Q: In lessons, my dressage trainer tells me that my 12-year-old Thoroughbred gelding’s canter needs more “jump.” What does that mean and how do I develop it?
A: The term “jump” describes the bounce or loft in a horse’s canter stride, which depends on both the amount of time his body is suspended in the air when all four of his feet are off the ground and the spacing between each footfall. Horses naturally gifted with good jump have a great deal of suspension, or “air time,” as well as a very clear, distinct three-beat rhythm. They articulate their footsteps in a way that makes it easy for their riders and bystanders to distinguish each beat.
Less talented horses have a quicker, flatter, earthbound gait. Instead of the three beats sounding clear and spread out, they are muddled together. Although it is the hardest of the gaits to influence, the canter can be improved. To do so, you must have a good seat, an excellent sense of rhythm and well-timed aids. Because poorly timed aids can actually quicken and flatten a horse’s canter stride, it’s very important to develop a good feel for what your horse is doing underneath you and pay close attention to how he responds to your aids.
The first step is learning to flow with his canter. While trying to keep your seat connected to the saddle at all times, relax your inner thighs and feel the way his ribs expand and contract with each stride. Allow your legs to “breathe” with his body, opening and closing with it. Avoid squeezing or gripping with your thighs, which will kill his jump.
Next, focus on his rhythm. Count out loud: “one–two–three, one–two–three.” The first beat is the moment when the outside hind leg is loaded—bearing the weight of your horse’s body. By squeezing your outside leg during this moment, you can ask for more jump in the canter.
The third beat of the canter is the moment when your horse’s inside front leg is on the ground and he is preparing to push himself up into the air. This is the best time to apply half-halt aids to encourage him to rock his body even higher and thus create more suspension.
To produce a good half-halt, sit in the middle of the saddle with your ear, shoulder, hip and heel in a straight line, while engaging your core and bracing your back. (For readers familiar with karate, this is much like the feeling of a karate stance. I help my students practice by standing next to them when they’re mounted and trying to push them off the horse. The strong, centered feeling they use to resist my pressure is the same feeling you want to have during your half-halts.) Then—always after your seat aid—add a little rein pressure without pulling your hands backward.
How often you use half-halts to influence your horse’s canter depends on how balanced he is. Sometimes you need only an occasional half-halt; other times, you may need one every stride. Experiment with different frequencies and ask yourself, “How does he feel?” before and after each half-halt. As you become more aware of what he’s doing underneath you, your judgment about when to use half-halts will improve.
Incorporate half-halts into the following exercise to create more canter jump: On a 20-meter circle, push your horse forward into a bigger canter, using your leg aids within the rhythm to ask for more “gas.” After four or five strides, apply half-halts to ask him to gradually shorten his canter and then make four or five smaller-than-normal strides. Repeat this forward-and-back exercise several times. You should feel him grow more elastic over his back, which will help him to articulate each beat of the canter and lengthen his air time.
Practicing canter–trot–canter transitions on a 20-meter circle can be similarly beneficial. Aim to do about two transitions per circle. You will feel the most jump in your horse’s canter in the first few strides after the upward transition. As he gets more pliable through his body, he’ll be able to sustain this better-quality gait for longer periods of time.
More advanced riders can practice canter–walk–canter transitions. Doing these effectively requires much more refined timing. Another helpful, advanced-level exercise is to start with the above-mentioned big-canter/small-canter transitions on a circle, then ride across a diagonal and continue around the ring in counter-canter. Ride across another diagonal and return to your circle to repeat the big-canter/small-canter transitions.
With any of these exercises, consciously tap into your feel of the horse. Rather than simply following the directions step-by-step, think about the rhythm and balance, always focusing on the quality of the canter. Live within the moment and the exercise. Make the transitions when your horse feels soft and receptive to your aids, not when he’s stiff or flat. With practice, your timing of the aids will improve and he will begin to produce more jump.
Gwen Poulin’s career path started when she was 11, with a 5-year-old Welsh Pony named Robin. With him, she earned her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze and silver medals and competed on the bronze-medal team at the first Junior Dressage Team Championships in 1997. She went on to win three team gold and two individual silver medals at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Since then, she has earned her USDF gold medal and trained several horses to the upper levels. In 2009, Gwen won the USDF Region 3 Open Grand Prix Championship. In 2014, she placed 10th in the 6-year-old division at the Markel/USEF Young Horse Championships on her “dream horse,” Fleury’s Fanfare (featured on this April’s cover of Practical Horseman) and also won both the Region 3 Open First Level and Intermediaire II championships.
Gwen loves teaching students of all levels, ages and disciplines. She travels frequently to give clinics and runs her teaching and training business at her family’s facility in DeLeon Springs, Florida. She is also in the USDF “r” judges program, which, she says, “I am very passionate about.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.