Do you find the whole idea of a simple change daunting? Do you think it’s beyond your capabilities or your horse’s? Think again! Simple changes are just transitions between canter and walk. It’s an easy way to change your canter lead. They’re tricky but certainly not impossible. If you can walk, canter and tell if you’re on the correct leg there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t ride one. You just need to take your time. Instead of thinking about it as one movement break it down into separate parts.
There are three parts to a simple change – the canter to walk, the walk and the walk to canter. Many riders skip through the walk in the middle which is where the problems start. You should think ‘canter … walk ….walk …canter’ but often riders think ‘canter …walkcanter’. What’s the rush? A rushed transition is never a good one. Especially a canter one. Take your time. If you ask your horse for canter before he’s actually finished the last one is it any wonder he gets the wrong lead?
Start with the canter to walk. It needs to be sharp and balanced. Your horse needs to sit back on his hocks to slow down. Ride forward to a steady contact and never pull back. Do that and he’ll tighten his back and stop using his hocks. Depending on his temperament he’ll either jog through the walk or almost halt and lurch forward again.
All transitions need to be straight but it becomes more important in a simple change. If your first transition is crooked who knows where you’ll end up by the second? Practise canter to walk on the long side as you head towards the corner. Riding on the track, not a circle will highlight any crookedness. Your horse will naturally back off the fence in the corner too so it’s the ideal place to ask.
Your horse will copy what you do with your body with his. Ride down the long side with your shoulders and hips square to the front and he’ll do the same. Focus on holding your position as you ask him to walk and you’ll help him to sit back on his hocks. When his quarters are behind his shoulders he’ll stay straight and balanced.
Your weight has a huge effect on your horse’s ability to stay balanced from canter into walk. Pull up through your body and look straight ahead – not at the floor 20m further forward. Keeping your head over your body pushes your weight directly down onto your seat. When you’re carrying yourself he can do the same.
As you ask for walk squeeze your thigh and knee into the saddle as hard as you can. (Like a clothes peg) This restricts your horse’s shoulder muscles and means you need less pressure on his mouth. Tighten your fingers around both reins but don’t pull back. This combination of your weight, your thigh and the pressure on the reins is enough to stop him in his tracks.
It’s essential to push your horse’s hocks under him as you slow down. He needs to sit in the transition. If you don’t he’ll rock forward onto his shoulders – as a car does when you hit the brake. He may fall into halt and lurch forward or he may break into trot. Use your leg and it’s similar to a hill start in a car – the brake is on but so is the accelerator. He sits on his hocks and lifts his shoulders.
When you feel your horse step into walk relax your fingers and the pressure from your thighs to allow him to go forward. Be patient. This takes practice. Every horse is different. Do it too soon and he’ll jog. Hold on for too long and he’ll halt. Take your time with this stage and you’ll find it easier when you join it all together.
The next step is to ride it across the diagonal. Ride a 15m circle to balance your horse. Steady your canter using your thigh and knee. Focus on keeping his head and neck straight in front of him. Too much inside bend will cause problems as you turn and lead to a crooked transition.
Look up and turn onto the diagonal keeping your body square to the marker you’re aiming for. As you cross the ¼ line tighten your fingers around your reins. Maintain that pressure until you feel him walk. Relax your fingers and knees as he does and ride forward. Walk onto the new rein before moving back to canter through trot.
Work on walk to canter in a separate session. Practise asking as you ride onto the long side. Look up and keep your body square to the front. Asking as you come onto the straight will highlight any crookedness.
Canter aids are the clearest of all aids. Many riders panic and lean forward to ‘encourage’ their horse to canter. Don’t! Your horse will know what you mean. If he doesn’t go first time ride a 10m circle and ask again with a tap with your whip to back up your aid. Never compromise your aids or your position in a transition. Consistency of your aids helps him to understand what you’re asking every time not just once.
With walk to canter aim to canter one long side before you trot and walk again. Use the whole session to do as many transitions as you can. Don’t get one and call it a day. These need to become as normal to you and your horse as a walk to trot transition. They will if you practise. The ‘odd stride of trot’ in between is not an option! You’re not asking for trot you’re asking for canter. Stay focused on what you want and be positive. A quick tap with your whip as you use your inside leg will back up your leg.
With walk to canter established change the rein across the diagonal in walk and ask for canter as you cross the ¾ line. This will keep your horse straight but also make it clear to him which way you are heading. The easier it is the quicker he’ll understand.
Introduce a full simple change across the diagonal. Ask for walk as you cross the ¼ line. Walk all the way across until you have crossed the ¾ line and then canter. This gives your horse time to settle in walk and focus. As he improves reduce the distance between transitions. Don’t rush it. Count your strides between transitions. Start with 10 and work your way back to three.
In time the walk disappears completely. It becomes little more than a hesitation – a half-halt – which later becomes a flying change. But for now, keep it simple. You can worry about flying changes another day!
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
In loving memory of Lorrain Jennings from School Your Horse