Over the many years I had the good fortune to work with clinician Wolfgang May, I watched him do work in hand with dozens of horses. He always made it look pretty easy, even with horses who had never experienced it before. I guess there were a couple who tried to kick his teeth out, but his impeccable timing kept almost all of them reasonably content with the work.
In the past month I decided to introduce Willow to work in hand. She's a big girl with a long back, and I felt like work under saddle just wasn't strengthening her hind end enough. I'm especially looking for her to start carrying herself more in canter. I've never actually attempted work in hand before, so Willow got to be my Guinea pig.
I started off simply asking her to walk and stop, letting her get used to having the wall on one side and me on the other. She was a little claustrophobic at first, but within the first session she relaxed and behaved perfectly.
During the next session I started touching her lightly on her inside hind to ask for a bigger walk. She wasn't crazy about that. She kicked out a couple times, and then tried to run through a couple times. I broke out the sugar to ease the tension. After about ten minutes she accepted the whip, and I sent her out on a big circle as a reward and to let off some steam. I could already see results: a BIG trot with good suspension. 'Nuff work in hand; we moved on to something else.
After a week of similar sessions, for the first time I lightly asked for a collected trot with the whip. Zoom! went Willow (see, Willow, you CAN canter from walk). I let her out on a big circle for thirty seconds, then brought her back to a halt along the wall. Walk, halt, walk, halt. Now, trot. Zoom! went Willow again. Another big circle, and back to the wall. This time I was more emphatic with my half halt before I asked for trot. Success! Five or six steps of trot, then back to halt. Pats, sugar, and back out on the big circle. Call it a day.
For the next couple of weeks we worked on trot, getting Willow much more comfortable with the whip. I started using the big circle as a reward, sending her out onto it directly from collected trot on the wall (a mistake, as it turns out -- more on that in a second). I loved seeing her launch herself into a giant, suspended trot on the large circle. This work in hand stuff is great! Willow is really using herself, and I'm starting to feel a difference in the canter under saddle.
Sunday night I suddenly realized that Willow was no longer working straight along the wall. Instead, she was doing everything in shoulder in. What's going on? I thought to myself. Then I realized that she was anticipating her release onto the large circle out of collected trot. I remembered that Wolfgang always stopped the horse straight, patted, maybe gave sugar, and THEN sent the horse out. D'oh. So Sunday night and last night I worked on halting her straight first, before sending her out. Problem solved! Last night I think she even offered me a few half steps. Willow, is there piaffe in your future?
Also last night: suspension in the canter like I've never felt before.
A big shout out to Wolfgang, for serving as my most excellent role model. And a big thanks to Willow, for letting me make mistakes and not kicking my teeth out.