Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Canter Work

I remember the first time I cantered with Piper when he was 3 years old. Unlike his trot, which always seemed to be so well balanced, his canter was all over the place. So, we waited several more months to let him grow up some more before trying to do more on the canter.

To say he has the canter of a young horse would not be far from the truth. Many who see him can easily imagine him being ready to compete 2nd Level... until we canter. That 's when they can see just how green he really is.

In Training Level, the canter must be presented. Transitions from trot to canter are done between letters. Canter transitions at the letters are not required until First Level. And canter work at Training Level is kept to 20 metre circles and short straight lines. No diagonals. No complete long sides. Less chances to get "run away with". Training Level tests are designed to have pretty safe canter work for the true Training Level horse.

However.... it still depends upon your horse & his training.

Piper's early canter work included bucking and kicking into canter right. To the left, he was usually pretty reliable. Of course, like many horses, he would fall back into trot or sometimes cross canter. But to the right, his stiffer side, he would often show his objection to the aids.

So, as part of his re-training to prepare for competition, a LOT of trot to canter transition work will be needed. And a lot of finesse from the rider when asking for canter right.

In our 3rd session, which was last Thursday, we did a lot of transitions after warming up at walk & trot, leg yielding and shoulder in positioning as usually. Then, we started our canter work.

Jan Hansen, a well known Dutch trainer and fabulous early influence in my dressage training in the 1980's, once asked me during a clinic why he always had me start our sessions travelling to the left. I admitted that I did not know why. He replied that one has to start in SOME direction, so he chose left.

This made me laugh, and still does today. But he also cursed me in a way, as more than 20 years later, I still ask myself the same question when I get on the horse. Which way will I start and why?

In our warmups at walk & trot, our direction is constantly changing. Serpentines, half circles, teardrops, leg yields. But when the real work begins, it is decision time.

With Piper, I always start his work to the left. Not because Jan started our lessons to the left, but because Piper is better, more supple, and easier to get into "work mode" to the left. And getting him into a happy work mode is important for a productive session.

So, starting to the left (easy direction first) on a 20 metre circle, we went round and round, doing half a circle in trot, half a circle in canter. Over and over. Again and again. Transitions at the same spot every time... over the centerline.... so to avoid using the wall as a crutch.

Now... maybe because Piper is not brave, he seems to thrive on such predictable, repetitive, yes even boring, work. After a few circles of the same thing over and over, he anticipates the transitions and prepares himself for them. He goes into the canter easily, then drops into a trot with more balance and confidence with each circuit of the 20 metre circle. It's great. My job is to show him the aids I want to use, support him with my voice (for now) and praise him for being such a clever horse.

After dizzying work to the left, time for a mint and a walk.

Then, we did the same to the right. Predictable. Uneventful. Obedient. Imperfect, but sufficient for now. Low pressure is still the key. With Piper, confidence & connection to me as his rider are the most important foundation building blocks needed if we want to be successul.

With a full winter coat which is only now starting to shed out, I make it a point not to get Piper sweated up. But, we both got warm enough that night! And so after some good quiet work, we ventured out into the dark night, hacking down the driveway and back, and cooled down a bit. I think we both felt pretty good about the work. And when we got back to the barn, Piper's eyes had that look horsemen know, appreciate, and find difficult to express to non-horsemen... You know the look... Soft happy equine eyes.