The problem I see most often in the canter departure is that horses brace and scoot forward in a rushy or medium trot instead of picking up the canter. Once this happens a few times in a row, it becomes a sort of learned behavior and it can be difficult to break the cycle as both horse and rider lose confidence. To prevent this problem, it is important to remember that preparation is the key to success. Sometimes horses don’t react the way we want because we’ve taken them by surprise. Before attempting to canter, it’s important to check the following preconditions: is my horse through (going forward off the leg and yielding to the hand)? is my horse straight? is my horse properly bent and balanced? When these conditions are met, I think about whether my horse is energized enough to want to canter – maybe I need to wake it up a bit with a couple tickles of the spur or whip. When there is enough energy that I can “compress” it with a couple of collecting half-halts, then asking for the canter becomes a form of release. To turn it into a formula, here’s a mental model of how I would set a horse up for canter: check preconditions, energize if needed, re-check preconditions, half-halt (stride one), half-halt (stride two), slide leg back and cue (stride three), release and canter (stride four). It is very important to remember to release after every half-halt, so that the horse does not brace against the reins.

Some horses develop a tendency to anticipate the canter, and those horses either don’t wait for the aid, or they leap into the canter too quickly when it comes. I find that with such horses it helps to desensitize them to the preparatory aids, so that they learn to wait for the actual cue. This involves applying the preparatory aids and then not asking for canter. If you’re asking from the rising trot and using the three sitting beats to ask for the canter (as described in the previous post), try doing a rising trot circle, occasionally sitting three beats and then resuming rising trot. Only when the horse stops anticipating do you actually ask for canter – or don’t canter at all, just move on to another exercise. It can also be helpful to slide the outside leg back without asking for canter – if the horse thinks that starting to slide the leg back is the cue itself, it needs to learn that this is just the preparation. This takes several repetitions of lightly sliding the outside leg back – perhaps not even very much at first – and holding it there without squeezing for a couple strides while using half-halts to regulate the trot. Then moving the leg forward again without cantering, or perhaps giving the impulse after a couple strides to cue the horse into the canter. Generally, mixing up where and when you ask for the canter, and diverting the horse’s attention into new exercises helps to prevent it from fixating on the canter.

Picking up the wrong lead is an issue with many causes, but timing and balance are at the root of most of them. The three beat timing from rising trot that I describe in the previous post can be very helpful in finding the correct timing, and can transfer to sitting trot as well. Location of the canter departure is also key in getting the correct lead. Young horses and less advanced riders should always pick up the canter as they are going into or coming through a corner – this will help the horse to intuitively pick the correct lead. An exercise that often helps get the horse into the correct balance is to spiral in on the circle, then leg-yield out to the larger circle, asking for canter just as the horse is getting to the big circle.

Sometimes I see horses brace and suck back in the canter transition, losing impulsion and often using their necks to help lift them into the canter instead of coming through behind. Weakness or soreness in the back and hindquarters is one cause that should be eliminated. However, a bracing rider is often the cause. Squeezing too hard or too long with the calf can be enough to shut some horses down, as can tightening the inner thigh and locking in the pelvis. Often these come in conjunction with bracing on the rein, so it important to find ways to give a clear release until the rider can balance without gripping. Making sure that there is sufficient impulsion before and right after the transition is also vital.