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Canter Training for the Tennessee Walking Horse

Dear Brenda,

I have a TWH that was padded for at least 3 years until January when I bought him and moved him from TN to FL. We are retraining him to go lite-shod (I was told he was started as a racking style horse), and he has never learned to canter. I saw in your article you suggest training uphill. However, I am in FL and there aren't ANY hills where I can ride a stallion.

We are working mostly on bending and flexing at a slow flat walk currently since he tends to be tense and not bend at all under saddle.

I have "cantered" him on the longe trying to voice command him to the canter cue but his canter is skippy and off. He is unbalanced and tends to try to run in very wide, odd shaped circles. I haven't pushed him because I don't want him to hurt himself. The sand here has been giving him problems with tripping, although his feet are now a normal size. (They were very long from the pads.) He sometimes tries to run walk behind while cantering up front. His legs just don't know where to go yet. He has a very loose back end. He will not even try to canter under saddle yet.

Can you provide any more info on this training issue? This is my first TWH. I haven't had this particular issue with a horse yet and I don't want him to hurt himself. He has already had a small hock strain with a bit of swelling from the sand I am pretty sure.

Thanks for any help you can offer.

Sincerely, Danielle D

Hi Danielle,

Yours is a common problem. Since your gaited horse was initially a padded show horse, he was almost certainly originally very pacey by nature. Padded show horses are pace horses whose timing and gait have been artificially altered. Unfortunately, many pace horses will always be canter challenged,' so you may need to settle for limited--orno--success with your canter training. In that event you'll want to work at making his intermediate gait the best that you can.

The good news is that the same work that will help your gaited horse condition for a good gait will go a long ways toward conditioning him for the canter, assuming he can perform this gait at all. Your bending and flexing exercises are definitely the place to start. Ask for increasing speed, with slightly increased collection. Teach your horse how to work off your seat and legs, as well as your rein signals. Ask for extension, and then collection.

Half halt work is important with every type of riding, but especially useful for canter training. To understand a half halt, you must first be able to perform a true halt correctly. While many riders simply yank on the reins to signal their horse to stop, there is a much better way. Instead, while working at an active walk, continue to use your seat and legs to push your horse forward. BUT, instead of giving with the bit, meet his forward action with resistance at the bit: refuse to give your arm and hands. The effect is that the horse is driven forward into a wall,' where he will stop. At first you will need to exert slight, steady hindward pressure--this will lessen with practice. By teaching this sort of halt, you're training your horse to make an energetic, well balanced stop, with weight evenly distributed over all four legs.

Once you have the basics of a good halt, you're ready for the half halt. Again at an active walk, signal your horse as though you're going to ask or a halt. BUT, the instant the horse hesitates, use your seat and legs to keep him moving forward. It's important to maintain consistent contact with the bridle, as this is where the horse's forward energy is caught,' and then sent back through his body.

It is that 'harnessed energy' you need to use when asking for a canter. Once you have your horse well conditioned and listening to your aids, and familiar with the half halt, ask for the canter like this:

   1. Working at an energetic walk, ask for a half halt
   2. When you go to push your horse off from the half halt, take a bit more on both reins--slightly more on the inside rein--while bringing your outside leg back to a point just behind the girth.
   3. Lean slightly forward, give a good hard push with your outside leg while pushing with your seat AND releasing much of the tension on the reins.

Don't throw the reins away, but give your gaited horse room to propel his weight forward (which means his head will drop) without being restricted by the bridle.

Try this as many times as needed to one side until he leaps off into a correct canter. Once he has taken one or two canter steps YOU bring him back down to a walk, and praise him for a job well done. Our instinct is to try to make the horse maintain the gait as long as possible once he's popped into it. This is a big mistake. Better to teach him, over and over, the correct cue into a canter, and then increase the length of time of the gait very gradually. It may take a few weeks before he can easily canter all the way around a typical sized arena. That's all right. If you remain patient, you'll never again have to deal with his falling out of' the gait into some other mixed up gait. He will have been both conditioned, and trained, to perform a correct three beat canter.

You should not start this work until the hock injury is completely healed. Canter work places a lot of strain on the leading hind leg, including the hock. There is a point in the gait when all of the horse's weight is borne by the leading hind leg. For that reason, when you do start to canter, ask only for the gait on the OPPOSITE side from where his hock injury is. In other words, if his right hock is the injured one, start by working only on left canter leads. In any case, once he's cantering correctly to one side--and not before--begin to train him to work off the opposite lead.

Click here for more free gaited horse training videos and articles by Brenda Imus!

Many happy-and smooth-trails!