Q: When I trot, my horse always wants to break into a slow, hopping canter. He just doesn’t like to trot. How can I resolve it? The vet can’t find any problems with my horse and she thinks the problem is caused by the rider.
A: This is a common problem that can have different causes. Fortunately, it appears that your horse is healthy and your vet has given you the green light to work him through the issue.
Sometimes horses do favor one gait over another. Some horses find it easier to trot. These horses tend to have long, swinging strides with hind legs that step well underneath the body. Some horses prefer the canter. These horses tend to be more short-coupled and enjoy the bouncy jump associated with this gait. Even if that is the case, your horse should perform the gait and speed that correspond to the aids you apply.
Let’s start with the easiest answer to this question. It could simply be that your horse is confused because your aids are not clear. In posting trot be sure to rise up and down in the two-beat rhythm of the trot when you put your legs on and remain balanced in your posting. Your horse may be cantering in an attempt to bring himself and you into balance. If you are trying to do this sitting, try posting. In your sitting you could be driving too much with your seat, causing confusion and inadvertently signaling your horse to canter.
There could be a weakness in the hindquarters that causes your horse to want to canter. In this case, transitions up and down between the gaits, such as halt–walk, walk–trot and halt–trot transitions, could be useful. These transitions will build muscle in the hindquarters capable of sustaining a trot with engagement because the horse will carry more weight in the hindquarters.
My last solution to your question assumes that your horse is not engaged and may be a bit dull or behind your leg. This is the reason it is easier for him to perform the slow, hopping canter instead of a forward, engaged trot.
Using this assumption, when your horse breaks into this slow canter, add your seat and legs and ask him for a forward working canter. Continue this canter for a few 20-meter circles, then quietly ask him to come back to the trot. Close your legs on him and perform your balanced posting trot. If he picks up the slow, hopping canter again, repeat the above sequence. Be patient. Repeat this sequence a handful of times until your horse appreciates the opportunity to trot, instead of this forward working canter and he will soon realize that the slow, hoppy nonsense is not allowed.
Another benefit of this exercise is that you will have to be emphasizing your “canter seat” to achieve the forward working canter, and your “trot seat” to perform the transition down to trot. As you continue your posting trot, immediately after your down transition, your horse should start to identify these two totally different aids and continue trotting.
Using these different tools should help solve your problem and your horse will start enjoying his new-found trot.
John Zopatti is a USDF gold medalist, winner of several USDF Regional Championships at the FEI levels and a four-time Gold Coast Dressage Association Trainer of the Year. He graduated from the USDF Judges “L” Education Program with distinction and also coaches eventers in dressage.