Do you have more trouble with your canter transition than any other? You’re not alone. Whatever your level the canter transition is likely to throw up a regular problem. The incorrect lead.
Canter is different to walk and trot in that it has a left and a right. Therefore it has a right and a wrong. The problem stems from the transition. How would you describe the aids to canter? Outside leg back, inside leg on? Correct, of course, but it doesn’t differentiate between the two sides.
Start thinking of left and right canter as two separate paces. Forget about insides and outsides. On a straight line they’re of no benefit to anyone anyway. Your horse has to understand that if your left leg goes back you’re asking him to start cantering with his left hind. BUT until you put your other leg on he shouldn’t strike off.
Swinging a leg back and kicking on isn’t a clear aid. It just says canter. It gives you a 50/50 chance of a correct lead. Increase the odds. Try this-
Ask for canter on the centre line. It will have an instant effect on your horse’s concentration. With no obvious idea of what you’re going to ask him he’ll have to give you his complete attention.
This exercise is about clarifying the canter aids not making life difficult. As your horse improves you can complicate things but to start with keep it simple. For right canter turn onto the centre line in trot from the right rein. This helps because your horse is already thinking that way. Your aim is to ask for canter at X.
Treat this transition as you would a transition from walk to trot. Don’t start fussing with your reins, trying to bend your horse to the inside. If he understands your leg aids for canter he’ll know which leg to take. It really is that simple. You just have to stay calm and make your aids clear and easy for him to understand.
Fiddling with your horse’s mouth is a guaranteed way of creating tension in his back. It also fills his head with unnecessary information. Keep your hands still and give him the space and time he needs to understand what you’re telling him.
For the purpose of this explanation assume you’re asking for right canter. Turn onto the centre line and get your horse straight. Then move your left leg back. This warns him that canter is coming and that you want him to start off with his left hind.
When you get to X use a nudge with your inside leg to tell your horse to strike off. He should respond. If not back your leg up with your whip. (He may be surprised to feel you ask for canter on the centre line but there’s no reason for him to directly ignore your aid. If he ignored you in the usual corner you wouldn’t question a tap with the whip. Don’t doubt it now.)
As your horse strikes off be quick to check your lead. This isn’t an exercise to practice until you can see or feel it within a couple of strides. If he’s correct then continue in canter to the end and maintain the canter for the turn. Tight turns aren’t a problem to him if you sit up and ride forward to help him stay balanced on his hocks.
Wrong lead? Trot immediately. He must understand that you asked for a specific canter not either or. Stay calm and ask for right canter as you turn at the bottom. If he gets it correct be quick to praise him with your voice. If he’s incorrect again ride a 20m circle and practice two or three times until he understands.
If your horse is prone to striking off incorrectly this is a great exercise to use. Incorrect leads are caused more often by riders trying too hard. When it’s an established problem you’ll see riders leaning over the inside shoulder, swinging one leg so far back it almost knocks their horse on his hip or pulling their horse’s head too far to the inside. Do any of these things on the centre line and you’ll find yourself going anywhere other than straight!
Canter transition are as much about your discipline as your horse’s response. Keep your aids simple and clear. Have a separate set of aids for left and right and your horse will soon understand them. Cloud these aids in any way by throwing your body forward or pulling his head to one side and he’s bound to strike off incorrectly.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.