Q: I am schooling Second Level on my 11-year-old Thoroughbred-cross mare, who is built rather long and low. At the trot she is lovely, but at the canter she is fast, hangs on me and ignores my half halts. I have tried riding trot-canter transitions to no avail. I have recently started cantering her in a Tom Thumb bit and riding lots of transitions to help her gain balance and strength. With the stronger bit she’s starting to come off her forehand and listen to my half halts. But as soon as I put her in regular loose-ring snaffle, she reverts to her heavy behavior. Am I doing more damage than good? What’s the best way to proceed?
A: It is frustrating to have a horse doing so well at the trot and then become intractable at the canter. While it is tempting to use a stronger bit to help control a horse, I don’t recommend going this route as doing so can lead to more serious problems. When the horse is overbitted, he soon learns to go behind or drop the bit, and because he cannot oscillate his head and neck (which is required at the canter for balance), he will tighten his neck and back to help him balance. This kind of forced tightening really interferes with a horse ever becoming supple and impulsive.
So, before giving in to the quick fix, try to figure out what is causing your mare to make such a radical change when she begins her canter work. It is possible that you may have something more going on rather than a training issue? The first thing I would do is have your vet check her stifles and hocks to be sure that there are no problems that could be pain-related and could explain why she seems to panic when she goes into canter.
If your vet finds nothing to be concerned about, I would check your position and be sure that you have your weight on the inside seat bone. Many times riders can be thrown to the outside, particularly if the horse is unbalanced and scrambling at the canter. If your horse is throwing you out of balance, her balance will become skewed, causing her to panic and rush. A way to check whether your weight is correct—at least as you go into canter—is to do intervals of sitting trot to posting trot. If your weight is to the inside, your horse will throw you quite naturally up with the inside hind. However, if you find yourself consistently coming up on the outside diagonal, then you need to get your weight down into the inside seat bone and leg.
Finally, check the timing of your aid. A lot of people ask for the canter with the outside leg, but I believe it is more natural for the horse when you ask with your inside leg. (Also, using the outside leg often pulls the rider to the outside, and then the whole balance issue comes up again.) The leg aid should be given just as the inside hind is lifting from the ground—it’s actually at the very moment when you would begin to post. To get the timing right, do the interval posting trot, sitting trot, posting, sitting and then instead of posting, ask for canter—exactly when you would begin posting. Add a slight push from your seat to support your leg aid.
Once you are sure that everything checks out, then begin working on the canter, first on the longe line and then under saddle. When you longe her, I wouldn’t put your horse in side reins but in something like a German martingale which will give her some restraint without making her feel trapped.
Be sure to give her clear boundaries for her longe circle. Do this by standing still, pivoting around your inside foot. Don’t “chase” her. Do, however, give her plenty of room, specifically, a large enough circle, to help her gain enough confidence to try to go into canter without the worry of having to go faster in a space too small for her to do so.
Ask for canter once her trot is quiet and regular. To ask for canter, try the following protocol: Say her name, wait a beat, then say “and,” wait a beat and then say, “canTER” with emphasis on the second syllable so that the word sounds different from “trot” and “walk.” If you need to use a whip, do not crack it to drive your horse into canter. Make the whip part of the aid. If you will step forward and swing your whip so that it stays parallel to the ground as you ask for canter, you should find that effective but not frightening to your horse. If the aid can be quiet and given in the natural sequence of her rhythm, your mare will not be so likely to panic in the transition.
If she doesn’t canter right away, tell her to trot—even though that is what she is doing—and ask again. Ask as many times as necessary to get her to try to take the canter. Above all, stay calm and quiet. Once she has found the courage to take the canter, put her almost immediately back into trot and shower her with “good girl!” Let her gain confidence this way, always trying to increase the number of steps that she canters but not allowing her to get quick. Always break her out of canter before she begins to rush.
Once she becomes consistent in responding to your voice commands on the longe and seems to be more comfortable cantering a 20-meter circle, then try the canter under saddle. Initially, get into the canter by using the same voice commands you used longeing her and canter just a few steps. Use your voice commands to return to trot and then walk and praise her. You need to go about cantering in a very quiet, methodical manner. Use your voice aids so that your leg and seat stay quiet and won’t startle her when you make the transition. Use your voice aid to return to trot so that you can keep your reins soft and nonrestrictive. If she doesn’t listen to your voice, rather than pull back on her, put your elbows on your sides and lift your hands to lift her head to put her back on her hindquarters so that she will break to trot as her balance shifts back. As soon as she trots, praise her and then go immediately into walk. Later you can try giving a correct aid: lifting your inside hand and taking rather strongly with the outside rein at the beginning of the downswing of the stride. However, at the beginning it is better to use your voice commands and keep the use of the reins to a minimum.
Keep all of your expectations small. First canter several strides and that’s all. Each day canter a little more, but don’t wait so long that she begins to lose her balance or to panic. Your progress will be much faster if you take this part slowly.
Once your mare has become more confident and relaxed going into canter, then try using your inside leg as you give the voice command, eventually shifting over to the regular aid. Your first goal should be to ride a 20-meter circle at canter rather than ride down the long side. Riding the circle will help her maintain a steady tempo. Once she can maintain a circle, do a circle and then canter several strides down the long side and begin another circle. Always take care not to wait too long before going on a circle so that you don’t end up causing her to revert to her previous behavior.
Eventually, you want to be able to ask for canter in the corner and to canter to B or E before riding your circle. The point is to take the work one step at a time so that you don’t overface your mare and cause her to return to her unbalanced, fearful state. Eventually, you want to be able to ride 20-meter figures of eight with changes of lead through trot and from there, you can try cantering the long side and changing through the diagonal with a change of lead through trot.
After you have the canter under control, you should find your mare’s overall development progressing even better because in the canter the horse naturally has a period where his weight is carried entirely on the hindquarters so he can begin to develop the strength to increase the engagement in all the work. Also, the canter lends itself to developing the topline just by the natural stretching over the loin during the initial steps of the gait.
Elizabeth Madlener is a U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) “S” judge and has been a faculty member of the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) “L” Education Program since its inception. In 1979 she was long-listed with the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) and for three decades has brought horses and students from First Level to Grand Prix. She is based at Leighton Farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland (emdressage.com).