Tips for Improving Your Horse's Canter

Following my blog post on the break even point in training (), I wanted to share some thoughts on exactly our most interesting problem: the canter. It is about how to shorten the strides (original article can be found here: http://www.horsejournals.com/shaping-your-horses-canter).

Biggest issue we also had was the basic that shortening the strides can only happen when you use breaks and gas pedal together meaning that it does not help to simply try to hold the horse back (I know that for sure as I tried that one as well), it is a working together of half halts on one side and forward driving leg aids on the other. In my mental picture, less leg meant less speed but that is not true. The horse needs to start collecting rather than speeding up when asked with the (inside) leg. It took me very long to really understand that approach.

I even learned that sometimes you have to give more length into the reins to get the feedback wanted. Why is that? Hafl was already used of me holding his head and my hands/the reins being the fifth leg (very comfortable for him - do not ask my arms how they felt). That was easy for him, making him stronger in the wrong way as he was not using his hindquarters correctly. So we started with letting go of the reins. I really put both hands way forward in canter and he was surprised. All of a sudden, there was no fifth leg and he needed to do something to regain his balance. That was the moment when he realized that he needs to carry himself - as I decided to quit the poorly paid job of holding his head.

A very important thing is the immediate reward of behavior that we want to see. I like to do that verbally and with treats. So whenever he made one or two good strides, I told him good boy. After some good strides, I got back to walk so that I could give him some treats. I guess not all dressage riders like to do that, but that pause would be necessary anyways, as horses need that time to think and realize what they just have learned.

To have a inner picture (never thought that they would work, but they do!), build a three dimensional box around your horse. As long as your horse is in the box (meaning, strides are short and collected), let him feel it by loosening the rein and being supple. Whenever he is not inside of the box, use leg and rein to get him back on his hindquarters. For me, more than in this article mentioned, it is not only leg and rein, it is the core muscles. Whenever he attempts to start running on his forehand, I start to tense my core muscles and resist his urge to move forward. My upper body gets more upright (did not have that concepts for a long time resulting in leaning forward and thus, even more speed) and I sit deeper, let my hips roll under as I call it. With that image, I simulate what I want to see from my horse: bringing the hindquarters under the center of gravity properly, releasing the forehand and shoulder (allowing uphill movement) and suppleness in the leg as the withers gets up and the he is able to loosen his neck. As soon as I achieve any wanted response, I release my muscles, getting "light" again. It takes some time of course until they realize it but they will understand the pattern one day - and your ab muscles will simply look great ;)

Think INSIDE the box...only this time!

Release the tension from your core muscles (shoulders included), acts like a reward and keeps the horse motivated. It is important to not miss that moment otherwise seeing a pattern will be impossible for the horse. Also here, timing is important. And I cannot stress it enough: things are not happening over night, horses need three months to build new muscles. Thus, patience should be mentioned here as well!


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