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.
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?