After the last post on our ride in the rain with Ronan, I was asked to talk about the relevant exercises to help him over a couple of specific difficulties in canter. Before I do so, I will need to back track for a moment so that you can better understand the building blocks, as the elements associated with a horse’s training can’t be considered in isolation because they are all connected. One leads to another like the diagrammatic branches on a family tree.
In the beginning, Ronan was the easiest horse in the world to stop. He still is most of the time except that something has changed. He now knows how to go forward and that it is expected of him. He is still hesitant from time to time, even getting temporarily stuck, but overall he is embracing “go.” Before we reached this pivotal point, at any pace faster than a walk, the slightest pressure on the rein would make him stop, often in his tracks. It wasn’t so much a case of slowing down; it was just as if an invisible handbrake came on. With everything else, his mouth had the sensitivity of a plank of wood. Despite that he is without doubt top of the class when it comes to standing still!
Before I could start work on transitions, I needed to move him beyond his former lack of confidence based mind-set. Some of you may have ridden horses like him who are hard to get going, and when you do, fizzle out the moment they feel the rein on the bit. A young, green horse is extremely impressionable, so much so that they quickly learn to associate a blocking hand with a sense of danger. That’s almost certainly the case with Ronan. He was entrained to think stop before he really got going, creating both an upside and a downside.
The upside is that his flight instinct is practically switched off. The downside is that now he knows how to go but hasn’t been taught how to stop! “But I thought you said he stopped at the slightest touch” I hear you say. That is true but what he did was Stop Going. I am teaching him Go to Stop! I hope this isn’t too mind-stretching but therein lays the key to unlock his brakes; the ability to go forward into a downward transition. Lumbering along on the forehand prevents true forwardness in stepping down through the gears. With bodyweight displacement almost entirely in front of the wither, it becomes physically impossible to slow down or stop on command. Horses can pull and lean on the bit in an effort to remove pressure from too strong a hand. They help balance themselves in this way too even though they can never achieve true equilibrium whilst carrying a rider.
To help Ronan understand how to alter weight distribution, there are several things we can do. We start by reining back a few steps. Done in the right way, this will temporarily lighten the forehand. If it feels right, we will go straight to trot. It’s worth mentioning briefly that riding is all about feel. It is hard for us to tap into this area of awareness. As a society, we are encouraged to develop left brain thinking associated with logic and rationality. We also have a watchful master in the frontal lobe responsible for critical thinking and judgment. It is in our right hemisphere and temporal lobes that we can access centres for feelings, sensory impressions, intuition, creativity, and instinct; essential tools for horse training. In describing the exercises there are many factors that affect how they are done. The weather, environmental considerations, my mood and health are all influencers. I always try to feel my way into the situation as much as I use analytical concepts for Ronan’s bio-mechanical responses.
With a little note on the training mind-set out of the way, we will continue. After a rein back or two, we move onto trot to halt transitions without leaning on the hand, or evading it by coming behind the bridle. The quality and tempo of the trot, even the way I sit will impact on the transition. All this is done by going back and forth in a straight line. If I am happy with the way he is going and feel the time is right, we can start working on the canter. This is often the hardest gait for cobs to master so results take time. Because they often struggle to go from trot to canter without rushing and losing rhythm, I will ask for walk to canter. This may seem back to front as it is more advanced but for Ronan and others like him, it is just the ticket. Initially Ronan just ran forward through the bridle, a completely natural reaction. To remind him of our previous work, we would go back to trot/halt transitions, possibly including some rein back. I never cease to be amazed by their intelligence. Horses learn to configure walk to canter quite quickly unless there is psychological damage or they have been wound up in some way like taking off as soon as their feet touch the grass.
Contrary to common belief, the most effective way to develop a balanced canter that can be stopped in an instant is achieved through transitions, not by keeping the horse in canter. Once Ronan is cantering, within two or three strides he needs to think about stopping. Walk to canter is hard but canter to walk or halt is harder still. The increased energy and momentum propels Ronan forward and thoughts of stopping are far from his mind. In order for him to understand that isn’t what is required, I must do what it takes to make the downward transition. The way in which rein pressure is applied has a direct bearing on how successful I am. Constant contact will encourage him to lean and pull on my hands. I use a combination of squeezing and alternating tension to get him to listen. As soon as I feel the slightest response, I soften and release. This is absolutely pivotal to achieving a good result and must be instantaneously executed. It is in this way that learning evolves. Any form of release brings its own reward but the value of praise can’t be overlooked. I make sure to congratulate him in a big way with pats and words of encouragement.
Like the trot to halt exercises, we go up and down in a straight line, repeating the sequence. In doing work like this, I need to carefully monitor his reactions. I don’t want him associating halt with being the precursor to canter. Any anticipation is deflected by interspersing with regular halt to walk. I also include voice cues which are highly effective in promoting trust and understanding. Working in straight lines involves turning each time a change of direction is made. A turn is a great opportunity to also bring Ronan off his forehand. Depending on the feeling he is giving me, I either ask for a pirouette or a turn about the forehand. I like to include more than one change of direction, asking for different types of turn on different reins.
Combination exercises like these really gets a horse thinking and listening. There are plenty of videos of our horses going quietly from walk to canter and back to walk in fields or forest with just the voice and little or no contact. Almost without exception, they learned how to do that from regular, consistent work on transitions, just like I’m doing with Ronan. It won’t be long before he is also able to shine in the same way. To do things like that time after time involves muscle memory which he doesn’t have yet. When he does, his responses will be automatic. At the moment I am planting metaphorical acorns, seeds I nurture so that they will grow into mighty oaks of desired response. Ronan’s days of carting me in canter will shortly be over because I am showing him how to control his body within different gaits. Every day he will become increasingly adept at going forward to slow down or stop. Although I’ve tried to keep everything as simple as possible, for most of us it is easier to grasp information visually. Once the weather is more settled, we will be creating detailed videos to show how to do this step by step. I hope this post is helpful for the reader and invite you to comment with your thoughts. We love to receive them!