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Cantering Calamity Image
  Cantering Calamity
- kindly written for World of Horses by Karry Gardner
 
"Help - My Horse Won't Canter !!!"  - (No,not MY horse, YOUR horse !!)
 
One of the most common problems published on the World of Horses Website is the "Why won't my horse/pony canter ?" and I have to say that I am tempted, (but haven't actually done it yet) to email back the reply, "Well,have you bothered to ask him or educate him so you can ask him ?".
 
I suspect many people actually think that horses are psychic and know what their riders want from them because they  "think" it. In fact, I once went to a major dressage competition where one of the (alleged) country's leading riders (who I'm not naming and shaming) performed an Advanced Medium test that was not ridden from aids but had been systematically learned by the horse using , what I can only suppose was continuous repetition  of the test that was performed. I was horrified to learn that there are lots of people competing out there who use this method to train (brainwash?) their  horses into performing. Be assured that you may be able to reach a certain level and fool some of the horses, some of the time but ultimately you are only fooling yourself if you think that it's acceptable to accept this from your horse. (And downright dangerous)
 
My horse anticipates flying changes sometimes and it's the only time I feel a bit unsettled when I ride her because she gets so excited I can't hold her with my seat and legs (yet!) and I get the horrible feeling that we will have to be peeled off the roof of the indoor school if it continues. Unfortunately, years and years of BHSAI students haven't helped her because when they found out how talented she was, they would "Try her at flying changes" without having the necessary ability to control or correct her when it went wrong, which it frequently did. Consequently, I'm going to get "The Boss" to fix the flying change button when I need to use it again because I am not the one to teach her this movement - I know the limits of my riding. I can "do changes"  on other horses but MGB's button needs recalibrating (badly !!).
 
Why Don't / Won't Horses Canter ?
 
Before you start to blame the horse, ask these questions and be honest about the answers you give.
 
1. Have you  actually asked the horse to canter ? (and what did you ask him with ?
2. Has the horse been sufficiently well educated to understand the aids and what you are asking of him ?
 
If the answer to either of these questions is "no"  or "I don't know" you must  invest in a one to one lesson with a capable instructor to educate both of you and not just to continue letting the horse "break" into transitions - it's not good enough .
 
Do you remember the first pony that you ever rode - it was probably a very fat, canny little thing that liked playing games with you such as "drop the shoulder when approaching a jump" and "bucking when you gave it a slap with the stick" and the all time favourite of "trotting faster and faster and faster when you asked it to canter".
 
The thing is, most of these ponies have never been taught to canter off an aid , most kids do not have the leg contact to teach them to canter from an aid and this is because most kids have got very short legs (and some adults, for that matter). So most children actually learn to canter by accident, by pushing the pony faster and faster until it either falls on it's nose or it "breaks" into a canter.
 
As a matter of interest, how often do you personally use that expression "breaks into canter" to describe how your horse canters ?
 
Horses and ponies should  not merely "break" into canter but the transition between trot and canter or walk and canter should be a clear, concise affair and not slap bang ,wallop, chaaaarge !!
 
So how is it "done".
 
If your horse is one of those that "breaks" rather than "makes" a transition, you've got to go back to the very beginning:
 
How the horse walks will affect how it trots and canters and, as I have said before , if it barges off in walk, it will do the same in the other two paces.
 
Walking well is fundamental to the whole process of riding and yet so many people spend as little time as possible in this pace. Personally, I can walk for England because it gives me the time to balance MGB and get her down and round and soft in her mouth. Until she walks properly, I don't trot and unless the transition to trot is good i.e.. she doesn't come off  the bit and stays down and round, I won't proceed  with the transition but I go back to walk and re-balance her again and "ask" for the trot again. This goes on until the transition  between walk and trot is absolutely perfect with no loss of contact between us and no stiffness, If the transition is stiff, then the horse cannot move forward and is on it's forehand , pulling rather than pushing himself along.
 
You will know when you get a good clean transition because it sort of just "flows" and you can actually feel the hind legs come underneath the horses body ready to push the horse forward.
 
What sort of aid should you use to achieve the transition to trot ? It's almost entirely unique to your horse  but when I am riding a strange horse (MGB is strange - they are all strange !!) I experiment by doing the following :
 
I slow the pace right down in walk using my seat and a half halt on the outside rein, this engages the hind quarters (makes the horse "sit" on his bottom a bit more). You should feel the horse check himself but he should not stiffen in his neck and back. If he does, then you've got to teach him to accept the half halt (here's yet another lesson !) If a horse stiffens in a half halt, I will go back to walk - halt - walk transitions until there is an acceptance of the movement. It is sometimes necessary to back up the aid with a reminder to move forward from the whip. (Gently though, and not a humungous, great whack) . It is always vitally important to keep your legs "on" all the time during transitions upwards and downwards.

Do not make the mistake of taking your legs off your horse's side when in halt because of you do, when you put
them back "on" again, the horse thinks it's a rein back aid and you may be teaching your horse to "nap" by accident.
 
I "ask"  for  walk and/or trot with both legs,starting with my thigh muscles (adductor muscles)   which I use to pull my legs together from my seat downwards. If I get nothing from this response, I ask a little harder by using my calf muscles and pulling them inwards. If I get no response from that, I use my heels   to push the horse. Failing all these things, rather than kick the horse in the ribs, I will squeeze with my heels and use a schooling whip behind the girth to tap the horse forward and I do this gently because it's an aid and not a punishment. (You are trying to "speak horse" here and not frighten the living daylights out of him !). You have to remember to allow your hand to move forward with the horse and not hang on to his mouth or he can't move at all. I always wear spurs so I always have the option of nudging with them but I never, ever jab them into the horse, that's a recipe for disaster because then they just leap ten feet in the air . It also annoys them if you continually touch them with spurs because you can't keep your legs still. Only wear   spurs if you can keep your leg still and on the horse's side because otherwise they are a waste of time. If you are still at the stage where you grip up with your knees (if you loose your stirrups regularly,it's almost certain that you are gripping up) then take off your spurs until you can keep your legs still - you will give confusing aids to your horse and then get cross with is because it doesn't understand you. 
 
Now I hear you all saying "but what about cantering, we haven't even got out of walk yet ?!"
 
And the answer is "True, but to teach a correct transition the training must be progressive and all these other things must be in place first !!"
 
When you are happy with the walk-halt-walk , walk-trot-walk and the halt-trot-halt transitions, then and only then we can begin to consider the canter.
 
You can of course kick your horse until it "breaks" but all you are doing is putting it on the forehand and if you are in a schooling arena, you will not be able to maintain enough impulsion to keep the canter moving. The horse must canter with his hocks underneath him and use himself to push the canter out not drag it along !!
 
Speak  "Equus When You Ask For Canter 
 
So firstly, we must consider the canter aids - What are they:
 
When we canter, it's easier to "ask" the horse from a circle or from "shoulder in" or from a corner of the school. The horse should be bent inwards not just from the rein but from the riders legs. The inside leg is placed at (and by "at" I mean just behind the girth in a  shoulders, seat  hip alignment) with the heel turned inwards or the spur gently in the horses side ,and the outside leg is placed flat to the body behind the girth, the distance from the girth, of which, again is almost always unique to each horse. It is not the outside leg that asks for the canter but the inside  leg which is used to ask the horse to strike off. The outside leg is there to support the inside one and to make sure the horse takes off on the correct leg.
 
Meanwhile, the inside rein,supported by the outside rein should be used by opening and s tr e t c h i n g outwards fractionally and not with a yank and a backward pull. The horse's body is bent and not just at the neck so legs must be ON    properly.
The rider's weight must be evenly in the saddle but with the leading (inside) hip slightly in advance of the outside hip. To achieve this, stretch the inside leg downwards but the body weight should not be apportioned unevenly in the saddle (i.e.  don't lean to the inside)  The rider must NOT be leaning forward as this will throw the horse onto it's forehand and the strike off  won't happen. Ask for the transition with a nudge of your inside heel NOT the outside flat leg.
 
All things being equal, at this point, the horse will "fall" naturally into canter - YOU MUST ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN , SIT UP STRAIGHT AND NOT PULL BACK ON THE
REINS !
 
What do we mean by having the correct  leading leg ? To understand this we have got to know the correct sequence of the legs in canter.
 
On a right lead (right circle) canter the legs work thus: LEFT  HIND and then simultaneously the legs of the LEFT diagonal i.e.. LEFT FORE and RIGHT HIND and finally the leading leg  which is the RIGHT  FORE followed by a split second of full suspension in the air (no legs on the ground) before the sequence is repeated .
 
Obviously the sequence on the left rein (left circle) is RIGHT HIND, RIGHT FORE and LEFT HIND   together and then LEFT FORE.
 
If for some reason your horse takes off on the wrong leg when you have asked for say,right lead canter, this is called a "false lead". In dressage , we use quite a lot of counter canter ( that means working on one rein , say right , but  deliberately asking for an outside bend and left lead   canter. It's a useful suppling exercise  but it makes MGB barmy   because she then tries to do her "airs above the ground"   and gets her equine knickers well and truly knotted by executing flying changes whilst I hang off the "X" marker in the school from the seat of my Cavallo's (Christmas Pressy from beloved spouse) and sometimes even my teeth or what's left of them !
 
So that all sounds really easy peasy doesn't it ? What could possibly go wrong   with this scenario  -  PLENTY !! (Trust me ,I'm an accountant!)
 
Things that Go Wrong !!
 
The rider's balance is the main problem with faulty strike off (sounds like a skin rash, faulty strike off - I'm beginning to itch !!)
 
Collapsing the hip - the horse carries the inside shoulder and hip in advance of the opposite ones so the rider must help the horse by advancing the corresponding seat bone accordingly.
 
Leaning forward - a really common one but you don't help the horse by leaning towards the movement - it makes him unbalanced and run on faster and faster (remember that first riding school pony ?) It places all the weight on the horse's forehand and he gets unbalanced and won't/can't canter.
 
Leaning backwards - has the opposite effect and inclines the body away from the movement and hinders forward motion.
 
Blocking with the hand and reins -*** perhaps the most common one of all. If you hang on to the horses mouth,   he simply can't move forward no matter how much you are asking him to with your seat and legs because you are restricting his mouth and it hurts him !! Don't give a horse conflicting instructions  and then wonder why he "disobeys" you
You have to TRUST  with your hands and allow the hands forward   and to "give" to the horses mouth so he can move. If you can't TRUST your hands, you need more work on achieving an "independent seat" i.e.. you must learn to  ride with you sitting into the horse and not by sitting on it and using your reins to hold on to . Reins are for guiding the horses head and NOT for using as hand grips .
 
Wrong Lead - caused by the horse being unbalanced   because the rider has done one or all of the above or perhaps the head and neck were bent outwards and the horse thought  that you asked him for counter canter.
 
Falling off - seriously, I have seen people fall off over the horses outside shoulder because  their seat was unbalanced and they were sitting on the outside hip bone and as the horse tookoff one way, they slipped off the horse's shoulder the other way - Don't laugh, it might be you I'm talking about !!
 
The horse DOES nothing just  runs on in trot - a really common fault that lies with your horse's education and not with the horse, is when you think you do all the right things but the horse does not understand them. Remember that all horses have to be taught and the only way is by continual repetition of the aids until the message gets through.
 
(***If you find it hard not to interfere with your horses mouth, then hook your thumbs into the *Balance strap on your saddle or use a neckstrap for support (balance strap is better because you    don't have to lean forward to hold it. (* A Balance strap  is about six inches long  a bit like a Pelham  rounding  and it attaches to the front of your saddle through the "D" rings. It looks a bit like the kind of strap a beach donkey saddle has 'cept it doesn't stick up. Even if you  don't have your own horse, buy a balance strap for the saddle of the horse you ride : it's easy to put on and you can use it to pull yourself down into the saddle to get the feel  of a really good sitting trot - we ALL use them , even BIG and LITTLE BOSSES - so don't think that they are cissy bits of gear cause they are in fact really COOL )
 
Go for the Lunge  It's  better to learn to canter on the lunge then you don't have to think about the impulsion needed to keep the horse moving forward because the instructor does that. I learnt to canter properly( don't laugh) with Small Boss  with no reins and no stirrups but holding onto the balance strap attached to the D rings of my saddle. It was seriously scary . However  given lots of money to spend, I would have an additional  private lesson each  week on the lunge for 30 minutes or so without reins and stirrups because
a) it scares me to death but that means  I'll never die of a heart attack. (This is Big Bosses'  theory that if you do one thing each day that scares the poo out of you, you'll   live longer !) and
b) it deepens  my seat and I don't have to think about offering the rein to MGB because I haven't got one to worry about and
c) I am a sad masochist with nothing better to do with my life.
 
However, MGB is old and I don't like placing her front tendons under too much strain in case her legs fall off again like they did in 1997 !! But really, I would LOVE  lots of lunge lessons with no hands and stirrup bits, in fact, why not tie my arms behind my back and make me jump 4'6" while your at it, after all , 6 weeks in plaster isn't that long and orthopaedic surgery is really advanced these days aren't they ? And think of the rest I'll get - no more mucking out in snow and fog and ice and mucky tack and getting stuck in snow drifts etc etc).
 
Sorry, it's probably snow blindness or madness even !!
 
Riding Without Stirrups "We should all ride without stirrups for at least a year" is the mantra of The Boss and he should know because he has done it to help him deepen his seat . You see, when you have achieved the independent seat, this cantering lark is easy because  you have learned the relative values of weight distribution in the saddle and you can "ask" for canter by just moving your inside hip forwards and the horse will canter !! Honestly, that's  why Anky van Grusnven  appears not to DO anything when riding  because the aids have become so subtle and refined that shifting her weight is enough to  spark off Bonfire (d'ya like that SPARK - BONFIRE,  geddit ??) In fact, watching me and my clumsy canter aids must be like watching a butcher perform brain surgery for The Boss  but he very kindly puts up with me all the same he's just glad that I am accepting the theory even if I can't yet practice it .
 
So that's  cantering and now, "off you all go and do it" (Oh! but I wish it was that easy)
 
To be fair, I have used all  the things I have written down here and they DO work  but as always, if you are having problems, get a good teacher to help. It may seem expensive, but  if the problems don't go away then you're not doing yourself and your horse any favours in the long run by NOT getting help with them
 
Also, there are lots and lots of qualified teachers out there but sadly,not all of them can teach and you've got to find one that works for you and believes in you and makes you believe in yourself . If you want to load your Ned into a horsebox and bring it here to us, I guarantee, that if you do as The Boss tells you, you'll be cantering, counter cantering and flying changing before you can say "Madam Ginger Bits is Old !" Such is my faith in my trainer !
 
Update on MGB's State of Health
 
Actually, I can't practice at all much at the moment cause MGB is coughing with COPD indications. It's not BAD bad, but it's compromising her performance at the moment. My father's cousin, with whom I owned my first Ned when I was thirteen (a ginger BOY called Chance 15.2 3/4 bred showjumper mega scary horse )  has decided that she would like to get back into horses although she doesn't think she wants to ride anymore ,and she has approached me to ask if she can buy me another horse ( I know I should be grateful  and all that, BUT I can't help feeling a certain disloyalty to MGB when I think about this offer ). She has a yen (or a few thousand quid)    for an Andalusian gelding of about 15.3 and about six/seven years old that she wants me to bring on for dressage. I've told her she should ask The Boss if she could buy HIM a horse really , because he's a bit better rider than I am but she does not want an 18 hand Hanoverian in case she ever feels like riding again. (She IS only 4'10" and feels intimidated) .
 
Having MGB poorly has made me think about "the future" and "the plan" - the thought that at 108 years old, the end is really  only a short step away and not a giant leap. Methinks that I love her too much really and I said that I wouldn't when I got her ; that she wasn't a dog or a cat  who lived in the house with me and I  would be realistic when the time came. I thought about "the end" a lot this last week and now my computer key board is sticking a bit when I type (it got a bit wet you see) .
 
So I am sorry if I wasn't my usual jokey self when I wrote this but I was feeling a bit vulnerable . I gave MGB a couple of day's box rest and she came charging out of the stable and hauled me around the indoor school afterwards and jumped up and down whilst admiring herself in the mirror. She snorted and pawed and leapt around (I told you  before box rest does not agree with her ) and cantered flat out for fifteen minutes - I let her run loose afterwards for a roll and then we played "Join Up with Monty Roberts" for five minutes until  she ate all the POLOS and then we played "catch the demented chestnut mare" which I won when I produced a bucket of mollichop and she coughed just once and cleared her throat and her nose with a big snort (I LOVE all the sounds horses make ) and she ate my copy of Horse and Hound with the picture of the Andalusian stallion in it I had shown her in case she fancied him as a stable companion . So all in all, I don't think she approves and neither do I think  she is as bad as I thought she was and I think that I'll ask The Boss if he can get out his tool box and weld up the flying change button - I've got a feeling  that we might need it very , very soon !!
 
If you've got any specific riding or care problems , just contact WoH and my friend Caron will decide which is the most common problem people are having, and I'll try and put together an article with it in mind.
 
Next Week,we are back to PRIVATE LESSONS WITH THE BOSS  and this is the first since December 21st 2001  so     be prepared  for an update on MGB's progress and for me  to write down paragraphs of despair when my riding gets pulled apart by The Boss .
 
 There are only 89 days left to my first competition.
 
Will I be ready ? Will I kill myself in the pursuit of perfection. Who shot Phil Mitchell ?? Will my Andalusian have arrived by then ?? (Sorry, scrap the last question or at least don't tell MGB !)
 
Happy Cantering and remember the balance strap - it's a cool piece of kit !!
 
To send your email question to Karry please click here
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