H&H question of the week: Help! My horse runs off in canter — what should I do?

  • Jason Webb of Australian Horse Training is a renowned UK-based horse trainer with a passion for starting young horses, solving equine problems and teaching riders of all abilities and ambitions develop and strengthen the partnership they have with their horses. Here Jason gives a H&H forum user advice on how to stop her horse from running away from her in canter in an arena

    Q: “I was wondering whether somebody could give me some help with controlling my horse in canter. I’ve only just got him — he’s a six-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding. He’s fine cantering while hacking, it’s just in the school he goes a bit crazy. He’s very very forward going — I can just use my seat lightly to get him to transition from trot to canter. However as soon as I ask for canter he springs forward and bombs off around the school. I’ve learnt that if you pull back on the reins and panic then he panics and gets even faster. I’ve tried squeezing on the reins, releasing, squeezing and releasing and have eventually got him to slow down and into a nice canter but still have him bombing round for half a lap before getting to this point. It’s not a health issue — his back, teeth, saddle and everything are fine. He’s fed on mostly hay and grass with very little hard feed too. Are there any exercises I can try with him or do you have any advice? I’ve been doing lots of transitions and that has sort of helped. Canter circles just make him speed up even more. I’m not sure whether it’s a balance issue or him being excitable?”

    A: Irish horses that have this problem are notoriously difficult fix. The good news is that it sounds like your horse has a mild anxiety problem compared to some that I have met over the years. These horses are all rideable but tend to be very sensitive, gaining their trust is very hard and can be a long road. In inexperienced hands they can become more reactive with problems manifesting in mounting issues, bolting and general explosiveness, but this is very avoidable and I’d advise anyone with a horse who is tense and nervous to stop riding them and seek help if they feel out of their depth as your safety must always come first and you don’t want your horse to have any more scares.

    Continued below…

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    I’m not sure what has happened to the Irish horses I’ve met over the years — I’m sure something has gone wrong in their early training and frightened them, but whatever has happened they don’t seem to forget it and I have found any progress you make one day with their retraining seems to be gone the next. Their trust in the rider is damaged to the point that they can’t let go of the tension that is always underlying, but in time and with the right exercises they can still have a future and many I’ve worked with have gone on to become very good horses in the right hands.

    I would like to do a trip to Ireland one day, to see if I can find out what practice is causing this problem as this would help me when retraining them. In my work I ride a lot of young horses and in the first instance horses can be very unsure but with the right processes they can quickly learn to accept a rider and grow in confidence. Of course, not all horses that come over from Ireland have problems as there are many great trainers based there, but the ones that are sent to me all have a similar issue. The good news is that your horse seems to be a mild case.

    So let’s discuss how to help your horse overcome this. Firstly the problem is not with your canter, it is the underlying tension. It is always hard to control a horse working at speed, which is probably why you are finding things get out of control more quickly at canter and the tension is more apparent in this gait.

    Exercises to help

    To begin with you need to make sure you can rub your horse front (shoulders and neck) and back (over on their quarters and flanks). Start at walk then progress to trot if you feel your horse is confident. We want to ensure they are settled and happy with a rider, seeing you out of both eyes, up above their eyeline and feeling your movements. There is a tendency to sit very still on these types of horses but this doesn’t help them in the long term as it’s not “real life” and I believe everything we do in our training should be preparing our horses for everyday life.

    With your horse we need to check he can cope with his rider moving above him and build his trust in you. Ride on a circle when you are doing this in case your horse wants to speed up and get tense — if this happens you can then use the circle to control your speed. Horses can’t easily run away on a circle and you can use this to your advantage. We want him to slow down and process what is happening and realise that there is nothing to worry about. If your horse lowers his head then widen the circle as he is starting to settle and accept you. Watch his ears, if they are pinned back towards you with his head high and tense then all his focus is on you but in a negative way, he is looking back and worrying so keep repeating the exercise until he relaxes and drops his head.

    The aim is that you should be able to move your hand from front to back and give him a rub all over without his head lifting in response or him becoming worried. Doing this exercise will start to desensitise your horse to your movements and reassure him through contact. If you are not sure how to start the process or to control him if he rushes forwards please take a look at my training videos on Your Horsemanship where I have everything from ground to ridden work to help with desensitising and overcoming problems.

    Next you need to get your horse to walk a circle and use your leg to step the hind end slightly out of the circle. Continue doing this until your horse does not over-react to you and then change sides. If your horse lowers his head at any time, widen your circle as again he is relaxing. In time your horse will become a little less sensitive and learn to accept your leg and you moving around above him.

    Another tip is when going from trot to canter keep rising. I know it goes against everything you have been taught but it really helps these types of horses. I often see that when riders sit the trot just before canter it can lead to double bouncing and this will create more tension and worry in a horse like yours. In time you can go back to sitting just before the canter once he is more settled and accepting.

    When in the canter you need to really, really relax. Don’t worry about what you look like — retraining horses isn’t always neat and tidy! Once your horse settles into a rhythm in the canter then gradually circle them back to a relaxed walk and rest rather than pulling to slow them down. Whenever you feel your horse has done well, immediately give him a break so that he can reflect on what he’s just done and learn that doing the right thing results in rest, which is his reward.

    Between canters, go back to rubbing and desensitising to the leg in walk and trot before you attempt another canter. It’s a case of repeat, repeat, repeat with periods of rest and of course, finish on a good note.

    Try this — it has worked for me with horses similar to yours, but remember these horses don’t forget easily and it will feel like ground hog day at the beginning. The key is not getting frustrated and lots of patience and persistence. If you need any more support I am always in my forum and can direct you to videos that will help you or come on a camp.

    Hope this helps. Good luck!


    For more information on Jason Webb visit his online training base Your Horsemanship, where you can learn a foundation in horse training with online lessons in groundwork, starting, and ridden fundamentals

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