A Useful Trot/Canter Transition Exercise

Now that the rain is not coming on a daily basis and my riding ring actually has some time to dry up, I can direct my focus towards working more exercises geared towards improving our bend, improving transitions, and strengthening our canter. Because our ring has been so wet, I’ve been lucky to have a 20 meter circle area to ride and, needless to say, that can get boring very quickly! So, I ride around a few circles, do some transitions, change rein through the circle, etc. all the while daydreaming up fun exercises I can do when I can use my entire ring again!

For me, it is difficult to ever feel like I’ve spent enough time working the canter. Aragorn can trot and trot and trot for hours and, seemingly, never become fatigued. However, throwing some canter into the mix quickly changes that scenario. Aragorn will try his hardest and give me 100% for as long as he can. However, after about ten 20 meter canter circles and/or about two dozen transitions into and out of the canter from either the walk or trot and he is finished. Aragorn is not a belligerent horse- he does not pin his ears, swish his tail, buck, shake his head or anything else when he becomes fatigued. Instead, he becomes heavy and stiff. He leans heavier on his forehand and, therefore, he feels heavier in my hands. He becomes stiffer when tracking left and, therefore, tries his hardest to bend right and go right. Sometimes, if he is really having a moment, he will even snatch the rein from me and rip himself off to the right- so lovely when that happens- fortunately it is very infrequent when he becomes that naughty and that’s only after I’ve truly pushed him beyond what he is willing to give me that day.

So, my solution is not to just canter, canter, canter. Instead I try to incorporate short canter spurts into the mix of transition work and other exercises such as lateral work, stretching, and trotting figures. I still want Aragorn to be able to canter ten circles in a row and then canter down the long side, around the short end, and across the diagonal for a change of rein, but I am not going to ride this every time I ride- how boring and meaningless is that?! So, I came up with a fun exercise the other day that incorporates lots of bend and directional changes, gait changes, and challenges my timing and accuracy.


Here’s How I Rode This Exercise (See diagram below)

  1. Begin at a working trot down the long side from M to F (tracking right). As you approach F, half halt to collect your trot and balance your horse for the upcoming 10 meter half circle. F-D, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. As you cross over the quarter line approaching B, change from a right bend to a left bend. Be sure you, again, half halt to collect and prepare your horse for a transition to a working canter.
  2. At B, pick up a left lead working canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. Use your half halts to stay balanced throughout and again to aid in achieving a balanced downward transition to a trot right when you return back to B.
  3. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and continue on the long side to M. Half halt! Do not allow your horse to run through you. Work towards achieving as much balance and collection through this transition as possible, but be careful you are not bracing and stiff, as you will only stiffen your horse and he will be more likely to stiffen and lose his softness through this transition.
  4. M-G, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. As you did for the first 10 meter half circle, you will need to use your half halts to collect your trot and balance your horse for the half circle as you approach M. Keep a left bend until you cross the quarter line approaching B and then change to a right bend. Be ready- your canter transition comes quickly! Use your half halts and stay soft through your body- do not stiffen! If you do not achieve a true right bend by B, it’s okay: slow down and trot a few strides on the 20 meter circle while you work to fix the bend.
  5. At B, pick up a right lead working canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. Again: half halt, half halt, half halt! Stay connected, soft, and slow down! Be ready to transition back to your trot right at B. Stay soft through your transition and you will be more successful in maintaining your horse’s balance and connection.
  6. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and you are back to where you began! You can start over again with step 1 and continue through this exercise as many times as you’d like!
canter-trot transition and bending exercise
1. Begin at a working trot down the long side from M to F (tracking right). F-D, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. (You are making a 10 meter loop to change direction) 2. At B, pick up a left lead canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. 3. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and continue on the long side to M. 4. M-G, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. 5. At B, pick up a right lead canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. 6. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and you are back to where you began! You can start over again with step 1 and continue through this exercise as many times as you’d like!

Some helpful things to remember when riding this exercise

The most important thing you need to aid you in successfully riding this exercise- half halts! If you don’t continually work to achieve more balance in your horse, not only are you going to miss the transitions, but your dimensions will be off as well. You want to ride this exercise obsessing over your accuracy the entire time and the only way to achieve the level of accuracy needed to ride this exercise efficiently is to half halt, half halt, half halt!

Yes, I said to ride this exercise in your working gaits, but I want to always work towards collection as much as possible- work where you and your horse are most comfortable! Even if you can only collect your trot through the 10 meter half circle, then consider that a great success! Next time, try to collect for a stride or two longer. Try to collect your canter for just a stride or two as you ride past E on your 20 meter circle. As you and your horse achieve a higher level of strength and balance, you will eventually be able to increase the level of difficulty of this exercise by trying some of the modifications I list below.

The best piece of advice I have for any rider, and the mantra that keeps me from becoming frustrated is this: in equestrian sports, a few can become many and many can become all. So, did you get one collected canter stride today? Great! Tomorrow, it could be two! Or, it could be zero. But, that’s okay, because you got one yesterday and, if you got one yesterday, you know you can get it again! We all have days where we function a bit better or worse than others. Horses do, too.

So, remember:

A few can become many and many can become all!


Aragorn’s Thoughts

Aragorn liked this exercise because it forced him to fully focus on me. This exercise moves quickly: it was nearly impossible for him to anticipate what I wanted from him; he was asked to change himself almost constantly whether it be a change of bend or direction or gait. He was really forced to engage his hind end in the canter and stay engaged the whole time to make it through the changes smoothly and gracefully.

We rode this exercise maybe 5 times through entirely before I moved on to some stretchy trot circles and, boy, did he give me a good stretch! I’m coming to realize that, not only are these stretching bits a great release physically, but mentally for the horse as well. This is the time that Aragorn processes everything we had been working on and he knows that being allowed to stretch at a nice forward, freely moving trot is a great reward for a job well done. During these times, I can almost see Aragorn’s thoughts as he processes our most recent bit of work. The looser he feels and the more forward and down he stretches, the better a lesson I know he learned. One of my favorite feelings on horseback is that loose stretchy trot where I am able to maintain the lightest of contact on a super long rein (almost to the buckle!) and Aragorn still gives me soft bend and directional changes. Such a great reward to me, too. A job well done!


Ideas for Increasing the Challenge 

So, does this exercise ride easily for you? Are you ready to increase the challenge for you and your horse? Here are some ideas to try:

  1. If the 20 meter circle at B is easy for you, make it a 15 meter circle.
  2. Add in another canter-trot-canter transition at E on the 20 meter circle. Try to aim for only one trot stride- NOT easy to do!
  3. If you want to really amp up the challenge, do multiple canter-trot-canter transitions on the 20 meter circle. How many can you do? If you can do three transitions on the circle, can you increase it to four?
  4. Add in a walk transition at F and M. Aim for just one walk stride and be sure your gaits stay of a high quality.
  5. Instead of a walk transition at F and M, do a halt transition! Vary the length of the halt- 3, 5, 10, 15 seconds. Be sure to trot out of the halt without any sluggishness. Keep an attentive halt! This can become more challenging the longer you hold your halt.

Well, how did it go when you tried this exercise? I would love to hear about your experiences! Please comment, share your experiences, share your challenges and successes, and your suggestions. I would love to hear them!

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