Step By Step

I had the most amazing rides yesterday on both Cava and Liam.  I don’t know for sure why both horses gave me such incredible rides, but I have a pretty good feeling it had more to do with the exercises we worked on Wed and Thur, and not so much that we were all just in a good mood because it was Friday!

During the week I did a LOT of work with both horses on transitions.  And not just “doing transitions”, but working the transitions and making each one a good one, until they were easy.  It started walk… halt… walk…. halt…. walk…. halt…. which is the most boring type of ride known to dressage.  It is so easy to think “ok, she halted, let’s trot now” but that doesn’t cut it for this exercise.  This is the first step, everything further is built on this, so this step has to be *solid*.

It started with Cava trotting too fast actually, and blowing off my half-halts by throwing her head up when I half-halted, even though she would slow down.  But it was cool and windy, and she’s a young thoroughbred.  Too bad, no excuses, she’s a dressage horse now! So I tried to do a walk transition, and not only did she not want to walk, she braced her neck so I couldn’t turn her either.  So my trainer set us to work, starting with walk – halt transitions.  But the catch was, she had to do them off my seat, and she had to do them into the bridle, not behind the contact or by throwing her head up in the air.  To check this, I held my reins at the appropriate length and put my thumbs through the bucking strap on my saddle (sort of like creating side-reins with my reins).  I asked her to halt with my seat, and she continued to walk and attempted to throw her head up in the air.  When she found she couldn’t yank me out of the saddle, she started backing up instead.  She felt like she wanted to go up, so I gave her one rein, and pressed with my leg to turn her and bend her into the rein I was holding. When she realized she had a placed to go, she gave to the rein and walked forward.  I grabbed my strap again and asked her to halt.  This time she did stop, but not without bracing against the reins.  I just sat still and waited… and waited… and waited.  It was an exercise in patience, but she had to learn to give, and if I had given with the reins or let her walk on it would have rewarded her for pulling against the bit, but on the other hand if I had added any pressure it would have made her back up or stand up, which is not the direction we wanted to go.  So we stood there and she chomped the bit and considered her options.  Then she softened her neck and settled into a soft, acceptable contact.  The bucking strap helps ensure that when she softens, the contact softens, instead of my hands accidentally moving back to continue to pull on her.   She knows how this works because she has been lunged in side-reins.   I rubbed her neck with one hand, telling her good girl, and then replaced my hands and asked her to walk on.

She went to burst into a walk, and as she went to throw her head up, she hit the “side reins” I had created, and began backing up.  Again, I sat still and talked to her, but didn’t give.   She finally softened her neck, releasing the pressure, and walked forward. Again I rewarded her for the correct response.  Then we repeated the exercise, and each time she got the right answer quicker until I could easily ride those transitions with my seat, and she gave me prompt responses while maintaining a soft, steady contact. Then we began halt – walk – trot – walk – halt until that was equally easy.  That was enough for Cava.

With Liam, who is older and has more training, I began the same way, but was able to work up to including canter transitions.  He is much stronger, and has a much deeper “stubborn streak” to his personality.  It should have been easier with him since he knows more about contact and transitions and half-halts, but he does not like to be corrected and has little temper tantrums.  With him, the key is patience, but also the timing was critical.  I had to mix in more lateral work to keep the legs moving, since for him it’s the upward transitions where he wants to take the reins from me, especially into the canter (that’s a racehorse for ya!).

When he gets angry he can’t have his way (not only in this exercise, but in general), he will start backing up and continue to move only backwards.  This frustrates me, and I’m pretty sure that’s why he does it.  My trainer says he is “picking a fight”, or trying to get me to compromise on what I’m asking him, or let him out of what I’m asking him, or to compromise my position so he can get away with what he doesn’t want to do.  The solution?  Just sit there.  Don’t get mad, don’t start a fight (that I won’t win), and just wait for him to get tired of backing up.  It’s hard, but it works.  And the more patient I am, the quicker he stops.  If I sit there and laugh and talk to him, he sighs and gives up, but if I put my spur in his side, he backs with even more gusto.  So he backed a few times, and I laughed at him,  and we learned that we can do transitions from my seat and not the reins, and the contact doesn’t change… even when we go into canter.

So on Friday, both horses were steady in the bridle, responsive to my seat, and my half-halts got prompt responses that worked correctly from the back-end forwards.  And I got the most spectacular trots – little trots, big trots, and leg-yields.  And then I got the most awesome little canters, adjustable canters, balanced canters.  With Cava, I only do 20 and 15 m circles at the canter, and the shallow counter-canter serpentine in First Level Test 4.  For her, it’s all easy, but she is young and new to this so I’m not pushing it.  With Liam, I was able to do not only small circles, but also serpentines with simple changes, and serpentines with counter canter.  Then I rode across diagonal and didn’t do a simple change, instead I rode a counter-canter all through the short end of the arena before going back across the diagonal and returning to trot.  With him responsive to my seat and leg, and steady in the bridle, it was no problem for us to do that, even though we’d never done it before!

So, love the transitions!  It became SO clear how one step leads to the next, and how the basics support the more difficult work.  And the more solid those first steps in training are, the easier all the later steps become.

Gotta make sure I add though… this is not an exercise for a green horse, or a horse that does not yet understand contact, going forward into the bridle (and not ducking behind the bridle), or with a tendency to rear.  This is also not an exercise for a rider that does not have a good enough seat to give half-halts or do transitions from the seat, or any rider that does not have a good sense of timing of the aids and when you HAVE to give in to keep yourself and your horse out of trouble (like if they start to rear, you don’t want to pull them over backwards!!!!).  This was a “test” for horses that already understand contact, not a way of teaching them contact.   I’m not recommending doing this stuff to anyone, please consult your trainer regarding where you and your horse are at and what your next step in training should be.  Thanks! 🙂

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