One thing that holds its elusiveness for the novice rider longer than any other is the ability to effectively control the canter. Many, many times I have been asked “how do you get the horse to slow down the canter?” It is a very, very common problem. Of course my instinct says ‘you don’t want him slow, you want him forward’ which is absolutely right and so easy for me to say now. But if I take myself back to the early days of my training one of my many issues was getting and sustaining a controlled and relaxed canter. Just couldn’t do it, simple as!
I also know that you will never be able to encourage your horse forward in the canter until you have control and in order to have control, you have to slow the canter. It’s a case of, which comes first? Chicken or Egg. Well, the first consideration is the horse itself. Your horse must be strong to lift his entire weight off the outside hind in the canter and carry you at the same time. If it is a young horse there could be a strength issue. He will have difficulty maintaining balance and a quiet tempo in the canter. He will only be able to maintain a quiet tempo if he has natural athletic ability or the rider is skilful and does not interfere with the balance. Also, if you are retraining an older horse, it will take time to build the physique that your horse needs to carry your weight with ease and therefore steadily.
Of course, the other major issue is that many riders don’t ride well enough to give clear aids. If the rider’s seat, legs and hands are not correct, the communication cannot be clear. To the horse, it’s chaotic and he may have learned to put up with the chaos and thus tune you out and that means one thing – he’ll ignore your aids when you think you are giving them.
Before you can begin to control the tempo of the canter there must be relaxation in your horse both mentally and physically.
A horse that rushes isn’t relaxed. The horse must be supple and swinging through his back. He must have clear acceptance of the bit and the aids. Once you have these elements, you’re on the right path.
What’s to be done? I want to look first at what is NOT to be done.
- Stop thinking in terms of putting on the brakes
- Don’t give your horse mixed messages
- Don’t program your horse to ignore your aids
- Stop holding onto the reins
- Don’t get a more severe bit
- Don’t push your horse through movement in your seat
- Don’t grip with your legs and knees
Because the hindquarters provide the impulsion for a horse’s movement, we want to actually use the hindquarters to control, or slow, the horse’s forward thrust. It is the horse’s ability to carry more weight on his haunches and not to run on his forehand that needs development and understanding. To aid your horse’s balance concentrate on keeping his neck straight at the base, in front of the shoulders and the rest of the body will follow. Thoroughly practice this in the walk and trot, in straight lines and on circles. Include many transitions and changes of rein in walk and trot and suppling exercises before you try the canter. You should genuinely feel improvement in the rhythm and tempo of the trot before you attempt to slow the canter and this is because you are working to help the horse carry more weight behind and balance himself, as the trot improves so will his ability to steady the canter.
NOTE: Being straight on a circle is one of those horsey idioms that, in my view, are just designed to confuse. Keeping the neck straight on a circle means following the line of the curve of the circle, so we say that the horse is ‘nicely straight’ if he has executed a good bend and the hind legs are following the line of the front legs. What it does not mean is that the horse’s neck should be ‘straight’ as a board.
You need to establish exactly what is happening in order to fix it.
- Does your horse ignore your aids and resist downward transitions?
- Is he on the forehand, heavy and pulling on the reins?
- Is his tempo faster than you are comfortable with, even though it may be right for him?
- Are his strides bigger and more powerful than you can comfortably sit?
- Or is he running in a tempo that is faster than he should?
Then experiment with the following:
- Have horse on the aids before the depart, self carriage is important
- Use your seat to hold him quiet and steady
- Tighten your abdominal muscles
- Practice lots of transitions
- Ride many canter departs and always bringing him back to a walk when he starts to rush, you will increase his strength. Canter to walk, walk to canter are invaluable for helping with tempo.
- Ensure your shoulder’s are parallel to the horses
- Accept only a few strides of the slower tempo if your horse offers them and build gradually to longer periods.
A horse may run from a tight, unyielding hand. Even if your horse learns to accept unforgiving hands, you are teaching him a bad habit. You have nowhere to go, if you have ‘pulled’ your horse together and he is not carrying himself, you will be restricting the horse’s motion, his back will be hollow and his neck short and with a short neck comes a short stride. This is a horse that rushes. Like not having the ability to half-halt and balance a horse that has no energy in its paces, how can you ‘check’ a horse that is already heavy in the hand.
I can’t really do an article on slowing anything without tipping a mention to the half-halt. The half-halt is the balancing aid and should be used before you ask your horse to do anything. It is a very important influence in making your horse obedient, balanced and up in his way of going. I have already stated that the horse must be supple and swinging through his back. The half-halt will check that swing momentarily and thus slow the tempo. Once you have mastered the half-halt, you will have all you need to slow the canter.
To summarise you might want to ask yourself …
- Is the horse strong enough to carry you? Do you need to do some strengthening exercises?
- Are your aids clear? Are you ‘making’ your horse rush?
- Have you got your horse relaxed and on the aids in the trot before the depart?
- Is your horse straight?
- Are you using too much hand?
- Are you able to use your seat to influence the paces?
- Can you employ the half-halt effectively?
When I get asked ‘how do you get the horse to slow down the canter?’ most riders expect me to say, just do this or do that. Sorry guys. Controlling the tempo in canter is a long and diligent process and there is no ‘quick-fix’ button for you to install. You have to start by assessing the horse’s general way of going and build the fix(es) from there. In my view once you have mastered the ability to control the canter strides you have developed a good many skills and you are well on your way to becoming a competent rider. So worth the effort, yes?