Canter Troubles Part 2: One aid, one response. Establishing leg reaction and starting bending exercises.

If you haven’t read the Part 1 of The Canter Troubles you are best to start there (CLICK) so you have a full picture of what is being discussed.
Today in Part 2 I will look at the leg response issue that Anna has with her pony…

PART 2: ESTABLISHING LEG REACTIONS & STARTING BENDING EXERCISES

The scenario described by Anna is very common although can have many variables – horse might be active by himself yet when rider wants to refine the way of going, they find the horse has no clue what the response should be. They either don’t respond at all, go sideways, go faster or offer no reaction at all – all in reply to one and the same squeeze…Or perhaps they are “lazy”, unresponsive, uncooperative and switched off and again, this doesn’t change whether the rider’s legs are active or not.

One of the ways of re-education are groundwork exercises that make it clear to the horse what leg aids actually mean. Someone once said, “you can teach a horse to canter when you spit at his ears” and I think this rather crudely sums up a very simple fact: any reaction to rider’s aids needs to be trained. We can’t assume the horse knows that if he is tapped in the ribs it should step under himself more with his hindlegs or create more pushing power or indeed step sideways. It is way beyond the scope of this post to describe many exercises so I chose one of the simplest one:

TOUCH – REACT

Equipment needed: 
1. lunge cavesson, well fitted and with a ring on top of the nose so you can apply clear instructions when you want certain head position. Headcollars with bottom ring are not suitable. If you don’t have a lunge cavesson, simple snaffle bridle will be better than a headcollar.
2. Lunge line or a lead rope
3. A dressage whip ( or any longer whip that you can easily move about without any swishing) – lunge whips are too long for in-hand work

Let’s start: Turn about the forehand with emphasis on one aid-one response principle

Benefits:

With practice, this very simple exercise teaches the rider the timing, precision and feel and the horse discipline, clarity and calm reaction to the whip which shouldn’t mean punishment but help the horse understand which body part he needs to shift and where. This is also a great exercise for horses that grew ignorant to the aids and for riders who tend to over-ride their horses, give them many aids/clues with their body, not giving the horse time to react etc It teaches to plan aiding, plan reaction time, plan “recovery/thinking” time.
 Exercise in short: 
– you touch the leg, the leg moves

IN HAND EXERCISE
Exercise in detail: 
A turn about the forehand is a simpler version of the turn on the forehand (difference being: in the former the front legs can move on small circle, on the latter, the inside fore leg should lift and land on the same spot while hindquarters move around the inside foreleg).

Position your horse in the middle of the arena or in place where there are no obstruction around him that he might walk into as you do the exercise. Think about 20m diameter of free space around both of you.

Stand partially in front, partially to the side of your horse so your shoulders “close” the way forward but he still feels like slight forward movement is ok.
Decide which way you want his hindquarters to move. I’ll adjust my instructions to the photo above, so:
– You will be moving the pony’s hindquarters to the left. Head is turned slightly to the right by your hand (this is an easier version). You will touch your pony’s right hind leg with your whip (aim at fleshy parts of the leg like lower thigh – avoid tapping joints/bony parts).
– You will touch the leg until the pony does SOMETHING with it. At the beginning, it doesn’t matter if he actually moves it up and away making the first step. You want a reaction. Perhaps he will lift it and stamp it, perhaps he will kick out with it. Perhaps he will only lightly take it off the floor. Perhaps he will ignore you and search through your pockets. You want to praise all movement but kicking reaction. If he kicks out violently at simple touch, ignore it with no positive word but do not punish the horse either in any way. Ask him to stand calmly for 10 seconds and try again. He is just figuring out what you want or might be conditioned to be scared of the whip due to previous training. Repeat until he calmly just lift his leg upon you touching it.
Some horses will immediately move away 3-4 steps. This is ok at the start but not a reaction you want later. You want to touch once and the horse to give you ONE reaction (i.e. one step). He must trust you and understand you – it is not an easy exercise because you will need to remain calm and stoic when your pony walks about without knowing what on earth you want.
To make sure the clear communication happens, it is very important how you handle yourself and the whip. Whip touching the ground means no questions asked. Horse stands still. Whip lifted a little means preparation for reaction. Whip pointed towards a leg/touching a leg, means reaction is needed. This is a great exercise for riders who tend to over-ride their horses, give them many aids/clues with their body, not giving the horse time to react etc It teaches to plan aiding, plan reaction time, plan “recovery/thinking” time.

TOUCH-REACT IN THE SADDLE
For next step you will need a helper on the ground with whom you can communicate well or a helper in the saddle while you stay on the ground. The rider applies upper leg pressure (avoid heel digging) against the pony’s side while the ground person repeats the touch of the hindleg on the side of the rider’s aiding leg. It’s important to retain action-release principle. The key is to be disciplined too and not allow yourself to start kicking to get a reaction. Allow the pony to learn and figure things out. Assume you are starting from scratch. Assume he doesn’t know what “the leg means”. Imagine teaching him to bring you post from under the door. Yes. That sort of “new” 😉
When you can touch/lightly squeeze his ribs on one side and get a hind leg lift/reaction on that side you are good to move on to the next exercise.

INTRODUCTION TO BENDING
Set up some visual aids for you that mark a 20m circle (cones or jump blocks are good). You might want to keep your helper – ground person with you to make learning easy and fun for all of you. Walk your pony on the 20m circle and using opening rein bring his neck onto the line of the circle (think of him following the circle line from the poll to the tail). As you bring his neck onto the line (head in the middle of his chest), touch him once or twice with your inside leg while your helper touches the inside hind leg in tune with your leg aids (you might need to communicate to time it well). The pony should respond by stepping a little more actively and a little more forwards with his inside hindleg whilst also moving out as if doing a one step leg-yield. During these 1-3 steps he will elongate the muscles on the outside of his body (especially the muscles in between his ribs) and contract the muscles on the inside of his body i.e. will be put in a slight bend.
This at first might be a very slight bend, especially when your pony’s stiffer/more naturally contracted side is on the outside. It’s important not to drill this for too long. Think about asking for 5 steps in correct bend, 5 steps let him be as he wants, then again 5 steps bend, 5 steps let him be. Aim for his neck to remain relaxed at all times and find the length of the reins that gives you control but allows him to stretch gently down and forwards. Lateral bending helps longitudinal bending (from tail to ears) so as he stretches his side muscles he will be likely to want to stretch down too. Aim for the neck in natural position to his conformation, generally most relaxed horses will carry their necks just above the wither line but if your pony has a high set neck this might not be the case.
I would continue with these walk circles until your pony can easily hold the soft bend to the left and right for 3 consecutive circles on both reins. Once he no longer tries to carry his neck to the outside or cuts the circle to the inside, it’s time to start all over again in trot. With some very crooked ponies, this might mean starting on the ground again.

Below is a short video showing a young rider working on variation of the above exercise with a driving pony who is very one-sided and if lunged in conventional fashion, moves in inverted posture/opposite bend.

As mentioned in Part 1, all exercises should be adjusted to the handler’s skills and pony’s character. It’s impossible to give exact exercises without seeing the pony and the rider in action. Please pick and mix the advice given to suit your circumstances. In Part 3 we will look into a few more bending and flexing exercises as well as those establishing more control in the canter when ridden. Stay tuned.

All the best,

Wiola


If you enjoy trying new exercises and would love to train with a supportive, knowledgeable trainer but can’t afford regular lessons/travel, try our online coaching programme! All you need is desire to improve, a camera and someone happy to film you. Click on image below to learn more! 

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