There are so many paradoxes in riding. Paradoxes make riding a mind-bending journey, which I love. Intuition can be useful, but intuition can lead a rider down an unsuccessful path if he or she is unaware of those figurative little wrenches in the spokes of functional rider-horse movement.
My friend is in a full-blown training journey with the horse he is riding. They have had their ups and downs, but recently they have been more on the up and my friend has stayed firmly in the saddle. He told me about an epiphany which he had while riding his horse. He said that it was the strangest thing, but if he put his legs on, his horse did not speed up on the trail and would maintain a nice pace in trot or walk. He could also transition down from trot and halt his horse very easily when his legs were applying a gentle constant pressure to his horse's sides. I smiled and congratulated him. He had discovered, perhaps, his first paradox and was totally captivated.
"When I keep my legs on, he stays slow or slows down. If I take my legs off, he speeds up and even gets nervous. It's the strangest thing, but it's working!" He was all smiles. I love sharing in a good riding moment.
I know what my friend is talking about, but I let him enjoy his discovery without offering my own insights. He will not forget his self-taught lesson and his horse will continue to reward him for correct riding. That is surely sweet enough without my two cents.
I have been working on much the same thing with Harley. I have been focusing on quality in the transitions. I want my horse to feel like he is carrying himself through the transition, whether it be up or down, maintaining his balance and his forwardness. I try to refrain from using my legs to keep my horse going, which leaves them available for other things, like transitions and lateral work. I have been generously applying my calves in the transitions. I am trying to slow the transitions down. I do not really mean the pace, although that has slowed down, too. What I mean is that I have been trying to be really in the moment for every transition. Riding the transition in parts, if you will. The preparation and re-balancing, the hint for the type of transition we are going to do, and the final cue to perform the transition. I have decided that I have not really been riding the entire transition. I was paying more attention to the gaits before and after the transition, than the transition itself. This was very un-dressage-y of me. Dressage is all about the transitions, and for good reason. The transition is the work. The transition is the balancing act. The transition is the test.
Before each transition, up or down, I have been applying my leg and insisting that Harley step into the bridle. I want him walking really nicely before the cue to trot. I want to feel each hind leg and each front shoulder swing forward. I do not want any resistance in his back or neck. He can do these things quite nicely, but he doesn't do them as nicely if I do not insist at least in the beginning. This has become our warm up. Once I feel the swing, and I do not mind how fast the swing is, just that it feels fluid, I ask for the upward to trot. I was so excited the last time that we rode, because he stepped into trot with no fuss or hopping off his front end. Even though it was the first walk to trot transition, he stayed on the aids and carried himself forward. I praised him like crazy, because we have been chipping away at that first transition for many months!
Next comes the downward transition. It makes sense to keep your legs on to move up a gear, but is counter-intuitive to put them on for the downshift. I reapply my calves and half-halt, stilling my seat a little to let him know that I want to transition to walk. Then I keep my legs on and wait to feel his hind legs stepping under. As I feel them step under, I half-halt again and ask him to transition to walk with my seat. My hands are ready to receive his energy as he moves into the bridle from my leg and seat as he goes from walk to trot. The reins "fill up" instead of losing contact (which he can do in a heartbeat if I let him downshift abruptly) and I feel that his back stays mobile and wide. Since this plan is a renewed focus for us, I have actively kept my legs on through the transition and into the first steps of walk. I even will bump him with lower legs to encourage him to be forward in the walk and then we go back to trot before he has a chance to lose any of the energy. After a couple repetitions, he becomes more and more reliable in carrying himself in the transition and I do not have to ride every moment with as much concentration. I know that I am convincing him that that is a better way to move, because he starts snorting and blowing through his nose. I love those happy riding horse sounds.
Can you guess the most challenging downward transition for maintaining the forward?
Walk to halt. That one gets my vote.
The walk doesn't have impulsion, so Harley can lose energy very quickly and hollow, leave his hind legs behind and brace in the neck. This also includes dropping his shoulders. I started asking him to halt and if I felt any of these things start to creep in, I immediately put the gas pedal down and asked him to find his forward, supported frame again. Then we revisited the halt. Slowly. Incrementally. Until he figured out how to keep everything relatively the same and even stretched into the bridle into the halt. I had to use a lot of leg! A lot of leg to get the halt. Harley actually started maintaining the nice arch in his neck into the halt and chewed the bridle. I reached down and patted his neck, like he was a fancy dressage prospect in some training school. He gave me a little appreciative chomp on the bit. Then I prepared to put my legs back on, feel the forward in the halt and asked him to walk forward without loosing any of the forward feel to the bridle or his self carriage. I was giggling to myself about the challenge and excitement of riding what felt like really correct halts, even though I have halted a horse a bazillion times. I know why my friend was so excited by his personal riding discovery. Riding is a wonderful opportunity for discovery and rediscovery, that never gets old!