Recently with some clients I’ve been doing canter transitions in straight lines. They’re really useful for testing rider and horse crookedness, and useful in checking that the rider is using specific and correct canter aids, and that the horse understands the difference. Of course once the aids and correct response are established then you can move on to simple changes and flying changes. If a horse falls out through the outside shoulder into canter then they are evading stepping under with the inside hind leg, so aren’t using their abdominals and back muscles properly, which will negatively affect the quality of the canter and they’re ability to balance in the canter.
Travelling large around the arena, ride a trot to canter transition as you pass B and E, coming back to trot at A and C. To help get the straight transition make sure that you aren’t twisting your upper body or leaning excessively into the inside seat bone. Maintain the outside rein contact to support the horse so that they don’t bulge through that shoulder. If they pick up the wrong canter lead, just rebalance the trot, and ask again, checking that the outside leg is clearly behind the girth and in inside one on it. If you have a couple of incorrect strike offs, then just ride a couple on a corner to rebuild your horse’s confidence in the transition and try again. Make sure you reward them trying, even when they try to take the correct lead then wobble and take counter canter. After all, making a straight line transition requires slightly different balance.
If you still feel your horse is wobbling in the transition, perhaps falling in, then you can place poles on the inner track to make tramlines to help focus you both on straightness.
Once the upwards transitions are becoming simple then introduce downward transitions in a straight line. These are usually easier; focus on a point on the fence and ensure your seat, legs and rein aids are symmetrical. If your horse drifts or wobbles close the leg to support, and open the opposite rein to encourage them to straighten up.
The next step in this straightness work is to make direct walk to canter, or canter to walk transitions, on straight lines. Once these are achieved you should be feeling an improvement in the quality of the canter as the hind legs start to work a bit harder and the horse comes off the forehand because they aren’t falling towards the outside shoulder.
Riding the transitions without stirrups will help you check the levelness of your seat bones and ensure you aren’t twisting or leaning through the transition, so if you are finding your horse is going crooked in the transition check yourself first.
Hopefully it won’t be long before these transitions become straight forward and simple, so then you can begin to incorporate it into your warm up and usual schooling routine, riding your transitions in straight lines.
Next up, is starting to look at alternating canter leads. For this we need to use the centre line. Trot onto the centre line from either rein, straighten you both up, and ask for a specific canter lead. If you’re with someone else they could shout left or right, to keep you on your toes. Make a trot transition before reaching the end of the centre line, and change the rein. Of course, the cheating way is to come off the right rein, barely straighten up before asking for right canter. But push yourself; make sure you’re straight, and pick left canter after a right turn.
You can build this exercise up as I did with one mare, and ride direct transitions, fitting in as many alternate strike offs as you can along the centre line. You should soon feel that the canter transitions are improving and there’s less wiggling through their body, more hindleg engagement and a bit lighter in the forehand.
The horse should also feel that they will pick up the specific canter lead that you’ve asked for, and be more responsive to smaller, lighter aids. Now you can introduce canter changes of rein across the diagonal or across the school, maintaining straightness and minimising the trot or walk strides between the canter. This is a popular movement in novice and elementary tests, and when you get it right, the canter feels great; setting you up nicely for the next movement.
Once the canter is straighter smaller circles, collection, and extension becomes easier because the hindlegs are directly behind the forehand so it is easier to bring them underneath the body, and to propel themselves forwards. Which leads us onto developing canter pirouettes…
But before we even think about canter pirouettes and flying changes I have one final test to check the straightness of you and your horse in your canter transitions. In either walk or trot, leg yield from the track to the three quarter line and then pick up canter. So if you are on the right rein you shift from right to left bend after the corner. Then after the leg yield, change back to right bend before asking for right canter. You want to aim to be asking for canter whilst still traveling in a straight line to make the exercise harder.
I think that cracking the straight canter transitions is the secret to being able to take the next step up in dressage. Counter canter becomes easier, and being able to maintain straightness gives you the ability to collect without damaging the quality of the canter, opening up numerous elementary movements.
Give it a go, and have fun!