Learning to Canter

I’ve got a project at the moment, and it’s proving to be an interesting one so far. A lady approached me and asked if I could teach her pony to canter. She thought he needed a stronger rider than she to ride the transition and maintain the canter. A stronger rider doesn’t mean brute strength, it means being able to sit the extended trot run into canter without becoming breathless or losing balance, and having the stamina to ride the canter once you’ve reached it.

He’s an old fashioned stamp of Welsh Cob, quite long in the body and a very high knee action, popular in the show ring. I think that because trot is an easy gait for him he’s never really learnt to canter, either under saddle or au natural.

The first time I rode him I got canter a few times. For two strides. But it was a leap and a buck into canter. However, I felt that the school wasn’t helping him that well because it was quite deep, so difficult for him to push into canter. And then it was quite small so we barely got going before we had a corner, which didn’t help our balance. So I suggested that we source a different arena or surface, or I tried cantering out on a hack.

The following week I took him for a hack, but we weren’t that successful because by the time we got canter we’d reached the end of the track. Which made me think that improving the transitions was the way forward, and once he understands that I can use canter tracks to improve his balance and quality of the canter.

It was arranged that the following week I would go with the horse to another livery yard, and have a lesson on him. Something to do with the logistics of hiring the arena.

Anyway, it’s a funny situation being thrown into a lesson on a relatively unknown horse and definitely unknown instructor. Anyway, much to my relief my riding impressed the other instructor and we both work on the same wavelength, so it was much more of a discussion than a lesson.

The first week I warmed up the horse until he was settled in his surrounding and relaxed through his body. We asked for left canter first and the poor pony runs with his front legs into canter, but leaves his hind legs so far behind he can’t coordinate the canter sequence. So a pole was laid on the track in the corner, and I used the jump over the pole to get left canter. It wasn’t pretty, but I got it and kept it for half a lap of the arena.  It was a four time canter, and very panicked, with him running through the bridle. It was tricky to keep the canter with my seat and legs, yet have a light contact so we didn’t go flat out! After doing a few transitions we tried the right rein.

The right rein was much easier, we still used the pole to get the transition so he understood the aids and correct response from him. He also felt more relaxed in the right canter, softer in my hand and slightly steadier.

We finished that session with canter transitions over poles on both reins and left him to digest his lesson.

Today, in session number two, we revised the canter transition over the poles and managed to get right canter on cue without the pole. I don’t have much steering, but the canter got slightly more balanced round the corners and I felt that the pony was understanding what his legs were supposed to be doing. However despite him warming up better on the left rein today, we couldn’t get left canter without the help of a pole on the ground. As he stopped respecting the pole we raised it to cavaletti height. Once in left canter he did soften to the contact and didn’t feel as rushed, although the canter was still all over the place. His biggest hurdle to overcome is learning not to pull into canter with his forelegs and let his body get longer, because then it’s impossible for him to find the three beat rhythm.

I was pleased with right canter though, because he responded immediately to my leg aids and cantered without the help of the pole. 

Hopefully next week we will build on the right canter transition, and begin to improve the quality of the canter, and then move on to asking for left canter without the help of the pole. The left canter will take longer to develop, but we can be patient! As the horse gets stronger and his muscles develop he will find it easier to go into canter and maintain the three beat rhythm.


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