Correcting Anticipation at the Walk

Today I rode Double (chestnut Oldenburg gelding owned by Marsha-on my for sale page) in a training session. Marsha was teaching adult camp last week so he was not ridden and needed a good warm-up and stretching session. One part of the training session that I wanted to share was Double's anticipation for the walk to canter transitions. In the Second Level dressage tests the free walk is followed by a working walk and directly to the canter transition. Most horses will associate the shortening of the reins out of the free walk to a canter transition and get tense. When the rider shortens the reins the horse may tighten his back and jig (choppy, short trot), break to another gait or simply brace or get fussy in the head. Double loves to work and he is a master of anticipating what is coming next. This is a wonderful trait for certain movements and exercises where you want the horse's full motivation and energy such as a medium trot on the diagonal. However, for simple transitions that require a lot of relaxation and preparation he tends to jump the gun. Double stretches nicely in the free walk and really loosens up in his back but the moment I think of shortening my reins to bring him up he starts to tense up in his back. To help Double relax in the working walk I did the following exercise: I start in a relaxed free walk but had a little connection while he was stretching so I could  turn him onto a 10 meter circle. As we progressed through the first quarter of the circle I shortened my reins gradually. When a horse is turning in balance he will naturally collect his frame a little more and lift his frame. By the end of the circle we were in a nice working walk. As we started to go straight on the rail I gradually lengthened my reins to allow him to go long and low again. I repeated this 3-4 times down the long side, turning into a circle, shortening the reins gradually until he was in a working frame and then allowing him down again on the long side. By going back to long and low after the working walk he will begin to think less of cantering every time we go to a working walk. Most riders do not spend a lot of time in the walk because it does not seem as worthwhile or interesting. However, any tension that harms one transition or movement usually carries over into the rest of the test. This exercise made Double anticipate the free walk after being in the working walk instead of the canter. After doing numerous walk circles I would then ask for the canter at the end of the circle when he expected to stretch. This would make the transition really nice because he was completely relaxed in the topline and through his back. By doing this exercise I was able to use his anticipation in a positive way. He was anticipating a relaxing walk instead of a canter transition. There is no way to change a horse's personality or how they will naturally react in certain situations. The only thing we can do as riders and trainers is to work with each horse individually and use their personality to our advantage.