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How to Encourage Your Horse to Relax and Lengthen the Canter When Nervous at a Horse Show

Submitted by member: Carrie

I have a horse that likes to bottle up and go from a 12-foot stride to more of a 9-foot stride when he’s “up” at the horse shows. He is completely different at shows than he is at home. I feel like I’m shooting him out of a cannon to get down the line when we are at shows, but at home he’s easy to get to stretch and lengthen. I believed more miles was what we needed but he just does it randomly now. Some days he’s lovely and soft and other days he is a Holsteiner turned pony. What would you suggest to get him to lengthen in the lines? We are doing hunters otherwise I would just add a stride and call it a day. What exercises can I do at home that can be in my back pocket at shows when he decides to be a pony that day? Thank you so much!

Answer by Julie Winkel

Often horses, when nervous or excited, actually have a shorter stride because they get behind a rider’s hand and leg, and “bottle up” as you described it.

At the show spend 15-20 minutes just walking to give your horse a chance to relax and unwind. Spend another 10-15 letting your horse trot on a long (not loose) rein so he gets in front on your leg, takes a feel of your hand, and stretches down. After this warm-up you can canter a small cross rail or vertical with a pole placed 48 feet beyond it. Canter the jump, close your leg on landing, and, without losing contact of the mouth, send him forward for three strides over the pole. Repeat this exercise off of both leads, increasing height. Once you build an oxer, move the pole out the same distance as the width of the oxer.

To encourage him to land and open his stride, use your stick behind your leg on the landing stride. This will get him thinking to go forward as soon as he lands. Next, you can replace the stick with a cluck on the landing as the similar noise of the cluck and the stick means the same thing to the horse once he is conditioned to the stick. But it’s very important to follow his head and neck without losing the feel of the mouth! I cannot stress this enough, as dropping the contact translates to abandonment to a horse. This same exercise can be used at home as well.

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Julie Winkel

Julie Winkel has been a licensed Hunter, Equitation, Hunter Breeding and Jumper judge since 1984. She has officiated at prestigious events such as Devon, Harrisburg, Washington International, Capital Challenge, The Hampton Classic and Upperville Horse Shows. She has designed the courses and judged the ASPCA Maclay Finals, The USEF Medal Finals and The New England Equitation Finals.

For more information, visit her website:

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Hello! I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this! I have a large green pony who gets extremely nervous at shows. I ride him bareback almost every day of the week, with only 2 being with a saddle. He is absolutely perfect! However, the moment that I pick up the canter, his head shoots up. His stride shortens into this choppy mess :(. At shows, I cannot even get on him without his head going high. I am really looking forward to trying these exercises out! Thank you!

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