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One of the most difficult transitions for horses and riders is often the transition from trot to canter. If you are new to riding the canter is faster and has a completely different feel and rhythm than the walk or trot. Some horses are much easier but many will either speed up and race into the canter or take a big jump into it that can unsettle the rider. Other times it may feel like a struggle to even get into the canter at all.

There are a number of elements to consider when looking to improve the canter transition, from improving our seat and ability to apply the canter cue to making sure the horse understands what the canter cue means and then improving the balance of the horse so the canter becomes slower and more comfortable.

I am going to talk a bit about each of these in today’s video, but I know for myself I am often guilty of simply doing too much. Often the more we think about each little movement we should be making, our internal dialogue takes off and the less we really feel the horse. We focus too much on mechanics such as move my outside leg back, lift the inside rein, wait, I need to sit back more….

What I find and am often reminded of by my own teachers is that once we have a good alignment and basic position, the best we can do for the horse is to soften in our position and focus on the feel of the horse. Often this simple mental shift results in a huge improvement through all of the transitions, including the canter.

In today’s video I am going to give you three tips to improve your canter. Hit play below to watch the video and then leave me a comment with your thoughts!

See you in the comments,

Callie

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48 Responses

  1. Good video. I am going to think about the lift into the canter. I always think my horse is going too fast when cantering but when I look at the video that my trainer takes of us, it looks slower. Once again, thanks Callie.

  2. Great tips, I love the idea of counting to help stay in sync with the movement! I think counting will also help me to remember to breathe. When I lunge my horses a simple double click (like a kiss) is all it takes to have them transition from trot to canter, I’ve never used it while in the saddle, probably because I’ve convinced myself I can’t ask for canter. I would love to be able to ask for canter simply, without tensing all my body parts and getting in the way! Thanks Callie, with your tips & advice my riding & confidence have improved so much!!

  3. I really like your tips and explanations… but I am a visual learner and I was wondering if you could insert a few clips into your videos of you demonstrating the tip you are talking about – both the problematic way (stiffness, hard buttocks, etc) and the then what things look like after a rider has succeeded in mastering the body issues. I know I would get an extra bump in my learning curve if I had a visual to look at while you comment and point out the effects of doing things the “new rider” way.
    Love your blog – thanks so much for being such and awesome a resource!

  4. Thanks for all your videos. Today I had my first canter lesson off the longe line. This video explains in very simple and easy to understand ways what I should avoid doing and what I need to learn to do to improve. I especially appreciate your instruction about how to avoid hurting the horse’s mouth and how my becoming tense in any part of my body and thoughts will hinder and block the horse’s ability to move forward smoothly and without discomfort, pain or confusion. My priority in learning to ride and handle any horse is always to ask myself, “How will the horse understand what I am asking for and how will the horse feel about what I do?”

  5. Thank you Callie. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me as I am really struggling with the canter transition. I have a real problem with tension, and can’t stop myself pulling back on the reins as the horse jumps into the canter, so stopping her. I am fine with the canter out on the trail but it’s in the school where I have the problem. I have a lesson this coming week and will try out your helpful ideas and see how it goes. Of course the more often I fail to make it into a canter the more anxious I become about it. As always your teaching is clear and easy to understand. Many thanks.

  6. Thank you very much for all the help I’ ve been getting from your videos callie!! I’m a 56 years old Portuguese woman, and fell in love for horses last year. I was afraid of cantering but I’ ve alredy lost it by getting loose on the horse and most of all mindsetting and vizualing a nice canter, just as you say in your video. I’ ll keep on following all your tips 🙂 Thank you once again.
    P.S-.: I apologize in advance for any mistake in my writting 🙂

  7. Hi thankyou for your really good video
    I have been really scared about canter in the school but I did manage to out on a hack in s half seat
    He didn’t go on my aids but when I said canter like I do on the lunge he went straight into it and I was so proud of us both
    In the school I do tend to tense up and like you said grip
    I am going to try again with someone on the ground near me the comment you made about counting the beats sounds z good idea
    I am progressing just very slowly but hey so what
    Thanks again bridget

  8. Hi Callie,

    I really like your style of teaching a lot. I am having big problems with the horse I ride, he is 23 y. old and has only been trail riding for most of his life, the owner never did any gymnastics, let alone any dressage or advanced movements with him. I ride him since almost 2 years now, and he is a good boy in any other way but cantering.
    So when asked to canter, it only happens out on the trails and is basically running forward blindly, head high, getting tense, ignoring the bridle and bit, not stopping or slowing down until the next crossroad or sharp turn. I would not call it a transition at all, it is more of an explosion and makes him forget about everything but crazy gallopping. He usually runs past them when out with other horses and riders, sometimes even when just asked to trot. It is so bad that I can not touch him with my legs at all, because he just waits for that “GO”, so I have to spread my legs out in the walk. I also could not let him walk on a loose rein when he gets tense like that. He does only pick up left leads. no matter what. Sometimes he does well (exidentally I think) when out alone, but then falls apart completely and down into a wobbling trot after a few strides.
    Basically, he has no balance at all, has no idea of a slow canter, is not reliable to stop and fighting against cues with bit and legs. I introduced him to bitless riding in a rope halter, but the canter didn`t change by that alone, although I feel he is much more relaxed in his jaw without the bit.
    He is impossible to ride in our outdoor arena. He would just keep spiraling in smaller circles till he stops. A 20 metre circle has never once happend with him.
    We started doing equicinetic training to bulid up balance and muscle through lunging while bending correctly, but he has a hard time even in the walk.
    As I am 32y. old myself, have started to ride again after a ten year break, I do not consider myself a very good rider, and maybe this is never going to be fixed. He seems physically unable to do it better. He might even be unable to carry a rider in a few years from now, if he doesn`t learn to carry himself better.
    I do not expect any “breakthrough tipps” from you, I just needed to share this.

    To all of you with canter problems out there, WORK ON IT while your horse isn`t already spoiled and old!!! Do the dressage work to keep your horse healthy when he gets older! Build the right muscles and practice, practice, practice! Get a trainer and find help!

    Best wishes from a desperate rider
    Steffi

    1. Steffi G; The older the horse, the more “set” they are in their ways! But the good news is that they can be “fixed”….RE-TRAINED…if you are up to it and have the knowledge (or get help by a trainer or knowledgeable horseman) and time to devote to this task. I’d begin with ground work including longeing (changing directions frequently) at all 3 gaits until he’s calm, obedient and can canter somewhat slowly/controlled and not hell bent for leather! Remember that horses learn through repetition, so the human needs to ask the horse to repeat correct responses and reward each time until the horse “gets it”. If he’s not doing it correctly (no matter what it is you are asking), either keep letting him try until the right thing happens (and at that moment you reward it), or stop and start over with what you’re asking until he gets it right and immediately reward it. When the canter is controlled and easy-going online, then he will be better prepared when you ask for it under saddle. But, before you ride in canter I would advise you to work with your horse on not being so reactive when you touch him with your legs….and, again, do this task from the ground. “Stirrup longeing” where you circle him around you (close to you) as you flop the stirrup fender(if western) or leathers (if English) until he accepts this and gets quiet/calm. Also teach him to move sideways away from pressure from the stirrup when you press it on his side (where your heel would be when riding) and also move the pressure back by where a rear cinch would be if you had a western saddle on him, and ask him to yield his hindquarters. Block forward movement by bending his head toward his belly by lifting the lead rope or rein up toward his withers. If he doesn’t move his hindquarters you can tap or spank his hip with a whip or the end of the lead rope. When you do get on him, you’ll want to repeat this and also practice using your calves to add pressure as you ask him to move forward in the walk and trot. When he accepts leg pressure at these gaits and doesn’t get reactive, then try the canter in a round pen or arena. Hope this helps.
      If he throws his head up, he needs some practice on flexing and learning to be more supple. You may want to read Clinton Anderson’s book: Downunder Horsemanship..Gaining Respect and Control for English and Western Riders.

      1. Hi Judy,
        Some good advice here, but I would have to disagree that horses learn through repetition. When we set up the exercise correctly they can learn it extremely quick, the repetiton in some cases is to build strength. If you feel as though you have to repeat the same exercise over and over for the horse to understand it then as you mentioned, it is probably time to look for a way to change that exercise.

    2. Have you checked your saddle fit? I wonder if it is causing discomfort and even more so at the canter. Has anyone else ridden him- do they have the same problem?

    3. Hi Steffi,
      Good advice to other riders to train the horses the right way when they are young, it really does make such a big difference to their balance and comfort carrying a rider. For your horse, it sounds as though he needs a lot of softening and stretching work at the walk and slow trot. I wouldn’t even worry about cantering him yet. Since he is having the same problems in the slower gaits they will be much easier to correct when he is going slow. I am not familiar with the equicinetic training, but I would bet you are on the right track there, just keep going slow and give him time to relax and learn how to carry his body in a different way.

  9. Thanks, Callie. The video was very helpful. I do tend to tense up and can be mechanical when riding . Your tips were exactly what I needed.

  10. Hi Callie,
    Thanks for all the great tips. My 8 year old mare is learning how to move better and we’ve been working on improving her muscle tone (she had been out of consistent training with a previous owner), bending and balance. So in addition to my own struggles with all the cues you talked about, she also gets “stuck” sometimes and that adds to the challenge.
    One thing you didn’t mention that helps me is remembering to breathe. I get so caught up in thinking about what I should be doing that I forget that part and I think it helps with my balance and suppleness. I really like your tip about visualizing the canter transition as a lift and will use that in my lesson today!
    Thanks,
    Eileen

    1. I find as well that if I take nice slow deep breathes I do much better than when I hold my breath and get more and more tense. Good reminder.

  11. Thanks so much, Callie ! This is SO helpful. I do need to teach my horse verbal cues for all the gaits. The tip about envisioning it is a great idea. That will get it in my “being”, so when I’m actually riding, I won’t have to think so much. My horse does do a big motion when he departs. I try to follow with my hands, but he does move his head up/back and then a big thrust forward. I probably am causing him to get hit in the mouth. I’m not sure what to do on this. Then the tension issue…. lol… Lots to work on 🙂

    Something I noticed is that if he is going too fast at the canter, if I have less rein contact, he slows down. May be because he feels less restricted and more relaxed? So I’ve been experimenting with this.

  12. Thanks Callie. Can’t wait to try your tips out! I know for me, tensing is a biggy..I know I anticipate & over think the transition. To avoid this, I try to focus on breathing & giving with my hands so my arms don’t get stuck. And as you suggested, repeating the beats in my head. This really helps me focus & curbs the over-thinking. After watching your video, makes me think my body is way more tense than I realized. Off to the barn! thanks again, Wil

  13. Great tips especially thinking the 123 beat and lifting, will definitely apply those thanks Callie…and the reminders on not tensing up, I know I’m guilty 😉

  14. Hi Callie,
    I have just started to canter on my horse . In your video you have described the problems I have encountered very well and I will try your tips tomorrow
    Thank you very much
    Mair

  15. Hi Callie,
    Loved this video and all of the great tips. As you know, the transition from the trot to the canter has been a real challenge for me, but I am seeing small improvements with each time I canter in lessons.
    I can feel the tension in my body with the transition to the canter but am working on softening my body, legs and hands. It definitely helps. I like the tip about thinking about the change in beat (from 1-2 to 1-2-3) and will try this next time.
    Visualization is another great technique and tip and it has helped me with this transition. I had a wonderful dream recently about riding the canter well and since then, have been able to “see myself” riding it successfully. I try and “see this success” often these days and it has definitely helped me.
    Thank you again for another great video and happy that I can watch this again and again.
    Nancy B

  16. One additional item that might be worth a comment is that many horses are easier to put into a canter on one lead than the other. Causes and how to deal with the difference would be helpful.

    1. Jack; you are absolutely right about horses preferring one lead over the other. Same with bending in the circle, flexing laterally, moving sideways, etc…always one side tends to be better than the other so you just do more practice with whichever side is not as supple or responsive. When first learning to ride the canter, choose the lead that the horse picks up most easily on the longeline. Follow Callie’s tips, too. By cantering the lead that the horse is most comfortable taking, you make it easier on him.
      But once the rider is adept at riding this gait, then you can improve the horse’s performance in taking the other lead by just asking the horse to maintain his “not so good” lead when he does get into it. Work the horse 1/3 on his good side and 2/3 on his “not so good” side….with all exercises or skills! Causes (besides the fact that horses are right or left leaded…just as we are right or left handed) can be that riders don’t pay attention to leads and just allow the horse to take whichever lead it wants when cantering…so the horse will choose his favorite (easiest for him) lead causing that lead to really be stronger.

  17. Very good tips. Am going to re-watch and jot down some notes. Thank you for giving me things to think about. I am one who tenses up when I ask for the canter and I didn’t even realize it. I look forward to my next canter ! Thank you Callie!!!!!

  18. Hi callie,
    Thank you its so helpful, will you please put a video about jumping as i stareted jumping and i need some tips to improve

    Thanks

  19. Great tips. I often find that my best canters are the ones I dont ask for as I think a big problem is over thinking it. Our que for canter is a kiss. Also,I think it helps to ask for the canter transition on a corner. Will be working on counting the beats today and thinking ‘up’. Thanks

  20. Here’s something I just ran across and tried yesterday. It seems to work. If I switch to my inside diagonal at a trot before asking for a canter on my mare’s bad lead, I seem to be able to time my cue better and make it a bit easier for her. I’m using it when asking for trot/canter transition exercises.

  21. I am from Brazil . I would like to know your opnion about put outside leg behinder and pull inside rein to make horse bend and starts canter at correct leg.

    1. Hi Demis, having the horse balanced and on an inside bend does make for a smoother canter transition. I think sometimes when we are riding we get too caught up in trying to apply the cue just right and forget about actually feeling the balance and rhythm of the horse.

  22. Very clear and useful tips – for new riders I would add (after my riding instructor) “Trust the horse” 😉 I think especially in the beginning when we’re trying to grasp the basics of trot to canter transition we are so petrified when the horse actually starts to canter that we tend to think “Oh my God! He’s trying to kill me!” and so we instinctively grab the reins tighter thus making it impossible for the horse to canter at all. And because it’s a very unpleasant sharp movement resulting in us losing our balance we of course blame the horse, whereas it’s just the other way round – the horse loses his balance because we jerked his head very hard. I know it’s hard but without the element of trust you can’t even start relaxing in the saddle.

  23. Great info! Thanks Callie :). My favorite cantering tip from a past trainer was to exhale, smile then cue. Seems simple but it works great to keep me relaxed as I transition. Happy trails~ Kristine

  24. Thanks Callie for this video. I remember that I had written to you about my problem in transitioning into the canter – thankful to you for responding. Unfortunately I do not own a horse but go to a riding school and so I end up riding different horses. It is good in one way but not easy with the verbal or even physical cues for canter transitioning. I tried the 1-2-3 and it worked for me at least in not losing the iron. I kind of lean down on my heel on 1-2 and then three is the upward scoop.
    Earlier I would end up always with a very fast trot that would make me even tense – with your tip I will take the faster trot as it comes.

  25. Thank you very much, Callie, for your thoughtful and clear style of explanation. You have a cordial and pleasing manner of communication.
    I have a specific question regarding your inside leg action during the transition into canter. Do you try to actually lift a bit with your inside foot/heel, or do you just apply a uniform leg squeeze?
    Thanks for your help and your commitment to make better riders.

    1. Hi Glenn,
      It depends on the horse – if I feel them shifting to the inside then I may use move my inside leg, but it usually just a “closing the calf” instead of lifting my inside foot.

  26. I watched for the third time this morning and as I have my lesson/ride today, I want to really focus on the “un-tensing ” of myself and to think about a “lift”. Thank you so much !

  27. Hi Callie,
    Thank you for all you great tips! You are making your every video so clear and actionable! I would like to share my story with a canter and fear of cantering.

    I just revisited canter after 15 years of not riding. I fell from a horse several times on canter when I was 13-14 years old and had a hard time getting back to normal with my riding esp. cantering. I didn’t have a person who could help me to overcome my fear back then. The only tip I was getting from more experienced riders was ‘you have to get back to saddle right away after a fall and keep pushing yourself until you feel ok being on the horse’s back’. Since I started learning physiology and science behind fears and anxieties I figured this common (at least in Rissia) advise is not an actionable one for sure.
    Living in northern CA allows me to look at different instructors, different approaches and make my choice more consciously. So what I learned is: keep looking for the fell-good connection with your instructor and a horse- it’s better to spend more time in your search than have one bad experience and have one more layer for your fear. Having a safe environment where you can concentrate on your body and on your horse without frustration is 80% of a successful riding to my mind. I noticed that if I do lots of thinking while asking for canter it ruins everything- my legs are going all over the place, my hands flying opposite directions, the core is tensing, shoulders lean forward. But when I’m looking in between the horse ears and breathing deep with my stomach, concentrating on my feelings and sensations it makes a huge difference.
    Hope you all have great experiences with riding, your horses and instructors! Dasha, now fearless ‘canterer’

    1. Great suggestions for looking for an instructor, thanks Dasha! Thanks also for sharing your story and congrats on your recent success!

  28. Hi Callie. I have a few quick follow up questions for you. What are the specific physical cues that you use in the horses you train to pick up the canter? Do you use the word “canter” as your verbal cue or do you cluck or kiss? Outside leg back? Do you pick up the inside rein (and does this change if you are riding western with a loose rein)? Also, do you recommend picking up the canter from the trot or working on the canter directly from the walk? My horse goes into a super fast and bouncy trot when I ask for the canter. I often will get unbalanced and ask him to stop before we ever hit the canter. All of your suggestions are wonderful but do you have any additional suggestions for dealing with the jackhammer trot when asking for the canter? Slow down and ask again? Thank you so much for your help!!
    Natalie

    1. Hi Natalie,

      First, remember that a cue can be anything – what one horse is trained to respond to another may not understand. I start with voice cue and outside leg back and fade it to literally thinking canter (which triggers a small change in my weight and movement)

      The rein cues are really to keep the correct bending, so if I lose bending I will ask for more with the inside rein, but I don’t use inside rein as part of the cue for canter itself.

      With an unbalanced canter I would first look at your horse’s self carriage and ability to respond to half halts, and “change gears” (lengthen and shorten his stride) at walk and trot first. Then I typically ask for canter from trot and focus on the transition and holding balance for just a few strides, slowly increasing the length of time in the gait – hope this helps!

  29. In re-visiting this video I have come across a new challenge at the canter. Since as you state, you don’t want to pull the bit which he thinks means to stop, but my lesson horse has a tendency to speed up at the canter and my instructor tells me to keep my legs off of him otherwise I’m asking him to speed up. Also when he is picking up speed she will tell me to stay tight in the reins that he is sneaking them from me…. but it doesn’t seem right to be constanlty pulling and keeping them taught. The only way to control his speed is to keep contant pressure on the reins (to the point my arms tire). So I am wondering what can I do to keep him from increasing his canter . I am just getting confused……After watching a more recent video – you pointed out that having pressure on him with my legs would tend to inhibit him from going forward – (we strive for pressure and release which works at the trot for us) but what should I do differently in the canter?

    1. Hi Karen, you are absolutely right – continued holding on the reins will only make him more desensitized to pressure from the bit.
      Going too fast typically comes from either excitement or imbalance. For both, I prefer to work on the core issue at the lower gaits, making sure the horse clearly understands the cue for slow down as well as the cues needed for re-balancing (bending and moving off leg).

      In principle, I work on these as I would any other response. Pressure (weight on the reins), trigger the response if needed – for slow down it may be heading towards a wall or fence or starting a turn, then releasing pressure on the response. For a speedy horse, that doesn’t mean drop the reins, but soften the contact.

      Hope this helps!

  30. I ama beginner and experience all those issues your are describing. I fell several times and now work on My trot (riding western) and posting trot, increasing speed. I love the moments when it starts to feel effortless and that is the time I Strat to think – what if today I finally canter? And then the deer absorbs me again and I go back to slowing down. I will try to breathe, count and notice my tension. And maybe not to think at all. Thank you all for great encouragement and tips. New rider at 56….

    1. Iveta, a great way to work up to canter is doing some work in a bigger trot so you get a little more comfortable with the pace!

      – Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  31. Hi, I’ve recently start cantering again, and I’m finding it almost impossible to get a downward transition from canter to trot. She has great breaks, but I tend to panic and pull on the reigns which she hates. Also I haven’t quite figured out how to seat deep at the canter. How do I do a down transition canter to trot? What aids are used in what order? Any tips on how to seat deep and not lean forward?

    1. Hi Katie, have you tried practicing riding in the trot at slower and faster gaits? That can be a great way to practice for the canter!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

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