HEY DENNIS: The good news is you have 66 percent of your horse under control! I assume you didn’t have a stuck accelerator issue with the other two gaits. If you did, I would simply advise you to use the same approach and technique for the canter. The simplest way to get your horse to understand that racing at the canter is something he can do—but not necessarily a good idea— is to allow him to lunge around you at whatever speed he chooses until he slows down. The keys here are:
A. Be sure you don’t encourage or motivate him to move in any way unless he breaks out of the gait. (This means hands down, quiet and little-or-no foot movement at all.)
B. If and when he breaks, remember to jump start him back into the canter assertively and then back oﬀ immediately to a passive state on your part.
It’s important to recognize that when the horse breaks out of the canter, it is actually a good thing in this situation. The horse realizes that he can canter at any speed, but he is now aware that his choice is also taxing on him. If you purposely try to correct his speed, you run the risk of making him nervous and therefore introducing adrenaline into the mix. Because horses run away from their fears, you the rider/handler become the reason for the problem.
What we are achieving with this exercise is an encouragement to the horse to make choices that are smart and in his best interest. The horse will recognize that if he is going to be cantering for a while, (in the horse’s mind, possibly forever) the smart choice would be to pace himself, introducing the concept of being eﬃ cient. The horse will almost feel like he’s cheating the system by slowing the canter down to almost nothing because he really doesn’t know what speed we want him to go. He is motivated to stay in the canter and not break simply because he sees value in keeping you, the handler, still. In the horse’s mind, you are not controlling him; he is controlling you. The slowing down becomes his idea as a way to cope with his rapid diminishing level of energy, and as a result the horse will learn a second important lesson with this exercise: “Commitment To The Gait”.
At this moment, the horse will have learned the value of working “smart” as opposed to working “hard”—this happens because he learns consciously on his own instead of as a result from a reaction while confused and afraid. Your horse will soon appreciate the options given to him by you. This will only strengthen the bond in the relationship between you and your horse. This is a perfect example of applying the S.W.A.P. (Sweet, Willing And Predictable) approach that is based on the opportunity to reward—not to punish. The moment you perceive the eﬀ ort on the part of your horse to continue to canter as slow as he can— especially when he looks like he’s ready to break at any moment but doesn’t—is when you should transition him to the walk or halt. This is a great time to walk up to him and reward him.
Now that the horse understands that cantering slow is not only valuable to him but also to you, he will gladly slow down the canter when you request it.
Practice this exercise several times, from what I like to call an “idling canter” to the walk or trot, until it seems eﬀ ortless to your horse.
Now it’s time to reverse your horse and start all over again. As soon as your horse is equally clear about what he should do mentally as well as physically on both sides, it’s a good idea to introduce a rider to this lunging experience. Take note: This approach does not only slow down the gait, but also the horse’s mind. Not only will this give the horse conﬁ dence in what he is doing, but in you, too.
The idling canter that you will teach your horse to commit to is, in essence, more diﬃ cult to do than moving fast. It is the diﬀ erence between you climbing down a rope slowly or doing it quickly. When you do it slowly, you require more focus, strength, coordination, stamina and character needed to endure the burn. Your horse is also going through the same experience. Because your horse is learning to slow down and travel on a loose rein without being pulled on, in this lunging exercise, we want to carry this over to your riding as well. Once you feel that you are ready to try this exercise under saddle, you should make sure that your walk and your trot are rated consistently to the level of your standard. If not, simply ﬂ ex your horse down to a halt until he totally stops, stands quietly, and gives to the rein. Let him stand on a loose rein for a couple of seconds before starting up again. Continue this process of going through the gaits and evaluating how well your horse is rating himself on a completely loose rein. Allow the horse to break into the next gait before ﬂ exing to a stop. By the time you get to the canter, you will understand the importance of teaching him how to idle at the canter ﬁ rst. If you ﬁ nd him going faster than you wish or feel threatened in any way, simply ﬂ ex to a stop like you did in the other gaits and give him another chance.
Don’t try to help rate your horse in any way until he learns to rate himself through this approach. Dennis, there is a formula here in this exercise that may be useful in other situations. Enjoy the process, but above all, trust your instincts and think safe!