You can ride a decent trot to canter transition. Now you want to ride a direct transition from walk to canter, without going through trot.
This article will help you do just that!
What the dressage judge is looking for
Walk to canter transitions first appear in dressage tests at British Dressage Novice level. Here’s what the judge wants to see:
- The horse should not anticipate the transition. Often, horses become tense, and the walk rhythm changes before the canter transition. Jogging into the canter transition is a serious fault that will lose you marks.
- Ideally, the transition should be direct, although at Novice level a step or two of trot is permissible. The judge wants to see that the horse is responsible and reactive to the rider’s aids.
- The horse should pick up the correct canter lead without hesitation or “fumbling.”
- The connection and, therefore, the horse’s outline should remain the same throughout the transition.
- The horse should not snatch at the contact but should remain soft and elastic in the rider’s hand.
- The transition should be forward but it must also be fluent and smooth, not abrupt or explosive.
- The horse should remain in good balance through the transition.
- Ideally, the horse will step underneath his body with his inside hind leg, and the transition will be uphill.
At British Dressage Elementary and the higher levels, the walk to canter transition must be direct with no steps of trot preceding it.
The judge looks for an uphill, balanced, reactive transition with no tension preceding it. The horse should be in a clear self-carriage, and the transition should appear easy for both horse and rider.
Biomechanics of walk to canter transition
Although you will be missing out on an intermediate pace, once your horse understands what you are asking, he will actually find walk to canter easier than trot to canter.
That is because it is simpler for the horse to change his sequence of legs from walk to canter than from trot to canter.
Sequence of legs
In walk, a 4-beat gait, all four legs move individually.
In trot, the legs move in two diagonal pairs which are strongly linked neuro-muscularly.
To change from trot to canter, the linkage of one of these diagonal pairs must be broken, whereas from walk, there is no such physical complication.
Aids for walk to canter
Ensure the walk is energized, and the horse is listening to you.
You may need to give the horse a couple of preparatory nudges with your legs to activate and warn him that you are about to ask for a transition.
If the horse is tense, you may simply need to sit quietly and possibly vibrate the rein to make a small half-halt in warning.
When the walk feels ready, slide your outside leg back along the horse’s side and give a downward/forward push with your inside seat bone.
You may need to give the horse an aid with your inside leg at the girth if he is slow to react, but that should not be necessary if the horse is in front of your leg aids.
Maintain your rein contact, or even feel as if it is a little stronger than normal in the moment of the transition. That is to stop your horse from running forward at a faster walk or breaking into trot.
The timing of your aids
There is only ONE moment in the walk sequence when your horse can change from walk to canter on the desired inside lead. That is as his outside front hoof is on the ground, which is just as the inside hind is lifted into the air. That is when you can change the outside hind leg action from being the next step of walk to become the first step of canter.
The simplest way to tell this is to remember it is exactly the same as checking for the correct diagonal in trot – as the outside shoulder comes back towards you.
Until you learn to feel this moment (with practice you will know the moment by feel) start by looking down at the outside shoulder and say, “Now, now, now…” each time the shoulder moves back towards you.
Then look up but keep saying “Now…” at the same speed.
Make your aid for canter exactly as you say “Now.”
If your horse has responded without delay, you will now be in canter on the correct lead.
If he delayed, he may well be on the wrong lead and you should come back to walk and re-energize him so he goes more quickly off your aid next time.
Make sure you give the aid in the correct moment – if you don’t and he gets the wrong lead, don’t punish him – it was your fault, not his.
Getting used to the timing for the aid will take practice, but is well worth the effort as you can then guarantee a clean and correct canter depart every time.
To ride a smart walk to canter transition, the walk must be active and the horse must be reactive and attentive to your aids.
With practice, a smooth, obedient walk to canter transition will come with ease.