It may shock you to learn that not every dressage rider was born in the saddle with heels down, thumbs on top, and (as my old instructor so politely put it) ‘boobs on the shelf’. In fact, many dressage riders – even top ones – were in fact born so floppy and useless that they were incapable of supporting even their own heads, let alone half a ton of raw horsepower. Okay, not many. All. Babies can’t ride horses, guys. They’re just less-fluffy, glorified giant hamsters.
As long as I could ramble about the impracticality of the infant human being, however, that is not the purpose of this series. The purpose, rather, is to remind you that no matter how well or badly we think we ride, we are all human, and we will all have glaring gaps in our riding skills where something just never clicked, or somehow we just never quite learned the right way to do something. Having had a *cough* ‘interesting’ start to my own riding career, the ratio of gaps to skills in my riding was truly disturbing, until about five years ago when I began proper instruction. Yet even after years of honing my skills, I’ve still found frustrating little pockets of ignorance in my riding where extremely simple movements just confused me to death, because through years of incorrect riding my aids had become corrupted, and I had begun asking for movements entirely correctly without even realising it. These ignorance pockets have been driving me mad for years, until recently my instructor was kind enough to help me to identify and repair them.
So, as I re-learn the basics as an established rider, I am going to share these shockingly obvious epiphanies of eye-roll-inducing simplicity with you.
For a long time my Achilles heel in dressage has been – brace for it – my canter transitions. Yes, I was that rider who could ride a really nice half pass and a rein back, then chuck my butt out of the saddle, swing my upper body to the inside like a polo player, chuck my reins at my horse’s head, and flap my legs like I was trying to get him to run some barrels or something. Unsurprisingly, his reaction ordinarily went something like this:
“What’s happening?! Drop rhythm! Speed up! Head in the air, flick toes, AAAH! Bolt into hollow gallop--. Oh. Oh, you wanted me to canter. Terribly sorry. I’ll just get back into my frame and pick up my pretty rhythm like nothing happened. Maybe the judge didn’t notice.”
(Spoiler alert: I got comments like ‘hollow’, ‘rushed’ and ‘little tense’ far too often for comfort. The 5s and 6s e averaged were generous, and credited entirely to my horse, not to me.)
Now, believe it or not, swinging from your saddle like a deranged Tarzan-style ape-woman is not the most efficient way to ask for a canter transition. The most efficient way is to slide your outside leg back, and think ‘canter’. Sounds simple, right? Of course. It’s basic, we all know it. But as experience has taught me, knowing something and doing it are two entirely different things, and asking for a canter transition is never as simple as it seems. How many times have you sat on your horse and slid your outside leg back without asking for canter? To bring the quarters in, ask for leg yield, heck, even to pull up your girth! But I’ll bet (or at least, I hope) that your horse did not canter on every occasion. That’s because asking for the canter is not as simple as just sliding your leg back. Oh, no, I’m not saying there’s more you have to do. I’m just saying that there are about a billion things you have to not do, and that’s where it gets tricky.
Now, when I talk about canter transitions, I’m not talking about getting your horse from trot to canter come what may. I’m talking about a balanced, engaged canter transition that will make the dressage judge simulate Obama’s ‘not bad’ face. So, to simplify the complexly simple, let’s break it down into steps.
How to Prepare your Canter Transition:
Step 1: Make sure you have a rhythmic, balanced trot (or walk) and that your horse is moving correctly from the leg to the hand. (If you’re stuck already, don’t worry, I will address this later in the series).
Step 2: Establish a true inside bend. This means your horse’s entire body must be bent around your inside leg, and you should be holding with your outside hand. Your inside hand should be soft and relaxed, not pulling the neck to the inside. Also note that you horse horse can’t just be bending from the poll (ie, flexed to the inside) or you will lose the quarters and get an incorrect or disunited strike-off.
Step 3: Make sure that you as a rider are balanced in your seat, moving forward with your hips, and that your legs and hands are steady. Look up, and ride upwards and forwards from your hips to the sky to lift and engage your horse.
Step 4: Half halt to keep your horse balanced and attentive, and let them know something is about to happen. Keep the forward momentum. Your horse must be quick off the leg, and moving forward, so it feels ready to jump into canter.
Step 5: Ask for the canter transition. Without changing anything, slide your outside leg back, then drive the canter forward into your hand to quickly establish power and engagement.
So simple! But wait. We forgot about what not to do. Well, crabsticks.
‘Don’ts’ During the Canter Transition:
1: Don’t look down to check if you are on the correct lead. You will throw your weight to the inside and unbalance your horse. You should keep your head up and straight. However, for horses that struggle to pick up the correct lead, you may find it useful to look into the distance, in the direction you want to go. This will tilt your shoulders subtly to indicate to your horse which rein you are going on to.
2. Don’t snatch / balance on the reins. If you pull back, you will catch your horse in the mouth and make him hollow, and he will probably just run on in the trot.
3. Don’t throw your reins at him either. This will give you a rushed transition with your horse falling into an unbalanced canter on the forehand. You must keep your hands steady and elastic, soften a little with the inside hand on the transition, and ride forward into a lightly holding outside contact.
4. Don’t lighten your seat. I know, it’s tempting. It feels natural to canter in a light seat, but all it does is throws away the engagement you’ve developed in preparation. Try sit deep on your seatbones, hips open and forward, and ride up to the sky from your pelvis. This will give you a nice deep seat to push your horse’s quarters under him for an upwards, engaged transition.
5. Don’t squeeze with your inside leg. This was my bad habit, because I feared my horse wouldn’t move off the outside and pick up the canter. Be careful of this, because I didn’t even know I was doing it! Sometimes it just becomes automatic. You think ‘more leg’, and both go on. Then your horse wonders, “Do I trot faster? Do I canter? Which way do I canter? WHAT’S GOING ON?!” And if your horse is like mine, this is where you see a two on your test, with comments like “extremely resistant, rearing,” following your 8 for a “lovely and relaxed” free walk. Oops.
The result of my re-learning the canter transition:
So that, my friends, is how not to mess up your canter transition as badly as most of us usually do. I sincerely hope these little epiphanies will help you to identify and conquer your little bad habits, as they have done for me.
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