Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Riding Reflection: Speed and Stretch

Even though our schooling show experience was just that, a schooling experience, I felt a little disarmed the week after.  I gave Harley Monday off and took him for a short ride on Tuesday, but he didn't feel good to me at all.  He didn't want to maintain gait, especially in the canter, and he just did not feel confident.  I guess that was the same way that I was feeling.  This was clearly a chicken and the egg situation, so rather than try to figure it out, I just decided that we could both use a few days off.  I focused on grooming and hand-grazing for the week, as well as my summer riding students, a graduation party, and a new addition to the family!  Harley has a new human cousin and I am an aunt for the first time.  Pretty amazing and a nice change of focus after a hectic week.

By the time Monday rolled around, I was itching to get back in the saddle.  A girl can only go so long without a ride, but Harley's feet needed a trim and I could not let it go even just one more day, so I ate a banana, trimmed all four feet with sweat dripping off my brow, and then tacked up and rode.  I thought that Harley might not feel like focusing after standing for over an hour to have his feet trimmed, but he also wanted some action and was eager to ride again.

I decided to allow the schooling show to do its job and show us what we needed to work on, even if there were some hurt feeling associated with the judge's bedside manner.  I put that out of my mind and focused on productive feedback only:

Suppleness over the back and speeding up in the stretchy trot (and not stretching)

Those two observations pretty much sum up Harley's nervous reactions: become tense and speed up.  Thanks to many years of working together, Harley does not display these characteristics as much at home as he used to and he is much, much easier to console and bring back down to Earth than when I first began riding him.  He used to turn into a nervous wreck after the first canter.  I believe that this came from some initial barrel training that he received as a young horse and I use the turn "training" loosely.  He came to me with a barrel saddle that had been won in some kind of competition, but I do not know the story behind it.  All I know if that my horse was very, very difficult to retrain to a nice canter, especially on the left lead and man can he get strong.  I have ridden some big horses: draft crosses, warmbloods, Fjords with huge necks, and a full Percheron, and none have felt as strong as Harley feels when his engine is revved.  The power is exciting, but I would happily trade the speed and excitement for carrying power.  That is how I want Harley to use his gift.

Noting these observations, I decided to ride with suppleness and tempo in mind.  At the beginning of the ride, this was no problem.  Harley moved into the bridle easily and warmed up with a moderate tempo.  I added some transitions between trot and walk and trot and canter to bring up his energy and increase the challenge.  This was when I got a chance to feel some tension creeping in.  Harley did want to tighten his neck (and therefore his back) here and there, so I kept my outside rein ready and kind of caught him with it each time that he wanted to tighten and therefore shorten his neck.  I was careful not to pull his head and neck down, as this would be counter productive to balance, but I did take a strong hold on the outside and I used my outside leg quite a lot to keep him in that rein.  I know that the Dressage Central Dogma (molecular bio reference for the science fans!) is "inside leg to outside rein", but outside leg to outside rein keeps Harley on the bit and balanced more effectively.  Too much inside leg seems to tip him over and encourages me to collapse the inside of my ribcage.  Keeping him on the outside rein helped him stay soft over his back, but it was a lot more work for me than I expected.  I could see where I needed to step up my rider effectiveness.  I was not being careful enough about my seat and feeling the energy starting at his hind legs.  I feel like I am always working for better basics, but how did I miss those?  That is dressage for you.  One thing gets better and then another thing looks worse, repair that and something else pops up.  The rider has to remember to look back at the whole picture, because chances are the general picture has improved, but it is hard to see that when you are working on one little thing at a time.

Besides feeling much more effortful for me, I also noticed that Harley felt heavier in the bridle as we worked on really letting his back go.  I was not crazy about this, but I decided to accept it for the time being.  I did not want to confuse him or invite tension in his back by insisting that he lighten up in the same ride.  I had flashbacks of riding the big Mare who used to hang on me and gave me huge biceps, but I shoved them aside for now.  One thing at a time.

Once Harley was feeling consistent and before I got too tired, we took a walk break.  I thought about our next objective: tempo.  Tempo is not something that I can forget, even for one ride.  I feel like that is something that I work on all the time, especially because I have a horse who likes to scoot ahead rather than carry behind.  His tempo had felt pretty good so far and I wondered if maybe that had just been a side effect of the lack of suppleness over his back, but then I made a discovery.  I started trotting Harley around with a nice connection and then I softened the reins.  I didn't throw them away.  I didn't extend my elbows.  I just lightened the feel in my hand a little tiny bit. 

And guess what he did?

He sped up.

Uh-oh.  That is a big dressage no-no.  How did this happen?  Has this been the case for a long time or is this something new?  By the way, that is not how I have been asking him to do his big trot, which requires a stronger feel on the reins.  Whatever the case, it became obvious right then what we needed to do.  I started repeating the exercise of softening my hands and looking to see if he changed tempo, which he did over and over again.  Then I added a half-halt after the softening, followed immediately by another release of the rein.  We must have looked like a new driver trying to figure out a stick-shift car, because there was a lot of speeding up and then stalling and then speeding up again.  I did not punish him for speeding up, I just decided that I needed to explain to him that he was not supposed to change tempo, even if I gave him the reins.  His nose went forward, which is good, but he was losing his balance every time that he changed tempo (or the tempo change was revealing that he was not balancing as well as I had hoped).  Eventually, he began to understand.  The half-halt came through more quickly and he maintained trot, but shifted his weight back.  I gave the reins slightly and he did not speed up.  Excellent!  Walk break and pats.

I realized at this point, that the stretchy trot would be the ultimate test of suppleness and tempo control.  If Harley was not released in his back, he would not stretch.  If his balance was not back or he was not responsible for his own tempo, he would speed up instead of stretching.  I had to think of speed as the enemy of stretch and I did my best to keep my balance back by sitting tall.  The game became "How slowly can you stretch, Harley?"

I saw some improvement and ended on a good note, but I can see that this game needs to be added to our routine in the second half of our ride.  I usually practice stretchy trot in the warm up, but he feels like a completely different horse then: relaxed and mellow.  Asking him for the same exercise after canter-work is an entirely different thing.  I need to go there every ride, if we want to improve in this area.

And we do!

Stretchy trot fail at the July 2012 show: Harley says, "Not today, lady."

Harley showing nice stretch in the lengthen stride at the October 2011 show.


  1. I'm glad you were able to take away something positive from the show. They are good at getting us focused, aren't they!

  2. When Harley gets tense and short, does he get wrinkles on his withers? Just curious - Cash does that and I'm wondering if anyone else's horse does that.

    From your description of Harley speeding up when you let out the reins, it sounds like he's not carrying himself quite right. It also sounds like your half-halt exercise to ask him to sit down and then give the rein really did the trick. Does Harley also anticipate a lot? Cash anticipated EVERY STEP, so I had to change things up a lot to get him to tune into me and relax. Cash also got super worked up after the canter, but I learned to canter early and often, even just for half of a 20 meter circle. That way it became so routine that it was no big deal.

    One other thought - do you warm Harley up on a long rein (like, on the buckle)? That seemed to help Cash a lot, as he could go long and low and really get his topline moving. I also learned that he prefers a lap or two of canter each direction on a long rein to get his back loose. Saga, on the other hand, will just use a long rein warmup as an excuse to play and be goofy. Every horse is different, that's for sure!

    1. Hi jenj,

      I am not sure about the wrinkles. I will have to check. I would say "probably" when he is in his full state of tenseness, but, thankfully, that doesn't happen very much anymore.

      You are most certainly correct. He was not carrying himself when he sped up. I think this was actually exacerbated on this ride because he felt heavy in my hand. I guess my insistence that he release his back had put him more on the forehand. We tried it again today and it was much better: not so heavy and better tempo.

      Oh yes, Harley likes to anticipate. This can be an advantage, because I can use very small aids when he is really "on", but of course if is also a challenge to control, as you must know. ;) We play the waiting game quite often when I can tell that he thinks we are going to canter at "C", but I want to canter on the center line. He is much better than he was at age nine or ten, where cantering left him in a complete frenzy. I have a lot of sympathy for riders training a difficult canter, because I know how long it can take (years for us!). I do some of the things that you mentioned in my warm up, which was not possible at the last show due to the warm up conditions. That was definitely to our detriment.

      Thanks for sharing about Cash. It is helpful to hear about another horse, especially one that sounds similar to Harley!

  3. Yep, yep, yep! Those are the same issues we're dealing with! Giving the reins seems to be permission to zoom forward. At training level, the stretch comes right after the canter. What a tough set up! I have to balance in the canter, balance for a smooth downward transition, and within a stride or two give the rein for the stretch. It's a tough exercise to do well. I can see how mastering the stretchy trot, especially in a show setting, will pave the way for much better work later on.

    Best of luck as you and Harley navigate the same road we're on. :0)

    1. Stretchy trot immediately after the canter is a recipe for disaster for us! I almost can't believe they wrote the Training Level test that way.

      In the First Level tests, the stretchy trot is in the beginning of the test before any canter work. I find that we have a much better shot at it, although we are pretty much stuck in 6-land. ;)


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