Recently, we have received a lot of questions about how you can improve the canter or the canter depart. This is obviously a major issue for many riders. This topic is very suitable for explaining the biomechanical principles behind it.
It is the outside hind leg that lifts horse and rider into the canter. The more it steps under the body and flexes its joints before the canter depart, the more uphill the canter will be. The more the outside hind leg lags behind or the more it escapes to the side, the flatter, faster, and more downhill the canter will be.
Consequently, the rider’s task consists of transferring the body weight onto the hind leg that will be the outside one in the canter.
This can be achieved by:
- Crossing over with the inside hind leg
- 2 half halts when the outside hind leg is on the ground
- Turns (especially corners, voltes, turns on the haunches)
You can combine these elements in any number of way to increase their effectivity.
Their effect can be further enhanced by bringing the hind leg that is going to be the outside one in the canter more under the body first. Shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in, and turns on the forehand in motion are especially suitable for this.
An exercise that is as simple as it is effective is enlarging the circle. Ask your horse to enlarge the circle for 2 strides on the open side, which transfers the weight to the outside hind leg. The horseshould move over one horse’s width. What is important is that front legs and hind legs move outthe same amount, because otherwise the horse gets crooked and falls onto the forehand. Immediately after the enlarging, apply 2 half halts when the outside hind leg is on the ground (you can support the half halts with a stirrup pressure into the outside stirrup). This increases the weight shift to the outside hind leg. The aids for enlarging the circle, the half halts, and the canter aid are all applied then the outside hind leg is on the ground and the inside hind leg is in the air. This makes it easy for the rider to get the timing of the aids right.
Another highly effective exercise is the counter shoulder-in on the circle. Ask the hindquarters to move one hoof’s width into the circle for a few strides, while the horse is slightly counterbending. This brings the original outside hind leg more underneath the body. After a few strides let the hind legs return to the outside track and restore the normal bend to the inside. This transfers the weight to the outside hind leg. Immediately afterwards, flex this hind legs with 2 half halts and ask for the canter, so that the canter depart is a consequence of the flexion of the outside hind leg and the horse sees it as a relief. The aids for sidestepping are always applied when the crossing hind leg is in the air. Half halts are always applied then the targeted hind leg is on the ground, since you want to flex it with the help of the body mass. The canter aid is applied when the inside hind leg lifts off.
A third exercise that works very reliably consists of a shoulder-in, followed by a turn on the haunches and an immediate canter depart. The shoulder-in brings the inside hind leg under the body. The turn on the haunches transfers the body mass onto the inside hind leg and makes the old inside hind leg into the new outside hind leg. If you were riding the shoulder-in at the trot, you have to transition down to walk or halt for the turn on the haunches. The new outside hind leg can now lift the horse into the canter right after the turn on the haunches. This exercise is even more effective if you start a volte immediately upon completion of the turn on the haunches, and ask for the canter depart in the beginning of the volte. The sooner the horse transitions into the canter after the turn on the haunches, the more the effects of the shoulder-in and turn on the haunches will still be present.
I would love to hear from you how these exercises work for you and your horse if you decide to try them out.