I’ve not used this exercise for a while, but recently brought it out for a couple of clients as it was perfect for improving their canter work.
Start by riding a continuous twenty metre circle at A in trot. At A, ride forward to canter. At X, ride a downward transition to trot. Repeat the transitions at A and X on each lap. Then progress to riding four transitions per circle; so a transition at A, halfway between A and X, X, and halfway between X and A. You should repeat the exercise on both reins.
There are several purposes to this exercise. Firstly, the rapid succession of transitions between the two beat trot and three beat canter means that the horse has to engage their abdominal muscles, which helps improve their posture and develops their top line. So it’s very good for their balance and core stability.
If you have a lazy horse, or one who is slow to respond to the leg, riding transitions quickly in succession engages the horse’s brain and teaches them to react more quickly to the aids. The exercise can also increase the rider’s speed of riding. I don’t mean that they trot or canter faster, but that they process the preparation and execution of their aids faster.
Riding the transitions at given points on the circle can be tricky because the horse has less support from then fence line so is more likely to wobble through the transition or hollow their frame. I find this to be especially so in the upwards transition over X. Which of course is quite a common movement in dressage tests. To help stop the horse from drifting, the rider should focus more on their outside aids (usually they’ve slipped so aren’t supporting the horse) and think of riding a straight stride during the transition as opposed to the continuous curve of the circle. This helps prevent the horse drifting out though his outside shoulder and lifting his head because he’s not engaging the hindquarters.
The horse I used this exercise for whilst schooling is fairly forwards but always pokes his nose slightly in the canter strike off. While he’s active in the trot and using his hindquarters to push into canter he just doesn’t quite carry it through. Back and saddle are fine so it’s just a quirk of his. Anyway, I hoped that riding multiple transitions in quick succession would get him fractionally more forward thinking and he would stay connected as he picked up canter. Which he did. He stayed completely soft in my hands and I felt more of a jump into canter as I could use lighter aids because he was anticipating the canter.
A pony and rider that I also introduced to this exercise have a problem with lack of forwardness. After riding a couple of circles the pony was anticipating the transitions so responded immediately to his rider’s aids and then she could put more leg on as she rode him into trot which resulted in a more active trot and the pony became more forward thinking. The upward transitions became more active so the quality of the canter improved. This pony also drifts through the right shoulder on the left rein, so the transitions over X highlighted this so by holding him straighter and with a more supportive outside rein his rider could correct the drift. Then the canter improved further because the inside hind leg started propelling the horse forwards towards his centre of gravity, instead of pushing the energy out through the right shoulder. It was great to see the improvement in the accuracy of their transitions and the quality of the pony’s canter.
To add another level of difficulty to this exercise, count the number of strides in each gait, aiming to get the same number of strides in each quarter. This also encourages you to ride a more accurate transition, which helps improve your accuracy marks in dressage tests.