Question: I have a Quarter Horse mare who is very calm tempered which I love. My problem is getting her into a canter. She is willing to walk, trot, but when I give her the cue to canter she resists and sometimes very strongly. My instructor says to use a lot of leg which I’m trying to do but she still tries to get out of it. I’m not pulling back when I ask her to go into it. If I use a crop she is better but still doesn’t like it. I can get her to do it but it’s always a struggle. Will it get better with more practice? I would love your thoughts/advice.
Answer from April Reeves: Using more leg is not the answer and this is why. Horses should be obedient from the very first signal (aid), and that signal should be a very light pressure in order to obtain what you want, at exactly when you want it. If you find that a horse does not respond the first time, nor the second time, and not any time after that, it’s likely (100%) that the horse will never respond to a soft aid, or any aid for that matter. The more you ask without response, the duller your horse will get, as you are effectively training the horse to be dull. We, as humans, usually think the horse is being bad, but we unconsciously train our horses to be dull and disobedient. Just as the horse will pick up a new request when the request is clear, they will also pick up dullness and lethargy with the same enthusiasm if you nag them.
Communication should be crystal clear and in the language of the horse, which is very simple and direct. When it comes to aids, I like to ask a young horse with this sequence: ask, tell, deliver. I ask respectively, then tell the horse with increased pressure, then if I have to ask a third time, I use a crop at the same time I ask again. This is very direct communication, as you want to set up a language with your horse, not a chastising every time he does not cooperate the way you require. Horses do not like to be nagged constantly; it makes them dull and irritated. Get the point across and get on with it. Instead of chastising a horse, which makes him anxious and angry, show him what you want instead. Replace your ‘bad’ habits with good habits.
With a seasoned broke horse, I ask then deliver. Often they are just a little rusty or someone has nagged them for a day or lesson, so I just need to tune them up. I would put your mare in this category.
You will carry a crop and use it. Bring your horse into the trot for about 10-20 strides. As you ask for the canter depart, squeeze, cluck and spank the first time, and when you use the crop, don’t nag the horse. Use it like you mean it. This is clear, direct communication. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t like it; it’s not about her attitude, it’s about her obedience level, and horses with attitude are usually horses that get away with everything. Horses that respond from respect are the type of horses that bond with their humans, not horses that are spoiled.
Look forward to where you want to go, keep your body straight and centered, heels down, open your inside leg by moving it away from the horse in the direction you want to go (this opens the door on the lead side). Signal the horse with your outside leg in a windshield wiper motion to the back, and use the crop with ‘intention’; not as a mechanical device. Try not to lean into the canter or you will hinder the leading leg by putting undue pressure and weight on that side.
Your horse may canter off fairly quickly. Do not try to control the speed of depart at first. Always remember what the lesson is, and keep it simple and singular. In this case, the lesson is “I want you to canter the instant I draw my outside leg back”. If you try to manage the speed or anything else about the canter depart you will lose the lesson. Let the horse move out for about 5 strides, then circle and bring her down into a slower speed. Once she learns the aid well, you can begin to manage the depart, but not until then.
Work on this depart until she is obedient the first time. Carry the crop and use it until you feel she is being obedient on her own, not because you have the crop. If you drop the crop and try the canter depart, and she is hesitant again, you are not using the crop strongly enough. She needs to associate the crop with instant depart, not as a tool that she knows you have or don’t have. In order for her to do this, you must use the crop at the same time your leg moves back, and you need to use it with intention.
If she kicks out or gets fussy, just get the canter. The other stuff will disappear once she gets obedient. It is not something you have to reprimand her for. Just get the canter and keep asking, and ignore the fussing.
Ask her for numerous transitions until she is starting to pick it up consistently, and with correct leads. Change up your transitions with all gaits, and even skip a gait as she gets better and softer. I do 15 meter circles, and change gaits every half circle. When the horse is comfortable, I move them out on the rail and ask for quick changes of gaits again. Ask for canter departs about 30-40 times a ride until it’s automatic.
To get a horse good at the canter you need to do a lot of cantering. 3 to 5 times each way won’t work. You need to build up to about 20 minutes a day of slow, rhythmical canter work in variable speeds (rate).
It will get much better with practice, but you need to practice perfectly.