Friday, May 15, 2015

May Lesson: A Canter Is a Cure for Every Evil

Wednesday night we had our May lesson with Amy Howard and I think it might have been our best one yet.  Much knowledge was dropped upon us.  Which I'm going to spill back out for all of you, so brace yourselves.  (There's really good stuff in here I promise.)

Amy asked for my list and I told her we need to work on shoulder-in and haunches-in to the left, and the downward transition from lengthened to working canter - which became the major focus. Whenever I ask him to come back, I get a downward transition to trot, so in the test I just let him coast back to his working canter.  Which the judges notice (duh), and comment on.  And in my head I'm thinking, "Do you want me to break to trot? Because that's how you get breaks to trot."  

Tucker and I ran through our usual warm up, which Amy said she had no complaints about, that he looked really swingy and the leg yields looked great.  (Nice.)  She watched his canter and concluded I'm not getting that downward transition because he isn't straight.  Also, she explained that the only way to teach him that a canter-trot transition is not what I'm asking for is to let him make the mistake and correct him - and that it won't get fixed by avoiding the problem (there's a life lesson in there too but that's probably a different blog).  

I'm going to try to repeat her explanation here because it's a good one and you guys will like it.  You ask the horse to collect, and if he breaks you immediately send him forward and be clear that that's not what you wanted.  And you ask again, half halt, and don't support him - trust that he's going to keep cantering, and wait to correct him until he actually makes the mistake.  Eventually, the horse is going to have a choice to make - when you ask him to collect, he has to decide either break to trot, or collect his canter. And the smart ones (which obviously Tucker is, see wunderkind definition) will learn that what you want in that moment is collection, and make the choice to collect.

Just look at that smart cookie.
Before we get there, though, we have to tackle the straightness issue.  I'm about to get hyper-technical here, so if that's not your thing this won't be your favorite post.  So, first we put him on a fifteen to ten meter circle to the left, and worked on the following:
  • Open right (outside) rein
  • Think of my left leg as a pole that the horse turns around
  • My left leg should point down to the ground like an arrow (keep weight in left stirrup)
  • Left leg stays on at the girth asking him to give through his rib cage
  • Use the right leg farther back to ask him to "tuck" his right hind in
  • Envision pushing the horse's tail to the inside - as though his tail is being pulled in on a string
  • Stay centered, not too much weight in the right stirrup, not shifting hips to the outside
  • Look at the horse's outside ear
  • Softer on the left rein, don't let him lean or brace against it
  • Then, for the collection: soft wrists, stretch tall, sit, half halts on outside rein -- firmer than I think they need to be
So that's a whole lot of things to think about all at once, but he did get straight eventually.  He did some leaping - he does this crazy move where he comes way up with his front end and strikes out with his front feet like he's trying to punch someone in the face.  Thankfully, Amy reassured me that [the amazing, beautiful, super talented upper level horse in her barn] does the same thing sometimes. They just get all this energy and don't know what to do with it, and sitting down is really hard so it comes spilling out the front. Which made me feel way better about my giant marlin.

We worked on walk pirouettes without my stirrups next, to get me sitting in the middle of him and using my leg aids without doing weird unhelpful twisty things.  I don't know how to do a walk pirouette so we'll be working on this as well, but it's basically left bend, haunches-in, and then turn the shoulders around the hind end to the inside without losing the haunches-in.  We actually did that a couple of times correctly but, yeah, new skill means much practice is required before it clicks for me. But basically, the feeling I have in the walk pirouette is what I need in the left lead canter.

Then we went back to the right, which is Tucker's easier lead but my harder direction because of the aforementioned weird unhelpful twisty things I do.  So, to the right, I need to do this:

  • Open/direct left rein, hand to hip (no neck reining!)
  • Use left thigh/knee to push him in
  • Concentrate on pushing the horse in from the wither (but with the left leg, not rein)
  • "Counterbend," which will actually get the horse straight because he's overbent to begin with
  • Keep my sternum up/chest open
  • Eyes up - looking out at the horse's outside ear and not staring down at him
  • Right shoulder back
  • Lower his head/neck like there's a carrot on a stick but maintain the rest (this is super hard for him)
  • Collect with half halts, soft wrists, and has to be a moment of release in each stride so it's not just pulling on my outside rein

Tucker thinks this straightness stuff is for the BIRDS and got a little rude and barge-y for a bit - but the key here is to keep him straight so he never actually gets his left shoulder all the way out and braces against my left rein and I have no leverage.  Once I got my left hand out of my belt buckle and actually used my left leg for something and sat UP, things got a whole lot better.

We worked on picking up each lead on the straight line, just inside the track, so I could see in the mirror how straight (or not) we were.  We had some beautiful transitions to the counter-canter.  Just in case that was what we wanted, which it wasn't.  

Then we worked on the straightness and collection on a small circle, lengthening/medium canter down the long side, and back to collection on a small circle again.  The goal was to get the collection back within one circle, which we did not quite accomplish.  We did, however, get some really beautiful canter work out of him when I managed to mostly do all the things in those bulleted lists. Tucker broke to trot many times, and got corrected many times. I'm not sure he had the lightbulb moment we are hoping for yet - but we'll keep working on it.

On a macro level - for the past five months we have been working on opening up his stride, and now it's time for him to learn to compress that energy.  Before, since he had no forward energy, he was behind the bit and stuck.  We've fixed that problem, so now it's time for the next step.

Tucker is still exhausted.  I am still sore through my entire rib cage, front and back, but I think that's actually a good sign.  


  1. sounds like an amazing (and meaty!) lesson! also find it very interesting that your trainer was able to find a different movement (the walk pirouette) to help give you the feel for what you need. pretty much everything here is a bit beyond my current reach - but it all makes a lot of sense. good luck getting that 'light bulb' moment with your marlin!

  2. Sounds like a great lesson! I am especially interested to try the canter work you described in the beginning, I have the hardest time adjusting Connor to a more compressed canter without him breaking.

  3. I can almost grasp what you're saying, though we're obviously miles behind you. Very good lessons all around though. :-)

  4. Holy moly! How DO you grasp doing all those things at once? I think my head might explode :)

  5. Yaaassss all the technical beautiful things. Go Tucker!!!

  6. This post gave me goosebumps. This is why dressage is the best.

  7. Dressage is HARD. Good job!

  8. I'm still at the "go forward" stage and not quite ready for the collection yet. But I love reading about the tips and tricks you're using to start the process!


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