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Life After Racing: Encouraging the Canter
Thursday, March 30, 2017 - by Charlotte Gelston

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Standardbreds are consistently showing their versatility, whether it’s riding or driving, for show or for pleasure. Hoof Beats is happy to share stories from readers about their favorite Standardbreds. This month, Charlotte Gelston writes about teaching former trotters and pacers how to canter under saddle.

 
Photo by Judith M. Bosco
The author (left) recently took part in a hunter pace event with "Rhythm" (registered as Mr Artline), who stayed on a canter behind fast-trotting "Joey" (Joey O S Fancy), ridden by Diane Varrone.

One of the most common misconceptions about Standardbreds as pleasure horses is their supposed inability to canter.  Every horse has the ability to canter; it is a question of whether or not it has been allowed to canter in early training and racing. Many Standardbreds canter freely out in the pasture, but not in harness or under saddle.

Since harness racing is always done at the trot or pace, both of which are two-beat gaits, the three-beat canter is actively discouraged, as is the four-beat gallop. If a horse “breaks” from his two-beat gait while racing, he is pulled up immediately.  This teaches the horse to think cantering is not acceptable when working. In transitioning to pleasure use, the problem is overcoming this ingrained attitude.

If you attempt to push the horse into a canter from the trot or pace, the result is simply a faster trot or pace, especially in a riding ring.

I have had the most success in teaching Standardbreds to canter by working in the open, preferably with a gradual hill to climb. It is easier to canter uphill than to trot or pace. If you have a well-trained trail horse available, herd instinct can be used to your advantage. The simplest way is to have the Standardbred “follow the schoolmaster.”  Ask the other rider to cue his horse for the canter as you start up the hill. Since the leader is cantering, chances are that your Standardbred will decide to copy him. As you feel him lean back on one hind leg to depart into the canter, give a verbal cue to associate with cantering. I use a “kiss” sound and the word “Canter!”

The instant your horse begins to canter, praise him lavishly. I scratch his neck while saying “Good canter!” Most horses recognize the word “good” means “You got it right!” A nice scratch on the neck is a reward from your horse’s point of view. Positive reinforcement is important because they are accustomed to a negative reaction from their days at the track.

If your horse does not start to canter on the first few attempts, don’t get discouraged.  Some are more convinced than others that cantering is taboo. In my experience, the trotters, rather than the pacers, are more apt to think cantering is a cardinal sin.  Perhaps this is because it is easier for trotters to break than it is for pacers wearing hobbles. The more often the horses break and are reprimanded, the more averse they will be to cantering.

The easiest horse I ever trained to canter was my first off-the-track Standardbred stallion, Lord John, who was featured in the December 2013 Hoof Beats. After 10 years on the track, followed by 1-1/2 years of doing nothing, he was bored. Most likely he was quite tired of pacing.  Without the hobbles in place, he rarely paced anymore.  The first time I took him up a hill behind another horse, he launched right into the canter seconds after the first horse began. I felt the power ready to unleash from his hindquarters, so I was able to give the verbal cue a split second before he departed. The cue did not make him canter; he was already intending to, but the cue and the reward (scratching his neck and praising him) made a positive association with the gait.

This procedure was done five times in different locations, but always where he would want to canter. “Make the right thing easy” is my strategy. When the horse in front would begin to canter, I would cue Lord John the instant I felt him get ready to depart. First came the “kiss” sound to get his attention, then an emphatic “Canter!” I would repeat “Good canter” several times while he was cantering. As smart as he was, he quickly understood the word  “Canter” referred to “that three-beat gait I was not supposed to do in my former life.” 

The sixth time we did this exercise, I was next to the other horse as we approached the hill.  Instead of the other rider starting the canter, I gave the verbal cue first, at the walk.  Lord John immediately leapt into his canter. I was amazed. I had anticipated taking much longer for him to canter solo. He was an incredibly intelligent horse. I do not take the credit for our early triumph in learning the canter.

In fact, if I had been feeling somewhat smug at our success, “Revelation” quickly refuted it. My friend, Sheila, who had adopted her originally, chose not to canter. Also known as “Rev,” the trotter registered as Ringside Revenue (and featured in the April 2015 Hoof Beats) had spent 2-1/2 years as a walk/stepping pace/trot pleasure horse.  Sheila preferred her four-beat stepping pace under saddle, and her wonderful trot in harness.

After Sheila’s surgery precluded her riding, Revelation came home with me. Try as I might, she absolutely refused to go into a canter. In spite of all my efforts to coax her when the horse in front cantered, she just went up a notch in her trot speed. Even when the other horse galloped, she simply trotted faster and never lost ground.

Sometimes she actually put her head down when I cued her, shaking it vehemently as if to say, “No way, I’m a good girl. I won’t break my trot!”  I gave up and enjoyed her smooth, multi-speed trot. I mitigated my disappointment by telling myself the trot is the preferred traveling gait for trail riding anyway.
 
More than a year later, I decided to give Revelation another try at cantering. Perhaps it was the length of time away from her early training, or maybe the lack of pressure; but something had changed in her attitude.  She tentatively took a few canter strides behind the lead horse. I praised her enthusiastically, although she quickly reverted to the trot. Each time she offered to copy the lead horse, I was extravagant in my praise, and she would canter longer. Finally it dawned on her- cantering is not forbidden in this new life as a pleasure horse! 

Lord John and Revelation are the bookends on my bell curve for encouraging the canter.  Most of the Standardbreds I have known fall in the middle of the curve. By patiently setting them up for success, you will eventually achieve it.


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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.