I set up two trot poles on the track about four and a half of my footsteps apart. I asked Harley to trot and he started over the poles in a large circle. We do not work trot poles very often, so it takes him a few circuits to step over them without adjusting his stride length every time. He is so cute with trot poles, because he makes a bee-line for them even if I am not actively steering him towards them. He was like that with the jumps the other day, too. He walked up to the cross-rail and stepped over it all by himself. If he were a human child, I am pretty sure he would be the kid to insist that he tie his own shoes and would refuse help from Mom even after struggling with the bow for ten minutes.
Next, I decided to try an exercise that I have not used for years. I learned it long ago from my original dressage instructor, who was a gifted rider and tough as nails. I have never used this exercise with Harley, because learning to canter on the lunge has been a long process. When I first started working with him, he would flat out gallop on the line. It was dangerous. He tried to stay on a circle around me, but he was leaning in (Harley-cycling) so badly, that the risk of injury was too high. I noticed that he would clip the fetlocks of his hind legs and I could just imagine him falling or pulling something. Even worse than the canter was the crazy trot he would assume after "landing" from his wild canter. So we did not canter on the lunge for a long time. Every couple months or so, I would try again. Gradually he improved, but cantering on the line was the measurement of improvement, not a means of training. Now, we are finally at the point where he can travel on the line in a controlled canter and he can relax. He still has some trouble balancing himself to pick up the left lead, which is why I use the leg yield to help him. His right lead is downright stately. He looks like a seasoned traveler who has been cantering on the line for ages.
The training of the horse should be considered in units of months or years rather than days or weeks.
The exercise is simple. On a circle, trot over the poles. Transition to canter. Transition back to trot before the poles and repeat. The closeness of the transitions determines the difficulty of the exercise. The horse must be obedient and attentive. He also must be able to maintain his balance in each gait and through each transition.
In the past this exercise would have been foolish to attempt. In fact, the first time that I tried cantering Harley over a single ground pole on the lunge line, he regressed from relaxed and calm to completely bananas. He launched over the ground pole and tore around the circle at a blinding pace. It took a long time to convince him that he could safely canter over the pole. Clearly, his confidence on the line was still very fragile. This was a couple years ago, and his canter has improved so much that I felt we were ready for the next step, so we gave it a whorl.
Harley approached the poles with a long neck and a pleasant expression on his face. A few strides after the poles I cued him to canter. He calmly picked it and I cantered with him, thinking good thoughts. Before the trot poles I called "annddd t-rrooott", dropping the tone of my voice. To my delight, he dropped back to trot and zoned in on the poles. He rebalanced himself over the first pole with a lovely reach in the shoulder. Yes! My horse did not freak out. He came back to a relaxed trot AND it looks like the ground poles are keeping him calm and showing him how to rebalance after the canter transition!
This was so exciting! We repeated the transitions several times and then in the other direction. I challenged him by asking him to trot and then canter closer to the poles each time. From this lovely balance he offered an incredible stretch! He stretched his neck all the way to the ground. His stride was long with gorgeous suspension. I asked him to stay in trot so that I could admire his form. He only raised his nose a bit to avoid bumping it on the poles as he trotted over them. That's how close his nose was to the ground. The exercise must have allowed him to access and release some very tricky parts of his body. His expression said it all. That stretch felt good!
We took a break and then hopped over a tiny jump a couple times. He definitely needs more opportunities to figure out how to meter his stride to a take-off point, but the most important thing was that he was very nonchalant about the whole thing. I think that we will definitely have to make the pole exercise and jumps a regular event. I am loving how he stretched and his focus throughout the entire lungeing session. It was time out of the saddle, but well spent.