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Who Know What? Topic: Cantering



By Linda Scrivner

I have been absolutely thrilled with the response to the article that I wrote about starting horses. I have appreciated the many comments and e-mails that I have received. I plan to use trainers and information from all aspects of the industry and from various areas of the country in my column and will include responses from a wide variety of people in hopes that their knowledge will help the rest of us learn.

After my last article a question was posed to me about who broke Santana and Pusher’s Black Hawk. After asking several people, I was able to confirm that Brian Kiddy broke both of these great horses before they were taken to Allan Callaway Stables and then sold to their respective owners.

This month my column is concerning cantering horses and how various trainers teach their horses and amateurs to canter. When asking trainers about this subject, the majority advised me to talk to Bobby Burton, so that is where I will start.

Bobby Burton of Bobby Burton Stables in London, Ky.

Burton has trained horses for a living since he was 19 years old. He has worked for Snuffy Smith for many years and before that for Bob McQuerry for six years. Burton said both of these gentlemen taught him a lot about horses.

“I don’t do anything different than the others do when I teach a horse to canter," Burton said. "I canter them everyday. I don’t flat walk or running walk them while I’m starting the canter. I only canter the horse for 30 days, nothing else. After 30 days, I start evening up the horse and flat walk and running walk him again. I’ve had good luck this way whether it’s right or wrong.”

“I start by off-chaining a horse," Burton continued. "I put a heavy action device on one foot and start him into a slow gallop. Tell him to canter, kick him easily and the horse will go hopping along at first. If you kick him hard, you will scare him. They’ll let you know when to start the next step. Some will be cantering in a week. I canter the horse a lot at first.”

“If a horse is cantering too fast, I’ll tell him, ‘easy, easy’, every step or two. I begin to tighten the reins in his mouth a little. If he gets excited cantering, I quit and then I start him again the next day. Don’t let him mess us. Then you have something that you have to correct. If you pull too tightly on the reins, he will start jumping instead of cantering smoothly.”

“I tell amateurs don’t pump or jerk a horse when you want him to canter. If you stay out of his mouth, he will canter easier," Burton said. "You don’t slow him down by pulling, quite the contrary. The canter is the most natural gait a horse has."

"Keep your hands down. If you have problems, just stop, especially if it is a nervous horse. A canter should be a restful gait for a horse. When you canter him, don’t wear him out. A horse has to rest in his stall, especially if it's having difficulties. A trucker doesn’t run his diesel truck out of gas, and we shouldn’t do that to a horse either.”

“It’s harder to teach a rider to canter than it is to teach the horse. I use a long line and let them canter in a circle up close to me. I can keep them close and tell them what to do. Above all, don’t jerk the horse in the mouth.”

"I think we need classes for people that canter and for those that don’t," Burton said. "Some people get tore up if they have to canter. They get paranoid about it. Non-cantering classes are good for them. If you get tensed up when you're cantering, the horse will know and may cross canter. Stay relaxed and your horse will stay relaxed.”

Jimmy McConnell of Formac Stables, in Union City, Tenn.

Jimmy McConnell has trained horses for many years and has shown in juvenile classes under his father Odell McConnell, along with brother Jackie McConnell. McConnell and his amateurs have won many Celebration blues.

“When I start a horse to canter, I drop a chain on one foot,” McConnell said. "Just let him hop along and eventually he’ll start cantering. Don’t force him into a canter. Let him teach himself. When he is cantering good with a chain dropped, then I start teaching him to canter level."

"To slow a horse down in his canter, I catch him at the bottom of the canter and tighten the reins a little then. Don’t lift on him until he is cantering good. It is worse to try to make them canter. Don’t fuss at the horse while it's cantering. Just let him do it,” McConnell said.

“Teach the horse to canter relaxed and easy. Don’t kick him. This may cause him to tense up. I cue the horse with the rein. I pull my rail rein and tilt the horse to make it easier for him to canter. I help the horse more with the rein on the rail. If you pull on the inside rein, it may cause them to break. You are pulling back the lead leg when you pull the inside rein.”

“My advice to amateurs who are learning to canter is to try to let the horse do the work," McConnell continued. "The number one thing to remember is to let the horse canter and to stay in time. Don’t try to make him canter. Let him canter.”

“I think, as an industry, we need to keep the canter. The problem is that it takes time to teach both the horses and the riders to canter. Economics have also decreased the number of cantering classes. A show wants to have full and non-cantering classes that are larger. It’s easy to learn to canter and to get the feel. More people need to try to learn and do it,” McConnell concluded.

Herbert Derickson of Derickson Training and Breeding Facility in Shelbyville, Tenn.

Herbert Derickson is also from a line of trainers. His father, H.T. Derickson, trained horses before him. Herbert’s daughters are carrying on the tradition as well by riding, showing and cantering in Youth Medallion classes.

Derickson began by saying, “I always say whether I can teach a horse to running walk or flat walk is debatable, but I can teach one to canter."

"I treat a canter like a controlled gallop," he said. "I gallop a horse at the start. When they’re comfortable with that, I start controlling them more. We spend a year or two teaching these horses not to canter, then we ask them to do what they did as a baby. It’s easier to teach a two-year-old to canter than it is to teach an older horse to canter. The older he is the harder it is to teach him.”

“The most basic thing is to drop an action device off the lead foot," Derickson said. "That would be the left foot going the first way. Turn the horse at an angle toward the rail. Flex him toward it. Body language is more important than a big kick on the shoulder, which may scare him. Use whatever signal you want to teach a horse. You can touch him on the shoulder or teach him a sign or command that means canter. The voice is a command. You must have the correct body language to canter easily. Flex the horse toward the rail and give him a signal to canter."

"I was raised in Kentucky where we showed with Saddlebred horses and trainers. I learned some of the Saddlebred tips in Kentucky. The Saddlebred trainers encourage momentum with the rail leg spur behind the girth. This moves the horse’s backend away from the rail and puts him in the position to canter,” Derickson said.

“The biggest mistake is bumping and jerking the reins. You really scare a horse in the mouth when you do this. Bumping or pumping the reins compounds the problems. He is scared by excessive jerking or pulling. This shortens the gait and makes the horse quicker in his gait. Turn the horse loose and he will lengthen his gait. The longer gait will be slower. Turn him loose and he will extend his legs. Longer strides slows down the gait. Be nice to the horse. Don’t struggle.My theory is that if a horse never drops his head down, there’s no need to pick him up. Jerking the reins when trying to canter frustrates both the horse and rider. I let the horse drop his head before I pick it up. I always encourage the horse with my rail leg. The canter is a smooth, relaxed gait. If it’s done properly, it’s a restful gait. Relax the reins in the mouth and let him lope along. There are a few things that I do that some don’t do," Derickson continued.

“I think part of my comfort comes from placing the horse at a 45 degree angle. I encourage him to go into the canter from there. The angle and the rail leg gives the momentum to canter. My dad said it’s like a person swimming. If the horse’s head is to the right, it throws the left leg forward. A canter is simple body language and rhythm. When one is swimming and your left arm is forward, your head will be to the right. If you turn your head to the right, it is natural to use your right arm or leg. A canter is smooth and comfortable for the horse and rider when done properly.”

“To teach a person to canter, make sure they start on a horse that is well versed in a canter. Many of these horses can almost read the rider’s mind and if they half way give the signal the horse goes ahead and does the gait. It is important so that the rider can feel the gait. A green rider and horse will both be frustrated. The horse doesn’t know enough to make up for the mistakes of the rider.”

“I will also drop the inside chain to get the amateur to get the correct feel of the canter. A broke horse will canter for them," Derickson said.

“Talking to the horse calmly helps him stay calm. Don’t say walk or whoa. Use a soothing tone. My wife Jill says I sing to them, saying opp opp in a monotone soothing voice. Find that one word or soothing monotone sound that works. Develop your own technique. Convey this signal to the horse to get him to do what you wish.”

“One of the most impressive gaits is the rocking chair gait to new comers. Wow! Look at that! Many are so impressed with the gait. We’re missing out on some opportunities for sales because many of our horses don’t canter. I praise the breeders’ association for bringing back the cantering to the juvenile and four-year-old classes.”

“In our industry, there is a place for the non-cantering horse," Derickson said. "Lots of people don’t want that extra challenge, but others do. It allows for horsemanship to play an important part in our sport. Thus it’s not who just buys the best horse by spending the most. Cantering classes put more emphasis on the rider and the skill of the horse.”

“It really is a gait that people fear more than they should. It’s as natural as any gait for the horse. The canter is basically a controlled gallop. The canter has to be started and treated as a gallop, then it becomes a rhythmic gallop. Once they have the rhythm then you can start to slow them down. Stay in the gallop until they have perfect rhythm in that gait. Develop perfect rhythm first with no chain; then put a small chain on the lead foot with a larger one on the off foot until the horse gets good rhythm again. Build him up until he is chained even. It’s very important to keep the beautiful, flowing rhythm of the canter. Relate to the horse and put it in their perspective. They will tell you when they are ready for the next step," Derickson said.

Dickie Scrivner of Tanview Farm, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Dickie Scrivner is also a product of a horse trainer father. He was raised assisting his father, Sonny, at Scrivner Stables in Strafford, Mo. Dickie has trained professionally since graduating from college and working as an accountant for several years. Scrivner is excellent at cantering horses and assisting amateurs and juveniles at cantering.

“Basically I start to teach a horse to canter using a snaffle bit," Scrivner began. "I put a chain on the off foot and no chain on the lead foot. I like to start cantering a horse in a 40-foot round pen. I start him around the pen and encourage him to break gait. I tilt their body toward the wall which throws the lead leg to go forward first. I start with a fast lope. A horse will not switch leads if he is going faster and is more relaxed. Fast is fine to teach the horse to break gait. Eventually, he will keep the correct rhythm and slow down on his own. I may assist him a little with light pressure on the reins. I stop and start them a lot so that they will learn to take the canter easily without lunging or jumping. I start them slowly and calmly each time. It’s a natural gait and most horses like to canter.”

“Tilting a horse is very important," Scrivner said. "After I’ve taught the horse to break gait, I tilt him with his backend inside. I may have to use my rail spur to move his backend to the inside. It is much more comfortable for a horse to start tilted, and he will come up leading with the inside leg.”

“It’s very important to canter them both ways. When the canter becomes easy for the horse, I put a lighter chain on the lead foot until the canter is easy for him once more. At that time, the horse is ready to be chained evenly with both weights the same.”

“I never bump a horse on the shoulder. When I was six or seven years old and was showing in a canter class in Bentonville, Ark., I had a time touching the horse on the shoulder because my legs were so short. I said then that I would teach horses to canter without bumping them on the shoulder. I touch their side with a spur on the lead side to encourage them to use that leg first. I use a lot of voice command. 'Canter, Canter', teaches them the gait you want and encourages them to continue in that gait if they start to drop out. Most of my aged horses canter by voice command. I also touch them with my inside spur, if needed," Scrivner continued.

“I also cue a horse by lifting with the outside rein. Basically, I teach them to canter with rein and voice commands. It’s so much easier for amateurs to canter a horse that has been taught this way. When I have a finished canter on a horse, you can simply turn his head to the rail and say canter. A big trick to having a good canter is to keep the horse comfortable at all stages and then he will have a rhythmic natural canter which he and his rider can enjoy.”

“Basically the steps are to teach the horse to break gait, teach them to tilt and repetition. If a horse gets too fast in the canter, I go back to the round pen. In a 40-foot circle, you can tilt, then, shift your and their weight, and they will canter. Let them canter enough on a loose rein in the round pen and they will develop a slow, relaxed canter on their own.”

“If I am teaching a person to canter, I drop a chain on the lead foot and let the rider learn the rhythm of the canter. Learning the rhythm is the whole secret to cantering," Scrivner said. "Once you’ve learned the rhythm, the rest is simple. Remember to keep your cantering as simple as possible for the rider. Teaching the canter is easy for the horses. Make it easy for the rider also. Voice and lifting a rein or tilting or turning the horse toward the rail is simple for an amateur once they learn to relax and let the horse canter. Once they have mastered the canter with the rein dropped, increase the size of the inside chain until the amateur and the horse are cantering together easily with the horse chained level. Use a broke horse to teach an amateur to canter so that they don’t become frustrated. Timing is of utmost importance. If you have difficulty cantering, ask your trainer to drop a chain to make it easier to learn what to do.”

“I always teach a horse to tilt, touch him with the lead spur, a slight pull on the outside rein. If you loosen the inside rein and say canter many of my horses will take their lead and canter easily. On a finished horse, you don’t have to use spurs at all to cue for the canter," Scrivner said.

“If a horse wants to canter fast, spend lots of time in the saddle and he will slow down. Don’t snatch a horse. Once a horse is chained level and cantering well, then I go back to his regular bit. It’s easier to turn and help a horse with a snaffle bit. A shank may cause a horse to lose his rhythm when he is learning or to jump if pulled too hard.”

“I had a hard time learning to canter a horse when I was young. At age 14 or 15, I put my first canter on a horse. It was a horse that would run off. After I put the canter on him, hours and hours later it was easy to canter a horse. After that time I put the canter on most of the horses. Some trainers and horses stop to canter; others take it from a flat walk. I do what seems to be comfortable for the horse.”

“Every horse is left or right handed. If a horse is left handed, I start on the hard way, the left lead. Work on it a while, then go to his easy lead, and then end with the hard way. It rests the horse to go his easy way and he won’t get frustrated. If you do the easier way first, the horse gets aggravated the second way and gets frustrated. Don’t let the horse get burnt out on cantering. If he gets too tired, he won’t like it or want to canter. Don’t do it too long, especially the first day. You don’t want the horse to hate the canter the next day. Make it fun for them. Stop before they get tired. When the horse learns something new, stop him while he’s refreshed. Make little goals and when he achieves that part, put him up. Make it where they will like to canter. You don’t want him to rebel.”

“I think we need more cantering classes. We’ve lost the meaning of the canter. I think the Medallion classes are great. One year I let my juvenile practice with a four-year-old horse for their medallion class at the Trainers’ show. The only cantering class was the open amateur. We were thrilled when she won reserve in the Open Amateur class simply because she out cantered the other riders in the class. That was a confidence builder for her and we knew she and the horse were ready for the canter in their medallion class.”

“Basically, the rocking chair canter needs to be brought back to our breed. It shows a lot of horsemanship when a person shows in a cantering class,” Scrivner concluded.

Laurie Toone of Circle T Stables at Summercrest Farms, Olive Branch, Miss.

Laurie Toone specializes in pleasure horses. Toone has ridden 16 world champions in the lite-shod and trail pleasure divisions. She has won the world championship reining class in the walking horse division for seven consecutive years.

"When I start my young horses, I will work them from the ground in a walk to develop timing, a pace to get them reaching and slowing behind and a lope to teach them balance and not to crossfire behind," Toone began. "Anytime a horse crossfires behind, I correct them by pulling them towards me to have them rebalance themselves. With good timing and repetition from the handler, the horse will learn to correct himself in one step."

"Before a horse is ready to lope or canter with a rider, I will establish body control. I want the horse flexible from side to side in the mouth and neck. The horse needs to yield to leg pressure in order to control the horse's hip. If you control the horse's hip, it will be virtually impossible to take the wrong lead. The horse's body must bend in the direction he is traveling. In the beginning, you'll have to let the horse find it himself. A round pen is a great place to do this. If you don't have a round pen stay in small to medium circles. Circles help the horse stay engaged. Gradually make the circles larger until you can go in straight lines," Toone said.

"If a horse isn't a natural at loping, I will put a heavy roller on the opposite foot of the lead that I desire. Left lead, roller goes on right front leg. Right lead, roller goes on left front. Once a horse will lope consistently on the correct lead, I will start to develop lift and fall. This is the movement known as the rocking chair canter. As the horse is landing on its front legs, be ready to bump the horse's mouth just as the horse comes off the ground. This motivates the horse to lift more than normal," Toone said.

"The most important element in teaching a horse to lope are consistent cues from the rider and repetition. Practice, practice, practice. Horses are creatures of habit, so whatever the cues for the lope always use them so there isn't any confusion."

"The last thing to remember is patience," Toone said. "When you lose your patience, both you and your horse won't progress."

If there are topics that you would like to see covered or if you have tips that you would like to submit to the Walking Horse Report, please contact Linda Scrivner at 931-684-8123 or e-mail to scrivner@horseworld.net.

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