My Horse Bucks When I Ask Him To Canter

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Common Complaints
My horse bucks when I ask him to canter.

When you ask your horse to canter, does he pin his ears and hump his back—making it feel like he just swallowed a watermelon? Does he sometimes refuse to pick up the faster gait and then put his head down between his knees and kick out when he does begin to canter? Does he swish his tail and crow-hop or just totally break “in two” after a few strides?

If you’re experiencing these kinds of behaviors from your horse when you ask him to canter, riding—at least cantering—has probably lost its appeal. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to help your horse canter smoothly and willingly. Soon you’ll have a steady horse that is pleasant to ride at any gait.

The Reason

When a horse bucks at the canter under saddle, it can be from any number of reasons, both physical and training related. Bucking can be induced by pain, aggravation, irritation or frustration; it can be an avoidance technique employed by your horse or a refusal to move forward. Or it may mean that your horse is “cold-backed.”
Physical pain issues could be caused by an ill-fitting saddle, poor saddle placement or a cinch fastened too tight. Your horse could also be suffering from spinal mal-alignment or a rib out of place, which might not bother him at other gaits but may be exacerbated when the horse rounds his back to canter.

A cold-backed horse is one that is uncomfortable with the feel of the saddle, particularly if he hasn’t been ridden for a while. A cold-backed horse will often hump-up a little when first saddled and may crow-hop when first cantered, but otherwise has no training issues. Sometimes the most gentle, willing and well-trained horses are cold-backed—they just have to get used to the feel of the saddle sometimes.
Training issues are often the cause of a horse bucking when asked to canter; these issues are usually rider induced. Most horses don’t really want to canter; loping circles with the weight of a rider on his back is not something he would generally elect to do.
Sometimes horses will hump-up or buck a little when asked to canter, as a way of protesting having to work harder. This will often disconcert the rider, who may be a little bit fearful of the faster and stronger gait, and her first instinct is to stop the horse, in order to regain control and get back her composure. Since the horse was bucking because he didn’t want to canter and immediately upon bucking the rider makes the horse stop, the rider has essentially rewarded the horse for bucking. It may only take one time before the horse learns that bucking is a highly effective technique to get out of cantering.

Bucking can also be an emotional response from the horse, indicating frustration, aggravation or irritation. Often riders learning to canter or dealing with a lack of confidence will send mixed messages to the horse—cueing him to canter, then snatching back on the reins as soon as he does. Or the rider may tense up in fear when the horse canters, causing him to yank on the horse’s mouth then slam down on the horse’s back.
Bucking is a natural response to an irritant on the horse’s back and getting mixed messages from the rider, making it impossible get the right answer, can understandably cause frustration and aggravation in the horse.
Whether your horse engages a minor amount of crow-hopping or throws a full-blown bucking fit when you ask him to canter, there are some steps you can take to fix this common complaint.

The Solution

First, you have to rule out a problem that is causing physical pain for the horse, unrelated to a training issue. Consider having your horse evaluated by an equine chiropractor. A horse’s spine is so huge and it is easily put out of alignment. If your horse requires a major adjustment or turns out to be suffering from a long term issue, it may take some time, several treatments and slow reconditioning to rehabilitate your horse.
You should also have a qualified expert evaluate your saddle fit and placement. If you can find a professional saddle fitter, it will be well worth the money and you will surely learn a lot. If you cannot locate a saddle fitter in your area, get some advice from a seasoned professional about how well your saddle fits and whether or not you are placing it in the right spot on your horse’s back.
If your horse is simply cold-backed, you’ll just have to work around it. Take your time to saddle him, walking him between tightening of the girth. If you haven’t ridden him in a while, you may want to longe him first or just accept that he may crow-hop a little when you first canter. There’s an article on my website about cold-backed horses and how to deal with them. www.JulieGoodnight.com
Once you have ruled out any possible physical issue with your horse, it is time to consider a training issue. If your horse is lazy and balky and bucks when you cue him, chances are your horse has inadvertently been rewarded for his bucking. If he is bucking in a refusal to move forward and as a tactic to make you stop him, then he needs to learn some new rules.
Remember, whatever your horse is doing when you release him is what you are training him to do. In this case, he has bucked because he didn’t want to go and the rider stopped him. Since stopping is exactly what he wanted, he thinks his bucking made you stop him (and he’s probably right). He needs to learn that when he bucks, he’ll have to work even harder.
When you cue him to canter, if he gets humpy, you’ll have to spur him on and make him go faster. Only let him stop when he is cantering with a relaxed back and in a very compliant way. With consistency, he’ll learn that bucking only makes him have to work harder and it will be more trouble than it’s worth.

There’s another concept in horse training that says, it always gets worse before it gets better. So when you ask your horse to canter and he bucks and then you make him go harder and faster, he’s likely to buck even more. If you do not feel qualified and confident enough to ride your horse through this, you’ll need to enlist the help of a stronger rider or send your horse to a trainer.
If your horse is acting out in frustration or aggravation, it’s probably your riding that needs to change. Make sure that when you ask the horse to canter that you reach forward with your hands, exaggerating the release so that he doesn’t get hit in the mouth. In the first stride of canter and every stride thereafter, your horse drops his head down. If you ask him to canter without giving a release, he hits the bit—getting punished for doing exactly what you asked. You’ll have to exaggerate the release for a while until your horse can learn to trust you again.
Often when riders get tense, they stiffen their legs, losing the shock absorbing quality of their ankles, knees and hips, causing them to bounce. The horse’s back lifts up a lot in the canter stride and if he is coming up at the same time you are coming down, it can cause a pretty big blow to his back and it is natural for him to want to buck when he feels this irritation on his back.
If this is the case, I recommend sitting way back, with your shoulders slightly behind your hips and imagine you are pushing a swing as you canter. Most nervous riders will be okay for the first few strides of canter and then gradually tense and stiffen. So if you are just learning to sit the canter, I recommend only cantering a few strides at a time. Start with your horse on the straightaway (turns are harder), canter about 4-5 strides, then come back to walk through the trot. Relax and compose yourself and then go again for a few strides.
Volume 4 in my riding videos is called Canter with Confidence and addresses all of these issues and much more, from cueing for canter, sitting the canter to dealing with lead problems and other problems at the canter, right up to simple and flying lead changes.
For a wealth of information on this and many other topics and to purchase educational videos and training equipment, visit my website, http://www.juliegoodnight.com.

Coming Next:
Julie Goodnight reveals the scenarios and answers she’s asked to help with most often. Her Common Complaints series details what to do when your horse is disrespectful in the field, on the ground and when you’re riding. In the multi-part series, Goodnight will help you understand why your horse does what he does and give you step-by-step directions to help you solve the problem. Next month, she’ll teach you the emergency stopping rein to use if your horse spooks and bolts. Watch “Horse Master” with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV every Wednesday at 5:30p EST —Direct TV channel 379, Dish Network channel 231 or 9398. JG

Cantering Help: Bucks At Lope

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Question: I recently began training a 7 yr old quarter horse gelding who had never been ridden (or anything else). I was really surprised at how smoothly everything was going, i.e., longeing, saddling, trailer loading, etc. He is very even tempered, but LAZY!! Can you tell where this is headed? I really had to push him forward, but he would move out. Anyway, after 30 days, he had his first trail ride. He did fine. He stayed at the back of the pack, crossed creeks, cantered, walked over down trees, etc. His first trail ride was successful, thus my false sense of security.

Trail ride #2 followed 6 weeks later. I was riding relaxed, with a draped rein, and then the canter. If ever there was a type-A personality for a bucker, his picture is it. I stayed on till the 4th or 5th buck. Given we were on a ridge, all I could do is get back on and wait until I could pick my battle in the arena. We rode another 2 hrs after the fall, and he did everything fine, but I didn’t ask for the canter again.

So, what would you do? Given he’s really still untrained, I want to correct him right. I really should have expected this to happen, but I’ve never started a horse this old before. I falsely thought because of his maturity, and his progress we would skip this part. My gut tells me to start him over, and give him a chance to perfect his bending, and collecting at trotting before I start him cantering. OR Would you pick right up with cantering and address the bucking issue from that point?

I need to make him realize I’m higher on the food chain, and he can’t buck when he doesn’t want to do something. Given his age, I’m just not sure. I don’t have a problem digging in with him in the arena, I just would rather do it there than on a ridge! I welcome your advice. By the way, he was riding in a baby bit, and his only back problem is that I was on it! Thanks as usual.

G W

Kennesaw, GA

Answer: In my experience, the older a horse is, the more difficult they may be to train. This guy sounds like a perfect example of a very willing horse (as most horses are these days) that is very easy to break- UNTIL you ask him to do something he does not want to do. I know lots of people that have fallen into this trap of thinking their horse was so easy to train and so they skip the important stage of basic training (the ABCs) and then when things go bad, there is no foundation to fall back on.

Usually when lazy horses buck at the canter, it is in a refusal to go forward and an evasion of work, but you should always rule out a physical problem first. I think you are totally right in that you need to go back to basics with him and teach him control and obedience. Your training instincts are very good and I appreciate the fact that you are accepting the responsibility for this mis-hap and not blaming the horse.

When I was a young and cocky rider (many, many years ago), I learned a very important lesson from an outstanding race horse trainer that I was fortunate to work for and learn from. The lesson regarded a young, proud stud colt, that would launch into bukcing fits daily as we started him. After the first week of surviving the bucking fits in the round pen, we progressed to riding out on the open track, and he bucked every day, but never quite managed to unseat me. At the end of the second week, I said to the trainer, “I think if I can get him to buck one more time, I’ll have him licked.” The trainer promptly poked a finger in my chest, looked me square in the eyes and said, “Julie, don’t you EVER pick a fight with a horse. If you do, chances are you are going to lose.”

That was a real life-changing moment for me and is a philosophy I have stuck with ever since. Always avoid a fight if possible and never challenge a horse to a duel.

I would not push the canter issue until you feel confident in your ability to control his speed and direction. You may want to try working him in the round pen (unmounted) and teaching him that he has to canter (or trot) until you tell him to stop. This idea of you being in control and him being obedient will carry into your riding as well. Start with small increments of canter and gradually increase the length of time you ask him to canter until he learns to be obedient.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when trainnig is to ask a horse for more than he is capable of giving. If you ask him to hold the canter for too long and he is forced to break gait, you have given pushed your horse into disobedience. So whether on the ground or mounted, just ask for short lengths of canter, then ask him to come back to a walk or trot while you are still in control.

Trail riding comes quite naturally to a horse and he was probably totally enjoying the ride the first time you went out. Then somewhere along the line it began to seem like work and he decided he did not want to do that. Since you did not have a foundation of communication and control to fall back on, it fell apart. So start over in the arena with the basics: stop, start, steer, and obedience. Work your way back to the canter slowly and do not worry about cantering until you feel confident that you both are ready.

When you do ask him to canter, just go for a few strides then back to trot and gradually increase the amount of time you ask him to canter. If he does try to buck, keep his head up with one rein (pulling on two reins when a horse bucks usually spells disaster), but do not let him stop. He should only get to stop when he is relaxed, obedient and moving forward.

Good luck and be careful!

Julie Goodnight

Trainer and Clinician

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