Before today, I had cantered on Sherm only once. Just once, just briefly, about 18 months ago. He'd been under saddle at all, but going reasonably solidly at walk-trot, for about six weeks, and we were trotting some cavaletti. He came off the last one, and (probably with the help of the trainer behind me and her lunge whip) picked up a tidy little canter, surprising me. He rode into the corner and turned a remarkably handy, deep canter through it, and then lost his balance coming down the side. But going in and through the turn had been so tidy that we were all delighted with it, though the BBW might have been a little alarmed. He needed to think about it for a while, so we finished that session with more familiar w-t work.
Fast forward through the next 18 months of his training, through the awkwardness of his growth spurts and then through the misery of terrible saddle fit (pinching his shoulders and slamming his loins) and the rider confusion and frustration that came with it, and we haven't had a canter since that day.
Last week I asked for it in the arena for the first time, and it was very funny to feel his body go all wonky as he was thinking about it. Thinking about how to do it, whether he could do it, and how he would go about doing it if he could. His forward, happy trot got all rickety and side-wind-y like there was a monkey in his works. And he never did manage to give me a canter. I let it go, figuring that he'd think about it and figure it out in his own time.
So today, on a frosty morning, a fresh, frisky horse got put together with a rider who has gained so much confidence and trust with him out in the field that she just sat up and let him go when his trot got a little more collected and suddenly bounced into a canter down the far side of the hay meadow. Probably ten strides of nice canter before we approached a pretty steep step-down out of the field and onto the farm lane, at which point I asked him to back off into a trot, then circled him twice in two lovely 20-meter-ish rounds in the meadow before coming down to walk down the slope onto the lane.
Then, once on the lane and up onto the raised railbed (an honest-to-goodness rails-to-trails railbed that bisects the property), we had another go. Probably 20-25 strides of similarly nice canter, big strides as he found his balance and confidence (er, um, that was probably me finding my balance and throwing his off less with each stride) and then a reasonable transition to trot-- not too much wobble at all! Turn around and go back the same way, doing the same thing.
I like the railbed because it is 40 years'-worth of forest turf over railroad track stone, and no woodchucks burrow in it. So the path is clean, clear, and just perfect for letting a horse run. I only wish it were more than 150 yards long.
We came to the end of this path, and Sherm hit a patch of frosty leaves, losing his footing enough to prompt him to put on the brakes himself. Once his footing was re-established, he was blowing and prancing, and absolutely full-on Morgan proud of himself. He was thinking, doing, thinking, doing, and I could feel all the wheels turning in his body and his mind.
I thought I'd take advantage of this moment, safely, and do a bit of work in the arena. Now that he'd gotten the idea of canter, maybe we could work on shaping it a bit.
Once we got back into the arena, he pretty much shouted THIS IS STUPID; there is nowhere to go in here, so why would I go there faster?! Let's go back out! I gave him a few good trot circles and then called it a morning. I didn't want to push my luck, or his patience, so we ended on a mutually-satisfied note.
I suspect I'd better get my canter butt in shape, as this will become his new favorite thing...