Friday, March 3, 2017

Flashback Fun - March 2001 - Ranger's Left Lead

Ranger’s Left Lead
By Ellen Daly

This is a different approach to trail riding, but I think that a good trail horse benefits from a certain amount of arena work. I know going around in circles, often indoors, is the equivalent of algebra to many people. Before we collectively groan and move to the next article, think about the pleasure of a horse that does gait transitions well and switches leads like a dream. Often, the best place to start this transformation in our horses is in the arena.

My horse, Ranger, is a fine trail horse whose greatest ambition is snatching sunflower leaves from the side of the trail. This changed one day when I decided to raise our goals--so to speak. I know the benefits of switching diagonals when doing a lot of trotting. We all have a favorite diagonal. When traveling in a primarily straight line on trail, there isn’t an obvious need to switch diagonals, but it lessens the all around muscle strain on a long ride and works both sides of the horse. Even though one diagonal is more difficult for me than the other, I still switch. My trick is to do the difficult diagonal going away from home when my horse is naturally inclined to go slower, then switch to the easier one on the way home when Ranger likes to go faster.

Now we come to the canter, and that is a different story. If switching diagonals is good, so should switching leads at the canter. But what if you have a horse who will only take one lead? That was Ranger’s problem. He is very content to canter along on his right lead, still trying to snatch sunflower, of course. I was happy, too, until I started to read books and talk to people about trail riding. After two years of ignorant bliss, I decided that it was time for Ranger to start taking his left lead. I wasn’t sure how to do this, but I knew I would have to start this project in the arena. Luckily, I had a beautiful sand based outdoor show ring at my backdoor. I had a sketchy plan and a long-term goal. Obviously, I knew that there was no easy solution, and it would take time to achieve my left lead goal—but I was on a mission.

First, we had to adjust to arena riding and work through a certain amount of spookiness and misbehavior. This was a public show ring in a park, so there were many distractions. I started with basic walk /trot transitions and circles, stressing obedience and paying attention to the rider. We would work maybe once a week for a maximum of a half hour with a short trail ride afterward as a reward. The rest of the time we would just trail ride and relax like usual.

There is a trick that someone told me about teaching canter transitions. It is to simply to do it at the same spot every time. This builds up a lot of energy and anticipation in the horse and can result in a more willing performance. So, I did just that in Ranger’s good direction to teach him control and calmness at the canter. Eventually, we did canter transitions all over the arena but only in his good direction. We spent plenty of time trotting and doing walk/trot transitions in his bad direction. I wanted him to learn to contain the build up of energy that transitions can create in a horse but also to learn to listen to me when I ask him to go to a faster gait. It took time and patience. There were many distractions and spooks with the trail always beckoning to us. We muddled through and achieved a certain amount of precision. My scarce attempts at his difficult left lead usually ended up in a racy trot or with the wrong lead. Once again a plan formed in my mind and the time felt right to start to work the hard lead.

I had read the books about bending the horse and small circles, but this had no affect on Ranger at all. He was instinctively inclined physically and mentally to the right, so I decided to build on my transition work. Once again, I employed the “secret of transitions” of using the canter cue at the same spot every time and energy that it creates. We would warm up a bit at the trot and take the canter his preferred direction. Ranger is on the hyper side when it comes to the canter, so that was easy. We worked the hard direction doing trot transitions to get his attention and build up the all-important energy. After a while, I asked him for the hard lead at my chosen canter spot. I tried to bend him and use my seat bone to cue him as I do for his easy direction. At first he took the wrong lead, but I immediately brought him down to a trot and asked for the difficult lead again He didn’t understand and took his easy lead once again, thinking that it was what I wanted. After the second try, we did some walk/trot transitions to collect our thoughts. This pattern continued for several weeks of arena work, and he was getting very good at transitions all the transitions except the one I wanted the most

One day, we were working well together, trotting down the straight part of the arena in his difficult direction, and we were coming up to his canter corner. I felt him gather in anticipation of my cue. I asked for the canter and of course he took the wrong lead. I brought him down to a trot and within a few strides asked for the canter again. That time he took the difficult lead. It was rough and choppy, but he took it. We came down to a walk just a few strides later, quit the arena the day and headed down the trail.

From that day on, he understood his left lead and it just become better ever since. For a long time he took the wrong lead first but when I would bring him down to a trot and ask again he would take the proper lead. Eventually we could do circles and attain a certain amount of control. It took him a while to physically adjust to using muscles that he hadn’t used in years. All in all, I would say that it took us about eight months working a half an hour, once a week in the arena. The rest of the time, we would trail ride. He still occasionally misfires, but we always recover. On trail, he prefers his easy lead, and I have a difficult time with the other one. That is our next project. Could we have done this on trail and not in the arena? I suppose one could argue the point, but by going to the arena with a specific goal in mind, it forced us to concentrate. This was the best way for me to do it with Ranger. Trail riding is so enjoyable and relaxing that sometimes it is hard to think about goals and training. I saw how being able to take both leads at the canter could benefit Ranger on trail, and I knew that the arena was the best place for us to start. Our next challenge is taking our arena work and utilizing it on the trail. Next time it maybe the other way around and we will take our trail work and use it in the arena. The key is to have an open mind in both horse and rider, form a plan and follow it through—adjusting it as you go to suit your needs.

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