For many green horses and their riders, learning the canter is a major challenge. Although it may look easy as your horse breezes around the pasture, many riders find that natural gait isn't so simple to achieve under the saddle. Thankfully, there are a multitude of ways a rider can encourage his horse to pick up the canter. This article will discuss tips and tricks for helping your green horse learn to canter with ease.
Before you work on cantering under saddle, it is important to get familiar with your horse's canter from the ground. Start by observing your horse at liberty in the pasture or loose in the arena. Determine which lead he prefers. Horses always have one side they are stronger on, just as people are right or left handed. Many horses have a “sweet” spot in the ring where they tend to do transitions. It's usually in a corner because the turn brings the horse's inside hind leg up under him. You may also notice some green horses hopping into their canter transitions or throwing their heads. Be prepared to ride through that when your horse begins to canter under saddle.
The next step is strengthening your horse's canter on the longe line. Teach your horse to canter off a voice command, such as a “kiss” sound, and practice transitioning to the canter from the trot and walk. Build up your horse's strength and endurance, especially on his weaker lead, and observe how his canter changes as he builds muscle and improves his balance. When your horse's canter is balanced, he picks up both leads easily, and he responds promptly to your canter voice cue, you are ready to try the canter under saddle.
Begin from a walk or trot, doing transitions within those gaits to get your horse focused on you and in front of your leg. When you feel that your horse is working well, ask for the canter in his “sweet” spot in the arena. You should also be tracking in the direction of his stronger lead. Ask for the canter using your outside leg behind the girth with your inside leg strongly supporting at the girth. If you only use your outside leg, your horse may be confused and just leg yield. Give your voice command in conjunction with leg pressure, and pay attention to where his head is going because it is important you don't interfere with his mouth. The last thing you want to do right now is accidentally punish your horse for going forward. Your horse should respond to these cues by trying a couple of canter strides, although they will likely be awkward since he has never cantered while carrying a rider.
If your horse does not immediately canter off your leg and voice cues, don't be discouraged. You have asked him for something completely new and challenging, and most horses will not get it on the first try. Simply allow him to slow down and get his balance back, and try again. There are a few other tricks you can try to help your horse fall into his canter more easily. You can try leg yielding from the quarter line to the wall, down the long side of your arena. Your horse should reach the wall close to a corner and you can ask for a canter there. The leg yield combined with going into a corner will bring his inside hind leg under him, which he needs to strike off into a canter.
If your horse is really not getting it, despite knowing the voice cue and being set up properly through the leg yield, you can try a bit of reverse psychology. Ask your horse to really collect his trot. Drive him up into his bridle, while doing some leg yields and large circles. The effort of maintaining this forward collection is too much for most green horses and he may seek relief from your driving leg by trying a canter stride. As soon as you feel him trying to canter, ease your pressure on the reins and from your legs and praise him extravagantly. Conversely, some horses may have more difficulty with extension than collection. You can use the same principle by asking them to maintain a balanced and cadenced extended trot and wait for them to offer a canter stride instead. Avoid chasing your horse into a fast, sloppy trot; you want to cause him to exert some real effort so as to make cantering seem like an easy alternative.
Teaching a horse to canter under saddle is challenging for both the rider and the horse. Be patient with your horse and reward even the smallest try at a canter stride. The praise and positive reinforcement he receives from you will be the biggest indicators to him of what you want to do. Don't exhaust your horse trying to achieve a canter, and always end your ride on a good note.
This article is based off the author's own experiences training her green horse, who is the King of not cantering. Photo courtesy of BubbleJewel96 via Flickr's Creative Commons.
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