The leg sequence in canter creates an uneven, twisting movement, unlike trot where the diagonal pairing of legs gives a more even step. In canter, it is harder to straighten the horse who is often bent more towards the soft side and travels with quarters to that side, quarters in on one side and falling to the shoulder on the other side, and the rider can be pushed to one side by action of the horse's back.
Some common problems in canter are that the horse;
And among the most common cause are;
It is always worth giving your horse a general check, - particularly the back, saddle, bit and teeth - to ensure that there are no physical problems causing the reaction to canter.
Clarity of aids very important, start your correction here, checking that you are not tipping your upper body and causing a loss of balance and that your aids are correct. There is a lot of discussion over which aids are best, some people favour lateral inside aids, others prefer diagonal aids and still other use outside lateral aids. It doesn’t matter which you choose, but you must be 100% consistent with them.
If your horse is crooked in trot, holding weight in one shoulder, the canter transition will be difficult, and these horses often only canter on one lead. In this instance, go back to suppling work using circles and shoulder-in, half pass travers and renvers to rebalance your horse, and then ask for the canter again. Working correctly in a well-balanced trot will improve your horse’s canter.
Whilst young horses can benefit from cantering in straight lines outside, cantering in the school is difficult for them because of the frequency and tightness of the corners. The masters worked in trot, developing collected trot and sometimes even taking this as far as piaffe and passage before introducing canter in the school. A good collected trot will help all canter work, and any time spent developing the trot work and improving the collection and balance in trot will follow through to the canter and help to improve the balance and suppleness there.
Canter is improved by having well-balanced canter transitions from trot. Ensure that your horse is balanced and light before you ask for the canter. Then canter for a short time, once or twice round the school, as you will improve the canter by a good transition, not by cantering for a long time.
I recently read with interest in a Horse and Hound article that the German Dressage Federation has published an updated version of the well-known Training Scales. (http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/the-principles-of-riding-book-627462)
The origin of the training scale is unclear, but it has become widely adopted by the dressage community. The training scales identify some of the major elements required in training horses, and attempts to display the scale pictorially show how difficult it is to portray the complexity of dressage training as the qualities are very interconnected. Add to this the variety of alternative elements used by different authors as well as differing terms, it becomes confusing.
The diagrams tend towards a linear format that encourages the reader to follow a linear approach to their training, however, dressage training is not linear. Each element affects the others and progression is more circular than linear. Some authors have tried to portray a more interconnected version of the training scale, but these diagrams are, necessarily, very complex.
It’s easy to see how all this can be misinterpreted, however, the key is that each element is dependent on the others, and trainers should be conscious of this throughout their riding, e.g. ask for more impulsion and the cadence changes and needs to be readdressed.
The latest version in the “Principles of Riding: Basic Training for Horse and Rider” (above) shows that the elements are connected, but still implies a linear training system. The text that accompanies the diagram is much more informative. Each element has a relevant description and the main focus of the writing is that the steps influence each other and that the rider should understand and respect the natural abilities of each horse, never pushing them beyond what they can achieve at any given time. There is also more emphasis on the rider taking responsibility for the problems that occur, looking to themselves first before their horse. This is an improvement to previous versions, but despite efforts to clarify and refine the training scales, it remains a linear process; a good starting point but not necessarily the whole picture.
Half pass, travers and renvers and are all excellent exercises for developing suppleness, performed in different places in the school.
Introduce travers with care or your horse will not produce travers but a twisted contortion. Start at the beginning of the long side of the school and maintain a slight inside bend with your inside leg. Do not over bend the horse. Lightly touch with your outside leg back to bring your horse's quarters to the inside. As with half pass use intermittent touches with your leg, and only use the leg as necessary so you don't rush your horse in the movement. Don't over bend them to the inside or the outside shoulder will fall away.
The wall on the long side can prevent forward movement, to resolve this ensure your horse is carrying the movement from the inside hind leg not the inside shoulder.
Renvers is the reverse of travers, the quarters are to the wall and the shoulders are on an inner track with the horse bent in the direction of the movement. To position your horse for renvers, turn on to an inner track on the long side of the school. Change to bend towards the outside of the school. As with travers use your outside leg (outside to the bend, which will be on the inside of the school) to move the horse's haunches towards the wall.
Travers and renvers can be ridden on a circle and are both very beneficial to the development of a horse’s suppleness, engagement and collection. Care must be taken to ensure that the horse is correctly round the rider's inside leg and not just crooked.
The picture below shows the position of a horse in half pass, travers and renvers. The red line represents the wall and you can see how in each exercise the position of the horse is the same.
It is very common for a horse to confuse the canter and half-pass aids, particularly in early stages of learning half-pass. It is very important that you don't reprimand your horse for this as he will lose confidence in what you are asking and this can result in problems in both canter and half-pass.
The aids are similar but have small, very significant differences. In canter, the rider's outside leg comes back a little, the inside seat bone should lighten to allow horse's shoulder to lift, and the rider keeps their shoulders straight. These small movements in your upper body are significant aids to your horse.
In half-pass, your body position is different; your shoulders should turn towards the direction of the movement, your outside leg comes slightly further back than for the canter aid, and you should close your body towards the inside elbow on each stride. This will take your body weight towards the inside in the correct direction for the half-pass.
Consistent replication of the aids is paramount so you horse has clarity and you can help your horse more by asking for half-pass and canter in different places in the school.
Half-pass is a lateral movement where the horse takes steps to the side and forward, moving in a diagonal line away from the starting point. See Half Pass - Correcting Problems 1 - Horse twists the head and Half pass - correcting problems 2 - changes to rhythm for more information on riding half pass..
Unlike shoulder-in, the horse is moving towards the bend, i.e. a left half-pass has left bend. It is of great value to the suppleness of a horse and the engagement of the hind legs.
A correct half pass will flow smoothly from one leg to the other, with the horse maintaining the bend round the rider's inside leg and the connection with the outside rein
The horse's quarters lead
In half pass, the horse's forehand should always be slightly in front of the quarters, This can be a difficult balance to reach, as it is not uncommon for a horse to lead with the quarters on one rein (the easier side) and trail with the quarters on the other rein (the stiffer side).
If the quarters are leading, move your outside hand delicately towards the horse's neck in the direction of movement. This will bring the horse’s shoulders across more and put them in front of the quarters.. If you make an abrupt movement with your hands you will unbalance your horse.
Ensure that your outside leg is not over-acting. Often the outside leg is only required to start the movement and may not be needed every stride. Touch the leg only when it is needed.
Horse's shoulders lead too much
This can be caused by the outside rein acting too often or too strongly, an imbalance of the rein and leg aids, or a loss of impulsion. To correct this, resolve the initial cause, and then, always, put the horse’s shoulders back in front of the quarters, don't try to move the quarters over more. Therefore, with the shoulders leading, move the outside hand away from the horse's neck in a light, delicate action. A big movement of the hands will disrupt the horse's balance.
Half pass is a lateral movement where the horse takes steps to the side and forward moving in a diagonal line away from the starting point. Unlike shoulder-in, the horse is moving towards the bend, i.e. A left half pass has left bend. It is of great benefit to the suppleness of a horse and the engagement of the hind legs. (for more information see Half Pass - Correcting Problems 1)
Changes in rhythm are quite common and are due to a variety of reasons. It can be difficult to understand why the rhythm has changed, but once you can identify why the rhythm has changed, the correction is straight forward.
Rider blocks with rein
This is a very common fault, when the rider uses the inside rein to create or maintain the half pass, rather than the legs. The outside leg asks for the side step, and the inside leg gathers the horse, maintaining the impulsion and the bend. If the rider doesn't use their legs in time with the horse's rhythm, or uses the legs together, the horse starts to rush, or is blocked, and the rhythm changes.
The horse blocks with shoulder
If this occurs, the horse presses the inside shoulder into the half pass. The correction for this is by using the inside rein away from the horse's neck. By opening the inside rein, the horse is encouraged to stay in the correct bend and is lead into the half pass. It is vitally important not to pull the rein back as you do this or the horse will be blocked in the hind leg.
Horse quickens towards end of half pass
Sometimes a horse will speed up as they feel the wall approaching, to correct this, first decrease the pressure from your outside leg, and stop the half pass 2 or 3 metres from the wall by tactfully riding forwards.
The horse changes the rhythm
In this instance, the horse performs a good half pass but the rhythm is not consistent throughout. Ensure that your horse is bent round your inside leg and lightly connected in the outside rein. Once in half pass, check the use of your legs; using them out of rhythm with your horse will quicken his steps and alter his natural rhythm. Each horse has their own rhythm and it is important that you ride him in that rhythm.
For some horses, if the angle is too steep, they will lose the engagement of the inside hind leg and the rhythm will alter. This may be due to conformation, or suppleness, so ride the half pass at a slightly smaller angle.
Alternatively, it may be that you are asking too many steps and your horse is not able to keep the movement for so long. In which case, ask fewer steps, and gradually increase the number of steps over a few days.
The half pass is a lateral movement where the horse takes steps to the side and forward, moving in a diagonal line away from the starting point. Unlike shoulder-in, the horse is moving towards the bend, i.e. a left half pass has left bend. It is of great benefit to the suppleness of a horse and the engagement of the hind legs.
Half Pass essentials from the FEI rule book;
To ride half pass, the horse must be placed round the rider's inside leg and lightly connected to the outside rein. Evidence of a good half pass is arriving at the end of the movement with your horse still connecting from your inside leg to your outside rein. Many problems occur when the rider creates a half pass by using the inside rein to force the bend and the outside leg to push the horse in the direction, abandoning the inside leg and outside rein.
When the horse is able to do shoulder-in from the long side on to the centre line, you can begin some steps of half pass. Start with your horse in a shoulder fore or shoulder-in position. The degree of the angle depends very much on each the horse; for novice horses, have a shallow angle. The inside leg gives the bend, and then the outside leg, slightly behind the girth, pushes the horse to the side.
It is important for the inside rein to yield and the legs to alternately touch and release, or the horse will become blocked. The rider's shoulders should be turned slightly in the direction of the movement so they remain parallel to the horse's shoulders, and the rider's seat should be balanced across both seat bones.
The horse twists his head when:-
Usually these errors need to be corrected by going back a level in the training and spend some time placing the horse correctly around circles and shoulder-in, ensuring suppleness on both reins.
Then set up the half pass again, ensuring that you don't take the inside rein, as this prevents the inside hind leg from coming through and creates resistance on the inside rein, blocking the horse.
If the horse is stiffer on one side, return to shoulder-in to supple them more before starting half pass again.
Initially, you may need to ride half pass at a slightly shallower angle until your horse is comfortable in the movement, then you can gradually increase the angle and the number of steps.
Don't use your legs together as this will confuse your horse. If necessary, touch lightly with alternate legs, in rhythm with the movement of the horse.
A correct shoulder-in benefits your horse in several ways:
But when problems occur the benefits are lost and, in some instances, it can be detrimental to your training. In two of my previous blogs I have addressed some of the problems that can occur with riding shoulder-in: Loss of Impulsion and Travelling and Correcting Bend.
When shoulder-in has gone wrong it is usually better to ride out of the movement, set things up again and then come back to the exercise, paying attention to the necessary corrections as you start the movement.
Rider blocking the horse or behind the movement
If the rider sits to the inside during the movement, they will be moving against the direction of travel. Closing your body towards the outside elbow helps to maintain correct balance during the movement and release the horse’s inside hind leg, allowing it to cross under the body more easily. Be careful that you don’t sit too far to the outside or you will create a similar problem!
Asking for too much angle
Only ask for the angle that your horse can manage at that time. The exercise will supple your horse and the angle will increase as they become more supple. Also, be aware of your horse’s conformation; a short coupled, stocky horse will have different angles to those of a narrower horse.
Circles and shoulder-in are exercises to supple your horse, and so you must ensure you ride each side the same. On the easier side, ride with less angle, and, as your horse’s stiffer side supples more, the angles will even up and can be gradually increased.
Asking too many steps
Asking for too many steps before your horse is able to maintain them independently will be physically challenging for him, and he will lose the rhythm and angle. Build the number of steps progressively.
Asking for too much stretch
It can be tempting to push your horse for bigger steps in shoulder-in, which results in them running on, losing balance and negates the purpose of the exercise. Initially keep the steps small with the hind feet moving close together so your horse builds strength and suppleness.
Shoulder-in is the basis of all lateral work and provides a foundation for a supple, strong and balanced horse. Throughout the exercise the horse should remain calm, any tension will negate the benefits of the exercise and create a tense horse.
For a full description of a correct shoulder-in please see my previous blog “Shoulder-in, correcting problems – loss of impulsion and travelling.”
Problems with the Bend
Horse bends neck only and moves down the side with shoulders and hips still against the wall.
This problem is often due to the rider not asking correctly, usually by pulling the inside rein back to create the angle. This blocks the horse’s inside hind leg and pulls their head inwards resulting in a stiff, twisted horse.
If this is the cause, ensure that you are sitting balanced across your seat bones and not leaning to the inside. Turn your body to the inside, so your shoulders are parallel to the horse’s shoulders and your hips are parallel to your horse’s hips. Then make a small half halt as your horse’s shoulders come off the track and lightly touch with your inside leg to move him to the side. During the movement close your upper body towards your outside elbow so that you go with his movement.
Another possible cause is that your horse may not be properly round your inside leg. To correct this, as with many things, you need to go back a level in the training. Work correctly on circles, establishing the bend round the inside leg. Rebalance your hand aids and use outside rein to the neck, not inside rein back, to direct the shoulders across as pulling the inside rein results in blocking the inside hind leg and will push your horse on to the outside shoulder.
All horses find it easier to bend on one side than the other, and training should correct this, making the horse equally supple on both sides. Shoulder-in should be ridden with the same angle on both sides so, initially, ride less angle on the easier side so you have control of the movement on both sides. As the work develops, the shoulder-in will become easy on both sides and then the angle can be gradually increased.
Riding a spiral is an easier exercise which can help your horse move from your inside leg and supple the inside hind. Begin riding a circle, spiral down to a smaller circle by closing your outside aids, (rein to the neck not backwards), and then move the horse away from your inside leg back out to the large circle. This helps the horse come round your inside leg and begins to teach them to move away from it.
Begin developing shoulder-in by asking a very shallow angle so you are in a shoulder fore position, and then increase the angle as your horse becomes more supple so he has the same angle on both sides.
Excessive neck bend.
Over bending your horse from the inside rein produces a shoulder-in that is out of balance which will negate the suppling benefits.
In this picture, the inside rein has pulled the head inwards and created an excessive neck bend. To remain in the movement the horse’s weight is being taken by the inside fore leg, and the balance is lost. The outside shoulder is pushed out of the movement twisting the horse and disengaging the inside hind.
The shoulder-in is one of the most useful exercises for your horse; it supples both the shoulders and the quarters, and brings the inside hind leg under the belly of the horse which helps to engage his quarters and lighten the forehand. Of course, none of this happens if the movement is not ridden correctly.
To prepare your horse for shoulder-in
Firstly, your horse should be well balanced on a circle and able to move away from the rider’s inside leg. It is usual to begin this with leg yield, but this can make horses twisted. As an alternative either start this using in hand work or do quarters out of the circle.
In shoulder-in it is important that the horse is bent throughout his body. The degree of angle will depend on the horse’s level of training and conformation. The exercise should be ridden slowly, and in walk the steps should not be too wide or the horse’s back will become hollow. You should feel the horse’s weight remains on the inside hind, not the outside shoulder.
Shoulder-in is created in the corner so your horse should come out of the corner well balanced and in a good rhythm. You should feel as though he is offering the movement to you. If not, continue on a circle and set things up again. If the movement doesn’t go well, ride out of it and start again. It is more important to have a few very correct steps then many incorrect steps.
The rider should sit well-balanced in the centre of the saddle. It is very easy to allow your body to tip to the inside, which will unbalance the horse. Move the horse’s shoulders over by a slight movement of the hands to the inside; don’t pull the inside rein as this will block the horse.
Using light touches with the inside leg, step the inside hind leg across and use half halts to help the horse stay on the line. Once the horse understands the movement, the rider should stay quiet in the saddle, moving with the horse, and be attentive to the steps, ready to make a correction if needed.
Reasons for loss of impulsion or travelling
Too steep angle
The degree of the angle will depend on the conformation and suppleness of your horse. Have a smaller angle to start with and only ask for two or three steps. Build the number of steps and degree of angle as your horse becomes more supple.
Horse not round inside leg
In this instance the horse will brace against the rein and either drop to the outside shoulder and travel down the wall with a straight body and twisted neck, or they will step the inside hind leg forward, not across, and then they will travel forward away from the wall. Correct this by riding a very accurate circle to set the movement up again. Keep the inside rein soft and don’t use it to create either the circle or the shoulder-in.
Rider not sitting correctly, usually leaning to the inside, or tipping forward.
Not sitting correctly puts the horse out of balance; they will not be able to step sideways and the movement will travel forwards. If the rider tries to hold the shoulder-in through the reins, the horse may stay on the side but will be twisted in the neck, not bent through the body. The rider’s position should be slightly turned to the inside (hips and shoulders mirroring the horse’s hips and shoulders), closing the body towards the outside elbow to keep the balance and prevent leaning to the inside.
Horse does not bring the inside hind leg under sufficiently
This error is very dependent on the suppleness and conformation of the horse. Some horses find it easier to have a large angle in shoulder-in, others (such as a cob) may find the angle needs to be smaller and in this case the hind legs may not cross. What is important is that the shoulder-in is ridden correctly, then it will have a good suppling effect.
The horse will hollow if the steps are too big, or if the rider takes the inside rein as this blocks the inside hind. In shoulder-in the steps should be slow and unhurried; they should be small with the hind legs passing close together particularly in walk.
Left below - the horse is falling to the outside shoulder and the rider is twisted
Right below - horse is not round the inside leg, is hollow and resisting the rein.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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