The Canter Departure

I remember the first time I asked my horse to canter.  I did everything to make the transition happen…I leaned forward, kicked, kicked, kicked, and kicked some more.  I let the reins go, I bounced in my seat and used my voice asking my horse to move forward.  And then it happened…the canter.  The euphoric feeling of strength and power sent me into a rocking horse motion that just couldn’t be explained.  It was wonderful.  It was exhilarating.  It was a canter!

The canter departure doesn’t have to resemble the take-off of a rocket launch.  Aids should become invisible, making an onlooker think that your horse can read your mind.

So, exactly what is needed for an impressive canter transition and how are the aids refined to create a smooth, balance and upward transition?  The rider prepares the horse for the canter departure by:

  • Riding the horse forward with energy,
  • Slightly positioning the horse with a soft inside rein to connect the forward-moving horse into the outside rein.  The outside rein sits onto the horse's neck and prevents him from drifting to the outside.
  • Using the 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 departure.Do one or two half-halts before the transition.  Often the rider will throw everything away by lengthening the reins or taking their legs off the horse as they head into the canter gait change.  Keep your horse together.  Falling to the forehand and trotting faster before the canter always gurantees  a low-quality canter gait.  Although you horse will transition, he more than likely will be on the forehand, hollowing his back and braced in his neck and jaw.  Instead, as mentioned above,  half-halt your horse to balance his weight to the hind end and keep your legs on for impulsion.

Now, with the horse prepared to 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
  • The outside leg swings just behind the girth to ask for the first stride.  Remember that your outside leg initiates the lead.

When all of these aids are properly performed and timed, your horse will transition into the correct canter lead as his outside hind foot contacts the ground.  Now, just because your horse is cantering, this doesn’t mean you should stop riding!  Half halt, once, twice in the rhythm of the canter.  This will help your horse stay together after the canter transition controlling his energy.  Your seat should allow for the movement of your horse and now it's your job not to let your upper body fall forward, backward or sideways while your seat follows the canter.

It may seem that there are just so many steps that must come together within a few seconds to ensure a proper canter transition, but rest assured, it will eventually be so seamlessly that the canter departure just becomes a quick thought, a thought that is communicated to your horse in an epic and seemingly mind-reading fashion.

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