Many folks seem to confuse a horse’s innate ability to canter with a balanced, soft canter.
These are not the same thing. Many who bring a horse to me for training tell me their horse canters just fine. I have them ‘show’ me on line and I just shake my head and say, “That sucks! That’s not a canter, that’s a mess.” The horse is bolting off, half sideways, either counter-cantering or cross-cantering and braced every which way to Timbuktu with the head to the outside and the ribs bowed in to the center of the circle.
"If you don't know enough to fix problems in a horse that already exist, then you don't know enough to ensure you don't put problems in a horse." - Ross Jacobs.
I put this quote here because of course it’s true. Many just kick their horse to go and have no idea what the legs are doing. However, I can’t get into that here because learning what a proper canter is takes help. I’m going to discuss one way to help a horse if you already know how a canter should go. But, because the horse learns so much under this circumstance, there's a good chance that even if you don't know what your leads are, you may learn them as the horse is set up for success in this manner.
There are a lot of horses out there falling in on the corners with their heads to the outside and slanted like a motorcycle around a turn. Because this is scary or at least uncomfortable for a rider, the rider tries to hold the horse up or pull the horse into a more balanced turn. The horse then lets them struggle with that.
It’s a serious mistake trying to "help" a horse balance by carrying him as you will have to continue to carry him, since you haven’t taught him how to carry himself. Just like a kid who doesn’t want to walk and lets or causes by behavior, his parents to tote him around.
Now, teaching a horse to bend softly while cantering is imperative to balanced, self-carriage. However, it can be difficult and scary for those not familiar with this to allow the horse to learn while mounted. Timing and feel as well as balance and the skills needed take some learning by the person. That’s why getting it online is a good idea.
While I can’t teach everything involved in a few paragraphs, (maybe I’ll write a future book on that, but the list is long) if you already know your leads it will be a great exercise to help your horse learn to carry himself appropriately balanced and also help him learn to keep a thinking head and not rush.
I’m giving you the nutshell version and you can email me or some such if you want more.
1) You need some mud. Yep, sloppy or whatever, but it has to be slippery footing, at least on some part of the footing. It doesn’t have to be mud the whole way around. Having a slippery spot on a quarter of the circle is fine. Don’t be a puss, horses learn to work in the mud under many different circumstances. The horses that are “protected” by over-protective owners of course will never learn and be stumble bums. Horses are horses-not what people decide is right for the people.
2) You MUST maintain your feet in the same place. You will be turning – keeping your bellybutton in front of the nostrils, but you are NOT going to drift with the horse when his weight pulls on the line. Get yourself a red X to mark your spot and stay on it.
3) You can start with a 20 foot rope or so and as you get better with your skills and your horse’s learning, you’ll be shortening it up by about half. Need I mention that you don’t get to use ANY gear other than the halter, line, and a stick and string or lunge whip or such. Extra apparatus such as side reins or draw reins are a no-no. The horse needs the opportunity to learn, not be held up by mechanical means.
Now then, you’re going to start your horse at the trot. Precious will be slip-sliding away and you will allow that. Just maintain your spot and your rope length and encourage Precious to find her way. When she’s learning how to navigate the slippery spots you’ll see how quickly she picks up what is necessary for her. Then after she gets a bit more comfortable, ask for a couple of canter strides. Let her find her way and break into a trot to re-balance and then when she’s of sound mind, ask for a couple more canter strides. Depending on how it’s going you can stop there and then pick it back up the next session and ask for more consistency and more strides.
So, you should be good to go for your beginning mud work. Let me know how it goes and I’ll be doing another article on progressing from here.