You have spent the past few months diligently improving your young horse’s standard of education in terms of the basics of moving forward in a balanced rhythmic way. He is happy, you are happy and the next natural progression is to ask for the canter. However it seems all those carefully cultivated hours in the arena fly out the door as soon as you ask for the upward transition.
Your horse begins running on his forehand, each trot stride becoming longer and faster… He eventually breaks into a canter of sorts, but nothing like what you imagined it to be! Unbalanced, uncoordinated and no rhythm whatsoever!
Often it seems that no matter how much preparation we put into preparing our young horse for his first departure from trot into canter, the canter falls a little flat and well below our expectations. But rather than becoming frustrated and demoralized with your horses apparent lack of understanding, see this as being the next step of the ladder with regards to your horse’s education and one that if he graduates from, will see him in a great position to really begin working from.
Just like when you first began riding your young horse in walk and trot, your horse is going to feel very unbalanced and unsure of himself when you do ask for the canter when in the saddle. This is due to the canter having a three timed beat which depends on your horses outside back leg starting and propelling the rest of his footfalls and body forward in each stride. In the trot, it is far easier to remain in balance due to the effect the diagonals have on balancing him with each stride, but the canter is almost slightly one-sided and extra strength and development is required of you horse in order to really ‘power’ into and then remain balanced through each stride.
As with most things concerning riding, the preparation that leads up to the transition will have a massive outcome on the success of the transition itself
See the trot as now being the foundation for setting up the canter. Not only from a rhythm and balance point of view but also with regards to developing strength through his body. Use your half halts in the trot to begin asking for his hind legs to engage a little more, if only for a stride or two each time, so he can begin building the muscles necessary for a good canter later.
When you feel that you have prepared the trot enough, you can start thinking about the canter transition itself. It is tempting to ‘push’ your horse into the canter at first, using your upper body in particular, however throwing your upper body forward will only serve to unbalance him even further. Rather think of sitting up, asking with the correct aids and, most importantly, your voice and seat and then allowing him to break into the canter himself.
He may run for the first few strides of trot before then almost falling into the canter, but this is to be expected initially. Your job is to remain balanced and ‘quiet’ throughout, so as to build his confidence in his ability to move into the canter under the saddle.
Make sure you follow through your body and also your hands and arms. Catching him in the mouth or bouncing on his back, particularly in the first few transitions, will only serve to punish him and associate the canter with anxiety and tension
Once he has actually transitioned into the canter, remain quiet but keep him moving forward. Very often with a young horse, the canter may be a little ‘fast’ at first if forwardness is to be maintained. This, again, is to be expected and rather allow him this, so he can begin to settle into this new gait and find his balance and rhythm himself.
The canter requires quite a bit more effort from him than the trot, so he will probably tire quickly. Try to ask for the downward transition into trot before he naturally breaks into trot himself. You will usually feel the lack of energy in the canter, it will seem to become more strung out, rather than bounding forward. Again, make sure you are balanced and quiet through the transition, using your voice and seat first.
As soon as he has come back into trot begin work on reestablishing a balanced rhythmic trot. It may take quite a few strides initially, particularly after the first few canter to trot transitions, but keep in mind that working forward in a balanced and rhythmic trot is something that your young horse knows how to do, so insist on it.
Working in and out of the canter initially is a great way to begin developing your young horse for more prolonged and balanced canters. Be sure that the trot is balanced and working before asking for the canter again each time. Also, try to be consistent and regular with your aids both into the canter, while cantering and then back into the trot..
Over time, your horse will begin to strengthen up and carry himself for longer periods, in a more balanced and rhythmic canter. Depending on how mature your horse is or how much time you have spent working on the more foundational aspects of his schooling, will factor in on how quickly he progresses, both physically and mentally
Continue to use the walk, trot and halt to reinforce the aids and responsiveness. Only when he has truly mastered the canter for longer periods can you then begin thinking about making adjustments within the canter itself. Initially you will only ask for short canter periods each time, perhaps 5 or 6 strides of a better quality canter rather than laps of ‘racing’ and running around the arena, which will only serve to teach him how to incorrectly maintain the canter when being ridden.
Then slowly you can begin to apply the half halt in the canter itself, so to shorten the canter strides. Remember that forwardness is the foundation to all his gaits, so make sure that you keep him moving actively and with energy regardless of what you are asking.
Schooling your young horse in the canter takes time and consistency, however all the initial investment will pay off handsomely when your horse is able to maintain a balanced, forward moving canter from which you can begin to make adjustments to.
I have also written a blog post on exercises for starting your young horse with over HERE >>
Are you looking for step by step instructions to listen to as you ride your young horse? I have created 5 audio horse riding programs specifically focusing on this topic. To find out how you can get these lessons (and hundreds more) visit https://stridesforsuccess.com/join/
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