Friday, 9 July 2021

The Elephant in the Room: Canter

I am so so happy with how Naia's training is coming along. She is a relaxed and steady partner who I can ride indoors or out, in new places, in various patterns. We can steer around gopher holes, confront sheep, keep working when a friend leaves, and even win ribbons. I am only 30-some rides in and in many ways I am astounded by Naia's progress. 

However, I do sometimes feel like there is an elephant in the room or weight on my shoulders related to one thing we can't yet do: canter. Naia has not yet cantered with a rider. Having a horse going w/t/c under saddle is both such a basic and such an enormous milestone at the same time. I waffle between wanting to push the canter and wanting to take my time so I thought I would do a blog post delving into some of my thoughts. 

Much beauty

Such grace

First, Naia doesn't have a great canter. When I went to look at her before buying her it was in a snowy/icy pasture. I was determined to see that she could canter before I bought her, so I did chase her enough that she picked up a few strides of canter on a straight away, but the situation didn't give me the opportunity to see any more than that. Those few strides were at least a true 3 beat canter so I figured that was good enough (let's remember, Naia was a steal of a deal and I was sick of horse shopping so we were very much in a situation of "good enough"). Since bringing her home, Naia's canter has never wowed, but has oscillated between a prongy-disunited canter that makes me wince, and a reasonably balanced 3 beat canter that is perfectly acceptable, if not awe-inducing. 

Me, trying to put 4 year old Naia who doesn't really lunge, through her paces in a snowy pasture, success was mixed

At first I only saw Naia's canter at liberty. Naia would generally like to be as close to her people as possible, so it took a lot of ground work and lunging before I had trained her to stay out on a circle reliably enough to use the long lunge line and work her in a circle big enough for a young horse to canter on. Unfortunately my barn does not have a round pen suitable for canter work (it is tiny and has crappy footing).  Even at liberty though, Naia much more frequently chooses the trot. 

Sometimes even a pretty nice trot

It was only March of this year where I started to work regularly with Naia on cantering on the lunge. Initially, picking up the canter was a lot of work, for both Naia and me. I love that Naia has such positive experiences with people and has no fear of the whip, but that does have the disadvantage that even much chasing and whip waving doesn't result in much reaction from her. Because it was so hard to even get a canter transition I instantly rewarded her for even a step or two of canter to make it clear that that is what I was looking for. That approach did succeed in giving us a much more prompt and reliable canter transition, but it also inadvertantly taught her that she got praise and cookies when she stopped after just a stride or two of canter. 

At the stage of just asking for a couple strides of canter and not worrying about lead

To counteract this new problem I had to go back to basics and teach Naia that "good girl" meant she was a good girl, but that she could still stay out on a circle and keep moving forward when she got that praise. And unfortunately not all praise comes with a cookie any more. 

Another issue is that Naia would much rather pick up her left lead than her right. She reliably gets the left lead when circling left, but she's about 50/50 with leads when going to the right. Unfortunately that 50/50 isn't consistent day to day, it is more like some days she mostly gets the correct lead, and some days she can't get the right lead at all. Part of the issue is that she likes to be counterbent to the outside while travelling to the right so I need to do more work on asking for and maintaining inside bend. 

Still the wrong lead here but a little more in control

Currently we are at the point where I only praise for correct lead, and I am pushing Naia to maintain canter for one full circle on the lunge. Both getting the correct lead and maintaining the canter are hard for Naia so it is going to take a lot of practice, but it is also hard on her physically right now so I am careful to only ask for a little at a time, and I do tend to skip canter entirely when it is over ~32C (90F) which has been a lot in recent weeks. 

Then there's the times we don't even get a recognizable lead

So that's where we are for cantering on the lunge, how does that tie in to cantering under saddle? This is where there are a couple ways I could go:

On one hand, I can be pretty confident that Naia isn't going to buck or run away with me if I canter under saddle (that would probably count as too much work for her lol) so maybe I should just do it. Realistically I will maybe get one or two strides of canter and then she will break back to trot. I can ask for the canter on a long side and so getting a certain lead won't matter much. Maybe combining a little canter on the lunge with a little canter under saddle will improve her canter skills more quickly. I feel like this is probably the approach to choose if one was a pro rider with a perfect seat. 

Occasionally her canter looks pretty decent!

On the other hand, I can see on the lunge that Naia is still just starting to develop her balance at the canter. Unbalanced horses can do unpredictable things and so for both of our good it seems beneficial to give her more time to figure out the canter before I ask her to do it with the weight of a rider. This is compounded a bit by the fact that I am not great at staying in a balanced position while asking for a canter. I'm actively improving my seat but I definitely don't want both of us unbalanced at the same time the first time we try for 3rd gear (go back to the very first photos in this post, that is not balanced). Clinician trainer AM gave me the guidance that a horse should be able to maintain 4 circles of canter on the lunge before they will be able to maintain 1 circle of canter with a rider and we are still a long ways away from that. It might not be necessary to be able to do 4 circles of canter on the lunge before doing it under saddle, but it doesn't sound like a bad plan either. Additionally, I have only just started lateral work under saddle. Since Naia struggles with leads already it would be useful for me to have more control of the positioning of her haunches before cantering under saddle so that I can have some influence on what lead she picks up. 

The final factor is fear. I admit that cantering Naia for the first time gives me a little bit of anxiety. However even this fear leaves me torn between the two options, because part of me wants to just go ahead and get the first canter over with before it becomes a bigger deal than it already is, while another part of me thinks that max preparation is the best way to wrangle any fear. 

This looks rideable

Once my trainer SJ found out she was leaving, we made a plan to have her do some training rides and lunge work to get Naia started with canter under saddle in the 6 weeks before she left, but then after only one ride (where no canter happened) SJ unfortunately broke her foot and couldn't work with Naia anymore. She has now officially moved far away so that unfortunately is no longer an option. 

I know this is a decision I need to make myself ultimately, but what would you do in my situation? How soon have you introduced canter under saddle to your youngsters? Would you just canter the damn horse already?  


  1. Connor had an awful canter when I bought him, to the point that a clinician called him the King of the Tranter, lol. She said at the time that it felt like impulses took a long time to get from his brain to his feet and back again, which made improving the canter not only a problem of strength, but also a coordination challenge for him.

    I tell that story because obviously we got past it just fine but it did take a long time (years before we had a good canter), and it may for her too, so trust your gut and be patient. Don't feel rushed into having a w/t/c horse because that's a thing, you don't need to do that.

    I think since it makes sense to her on the lunge conceptually, once you feel she's developed enough strength on the lunge to make it a positive experience, I would try to get someone to sit on her while being lunged. That way you're not totally changing up the routine, she'll have confidence in her own body in that situation, and if that person on her back happens to be you, that also takes the fear part mostly out (and trust me, I am just as fearful about this kind of thing as you are!).

    Good luck, young horses are such puzzles sometimes.

  2. I think waiting is a good idea. If she’s unbalanced on the lunge she may find it even harder with a rider. Take your time and ignore the ‘shoulds’

  3. Like Jen's Connor, Bridget didn't have much of a clue how to canter for a long time, and it's still very much something I need to "manage" if I want quality. I did a combination of things with her...lots of haunches in, shoulders in,leg yield at walk and trot to get her hind end stronger and more coordinated. Cantered just out on the trails or in a field behind another horse, just so it was a thing, but no complications with having to circle or running out of space, just canter in a straight line on whatever lead. I don't think there's a "right" answer, just go with your gut on what you think will work for you 🙂

  4. I take a full year to get w/t/c on my youngsters. People want the "backing" to take 90 days, but honestly if you think about everything we're introducing, it makes so much more sense to go slow and teach them everything correctly. By the time my youngsters can canter under saddle, they have three correct gaits in self-carriage, lateral work in walk and trot, and quality transitions - so one ends up not with a messy green horse that can kinda-sorta w/t/c, but a First Level dressage horse. If you take the time to do that properly, it's easy to do two levels a year after that, because you took your time introducing three correct gaits and responses to all of the aids.