Imagine experiencing the dread that comes along with having to do something particularly undesirable. Except in this case, in some miraculous way, the "powers that be" come to your rescue - and actually rescind the request. Can you imagine the relief you would feel when you realize that you would NOT have to do the task?

Some horses get into the same emotional (and physical) bind when it comes to transitions. At times, it can happen even to the best of horses - a new learning phase with higher expectations might spark either mental, emotional or even physical stress. There may be ear pinning, tail swishing, hopping, kicking out, teeth grinding - so many signs that your horse might be finding the task too difficult.

Every time you ask (with the correct aids), the horse resists. The situation becomes ugly - you have a hard enough time just sitting the bounciness, never mind getting the transition. You kick, use your voice, use the crop, rock your body over the forehand of the horse - anything to get that canter!

The horse's response can range from a mild hesitation to an outright buck or rear. Eventually, you win - the horse launches himself into a lurched, scrambling canter, running off at warp speed just to keep the three-beat gait. Ears are pinned, tail is swishing, and the strides feel awkward and unbalanced.

Many riders feel that the discomfort must be a sort of right of passage, and the horse must be driven through this awkward and unbalanced phase. Surely, the horse MUST give in one day and eventually settle into a nice calm, rhythmical canter - it only takes time and enough repetition. Right?

Well, probably not.

It is true that some horses do "give in" and eventually canter more promptly - but there will always be an element of tension and lack of balance. What needs to be changed is the pattern of asking - the horse needs to be shown how to be calm and confident in the canter departure.

There are many methods to teaching a good transition but the "not canter" works easily and well if performed with gentleness and empathy. It is actually very simple - the difficult part is the waiting and patience that is required.

How to "Not Canter"

Establish a good calm, slow, rhythmical trot.

Apply the aids for the canter.

Then do not canter.

That's it!

Of course, your horse will react the same way he has the past hundred times. He'll pin his ears, shake his head, grind his teeth. He'll tighten his back and brace himself for a launch into the canter universe.

And you will NOT.

You will keep trotting - keep the rhythm, staying steady, slow, calm. Wait until he releases the tension, finishes the hops and tail swishes. Wait for the sigh of relief when he realizes that he doesn't have to perform on the spot.

Re-establish the trot. 

Then, ask for the "not canter" again.

Keep doing this and wait for the horse to respond more calmly to your aids. He may be confused at first - why ask for something when you don't want it? But eventually, he'll see that the canter aids don't have to cause all that tension.

Celebrate!

If he happens to reach further underneath himself with his hind legs, you will celebrate. If he snorts and swings better in the trot, you will celebrate. If you discover that he takes larger trot strides, you will celebrate. Because even though these are not the canter, they are all the prerequisites to a good canter. They are all mini-steps in the right direction.



Then ask for another "not canter". And another. And another.

One time (probably sooner than you expect), the horse will canter. But it will be hesitant, slow stepping, breaking back to the trot. And you will celebrate that too!

Stick to the program - calm, slow, rhythmical trot. Put on the aids again: "not canter".

Wait for the next canter attempts, and once or twice, accept the canter. Do your best to follow the movement - but don't force it. Accept tentative attempts. Encourage by petting and ONE time, ask for a real canter. If there is a hint of tension, back off and "not canter" again.

Feel free to quit at any time that you feel your horse has somewhat calmed. You can always pick it up again tomorrow.

And be sure in the knowledge that this "not" path to the canter is much faster and truer than any method that requires force. Your aim is to prove to the horse that you will always give him the benefit of the doubt, and that you are willing to wait for the "results".

Happy riding!

Note: The "not" technique can be used for any movement: the "not trot" (from a walk), the "not walk" (from a trot or canter), the "not shoulder-in", etc. It is essentially a frame of mind - can be used anywhere and any time!

**Caution: The "not canter" might not be helpful in all circumstances. If a young horse is cantering for the very first time, this would be counterproductive. Also, there may be instances where a horse might become too excited if the energy is contained too long. Always use your best judgment in using any techniques, and seek the help of a more advanced rider/trainer if necessary. And always let the horse be your guide - you should be able to identify fairly quickly if the horse appreciates the technique.

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More on similar subjects:

6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: Why get into the push and pull method when you can easily influence the horse from the middle?

What You Ought To Know About Instant Gratification In Horse Riding: There is no such thing!

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Top Nine Ways To Prevent Your Horse From Finding His "Happy Place": This one speaks for itself!

27 Comments

  1. Great tip. I like the calm problem solving approach. I use a variation of this. If the walk-canter feels like it’s going to be awkward or heavy, I relax my back, stop worrying and asking, then walk over a caveletti set at medium height. Once you feel the horse’s back lift and the hind legs engage, and over you feel the inside hind step then I ask for the canter again. And success! Let the caveletti do the correction.

  2. Great post! I always say wish for it with correct aids and wait. Asking is a relative of shouting. Whisper your aids…you’ll get a resounding answer.

  3. “What needs to be changed is the pattern of asking – the horse needs to be shown how to be calm and confident in the canter departure.” I find people have a hard time with this – they feel the traditional method and experiencing the “rite of passage” is definitely the way that one has to experience. To deviate from the normal is considered poor riding. I am one for aiming at finding contact that makes the horse think the job is easy (this could mean lift my hand up and forward, or open). It matters not where I should be but where I need to be for the horse. Thank you for your insights.

    1. So true. This is why I don’t tend to get into the nitty-gritty of aids in my posts – that is not my idea of riding through “listening” (and many others have written about the aids much better than I could). I think other than for beginner riders, the horse’s feedback is the most important guide to “telling” the rider what should be done next. Don’t get me wrong – of course, every rider should know the standard aids – but there is so much more to riding effectively.

  4. How long would you apply the aids and let the horse trot faster before relaxing and letting the horse come back to a rhythmic trot? Coaches have often asked me to use “more leg” (and my ask I mean shout). When asking for the not-canter, would you take the whisper approach and use light aids before releasing pressure? Or should you try to be perfectly clear and use strong aids before releasing?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kiirsten. I generally try to avoid letting the horse trot faster at all, as this is not the point of the exercise. The whole point is to stay rhythmical and calm – any rushing/scrambling/running away is not staying calm or balanced. When I put the leg aids on, I want the horse to push stronger from the hind end, lift his back and then transition. So speed is not part of the equation at all.

      Most horses WILL speed up, however. So I will put on the aids, then slow them back to the rhythm and balance, and wait. I might let the horse transition or I might not – always looking at the tension in his body and the manner of his transition. The actual transition isn’t nearly as important as how he feels going into the transition. Eventually, he will be confident and bold, but it takes time to develop that trust and strength. A hesitant, light transition might be enough for one day.

      I’m always reaching for the “whisper” but often at the beginning, using as much “loudness” as needed to be crystal clear in my request. I find it takes a high level of established communication to be able to whisper between human and horse. This takes time and hundreds of correct repetitions.

      1. “So I will put on the aids, then slow them back to the rhythm and balance, and wait.” – I’m struggling to get the nuance of all of this. Do you mean in this sentence that you maintain the canter aids while bringing the horse back to rhythm and balance?

      2. Answer to Dorothy – it could be either, depending on how the horse feels. If he is rushing and having a hard time with the aids, then I will release the canter aids and go back to just trotting. If he is doing well enough with the canter aids, I might let them linger a little longer and see what happens. If the horse slides into a canter at that point, all is good. If not, all is good too. I’ll probably go back to trot aids and start all over after a bit of a quiet trot break.

  5. I have an incredibly “expressive” (cranky and opinionated!) mare who is just coming back from injury, she is getting tense and pins her ears when asked for canter and while in canter, still expecting the gate to cause pain. This article has been a great help, I’ll be trying this method on her!

  6. Oh, I also meant to ask, once the transition is a calm, well accepted one, how to you maintain this once in canter? What are the best steps to take to make sure the tenseness, pinned ears, tail swishing doesnt come back whilst maintaining the gait?
    Many thanks!

  7. Is this possible to teach on the lunge or from the ground? My daughters pony struggles with his right rein canter and i think this could really help but I am too big for him and she is only 8 yrs old.

    1. I think it is theoretically possible to do the same thing on the lunge. Just be careful that you aren’t inadvertently teaching him to ignore your canter cues. Give it a try and let us know how it works out!

  8. Right you are! Any little step in the right direction is a celebration. I train my German Shepherds exactly the same way! They love to work, and so will your horse! Excellent lesson, thank you!

  9. I’m going to try the Not Canter with my younger who more often than not scrambles into canter as we both have to contend with his long gangly back legs. I would love him to end up looking like your horse in the illustration to this Post. As ever, really helpful, clear, advice. Thank you.

  10. I have a mare who only pins her ears, swishes her tail, tosses her head a little and grinds her teeth all at the canter. She continues this reaction throughout the term of the canter where now and then she will settle in and seen comfy but not often. I really think this advice will help with her anxiety in the transitions so i too will try this on her. Hope it works… Spent enough $ trying to find an issue with nothing found. Makes sense… its only at the canter I’ll bet she is anxious. Thanks so much!!

  11. How about when the rider is scared to transition into the canter? My horse always seems so out of control when he leaps into a canter that I immediately end up doing a one rein stop. I feel like I will NEVER figure this out, and I’m very discouraged with myself.

    1. Susan, is it possible for you to practice your canter transitions on a seasoned horse that can help you to build your confidence? I understand how difficult it can be to support an anxious horse when you yourself are also anxious.

      If not, I recommend visualization riding techniques – watch successful, calm transitions with other horse/rider pairs (either in-person, on YouTube, etc), and re-watch them until you can easily “playback” a mental video of it in your head. Now, visualize yourself as that rider and the horse as the mount, and picture yourself as the one who is making that successful transition. Really feel it, too. Feel the weight and texture of the reins in your hands, the sturdiness of your horse beneath you, hear the sound of his relaxed breath. And re-ride this successful transition on your horse over and over and over again in your head. I have used this technique countless times to get through hangups in my training. I often find the moments just before falling asleep to be the most productive to practice my training in this way. 🙂 Good luck to you!

  12. I LOVE this tip – it is something I have never considered but it makes perfect sense as to helping the horse relax and to set him up for success. What I am confused about, however, is more of the how – are you implying that the rider should stop before giving the final “send off” cue in the full sequence of aids to transition into the canter? I have a horse that can get very anxious in his upward transitions into the canter. Often times he gets ahead of me and tries to lurch into the canter when I start the aids sequence, and I calmly bring him back from that before trying again.The way I see myself putting this “not canter” into practice as I think you are suggesting would be by applying the seat and hand aids, and then just not giving the final touch of my outside heel to send him into the canter. Am I interpreting this correctly? I’m already excited to try this!

  13. To make sure I understand correctly, the difference for the rider is that you only apply the aids briefly, rather than continuing to ask until the horse canters? So brief calm canter ask, then back to your normal seat for the trot?

    1. Hi Dorothy. Yes, sort of. You want to apply the aids but stop before he feels like he has to go into his tension mode. So stop as soon as you need to. If he doesn’t react and continues moving in trot in a relaxed manner, keep the aids on until he slides into a canter. Your goal IS to canter. Just to reduce the pre-stress (if there is any).

      1. Thank you for your quick response. My new mare (I’ve had her 3-1/2 months), has become quite anxious about cantering, showing much of what you describe – ears back, rushing in the trot, breathing heavily. Asking at all brings these things on, so sounds like I need to keep the ask really short until she stops displaying these behaviors. I will also discuss with my instructor what I’m doing to bring this on. Thanks again for a great article!

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