A grand prix jumper rider’• •im­ple ex­erci•e for ma•ter­ing dif­fer­ent type• of can­ter•.

Practical Horseman - - The Ride of Your Life - By El­iz­a­beth Gin­gras Pho­tos by Su­san J. Stickle

When you can­ter to your first fence on course, do you won­der if you have the cor­rect can­ter? Am­a­teurs and Ju­niors com­monly strug­gle with this dilemma for good rea­son: When you have the right can­ter—your horse is trav­el­ing in the cor­rect bal­ance and frame at a suitable pace for the fence—he’ll be able to jump it to the best of his abil­ity. If he’s on his fore­hand, in­verted, too slow or too fast, he can’t jump his best. Hav­ing a good-qual­ity can­ter also al­lows you to see your dis­tances bet­ter, so it should be ev­ery rider’s top pri­or­ity for mul­ti­ple rea­sons.

There’s more to it than just hav­ing a well-bal­anced can­ter, though. In the jumpers, dif­fer­ent types of jumps and lines re­quire dif­fer­ent can­ters. For ex­am­ple,

you might need to ap­proach a spooky fence or a large oxer with a much more for­ward can­ter than you’d want for a pair of ver­ti­cals.

Know­ing what type of can­ter you need for each sit­u­a­tion comes with ex­pe­ri­ence, but that doesn’t mean you have to put lots of wear and tear on your horse’s legs by jump­ing over and over again. In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll de­scribe a very sim­ple ex­er­cise I prac­tice fre­quently at home with all of my horses—even my top Na­tions Cup mounts. Although it re­quires only two cav­al­letti or two sets of poles and plas­tic blocks, it men­tally and phys­i­cally en­gages both horse and rider by con­tin­u­ally chal­leng­ing you to ad­just the can­ter in dif­fer­ent ways.

Riders and horses of all lev­els can do this ex­er­cise—and ev­ery­one can ben­e­fit from it. The ob­sta­cles are small enough that there will be no harm done if you miss a dis­tance now and then. As you prac­tice short­en­ing and length­en­ing your horse’s stride, he will grow more alert and at­tuned to your aids. He’ll learn to re­spond to lighter leg aids and your half-halts will be­come smoother and eas­ier to achieve. The con­stant va­ri­ety will keep things in­ter­est­ing for you, too.

Prac­tic­ing this ex­er­cise fre­quently is a great way to im­prove your horse’s fit­ness. Ad­di­tion­ally, it will re­veal both his and your weak­nesses. Know­ing these will not only give you spe­cific things to work on in fu­ture train­ing ses­sions but will also pro­vide valu­able in­for­ma­tion to keep in mind while you’re walk­ing cour­ses for a com­pe­ti­tion.

Two Cav­al­letti on a Straight Line

Yes, it’s that sim­ple! Set two cav­al­letti or two poles on plas­tic blocks—ad­justed to their mid­dle height—on a straight line five to eight strides apart, de­pend­ing on what is most com­fort­able for the size of your arena. (If your arena is small, for ex­am­ple, a five- or six-stride line is fine.) Don’t worry about get­ting this dis­tance ex­actly right. The idea be­hind the ex­er­cise is to ad­just the can­ter to suit each cir­cum­stance, what­ever it may be. Use striped poles if you can, as they will help you aim for the cen­ter of each “jump.” Step 1: Make a Plan Be­fore start­ing the ex­er­cise, make a men­tal plan for how you want to ex­e­cute it. Plan to ride the line five times in one di­rec­tion with­out stop­ping, then plan to take a quick break and do the same in the other di­rec­tion. For each of those five times, de­cide ex­actly how many strides you will ride the line in. Start with the strid­ing that is most com­fort­able for you and your horse and then in­crease the dif­fi­culty by adding or sub­tract­ing strides in sub­se­quent passes.

If you or your horse are rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced, make the pro­gres­sion smooth and grad­ual. Be­gin in his com­fort zone by rid­ing the line two or three times in a nice reg­u­lar can­ter. Next,

plan to ride the line in a more for­ward can­ter, aim­ing to sub­tract a stride. Then plan to ride it in the com­fort­able strid­ing once more be­fore col­lect­ing the can­ter to add a stride.

For ex­am­ple, if you set the cav­al­letti up on a reg­u­lar 72-foot five-stride line, de­pend­ing on your horse’s nat­u­ral stride, it will prob­a­bly ride com­fort­ably in six or seven strides (since the cav­al­letti are so small). So ride it in that com­fort­able num­ber of strides two times. The third time, go more for­ward to leave a stride out. Then ease back to the com­fort­able strid­ing for your fourth pass. Fi­nally, col­lect the can­ter to add a stride.

If you and your horse are more ad­vanced and your horse is ex­tremely ad­justable, make your plan more chal­leng­ing by go­ing to ex­tremes. Ride through the line in the com­fort­able strid­ing just once. If that com­fort­able strid­ing was seven strides, for ex­am­ple, then ride it next in six strides, then eight, then back to seven, then nine. There are ob­vi­ously many vari­a­tions you can play with. Just be sure you know ex­actly what you in­tend to do be­fore you be­gin.

As you’re mak­ing your plan, also think about your po­si­tion. Ini­tially, it’s best to do the ex­er­cise in what­ever po­si­tion is most com­fort­able for you, whether that’s two-point or sit­ting more deeply in the sad­dle. When that’s go­ing well, you can chal­lenge your­self by chang­ing your po­si­tion. So, for ex­am­ple, you might plan to ride the line in two-point for the first three passes, then ride the last two in a deeper seat. If it’s too con­fus­ing to change your strid­ing and your po­si­tion at the same time, ad­just one or the other for each pass. As you get the hang of the ex­er­cise, you’ll be able to chal­lenge your­self by ad­just­ing both.

Also plan to start the ex­er­cise on your horse’s bet­ter lead. Although we all try to train our horses to be more am­bidex­trous, most of them nat­u­rally pre­fer one lead over the other. You’ll make more progress if you ride the first five passes on his fa­vorite lead, then re­peat the ex­er­cise in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

If your horse is very fit, you can add a sec­ond—or even third—set of five rep­e­ti­tions in each di­rec­tion, play­ing with the strid­ing how­ever you think will best ben­e­fit both of you. Step 2: Ride the Line Once you have a good plan in mind, ex­e­cute it! Pick up a nice bal­anced can­ter and head to the cen­ter of the first raised pole. Whether you’re rid­ing in two-point or a deeper seat, use your core strength—your stom­ach and in­ner-thigh mus­cles—to stay as close to your horse as pos­si­ble with­out clamp­ing your legs on or col­laps­ing your up­per body. Don’t worry about whether he jumps the pole or sim­ply steps over it. Ei­ther way, fol­low his mo­tion with your hands be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter it,

then head straight down the line to­ward the cen­ter of the sec­ond pole.

To sub­tract strides, close your calves on your horse’s sides and lighten your seat to en­cour­age him to open his stride and cover more ground. Fol­low his mo­tion with your hands and body with­out tip­ping your shoul­ders too far for­ward.

To add strides, col­lect the can­ter by ask­ing your horse to half-halt. Do this by putting more pres­sure on the reins while sink­ing into your thigh and light­en­ing your calf pres­sure. Make sure you don’t take your leg com­pletely off so your horse doesn’t break into the trot. I like to use what I call a “flut­ter leg”: a leg that is there to nudge the horse, ask­ing him to shorten and quicken his step.

Each time you ride through the line, ask your­self how it went: “Did my horse stay on the cor­rect lead? Did he stay straight and main­tain a good rhythm? How was my po­si­tion? Did I sit up tall and stay in the cen­ter of my horse? Or was I lean­ing too far for­ward and twist­ing my body?” Try to iden­tify the weak­nesses of both you and your horse so you know what you need to prac­tice and im­prove.

If your horse isn’t meet­ing the poles on a com­fort­able stride, ad­just your can­ter. Try adding a lit­tle more im­pul­sion or steady­ing him a bit more. Ask your­self, “Is his bal­ance too long and low?” or “Is it in­verted?” Some­times it’s helpful to have a trainer get on your horse to pro­duce the right can­ter so you can learn to rec­og­nize it. But this ex­er­cise can of­ten help riders learn how to fix the can­ter them­selves, which is a valu­able tool to have both in train­ing and in the com­pe­ti­tion ring.

Take a mo­ment to try to mem­o­rize what it felt like when you got it right. Think about how the can­ter felt and what your body was do­ing when you main­tained a lovely can­ter all the way down the line while get­ting the cor­rect counts.

Lis­ten to your horse through­out the ex­er­cise. If he feels slug­gish, take a break and think about what might be af­fect­ing him. He could be fa­tigued—it’s a lot of work for a horse to ad­just

his body so much. Or you might need to en­cour­age him to give you a bet­ter-qual­ity can­ter.

Vari­a­tion: Two Cav­al­letti On a Bend­ing Line

Once the ex­er­cise is go­ing well, try a small vari­a­tion: Set the raised poles up on a bend­ing line, still five to eight strides apart. Just as you did be­fore, make a plan to ride the line about five times in each di­rec­tion, vary­ing the num­ber of strides in what­ever way you think would ben­e­fit your horse the most. Ride to the cen­ter of each pole on the same track ev­ery time, mak­ing ad­just­ments in your can­ter—rather than to the track—to pro­duce the de­sired num­ber of strides.

This, too, will give you lots of valu­able in­for­ma­tion about your horse’s ten­den­cies. For ex­am­ple, he may be harder to turn in one di­rec­tion than the other. In prac­tice at home, we all try to

cor­rect these weak­nesses, but horses of­ten re­vert to what is more com­fort­able for them, es­pe­cially in the show ring. So the bet­ter you know your horse, the bet­ter plan you can make for him in the com­pe­ti­tion arena.

Ride by Feel

Keep all of this in­for­ma­tion in mind when you walk your course at a show. Re­mem­ber the feel­ing of the can­ter you had when prac­tic­ing at home and the dif­fer­ence be­tween adding and leav­ing out strides.

Also note where turns and bend­ing lines might be more chal­leng­ing—or eas­ier—for your horse’s par­tic­u­lar ten­den­cies. If he’s hard to turn left, for ex­am­ple, left turns on course might come up more quickly for you than for other riders.

It’s im­por­tant not to over­think once you en­ter the show ring, so do most of your think­ing when walk­ing the course be­fore­hand. Study it thor­oughly and make a good plan suitable for you and your horse. Once you are mounted, take a mo­ment to clear your mind and then en­joy the ride!

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