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Get the Canter You Want

The key to control at the canter begins at the walk and trot. John can ask Charlie to give his nose and move his hips to the inside of the track with light rein pressure.

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.

When John asks Charlie to step into a canter, all the stars are in alignment. Charlie is soft to the rein, balanced and ready to push off with his outside hind leg. This is exactly the picture you want to work toward.

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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