fine tune transitions
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

The thing about riding in the canter is that at some point, you have to come out of it!

At first, the most basic way you can get a horse to transition down is by pulling on the reins. Most horses are kind enough to allow their legs to change gait at some point after they feel the pull on the reins.

The problem with just pulling on the reins to change gait is that you have to actually interfere with the movement of the horse. The horse reacts physically to the pull in several ways.

First off, he can't bring the inside hind leg underneath his body freely. Then he might have to lift his head to counterbalance the lack of stride length, which results in hollowing his back. The hollowness causes tension - which radiates through the back to the hips and to the neck.

The rider will likely feel the imbalance, possible coming into imbalance herself because she has already committed to the pulling action. She'll fall forward or backward depending on the force of the imbalance. The horse will obviously be stronger than the rider, thereby bracing more in the neck and jaw in order to continue forward into the trot.

Once the trot is achieved, both rider and horse will continue in that sort of tension.

But as with all things riding, it does get better than that. At some point, most of us find a better way - one that allows the horse his full freedom of movement while also getting the gait change and maintaining balance. We learn to fine tune our aids, enough so that it looks like (and sometimes feels like) we didn't do anything and the horse was a mind reader.

Here are the aids to help you fine tune your trot-canter transitions.

1. First, develop a strong canter before the transition.

Not a fast canter - just amp up your horse's energy level just before you begin to apply your trot aids. This helps the horse reach further underneath his body with his inside hind leg (balance) so that he can support his weight from the hind end once his legs change.

2. Half-halt.

We've talked about how to half-halt before. In this case, the type of half-halt can vary depending on how strong you need to be. In my dreams, I always want to "whisper" my aids - and maybe use only the seat and minimal rein pressure. But in reality, I might need to be clearer than just a whisper. The idea is to use your aids as much as you need to, but as little as possible.

The advantage of using a half-halt as opposed to a rein pull is that there is regular release through the reins (even if it's not a let go of the reins). The horse won't feel a constant pull that he has to brace against. In fact, the inside rein might even "flutter" through the downward transition aids. Try it and see how your horse responds.

3. Trot.

At this point, your seat should be trotting. You can start posting as soon as your horse changes his legs (or sit into the trot motion).

4. Balance and go!

You'll need at least one, or maybe two or three half-halts right after the gait change. It depends on your horse's balance. If he maintains a level or uphill balance, then just one half-halt will help him stay that way. If he falls to the forehand, be there to support him until he can rebalance.

Make sure you don't fall forward. Make sure you don't get left behind! Stay strong in your core and move with the horse rather than against him.

The trot out of the canter can often be strong and powerful. In this case, don't stifle the horse's desire to move. Go with him and let him enjoy his balance and strength. This is often a great way to develop the horse's quality of trot and use of the hind end.

Some horses come to an almost stop. This would be the moment to urge your horse into a stronger trot. Don't chase him - just encourage and see what you get.

You can practice the "go!" after the downward transition several times until you horse feels freer and more willing/able to get into that powerful post-canter trot.

As with all skills in riding, you can try this sequence several times and work on developing your aids and your horse's responses. When you've done enough, leave it and come back to it another day.



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How To Improve The Sewing-Machine TrotIt is easy to get fooled into thinking that the sewing-machine trot is a good trot. When you are on the horse, the frenetic movement might make you think that the horse is working well. It is moving, after all!

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