The Canter (chapter 16)
For the Walking Horse, this is probably the hardest gait to develop. Most people that ride other breeds find the canter one of the easiest gaits if not the most comfortable. Most riders can canter a Quarter Horse or a Thoroughbred with ease and never have to think much about it; this is not true with the Walking Horse. The Walking Horse’s pelvis has a much deeper slope and this causes the hind leg to travel much further under the horse’s body. Because of this under slung position the timing of the canter is much harder to develop. However, when properly trained you receive the benefit of a much more dramatic gait called the rocking chair canter. The lift and roll of this gait can become one of the most beautiful show canters in the ring and will often be the deciding factor between good contestants.
To teach this gait and develop it properly it is best to start when the baby is young by saying the word canter any time the baby starts working in the round pen on free lunge at the canter. This is much harder on a lunge line because the baby then has to also concentrate on going in a circle or get pulled back into line. His focus and relaxation will be much grater if he is free to pick his own path along the rail of a pen. Keep this fun as you are working with a baby. You have years of time to get a simple word cue into his head so take your time as it doesn’t matter when he understands as long as he gets the word association with the cantering action at some point over the next two years. Never work this exercise more than once a week as the baby will soon resent the pressure of learning. As I said keep it fun!
As the yearling and than the two year old develops work in the rollback. Stop the colt on the rail and have him turn away from you in the pen rolling his weight onto his hocks and then returning to the canter. By rolling away from you, this sets the leg position up to pickup the correct lead. Try to refrain from having the colt come in toward you until he is finished with the exercise at which time he will be happy to come in for reward.
If the colt is on the incorrect lead take the lunge whip and flair it in front of the colt’s head which will cause a hesitation or flutter step. As he hesitates he will transfer his weight backward and realign his legs into the correct lead. Repeat if necessary and if he gets confused and turns around just be patient and turn him back to the first direction and begin again. Make sure to keep the lunge whip behind the colt unless you are cueing the flutter step and than quickly return the whip to the rear of the colt. This will keep him moving forward. Be calm and allow him to learn it doesn’t have to be perfect; rushing him will only cause confusion and anxiety.
Over the next two years, train your horse to be a great two gaited ride and allow him to grow up and develop the muscles that are required to canter. When he is four he will be strong enough and mentally ready to learn the canter. It is very easy to strain a young horse’s hocks, back and hip joints if you canter him as a young colt. If you wait you will be rewarded by your horse’s compliance and positive attitude. Remember, he already knows how to canter, just not with you on his back. It takes time to learn to balance his rider and deal with the added weight.
If you have purchased an older horse this is also where you will begin. You will have to develop the word association cue with the action of the canter as described above, but this will only take an older horse a couple of months.
To Canter – you must teach your horse to bend and position his body into the correct alignment to pick up the correct lead. This takes dressage style training. While he is between the ages of three and four start to develop the exercises shoulder in, haunches in, side pass, lateral leg yield, half pass, turning on the haunches and forehand and rein back. This combined with the properly developed collection cues will take the two years of time that you have waited to finish the canter. Again keep all of these exercises fun and always work the trails and fields as much as you work the school or ring. This will make a happy horse.
To set the horse’s body up to correctly pick up the canter it is necessary to understand the half halt and haunches in dressage exercises. The half halt is a collective squeeze of the fingers that slightly resist forward movement in the mouth of the horse lasting two to three seconds. This is increased pressure slowly in with your fingers and then slowly out with your fingers. You are just collecting not bumping or jerking him in the mouth. This will balance the horse and cue his hip under as well as arch his head and neck into a rounded position. As the horse accepts this collection, cue the haunches in by placing your outside leg behind the girth and pressing it on the horse’s body pushing his hip toward center ring. Your hands stabilize the front end of the horse and keep him going straight down the rail even though his hip is slightly inward. This will be learned earlier and should be well understood by the horse as a known cue. The horse now is collected with his hip slightly inward and still relaxed flat walking down the rail approaching the corner. Within a few steps give a pressing bump or pressure surge with your outside leg and allow your hip to roll forward with your horse’s movement. Keep support to his front end and be sure not to bump or hinder his movement in the mouth. You will feel a skip step or hitching motion develop which means the horse is trying to get into position to canter. Encourage this skip by relaxing your hip motion to match this skip feeling. Feel the roll of the canter and just try it for a few steps through the corner of the ring. After a few steps come back to the walk and reward the horse’s efforts. This needs to be kept easy and fun or he will soon resent this new exercise. Repeat a couple of times over the next half hour and rap it up for the day. In a few days try again but go slow and stop if you see anxiety developing. Always finish with something that the horse knows how to do so he feels that he has succeeded in making you happy.
As you develop this skip step he will hold it longer and finally roll up into a canter in a few more tries. He will find it easier to canter than remaining off balance through the corner. As soon as the horse canters release the leg pressure to normal riding pressure and sit still with a relaxed seat. Move your waist with his motion and resist the urge to drive the horse’s motion with your hips or you will probably knock him off balance and frustrate him in his efforts. If you relax he will carry you, but if you are stiff you will become harder to balance and he will have too much to do in learning to canter and balance your stiff weight.
He is going to go too fast, let him within reason. You are only going to canter through a small area anyway so let him feel the motion and than ease back down into the walk and reward his efforts liberally. The more you reward the faster he will learn to relax and think through his new exercise. As time goes on you can use a slight hill in a field to help the horse to push against the incline which will help him to learn to slow the motion down and relax.
You need to play with this new gait once a week for a year or so before you worry about perfection. Your horse is building muscle and confidence and will remain calm if he is given time to develop.
Guard against sore muscles. Your horse won’t canter if it hurts and will resent that you asked him. Look for any signs of pain in the horse’s back or rear legs and check for thrush or cracks in the hooves. All of these conditions will prevent your horse’s efforts.
A pacey horse will find it much harder to canter than a more square moving horse. This is usually due to a hip position that is much more slung under or deep. The pacey horse doesn’t extend his rear leg behind him as much and it is harder to hit the take off step that the canter requires. They tend to pace faster instead of skip step. Pain in the horse’s body can make the horse pace. If a horse is pacey I first look for any signs of pain and work hard to heal them. This will improve all gaits but especially the canter. Tension, frustration, anxiety and lack of understanding will all interfere with cantering and make a pacey horse’s back stiffer causing him to become paceier. This is why you go slow and reward often.
In time your horse will grow confident and you can begin the collection process. My favorite exercise is the figure eight facing a long rail of an arena. Two 60 foot circles developed at the flat walk until the horse understands the pattern. I pick up the canter on one side going around the circle until I reach the middle and walk. I continue to walk the whole figure eight until I am in the middle ready to pick up the other lead and canter this new side again stopping in the middle down into the flat walk. In time (months) you can develop a simple change of lead (a few steps) and canter multiple times in the figure eight pattern before stopping. In time (a year) you might develop a flying lead change through the confidence given to your horse in shifting your cues from one side to the other. As this shift occurs he will pick up on this left to right alignment and shift his weight with you changing leads as the shift occurs. This should be planed and asked for not done by chance. The flying lead change requires understanding the half halt and haunches in and should never be rushed. By stopping in the middle of the pattern or the center of the figure eight the horse is required to sit down onto his back end as he slows. This is also great for developing collection at all gaits but in the canter it helps to create lift or roll. This collected roll is seen in the show ring and is very fun to ride feeling like a merry-go-round in its up and down motion.
Another exercise is the rollback down the long side of an arena. Ride at the flat walk or canter down the rail and slow to a stop. It is not necessary to stop dramatically, just slow to a stop. Turn toward the rail allowing the horse to transfer his weight to his rear legs as he rounds the 180 degrees. Be close to the rail as the rail will help him lean back into his turn as he keeps himself from coming into contact with the rail. It is not necessary to over do this just turn and cue the canter as the horse completes the turn. His legs will be in position to correctly pick up the correct lead and using your new outside leg ask for the canter as soon as the turn is completed. Try not to wear this exercise out by many repetitions, just have fun with it a couple times and move on to something else. You can always come back to it later.
The last and very hard exercise comes into training years after the horse becomes proficient in the canter. Canter in the half pass is a very collective process where the horse comes off the rail in a diagonal while remaining straight forward in the body and leading the movement slightly with his shoulders. His head is facing the direction of movement and the exercise is balanced and driven with hand, seat and leg cues. As in the half pass at gait the legs cross in front of each other so it is important to have almost perfect balance and collection to protect the horse during the movement. When your horse is ten and you have accomplished everything else you set out to do with your partner dressage is left as the epitome of learning. You will probably never run out of things to learn in this discipline and through a heightened understanding of balance and movement you will always improve as a rider and teammate with your horse. Some great authors in this discipline are: Sylvia Loch, Jane Kidd and Barbara Burkhardt.
Dressage makes canters better. To understand dressage and practice it in relaxation with your horse may take a life time. I feel compelled to learn and I personally don’t have anything better to do with my life time partner so I find dressage training very fulfilling. As you venture into this discipline you will find that all the lateral movements combined with the collective movements improve all parts of the horse in mind and body. There should never be tension, stiffness or confusion; seeing any of these signs just means you went to fast and confused your horse. Slow down and enjoy the process and the end product will be very exciting.
Because of our breeds beautiful gait, reach and stride, cantering perfectly takes years of practice and work so enjoy the challenge. If you are lucky to have a horse that is a natural at the canter you can develop this gait much faster but always make it fun for your horse so that he willingly looks forward to learning. He is your partner not a slave so treat his education as if he was your child and he will become a reflection of your best traits. The more you invest in his education the more of himself he will willingly offer to you in service and charisma. Training creates balance which develops power and turns into beauty so go into this training process with long term goals. You will end up with a horse that you admire.