Horse Journal OnCall: Why Does My Horse Canter Disunited?

The canter requires strength and conditioning.
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The canter requires strength and conditioning.

I have a horse who goes disunited when cantering loose in the arena. She will now change back to the correct lead after awhile. She will start on the correct lead and then change behind at the corner.

I trot her over ground poles (raised) and trot low jumps (2' or less). This has helped, and her back is soft now.

What am I missing? Any other suggestions?

Performance Editor John Strassburger responds: I strongly suspect that your horse has a weak or misaligned back, but I think you’ve made a good start to address it.

I’m going to surmise that your horse is young and has been in limited work, so she’s not very fit. It’s common for young horses to have weakness or alignment problems in their backs, either from the way they were positioned in the uterus or from running around and playing as babies.

I urge you to find a good equine chiropractor and have your horse adjusted regularly, starting with every four to six weeks for the first several months. If you can’t find an equine chiropractor, consult your veterinarian.

Concurrent with medical treatment, you must strengthen her back, so that it can hold the realignment and move correctly. Think of it as physical therapy.

The most basic part of this is that she needs to have regular work—ride her three to five times a week. Training for any activity or sport requires regular repetition and conditioning.

Note how this horse brings his hind leg up under his body during the canter.

Note how this horse brings his hind leg up under his body during the canter.

When you’re working in the ring, do lots of transitions and teach her lateral work—turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, leg-yield, shoulder-in, haunches-in. All of these exercises require the horse to bring either the inside or outside hind leg underneath their bodies, developing suppleness and strength. If you don’t know how to do these exercises, please seek qualified instruction to learn them.

Trotting over raised ground poles is an excellent strengthening exercise, and you can do it mounted or on the longe line. Jumping will also help strengthen the back and hindquarters. I’d suggest you continue these exercises.

Outside the ring, walk, trot or canter up hills. You can use either short, steep hills or long, gradual hills. Walking up and down short, steep hills is a great strength-building exercise.

Also, if your horse switches leads behind and becomes disunited while you’re riding her, don’t just happily keep cantering disunited, hoping that somehow she’ll switch back. Perform a trot transition and resume the correct lead right away.

Why? Two reasons. First, if you don’t correct this evasion or disobedience, she’ll just keep doing it, because to her it doesn’t matter that she’s wrong—she’s comfortable. Second, if you don’t require the correct lead, she won’t get stronger.

For more on strength-building exercises, see my blog “Strength Is So Important In Horse Training.” I have also written numerous articles of the Horse Journal on building strength during the last several years.