Saturday, September 29, 2012

Lesson: Half Halts and Release

Today we had a challenging lesson. 

When Julie first got there, I had just started warming up at the trot and she was surprised at how good we looked.  She asked what we had done to make such an improvement and how I was riding differently than normal.  Well, I didn't think I was really riding differently than normal, he was just somehow being really good- reaching down for contact and a nice controlled, cadenced trot. 

Well I think she was satisfied with our posting trot, so we moved on to a new exercise of very frequent half halts- every stride in the sitting trot.  So, I had to apply inside leg and stomach every time the inside front leg went forward.  That was a big challenge- for me!  Contracting my muscles and releasing them with every stride is a lot of work!  The half halts weren't huge, but just enough to get Louie thinking and his hind legs moving more than anything.

We worked on this for a little bit, and then added an element of allowing forward motion after several half halts.  So we would do 3 consecutive strides with half halts, then release forward and "tap tap tap" my leg lightly with each step and almost allow the energy forward through my stomach. 

Sometimes, we would do a 10 meter circle working on this, then proceed into shoulder in down the long side of the arena.  I need to remember to stay really tucked, and if Louie ignores my aids and runs through me, get really tucked under with my seat, raise and widen my hands, but keep my fingers light, and use whip if he won't listen to my leg to move sideways. 

We then worked on this exercise, but instead of allowing a little more trot, we asked for the canter.  I need to really focus on keeping my feet light in the canter and riding each stride, being prepared to downward transition after 3 strides, or after 3 circles. . .  All of our canter work is being done on about 10-15 meter circles at this point.  We had some very nice left lead cantering.  Our right lead canter is still a bit rushed, higher headed, and not as connected as the left lead.  I think this is just due to Louie's mild chronic left hind leg lameness.

I need to remember not only to keep my feet and legs light in the canter, but also to think towards the stretch just like we do in the other gaits (with inside bend via inside leg and rein, and some half halt and release). 

I think we've made really great progress in the past month or two.  I'm hoping to get a schooling video soon to share Louie's "new canter" as well as hopefully catch his nicer connected trot and stretching skills. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lesson: Finite Half Halts Redefined

Louie and I had a double lesson last Thursday, then another little lesson today as we're missing a few lessons this month with shows and field trials and such.

On Thursday we worked a lot on activating the hind legs in creating a half halt.  This is a modified version of an exercise that we just hate (aka: still don't really get) called "the square."  Okay, so here's how it works:  you're going along at a walk and you want to halt.  Well, you don't just want the front end to run into a wall and stop, you want the hind end to activate, and step under the horse's body into the halt.  So, to do this, we ask for a half halt or a full halt by immobilizing the stomach to tell the saddle to stop moving, and applying a little bit of one or both legs (in this exercise, it's always just applying the inside leg, but if I were to go down the centerline and stop at X, I would use both legs so my horse stays straight).  If we don't get an instant reaction from the subtle half halt cues, then we activate those hind legs by immediately going into a turn on the forehand.  The piece that I think I have been missing in this is that I need to stay perfectly still in the saddle, still giving the cue of "halt" with my body.  Once we get a few steps with the hind legs and a slowing/stopping of the front end, we ask again for the walk, or whatever gait we were in to begin with. 

I haven't entirely grasped the process, but the goal is that this exercise teaches the horse to activate the hind legs and eventually "collect" the gait by creating a half halt.  Eventually this can be applied to the faster gaits, of collecting/re-organizing the canter, etc.  I just haven't quite grasped the quantum leap from the turn on the forehand to collecting the canter quite yet. . . some day.

Well anyhow, today, we worked just a little bit on that, but we worked more specifically making half halts go through and using them as a finite correction.  Except we didn't really always refer to what we were doing as "half halting."  We worked first on the same exercise we did to create nice cadence a few weeks ago.  We slowed the gait way down, and then worked on getting more hind end activity without going faster, all the meanwhile encouraging him to reach out for the contact and lengthening the neck (do this with little gives).  The usual chain of events would be something like: trotting on a 20 meter circle, slow the gait, add whip, but hold the speed slow with stomach and some rein, then do lots of little gives on the reins to encourage him to reach out and forward for the bit while keeping the hind end pushing.  To get the neck down and discourage ducking, we added our favorite element:  sideways.  At times Louie would get quite above the bit, so we went very sideways in a shoulder in, but tried to keep him going really sideways without any neck bend, or almost thinking "renvers."  After a few strides of that, Louie would begin to lean on the bit a little bit, which was a cue to lengthen the rein and let him reach down for the bit.  After we got that connection, we straightened him out and continued with the exercise. 

We followed this same procedure/recipe to re-balance him as needed, to "check" to see if he was carrying himself or would be willing to stretch down further.  It eventually ended up being like the square exercise where I would apply stomach and inside leg to activate the hind leg, then release the reins into a more forward trot when/if we got the slowing/re-balancing on the hind end we were looking for- aka, a half halt. 

We then proceeded with a similar process at the sitting trot and working on canter transitions.  We would go along at the sitting trot, hopefully maintaining the ability to make a half halt go through, yet retaining connection with a long neck on the reins.  We would then begin to do a downward transition into a turn on the forehand, then I'd change my mind and allow him forward again.  We did this on a 10 meter circle, then after getting a few nice half-halts to go through, I would straighten him, bring my inside leg forward and ask for the canter.  The big trick here was then to actually RIDE the canter.  I tend to feel relieved when I get into the canter, so I stop riding it and just kind of cruise along.  Well today, we worked on "renewing the upward transition with every stride, and we worked on only cantering 3 strides, then asking for the downward transition (which by the way, has really improved in the past couple of rides) and getting back into a nice collected trot rather than a rushy fast, "run off" trot.  This 3 stride exercise was good for me, because it makes me actually RIDE every stride, vs just being a passenger. 

So, our homework, is to continue to work on making half halts go through, and refining our half halt to get good hind leg activity, and be able to do little gives with the reins and encourage Louie to reach down and out into the contact.  We are also to work on the trot-canter transitions with the mini turns on the forehand in the trot as a half halt. 

Oh- and one more little thing we figured out- my left wrist/hand is always a problem, but it works better if I keep my left rein shorter (when it's the inside rein, and pull it a little bit more away from the neck, as pulling into the neck makes my wrist brace). 

Monday, September 10, 2012

First Level at the Schooling Show

I'm late in writing about it, but we rode first level, test 2 in the schooling show at our farm last weekend.  I planned ahead to make sure I had a solid 30 minutes to warm up, and I'm really glad I did. 

Our test had some really nice moments, and overall, was quite nice.  It wasn't perfect, but it was better than I had expected it to be.  We scored a 7 on our entrance and salute.  We scored 5.5's on our trot lengthenings (Louie still doesn't really have trot lengthenings) and a 5.5 and a 6 on our canter lengthenings (which I felt were quite nice, but the judge wanted to see more lengthening of the frame here- so, something we can work on, considering I hadn't schooled a canter lengthening for many months).   We scored 6.5 and 7 on our leg yields, which were pretty nice, though Louie still has a tendency to brace his neck up and tighten his back in them.  We scored a 7 on our first extended canter-regular canter transition, and a 5.5 on our second (as that was in the far end of the arena, where all bets are off- Louie is afraid of the letter "A").  We scored a 7 on our first canter-trot transition, and a 5.5 on the second.  We scored 7's on our walk work, including the free walk, then our walk-trot transition.  We managed to score a 6.5 on our stretchy trot circle, which was not quite as nice as our stretchy circle in our last test at the show the previous weekend, but we did get some stretch.  Our canter work was quite nice, I thought, for the most part.  Our 15 meter circles were very nice, and the tempo and quality of the canter was much nicer than it had been a few months earlier.  However, towards the end of the test, after a string of 7's, Louie took the wrong lead twice (asking for the right lead), so we scored a 4 on that and 5.5's on everything left in the test.  Ouch.  Bad Louie.  Well, maybe I didn't set him up right, I'm not sure.  It was my first time ever having ridden through the test. 

Overall, we came out with a 60.9%, from a schooling show judge who is pretty fair, and not overly generous, so I'm pretty happy with that.  On our collective marks, we got a 7 on gaits, 6 on implusion, 5 on submission, 6.5 on rider's position and seat, and 5.5's on use of the aids and harmony.  We had some bracy movements at the end after the missed canter transition, then going into the "scary" end of the arena.  Really not bad though, for our first time trying 1st level.  Our trot lengthenings can use some work, but otherwise, we have pretty much all of the movements needed for first level. 

The test was really fun to ride, and it was low stress to only ride one test.  I should do that more often!  I'm looking forward do doing that again, and it was a great way to end our show season!