When a young horse has a bad canter…..
I hear this term a lot. I use the term ‘bad canter’ a lot. Breaking down the logistics of a bad canter versus a great canter can have different meanings to different people.
When I say a horse has a bad canter and am looking at horses to buy for American hunter riders, I have to consider what an American rider can do with a bad canter. Not much. With the current gap in education we live with (and created), a bad canter is really just an undeveloped canter in a young horse and the balance is ‘on the head’, not the hocks. But a lot of people here want to ‘fix’ the bad canter by slapping on draw reins, a strong bit, even tranquilizer, and force the canter to something more comfortable for the rider. This leads to other issues down the road, creating a horse who will always need a severe bit, too much compression to the spine without the muscle to support it, and an association of pain with work, a huge pet peeve with me.
Keep in mind I am not simply describing the MOVEMENT of a horse in the canter. Good movers can also have bad canters, but many average moving horses have what I consider a weak canter. If you are lucky enough to have a horse with a good canter and it is a hack winner…yay! You don’t need this article. To me, it is a bit trivial to try to fool with trying to make an average mover into a 10 mover, and it is not the point of this piece, but rather to address what is in the caboose of a young horse. Those movement techniques can be discussed later.
Can a bad canter become a good canter?
Of course, with time. People seem to loathe the use of time in development, but it does actually work. If you handed me ballet slippers and a tutu, and demanded four ballet positions perfected in in ten minutes, I would ask you to share whatever drug you were taking and flail my way across the dance floor looking like a penguin rolling off a glacier and smashing into ten other penguins who were gawking at him. You give me ten weeks and it would be a different story. I would receive an invitation from the school for the arts I would be so good…. but probably for just those four positions.
I think horses are the same way. Their bodies can always improve with correct development, and we can give them cues and exercises to build the muscle for good gaits.
What does a bad canter feel like?
It feels horrible if you are not ready for it. The stride feels 25 feet long, there is no steering, going around turns is a battle with gravity as the horse leans in and braces itself to remain upright, and when you ask to shorten the stride, they trot, there is very little control. Riding in a small arena is suddenly a daunting experience. Your body wants to brace against the lack of control and suddenly your back hurts, arms hurt, and legs are like wtf is happening here? You both pull up winded.
Then you pull the tack off and realize there is no topline or back muscle under the saddle. You find yourself wanting to turn your horse over to a field hunter.
Riders tend to think the horse must be being naughty and willingly out of control in the canter, so in come ‘the hardware and tools’ to fix the problem.
The fighting begins.
Other bad canters feel ‘racky’, and it is hard to tell if the horse is trotting behind and cantering up front. They may do everything else just perfectly right, but the canter is not fully engaged. As a horseman, you have to make a decision as to what you feel can be improved upon and what the horse can relearn to make a full 3 beat canter. Maybe they can do the job without a normal canter, so it isn’t an issue, like this one in this video was a saint, a school teacher of sorts for a kid, but if I were to show it to a professional rider, they might balk at the gait, specifically the way it canters the first line.
How do you work with a bad canter?
My entire life is spent riding horses of all ages, sizes, shapes, breeds, etc. Some have better conformation than others. When you feel unbalance, the first thing to decide is exactly where that imbalance is coming from. Usually between the mouth and the hind end, you can spot a weakness. If my job is a 20 minute fix, I have to alter my methods to please the customer, but if my horse is a 6 month project, I can work more magic.
Dummy down the hardware. Snaffles only. I was fortunate enough to spend a good chunk of my educational years (early 90’s) in stables across Europe with an endless supply of three, four, and five year olds to break and start. There were tack rooms full of bridles of all sizes. and ONE selection of bit. The loose ring snaffle. No tricks, no gimmicks, no draw reins, and if you couldn’t make that work, you didn’t get to ride. You may have been offered a running martingale if you needed something to hang onto as they bucked and flung themselves across the ring or leapt six feet in the air over a pole on the ground.
I still use a loose ring snaffle, but my go to bit is a plain D-ring snaffle, and for funny shaped mouths I may have an egg butt to offer. Why can’t you use more? Well, you can, but the problem with using more is that it will never become less down the road. What works in my training for young horses is what makes them less resistant for an amateur rider in the future. Most of what I teach a horse is through the leg, not the mouth anyway, so the dependency for severe hardware disappears quickly. If I am preparing for a weaker rider, and that rider really does need more hardware the horse will end up with better obedience for that rider. I do own a pair of draw reins, but I don’t use them to correct a balance issue, because they make a horse fake in the mouth, or heavier in your hands when used too much. A horse has to be really strong or unruly before I pull them out, and more often it is a cold, windy day in February and I am about to venture on a highly anticipated trail ride with lions, tigers, and bears lurking around every which corner. Just kidding, sort of. We don’t have tigers.
Do the transitions.
No one ever believes me when I say this, (not that I care), but it is the number one most effective training technique for your horses, done correctly. There are days I never even get to the canter during a ride, and that is ok! Walking provides an astonishing amount of muscle building alone, but when you add on the walk trot transitions into the program, you set yourself up for more balance in the canter. Leg aides need to be accepted and understood, so if the horse shoots off your leg into the trot too quickly, do ten more transitions until the horse doesn’t shoot off your leg (nicely, not rough). If he won’t go to the trot the first time you ask, get him to a point he responds off the leg better. Don’t use so much hand in a down transition. American riders desperately want control of the mouth and the first instinct of just about every rider I see is to close the hand to stop or slow down. However, it is the riders thighs and legs closing on the horse’s back which tells a horse to slow down, not the mouth, so if you simply communicate to the proper area, you will have a very willing animal to work with. A good trot to walk transition shows absolutely no hand movement whatsoever, and is all performed through the seat of the saddle, sitting gently and squeezing your thighs together with a goal of never having to pull on the reins. If you really want to get a horse broke properly you will do 42 transitions a ride for weeks. And most of them in the walk and trot.
I coaxed Stacey into being the demo for this video, and luckily it shows a lot of different things. It is a minute long, but you can clearly see the first transition the horse hollows out a bit and disengages his hind end, and Stacey slightly falls behind the vertical with her body, but by the end of the video the transitions are drastically improving to where you can see leg acceptance, the hind end stays underneath, and the topline stays in one place.
On day to day riding, I would tell her go to 20 more minutes of those rapid succession transitions until they are perfect. And I would encourage a bigger and bigger trot step as the transitions get better. The harder they push into the transition, the more the muscle develops. The rider should never lean back for a down transition, despite your natural instinct. Fight the instinct! Think of closing your hip and relaxing more, stretching, not bracing and pulling.
This is where the draw reins can hurt. You will be blinded and not know if your horse is listening to your leg or listening to the draw rein. I want the horse to willingly do the transition without lifting its head or dropping the hind end, and the only way to find that consistency is with as little equipment as possible. I never ever tie a horse down with a chambon and expect good results. Actually I would never get on a horse with a chambon. ever. It doesn’t happen perfectly the first day, but one week of good transitions and you will see a difference.
Allow the canter.
This is hard and scary, and really the riders who have spent time at the track are the only ones with an advantage here. Letting go of the canter and letting the horse learn to find its’ balance is a mental and physical demand only a few are very comfortable with. If that’s you, awesome. If not, I feel ya, I had to learn it the hard way. Rodrigo Pessoa made exactly one comment about 30 years ago and it changed my life, thank you Rodrigo. I owe you. He said “take away the resistance and the horse won’t have anything to pull against.” It is true, where is the horse gonna go? Let go, stand up, don’t panic, and stay on a big circle. Don’t do too many laps. The horse will get tired very quickly. You know those first four strides where everything feels great? And then it all goes to shit around the end of the ring and you head down the straightaway like a train out of control and next thing you know you are trotting again? Ya sister, been there. Just try a few transitions on the circle where you keep feeling those first few steps correctly, and gradually four good steps will become five, six or seven. It will get there.
It is like building blocks. If you can perform one halfway decent canter circle where the two of you are not fighting, but communicating well, chances are the next time you ask for that circle your horse will WANT to perform. However, if you create the circle from hell and bully your horse into getting what YOU think feels comfortable, your horse will remember that you were an asshole, and maybe carry that resentment forward. Good luck buddy, you will need it.
Go outside the ring.
Do I really need to explain this? Find a hill. Use it. Yes, even show hunters can do this. There is laziness across the pond, too. Less and less Europeans are riding outside of their perfectly groomed arenas, and hardly any of the horses arriving here understand what a hill is, and watching them learn how to go down a hill the first time can be comical. Ok, I get some parts of the country are flat, but if you aren’t in that part, use the land God gave us. Don’t waste the opportunity while you have it.
Trot to Jumping.
For some reason we have this law in our heads that a proper school of a horse is walk/trot/canter each way of the ring before you jump. School horses are programmed. We learned it that way, no one has ever changed it up, and it would be confusing to rock the boat at this point, so no one teaches it any other way. It’s fine, whatever, but when you have a horse with an awkward canter, sometimes it is best to come from a different angle. After 42 walk trot transitions you aren’t likely to be risking injury from an inefficient warm up, trust me. He is warmed up. When horses land off of a jump those first couple of strides are correct and better balanced naturally, because they are thinking of the jump, not the canter. If you repeat a trot jump and set a pole one stride away they correctly can learn what a 12 foot stride is. This is why you see gymnastics.
There is nothing wrong with changing your routine, but do it mildly. Avoid a situation requiring a horse to jump through a grid of 30 cross rails. Absolutely not necessary. Developing a good canter for a hunter can happen with a combination of maximum 3 jumps and a few poles. I have had more horses needing to re learn how to properly trot a jump and miraculously end up with an outstanding canter on the backside, because I made him think about where his body is. I didn’t get in his way, or pull on his face on the landing, and voila! There it is. Pretty soon I could trot into a line and canter out without feeling the wheels fall off underneath me.
Bad canters can often indicate power in the back end, but the horse just isn’t educated enough to know how and when to engage it. They haven’t developed the muscle in the back and the strength in the hocks to support that power, so the result is uncomfortable at best.
Riders should try to manage and improve the canter without interfering with the long term quality of the gait, and keep them sound at the same time.
When you watch this video, you can see this horse doesn’t have the best canter, it is not the worst! But I have seen better, and what I like about this sequence is that you can actually see the horse processing the questions and thinking about how to change its balance. Will the canter improve? I would think it should significantly with repeating these types of exercises.
Maybe the only thing I would add to this is exercise is a cavalletti in the corner, after the line, to introduce a lead change, hereby preventing too many abrupt corners and having to halt on a straight line every time. It is lovely when you feel a horse turn the corner smoothly, especially when they haven’t been able to do so in the past.
Does age make a difference?
YES age does matter! In Dressage, classically trained horses are taught for up to 6 years to go forward. 6 YEARS. Collection does not begin until their hocks and knees are closed and growing is complete. 4 and 5 year old horses can have really awkward growth spurts putting their system way out of whack for a time, especially smaller ones, and what we demand out of young hunters in the show ring is a bit harsh in reality, when you think about it. However, we, as a society, have sort of shoved off the concerns by using excuses like well, you know, 2’6” or 3’ is not that demanding compared to a Grand Prix horse. Well, ok, whatever, it is our culture to behave this way, but true engagement of the hocks shouldn’t really be burdened on a 4 or 5 year old, unless you don’t care whether it passes a vet check down the road when it is finally ready to be sold. I am not a huge fan of being on the backs of 3 year olds and jumping them, but again, it depends on the horseman, and depends on the horse.
Most trainers have to do what is right for them, but I do appreciate our lack of available resources for young professionals and young horses in the hunter world, and strive to encourage good development of both, not just look for the easy way to make a buck. If you really are prepared to take on young horses, do it with help, do it with time, and do it correctly. Your peers will respect you more for it. I assure you.