Not infrequently, I find that riders (and horses) have difficulty getting into the canter, which can become a matter of anxiety for both partners. I want to talk about how to develop a clear language with the horse to get a clean canter departure. In my next post I will also discuss a few of the common problems I see in canter transitions, and how to fix them.

First of all, riders need to be clear in their own minds that they are 100% committed to going into the canter. Many horses will choose to opt out of cantering the moment riders start to question whether they will get what they ask for, or whether they really want to canter, or are vague about when they want to canter. Fear can absolutely play a role in this, which is a whole can of worms by itself, but a couple techniques that can help are “pretending to be brave” and visualization. In “pretending to be brave” fearful riders need to think of themselves as actors taking on the physical manifestations of bravery, boldness, and nonchalance that they wish to feel: throw the shoulders back, look ahead with intention, give the horse a casual reassuring pat. In visualization, riders can prepare before and/or during a ride by making detailed mental recreations of ideal canter transitions, thinking about how they prepare their horse, the timing of the aid, and how it feels when the horse responds right on cue. It is also always important to think past the transition – many times I see a rider so focused on getting the transition right that the horse almost does it and then drops back into the trot because the rider was not thinking ahead.

On the mechanical side of things, there are ways to make it easier for the horse to pick up the canter with ease. As my trainer, Hans Riegler, has pointed out, a horse can be trained to pick up the canter off of any aid with enough perseverance – for example, you could train it to canter when you tap its right ear! But certain aids are more intuitive to the horse than others. Most techniques across disciplines employ putting the outside leg back as at least part of the canter aid because this speaks most directly to the outside hind leg of the horse, which should initiate the canter. The way I train horses and riders is to slide the outside leg back and then give an impulse with the calf to tell the horse “now.” Sliding the leg is the preparation and the impulse is the cue. It is important to note that sliding does not mean squeezing, and the impulse is brief. I try to establish a clear rhythm to the preparation and cue, so that the horse always knows how one follows the other. I find that the sliding phase gives the horse a chance to think about what it needs to do to get its feet in the right place, and it gives the rider a chance to feel when the right moment to give the cue might be. All together, the preparation and cue should be completed within a step or two of the horse.

The question of timing is one that comes up over and over, and is difficult to answer because it is somewhat different for each horse. Some horses respond very quickly to cues, while others seem to need more time. In general, I find that the cue needs to come at around the time the outside hind leg is on the ground in the trot, so that the horse can use the next step to reach under and begin the canter. A little exercise to teach this timing can be done from the rising trot. From the correct diagonal, the rider needs to sit three beats. In these three beats, the first is the preparation (sliding the leg back), the second is the cue (impulse), and the third is the canter. Not only does this help the rider develop a systematic approach to timing the aids, but it can help a young horse pick up the correct lead when it is just learning to canter. This does mean that the horse needs to react fairly promptly to the leg, and it can help to supplement with a voice cue at first if the horse has learned that on the lunge line. It is also important to prepare the horse with half-halts a few strides in advance of the cue so that the horse is balanced and alert for the change in gait.