But Does She Canter?

Dressy’s new barn offers coaching as well as boarding. So when Brooke told the coach about Dressy, he asked if she was a pacer. Which of course, Dressy was when she raced. Pacing is a natural gait. Standardbreds from the pacing lines are bred for it, just like other gaited breeds (Tennessee Walkers, Rocky Mountain Horses, etc.)  And Dressy never cantered or galloped when turned out in the pasture. She paced faster than the Arabs could gallop.

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Dressy had a reasonably long career on the track (76 races, 12 wins). So she spent quite a lot of time in a bridle with an overcheck. That encourages a very upside-down and hollow outline (nose up, neck straight, back hollowed). In order to perform the pace, a horse has to stiffen their back muscles, so the overcheck just exaggerates that tendency.

I usually rode Dressy in a loosely fitted running martingale so that she would get a mild reminder to drop her head when she went into her upside-down mode.  In the beginning that happened fairly often. And the earliest pictures I have of her under saddle show a long, gawky outline.

I never tried to force Dressy into a frame. I just worked on encouraging relaxation and a low head. She’s a very responsive mare, and just telling her “good girl!” whenever she relaxed and dropped her head made a huge difference. (Do NOT look at my footwear! At least I am wearing a helmet. Sigh.)


Dressy was always able to trot. But the canter was elusive for a few years. We sort of backed into it by learning at first to gallop wildly up hills. It was riding with Arabs (who canter easily and often!) that triggered it. The steeper the hill, the harder it was for Dressy to keep up at either trot or pace. The first couple of breaks were just awful. Crazy eggbeater gait with Dressy’s head straight up and eyes full of alarm. She was just amazed when I said “Good GIRL!!!” and hugged her wildly.  “Really? I was SUPPOSED to do that???”

Over time, I was able to get her galloping in a more controlled way with correct leg sequences.  And bit by bit we got it slowed down. It was kind of four-beat (it should be three), and she could not sustain it for long distances. But it was available on cue.  One of the more interesting consequences was that she started cantering and galloping with the other horses in the pasture.  I’d never seen it until a couple of weeks after her first real gallop up a hill under saddle.

Eventually Brooke took over riding Dressy for a season. She did some work in the ring and focused on getting Dressy a little rounder. She used the clicker to really encourage Dressy to frame up a little bit. It still wasn’t collected, or even truly round. But it was a lot rounder than she started out anyway.


I rode her for a couple of seasons after that, and her muscling kept changing. She looks like a whole different horse now than when she came out of racing.  One day a friend looked at her, shook her head, and said “You’ve turned that mare into a Thoroughbred!” I suspect, mind you, that Dressy was actually trying to become an Arab… She does the Arab head fling and flipped tail thing with distinctly Arabian panache.

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Brooke turned her out in the arena last night and took a couple of very short video clips of her. The new coach happened to come in while she was careening around. And Brooke was able to say, smugly, “See? She canters!”





2 Replies to “But Does She Canter?”

  1. Geez Dressy looks happy to be able to stretch her legs! Very much looking forward to hearing and seeing how she takes to being a show pony! Not really doubting she can do it! She will knock socks off with her regal presence 🙂 Good luck Brooke and Dressy!

    Your description of Dressy’s early canters applies to Ella too. At least Ella doesn’t have years of racing to overcome and we had already got her cantering up hills fairly easily. Looks like 2014 gonna be exciting 🙂

  2. Fee didn’t race (she trained but never competed as far as we know) but her canter is just as awful as you describe Dressy’s. She CAN do it. It’s NOT pretty. And I don’t ride the canter well, which makes it worse.

    Ah well. It’s good to have something to work on, right?

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