In my last post, I discussed the importance of establishing a strong foundation of basics for your Standbred before attempting the canter.
Your foundation is composed of consistent round pen or longe line work, including flexion, getting your horse's feet to move, de-sensitizing him to scary objects, and teaching him verbal commands in conjunction with the walk, trot, canter, and halt.
At this point, your horse is familiar with what you want when you say the word "canter," at least from the ground. Now you are ready to put it to work while you are in the saddle.
The easiest method The easiest way I have found to teach a Standardbred (or any horse, for that matter) how to canter is to put them up a hill. When a horse travels up a hill with a fairly good angle to it, he naturally will want to canter. It is easier for him. So I like to work with that, by hitting the trail.
(If you don't have a hill close by, and only have an arena to work with, I'll address that in a moment.)
I do a lot of walking with my younger horses on the trail, because it teaches them that trail riding is a relaxing thing, not just an opportunity to run wild.
So start with a nice, quiet walk on a loose rein to put your horse in a happy, relaxed frame of mind. Add in the trot when you feel he is quiet.
At the hill, you want to put your horse into the trot first and then drive him forward with your voice ("canter, Sparky, canter"), seat, and legs into the canter. It is important to keep a light rein so that he feels he has the freedom to go forward.
As your horse breaks into the canter, I like to constantly reinforce his stride with the words, "Canter. Canter. Good canter. canter" This helps him remember the work you have done in the round pen or on the longe line. He will connect the two and have an "ah ha" moment.
Your horse will most likely gallop before he canters. Try not to pull him back too much when you first start working at the canter. You don't want him to be completely out of control, of course. But do your best to let him go at his own pace. This is really new to him, and he needs to figure it out.
And he will definitely figure it out. As he does (give it at least three to four weeks of consistent work). Soon, you will feel that he doesn't have to "fall" into his canter the way he did when you first started asking him for this gait.
At this point, you can start asking for a little more collection. To slow him down, sit deeply, tighten your stomach muscles and lift your sternum. At the same time, gently bring him back with one rein and say, "Slow." Pulling back with both reins can make a horse feel blocked and they often will respond by setting their jaws against your hands. Even if he breaks into a trot, reward him lavishly with your voice and hand...because it shows that he tried.
As you work with your horse, you will see progress. This is an exercise in patience for the trainer. Just know that you are asking him to do something he was trained NOT to do, at all costs, while on the track. Reward even his smallest efforts.
In the arena If you do not have a hill, but only an arena, teaching your horse to canter is only slightly different than the steps cited above.
In the beginning, you are only looking for the canter: it doesn't have to be pretty, or even on the right lead. It just has to be a canter. Refinement can come later.
I usually start by putting my horse into a trot once or twice around the arena until he is relaxed. Then coming out of corner and down the long side, put your legs into him, loosen the rein so he has his head and ask him to canter with your voice. You might feel you have to "run" him into the canter. That's okay.
If you horse just gets faster without cantering, bring him back to the walk. Ask again for a quiet trot and then again, say "canter" and use your seat and legs to see if you can pop him into it.
CAUTION: Do not try this in a small arena. You will need a lot of room for this method to work effectively and safely.
After your horse has successfully been able to canter (or even gallop) down the long side, you should feel he is starting to connect the word "canter" with an actual canter. At this point, you can start asking him to canter as you come into your corners: this will encourage him to learn how to pick up a correct lead.
Reward even the slightest effort and you will soon be cantering along effortlessly.