The past three days there’s been a breakthrough with Zelador and his canter. He is now seven years old. Since he was three his answer to the canter aid has been to charge ahead like a raging bull, zooming unbalanced. Not a lot of fun to ride. I remember Kimberly Jarvis riding him when she was here for a Working Equitation Clinic and commenting, “I thought he was never going to stop cantering.”

I started our session Tuesday with exercises I’ve learned from Philippe Karl’s School of Lightness. We do shoulder-in, travers, renvers, counter-shoulder-in travelling at the walk in both directions. With the travers we spiral down to the turn on the haunches. We flow into a halfpass and into a leg yield. We keep changing our balance and direction, never taking more than four steps in a straight line. We proceed to a very slow trot and do our best to repeat all of these bends and changes of direction. THEN onto the canter. In the past this preparation hasn’t resulted in a canter anyone would want to ride, but Tuesday I had a lovely canter to the right. We worked in and out and around the five pedestals in the east half of the arena. He was soft and responsive. I got off. Congratulated him and gave him a treat. This was the first time ever that I could sit properly on his back. Every other time I’ve had to stand up a wee bit in my stirrups because the action of his back was so wild that I couldn’t maintain a consistent seat.

Wednesday he was his normal zooming out-of-control self. I got off and asked for the canter at liberty. He did twenty big circles to the right and ten to the left. I got back on and he was about the same…zooming. We reviewed all of his calming walk work, then ended the session on that good note.

Ron and I discussed my great Tuesday ride and my disappointing Wednesday ride Wednesday evening in the barn. He was just finishing up with Pax and I was tucking in the boys.

Our conversation covered many aspects of riding and Zelador. One point was from the video I’d just rewatched about working in-hand. The guy said that the older horses would work in-hand, including the piaffe as a warm-up before being ridden. These horses were not capable of trotting for long periods of time so this warm-up allowed the rider to get on and do the higher movements without a debilitating lengthy warm-up.

I told him that ONE good canter ride in five years followed by crap was very disappointing. Ron helped train Thoroughbreds for racing as a young man and he bought Pax, a Canadian just last year (Ron’s in his 40’s). He gets all upset because Pax is so slow/sluggish/lazy? However, Ron is slowly but surely learning to help Pax walk/trot/canter. I tell him that his feeling about Pax is how I feel when I ride Zeloso. He finds that astonishing because he thinks Zeloso is a very forward horse. But, compared to Zelador and Kye and Sherlock, Zeloso is VERY sedate.

Thursday’s session with Zelador: I have done the piaffe in-hand practice at the beginning, but only when we’re doing liberty stuff, never before riding. So today I did the piaffe in-hand before (and after) the ride. What I found was: in helping Zelador understand that the movement is in the trot (not the walk) Z will try to trot and not go forward and will end up lifting his front legs off the ground. It’s not a rear, it’s a lifting in an attempt to figure out how to trot and not go too far forward. Immediately after this lift, the piaffe is WOW! This lift happened today in both piaffe sessions.

Alexandra Kurland talks about having the horse stand still and lower his nose to the arena floor…nose in the dirt…staying in that position. To teach the horse this you end up going to every floor on the “elevator” between the ground and the head’s normal position. Zelador learned this nose in the floor and it has an amazing effect on him. He calms totally. As a result, when he’s a bit revved, I’ll take him to the middle of the arena, halt, take one step backwards (Alexandra points out that this is not a forward exercise and the backward step helps clarify this), then lower his head. He’s very proud of his ability to do this. He’ll keep his nose in the dirt until I say, “OK”. Invariably I have a treat and give it to him from the saddle.

Alexandra also says that the more you do any exercise you discover many layers/levels of it. In her book she doesn’t mention that this totally calms some horses. I discovered the calming element when I extended the time that his nose was in the dirt. I’ve counted slowly to twenty before saying “OK”.

Today from the beginning Zelador was attentive. The walk work went well. The trot was quiet and relaxed. I did the nose in the dirt thing. Then back to the trot to the right and then the canter to the right. It was better than Tuesday. I could sit in a “perfect” position and regulate his canter with my body. Also I could feed out the reins and have a big loop in them. He did not speed up. He kept listening to me and cantered where I wanted him to. We went around the pedestals, between the pedestals, etc. When I asked for the trot (with my voice and my seat) he softly went into the trot. I also asked for the canter with my voice and with a slight movement backwards with my outside leg.

He cantered around the southeastern pedestal. I figure he was doing seven metre circles, totally balanced, very soft. This is the same horse that zoomed around out of balance when he was circling the entire arena.

I think the piaffe work has helped this horse’s canter. Alexandra says that everything affects everything. We all know this, however, it’s nice to see it in print.

We did several short canters to the right. For the preparation to the left I did the nose in the dirt thing. Walked and trotted, always curving. Then I said, “Canter”. He was trotting slowly and had no problem picking up the left lead. He was as good to the left as he’d been to the right. I did two or three short canters sessions to the left, got off and told him he was brilliant. He agreed. The piaffe after this was WOW!!!!!

So, two days out of three. I’m very interested in what tomorrow holds!

I emailed Alexandra inviting her to come see Nicole at our clinic July 28-31. She responded that she’s conducting a clinic during our clinic. I asked if she can give a clinic here (I also asked her during the winter, at that point she said she’d check her schedule as time went on) and she says that this year is booked. It’ll have to be 2012. I said, “Name the date.”