Susan Jaccoma's Exercises to Improve Canter Quality

Making small adjustments in your daily riding can help you in your dressage journey
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Having trained dressage and ridden my Grand Prix dressage horse Wadamur (Moe for short), for seven years means we're practically married. To me, Moe is as perfect as a dressage horse can be. But even with a world-class dressage horse and many successes behind us, I never forget that one of my most important roles is simply a dressage student. To me, being a good dressage student means making mistakes and learning from them, trying new things and accepting that my dressage trainer knows more than I do. My success as a Grand Prix dressage rider and a dressage instructor has come from putting my trust in a carefully chosen dressage trainer.

Credit: 0 SueJaccoma

Credit: 0 SueJaccoma

To be a successful dressage student, you must realize the value of learning from a person with more dressage knowledge and experience than you have. Four to five times a week, I train with Danish Olympic dressage rider Lars Petersen. He's a trainer with a lot of depth and he's very good with hot horses like Moe. From our first lesson two years ago to our most recent work, Lars has helped me see beyond Moe's "perfection" so we can improve his suppleness, strength and responsiveness to the aids as well as my position and effectiveness in the saddle.

To get the most out of my lessons over the years, I have learned how important it is to be humble. It's not easy to put all of your shortcomings and mistakes out there for criticism. But training is about making mistakes and learning from them. For years I trained with six-time Olympian Robert Dover. He always told me how important it was to feel the extension in the collected trot and to feel the collected trot in the extension. Intellectually I had the concept, but I didn't get it in my body. One day, six years and two horses into my lessons with Robert, I finally got it. I was embarrassed that it took me so long, but he reminded me that a rider learns things along the way and not on a set timetable. I learned to focus on my goals instead of a time frame. Processing new ideas and developing different reactions or seeing results in your horse takes time. Dressage is a long-term learning process. You can't learn it all in two weeks or even two years.

As a Grand Prix horse, Moe knows it all, but he doesn't have to do it all every day. For instance, under Lars' objective guidance, we make small but critical improvements that help Moe and me improve our canter and build power. The exercises that create these improvements help our flying changes or the tempi changes in Grand Prix. I think of this as the frosting on the cake of the canter. A rider at any level can use the following exercises to improve the quality of the horse's canter. Even a trainer working with a wiggly young horse might use exercises like these to get the horse forward, straight and energetic, establishing the foundation for later work.

First Test Straightness
Without straightness, a horse cannot be connected from back to front. Cruising down the long side during a lesson, for example, I might think Moe is straight enough. But Lars, a stickler for details, may inform me that Moe is actually not that straight. To let me see for myself, he will ask me to pick up a canter and head down the quarterline to the mirror.

As we canter toward our reflection, I ask myself:

  • Are Moe's front legs directly in front of his back legs?
  • Are his shoulders symmetrical?
  • Are his legs on just two tracks, not three or four?
  • Can I see his tail hanging in between his hind legs?

If you don't have a mirror, ask a friend to be your ground person. Or check your straightness by riding down the long side and making sure you are parallel to the rail, with no drifting in either direction. If you're out in a field, pick a focal point and ride straight to it.
This focus on straightness prepares your horse for flying changes and you for entering the ring?Third Level through Grand Prix. Without straightness, you'll have a hard time riding down the centerline, halting at X and moving off straight.

Canter Transitions: Test the Half Halt and Create Expression
As part of our work to get a better-quality canter, Lars helps me improve my half halts to create more expression. Here is a brief explanation of my half halt: Before I ask my horse to do something, I always give him a set of half-halt aids that act as a call to attention so he can balance and prepare. I gently close my legs around my horse to keep his hind legs actively coming forward. At the same time, I close my hand on the outside rein (the inside rein should be there to maintain proper flexion). These aids are only one to five seconds long before I relax them. The half halt allows the newly acquired energy to come "through" my horse. It originates in his hind legs, goes through his body and gently to the bit. The goal is to get a quality canter and create more power with my seat, enticing Moe to step more under himself and take more weight on his hind legs so he's more collected.

Canter-walk transitions on a circle. Once we're sure Moe is absolutely straight, I ride a 20-meter circle. We practice transitions from canter to walk and from walk to canter as required at Second Level. You can try it by riding an entire circle at the canter and then transitioning to walk. Walk an entire circle, making sure you get a clear four-beat walk before transitioning back to canter.
As the transitions become more balanced (without any trot steps in between), I add more of the same transitions on the circle. The key is to prepare for each transition with a call-to-attention half halt that tells your horse a transition is coming.

Medium-collected canter transitions. Once the canter-walk transitions are balanced, I move on to transitions between medium and collected canter on the circle. This lengthening and shortening tests my half halts because I can gauge Moe's responsiveness to my leg and seat. This is another area where my trainer helps me reach for higher standards. For instance, if I bring Moe back to collected canter from medium canter and tell him "good boy" because I think he's collected enough, Lars may tell me to try for more collection or to keep him a bit rounder. Learn to appreciate your trainer's insistence on details.

Transitions on a straight line. Once the transitions are beautiful on the circle, ride down the quarterline and return to the canter-walk and walk-canter transitions. Staying on the circle means that the inside hind leg naturally comes underneath the horse's body. On the straight line it's a little harder because you have only your aids to create or maintain that hind-leg engagement.

Take any number of strides between the transitions, but if your horse prances or evades, make sure you get a clear, four-beat walk before the next canter depart. Don't canter out of a prance. If the horse breaks into the trot through any of these transitions, pulls on the reins or gets nervous, go back to the straightening exercise and begin again. Repetition is the kindest form of correction.

These exercises create power and engagement, sending the energy from behind, over the back and into a nice contact in the reins. Later, when the horse makes the flying change, there will be a delightful spring into the canter, creating expression. With practice, the canter-walk transitions will become easy.

Add a lead change. Make the last exercise more challenging by adding a lead change. Ideally, you should be able to do the transition and lead-change exercises on any straight line in the arena. The key is to keep the horse straight and
attentive. Sit straight and prepare for each transition with a half halt:
1. In left-lead canter, ride six or
eight strides.
2. Transition to walk; walk six or eight strides, making sure to get a clear four-beat gait.
3. Transition to canter right lead for six or eight strides, focusing on staying straight and not letting the horse drift.
4. Transition back to walk; walk six or eight strides or as many as you need to get that four-beat walk.
5. Resume the canter on the left lead.

Canter-halt transitions. Sometimes Lars asks me to work on canter-halt transitions, which are even more challenging. They are required in Fourth Level through Grand Prix. A rider at the lower levels can practice canter-trot and trot-canter transitions on the quarterline with a focus on keeping the horse straight, balanced and responsive.

If done right, all of these exercises should give you the feeling that you've created a channel between your legs, seat and hands. Your legs, hips and arms are the banks of the channel, and the water going down the channel is your horse. You have even pressure on your reins and even pressure on your legs, which should be draped like wet dish rags around your horse's barrel. It shouldn't feel like riding a bulging water balloon. Instead, you are harnessing that energy in a forward fashion. These exercises also help horses that tend to get behind the aids. I like them because they create power, energy and joy.

Being a good student means having the willingness to try new things and being open to new ideas or different roads to Rome, as they say. An unwillingness to try new things closes the doors to learning. If something is not working for me, I look to my trainer. He's not emotionally wrapped up in my horse and my riding like I am.

Also be realistic about your strengths. Bring a sound horse and reasonable goals to your lessons. Look clearly at your horse's fitness level and readiness, and take your trainer's advice about the level at which you should compete.

No matter what we're working on, when Moe and I are in a lesson, as the student, I'm listening for my trainer to give me any and all insight into my position flaws and any imperfections in Moe's way of going. If you're riding at home without a trainer, even a friend armed with a little knowledge can become a really good pair of eyes on the ground. The key is to take objective, constructive criticism and use it. Don't take it personally. For me, this means learning from mistakes, focusing my energy and driving forward, the same thing I ask Moe to do during every ride. I look to my trainer to help keep my partner and me true to the highest standards of our sport.

This article was originally published in the December 2010 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

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