Canter Issues

scottie doing dressage canter photo
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Nearly every week I see posts on social media where people are having trouble with their horses canter. While there are many factors which could cause a horse to have issues in canter, a common cause is lack of balance and strength. So in this post I will cover what to do if your horse having canter issues.

What are common canter issues?

While there are any number of issues you could be having with your canter, the most common ones I see mentioned are:

  • Reluctance to canter
  • Picking up the wrong canter lead
  • Swinging quarters in/out
  • Not staying in canter

When and How Long?

First things first, you need to start thinking about when the issue started and in what situations you are having issues. If the horse is young, have been out of work for a while or has come out of racing, these issues usually come from a lack of strength. However, if your horse has been in regular work and has suddenly started having a problem, it is more likely to be due to an injury.

It’s also to think about when your horse is having problems. Is it just under saddle and okay on the lunge? Are they okay out hacking but bad in the arena? Or is it the same everywhere? These questions will also help you decide o if there is a specific cause or not.

When I had problems with Scottie picking up the right canter lead, he would pick it up on the lunge and jumping, but would not pick it up under saddle on the flat.

First Steps ~ MOT

If you are having any issues, the first thing to do is have your horse checked for any obvious physical problems which could be causing the issues. I recommend having a back person (chiro, physio, whatever your preference is) take a look at horse your. Tell them about the problem you are having and they should be able to identify any pain, discomfort or lack of muscle which might be causing it.

When I first got Scottie, he really struggled to pick up his right canter lead. He also had a rotated pelvis, which was a big part of the problem as it made it harder for him to be straight and build up even hind muscle. I worked closely with a good back lady to level his pelvis out and then we could focus on improving the canter.

Once you have checked them for any physical problems, I would also have their saddle checked. While the saddle might not be causing them an issue, it might be restricting their movement, making canter harder.

Building Strength and Balance for Canter

scottie demonstrating my favorite polework exercise, top posts

Once you’ve had your horse and saddle checked, hopefully they haven’t found any issues and you can start looking to improve their strength and balance. There are loads of exercises out their what are fantastic for this, but I will explain some exercises which worked really well for me and Scottie.

Back to Basics

Focus on getting them straight and working over their back in walk and trot. I would spend 90% of my schooling sessions in walk and trot, working on getting the hindlegs behind the front legs and pushing forwards. Don’t look for bend, instead focus on straight lines. Think of riding squares around the arena rather than circles. Encourage them to stretch down.

Polework

Polework is also fantastic for building hind end muscle and encourage them to lift their bodies, which helps to build topline. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just a few trotting poles down one side of the arena. But there are plenty of more interesting exercises if you are feeling more adventurous. This is one of my favourites.

Lunging Aid

I am a massive fan of lunging aids. Taking the weight of the rider off the horses back can help them build muscle up easier. After all, if there is not much muscle there to start with, the horse will automatically use other parts of their body to support the weight which can make it harder for them to build the correct muscle.

I lunged Scottie in a pessoa. When I first started using it I would warm up for a few minutes in trot on each rein before attaching it loosely and starting in walk. It should be loose enough that you aren’t tying them down into an outline. But short enough to encourage them to come down in the first place. Once he was working well in walk, we started building up to trot and once he was working nicely in trot, I would loosen it off a bit and ask him to canter.

Scottie has always found cantering on the lunge hard work and would loose his balance and get upset. But when he has a pessoa on he seems to find the contact comforting. It seemed to keep him a bit more collected so that he could think about working properly. But you may find that when you start introducing canter on the lunge you might be better off taking the aid off.

Lessons

Book a lesson with an instructor if you don’t already have one. Not only will they be able to help you with some tips on how to improve the canter, but they might even be able to highlight some issues in your riding which might be causing the issue. For example, if you are crooked and stiff on one rein, you might be blocking your horse from moving correctly.

Ridden Exercises

Once your horse has started to strengthen and build the muscle they need to resolve your canter issues, you need to encourage them to use these muscles to keep strengthening them.

Picking up the correct lead

  • Ask on a straight line and turn their head to the outside as you ask
  • Put a pole on the floor and ask for canter as you trot over the pole
  • Have a really forward trot, which feels too fast when you ask
  • Really exaggerate the inside bend aid as you ask
  • Trot on a circle and ask for canter. If they pick up the wrong leg, come back to trot, rebalance and ask again. Repeat until you get the correct leg and then canter large for a lap.

I tried all of these methods with Scottie and while all of them got temporary fixes, but we would quickly go back to not being able to get the right canter lead, or we would get it and he would change back to the left lead. A lesson with a dressage instructor showed me that by now he had the muscle he just found it hard so was avoiding it. The circle and repeat method taught him that it was easier to do it first time than it was to try and get out of it and now we no longer have issues with the correct canter lead.

Balance and Straightness Issues

  • Push forwards, a lot of the time it is harder for them to find their balance when they are going slow.
  • Avoid circles. Try and use the entire arena and if you can, get out in a big field to canter. Once they start to get balanced in a big space they can start to balance in a smaller space
  • If they continue to throw their backend in/out in canter but not in walk/trot, you can create a tunnel of poles and canter down the tunnel, this will help to keep them straight.
  • Simple polework and small jumps can also help a horse balance as it stops them worrying about it by giving them something else to think about.

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