Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pogo Sticks, Egg Beaters and Doing Your Nails

When I wrote the last post about playing with Breyer horses, I remember how one of the most important criteria for whether or not a model horse got a lot of play time, was how well it could "canter". If the horse had the right configuration it could easily be held and rocked from hind legs to front legs as it cantered across the floor. Ginger, from the Black Beauty set, was probably the all time best cantering Breyer horse.

Raffles is my Ginger. He has a super easy canter that can collect and lengthen and is easy to sit. He has a big stride but it is effortless. He doesn't lurch. Ivy had a lovely canter also. One lady who rode her in lessons said "You could ride Ivy's canter and do your nails at the same time.". Ivy and I cantered almost every where we went in our younger days. While Raffles and Ivy are both good cantering horses, of the two, Ivy was definitely the faster one. She could gallop! She'd stretch out and get real low to the ground (at 14.2, she didn't have far to go) and tear across the fields or down the dirt roads with very little urging on my part. Raffles likes to think he's fast, but he's too chicken to go full out. In order to get him to gallop, I have to have someone riding in front of him so that he has someone to follow. He'll go just as fast as the other horse, but no faster. Ivy would get in front in stay there.

I've always loved to canter. In photos of my early riding lessons, there are pictures of me cantering around with my toes turned right out, like wings, on the wrong lead but with a giant grin plastered on my face. Years later, after riding hundreds of horses at the canter, it's still fun. What's even more fun than an all out gallop, is that moment when a green horse finds its balance and canters easily under saddle for the first time. The initial canter attempts are not for the faint of heart. There is little steering, lots of leaning around turns and not a lot of speed control. It's just a process though, and with patience and guidance, the green horses get the idea very quickly.

Riding Image yesterday, I had one of those moments when he got it, and the canter was balanced. He had self-carriage and I had steering and speed control. Moments like that are what I strive for and to get one is always an affirmation of the worth of Dressage training. Normally, Image canters like a runaway Greyhound bus. Not because he wants to, but just because he is big so he has miles of legs to organize, and he's a little goofy. During his ride yesterday, when I was actually trying to get something else, I got collected canter. It was lovely, easy and light and controllable. I don't know that I could have done my nails, but it was certainly a nice ride.

Earlier in the day, I had ridden Alex. Alex is much greener than Image and much less athletically gifted. When Alex canters, it's like riding a pogo stick down a steep hill. Alex is built a little downhill so it is harder work for him to have a balanced canter. He's trying and getting better, but anyone trying to do their nails is going to need buckets of nail polish remover.

Another horse I've been working with has a terrible time organizing herself into the canter. Venus is an ex-harness racer who was a pacer. She now has a beautiful trot but has not been able to do a true, 3-beat continuous canter under saddle or on the longe line. It is absolutely a complete myth that Standardbreds can not canter. All of the other Standardbreds I have ever ridden have cantered quite nicely. Standardbreds are not genetically inclined to have a good quality canter, but they are capable. Except Venus. She has cantered nicely in the paddock so I know it is possible for her, but after several years of work, she has yet to canter more than 5 strides in a row under saddle. And that was only once that she got 5. She has 4th level Dressage trot work, but does not have a canter. Or at least, not a recognizable one. She thinks she is cantering and she thinks she is doing a terrific job of it. She expresses absolute joy and satisfaction with her performance. "Look how well I am cantering!", she says as she flies like a manic eggbeater around the ring. Her front legs are cantering. The hind legs are doing their own thing. They aren't even both doing the same thing. Sometimes, her hind legs are pacing or trotting, but most often, one leg is going like a piston while the other leg occasionally gets left behind and hangs in mid-air for an extra stride. It's completely ridiculous to watch but the feeling of earnest concentration she exhibits makes it (almost) impossible to laugh at her.

Venus has been able to gallop successfully, but I have not been able to help her organize herself for a canter. I have tried every method and combination of aids to try and help her, but she still goes skipping and churning and being fantastically proud of herself. "My goodness,", she snorts after cantering practice, "that was quite a good job wasn't it? I went very fast and did not fall over or anything! I'm pretty sure that was my best job yet."

Venus may never find a true canter but she is loved by her person just the same. Not every horse will have a nail-doing canter just as not every person can be a champion gymnast or a brilliant artist or a perfect-pitch singer. But we are all loved just the same.

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