Poles and Transitions

I adapted this exercise last week for my clients to improve their canter transitions.

When you aren’t working to a dressage test, or set of quick directions, it can be easy to spend too long preparing for a canter transition, aborting at the first corner, and then in the downward transition it’s easy to spend half a dozen strides recovering and finding their balance.

I wanted my riders to be in the position that they could strike off into canter with instant preparation, and can ride into a balanced trot immediately. After all, once you get to elementary level, the movements start coming up very quickly!

I laid out five trotting poles on the track on the long side; with a fairly short distance between each one. I wanted the horses to be on the verge of collecting over the trot poles. With the mare who struggles to get the correct canter lead I placed the poles so that the last pole was at the quarter marker and she could use the corner to get the correct strike off. The other, more established horses, had the poles in the middle of the long side so that the canter transitions were in a straight line.

I worked each combination through the poles until they were balanced, and the trot had become more together and uphill, with increased cadence. Then we added in the canter.

After riding the trotting poles, I asked them to ride forwards to canter before the corner (or at the corner for the less established mare). Then they had to ride forwards to trot at the corner before the poles.

We repeated the exercise a few times, moving the transitions so that they were closer to the poles.

The result was that my riders started riding more quickly, and I don’t mean rushing; the time between preparing and riding the transitions, and then reacting to the outcome, decreased. The horses became more responsive to the aids and then more active in the transitions.

The trotting poles engaged the hindquarters, which helped the horse push upwards into canter, so it felt like a pop into a steadier, more powerful canter. The mare who tends to run into canter suddenly began to almost jump into it, which resulted in a less harum-scarum canter.

Having the trotting poles in the near distance when riding into trot encouraged the riders to sit tall and hold in their core so that the horse sat on his hocks and didn’t fall onto the forehand after a couple of strides, unable to contain all this energy. Often a horse and rider will go into a powerful, energetic trot, pushing nicely from behind, but after a few strides they both seem to collapse and lose energy, so losing the quality of the trot as they bowl onto their forehand. However, the poles require the horse to maintain the initial trot for longer so builds up their strength and balance. Again, the horse and rider have to be thinking and react quickly to correct any loss of rhythm or balance.

Having to ride a downwards transition before some poles doesn’t give a rider the opportunity to accept a sloppy, unbalanced transition, nor does it mean they can do it “when the time is right”. The time is now, and they have to make it right. If they do get an unbalanced transition, for whatever reason, the looming poles encourages them to react and correct it; which is very important around showjumping courses, and so that the next dressage movement is not impeded.

I was really impressed with the improvement to both the horse’s transitions, the quality of the canter and trot, and of the positive, quick thinking way that my riders were now riding.

Figures of Eight

For some reason I’ve been doing a lot of figure of eight work in lessons. I think it’s because I’ve been focusing my clients on changing their horse’s bend, and staying balanced throughout, but I’m enjoying seeing the horses strengthen as they switch between hind legs.

I was teaching one lady on her horse, who can be a bit lazy and not engage his engine, but where we’re building up his topline and trying to strengthen his hindquarters it’s important that we get him thinking forwards at the beginning of the session. So we’ve been using trot poles as an incentive.

After a short trot to warm up on each rein, I started them working over five trotting poles. This increased their impulsion immediately, and the stride length started to improve, but because the poles were on a straight line the horse could avoid bringing his inside hind underneath him, which makes it harder for us to improve his suppleness and strength. He needs more circle work, but without overstressing him. So we began to put the poles onto an oval.

The poles were still ridden in a straight line, but my rider curved away just after them, to ride a distorted circle before curving back to the poles with a short approach. This improved the horse’s cadence over the poles as he started to flex more through his knees and hocks and couldn’t sneak onto his forehand in the straight lines.

Next, we started to alternate which way they turned after the poles, so we were riding a figure of eight. This had the benefit that it made my rider ride straight over the poles, and not accept the slight bend her horse left himself in on straight lines. Which improved their balance round the turns because he wasn’t pretending to be a motorbike and stayed vertical.

Next up, we incorporated canter transitions. After the trotting poles, as they turned left my rider asked for left canter. The aim was to have a positive response from the canter aids, have a forwards canter round the bigger oval, and then ride a transition into an active, balanced trot ready for the poles again. Having the poles after the transition helped maintain impulsion and stopped him trying to drop his forehand.

We developed this into a figure of eight exercise with one circle in canter and the other in trot. Which improved his suppleness and stopped him predicting the canter transitions. Especially when we turned the same way consecutively!

I’d like to develop the exercise further with them so that both circles are in canter, and the poles are raised. This will get him more responsive to his rider because there are a few questions in quick succession, and it will improve his balance, strength and suppleness. He will also begin to work more consistently over his back, engaging his abdominals and bridging. This will help his rider learn the feeling of him working correctly so that she can recreate it without the help of the poles as he gets stronger.

It’s a really simple exercise which has immediate, positive effects, and I loved the way it stopped this horse anticipating and rushing the poles, or the canter transitions.

Improving Canter Transitions

I had a very rewarding morning with Llani today. I’ve done a lot of work both on and off the lunge on his canter transitions.

When I started working with him he used to do this funny jump into canter. His hindquarters are very powerful and pushed him into canter, yet his front end often didn’t go anywhere, so it was almost like sitting on a pogo stick.

Initially I did a lot of work on keeping the rein contact very light, almost non existent, in the transitions and he really improved, travelling forwards into the canter. This was a great improvement, so o focuses on other areas of his work for a while.

However, his trot work has stepped up to the next level, with him much more consistent to the contact and working over his back, and soft in the neck. However, Llani started finding the canter transitions difficult again, and reverted to his pogo stick imitation. I think the improved balance and trot work meant it was difficult for him to engage the correct muscles for a good upwards transitions. When I allowed the trot to revert to it’s old self he managed the transitions fine.

So I began focusing on the transitions on the lunge using side reins.

Today really showed how everything is coming together. I took him into the school and he gave me a cheeky look before trotting off onto the left rein. He came back to walk after a few strides, and I knew that he was trying to make a game out of “which way around the circle will I go?” He began trotting actively immediately, tracking up, and in a steady rhythm.  As with most horses the first couple of minutes can be spent focusing him on work, not doing as many circles as possible in the first two minutes. 

Anyway, I clipped the side reins up, which are fairly loose to encourage him to take the contact forwards, and not to restrict his head and neck. Then I worked on his trot on different sized circles, using a bit of leg yield as he stepped out onto a bigger circle to engage his inside hind leg. He was really focused on me,and not looking for any distractions from the yard, and from the ten metre circle he was on I asked for canter. He struck off correctly, uphill and moving forwards towards the contact into a really balanced canter. I let him come back to trot after half a circle and sent him out onto a bigger circle so he could rebalance. I brought him in again to repeat the exercise as he can be a bit inconsistent with the transitions and practice makes perfect. He cantered beautifully, this time maintaining his canter for longer as I asked him to move out onto the bigger circle. After a couple more transitions, all of which were very correct I worked his trot again, which hadn’t deteriorated between canters, and then brought him in to change the rein.

I gave him a big fuss and then sent him out onto the right rein, which is slightly weaker. Funnily enough, it used to be his left rein that was weaker! I spent a bit longer in trot getting the correct bend and engaging his right hind leg, getting him to soften over his back, before practising the canter transitions on the right rein. This is the rein that he is more likely to do a pogo stick impression on, and the first one was a little bit up and down, and not so forwards, but after a short canter I brought him back to rebalance his trot. The second transition was much better!  He was relaxed and stepped forwards to  the contact, looking a bit more free through his shoulders. I think previously he has been ridden with a very short rein and not been allowed to move through his shoulder. After a few transitions on this rein I let him trot to finish, before letting him walk around on a long rein to encourage him to stretch forwards towards the ground, another alien concept to him.

I was really pleased with his performance today as he was very focused on me, and really tried to do exactly as I asked. Hopefully I can build on this next time I ride him.

  

Setting Their Neck

Since getting Llani to move forwards and stretch over his back and generally becoming more supple I have moved on to focusing on his transitions.

Unfortunately, Llani doesn`t like this idea. Last week, about halfway through our schooling session I brought him back to walk to ride some walk-halt transitions. I rode him forwards in the walk with a relaxed frame and then half-halted before asking him to halt.

This is where we disagreed. Llani halted the first time, for about three seconds before setting his neck and walking off. So I repeated the transition again. But Llani just set his neck as I half halted and carried on, oblivious. I asked a couple more times and eventually he responded, albeit reluctantly. So I addressed the walk and settled him again before repeating the transition. As soon as I asked he tensed his brachiocephalic and leant against my hand. Frustrated, I lent forward and tapped his poll sharply. Surprised, he stopped immediately.

I gave him a little pat, and then repeated the transition. Sometimes Llani responded well, but needed more encouragement to stay stationary for longer than he wanted, and sometimes he hollowed and gazed into the distance but so long as he listened to my aids he was rewarded.

I did a bit of research about how to improve the transitions, and today we had a better session.

Some suggestions were that I should work Llani on circles and introduce more lateral work so that his neck was relaxed and he was focused on other work before riding the transition. Others said to adjust the timing of my aids so that we were both better balanced and he was carrying more weight in his hindquarters and would step under in the transition and stay soft in the neck. I was also told to ride more transitions on circles. Dutifully, I followed these directives today, and found that leg yielding on a circle into a transition was really helpful. I have to be careful not to do the exercise too many times in a similar environment because Llani soon starts to predict it and halts for a maximum of two seconds before rushing away, so I rode travers or shoulder in before a transition, which really helped.

Interestingly, his trot-walk transitions are fluent and he stays relaxed and focused. Going up the transitions, today Llani went forwards more, instead of coming up and back at me (which was getting rather tiresome) and they are becoming more consisten. I was particularly pleased with his canter transitions as they were more relaxed and less of an imitation of a pogo stick. All I have done here is to ride them on a very quiet, allowing contact and when he doesn`t step forward I ride him back down the gaits and try again.

Llani is definitely improving in his way of going as he is more forwards, in a longer and more relaxed outline, keeping a very consistent rhythm and is much more supple. He is beginning to understand lateral work more, which I think is improving his suppleness. He is also accepting the leg a more and today I had some good strides of medium trot today with him pushing from his hindquarters, as opposed to pulling from his shoulders and falling out of balance as he did previously. He is also learning to walk on a long rein, although when I let him stretch in trot he stops and tries to find my hand, worried about being on his own! I`m looking forward to his first dressage competition in a couple of weeks time, and getting a baseline to monitor his progress.