A spectator could be forgiven for thinking that the individual show in the Working Hunter was the same as any other showing class. Sadly a WH judge would probably agree with them. The trouble is a Working Hunter show is meant to be different. The judge wants to see four paces. More often than not they see three.
Many a well schooled horse has fallen at this final hurdle. They float through their show with polished transitions and seamless changes of leg. It’s not surprising. Most riders work hard on their trot. They spend weeks perfecting their transitions and changes of leg in canter but when it comes to the gallop they seem to think if they kick on and drop the reins that will be enough. It’s just a fast canter – right? Wrong!
Think about it. Is trot a fast walk? Or canter a fast trot? No. They’re all paces and ones which have very different mechanics. Many riders fail to realise that gallop is a pace not a speed. It’s understandable. Were you ever taught how to gallop?
The gallop is totally unique because your horse will move both hind legs before his front legs. If he starts with his right hind he’ll follow with the left hind, the right fore and finish with the left fore. To do that he must have his weight on his hocks.
As with all paces the transition is important. Start well and you’ll show a clear difference between one pace and the next. A poor transition in the other three paces will only result in a poor pace. Get the gallop transition wrong and your horse can’t physically do it.
To enable your horse to gallop he must stay on his hocks. To do this you must maintain a steady contact. Drop it and kick on and he’ll fall straight onto his shoulder. If he does that he’ll have to put out a front leg to balance himself as he moves a hind leg forward. That’s canter not gallop.
You need to teach your horse the aids. He needs to learn that a light seat plus leg means go forward. You can do this in the school. Although your speed will be restricted you can help him to understand the theory before you take him into a field.
Canter large, shortening your canter on the short sides. As you turn onto the long sides lean slightly forward, taking your weight out of the saddle. Use your heels once, take them away and use them again. At no time should you let go of your contact.
Your horse should move forward immediately on the first use of your leg. The second push is to confirm the aid. At the end of the long side sit back into the saddle. This will slow your horse instantly. Squeeze your knees into the saddle (see The Other Way of Stopping) and close your fingers around your reins to bring him back to the speed you want. Remember to keep your lower leg on to keep him cantering.
When you move out into a field check the ground carefully. Chose a large field with even ground and check for rabbit holes. If the field has a slight incline even better. The hill will help to keep your horse engaged.
If showing is your thing then it’s important to practice on your own. Riding with others is fun but you’ll lose the transition. Horses are more likely to be excited or tense in company. If their back is tight then they’ll take shorter more hurried steps. This can only be a fast canter.
In the field use the same system as you used in the school. Ride a steady canter along one side of the field. Turn the corner, get straight and get up out of the saddle. You may need to use your legs for three or four strides. Your horse has had a lifetime of being told to slow down and behave. He may not believe you really mean it!
Please note! Gallop is smooth. Despite the fact you are moving as fast as your horse can physically move it will feel effortless. If his legs feel like they are going at 100mph then they probably are! That’s a fast canter. It’s great fun for hacking but not what they’re looking for in a Working Hunter.
Take time to practice these transitions. It will make a huge difference to your individual show. Be the only one to demonstrate four clear paces and you could find yourself at the head of the line next time.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
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