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Q&A: Instead of Cantering, he Turns into an Uncontrollable Racehorse

advanced horse training tips horsemanship horses problem solving q&a Oct 19, 2023

Q: I often enjoy riding out on the trail with a group of friends, and we also like to often do some trotting and cantering. However, my horse has gotten into the habit of every time I ask for the canter outside, he kicks it into racehorse mode and feels very uncontrolled. Other than avoiding cantering, what can I do to help this issue?

A: In my opinion, teaching your horse to canter on a loose rein where he does not speed up faster than a canter unless you ask him to is one of the final keys to creating a safe horse in the arena and out on the trail.  Too often, I’m confronted with owners and even some trainers who are unwilling or unable to canter their horses.  As long as your horse is physically capable of cantering, he should be cantered, and cantered oftenThe only way to help your horse get good at cantering is to canter a lot.  

With time and wet saddle blankets as the criteria, there are 3 main indicators of a well trained horse.

  1. Miles under saddle.
  2. Miles under saddle away from home.
  3. Miles under saddle at the canter/lope.

It sounds like you are having trouble controlling your horse’s speed when you lope out on the trail with other horses.  First of all, loping on the trail with other horses can be one of the most emotionally and mentally challenging things your horse will do for you.  Running with other horses has the tendency to create the fight-or-flight response in your horse, which is hard to slow down once he’s in that mode, so preparation for such an activity must be thorough and not taken lightly. 

I would recommend first backing up and making sure that your horse is sensitized and desensitized in an arena, and that he can canter and even gallop on a loose rein in the arena alone and with other horses present and not moving as well as going the same speed.  He should be able to slow down and speed up on command in this more controlled environment, and he should present with total mind and body control here.  

I would then make sure he can lope in the direction and at the speed you ask out on the trail by himself before asking him to do it with other horses running along beside him.  Once you start loping with other horses out on the trail, all horses in the group should be able to lope on loose reins and in total mind and body control.  However, even if other horses race ahead, your horse should maintain the direction and speed that you asked for.  If, after all this preparation, your horse still has the tendency to speed up when you didn’t ask him to, sit down in your saddle seat, pick up on one rein, and ask him to turn into a circle until he slows down to the speed you desire.  Consideration must be taken for challenging uneven or narrow terrain, so try to practice this in more open, level areas.  Once he slows down, allow him to lope forward in a straight line.  If you bend him, redirecting his feet into a circular pattern until he slows down, he will eventually learn to lope on a loose rein, no matter what is going on around or in front of him.  

Lastly, make sure you are not trying to slow your horse down with two reins if at all possible (some narrow trails and rough terrain may require this, but in this case, I’d question why you are cantering there in the first place).  As will happen with a barn sour or buddy sour horse, slowing him down with two reins will create anxiety in your horse, and he will fight you every step of the way.  Horses slowed down this way rarely get over their desire to speed up on the trail.  Being that bending your horse to slow him down is key to helping him find his calm and rate his speed, it’s important that you use a snaffle bit until this problem is fixed.  Even horses that have been used to a shank bit or other headgear should be re-educated on a snaffle bit and learn to slow down by bending.  

Be careful out there!  Loping out on the trail with friends can be fun, but it brings with it added dangers of tripping, spooking, bolting, etc. that you should consider as well.  


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