On the Road to the Canter


Cantering Cole has been tough for me, but it’s my own fault.  I never taught him to canter on the lounge line before I started riding him—or for that matter—all winter when I was lounging him before I rode him.  I have to confess, part of the problem is I don’t like lounging.  I see nothing wrong with it, but my time is limited and I prefer riding.  Once I started riding him, I only lounged him enough so he’d be safe to ride.


He wasn’t a good lounger, either.  When he was feeling his oats, I had bucking bolting and rearing.  It was a sorry scene.  I don’t know how many times I’d be saying, “Get down, Cole.”  Once he settled on the lounge, about 5-10 minutes into his session, he would lose all energy and get as bored as me.  That’s when I would ride.


When I start a young horse, I like to canter within the first few weeks of riding.  Well, let’s see…What happened there?  The trail, that’s what happened.  My weekends and days off were spent on the trail.  In the beginning, we did mostly walking, and then I started to add trotting.  I did work in the arena for short sessions once or twice a week, but he wasn’t doing as well in there as the trail.  We had enough trouble staying at a quiet walk, at first.  Once I started to trot, just containing his energy in a small part of the arena was tough enough.  I wasn’t ready to try a canter.


Winter came, and I had to get serious about my arena work.  He went through that spell of bad spooking on the far end of the arena, and he just shook my nerves.  I did my share of cantering when he spooked.  I wasn’t ready to canter him—I could barely manage his trot for a while.


My nerves settled down, and so did he.  That’s when the big trot showed up.  It took me some time to figure out how to even ride it.  He would bounce me so high that I could felt the top of my feet hit the top of the stirrups. 


Finally, I was ready to canter—and he didn’t have a clue what I wanted.  I couldn’t bring myself to beat him into it.  He’s is such an enthusiastic and willing horse, that I don’t want to do anything to harm that attitude in the least.


Last fall, Ellen and I spent several sessions on the trail using her as a target.  I wrote about it and shared it with you.  It was very successful.  He got the idea, and I was able to canter him up to her where he would stop and get clicked for stopping.  Since we couldn’t continue it, due to winter, he didn’t learn the cue well enough to transfer into the arena a few months later when I was ready to canter, there.


We tried it again in the spring with less success than in the fall.  I decided to try a different tactic.  By now, I was riding with Ranger quite a bit, and we were doing as much trotting as we felt like.  My idea was to have Ellen canter Ranger and Cole would be bound to pick it up.


We went to a short, but smooth trail not far from the barn that is just ideal for such an activity.  Ranger was happy enough to canter, and Cole was happy enough to trot all the faster.  We tried a number of times and finally I got a few strides.  We continued on our ride, and on the way home, when we got to that spot, we turned around and did it again.  Cole remembered the game, and that time, I got about 15 wonderful, wonderful strides.


We did this for a few more rides, and each time it was easier to get him to canter.  We found that he was more willing to canter if we let him go ahead of Ranger, but then he would stop when he got too far ahead.


Finally, it was time for me to try it on my own.  One morning, I headed out solo.  Ellen was hiking along, but she couldn’t keep up with me once I started to trot.  When I got to that spot, I asked him to canter with a vocal, then a leg tap and finally a tap with the whip.  It took one light tap and we were off!  He went very fast, but after about 5 strides, he moderated and it was wonderful.  I brought him to a trot, and I clicked for the downward transition.  I wanted him to know it was good to stop cantering.  I didn’t bother to click him for the canter transition, because I figured cantering alone was enough reward.


We did some trotting, and then when we got to some more good trail, I requested the canter—and got it!  I did about 5 canter/trot transitions that ride until I got to the next river crossing.  We crossed and trotted for about 5 minutes before turning to come home.


I met Ellen on the way back, and we walked and I glowed with happiness.  I asked her if Cole looked more mature, and she said he did.


Since then, I have cantered on my own at least once or twice a week.  I think that brings me up to 4 times.  He is eager to canter, and he has been experimenting.  He has learned, I hope, that he isn’t supposed to canter without me asking.  He has learned that he gets yelled at when he throws in a big buck on his transition.  (I’m so glad Mingo prepared me for that move.)  He has learned that he can’t throw his head down to buck while cantering and finally, he has learned to slow down a little because it is easier.


I was going to canter him on my last solo ride, but when we got to the place where we have been starting our cantering, he began to prance and dance with excitement.  I changed my plans and walked through there (with clicks for walking when he settled down) and then only walked and trotted the rest of the ride.


I am a big stickler in a horse staying at the gait that we are traveling in.  If I am walking, I want him to stay walking until otherwise notified.  That goes for all gaits.  So I will be careful with him to instill this lesson.


(I must confess, I am no longer that way with Cruiser, but was for the first 20 years.  Now, if he wants to go faster, I smile because I’m just glad that a high-mileage, older horse still wants to go fast.  If he wants to go slower, I figure he knows better than me how he feels.  When Cole is his age, I’ll let him choose the speed, too.)


Hopefully he will improve at the canter as quickly as he did at the trot and be able to learn the cue well enough that I can start him cantering in the arena this winter.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on September 19, 2011 at 8:19pm

Good work!

I especially like your understanding of your older horse.  They can be rewarding rides if we listen to them.

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