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Retraining Canter

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  • Retraining Canter

    Hello all again.
    I recently started working with a 8 year old Morgan mare. She was shown by previous owners in Morgan breed shows. She is a lovely horse, very typical Morgan, smart, sweet, VERY forward, sensible and a good work ethic.
    The woman who bought her really wants to do low level dressage and trails. I have been working with her for about a month and have ridden her maybe 5 rimes.
    Her trot has improved in that she will rate and not rush around the ring like her tail is on fire. The whole working over her back idea is still a foreign concept. I am working on balance and a steady rhythm and teaching her bending. It is a slow process as I ride her 1-2 times a week with the owner taking a lesson and riding the rest of the week. She used to turn like a barrel horse, drop that inside shoulder and spin on a dime! Last ride she was able to do a 3 loop trot serpentines fairly well. As long as I don't try to use my weight to turn and stay of the middle of her she stays straight. If I even THINK turn DROP goes the shoulder!

    My question is working on her canter.
    She does rate for the most part, meaning she will listen and not try to run like mad while practically falling on her nose. I find I need to use my inside leg at every stride to keep her haunches in line and keep her together. She was very crooked and dropped her inside hip quie badly. It felt like I was sliding off one side. Forget shoulder fore at this point as it is beyond her. Her canter is really unusual. VERY dramatic with the front legs in that those knees pop up to her chest every stride. Very four beated. She will "collect" and I use that word meaning she will round up her neck and go quiet slow and fairly balanced but still not 3 beated and certainly relaxed nor over her back and into the bridle. She looks like she is churning butter!

    Any one work with Morgans who have a few tips?
    Any one have tips for improving the canter?

    I like this horse. She is just in the middle of learning a whole new way of going!

    "I am a sand dancer... just here for the jumps!" - Schrammo

  • #2
    I'm curious to hear about Morgan canters, too. The few I've known who work dressage have all had very difficult, though very improvable canters, and all came from either a park-seat or trail background. Super crooked and unbalanced canters. Good news- one is 4th level schooling tempis.

    W/ the 4th L one, owner did masses of transitions, circles, and lunging in sliding sidereins- lunging since owner was also kinda learning to canter, too But he was a gorgeous old-school Morgan; looked just like a minitwin of my DWB, and through lots of patience and hard work, both horse and rider are doing 4s and 3s. Plus they have a super trot and to-die-for half-steps!


    • #3
      Originally posted by ctab View Post
      Her trot has improved in that she will rate and not rush around the ring like her tail is on fire. The whole working over her back idea is still a foreign concept. I am working on balance and a steady rhythm and teaching her bending.

      My question is working on her canter.
      I'm going to stop you right there. Understand if her trot has yet to be developed, her canter will be a reflection of that. If she's not balanced at the trot and lacks steady rhythm and suppleness, she sure as heck will not have it at the canter, a higher gait with a higher degree of difficulty.

      She does rate for the most part, meaning she will listen and not try to run like mad while practically falling on her nose.
      Her speed is going to be based on a number of things, from balance to emotional relaxation. Horses start rushing when they are anxious (flight) and when they are unbalanced. The key is to start at the bottom of the training scale with relaxation, rhythm, and suppleness. You are not only developing the horse physically, keep in mind, you are also developing it emotionally. You don't have to actually ride the canter, to develop the canter (to a point) - the more you develop the trot, the better the canter will be. Reason being: you develop strength and balance in the trot, which will obviously carry over to the canter because the horse now has greater strength and balance in general (though lesser so because the canter will require more strength and balance), and you also develop emotional collection in the horse (ie, a relaxed mind and 'fit' mind) and create habits (ie, of relaxation) that will also carry over into the canter. If you make the trot say a 9/10, then progress to the canter, you will have built the canter from say a 3/10 to a maybe 6/10, which gives you more to work with and build off of. This might mean dropping the canter work for awhile, or doing very little of it (ie, a few strides or a circle or two each ride, if that). you can also work on the canter from another angle - on the ground. Work her over poles and on the flat, on the ground and develop her canter stride by stride (ie, ask for a transition down before it all falls apart, which may mean only achieving 1-3 strides at first). Then take that u/s. I've had great success working at it simultaneously on the ground and u/s, bit by bit.

      I find I need to use my inside leg at every stride to keep her haunches in line and keep her together. She was very crooked and dropped her inside hip quite badly. It felt like I was sliding off one side. Forget shoulder fore at this point as it is beyond her.
      The crookedness definitely sounds like a balance/strength issue and as she develops the appropriate strength and balance to carry herself at the canter, she will straighten (provided she is ridden correctly). Stick with the basics. The very basics. Straightness is not at the bottom of the training scale.

      Her canter is really unusual. VERY dramatic with the front legs in that those knees pop up to her chest every stride.
      I worked with a Morgan last year who was very much like this - very 'uphill' in his movement. I highly suspect this mare's canter movement could be compounded by prior training for the breed shows. Furthermore, consider that she is not working over her back, so her energy and movement may be more 'elevated' or 'up' rather than pushing forward from her hind and working over her back (hopefully that makes sense!). Otherwise, I haven't worked with enough Morgans to really say how much breeding has to do with it. Forget her breed and bloodlines for a moment though and just focus on her, as a horse. Even if her movement is, at least in part, influenced by her breeding, she is still a horse FIRST.

      Really read up on your dressage training scale and how to build on it. This mare is in no way shape or form ready for working over her back yet - she likely lacks the strength and balance to do so, to carry herself. She cannot possess 'carrying power' without first developing 'pushing power'. This means you need to work really hard at developing that hind leg strength so she has some way of generating energy to push over her back and carry herself. Does this make sense? You have to develop the engine first - this can take months to a year+ (horse and rider dependent). Then, with that pushing power in hand, you can start asking her to engage more (I recommend doing so via patterns and exercises - 101 Dressage Exercises & Progressive Schooling Exercises for Dressage & Jumping by Islay Auty are two books I always recommend that contain a variety of great progressive exercises) and actually carry herself. You can develop pushing power via hills, poles, small jumps, lateral work, spiraling your circles in and out, transitions, changes of pace within gait, etc. All exercises that develop hind leg strength. For your circular exercises, start with 20m circles first - the larger the better until she has sufficient strength to go smaller. Later start expanding your lateral work and circular patterns and exercises (on a circle a horse has to naturally engage more, which is why circles work to encourage engagement and build carrying power) for more (progressive) 'carrying' work where she develops topline, abs, and appropriate neck muscles.

      Keep in mind your training scale throughout: relaxation, rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection. ALL this is initiated by the HORSE and NOT the rider. This includes contact and straightness, and even impulsion. The rider's SOLE job is to gently GUIDE the horse and encourage the horse via progressive patterns and exercises. Then, the rider may refine what the horse offers, and shape it. Things start to break down when the rider is trying to initiate any of the training scale for the horse - ie, contact (pulling the horse onto the bit), impulsion (ie, pulling back at the horse's mouth trying to rate it, or nagging the horse forward constantly), straightness, etc. Lastly, keep in mind that relaxation in the horse - the foundation of the training scale, will only occur with mental and emotional relaxation by the horse. Your entire ride should be infused with relaxation. When she does something particularly well, or she tries and especially if she succeeds, STOP. RUB. RELAX. Then carry on to the next task. For every single small lesson you tackle within your session, you should reward with a halt, rub, and moment to relax. Someone posted this article on CoTH recently. She might not be nervous per se, but this works to further encourage relaxation. Allow her that moment throughout your work with her, to relax and take a huge deep breath. Encourage her to lick and chew (releasing stress). She will work even harder for you as she looks forward to that break, too. In this manner though, if you finish your lesson with relaxation, you will automatically set yourself and her up for starting the next lesson within your session, with relaxation. This way, relaxation becomes infused in your session, which has a number of benefits: relaxation will become a habit and theme which will extend to your other sessions, and she will seek out this relaxation in a variety of ways. This includes allowing her to walk out and stretch periodically, too.

      Sorry for the novel, I think that covers most of what I wanted to say.... hopefully it helps and guides you in the right direction It really all is very very simple - we try to complicate it, but it all really just comes down to the basics. If you really develop the basics and build a strong foundation, you can easily progressively build the rest, with little to no issue (barring your own mistakes, and as riders, we make mistakes of course!).
      ....horses should be trained in such a way that they not only love their riders, but look forward to the time they are with them.
      ~ Xenophon, 350 B.C.


      • #4
        Naturalequus has this one nailed. I used to show Morgans, and a lot of what you're describing is pretty typical of those I worked with that had been trained park saddle/saddle seat. And even the hunter seat Morgans are really square moving with action in front these days. The hardest thing is to be patient. There isn't much I can add to what naturalequus said other than to be exceptionally patient. Not only does the horse have to learn to use her body differently, she has to learn a different mindset under saddle. Depending on who trained her originally, she may have to re-figure out some of the aids. Some of the ones I worked with had been trained to execute a canter depart by bending to the outside, and a straight canter depart was virtually impossible for a very long time. We worked heavily on the long lines with these kinds, working on letting them figure things out without a rider on their back.

        Morgans are thinking horses, and do best when their minds are working. I could never take one of mine around the arena over and over again, they got bored easy and came up with their own games (like let's dump the rider). They were happiest when things were mixed up, like throwing ground poles or trail obstacles into the mix. The ones I rode were also not afraid to stick up for themselves. If you piss them off, they will very much let you know. They won't just sit and take it.
        Proud member of the Snort and Blow Clique


        • Original Poster

          Thanks for responding!
          I appreciate the novel I knew most of it but it is nice to hear it again. I know developing the canter takes time. I guess I am just shocked at how different the canter is for Morgan breed shows!!
          I have no problem taking it slow. My own horse taught me the value of patience and just waiting a little bit more before asking again. She is super smart and yes when she thinks she's had enough she does a perfect square halt and grows roots. She also seems to think her way is better sometimes. She really reminds me of my own horse which is probably why I like her so much!
          Her owner of course would like more sooner but really wants to do right.
          I had thought of trying for say 1/2 circle of canter then down to trot or walk. I did try trot poles and she really enjoyed it. I may try canter poles, starting with one at a time and may even trot some cross rails to keep her interested. She sure looks at the jumps hard enough when we ride!
          I do give her frequent loose rein breaks and lots of praise when she does well. She is tense and very anticipatory when ridden so relaxation is of course a primary goal. She gets more relaxed after about 15 minutes and her trot work gets nicer and nicer. I saw some really pretty steps this past weekend when her owner got on. Balanced and engaged with animation and suspension in the right way. A glimpse of the future!
          My concern with lunging her is that she tends to go fast and off balanced on the lunge. I only have two days to work with her a week so I don't know how much new stuff I want to try to teach at once.
          She is a trier and aims to please her rider which is so wonderful. Once she learns to relax I know it will get better. And yes strength is an issue.
          So I guess on Sat. we will try cantering less frequently and for a shorter duration. I know I will have to teach her real half halts as she gets way off balance and tries to run through the hand. Lots of transitions. Circles are great.
          At least her owner takes on her trail which is always a good thing. She never did before and they both really enjoy it.
          Thanks again!
          "I am a sand dancer... just here for the jumps!" - Schrammo