Sunday, August 14, 2011

Training vs. Understanding: Canter to Walk

The canter to walk has not happened yet, but it is in there.  I can feel Harley working it out.  On our first attempts, I used a very strong, extended half halt to convey to him that we were not just transitioning to trot.  I also wanted to influence his hind legs to stay on the ground a little longer, so he could lower his front end into walk.  I like the "landing an airplane" analogy for this transition.  The nose touches down last.

I really try not to work on the same things every time we ride.  The basics (rhythm, straightness, forwardness, relaxation, suppleness, connection, contact, softness...) are everpresent, but repeating the same exercises in the same ways ride after ride is a drag.  I want to keep my horse interested, so I try to keep things interesting. Sometimes this also means going for a trail ride, groundwork, or jumping instead of "dressage-ing".

So I waited a couple rides before returning to the canter to walk.  This time I did not use strong aids.  Instead, I used my voice "aanndd wwaallkk" and tried to still my seat dramatically from the swing of the canter.

Does my horse understand what we are trying to do?

I do not think that horses understand "goals" as humans do, but they definitely understand "intent" and "having a job".  With each repetition, I was trying to ascertain if Harley new what his job was in this exercise, even though he was not yet able to complete the request.  As a rider, I feel that this is a very important challenge.  I do not want my horse to rely on me to place his balance and his feet all the time; I want him to have some autonomy.  Ultimately, I would like to communicate to him that I would like to walk and he should take care of his body.  This is an ideal which we will slowly work towards, gradually shaving off levels of support.  Like any ideal, the reality may always fall short, but hopefully this reality will be moving toward lightness.

June 2011: Balancing nicely in canter left.

I think I can answer the above question in the affirmative, with some supporting reasons:

  1. Harley felt in the zone.  He was focused and seemed to be cantering with deliberate strides.  He felt thoughtful.
  2. Harley was listening and responding to my seat before the reins.  The reins supported him, but I allowed him to trot between the canter and walk as much as he needed to balance himself.  I judged how much was too much support by monitoring his frame and his softness.  If he tightened or hollowed I was using too much rein or my timing was not in sync with his hing legs.  This would also cause him to worry and lose focus, so I erred on the side of too little.
  3. The trot after the canter was very small, like a jog.  Then he would walk or halt.
  4. The number of jog steps decreased with practice, but did not go below five.
  5. The walk to canter transitions felt easy.
Harley got lots of praise for every try.  I know that the quality of the transition will be better if I wait for him to learn the coordination necessary to walk from the canter.  

I left room for him to error, 
because he would need the same room to succeed.

June 2011: Canter right is his autopilot lead.

In the meantime, Harley's canter to trot has vastly improved.  I have felt him gather himself in a ball before the transition.  This is very new.  The resulting trot was nicely balanced and he was light in the bridle, which is a significant accomplishment for my horse.  Attempting a transition in a new way, makes the old way easier.

I love the energy in this picture, even if we have lost some softness.
A very good balance after canter left, especially for a horse who used to enthusiastically throw himself onto the forehand.
We are getting some consistency with the downward transitions from canter.
Harley's confidence has improved with his physical balance.  When I first started riding him, cantering was so exciting that he would "check out" and become a huge ball of tense energy.  After five years and many miles together, we can finally have a conversation in canter.  I feel it is a privilege to have earned his trust in this way.  I would not trade our experiences together for a "made" horse.


  1. I love the idea of trying something a new way to make the old way seem easier. I am having that experience a lot lately! I think trying something new somehow reinforces the old. I am not sure why that works! Although I see it in the classroom quite frequently. Teaching fractions is a perfect example: as soon as we move on to a harder concept, the thing that was tricky last week becomes easier!

    I am waiting for the post where you get to joyfully announce that Harley did a soft canter to walk transition. Keep working on it and before you know you won't remember when it seemed such a challenge. :0)

  2. I'm so happy to have found your blog - another dressage rider :)
    Great post. I'm just starting to school my horse in walk canter walk. I like your 'landing an airplane' analogy. Do you lengthen and shorten his stride in canter, as in a level one test? I found with our other horse, who I can sometimes get a canter walk from (she's learning too), if I shorten her canter first she'll walk. Also, trying on a 10 m circle helps.
    I like the exercises you're doing to teach it, and that you're waiting patiently while he figures it out. It sounds like he is understanding and developing the ability to do it.

  3. I love the way you write about complicated positioning and "feel" so regular people can understand. I get intimidated sometimes when I read about dressage topics because I don't have many years of experience with horses, but blogs like yours really help noobs like me. I love the "I left room for him to error, because he would need the same room to succeed." That's a pretty profound little statement there--applies to a lot more than just the horse world >)

  4. Speedy's Mom- It really makes a difference! I have to say that I was inspired by your canter post to write again about the other half of the walk-canter-walk transition. I just have to be patient.

    Carol- Welcome! We do practice changes in stride length, but slowing and shortening his canter to the rate of a walk is very tough for him. Once he is able to do it, it will be a major personal accomplishment for Harley! Thanks for the support.

    Fetlock- Thank you so much. Clarity is my goal. I agree that it is difficult to find information about dressage that is not too vague or too overly complicated. My horse and my teacher have helped me to work out a lot of things. I enjoy passing them along!

  5. It's a real treat following along with you and Harley. Your communication skills are excellent - thanks for sharing :)

  6. Calm, Forward, Straight- You made me smile. Thanks for reading!

  7. I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog! I have a 15.2 Paint and I love the way your journey sounds so similar to mine. Hooray for us ordinary people on ordinary horses doing extraordinary things and having a blast.

  8. Annette- You got it! And welcome!


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