Stop Struggling with Canter Departs

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Cantering in balance on the correct lead requires much more finesse than just squeezing the horse's ribs and asking for more speed. First, the rider uses a sequence of aids that prepares the horse physically to canter on a particular lead. Then the rider applies the aids that ask 'canter now.'

The rider prepares the horse for the canter effort by:

  • riding the horse forward with energy,
  • slightly positioning the horse with a soft inside rein in order to connect the forward-moving horse into the outside rein, and
  • using a half halt on the outside rein that balances the horse and sets the outside hind leg on the ground to carry the horse's weight in the first step of the canter depart.

With the horse prepared to physically start cantering, the rider now applies the canter aids as the horse's outside hind foot is about to hit the ground by:

  • sitting a little heavier on the inside seat bone,
  • squeezing with the inside leg at the girth and
  • the outside leg just behind the girth.

When all of these aids are properly sequenced and timed, the horse transitions into the correct canter lead as his outside hind foot contacts the ground.

A trained horse and experienced rider make the canter transition look as simple as changing gears in a car with automatic transmission. The reality is that coordinating canter aids involves the timing of more moves than driving a stick shift car. Canter problems vary incredibly from rider to rider and from horse to horse. Riders and horses have so many different temperaments and different physical issues that generalizing is difficult. However, I see a few common problems over and over.

Connection on the outside rein

Lack of preparation spoils many canter departs. The half halt on the outside rein is key because it helps to set the outside hind leg onto the ground which is the first step to the inside lead. The outside rein becomes even more important when asking the horse for flying changes of lead as his training advances. It helps to balance, straighten and set the outside hind leg for a clean change.

It helps if the rider thinks of shaping a 20-meter circle just before asking for the depart. This puts the horse on the outside rein and positions the horse correctly for the half halt. As a green horse learns canter departs first from trot and then from walk, asking for a few steps of leg yield first can help the horse engage his hindquarters and prepare for the effort. Ask for the canter depart just before the outside hind contacts the ground, since it is the first step of the canter.

Riding a more advanced horse into the canter from shoulder in can help achieve engagement of the hind end, which can improve walk to canter departs. Be careful however, a shoulder in ridden with too much bend in the neck can actually make the horse get crooked, lose his balance, and take the wrong lead.

Rhythm and forward energy

Without forward energy, the horse has no 'gas' to propel him into a gait that calls for greater physical effort than the walk or trot. Forward does not mean speed. The horse should not 'run' into the canter. Green horses often rush or speed up instead of changing gaits. They may not understand the canter aids, the aids may be timed or applied incorrectly, or the horse may need more hindquarter strength. As the young horse develops the understanding for the canter aids, the rider can redirect the running into a canter depart with a half-halt.

Some riders inadvertently ask their horse to speed up by leaning back, getting behind the motion and pushing with their seat or by falling forward and taking their seat out of the saddle. These riders need to work on staying centered over the horse while asking for the canter.

The idea of 'lifting' the horse's barrel with the inside leg at the girth and the outside leg behind the girth helps the horse realize the difference between asking for trot and asking for canter. The rider stretches the leg down along the horse's barrel then 'lifts' with the lower part of the leg as the horse's back rounds and lifts. Stretching the leg down helps the rider sit deep in the saddle and not fall forward or back with the upper body. 'Lifting' into the canter also helps the rider transition into the lifting and lowering motion of the canter.

The opposite of speeding up is 'popping up' off the forehand. Depending on the horse, this may be an evasion, it may indicate that the horse was not in front of the rider's leg enough before the request for the depart or it may mean the rider is doing something that blocks the horse's forward motion, like balancing on the reins or tipping forward.

Balance

If the rider tips forward or leans to the inside, the horse invariably leans to the inside as well, loses its balance, and may take the wrong lead. In mirroring the rider, the horse is unable to shift his weight onto his outside hind leg as he takes the first step of the canter stride. He is off balance both longitudinally and laterally with more weight on his inside legs.

Riding a leg yield or shoulder fore into the depart can help these riders get both the correct body position and the feel for the outside rein that will help them strike off on the correct lead.

Incorrect aids

Beginning riders often block their horses until they learn to balance over the center of the horse and are able to apply their aids independently. If the rider's hips lock or the rider grips with the thighs, they restrict the horse's forward movement. The reaction to this may range from a draft horse that uses it as an excuse to stop to the sensitive Thoroughbred who runs away from the gripping. Clamping with the legs or bracing against the stirrups also restricts the horse. Stiff elbows that do not 'give' forward as the horse strikes off can block the horse's forward momentum or cause the horse to 'pop' into the canter awkwardly or not canter at all.

Many riders inadvertently draw their inside leg up when they apply it. When the calf or thigh muscles of the inside leg tighten they push the rider's weight from the inside to the outside seat bone causing the horse to take the wrong lead. Gripping with both thighs or tipping forward lifts both of the rider's seat bones off the saddle. If you are gripping, think of being bow legged and taking your thigh away from the saddle when you stretch down your leg and lift with your calf.

Timing the aids

Some riders have difficulty understanding just when to apply the corridor of canter aids. Since the outside hind leg (say, left leg) is the first step to the inside (then right) lead, the aids should be applied as the outside hind leg is off the ground or the inside hind leg is on the ground. At trot, this is when the outside shoulder is forward since the trot is diagonal pairs. At walk, this is when the barrel of the horse is to the outside. If you are driving the horse forward with alternating leg aids at the walk, this should be easy to find. As the horse's barrel swings to the outside, the inside hind leg will be on the ground and the outside leg will be off the ground ready to swing under the horse and start the first step of the canter.

Take time and do not rush as you practice canter departs. Practice preparing the horse physically. Practice feeling where the horse's feet and body are beneath you. Practice positioning your legs and upper body for the asking aids. Then put the sequence all together for a smooth change of gears. What a ride!


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