When you ask your horse for a canter to trot transition does he tip his head up? Tuck his chin into his chest? Poke his nose? Tank off? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why?
The easy answer is because he’s resisting your hand but surely there’s more to it than that? Why does he choose to resist your contact at that particular time? Could it be the instant you think about trotting you stop riding?
Riders have an uncanny knack of taking their legs off at the very moment they need them! You may be trying to stop your horse rushing off into trot by sitting as still as possible but that’s exactly why he can. Keep your body moving through your transitions and you’ll find his will too.
Establish canter on a 20m circle at E/B. It’s the best place to use as your horse won’t have the fence to guide him and you won’t be able to rely on it. Avoid using unnecessary aids and turn your body in line with the curve you want him to follow. He’ll copy what you do with your body. When his shoulders and hips are turned to the inside his body will bend round the circle.
Stay in canter for at least three circles. Think of the number of circles you’d do in trot without thinking and start to use your canter in the same way. It’s just a pace. Use it as such and you’ll find problems with transitions disappear as your horse starts to think canter is (depending on his temperament) less exciting or less exhausting.
The trick to this exercise is positive riding – and thinking. You have to believe your horse can do it. He can, of course, as long as you ride him forward – which is exactly what you haven’t been doing before. Your position is vital to keep his weight back on his hocks. Pull up through your body to get yourself as balanced as possible.
When your canter is settled the idea is to ask for trot as you cross the ¼ line (still on the 20m circle) and whatever happens change the rein onto a 10m circle as you cross the centre line. Sound impossible? It isn’t if you get your legs on! With a young horse just make the circle slightly bigger but keep the change of rein in.
Ask your horse to trot by closing your fingers around both reins to create a restrictive contact. Think of yourself as a clothes peg and press into the saddle with your thighs and knees to restrict his shoulder muscles. (Check this out to see how http://schoolyourhorse.blogspot.com/2010/12/other-way-of-stopping.html ) As you feel him trot hold the pressure until you’re happy with the speed. Releasing him too quickly allows him to rush, making him unbalanced, which is why he tightens his back, lifts his head or pokes his nose and tanks.
Never take your lower leg off because you’re slowing down. Push harder to keep your horse’s hocks under his body. When he steps under his body with his hind legs he stretches his back muscles (so he can’t tense or hollow) and he’s in a much better position to stay balanced.
As you approach the centre line be quick to turn your body towards the new rein. Turn your head so you’re looking at least half a circle ahead. Your horse will pick up this change in your body and copy you. Keep your contact even in both hands. But DON’T lift your inside hand! Do that and it won’t stop him falling in on the circle – it will only make him tip his nose to the inside. Support him with a strong inside leg and draw him away from the 20m circle with your outside leg.
Using a small circle to steady a horse isn’t a new idea but it can make matters worse if it’s on the same rein. Riders often get hung up on the inside bend and unwittingly start to draw their inside hand back - especially in canter. That draws their hand towards their hip and they curl their body to the inside. Their horse does the same.
If you’ve got this problem turning onto a small circle on the same rein just accentuates it. The smaller the circle the tighter you both curl up. This puts your horse out of balance and he’ll get faster and faster. (This is why when your instructor tells you to sit up it works. You sit up and straighten out your body and your horse instantly relaxes his.)
The change of rein stops horse or rider fixing on the inside simply because the inside suddenly becomes the outside. Even if you should make a grab for the new inside rein you’ll just balance out the pressure and your horse will go straight – and be balanced.
Ride the 10m circle for as long as it takes to settle your horse. The first few are likely to come as a bit of a shock to you both but he’ll settle quicker the more you do. In time you’ll be able to ride one circle and rejoin the 20m circle immediately. Ask for canter again and ride at least three circles before repeating.
With a more advanced horse you can move this exercise to the centre line. Canter down the centre line, trot after D/G and change the rein onto a 10m circle at X. Rejoin the centre line and ask for canter before the turn at the end. Put your horse to the test by varying the lead you ask for.
Having to ride the instant change of rein will really make you realise how little you usually do as you trot. This exercise is all about your faults not your horse’s. It’s one thing admitting that his problems are caused by you but how often do you really try to find out why?
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.