Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

The word "engagement" is second to none when it comes to horseback riding. All the disciplines ask for hind end engagement, from western performance  to dressage to jumping to endurance riding - there is no other way to move than from the hind end!

We know why we want engagement: if we can get the horse moving "from the hind end", the horse can stay sound even while ridden into old age. With more weight shifted to the hind end, there is less dragging on the forehand. There is better weight bearing over the back, and the lighter footfalls save the joints and tendons. Energy from the hind end is the prerequisite for horse riding heaven and we all know that! 🙂

However, we might not be quite as accomplished when it really comes down to figuring out how we can develop hind end engagement. Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement - but that is nothing further than the truth!

The key to engagement is to initiate the movement from the horse's hind end, not the front end or shoulders. (Click here to tweet that if you agree!)

So if faster isn't the answer, then what is?

We need to find out how to ask the horse to reach deeper underneath the body without throwing their weight to the forehand, and without speeding up the leg tempo.

There are many methods to teaching engagement but the "canter-trot" is relatively easy for both the horse and rider. It also accomplishes the main purpose of shifting the weight to the hind end and waking up the horse's rear engine muscles.

How to "Canter-Trot"

Start from any gait (even a reverse)

Canter (no more than three strides)

Then Trot

Before you get insulted by the seemingly simple instructions above, please take note: it's not as easy as it sounds!

Possible Errors

There might be several unwanted responses you will have to redirect before you get the desired result.

1. The horse wants to canter off into the sunset. 

Many horses transition into the canter but then resist breaking back into the trot. There may be many reasons why but invariably, horses have an easier time staying in the canter (and eventually getting heavier and heavier to the forehand). This is because it takes a lot of hind end work to break the momentum of the canter!

Remember that this exercise is not intended to be a canter exercise. It is a canter-TROT exercise, so the horse has to break back into the trot within one, two or three canter strides. 

2. The horse trots faster.

To engage the hind end, the horse must take a few canter strides. Just moving the legs faster into the trot is completely counterproductive to establishing hind end engagement.

If the horse just trots along faster, half-halt into a slower trot rhythm, and ask for the canter again.

Then trot.

3. The horse shows discomfort.

There might be ear pinning, tail swishing, teeth grinding, hopping... you name it. Basically, the horse is indicating either physical discomfort or mental stress.

First, ensure that there is nothing wrong with the tack, and there is nothing otherwise physically bothering the horse. If the horse is demonstrating confusion or frustration, you are likely taking him out of his comfort zone (comfortable = riding on the forehand?) and asking him to do something that he honestly finds difficult.

In this case, be gentle, calm and patient but be firm! Many horses get used to working on a heavy forehand and initially resist bearing weight on the hind legs. If this happens to be the case, then teaching the horse hind end engagement is even more essential than you think!

Keep trying for the canter and when you get it, trot.

What happens after the canter?

After the few canter strides, break back into the trot. This trot should be very different from the trots before the canter. It should feel more active, bouncier and even slower.  If the hind legs are truly reaching farther underneath the body, the stride might become longer and more ground-covering.

At this point, you might want to enjoy the trot you have and move into further trot work from here. You might want to develop even more engagement and do a few more canter-trots in a row.

Alternately, you might want to move into a completely new movement that benefits from the deeper engagement you just achieved. 

Play with this a few times, and then let us know how it works for you in the comments below!

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24 Comments

  1. Tried this today with my young horse. He’s a big boy and doesn’t easily bring his back legs underneath, but we’re getting there slowly. He’s beginning to get the walk canter transitions now and the first few strides of canter are well balanced, but then he loses balance and starts to rush. This works very well, and after a couple of tries, I felt him rebalance himself for the trot transition into a very nice, active trot. Thank you for reminding me, and putting this idea into my head!

  2. Great article. A couple of thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading- when the trot speeds up, the stride actually gets shorter, (ie less engagement). Also, as the rider asks for the down transition from canter into trot, the rider MUST RESIST using the rein, instead prepare with breath, seat, and 1/2 halt. Use your seat and rhythm to transition down back to trot. Yes, the trot will improve. Loved your phrase: At this point, you might want to enjoy the trot you have….

  3. So… my Spotted Saddle horse does not trot, she gaits beautifully. Does that still count as a trot in this case?

  4. I have recently been doing a lot of this on the lunge line as my horses right lead canter took a mini vacation. I have really noticed the difference under saddle with the trot being more through and the canter has started to reappear quite nicely!

  5. I have found backing an excellent way to engage the hindquarters (hereinafter called the HQ). Basically, after circles at a walk with inside rein requesting a release in front, I stop and request a back for three to six steps. A mini-halt (one second?) then another circle on the other hand, requesting a bend and release with the inside rein. Then a request for a back (with LEGS not with the hands) etc. etc. With this slow exercise, the horse has time to think about releasing in front. Since we’re not going anywhere, and walking, no one gets their knickers in a knot.

    It works for my girl, and she’s a champion about lifting her head to get away from the hand when she’s worried or irritated.

    Anyway all of the above with a view to transition to trot OR canter directly from the walk or the halt. I had an instructor who said “think of an outboard motor boat taking off, lifting off in front and digging in in back”. Nice image.

  6. Thanks for the good idea! I just started dressage lessons with my mare a couple months ago, and while our more “dressage-y” trot is improving in leaps ad bounds, we’re definitely not ready to ask for much at the canter yet. This sounds like a great introductory exercise.

  7. The transitions in and out of the canter are of the utmost importance. Sending the horse towards the outside rein ( almost as leg yield) and then half halting on the outside rein will produce the best transition the horse is capable at the time. I have also found that, with a young horse, cantering for half a circle before trotting is better than just a few strides of canter. It establishes both the canter and the trot transition in the young horses mind.

  8. Worked really well with a particularly awkward young horse we’ve got. He had a couple of strops (which he would anyway) and then really sat. Definitely a great exercise to get them responding to leg and hand and maintaining the contact with the engagement. New fav exercise!

  9. The horse I ride is very heavy on the forehand (like a tonne of bricks!) as well as very strong and fast. Even after canter-trot and bending exercises she never seems to really lighten. I half halt her and try to get her hindquarters under but it never seems to work from behind and slow down. Are there any tips you could give? Please help!

  10. I tried this today and it really helped improve my gelding’s engagement. The resulting trot was a masterpiece, and yes, I did enjoy it for a few strides before we picked up a string of these again. Thank you for all of your great posts; this one really helped us!

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