Riding a horse who gets strong in the canter can be unnerving, especially if you’re inexperienced. Depending on the horse, you might feel out of control, like you could fall over, or just frustrated that you don’t seem to have any brakes or adjustability.
There’s a few reasons that a horse could be strong in canter, and a number of tactics you can employ to help deal with it. Let’s take a look!
Why is my horse strong in the canter?
Horses are strong or hot for more than one reason, and riders might have different reactions to that. For instance, a horse who is very forward going but well balanced might be a fun and responsive ride for one person but a scary and strong ride for another. Here’s some of the reasons you might be finding your horse too strong or hot in the canter.
He’s young, green, or inexperienced
Often what riders refer to as being strong is simply a lack of balance and strength. Carl Hester famously said that Valegro used to canter down the long side in about four strides as a youngster – not because he was naughty or hot but simply because he didn’t have the balance to contain and control that canter. If this is the case with your horse, know that running and getting strong is probably just because he doesn’t have the ability to balance himself on his hindquarters yet.
PS: Remember that humans often go through this slightly gangly and awkward phase too, but the difference is that we don’t usually have to deal with not only our own coordination and balance challenges, but that of an extra human on our backs too! A green and weak horse will improve with age and time. Remember to keep canters short and easy, and work on building up their strength with lots of hills, poles, and transitions.
He’s naturally forward going
Correct schooling plays a huge role in having a rideable horse, but there’s no doubt that some horses are naturally hotter and more reactive than others. Sometimes, a strong horse might be one who is naturally forward going and energetic and always will be, regardless of age or schooling.
Remember though, that when tackled correctly and thoughtfully, a hot or forward-going horse doesn’t have to be strong, just responsive. This will come with more balance, schooling, and understanding of your aids. Often, you’ll just have to work harder at your riding— if you ask most top riders, they tend to prefer a forward going horse!
The rider is causing the problem
Some horses are quite sensitive to rider flaws, and that can be both good and bad! In order to improve as riders, we need to be aware of our weaknesses and faults. Horses can be great learning tools, and riding a horse who needs you to ride correctly to get a good response out of him can be one of the best tools you’ll ever have. That said, it also needs to be appropriate to your level; a Grand Prix dressage schoolmaster is a great learning tool for someone who is already a competent rider but not so good for someone who’s just figured out how to do rising trot!
Sometimes, the rider’s position or seat can be causing a horse to be strong, perhaps because you’re tilting forward or letting your horse lean on your hands. It can help to ask a more experienced rider to canter your horse and see if they have the same problem. If the horse is less strong with them, the chances are good that the rider is the root of the problem. A good instructor can help you to pinpoint what the issue is, and work with you to fix it.
He’s in pain
And of course, sometimes horses can run through the contact because they have a physical problem. It could be anything from a sharp tooth to an ill-fitting saddle to an injury in the hock or stifle. If your horse has suddenly become strong or hot, be particularly suspicious and ask your vet to check for things like hock or back problems.
It’s a good idea to rule out pain as a first port of call anyway. Asking your vet, dentist, and saddle fitter to check your horse for any issues can help you to identify any possible physical causes. If none are found, you’ll have better peace of mind!
What can you do to improve a strong canter?
Now, let’s move on to what you can do in the saddle to improve a horse who is strong in the canter. Obviously, anything that is pain related will require professional treatment. If the issue is schooling-related, you have a good chance of fixing it with some dedication.
Strong horses tend to use their forehand against you, by getting heavier onto their neck and shoulders and leaning on the contact. To solve it, you need to go back to basics and teach the horse to accept your leg aids without rushing. You might have to re-establish this just in walk first, and build up the canter until you can gradually do more and more of it. As the saying goes, ‘hot horses need to learn to work with the leg on, and lazy horses need to learn to work with the leg off!’
In the long run, a rideable and balanced canter will come from teaching your horse to engage his hind legs and work over the back into an elastic contact. When this is established, you can regulate tempo and stride with half halts and your seat. However, this can never be established just by pulling if your horse is heavy on the forehand and running without engaging. A good instructor should be able to give you exercises which are specific to your horse.
Remember that this is not a quick fix. Getting a good, balanced canter takes time and effort. It often requires re-educating the horse with regards to the aids and to his way of going, which can be time consuming and hard work. But, it’ll be worth it in the end!