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Backwards in training-On the bit, poll height, and cantering--Advice/Insight Needed!

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  • Backwards in training-On the bit, poll height, and cantering--Advice/Insight Needed!

    Hello everyone. I have gone backwards in training a bit.

    I have a 10-year-old QH mare new to dressage and she is doing great overall and I have a wonderful instructor I see weekly. I have her help, obviously, but I wanted to also throw this out to all of you as well.

    We have been taking lessons for about eight months. My mare has taken quickly and easily to everything, including being on the bit. (I use french link bit and no draw reins or anything like that whatsoever).

    At first, she kept her head a bit low but with some work, we got her to stay soft with her poll at proper height....and for the past month of practice rides and lessons has kept a wonderful, correct frame at walk, trot. She was just doing absolutely beautifully. Springy, happy, relaxed.

    So...last week, we tried canter on the bit and everything fell apart and some training seemed to go backwards overnight. She did fine at canter...although she carried her head a bit lower, which we expected since this was her first attempt while on the bit...so we didn't push that. We kept it very short but she was huffing and puffing after just short time so it must have been hard for her.

    Her canter was always a problem before beginning training because it was fast, unbalanced, and I always knew this would be a big change for her in terms of carrying herself differently for the first time in her life.

    So....I'm not sure if she got really sore or what happened......but my practice rides following that canter lesson were challenging. I was no longer able to achieve that wonderful frame she had before at walk, trot. She suddenly wanted to carry her head really low at walk, trot (behind vertical)...and lost that relaxed, springy movement we experienced for so long prior to this. Since then, we have let canter go until this gets worked out. Going back to basics. Was able to get her on the bit and soft again but having a hard time now getting the poll up again like it was before. She seems to want to carry her head even lower now than when we first started.

    Can anyone share with me what this could be about? Is it common to go backwards in training like this? My instructor is going to help me work her back to where she was prior to this...but I'm worried about it a bit and puzzled I guess. I'm new to all of this too so I also simply want to learn and understand.

    Sorry if some of my terms or descriptions are a bit off. I'm still learning proper dressage terms!!

  • #2
    I would have a vet out to look her over.

    Patience and Consistency are Your Friends


    • #3
      Have you been cantering her at all? What sort of work was she doing before this? Working a horse on the aids is not tied to a specific gait... ie, there shouldn't be a distinction between "canter on the bit" and "regular canter." Some horses are stronger in some gaits and weaker in others, so it may be easier to get them on the aids in their stronger gaits, but your wording makes me curious about how your instructor has been teaching you.
      "Winter's a good time to stay in and cuddle,
      but put me in summer and I'll be a... happy snowman!!!"

      Trolls be trollin'! -DH


      • Original Poster

        Sorry..I may not be explaining this very clearly! My mare is a former general purpose western and english pleasure horse most of her life (trails and 4H)...and I had ridden english pleasure for years prior to purchasing her but no dressage experience. She wasn't used to being ridden more than a couple of days a week but I have been gradually working her up to four days per week. Very healthy and sound and doesn't currently appear to have a health or soundness issues now. She moves fine. She behaves fine. Nothing seems alarming at all except that when I walk or trot her now, she wants to keep her head very low. I can get her poll up but she doesn't want to keep it there for more than a few strides...whereas before she would go for long periods of time.

        When I started taking lessons eight months ago, the focus was on my form first. I had to relearn many things...so I had a ways to go before we could begin placing more direct focus on my mare's training.....or understand many aspects of dressage. I'm still learning a lot...but my instructor is very good and is guiding me carefully. Once I had a consistent foundation in my riding, we started concentrating more on my mare: On the bit..and being soft...and working towards proper frame and movement. (In other words, a solid foundation for her as well.) All of that has been very a very gradual process because my horse and I are learning together and so far it has been incredibly smooth. So...recently...we came to this wonderful place in training where she had beautiful form at walk and trot...and everything was going really well...so it was decided we would progress to taking all I have learned thus far and moving on to canter. So..that is some background in a nutshell! Waiting until we had a solid walk and trot first before attempting canter makes sense to me. I was speaking about her canter being "difficult" because when I first purchased her...and before I even had dressage in my head....I was concerned about her canter because it was fast, unbalanced, and stiff. I felt dressage would be a great way to help her become more balanced and supple.

        After that cantering lesson recently, we had no trouble getting her soft again and accepting the bit as before...although at first, she was behind the bit and baring down a bit but we got through that finally. The only place I'm puzzled is the difference in her poll height. She seems to want to keep it low almost as she did when I asked her to be on the bit for the very first time awhile back now. I can understand her needing to keep it a bit lower while at canter (for now) but she also wants to keep it low and walk and trot too.

        I hope that makes more sense! Again..my descriptions are probably reflective of a beginning dressage student, I'm sure! Perhaps I'm being too particular...or expecting too much too soon. Perhaps everything has been so easy up until now that I'm not used to having any challenges...lol.

        But hope that clarifies things a bit.


        • #5
          Agree with having the vet take a look. Hock, stifle or SI pain would be my suspects.
          Freeing worms from cans everywhere!


          • Original Poster

            Wow..thank you for the tips on the vet check. Hopefully, it isn't anything too serious. I was thinking perhaps I had hit a common bump in the road with training..but wasn't thinking in terms of health issue.


            • #7
              I have found that many horses, when they are going to have a problem, it is with canter. With walk they always have three feet on the ground or should, with trot they always have two feet on the ground. With canter you have an an entirely different dynamic, a lot of horses take more time to learn to balance a rider and themselves at the canter. So, if you are asking her to stay on the bit, and canter, she may develop a little mistrust. I would continue to ride her at the canter, but focus on giving most of the aids from your seat and legs, and make less use of the reins. Let her get her balance, and strength., and she will probably put herself round.

              Going "on the bit" happens when the horse is able to carry themselves.
              Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.

              Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.


              • #8
                I'm a bit surprised that you haven't been cantering her for 8 months (did I read it right?). If that's true, you probably have a horse that doesn't have the strength and balance to canter under saddle. I wouldn't call the vet right away.

                One thing that you need to be careful about is focusing too much on the position of her head and neck. Think about the hind end and when you get that engaged then you can worry about whether her head is too low. Focusing on the head position first is putting the cart before the horse. Believe me, that will come when she's working through the back. It's pretty simple to bump a horse up a bit if they're getting too low but it sounds like she needs to bring her head down to find her balance.

                The best way to make the canter better is to, well, canter. But not just continuous canter. You need to help her build carrying strength in her hind end. One way to do that is with lots and lots of transitions. So, you would ask for the canter and then after a certain number of strides, or when she starts to feel discombobulated, then bring her back to a trot. Rinse and repeat.

                Remember that all the gaits are connected and they require your horse to use her body differently. Personally, I find that for many horses, some time cantering helps them loosen through their back and work better so I would not choose to forgo it.

                You might also want to work her over ground poles and do some simple lateral work -- leg yields, shoulder fore and shoulder in. That will help her start to carry better on the inside hind.

                Do you ever lunge your horse? Are you familiar with how to use side reins? Sometimes if a horse is having difficulty balancing themselves under saddle a few training sessions on the lunge line can be very helpful. Side reins can really help but you need to make sure that you always warm up your horse without them and shorten them up gradually. You want to encourage your horse to reach into contact, not crank them into it.

                Good luck -- and don't get stuck on "perfection", work on the whole picture.
                Equine Ink - My soapbox for equestrian writings & reviews.
                EquestrianHow2 - Operating instructions for your horse.


                • Original Poster

                  [QUOTE=Bogie;6863019]I'm a bit surprised that you haven't been cantering her for 8 months (did I read it right?). If that's true, you probably have a horse that doesn't have the strength and balance to canter under saddle.

                  Well..not exactly. I have been cantering her on the lunge line between lessons (no side reins though)..and I sometimes canter under saddle as well...but not every ride...so I am suspecting not as much as I should. We are also working on the entire picture and not just head position..although I know it must sound that way since that is my entire focus in this post. Again...this is a hard topic to discuss without kind of laying out the entire picture. But what you suggested makes total sense to me....esp the part about reaching for contact. That is something my instructor has been discussing with me. I like the suggestion of transition work. I plan on trying that. Thank you...


                  • Original Poster

                    [QUOTE=Bogie;6863019]I'm a bit surprised that you haven't been cantering her for 8 months (did I read it right?). If that's true, you probably have a horse that doesn't have the strength and balance to canter under saddle.

                    Well..not exactly. I have been cantering her on the lunge line between lessons (no side reins though)..and I sometimes canter under saddle as well...but not every ride...so I am suspecting not as much as I should. We are also working on the entire picture and not just head position..although I know it must sound that way since that is my entire focus in this post. Again...this is a hard topic to discuss without kind of laying out the entire picture. But what you suggested makes total sense to me....esp the part about reaching for contact. That is something my instructor has been discussing with me. I like the suggestion of transition work. I plan on trying that. Thank you...


                    • #11
                      Had the same prolewith my retired guy. We did canter because we did c/ts and had jumping in it. Cantered on trails etc. But for a long time it seemed like he just couldn't or wouldn't canter a nice balanced 20 m circle. It was hard and i had to use a lot of core and leg to hold him together. It took a lot of strength for a while to keep it all together and sometimes I still wasn't strong enough. He got better over a few months with just letting him canter on a looser contact and using my seat and leg more but he naturally tended to carry himself correct in all gaits, meaning he would always find the contact no matter where i put it and followed it but his balance was an issue. Not saying this is the same in your case but he was diagnosed with epm and that was his problem with balancing in the canter.

                      Now with my new guy, he's a paint and came very unbalanced in all gaits. Didn't know contact at all but has came along way in the past year. At this moment he has had 12 weeks off so we will see how he comes back. Again the canter is iffy on him. Walk and trot have gotten nice. Nice and forward, tracks up, rounds, goes to the bit etc but his canter is still a work in progress and it just takes a lot of time for horses like ours that are not naturally built uphill and balanced to figure it out. It also takes the skill of the rider. I'm weaker right now from having time off from serious riding so i put my trainer on him right now to work the canter because she is more capable. I ride him loose in it just on the long sides for now until I get stronger to help him a bit more. Can your trainer get on for some tune ups in the canter from time to time?
                      Horses aren't our whole life, but makes our life whole


                      • #12
                        Well..... I think it will be easier for you to perhaps understand her difficulties if you take a step back and think about what you are trying to teach her (and you!)

                        You are asking your mare to carry herself in a very different manner. To do this she needs to rebuild her body. Generally walk and trot work are easy for horse and rider because they are grounded (walk) and two beat (trot) it can get a lot more difficult in terms of balance and ability to connect etc in the canter because the gait is not symmetrical.

                        So first I would look to you - are you in balance? Are you pulling? leaning? blocking? stiff? Does your mare have the fitness to canter? Can you canter her with no contact or just a light following contact? What happens when your trainer rides?

                        If this were my mare I would begin work in the canter with loose side rein so she can learn to canter with some feel on the reins. Then once she can canter in balance both ways on the lunge then go ahead and sit on her and canter her with a light following, non blocking feel.

                        Also, I get the feeling that you might be initiating your contact with your hands and not via the horse hind legs... and where this always manifests itself in issues in canter.

                        So also be very sure and clear that your mare is active in the hind leg and is able to actually work in contact.

                        and remember is it literally step by step - you could no more go be a foot ball player without a lot of baby step nor can your mare be a dressage horse without a lot of tiny steps to get her there.


                        • #13
                          What kind of bit do you have? (size and all)
                          Maybe you could try something different in terms of size and shape that would let her take more contact on the bit.

                          Also, I believe to be very true that your mare isn't muscled enough to carry her head at the 'proper' level for now. And if I were you, I wouldn't mind so much and keep cantering, trying first to find her balance were she is comfortable and work around that. There is no way you horse can truly be on the bit for an extended period of time (like an hour lesson), even less collected with just the training you describe. Take more breaks.

                          Actually, what you want to achieve first is a good free and medium walk, working trot and working canter. So the poll must ideally be higher than the wither but not that much.

                          And you should be working on stretching her neck at the walk, the trot and the canter and bringing it back to the working position. These are a good transitions that should build up some muscles for her top line.

                          Concentrate more on the hind legs and the back and the head/neck/poll will find their own way to the proper place.
                          ~ Enjoying some guac and boxed wine at the Blue Saddle inn. ~

                          Originally posted by LauraKY
                          I'm sorry, but this has "eau de hoarder" smell all over it.
                          HORSING mobile training app


                          • #14
                            I agree with what merrygoround, bogie and alibi have said.

                            Is your mare a "typical" QH, with a somewhat downhill build? Those horses will never go with as high a neck carriage as, say, an Andalusian, who come out of the box with a higher-set neck. QH's can still be "correct" in their dressage, but their profiles will look different. It all depends on the structure. So the advice that stresses worrying more about what's happening behind the saddle is right.

                            I suggest short intervals of canter, only for as long as she can maintain balance and rhythm. Do lots and lots of transitions in balance. Transitions build strength. Transitions from halt to walk, walk to trot, halt to trot and back again. Add trot/canter/trot transitions. Ride the canters on curved lines -- on 20 meter circles or around the short sides of the arena.

                            Lungeing with correctly adjusted side reins will help. Ask your instructor for help if you've never used side reins.

                            Congratulations on your dressage journey! It's a lifelong learning adventure. We never know it all.


                            • #15
                              So you are JUST starting to canter or she cantered ok then now isn't? I would say give it time. She is learning to balance. Most horses find canter difficult. If she develops behaviors like bucking/severe head tossing/being really tense and it gets worse in time get the vet out.

                              I know in my experience, especially with my new horse, he has had months were he is really above the bit and months were he is really deep. Its not a continuous arc of progress.

                              I would not expect the same carriage in canter that you have in walk and trot. Thats not saying you just let them zoom around, but stick with a light following connection and use circles to assist the horse with balance. Leg will help her lift up in front. Try to avoid using reins for anything besides just a nice following connection. As she gets stronger play with baby-legyields at the canter (spiral in and out). Just a few steps. This will help activate the inside hind and has the horse connect from inside leg to outside rein.
                              Good luck!


                              • #16
                                I'm not a professional, but have you considered this:

                                Is it easier for her to stay balanced and soft when you do a little two point and get off of her back? I've found that to be helpful and then gradually sit deeper as they become stronger and more relaxed about it.

                                Transitions will help a lot. Also some transitions within the trot to build strength.


                                • #17
                                  Balance differs with every gait. Think about it-just because you can do something easily when you are standing or walking doesn't mean you can you it while you are running. It is the same for your horse. Give her exercises (and time) to develop the balance, strength and muscle awareness.
                                  See those flying monkeys? They work for me.


                                  • #18
                                    I think you and your instructor are focusing completely on the wrong thing and have been. There is no "proper height" for a horse's poll in dressage.
                                    You need to ignore where she is carrying her head and focus on getting push from her hind and straightness. That straightness must come from behind with your seat and legs activating her hind legs, not with your reins and her head.
                                    This will give your horse rhythm and self-carriage, which means she does not have to use her head up or down to balance herself.


                                    • #19
                                      I had an instructor that taught the same way yours did, as in no trotting before the walk was perfected and no cantering before walk and trot were perfected. I found this teaching style to be very detrimental to me horse. Every time I asked him to go faster he would freak out because it was a new gait and everything would fall out of whack. Now, I always w/t/c my horse on a loose rein first to get all the parts moving and all the muscles working. Then I gradually ask him for more. I think every horse needs to go through all the gaits even if they aren't perfect. Cantering her under saddle every time you ride will help her build muscle and balance, thus gradually making her more comfortable. Cantering on the lunge is NOT the same thing. She is probably just sore or worried about being unbalanced.


                                      • #20
                                        To strengthen the HQ I like to use double lunge lines. The first connects from the bit to your leading hand while the second is fed through a ring on the sursingle and around the HQ to your other hand. You can use the second one to encourage the HQ to step under a bit quicker. It is important in all lunging that you encourage and maintain the quality of the gaits that you would want under saddle - the horse should be straight, slightly bent to the circle, and balanced. [I mention this because I often have seen horses just being run around.] Using double lines it is possible to develop shortening and lengthening the strides, make engaged transitions, and begin to leg yield - all of which strengthen the HQ.

                                        Under saddle, short bits of canter - sometimes just a few strides - just as long as your horse is balanced, no longer. I like to start before going into the corner on the short side and returning to the trot as they come out of the second corner. On a 20 mm circle, start at C for instance, canter a quarter of the circle, trot the rest and begin this sequence again at C. Stop the exercise before your horse gets tired. Gradually lengthen the the canter segment.

                                        Do you have access to riding outside the ring? Are there any gently sloping hills.
                                        Do you use ground poles or cavalletti?

                                        Having a vet look at your horse, as others have mentioned, plus checking saddle fit, cantering in half seat to allow your horse to use its back more easily, and checking with a chiropractor are other areas to check.

                                        It took one of my horses - an OTTB - a very long time to develop the strength and balance for a canter. She was great at galloping, though.
                                        Equestrian art is closely related to the wisdom of life - Alois Podhajsky