecessary support or pull them off balance; or don’t hold but use only in emergencies
    • if your arm tires, ask to switch sides (one volunteer at a time, with the TRI taking the first volunteer’s place until the second gets there)
    • use when: the rider needs constant adjustment and the belt is better than always touching them or holding their clothing (perhaps they respond better to the belt than a hand, or have sensory processing disorder); use only when necessary (otherwise volunteers tend to overuse it to the rider’s detriment); when the rider feels more secure with it (but try to wean them off it)
  7. Vest/Harness
    1. often used with a thigh or ankle hold as well
    2. again, if your arm tires, ask to switch sides!
    3. use when: the rider has little upper body control or strength; it is easier to adjust the rider using this than a belt or your hands

The Hierarchy of Support for Leaders

In short:

  1. Complete Control
  2. Responsive Control
  3. Help as needed
  4. Loose lead
  5. With lead 3 feet away
  6. Unclip, stay by head
  7. Unclip, 3 feet away
  8. Unclip, center of arena (independent rider)

Explained

  1. Complete control
    • The leader has complete control of the horse regardless of rider’s actions
    • Use when: rider is unable to cue horse; you are not working on a riding skill (such as during warmups)
  2. Responsive control
    • The leader controls the horse only after the rider cues (the rider cues, the leader responds) and regardless of whether the horse actually responded to the cue (sometimes the rider’s cues aren’t strong enough but it’s the best they can do so you want to reinforce that they did it correctly)
    • Use when: the rider is not quite strong enough; the rider is learning a new skill; the rider applies the aid correctly but the horse doesn’t obey (sometimes a horse will get focused on following the leader instead of listening to the rider)
  3. Help as needed
    • Rider aids, then you assist as needed – sometimes they need help, sometimes they don’t – perhaps set a guideline for the leader such as if after 5 seconds the horse is not responding then help out
    • Use when: the rider is not quite strong enough; the rider is gaining independence
  4. Loose lead
    • Rider aids and is in control, and the leader does not assist unless it’s an emergency (even if they walk into a wall)
    • Use when: the rider is learning independent riding; the rider needs help focusing; the rider needs to learn their cues affect the horse (sometimes if left too long with a controlling leader, they learn they don’t have to control their horse); when a rider is normally independent but there is some slight danger of the horse spooking (such as severe weather) in which case the rider could not handle it on their own
  5. With lead 3 feet away
    • Same as above (#4) but the leader is 3 feet away-ish, giving the rider a sense of independent riding without the actuality
  6. Unclip, stay by head
    • Try not to interfere with the rider, you will need to respond with your body’s direction asap when you see the rider’s cues because often horses will follow the person on the ground over the rider, or you may be in the way
    • The leader can start with “help as needed” and progress to “do nothing unless it’s an emergency”
    • Use when: the rider is ready for the first step toward independent riding
  7. Unclip, 3 feet away
    • I say 3 because it’s close enough the rider feels safe and the leader could reach the horse in case of emergency, but far enough it pushes the rider toward independence. Really, you can wean the rider off the leader by slowly adding one foot away at a time.
    • Use when: the rider is ready to ride independently but you want the leader nearby just in case (in case there is a spook, in case the horse gets distracted, etc.)
  8. Unclip, center of arena (independent rider)

Assume the Most

Lastly, I always stress to volunteers to assume the rider needs the most assistance unless I otherwise tell them! (And to ask me if I forgo to tell them!) It’s safer to assume this, than to assume the rider doesn’t need support when they do.

Do you have anything to add?

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Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

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