While Cha Ching's mom and I have a lot in common - we work at the same place, we have many friends in common, we love to shop for equine products, our conversations always come back to riding. She rides hunter/jumpers, but she firmly believes in solid basics: good seat and leg position, soft and giving hands, and soft and light horses. Good basics work for any discipline.
So there we were eating burgers and fries, she had the fries, I opted for the sundae, when I started musing about the canter. We discussed what the contact looks like at the walk: hands following the back and forth swing of the head. Think handlebars of a bicycle. And at the trot: hands are more steady, but rocking each rein individually from the shoulder blade as needed to ask for softness. And then we arrived at the canter ... Chirp ... chirp ... chirp of crickets in the silence.
So there we sat, facing each other, each of us holding our own ends of the napkins. I held steady while she chanted, give ... and take. Give ... and take. As she said take, she pulled both ends of the napkins to her with my arms following, and on the give, she gave them back. The motion looked like how the arms connecting the wheels of an old fashioned train engine move.
As she took and gave back the napkin ends, a gigantic lightbulb flashed over my head. AHA!
Her suggestion for horses that did not yet know how to balance themselves in the canter was to start the canter in a longer frame but move my hands and arms in the give and take motion. She said that Speedy G would begin to trust that I would follow his mouth which would encourage him to soften. As he softens, I can shorten the reins, all the while giving and taking. This made perfect sense!
JL and I have been working on teaching Sydney (and by extension, Speedy G) that there is a release. I will not hold him tightly, but I will move with him and follow his motion. I will ask for softness with my take, but will reward with the give. When he's soft, I will begin shortening my reins to compress his frame and ask him to lift his back with my seat and legs.
So did this actually work? Oh yeah! The next morning Speedy G and I got to work. The first ten minutes were brutal. He. Did. Not. Want. To. Work. Period. Out came the whip. He bucked. I squeezed. He collapsed inside. I pushed HARD with my leg. He pinned his ears and threatened to crow hop. I gave him the rein and said, canter. And he did! There was no bucking or kicking. Just a long and low canter. I relaxed my seat to rock with his motion, and I softened my legs. I gave ... and took. Gave ... and took. Within less than a full circle, we established a soft connection, and he started to truly reach for the contact. Each time I took, I shortened my reins just slightly. Before long, we had a lovely canter going that was soft, balanced, and very uphill. I asked for a trot and he gave it immediately and remained connected.
We worked for a while this way doing figure eights, 20 meter circles, changes of directions, and canter transitions. He was the lightest in my hands that he's ever been. He did fuss at the changes of directions, but I kept my elbows bent, and softly told him that the rules were the same: I would be soft and careful. We ended the ride and I nearly cried with pride. We are truly getting it. And to that think just two months ago I was ready to quit!
Here's to cheeseburgers, fries, and sundaes!