My horse really impresses me. I guess that I make that readily obvious every time I write about him, but he does. The school year has started up again, so I am not able to ride much more than a couple times a week, plus his allergies have been acting up so strenuous work is out of the question, but despite these things, we just seem to pick up where we left off each time that I sit in the saddle.
The last time that we rode, I decided to try an exercise which I saw on another blog, Dressage Mom. Dressage Mom is an upper level rider bringing along her newest horse, a beautiful Arabian gelding. She writes about their training and posts videos of their lessons from time to time. I find this to be not only informative, but very fun to watch, as horse and rider are a talented pair. The exercise that I decided to try is described by her trainer as the "Headless Snowman". I think that is really cute and describes the figure-eight pattern perfectly. Her blog entry includes a video.
My interpretation of the exercise:
The figure eight exercise is simple by design, but challenging in practice. One half of the figure eight is a 20 meter circle. The other half is a 10 meter circle. Ride the entire exercise in trot or incorporate canter for the larger circle. If I were riding a horse that could not handle 10 meters, I would just enlarge the second circle to a size that was challenging, but within the horse's abilities (i.e. 12, 15 , or even 20 meters). If I needed to increase the challenge, I would ride the figure-eight in canter with a transition through trot or walk between the two circles or incorporating counter canter or a flying change (Wouldn't that be fun?). The change in direction between the two circles is demanding for horse and rider, because the flexion, bend, and direction of travel must all change where the two circles meet. The horse must stay balanced over his hindend in the change of direction to complete the exercise. Too much weight on the forehand or displaced on one shoulder makes the change in direction and bend very difficult. This exercise not only trains the horse and rider, it also reveals areas that need improvement. I love dressage exercises that help the horse and are easy to modify.
I presented the figure-eight exercise to Harley first in trot. He bounced along from one circle to the other with no problem. I was careful to encourage him to maintain his energy from behind in both circles and to lift my inside rein in the new bend to encourage him to keep his inside shoulder up. Then I added the canter on the bigger circle. Wow! Something about this exercise really helps the horse achieve a balanced uphill canter transition from trot. Maybe the change in direction and bend helped him stay on his toes. After cantering the large circle, I asked him to come back to trot and rode the smaller circle. Here is where the exercise was a good diagnostic exercise for us.
When switching from the left lead canter to a 10 meter trot circle to the right, Harley lost his balance. He had trouble switching the bend and I could feel that he had fallen on the forehand. This made the 10 meter circle difficult to begin, so the circle was not on the center line. He recovered quickly, so the second half of the circle was better. I kept him on the smaller circle to practice the feel of the balance required and then "released him" onto the 20 meter circle: gorgeous balanced canter transition every time.
The exercise was much easier when switching from the right lead canter to the 10 meter trot circle left. This was not a surprise, since the right lead is his more balance lead and the left side is his more bendy side. He swapped flexion and bend so quickly that he offered to canter the 10 meter circle. I let him do this a couple times, but asked him to trot the smaller circle a few times as well. The transition to the right lead was not as expressive as the transition left. He also sneaked in a nose flip once or twice. I need to make sure that he is forward into that transition and stretching to the contact. This is the challenge with the right lead. He feels really balanced and maneuverable, but he is less keen to stretch and reach over his back. He stretches and reaches more easily in the left lead, but also tends to lose his balance on the forehand and into the trot more easily. The lopsided figure-eight was a fun way to work on these areas. Harley learned the pattern very quickly, which was a good thing in this case. It gave him confidence and anticipating the transitions actually encouraged him to shift his weight back and stay balanced between his shoulders. I think that I need to ride the canter all the way up to the change of direction. I tended to ask for the trot about a quarter circle before the smaller circle. I think the downward transition should be closer to the circle change to reap the full benefits of the exercise.
...holding the canter that long is asking Harley for a flying change. We have not practiced those since June. I have been working on the quality of the canter and obedience to my aids. I want to return to the flying change and see if he will continue to listen, rather than turn into a flying change machine. I think the time to ask is near. I would be lying if I said that I am not itching to go for it!