How do I teach my standardbred to canter? – 5 Tips for Teaching a Standardbred to Canter

How do I teach my standardbred to canter?

Teaching a standardbred to canter is one of the biggest topics in standardbred retraining and something we regularly have riders reach out to Raising the Standards for some support with (along with ‘how do I teach my stadardbred to stop pacing’)

So if you’re struggling to get a standardbred to canter, the first thing we want you to know is that this is normal.  And definitely something you can work through, with a bit of patience, practice and advice from people who have been through the retraining process before.


Why do standardbreds struggle with canter?

Your standardbred may struggle to canter under saddle because this gait isn’t used very much in harness racing and training.

If your standardbred was a pacer, they may have been bred to find pacing a lot easier and more natural than trotting and cantering (there’s been a lot of work done over the years to refine bloodlines).

In some cases, a standardbred may have been pacing since they were a foal!

foal pacing

Foals who ‘free leg’ (pace without gear) around the paddock will typically do this instead of trotting or cantering.  Which obviously means they will have a natural preference for moving from a walk straight into the pace and not a lot of experience cantering!

This just shows us how important it is to be patient when trying to ‘change the rules’ and begin ridden training – your standardbred may have a long history of not cantering to overcome before this gait will become second nature.

If your horse was not a natural free-leg pacer, special hopple straps may have been used in harness training, which bind the front and the back legs on each side of the horse’s body together.

This piece of gear makes the horse to run in a 2-beat rhythm, which will prevent them from splitting their legs to move independently as they would need to do in the canter (which is a 3-beat rhythm, with one leg left ‘behind’).

If your standy was a trotter, then canter will be a gait that will have been avoided during training, as ‘breaking’ in a race from trot to canter is not allowed and must be immediately corrected.

Given all of this, your standardbred may need some mental space and time to figure out that the rules have changed.

The canter may not come naturally to your standardbred, nor be a movement that they’re really had a chance to fine-tune up until this point in their life!

(But, don’t worry; like any new skill, the canter can be introduced and trained with time, patience and a little know-how!)


What typically happens when a rider asks a green standardbred to canter?

Some of the common behaviours we might expect from a standardbred who’s struggling with canter are:

  • trotting really fast (often with their head raised quite high)
  • falling into the pace
  • disuniting or trantering (when the front legs are cantering and the back legs are trotting – or vice versa)
  • head tossing, ‘stalling’ or your standardbred pigrooting when asked to canter

5 tips to master training a standardbred to canter
standardbred canter training

1. Have your horse checked by a qualified equine bodyworker

Retired harness racehorses, who have been bred and trained to pull a sulky at speed, have to undergo a huge physical transformation to make a sound riding partner.

The job we’re asking our standardbred to do under saddle is so very different to everything the horse has been conditioned to do in their past role.

This clip below, which features a presentation from Dr Raquel Butler as part of our Standardbred Body & Mind Workshop, really highlights some of the big considerations with standardbred rehabilitation:

A qualified bodyworker will be able to assess, diagnose and treat any ailments, as well as support the owner to set out a rehabilitation program to condition the horse for longterm soundness under saddle.

When your standardbred is feeling and functioning well, they will pick up new skills such as canter much more comfortably and with a greater chance of success mastering this gait.


2. Correct Bend & Suppleness

With Raquel’s talk in the above video in mind, we can see that our standardbreds are going to struggle with things such as bend and flexion in the early stages of retraining.

Suppleness is important for teaching a standardbred to canter, because if your horse cannot bend and flex well they may struggle to pick up the correct canter lead, make choppy corners or turns, or rush around trying to compensate for their lack of suppleness by taking bends really fast 🐎💨

We deep dive into the importance of standardbred suppleness and some great exercises you can do to increase your standardbred’s flexibility in another blog post, which you can read here.


3. Groundwork Training

One of the most effective ways to train your standardbred to canter is to allow them plenty of practice doing this skill.

And we have to treat the canter as a ‘skill’, because it is so very different to what harness racehorses have been bred and trained to do.

By doing teaching your standardbred to canter using groundwork training, you can:

  • Improve your standardbred’s canter rhythm and the quality of this gait (when an ex-pacer starts canter training they can be a little ‘4-beaty’, as the horse will still be moving in that side-to-side lateral action that feels natural – practice will help with this!)
  • Condition new muscle groups so that your standardbred finds the canter easier
  • Become more balanced at the canter, which can be tricky for your standardbred without supportive gear used in harness racing
  • Understand what the word ‘canter’ means, so that this can be transferred to ridden training
  • Mentally make the shift, so that your standardbred feels comfortable rolling up into the canter and knowing that this is a-ok!

What’s really handy to remember is that groundwork is a quick activity you can do with your standardbred even on days where you don’t have time to ride.

Finding even just 5-10 minutes to do some quick groundwork exercises can bring some HUGE gains in your standardbred retraining journey.

If you’re keen to learn some specific groundwork activities to help train your standardbred to canter, we have a bunch of these included in our Standardbred Groundwork Workshop – click here to learn more.


4. Rider Development

As a standardbred owners, the best thing you can do to help teach your standardbred to canter is to immerse yourself in as much learning as possible.

By understanding why your standardbred struggles to canter you’ll gain the empathy needed to be kind, patient trainer.

By know what exercises help to train a standardbred to canter, you’ll go into retraining with a plan. This can help reduce your feelings of overwhelm during this process and minimise confusion for your horse.

Also knowing how to do these exercises effectively, including the specific cues to give and how to ask your standardbred to canter correctly, will help you to become a clearer communicator.

And this is exactly what we’ll teach you in our Standardbred Canter Training Mini Course
which leads us into our last tip…

5. Ask for help when teaching a standardbred to canter

The beauty of retraining a standardbred today (especially when compared to when we first started working with thie quirky breed, over twenty years ago) is that you can access expert advice with the click of a button.

You don’t have to go through the frustration and overwhelm of trying to figure out how to work through every standardbred retraining challenge on your own.

If you’d like to skip the hours and hours of disconnected workouts that leave you feeling hopeless, and instead take a shortcut to standardbred canter success, please check out our helpful standardbred canter training mini course:

standardbred canter training
We’ve had dozens of standardbred owners – just like you – take this program, apply our methods and successfully improve the quality of their standardbred’s canter.

Best of all, our standardbred canter course is fantastic value and super affordable, at just $29!

Sign up now by clicking here

Learn more by clicking here