Here are some things I’ve learned that have helped to improve Ava’s canter over the past year. I’ll try to sum up what I’ve learned in this post.
The horse, and rider’s, balance during the canter can make or break it (literally and figuratively). If I so much as tilt my head slightly down, this can cause enough of a shift in my balance to push Ava’s balance off. It also takes a significant amount of core strengthen to keep your upper body aligned properly to allow the horse to carry you most effectively.
Everything starts with straightness. If the horse isn’t straight, then she can’t ‘sit’ on her hindquarters. If the hindquarters aren’t aligned with the shoulders, then the horse can’t push from behind and have that energy travel through the back, and up through the shoulders. When the horse is crocked, that power and push throws the shoulders to either side and causes the horse to lose balance. Worst case, the horse will throw a fit to avoid cantering. Best case, the horse will canter, but you won’t be able to influence the speed/tempo very well; and you can rule out any movements more complicated than a 20 meter circle.
How do you straighten the horse? Boy, that’s a loaded question and one I’m still learning. It is so individualistic that it’s impossible to learn from a blog. But the main goal is to keep the horse’s shoulders and the base of it’s neck directly in front of your hips.
I know I always have issues with creating too much bend in my horse’s neck. If going right, it actually helps to have a tad too much bend, as long as I use it in conjunction with a thigh aid to push the shoulders to the outside. If going to the left, I have to keep her neck as straight as possible with just a slight flexion to the inside. Some day’s we spend most of the ride in counter flexion when going left. It always comes back to “where are the shoulders”? If I can’t see a straight line from her whither’s and up through her neck, then I’m probably using too much bend.
Again, the idea is to move the shoulders so that they are directly beneath you. If Ava were left to travel as she wanted to, her entire shoulder area would be tilted at a 45 degree angle to the right. So a great deal of my training involves finding ways to make her use both legs with an equal distribution of weight, even when traveling on a circle.
Shoulder-in and haunches-in, while in the canter, can help strengthen the horse’s inner hind leg to allow it to carry more of it’s weight on it’s haunches. These can be performed on straight lines or circles. Decreasing the size of the circle can increase the difficulty of the exercise.
One of the exercises we’ve used is to start the horse in haunches-in at the trot (on a 20 meter circle), leg yield outward (horse should be straight), and then ask for the canter depart. You don’t want to canter directly from a haunches-in as this can teach them to swing their haunches around instead of stepping up under and powering straight through their body. I’m sure there are exceptions to when to use, when not too, but for me (the average amateur), I’m better off not confusing things too much.
The past four months have seen a huge improvement in Ava’s balance in her canter. We’ve focused exclusively on getting quality canter steps. So even if Ava can only hold a well-balanced, straight, and engaged canter for three or four strides, then we focus on doing those few strides as close to perfect as possible and then taking a walk break. We’ve gradually increased the length of time she can hold a high quality canter so that we can maintain a fairly decent canter for the length of a few 20 meter circles. Another aspect of quality over quantity is the canter depart. Once I realized that I didn’t have to allow Ava to continue cantering if her depart was crappy, things started to improve for us. I had this concept that if I brought Ava right back to a walk (if the canter depart was bad), that it would teach her she didn’t have to canter. The trick is to immediately re-ask for the depart again. Don’t take minutes to re-organize and try to set the horse back up… it has to be immediate. The more I demanded from Ava try it correctly, the more correct her canter departs became. I rewarded a great deal for effort on her part, and made sure that if she really tried, then she’d get a lot of praise and a nice walk break.
I’ve embedded a video of our canter work during the Roz Kinstler Clinic back in April of this year. She had some very good ideas on improving Ava’s canter.