Thursday, July 14, 2011

Riding Reflection: Canter Repeat and Starting Canter to Walk

We found our canter groove again yesterday.  I have to make sure that my thighs are open during the transition to canter and then my seat snuggles in this wonderful spot in the saddle.  My saddle, an Albion Original Comfort, has a very wide twist and a flat seat which was designed for the female pelvis.  I love the wide, flat surface of my Albion.  It offers me a stability unmatched by any other saddle I have tried.  I do not like really deep seats, because they tend to trap me in the deepest part of the saddle, which may not allow my leg to hang in a balanced place.  I also cannot tolerate a narrow twist, which goes back to my "Princess and the Pea" qualities (Rider Confessions).  A narrow twist and a deep seat usually leaves one of my seat bones without an honest contact in the saddle.  This compromises stability and communication, to say the least.

We tried the left lead first, and I have to give Harley some credit.  This is his more bendy side so he tends to find it easier to stretch on this lead, but more difficult to remain balanced laterally and shift his weight back to his hind end.  After viewing some photos of us riding, I saw that I am dropping my left wrist, arm, and side.  Guess what?  The left is my bendy side, too!  I remembered this (most of the time) while we were riding and Harley straightened right up.  When I forgot, my left hand started creeping lower and lower, almost resting on my saddle.  This was married to a dropped left shoulder and a raised right shoulder (my tight side, of course).  Naturally, Harley followed me in this decline, but as soon as I picked my left side up and relaxed and dropped my right shoulder, off we went in a lovely balance.

A very exaggerated example of our mutual lean, which becomes more prominent with speed (Photos from a previous ride).

Remaining balanced laterally is easier on straight lines, even when we are just having fun rather than schooling collected canter or transitions.

Who starts the left-side lean?  I have seen Harley lean in this direction at liberty or on the line, so he can make it happen on his own, but I have also noticed my own inclinations.  When I watch TV, I sit next to the right arm of the couch, propping up my right arm and shoulder and happily collapsing and curling my left side into a concave form that fits into the couch arm.  So comfy!  But this reveals my natural tendency to collapse or lean left, like my horse.  When I purchased new high boots this year, I developed a painful rub behind my right knee.  The left knee was rub-free, which led me to discover that I was hiking up my right leg and knee more than I realized when I used my leg.  There is nothing like a zipper biting into your leg to alert you to your own riding asymmetries.  I think that I am doing a much better job of keeping that leg down, because my rub is finally healed, but once in a while I feel it bite again.  OUCH!  My leg relaxes down immediately!

I am happy to find that my horse is just as willing to pick up this side as I am, because when I deliberately raise my left hand (and side if necessary), he settles in the bridle, becomes straighter in his body and snorts or clears his throat audibly.  He once snorted and cleared his throat like this for an entire twenty meter circle.  This was during a lesson with my teacher.  She adjusted the saddle and me and then asked us to trot off.  Harley started making such a ruckus that I was bouncing out of the saddle each time he let out some exhaust through his mouth and nose.  I was laughing like a crazy person.  Needless to say, the changes she made were very pleasing to my horse.  While he was doing this she just said, "I hear you, Harley."

When I pick up my left hand and side, Harley does the same.  The change in my horse is immediate, but remembering to keep one's natural tendencies in line (pun intended) is an ever present challenge in riding.

So with all this in mind, and you probably know what I mean if you are a rider, I asked Harley to canter from the walk.  The transition was effortless, even to the left.  Knowing my horse, this does not completely surprise me.  Harley loves to push against the ground and a canter from the walk or halt is more push than carry.  A couple times we cantered from the halt, too.  These feel like great ways to build strength in the carrying department, and my horse clearly enjoys the exercise.  The transitions started to collect his canter and this is where his right lead shows its talent.  He was honestly giving me some gorgeous collected canter on the right lead.  The left was good, too, but the right felt like he was stepping into a smaller frame with power.  As long as I kept my thighs open and my pelvis upright through the transition, he did the rest.

The next step is to transition to the walk from the canter.  This is a tall order for Harley, because canter to trot is still challenging and probably always will be for my horse.  I am familiar with the adage "walk before you run", but I feel that skipping a generation can do wonders for easier movements.  Trot to halt improves the trot to walk transition.  Practicing haunches-in or half-pass, lends a new perspective to the aids for canter.  Riding counter canter improves true canter.  My intentions of teaching Harley canter to walk are not entirely a means to their own end; I hope to see his canter to trot become easier as he practices a more challenging transition.

To make things as simple as possible, I tried to slow his canter to the speed of a forward walk.  I did not ask for the canter to walk unless he felt like he was holding himself in a better balance for a couple slow strides.  Sometimes I allowed him to trot, sometimes I asked him to canter on with a larger stride.  When it felt like we had a chance of success, I held my abdominal muscles very rigid and tried to marry the outside rein to his outside leg through my outside seatbone and said "Aanndd Waallkk".  This was one coordinated hold when the outside hind was on the ground.  Harley needs to bend that leg more and first in order to lower his front end into walk.  Riding a good canter to walk is like landing an airplane.  The nose touches down last.

My aids were very strong, but this conveyed to Harley that we were doing something very new.  With each attempt, he gave me less trot steps between the canter and the walk.  He became very focused and got into work mode.  I could tell that he had some understanding of what I wanted, but was not sure how to coordinate his body yet.  The transition also requires a lot of strength.  The attempts which I ended on were getting very close.  He was starting to slow down his front end and lower it with a couple shuffling steps.  I was providing support through the reins and my abdominal muscles had to be very strong to help him engage his own.  Ultimately, I would like to cue the transition from canter to walk with my seat and abs alone.  After the efforts of our ride yesterday, I believe that this movement is in our future.


  1. Nice job! I see it happening very soon ... :0)

  2. Riding: More complicated than most people know :)

    I really enjoyed this quote, "Riding a good canter to walk is like landing an airplane. The nose touches down last." I'll try to remember that.

  3. Here's hoping and thank you!


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