Saturday, October 19, 2013

Loose Rein Cantering, Revisited

The mashed toes are feeling a bit better, and happiest out of shoes.  The big toe is very red - it looks a bit like a boiled lobster. Perhaps this was the universe telling me to take some time off from riding in order to focus on other things - like packing for the household move on Monday . . .  So all horses had a day off today - I just dropped by the barn in the afternoon to say hello and pick feet.  Pack . . . pack . . . pack . . .

But life is about more than packing - it's about horses, so here's a follow up to my post talking about the loose rein cantering work I've been doing.  Several readers had comments:

You suggested that you can canter on a loose rein with "a horse that knows how to canter under saddle". I've lately been thinking that the best way to have a horse LEARN to canter under saddle, find his balance, develop the strength to later go in a more collected frame is to start cantering without contact so that the horse can use his head and neck to keep his balance - especially a horse who has learned a lot of apprehension about the bit (which seems to be almost every "dressage" horse I see!). Could you comment?
Then Jean had the following comment:
One of the "old masters" of riding advocated riding the young horse on a loose rein at all three gaits until he/she learned how to carry both him/herself and the rider. Ironically, many horses today are trained from square one in side reins and in a frame, so they never really do learn how to balance without the support. 
These were very perceptive comments, and others said the same - as I told Chris in my response, I had thought about including some of my thoughts on when/how to use loose rein cantering in order to clarify, but had elected not to.  But now I will attempt to clarify my thinking a bit.  Part of it is when to help, and when to let the horse figure things out.  I've always had a tendency to "help" my horses too much - Mark Rashid worked with me on this - he calls striking the right balance "professional neglect".

But that doesn't mean you don't get in there and help if help is needed - it's a balance between giving the horse time and space to figure things out on their own, and failing to help if the horse needs direction.  This is something I'll be working on for a long time.  In my case, I need to tilt the balance towards doing less rather than more - just like I need to feel I'm leaning slightly backwards when riding in order to just sit up straight.  As both become more natural, I expect I'll have to not overcompensate towards doing less.

One thing to get out of the way first - I don't use gadgets - bitting rigs, draw reins, side reins, martingales, tie downs, etc. - to "help" the horse.  These things don't help - they force the horse's body into a particular posture, whether or not the horse's musculature, balance, and stage of learning make that posture appropriate or not.  And none of those devices have any "feel" at all - and it's the interaction of my feel with the horse's feel where the learning occurs.  As Jean and Chris point out, many horses "trained" with these devices either learn to brace on your hands, or alternatively suck back from any contact with the bit.  And the horse needs to have choices, so that the horse can find and choose the most comfortable way of going.  Once the horse learns to find and maintain itself in the soft place, that locks in pretty quickly.

So, when to use loose rein work, particularly at the canter.  The answer, as it often is, is "it depends".  With a green horse that's just learning to canter under saddle, lots of unimpeded straight line cantering, on a fairly loose rein, will really help the horse figure things out.  Green horses often have trouble with tight turns, since they need to practice balancing with a rider.  At this stage, I don't worry much at all about what lead the horse is on - just canter along on a loose rein and help the horse balance by staying out of the way and quiet as much as possible.

But to back up a step, I'm a big believer in having the walk and the trot, and the halt and the back, working well before cantering is even part of the program.  And with a horse that isn't just green, but which has some bad habits that are trained in - traveling braced or inverted, for example - this work at the walk and trot, and halt and back, is critical to introduce softness and correct use of muscles, particularly the core.  Cantering a horse that has these issues which haven't been worked through is a waste and may even further embed the bad postures and muscle use the horse has been taught.  If it isn't working at the walk - and halt and back - it won't work at the trot and most certainly not at the canter.  And it takes whatever time it takes - these things can't be rushed.

And the horse also needs to understand forward, and relaxation, at the same time - if the horse is rushed, or nervous, there's no softness and the canter work will not be productive.  I guess what I'm saying is that a baby who's never been messed up can learn to canter under saddle pretty well on a loose rein, but a horse who's been "trained" to have bracing or to be nervous and rushed won't necessarily benefit immediately from loose rein cantering - in fact no cantering at all may be the best idea.

So, take my three horses as examples.  Dawn came to me pretty braced, with a tendency to rush and pull and she was quite downhill - on the forehand and not using her hind end or core properly.  This took a lot of preliminary work to get her to relax and carry herself softly at walk and trot before canter would be useful.  Now her canter is able to be soft and relaxed, and loose rein cantering is very helpful.

Pie was green, but tended to travel inverted - his head and neck in the air and core not engaged, and the result was his gaits were choppy and short without any true forward or engagement.  It took a lot of work at walk and trot to build the correct muscles so he could carry himself softly, using his core.  Now loose rein cantering is very helpful to him, and I also do some work with contact to remind him to soften and not invert - he still needs a bit of help on this from time to time.

Red came to me with a huge mental and physical brace - partly due to having been ridden in a tight tie down - he looks to brace against the expected pressure from the (phantom) tie down.  We've done a lot of softening work at walk and trot in preparation for canter.  Fortunately, he's physically constructed so he tends naturally to carry himself well, engaging his core, so long as he can relax mentally.  He can canter very nicely on a loose rein, but needs some direction to avoid distractions.

With all my horses, my objective is to allow them to move freely at the canter, with minimal interference from me, but with direction when needed - striking that balance isn't easy.


  1. This is very helpful--thank you! I've been wondering what to do about River (who as an ex-racehorse tends to brace and pull at the reins and also tends to be quite downhill). I've been told to canter him on a loose rein but I worry he'll just bear down and take off. I've also been told to "give him the support he needs" to hold him in a good frame, but I sure don't want him to learn to ride for pleasure with the same rein tension he used while racing! Now I think I need to practice more at walk/trot/halt/back up and get him moving softly and without a brace there, before we go up to canter. So thanks again! :)

  2. Thanks, Kate, this is a really helpful discussion for where I am with my ex-western pleasure horse, who is stiff and apprehensive. Really appreciate your insights. Would love to start going to Mark Rashid clinics since he lives in Colorado, but it seems he's travelling much more than doing much around here these days!

  3. Oh, by the way, as a nurse practitioner with many years of emergency and acute care experience, being able to move a body part does not mean there are no fractures! First toe fractures, or those of the first metatarsal (foot) bones can be significant. Not diagnosing, just something to think about :)

  4. I remember some clinicians I've seen commenting that, "Well, of course your horse didn't canter. You didn't set him up right." My first really good trainer had another philosophy. "If you give the canter aid, the horse should canter, no matter what frame he's in."

    While you can certainly mess up taking a correct lead by "setting the horse up wrong," just getting a canter, or any gait for that matter, is basically simple obedience to the aids. In most serious horse sports, we develop the gaits/frame, etc. to suit the circumstance.

    The jumper, for instance, needs a certain balance, collection, and impulsion to get over a big fence. The reining horse needs the same to complete various exercises with accuracy or speed. The dressage horse needs the ability to elastically extend and collect to do the movements well.

    But basic obedience to the aids does not require a lot of restriction and excessive control on the part of the rider. Often to kind of test that obedience in my horses I might ride in the arena on no contact at all, checking to see if my horse will turn/stop with just my weight and take all three gaits with just an aid.

    It's often too easy to overcomplicate the basics.

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