Need help ?

Dressage technique: transition to canter

Dressage technique: transition to canter

Mastering a successful transition to canter: one of the foundations in dressage

While in the french levels "galops 1" and "galops 2", it is enough to just go to canter, level three of the exam integrates to be able to ride a transition on the correct lead. This not only involves perfectly controlling the trajectory, speed, and balance but also applying the appropriate aids to achieve the canter correctly. The transition then challenges the rider's independence in using aids while testing the horse's responsiveness.


For riders up to "galop 2" and for three-year-old horses during breaking in, the goal is simply to transition to a higher gait, often achieved through an acceleration of speed and an increase in stride length. Later on, the canter departure is refined to become a smooth and harmonious transition, responding to precise yet discreet aids. The level of demand increases to consider all the necessary elements for a successful departure: maintaining the gait, contact, straightness, lowering of the hindquarters, and upward attitude, among others. The success of the departure essentially depends on the quality of the preceding gait.


At each stage of learning, the objectives evolve. Before aiming to canter from the walk, the rider must ensure that trot-to-canter transitions are perfectly acquired. It's essential to ensure the correctness of the gait preceding the departure. A hurried or underactive trot will hinder its smooth execution. A crooked horse, imperfect contact, and horizontal balance will have more difficulty executing the exercise promptly and satisfactorily. The horse must be lively, responsive, waiting for cues, and active in the hindquarters without anticipating. The length of strides should not increase in any case, and the speed must be maintained the same, with no acceleration tolerated. If the horse rushes or if the connection to the rein deteriorates, the departure cannot be completed. On the contrary, the rider must quickly assess the situation and postpone the transition. The primary goal is not to canter at any cost but to achieve a precise transition, sometimes requiring patience and flexibility. It's better to delay the departure than to start in disarray.


The choice of trajectory leading to the canter departure is crucial. Initially, the exercise should be asked for on a curved line, preferably on a circle or in a corner, as the horse is naturally more inclined to start on the correct lead in those positions. The open part of a twenty-meter circle is particularly suitable for this transition, specifically the second part when the horse is about to rejoin the track. The rider must ensure that the curved path doesn't slow down the horse, who should instead maintain consistent hindquarter activity. The trajectory promotes both bending and regulates amplitude and speed, predisposing a correct departure. It's essential to draw the curve perfectly, applying slight flexion at the poll without reducing the size of the turn.


The inside leg, combined with contact on the outside rein, controls the direction and balance. It also encourages forward movement with a propulsive tendency. A horse drifting outward or collapsing inward due to lack of shoulder and hip control will face more difficulty in achieving the necessary uphill attitude for the correct execution of this exercise. Additionally, the horse might misinterpret the request if the aids are incomplete or disproportionate, leading to a turn around the shoulders resembling a half-pirouette, when he should actually be transitioning into a canter. The rider must maintain their position, weight evenly distributed in the saddle and stirrups, without leaning toward the middle of the circle, the upper body subtly turned to the inside, the inside shoulder slightly back. The shoulders stay verticality. The rider must anticipate the movement to avoid being pushed backward when transitioning to a higher gait. The withers perfectly aligned between the two reins, wrists turned with thumbs on top. The idea is to envelop, guide, and accompany the horse into the canter departure while maintaining control of one's own body as well as the horse's.


The next step is to depart in a straight line. Here, the horse has the opportunity to increase its stride length before the canter departure, which is why mastering the transition on a circle is crucial. While the curve prevented any acceleration, the straight line allows for a more enthusiastic trot. Initially, canter departures on straight lines can be requested when leaving a corner or approaching one to contain the horse and prevent forward escape. Later, it will be possible to demand the transition in the middle of the long side. No step should be neglected. The important aspect is to maintain rhythm in preparation for the upward transition. Looking ahead, the rider remains balanced, with hands low and legs down to preserve hip lowering and upward tendency. The inner aids prompt slight flexion, allowing the rider to catch a glimpse of the horse's eye; the outer aids ensure perfect straightness. Having a mirror or a person on foot can be extremely beneficial at this stage. The outer leg moves back to signal the departure. Applied without maintaining the outer rein, it might push the hindquarters ahead of the shoulders, while the horse should remain strictly straight.


In some cases, it can be beneficial to canter after a prolonged leg yielding that has effectively used the inner leg and outer rein. The initial canter strides should be propelled, with projection. It's better to aim for a working gait before collecting, rather than departing with insufficient impulsion. The canter distance should allow the horse to settle comfortably in the gait before transitioning again.


With trot-to-canter transitions established, departures from the walk can be approached. The difficulty here lies in maintaining activity during the preparation. As before, the curve will be a valuable tool to begin with before moving on to the straight line. It might be helpful to start the forward movement at a trot for several meters before walking for a few strides and then leaping into the canter. Here, the horse doesn't have the opportunity to fall behind the leg. The transition must be clear and instantaneous. Initiating a countdown increases precision: three, two, one, canter. The challenge is to achieve this responsiveness without compromising the contact. The rider must be uncompromising in achieving a precise departure while ensuring a consistent connection with the horse's mouth. From collected walk, the horse should be on the bit while maintaining a soft contact. The rider shouldn't release everything in the transition. Above all, the horse must be responsive and receptive to transition into the canter with a discreet rider aid. The retreated leg is a brief and subtle cue; it's not about pushing the horse into impulsion. The conditions must already be met for a quality departure, waiting only for the application of the appropriate aid to actually move into the canter. In no case should a misalignment or disorder in the canter departure be accepted. If the horse's response is delayed or if the walk or contact deteriorates, the rider must quickly decide to cancel the departure and retry a few strides later.


With a young horse, it's essential to accept imprecisions to encourage and reassure them. If the horse is accustomed to lunging, the voice is a valuable tool for guidance. By associating it with appropriate aids, the horse will gradually understand the cues from your body. The first walk-to-canter departures might include a trot stride or even instability in the frame. These efforts are still encouraging and should be tolerated, even rewarded. On a trained horse, if the rider's request is correct but the horse doesn't respond, it's the preparation that needs optimization and the horse needs to be more sensitized. The rider can never compromise their position to facilitate the transition.


Cantering: Overcoming Fear


The canter departure can sometimes be a source of anxiety for the rider, fearing excessive speed or turbulence from the horse that might unbalance them. In reality, the fear of falling can be paralyzing. Hesitation is natural, although it can sometimes be counterproductive, as forward movement is often the most secure solution for the rider. On a lively horse, practicing walk-trot transitions and incorporating leg yields during warm-up can improve the horse's acceptance of the rider's aids before approaching the canter departure. Shifting the leg can surprise a tense horse, so there should be multiple opportunities to touch the horse's side with the calf before eventually cantering. If the rider is intimidated by cantering, they can start by cantering a few strides in a circle before returning to trot and repeating this sequence several times. The goal is to canter a few more strides each time.


Why Does the Horse Pick Up the Wrong Lead?



A horse that consistently picks up the wrong lead might be experiencing physical discomfort. The intervention of an osteopath or veterinarian is advisable to eliminate this doubt. If the horse is healthy, the issue is likely related to the rider. The difficulty might arise from a lack of bending, in which case using a volte (small circle) before a canter departure on a larger circle can be helpful. Initiating a leg yield, both on a straight line and a wide curve, can also be beneficial. For example, when planning to depart on the left canter, it's possible to subtly push the horse into a leg yield to the left in order to arch it around the inner leg. The idea is simply to push the horse's ribcage to the right while keeping its extremities—shoulders, neck, and hips—towards the left. However, it's important not to overuse the flexion, as losing control of the shoulders might cause the horse's body alignment to tip, resulting in a wrong lead departure. Of course, all of this should be done with perfect balance and control of speed. Even minimal lateral work can sensitize the horse to your aids.


Aids for the Canter Departure:


- Inner leg at the girth; outer leg back

- Slight flexion on the inner rein; control of straightness with the outer rein

- Weight evenly distributed between both stirrups; seat centered in the saddle

- Upper body upright and vertical