We had a short workout yesterday. I decided to give the "trot poles mixed with canter" exercise a try under saddle. We practiced the lungeing exercise on Saturday and Harley was so relaxed. He handled all the trot and canter transitions like a pro and adjusted to the trot pole distance very quickly. He is so smart.
After a walk/trot warm up, we headed for the poles going to the right. He tightened as he went over them the first time. I clucked to him and circled for a return approach. He started to speed up too much. I went to slow him down, but then I stopped myself. He was trying to get his energy up so that he could match the pole distance. I needed to just let him be and allow the poles to regulate his pace. The second attempt was better and by the third time he was able to reach over the poles and stretch into the bridle at the same time. This was great. I have often avoided trot poles, because he would tighten over them, reinforcing the hollowing muscle groups instead of the carrying ones. I spend too much time and energy trying to dissolve those muscles to use an exercise that strengthens them, but thankfully, today it was working.
On a circle to the left, he repeated the tightening business as he stepped over the poles in trot. I let him be for several circuits, but when his posture did not improve I decided to help. I put my legs on before the poles and gave small, supportive nudges in rhythm with his steps as he moved over the poles. At last his head and neck lowered and he relaxed. I repeated this the next time around and then tried it without my legs. He immediately hollowed. Oh well, he needs more support from me in this direction; I was happy to oblige.
Once we had a nice rhythm going, I added the canter after the poles. Harley really needs to open up his stride in order to relax and he does not collect very well unless he has had a chance to warm up with some big canters, so this exercise was going a bit against his typical routine. As we approached the poles, I felt him put more power into his stride. Like earlier in the ride, I resisted slowing him with my hands, because I wanted the poles to teach him.
I asked him to trot.
And then he leaped over the poles!
It was a nice smooth jump, and my body stayed with him even as my brain was like "Harley?". I kept him in the canter for three-quarters of the circle, brought him back to trot, and he repeated the leap of faith over the poles. Now, I just had to laugh. Someone was having fun.
After he jumped them for the third time, and he missed his mark, knocking them askew, I decided that we were done with trot poles for the day. Interestingly enough, our lack of success in completing the exercise did not rob him of the benefits. A couple nice jumps had set his canter into a lovely tempo with delightful engagement and he carried this into the trot as we practiced transitions and changes of direction. I threw in a little counter canter to avoid the disheveled trot poles and he blew threw his nose as he stretched secluded muscles behind the saddle. He wanted to drop back to trot a couple times, but I encouraged him with my position and my voice. I felt him dig in, as he rocked his hindquarters underneath himself and maintained gait. I can feel his strength and stamina in canter improving with each ride, but I must coach him to pass his comfort zone and challenge his muscles. At last, we trotted and I let him stretch. There was not a tight muscle left in his body and I felt the same way.
I guess it might be best to leave the "trot poles mixed with canter" exercise for lunge work, since he seemed to benefit more in that venue. And to be honest, I do not really enjoy circling over poles. I got my horse's message though. The jumping saddle has been dusted off and is home for a safety check. Look out world, Harley is a jumping horse!