How to Use the Canter to Loosen Up Your Horse


Winter is here and you know what that can mean: horses with flare ups of aches and the resulting stiffness.  Cold weather can be a nuisance to even the supplest of horses, but can be particularly detrimental to a horse prone to achy and stiff joints and muscles.  If you aren’t lucky enough to pack up and head south for the winter, putting more of an emphasis on the canter in your warm-up can be a wonderful way to fight away some of that extra winter stiffness. 

Stiffness: Signs and Symptoms

Stiffness in a horse can be a chronic or a sporadic issue.  While there can be conditions and injuries that lead to stiffness and loss of elasticity in your horse’s movements, occasionally your equine partner can also just have an off day.  Signs and symptoms of stiffness can include:

  • Unwillingness to move forward
  • Trouble bending and balancing
  • Head tossing
  • Tense, even locked, jaw
  • Kicking or bucking 

Sudden on-set and lingering signs of stiffness should definitely catch your eye and prompt a phone call to the vet.  A vet can help sniff out a root cause and possibly help you find a quicker fix such as adjusting the fit of your saddle, or make you aware of chronic and permanent issues like arthritis.  

White horse and rider walking in sand arena with forest and shed in background

Working Through Stiffness

If an equine health professional has cleared your horse to continue working, you may be struggling to work at or above the same levels with the same horse.  Stiffness can inhibit training progress for both horse and rider and cause frustration all around. While it isn’t a guaranteed magic fix for every horse, more focus on the canter in your warm-up routine can go miles in loosening up your horse and helping the both of you make more progress in your training. 

If you have a stiff horse and your traditional warm up hasn’t yielded the results you want, try incorporating some canter work earlier.  We can find ourselves so caught up in a popular routine of flat work – such as warm-up walk, warm-up trot, trot work, then canter – that we can sometimes disregard that every horse moves, feels, and thinks differently.  These differences can be from horse to horse or even with one horse from day to day. Changing up your routine can be great for your horse’s brain and their body. 

If you find yourself struggling with a stiff horse, think about putting that canter in after a lap or two of the trot, rather than waiting until the very end.  

  • Let your horse stay on a long rein
  • Balance up to get out of his or her way
  • Take a lap or two in each direction, paying attention to each lead

After a relaxed canter lap or two in each direction you may have a horse that is not only looser in his or her body but also has the added benefit of thinking more forward. You can now get to work straightening, balancing, and bending with a more supple and responsive partner.  


If your same routine no longer works for your horse or isn’t providing optimized results for lessons and schooling, think about switching up your routine, especially during the colder months.  Your canter can become a tool in your arsenal, rather than just something you get to after struggling through the trot. Combating stiffness is all about working with the horse you have, listening to his or her body, and curating a warm-up routine that responds to their needs as well as your own. 


Leave your comment