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Your Questions

Dear Nancy,

I cannot keep my horse in the canter when I try to half halt. He breaks to a huge trot. The more I try, the worse it gets. What should I do?

Thank you for your help,

Jody in Wisconsin

Autumn ChallengeAnswer:

Dear Jody

This is a common problem. It has to do with the mechanics of the canter and the natural tendency for us to over ride the stride when we feel a mistake coming.

We already talked about the warm up in the earlier Q and A. This information is important, so if you have not looked at our recommended warm up please do that. If the horse is not balanced in the canter enough to hear your aids then I suggest teaching him the correct reactions in the walk and in the trot first. Young horses have balance issues in the canter because they often need a big stride to keep the impulsion. When we feel this lack of balance we tend to let them lean on our hands for balance, this is not a good solution. We want the horses to be supple in the neck and in the hands so that when we create pressure they look for a place of give. The place of give needs to be in the hind legs, where you can feel the reins thru the horse to the hind legs.

The horse also needs to understand that the rein aid means wait and make smaller steps. They must not think that the rein aid means put balance in the hands. With a young horse it is okay if they have equal weight on the front legs and the hind legs, over time they learn to put more weight on the hind legs. However, they must not put weight that should be on the hind legs onto the reins. At no point, even with a young horse, should you ever accept that the horse puts pressure against your hands without suppleness. This pressure turns into tension and resistance.

So, how do I balance the canter without getting a trot transition? First you have to think that the worst thing that can happen as a result of a half halt is not trotting! The worst thing is no reaction at all. When we ride like the worst thing is trotting then we push and push with our seat until the horse is so heavy in the hand that he cannot canter even if he wanted to.

Keep in mind the three beat rhythm of the canter. What is the first step? The outside hind leg strikes off the canter, then the inside hind leg and outside front leg together. The inside front leg is the last step. Many people half halt on the front leg, this is the wrong moment and only creates confusion. So start with making a proper canter depart. What I like to do is create a nice forward going sitting trot. If you are not fluent in the sitting trot no problem, do this in the posting trot. Keep in mind that your seat needs to be relaxed when you get to the canter, so occasionally sitting two to three bounces in the trot will help your seat to relax with the movement. As you trot keep a nice soft inside flexion, not over bending the neck, just a nice inside positioning. Then yield your horse softly from your inside leg to your outside rein, this means the horse steps up to the outside rein without you pulling back, or loosing inside flexion, then half halt on the outside rein, slide your outside leg back and canter. IF it does not work, relax, reorganize the trot, create the right moment again and then ask. Balance and timing is important. If after several attempts your canter depart is not happening assess the situationNwhat part of the transition aid is not being listened to? Simplify that aid and then try again. For instance, I am half halting on the outside rein but my horse is getting heavier and not listening. Do not try to canter if that is the reaction, we need to explain the half halt first. Stay on your 20 m circle and do walk trot transitions. Do not push in the downward transition, let the horse hear the half halt. When you want to trot use your legs and open the door in the front by softening the hand. When you want to walk make a fist with the outside hand and relax the seat and leg aid. You must let the rein work thru to the hind leg, if the seat is pushing in that moment the horse cannot hear the rein. When this is working take a break and then go back and try your canter depart again. Do not worry that he won because he did not canter, take a break, he wants to please you, keep the muscles happy by letting them recoup and then do the job.

Also, it can be that the half halt works but he does not listen to your leg promptly. Be careful that you have a nice soft feeling with the leg before the canter aid, if you are overriding with the leg he will not be able to hear you. Also, do not replace the leg aid with the seat, if he does not hear the leg then stay in the trot and tune him to the leg a couple of times. Apply pressure with the inside leg, create forwardness, reward him, half halt back to normal trot, create forwardness with the outside leg, reward, half halt back to normal working trot. Then try the canter depart again. If the leg does not get the response you are looking for use a tap with the whip. Be sure not to pull back, catch the forwardness, do not pull back.

The canter depart is very important to the canter itself. The feeling that you find the right moment to ask will also give you the right moment to balance the canter. This patience to let the horse jump up to your seat and not over push is important. The more you push with your seat in the wrong moment the more strung out your horse becomes and the canter becomes more difficult. When you feel the proper response to your leg in the transition this is also the proper reaction to balance and maintain the canter. When the mane jumps up in the canter the outside hind leg is on the ground, this is the time to sit deep and relaxed and keep your outside elbow on your hip. Then follow the stride forward with your hips and elbows slightly. Do not half halt at the end of the step, half halt at the beginning when the hind leg is on the ground. Then let the period of suspension happen. In the moment the horse has committed to the step there is nothing you can do to change that step.

In the beginning canter for short periods of time. Be sure that when you do the downward transitions you are asking the horse to trot, not just stop asking him to canter. Be sure the canter is going on its own. If he offers to stop on the circle use a small kick with the outside leg, if this is not enough a small tap with the stick. Be careful not to over ride with the seat. Of course the seat should follow the stride, but follow not push. When you want to create a more balanced canter it is simply like asking for another canter depart. Renegotiate the softness on the inside rein, yield from the inside leg, catch the energy in the outside rein and activate the outside hind leg again with the outside leg. Each piece is an aid, not a crutch, so do not keep holding the outside rein or the leg aid, make the aid and then soften the leg or hand. It is the proper reaction from the horse we are trying to teach, we are not teaching them to lean on us. If you keep the aid too long the horse remembers next time. Balance is the key. Keep your balance independent from theirs and that makes it easier for them to stay balanced on their own legs.

Good luck with your canter and be sure to let me know about your progress!

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