As second level riders, we know that the key to the canter to walk transition is in collection. Yet knowing the theory is quite different from feeling and communicating the movement with quality. When one focuses on performing the movements, the quality suffers from the “git ‘er done” mindset. This is particularly true when the rider and horse are learning, (moving up the levels), together. The horse actually “knows” how to perform all the movements in dressage. However, when they are learning together, the horse is building strength to carry his rider while interpreting her aids. For Monarch and I, we had two ways to do the canter to walk transition, and both lacked quality. If the down transition was forward, it lacked precision and balance with dribbly trot steps between the canter and walk. If the down transition was forced, it lacked forward fluidity, resulting in an abrupt “semi-walk-almost halt” from the canter.
By focusing on quality and feel, (and waiting for the moment of quality before asking for the transition), the movement can become a by-product of quality and feel.
During the last clinic, we had to stop my lesson because Monarch became very sore in his hocks. He is now 15, the intensity of training this past summer, and the increasing demand of shifting our weight to his hind end manifested itself during that lesson. He had three weeks off while I ordered and began the loading doses for polysulfated glycosaminoglycan. I brought him back slowly. First we had a couple of longeing sessions and a long lining session, each time working up to collected canter on the 10 meter circle, with periodic checks to ensure his hocks were not building heat. Yesterday, I rode Monarch, developing quality trot work, working up to shoulder-in and travers. With increased collection from the shoulder-in and tranvers, Monarch was able to produce some good collected canter.
Today we built upon that work. I asked Monarch to sustain his collected canter in a 15 meter circle. Knowing forward had to be part of the equation in the down transition, I worked toward balancing him with half halts before asking him for walk. The first attempt resulted in a few trot steps, but they felt balanced and forward as the steps progressed into walk. On the second attempt, I was able to continue to increase collection in the canter. I could feel Monarch becoming more and more round, growing “bigger” in front, as collection increased. I also felt him stepping more deeply under himself and becoming extremely light in the forehand and the bridle. I knew at that moment that the canter to walk transition would come through. I asked, and he was brilliant! Those are the the moments when learning occurs: both you and your horse are on the same wave length with two way communication flowing through feel. Throughout building quality, Monarch and I were feeling and communicating. Moving through the canter into a balanced forward walk felt sublime. Feeling my pleasure, Monarch immediately knew he had performed well. (He began to nicker.)
Rather than drill the movement, I hopped off. We had trained in a focused manner for forty minutes. It was enough. I lavished him with praise and some sugar. Then I turned him out, so he could bask in his moment of glory and enlightenment. Tomorrow when we return to the movement, he will remember today’s experience. We will be able to practice longer to develop strength, synchronicity, and balance. Through gratitude and tact, we can move up the levels.