Tips for Teaching 3 Common Canter Transition Mistakes Beginners Make


Personally, it drives me nuts to see beginners struggling with canter transitions.  The kiss of death is when the horse winds up in a fast trot around the ring. It can be tricky to explain the canter transition to beginners, so it’s important to figure out what the obstacle is before things spiral out of control. Recognizing the nuances and drumming up creative solutions will help beginner riders meet their goals.   

Some common problems are fear, a lousy sitting trot, and a misunderstanding of impulsion. More often than not, backing away from the “Big C” to fill in the gaps goes a long way. Here are three common scenarios that get in the way of cantering and some solutions.  

The Fearful Non-Start

What it looks like:  The rider is looking down at the ground, squeezing as hard as they can while pulling on the reins.  Often there is someone is at the gate cheering them on (and filming). 

What’s going on: Don’t be fooled: they aren’t really squeezing but rather holding on for dear life with their legs.  Unfortunately, rare is the beast who is will canter with a forward-leaning, off-balanced rider who is also hanging on their mouth. This person might be unable to admit that they are scared, because they don’t want to disappoint their trainer or parent. 

Solution:  Typically fear issues melt away as the muscles pile on.  Find other ways to challenge this rider at the trot with no stirrups work, then teach them how to get a downward transition without reins on the lunge-line. If they have an eager parent on the rail, encourage mom or dad to sign them up for an extra lesson here and there. That will keep building their strength and turn riding into a more routine activity rather than a big, weekly event. Keep this rider on the easier horses if at all possible.   

The Bouncy Ball

What it looks like:  Inverted horse arches his back to avoid the painful blows of your student jackhammering his back. Stirrups completely home, you see flashes of light between their leg and the saddle as they kick him every other step. It’s only a matter of time before they bounce right off.  

What’s going on: This rider has no seat.  

Solution: Drop their stirrups two holes and practice walk to sitting trot transitions. Insist that they keep stretching gently into the stirrups, but not so much that they’re getting rigid and popping themselves off of the saddle. Gradually bring the stirrups back up, one hole at a time.  

The Racing Trot

What it looks like:  A snowball rolling downhill.  You may recognize the whites of the horse’s eyes get bigger as he amazes himself transitioning from walk to trot to harness racer within the course of a lap.  The boldest of riders might use the crop and get the canter at this point, but you know it’s wrong.  

What’s going on: The rider can’t time the half halt.

Solution:  Forget cantering, this rider needs to practice walking! First, get them walking on a loose rein. Then teach them how to coil up the tension between their leg and hand until the horse gives them a bold, bouncy walk.  Make them hold the horse back from trotting but maintain the quality walk. Next, see if they can get the horse to halt every 1-2 steps for the course of a long side. This will give them a feel of the sensitive relationship between the gas and the brakes, as well as increase their chances of seeming like a genius by rocking the horse back on his haunches quite a bit.  Lastly, introduce the concept of the half-halt as “pumping the brakes” and you should be off to the (3-beat) races!  

Jenn Zala is a USHJA Certified Trainer.  She recently moved with her trusty school-master to Colorado Springs, Colorado.