canter long
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

What happens to you and your body when you head into a canter transition from a trot?

I've written plenty about how to do the transition, what leg aids to use, and how to improve your horse's impulsion. But really, what are you doing while you're negotiating the balance to and through the gait change?

Do you stiffen up and get left behind the horse's movement?

Do you collapse and lean forward?

Do you look down at your horse's head and neck, frantically grabbing for and/or releasing the reins?

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I'm sure there are other things that can happen. And if you do any of these things, don't feel bad or guilty. We have ALL been there at some point, and the ones who look like they're doing nothing at all have practiced and practiced to get to that point.

Obviously, the goal is to appear to be as motionless as possible, not interfere with the horse's movement while at the same time, be effective enough to help him with his energy level, balance and tempo. It's a fairly tall task, especially when you are in the early learning phases.


This one can be a lot of fun, although it can challenge you in terms of strength and endurance. The key benefit is that you will be working your muscles, not your mind. A by-product is that your horse will likely also improve as cantering becomes more routine.

OK so first, do a quick review of the canter transition here, so you know what you are going to do.

Now, the only thing left to do is practice it.

But there is a special way you can practice the transition that will help you lose your tightness/fear/anticipation.

1. Do a LOT.

How many transitions can you do? Let's say you can start with 10 on each side, in a row. So 10 transitions to the right, 10 to the left. The key is to do them all in a row.

Go to the trot, and then canter. Don't stay in the canter too long. We're not practicing the canter here, we're practicing the transition. So you should emphasize the transition, not the trot before or the canter after.

After you get the canter, go back to trot. Then do it all again.

When you get good at this, you should do all 20 transitions within a few minutes. The idea is not to tire your horse out, but to get through all of the transitions quickly.

However, the real idea is to do the repetitive movement so many times that your muscles finally give up (being tight, strained, stiff, and whatever else they're doing)! You're basically working on your muscle memory (especially in your core).

2. Focus on the gaits before and after

The trot should be a nice, controlled trot. As in - running out from under you is not an option! Develop a good, cadenced, rhythmical trot, and then canter.

The canter should be a nice, controlled canter! Once again, keep your horse "on the aids" so that any rushing or running can be avoided.

Oh yeah. Didn't I say that you shouldn't stay in either gait for too long? That still holds true. Get nice, controlled gaits before and after - quicker than you think! Don't tire your poor horse out too much!

*If your horse has a tendency to run in the gaits, and therefore has a transition that is difficult to manage, you might have to change your focus from this exercise to one that teaches you how to control the gaits first. Then come back to this at a later time.

3. Getting good?

Now you can move on to a little more challenge.

You can ride wherever you like in the ring, and switch between left and right lead transitions. Maybe you'll do three right lead trot to canter transitions, then one left lead, then one right, then two left. Get creative, try to "pop quiz" your horse a bit (and your body).

4. Feel your body.

This is the hardest part. The thing is, once we're blue-printed in a "feel", we think it's the right feel. So if you hunch over in the transition, it will feel very awkward for you to stay tall and tighten your core. In fact, it might actually feel wrong.

An instructor, or an educated eye on the ground, is most indispensable at this point. You need to have someone tell you how you look, and what you should do to improve your body position through the transition.

The idea is to stay tall (no lean in any direction), stay loose but toned enough to not flop, and follow the horse. Keep your eyes up and look ahead to help keep your upper body aligned. Ride from the seat first. Soften your elbows but be ready to support the horse (half-halts) if there is any rushing or falling to the forehand.

5. Lunge? 

I put a question mark because I know how hard it is to find a good lunging horse and instructor. But if you have access to both, you're very lucky and on the best short-cut to improving everything about your body.

The most amazing feeling is to have someone control your horse while you go through multiple trot/canter transitions - without having to steer, balance on the reins (yes, we all do that at some point!), or even worry about your horse's gait. Then you can focus on you - your seat, your upper body, your legs... there's plenty to do without the reins!

There you have it. Don't overwork your horse, but get used to the transition by doing many over a short period of time. Also, have fun with it. Don't make it a stressful thing - just play, try, and even if things don't come together right away, your body will develop over time just from the practice.

*Thanks to Kelle, who asked about stiffness in transitions on my Facebook page. Hope this helps! 🙂

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More related reading here:

The Benefits Of Cantering Round And Round The Ring: Here's another exercise you can try. This one improves the gait.

How The "Not Canter Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: This exercise helps the nervous or rushing horse.

A Simple And Effective Horse Riding Warm Up (Exercise): I often start with this warm up, and for many great reasons.

How You Know You Don't Have Impulsion (Yet): There are actually two fairly easy to spot signs.

The Many Uses Of The Oval (Exercise): The oval is often ignored, but it can be an awesome learning tool because of the turns and the straight lines.


  1. My canter transitions improving a bit, but the downward transition back to trot is horrible.. all over the place. maybe the shorter canter periods will help.. and the repetitions.
    Thanks, Marie