I've started referring to the bad canter as "tension lameness". When he gets tense, he gets very, very tight in his lower back to the point where he's not able to come all the way through with his hind legs. As a result, his stride gets even shorter than it already naturally is and his canter turns into a hoppy, braced disaster.
If he wasn't already receiving regular chiro work, I'd be all over that as an excuse. I really liked this quote from Austen's clinic write up: "You can pay for as many chiro adjustments as you want, but at some point you both (horse and rider) gotta sweat. Otherwise no one will get trained." That is exactly the same conclusion BM and I have come to, so instead of babying him along and making excuses, I've been experimenting to try to find things that make a Bobby canter happy.
Things are rarely the same from one day to the next with this horse. What might have worked to troubleshoot a problem yesterday won't even come into play today. You're forced to constantly evaluate your game plans, and if something doesn't click, you have to move on to something else. Who needs to school different horses every day when you've already got ten of them locked into the brain of the one you own?
On the day I rode him in his hackamore, we played over a single pole running parallel to the long side of the ring. I kept him circling over it coming in from all directions and angles, sometimes holding the lead, sometimes switching over the pole. He was so focused on what he was supposed to be doing that he forgot to be tense. I tried the same exercise yesterday--it was a mess and I quit.
A lot of times doing a little shoulder fore down the long side can unlock him. Some days he can't come off the circle without losing his shit. Long reins and just let him move out? Maybe on a Tuesday. Collect him up and force him to use himself? Might work on Saturday, but certainly not a Monday.
The one constant is that he's always better after a lot of trot work. No surprise there as the more he trots, the more engaged and connected he becomes and the easier sitting while simultaneously loosening his hind end is. On days where he comes out ready to work, he's on the ball from step one, his head is in a good place, and there's no tension in any of the trot work, he flows right into the canter like butter.
I'm working on a new method of attack currently. He loses his shoulders, dives in on turns, loses his balance, compensates by swapping behind with a little hitchy buck step, and then gets tense because he's unbalanced. I hate the hitchy buck step.
Yesterday my hate came to head as I corrected the lead instead of letting him continue on to a jump and he lost his shit and threw a tantrum. Well, boo fucking hoo, Bobby. Unable to get his brain back enough to make jumping worth it, I took him out to the outdoor and made his ass go. Just GO AND CANTER, BOBBY. If I felt the hitchy buck step, I stopped him, backed him a few steps, and sent him off again.
First of all, very good boy for taking the correction instead of flipping over backwards. That was a win. Secondly, by the end of all this, he was cantering around round and forward and balanced. Suck it, bro. I win.
I went into today's ride with the same plan. I set up a simple X with kicked out ground lines along the long side of the ring in the outdoor. After a few calm halt, back up, scratchies for good pony, and back to trot transitions to lighten him up, I cued the canter. No swapping to be seen on the circle or down the long sides, but when I turned into the jump, if I didn't have his shoulders way up and his body straight, out came the swap.
I kept my mind super zen and my corrections super relaxed. Wrong answer Bobby, but it's fine. Let's get the correct lead back and fix the body alignment issue. No big deal, pony pants. Shoulders up, ride the turn more square, half halt to keep the canter balanced as we come to the jump, perfect distance because of all that preparation, and another halt for some candy and a pat. Rinse and repeat.
He was pretty snorty in his canter which is one of his anxiety ticks, and he was sweating like a mad man--another sign of tension--but outwardly he stayed so chill. He took the corrections and only once got a little flustered and tried to run sideways. I just pushed the reins at him and kept my leg wrapped around him until he went forward again and we both carried on like it hadn't even happened. I was even able to go out and repeat this same work in one of the fields and pop over a cross country jump a few times.
I'm not saying this is the magic formula, but so long as he keeps his brain firmly (or even loosely) planted in his head, there's something for me to work with. If he can take a correction, move on from the mistake, and try to do what I'm asking, we're going to be in good shape here.