Thursday, March 14, 2013

Le Galop

I have been trying to take full advantage of the arena at the boarding facility where Maggie is boarded. After all I have paid for the month and I intend to get every pennies worth.  I have been riding 4-5 nights a week, regardless of rain, snow, ice and mud. Bad footing and Montana spring weather be damned!!  It's a small arena but I get to ride inside. AMEN!

It's left me dreaming of having my own indoor arena someday and I have officially started yet another piggy bank...The Indoor Arena Fund. I am trying to come up with creative ways to put money aside for my own indoor arena..I am thinking Bake sale?? Yard sale? Standing on the street asking for donations?? All  very good possibilities... So far.. the indoor arena piggy bank has $1.37 cents of loose change in it. We aren't off to a great start. I am thinking of taking a loan from the European Vacation piggy bank which has been building for 6 years.

Is that wrong?


It's going on three weeks since I have had Maggie boarded  and the riding sessions haven't quite turned out like I imagined. I have to share the small arena with lots of young lesson goers, and other "O-Mok-See " or gaming adolescent riders that think racing around barrels and poles at Mach Chicken speeds is fun and then can't understand why their horses are half out of their minds when they try to do anything else.
All this activity is distracting and nerve wracking for poor Maggie and myself. Not to mention the  fairly green lesson giver/trainer and the bad training advice she often gives to lesson goers. I have to make a mental effort to tune her out.

I had originally planned to spend alot of my time in the arena lungeing Maggie to work on her canter and canter departs. Very few horses I have ever known are naturally balanced in a canter. A nice canter can take time to develop. Maggie is one of the worst cases of an unbalanced canter I have ever experienced. She's tense, unbalanced, racey, counter bent and bucks in her departs whether its under saddle or lunged. It's ugly and impossible to ride because she holds her ribcage is such a way that the saddle slides to the outside. I literally have to stand on my inside stirrup to keep it from sliding over, which is totally counterproductive to staying balanced on the horse. I have not spent alot of time working on improving her canter because it's so difficult  and I was avoiding it  but she is going to be 8 years old next month. It's high time we work on it.

Initially I had the notion that if I could get her to canter on the lunge , over time  she would learn to relax in that gait, enough to make it more bearable to ride and then I could hop on and cater away into the sunset.

er... not exactly....

While  lungeing goes a long way to help the horse learn how to travel in that gait, lungeing alone isn't going to fix Maggie's issues with it. Even on the lunge she struggles. She actually does the strangest thing. I should seriously video tape it because it's kind of funny to watch in fact. When I ask her for a canter she will trot, trot trot just as fast as her little feet can take her (which is pretty fast) , and then only by continued encouragement by me, she will explode into a huge kick out/buck thing then off to the races at high speed, scrambling  canter. She will canter a few strides and then it's like she startles herself and does another leap in the air/kick/buck thing causing tension on the lunge which she interprets as me pulling on her , which  then causes her to be startled and abruptly stop. Her mane and forelock are usually all in disaray by now and she just looks so incredibly funny and pathetic. The poor thing..

Like I said, it's not pretty.

I often hear the green inexperienced trainer instructing her students to "canter" without ever going over what those things are to prepare for a canter,whether it be aids, posture, or lateral work. Often times the horses are cantering around on the wrong lead without any correction.

It got me thinking about how I am preparing Maggie for a canter. The correct aids should be something like this.

Support the outside shoulder of the horse with your outside rein. This lightens the inside shoulder in preparation for canter depart.
Inside rein contact but light, or neutral contact
Lean on your outside buttock by lightly putting your outside shoulder back.
Ask for the canter depart by putting your outside leg back and touching lightly.
Keep your inside leg at the girth.
Let your hands follow the forward momentum of the horse moving ahead. (light hands)

 How am I asking Maggie to canter? Are all my aids clear, am I balanced? Am I consistent? I know what the correct aids are  and how to apply them but am I doing that each and every time? What about the work that comes before I have ever asked for a canter? Do I have the ability to control Maggie's front end independantly from her hind end? Is she responsive or reactive to the aids? Is there any resistance?

These are all questions that I got to thinking about more carefully.

I have only attempted to canter Maggie once since being at the arena. For one reason, the obstacles of the other riders are just going to make things even more difficult and getting private use of the arena just doesn't seem to happen and two,  I discovered some holes in  properly preparing her for the canter .

One of the key precursors to a good canter depart is the horse being able to perform a good shoulder-in. Maggie needs more work on this. It had been a while since we had practiced. The shoulder -in teaches the  horse to move laterally and bend from the poll to the tail. The horse moves toward the outside of the bend with his eyes directed toward the inside of the bend.

But what does it do in relation to canter preparation?

As I understand it, when done correctly the horse must must lower the haunches, therby engaging the  hindquarters, thereby lightening  the front end.
Its one of those lateral moves that I personally find harder to do correctly because I tend to want to push the hind quarters out as opposed to direct the shoulders in. The best way I have found it to work for me is to start on the long side of an arena and as I come out of a  the corner, to begin to ask for the shoulders. I am a visual person so I need this spacial reminder of coming out of a corner as opposed to just doing it along a straight wall. 

It goes something like this:

As Maggie comes out of the corner, I keep contact with the inside rein like I am going to ask for a circle. I open my  inside rein slightly (this is directing), keep light contact with the outside rein, inside leg at the girth, outside leg slightly further back. At the moment her eyelashes, nose, the poll, the neck and the shoulders start coming inside the arena on the circle, I encourage her to “slide” on the long side of the arena by bringing the inside hand toward outside (inside hand toward outside shoulder of the rider). I am careful NOT to cross the center of her main with the inside rein.I carry a crop to softly tap on the inside shoulder of the horse to cue her lightly. I have seen some western riders use theirs feet on the shoulder but I prefer a crop.   It looks dumb in my opinion to shoot your foot way up there on the horses shoulder and it throws the rider off balance.
The inside leg at the girth maintains forward thrust and the outside leg – slightly further back – controls the haunches.

I have two other suppling  excercises that I have been focusing on to  help  free up Maggie's shoulders and hips and  become less reactive to leg aids.

                                                Sideways on a circle(softens the shoulders)
Going to the Right
Stay balanced in the center of the her
look ahead, and onto the arch of the curve
Inside calf lightly on at girth, light contact.
Outside calf slightly back, light contact
Focus on making my shoulder point back towards her hip on the same side as we come around the circle. This keeps my shoulders in line with her shoulders and is a good reminder for me because I tend to hunch my shoulders and lean forward.

As Maggie comes around, I tip her nose slightly (eyelash) to the center of the circle and slow the outside shoulder by shifting my weight a  little more to the outside(left) seatbone and more feel on the outside rein.
Asking with my inside leg and supporting outside rein,I ask her right hip to "float" sideways and forward to the left front shoulder as we come around. Right hip to left shoulder.  If the shoulder drifts or gets ahead of the hips, slow the left leg with outside rein contact to let the hip catch up.
This is essentially a leg yeild on a circle.
I only ask for a couple of steps  at a time , no need to get greedy. I don't contribute to the thinking that if two steps correctly is good, 14 steps is better. If two are good, I leave it at that. If I can't get one or two good, I just regroup and try again but here is no need to drill it once she gives me a try. Sometimes in the beginning, all I got with Maggie was a shift of weught or a small step without crossing her hind feet. We had to build on that until we got that true step.
Then  we switch direction and do it again. I will do this for a couple of times and then go do something else. With my little Morgan wonder, I have to keep things really mixed up or she gets irritated and things go down hill quickly. She doesn't appreciate drilling either.

This excercise alone seems to keep Maggie more relaxed than asking for a leg yeild on the straight. After trying this a few times, and then trying  a straight leg yeild on the straight, Maggie had much better success with the nicest floaty leg yeilds I have ever gotten from her. No head tossing, no swishing of the tail or any other resistance. 

I love it when a plan comes together.

Here is the other one I like to do.
                                                Soft Hips- Turn on the forehand
This excercise  is really helpful with preparing for canter departs particularly.

Going to the right
Centered in the middle of Maggie, focusing on the arc of the circle with good posture
Slow the shoulder by putting more contact on the outside rein and sitting more weight into the outside seat bone (left), letting Maggie's hips come around.
After only a step or two, stop the hips with the outside leg and sinking into the saddle a bit with balance seat bones, and bring the front end through to the right.
Repeat in the other direction.

Essentially I am combining a hind quarter release, pausing , then asking for a front end release or turn on the forehand in one movement. Ideally it should be slow and controlled.

A big issue with Maggie is that she tends to rush and anticipate. These two excercises have really gone a long ways to help me to help her through some of that and it seems to be translating to other areas.

Maybe our quiet canter depart isn't so far off afterall.


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