This Week in Dressage: Halts Revisited, Working Canter

After last week spent packing a beginner around at pony camp and the training show, it was time to put Thunder back to work. He was so good with his beginner – bombproof really, although he did trot up to each ground pole and then walk and climb carefully over it at the show. I brought him in early on Monday and suddenly was riding a hot, spooky young horse who ran sideways away from a pile of jump fillers. As you do.

He settled quickly, though, and we could get to work on two concepts. Going back to what I said after the last show, we needed to work on our halts, stretchy trot, and lengthened trot for Prelim. I am intentionally not drilling the lengthened trot right now. I drilled Arwen’s early on and destroyed it forever. So we do it once a session or so, but I keep it lighthearted, only ask for what I think he can give me, and only when I think he feels like giving it. We also work over trot poles set far apart now and then to help him figure out what he needs to do.

The stretchy trot is also much improved just by incorporating it into the cool-down every session, so that leaves us with the halts and then schooling for Novice next year.

We started with the halts. They are a lot better since my light bulb moment of riding the walk actively to get the halt square, but about 50% of the time he’d be square in front and then step forward with his right hind. Erin pointed out what should have been blindingly obvious: of course he steps forward with the right hind – I sit so hard on my right seat bone. It’s only because he’s huge and kind and not super sensitive that he only does that instead of swinging quarters to right like Arwen and Nell always used to.

So we tried riding the walk actively and sitting harder on my left seat bone (ugh left hip why must you ruin everything?) and we had consistent square halts at last. Sometimes I overdo it and he steps forward with the left hind, but it’s just a matter of me finding my balance.

Then it was on to working on some Novice stuff. While we have played with basically everything from Novice, it hasn’t been polished or serious. And the biggest problem remains his canter. I can hold it together for long enough in a Prelim test to make it look good, and the transitions are some of our best marks, but it’s still not truly in front of my leg. That means it’s not truly connected or supple or balanced either.

We started with my favourite, bestest, simplest exercise to get the canter in front of my leg.

  • Canter large.
  • Focus on sitting really, really still with the leg OFF.
  • The moment he loses impulsion or breaks his rhythm, touch him with the whip behind my leg. Not leg, whip. Leg is Mr. Nice Guy. Leg is for the transition. Leg is NOT to keep your lazy behind cantering when it’s actually your own responsibility.
  • If the break in rhythm occurs less frequently, give him a break.
  • If the break fails to occur less frequently, increase the intensity of the whip aid.

I had to take the whip aid all the way up to a good smack before the message penetrated and Thun started to do his job, but it did help to reinforce the idea that leg = go and no leg does not equal no go. In other words, he started to carry himself forward.

He was quite stiff during this session, so it was evident that he found the idea a bit difficult and it made him a little tense, so I started looking at ways to help him develop the canter muscles to make his job easier.

The first was my gymnastic line from last week, the one with all the bounces. If you think about it, bounces are just really high canter poles. He HAD to canter forward and engaged without getting strung out to this exercise – there’s no way to just flop through it. And he did! He didn’t touch a single pole. We repeated it a few times, then turned around and jumped it going the wrong way, with the big vertical (80cm) and one stride first and then the bounces. I expected this to be hard because he had to rebalance quickly after jumping the bigger fence, but he just skipped right through. Good chap.

Our next session he suddenly had a CANTER! So much so that I started playing with the Novice 3 canter work: loop through X in counter canter, lengthening, 15m circle. He stayed so connected and bent beautifully around the circle. The loop caught him unawares and he did lose his balance for a couple of strides the first time, but it was clean and obedient. We even actually got a lengthening. The transition from lengthened back to working was not as crisp as I’d wanted, but he kept his rhythm. It all wants polishing but it feels as though he is ready to do the polishing.

His simple change through trot is also OK but can have too many trot steps, so that’s just something to work on.

We ended the week with some raised canter poles. He threw them all over the place at first, but if I rode them light seat he went through well. Getting off the baby’s back a bit can’t be a bad thing over poles, so I was happy with it.

We will add a day of pole work/jumping to each week and I think a day of lunging in side reins in canter especially can also help to strengthen the canter. It’s not bad, really – it just doesn’t feel like his walk and trot, which are both AMAZING.

This horse is amazing. A majestic, powerful, adorable marshmallow.

Glory to the King.

feel free to laugh at this one

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About firnhyde

A disciple whom Jesus loved. Called to horsemanship, among other things, and an adoring spectator at God's own stableyard. Volunteer medic, Jersey breeder, occasional writer. Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. Luke 1:38
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