Canter Control

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Dear Julie,
I have had my horse for 10 months. I am scared to ride her outside because every time I ask her for a canter, or if another horse canters off ahead of her, she does her best imitation of a bucking bronco then takes off like her tail is on fire. So far I’ve managed to hang on, but it’s very scary. If I ride her in the arena, she’s fine. She’s also a very buddy and barn-sour horse. I am working on that with her by riding a short distance from the barn and bringing her immediately back. I do this over and over. It’s pretty boring, but I don’t know what else to try. She’s a really sweet-natured horse except for these two problems. I go back and forth between keeping her and selling her. I would like to use some natural horsemanship methods to overcome these problems. Can you help? I’m turning into a scaredy cat!
Scared Enough to Sell

Dear Scared Enough to Sell,
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being scared in this instance. If your horse is out of control, it’s perfectly normal to be frightened! So don’t call yourself a scaredy cat.

When your horse takes off her herd behavior is over-riding her training and her flight response is triggered. The solution is more training. You’ll need to do a lot of ground work—both round pen and lead line work. Once your horse is totally focused on you and accepts you as her leader, she will no longer resist leaving the barn with you. You’ll be a herd of two and you’ll be the leader.

You’ll also need to work on your mounted training. Start out in the arena. There’s an important saying that is thousands of years old, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” It’s very, very true. You need to work in the arena doing lots of trotting and lots of transitions. Also, work on circling and other school figures so that your horse is very obedient and responsive to your aids. Then you can begin working on the canter in the arena, doing the same transitions and riding maneuvers. Focus on the transitions and not the cantering. Cue her up, canter six or eight strides, then return to trot and repeat. Your upward transitions should be very smooth. As long as your horse is leaping into a canter, she’s not ready to progress. You’ll know she’s ready for more when she quietly and obediently changes gaits. If your horse is exploding into a canter, chances are you’re over-cueing her.

While you’re in the arena, also make sure you know how to effectively use the one-rein stop. If you pull on two reins to stop the horse, the pressure on his mouth is so great that the horse will tend to lean into the pressure and brace against it—your horse may even run off to escape the pressure. When you want to slow down or stop your horse, simply lift one rein up and diagonally toward your opposite hip. At the same time, shift your weight back into the saddle. This will cause the horse to yield his hip as he turns and to disengage his hindquarters. Disengagement of the hindquarters simultaneously causes the horse to stop his forward motion (putting the engine in neutral) and become submissive. The instant you feel a change in the horse (well before he actually comes to a stop) drop your hand dramatically to his neck in a clear and meaningful release. You can pick up the rein again if he doesn’t come to a complete halt, but it’s critical to release the horse when he first makes an effort to do the right thing. Timing is everything in horse training and the sooner the release comes, the better. A horse’s natural reaction to pain and discomfort is to run away from it. Therefore sometimes the horse inadvertently is taught to speed up when the rider is asking for the stop. My videos on riding, particularly Goodnight’s Principles of Riding Volume 2, Communication and Control, show in great detail how to use your seat effectively and how to cue the horse to stop with your seat and not the reins.

As you’re teaching any new cue to the horse, make sure you sequence the cue
into three parts. For instance when I teach horse to stop I exhale and say “whoa” then shift my seat/weight, then finally pick up on the reins, in a one-two-three rhythm. This gives the horse two opportunities (cues) to stop before the pull comes on his mouth. If you use this sequence consistently, the horse will learn to stop before you ever touch his mouth. All horses are happy to do that if they know it to be an option; no horse wants his mouth pulled on.

Stay in the arena as long as it takes and be confident of your control and her obedience before you try your transitions and stopping cues outside. When you’re ready, keep her at a trot for a while. Let the other horses canter off around you, but make her stay at a trot. When you do ask her to canter, just go a few strides and return to a gentle trot. If you have done this enough in the arena, your horse should be thinking stop as soon as you begin cantering, and that is the thought you want for this horse.

It sounds like your horse has great potential—she just needs more training. If you don’t have the time or the ability to invest in her training, maybe you want to consider an older, better-trained and seasoned horse. There’s nothing wrong with her that time and training won’t cure, but then again, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing when you’re in over your head and making a change. After all, you didn’t get into this sport to cause more stress in your life! You’ll have to decide for yourself what the best course of action is for both you and your horse. Good luck and be careful!

Until next time,

Julie Goodnight
www.juliegoodnight.com

Does Your Horse Like Your Saddle?

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At a recent clinic weekend, I rode with a lovely woman, MaryAnn, who had hauled her Paint mare eight hours. MaryAnn was a sponge of a student—my favorite kind. She was knowledgeable, experienced and a very good rider who couldn’t learn enough. We always do introductions at the start of the clinic and she stated then that her horse bucked at the canter. That’s never a good thing. I was eager to find out why this horse was bucking and see what we could do to help the problem. I wondered right away if this was a personality issue, training issue or had to do with her physical build and the saddle’s fit. Too often, I see horses that learn to fear or dislike the canter because they feel pain from the saddle as soon as they enter the fast gait.

Knowing MaryAnn’s concern, I kept an eye on the mare while the whole group practiced groundwork and manners. I wondered if the mare had a touch of what I call PMS: Pissy Mare Syndrome. Some mares can be kind of cranky and bossy, but overall the horse was doing what MaryAnn asked of her. MaryAnn seemed to have a good handle on her. I began to rule out a personality issue as the cause of her bucking.
It wasn’t until after lunch that I first saw the mare under-saddle. As we warmed up at the walk and trot I didn’t see much that concerned me; although the mare was a little cranky, she did everything asked of her. I was eager to see this horse canter and find out more about what could be causing the problem.

The first time I ask people to canter–in a clinic with 15 horses that are unfamiliar to me–I always ask them to canter two or three at a time. That keeps my blood pressure down. When it was MaryAnn’s turn to canter, her horse stepped right up to the canter on the correct lead, but as she proceeded around the arena, it was obvious the mare was not happy. She was crow-hopping around like a pogo stick with her tail was wringing like a propeller. The mare didn’t warm out of it and get used to the gait. She stayed at the canter, but no one looked happy or relaxed. Taking a closer look at the picture, I knew it was a physical problem—a saddle fit issue.

MaryAnn had a very nice saddle with a Wade tree—a popular kind of Western saddle that is built up in front with a deep seat to help keep the rider seated. Very popular amongst colt-starters, for the same reason MaryAnn liked it—helps you ride through the bucks. Although it was the right saddle for MaryAnn, it just wasn’t the right saddle for the mare.

When I evaluate the saddle fit on a horse, the overall balance is important, as well as checking some specific areas on the horse. If I step a few paces back and look at the horse from the side, I want to see the saddle (be it English or Western) sitting level on the horse’s back. If it is sitting downhill, the horse’s shoulders or withers could be uncomfortable and if it is sitting uphill, the horse may be getting undue pressure at his loins. In either case, the rider’s balance and position is impaired when the saddle does not sit level and balanced on the horse.
I could see from looking at MaryAnn’s saddle, and the uphill slant, that the horse was getting a lot of pressure on the loins from the way the saddle fit her. It is not surprising that the mare protested the canter; she has to round up her back and lift it with each canter stride; not to mention that the rider’s weight can come down hard on the saddle at the canter.

I tactfully suggested that perhaps MaryAnn might like to try the demo saddle I had brought to the clinic. I knew the saddle she had was not cheap, nor was it the first one she had purchased for this mare. I know the thought of getting yet another saddle to resolve this problem was not what she wanted to hear. But of course she listened and tried out the new saddle.

It was at the end of the first day—all the horses and riders were beat and headed for the barn, but quite a few spectators stuck around to see what happened when MaryAnn tried the new saddle. She trotted a circle or two and cued her horse up to the canter. Although the mare still seemed tense and tight in the back—there was a noticeable improvement. MaryAnn was eager to try the saddle again the next day.
The next day, MaryAnn saddled her horse with my Monarch Arena Performance/Trail saddle. We spent a long time working at the walk and trot and when she cued her horse for the canter. The mare was smooth, relaxed and with her ears perked forward. Gone was the crow-hopping, wringing tail and pinned ears. MaryAnn went home with a brand new saddle and a smile on her face.

It’s amazing how often horses work day in and day out with ill-fitting and inappropriate equipment. Imagine working on your feet all day in shoes that caused you pain. Did you ever notice the number of horse’s that have white pots on their backs? Did you know those white hairs are scars caused from pressure points? Sometimes, when the fit-issue is fixed, the hair color comes back but over time the scars become permanent.
The other things that are important to check on the saddle is the clearance at the withers (can you stick your whole hand in there?)—even the pad pressing on the withers can cause painful pressure. Check to make sure it is not pinching at the withers at the front of the tree and, in the case of Western saddles, that it is not too long for the horse and or pressing into the loins or hips.

Most of the saddles in my line of saddles made by Circle Y have a Flex2 tree. Although the flexible tree is not suitable for all riders (you can’t rope in it; the rider must weigh under 230 pounds), it offers greater comfort to the horse and fits a wider variety of horses than a traditional wood tree Western saddle. It has enough rigidity to distribute the weight of the rider while flexing enough to conform somewhat to the horse’s back. As the bars of the tree flex slightly, the front of the bars open up just a little, giving the horse much more freedom in the shoulder.
Since I have a saddle with me everywhere I go, I’ve tried it on a lot of different horses around the country and have been very impressed by the fit and balance to most horses. The design of my saddles also takes the rider into consideration—the saddle should be fitted to horse AND rider and be comfortable for both. So for the rider, my saddles have a very narrow twist (the part that is just in front of the seat), close contact to the horse’s sides, highest quality pre-softened leather, pre-twisted stirrups and memory foam in the seat.

The seat size of the saddle should be comfortable for the rider—neither riding on the cantle or crowded by the pommel. With Western saddles, styles vary so greatly that you probably need to sit in a saddle to know for sure how it fits you. The stirrups should be the right size for your feet with the leathers short or long enough so that you ride in the middle hole. The width of the saddle is important too—you should not feel outward pressure on your seat bones or get the feeling that your legs are being wedged apart. The comfort and balance of your saddle are huge factors in how well you ride so these are things you don’t want to compromise on.

There is much to know about saddle fit, for both horse and rider, and I always appreciate advice from professional saddle fitters. I am by no means and expert but after decades in the business and working with thousands of horses and riders, I’ve developed an eye for it. If you’re not sure about the fit of your tack, consult a professional and get the best advice you can. If your horse has “issues” under-saddle, always consider a physical cause first. If you have “issues” in your riding, you may want to check your saddle.
I’m glad I could help MaryAnn and her mare and I look forward to hearing more about how they progress.
Enjoy the ride,
Julie

Starting Over With A Fractious Horse

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In the episode of Horse Master that we aptly called “Starting Over,” we worked with Clare and her horse “Lux” at a farm outside of Portland, Oregon. Our shoot site, Tanz-Pferde Dressage Farms (www.tanz-pferde.com, the name means dancing horses) was a beautiful backdrop. We shot in their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees. With six really good episodes “in the can,” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Clare’s. In the episode, you’ll see a dramatic change made in this once-injured and defiant horse.

Clare is an outstanding rider, partly because of Lux’s crazy bucking temper tantrums. Lux is a huge warm blood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting. But, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with the same rider. Clare did an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.

Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux was sound within a year, but he had become spooky, fractious and aggressive—with no resemblance of the former show champion. Clare’s parents spent thousands of dollars on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd. In the pasture, Lux immediately takes over as alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.

It only took a fifteen-minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and followed me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he threatened to jump out of the pen, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. At first, he was very determined not to acknowledge my presence, but being out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.

I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.

The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure eights in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.

I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think.

Be sure to watch the “Starting Over” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight
–Julie Goodnight

Attacks In Round Pen

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Dear Julie,

My friend’s paint gelding has started a very unsavory habit. When asked to move out in a round pen at liberty he will do it for a moment, then pins his ears and violently attacks who ever is doing the asking. He comes at full throttle striking, rearing and bucking and will not back off.

If he is on a line with halter and lead he is mild mannered and accepts the cue, but off lead he is very mean. He will even come back and attack over and over again. He is boarded and has a fairly large turnout. He is completely fine to handle although a little rough under saddle, great with dogs, bikes, noises, etc. Just sometimes rears for no reason, slightly. He will snake you and pin his ears and come at you full fisted if there is no halter on him. He eats hay with a small oat supplement. His owners are becoming more and more afraid of this horse. He appears to be head shy during these moments and very twitchy. Also very lazy and will stop and turn his rump toward you and not move. Only after carefully planned moves, can you reach over and move him over. He was imprinted as a foal, will not “join up,” never licks and chews but overall seems a kind horse. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Sounds like this horse has learned to buffalo his handler and has become dominant as a means to get out of work. Unfortunately, this is not an entirely uncommon behavior of horses and is the main reason I will not allow a horse to turn toward me in the initial stages of round pen work. This is also the reason why you should never work a horse in the round pen without a rope, stick, whip or some kind of “weapon” with which to defend yourself. This very subject is addressed thoroughly in my Round Pen Reasoning DVD.

In the round pen, we are using natural herd behaviors to teach the horse that we are dominant over him and that we can control his actions, just like horses do in real life in the herd. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinates. In this case, the training has backfired and the horse is round penning the human.

If you think about the way horses act naturally out in the herd, you see this type of charging behavior all the time. It means, “Back off buster, I am in charge of you and I say, get the heck out of my space!” When the horse being charged complies, by backing off and showing signs of submissiveness, the charging horse will give it up, as long as the subordinate remains in his place and does not challenge the dominant horse.

The reason why this horse acts this way at liberty, but is manageable when on the lead or under saddle is because of his life experience. He has had positive training under saddle and lead and knows how he is expected to act in those situations. Unfortunately, the fact that he was imprinted may be a factor in this behavior. Imprinting done correctly is great and results in a calm and willing horse, but sometimes, when done poorly, imprinting can cause a horse to lose his respect for humans because of too much handling and over-familiarity. Whatever the cause of the behavior, the fact is that his antics have given him a great deal of success and have taught him that he can control the humans and make them back off and move out of his space whenever he wants. Therefore, he is dominant.

The solution is to back the horse off and move him out of your space when he charges. This should only be attempted by an expert and confident hand and may take a considerable amount of force. Unless and until a person has experienced this kind of aggressive behavior from horses, it is hard to imagine how aggressive you have to get back at the horse. If a person is not willing or capable of being aggressive and assertive right back at the horse, s/he has no business in the round pen.

With this type of horse I would use a four-foot rigid stick with a six-foot lash on the end. When the horse charges, I would strike the lash straight toward his face, in order to deflect his nose. Make certain that you stay out of kicking or striking reach of the horse; don’t wait until you see the white of his eyes, attack early. Using aversive sounds at the same time, you will let him know you mean business (I call this “hissing and spitting” at the horse). Once he moves away from you, leave him alone. By not backing off when he charges and by moving him out of your space, he will come to realize that he is not dominant.

Let me repeat: this should only be attempted by a very confident and competent trainer. Chances are that the charging horse is just bluffing you, but it is also quite possible that he is willing to act fully on his aggression.

As food for thought, one time I trained a horse that would get very aggressive in the round pen or on the lounge line, but only if you had a whip in your hand. No doubt, the horse had been abused by the whip at some point in his life. So instead of using a whip I used a coiled lariat and would gently wave it toward the horse’s nose until he moved away from me. Once he understood what I wanted and that I was not going to whip him for no reason, he willingly and obediently moved away and the aggression disappeared.

In the case of this horse, his aggressive antics have been very successful, thus his behavior has been rewarded. Essentially, he has been trained to be aggressive. Un-training a horse is much more difficult and time consuming than training them correctly to begin with. This issue certainly needs to be resolved and I would suggest the horse be taken to a competent trainer. Once this issue has been resolved, the owners are likely to discover that the horse works much better in other areas and that the horse is much happier too.
–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Dominated Horse

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Dear Julie,
I have a 13-year-old Paint Horse mare who is very dominant. She came to my barn as a two year old and I already had an18-year-old gelding and a 4-year-old mare. In just a few days, she was the Alpha.
Her ground manners with me are quite nice, but the problem seems to be related to her strong response to outside stimuli, whether it is a horse or something else. This is particularly a problem when I am trail riding—as her attention is quickly diverted. Generally, I will begin to do leg yields or ask for something that I know I can get, but occasionally she catches me off guard.
Additionally, if she doesn’t want to do something, she just stops. I ask once, tell once, and then use a crop or spurs. Her response is bucking and head tossing, but then she moves on. Everyone knows to clear out when she stops, as the scenario unfolds about the same each time. Her teeth have been checked and she doesn’t appear to be saddle sore. Could you share your thoughts with me?
Thank you so much for your time.
Dominated No More
Dear Dominated,
If you’re certain you have ruled out any physical issues in your mare, then you have to look to training.
As for getting and keeping your horse’s attention, here’s what I suggest. Even though you say her ground manners are good, I would work her on the ground first, in the easiest location, then in any environment where you have trouble keeping her attention. I would work very doggedly on two issues: 1) don’t move your feet unless I tell you to, and 2) keep your nose in front of your chest at any time you’re in my presence.
Controlling the feet and the nose are very critical for keeping your horse’s focus and obedience, especially from the saddle. But you must have complete control of the nose, shoulder, hip and feet from the ground first.
Most people think they can control the feet and the nose but when you get to it, the horse is in total control of when and where he moves his nose and feet. There are numerous articles about this type of lead line work in the Training Library on my website so I’ll let you read about it there. I also have a video called Lead Line Leadership that shows a series of exercises you can do from the ground with any horse to gain respect, focus and obedience from your horse.
Secondly, I would begin to reinforce the “nose” rule when I am riding. Any horse I ride, I don’t care the age or training, is expected to keep his nose in front of his chest while I am riding. I do not let them be “looky-lous” or vary the track on which they are moving. A simple correction with the opposite rein (if he is looking right, use the left rein) is all it takes. In about thirty seconds to a minute, I can teach the horse this rule. The problem most people have in correcting is the technique and the timing; in fact, those two words cover any and all horse and rider problems. To correct the nose properly, you have to use perfect technique and perfect timing.
Technique: you must bump lightly UP on ONE rein. Ninety-eight percent of riders will pull back instead of bump or flick up on the rein. Seventy-five percent of riders pull rather than bump, and with both reins. You want to bump lightly and smoothly (not jerking) with your thumb pointed up and out, so that your wrist twists open. Bump exactly in this manner (not pulling back) until the horse brings his nose to your hand.
Timing: you must release sooner rather than later. You must release when the horse first makes an effort and then ask again for just a tiny bit more and release. The horse is focused on the release and if it doesn’t come immediately, he will stiffen and resist. Apply the correction 100% of the time; this takes a lot of concentration but once your horse learns the rule (keep your nose in front of your chest) he will comply. But first he must know you will correct him, gently but relentlessly, before he will comply (this is true of all things with horses, they must know you’re committed before they are obedient).
Before you loose control of your horse, you lose his nose position. Enforcing the nose rule, is keeping your horse’s focus on the task at hand and what you have asked her to do. This requires concentration and persistence on your part too. I would either put my horse to work or disengage his hindquarters every time her attention wanders (which is obvious by his ears and nose position). Put him to work by just asking him to do something (stop, go, turn, backup, circle, trot a circle, walk-trot-walk transitions, etc.). When she is compliant, let her relax and as soon as her attention wanders, put her back to work. All you have to do is create an association between her actions (losing focus on you) and having to work harder.
There are many articles on my website about disengagement and why and how you do it. I would start with making small turns R-L-R-L in a random pattern. Every time I change the direction of my horse’s nose and shoulder, I am gaining more control and keeping her neck relaxed and moving side to side. I am also bending her whole body, moving her feet and disengaging the hindquarters. As she relaxes and focuses on me, I let her go straight; horses get tired of circling and turning quickly, so she will look for what gets her the release. Again, timing and technique determine the success.
Technique: Make random turns in both directions using your whole body to turn, starting with your eyes, making sure both hands point in the direction you want your horse to turn, not pulling back on the reins, but to the side and up with the inside hand. (see articles on equitation and rein aids in my Training Library). Your hands would be applying the leading rein (inside) and the neck rein (outside). Never turn a horse quickly or ask him to do something in anger. Your leg aids must reinforce the rein aids and control the horse’s barrel too (the reins control the nose but the rein and legs control the shoulder and the body of the horse).
Timing: Always cue the horse slowly to turn so that he might possibly have time to move his head before the pull comes on his mouth. When your horse’s attention wanders, do not rush to the correction, but slowly and methodically ask the horse to do something. Ask him to perform his paces in a perfunctory manner, not in a punishing manner.
When the horse balks on you, you simply need to move his feet. But do not try to kick or spur him into action, that will almost always lead your horse to explode because his feet are stuck in one place and you have lost control. Pulling his nose to the side and disengaging his hindquarters will un-stick his feet, then you can move right into changes of direction and controlling the horse’s nose. If need be, turn him in the direction he wants to go to get his feet unstuck but immediately turn his nose the other way. If this horse is obedient to your legs at other times but suddenly “pulls up” (suddenly bulks and refuses to move forward) on you, kicking her or spurring her more will not necessarily help and may cause a burst of movement from your horse. Bending and disengaging will un-stick the feet with less drama. So when she plants her feet, rather than get in a big fight over asking her to move her feet, ask her something different: flex, bend, disengage, leg yield, etc. Ask, release. Ask, release. Ask something else.
That’s what I would do with a horse whose attention is wandering and leading her to be non-responsive and disobedient. Good luck and be careful!
Julie Goodnight

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

Horse Behavior: New Bucking Behavior

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: I have a 5-year-old Mustang…she is very docile. Recently she has started bucking when she doesn’t want to do something, like when we work around the cones, or do ring work. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Answer: This is an interesting training issue. Of course, before you address it from a training standpoint, it is important to rule out any physical problems. If this behavior is new, it is possible that the horse may have a sore or injured back and the bucking is a result of pain. A vet or chiropractic exam should rule this out. Once you are confident it is not a physical problem, then we can address the training issue.

This bucking behavior is commonly seen in lazy or balky horses and can be associated with a refusal or reluctance to move forward. Generally, the way this problem develops is that the horse doesn’t want to do whatever is asked and by way of protest, he throws a little buck. It is what happens next that creates or resolves the problem. Often, the rider is taken off guard with the buck and gets flustered or frightened and feels compelled to take control and so grabs the reins and asks the horse to stop. In our human mind, we think we need to regain control and regroup and then try it again. But the horse thinks much differently than we do. In his mind, he thinks, “I do not want to do that and if I just throw a little buck, she’ll stop me, which is exactly what I want!” So by stopping the horse, you have, in effect, rewarded his behavior and he has gotten success so he will certainly do it again. He does not have the ability of linear reasoning and he does not put two and two together and realize that you will make him do it again. All he knows is the here and now and what happens immediately.

This bucking behavior is commonly seen in lazy or balky horses and can be associated with a refusal or reluctance to move forward. Generally, the way this problem develops is that the horse doesn’t want to do whatever is asked and by way of protest, he throws a little buck. It is what happens next that creates or resolves the problem. Often, the rider is taken off guard with the buck and gets flustered or frightened and feels compelled to take control and so grabs the reins and asks the horse to stop. In our human mind, we think we need to regain control and regroup and then try it again. But the horse thinks much differently than we do. In his mind, he thinks, “I do not want to do that and if I just throw a little buck, she’ll stop me, which is exactly what I want!” So by stopping the horse, you have, in effect, rewarded his behavior and he has gotten success so he will certainly do it again. He does not have the ability of linear reasoning and he does not put two and two together and realize that you will make him do it again. All he knows is the here and now and what happens immediately.

The solution for this behavior problem is to make the horse actually work harder when he throws a buck, and let him stop when he is relaxed and compliant. This will resolve the problem very quickly, since the horse is acting out of laziness. As soon as he realizes that bucking causes him to have to work harder, he’ll give it up. However, this requires a great deal of skill and confidence on the part of the rider and is probably something you’d want a trainer to tackle. Depending on how ingrained this behavior is, he may fight before he gives in. An old adage in horse training says that it always gets worse before it gets better. So I am reluctant to tell you to dig in and get after him, because he may buck even harder at first.

As always, by understanding the way a horse thinks, you are better able to resolve problems. At the very least, when you feel the horse get bucky, make him do something harder, even if it is only circling a tight circle at a trot and only let him stop when you feel his back relax. I hope this helps!

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Cantering Help: Bucking Fits At Canter

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Question: Dear Julie,

I have a bit of an issue with bucking (sometimes so unexpectedly…) when asking my mare to lope (slow canter). If I let her go off at her own pace (at a gallop) she is usually fine but if I ask her to go forward but at the same time hold her back she gets mad and starts a real rodeo type buck (back arched upward, front feet off the ground then back feet continually). The last time it happened I brought her into a tight circle and managed to stop her then trotted her very briskly in varying circles for about 15 minutes. I haven’t tried again since because we then got bad weather! Now the weather is better and I want to start again! I’d appreciate any advice you can offer.

All the best

Rosa

Answer: Rosa,

What you describe with your mare in the canter transition is a very common problem and I think once I explain it to you, you’ll understand why your horse is acting this way and therefore be able to fix it.

You are essentially giving your horse two conflicting cues at the same time: go and stop. Her bucking fit is a result of her frustration and fear. She is frustrated because it is not possible for her to comply (she cannot go and stop at the same time). Because no matter what she does it is wrong, she has learned to fear and resent the canter cue.

This is often inadvertently taught to horses when asked to canter by a rider that fears the canter. The horse gets the cue to canter and complies but then the rider, unconsciously pulls up on the reins (because she doesn’t really want to canter or is afraid of going too fast) and the horse is punished for doing what you asked. Some horses just learn not to canter at all when given conflicting signals, but others learn to fear the transition and will have some sort of emotional outburst in every transition.

When you ask the horse to canter, one of the first things that happens is that her head bobs down (as it does with each stride); if at that moment you are already checking up on the reins to slow her down, you have punished her by hitting her in the mouth for doing what you asked. The bucking is simply an emotional outburst on her part because of the anxiety this has caused her. You need to treat the canter departure and slowing down the canter as two separate training issues that you will work on at separate times. You’ll have to go back and do some remedial work with her on the canter cue/departure, giving her a HUGE release of rein when you ask her to canter. Don’t worry if she goes fast, just gently pull her onto the circle after a few strides and the turn will cause her to slow down and the bending of her neck will give you more control. Once she comes to trust your canter cue and is no longer having emotional outbursts, then you can start working on slowing her down.

The more miles you log at the canter, the slower she will get and there are some articles in the Training Library from my website that will give you different exercises for slowing down the canter. But work on that separately from the canter departure.

Horses generally have to be taught the slow canter—it is not really natural for the horse and the younger, greener, and less athletic they are, the more likely the canter is fast and disorganized. I never get in a hurry to ask the horse to slow-canter—it comes with balance, coordination and lots of cantering.

Volume 4 in my Principles of Riding DVD series is called “Canter with Confidence” and it would be perfect for you. Not only does it discuss these issues, but it also gives detailed information on canter cues, canter departures, leads and problems at the canter. Maybe you should put the video on your Christmas wish list!

Good luck!

Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.