The canter - we ride many movements in this gait. And the higher up the levels we go, the more time we spend in canter and the more "tricks" the horse must do in the canter. The key to much (if not, arguably, ALL of this) is developing a strong, clear collected canter. Our horse must demonstrate a clear, three beat rhythm, and maintain impulsion or "jump" in the canter even as we ask them to carry more weight behind and do more complicated movements.
Developing and improving the quality of the canter - How do we do it?
Transitions are ALWAYS your friend!
I love to use walk-canter transitions to help the horse get stronger and learn to sit and engage the hind end.
To then take the walk-canter transitions to the next level, I incorporate them onto a 20 meter circle. This adds the element of counter canter and demands slightly more engagement.
Walk - Canter - Walk on the 20 Meter Circle
For this exercise, your horse should already understand the transitions from walk to canter and from canter to walk. Your horse should also understand counter canter. They don't need to be perfect (this exercise will help him improve those transitions!) but it is important that your horse have a basic understanding of these concepts.
Begin in left lead collected canter on a 20 meter circle tracking left.
Ask for a transition to walk - no trot steps!
Flex your horse right and ask for right lead canter - once again, no trot steps!
As you canter forward on the circle to the left, ask your horse to bend left around the circle, even though he's on the right/counter lead.
Ask for a transition to walk. Flex your horse left and ask for left lead canter.
Repeat this several times, alternating between the true lead and the counter lead. Once the circle to the left is easy, change rein and do the exercise to the right.
Problems you may encounter and what to do-
Problem: Your horse won't pick up the counter lead.
Solution: Instead of bending around the track of the circle, ride straight for a few strides (as many strides as needed to get him completely straight). Ask for the counter lead from a straight line. Once your horse has picked up the counter lead, slowly guide him back to the 20 meter circle.
Problem: Your horse won't keep the counter lead while bending on the circle. He breaks to trot or swaps leads.
Solution: Ride the circle with less or no bend while you're in counter canter. Think of your circle as an octagon, with many small straight lines. Aim to keep your horse very straight. Once he understands where he's going and that you don't want him to change leads, you can begin to add in bend - little by little! If he makes a mistake and swaps leads, walk and ask again for the lead you want. Take your time and wait for him to understand.
Problem: Your horse takes trot steps into the canter.
Solution: When you ask for canter, if the horse offers trot steps, give him a swift kick or three. He should shoot forward. Don't worry about the geometry of your circle - just establish that he must canter forward. Come back to walk and ask again. Repeat as often as you need. Give him a swift kick if he trots at all and be sure to give him a big pat if he strikes right off in canter.
Do not slam him back to walk. Send him forward in canter, then come back to walk and ask again. Be sure to ALWAYS send the horse forward in canter. Once the horse understands that he must go forward and that if he goes straight to canter, he gets a pat instead of a kick, he will likely make that choice all the time!
As you work this exercise and your horse gets stronger, the exercise will get easier. See how many transitions you can do on one single circle!
As your horse gets stronger in the canter, your other canter work will improve. Flying changes, half passes, and pirouettes will get easier and the quality will improve.
Give this a try and let me know what you think! Happy riding!