"Could my horse be more supple?"
I decided to get creative and combine some exercises. We started with leg yielding on a circle in walk. My focus was on sitting centered and asking him to give in the ribcage from my inside leg "hugs". I have been taught to hug with a slightly upward feel, encouraging my horse to lift his torso between his shoulders. Since I was going for some bend and asking him to hold the position as he walked slowly around the circle, the leg yield became a shoulder-in. I wanted to feel him always moving away from my inside leg and rein and towards the outside rein and my outside thigh. My outside thigh makes room for the stretch to the outside and supports it, kind of like an ace bandage. I do not want him to "disconnect" his neck from his shoulder by overdoing it. He can be a wiggle worm laterally, so I have found that providing a boundary for the bend also helps his balance. If I focus too much on one aid I can overbend him and disrupt his balance all too easily.
After he was feeling flexible on the circle, we moved into trot. I picked up the inside posting diagonal and leg yielded back to the rail from the quarter line. Next, I added the canter. After leg yielding to the rail, I kept my inside leg at the girth and asked him to canter. During the transition, I felt very connected to his outside hind leg. I asked him to give in the ribcage during the leg yield and tried to maintain that flexibility into the canter. I kept the canter short, bringing him back before the first corner, so we could repeat the exercise.
This simple combination of exercises, leg yield to canter, showed me some interesting things about my horse's canter transition. When leg yielding to the left, he wanted to try and skip the leg yield and just pick up canter right, stiffening and dropping his shoulders into the transition. When leg yielding to the right, he found it difficult to maintain the release in this ribcage and pick up the left lead, even though he is more bendy to the left. This made for a engaging ride, as I managed my "two horses" and tried to keep my own body in line. My right hip has a harder time moving forward in the saddle before canter right and I like to drop my left side. I had to pay attention to my own position so that I was not making the exercise more difficult for Harley.
With careful, slow practice, the exercise worked its magic. My "two horses" became more and more alike. Harley began embracing the leg yield left and waiting for my cue to canter right. He was not stiffening into the transition quite so much and found a little more lift in his shoulders. After leg yielding right, he was able to pick up the left lead with better lateral balance. Once he had the hang of it, I encouraged him to maintain the release in his ribcage while cantering straight ahead. I was thinking a little bit shoulder-in, but we were really just straight. Maybe shoulder-fore. To be fair, he is not wickedly crooked. I find his one-sidedness to be quite small, but everything in riding is relative. After all, I am still a righty, no matter how much I try to be ambidextrous when I ride. He can still be straighter and suppleness is the avenue to get there!
Training aside: This same exercise may be used from a trot spiral, leg yielding out to a canter transition on the circle. That exercise is absolutely golden. I worked this exercise with a horse who almost could not pick up the canter and he transformed into a confident, relaxed horse with a big, rolling canter. It took a lot of time with a capital "T", but the trot spiral to canter was the anchor of our success. I use the same concept on the lunge line to help Harley balance for a canter transition.
Back to my reflection...
I was not quite ready to let the fun end, especially because Harley's canter was feeling very effortless. I decided to try some counter canter. Harley can definitely counter canter. I am not embarrassed to say that we practiced A LOT of counter canter when we were trying to get the leads down, if you know what I mean! Maybe this is why, I have not really employed this excellent suppling activity. I am still happy that he picks up the lead that I
After picking up a nice balanced canter, we traveled down the diagonal. Then Harley did something funny. He pressed his ears back, like little periscopes focused on me. His gait became a little tense and he raised his neck. My interpretation of his response is this:
"Hey Lady. If you want to flying change, you are NOT sitting right. Just thought you should know, because if we go for it, I am going to have to fix those TOTALLY WRONG seat bones and legs. I can do it, but I am just saying that you are not going to like it."
I kept my legs and seat exactly as they were and told him that he was correct to stay on the right lead. I did not want a change, especially not a flying change. He kept his ears back a little longer, but as I continued to tell him "Easy, Good Boy", he finally believed me. We tried it about three times, the last time attempting a three loop serpentine, which worked nicely, because he was not sure where we were going.
On the left side, he repeated the warning ears and I stroked his neck reassuring him that, odd as it was, I wanted to stay on the "wrong" lead. Since he is quite the honor student, I decided to challenge him further. I trotted down the quarter line and asked for the counter lead. He got it! First try and picking up the left lead of all things. After two more successes, where my main task was asking him to wait, we changed to tracking left. I whispered a working deal that I have with him:
"If you get it on the first try, we will only do it once."
We barely make it to the first long side and he is already in counter canter. Seriously? How can he be that smart? Horses are supposed to have a weak connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum. Very strong in primates, including humans, of course.
Now I am laughing, as he counter canters through both corners and heads down the second long side. No questioning ears this time. I ask him to return to trot and we pick up true canter for the next short side. On a whim, I ask for trot again, and the counter lead. We continue all the way around the ring like this, true canter on the short sides, counter canter down the long sides. As I let my inside leg swing forward to initiate the next lead, I imagine that it might feel something like tempi changes. As my clever little quarter horse settles into his post-ride snort and walk, I think to myself,
"Hey, a girl can dream!"