Getting a slow horse to move forward happily
I'm probably opening a can of worms here since I will be getting a lot of different opinions on this. But perhaps they will help me find a solution. This will be long, but before you give suggestions, please read through to get the whole picture.
Rusty is a 7 year old Appy who has very little training. He was lightly started when I bought him at age 6 (about ten rides, mostly on trails, no cantering or very little). I never thought I'd buy a green horse, but he's awesome. Safe, solid, and a really affectionate and playful personality. Loves people. Will follow me around like a dog rather than hang out with his horse friends. But also quite stubborn. I have had to teach him about personal space. He gets bored easily so I have to keep things moving. I've done liberty training and some ground work with him. He's receptive to training, but sessions work better when they're short. Moving away from pressure was difficult for him because he'd rather move into it. He has finally learned to move away when I ask him. Mostly. He learns fast, especially when there are treats involved (we've done clicker training). Under saddle, he was initially good on trails, but has a tendency to take off. I cannot take my attention off him for any amount of time or he will drift off like a 4 year old child with ADHD. But he is happy on trails, moves in a forward manner, will go anywhere and do anything, never refuses to move forward. If anything, he's a little too energetic on trails, but the longer we ride, the more he settles down. He never rushes home, preferring to stay on trails for hours if he can.
In the arena he's a different horse. Walks like he's about to collapse. I have finally taught him the cues for trotting and cantering, and he is much more responsive to my reins. When we first got him, he'd just be all over the place and it was really hard to get him to follow a specific path. Now I can keep him on the rail with my leg, do figure 8s, trot over poles, etc. He will trot for me for a while (maybe 15-20 minutes), but after that, is clearly tired and wants to quit. I keep him going a while longer to build his endurance. I try to keep it interesting by using poles and cones, and varying the exercises. He likes that. Cantering is a challenge. I can only get him to canter a few strides, though my daughter has managed to canter him all around the arena, but it's hard work to keep him going. He is not in good shape, clearly, so we've been working him slowly up to be able to take more work.
We've been working with a trainer once a week, and I usually ride him at least once more, and do some ground work between rides. The trainer says he's lazy and stubborn and is being a jerk. She has me using a crop (she's actually lending me a dressage whip so it's longer) if he doesn't want to trot anymore or won't canter immediately. I have to say, I always rode him with a crop before too, so it's not just her, he does need a little reminder sometimes. But lately, the crop results in Rusty kicking up his hind feet in a half-buck. It's not bad, I don't feel like he'd unseat me, but this is not a habit I want to reinforce. So our lessons go like this: we walk, then trot a pattern using poles, etc., then do a bit of canter work. The first two canters or so are fine (we'll canter a long side and bring him back to a trot), but then it falls apart. He's just done. I use the dressage whip and he bucks. I am working my guts out with my legs and body to keep him going, but eventually, I'm exhausted and getting nowhere, so the trainer hops on. He'll canter for her once or twice, then the same thing happens. She has to work really hard, hit him with the whip, put up with his bucks (his front knees even buckled in the middle of a buck last night, and he nearly went down), yell and swear at him until he maybe gives her a couple of strides of the canter. Then I cool him down and his legs are wobbly and he feels like he might just fall over.
I feel we should stop cantering before we get to that point. I'd be happy with the one or two good canters. But the trainer always wants to see if she can squeeze out just one more, and then we've crossed the line of how much he will happily give. I know the trainer thinks I'm just too soft with him, but I don't see the point of ending each lesson in frustration for both of us. If we had stopped just two minutes sooner, we'd both be happier. It's not like I plan on showing him, we're not on a schedule. So what if he doesn't canter for very long? I guess I'm left wondering what's in it for him if he gives me a couple of good canters, then gets hit with a crop for not giving me more. I understand compliance, but I feel it should be built up slowly. He's surprisingly compliant for a horse that has little training, and is in the hands of someone who doesn't know much about training. I know I can't let him win, but I'd rather not pick a battle with him when he's done really well because I feel like I'm punishing him for his efforts. 80% of the lesson is great, then we ruin it in those last 10 minutes.
Thoughts? Trails are off-limits right now because of snow and ice so the arena is the only place I can ride him.