Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Canter Revelations

I think that my dressage instructor has been meaning to work on canter transitions with me since last summer, but we've kept getting stuck at the trot. By the time we've got a nice consistent and rhythmic trot from Maggie we're already 45 minutes into the lesson and poor Maggie is about pooped. Rightfully so to work on trot so much though - crawl before walk, trot before canter, right?

Coming into last night's lesson I showed off our counter-bending at the walk, which has vastly improved since our lesson two weeks ago - we can turn on a 5 meter circle now instead of running into the wall! Amazing! Then I picked up the trot and showed the instructor that our counter-bending has also improved at the trot. Finally, I brought Maggie onto a regular 20 meter circle at the trot and got the most rhythmic, consistent trot out of her that I've ever had at the beginning of the lesson. I'm not sure if my trainer had been planning to work on the canter already or if she just then decided that we finally had a decent enough trot, but it was then declared that this was the day for canter transitions!

She started out by asking me to half-halts with my body only and then when Maggie responded by slowing, to ask her to move out again. Apparently I passed this test (thanks core muscles!) because Maggie responded just the way she should have and we had some nice changes of tempo without using my hands to slow her. According to my instructor, being able to this is a precursor to being able to ask to the canter and maintain the canter correctly, because it's all about body control. Makes sense to me.

"I am ready for the canter now!"

We started off tracking right, and worked in this direction for most of the lesson. To ask for the canter tracking right I need to:

  1. Make sure she's bent to right enough and not popping her should to the inside.
  2. Sit up TALL TALL TALL.
  3. Ask for the canter when the outside hind is coming forward (what would be the sitting part of posting) because this leg will take the first step in the canter.
  4. If needed, wake her up a little/ let her know something is about to happen with a small tap of the whip.
All of those are things that she had already taught me, but man are they hard to do all at once! It's going to take more practice of course to get myself perfectly in sync and Maggie attuned, but we did decent for now and got to a point where we were getting acceptable upward transitions.

Now, here's where I had a revelation. It took a solid 5 minutes stopped in the center of the ring asking my instructor questions to finally have some semblance of an understanding of what she was telling me to do with my body while I was actually cantering. Unfortunately, I'm not even sure I can put this adequately into words for you - goodness knows I had trouble enough understanding it from a trained professional - but essentially I've got to move my hips in a forward and sideways motion to the outside. When I finally understood and did this successfully, I got the most wonderful canter out of Maggie that I have ever felt! IT WAS AWESOME! So awesome that I got all excited and forgot about the downward transition that I was supposed to be focusing on as well. Oh well. Maggie and I were both given big metaphorical pats on the back for getting it, then it was back to work.

"Canter is hard..."
Understanding how my body should move with the horse at the canter was huge, but there are still loads of other things that I need to work on at the canter so that it can all fall into place:
  • When preparing for the downward transition to trot: think about stretching up tall again and slowing the rhythm of my body.
  • Ask for the down ward transition at the moment in the canter that my hips swing forward, which is the third beat.
  • When tracking right: keep her shoulders moving outside using the movement of my body towards the outside, while halt-halting with my inside rein at the moment my hips come forward. when doing this, don't forget to give (but maintain contact) with the outside rein allowing her outside shoulder to move freely. If you take with one hand, you need to give with the other - I have a tendency to seize up and take with both hands. 
Like I said, we worked mostly tracking right so much of the lesson focused on the above aids in particular. Before calling it quits we worked a bit tracking left so that I would know what I needed to work on in that direction. I've said it before: tracking the other direction is like riding a different horse. Well, it is and it isn't...the aids are different...but they're different because Maggie has the same weakness in that she wants to over-bend left which manifests itself differently depending on the direction that we're tracking and therefore takes different aids to correct it. I think that may have made sense?

Anyway, aids for the left lead canter:
  1. Before asking for the transition, make sure she isn't over-bending to the left. Might need to use outside aids to straighten or even counter-bend (look counter-bending - we worked on that!!) her before asking. 
  2. Sit up TALL TALL TALL.
  3. Ask for the canter when the outside hind is coming forward (what would be the sitting part of posting) because this leg will take the first step in the canter.
  4. If needed, wake her up a little/ let her know something is about to happen with a small tap of the whip.
Note that steps 2-4 are the same for both left lead and right lead canter. When tracking left I need to use more outside rein in order to keep her on the proper bend instead of over-bending left and popping her right shoulder out. 

We ended with some nice trot on a long rein with contact and letting Maggie stretch down - she's getting good at this! My instructor said I need to play around with my rein length a bit and try and find the "sweet spot" for contact. 

Maggie was a ROCKSTAR right from the get-go for this lesson. Ears pricked and everything. Needless to say I stuffed her face full off cookies we were done. She certainly worked hard and had worked up quite the sweat so I took her for a little walk down the driveway after I untacked her and threw her cooler on. 

She was weirdly into smelling the ground as we walked up and down the driveway...

Looking forward to seeing if I can replicate that magical canter on my own the next time I ride!


  1. I love the revelations that a good lesson can bring!

  2. yay for canter joy!! finding the right 'seat' for the canter is so so tricky - i seem to have this physical inability to ask for the transition without throwing my whole upper body into it and tipping my pelvis forward... maybe one day? sounds like a great lesson !

    1. That is such a hard natural ten fact to try and break - I am still struggling with it too, but getting better! I have to REALLY concentrate on it!