Thoroughbred Logic: Why the Canter-to-Trot Transition is Awesome

“That trot — the overly big one, where power isn’t quite perfectly controlled yet — that is where you can really see potential AND build good strength and muscle. So with a soft hand and slightly more upright back, I ask them to hold that big trot as long as they can.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic on how the canter-to-trot transition can help unleash fresh off-track horses’ potential.

I love the part of this whole Thoroughbred-retraining profession thing where I get to watch the sometimes gangly, often awkward young horses figure their bodies out and go from moving like “meh” to “holy sh*&.” The transformation is not an overnight thing, but there are few tricks to helping it speed on up.

Curry (Curlin Lane) trotting tight during an early ride in his post-track career. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Right off the track, simply put, a lot of Thoroughbreds don’t move great. Their backs are tight, their SI’s are still holding tension and they often are sore. Asking them to move like a sport horse while using racehorse muscle isn’t always the prettiest thing. But, if you get good at feeling potential — a horse that starts to reach through their shoulder or has a powerful hind leg — you know that this awkward stage is one to be excited about, not dismayed.

Curry four months later learning how to build the right muscle and swing through his back. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

I had someone reach out about Tetris (Not A Game) a month or so ago and want free movement video. Four-year-old Tetris ran on tough tracks; he was still tight and simultaneously going through a fantastically awkward growing stage. Frankly, the footage sucks. Add to that that that kiddo was unsure as to why Amanda and I were asking him to move around the arena instead of hanging with his buddies or providing a free mowing job on the grass at the rail.

He trotted about for a bit, stood still, then walked a bit more. Asked to move forward, he blasted off then would give about three strides of trot and spin into a halt. Ugh. We never really got the canter that came down to the big floaty, consistent trot that can allow folks to look past awkward and see all the potential.

I sent off the video anyway, knowing that unless someone came equipped with a ton of imagination and the ability to flip their head sideways and squint, they were going to pass on him. The response I got was predictable, “Thanks but we’re looking for bigger movement.” While understanding their desires, I rolled my eyes and probably muttered something like “just wait” at my phone.

When they move like that — when they are tight and choppy — take all the pictures and video. I promise you’ll love looking at them and oohing and aaaahing over your transformation a few months down the road. Tetris is well on his way. Just wait.

Despite his tight, choppy trot now, this little red one is going to be something… Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

But equally important, what I was hoping to get in that free movement video was the canter that drops down to a sustained big, lofty trot. That trot can show all the potential that the imagination can’t quite wrap one’s brain around in other situations. Additionally, that particular trot is an excellent one to build muscle to work towards more sustainably awesome gaits.

Here’s how it works under saddle:

When riding a recently off-track Thoroughbred, we swing a leg over and ask them to walk — great — then to trot. I’m here to tell you/remind you, that the trot-that-follows-the-walk is often going to be behind the leg. These kids often don’t know that they need to really shove their hind end under them and lift through their back. So they putter, chop-chop-chop away at an often quick little pace. It is cute, but it is not building the right muscles for them to let go of their back and step out bigger into the trot we all want them to have.

Valine clicked around quietly for her first post track ride. This mare has a hell of a lot of potential, but again, we have to squint at it here. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So we have to canter. The canter may also be stabby, or maybe they run into your hand a little. None of that is a problem. In these phases, I try to work on rhythm and straightness — trying to get them to hold whatever tempo they need the whole way around the arena. Any attempt and improvement at that gets considered a big ole win.

But then you have the down transition to the trot. And this is where we can sneak in some good muscle development and let the imagination run a little wilder. The trot that comes after a canter is often looser, bigger, and frankly, just way more powerful than the trot that comes from the walk. Overtime, sure we can train it so that these trots are equivalent. But with a green horse we need to encourage the power that exists before we can create it from scratch.

Unstoppable Force powering into his down transition on his first post-track ride. Yes, he is running and yes, it is too fast. All good. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So I make use of the down transition. In the canter, without pulling, I half halt and use my core and leg to drop the horse back to the trot. If one uses their core and half halts, the horse will trot from their hind end; if a rider pulls, they will fall onto their forehand. So, aiming for the hind-end-powered down transition, I allow with my hands, sit as tall as possible and let them to trot out big (and probably too fast) under me. Using leg and core half halts (as little hand as possible), I then ask them to settle the big trot and use the power “for good, not stupid.” In so doing, I’m asking them to come up into my hand — to sit through their hind end, lift their shoulder and push from behind.

Unstoppable Force after a half halt or two and a change of direction, figuring out how to keep the power up and push from behind. This guy is going to be super nice in a few months. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

That trot — the overly big one, where power isn’t quite perfectly controlled yet — that is where you can really see potential AND build good strength and muscle. So with a soft hand and slightly more upright back, I ask them to hold that big trot as long as they can. Obviously, if they start to run or forge, this isn’t working and more half-halts are needed. But when they get it, they will usually settle into a gait that inspires all the good things that are to come.

Add to this that this down transition to trot is one where often riders pull and horses often invert. Training the horse and rider to enjoy that big, powerful trot without any hand-based interference allows the horse to learn to sit through their hind. They learn to stay in contact and not come up above the bit as they slow into a more balanced, swinging gait. Better yet, that trot usually turns out to be (with a little help from the rider’s aids) more powerful and in front of the leg than the initial trot-that-follows-the-walk.

Patrick (Good Timing Man) shows off his post-canter trot on his second ride here (he has been off the track for a few years). Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Overall, go ride, folks and enjoy the awkward, choppy phases. They will make excellent before pictures and video once the horse lets go of their back, gets in front of the leg and gains that desired “bigger movement” … just wait.