Holly and Nice Guy at the Phillip Dutton clinic - photo by Julia Jesu

Holly and Nice Guy at the Phillip Dutton clinic – photo by Julia Jesu

What kind of a canter do you have?

I’m not talking about dressage scores (like that canter got a “7” from the judge.) I’m talking about knowing the length of your horse’s stride, and being able to do the math to fit the path from jump to jump. In jumping, we call this “stride adjustment”, and it’s probably one of the most important things to learn whenever you jump horses. For eventing, Phillip Dutton says it over and over: we have to teach the horse to adjust his stride for us. He feels stride adjustment is critical for an event horse, and that most of the time, it is better to have the horse learn to add a step for all of the times we will need him to jump through tricky combinations, or difficult questions on cross-country. In looking at old videos of eventing from years past, it’s clear that on cross-country, it was less about stride adjustment and more about bravery and speed. (Perhaps the biggest difference in the last 20 years in the sport of eventing has been the growing importance of stride adjustment as a component of the competition both in cross-country and in show jumping.)

Today, however, even at the lower levels of the sport, it is still very important to teach the horse to pay attention to you direction when it comes to stride length. So in riding our green horses, cantering two low jumps set on a simple line, the exercise Phillip explained to our group involved knowing how many strides we did, then adjusting so that we got one less the second trip down.

I did miss the distance to the first jump and was so busy trying to keep upright and land in a straight line and find the oxer at the end I forgot to count. I did it in eight so I had to come back and find a better canter to do it in seven. That seven canter! An elusive beast! It’s got more volume and more energy than the eight stride canter, but it’s not wide open and building like the six stride canter. The seven is doable for my green horse, even in the indoor arena, so it’s up to me to get it. How?

To know how to find that Seven Canter, you had to go back to the very beginning of our session. Everything in teaching a horse something in the Dutton system is logical and stair-stepped, so it is fairest to the horse. We began with our flatwork, pushing for a better walk; then correcting the trot (more, less, not so quick in my case), collect it a little, extend it a little, sit a little. (The more experienced groups sat a bit longer than our green horses.) Then we worked on bending, and flexing to start to gain control over the horse’s shoulders. Phillip explained to every group, it is all about the horse’s response to the leg. “When we put our leg on, the horse must go forward,” he explained, then eventually, the leg will mean to bend and step under, then at the higher levels, leg will mean to get the hocks under and elevate the gaits. But for our greenies today, it was enough just to go forward, pretty much.

When we began to canter fences after warmup our horses showed us what we needed to work on. My horse is not forward enough because I am chicken to ride him forward and need to lighten my seat and get brave, and let go of his mouth. No more hanging on or driving. Let him do it! So fixing that position flaw was first tool to pull out of the toolbox. Second tool was to keep my leg ON and ask for more to start. It was hard to feel that. I’ve got a big young horse and it FEELS like I am covering ground even going slow, so I need to change that expectation and allow a more forward energetic canter rather than the slow little dressage-y 20m circle thing. As with all things, the more I practice this feeling the better my horse will be! Watching video taken by friends was very helpful, and a great teaching and remembering tool.

Going forward does not mean spurring or galloping headlong. My green horse has a “Too Much=Will Buck” button and if my spur presses that button too many times, I pay the price! He did try a couple times but the corners come up pretty quickly. He learned fast to get the canter I wanted. Repetition.

Developing a young horse is actually training an athlete. If we make them flexible and able to extend and collect we make them adjustable. If we make them adjustable then they can figure out stuff and save us when we get them in wrong. It’s essentially, at the end of the game, a safety technique.

So here’s to that Seven Canter. May you find it easily and make good friends with it! Here’s a video taken by friend and trainer Julia Jesu (Close Up Show Stables) of our last course — with the seven stride line — at the clinic.