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Smooth canter depart

From: PJ

Sometimes I have trouble getting a smooth transition from a trot into a canter. I'll think I have him collected but when I use outside leg and rein, he'll go into a faster trot instead. I seem to have better luck going into a canter from a walk! What could I be doing wrong?

Hi PJ! It sounds as though there may be several things happening here, so let's just run through the most common possibilities. First, when you say that he feels collected but your canter aids just make him trot faster -- guess what? If he's truly on the aids, your canter aids should get (a) a canter, or (b) if he doesn't understand that you want a canter, he should offer you a longer stride at the trot, not a faster trot.

You already know that going from trot to canter doesn't mean going faster, it just means changing to a different sequence of footfalls. Now let's figure out how to make that clear to your horse.

If your horse is trotting in balance and with impulsion (CONTROLLED forward movement, not SPEED), he can take the canter easily. If he is on the forehand and inverted (topline dropped instead of lifted, and hind legs not coming up underneath his body), he will find it almost impossible to reach far enough under himself to canter. He will trot faster and faster, and eventually fall into a canter, but it won't be the canter you wanted -- a horse can't go into a nice balanced canter from an unbalanced trot. He can go into a horrible, long, strung-out, four-beat canter -- which you don't want in any case.

When your horse speeds up, he's telling you that he isn't balanced enough to go into a canter, either because he isn't sufficiently balanced at the trot, or because he loses his balance during the transition -- or because he honestly thought that you WANTED him to speed up!

If he isn't balanced during the trot, help him by doing a lot of transitions from walk to trot and back again, and transitions within the gait: from shortened trot to normal trot to lengthened trot and back again. All of this will keep him attentive and more balanced, and will make the trot-canter transition easier for him.

If it's the transition itself that's the problem, it's interesting that he takes the canter more easily from the walk. That generally indicates that the rider is in a better position to ask for and get the transition when the horse is walking. This makes sense, actually -- your walk and canter position are similar: upright, seat in the saddle, hips moving with the horse, arms following the movement of the horse's head and neck. It's very natural for a horse at the walk to move into the canter -- the rider doesn't have to change anything about her position.

At the trot, on the other hand -- are you doing rising or sitting trot? you didn't say! -- the rider is holding back and arms steady and either lifting forward out of the saddle (rising) or pushing down (sitting) at each stride. Either way, it takes a little more to let the horse know that you want a canter.

I'm assuming that you are doing rising trot -- the first thing you will need to do, after balancing your trot, will be to SIT the last few strides before you ask for the canter. That's because before you ask for the canter, you have to begin to RIDE the canter: sit deep into your saddle, straighten your shoulders, lengthen your legs, and half-halt. Squeeze with both legs, and when you feel the horse step more deeply under himself (NOT fall on the forehand!), squeeze your fingers and then relax your fingers again. Repeat as necessary -- never PROLONG a half-halt, just repeat it.

When you feel that your horse has become more balanced (the purpose of a half- halt, after all!), half-halt again, but this time, after you squeeze your fingers, relax only the inside hand -- and at the same time, bring back your outside leg to ask your horse to strike off into canter. Keep your eyes UP, looking ahead of you, and as your horse begins to canter, GIVE softly with that inside rein. You aren't going to drop him on his nose or throw the rein away, but horses use their heads and necks to balance themselves at the canter, just as they do at the walk, and you must be ready to follow his movements.

Don't allow yourself to lean forward as you ask -- that simply asks the horse to keep trotting and go more onto his forehand, and negates the effect of your half- halts. Stay perpendicular to the horse and ask him to jump into canter from your aids.

If he doesn't canter immediately, don't lean forward -- stay perpendicular to him, repeat your half-halts, regroup, and ask again. And when he does it, even if he doesn't take the correct lead, praise him and let him canter at least ten strides or so. It's important for him to understand that you DID want a canter and he WAS a good horse -- if you bring him back to a trot too quickly, he may think that he was mistaken and you didn't want a canter after all.

Once he is cantering, run down your mental checklist:

inside leg at the girth? outside leg just behind the girth to keep the hindquarters from falling to the outside? body quiet -- hips and seat following but NOT pumping? inside hand asking for just enough bend for you to see his inside eyelashes -- NOT his whole eye or his forehead? inside shoulder back so that his shoulders and yours are parallel? are your contact, rhythm, and balance appropriate to the gait and to the figure (straight line? circle?) you're working him on?

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