THE LONG VIEW: The writer and her off-the-track Thoroughbred, Bug PHOTO CREDIT: PAMELA PARTON

Training an OTTB to canter in “the other direction” leads to riding discoveries

Reprinted from the November 2017 issue of USDF Connection

By Victoria Bellino

Receiving the Central Tennessee Dressage Association’s Adult Amateur Scholarship last year couldn’t have come at a better time. After a “let’s just keep this peaceful” winter with my young off-the-track Thoroughbred, Bug, we were finally ready to get back to canter work.

Right-lead canter doesn’t always come easy to an animal trained to run exclusively to the left. Getting the right lead would take a summer of lessons with trainer Laura Russell-Galoppi and a lot of growth in leadership on my part.

Bug is sensitive, opinionated, and a bit lazy. But I am patient and dedicated, and so we embarked on a journey that taught me a lot more than how to canter on the right lead. Here’s what I learned.

Lesson 1: Don’t blame the horse. Bug doesn’t inherently know what I’m asking of him. The more clear and effective I am as a rider, the better he performs. Ask the right question, and he’ll learn the right answer (eventually).

Lesson 2: Sit in the saddle. Teaching at the 2017 USEF George H. Morris Horsemastership Clinic, jumping legend Anne Kursinski frequently used that phrase. Regardless of discipline, sitting in the saddle helps you to influence the horse with your seat. It not only aids in “stickability” (bonus!), but the rhythm of your seat also helps you communicate to the horse what you are asking him to do.

Lesson 3: Be the boss mare. If there’s a fire-breathing dog lurking outside the arena, don’t gawk at it and reinforce the spook. Look where you want to go—forward—and, yes, sit in the saddle. Control your reaction in order to manage your horse’s behavior by example. Use your seat and deep breaths to encourage him to maintain the desired tempo. If I become a passenger for even a moment, Bug recognizes that and takes control. Ultimately, the horse begins to develop trust in a strong leader and looks to the rider for guidance when he feels insecure.

Lesson 4: Be flexible. I have had to resist the urge to force on my young horse my idea of what we’re supposed to be accomplishing. Instead, I’ve learned to slow down to build Bug’s confidence and skills. Adjusting your agenda to meet the horse in the middle helps to develop a stronger partnership. And practicing right-lead canter—or whatever movement you’re working on—every day is a great way to create a ring-sour horse. Integrate variety, such as cavaletti work and hacking.

Lesson 5: Call your horse’s bluff. This lesson—perhaps the least pleasant at times—is one of the most important. It’s about not backing down. It’s about keeping your leg on a spooking or naughty horse instead of taking the leg off and bailing ship. Young horses challenge their riders from time to time. Asserting that I’m sticking with it and riding through the distraction tells Bug, “We’re here to work, and it’s time to get back to business.” The more times you reinforce it, the quicker the horse learns, and the quicker you get back to being pleasant—even if it’s for two minutes—and then calling it a good day.

These lessons may seem simple, but putting them into daily practice on a wiggly, romping Bug is sometimes a challenge, at least for an adult amateur like me. We’re a work in progress. And for now, we’re cantering on the right lead, challenging each other to grow.

Victoria Bellino is an amateur dressage rider and a CTDA member. She has since competed Bug twice in the dressage and jumper rings.

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