Of all the gaits we show at, the one that seems to make riders the most uncomfortable is a too-strong canter. A fast canter can also ding you in the show ring if you’re in a ladies or pleasure class, especially if the other horses are cantering along at a nice, relaxed gait. So how do you transform that #canterthatsnotquiteagallop into a teacup canter?
First of all, in order to effectively teach your horse to relax, YOU need to relax. If you’re uncomfortable or nervous about the canter, this can be difficult. I’ve had horses that made me a bit nervous about cantering, so before I’d give the signal, I ran through a mental checklist on myself first. I’d make sure my seat, lower back and shoulders weren’t clenched. I would push my feet forward (since I have the bad habit of leaning forward and letting my feet get behind my hips upon departure). And finally, I would take a few cleansing breaths and let myself sink deep into the saddle.
So now that you’re relaxed, let’s talk about keeping your horse relaxed. If your horse gets nervous the more you ask him to do something, don’t let that be the reason you quit! It’s normal for them to get anxious when you break up their routine, especially if you’re now asking them to do something they are already anxious about. Be patient and calm. Let the horse take some breaths and relax once in awhile. It’s vital not to over drill them on this – include other work, too. But the important thing is not to give up just because your horse starts to dance around… I’ve learned that with most horses, their anxiousness will build and build until it finally peaks and then subsides. The hardest part as a rider is to wait it out… to keep working on the issue until they give up being nervous. But as hard as it is, you must work through it to that magic moment when they stop being worried and start paying attention – because that’s when they finally learn. Don’t let their nervousness scare you into quitting before you get the results you want. If it’s the first time you’re doing this and you’re on a nervous horse, maybe the result you want that day is to just do it successfully once. Always think in small steps, and keep your horse’s personality and abilities in mind!
All of the below tips have two things in common – they teach the horse to anticipate “something else,” and because of that, they keep him guessing. Breaking the horse out of his rut is one of the best ways to slow down the canter. So let’s talk about some ways to break the rut…
Circling is an old standby for slowing a horse down, and it can be very effective. However, some horses will quickly figure out the difference in your balance and body cues when you come around a turn to circle versus going down the rail – and as a result, the instant they figure out you’re going in a straight line, will accelerate. So keep them guessing! Do your circles in random places; don’t just circle on the ends of your arena. Make your circles different sizes. Spiral a circle down and back out. Do ovals, where your circle is slightly longer on two sides. By keeping your horse mentally prepared for “we could be circling ANYTIME now!” they will be less likely to rush down the straightaway.
Work Off the Rail
Taking a horse off the rail forces them to do two things: pay attention to their rider, and think instead of following routine. Sometimes a horse will get stronger when they get out of their routine – but that’s ok. I know the eventual goal is to get the horse to slow down, so speeding up during an exercise may seem counterintuitive. If you find your horse speeds up when you break their routine, take them off the rail at the walk and trot first. Get them used to not relying on the rail for guidance or balance. Teach them to pay attention to you and their body. Once they accept this at the other gaits, then add it in at the canter.
I love to canter about 10′ off the rail and do slow, undulating serpentines down the length. The bending/counterbending really makes the horse work their body, and they have to be very well balanced to stay cantering correctly while counterbending. This is a great skill to have in the show ring – if you have to pass someone at the canter, you don’t want your horse to break gait or switch leads when you bend them!
Nothing slows a horse down more than the expectation of stopping. So I will add frequent halts or half halts into the workouts if I have a horse that likes to rush. Halting you can do one of two ways:
- Let the horse gradually come down from a canter to a halt, with a few trot and walk steps in there.
- Require the horse instantly halt, like an equitation horse.
If the horse is new to “halting at speed,” I would suggest the first technique. Once they are more attuned to your body language, you can start asking them to halt more promptly, gradually reducing the length of time or distance it takes them to come to a complete stop. Once stopped, ask the horse to stand until it relaxes. For some horses, this can be a huge challenge, as our show horses have somewhere to go at all times. Halting in a corner can help with this, but eventually you want to work up to where your horse will halt and stand anywhere.
Half halts are a great way to re-collect a horse’s mind and body. Essentially, you begin to ask your horse to halt. When you feel his weight shift to his hind end in preparation for stopping, you stop asking for the halt. Depending on the horse and what you’re trying to do, you might use your legs to squeeze the momentum forward into more collection without adding speed. If you’re simply using a half halt to slow the horse down, you would let him continue at his new speed with his weight on his hind end. When his weight shifts forward again and he begins to speed up, you would ask for another half halt. Sometimes this means doing several in rapid succession until you get the results you’re asking for.
Short Side Work
This is trick I learned many many years ago, and it can be difficult to master, especially if you have a horse who gets anxious with repetitious work. But it’s worth the effort!
I will ask my horse to canter at the start of the short side, and halt in the next corner before we turn to go down the straightaway. Reverse and do it again. This back and forth of only going a few strides and then stopping will usually bore a horse fairly quickly, and they’ll learn to start their canter already thinking about stopping – hence, they start more relaxed and go slower in gait.
Once the horse is almost making me urge him forward, then I’ll let him go around the turn one stride and ask for a halt. Reverse and repeat. After awhile, I’ll let him go two or three strides – but always asking for a halt before going down the long side. Eventually you’ll be able to go down the entire straightaway on a calm, slow horse.
Both upwards and downwards transitions are great exercises to keep a horse light and supple – and the key takeaway here is that a horse who is light and supple cannot also be rushing and strong. For the purposes of slowing down a canter, I like to do a couple different types of transitions:
- Canter to trot
- Canter to walk
- Canter to halt
- Canter to walk to trot to walk
- Canter to extended canter back to collected canter
The last one might seem odd, that you’d ask your horse to extend in a gait you’re trying to slow down. But sometimes, asking them for more speed will actually allow you to bring them down to a slower speed than previous. Teaching a horse to be elastic through a gait (meaning they can extend and collect on command) will give you more control of their speed in general, and as the horse begins to learn what the cues mean, you can eventually use them simply to ask the horse to slow down.
I love to work on the canter while long lining and driving. If my horse has never cantered while driving (at least not on purpose) I teach the command in lines first. The first few times, the horse usually has to be run into the canter from the trot, just like when you teach them under saddle. But eventually this becomes much more refined until they understand it as an actual cue. My cue is I say the word “canter” with a half halt, and then kiss. I find that that lack of leg aids means I need something else to get the horse mentally prepared for cantering, so I use the word/half halt as my “preparation” moment and the kiss as the actual cue. In time, if you do it enough, the horse will eventually start to canter just at the word (just like a well trained lesson horse will begin to canter when the instructor says the word instead of when the rider asks).
Cantering in harness gives the horse the opportunity to canter without the added stress of a nervous rider. Also, for horses who are racing around because they’re unbalanced, it lets them find their balance without having to worry about carrying a rider. It’s great exercise for them, too!
Do you have any tips for our readers? Share them below!
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