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 of force. 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.
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.
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".
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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