Q: I have an 11-year-old, 14.1-hand Welsh/Appaloosa mare that has been a children's jumper. She is doing well at the walk and trot, but likes to keep her haunches to the inside. At the canter, everything seems to fall apart. She puts her head down very low, and I get pulled forward. I use my legs more firmly, but she just goes faster and lower. Occasionally, we get two or three good strides, but then she breaks into a fast trot. She does not seem to be able to canter even one 20-meter circle. My trainer says it is because she is weak and no one has ever asked her to do a 20-meter circle before. I have only had her for four weeks. What exercises would you suggest to keep her straight and help her to carry her head in a normal way during canter work?
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A: The first step I'd suggest in evaluating your mare's crookedness is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for an examination. A physical problem, such as hind-leg lameness, could cause your horse to carry her hindquarters to one side. A horse will often carry a sore hind limb to the inside to shift the majority of his weight to the opposite leg. Rule out that possibility before proceeding with conditioning and training exercises to overcome the problem.
Assuming there's no physical problem, you are probably dealing with a combination of factors, including lack of conditioning and poor balance. Your mare shifts her hindquarters to the inside because it's easier for her than traveling straight. She doesn't want to carry her weight on her hind end. As a result of her crookedness, she shifts her balance toward her front end, and that leads to your canter problems. If she lowers her head and goes faster, she may be trying to keep up with herself until she falls out of the canter and breaks to a fast trot. She does this because she's too out of balance to maintain a canter rhythm. She needs to bring her outside hind more forward and her inside fore down more quickly to stay upright. There are a number of steps that you can take to address these factors and overcome this problem.
First, plan time to condition your mare. I would recommend a lot of walking, ideally outside on trails or in fields. Incorporate some hills, as well. This type of conditioning-long, slow distance work-offers a number of advantages because your horse will have to push herself along with her hindquarters. She won't have the advantage of allowing the trot or canter momentum to carry her. Since nature programs animals to find the most efficient locomotion, your mare will soon begin to track straight; there is no advantage in hill work to favoring half the engine.
So long as you pay strict attention to maintaining a marching gait, you'll strengthen your mare with minimal risk of injury. This will also help her to relax because as she develops the capability of stepping more and more under herself, she will be stretching her topline. I'd suggest 45 minutes to an hour of walking at least four times a week.
To help your mare find her balance at the canter, begin with work on the longe line or long reins. By eliminating the factor of your weight, you'll make her move much easier, both in terms of strength and balance. Spend a lot of time working with your mare at the walk and trot before introducing the canter work. Specifically, work on walk-trot-walk transitions until your mare can perform them willingly and easily. When she's working well at the walk and trot, and performing transitions with ease, introduce small segments of canter. Be satisfied with several strides initially; don't expect her to be able to canter around and around. In fact, she'll benefit most from practicing transitions, so focus on doing many trot-canter-trot transitions.
Be patient. It may take weeks or even months of consistent conditioning and ground work before your mare can perform trot-canter-trot transitions smoothly and maintain the canter on the longe line or long reins.
When you work your mare under saddle, the first thing you should evaluate is your own position. Have someone help you to sit straight. You want to feel equal pressure with both seat bones in the saddle. If you are sitting crooked, you can cause your mare to travel crooked. Keep in mind that much of your mare's difficulty stems from her balance being shifted toward her front end. Therefore, it's especially important that you sit back in the saddle. Although it may be tempting to throw your weight forward when you feel her begin to lose her balance, that just makes things worse by putting your weight on her forehand.
Focus your attention on the walk and trot initially, and learn to control her hindquarters to keep them straight. Usually, when tackling this kind of problem, it is best to focus on putting her shoulders in front of the haunches, not vice versa. To do this, keep a steady contact with your outside rein and use your inside rein as a leading rein to draw her shoulders to the track of her haunches. You may end up going slightly sideways for a while until your mare decides that it is simpler to stay straight.
Riding a shoulder fore on a 20-meter circle is an excellent exercise to help you straighten your mare. If you have difficulty riding a round circle, mark one off by mowing a circle in a field or use cones or buckets for markers. Then, at the walk, situate your horse so that her inside hoof is just to the inside of the circle. Once you can travel around the circle steadily at the walk, do the same exercise at trot. Just be careful not to expect too much too fast. Be satisfied with two or three steps of shoulder-fore when you begin.
When you can consistently straighten your mare at the walk and trot, introduce the canter under saddle. Sit straight and keep your upper body back. Strive for three to five steps initially. At this point, don't let your mare break; you control the canter. After two weeks of a few canter strides at a time, hold the canter for two or three additional strides. If she remains steady, you can add more strides.
Throughout this period, do this exercise as a practice of trot-canter-trot transitions, gradually adding more and more steps of canter as your mare becomes better able to maintain her balance. If you focus too much on the canter, both you and she are likely to get frustrated.
Whenever she tries to swing her hindquarters inward during transitions from trot to canter, bring her shoulders in front of her hindquarters or use your shoulder-fore position before asking for the transition. By practicing transitions with your mare's hindquarters remaining straight, you'll ensure that she develops the strength required to maintain her balance at the canter.