Last week, Harley and I finally had a regular schedule. I was able to ride him for two days in a row, lunge on the third day, and go on a short trail ride the fourth, before heading out for a family reunion for the weekend. The weather was very pleasant with temperatures in the low to mid eighties. We were in heaven.
Harley gave me some excellent stretching work and sitting trot. He was very happy to reach forward and down and stay there for as long as I kept the reins long. I could feel his back swinging as his hind legs stepped under my weight. Once I shortened the reins we went to sitting trot. I felt him do something kind of interesting. It seemed like he sort of steadied himself for a stride to balance under my seat. Then he trotted forward and was very easy to sit. He stayed light in front the entire time he was trotting and through changes of direction. We practiced some trot-walk-trot transitions and I paid special attention to keeping him marching to the bit in the walk. This is our most challenging transition, because he likes to drop the contact and curl up a little bit or root down asking for a walk break. I have been trying to incorporate the medium walk in more of our work sessions so that he doesn't just associate the walk with a break. This seems to be helping, but, like with people, horse habits die hard.
The theme of keeping the working mindset in walk carried over into our lunge session on Wednesday. I warmed Harley up in the walk and trot and then over four trot poles. He floated over them without touching a single one or missing his stride. Five of my feet, toe to heel, seems to be the magic distance. I think that is about four to four and a half feet between the trot poles. I always praise him for a good trot over poles, because he used to hollow over them. Now he finally knows how to carry himself and judge the distances at the same time. Then we moved on to canter and he demonstrated what a pro he has become once again. Not only did he canter smoothly and in rhythm, he kept the canter nicely until I asked him to trot. I encouraged him to keep cantering and then realized that he was going on his own.
We went to the left after warming up on the right. Harley did a nice free walk at the end of the lunge line, taking a break and waiting for me to ask him to move up a gear. When I wanted to trot, I bounced in place, imitating the energy needed for trot, and clucked. Instead of picking up the trot like he usually does, Harley stepped calmly into the canter. He picked up the outside lead, but the transition was so nonchalant and smooth that I praised him. I repeated everything that we did going right in the new direction, but I kept Harley's new trick in the back of my mind. Once we had cantered a couple times on the left lead, I asked him to come back to walk. Of course he thought this meant he was done, but I wanted to see if he would canter from the walk at my request.
I waited until he walked half a circle and then I lifted the line a little and gave my verbal half-halt "And..." with a higher tone, which means that we are going to move up a gear. Harley's head raised inquisitively; he was listening and realized that I might be asking for something he was not expecting.
"...caann-terr." I hopped a canter stride, imitating the gait as I had with the trot.
Harley was momentarily flabbergasted. He leaped at the end of the line, incredulous to what I was asking. He did not canter, but looked at me with wide eyes. Apparently, I was challenging his idea of how things should progress on the lunge line.
I calmly asked him to walk on and after he had walked half a circle, I repeated my request. This time he ran a little bit in trot and then burst into the canter. I praised him and immediately asked him to come back to walk. Now that the wheels were turning, bringing him to walk was a bit challenging. His excitement was up and he could not resist trotting around me with his head in the air. I gently made the circle smaller, asking him to walk the entire time. When he was still trotting a twelve meter circle around me, a couple well-timed half-halts on the line brought him to walk. I gave a long steady pull on the line when his inside hind was on the ground. This steadied his weight onto the inside hind, encouraging him to shift down a gear. I do not watch the hind leg to get the timing. I just feel it out, like when I am riding. Harley finally relaxed and walked a small circle. I allowed the circle to get bigger and then asked him to canter again. Harley leaped into the air once more and pulled back on the line. I coaxed him to continue going left by swishing the lunge whip slowly with my right hand. I asked him to canter again and told him that he had the right idea. He turned and trotted a couple steps and then cantered. I praised him and immediately brought him back on the small circle and repeated the half-halts until he walked. I did not care if he only cantered one stride. The goal was to pick up the canter from the walk, nothing else.
By the fourth try, Harley was ready to think more and react less. I watched him gather himself and organize his inside hind before picking up the canter. Even though he did not pick up the canter directly from the walk, like he did by accident earlier in the lungeing session, he demonstrated that he understood what I was asking and was trying to figure out how to honor my request. As a reward for his efforts, I let him go forward in a big trot on a larger circle around me. He immediately dropped his neck and started relaxing and moving his lower jaw. When he looked calm, I asked him to canter from the trot. I wanted to make sure that he was not anxious about cantering on the line, even though the new request had clearly been somewhat stressful for him. He smoothly transitioned into the canter, just as he had before the new exercise. I breathed a sigh of relief. That was a major accomplishment for my horse. I had been able to push his comfort zone on the line and he worked through it and found his confidence after the exercise was over. Anxiety used to linger for a long time on the lunge line, which was why it took me years to teach him to canter without galloping like a madman at the end of the line. Now, he is seasoned enough to bounce back from a training exercise that raised his excitement level. That is a seemingly small thing, but a very rewarding feat to witness.