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Can-ter ... with a little help from my friend, the transition.
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Can-ter ... with a little help from my friend, the transition.

Having always been taught that the best trot a horse can offer you is the one directly following a springing, active canter, I thought I might be able to kill two birds with one Stone (pun intended) by also gaining access to his back if I could manage to actually achieve a quality canter on Traum. 

Except I couldn’t.

So I opened my trusty tool box of training skills and besides finding half a pop tart and a prize list from 2002, I found my go-to approach for everything dressage: transitions. Transitions into and out of the canter. Transitions within the canter. Within the trot. Within the walk. Within movements and changes of rein. Into and out of each corner. Honestly, I love riding transitions more than a Dover catalog end-of-year sale.

Warming up Traum with our customary 15 minutes suppling at walk, then a few minutes of the same at trot, we popped into canter and I realized that there was going to be no success riding trot/canter/trot transitions on a circle. I had been warned. Traum’s owner, Sharon, told me that his nemesis has always been the canter to trot transition, in which he tended to brace/stiffen. Sure enough, Traum’s jaw began to tense, and his back (also known affectionately as ‘Route 66') began to drop so my attempted half halts were useless. I came back to walk, rode a couple of ’swinging voltes’ (walking turn-on-the fore on a small circle) which seemed to really help open up his hips and relax him, then we picked up the canter again. It felt better. Looser. 

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Next I rode the ‘rubber band’ exercise: 5 strides forward, 5 back, then 4 forward and back, then 3…you get the picture. But what I found was that although he was responding nicely to the forward aid, instead of propelling himself from behind, he was sort of pulling himself along with his front legs. Although his inside leg was reaching nicely beneath my boot, his back was still dropped. I wasn’t getting that ‘bounding’ feeling we want with a lengthening, and you can see how hollow he looks behind the cantle, instead of his back lifting and rounding.

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So now I had thrown out the notion of working on a more dynamic trot during this session and focused on getting a decent canter. This happens a lot in training. You tack up all eagerly, ready to work on changes or half passes and then you get on and say, “Wait a minute, I can’t even get a half halt to go through. Back to the drawing board.” With Traum, I’ve pulled up a chair to the drawing board because I think I’m going to be here a while. And to be fair, along with his teenaged hocks and the fact that he was used for lessons which resulted in a less than supple jaw, none of this is physically easy for him. So one must be patient, very correct, and have a couple of bottles of pinot grigio chilling in the fridge for later in the evening to get through the training process. Then an interesting thing happened. Although our lengthening canter transition felt flat, when I attempted to bring him back to a collected canter, by doing nothing more than lightning my seat, he began to elevate a bit in front. Shocking, really, because I expected the result to be flat or on the forehand.

But heck, I’ll take it. With deep gratitude. And from here I will try much shorter bursts of attempted lengthenings because I believe Traum’s difficulty is rooted in lack of strength and he simply can’t maintain more than three or four strides of a lengthening canter without pitching forward. That’s the plan, anyway...

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