Is it difficult for your horse to rate speed in the canter?
Does he have problems maintaining a canter for a distance, or around corners?
Does your horse have a canter that is too fast?
There could be several reasons why an Icelandic Horse (or any gaited breed) has
difficulty in the canter.
If it is a youngster, he may need more time on groundwork, foundation training,
more time at the walk to condition and prepare his body for carrying a rider at
If it is a pacey-type horse, it may not be in their conformation to easily canter.
The gaits that horses are capable of depends on terrain, body condition, mental
attitude, and habituation. If you like a particular gait, you massage for it
through training, riding, and habituation.
A gaited horse should be able to canter, unless they are hard-wired to pace,
in which case it may be more difficult for them. Some gaited horses have trouble
getting a canter; some are naturals at it. It all depends. In addition to
hard-wiring and boney conformation, the horse's body condition will also
play a part.
A good way to measure whether your horse has a natural propensity to canter
is to watch his gaits in the pasture. If his "running" is racky or pacey
when other horses are cantering or galloping, it's a sign that the gait of
canter may not be natural to him if he doesn't choose it on his own.
If he is in a small, flat area, he may have no need to canter, wherein a larger,
hilly area will give him more opportunities to practice at liberty.
Some horses really cannot canter and will not do it at liberty or under saddle.
Horses that do not canter at all are those who have been ridden exclusively
in a rack (tolt) for a long time, and those that default to pacey-ness at liberty
(pace at all speeds, i.e. pacey walk, pacey run, etc.)
Attempting to teach him to canter may go against his inborn "gaitedness".
In working with gaited horses, you are working with both nature and nuture.
There is more to gait preference than merely bones (conformation).
Gait preferences are set by nature, a combination of bones, muscles, tendons,
and nerves; some are set through riding and conditioning of muscles, tendons,
and nerves, along with boney conformation that allows the gait.
Conformation plays a large part in the ability of horses to do certain gaits.
Proportions and angles incline a horse to chose what is easier for him to do.
However, conditioning may play a very important role, also, as unconditioned
muscles lacking tone may not be able to support a gait that requires a strong
back, but may easily do a stepping pace.
Horses with long backs, long loins, and long hind legs tend to have trouble with
the canter. What passes for their "canter" may be a mixed pace-canter gait,
a walk-canter gait, a four-beat canter.
One of the reasons a 4-beat canter happens is weakness in the stifle joints.
For a correct canter, a true 3-beat, you'd need to develop the use of the hind
legs and hindquarters strongly, and strengthen the stifle joints.
In some horses you may not be able to do enough strengthening work to accomplish
a 3-beat canter due to the boney conformation and musculature composition.
Weight bearing makes it harder for those joints to work well, which is one of
the reasons that a horse may be able to canter without a rider, but has a problem
with a rider... it's the extra weight on the back that impacts the stifle joint.
Horses with very long hind legs (in proportion to front legs), especially those
with long stifle to hock ratios are more inclined to do the above types of canter.
It may be that they do not have the flexibility in the hind leg joints to really
bring their legs up under them (engagement by increasing flexion at each oint of
the hind leg from hip to hock). They tend to take the long, stiffer steps
Flying lead changes are difficult for horses that are stiff and lack impulsion
and upward thrust in the canter. In horses with a default gait of pacey-ness,
it is the lack of a moment of suspension in the canter, and the lack of coordination,
which creates the inability to do flying lead changes. Again, it is harder for
horses with long hind legs, especially stifle to hock length being longer than hip
to stifle length, to do a FLC.
If your horse is not conformed to canter, and prefers pacey movement, you can try
conditioning, starting with working on the trot at liberty. It is a long process
to get to canter, and may not be worth the effort. It may take a year or more of
dedication, consistency, and patience. It will take a fairly long time to overcome
default gaits, and reconditioning of the body. Many horses that rack (tolt) as a
preference may not get their bodies into position to canter easily.
If your horse has the conformation and musculature to canter, and needs conditioning
and habituation, here are some suggestions:
On the lunge, or in the round pen, ask for the trot; cavaletti are helpful.
Lunge lessons should be less than 10 minutes, half a dozen times each way, then
change to other groundwork.
At the right time, add to the mix, a set of low jumps, to encourage the horse to
push off with both hind legs. This will eventually work up to the horse cantering
a little between jumps. Reward the "try" so the horse knows what you want.
Transitions between trot and canter are more important to building up conditioning
and muscles than straight cantering.
Get rid of any tendency to pace with a rider. Work on the walk, flatwalk, long and
low (not "rollkur"), and a rhythmic trot. Depending on conformation and condition,
the flatwalk work may take a year in itself.
When the horse can canter nicely on the lunge, you can begin to think about asking
for the canter under saddle (if you have been riding during the ground training for
canter, you will have discouraged any pacey-ness under saddle and encouraged the
flatwalk and trot).
Start on a slight uphill, a short distance (i.e. six strides), which will help the
horse with impulsion. Walk back down the hill, relaxed. Ask for the canter up
again. Think about conditioning, don't overdo it at first. Reward, reward,
For further information and help with gaited horses of all breeds, read the
"bible" of gaited horses: