As Leo Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.“
And so it is with canter departs. All good canter departs are alike. Each poor canter depart is poor in its own way…or is it?
Of course it’s not, anymore than every unhappy family is unhappy in a new and never-before-encountered way. There are not an infinite number of problems that result in an unhappy family, nor are unhappy families more complex than happy families. The lauded line that begins Anna Karenina, despite its popularity, speaks more of Tolstoy’s outsized ego than it does of a universal truth. The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy (Leo’s wife) draw the curtains aside.
Similarly, there are not an untold number of reasons why canter departs are poor. Setting aside the disunited depart, the fundamental struggles for horse and rider are to eliminate the problems that stand in the way of the happy canter depart — strong, springy, upward and balanced. Which means getting rid of those unhappy problems — the horse is on the forehand, the horse is rushing, the horse is crooked.
If you’re struggling with unhappy canter departs, take heart. Because, unlike Tolstoy’s marriage, all is not lost. We’re dealing with a question of balance (the secret to all happy relationships). A good transition requires good balance. Physical and mental. From horse and from rider.
Riders are usually the problem (we all wish that were not the case, but unfortunately, it is). So if you’re less than enthusiastic about your horse’s canter departs, let’s take a look at what you might be doing that’s preventing you from getting the canter transitions you want. Here are some common problems:
1. The rider tenses in anticipation of the depart. That tenseness translates to the horse, who also becomes tense. I often tell my students to “allow” the canter, rather than “ask” for the canter, and this can help to eliminate tension.
2. Fixed hands or hands that don’t follow sufficiently. Remember, we’re dealing with the unbalanced horse. Unlike the balanced horse, the unbalanced horse will use his neck (and head) as a balancing rod. Riders need to be ready to follow the horse’s neck and head, even if the motion is extreme (it’s especially important to make sure there is no resistance on your inside rein as that will block the leading leg). As the horse learns to balance, the use of the neck as a balancing rod will decline. To short circuit this path by insisting that the horse not use his neck to balance is to create problems. The fast way is the slow way and the slow way is the fast way, as my Yankee-Irish horsewhispering boyfriend likes to say.
3. Leaning forward during the depart. This is very common, especially among beginners and intermediate-level riders. Ironically, the habit can develop because a horse has a nice spring and an uphill balance going into the canter. To avoid getting left behind, the rider leans forward instead. The solution is to allow the seat to follow with a supple pelvis while maintaining a vertical torso. But don’t lock those shoulder joints, or you’ll find yourself struggling with problem #2.
4. Incorrect timing of the aid. Without going into an elaboration and comparison of the various canter aids, timing your aids in conjunction with your horse’s footfalls can be helpful — or even critical. There are certainly temperamentally even or well-schooled horses in droves who will understand your canter aid whenever it is given and be willing to depart into canter as soon as they can. But if you’re having trouble, if your horse is on the sensitive end of the scale, if you’re training your horse for Third Level work or beyond, or if you’re riding a horse with a more complete vocabulary of aids and movements, you’ll want to give your aids at the right moment. The outside hind leg is the leg that begins the depart, so it is when the outside hind leg is on the ground that the aid should be given.
5. Holding the aid. There will be a delay from the point at which you give the aid and you feel the horse respond. Ask and allow. Touch the aid and release. Be patient and have faith. You may be surprised at how well your horse responds.
If you’re doing all the right things with your body, and you’re still not getting the depart you want, you may want to think about training solutions.
1. Prepare for the transition. One of my old instructors always said, “prepare, prepare, prepare,” in time with the tempo of the gait before asking for the transition. That may be a series of half-halts. It may be a focus on rhythm and tempo. It may be a slight repositioning. Experiment and see what you can do in the strides before the canter depart that can improve the stride containing the depart.
2. Try counter bending or asking for the transition from shoulder fore or shoulder in. That will help with straightness.
3. Ask for your depart at the center of a figure eight, on a short diagonal, from a leg yield, as you straighten coming off a half volte with a change of rein. Are you varying the points at which you ask for the depart? See how creative you can be. Anticipation can destroy the transition of even the most talented horse.
3. Forget your horse’s legs and think about the withers. Driving the hindquarters to engage the hind end and bring lift to the depart can backfire. Try thinking about lifting the withers in front of your belly button as you ask for the depart instead, and see what happens.
4. Try your transition coming off the rail onto a circle, rather than coming onto the rail from a circle. Facing the wide open space of your arena rather than the wall can give your horse a spring he’s been lacking in the depart.
5. Practice your transition from rein back…from walk…from halt. It can be easier for horses to do a walk-canter transition than a trot-canter transition, regardless of the order in which these transitions appear in dressage tests.
Have you improved your canter departs with other methods? I’d love to hear about them. If you’re still struggling, let me know if any of my suggestions help you.