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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Bending and Suppleness- The Eternal Challenge

How do we make the horse more supple? Ah, the eternal challenge.

After all, if the horse is not supple and soft to our aids, then he cannot respond lightly. If he is not flexible, then he cannot soften over and through his topline and respond quickly, softly, and beautifully to our requests for more advanced work (lateral work, collection, and the type).

This is why those basics are so important. This is why you must school the basics everyday.

My trainer will check in with me periodically throughout our sessions to ask me: Can you bend him both ways? Can you deepen his bend? If yes, then he is ready to perform the next challenge of our ride, if no, then we need to work our basics more.

So, I came up with a fun exercise the other day to work towards improving our basic bend. This is a bit of a more advanced exercise, but, if you are at a very basic level, this is a great exercise to strive towards when trying to improve the “bend-ability” of your lovely dance partner. I liked this exercise because it stemmed from difficulties with bending deeply enough in our canter work (big surprise, if you read our last post!… or not.) If you cannot perform a movement at the walk, then you cannot perform it at the trot… if you cannot perform a movement at the trot, then you cannot perform it at the canter… you get the idea.

Well, Aragorn happens to be quite flexible (MOST of the time) at our walk and trot. But, we still struggle with correct bend at the canter. Like I said in my last post, I believe this to be more a strength issue than anything else. But, the way to strengthen the muscles needed to maintain a more balanced, correct, and collected canter with nice bend and effective half halt responses, is to work the trot: lots of changes in bend, changing the gait (shorten and lengthen stride, stretching at the trot and collecting at the trot, transitions between gaits, etc.), riding figures, directional changes, hill work, etc.

Well, we were having some troubles with the canter the other day and Aragorn was actually getting quite upset with the work and I was becoming frustrated with him. So, I backed off to work the trot and focus on some bending and counter-bend at the trot (I am not a proponent of pushing through when there is already major frustration; I want my horse to be HAPPY to do the work!) and I came up with this fun exercise below. By the end of the ride, he was bending softly and easily to both directions and able to bend as deeply as I wanted him to, and we finished on a positively wonderful note!


Here’s how I rode this exercise (see my roughly drawn diagram below):

  1. Start tracking right, establishing a good forward freely moving walk or trot (I started at the trot and, if you and your dance partner feel comfortable beginning this exercise at the trot, then go ahead and do so!). Your horse should feel a bit “swingy” through the back and hips at the walk and through the hips and shoulders at the trot, and your contact should be even between both reins. Your inside (right) leg should be softly at the girth with your outside leg just behind the girth. Your inside rein asking for a clear inside bend with a gently sponging of the rein as needed, with your outside rein controlling the shoulder and preventing over-bend with a clear, consistent contact.
  2. Use the corner between C and M to deepen your bend. Actually seek to over-bend a bit through the corner and establish a good connection or just reaffirm your connection as you prepare to change across the short diagonal.
  3. Change rein M to E maintaining a right directional bend the entire way. So, keep your aids consistent and employ the use of a clear inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection (right leg to left rein). Take your time with this, after all, most likely, you’ve ridden this figure with a change of bend over the centerline to a left bend in the past, but you don’t want to do that here!
  4. Maintain a counter-bend (right bend) E to K. Be sure to keep that clear connection from your right leg to left rein. If your horse attempts to change his bend to the left, open up your right rein and remind him with a firm inside calf at the girth that you want him bent to the right!
  5. At K, change to a left bend, the correct bend for this direction. You’re going to want to be clear in your half halts and take your time in adjusting your aids to be sure there is no confusion to the horse. If, at first, you are struggling with changing the bend, slow down! Even halt, if you have to, and ask for a change of bend at the halt and then walk on from there.
  6. Ride K-A-F on a left bend and use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend. Mentally prepare yourself and prepare your horse for the second half of this exercise as you approach F. Use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend and reaffirm your connection like you did in step 2 above. You should have a nice connection from your new inside leg (left leg) to your new outside rein (right rein).
  7. Change rein F to E maintaining a left directional bend the entire way. Again, keep your aids consistent and employ the use of a clear inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection (left leg to right rein). Remember: don’t change bend as you cross over the centerline keep your left directional bend!
  8. Maintain a counter-bend (left bend) E to H. Remember: if your horse attempts to change his bend to the right, open up your left rein and remind him with a firm inside leg at the girth that you want him bent to the left!
  9. At H, change to a right bend, the correct bend for this direction. Again, be clear with your half halts to balance, soften and prepare your horse for the bend change! It’s okay to halt or slow down to change the bend, but coming to the corner between H and C will really help your horse want to naturally change the bend.
bending exercise
1. Start tracking right, establishing a good forward freely moving walk or trot. 2. Use the corner between C and M to deepen your bend. 3. Change rein M to E maintaining a right directional bend the entire way. 4. Maintain a counter-bend (right bend) E to K.  5. At K, change to a left bend, the correct bend for this direction. 6. Ride K-A-F on a left bend and use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend. 7. Change rein F to E maintaining a left directional bend the entire way. 8. Maintain a counter-bend (left bend) E to H. 9. At H, change to a right bend, the correct bend for this direction.

Aragorn’s take on this exercise: he loved it! It was not too hard, so he did not become frustrated, but it was not too easy as it kept his interest and he had to stay quite focused on me to see which way he should be bending. After riding this through just 3-4 times at the trot, he was much more balanced, he became quite soft to my aids, and he was softly chewing the bit and slobbering up a storm! We finished up our ride with lots of circles and figure-eights in a stretchy trot and we finished our ride feeling quite successful. Such a difference from the tense, frustrated horse I had during our canter work that day.


So, as this exercise becomes easier and easier here are some ideas for increasing the challenge:

  1. Try it at the canter! That change of bend at K and H will become quite difficult if you don’t use your half halts effectively to truly balance and deepen your level of collection. As the rider, you will really need to sit into your horse as deep as you can get while maintaining that softness through your seat and hands to allow the horse to swing through his topline to come through a change of bend nicely.
  2. Add transitions at A, C, and even the centerline. If you’re doing the exercise at the trot, either walk or halt at each of those letters while maintaining a bend in the desired direction. If you’re walking, try halting at those letters being careful not to lose your bend. If doing this at the canter, you can really increase the challenge with a trot, walk, or halt transition.
  3. Add a 10 meter circle at A or C within the same gait.
  4. Add a 15 or 20 meter circle at A or C and do some lengthenings within the same gait, particularly as you come over the centerline near L or I. Just a stride or two can greatly improve your connection and balance.

So, try this exercise out and let me know how it went: What was easy? What did you struggle with? How did your horse feel? Did you feel a difference in the quality of your bend, in the lightness of your connection, in your horse’s way of going? Did you try a different variation of this exercise that you’d like to share? Please comment!

The Blogger Journey

Today I am beginning a new journey.

Everyday, all of us begin a new journey (isn’t making it through each individual day a journey?!) and within that journey we may have many mini-journeys.

Well, today I am beginning a huge journey: The Blogger Journey.

I am focusing this journey on sharing my prior, current, and future mini-journeys in equestrianism, horsemanship, and dressage.

I am, by no means, a professional. I am an amateur rider and competitor. However, I am excited to share my finds, my light bulb moments, my frustrations, my achievements, etc. with you all and maybe I can help you and you can help me!

I am actually going through a frustrating time in my riding right now. My horse has always ridden a bit stiffer to the left, which is funny to me because he can bend so far in both directions from the ground to get a carrot that he practically touches his tail. But, add me and you get a horse who wants to fall in on his left shoulder and grab the bit and look right while riding around a circle to the left. So, naturally, the problem must be me! I am very much right sided. To combat this problem, I’ve considered forcing myself to write with my left hand, sweep, shovel, and pick manure with my left hand at the top of the handle, and do other things dominantly with my left hand. UGH- but easier said than done! So, I’ve been trying to be hyper-aware of my left hand and arm while riding. I think this is helping a bit.

But, the majority of our problem comes apparent at the canter. Now, this is not so much a me alone issue as it is an Aragorn (my lovely riding partner) problem. He is a friesian/saddlebred cross, a registered Georgian Grande. Think about it- what is a friesian’s best gait? The trot. And a saddlebred’s? The trot. These lovely, flashy horses with their upright necks and fairly straight and upright shoulders tend to canter quite tightly, causing themselves to exert much energy at the canter. So, take the combination of me and my left side problems and combine them with Aragorn’s lack of strength at the canter, we become quite the messy package.

Now let me discuss a previous journey with you all: I have done all of Aragorn’s training myself. I purchased him as a two year old from his breeder and he was very minimally handled. I started him very slowly, spending years on manners and groundwork, alone. He was a huge 16+ hand baby who wanted to buck, rear, bite, play, and have fun all of the time! Needless to say, we’ve had many hiccups in our journey, but now he is one of the best behaved horses on the ground you will come across. Prior to May 2014, I never worked with a trainer with him. I did everything myself. However, in the Spring of 2014, I realized that we had reached a plateau and I had maxed out my toolbox in improving his suppleness, gaits, and submissiveness. I employed the aid of a local trainer (and good friend) to aid us in moving forward in our dressage journey. Since then, we moved from only being comfortable at showing introductory level dressage (mostly because his canter was absolutely out of control) to showing first level! I only work with my trainer once or twice a month, but it has made such a difference- my toolbox is full again!

However, I feel like I am on another plateau (with a slight down slope). This winter has been rough. My barn is only a few hundred feet off of the Intracoastal Waterway, so the 2-5 days a week of rain that we have been having has wrecked havoc on our riding ring. For the months of January and February about 50% of the time there was only about a 20 meter square section that was decent enough to canter safely without slipping and less than 10% of the time was our entire dressage ring rideable at the canter. The remainder of the time I was reduced to riding on the hard dirt road leading past the barn. But, all of these things combined still only allowed me to ride 1-2 days a week. Not a good scenario for trying to show upper first level this spring! My first show was supposed to be next weekend (March 21st), but I am too frustrated with our canter right now. I am going to wait until April to begin showing this year. Aragorn’s fitness level has decreased, and so has mine, this winter. I need the next few weeks to a month to get the both of us back into shape before we are strong enough to compete at First Level tests 2 and 3. Aragorn makes it quite obvious when he is getting tired of working our left side canter.

Canter discussion to be continued….