Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Canter leads

So many times when a horse does not pick up a canter lead, we blame the horse. Yet our horses go out to their pastures or turnout every day, and pick up both canter leads; heck, they even do flying changes! Sidenote: it is important to note though that horses, just as people, will have a preferred lead. Sometimes it is a balance issue, particularly with a young horse who is still learning to handle itself and a rider's weight (especially in an arena, with corners). Often however, the reason a horse is not picking up a lead might be because of its rider!

I have been taught, throughout my riding career, a whole variety of techniques to get a horse to pick up the correct lead. Crank his head around to the outside to free up his inside shoulder, push the hind end to the inside, ask him on a corner, canter him on the wrong lead on a small circle until he offers to pick up the correct lead. While some of these do have tidbits of truth to them, many techniques just end up causing the rider to sit in a position that unbalances the horse (like sitting forward over a shoulder) and/or unbalance the horse directly.


So how do we get those correct leads? Some tips and exercises:

Reflect what you want your horse to do
Your horse is a reflection of you, so it only makes sense that what you want your horse to do, you should also do. Translation? If you want your horse to pick up the inside lead, "lead" with your own inside shoulder and hip as you ask for the canter. Place your inside hand just ahead of your outside hand, allowing your outside shoulder to lag. Look to the outside wall even if it helps. Try to keep the positioning as natural and relaxed as possible, remain on your seatbones (as opposed to tilted forward onto your crotch) and evenly balanced, and relax. With a young horse, you can be a little more obvious in your movement and refine as you go along (to the point where an observer would not spot your hip and shoulder movements as you quietly and minutely shift).

Where a horse's weight sits
A horse's weight shifts throughout gaits: from 60/40 (60 percent on the forehand, 40 on the hind) at the walk/halt, 50/50 at the trot, 40/60 at the canter (40 on the forehand, 60 percent on the hind), and 51-70 percent of the weight shifted forward at the gallop. Keeping this in mind can ensure that you also shift your weight appropriately and remain balanced in an independent seat, so as to best help your horse. When asking the horse to pick up the canter, shift your weight onto your seatbones slightly to encourage and allow your horse to do the same.

Keep in mind as well how a horse travels in the canter
First to hit is the outside hind, second being the inside hind and outside fore hitting in unison. Lastly, the inside fore hits to complete the 3 beats of a canter. So, if you aim your horse's hindquarter, you can encourage him to pick up the correct lead. This is why teaching your horse to yield his hindquarters can be so important. I teach the hindquarter yield as part of a three-part maneuver.

The 3-part maneuver:
I do this on a loose rein, in a rope hackamore (no bosal or shanks), but it can also be done with a gentle snaffle (use a full-cheek snaffle on a young horse if you are using a bit).

The bend
1. Pick the reins up high off your horse's neck, in the middle of the rein, and lift the rein directly up - with only one hand (your other hand can be slack at your side). This gives your horse notice that you are about to ask something (because normally the rein rests above the horse's neck in a loose and "neutral" position).
2. Still holding the rein up with one rein, "trombone" your other hand (run your hand up and down softly, mimicking a trombone player) up and down the rein 3 times (this is phase one, lightly asking your horse to bend his neck).
3. Pinch the rein, halfway down, with your thumb and forefinger (phase 2)
4. As you softly draw the rein towards you, slowly start adding your other fingers onto the rein to ultimately create a closed fist over the rein (phases 3,4,5).
5. Draw the rein in your fist to your thigh with your thumb facing out and your fingers facing up (phase 6) - as if you were stabbing the middle of your thigh with a knife.

Remember to keep your body relaxed, your weight balanced and equal, and your hands soft. KEEP YOUR EYES UP. If your horse fights you, go with him - allow your hand to follow, then immediately gently bring it back in a give and take motion. This is called having an elastic elbow. When your horse gives the slightest try, reward him by releasing; eventually ask for more and more. Your end goal is for your horse to soften and to swing his head around by your leg - and keep it there - when you ask, on a loose rein. Do not release on a tight rein (though your elbow can be elastic if your horse is especially resistant - maintain contact and continue to re-ask without release), wait for the release then release the rein.

Turn on the forehand
Once the bend is soft, move onto the next part of the maneuver - the turn on the forehand...hindquarter control. From the bend, lift your hand from your thigh up to your belly button, fingers facing up and thumb facing out in the fist (as if stabbing your belly button with a knife). This lifts your horse's nose up and helps encourage your horse to think about moving his hindquarters. Shift your weight slightly to your outside seatbone (on the opposite side of the bend), just as you are asking of your horse. Slide your inside leg back slightly and turn to glare at your horse's hindquarters. Hold your position. Release at the slightest try, even if it is just a weight shift at first. If your horse doesn't move, make the right answer easy and the wrong answer hard by making him uncomfortable just standing - you can switch hands so that your outside hand is holding the rein (in the same position, without releasing the rein) and your inside hand is free. While holding your position, gently tap your horse's hip with your hand or with a rein end and increase the pressure. You can also bump with your legs instead. If he starts struggling with his head, decrease the pressure down to a pressure that keeps him thinking, but does not over-pressure him. As soon as he tries, release and start all over again. Be careful your weight is not thrown around so that it throws your horse off balance - this is a very common rider error that will greatly affect your horse. The ultimate goal is for your horse's front feet to remain within a small circle (ie, a foot or two in diameter) and to pivot, while your horse's hind legs cross to disengage and travel along the outside of a circle. Your horse should not be taking actual steps forward (or back).

Work on the ground to develop lightness in your horse as well - whatever you have on the ground decreases by 1/2 in the saddle, so if you create a superhorse on the ground, you'll have a pretty responsive partner in the saddle! Developing the Driving game (having your horse move his feet by applying pressure to various areas of his space via body language) and the Porcupine game (teaching your horse to move off of physical pressure) to where they are light and your horse is respectful, will aid in teaching him the three-part maneuver in the saddle. Check out the 7 Games on the Parelli website.

Turn on the hindquarter
The last part of the three part maneuver is the turn on the hindquarter. Once the bend and the turn on the fore are soft, take your hand from your belly button and hold it straight out from your shoulder (so that your arm is perfectly horizontal and straight out), thumb facing forward. This rein position tips your horse's nose up and helps him lift his inside shoulder, which is key. Keep your seatbones weighted evenly, slide your outside leg (the leg opposite the direction of movement) forward slightly (cueing the forehand to move over), and hold. If your horse does not move, you can gently pressure his shoulder with a carrot stick or rein end (something that extends your arm) or by bumping him gently with your legs - soft rythmic pressure that increases until your horse moves. Again, groundwork will greatly contribute to your under-saddle work. The ultimate goal (although not necessarily what you achieve on first try!) is to have your horse's hinds pivot and remain within a small circle, say a couple feet in diameter - his hinds should not travel in actual steps forward or back. The inside shoulder should lift and the outside foreleg cross over the inside foreleg (ultimately).

Another position from which you can ask for the turn on the haunches is from the back up (as opposed to from the turn on the forehand as part of the 3-part maneuver). Ask your horse gently to back a few steps then when you feel him sitting on his haunches, use the aforementioned cues to ask for the pivot on the haunches.

Taking it a step up
Once your horse understands the three-part maneuver and is soft, you can "glue" the three movements together into one smooth maneuver. Once the yields are mastered at the halt, start asking for the hindquarter and shoulder yields at the walk (then trot and canter once the walk is mastered). Introduce shoulder-in's, travers, etc. Once you've mastered hindquarter control at the walk, you can then take it up into the trot to set your horse up to pick up the correct canter lead!


The Bowtie
I'll leave you with one last exercise (from the Parelli Lead Changes DVD) that can get your horse thinking in the right direction: the Bowtie.
The Bowtie is essentially a Figure-8, with the changes in direction along the rail so that it resembles a "bowtie". Horses are pattern animals, which is why they are so helpful to teaching your horse various maneuvers and getting him to think in the right direction. The bowtie gets your horse thinking in the right direction and thus aiming his hindquarters towards the corner that will enable him to pick up the correct lead. The pattern:

Like I said, it is essentially a Figure-8, but instead of doing the change in direction in the middle of the pattern, do them along the wall. Start at the trot with a soft and supple horse, picking up the canter each time you head toward the wall and dropping it again as you move off the wall. You're looking for the horse's hindquarters to aim for the next corner. Later you can, on a straight line (though start on a serpentine that you gradually straighten into a line), simply aim the appropriate hind foot for the lead you want; for example, aim the left hind for the left lead. Use the cues and weight shifts discussed above...and for a more in-depth description, check out the Parelli Lead Changes DVD...there's only so much that I can describe here, on paper, without you actually being able to see it for yourself :)

Remember: don't tip your horse's nose (at least not excessively) and remember that setting your horse up is only one part of the deal; positioning yourself is equally important (perhaps even moreso). For an idea, I took Cody (our new Paint) out for a trail ride and, out in the middle of some fields (no fence or wall), I asked him to pick up the canter. Each time I asked him to pick up the canter, I positioned my hips and shoulders according to which lead I wanted him to pick up. I used no other cues (he was on a loose rein, I kept my legs even) and we were on a straight line going up and down hills. Each and every time he picked up the lead I was "asking" for, just due to the position of my hips and shoulders! Our position up in that saddle makes a drastic difference to our horses.

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