Smooth Canter Departure

by Chantal Marleau

Does the thought of asking your horse to canter cause your heart to skip a beat? Do you worry that your horse will kick out or run away with you when you apply your canter aids? Perhaps the opposite is true and your horse struggles to simply break into this more advanced gait. If any of these scenarios seem familiar, you’re not alone. Generally speaking, every rider – amateur or professional – has struggled with canter departures at some point.

In this article, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol explains why the canter challenges even the best riders and shares what he considers to be essential building blocks for a smooth, stress-free canter departure.

What Makes the Canter so Challenging?
To establish a smooth, powerful canter, the questions a rider must ask of his mount are many and come about quickly. For this reason, Nichol sees many riders become anxious when confronted with this gait. “Generally, that’s because people often misunderstand the principles and body mechanics behind the canter,” he said.

“Most of the time, when people cue the canter, they’re only asking the horse to go faster,” continued Nichol. “The thing about this gait is that it should be about a change in elevation and in the drive-line of impulsion not at all about a change in speed.

“A smooth canter departure requires the ability to encourage a horse to use himself better and the savvy to know how to set your horse up for success. Ultimately, it’s a question of leadership.”

According to Nichol, a lack of leadership is the culprit behind the majority of cantering issues. “I don’t mean that a rider isn’t a good fit for his horse, or that he is unable to attend to most of his horse’s needs, most of the time,” he explained. “It’s just that if a rider misses a piece along the way, the horse is likely to struggle when faced with a more pressure-filled question like being asked to canter.”

One such piece is the language of space. To illustrate this principle, imagine that you and your horse are surrounded by two respective bubbles. Move towards your horse and think of pressing your bubble into his as you ask him to yield out of your space. What happens?

If your horse stands before you like a concrete wall, you should first review your groundwork exercises (see 2010 Canadian Horse Annual and Horse-Canada May/June 2010). If, however, you’ve mastered this spatial language, think of applying it while in the saddle. “Imagine that the edges of your bubble are defined by your reins, your legs and the space around your entire upper body,” explained Nichol. “For example, applying your leg should cause your horse’s body to yield rather than push out against you. He should also be softening to the rein rather than leaning against the bit.”

It is also important to consistently set your horse up to succeed. “This means recognizing when your horse is attentive to your aids and his body is supple and balanced,” said Nichol. “Unless you’ve achieved this, it would be an example of poor leadership to ask for a canter departure,” especially since the canter requires a great deal more physical effort than the walk or trot.

“Unless a horse is able to relax and soften his spine from his hindquarters to his poll, any brace will show up in a canter stride that is either heavy on the forehand and choppy, or simply out of balance,” explained Nichol.

In order to develop leadership from the saddle while helping your horse become increasingly supple, Nichol suggests practicing a few key exercises.

The leg-yield is the first in a series of exercises that Nichol uses to develop the lateral flexion necessary for a smooth canter departure. This movement will help release your horse’s shoulders and teach him to engage his hindquarters as he moves away from your leg.

To begin, ride up the quarter-line, parallel to the long side of your arena. As you start to think about leg-yielding, look towards the rail and imagine melting your hips into your horse’s hindquarters as you step laterally towards the rail.

“It’s important to note that if you twist your lower body towards the outside, you will lose your connection to your horse,” explained Nichol. “Instead, look towards the rail as you breathe deeply into the lung that is on the inside of the bend and apply your inside leg. Imagine that you are inflating that lung. Think about erasing the physical division between you and your horse.”

As you think of raising your inside shoulder, you will find that your horse mimics your movement and raises his own inside shoulder. Now, use your inside leg to help him step out towards the rail. Your horse should begin to cross his inside front leg over his outside one.

“It’s also important that the inside rein supports a slight inside bend,” said Nichol. “Meanwhile, if your horse struggles, ask him to soften by bumping both legs as you soften the tension through the inside rein. As soon as the brace is released, quiet your legs and try to leg-yield once again.”

The moment your horse is able to offer one soft step of leg yield, reward him by riding a straight line until you both feel ready to try again. On your next attempt, reward him after two consecutive steps of leg-yield and continue building confidence in this way until you are able to ride several strides in a row.

“You’ll know that your horse is engaging his body correctly in this exercise once you feel his hips and shoulders moving together,” added Nichol.

Correct Bend and Counter Bend
The next series of exercises designed to help develop lateral suppleness is what Nichol refers to as correct and counter bending.

To begin, ride your horse on a 10-metre circle and ask him to step further under his hindquarters as you hunt for tension in your inside rein. The moment you feel any brace through your hand, bump your legs until your horse releases this tightness and is better able to step under himself (see Horse-Canada September/October 2011 for a thorough review of this exercise).

Your ultimate goal is to have your horse lift through his inside shoulder while his spine remains supple. Continue riding until the impulsion increases and the rein is consistently soft.

“Once you’ve mastered this exercise, it’s time to teach your horse to lift his inside shoulder even more through an exercise I call counter bend,” said Nichol. “You merely take the first exercise and ask your horse to travel in the opposite direction without changing the arc in his body.”

To begin, lift your inside shoulder – inflate that “inside” lung – slightly more than in correct bend and apply your inside leg. “You don’t want to change your horse’s balance, but rather just shift it slightly,” explained Nichol. “Your rein should not change as you do this.”

Now, apply your inside leg as you ask your horse to travel in the opposite direction. “For example, if I’m circling to the left, I would pick up the horse’s left shoulder even more and then travel to the right,” said Nichol.

“The point of this exercise is to balance correct bend with counter bend and help your horse’s shoulder find the sweet spot in the middle,” added Nichol. “Think of it as using two extremes to find the correct centre point.”

Once your horse develops the strength and balance to consistently move with his shoulders upright, he’ll be less likely to fall-in, which is another reason horses struggle to pick up the canter.

The half-halt is the final piece that will help your horse rebalance himself as he prepares to step into the canter stride. Typically, the half-halt is taught as a tool to pause and then recycle a horse’s energy through the leg and rein. Nichol’s approach varies slightly from conventional teachings. “I see the half-halt as a subtle rebalancing and re-elevating of the spine through softness,” he explained. “There’s a side to the half-halt that addresses leadership, and there’s a side that’s all about balance or athleticism.

“Leadership occurs when I apply pressure by bumping my legs and holding on to the inside rein as I wait for him to soften to my aids. If the horse does this without running through my hand, then I know he is following my intention and my leadership.”

The athletic side of the half-halt focuses on applying that same pressure while waiting for the horse to become more elevated. “By teaching my horse to elevate more and more in this way, I am allowing him to develop the strength and balance that will allow him to use his body more functionally,” added Nichol.

Asking for the Canter
Once all of these exercises make sense, the canter departure should seem simpler. “The key is to make sure your horse is well prepared,” said Nichol. “When training the canter, I like to start with a nice working trot. I then gently gather my reins and bump my legs as I encourage my horse to gather himself.

“I will then half-halt and encourage him to respond by stepping his hindquarters further underneath himself as I let the thought of cantering flow out of my body. I never think about increasing speed because the canter should not produce any acceleration. If it does, the horse is likely hurrying and I should stop and ask again.”

Once the canter stride has been established, allow your horse to find his balance without leaning on your hands. Continue to hunt for tension through the inside rein and half-halt your horse as needed to help him rebalance through the gait.

When it all Comes Together
Think of the canter as a litmus test for your leadership. Have you laid the proper foundation for you and your horse to succeed at this gait? As you practice the exercises discussed in this article – and throughout the Training with Josh Nichol series – your confidence will increase dramatically. Your horse will become increasingly supple and better able to carry himself – and you – through the elusive canter departure and every stride thereafter. Before you know it, you will be looking forward to the freedom and power of the canter as you both thoroughly enjoy the ride!