Canter Quality for Jumping

If the first jump gets you every time, it may actually be the canter quality that needs attention.

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Jumping a horse after a canter to the fence
Having the right amount of energy in the canter allows Rachel to find the perfect distance. Photo by Allyson Weiland

Many times, I have seen riders canter to the first jump of a course and have it be less than stellar. But then they land, change their canter, and lay down the ride of a lifetime. I have named this “first jump-itis.” The cure is to establish a quality canter right away so that you can approach your first jump with impulsion and confidence, rather than using it as a reminder that you didn’t quite have enough pace.

Mastering the Canter Transition

It all boils down to a need for better preparation. First, examine the canter transition itself. In a lesson, you can’t use the whole ring to get going, as you and your horse are going to be exhausted before you even get to the first jump. In a group, you will get reprimanded for wasting time. At a show, you are only permitted an opening circle or 45 seconds, depending on your discipline.

Before you ask for the canter, be sure your horse is responding to your leg by developing a marching walk. This walk will feel as though your horse is truly taking you somewhere, not as though you are begging him to take each step. If the squeezing leg aid is not enough, don’t hesitate to give him a kick or tap him with a crop behind your leg.

Once the marching walk is established, use your inside leg to step your horse over toward the rail for a few steps, getting him thinking about his hind end.

An equestrian trotting a horse
Rachel sets up Never for success by developing an inside bend before asking for the canter from the sitting trot. Photo by Allyson Weiland

Next, bring your outside leg back for one or two steps at the walk, then squeeze to give the canter aid. Be sure to sit tall and stay back (not throwing or perching your body forward) throughout all of this. The best transitions into the canter have an uphill, lifted quality to them, and this will be difficult to achieve if your weight is forward over your horse’s shoulders.

If your canter transition tends to involve a few (or many!) trot steps, be sure to do your homework to correct this. Your horse should move directly from the walk to the canter. Should the situation call for cantering from the trot, you can set your horse up to canter in a similar manner as described above but in a sitting trot. The whole process, once practiced, will take less than 10 seconds.

A rider canters her horse
Never steps up into a balanced canter as a result of Rachel’s careful preparation. Photo by Allyson Weiland

Canter Quality

Now that you have the canter, focus on its quality. It’s always better to have a little more pace in the canter than you think you need, as that will allow for you and your horse to have more options to choose from if you need to adjust as you approach the jump.

If your horse is being responsive to your leg, it will be easier to ask him to move up for a longer distance or collect for a tighter distance while still maintaining a springy energy to the gait. This indicates continued engagement of the hind end, called impulsion.

A horse jumping
Rachel and Never meet the jump boldly, but still are able to make an inside turn before the flower box because Rachel is looking (and thinking) ahead. Photo by Allyson Weiland

What typically happens when your first jump goes poorly is that the canter lacks impulsion, so you’re left with only the options of hoping to get to the jump at a good distance or to chip in to a tight distance. The option to move up to a more forward distance is not available if you never tuned up your horse to engage his hind end to be responsive to your leg aid.

Practice Makes Perfect

Remember, there’s no situation where a canter lacking impulsion will be useful. Whether there is a scary filler in the first jump on a hunter course or a tight turn after the first jump in a jumper course, a slow, weak canter won’t help to answer the question at hand.Graph of lines for jumping at the canter

A great exercise to actively practice building your pace to the first jump is by only jumping one jump: Set up a jump on both quarter lines of your arena, one for each lead (see opposite page). Make the jumps a comfortable height for you and your horse, 3 to 6 inches lower than the highest you regularly jump, or your competition height if you show.

For hunters, practice an opening circle and then head straight to the jump. Once you’re consistently meeting the jump with power in your canter off of each lead, increase the difficulty by adding in some attention-grabbing filler to the jump or make the jump an oxer.

For jumpers, don’t allow yourself more than half the ring to cultivate the canter you need. After being successful with the exercise from both leads, add a cone about 42 feet (three strides plus landing) beyond the center of each jump and turn before it to simulate a jump-off track.

Congratulations, your canter is a success!

This article about canter quality for jumping appeared in the April 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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