“Get a better canter!” “You don’t have enough canter!”
It’s the current cornerstone of jumping advice, that you need a good canter to jump well – collecting rings and internet forums are full of people admonishing riders to “just do it”. Of course it’s always been the case, with the small exception of the “slingshot” style that was popular when poles were very light or even had lathes on them, and the only point was to leave the rails up, regardless of time. (This was more of an issue a generation ago when there were still people teaching in the “hold, hold, hold, 3-2-1 JUMP!” school of thought even after course design had moved on.) But generally all jumping pursuits rely heavily on going the right pace, at the right time, for the right circumstances.
At the very least, consistency allows the horse to know what’s coming and make fine adjustments as needed, just as you would running towards a kerb or an obstacle – you fit your stride in almost without thinking – but, if a few strides out, someone gave you a shove or stuck their foot in front of you, it would be, at the very least, an anxious moment while you tried to adjust! So yes, having a consistent, suitable canter (or gallop XC) is a big part of the process and one that is, from an instructor’s point of view, much easier to teach than worrying about the rider’s “ability to see a distance” (which is dependent on being able to ride predictably anyway and largely come with practice).
Which is all very well, but you wouldn’t hear the admonishments so often if it was something that came easily to everyone!
So how do you get it, that magic canter that makes every course work out?
First off, it’s not like that. (I know, I know – like so much of riding you get a simple directive . . . and then spend years perfecting it.) You don’t just put the horse in gear and away it goes, it’s a constant process of small adjustments to KEEP what you want. Just like driving a car, you are constantly adjusting acceleration and, less often, braking, to stay at the desired speed. The other dirty little secret is, if you spend all the money on a top jumping horse, some of what you pay for is a horse that comes with a rhythmical, “sturdy” canter installed. Horses like that are difficult to shake OUT of the right rhythm and are generally scopey enough to jump well from a variety of speeds and distances, which fosters relaxation in both horse and rider, which makes it easier not to panic and be trying to change everything in the last few strides. (Of course not every horse with a great canter is jumping bred or expensive – I’ve met cobs from auctions with great jumping canters. But don’t kid yourself that your horse can – or has to – canter like Arko in order to jump well.) So, if you really want to make your jumping life easier, buy a horse with a good natural canter!
Which, again, doesn’t help most of us! (But is something to bear in mind when you next go shopping.)
So, what do you do to assess and improve the horse you have?
First, know what you want.
The best way to get this easily is to work with an experienced jumping instructor and spend a few lessons consciously concentrating on the canter. This doesn’t mean you don’t jump at all during those lessons, but jumping without knowing what you are looking for tends to just teach bad habits and potentially impacts negatively on horse and rider confidence. Video is also very useful for keeping a record and allowing you to assess how an exercise or alteration impacts on you and your horse.
Do exercises the encourage you to accurately assess and improve the canter, ideally in the lesson so you can discuss them with the trainer, and then practice at home.
Jumping courses are built on an average stride of 12’. Find out what it feels like for YOUR horse to canter at this stride length. Does it come naturally? Do you usually have to compress or extend to make that distance? The easiest way to test this is to set two planks (I prefer them to poles for safety – if you do use poles, two together makes for a safer and more effective exercise) a measured distance apart in a multiple of 12’ and ride through. If your ring is small, make sure you leave at least a few strides out of each corner – when you are measuring, treat your corners as jumps and make sure there is a rideable related distance so you don’t have to shorten or lengthen to the first plank. Does your horse do it easily? What do you have to do to make it work? Can you then maintain that canter all around the ring so you don’t have to make any major adjustments?
The follow on from this exercise is to address adjustability, by adding and leaving out strides, but make sure you can ride it consistently first.
If your horse struggles then move the planks in initially and then gradually, as the canter develops, pull them out. DON’T gun the horse down the line and make the canter fast and flat – remember, you want a canter you can jump safely from! Do the work and it will come.
As a side note, it’s worth learning how to walk a distance objectively, on a 3′ stride (or a meter, if you’re that way inclined) so you know what the distances actually are, rather than just go by a rough idea of how many of your strides fit into your horse’s strides. It’s a an easy skill to master and makes your schooling – and course walking – more precise and effective.
You can add many variations on this. If you look on the site there is a “circle” exercise, where you have 4 planks on a circle and practice riding the same number or strides between. Again, walk them so you know the line you need to ride to make the distances work. Once you can do one line comfortably, play with riding larger or small circles. Another useful exercise is canter planks set “no stride” distances apart. Ideally these should be slightly tighter – 10’ or 11’ – to allow for the horse getting “up in the air” and foster a rearward balance shift. Have help on the ground with this exercise at first so you can adjust the distances for your horse so he doesn’t get in a muddle and panic. If you have space, you can set up two rows with SLIGHTLY different distances and practice riding both without changing the rhythm. You can also vary this by putting the planks on a curve – very useful for horses that rush. If the horse is doing all these exercises easily then you can raise the planks slightly, either alternate ends on a straight line or all the outside ends on a curve. This is HARD work though so don’t try it with an unfit horse and don’t do too many repetitions.
All of these exercises will give you and the horse the feel for the “right” canter and build strength and adjustability. As the exercises become comfortable, push the boundaries. Can you add or leave out more strides while keeping the rhythm the same? Can you – literally – do them with your eyes shut? Can you do them with your reins in one hand? Without stirrups? PLAY with the exercises! Even cantering over single planks is useful. Turn shorter, take the longest approach possible, go on an angle!
I would also say USE your canter! Go places, do exercises. Don’t just do a few circles at the end of your schooling or canter the same line out hacking. If you want to go to the gate and speak to someone, go in canter. Get comfortable cantering! It’s just a gait, take the mystique out of it! When you go to big showjumping competitions the schooling ring is full of people cantering one handed, chatting (sometimes on their phones . . .), not having to monitor and manage every stride. Many riders don’t canter enough or, when they do, they only canter set patterns or in limited areas. It won’t get better if you don’t use it!
So all this work should have given you a good idea of what YOUR horse needs to do to canter well. Does he usually need containing? Do you need to go to the hand to get this done or is it enough to bring the shoulder back and keep the seat soft? Is she more likely to drop behind the leg? If she drops behind can you get her back up without resorting to the stick? (Make sure this works!) Does your tack allow you a suitable level of control? If your horse is hard in the hand all the time to get the canter you need, then more work needs to be done on ridability and balance. To jump well you have to be able to allow the horse to be soft in the neck in the air and this won’t happen if you’re hanging on for grim death. Get answers to these questions before you leave the ground.
Have an “emergency” plan and a system for getting the best canter. You may have noticed showjumpers will often enter, halt, back up a few steps, go into a big canter then steady in the first turn. This checks all the gears but it also tells the horse “Right, we’re off.” Make a habit of letting your horse know that the game is afoot. Even a tap behind the leg can be useful for a particularly staid horse if the response to the leg isn’t immediate. Better to get everything in gear BEFORE you start jumping! Make sure your horse understands this by practicing at home and using it in the collecting ring too. Experiment with what works for you. If in doubt, have a bit too much and throttle back – this will provide the horse with enough energy to meet the task at hand without you still trying to create it on the way to the jump.
Then add jumps. It’s not unusual for the canter to change at this point but ideally you can have one of your trusty canter plank exercises up to “check your work” in between. As with the planks, keep the distances conservative at first. (Most jumpers work on slightly short distances at home as it fosters better habits and most established horses will naturally open up a bit at competitions but young horses should practice some of the time on open distances before they go out competing.) As above, start simple, move up. Even if you’ve been out jumping, check these simple exercises – it’s amazing how many horses that only struggle obviously with more advanced tasks actually have dodgy basics they are covering for with ability and good will.
Make sure you practice regular rebalancing. Or half halts, or whatever you want to call them. When you close the hand, the horse should come softly back, shifting the weight rearward, but not drop behind the leg or, worse, out of the canter completely. Make sure you have a strong enough canter to get this done. Some horses only require you to soften your seat or straighten your back, others need a bit more. When you ask, get an answer! My mantra is “rebalance, ride forward”. This doesn’t mean slow right down then panic and rush. Just make sure in the corner you rebalance the horse with a half halt and then relax the hand and let it go forward again. If you need another rebalance, do it. But don’t forget to let the horse get soft again.
Make sure you practice division of labour. It’s your job to get the horse to the right jump, going more or less at the right pace. It’s the horse’s job to jump the jump. Unless you have got one of your jobs very wrong, the horse must leave the ground. Don’t panic – that just upsets things when you can least afford it – but right at the jump as if, if necessary, the horse can canter right through it. (If your horse consistently actually goes straight through jumps you might want to rethink its purpose in life!) If you are consistent and reasonably correct (see all those exercises above) then trust that the horse will jump.
Most of all, RIDE YOUR RHYTHM! Sing, count – whatever it takes to help you find and monitor your rhythm. Do it out loud, at least at home, so you can’t cheat! It’s amazing how often this practice alone improves things, and makes adjustments unnecessary. Plus it makes you laugh and keeps you breathing. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun!
Do the work, the jumps will come!