Introduction and Context
Who has watched finished horses merrily skipping leads a tempi for the first time, changing leads every stride, and not wondered how long it took to get there?
Two bits of trivia for you before we get going here:
- Flying changes every stride were not a “thing” until Francois Baucher introduced the notion during the late 1700’s – which is pretty recent, considering the long history of manege riding.
- How long did it take him? A matter of weeks. Don’t worry, no one else can do this either, so we’ll take our time.
Cowboy Changes vs. Academic Changes
Statistically few dressage competitors actually master simple lead changes – already, an advanced movement. If you’re an American-style ‘Western’ rider, the kind of “reining” lead change with which you’re familiar is a rudimentary rough draft of the academic movement. Such lead changes emerge from ‘kicking the horse over’ onto his alternate lead – which is, at least initially, more a trick of physics than a product of academic horsemanship. The correct change must be ‘straight’: that is, from a straight canter left to a straight canter right, where, at all moments, the shoulders are perfectly in front of the hips, with no pli on straight lines.
We cannot have a straight change before having a straight canter. A canter which, from above, looks like a bend or pli, and, from the ground appears to swing the hindquarters inside, is not straight. There very reason this is considered an “incorrect canter” today, is because it was classically. And classically is was because it is less mobile. It is less mobile because it more committed to turning one way or the other, whereas – to be most mobile – the ideal posture must be equally prepared to smoothly divert left or right from his current path, until being asked to go (or prepare to go) one way or the other. By default, then, while cruising, he should tend to bend neither left nor right, and remain poised to go straight on – or halt and surge righ … or left. The best physical posture for accommodating this prevailing uncertainty about the future is this: Perfectly. Straight.
These ultimately pragmatic ideals (with originally martial “memetic” roots and standards of ideal) which most clearly separates – to me – “real” high school equitation and dressage from less defensible “conventional” ideals of the show ring.
The flying change should appear effortless – the poll and the body should stay fixed, with the legs themselves doing the work of the change.
This academic change is gymnastic effort. Fully 90% of the schooling effort will be comprised of simple strength conditioning for the modifiable academic canter; achieving perfectly in hand departures from the walk – and halts on the correct lead; and getting to a perfect downward canter-walk transition.
The remaining 10% of the problem – communicating and executing the change – will typically resolve itself.
- Implicit in the academic change is the perfectly finished, canter. Like the Western “lope”, it is a much slower version of the gallop. Unlike the lope and the gallop, it is performed mies in mien (in hand) with the horse well balanced.
- It also is straight and highly modifiable, from cantering virtually in place, to a controlled but ground covering sprint, and back again to hovering, or a canter pirouette, or a walk, or a short stop, or a soft stop – all without the poll moving, and without the horse coming out of hand. This is a TALL order for most people, and we have not begun to change leads yet.
An Incorrect Canter Equals Incorrect Changes
The academic canter is not the canter most people know, unfortunately, so before pursuing correct lead changes, you need to plan to spend some time revisiting this gait. It must be developed reasonably patiently over time, because the horse must be well physically prepared to deliver it. And in order even to be able to prepare him, he must be confirmed in the mies en mien: he must come in hand and stay there (in lightness) at the canter.
The academic canter is not necessarily difficult to train with the right precedents in place, but it is one of the more physically demanding studies from the horse’s standpoint. Until it becomes easy to him, and until he is able to coolly manage departures from the halt and downward transitions to the walk, there is no real point in pursuing lead changes. Of course, you can go ahead with teaching ugly changes to any horse who can canter using the traditional method throwing their weight on a figure eight, but you’ll be taking the long and frustrating way around the barn for no good reason, and, as I’ve mentioned, the result will not have been worth the effort.
To begin with, forget about the ramener initially – this is the vertical headset we associate with prettiness. If you insist on vertical placement prematurely, you will end up “pulling” to achieve it (because there is no other way to do so), and in doing so you will immediately forfeit lightness – and for no reason whatsoever.
The young horse must be able to hold his neck and head up initially to effect a canter rassemble (in collection). This helps him direct the energy of his hind legs upward in a lifting fashion, versus forward in a pushing fashion. The canter initially makes almost all horses nervous and restive, and pulling their head down or back greatly exacerbates their anxiety, making them quite claustrophobic, while also preventing the development of the the very muscles which make them strong and comfortable in the gait.
Instead of pulling back on the reins to slow him down, lift toward the corners of his mouth. Yes, he will initially “stargaze”, with the face horizontal, in an attempt to ‘get over’ the bit. Fine. Relax. You’ll still feel a new canter begin to develop beneath you as his hind legs necessarily come under. What you and your horse will realize very quickly is that the muscles required to stargaze are quite weak – it is uncomfortable for him to do for very long. So instead of forcing him into position, let him discover this on his own. Moreover, this horizontal position also helps develop the muscles enabling the proper poll flexion later. In the interim, focus simply on being able to modify the speed of the gait, with the neck up, regardless of the verticality of the head – as long as the horse remains in hand and is not resisting outright.
Wet Saddle Pads Produce A Good Canter, Right?
Wrong. Wet saddle pads produce a tired horse. A tired horse may have less enthusiasm for resistance, but tomorrow, he will be no more educated for the exercise.
It is an absolute fallacy that a lot of cantering will make for a better canter. A lot of cantering will wear him out and bore him into the four-beat abomination many “lopers” are paid to make in the world of ‘Western’ pleasantness (which is a different sequence of beats than the“four beat” canter associated with the high school canter pirouette). This is not (at all) what we hope to achieve. We want ample controllable energy at all times, and a relaxed but also correct three beat canter – not a lazy amble, which has no place in the manege, nor anywhere else, other than an an American Western Pleasure show ring.
Understand: The quality of the canter is less a function of “miles cantered” than it is the number of transitions into and out of the canter.
So instead of cantering endless circles in an attempt to slow the canter, focus on transitions. Depart to the canter for eight or so strides, then transition to the walk for as many strides, and then back to the canter for another eight strides, and so on. In this manner, two trips around the arena equate to eight upward and eight downward transitions – instead of just one up and one down. His anticipation of the downward transition will itself slow his canter to a quiet place where the two of you can think and talk in motion.
Within 4 – 8 lessons conducted in this manner, you will find your horse is quite happy to move into a controlled canter from the halt, and smoothly halt again – ready for the next departure. At this point, we’re ready to begin considering the first changes.
END PART 1