All of the things that I have written about in the past months have been taught at the walk. Before I ask a horse to trot or canter under saddle for the first time I like to make sure that all the fundamental pieces of the puzzle are in place. Once the horse starts trotting the schooling proper starts. Although he is still green he is usually ready for more correctness in what and how he performs. Remember he will be green for months or years to come depending on your definition of “green” but being a school master is still a long way off.
In preparation to transition to trot and eventually canter the horse should be comfortable with all equipment from saddle and bridle to side reins and the whip in my hand. The horse should understand the work in hand which introduced the concept of moving forward and accepting contact from the bit at the same time. I should be able to isolate the horses hind feet from his front feet and have him do a turn on the haunches and turn on the fore hand while still in hand. He should understand the contact from the bit and soften and lower his head when I apply pressure to the reins. I should be able to have him stand quietly and patiently while I mount from the ground or from a fence or mounting block. I should have a relaxed and forward walk. I should be able to establish a soft inside bend with a direct rein and at least a few strides of counter bend on the rail.
The days, weeks and months spent teaching these skills is time well spent because my horse now has most of the skills he will need to advance into higher level movement in any discipline.
When specifically asking for trot for the first time I want to be careful to prepare my horse to trot comfortably. Depending on his balance and mine, it could scare him if I chase him into it. I want him to offer it to me. To get him to do this I will encourage him to walk with as much effort as he can. When he increases the tempo of his walk I will let him slow down again. I will repeat this until there is an obvious increase and decrease in the energy he is using in the walk. Then when I have him as forward as I can I will start a trot motion with my body and hope that he follows me. I will use a little leg but not so much that he jumps into trot. The first time I do this all I might get is his head to come up and him to feel a little hectic. And back to slow walk. I will repeat each time asking for a little more forward even if it is hectic, I will also release all or any contact I may have with the bit so he does not feel trapped. Eventually he should take a step in trot, and then I will ride him at trot until he wants to stop trotting. I won’t worry about where he goes only that he goes. He will likely only take a few trot steps before breaking into a walk again. I won’t ask him to pick up the trot again right away. I want him to know that he can start trotting with me on his back and that he can stop trotting without getting scared. Each time I ask I will want only a few steps more than the last time and only when the transition to trot is smooth and comfortable will I ask him to maintain it longer than he wants to.
I won’t try to teach him anything at the trot until I can get him to maintain it comfortably. If the trot lacks rhythm I want him to find his own balance in trot before I start correcting him for anything. Without rhythm and balance I will just concentrate on the quality of the forward movement without too much contact. I will put him on the rail and just let him find his own pace. If I have to keep kicking him to keep him trotting I have already done too much trotting for the day and will end the lesson there. It is his responsibility to maintain it on his own once he understands what I want. I will encourage him to maintain it but if he will not trot for more than a few strides on his own he may not be ready to trot yet. If this is the case I will do most of my lesson at walk and only ask for a very small amount of trotting each day to build his confidence. A rule of thumb that I use to assess readiness to move up a gait whether from walk to trot or trot to canter, is that If I have to push him into it he is not ready. By “push him into it” I mean that if I have to kick him repeatedly or use a whip or spur with more than a light touch. If too much pressure is used the transition will likely be frightening to the horse and it will affect his balance and his confidence. With out balance and confidence all I have is a scared, off balance horse that can be overwhelmed and unpredictable. The faster they go the faster things can go wrong. The more established everything is at the walk the easier the transition to trot will be. Without a quality walk there is little chance for quality trot.
If I am working on improving the trot and it starts to get too quick or off balance I want to slow down and not allow things to continue to get worse. If my horse is building speed and starts to canter I will just try to stay with him and ride the canter without trying to slow him down too quickly. Once he has made the commitment to change gaits correcting him too quickly will only upset him so I will ride it out for a few strides then ask him to slow down in a relaxed manor. If he is constantly building speed in an uncomfortable manor it could be another indicator that there is no confidence in that gait and I will keep him at a slower speed for a while. If I can control the pace within the gait then he is ready to progress. In a very green horse it is the transitions up and down that are more important than how long he maintains the gait, especially in trot and canter. I think at this level it is more important to improve the understanding and confidence in the transition than building fitness. He will be fit soon enough. Each day I will ask for progressively more trot work until the quality in the trot indicates that he is ready for canter. Depending on the age and maturity of the horse both mental and physical it could be months before I try to teach a horse to canter. Asking too soon could be counterproductive if the horse does not have the strength and coordination to canter comfortably.
© 2007 Will Clinging