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Canter Departures From the Walk

Transitions between gaits are more difficult for a horse to preform as it takes strength and coordination, as well as a good understanding of your aids. This lesson allows your horse to become more adjustable and collected, adding to his repertoire of cues as well as preparing him for events where this exercise is asked for, such as hunter under saddle classes and dressage tests.

What You Need to Know

In preparation for walk to canter transitions, your horse should move into the canter from a trot easily while getting the correct lead each time, be able to be ridden in a collected frame at all three gaits, move the hindquarters both directions at a halt, and preform haunches in.  If your horse does not know any of the exercises described above or if he needs a little more practice to build strength, start teaching him the transition from the ground. Asking for a walk to canter transition on the lunge line is a great place to start teaching this lesson. When your horse already knows how to lunge, ask him to go straight into a canter from a walk by saying ‘canter’, kissing, then lifting your whip, and swinging the whip toward the horse’s hindquarters progressively getting closer (I smack the ground three time before touching the horse with the whip), then tapping him on the top of the hindquarters until he canters. Release your cues as soon as the horse canters. If the horse gets the wrong, outside lead, bend your horse to a stop using your lead rope until he transitions back down to a trot then ask again. Soon your horse will pick up the correct lead and make a nice transition. This groundwork will directly translate to the work you will be doing under saddle.

Take the Reins

haunches in 2
Here I am exaggerating moving Finnis’s hip to the inside. Preparing him for a left lead canter departure.

In the beginning, ask for transitions only on the rail as it keeps your horse straight and gives you a visual aid. The cues to transition into a canter from a walk are: to first collect the horse up by applying soft leg pressure to keep your horse going forward, then shortening and taking the slack out of your reins so you have a soft contact with your horse’s mouth. This causes your horse to lower his neck and tuck his chin toward his chest. Next, push his hip over to the left by sliding your right leg back behind the girth and pressing gently until he moves his hip to the inside. Then, squeeze with your inside left leg and kiss to him to ask him to transition into the canter. Sit back when making a lead departure. Do not lean forward, left, or right to see the lead. You must learn to feel the lead instead. Reverse the aids for a walk to canter transition to the right.

Lightness and Corrections

Most horses will want to bring their heads up when getting into a canter, as this is a natural body position for them. Allow your horse to raise his head the first few times but after he understands the aids start asking for him to stay in a frame. Don’t let him pull on the bridle when transitioning into the canter. If he is pulling on you, make him feel uncomfortable by holding pressure on his mouth or bumping the bit and releasing when he lowers his head and you feel lightness in the reins. When the horse is light you will be light.

When a horse anticipates the transition, you know you have been asking for the same thing too many times in a row. Set up his body in the shape to canter and when he is soft let him walk instead. You may have to put his body into the shape a few times and not canter off to keep him guessing. Mixing up going into a canter or just asking him to move his hip over will keep him from anticipating every transition.

Don’t worry too much if your horse takes a few trot steps as he gets into a canter. As the horse gets stronger in his transitions he will trot less and learn to keep his head down. If the horse chronically trots into a departure, use stronger leg cues reinforced by a tap of the whip behind your outside leg if needed.

The horse may not take the correct lead if you are leaning forward during the transition, or looking down for your lead. If you have this habit, think of sitting on the back of your pockets and sending your horse forward in front of you. Have someone lunge you so you can practice your position in the saddle without having to steer. Also, recording yourself while riding will point out any flaws in your position that you may not otherwise have noticed.

A Few Exercises to Try:

  • Changing which lead you ask for on a straight line. When asking for a counter lead make sure you have enough room between your horse and the rail. Although you are technically asking for a counter canter, since you are traveling on a straight line your horse will not find this harder than the inside lead.
  • Canter a few strides, then bring him back to a walk, then canter again. Continue varying how many strides of canter and walk you ask for between transitions.
  • Walk straight, then shape him for the transition, once he is soft ask for a straight walk again.
  • Start asking for transitions off of the rail only when they are easily done on the rail. When working off the fence, use a focal point in the distance to keep you straight during the transition.




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