In today's post, I am going to give you a little insight into one of my training rides so you can see my thought process and how I take what I feel in my body, analyze it and dig into the right toolbox to solve the problem.
The horse I am going to comment on is Freedance, my nine year old Oldenburg gelding. He is the first horse that I ever bred so we have a very close long term relationship! He loves to work and I typically ride him first in the morning as he is usually pretty eager to go. We are currently gearing up for a competition this weekend at the Intermediare I level and in a month we will be competing in our first CDI level at the small tour (PSG, I-1).
I always walk my horses on a long rein for about 10 minutes just allowing the horse to limber up and to readjust to the riders weight. Remember, 23+ hours a day they are without us on their backs and so I like to give them a little time just to ease into the work. After those 10 minutes, I will gather up the contact and work more in a medium walk...I don't do a ton of collected walk and when I do work on that, it's always later in the ride once I've had time to get my horse responsive to the half halt and balanced over his hind legs. I will do some work in medium walk, usually just big bending lines and serpentines but sometimes I'll add in a little leg yielding, shoulder in or half pass. During this ride, I made my big focus on the balance. Freedance tends to want to be a little bit out behind and down in the shoulders so I wanted to spend a lot of time getting him rocked back over his hind legs and showing more joint articulation.
The next phase of the ride is rising trot on still a little bit of a long rein, with the aim to getting this short backed little horse stretching over his topline. My strategy here depends a bit on the horse I'm riding...my mare, Jypsy, loves a full stretch of her neck where I'm on the buckle of the reins giving her full freedom to stretch down. As a rule, I do not like this approach as I feel horses need the structure of the rein contact to properly use their back but I feel Jypsy needs it! With Freedance I just like to do enough stretching trot work to get the back opened up a little but not so long as he gets stuck down on the shoulder. I start with large serpentines and changes of bend, getting him reactive off my inner leg. At this time I also test the reaction to my forward driving aids and my half halt by riding forward in the trot and then back to walk and then quickly into trot again. After about 5 minutes of basic trot work I will go into the canter and work on canter-trot-canter transitions with the goal of making the back supple and the reactions crisp. Then I will go to canter-walk-canter transitions to again test reactions, straightness and balance (does he sit and engage into the canter or push off the hind legs too much?) He can be a little inconsistent in the contact in the beginning of the ride which is related to the feeling that his hind legs aren't really connected to the bit yet. I keep my hand steady and work with the half halts and transitions to get the hindlegs more active and underneath him which carries the energy over the back and into a steady hand. I have been guilty in the past of trying to put him together with too much hands which just leads to more instability and the hind legs still trailing out behind. The most effective way to create stability in the contact is to create stability in the connection from the hind legs to the bit.
I will add in walk breaks every 7-8 minutes or so (I don't time this but I will typically add it in when I feel like I achieved what I wanted in that set). After riding the transitions, I went to tempo changes in the trot (this is where I feel the hind legs wanting to have the most separation from the bit - the canter is much more solidly connected). My approach was to ride along the rail and play the accordion of his trot...expand it out but the second it would tip down and I would lose the hind legs, I would half halt and rebalance him again and then expand again...over and over until I could do longer sets of collected trot. I would think of pendulum...when I allow the trot to swing one way, I then need to allow it to swing back the other way. So when I would ride collected trot, I would need to then do a few strides school trot. When I would do medium trot, I would then need to do more of a passage type trot. And when I would extend, I would then bring him back to half steps. It's important to have this amount of adjustability. With Freeedance, the moment I would start to feel a loss of impulsion, I would send him forward. If I felt a loss of balance, I would half halt and bring the weight back to the hindquarters.
After another walk break I went to play the accordion in the canter. Forward but uphill and then collected to a pirouette canter without losing impulsion. Repetition of this exercise over and over until his lumbar back had increased flexibility and he was feeling super solid in my hands. By the end we had some beautiful, cadenced collected with a steady connection from the hind legs to the bit.
This was the first ride back after a week off while we were in Washington teaching a clinic so I ended the ride here. Later in the week I will start the same way and then add in more lateral work. Some days I will start with the lateral work to get his back swinging a little more side to side but I felt that since his biggest single issue is the longitudinal balance, this felt like a good approach and it was successful!!
I would suggest for readers to find what their horses biggest struggle is...is it straightness? Impulsion? Tightness (lack of lateral balance)? Longitudinal balance? Adjustability? Whatever it is, typically all issues can be broken down into it's simplest components and when you know what that is, you can open that toolbox and begin to go about improving your horse!
Enjoy the ride!