Monday, May 21, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl's Big Trot Experience

In high school and college, I used to take weekly dressage lessons.  I paid for them with my own coin and worked hard cleaning stalls to pay for shows and the lease of the Mare.  I received a well-rounded education from an amateur who regularly trained with professionals and had trained her mare to FEI and a couple other horses to third level and beyond.  Although my Connected Riding instructor has filled in some gaps in the mechanics that I learned from my dressage instructor, most of my early education is still very applicable and something that I draw upon from day to day as I train and ride my beloved Harley.  I blend the old (traditional dressage instruction) with the new (Connected Riding instruction) in an attempt to glean the best from my teachers and experiences.  Despite this, there are a few places in my education that I consider gray areas.

One gray area is the flying change, which Harley started offering on his own a while ago and I have been learning how to ride and prepare on my own.  The other is the lengthening.  I have written about them before.  I rode lengthenings and received 6's and 7's "back in the day" when I had regular dressage lessons, but I do not recall learning any real technique.  The Mare that I rode was a Hanoverian/Thoroughbred cross with a heavy head and huge shoulders, but tons of drive from behind.  I thought that I used to release the reins and let her go, but the photo below says otherwise.  She did not have awesome balance or elevation, but she did lengthen on her own.  I remember schooling the lengthenings a bit by riding ten meter circles before and after the lengthening or shoulder-in to balance her on her inside hind before take-off, but I still feel like it was mostly her.  I was just lucky to have her to ride.  If I had taken some lessons focused on improving the lengthenings, maybe those scores would have turned into 8's.  She certainly had the power.

The Mare: A scanned photo probably from summer 2001.  She was a 16.2 hand Hanoverian/TB cross, age 14 here.  The Mare was a big, strong horse which encouraged a very assertive position in me.  Here she was offering a nice lengthening in a round frame.  I can see the overflexion now, but I was not aware of it at the time and we probably still got a 7.  She was not a light horse to ride, but she was definitely fun.  Oh, and I had bigger biceps back then. 

Harley's gaits are smaller than the Mare's were.  Where she received 7's, he gets 6's, but we were able to earn a couple 7's for his canter lengthening last year in the First Level tests.  Having ridden both horses, I can attest to the fact that Harley has tremendous power in his hindend, even if his movement does not inspire high scores.  For his size, I actually think that he has more power than the Mare did, he just wasn't bred with dressage in his blood and he is far more sensitive than she was.  The Mare would barrel forward relentlessly and had to be ridden with spurs to keep her respect.  On the other hand, Harley will stop if he feels too much tightness in his rider's seat and legs, but can fly when there is nothing blocking his forward energy and drive.  Spurs have not graced my boots since I have owned him.

Harley's big trot pictures from July 2011.  For comparison, Harley is a 15.1 hand Quarter Horse, and 13 years of age at the time of the photo.

I like his head and neck position and level frame.  The attitude of my body is much more following with my shoulders nicely over my feet in rising trot.  My teacher is always insisting that I do not lean back against my horse.

Sure, I have felt Harley's big trot.  It feels like he reaches forward with his entire body.  The trot feels smooth yet big and definitely with longer strides.  He hits a flow, which is not always easy to initiate.  The idea seems to be his first, mine second.  I am okay with that, although if I was a dedicated horse show competitor, I would need better control.  I would need to crack the code, so that I could ask my horse to produce his amazing trot whenever the test called for it.  Without regular instruction, I had realized that this would be very difficult.  Maybe even impossible.  Maybe Harley just couldn't produce the kind of lengthening that could lead to medium trot and extension.  Since I did not really know what I was hoping to create, I had kind of been halfheartedly schooling lengthenings from time to time and not really getting any further than I had years ago when I rode the big mare.

This photo is from summer 1999 or 2000.  That was 12 years ago!  I like the relaxation in the Mare and my following hand position, although this was probably a less impressive lengthening than the first picture.  I think that the judge pictured may be Heather Mason of Flying Change Farm.

Until now.

My time with Harley has been haphazard lately.  Between school, family obligations, and his allergies, riding to train has been on the back burner.  I am just happy if we get a nice ride in at all.  Schooling lengthenings has been farthest from my mind and, perhaps, that is what opened the door.  Harley does like to offer new tricks or discoveries of his own.

Last weekend, after we finished a few laps of canter, I brought Harley back to trot and started down the longside.  Every ounce of him wanted to canter again, but I resisted.  I half-halted on the outside rein and told him "trot".  I continued to half-halt every stride, saying "trot-trot-trot" as we went.  The power and energy that he wanted to use to canter did not dissipate just because I did not allow him to, instead he put that power into his shoulders.  They came up.  The feeling was almost comical at first.  He seemed to be pushing off his front legs and his hind legs at the same time.  The strides were still in the trot rhythm and the tempo was nearly the same, but his front legs were moving with a looseness and upward feel that I had not experienced before.  He also arched his neck more and pushed his back up almost dramatically.  I found myself fumbling the rising trot a bit and laughing at myself.

"What was that, Harley?"

He repeated the stunt a couple more times.  The last time, I immediately brought him to walk and praised him enthusiastically, leaving the ring to signify that he had done something truly remarkable.  In my mind, I still wasn't sure what we had produced, if anything.

The following Saturday, I was granted a few hours late in the day to ride my horse.  Feed was being dropped in the buckets by the time I swung my leg over the saddle, but I was confident that Harley would humor me for a ride before he ate.  I think that he misses riding as much as I do when we have short time together.  He did not disappoint and warmed up well.  I could tell when he was ready to work, because his trot hit a fluid stride and he powered around the ring.  I heard my friends who were feeding say, "Look at Harley."  I bet it felt even better than it looked.

After we warmed up with some canter-trot-canter transitions, I decided to try to initiate the weird trot from last weekend.  We cantered around two corners and came back to trot for the long side.  I felt him want to power forward, but I resisted his urge to canter like I did the last time that we rode together.  Without hesitation, he bounced his frontend up in what felt like a bonefide lengthened trot.  I stopped and praised him with a break.  "Okay", I thought, "this is real."  Something had apparently clicked into place for both of us.

After a rest, I repeated the pattern, sticking to what was working.  We cantered a few strides and headed down the long side in trot.  This time I remained seated in the saddle so that I could better support the half-halts with my seat.  I knew that this might discourage him from trotting bigger, but I had a hunch that it might work.

As we started down the long side, I felt him want to canter again, I resisted and half-halted trying to repeat my aids in the same manner as before.  This time he broke into canter, before trotting bigger.  I rode the canter and brought him back to trot for the next long side.  Apparently sitting in the saddle, seemed like an invitation to canter, since I typically sit that gait, so I half-halted with more assertion.  Surprisingly, the feel was very strong in my hands, but this did not cause him to fall forward or lose steam.  I lifted up on both reins, even though I had not half-halted in that manner before.

Harley's shoulders came up with the reins.  I saw each shoulder move forward separately with a new hesitation.  I felt the hang time between his swinging shoulders.  This was not like his previous lengthenings.  This was not even something the talented mare had given me in the past.  I cheered,

"Good Boy, Harley!!!"

We tried it again.  I felt like I had the secret now.  The more strongly I half-halted up, the bigger his shoulders moved.  It was so counter intuitive, that I was not sure if I should trust it, but clearly my horse was doing something very different.  He even produced the new big trot without the canter prelude.  I only asked for a few strides at a time, praising him and encouraging his every attempt.  I started chanting, "Big, big, big..." to keep the rhythm of my half halts consistent.  It was amazing and yet so odd.  The stronger the feel that I took on the reins, the more he seemed to understand that I wanted big strides and the more they went up instead of forward.  I can understand why it would take a lot of practice and strength to maintain something like that for an entire diagonal.  I had never felt a trot quite like that before.  It almost felt like a different gait.

Just when I think that we are not riding enough to progress,
Harley surprises me.

I would appreciate some feedback, if you have ridden a big trot before.  What does it feel like to you?  Did you have to half-halt up?  I felt I was almost tugging on the reins, but Harley did not get offended.  In fact, he moved even bigger when I increased the "tug".  There was so much energy that I did not really use my legs at all.  It was so strange, but so exhilarating.


  1. So at the Christian Carde clinic there was a rider who wanted help getting a horse to extend for second level work. He had her raise her hands to raise the horse's poll and free up his shoulders. He then flew across the ring in an extended trot.

    Lift the head, sit them back, free the shoulders, and let them go.

    I've been playing with this on the friesian too, we're trying first level test 1 next month. I've been using the corners and picking up my hands to get him off his shoulders and on his butt before I push him on. Sounds pretty similar to what you've been doing.

    1. I wonder if that is why half-halting up produced such a different feel in the trot? Makes sense. Thanks for the straight forward explanation from your own lessons. Much appreciated!

  2. I loved reading this. Your description made me want to be there. I took lessons years ago on a big Oldenberg mare and I think my experience was similar to your experience with The Mare. It was the little Arab mare I owned...she made me ride! And when we found the button to truly lengthen it was much like you describe. The part that stands out in my memory the most was the hangtime...the suspension when she'd really push off. It was always so surprising coming from little miss 14.1 hands on a good day. Nowadays when I'm toodling around on my current mare (we really are still just at the toodling stage of dressage) I can't help but to try to ask her to open up like that. But she really isn't anywhere near there yet and I get disappointed. I can't help but to seek that feeling. Probably one of my favorite sensations in dressage.

    I just love your Harley. Glad I found your blog!

    1. Great! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      Cool description. Your shared insight is very helpful to me. That does sound like my own experience.

  3. My big trot experiences are limited to lunging, and I had a hard time sitting it. No advice from me. ;)

    Looking forward to the day that I can coax that kind of movement from Val under saddle. I love the second picture of Harley trotting - he's moving out for sure!!

    1. Thanks, Calm, Forward, Straight!

      You and Val have been moving along nicely. Before you know it, you will be flying down the long side, too. :)

  4. I haven't done dressage since I took Level 1 as a "final exam" in college (and that was way more than 12 years ago; not saying how many more, either ;o) Interestingly enough, I remember being in somewhat of a snit as I had drawn the only Quarter Horse in a barn full of Warmbloods (a green one, no less). I was just sure we would tank, but he turned out to be brilliant and we passed with flying colors (teach me to judge by breed, right? *laugh*)

    Harley is a bright boy, so I should think that when he offered the canter and you said "Not what I want", he decided to offer you something else. You have a nice open line of communication with him, and each time he asks and you answer it improves your relationship even more. IMHO that is what it's all about; the relationship.

    I don't know if you've ever read Mark Rashid, but his books offer some wonderful insight into this line of thinking. He is "western", but his ideas transcend disciplines (again IMHO).

    and BTW: You GO girl - Woo! :-D

    1. Great story, Jen! I like the way you described the process. Thanks for that.

      I have heard of Mark Rashid only through fellow bloggers, but since his name keeps popping up, I should probably add one of his books to my summer reading list. I do not mind that he is "western" as you put it, as I often research western training techniques since many of them ride quarter horses. In fact, my trainer specialized in dressage for gaited horses, but she is so amazing that I just tell her that Harley is a 3-gaited horse, so we get to keep her!


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