Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Training the Canter with Your Young Horse

by Lori Albrough

I remember way back in January 2005, Dressage Today magazine had an article called “Closing the Gap” with the tagline: When will “North-American bred” have the same cachet as “Imported from Europe”. The article was geared towards sporthorse breeding and training, and quoted Scott Hassler who said:

“Our good horses are not given the chance to compete against Europe’s good horses because of the training. It’s that simple. We need to get our young horses ridden better.” In particular, Hassler says, “Our young horses are not ridden in a way that is safe, competent, or marketable. We see them in a very strung out frame. They don’t canter for the first time for six or eight months.”

That last sentence is the one I want to focus on. I believe that once your horse starts his formal under-saddle training, whether that is at three years or four years old, he needs to be taught to canter from the beginning.

I have seen horses that have been ridden walk-trot only, as Scott Hassler refers to, for months and months or even years and it really comes as quite a surprise to the horse when the canter is finally asked for. Some horses react by getting freaked out, bolting or bucking, some by refusing to actually canter, instead just trotting faster, Faster, FASTER!

Years ago I bought one of these horses who had been ridden walk-trot only for a long time, and it took three very determined people and two lunge whips to convince her that she could, and she would, canter under tack. From there she did fine but I think it is kinder and makes more sense to teach the horse what your expectation is from the beginning. Take your time, but don’t waste time.

There is nothing very mysterious about cantering with a rider, but if we don’t train it, how are our young horses supposed to have the knowledge, and the strength, required to do it in a correct balanced fashion? “Begin as you mean to go on” is a logical approach that makes the most sense to the horse.

Young Fjord Horse learning the canter The photo to the right shows a young horse learning the canter, jumping nicely into soft contact with the rider in a light seat.

The first step to teaching your young horse to canter under saddle, is to teach him to canter with tack on the lunge line. Your first prerequisite before you start is that you have good footing, and the second is enough space. Hard, frozen, bumpy, uneven or unlevel footing is not going to give your horse the confidence that he needs in his own ability to stay balanced and upright as he canters on the circle.

You will need a space that allows a circle of at least 60′ to 70′ (20m is about 66′) in diameter. I remember one owner asking me for help with their horse who “refused to learn to canter nicely”, they told me that no matter how often they tried, she would just tear around at a million miles an hour becoming very agitated. It turned out that they were in a pen that was maybe 40 feet wide and the young horse just didn’t have enough space to keep her balance. No wonder she was so anxious.

Think of when you learned to ride a bicycle. You needed space enough where you could go forward with enough momentum to stay upright and to not worry about turning all the time. As you learned to balance the bike, you could keep it upright while going slower and while turning, even quite tight turns. Your horse’s balance will improve too, but for now he needs enough space.

The horse should be tacked up with bridle, surcingle or saddle, side reins, and boots. Before introducing the canter the horse should be taught to go forward on the circle on the lunge line in both directions at walk and trot, giving to the contact of the side reins and accepting the presence of the lunge whip as a driving aid. Then you are ready to ask for canter. Some young horses will be nervous and tear off in canter at the drop of a hat, and some will need to be pushed quite a bit before they break into canter.

If I have a young horse who doesn’t understand that I want him to canter, and he just trots faster and faster, I will sometimes do a few canter steps myself from the center of the circle. Horses will actually mimic your body language and you will almost see the light bulb go off over their head and they will pick up canter. Be judicious the first time you do this though, and don’t skip too high off the ground, as some horses can find it unexpected and scary!

Fjord Horse Cantering on the LungeThe goal at this stage is to make the association in the horse’s mind between the word “Can-TER” and him performing the gait. He will also be figuring out how to balance himself on a circle in canter, getting used to the feeling of the tack as he moves in the faster gait, and giving to the contact of the side reins, which should be set fairly long at this stage.

When you feel that the horse knows the word for canter, can balance himself fairly well, and comes back to trot at your verbal command, you are ready to ask under saddle. The timeframe for how long this takes will vary with each horse, but it will generally be within a couple weeks. Certainly almost every horse can be cantering under saddle by the end of two months of regular training.

A lot of times when you are training the canter with a young horse you have to be really emphatic in your body language as you ask them to strike off into canter. Once you are in canter you need to ride the canter quite forward until they understand how to balance in the canter with a rider on their back, and that the priority is to stay active and jumping with the hind legs.

Some young horses will find it easier than others to learn the canter under saddle, but the only way to learn it is to do it, and for that they need a rider who has the experience to help them with their balance and their understanding. If you don’t feel confident in doing this, it can be very worthwhile to have an experienced rider teach your horse to canter, and then you can take over from there.

To ask for canter under saddle for the first time, choose the direction that your horse finds easier on the lunge line, and in a rising trot go more and more forward on a 20m circle. On the open side of the circle as you are approaching the wall say the word can-TER as you simultaneously slide the inside hip forward, squeeze with the inside leg, and slide the outside leg back. Touch with the whip if necessary to get a reaction. The horse should know what you mean from the command, and now we are beginning to associate the aids with the gait. If he trots faster and faster, keep asking, and when he strikes off into canter praise enthusiastically with your voice, like he just won an Olympic medal! It really helps his understanding if he knows that he is pleasing you!

Keep him cantering forward and follow the wall of the arena. The straight lines will help him balance. If he’s going forward nicely, reach forward with your inside hand and pat his neck. Keep your upper body still, and a bit forward, sitting lightly on his back.

When asking for the canter on your young horse it does help his understanding if you use your seat to help him strike off into canter, as I described above with sliding the inside hip forward. If you’re not just sure what I mean, or how that feels, here is a way that can help you visualize how to do it.

Cantering on a Stick Horse Imagine you are a child on a stick horse and you are cantering. So you are going along on your two legs mimicking the canter of a horse, da-da-loomp, da-da-loomp…. (Or use whatever three-beat sound that gets you into a canter mood, some people repeat “potato, potato…”) Get up and try it around the room until you can feel a canter sensation.

Now, imagine that you don’t have any legs, but instead are using your two seat bones as legs, and are mimicking the horse’s canter.

Back on your horse trotting along, remember that feeling of cantering along on your seat bones. Think of a gentle canter stride, and that moment of landing on your leading seat bone will automatically bring the inside hip forward and will influence your horse to strike off into canter.

At this stage of training the canter, it is important to not try to restrain the forward motion, or worry about the position of the head and neck as he learns his balance. Think of your long-term training from the very beginning. Down the road when he comes to learn his flying changes it will be of top priority that he has a canter with good active hind legs with a clear jump behind. Trying to “collect” the canter too soon usually results in slow hind legs with little jump. A horse that goes forward in a fresh canter, covering ground and enjoying himself, is developing the right kind of understanding for a high quality canter in the future.

Work the canter a little bit each day, both ways. Training rides in the first few months of training may last only twenty minutes. What is important is that the young horse learns that canter is no big deal, it is just a regular part of training, and that he not get overly tired as he begins to develop his balance and his muscles. You should see a little improvement each day, which will translate into a big improvement over a few months time!


29 Responses to “Training the Canter with Your Young Horse”

  1. Lori LaMattina wrote:

    A timely post for me! We’re working on developing stamina and balance in the canter. Can you elaborate on your use of sidereins? The type you use in specific. Rudi canters well on the lunge line already, and I am hoping some use of side reins will help him understand his balance under saddle.

  2. Lori Albrough wrote:

    I use leather side reins with a rubber donut. I don’t like the stretchy elastic side reins as they teach the horse to root down against them (they have too much give). The rubber donut has just a bit of give and then the horse learns to give to them.

  3. Barbara Neufeld wrote:

    Gosh Lori,

    That is the best explanation for starting the canter that I have ever seen or heard. The way you explain that the hip drives the horse’s hip and the way to start early in the training is so clearly explained. And I noticed you said a young horse was a 3-4 year old. Thanks so much for leading the way in teaching the proper approach to Fjords and all horses for that matter.

    Barbara Jean

  4. Cherisse wrote:

    Thanks for helping and making it so clear

  5. Judy wrote:

    How old should a horse be before you teach him to canter under saddle?

  6. Lori Albrough wrote:

    With a mature-seeming young horse, three years old, otherwise four years old. I start most of mine at four years.

  7. Nikki wrote:

    I think your methods of teaching a young horse to canter are great, I will try them on my 4 year old. Thanks

  8. tierney wrote:

    Hi! I loved your article and was happy to know I have been and my horse has been responding so well to all of the this, and has a beautiful controlled canter . Here is my only problem…he is only 2 years and 9 months…when I got him I thought he was 3 years and 4 months 9have had him 4 months)…so I proceeded with breaking him at the walk trot and canter beginning everything on ground in the round pen then progressing in saddle and then in arena. I al so proud of him everyone is so proud of him…but now that we have had a vet float hi teeth that’s when we were told he was a year younger than I was told. 🙁 am I hurting my horse? Should I stop including the canter in our exercise or play time….we usually only canter straight aways at the end of a good trotting exercise…and then cool down with a stroll around the pasture. I don’t want to hurt my horse…but I also am so happy and pleased with his progress I hate to halt…and his canter is soft and controlled and smooth and he’ll break back down to a trot on command and walk and woah! Help?!

  9. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Is this a Fjord? If he were mine I would give him a break until he is older. Set him aside until he is a bit more mature, and his progress will continue where it was when you pick him back up. He sounds lovely.

  10. Shaya wrote:

    G’day, I want to thank you for this article. I’ve been looking for something like this, but mostly what you get is just about teaching the rider how to canter. So this is much appreciated.
    I’m also glad to read that there are other informed horsepeople out there who believe a horse should have a chance to mature before being ridden. My brumby was only a very bare 3 when he first began being broken in(after that he had a good year and a half of paddock freedom); I didn’t know better then. He’s nearly 5 now, and the mental, as well as physical, differences are pretty eye-opening. I don’t agree with ‘breaking in’ in the usual term of it. So I’m training him myself with positive reinforcement(it was nice to hear other people do that too!). But we hit a roadblock with the canter. I’m so glad I stumbled across your article. Thank you very much.

    Shaya and Clancy the brumby(I’ve been told he looks quite like a Fjord.)

  11. Kaleigh wrote:

    I have a 6yr old QH who is very good at walking and trotting straight and circles, and he canters great on the straight, but he slows down when I ask him to turn, I would rather not use spurs and/or a whip, but what do you suggest? he’s in amazing shape, and he’s very gentle, but he just has a hard time turning at a canter. any suggestion?


  12. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Hi Kaleigh,

    The first thing that pops to mind is to make sure he has no issue with pain or discomfort, e.g. no problems in the hocks which will have to bend more to turn in the canter, or the saddle pinching when he gathers himself up, say.

    Once that is ruled out, you want to make sure he is really in front of your leg. That means that every time you give a squeeze of the leg to create an impulse of energy he always enthusiastically responds with a 100% forward reaction. There’s details on this in my article,

    If you’re riding in a school with a wall or a boundary fence, sometimes young horses will hug the wall in the canter and take their balance from it. When they come off the wall they feel lost and think they can’t keep their balance. To counteract this, you can practice counter flexion through the corners and making sure he will move off your outside aids. In other words, your outside aids become the boundary, not the wall.

    Also, don’t even canter on the wall, instead stay in off the wall in canter and don’t go all the way to the ends of the school, instead create a big oval rather than the full rectangle of the school. Then you can gradually turn this into a smaller circle as his balance and strength improve.

    Hope this helps, keep us posted!

  13. Trudy wrote:

    Hi what a great article. Thank you got writing this. I have a question, what do you do to assist the newly broken horse or during the breaking process to stop horses from getting over excited and rushing at canter?
    Thanks! Trudy

  14. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Hi Trudy,

    It’s normal for a horse to get over-excited at that stage. These are tips that work for me. Try not to react to their excitement, staying very neutral in your body language and using your voice in a soothing way to reassure them. Keep the sessions short and make a fuss over the horse when he is done. Doing a little bit each way every day helps it become “just what we do” and not so exciting. Make sure the space is large enough and the footing good enough that the horse feels he can keep his balance and is not running to get away from the feeling of being unbalanced.

    Hope this helps!

  15. Young Horse Training Exercises | Horse Training Course & Buying Guide wrote:

    […] Teaching a Young Horse to Canter | Bluebird Lane – On December 31, 2013 at 9:09 pm, tierney wrote: Hi! I loved your article and was happy to know I have been and my horse has been responding so well to all of …… […]

  16. Training Pony To Canter | Horse Training Course & Buying Guide wrote:

    […] Training the Canter with Your Young Horse – On December 12, 2012 at 8:32 pm, Barbara Neufeld wrote: Gosh Lori, That is the best explanation for starting the canter that I have ever seen or heard…. […]

  17. Melodie S. wrote:

    I’ve been working with my 3 yr old for two months. She does get really frisky the first couple times I ask her to canter on the lunge line, but we work through it and she calms down nicely. Her usual temperament is a bit on the lazy, but cautious, side. Under saddle, we’ve worked on balanced movement in the walk and trot and leg cues (she’s doing great!). While schooling she picked up the canter in the pasture on a straight away and was lovely, so I felt we were ready to start introducing the canter into our lessons under saddle. However, when I ask for the canter, she will get tense and simultaneously buck as we start cantering and breaks into a trot after. I’ve tried pushing her through the bucks, and when she canters calmly for a small lap, I will allow her to trot again. Then we go to the other side, and do two or three rounds. I always have to get through the bucks at first, though. I’m riding quietly, tack is fine…any suggestions on how to not make this a habbit?

  18. Mirella wrote:

    What a useful article thank you so much for writing – I am having difficulty teaching my Appaloosa to canter in the school (grass field) and also to get a canter on the lunge – he used to be able to understand but something has gone wrong – no problems out hacking pops into canter and stays in canter when out and on straight lines.
    On the lunge he just keeps going into a faster trot – I tried reastablishing the trot, using poles – if I could just get him to think calmly instead of rushing into a faster trot …. Any tips ??

  19. Gill wrote:

    Hello there,
    My horse is a 16.1 and growing 4 year old Warmblood, he was broke just this past June. I am only 14 years old but I am very strong and have been working and training horses for a very long time. My horse turns great on the right lead circles/turning to jumps/quarter line but to the left he feels as though he locks his jaw almost and won’t turn without bulging or pulling very hard to make my arms ache. Do you have any ideas for exercises that could help him? My coaches think its him being young and big so it is difficult for him the balance and turn (just his bad way haha). Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

  20. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Hi Gill,

    My coach Summer McEwan has a lot of experience working with “big and growing” horses like yours. I asked her to recommend some exercises for you and here is her advice:

    “Horses are left and right handed just like us, so I agree with Gill’s coach that this is part of the horses development. That being said, you can help the horse along with a couple of exercises.

    My first advice would be to start doing some long slow leg yields in the walk and trot both to improve the response to the lateral leg for the canter but also to help the horse find a better lateral balance and alignment. ‎

    After that I would work the canter in two ways. One day I would likely try to find the biggest space I could safely canter in and teach the horse to go forward in the canter and learn to balance the canter through the length of the neck. Often smaller spaces make horses with big strides more crooked. The bigger space will make it easier for the horse to balance itself without compromising the integrity of its gait.

    The second exercise would be to do figure 8’S with simple changes through trot. Don’t interfere too much in this exercise. Let the the exercise do the work of balancing the horse. You may find that this will back the horse off in the canter, that is why I would alternate forward work in a big, safe open space with transition work.

    The big thing is to try not to alter the canter in an attempt to improve the horses balance. He must first learn to carry a rider with a long neck and back in his natural canter, and then through transitions learn to balance himself better longitudinally.

    Try to keep him straight but don’t hold him or he will lean on the rider for balance instead of finding the balance for himself. Use half halts, not holding. If he wants to lean on the hand you must soften the hand and push the horse forward. Otherwise the horse will lean on the hand and therefore the forehand.”

    I hope this helps!

  21. Sarah wrote:

    Brilliant, thank you. My mare is 6 and I have been to nervous to move onto to canter. I now feel like I have a plan that I can work to successfully and not rush her so she can do it in her own time. Great explanation

  22. Lee wrote:

    i got a 11 year old qh very smart but not much done. he doesn’t know how to canter and I been working with him on getting in the trailer. How should I work on getting him to learn to canter.

  23. JULIE ILIC wrote:

    I have an 8 year old cob that been used to breeding so had done nothing much at all when I got her. she has come on a lot but hates the school. We have been trying the canter transition out on hacks but she just runs faster and faster, we bring her back and try again and again but get the same. She has managed it a couple of times but I feel ran into it. do you have any ideas to help. thank you.

  24. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Hi Julie,

    Yes, in the beginning it will often feel like you are running into it, but hang in there, as they get stronger and realize what it is you want it will become easier. When you are riding a young or green horse you really need to want to canter and don’t become distracted by all the “garbage” that comes before.


  25. Lisa wrote:

    Lori – thanks so much for this article! I have a 3.5 year old Haflinger that was started under saddle (and in harness) before I bought him at 3 years old. I have hacked him out in the forest for about 4 months and am now starting to teach him to lunge (with a cavesson and side reins that are attached to the bridle). Since he is still young, I wanted to give him some time to mature without having weight on his back, but still want to work with him over the Winter. His trot has really improved over the 4 weeks I have been working him. He canters very nicely out hacking on straight lines (we have cantered a handful of times out on the trail), but has trouble cantering on a 20-metre circle. He will canter but gets tense and cannot complete a full circle. I think it is a balance and suppleness issue. He tends to want to trot faster and faster until he breaks into canter, but if the trot gets too fast, I just slow it back down and ask again for canter from a more balanced, relaxed trot. I have only been asking him to canter at the end of the last 3 lungeing sessions. I’m considering doing some long reining with him, with lots of changes of bend in the walk and trot, to help him become more laterally supple. I would love some advice as I believe that Fjords have some similar characteristics to Haflingers.

  26. Fridrmodir wrote:

    Lovely article and incredibly helpful. I am training my own 4 yr old and had started her when she was 3. I have been holding off on cantering her much, did get her going to the left but to the right she had difficulty picking up the lead. Guess I’ll try again, this article has inspired me! 🙂

  27. Josie wrote:

    Hi Lori,
    I just happened upon your blog and was very interested in what you had to say about teaching the horse/rider to canter. Thank you for sharing. I have an almost 9yr old horse that we purchased as a green 5.5yr old after two bowed tendons due to poor farrier work. He has had almost 3yrs off back to back ugh!!! (He did 6mths of ground work as a 5.5yr old it was spread out due to bad weather). He was restarted after 1st bowed tendon and then restarted again after 2nd bowed tendon so he’s pretty proficient at his ground work by now. So finally he has been riding successfully since January 2020 at a walk & a trot I started asking for canter beginning of March he understood and followed through on command.
    After about the 3rd-4th training session he started to resist the canter he throws his head around telling me to stop and then falls out of the canter to a trot, I even felt his hind end literally give out a little.
    He walks trots & canters in the round pen both free lunge & on the line there doesn’t seem to be any problem. Except he does break down to a trot when he feels like it, after 2 times around 70ft round pen so this makes me think he is unfit.
    I started doing some stretches prior to work out, sports massage and acupressure, I even gave him a wk off because I thought he maybe a little sore. There is no lameness heat swelling or obvious signs of injury.
    He had some tightness in his neck hamstrings and glutes. Some clicking in his stifles, not locking.
    The saddle was custom made for him, no back soreness.
    I am beginning to think he maybe too weak or he just doesn’t want to do it.
    If it’s due to weakness how long does it take to get them fit enough to canter with tack & rider?
    He did 6mths of ground work before I started him this last time. (Because we had to wait for the saddle)
    He is 16.1h fine boned and measures 966lbs. between myself & my saddle we weigh in at 170lb I don’t feel as though he is carrying too much weight.
    He was resisting to work in the beginning he didn’t want to go into the arena and he does act up for the first 10mins every time but when he realizes he’s not going home he gets on with it & behaves. He does the same when I take him off the property, he is barn sour because he has spent a lot of time at the barn, he walks like he’s got 3 wooded legs leaving the property he braces up and doesn’t want to go, tripping & stumbling all the way, totally behind the leg the whole time going away from the barn. Coming home it is another story big long strides, walks like he’s on fire, zero tripping. I purchased spurs as a desperate measure now he gets a little bump if he trips and that took care of the problem leaving the barn no more tripping.
    For the time being I have resorted to long trail rides 1.5hrs to improve his muscle mass.
    I think he has spent too much time being a lord, he doesn’t care to work. He has a tantrum when I ask for canter now.
    What do you suggest to get him over his possible laziness and resisting the canter transition?
    If that should be the problem.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated
    Thank you kindly.

  28. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Hi Josie, some horses can have really weak stifles which can cause the behaviour you’re describing. To them the canter can feel really scary and they resist it. Definitely walk/trot work up and down hills and over cavaletti can help build up the proper muscles. The problem is sometimes if the horse is tensing his back to protect his stifles then the work doesn’t build up the muscles you need built up. Your vet can help the horse if this is the case. Using estrogen IM every 5-7 days can be helpful during the building up period or if that is not enough, blistering the stifle can be a godsend. It sounds horrible but it’s really not and it can give the horse the support he needs while you get the proper muscles built up to take over. I would recommend an evaluation of the stifles by a good equine vet.

  29. Linsey Evans wrote:

    Thank you so much for that great information it has helped enormously with my two-year-old Billy I can’t thank you enough for your great explanation you have helped tremendously God bless you!

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