Dawn and I had an outstanding ride this morning. But first I had to wade out to get her - we got about 10" of snow several days ago, and it was the very heavy, wet type, that's now packing down. Walking on it means sometimes having a foot staying on top of the crust and sometimes falling through - very uncomfortable and strenuous - the horses aren't having as much trouble since they're so heavy they always get through to the bottom, although I imagine the crustiness isn't very comfortable. Dawn and I managed to slog in, and she stopped at the water tank for a long drink.
Although our ride was interrupted in the middle by the drag, and one of the big doors was stuck partway open, letting in cold air, she worked very well. She just gets right down to it in a very businesslike way. Her trot work was very good, forward and soft at the same time. But it was the canter work that stood out. Dawn's canter has been a work in progress for a long time. She started life as a racehorse, and my younger daughter pretty much rode Dawn that way in the years before I started riding her - they did a lot of flat-out galloping on the trails. And Dawn is built downhill, which makes canter work more challenging. When I started riding Dawn over three years ago, she was very braced and heavy in the hand in all gaits, and at the canter she would tend to pull and race and fall on the forehand. She also typically wanted to go very fast, and would tend to rev up, which made things a little too exciting. So for a long time, we really didn't do any canter work - we had plenty of work to do to get softness and relaxation at the walk and trot and with transitions.
In the spring of 2011, I took Dawn to a Mark Rashid clinic, and although we tried some canter work, it was clear we weren't yet ready for it, mainly because when she started to rev up, I got tense and grabby, and with a horse like Dawn, that just makes things worse. Mark recommended that we continue to work in trot, both short and long trot, until things were just completely together with us, particularly my being comfortable with how forward she is, and then just let canter come along naturally. We started to get there last summer and I felt much more comfortable with her canter. We did some loose rein cantering in the hot days, when she was relaxed, so she couldn't lean on the bit and would have to carry herself.
Cantering is harder in the indoor - the corners are tight and Dawn is even more forward in the colder temperatures. We've been trying some canter on the days when she's sufficiently relaxed at the trot. I've been deliberately having her canter only until things are close to falling apart, and then asking her to come to trot - I've been trying to reinforce correct canter rather than trying to bring her back into correct canter when things get out of whack - getting her back at that point can be difficult because she can start leaning and pulling. Some might recommend more leg at this point, but using leg on Dawn can be dicey, particularly when she's revved up - it can lead to more racing and pulling, leaving her braced and still on the forehand.
In many ways, we've been working indirectly on canter all along. Getting her to give me consistent softness and relaxation together with her natural forward has been the goal - she's learned that forward can co-exist with softness and relaxation. I think this is the key for her - it's more of a mental challenge than a physical one, although being downhill adds difficulty at the canter and makes it harder for her to get off the forehand in canter once she's there.
Today we may have had a breakthrough. She was plenty forward at the trot today, but very soft and responsive. So I asked for a bit more in canter, and tried to help her out but without using too much. I asked for more softness while still keeping my contact allowing, kept my seat and body as neutral as possible, and used both legs very softly to encourage her to step under and lift herself. She really was trying hard, and it showed. On our final try on left lead canter was just amazing - she was completely soft in my hand, not diving or pulling, and her canter was incredibly engaged but not too fast - the only word I can think of is bounding - with a huge amount of impulsion. It felt like this enormous amount of energy was delicately balanced between my hand and leg, with my seat and body still in the middle. And she was able to keep that balance, and I was able to tolerate her level of energy and forward and just stay with it. We did about four laps of the arena and I brought her out of canter before things fell apart - the transition was also soft and engaged. We then halted and I jumped off, praising her lavishly.
Dawn's one of those horses that, if you can show them a better way to do things, will pick it right up and go with it. She also always gives me her best try. The challenge of riding her has been instrumental in improving my horsemanship - she demands my best try as well.