Training the Green Horse to Canter
by Kathryn King Johnson, M.Ed.

You ask your green horse to canter. He trots faster and faster. Your molars are rattling and your instructor is screaming "push, tap him with the whip, MAKE him canter." You know that one more tap with the whip will cause the horse to buck. You know that if you let him stop, your instructor will come after YOU with the whip. What to do?

There are two schools on training a green horse to canter. One theory is to push the horse forward until he canters. This keeps the forward motion going and keeps the horse from learning to slow down as a reward. Think of it this way. You tell him to canter. He ignores you. You slow him down. What does he learn? To ignore the aids, then his reward, slow down or stop while you regroup.

But, there is a downside to rushing the horse into canter. He learns to ignore the canter aids and trot faster and faster and faster out of balance until he falls into an unbalanced canter.

So, the first method is an intermediate step to get the canter at all, then you refine the aids.

This method of running the horse into the canter is one you want to use less and less. But always keep it in the back of your mind, because sometime you will want to use it, when your young horse is just flat ignoring you, or if you think he's sucking back. A better term for sucking back is "behind the leg." This means when you close your leg to ask him to move forward, he either stays the same, or he slows down. A horse is "in front of the leg" when you close your leg and he moves. A horse who is in front of your leg always feels like he has a little reserve, a little more power when you need it. The horse must be in front of your leg to get a good canter depart.

The second school in training a green horse to canter advocates a balanced depart. The horse must be bent and balanced in the trot, then depart into a balanced canter. If he misses the depart, sucks back, or starts to rush off in trot, rebalance. Be sure you think of rebalancing, rather than slowing down. It is very important to keep the impulsion in the trot before you canter, or you won't get the canter.

How do you know if heís ready to begin canter work under saddle?

In general, he should be trotting nicely on the bit for several months under saddle. He should be able to make a 20 m circle comfortably at the trot. Some professionals will push the horse right into canter on the first few rides, so the horse learns itís no big deal. If the horse (and the rider) have good natural balance, this approach is effective. Most youngsters need the time at the trot to learn about their bodies with a rider on board. Since we have lots of time, I prefer wait until he shows signs of listening to my half halt in the trot, when he will adjust just a little bit when I sit for a few steps.

He should be adjustable both longitudinally and laterally under saddle. In other words, he should be listening quietly in walk, trot, halt, walk transitions both up and down. He should also be capable of a few steps of leg yield and spiraling in and out without losing his balance.

I like to wait until he shows signs of wanting to canter, or better yet, if he breaks into canter on his own.

The canter work on the lunge should be fairly solid. The horse should be taking both leads most of the time. Itís OK if he misses sometimes. He should be departing promptly from you voice. Itís your voice that will probably make him canter the first few times before he learns to listen to your seat and leg.

The canter is a wonderful tool for improving the trot. So if you have a quiet, somewhat sluggish colt, you might be cantering earlier than if you have a very forward, energetic colt who needs to settle.

Whatís going on physically in the depart?

In the canter, the horse begins each stride with his outside hind leg. Then the diagonal pair push, and finally the leading leg pulls furthest forward (it is leading in terms of going furthest forward, not first.) The riderís outside leg is back to hold the bend and to keep the haunches from escaping. The riderís outside leg also cues the horseís outside hind leg to strike off first, indicating the lead. The riderís inside leg is ready to push, to engage the diagonal pair. The horseís inside hind leg is the carrying leg in the canteróit pushes every stride to keep the horse in canter. Should the inside hind leg stop pushing, the diagonal pair will break down and the horse will fall to trot. The rider assumes a position and a sequence of aids that will help the horse to keep cantering. The aids should always be used in the order of importance: weight, leg, rein.

Weight: Before the canter depart, you should have the horse bending softly on a circle or a corner line in rising trot. For two or three steps before your depart, sit the trot. Sit lightly so you donít drive his back down or slow him down. In time, he will recognize the sitting steps as a half halt, a signal to prepare to canter. To keep the your weight centered, the hips should be parallel with the horseís hips and the shoulders should be parallel to the horseís shoulders. So, your inside shoulder pulls up and back, and your inside leg is stretched down to put the weight into the inside seat bone. At the moment of depart, brush your seat from back to front, the way a child might push a swing. Be careful to keep your upper body back. If you lean forward, you are dumping weight on your horseís shoulders right when he is trying to pick them up. In time, your legs will position the horse to canter, but your seat will ask for the actual strike off. This gives you a better canter seat from the first stride and later prevents the horseís confusion between canter depart and half-pass.

Leg: Your outside leg is back. You inside leg is down and at the girth. In the beginning, I like to use both legs to ask for the depart. If you just use the outside leg, you can cause the horse to throw his haunches in and to travel in a crooked canter. Once you are cantering, the inside leg will breathe in and out with his side to keep him in the canter.

Rein: When the bend is confirmed to the inside in the sitting trot before the canter, the outside rein stays steady and the inside rein softens a little. This allows the inside hind leg, the pushing part of the diagonal of your lead, to push under and engage. If you use too much outside rein, you can straighten him too much or even counter bend him, which could cause him to pop off of the wrong lead. Be sure he is bent around your inside leg. If you hang on the inside rein, the horse can't step under in the depart. If you hang on both reins or raise your hands, you are likely to hollow his back, then the horse can't canter. If you let go of the reins to go forward, you will drop the horse on his forehand in a faster trot.

Invest in a pommel strap. I bought a nice rolled leather one for $12. You can't even see it, but it will come in handy both to keep your hands steady and to keep you from bouncing. I am adept at grabbing the strap with my outside rein, so it stays steady no matter what. Then the inside rein is free to correct the bend or to reward.

Rewarding the effort:

Expect a good canter for about a 1/2 of a circle, then bring him back to trot, then walk, then pat and reward. Stop the canter before it gets flat and fast and on the forehand. You want to teach him to make every step correct. Then, over time, you add to the 1/2 circle, gradually making it a full circle, then going down the long side.

Most green horses have better balance on the 20 m circle than going around the whole arena. Some horses, especially very large or long strided colts might need the whole arena, and will be incapable of balancing even on a large circle in the beginning.

If you get a good depart, stop cantering fairly quickly and praise, so he knows what he is being rewarded for. Don't yank him right back, but be sure to say "good boy" when he departs. You might even stop for the day, in the beginning. Don't school too many departs in one session at first. When you get a good one, quit. You can work on the other side another day.

Trouble Shooting:

Bucks into canter?

Sometimes a buck is a loss of balance.

Sometimes a small buck into the canter is just the horseís way of finding his balance or getting on the right lead. At first the buck should be ignored, if the horse gives you the desired response, the canter. Always send the horse forward after the buck. If you stop to regroup, you reward him for the buck. Keep him cantering if you can. This behavior should disappear in a few weeks.

Sometimes a buck is an evasion.

If the horse continues in a series of bucks, or if the buck becomes an evasion over the weeks, he should be punished. Be sure your weight stays back and your heels a little forward when the horse bucks. If your leg slides back and you tip forward, he can toss you over his ears. To really get down and buck hard, the horse has to lower his head. A sharp correction upward with the rein and a loud "no" should be punishment enough. The punishment should be commensurate with the buck: a big buck gets a big correction, a little buck a smaller correction. Donít be afraid of hurting the horseís mouthóhe can hurt you a lot worse if you allow this vice to continue.

As soon as the horseís head is up, send him forward, even perhaps in a short gallop. This gets him thinking forward instead of "up." If heís really got you scared, but you donít want to get off and lunge, send him forward in the best medium trot you can muster.

Sometimes a buck is a soundness issue.

Before the horse becomes confirmed in his bucking, you need to take him back to the lunge line and see whatís going on. Something may be bothering physically that your vet should look at. The strain of learning to canter with a rider may have made something sore and a few weeks on the lunge will give him time to rest.

The benefit of lunging is that you can correct his bucking without the danger of falling off. I always keep a lunge line and a whip where I can get it without leaving the arena when I am riding a young horse. If I have a situation I canít handle under saddle, I get off and lunge. Leaving the arena is a reward, so I have the line handy in a safe place.

If he bucks on the lunge line, the same corrections apply. Yank upward in the buck and say "no." Then send him soundly forward. Even if the buck is soundness related, it should not be allowed to continue. Under your vets advice, you might have to curtail his training for awhile until heís stronger.

Sometimes a buck is playfulness or freshness.

A strong buck is an evasion that should be stopped, even on the lunge line. My horses can play in the field with their friends. Any time they are with me they need to act like well mannered adult horses. Make sure the horse has adequate turnout every day, and just before you work him, if necessary.

Missing a lead over and over?

Barring a soundness problem, most green horses have a favorite lead and a favorite side, which arenít necessarily the same. For the first two canters, I will ask only for the horseís good lead. If he strikes off on a wrong lead, I accept it. Because I want to encourage him to canter, I donít pull him back or correct him. I let him canter on the counter lead 5 or 6 or 10 strides or more, but I always bring him back before a corner. (Neither of us really want to try a counter canter at this point)

If the green horse is very well balanced in the canter and is capable of turning, I let him canter on the wrong lead and take him across the diagonal until he is on the true lead. Then I can reward him all I want.

But usually I rebalance, accepting the wrong lead as a loss of balance. I let him canter awhile, then I bring him back. I donít punish him, but I donít reward him either. I rebalance in trot, then ask again until I get it. The second he finally gets the lead I want, I praise and jump off.

In the first few canters, if the horse is missing a lead, you can use the arena walls to help. Get a good rising trot down the long side. As you approach the short side, prepare to canter. Sit in the first corner, canter at A or C. If the horse misses the depart, you still have one more corner to ask. If he misses it again, circle back to the first corner. The physical walls of the corner can help a green horse balance laterally and are useful if a horse has trouble with one lead.

Sometimes a skilled rider can surprise a horse into a lead from the walk. Usually this is more effective with older horses who are stiff rather than green. If the horse is constantly missing a lead, another option is to pull his head toward the wall. This throws his weight onto his inside shoulder and he literally falls onto the lead. Like running the horse into the canter, this method should be used less and less as the horse learns to balance correctly in the depart. If continued too long, the horse will become even more one sided and wonít learn to depart correctly.

Most green horses will show a preference for one lead, but in a few weeks, they will mysteriously show a preference for the other lead. That is nothing to worry about. It means you have done good work.

Exercises

A systematic, balanced approach will give you a better canter depart. Keep in mind that the straightest depart and the best quality canter will eventually come from a shoulder-in. These exercises are the foundation for canter from shoulder-in.

*If the horse breaks into canter on his own, go with him. This is one of the best ways to get that first canter step. Never punish the young horse for going forward. Go with him and then let him think it was your idea. Praise him as if you would for a depart you asked for.

*Use a series of transitions to rock the horse back on his haunches where he is better able to depart into the canter. If the horse is sluggish, make the transitions happen close together. This will help make him lighter. If he is quick, space the transitions far apart so he has time to relax in between.

*Get your best rising trot going. Then ride a 10 m circle at B or E, sitting. As the horse returns to the track at B or E, ask for the canter. If he misses it, ride straight and forward, tap him with the whip as to reinforce the idea of forward, and re-establish your best rising trot. Then 10 m circle, sitting, at A or C, and ask again. The 10 meter circle will help him keep the bend and balance, in the same flexion as a shoulder-in. In this position, he is already stepping under and engaging his inside hind leg, so it helps him LIFT into canter, and he is already bent and balanced correctly in the canter.

If he does canter, continue on the track of the 20 m circle or the length of the school. The green horse should not be cantered on anything smaller than a 20 m circle for awhile.

*A variation of this is to ride a 15 meter circle in rising trot, then spiral out to the 20 m circle line. As the horse touches the 20m circle line, sit and canter. The spiral incorporates a little leg yield to help keep the bend so the horse makes a balanced depart. As soon as heís cantering, stay on the 20m circle line. A green horse will usually lose his balance if asked to canter anything smaller. Accuracy is not as important as the quality of the canter.

*Once you are cantering, some horses will bring their backs up better if you are in a half seat. Be careful if your horse bucks. As he progresses, you will do the half seat less and less. You will need to get back into a balanced seat where you can both influence his haunches and get out of the way of his shoulders. If you stay forward too far or too much, you will dump the horse back on his forehand in canter.

*Continue the work on the lunge line so he is more sensitive to your voice in the depart.

*Take your time. Be patient. Every missed depart, every wrong lead is just another chance to practice a correct transition.