Saturday, October 31, 2009

Teaching your Standardbred to Canter, Part II

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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Teach your Standardbred How to Canter

(This is the first of a two-part article on teaching your horse how to canter.
Part I: Teaching your Standardbred your language.)
When I traded in my last Thoroughbred for my first Standardbred, I proudly turned her out in the arena to watch her go. Go she did. At the pace. Trying to get her to canter--but seeing only that lateral trot unique to pacers, I thought, "Hmm. I have my work cut out for me."

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