Part I: Teaching your Standardbred your language.)
As you can see from the photo above, Cordealia did indeed learn to canter. And not just in the field. She can now turn in a beautiful, balanced, and collected canter in the dressage ring, as well as a spirited gallop on the trail.
One of the most damning myths about the Standardbred is that you cannot teach one to canter. While completely false, it does take a bit of extra work. A look at the protocols of the track can help you understand why the canter might at first make your Standardbred give the equine equivalent of "No way, man!"
When in "the bike (the insider's word for the light-weight, two-wheeled sulky used in harness racing)," the horse wears a check rein that keeps the head high and also helps to keep him in a trot or in a pace. Horses are also fitted with hobbles, light-weight rubber tubing that hang loosely around the animal's legs and helps keep him in the pace.
Further, cantering, known as "breaking," is just about the worst thing a pacing horse or trotter can do. When a horse breaks, his driver must quickly bring him back into the pace. If it happens during a race, it inevitably results in loss of momentum, loss of the all-important position, and loss of the race overall. Breaking into the canter is discouraged at all costs.
When you bring your Standardbred to his new, off-the-track home with you, it's a little like if you were to visit a fore gin country where you did not speak the language. Some things would be familiar. But until you learned the language, you would struggle.
Your horse is in a bit of the same position. You must teach him your language.
Where to start As the old saying goes, before you can walk, you must crawl. In the language of your Standardbred, we might saying, before you can canter, you must trot and walk and respond to my verbal commands.
My first step in training any of our off-the-track STBs how to canter is to start with the basics, just as if this were a young horse being started. I want to see my Standardbred walking and trotting both directions, and also halting.
My favortie place to teach this is in the round pen. If you do not have a round pen, then the longe line is also acceptable. My only objection to the longe is that the horse is not truly "at liberty," where he learns to use his body and to balance himself, without any interference from you.
You may find that your horse has trouble going to the right. This was particularly true for our beautiful mare, Sammi. So accustomed to traveling to the left, as on the track, Sammi was very confused about working to the right. It took a solid three weeks before she was quietly traveling in both directions. Sammi was, however, unusual in this regard. All our other Standardbreds have learned this easily.
The Importance of Voice Commands When your horse is trotting, reinforce this by using the words, "Trot. Good trot." Reward him lavishly when he does well. If he breaks into the pace, bring him back to the walk, reinforcing this with the words, "Walk. Good walk."
You will hear me constantly talking to a horse I'm working in the round pen, my voice soft, sing-songy, and inviting. the reason that this is important is because, when you teach them the language on the ground, they will understand you better in the saddle. When you first mount up and ask for a trot with your seat and legs, your vocal reinforcement--"trot"--will help your horse understand what it is you are asking for.
When teaching your Standardbred your language, keep your voice light and easy, warm and reassuring. I try always to approach my work with the horses as if I'm going into a church or meditation hall: I want to be quiet, relaxed, kind, and ready to praise even the slightest effort.
It is also important not to push too hard, whether you're working with a Standardbred or any other breed. I usually do not start asking for the canter in the round pen for at least three weeks. Sometimes, I start to ask sooner, but it depends completely on the temperament and pf the individual horse and the progress he is making.
When your horse can travel calmly in both directions and is responding to your vocal commands, he is ready for the canter.
Next week, Part II: Teaching the canter on the ground and in the saddle