Touch n GO Farm

Whitesburg Georgia

Dressage Today - Ask the Expert PDF Print E-mail


Dressage Today July 2001 issue

Question/Answer by Gigi Nutter

Question: Every time I do a canter depart, my riding teacher tells me to do a haunches-in before the depart. Why? Doesn't it only support an undesirable canter on two tracks?

Answer: The wording of your question makes it a bit tricky to respond. Since I am not familiar with you or your horses level of training, I will work from the assumption that one of you is at a novice training stage.

When you state that the instructor tells you "do" a haunches-in before the canter depart, I can interpret that two ways:

  1. You are positioning your horse in haunches in while asking for the transition. Your instructor has you perform the movement haunches-in, straighten and then transition to canter. My response to the first example is simple. NEVER position a horse in haunches-in when asking for the canter. This will only cause confusion for the horse and, quite possibly, result in the wrong lead being taken. The canter, like all other gaits, must be straight to be considered correct. The canter depart is no exception. You are absolutely right to assume this would support an undesirable depart and canter. Horses running free almost never canter straight. It is the responsibility of the rider to correct that inherent tendency. I have told students to ride their horses with a "shoulder-fore" feeling to sense correct straightness in canter.

  2. The second interpretation of your question requires more explanation. The movement haunches-in, or Travers, can be performed at the walk, trot or canter. Performed at the trot, a haunches-in supples the horse, at the canter it increases collection. So at the trot or canter, performing haunches-in primarily benefits the horse.

Schooling haunches-in at the walk benefits the rider by developing the ability to effectively coordinate the required aids. There is a multitude of lessons to be learned as you try to maintain straightness and positioning while precisely controlling all four steps of the walk.


Lets discuss a correct haunches-in with an emphasis on "correct." Visualize yourself walking down the long side from "F" to "M". As you progress, your horses shoulders are squarely facing the short side and the hips aligned directly behind the shoulders. As you begin the movement the horses left hind leg steps under and the outside (right) hind leg steps sideways. The inner rein (left) will maintain a left flexion as the riders left leg asks the horse to step under. The right rein keeps the horses shoulders straight and influences the sideways stepping of the right hind leg. The riders right leg controls the stepping of the horses right hind leg and regulates the angle of the haunches. Remember that the effectiveness of the movement lies in the details. Many riders have the tendency to over position their horses and allow the shoulders to move towards the long side while the haunches come left. This riding flaw destroys the benefit of the exercise.

Proper practice of haunches-in at the walk can teach the rider how to influence the outer hind leg, maintain straightness in the shoulders, keep the proper bend and develop the feeling of the horse stepping into the outside rein. Along with timing, these are all elements of a proper canter transition. In both movements an awareness of the position of the outer hind leg is necessary. Accurately timed, clear canter aids will be understood by the horse as the outer hind foot strikes the ground. The rider should sense the immediate feeling of the horse departing into the outer rein acknowledging that the message of the aids was received. Regarding your question, the essential difference is straightness. The horse should be as straight as possible before the canter aids are given.

I have occasionally used the phrase "think like haunches-in" when instructing a student in canter departs. This comment is only made after a detailed description of the aids required and some preparatory schooling of haunches-in at the walk. The phrase is referring specifically to the feeling I expect the rider to experience when the horse responds to the aids and canters into the outside rein.

Some horses are slow to respond to the leg or balk at the pressure. Ive watched many riders develop the proper bend, position the horse correctly and give the canter aids at the proper moment only to have the horse hesitate or push into the riders leg. Such horses have no respect for the riders legs and, out of frustration, many novice riders simply "poke and hope" for the correct lead.

I use another technique for improving canter departs with young horses that are not ready for lateral work such as haunches-in. The method works equally well with riders and horses that lack a true outer rein concept. The premise is simple, leg yield and straighten.

The rider trots, performs leg yield for two strides and then goes straight.then leg yields two strides, then goes straight, etc. The number of straight strides depends of how well the horse responds to the leg aid. During the repetitions of this movement I ask the rider to feel the outside rein pressure during the transition from leg yield to straight. The rider should also sense the stepping under of the inside hind leg. This exercise would be practiced in both directions until results are consistent. Finally, I ask for the rider to leg yield from the left leg two strides, straighten, then use the right leg to ask for the canter. Hopefully the student will feel the straightness, stepping under and outside rein connection in the transition.

Instructing students in the mechanics of riding is relatively straightforward. Teaching a rider "feel" is an art. If your instructor was using an exercise to develop your concept of the leg to outside rein response in a canter depart, I commend the effort. Teachers and students must maintain a good rapport and clear communication in order to progress. After all, you are trying to learn how to effectively communicate with your horse. Only a knowledgeable instructor can help you reach that goal.

Good luck in your riding.

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