I no longer work my horse in an arena as he is arena sore, so we work out. I am having the constant problem with cantering. I can only get him to canter in a straight line, the minute I want to go around a bend he resumes a trot (or walk, if he had his way). All he does is bend his head in and his body carries on straight. How can I solve this problem?
You have posed a good question that is a very common problem amongst riders out there. Going back to the lunge is a good start, as there you will be able to help your horse find his sense of balance and strengthen his back without you on top!
The first thing I would tell you to do is simply – STOP! What he is doing is telling you his body is not able or ready to do what you are asking. By running faster in the trot, all he is doing is lengthening his frame, hollowing his back and falling onto his forehand and by doing that, it is physically impossible for him to step in underneath himself properly in order to make the strike-off. If one keeps chasing him along until he breaks into a canter from a runny trot, he will not learn to do the strike-off properly and will probably learn to run into the transition and you will have a hard time ‘un-learning’ him!
The best way to improve your canter work is by fixing your walk and trot work first! Sounds strange I know, but the problems he is showing are a symptom of an underlying problem that needs to be ironed out first.
In order for your horse to strike off in the canter, he needs to bring his inside hind leg deep underneath his body to bear weight and strike off. In order for that to happen, his back must be round; he should be bearing as much weight on his rear end as possible and must be light in front. If he is not able to achieve this, he will not be able to bring that leg underneath him and instead of a ‘bang’ transition, he will run faster and faster until he either has to canter (think of running downhill fast!) or until you slow him back down. The key to the transition is for him to slow down so that he can bear more weight behind and flex that hindleg. For that to happen he needs strength and balance!
Firstly, it sounds like your horse is not only unbalanced but also very stiff laterally and longitudinally. (I use these terms to explain two types of suppleness in the horse that need work – lateral suppleness is the left/right bend through his body, longitudinal suppleness is the suppleness from head to tail that allows him to round his back and absorb movement etc.) Work on the lunge at walk and trot will help with this, but do not ask for canter yet – his muscles are not strong enough and as I said before, all you will end up doing is reinforcing bad work. Only if you know what you are doing, work in a De Gogue or Chambon will encourage him to round his back and will help develop the muscles he needs in order to flex from head to tail. He must learn to obey voice commands like halt, walk, trot, lengthen trot, and even rein back. When he can do that well, you will be able to run through many transitions like walk to halt, halt to trot, trot to walk and so on in one session. This type of work balances and strengthens a horse very quickly. (So you see, lungeing is NOT all about running in a circle for 20 min at the trot!) Once the horse is doing that comfortably, polework on the ground can be introduced – trot and canter poles, raised trotting poles, zig-zags and so on. This will teach him balance. Only when the horse is at this stage and working correctly, I introduce the canter on the lunge. Again, teach him to respond to the voice command – this means you can give him the aids he understands when you ride him and thus get a better transition and gradually teach him your other aids until he understands. (It usually only takes one or two riding sessions for them to understand this!)
When riding him, hillwork is very important for developing balance and suppleness. When going downhill, pay special attention to slow him down and get him to ‘sit’ on his bum, not run down. This is exactly the motion he needs to learn in order to work in a good frame. Work on good quality transitions, circles, serpentines, voltes, and lateral movement (like leg yielding) to supple laterally and get those hind legs working. You want him to push from behind, not drag from the front, which is what he is probably doing now. A few lessons from a qualified professional will be very beneficial to you as it will get you on the right track, give you ideas and will mean there is someone who can tell you if your riding is contributing to the problem. (It usually is unfortunately – bit like the chicken or the egg!)
I hope this is of help to you. You mention that he is ‘arena sore’ – I suspect you mean sour. Lunge work, polework, riding out and doing hillwork and the right work in the arena means he really will never get bored. Also, a big mistake people make is to spend hours riding around and around in an arena. Rather spend 25 mins on quality excercises, go in with a plan and go out with a happy horse, than wander around aimlessly not focusing on anything in particular.
I hope this gives you some ideas – good luck and really, this is a relatively easy problem to tackle and will get better quickly if you do it right. A few sessions with a physio or a vet will iron out any physical discomfort he may be suffering that are compounding the problem. I would recommend it! Teeth too can have a big impact! Do have them all checked out – you may be surprised to discover there is something small like a hook in his mouth that is causing some of the problem!