Question: Julie, I have a question that I am hoping you can help me with. My gelding canters on the lunge line with no problem. However, when I am riding, it is difficult to make him take up the canter. And, then when he does, he takes off very fast. Do you have any suggestions on how to train him to be more willing and consistent? Also, is there anything I can do to make him more collected at the canter? I would like to slow him down a bit. Thanks for your help. I appreciate it!
The behaviors you describe are typical of a horse that is afraid of the canter transition. Some horses have been hurt so many times in the canter departure by the rider hitting him them in the mouth and slamming down on their backs, that they become emotional train wrecks when asked to canter. They throw their heads up in the air and run off; running in fear of the pain they are sure is coming. It is a self-defeating behavior that soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for the horse because it causes the rider to stiffen and hold the reins tighter, which in turn causes the rider to hit the horse in the mouth and back.
However, before starting on a training solution, you’ll have to rule out any physical cause for the problem and this is also very common in canter departure problems. Could be a saddle fit issue, a chiropractic issue or even lameness. Have your vet or another qualified professional examine your horse and saddle fit and once you have ruled out any physical cause, you can look to a training solution.
Here’s what I’d do to fix the problem of a horse that is scared and reactive during the canter departure: first, I’d work the horse at the trot, until I can trot on a totally loose rein with his head down and at a slow, steady speed (if this is a problem, you’ll need to back up and work more at the trot with the exercises for slowing down you’ll find in my Training Library). Then I would give my canter cue softly and in slow motion, (outside leg, lift my inside hand slightly then push with my seat for the cue to canter) leaving the reins loose. If the horse throws his head up in the air and takes off, I just let him go, then gently and slowly pick up on the inside rein to bring him gradually onto a large circle, which will discourage his speed. Continue at the canter until he slows down and relaxes, then let him come back to a nice easy trot.
I would repeat this exercise on a loose rein again and again until he learns to trust that his mouth will not be hurt in the upward transition to the canter and therefore loses his fear of the transition. Surprisingly, some horses will figure it out right away with the right rider, but if it is an engrained pattern in both horse and rider, this problem can be difficult to overcome. It will help if the horse can learn the correct response from a skilled rider. This is not an easy problem to fix unless you have solid riding skills and confidence riding at speed.
This problem is addressed in my canter video, along with the actual mechanics and timing of the proper cue for canter departures. It is in volume 4 in my riding series, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Canter with Confidence. You can order online http://www.juliegoodnight.com/products.html or call 800-225-8827, M-F, 9-5 mtn.
Once you have fixed the canter departure, and your horse is stepping smoothly into the canter, you can start thinking about collection. Before working on collection at the canter, you should be able to work your horse on a loose rein in an extended frame or on a short rein in a collected frame at the walk and trot, and have him maintain a steady speed, rhythm and frame.
You’ll need to have the ability to sit the trot and canter well and feel the rhythm of the gait in your seat and legs. You’ll need steady hands and to learn to use your reins in an alternating rhythm in timing with your seat and legs and your horse’s hind legs. If you can do all of this, you are ready to work on collection.
First you must learn what collection is, how to ask for it and how to know when you get the desired response so that you can reward your horse for his efforts with a release. All of this is explained in detail in volume 5 in my riding series, Refinement and Collection. There are also many articles on my website that explain proper riding technique and how to feel the timing of the aids for collection.
It will take time and patience for your horse to gain confidence in the canter departure and you’ll have to work to improve your riding at the same time. But if you work with patience and persistence, you’ll get there.
Enjoy the ride,
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