Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Riding Reflection: Downshifting In Canter

Harley has been on rest for two weeks since his vet visit.  Since he had a low grade fever, I decided that it would be good to play it safe and give him some time to recuperate.  After some reading online, I found a "good rule of thumb" regarding horses and fevers: give one week off for every degree above normal.  So that means Harley earned two weeks off.  Based on his expectant demeanor, I am not sure that he liked having two weeks off of "forced exercise" (he still had 24/7 turnout), but I know him well enough to realize that he would try to push himself even if he was not feeling 100%, so the safest thing was not to ride.  He was very happy when he saw the saddle pad come out of the tack room.  I cannot say enough how much I love owning a horse who loves to ride.

Yes, yes, I was a "Good Boy"; now put your money (i.e. treats) where my mouth is.

Hmmm.  These Christmas carrot treats from your Mom are pret-ty good, but I need to sample a few more just to be sure.

The goals of our ride were simple: see how Harley feels, stretch and limber up.

How did he feel?  In a word: Great.

Harley was ready to go and incredibly soft in the bridle.  He gave me some of his best walk-halt and trot-walk transitions to date.  While I kept a supportive lower leg on through the transition, he maintained his frame and even raised his shoulders in the trot to walk.  That was neat, especially for a horse who is built a little downhill.  I thought about not cantering, since I was not sure if his fitness would be there and I did not want to tax him, but Harley quickly reminded me that he loves to canter so not cantering at all conflicted with his wants for the ride.  A couple quick flicks of the ear back and forth conveyed his question,

"Do you want to canter?  I want to canter."

I gently moved my legs into canter position and he picked it up in the exact same moment.  He also lifted the saddle up to my seat in a lovely way and stretched in canter left.  In canter right, he needed a little help from me to stretch.  I opened my inside rein and applied a supportive upward nudge with my inside calf.  This coordination of aids was also supported by my seat, which joined the rein and leg aid, and moved Harley's nose and face an inch or two to the inside.  My outside rein was still, as both of my outside aids kept him straight on the circle.  Just a couple of these gentle suppling movements allowed him to release his neck and ribcage.  He relaxed into canter right with an appreciative sigh.

Harley gave me some really slow, balanced canter before the canter to trot transition.  Dare I say "collected canter"?  I half-halted to ask him to shift his weight back before the transition and he did the horse version of shifting down a gear, but stayed in canter.  I sat totally still with my hands just above his withers and my seat following the very small circular motion of his canter.  It felt like my seat was the fulcrum or the central gear in a horse/human machine.  His canter was wonderful and felt easy.  After a balanced canter to trot transition we went to the left again and Harley showed me that he can create nearly the same small canter going to the left, as long as I ride it exactly as I do going to the right.  Being the central gear is a big responsibility, but that canter was more than enough of a reward to keep my coming back for more!

We kept the ride under an hour, with lots of walking and gentle circles on a long rein in the beginning.  We also walked slowly over some ground poles to get the synovial fluid warmed up in his joints.  We trotted figure eights and soft teardrops to get his ribcage swinging into each bend.  I think it so interesting that we can go out and have so much fun together, even though he is on turnout all the time and could trot and canter to his heart's delight on his own.  I believe that this is why he likes riding as much as I do.  I can (hopefully) make moving about more interesting for him with challenging figures or movements and changes of scenery on the trail.  He has learned how to engage the muscle groups for carrying, which probably feel good to use properly.

I think that we both get something out of this partnership and that is where riding crosses into art.  Together the horse and rider are able to be something that separately is impossible. 


  1. Having a horse that loves to work is the BEST!

  2. I knew you would appreciate that, Annette!

  3. Thanks. I am so grateful that he is better and feeling good.

  4. Synovial fluid? Looks like I'll be visiting Google in a bit...
    That last paragraph is awesome, it really is. I sure do like that Harley boy, especially when you write about your rides like that. As soon as I finished reading, I let out a very contented sigh. What a nice ride it must have been.

  5. Synovial fluid is a viscous, non-Newtonian fluid found in the cavities of synovial joints.

    Google-ing non-Newtonian...he he he

  6. Thanks, Mary! It was a very nice ride. I found myself wondering why Harley likes riding, since it seems like mutual enjoyment even though he is the one doing the heavy labor. :)

    I have read that 10 minutes of walking is required to get the synovial fluid moving and protecting the joints. I try to always keep this in mind at the beginning of our ride.


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