By Jennifer Klitzke
Does your gaited horse struggle with a flat, four-beat or bumpy, lateral canter? You’re not alone. My naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana wrestles with these issues, too. Over the last few years I’ve learned a few ways to improve her canter using dressage and gymnastic jumping.
Dressage to Break up a Lateral Canter
Dressage training has shown me that the rounder and more relaxed my naturally gaited Walking horse mare is in her back, jaw, poll, and top line, the smoother and less lateral her canter becomes. One of my favorite exercises is establishing a soft and round rein back before a canter depart. When the rein back is soft, non forced, and not rushed, it encourages my mare to bend her hindquarter joints and engage her abdominal muscles which lifts her back. This puts her in a wonderful posture most conducive for a quality canter depart and canter steps.
I learned an important lesson from my gaited dressage mentor, Jennie Jackson: Don’t practice a poor quality canter. As soon as my horse begins to feel flat, hollow, bumpy, bracey, or out of balance, I need to transition back to a walk, regroup, halt, rein back softly and ask again for a quality canter depart to quality canter steps. This means I need to learn to recognize the difference between the feeling of a quality and a poor quality canter so that I can ask for more of the former and reduce steps of the latter. If I continue riding a poor quality canter that’s what I am reinforcing to my horse. If I want a quality canter, I must first know what it feels like and practice more of it. That’s why talking lessons from a qualified instructor are so important to me. Instruction provides me with timely feedback so that I can associate how it feels with right or wrong.
Gymanstic Jumping to Break a Four-Beat Canter
While I will never become serious about show jumping my gaited horse, I enjoy schooling her over rails and small fences for gymnastic purposes and giving Makana variety in her training. I’ve noticed that when we ride over ground poles and small fences, it creates more lift and brings out a truer three-beat canter.
The other day I tried a new cantering exercise over two rails in an L-shape. First I let my horse walk over the rails before we cantered over them. The video below demonstrates the exercise.
Video: Exercises to Break up a Lateral or Four-Beat Canter
This is a super fun exercise for the rider and horse. I learned so much from this exercise: balance of my horse, my balance on my horse, my horse’s rhythm, keeping my horse forward yet relaxed, looking ahead to plan the arc of a turn and line to a rail, and getting a feel for how many canter strides to a rail.
The L-shape can also be used to school flying changes over the rail by alternating the direction over each pole. We’ll have to give that a try when we begin schooling flying changes.
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