Trainer Tuesday: How do you help a horse and rider that struggle with canter departures?

Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: How do you help a horse and rider that struggle with canter departures? 

Here are their answers:

“To me, transitions are just a matter of awareness. Most people aren’t aware of what a sloppy and poor transition is or how it affects their course and competition work. I first like to make them aware of a poor transition and that tends to fix their execution. Usually when there is continuous struggle to improve said transition, that is indicative of a connection issue that needs to be addressed more so than the transition.” -Berry Porter
Read about Berry’s winning student Eleanor at the WEC Premier Cup this past weekend here.

“In my experience, one of the reasons riders struggle with the walk to canter transition is because the rider rushes the moment of departure. If my rider tends to rush this moment, I encourage them to take their time. When it’s time to canter, take a deep breath, think about how you ask for the canter, maybe even count to three. Then stretch tall, don’t lean and canter. The biggest focus should be on not rushing it.” -Troy Hendricks
List to Troy on the Plaidcast here.

“The horse must make the canter depart from its hind end. Most green riders lean forward and loosen the reins as they ask, and that’s generally a signal for the horse to trot forward. Make sure your rider understands to lean back and keep a feel of the horse’s mouth while asking for the canter. Then remind them to stay tall and keep that feel of the horses mouth along with leg, so that the horse steps into the canter and continues forward.

In another scenario, if you ask correctly for your horse to canter and he does not respond by smoothly picking up the canter, then walk! Using a crop, tap the horse behind the leg you use to ask for the canter. Do not canter. Walk. Ask correctly again. Sometimes it will take a few tries to reinforce the leg signal, but do not ask for the canter from your crop.” -Robin Greenwood
Listen to Robin on the Plaidcast here.

“Some riders allow the horse to bend to the outside during the transition, essentially setting the horse up for the wrong lead. It is the rider’s job to maintain a slight inside bend when asking for the canter. The rider can further support the request for the inside position by slightly lifting the inside hand during the departure—just a little, so as to be hardly visible. This is also one of my favorite techniques to use at collegiate horse shows where riders are mounted on unfamiliar horses. If one of my riders drew a horse who we observed had a sticky lead in warm-ups, I coached them to lift the inside rein with enough pressure that the horse’s head was lifted to the inside and the rider could see his inside eye.” -Sally Batton
Read Sally’s book The Athletic Equestrian: Over 40 Exercises for Good Hands, Power Legs, and Superior Seat Awareness.

“First I make sure the rider understands the proper mechanics of picking up the canter. Once I know they do, I’ll have them start by doing the sitting trot into the canter. I find the forward motion of the trot can usually help carry the horse into the canter. Thus, hopefully giving the rider the “feel” of the upward transition. Once they are consistent with the trot to canter departure then we will work on the working walk into the canter. It usually works but it takes time and patience.” -Jenn Tirrell
View Jenn in The Plaid Horse here.

“I find that with a lot of riders, the walk to canter transition is often a mental game. Rightfully so, riders get so fixated on a seamless transition that they rush into the canter, not actually thinking about the mechanics behind it. It’s like everything they know suddenly disappears and they hit the panic button! For a rider struggling with this transition, I ask them to visualize it from start to finish. What does the set up and departure feel like, what does it look like, among other questions I ask them to think through. This way while they’re walking, they are becoming a thinking rider and can see the canter unfold in their mind by walking through each step slowly and carefully. That visualization becomes reality almost every time, and becomes helpful in other aspects of their riding!” -April Bilodeau
Read April’s articles here.

“I find that visualization really helps. To get the feeling of collection, picture a spring or a slinky.

Do a few trot to walk transitions to get your horse listening, responsive, in front of the leg and collected. In your mind picture pushing the spring together and as you ask for the canter picture the spring’s energy coming up and out. You can also add into the visual using your outside leg to place your horse’s outside hind leg between his front legs to “load” or “power” your spring.” -Traci Brooks
Listen to Traci’s book With Purpose: The Balmoral Standard.

“We have a lot of younger riders who can struggle with weakness and ponies’ receptiveness to their leg and aids. The walk to canter transition can prove difficult for many riders, but it is especially difficult for our ‘littles’.

We would normally start by explaining to them the mechanics of the upward transition to the canter. Basically where their pony/horse’s body should be and when. For example head carriage, body shape and hindquarter placement. If the rider can understand this then they’re headed in the right direction.

Next is reactiveness to the leg, the aids and the command. Putting a lot of transition work into their everyday flatwork helps tremendously. We stress the use of voice with the transitions so the ponies/horses continuously understand that aid. Getting the transitions sharp to start and then smooth is the key.

If you have a particular horse or pony that is struggling to do these transitions cleanly with their rider, incorporate some training with a professional or a more experienced rider. Both horse and rider need to be taught the skill and remain educated in these important details. Sometimes visualizing the task is extremely helpful.” -Francesca Mulligan
Listen to Francesca on the Plaidcast here.

“In order to have a good walk to canter departure, your horse needs to be ready and willing to move off your leg immediately. If your horse is dead to the leg, you need to fix that by using a crop judiciously.

The best trick for getting a good canter departure on the correct lead, is to pick your hands up about an inch, bring them both slightly to the outside and push the horses hind end into the center of the ring, into a haunches in by moving your outside leg back an inch or two. Then when you ask for the canter, the horse will only be able to pick up the correct lead.

If I have a little kid, and they are having trouble picking up the correct lead from the walk to canter, I have them walk off the rail and then I have take both hands slightly to the outside to turn the horses front end toward the rail, which creates a false haunches in. Then when you ask the pony to canter, you should get the right lead every time. It takes a little bit of practice for the kids to understand how to keep the pony straight when they turn them toward the rail, but it will make all the difference in a flat class when they are asked to canter on the straightaway.” -Laurie Scott
Read Laurie’s articles here.

“When I have a student struggling with the canter departure from the walk, I make sure they are walking with purpose before asking the horse to canter. The horse can’t be walking along in a nonchalant manner then be expected to canter right away. The horse has to be paying attention and know they are working. 

Another exercise I will do is a few transitions from the trot to canter to make sure the horse is light to my leg. Once those transitions are smooth, I’ll go back to the walk and try the walk to canter departure again.” -Johanna Hyyppa

“Walk to energetic trot and back to walk. Quickly back up to trot. Gradually shorten the walk intervals until it feels like the pony is pulling you back up to the trot. When that happens, really soften the hand and “allow” the canter to happen. You may only get a few strides at first but praise your pony for going forward and trying, then back to walk trot transitions and repeat! I like to use markers in the ring so the kids are preparing for each transition as well. We also use a verbal cue, often a loud “kiss” as opposed to a cluck, so the ponies under stand we want canter, not trot – having done this on the lunge line since they were first started. This can really help the tiny kids who are struggling to get a crisp canter transition!” -Emily Elek
Stalk Emily’s spreadsheet here.

“The walk to canter transition takes a lot of strength from both the rider and horse, so making sure you have the basics down first is important. If you can’t get a swift walk to trot or trot to canter transition, the walk to canter will be all that much harder.

I like to have students practice both upwards and downwards transitions on a circle, gradually reducing the amount of trot steps between the walk to trot to canter. The circle helps encourage the horse to balance on their own as well as making it easier to pick up the correct lead. Don’t forget to stay supportive with the upper body!”
-Payton Medford

“First of all, treat all horses like they are a 4 year old even if they are a 20 year old when practicing this exercise or executing it in the ring. Position the nose slightly to the inside, relax the outside elbow and just like the first time you learned to canter, inside leg at the girth and outside leg back. Clarity of the aids and not being tense in your body or elbows is the key along with the horse being properly prepared/in front of the leg.” -JJ Lavieri
Read about JJ here.

“If the horse reacts to the walk to canter aid by just running at the trot, I ask them to halt and back the horse 5-10 steps, then ask again. We want to motivate the horse or pony to go forward on their own.” -Stefanie Mazer
Read Stefanie’s Tips to Successfully Matching Buyers and Sellers here.

“Keeping your mind calm and clear helps you explain any movement or transition to your horse. Taking one or several deep, slow belly breaths can help you feel grounded and centered before you get on to ride or during a ride before you communicate what’s next. Imagine that you are a great teacher, and recognize that your message is most effective when you are composed and confident.” -Tonya Johnston, Amateur Rider, Mental Skills Coach
Listen to Tonyas book on Audible here.