When your horse is going smoothly at the trot and is making easy circles and loops, it is time to start cantering. I much prefer initially cantering the horse on the longe in the round ring because you are able to allow the horse to gain some balance and some understanding of the aids by doing so. Unless the rider is terribly well balanced and accustomed to starting horses cantering, the initial canter work mounted can be a bit daunting.
I prefer to work the horse in side reins for all longe work as it helps the horse maintain position and makes it hard for him to counter bend and play around. From a nice forward moving trot, draw the horse’s head slightly toward the center of the ring; tell the horse to listen, and then come up behind the horse with the whip as you say, “canter”. Most horses will jump off into a canter with that signal. Let the horse canter a couple of times around, then ask him to trot again and reward him for his effort. Let him walk and relax a moment before you try it again. I start out with two tries in each direction so as not to convince the horse that canter work is punishment. You always need to observe your horse and if he is upset with the lesson, you might be going a bit too fast. If a horse is worked this way for a few days, he will understand what you mean by the word canter and it will make your canter departure while mounted much easier. Soon when you tighten the inside rein and say “listen”, your horse will gather up and be ready to canter.
When you are ready to canter mounted, you essentially do the same steps that you do on the lounge. You achieve a balanced trot first and then support your horse with the outside rein. You will almost always get the correct lead when you start your canter on a curve, so use this advantage when teaching canter departure. When you are ready to strike off, close your inside hand without turning loose of your outside rein), place your inside leg on the girth and your outside leg behind the girth. When you say canter, bump your horse with your outside leg. If he jumps off in canter, just go with him until he stops. If he fails to pick up the canter, repeat the signal and add a tap with the whip along with the leg signal.
The first mounted departures are frequently not pretty to look at and you must be gentle with yourself and your horse when achieving them. When your horse has cantered, let him go however long he is able to go. Stop and reward him. Don’t try to make him go around the whole ring at first or he will be more reluctant to start the departure in the future. Cantering is difficult for the horse to do mounted, and it is difficult for the unschooled rider to do at first as well. Your first canter efforts are teaching the horse the departure and so you want to keep your work short and sweet. Again, two tries in each direction should be enough.
If your horse starts out on the wrong lead, calmly bring him back to the trot, make a circle and try again. Always reward a horse for new efforts and keep your work time short, but always stop on a positive note. If you are unable to achieve the correct lead right away, keep at it until you do, but then stop as soon as you do. Some older horses that have not been worked equally on both sides will be very stuck in their preferred lead. It takes a lot of work in the direction of the difficult lead to overcome the problem. Do not mistake this for misbehavior on your horse’s part. Horses have no concept of “right” or “wrong” leads but canter on the lead they are strongest on. Some horses strongly prefer one direction to the other, and the lead on their weak side will be harder for them. Trot work in circles will help strengthen the weak side and will make your canter work easier.
It is important to work on the correct lead from the very first. You don’t want your horse to learn to strike off incorrectly and then later have to be taught otherwise. It is much easier to do it correctly at first than it is to retrain a bad habit.
Occasionally you will start a young horse who rushes into the canter. This can be a bit alarming for the beginner trainer, but if you just sit quietly and gently slow the horse with squeezes and releases of your outside rein, he will gain his balance and his confidence. Rushing is caused by fear and with practice and balance the horse will gain a nice canter. Never jerk or pull hard on a horse who is rushing as it will only further his fear and his lack of trust in you. If you feel you cannot control the rushing horse at a canter, gently guide him into a circle until he slows. Don’t panic and scare him by pulling and jerking. No horse starts out with a lovely cadenced canter. All novice canters are varying degrees of awful. If you stick with your program you and your horse will progress into a nice, easy canter.
Pic 2 shows a common early canter. The lead is correct, but the horse is rushing and is above the bit. Both of these things frequently happen in early canter work. When an incorrect lead happens, you very quietly bring the horse back to a trot and try again. Don’t punish, and don’t make the horse scared, just try again until you get the correct lead and then reward.
Once you can get a strike off every time, it is time to start asking for more time in the canter. I generally go a quarter of the arena on the strike off lessons, and then press to a half, then three quarters, then the whole way around. The time that it takes to achieve this will vary by the disposition of the horse, his innate ability to balance, the degree of balance and suppleness of the rider, and the experience level of the rider. The more experienced rider will ask for a canter with a more confident “tone” and will thus reassure the green horse and he will progress more rapidly. That is not to say that it takes an experienced rider to teach a horse to canter. It does not, just a persistent one. Anyone who has a relatively decent seat, is not afraid, and is patient, can train his own horse, it just might take longer.