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Undoing snags in our step up in levels

By RAY ARISS - Horsetrader columnist - March 15th, 2012 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: I have a half-Arabian, half-Andalusian named Taz. We are moving up in levels and need to change lead every three strides on the diagonal. However, when I ask her to change to the left lead, she tosses her head. She doesn’t do this when I ask for the flying change on a circle – just on the diagonal. And we are in a collected canter. What can I do? Show season is rapidly approaching!

Samantha Jacobs, Norco

HEY SAMANTHA: It’s nice to hear that your mare can do the changes. I’m assuming they are mechanically correct and clean aside from the head toss. On another note, the last thing you want to do is put a time constraint on your training because of the show season. You have worked too long and too hard to get where you are. Unless you get lucky and everything goes your way, you will be setting yourself to fail, especially with flying changes. Consider taking all pressure off you and your horse while you try to figure out where the weak link lies in your changes. A good way to achieve this is to show one whole level below where you train.

Some might consider simply supplementing the problem with the crutch of a running martingale or draw-reins to keep the head down. This is like taking two aspirin and hoping it works; sometimes it does. What you usually find, though, is that when the equipment comes off, the problem returns. The purpose of a crutch is to fill in where something is lacking. The head going up is a big sign. Unless you know how to wean from a crutch, things will only worsen.

The challenge here is to diagnose accurately the reason for the problem. Is it physical, mental, or both? This is what I propose:

1. Start by thoroughly warming up. Next, canter the rail clockwise on the right lead and do simple changes through the trot first, then the walk every three strides. Try this in a frame and on a loose rein. All we are trying to do is rule out problems other than the obvious flying change one. If there is a problem, we now know it has nothing to do with flying changes. It’s more about something lacking in your horse or your training. Weakness, pain or attitude may be caused by poor conditioning, training, lameness or tack. Any one of these things can pop up unexpectedly and may hinder a flying change. Sometimes dressage riders abandon their earlier fundamental training and just practice exercises they currently show in. A Grand Prix horse should be able to successfully perform a training level test with the highest of scores. This is something to think about when considering taking a step forward or back in training.

The reason your mare may be able to do the flying change from right to left in a circle is because the bending has a way of giving you leverage in the exercise. She may still want to put her head up, but it is more difficult for her in the circle. Lateral flexion has a way of inducing vertical flexion. When the horse recognizes this, it can happen with the slightest influence. At this point, you might want to have her checked out by your vet before moving on. If the vet says your horse is fine, continue with the next step.

2. If you’re working on changes every third stride, I am going to assume that your horse is settled in the bridle and has a clear understanding of lateral work, collection and extension, and a good connection on the bit. If this is not the case, take a step back and strengthen your foundation before moving on. This will help with the natural evolution of your progress.

3. While on the rail going counter-clockwise, ask for a counter canter or right lead and ask while in collection for the flying change (left lead). Because we have done nothing yet as a consequence to change the outcome, we can assume that her head will go up through the change to the left. What comes next is the most important part of this process. Your mare needs to be calm, free of stress and she needs to feel nothing bad will happen if her head goes up through the change. It is important that the consequence that follows is in no way, shape, or form perceived by your horse as punishment. Punishing by jerking, spurring or whipping will only associate negativity with that exercise which in turn will manifest itself into tension, tail swishing, pinned ears and even a fight. This is not to say that you can’t get lucky and things work out with this approach, it just won’t be pretty and the risk of making it worse is high.

Instead, when you ask for the change on the rail, the moment her head goes up, simply perceive it as nothing more than expression. We know she is evading because she is unhappy at that moment and she wants you to know. You on the other hand, want to see it as her cute little way of asking you to practice any exercise that requires her to bend or flex more in the direction of the new lead while down the rail until her poll drops down. Then allow her to go straight and transition down to the walk and pet her. Then start all over again. The advantage you had thru changes in the circle is being brought into the straight line. The visual line of the rail helps the horse travel straight, and the physical barrier of the rail helps you control your horse when you need to shoulder-in or flex her when her head begins to go up. It won’t be long before you horse recognizes that what is causing the reward-able exercise is the head going up. That is something she can do something about. The horse will also recognize that you don’t care which exercise you reward her for, but eventually she will. This approach takes a tremendous amount of pressure off your horse, allowing her to progress when she is ready and able.

Samantha, as your mare masters this exercise, you can progress down the rail changing continuously from one lead to the next. The flying changes should be easy and accurate before moving off the rail. Move off parallel to it before attempting the diagonal.

Remember to trust your instincts and think safe and things will work out,


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

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