Get the Canter You Want

Few things feel more perfect than a quiet transition into a balanced canter, whether you're riding a dressage test, setting up for a fence, or heading across a pasture. When it all goes right, you barely have to do more than think canter and your horse floats off on the correct lead into a collected, three-beat gait. But then there are the other times.
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Few things feel more perfect than a quiet transition into a balanced canter, whether you're riding a dressage test, setting up for a fence, or heading across a pasture. When it all goes right, you barely have to do more than think canter and your horse floats off on the correct lead into a collected, three-beat gait. But then there are the other times.
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Dial Into Easy Departures

  • Imagine what you're aiming for: the feeling of your horse's back rising underneath you, the momentary slack in the reins as he brings his nose back toward his chest, and the soft sound as his feet change rhythm.
  • Work on speed transitions at the walk and trot first, changing pace every 30 feet by squeezing and releasing or gently kicking with both your legs.
  • Pretend your horse has a speed control dial ranging from 1-10 at the trot. Use the dial to get incremental and consistent changes in speed.
  • Use diagonal exercises to position your horse's shoulders and hips and practice stepping into the correct "lead" at the walk and trot.
  • With the hips-over rein cue, ask for a "haunches-in," which will position your horse to pick up the correct lead.
  • Let your horse move into a canter on his own from the extended trot. It's a reward and a way for him to slow down his legs. Then refine it by asking for the departure at slower speeds.

Few things feel more perfect than a quiet transition into a balanced canter, whether you're riding a dressage test, setting up for a fence, or heading across a pasture. When it all goes right, you barely have to do more than think "canter," and your horse floats off on the correct lead into a collected, three-beat gait. But then there are the other times.

Maybe your horse's trot is strung out to begin with and his body is stiff, out of position, off balance, traveling a little crooked. Maybe you're kind of tense and apprehensive about shifting into the next gear. The last time you cantered, it felt like he was going to take off with you, or he bucked a few strides into it, or you came off in the corner of the arena.

So he's not set up well for the transition, and you're telegraphing some reluctance even though you're asking-insisting-that he pick up the canter. He rockets into a faster, rougher trot, and you feel like you're riding a paint shaker. He finally falls into a canter, but his head is high, his back is hollow, and you're bouncing around, unable to find and follow his rhythm. He may be on the wrong lead, too, or maybe it's the correct lead in the front but the wrong lead in the back, what's descriptively called "cross-firing."

Rest assured, your canter departure doesn't have to be that way. You can teach your horse to pick up a smooth canter on the correct lead, without jarring you out of the saddle or requiring any gymnastics on your part. But here's the thing: A good canter departure is the goal, not the starting point. Before you can get there, you and your horse need to do a lot of homework.

It's tempting to think that the best way to perfect the canter is to canter, but that's jumping too far ahead. The best way to perfect the canter is to start by mastering certain fundamentals, such as walk/trot transitions, speed control, good stops, hip and shoulder control, collection, and correct head elevation.

That may sound like a tall order, but these aren't difficult lessons. And they're things your horse needs to know no matter what you're trying to accomplish. If you work on them consistently and resist the urge to cut corners and skip ahead, the smooth, balanced canter will come together easily.

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Before we consider the prerequisite work for developing that nice canter, let's take a minute to picture what we're aiming for. Close your eyes and imagine your horse stepping lightly from a relaxed trot into the canter. What do you feel? Imagine his back rising under you and the soft feeling as his feet change rhythm. Feel the momentary slack in the reins as he brings his nose back toward his chest. If you were watching, rather than riding, what would you see? Imagine your horse's posture, his attitude, the curve of his neck, and the relaxed way he carries his tail.

Keeping this picture and this feeling in mind will help you understand how each exercise you work on is going to help you get the canter you want. Teaching your horse to speed up when you ask him to will help him bring the right amount of energy to his transitions. Teaching him to be soft on the bridle, to lower his head and relax his neck, and to bring his hips underneath himself will give you that lightness and nice round back. Teaching him to bring his hips a tiny bit to the inside of the circle when you ask will position him to step off into the correct lead.

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Reduced Speed Ahead
To practice your transitions and speed-control exercises, you need to be someplace safe and quiet, so that you can both focus on what you're doing. The first challenge in this work is to get your horse to perform the tasks correctly.

If he gets it wrong-and he will-don't punish him. Just regroup and try again. (Or go back and work on some exercises he already does well to help him regain his confidence.) With enough repetition, he'll learn what "correct" is.

Eventually, you'll get those correct responses consistently. After that, you'll be able to work on getting him to perform tasks correctly, consistently, and where and when you want.

Start by making speed changes at the walk. For example, walk forward for about 30 feet and then ask your horse to move up to a more active walk for 30 feet. Then ask him to slow down. Thirty feet isn't really much distance, and you may need to go farther than that before asking for a change, at least in the beginning. But with practice, you'll be able to make that distance shorter and shorter, asking for the speed changes sooner.

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As you do this work, keep your reins loose. Use them only to slow your horse down, then release them. Make sure you use a distinct, recognizable speed-up cue when you want him to go faster. Squeeze or kick evenly with both legs. (For more on developing this cue, see "On Top of Old Pokey," April 2003.) The instant you feel him speed up in response to your cue, relax your legs.

Along with working on speed control at the walk, practice transitions from the walk to the trot and back to the walk, and work on balanced, relaxed halts. (For some pointers on achieving this, see "Five Ways to Whoa," November 2003.)

The more often you can get quick, consistent responses to these requests, the easier it will be to set your horse up for the canter departure (or any other change you request). You'll also be developing the control you'll need to feel confident and safe when you begin your canter work. If you've always been uneasy about your horse getting excited and picking up speed when he canters, for instance, you'll know that you can bring him back to a slower pace whenever you want. And he'll know it, too, which will reassure him.

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Once you're getting consistent speed changes when you ask for them at the walk, you can start practicing the same exercise at the trot. Imagine that your horse has a dial you can use to adjust the speed of his trot-say, from 1 to 10. The lowest and highest settings on this dial are probably too slow and too fast to be useful, but between 3 and 8, you've got a good range of speed.

Start off smack in the middle, with that dial set to 5. Then, think about adjusting the dial up a few notches to 7 or 8, and then slow him back down to 3. When you're getting good changes from slow to fast and back to slow, you can refine it, turning the dial up and down by varying degrees, from 3 to 8, down to 7, down to 4, up to 6, and so on. Of course, these numbers are completely arbitrary, but they'll help you ask for and feel those incremental changes of speed.

Gaining Ground in Canter Departures

When you can consistently trot your horse into a calm, relaxed canter, you can start thinking about having him pick it up where you want.

Suppose that the distance between the point where you start to urge him into the canter to the point where he actually picks it up is about 100 feet. If you want him to begin cantering at a particular spot in the arena, you'll have to ask him 100 feet before that spot.

In time, he'll pick up the canter more quickly after you ask, and you can start asking a little closer to the target. As he progresses and his response gets quicker and quicker, you'll be able to adjust the point where you ask for the transition. Finally, you'll be able to ask just a few feet from the spot where you want the transition to occur.

This may sound like a slightly backward approach. Instead of demanding "canter here, canter now," you're accommodating his decision or ability to pick up the canter a certain distance from the point where you asked for it. But by continuing to build on his correct and consistent transitions without intensifying your requests, you'll allow him to learn how to respond better and more quickly without making him tense or aggravated.

Positioning and Relaxation
When your horse speeds up, it's natural for him to stretch his nose out, raise his head, and hollow his back. To pick up the smooth canter you're after, he must learn to travel in a more collected, relaxed manner-and to maintain that position through the transition. To get this to happen, you need to work through the process of having him "give" with his nose, lower his head, and relax his neck and shoulders.

We won't go into the mechanics of each of these steps. (The related articles listed on page 64 will give you details on the various exercises that teach your horse these lessons.) Basically, you'll be putting a little pressure on the rein to tell your horse to move a specific part of his body. When he moves the right part in the direction you want, release the rein. You'll use this technique to have him position his nose slightly to the side (but not past the inside of your stirrup), to lower his head so that the tip of his ear is roughly even with his withers, to relax the long muscle in his neck, and to bring his nose back toward the base of his shoulder, which will cause the shoulder to relax.

This won't happen all at once. Your horse will have to learn each component before you can put it all together. Once you have him walking with his nose in the right spot, with the correct head elevation and relaxation through the neck and shoulders, you'll need to work on the speed-control exercises and walk/trot transitions to teach him to maintain those things even when you're asking for changes. You'll also want to practice directional control, such as the serpentine exercise, until you can get him to turn smoothly without giving up the nose position and elevation you've requested.

Diagonal Work
The more flexible your horse is, and the more responsive he is to your cues to move specific parts of his body, the easier it will be for you to get him into the right position for the canter departure. One way to achieve this flexibility and responsiveness is by practicing diagonal work. This will help you develop better control of your horse's shoulder and ultimately let you set your horse up for a good transition.

For example, by riding him so that his nose is traveling in a straight line but his right shoulder is heading toward one or two o'clock, his left front foot and left hind foot will be stepping over in front of the right feet. You're actually getting him to travel in his left "lead"-even though you're only walking or trotting.

You can practice this in one direction and then the other. Make sure you're squeezing evenly with both legs and thinking "forward." As you bring his nose toward the base of his neck, he'll soften his shoulder and move diagonally.

Hip Control
Along with controlling your horse's shoulders, you'll need to develop excellent control over his hips. Maybe you already know how to connect the inside rein to the hips to get him to take a big step to the outside. By picking up on the left rein, for instance, you can cue your horse to move his hips to the right. This maneuver is at the heart of teaching your horse to stop well and comes in handy in a million situations, from settling a jigging horse to gaining control of a runaway.

Another aspect of hip control involves having your horse step his hips to the inside when you pick up the outside rein. This maneuver, called "haunches-in" or "hips-in," is a great tool for positioning your horse to take the correct lead when you ask for the canter.

We'll return to this topic in a future article, but once you master the technique, you'll be able to make that slight adjustment in your horse's hip position that will almost guarantee that he pushes off with his outside hind foot.

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Time to Canter
Let's say you've done all your homework and you're satisfied with the way your horse is responding to your cues. You've developed great speed control at the trot; you can move his hips and his shoulders; he halts well; and you can keep him properly positioned, relaxed and collected through transitions. Now you're ready to start working on the canter.

Begin by asking your horse for an extended trot and then urge him to go just a little faster. Don't use a cue to ask for the canter, just encourage him to do a little bit more, squeezing with both legs, mentally turning his dial to 11 or 12.

When he breaks into the canter, he'll be doing it to give himself a break. At the extended trot, his feet have to move pretty fast. Changing his footfall pattern to a canter will actually allow him to slow his feet down. This slowdown will teach him to move quietly into the canter instead of speeding up or rushing into it.

After a few strides, ease him back to the trot, and then slow him down even more, gradually bringing him to a stop. Let him stand and relax for a little rest. Then, repeat the exercise.

Eventually, he'll decide to go ahead and canter before his trot reaches its maximum speed. You'll be able to feel when he's about to canter, and you can think "canter" and squeeze both legs to encourage him. But don't try to give him a specific canter cue.

You're just working on correctness and consistency at this point. If you start concentrating on getting the transition in a particular spot, you're likely to become more aggressive in your cues, which is the last thing you want.

As you work on the transition, you'll probably find that some of them are far from perfect. In fact, early on, you may get only one correct transition in 10 or 20 tries. A lot of them may look fairly ragged, but you shouldn't focus on what's wrong with them. Instead, concentrate on that image of correctness. (Remember your mental picture of that smooth departure.) You'll find that the quality of the transitions will improve, and occasionally, you'll get a really good one.

Keep working with that thought in mind, and the percentage of correct transitions will improve. Eventually, every time you ask your horse for a canter, he'll give you a pretty transition.