The Canter

The Canter Depart

Following the use of lateral exercises and transitions between the lower gaits, your horse’s resistances should have been resolved to the point that you can try a canter depart, which is an upward transition into the canter from the walk or trot. A basic way to make a horse take the correct lead is to turn its head toward the outside of the arena, then apply pressure with your outside leg in a behind-the-girth position. This causes the horse to strike with its inside foreleg in order to catch its balance. The easiest aids, then, for the canter depart when traveling counterclockwise are:

  • right indirect rein
  • left leg at the girth
  • right leg behind the girth

These aids are effective for getting the left lead, but they lack the subtlety that is desired for show riding. A horse that has its head turned toward the outside of the arena during the canter depart usually looks as though it is falling onto the lead. To avoid this unbalanced appearance, use the following, more sophisticated aids for the left lead:

  • left indirect rein
  • left leg at the girth
  • right leg behind the girth

Using this second set of aids, when you apply your right leg for the canter depart, the horse will not drift toward the inside of the arena, since the left indirect rein holds its shoulders toward the rail. When using either set of aids listed above, be careful not to let the horse gain speed and “run into the canter” from the trot. If it speeds up and becomes strung out, steady it to a slow, even trot, then ask for the canter.

A young horse or inexperienced rider will find it easier to pick up the canter from a slow sitting trot than from the walk. Once you have become proficient at the canter depart from the trot, attempt it directly from the walk, using the same aids as the second set listed above. The indirect rein should be applied only slightly, so that it does not noticeably turn the horse’s head toward the inside of the arena, but simply prevents the inside shoulder from bulging inward. The application of your outside leg should also be subtle, providing enough pressure to create the canter sequence, but not so much that the horse moves through the canter depart with its haunches thrust toward the inside of the ring. To prepare for the canter from the walk, collect your horse slightly. Collection accomplishes three things: (1) it increases the horse’s vertical thrust; (2) it shifts the horse’s center of gravity backward, lightening the forehand; and (3) it causes the horse’s feet to strike closer together. Just as it is easier for a human to lift a heavy object when he is holding it close to his body than when he has to reach outward and lift it, it is easier for the horse to lift three legs during the canter depart when they are positioned close to the lifting hind leg than when they are far from it.

When you apply your aids for the canter—an inside indirect rein followed by an outside leg behind the girth—the horse may react to the pressure from your leg by throwing its head upward, rather than staying in a frame. To counteract its tendency to escape upward during the transition, I have found it beneficial to place the horse’s nose lower than normal just prior to the canter depart, so that if the head rises a little too much, it will still be within an acceptable range. To position the nose lower, collect the horse and, two or three steps before the canter depart, squeeze a little harder with both legs and close your fingers, so that the horse puts more weight on the bit and tries to put its head down a little. When you feel that it is steadily on the bit with its head in a fairly low position, ask for the canter depart. As the horse lifts into the canter sequence, it will move its head upward into a normal head carriage, or, at worst, only slightly higher than desired.

Pace is an important consideration during and immediately following the transition into the canter. If you let your horse become too quick during the depart, either by running into the canter from the trot or by lunging into it from the walk, it will be much more difficult to prevent the animal from gaining speed at the canter than if you had controlled the pace more effectively during the upward transition. By imagining in advance the tempo you desire and concentrating on gradually building through the upward transition to that tempo, you can control the initial steps of the canter. If a horse disregards your effort to control the pace and runs into the canter, practice a series of closely scheduled downward and upward transitions, so that by isolating the problem, you can train your horse to perform the upward transition properly.

On a horse that has a serious problem with lurching into the canter, allow it to travel only six or eight cantering steps before asking it to perform a downward transition to the walk. Maintain the walk until the horse is calm and moving in a steady tempo, then attempt the transition into the canter again. On a horse that is a little quick or slightly heavy on the forehand during the upward transition, but does not have a major problem, allow more room between one transition and the other (fig. 2.24).

At a prolonged canter, you must rely on half-halts to deal with an excitable or heavy horse. If you have done your homework well, no matter how tense your horse gets, it will not ignore the half-halts completely. Force of habit works for you. When a horse has practiced downward transitions at every quarter of the ring, it is accustomed to collecting itself frequently during the canter. The horse may be stronger on the bit than you would like, but it is a rare occasion when the well-schooled horse suddenly turns into a runaway.

The exercise requiring four downward and upward transitions for every revolution of the ring is as useful for training dull horses as quick ones. While the goal on the quick horse is to teach submission during the downward transitions and a relaxed, steady pace during the upward transitions, the goal on the dull horse is to make the upward and downward transitions prompt. You begin by collecting your horse, then asking for the upward transition with your outside leg. If the horse does not willingly respond, punish it with the spur or stick on the same side as your initial leg aid, using only the degree of punishment necessary to make the horse canter promptly.

Just before you reach the end of the first quarter of the ring, use half-halts to perform a downward transition, supporting the sides of the horse with your legs to keep the hocks engaged, rather than letting the animal brake sharply in front and drop its hocks out behind. Establish a marching rhythm at the walk for a few steps, then collect your horse in preparation for the upcoming gait and ask again for a canter depart. Each time you ask for the upward transition, encourage the dull horse to be prompt by immediately using a spur or stick if it lags; but be careful not to apply the aids with more force than necessary, or the horse will soon develop the opposite problem of rushing through the canter depart. Designating certain points in the arena for the performance of specific movements allows you to test the effectiveness of your aids and teaches the horse obedience. If you never make restrictions for yourself during schooling, you may be very surprised and embarrassed to find out in the show ring that your flatwork is not accurate. It is better to address a given problem at home, where you have the time to solve it.

Schooling Exercises Performed at the Canter

Flying Change of Lead

The flying change of lead, in which the horse changes from one lead to another while maintaining the canter, is difficult for many riders because it requires excellent coordination of aids, a good feel for the horse’s balance and sequence of footfalls, and sensitivity to the animal’s emotional state. A good flying change that is smooth and accomplishes a total change of the sequence of footfalls, known as a “complete switch,” will occur only when the horse remains balanced approaching and during the change, when you apply your aids at the proper instant, and when the horse reacts willingly. The flying change should not be introduced until the horse can perform the following exercises well: upward and downward transitions between the walk and the canter, the shoulder-in at the trot, and the turn on the haunches.

Downward transitions prepare the horse to collect itself leading into the flying change; upward transitions prepare the horse to remain steady in its frame and tempo during and following the change of leads; the shoulder-in encourages collection of the haunches and lateral suppleness, which is especially important when the flying change of lead is performed between a bend in one direction and then another, as in the figure eight; and the turn on the haunches promotes control of the horse’s rear end, which is essential to the successful change of lead in the horse’s hind feet, as well as its front feet.

During the flying change, the horse switches the sequence of its footfalls in a moment of suspension following the placement of the leading leg. For example, if the horse changes from the right lead to the left lead, the moment of suspension follows the placement of the horse’s right forefoot. For a split second, all of the horse’s feet are off the ground, at which time you apply your aids, causing the horse to adjust the sequence of its footfalls so that its right hind leg begins the new sequence, rather than its left hind leg. Approaching the point at which the change occurs, the sequence of the horse’s feet is left hind, right hind and left fore together, then right fore. Leaving the point at which the change occurs, the sequence of the footfalls is right hind, left hind and right fore together, then left fore (figs. 2.25 A–C). It is easiest to teach the flying change on a half-turn.

Canter the horse down the long side of the arena on the inside lead, perform a half circle to the middle of the arena, then follow a diagonal line back to the rail, asking for the flying change just as the horse returns to the track. The oblique angle on the approach to the rail will help you, since it encourages the horse to collect itself slightly and to change leads in order to keep its balance. This does not mean that the horse will automatically change, for many animals are content to remain on the former lead (counter canter) or alter the sequence of feet in front, but not behind (cross canter). (Following an attempt to change from the left lead to the right lead, the cross canter sequence of the horse’s footfalls would be: right hind, left hind and left fore together, then right fore.)

You must apply your aids firmly, but not harshly, in order to make both an accurate and smooth flying change of lead. When changing from the left to the right lead, approach the change with your hands in a direct rein position, your left leg at the girth, and your right leg behind the girth. Both hands should be shifted slightly to the left so that the right rein acts as a neck rein, working in conjunction with the right leg to hold the horse on the left lead until the exact moment for the switch. Your right leg in a behind-the-girth position monitors the horse’s right hind leg, guaranteeing the maintenance of the correct sequence of footfalls. It is particularly important for you to keep the behind-the-girth position as you near the end of the half-turn. If you move your right leg forward too early, the horse may anticipate the upcoming lead and lean to the right, becoming unbalanced and jeopardizing its chance for a complete switch.

During the moment of suspension preceding the stride in which the horse returns to the track, move your left leg to a behind-the-girth position and squeeze firmly, asking the horse to place its left hind foot down next, rather than continue the former sequence by putting its right hind down. Simultaneously, move your right leg forward to an at-thegirth position and relax the pressure of your right hand, so that it will follow the rolling motion of the forehand as the animal changes to the right lead. Then, place your hands in a right indirect rein position to create the proper bend for the small curve around which the horse will travel as it meets the rail (fig. 2.26).

The flying change requires adjustment of your aids at a specific instant, which makes it one of the more difficult movements on the flat. However, I think the main reason riders have trouble with it is that they try to teach it to the horse in the context of jumping a course of fences. Especially with a young horse filled with uncertainty about jumping, the introduction of a flying change at the end of a line of fences is more than the animal can handle, both emotionally and physically. A rider who attempts to perform flying changes on course with a horse that is not well-schooled on the flat is like a driver who fills his tank with gas (upward transitions) and heads toward the freeway (the course of jumps) without testing the brakes (downward transitions) or steering (bending). Although some horses can be “thrown” onto the opposite lead by a rider shifting his upper-body weight that direction, most horses respond by changing the sequence of their front feet only. Even those that do change all four feet look unattractive, for they lean sharply to the inside of the turn as they try to catch their balance. It is worth it, then, to properly teach the horse to perform flying changes to both the left and right before it must do them on a course. This not only means applying the aids at the proper place and time, but also making sure the animal is traveling in a balanced frame as it approaches the place at which the change should occur. A horse that is too heavy on its forehand, lacking support from its hocks, will not have enough elevation during the moment of suspension to allow all of the feet to change sequence.

The flying change of lead is discussed several times in this book. In chapter 3, information is provided about the flying change during the figure eight on the flat (Test 13), during a test of lead changes on a line (Test 15), and as part of jumping obstacles on a figure-eight course (Test 7). Suggestions for teaching a difficult horse to perform flying changes at the end of a line of fences are offered in chapter 6 under the topic Horse Problems.

Counter Canter

The counter canter is required of all competitors being considered for an award in the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Class and may be used to test riders in other upperlevel equitation classes. Specific information about the execution of this movement is in USEF Test 17 in chapter 3.

Modified Pirouette

The pirouette is a turn on the haunches at the canter. When it is performed in dressage competitions, the horse’s pivotal foot should fall in exactly the same spot each time, or ever so slightly in front of that spot. This movement is unneccesarily restrictive for training equitation horses and jumpers and for this reason is modified so that the turning radius of the pivotal foot can be as much as 15 feet. Technically, this is no longer a pirouette, but should be called a modified pirouette. As in the turn on the haunches to the left, the aids for the modified pirouette to the left are:

  • left indirect rein
  • left leg at the girth
  • right leg behind the girth

The modified pirouette is preceded by a series of halfhalts to shorten the stride of the horse and shift its center of gravity backward. As you begin the turn, look toward the direction in which you are turning and keep your shoulders back and hands up. You want as much lightness in the horse’s front end as possible, for the lighter the forehand, the more precise the turn will be (figs. 2.27 A–F).If you can perform the turn on the haunches well at the walk, then the modified pirouette at the canter will not be very difficult for you to learn. This movement is extremely beneficial for jumpers, providing excellent preparation for classes with tight turns. Although the modified pirouette is useful in training an equitation horse, I am reluctant to suggest that a rider use it when warming up before most equitation classes, since a horse’s temperament usually gets keener and its stride shorter when it is required to perform abrupt turns. However, if I feel that a turn required in an equitation class is so tight that the horse might overshoot it without special preparation just prior to going into the ring, then I would use the modified pirouette in warm-up. Basically, you should try to prepare the horse with the more strenuous exercises at home, so that you can ease off a little at the show and have the ideal combination of accuracy and relaxation in the horse’s performance.