I have a 6-year old thorobred ex-race horse that has been turned out for a year since racing. I have done some lunging and light riding with him. The problem is when he canters, he switches leads or canters on the wrong lead with his hind end only. He can’t canter a full circle without breaking into a trot. I lunge him in side-reins, but don’t know if he’s sore or out of balance. Any suggestions?
Tired of going in circles
Dear Tired of Going in Circles,
Many (if not most) horses have difficulty cantering on the lunge line in at least one direction until they can figure out how to keep all four feet where they need to be. Larger, taller horses are also at a disadvantage because of their size and length of stride. Barring any pain and/or lameness problems, any horse should be able to canter a 20-meter circle on the lunge in both directions. If you are not sure, a veterinarian can assist, generally with radiographs of questionable joints.
Horses that are weak in the stifles, a little “out behind”, or “downhill” in conformation tend to have balance problems when turning, i.e. switching leads behind, falling out of the canter, leaning excessively, or outright falling down. Usually, one side is worse than the other is. Like teaching a human to walk on a balance beam, this can be done; some will just take longer than others will.
Horses that have been raced only go around gradual turns and generally to the left. For the most part, the more sophisticated training, such as stop and steer is not necessary. Therefore, some of them also have to be taught to canter without running, and also canter turns without falling.
Try the following program and emphasize that patience, repetition, and keeping your horse calm (if possible) will be important. Generally, just chasing the horse around in a round pen or on a lunge line to get them to canter is minimally successful in teaching them the balance to carry themselves.
Tack your horse up with saddle, snaffle bridle, and side reins. Adjusting the side reins may take some experimenting but if they are too loose they will have no effect. Expect your horse to lean on the side reins, possibly a lot, to try maintaining his balance. Don’t worry, this will go away as he learns to use his back legs. Also, try shortening the outside rein a little more than the inside. Attach your lunge line by running it through the bit ring on the inside, over the horses head and clipping it to the outside bit ring.
To start, teach your horse “whoa” or any other vocal command for stop you choose, from the walk and trot. This is where you must be very insistent (if he doesn’t stop when you say “whoa”, use a sharp yank on the lunge line to reinforce the command and he stops without you having to pull on the line. Then repeat it until it is confirmed. Most horses learn this very quickly if trainers are absolutely clear what they want and don’t settle for less than immediate response.
When “whoa” is fairly well established, try the canter on the horse’s easy side. Try get the depart from a balanced a trot with a somewhat slow tempo, and not hurry into the canter. This will likely evoke old memories of running and falling on turns, etc. and possible hysteria. When you ask your horse to canter, allow him to go a few (as in two or three) strides on a straight line, then tell him “whoa” and stop. Let him settle then turn him at the walk and repeat the canter depart, go a few strides straight and “whoa”. This might get him upset initially, but when he finds out he doesn’t have to go around the full circle (yet) he should settle down. Eventually, he should be able to do canter, “whoa”, around a square figure (or something kind of close).
As an aside, some people are absolutely adamant about not giving horses treats (or bribes) for good behavior. I have found that with some horses that are totally motivated by food, you can accomplish miracles in a very short period of time with a few carrots. You might try it and see if you can get the “whoa” part and the “canter a few steps and stop” part in fairly short order with an outright bribe each time he does it correctly.
If you have prepared your horse in teaching him the basic exercises, you will find he is paying more attention to you, has a more relaxed attitude about the canter, and his balance is improved. The next step is to add “corners” to your circle so your horse is cantering a few steps straight, small turn, a few steps straight, another small turn, etc. until you can get a full circle. If he gets hurried or looses balance, you refresh his memory of the previous lessons and tell him “whoa”; then continue. A key part of this process is to teach him to carry himself. Therefore, when he is cantering the few straight steps or even on the circle when he progresses, your contact with the lunge line should be very light. Don’t use a continuous pull to try forcing him around. If you need to use it, make a point by jerking it if you have to, then let it go again.
Eventually, even the clumsiest horse will figure this out and be able to canter the circle. As with all training, patience, persistence, consistency and the occasional bribe will prevail.