There seems to be some sort of mysticism surrounding cantering a gaited horse. In some places it is considered highly taboo with the thought that it will result in the horse never being able to gait properly. In my experience, that just is not true. After all, several associations offer 4-Gait Classes – Walk, Show Gait, Pleasure Gait, and Canter. Nearly every horse, gaited or not, will offer to canter in the field. Please note the “nearly“ part of that statement as it is true that there are some horses that are so naturally gaited they will only offer to rack in the field. If that is the case it may be rather difficult to achieve a true three beat gait. There are certain horses that it takes an act of congress and a prayer to canter and in the process it is an ugly sight that involves a lot of clipping of the bulbs of the heels with the back feet and possible pulled shoes. This comes from personal experience – see CJ in the photo to the side. If you happen to have one of those amazingly naturally gaited horses understand it may require bell boots, splint boots, and a small prayer to achieve anything faster than a gait without pulling a shoe and it might be terribly uncomfortable.
Cantering is a fantastic tool for teaching freshly started horses as well. Young horses should be allowed to move forward when started under saddle. Putting too much pressure in their mouths and worrying about making them gait should be the lowest of priorities. On the farm, a gaited horse starts identically to their trotting counter parts; accept the saddle, accept the rider, begin to learn cues, and move freely under saddle. Movement is vital, whether that is a trot or canter. Only after consistent forward motion is achieved should one begin to worry about whether the horse gaits or not. The gait is a natural part of the horse, yes, but that does not completely weed out any other movement. Some will offer to trot, foxtrot, pace, or step-pace. This can occur naturally and only requires a little more work and hindquarter engagement to really get the horse to step up and work from behind resulting in a lateral four beat gait.
What is most important is how the canter is achieved. A properly executed canter or lope will aid the horse in body control, help strengthen muscles, and can ultimately assist in allowing the horse to be forward enough to gait. When first starting under saddle, the horse can be allowed to canter however they see fit. Asking for a proper departure and slow, correct canter would be akin to teaching a toddler the alphabet and then asking him or her to form complete sentences in mere moments. It will confuse the young one and if irritated enough, could cause them to throw a temper tantrum.
As the horse gains more experience under saddle, it is then that the rider should refine how they cue the horse. Ensure that the horse can canter on both leads as this is how a horse balances when going through a turn. If they are on the wrong lead, it is more difficult to balance and the horse may stumble. While it is true that one man’s wrong lead is another man’s counter canter, it is best to save that for after the horse knows how to pick up each lead. Asking a gaited horse to canter is no different than asking a trotting horse to canter though the purpose of this article is not how to teach it. I will leave that to the many excellent articles that properly cover body mechanics and rider aids.
Sometimes horses will decide that cantering is their new favorite thing and they should do it all the time, even when asked to do a traditional gait. I’ve found that the best thing to do is to slow the horse back to a walk, and ask them to gait again by lifting their head with my reins slightly and gently squeezing them forward with my legs. If they start to canter, slow them back down to a walk and ask again. It’s important not to punish them for cantering but not to let them continue to do so. The key is to ask with both legs, gently bump their head up with your reins, and ask the hind end to come under them to properly gait while keeping them slow enough not to canter.
When done correctly, the gaited horse can learn to really balance and work in the canter and it will keep him or her refreshed mentally. It can help him strengthen his body, work muscles and build stamina. And when executed properly there is nothing better than a lovely canter down the trail.