Canter Exercises
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Tuesday, January 20, 2009 09:41 AM
If you haven't read the previous blog on rider's seat in canter I strongly recommend reading it before continuing with the exercises. Click here.
Exercises for the rider
  • Cantering in two point or light seat is a great exercise to stabilize your lower leg and train your thigh muscles. It teaches you about balance. Riders who can only ride canter in three-point do not have enough balance to do it well. Even in dressage saddle you can shorten the stirrups one or two holes and ride with your weight more in the stirrups, heels and thighs with good connection to your horse through thigh, knee and lower leg. To ride in light seat well and to be able to slow down or make transitions to trot requires a great deal of control in your thighs and upper body. Try to go between three-point seat and light seat every half-circle to observe the changes in your own balance and how this affects your horse.
  • Ride steady short or collected canter. On a 20 m circle take your legs away from the saddle for couple of strides. Take the whole leg from the hip joint, exactly sideways, not up and not rotated out. If you only can ease the connection with the saddle it is a good start. Make sure your base (seatbones and pubic arch) is solid and evenly loaded. Because you can not use your legs to stabilize yourself it all comes down to your torso. How well it can counterbalance the movement of the canter stride. With abdominal push, well united upper and lower body and back stability and suppleness you must keep yourself in balance. Try it without stirrups. This exercise gives you the chance to see how much of the torso control is required. If you feel an urge to grab the reins or you start wobbling too much you need to work on stabilizing your core.
  • Ride a 20 m circle in dressage seat. Lengthen the canter stride for half a circle and then shorten it for the second half. Do it with your seat only, no reins. What I mean is stay soft in your hands, do not create any resistance. The only way to do it is to use your seat correctly. Diminishing amplitude of your own movement, taking your horse up in the air and then sending energy backwards toward his haunches. It is like your body is a control center that decides where energy from the hind legs go -forward, up, back to the hind legs. The energy of the horse moves in a circular motion forward and your energy creates circular motion backwards, almost like gears. The horse is a big gear, the primary mover and you are a small gear the redistributer of the energy. Many horses loose their push from behind when asked to shorten like that for the first time. If yours does that do not shorten for half a circle. Shorten for just a few steps and drive him forward again. He needs lots of practice to built his agility, suppleness and muscles control just like you need to. He may lean on the rein when asked to shorten. If he does only then resist momentarily and then soften. Do not initiate shortening with your reins!
Exercises for the horse
  • Take the last exercise from the above series and go one step further with it. When you start to feel that your horse responds by shortening his canter stride without loosing energy in his steps ( beginning of collection) yield with your hands and allow him to stretch forward a little bit without loosing the quality of the balance you have achieved. Do not drop the contact suddenly. You simply want to see if he still can stretch into your hand while being in somewhat collected state. If he cannot, it simply means he is still too weak and needs more work. And check your own balance, make sure you do not disturb your seat while asking for the stretch. Do not ask to stretch for too long or too far forward you will bound to loose him. Built his strength and suppleness in small steps.
  • Horse's asymmetry usually becomes much more obvious in canter. If you allow your horse to canter like that (for example, haunches pushed to the inside) he will not be able to use himself well. Haunches will escape loading, energy from behind will dissipate, back will not round and the withers will not come up. Lets assume that you are getting better with the drawing your horse's back up during canter and you have worked on the last exercise in the previous paragraph and can shorten your horse's stride without use of the reins. Start asking for the transition to canter from the shoulder-fore position (usually riders make it only to straight, however, they think they are doing shoulder-fore). It can be done from trot or walk. Make sure your shoulder-fore is done from the seat and not just head and neck pulled to the inside. Pay attention to the first few strides and notice when you loose his straightness. The difference is very obvious. At first, your horse will feel very vertical and uphill. And you will feel like you are sitting on top of him. And every canter stride should feel like that. If all of a sudden he dropped from under you either left or right, you lost him and you lost your seat. Do not try to fix it, it is too late. Come back to walk or trot and try again.
  • Counter canter with counter shoulder-fore positioning (true shoulder-fore in relation to the horse's bend). This exercise is for more advanced horses. Your horse must know how to counter canter and how to do counter shoulder-fore. It will work better with horses that can make walk-canter-walk transitions. This exercise allows you to use the arena wall in order to keep your horse straight. Your outside aids will work as a barrier to sort of "press" him into the wall and he will have to lift his shoulders up and sit behind. Because all you do is position him and ask to go forward you eliminate a possibility to use your seat too much and start pushing into your horse. You can yield with your hands occasionally and feel how he stays on your seat. This is a great straightening exercise I have seen in use very often by experienced riders and I have used it myself. It helps to execute balanced transitions to walk. It teaches your horse to stay patient and wait for you.
Happy riding...
Comment by Shannon Ardell on Wednesday, January 21, 2009 09:38 AM
Hi Irina, These blogs have been very helpful. Already I am feeling the difference in my horse and like how balanced and centered I feel in the saddle. Yesterday was a particular good day. Everything just felt easy so I went down center line and asked for a few easy steps at a canter half pass. He willingly obeyed and as I was straightening, I was trying to figure out whether I would do a simple change or continue in counter canter. I first corrected my position, and in just realigning myself, Walker offered a beautiful flying change. I just smiled. So I tried to do another flying change on the aids, setting it up in the same way. But the old habits came back, I leaned forward, lost my connection with the saddle, and he changed front to back. I left the session doing a couple simple changes, simply to reinforce the aids, and left it there. I know part of my leaning forward is due to some terrible experiences I had with my last horse when it came time to teach the flying changes. He would take off on a dead run and through in a few bucks here and there. I was too green of a rider to be teaching flying changes. I see that now. But the horse was 6 and so the instructor said it was now time to teach the changes. I never got the changes, even after trying for the next 4 years - on and off. I realize that after yesterday, those memories have left a very powerful subconscious reaction my body has to the flying changes. I don't have fear, but my body definitely has some self preservation muscle memory associated with the flying changes! So for now, I am going to continue improving the canter, and if we see fit, maybe work on the changes when you come for the clinic. I totally trust your judgment on this call and leave it in your hands. It has been 2 months since I've ridden, but it seems like when I take time off, I become more sensitive to different feelings. I did do some exercises on the physio ball to help improve my balance, and I can tell you that just doing 5 -10 minutes 3 times a week has made an enormous difference. I think because I have a bit better control of my body, I can now feel that you can't straighten out a horse by adjusting the position of his head. The head is a symptom of what is happening in his body. Ride the body, straighten that out and his head will follow. It was a huge click in my head, and I love the result. My canter is better now, than it ever was. A gait that I used to loathe, I love to ride. Not that all the pieces are there and everything is perfect, but my awareness has reached a different level. Its so fun and I thank you so much for your help, compassion, and insight into riding.
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Thursday, January 22, 2009 04:43 PM
To increase the chance of trying flying changes during clinic I would like you to practice lots of canter-walk-canter transitions doing them on both leads on different lines. For example, going large you ride true canter-walk-counter-canter-walk-true canter and so on. Work on minimizing the walk steps to one or two and picking up new lead from the lightest aid, almost a thought. You can try it on diagonals, big circles. You want your horse to pick up a new lead without any mistakes or hesitation no matter where you ask for it. Do not ask hastily, you want to feel everything and make sure he waits for you. Another exercise is shoulder-fore in canter. It teaches horse to keep shoulders up and straight, you need that for balanced flying change. Flying changes from half-pass is a common way to ask a green horse for one. They seem more willing to do it from half-pass. I'm thrilled to hear how you talk about riding and your own awareness. Sometimes time off gives you fresh look at things. Especially, if you have been exercising. Sometimes, riding all the time may make things too familiar to notice mistakes. Particularly, when you ride only one horse and do not have eyes on the ground on regular basis.
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