When you first learn to canter, it's about all you can do to get the horse to change his legs from a two-beat trot to a three-beat canter. You do pretty much anything you can to make the transition happen - lean forward, kick, kick harder, kick some more, let the reins go, use your voice....
You might feel like the canter is a huge speed-up from the trot, and when the horse finally does canter, the euphoric feeling of strength and power sends you into a rocking horse motion that just can't really be adequately described to the non-rider.
But then you get better at it.
You realize that the canter departure doesn't have to resemble a rocket launch. You develop your aids till both you and your horse look a lot more civilized - and a lot less frantic. At some point, you realize that you can trot, maintain the trot rhythm, and elegantly step into the canter. Your aids become invisible, prompting less educated onlookers to think that the horse is reading your mind.
So how exactly do you develop an epic canter transition? How do the aids become refined enough to create a smooth, balanced and active upward transition? In the following seven steps, I've tried to break down each component of the transition in order to explain the nuances that go into a split-second movement! Although it might seem a little complicated, I hope that it can describe each moment that goes into a better developed canter departure.
Once you know each part that goes into the one movement, you might be able to problem-solve your departures with your horse and focus on one or two aspects as needed.
1. It All Starts With the Seat
Well, we already know this. But how does the seat exactly play into the transition? First off, your seat should be trotting when the horse is trotting. So if you are sitting the trot, your seat bones are actually moving in the rhythm of the trot. Be sure to promote a strong but not fast rhythm - one that your horse finds easy to move in while remaining supple.
If you are posting the trot, sit the last few strides before the canter. Use your seat to draw up the horse's hind legs, asking for more impulsion.
2. Use the Inside Leg/Outside Rein
The inside leg has a very important job in this moment. Apply the whole leg (from ankle up) at the girth to ask the horse for a mild bend to prepare for the inside lead. If your horse has a tendency to lean in just before the transition, your inside leg becomes even more critical in helping the horse maintain balance by not allowing him to drop his rib cage toward the middle of the ring.
The outside rein does little except to act as a "neck rein" - the one that sits onto the horse's neck and prevents him from drifting to the outside. It also can apply the half-halt aids before and after the departure.
3. Half-Halt Preparation
Do one or two or three half-halts before the transition.
We often tend to "throw everything away" (as in, lengthen the reins, take the legs off the horse, fall to the horse's front) as we head into the gait change. Fight that impulse and instead, keep the horse together. Keep yourself together!
Falling to the forehand and trotting faster before the canter almost always ensures a low-quality canter gait. Although the horse might transition, he will likely be on the forehand, braced in his neck and jaw and hollow in his back. He will also likely fall back to the trot sooner than later, no matter what you do to keep him going because he simply can't maintain his balance.
Instead, after you ask for impulsion, half-halt the horse to balance his weight to the hind end. Keep your legs on for impulsion after the half-halt.
4. Use the Outside Leg - Ask For the Lead
The outside leg initiates the lead. Some people call it a "windshield wiper" motion: swing your lower leg behind the girth to ask for the first stride. The horse's outside hind leg should strike off into the lead as your leg reaches back.
5. Canter With Your Seat
So far, your seat should have been trotting. Now, it needs to transition. So you go from two seat bones moving in tandem with the horse in the trot, to a canter motion with the inside seat bone leading (to allow for the horse to take the inside lead). Your seat now needs to promote the canter movement - swinging back and forth thanks to your supple lower back.
Keep your shoulders fairly still by moving through your back. The swinging movement allows for the illusion of your shoulders staying still while the horse is moving.
6. Use the Half-Halt Again
Just because the horse is now in canter doesn't mean that you should stop riding! Many of us tend to freeze in our aids, opting instead to just hang on to the increased movement of the canter. Well, as soon as you have enough balance and are able, ride actively again.
Half-halt - once, twice, three times maybe - in the rhythm of the canter. This helps the horse to stay "together" after the transition. The sudden surge of energy needs to be controlled so that it doesn't just fall on the horse's shoulders and forehand.
7. Canter on!
Now all you have to do is commit to the horse's movement. Your seat should allow the movement that your horse offers, and it's your job to not let your upper body fall forward/backward/sideways while your seat follows, follows and follows (unless you do another half-halt).
* * * *
When you first start paying attention to each of these aspects of the canter transition, you might need to actually think through every part, talking your body into the necessary activity while negotiating the canter movement. But rest assured - with practice and time, things become more and more automatic, and then you can focus more on your horse's specific needs.
Though we are talking about so many steps all subdivided here, in reality, it all comes together within a few seconds - from preparation, to the request, strike-off and follow-through. Eventually, it happens so seamlessly that the departure becomes just a quick thought - one that transpires between both you and your horse in an epic, seemingly mind-reading fashion!
How do you ask your horse for the canter? Let us know if there is anything missing in the comments below.
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Related reading here:
First, Plan Your Ride. Then, Scrap It: Even though you are inspired to get that horse to do the next cool thing, your horse might simply not be ready.
What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.
How to ‘Flow” From the Trot to Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse’s mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to.
Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.
How the “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: 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. What to do? This article remains one of our most popular posts of all-time.