Mastering the Canter

Julie Cantering

Julie CanteringEverywhere I go—whether it’s to clinics, expos, conferences or just riding with friends—there are riders working on mastering the canter. Whether it is a novice rider just figuring out how to cue the horse and keep it going, a rider trying to slow down the gait and smooth out a wild ride or an advanced rider working on collection at the canter and difficult maneuvers like flying lead changes, we all have skills to master at this complicated and exhilarating gait.

I’ve been training horses and riders for several decades now, so I know that people have the same problems with their horses and horses have the same problems with their riders. That’s one reason I started my free online Training Library years ago and compiling all the questions I get and the answers I gave. Most of the questions I’ve already answered or written about so I am always on the lookout for unusual questions. Still, no matter how unusual the question is, the answers usually fall into a few common themes when it comes to cantering—the riders must have leadership, authority, know how to give the horse a release of the cue and they must know how to use seat aids.

I’ve been working on more ways to help with the canter—and the many questions that come my way about the fast gait. Today, I am very excited to see the big Yellow Freight truck arrive with two pallets of my new video, Canter Master.  In this new video we were able to address some of the most common issues at the canter from cueing to lead changes, with real-life riders, horses and issues. Working with five different horses and riders—all at different ability levels—I was able to address a multitude of common issues at the canter in a visual format that allows the viewer to see the problem and understand the solution.

Cantering challenge #1: Over-cueing the horse.

Our first rider is on a nicely trained horse, a very sweet mare, but she was blasting into the canter at warp speed because the rider was over-cueing, stiffening up and interfering with the horse’s mouth. When I rode the horse, she transitioned very smoothly and cantered slowly. Once I showed the rider how to prepare for the transition and cue the horse systematically and smoothly, she was able to loosen her death-grip on the horn and sit back and actually enjoy the ride! Horses can come to fear the canter because without knowing the precise cues and being relaxed, it’s easy for a rider to give the go and whoa command at the same time. If you’re tense and bracing when you ask for the canter, you can inadvertently hit your horse in the mouth with the bit when your arms are locked up and holding on too tight. Lesson one—relax and keep a balanced riding position before and during the canter. It’s tougher than it sounds.

Cantering challenge #2: Tension and bucking at the canter.

Our next subject was a really intriguing horse ridden by an up-and-coming young rider. It was a half-Arabian sport horse, and they were showing in Arab shows and huntseat equitation. It was a gorgeous horse, very athletic and very forward and each time the boy cued for canter the horse would launch into a bucking fit and run like a freight train. Bucking and/or running through the bridle at the canter are common problems and there can be many causes—sometimes rider induced, often stemming from physical problems in the horse. But in this case, it was an extremely common rider-horse co-dependence—a chicken and egg thing between the horse and rider (was the horse causing the rider to do that or was the rider causing the horse to do that?). Regardless of the cause, the cycle needed breaking and only that rider can do that. The solution was in first teaching the horse to lower its head and get rid of the stiff and bracing neck he had developed from years of being pulled on because he was going too fast. Then to get the rider to use his seat and not his legs to cue the horse and to give the horse the release he needs. You’ll see a big transformation in a short time. The young man did a great job once he learned to only cue as much as his horse required. The horse was sensitive and didn’t need a lot of convincing.

Cantering challenge #3: Feeling your leads.

If you look down to check your lead in the show ring, the judge is going to see it and deduct from your horsemanship score. You can, however, learn to FEEL your canter leads so you won’t have to look down again. Feeling canters leads is not hard, but you have to know what you are feeling and have the self-discipline not to look; think about how it feels for a few strides, make your decision then look if you need to verify your results. When the horse canters on the right lead, both his right hind and right fore are leading over the left legs (visa versa with the left lead) and he picks them up higher and reaches farther forward with those legs. Therefore, his back will be slightly crooked underneath your seat, both front-to-back and side-to-side. In your hips you’ll feel your inside hip in front of your outside, so if he is on the right lead, your right hip and leg will be in front of your left hip and leg. Because he is picking both leading legs up higher, you’ll also feel your weight shift to the outside, so if he is on the right lead, you’ll feel more weight in your left seat bone and left stirrup. This unevenness that you feel in his back is important in setting your horse up for the correct lead, cueing for the canter and cueing for flying lead changes. As you go about cueing your horse for canter, you basically set your body into the canter position for the lead—your outside leg down and back (which tends to bring your inside hip and leg forward), your inside rein lifted (which shifts your weight into the outside stirrup), then a push with your seat in the canter motion (like you are pushing a swing) tells the horse to canter. Starting in the position will help you know how your horse starts the gait and help you feel the difference.

Cantering challenge #4: Collection for the advanced horse and rider.

For the next story on this video you meet a long-time cowgirl and her gorgeous show horse who are working on collection at the canter. I loved working with this rider who had recovered from several back surgeries and was still actively competing. Teaching her to use her seat, legs and hands together in a soft rhythm in timing with the stride of the horse, she was able to slow down and round up her horse and smooth out the gait. So often, riders want to learn collection at the canter—as a top goal. That’s a great goal to have, but there’s often work to be done first—and lots of work collecting the trot will help the rider collect the canter more easily.

Cantering challenge #5: The flying lead change.

Rounding out the video, is perhaps one of the most common questions I get about the canter—how do I get my horse to do a flying lead change? Well, if it were that easy, anyone could do it, right? First you must have all the prerequisite skills like perfect canter departures, leg yielding, collection, etc.; the rider in this case was ready, on a horse that she had raised and trained herself. But every time she asked for the lead change, her horse would change to a cross-canter, if he responded at all—very common issues. The horse actually changed really well for me, it turned out he just needed more of a pre-signal from the rider (the most common fix for lead change problems). By breaking the preparation and cue down for the rider, she was able to make the leap and do some great changes.

Have you had any of these cantering challenges? Good luck as you master the canter and be sure to read more in the free Training Library on JulieGoodnight.com/Academy—and you’ll also find the Canter Master streaming training video on at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com. With knowledge, you’ll have the confidence you need to canter with confidence.

—Julie Goodnight

My Horse Consistently Breaks Gait From A Lope To A Jog On The Right Lead. Q & A

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Q: My horse consistently breaks gait from a lope to a jog on the right lead. What may be causing this? –Haley White

A: This is an interesting question—and I wish I had a few more details. If the horse only breaks gait on the right lead and not on the left lead, that makes me suspicious that there may be a physical problem. If a horse breaks gait on both leads, that makes me think that the horse is lazy and disobedient.. However, an obedience issue doesn’t usually happen only on one lead.

By and large if you’re cantering and the horse breaks down to the trot, it’s an obedience issue. The horse should not be allowed to choose the speed and direction—that’s the rider’s job. Many riders just re-cue for the canter and don’t admonish the horse when he breaks gait. So the horse doesn’t know that wasn’t right, he just thinks that if he slows down, he’ll get a break then canter again. You have to break that cycle by adding an admonishment to let him know that breaking gait was unacceptable.

Since Haley writes that it’s only the right lead she’s having trouble with, it makes me think that disobedience may not be the only problem and there may also be a physical component. Plus, it seems that the horse will pick up the right lead and just not maintain it, which would be unusual for a horse that is in pain But, the horse may feel some pain on a leg that is prominent when traveling that direction or may lack conditioning and coordination on that side. Think about the motion of the canter: The legs work unevenly at this gait. On the right lead, the left hind and the right foreleg are enduring the most stress. If the horse is picking up the right lead then not wanting to sustain the gait, he may not be conditioned on that side or he may be feeling pain after the initial canter departure.

I wonder if Haley’s horse has an old injury. After an accident, there could be a coordination or a conditioning issue affecting one side for some time. I’d want to see the horse’s movement in the pasture—will he move on both leads without a rider present? That can tell you what the horse’s preferred lead is and if the horse does pick up the right lead, it would be interesting to see if he keeps the right lead on his own.

This could also be a training issue. Team-roping horses always come out of the box on the left lead because they will eventually turn to the left. Racehorses may only pick up the left lead as they always bend around to the left on the track. I find that many horses also prefer the left lead naturally. So if a horse is trained that the right lead is wrong, or if a horse has never been trained to pick up a specific lead, he may just pick the lead he wants. Horses that were trained for the trail often aren’t taught to pick up specific leads—they just canter on their favorite lead. If the horse has never worked his muscles and been conditioned to work on the right lead, it may take some conditioning and riding at a full gallop to help the horse develop strength and balance in that gait.

Keep in mind that the gallop is the natural gait and the canter is the collected, man-made version of the movement. If the horse has never had to hold himself with a rider while cantering to the right, he may be willing to pick up the lead, but may not be conditioned to keep the lead.

All those thoughts considered, this could be a physical issue or a training issue. My gut tells me that we have to rule out pain first. I’d want to have this horse evaluated by an equine chiropractor who is also a veterinarian. I have seen horses that have a rib or spinal issue not want to canter or just seem “off.”

If the horse doesn’t appear lame on one leg, but isn’t moving how he should, a few treatments may help. Starting with this step would rule out the pain. If it still happens after chiropractic treatment and conditioning, it’s time to go back to basic obedience. If you have asked the horse to canter, he should stay in that gait until you give a different cue.

I’m curious to know what Haley finds out. It’s a curious question and one that’s interesting to think about!

–Julie Goodnight
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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

Afraid Of The Canter Cue

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Question: Dear Julie,
When riding in the arena at the canter, for the first few strides my horse throws his head up in the air. Why is he doing this?
Puzzled
Answer: Dear Puzzled,
This is a very common response from the horse that is afraid of the canter cue. The reason why he is afraid of the transition is that he has been hit in the mouth too many times when a rider asked him to canter. Always rule out a tooth/mouth problem first, but it is likely that if this were a physical problem, it would continue as you cantered.
At the very first stride of canter, and every stride thereafter, the horse’s head drops down as he lifts his hind legs off the ground. If the horse is not given a release when you ask him to canter, then when he drops his head down, he hits the bit and in effect, he is punished for doing what you asked him to do. After a while, he is afraid of the canter cue and either throws his head in the air, runs off or both.
As I said, this is VERY common. I see it in every single clinic I teach. Many riders are a little intimidated by the canter, so they tend to clench up on the reins at the moment the horse departs into the gait. Or, the rider is concerned about the horse going too fast, so she pulls up on the reins at the same time she is asking the horse to go more forward. Or sometimes, the rider’s hands are just not moving with the horse as he drops his head in each stride.
When you cue a horse to canter, you should reach up toward his ears with both hands to give him the release he needs to drop his head in the stride. With each and every stride of the canter, your hands should extend forward as your hips move forward to give the release he needs with every stride.
Your horse has already learned to fear the transition, so you’ll have to really exaggerate the release for some time and eventually he’ll come to trust that you will not hit him in the mouth and he does not have to be afraid and throw his head up in the air.
All of these issues—how to cue, how to ride the canter and dealing with problems—are addressed in volume 4 of my riding DVDs, Canter with Confidence. In addition, it covers refining the canter, lead changes and collection at the canter.
Good luck!

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

Fear Of Cantering

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
How do I overcome fears of cantering?

Hi Julie,
I have been riding for about 2 years. I’m 53, and although I have been around horses (started my daughter riding @ 4-5 yrs old, own a race horse) have always been terrified of horses, yet love them. I want desperately to ride well. Lately, I have been “stuck”; cantering sends me into a panic. I try, and yet I freeze, I can’t focus on steering or keeping him going, all I can think is stop! I think my instructor, patient as she is, as well as the barn staff have written me off, and are losing patience with me, (and I don’t blame them). What should I do, how do I combat this and get past it? Do you run intensive, submersed horse clinics to overcome debilitating fear? Or recommend one? Please help!

Sue

Dear Sue,
Fear and lack of confidence are more common in riders than you think. In fact, most people that have been around horses have dealt with this issue at some time or another. Let’s face it; they are big, scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. I’d be more concerned about someone who said they’ve never had any fear around horses. Fear is a natural emotion and it’s one that keeps us safe—keeps us from doing really stupid stuff. But when fear begins to impact your enjoyment or begins to control what you do and do not do, it’s time to take action.

It always amazes me how many people want so desperately to ride and be with horses, in spite of their over-powering fear or after a bad accident or injury. There is a deeply rooted passion there that keeps you motivated even though the fear is sometimes crippling. That is why it is always important to think about why you are doing this—what is your purpose? Passion? Fulfilling a life-long dream? Enjoying an activity with your spouse? Whatever your purpose is, you need to define it and embrace it. Purpose leads to courage.

Canter is certainly the most fear-inducing gait and at just about every clinic I do, there are people that are fearful of the canter. That makes sense because if things are going to go wrong, it is likely to be at the canter. So your fear is perfectly understandable. Since canter is the closest thing to the flight response that we ask our horses to do, sometimes it can trigger undesirable behavior. So before you ever tackle the canter, make sure everything else is going well—your horse is responsive and obedient, you feel ready, the footing is good, the situation is right. I always tell my riders: Never get in a hurry to canter—it will happen when you are ready. If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it.

There’s an old saying in horsemanship that says, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” In other words, you can accomplish much at the trot and unless and until your horse is working really well at the trot, there’s no point in asking for canter. The same things goes for you—if you work on improving your riding skills at the trot, it will prepare you better for canter. So work on posting and sitting trot; do lots of transitions—collected trot, extended trot, collected trot. Trot figures like circles, serpentines and figure 8s. You may even want to start working on lateral movements, like leg yielding at the walk and trot before you tackle canter. When you can do all these things confidently, the canter will be easy.

When all the stars are aligned and you feel like it’s ready to tackle the canter, I can share a few things with you that may help. First, make sure you know and understand the canter cue, so you can be clear to your horse. When you haven’t cantered a horse for some time, he isn’t thinking about a canter cue and so he may go into a fast trot instead of a canter. If he does, slow him down firmly and immediately ask for canter again, as if to say, “wrong answer; try again.” Repeat until he canters on cue. Once he realizes that you actually want him to canter, the cue will get easier.

Make absolutely certain you do not pull back on the reins when you cue for canter; in fact, you’ll want to reach up toward his ears as you cue him. One of the first things that happens in the canter departure is that your horse’s head will drop down as he launches himself into the gait—if he hits the bit at this moment, he will think you do not want him to canter. This is a HUGE source of problems at the canter; people are pulling back without realizing it, especially if they are nervous about it. It is a very frustrating problem for the horse because you are punishing him for doing what you asked him to do.

I suggest working on the canter in the arena, but only cantering a few strides down the long side of the arena at first, transitioning back to trot in the corners. The turns are harder and you are more likely to lose balance in the turn, so staying on the straight-away will help. Also, I’ve noticed that nervous riders will do okay on the first few strides but the longer they go, the worse they ride. So if you’ll just canter a few strides, then stop, then do it again, you will probably accomplish more. Gradually increase the distance you canter. Remember to breathe!

Some riders and/or horses will do better cantering out on the trail with other horses than they do in the arena. Often it is easier to get the horses into it and they will canter along naturally with the other horses. I have used this technique many times with nervous riders and we will generally canter on a slight uphill slope so the horses are working too hard to act up in any way. But you have to know your horse before trying this out on the trail; some horses will be better while others may be worse.

The biggest mistake people make in trying to ride the canter is to lean forward, thus closing your hip angle, which causes you to be thrown up and out of the saddle with each stride. To counter-act this, you need to sit well back, with your shoulders even slightly behind your hips. The canter involves a motion similar to pushing a swing—your shoulders come back as you push with your seat. So before you ask for canter, always remind yourself to sit way back and push the swing. Fear will make you want to perch forward in the fetal position; try to remind yourself to sit extra far back to counter-act this tendency.

One more thought on working up the courage to canter—try it first in a Western saddle. Even if you plan to ride English, getting confidence with the gait will be easier in a Western saddle since you have to the horn to hold onto if necessary and a little more support than in an English saddle. Take all the help you can get. Once you gain some confidence, you can switch back to an English saddle.

My video, “Canter with Confidence,” will give you all the information you need to cue, ride the canter, understand leads and all the way up to flying lead changes. Knowledge will help your confidence. I also have a new video coming out in September which is a compilation of Horse Master episodes dealing with real horses and riders that are working on the canter, from cueing to slowing down the canter to lead changes.

For anyone dealing with fear of horses, it is important that you do not allow others to push you into something you are not ready to do. There is no law anywhere that says you have to canter a horse. When you are ready and you want it to happen, it will. If you don’t canter—so what? It is also important to surround yourself with supportive people and share your goals and your plan with them and let them know how they can support you. I have written a lot about rebuilding confidence, so there are many articles in my Training Library that will help. I also have a motivational audio called “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” which you can download from my website (or purchase the CD). Many riders have found this to be a very useful tool in overcoming fear. Listen to it on the way to the barn.

By the way, it is your instructor’s job to be patient, keep you safe and help you attain your goals. You are not beholden to her and her staff—they are beholden to you. Don’t worry about them and don’t let anyone else pressure you or frustrate you. You are doing this for you—not for them. Don’t worry about what others think; surround yourself with people that are supportive of your goals. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they are!

I have heard from hundreds of riders who have used my techniques to overcome their fear and learn to enjoy horses with confidence. You can make it happen but you have to work at it—have a plan, know what you are going to do when you feel fearful. Because of the mind-body-spirit connection, if you cave into the emotion, it will overtake your mind and body. If you have the mental discipline to think positive thoughts and control your body language (looking confident even when you don’t feel that way, the emotion cannot take over. Don’t ever give up! You can make this happen. I know you can.

Good luck!
Julie
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
Canter with Confidence DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Principles-of-Riding-vol-4-Canter-with-Confidence-GPRV4DVD.htm
Canter Master DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Horse-Master-Canter-Master-Horse-Master-Cantering.htm

The Cross Canter

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The Cross-Canter
“Cross-canter” is the proper term for what is commonly called “cross-firing” or “disunited” cantering. As opposed to picking up the correct lead, with both front and hind inside legs leading the way, the horse leads with one leg in the front and a different leg with his back legs. The gait is still a canter, but looks awkward when you don’t see the expected footfalls. For the rider, the cross-canter feels very rough—it’s awkward for both horse and rider.

A horse may cross-canter because of a rider’s misplaced balance, because of misunderstanding a cue, or the funky gait may be caused by your horse’s response to pain. If your horse is attempting to avoid or favor one leg, he may move in a cross-canter to avoid the pain. If your horse cross-canters often, have him checked out by a veterinarian and/or equine chiropractor before attempting to change the movement with training. If your horse has a problem with his back or hips, it could be inhibiting the ability to canter correctly.

If a physical problem is ruled out, start working your horse to help him build the muscles he’ll need to canter correctly. The canter should begin with your horse picking up the correct lead with his back legs—so making sure that he has the strength and coordination to push off with his back legs will help. I like to practice haunches-in and leg-yields (also known as two-tracking) to develop strength and coordination. These moves help the horse’s hips develop strength. Visit the free Training Library on my site (http://juliegoodnight.com) as well as http://www.HorseMaster.tv to see clips of shows that help teach these moves. You should work on haunches-in at the walk and trot until you can keep her bent with her haunches-in in both directions.

Once he does well with haunch control, go back to canter work and try to keep his haunches-in while he canters. By keeping his haunches bent slightly to the inside, it keeps more weight on the outside hind so that he has to push off with that leg and so maintains the correct lead. When you begin your canter work, only canter short lengths so that he can maintain the proper stride. Gradually increase the number of strides you ask for as he develops strength to sustain the gait.

Incidentally, I do not like to canter young horses in the round pen or on the longe line (mounted or un-mounted), because they do not have sufficient balance to maintain a proper canter stride in that small a circle, and they invariably cross-canter. If they are allowed to go on and on, you end up conditioning the horse in an impure gait.

Flying Changes
Everyone wants to do flying changes because the move is so dramatic and shows off a high level of horsemanship. If you’ve been to a reining event, you know that the crowd hollers and whistles when the horse and rider make a perfect flying change in the exact center of the ring. But while this maneuver looks like one easy move, it’s important for you and your horse to know many small elements before putting them all together to perform one flawless looking flying lead change. Resist the urge to test your horse and to ask for all at once. Instead, make sure that your horse knows how to do everything on this list before attempting a flying change.

The horse begins the canter/lope with his outside hind leg. Thus, when his haunches are to the right, most of his weight comes on the left hind and he strikes off with the right lead. A flying lead change is done by moving the horse’s haunches during the moment of suspension so that he can switch hind legs and change to the other lead. In order for this change to happen at the precise timing, your sequence of cues and the horse’s understanding of exactly where to put each leg must be clear.

Before a rider and horse can properly execute the flying lead change, the following skills must be solid:

1) Thorough understanding of leads and the footfalls of the canter
2) Smooth canter departures from the walk and halt, getting the correct lead 100% of the time
3) Rider being able to feel which lead the horse is on (no looking)
4) Flawless simple lead changes with only one stride of trot, on a straight line
5) Total control of the horse’s haunches; able to walk and trot haunches-in in both directions
6) Able to leg-yield or two-track at walk and trot in both directions
7) Able to sit the canter/lope in a balanced seat and have independent hands and legs
8) Horse can maintain collected canter/lope in frame, going straight

The rough (but commonly used) method of jerking the horse’s head to the new direction throws the horse onto his forehand and may cause a change of the front lead, leaving the horse in a cross-canter. To execute a flying lead change properly, the horse must change from behind first–thus, the need to have total control of the horse’s haunches.

An age-old piece of wisdom says that the best way to improve the canter/lope is to improve the trot. So, as usual, go back to basics and make sure you can perform all of the skills listed at a slow, easy pace. Work on position, use of the aids (more seat-less hands), transitions, haunches-in and knowledge. There are no quick fixes, but being patient with yourself and your horse will pay off big in the long run.
–Julie Goodnight

Canter Leads

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Rule Out the Physical

If you’re having trouble with your horse’s canter leads, make sure to rule out physical problems first. Whenever a horse only takes one lead at the canter, you always have to look to make sure the horse isn’t avoiding one lead or the other because of physical ailments. For instance, if it’s the right lead that your horse won’t pick up, then either the right fore or the left hind may be causing her pain. Because of the foot falls of the canter and the excessive weight put on these legs on the right lead (opposite for left lead) your horse may resist picking up the canter on one side to keep herself from feeling painful pressure. You should rule out any soreness or lameness issues with your veterinarian. It’s also possible that the horse’s unwillingness to take one lead comes from an old injury which is no longer causing any pain but which taught her a long time ago to favor one lead. If a horse is not thoroughly rehabilitated after an injury, she may develop a guarding or favoring on one leg just like humans do.

Sometimes horses become one-leaded simply because of poor training. If the rider only asks for a canter and is not specific about which lead he wants or doesn’t ensure that the horse works equally on both leads, the horse learns to favor one lead. Just like us, horses tend to favor one side over the other and with hit-and-miss training; the horse may learn that the cue to canter means “canter on your favorite lead.”

Two really common instances of this kind of inadequate training may be seen with ranch or trail horses that are ridden out of the arena very early on and trained out on the ranch/trail or roping horses that are always asked to canter on the left lead. Interestingly, off-the-track horses can be problematic for lead cues because they are used to picking which lead they need themselves—left lead around the corners and right lead on the straight-aways. So they are not used to having to think about which lead you want when cued.

Lead Training

Once a current physical problem is ruled out, two things will have to happen in your horses training before he will reliably take the correct lead when you ask. First, he will have to be pushed into the right lead once in each training session and then cantered on that lead for as long as he can take it so that he gets stronger on the weak lead. This may require weeks of conditioning and it will take considerable skill and patience on the part of the rider to get him on that lead.

To set your horse up for the correct lead, always cue as you move into a corner — not during the turn or coming out of the turn, but just before the turn. In this position, the horse should know which direction he is going and he’ll be positioned with his hips in, the way his body needs to be to take the correct lead, so that he can push off with the outside hind leg.

The cue for the canter on the correct lead use your outside leg, back about 6 inches (to bring his hips in and his outside leg underneath him), slightly lift your inside rein (to shift his and your weight to the outside and free-up his inside shoulder to take the lead.) and push with your seat in the canter motion. You might also use the kissing sound as a voice cue, which gives your horse a hint of what you are asking. If you are weighting the inside when you cue your horse to canter or you are cueing when his hips are positioned out, he will have difficulty taking the correct lead.

In the beginning, the rider may have to hold the horse in the lead with an exaggerated outside leg holding the horse’s hip to the inside and the riders weight off the back and off the inside. You will have to let the horse gallop faster than normal as he reconditions and re-coordinates on that lead.

Gradually as the horse becomes more conditioned on the right lead it should be easier and easier to cue for it. The rider has to make sure the cue for each lead is different and clear. You need to have considerable control over the horse’s haunches, to position her “haunches-in” when you ask for the canter and you will have to be able to lift the horse’s inside shoulder.

On my video about the canter, “Canter with Confidence,” (available at http://shop.juliegoodnight.com) lead problems are addressed and a series of training exercises are shown that will help you get the horse on the right lead (or left lead, whichever the case may be). It is volume 4 in my riding series and it covers everything from footfalls, to cueing and riding the canter, to lead problems to flying lead changes.
–Julie Goodnight

Kicks At The Canter

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Ask Julie Goodnight: Help, my horse kicks at the canter!

Question: I have 3 horses, all of which do the same thing. They walk and trot quietly, but when you cue for lope, they will kick up in the back. I know it’s probably a training issue, but I don’t know what to do next to try to get them into a canter without the kick up. I am a senior and have been riding all my life and showed for years, so it’s not lack of riding ability, but may be related to not riding often enough. I’m sure I could carry on once I got them started loping without getting bucked off. Answer: Since all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior, you have to consider the common denominator, which is the rider. While you should always rule out a physical problem first, the fact that all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior tends to point to the rider. But don’t feel badly, most “horse problems” are actually rider induced and you’ll be way ahead of the curve just knowing this, because before you can solve a problem, you must identify it.

Answer: Without actually seeing you and your horses in action, I cannot really diagnose the problem, but I can tell you that this is a very common problem and I see it all the time in clinics. In fact, we have an upcoming episode of Horse Master on this very problem—over-cueing for canter.

Generally speaking, when you cue a horse for trot or canter and he launches into the gait like he was shot out of a cannon—you over-cued him. In the case of the canter cue, there are compounding issues related to the flight response. When the horse is cued to canter, in a way, you are cueing for the flight response; so if you over-cue him you may get more than you bargained for. It is not uncommon for horses to have an outburst of emotion when cued for canter and kicking out the heels is one such example.

To resolve this issue and get a smooth, relaxed canter departure, you’ll need to get more systematic in your canter cue and tone down the signal, adjusting to each horse’s level of sensitivity. While you are working to improve the canter departure, you’ll want to cue from the slow sitting trot. This gives the horses fewer options to get the right answer; but don’t cue from the long-trot. At the slow collected trot his legs are close enough together to reorganize easily into the canter but as he moves into extended trot and his legs spread farther apart, the canter is more difficult to pick up. If he misses the canter cue and goes into long-trot, bring him back immediately to slow trot by using your seat and reins to check him back. As soon as he comes back to slow trot, you’ll cue him again for the canter right away.

Before you give any cue, always prepare the horse that a cue is coming by shortening the reins slightly and closing your legs on his sides. You’ll know he is ready for a cue and listening to you when his head comes up a little and his ears come back on you; that is your horse’s way of saying, “what do you want me to do?” If you develop a consistent and systematic cue for canter, the horse will understand better and he’ll know what is coming next.

Once he’s ready and listening, you’ll give a cue using all your primary aids in sequence: legs, hands, and then seat. First, use outside leg, slightly back; this sets the horse up for the correct lead and also helps him differentiate from the trot cue, where you use two legs at the same time. Next you’ll slightly lift the inside rein; this is less of a rein cue and more of a repositioning of your body into the canter position for the inside lead, with your inside shoulder lifted and your weight in the outside stirrup. The last part of the cue is a push with your seat in the rhythm of the canter motion—like you are pushing a swing. Leg-rein-seat; in a 1-2-3 rhythm.

If your horse is eager to canter or exuberant in the departure, you’ll want to keep the focus on your seat aid, rather than on your legs. There are many horses that cue to canter just by a simple rocking of the seat in the canter motion. If the horse is over-reactive to the cue, use less and less pressure each time until he accepts the cue quietly.

By sequencing your aids and getting more systematic in your cue, your horse will learn what you want and will not stress over the cue. As you practice your transitions, you should be able to make your cues more and more subtle, using less and less pressure. Start by slowing the rhythm of the cue down so that you are taking longer to cue the horse. This helps him think through what is coming next so he is not surprised. Practice many trot-canter-trot transitions. Each time you make a transition, it should be a little smoother as the horse learns the cue better, thus reducing his anxiety.

When horses kick out at the canter departure, often it is because it seems to him as if you are yelling at him when a whisper would work. As you get more systematic with your cue and your horse comes to understand, you can use less pressure. If he is ready for the cue when it comes and you use less pressure, the kicking should go away. You’ll find more help on my Canter with Confidence DVD and my Perfect Practice DVD: http://shop.juliegoodnight.com/
Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Canter Cue

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Does Your Horse Fear the Canter Cue?
At my clinics and during the TV show shoots, I often see horses that are fearful of the canter cue. Many riders are a little intimidated by the canter, so they tend to clench up on the reins at the moment the horse departs into the gait. Or, the rider is concerned about the horse going too fast, so she pulls up on the reins at the same time she is asking the horse to go more forward. Or sometimes, the rider’s hands are just not moving with the horse as he drops his head in each stride. No matter which of these riding errors occur, the horse can feel pain and quickly learn to fear the canter transition. Here’s why: At the very first stride of canter, and every stride thereafter, the horse’s head drops down as he lifts his hind legs off the ground. If the horse isn’t given a release when asked to canter, when he drops his head down, he hits the bit and in effect, he is punished for doing what you asked him to do. After a while, he is afraid of the canter cue and either throws his head in the air, runs off or both.

Some horses have been hurt so many times in the canter departure by the rider hitting him them in the mouth and slamming down on their backs, that they become emotional train wrecks when asked to canter. They throw their heads up in the air and run off; running in fear of the pain they are sure is coming. It’s a self-defeating behavior that soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for the horse because it causes the rider to stiffen and hold the reins tighter, which in turn causes the rider to hit the horse in the mouth and back. However, before starting on a training solution, you’ll have to rule out any physical cause for the problem, which is also very common in canter departure problems. It could be a saddle fit issue, a chiropractic issue or even lameness. Have your vet or another qualified professional examine your horse and saddle fit and once you have ruled out any physical cause, you can look to a training solution.

If I work with a horse that seems scared to move into the canter, here’s what I do: First, I work the horse at the walk to trot transition until I can trot on a totally loose rein with the horse’s head down and with him working at a slow, steady speed (if this is a problem, you’ll need to back up and work more at the trot with the exercises for slowing down you’ll find in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php). Then I give my canter cue softly and in slow motion, (apply pressure with the outside leg, lift my inside hand slightly then push with my seat for the cue to canter as I make the kissing noise with my voice). Throughout the process, I leave the reins loose. If the horse throws his head up in the air and takes off, I let him go (so that he learns that he won’t be punished during the transition), then gently and slowly pick up on the inside rein to bring him gradually onto a large circle, which will discourage his speed (be careful not to get into the habit of turning your horse as soon as he begins to canter because it will teach him to drop his shoulder and come off the rail each time you cue him). I continue at the canter until the horse slows down and relaxes, then let him come back to a nice easy trot.

I repeat this exercise on a loose rein again and again until he learns to trust that his mouth will not be hurt in the upward transition to the canter and therefore loses his fear of the transition. Surprisingly, some horses will figure it out right away with the right rider, but if it’s an engrained pattern in both horse and rider, this problem can be difficult to overcome. It will help if the horse can learn the correct response from a skilled rider. This isn’t an easy problem to fix unless you have solid riding skills and confidence riding at speed.

If you need more help and a visual demonstration, check out my Canter with Confidence DVD and the Refinement and Collection edition, too (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827).
Once you have fixed the canter departure, and your horse is stepping smoothly into the canter, you can start thinking about collection. Before working on collection at the canter, you should be able to work your horse on a loose rein in an extended frame or on a short rein in a collected frame at the walk and trot, and have him maintain a steady speed, rhythm and frame.

You’ll need to have the ability to sit the trot and canter well and feel the rhythm of the gait in your seat and legs. You’ll need steady hands and to learn to use your reins in an alternating rhythm in timing with your seat and legs and your horse’s hind legs. If you can do all of this, you’re ready to work on collection once you’ve entered the canter gait. It will take time and patience for your horse to gain confidence in the canter departure and you’ll have to work to improve your riding at the same time. But if you work with patience and persistence, you’ll get there.
–Julie Goodnight

Fearing The Transition

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In Devon Danvers’ “Lost in Transition” episode of Horse Master, I helped a teenager who was ready to stop showing—and riding—because his horse exploded into the canter and just wasn’t fun to ride. The episode was my favorite shot during the Arizona series. Devon and his horse made so much progress and had a dramatic turnaround. When I watched Devon as we filmed his “before” footage, I could see the very obvious problem. When Devon cued his horse, the horse would explode into the canter–sometimes bucking and always running off. He was nervous and jiggy and anticipated the cue. “Rocky” was a very handsome horse Devon bought with the hopes of showing. However, his behavior made showing impossible. Interestingly, it wasn’t obvious to me what Devon was doing to cause this kind of reaction. He was a nice rider and didn’t appear to over-cue the horse.

I got on and rode Rocky and found the key to smooth transitions was to slow the cue down. I didn’t even need leg pressure—just the movement of my seat would change Rocky’s gaits without sending him into a frenzy. Amazingly, Devon was able to change the way he rode this horse right away and the results were tremendous. Both Devon and his mom were thrilled with the progress they made.

Read on to learn about how to cue your horse for a calm and collected canter. The lesson is good for you if you if your horse anticipates the canter or if you want to make sure you’re giving the correct signals. Be sure to watch the “Lost in Transition” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight May 4, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html or http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight and choose “Horse Master with Julie Goodnight 212 Lost in Transition, Teaching Segment”

Many horses become afraid of the canter cue after they’ve been hit in the mouth too many times when a rider asked him to canter. A fearful rider may ask for the canter, then immediately pull back on the reins to slow down—causing the bit to hit the horse hard in the mouth. If you’re having trouble at your canter transition, always rule out a tooth/mouth problem first. However, it’s likely that your horse threw a fit because of a physical problem, he would keep up the reaction while cantering and not just at the transition.

At the very first stride of canter, and every stride thereafter, the horse’s head drops down as he lifts his hind legs off the ground. If the horse is not given a release when you ask him to canter, then when he drops his head down, he hits the bit and in effect, he is punished for doing what you asked him to do. After a while, he is afraid of the canter cue and either throws his head in the air, runs off or both.

As I said, this is very common. I see it in every single clinic I teach. Many riders are a little intimidated by the canter, so they tend to clench up on the reins at the moment the horse departs into the gait. Or, the rider is concerned about the horse going too fast, so she pulls up on the reins at the same time she is asking the horse to go more forward. Or sometimes, the rider’s hands are just not moving with the horse as he drops his head in each stride.

When you cue a horse to canter, you should reach up toward his ears with both hands to give him the release he needs to drop his head in the stride. With each and every stride of the canter, your hands should extend forward as your hips move forward to give the release he needs with every stride.

Your horse has already learned to fear the transition, so you’ll have to really exaggerate the release for some time and eventually he’ll come to trust that you will not hit him in the mouth and he does not have to be afraid and throw his head up in the air.

All of these issues—how to cue, how to ride the canter and dealing with problems—are addressed in Volume 4 of Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Canter with Confidence. In addition, it covers refining the canter, lead changes and collection at the canter.
–Julie Goodnight

Riding Skills: Feeling Canter Leads

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Hi Julie,

I have trouble feeling my canter leads, and I know the worst thing I can do is look down. What is the best way to feel the lead?
Also, I’m confused about the direction of the circle you make with your hips when cantering. I heard I’m supposed to go counter-clockwise on both the left and right-rein, and clockwise on the counter-canters. Is this true? Does it even matter?

Thanks,
Alissa

Answer: Alissa,

Feeling canters leads is not hard, either is feeling posting diagonals. But to do either, you have to know what you are feeling and have the self-discipline not to look; think about how it feels for a few strides, make your decision then look if you need to verify your results.
When the horse canters on the right lead, both his right hind and right fore are leading over the left legs (visa versa with the left lead) and he picks them up higher and reaches farther forward with those legs. Therefore his back will be slightly crooked underneath your seat, both front-to-back and side-to-side.

In your hips you’ll feel your inside hip in front of your outside, so if he is on the right lead, your right hip and leg will be in front of your left hip and leg. Because he is picking both leading legs up higher, you’ll also feel your weight shift to the outside, so if he is on the right lead, you’ll feel more weight in your left seat bone and left stirrup.

This unevenness that you feel in his back is important in setting your horse up for the correct lead, cueing for the canter and cueing for flying lead changes. As you go about cueing your horse for canter, you basically set your body into the canter position for the lead—your outside leg down and back (which tends to bring your inside hip and leg forward), your inside rein lifted (which shifts your weight into the outside stirrup), then a push with your seat in the canter motion (like you are pushing a swing) tells the horse to canter.

To execute a right-to-left flying lead change, you’ll first exaggerate the position your body is in on the right lead (right leg forward, weight in left stirrup, slight lift of right rein), then about a stride or two before you want to change leads, you bring your entire position back to center, then shift into the left lead body position (left leg forward, right leg back and down, left rein lifted).

There is great detail on all of this in volume 4 in my riding DVD series, Canter with Confidence, including cueing, feeling leads, dealing with lead problems, controlling the canter and lead changes.

As for your second question—I think you are over thinking this. You’ve got even me confused with the clockwise and counter clockwise stuff! Your hips do make a circle at the canter, but you do not need to worry about which way and you won’t need to be doing the hula dance. Your hips circle front-to-back at the canter, much like when you are pushing a swing. They move in the same direction no matter which lead you are on or which direction you are going—the only difference is that on the right lead you’ll feel your right hip leading and visa versa on the left. Sometimes too much thinking gets in the way of feel!

PS- if you’re interested in learning to feel posting diagonals, check out my Training Library for related articles and one of our most popular episodes of Horse Master was on this subject. It was episode #204, Feel the Beat: http://signin.juliegoodnight.com/videos/horse-master-shows/episode-204-feel-the-beat. You’ll need a Library or Interactive Membership to watch full episodes. Not a member yet? Go to http://horsetraininghelp.com to join. If you want to watch a clip, click here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soS3HRr94P8

Enjoy the ride!
Julie

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Issues From The Saddle: Pulley Rein

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Julie,

I’m sure you deal with loads of emails, I hope you get this one. I’ve been taking riding lessons every week for a few months (I used to ride when I was younger). The school I go to is very good, the horses are very fit and mostly well behaved. My instructor is a retired show-jumper. We are riding in an arena and at the moment and there have only been 4 or 5 people in the lesson the past few weeks and the horses are getting a bit excitable/fast. I can control my horse alright at the beginning of the lesson and the speed is ok when I’m using the space but when it comes to pick up the pace my horse is fine to start off with but it’s hard to keep a controlled canter after a certain amount of time. I find my horse raises his/her neck and really wants to go for it. I find I stop myself from going into a canter as the horse is hard to slow down when excited. We have had a couple of instances where one horse plays up and gallops uncontrollably upsetting the other horses. There are also instances where a horse passes another and they decide to have it out, this ends up in a small gallop/tantrum. I feel nervous with this and my horse knows it. Does this sound like a controlled lesson? Are the horses badly matched for the lesson? How can I get my horse’s attention away from the others? And what is the best way to get a controlled canter when the horse is excited? Can I add that it’s now -5 degrees C, so I don’t know if the horses are reacting to the cold too? Look forward to your reply.

Lindy
SCOTLAND

Answer: Dear Lindy,

Thanks for your questions. It sounds like a bit of a wild ride you are taking in your lessons. Without actually seeing the horses and riders, it is difficult for me to make judgment, but it does sounds like perhaps some of the riders are over-mounted and the lesson is a bit out of control (or “OC” as we say here in the Colorado 😉

Certainly cold weather conditions combined with stalled horses could contribute to the exuberance of the horses. Perhaps it would be useful to longe the horses or turn them out to play before riding. In this instance, I prefer to work a horse in the round pen or free-longe in a big pen, to take the edge off of him. In the round pen, I can also gain better control over the horse mentally and put him in a frame of mind to focus on me and be obedient. This attitude will carry into the riding arena quite nicely. I would hate to place judgment on what is going on in your lessons, without actually being there and seeing it for myself, but it seems like the horses are out of control and disobedient at times. I can tell you that if I had horses in a lesson that were out of control and feeding off of each other, I would change my lesson plan and revert back to improving control and work with the students on training and behavioral issues.

I think it is also a good idea to give people the tools they need to control fractious horses. For this, I teach riders two different techniques, one for every day use and one for emergency stops. The emergency stopping technique is known as the “pulley rein.” It is a rather abrupt motion that will stop any horse when done correctly, since you are able to apply significant leverage to the horse’s mouth. The two most common instances when I teach this technique is when I am doing a jumping clinic and we are jumping out on open courses (where horses tend to get very strong and can easily get away from you) and also when people are dealing with fear issues and need the confidence to know that they can stop their horse, ‘come hell or high water’.

The pulley rein is executed by shortening one rein as tight as you can and pushing your knuckles into the horse’s neck, with your hand braced and centered over its neck (it is important that this hand is pressed into the neck and not floating free). Then you slide your other hand down the other rein as far forward as you can and pull straight back and up with all your weight. Since the first rein is locked and braced, it is preventing your horse’s head from turning, so the pull on the second rein creates a lot of pressure.

If the pulley rein is executed correctly, you can stop a runaway horse on its nose. This is far preferable to pulling the out-of-control horse into a circle, since that may cause him to lose his footing and fall down. This technique requires some practice and the practice can be very hard on your horse, so many instructors do not like to teach this emergency stopping technique. However, when you are out of control, it is a great tool to have in your bag of tricks and it can be very useful for slowing down a strong horse, with a little pulley action every few strides then a release (use it with your half-halt).

One of the very worst things you can do, when trying to slow down or stop a horse, is pull back on both reins at the same time. This will almost always make the horse stiffen its neck and lock its jaw and may also pull you up and out of the saddle, or even right over the horse’s ears (ass over tea-kettle, so to speak).

Pulling on both reins continuously will often cause the horse to “run through the bridle,” and the harder you pull the faster it goes. Horses are way more responsive to using the reins alternately, which is far more likely to keep them soft in the neck and flexing in the poll. Ironically, most people have been taught to pull back on both reins at the same time to stop, when using one rein can be much more effective.

Therefore, the other technique I would teach for better control is a one-rein stop or a disengagement of the hindquarters. This is done as a training process at slow speeds, before the horse gets out of control. You execute the one rein stop by picking up one rein, and one rein only, and lifting it up, not back, toward your belly button or toward your opposite shoulder (it is an upward, diagonal pull on the rein). It is critical that the other rein is completely loose.

This rein aid will turn the horse’s nose up and toward you and as he arcs throughout the length of his body, the turn will cause him to disengage, or cross his hind legs. Almost any rider is capable of feeling the horse’s hips bend as he begins to disengage the hindquarters. Disengagement will help you control the horse in two ways: speed and subordinance. When the horse crosses his hind legs in disengagement, it ceases all forward motion. As you pick up slowly on the one rein, wait until you feel the horse’s back and hip bend (that is when he is crossing his hind legs) then release the rein suddenly and completely and he should stop. If not, just reapply the aid but be sure to release as soon as you feel the horse even begin to slow down.

It should be a slow and steady lift of the rein and an instantaneous release when you feel the horse’s momentum affected. You should alternate between the right and left reins, or the inside and outside rein, so you are not affecting just one side of the horse or getting him into a habit. The one-rein stop will cause your horse to turn at first, but with practice and a timely release, he will go straight and stop. Of course, you should be using your seat aid as well; for more information on how, see the article on “Gears of the Seat” on my website. Practice the one-rein stop at walk and trot until the horse stops when you just begin to lift one hand, before much pressure is actually applied to his mouth. Make certain that you are only using only one rein. Many riders, especially those dependent on riding on direct contact all the time, have difficulty using only one rein. Many riders are also very accustomed to pulling back on reins whether turning or stopping, instead of lifting or opening, and this can also be detrimental to the horse’s balance and relaxation. It is because most of us are taught from day one to use the direct rein, and most of the time, the rider never learns the other more useful and articulate rein aids (see my website for an explanation of rein aids).

The direct rein aid is moving your hand, from the correct hand position, up and back toward your hip. It is a backward pull or a rein of opposition, which means the rein, or the pressure on the horse’s mouth, opposes the forward motion of the horse. It is often useful to use a rein aid that does not have opposition, like lifting up on the rein or out to the side, but not back.

The second benefit of the one rein stop is that disengagement of the hindquarters creates a subordinate attitude in the horse.

Disengagement is a natural behavior of horses, but it is only seen in neo-natal foals (under one month of age). When the mother disciplines the foal, it will occasionally cross its hind legs as a sign of contrition. Since crossing the hind legs takes away the horse’s ability for forward motion (or flight), it puts him in a frame of mind to have to be submissive, since fleeing is not an option.

You should be able to disengage the horse both from the ground and from the saddle and use this technique every time your horse’s attention and focus is off of you or he is OC. This is not a harsh maneuver; it should be done very quietly and slowly. Be sure to release as soon as you feel the horse’s forward motion slow. Once your horse knows what this rein-aid means, you can gently pick up one rein at any time and the horse will slow down.

Both of these cues, the pulley rein and the one-rein stop, are difficult to learn from reading about them and it would be much more useful to have someone teach it to you in person. I’d love to come to Scotland sometime for a clinic, so just let me know! Good luck with your lessons and be careful. If you feel that the situation is out of control, take responsibility for yourself and remove yourself from the danger.

Julie Goodnight

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Issues From The Saddle: Kicks Out At Canter

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I have 3 horses, all of which do the same thing. They walk and trot quietly, but when you cue for lope, they will kick up in the back. I know it’s probably a training issue, but I don’t know what to do next to try to get them into a canter without the kick up. I am a senior and have been riding all my life and showed for years, so it’s not lack of riding ability, but may be related to not riding often enough. I’m sure I could carry on once I got them started loping without getting bucked off.

Answer: Since all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior, you have to consider the common denominator, which is the rider. While you should always rule out a physical problem first, the fact that all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior tends to point to the rider. But don’t feel badly, most “horse problems” are actually rider induced and you’ll be way ahead of the curve just knowing this, because before you can solve a problem, you must identify it.

Without actually seeing you and your horses in action, I cannot really diagnose the problem, but I can tell you that this is a very common problem and I see it all the time in clinics. In fact, we have an upcoming episode of Horse Master on this very problem: over-cueing for canter.

Generally speaking, when you cue a horse for trot or canter and he launches into the gait like he was shot out of a cannon, you over-cued him. In the case of the canter cue, there are compounding issues related to the flight response. When the horse is cued to canter, in a way, you are cueing for the flight response; so if you over-cue him you may get more than you bargained for. It is not uncommon for horses to have an outburst of emotion when cued for canter and kicking out the heels is one such example.

To resolve this issue and get a smooth, relaxed canter departure, you’ll need to get more systematic in your canter cue and tone down the signal, adjusting to each horse’s level of sensitivity. While you are working to improve the canter departure, you’ll want o cue from the slow sitting trot. This gives the horses fewer options to get the right answer; but don’t cue from the long-trot. At the slow collected trot his legs are close enough together to reorganize easily into the canter but as he moves into extended trot and his legs spread farther apart, the canter is more difficult to pick up. If he misses the canter cue and goes into long-trot, bring him back immediately to slow trot by using your seat and reins to check him back. As soon as he comes back to slow trot, you’ll cue him again for the canter right away.

Before you give any cue, always prepare the horse that a cue is coming by shortening the reins slightly and closing your legs on his sides. You’ll know he is ready for a cue and listening to you when his head comes up a little and his ears come back on you; that is your horse’s way of saying, “what do you want me to do?” If you develop a consistent and systematic cue for canter, the horse will understand better and he’ll know what is coming next.

Once he’s ready and listening, you’ll give a cue using all your primary aids in sequence: legs, hands, and then seat. First, use outside leg, slightly back; this sets the horse up for the correct lead and also helps him differentiate from the trot cue, where you use two legs at the same time. Next you’ll slightly lift the inside rein; this is less of a rein cue and more of a repositioning of your body into the canter position for the inside lead, with your inside shoulder lifted and your weight in the outside stirrup. The last part of the cue is a push with your seat in the rhythm of the canter motion—like you are pushing a swing. Leg-rein-seat; in a 1-2-3 rhythm.

If your horse is eager to canter or exuberant in the departure, you’ll want to keep the focus on your seat aid, rather than on your legs. There are many horses that cue to canter just by a simple rocking of the seat in the canter motion. If the horse is over-reactive to the cue, use less and less pressure each time until he accepts the cue quietly.

By sequencing your aids and getting more systematic in your cue, your horse will learn what you want and will not stress over the cue. As you practice your transitions, you should be able to make your cues more and more subtle, using less and less pressure. Start by slowing the rhythm of the cue down so that you are taking longer to cue the horse. This helps him think through what is coming next so he is not surprised. Practice many trot-canter-trot transitions. Each time you make a transition, it should be a little smoother as the horse learns the cue better, thus reducing his anxiety.

When horses kick out at the canter departure, often it is because it seems to him as if you are yelling at him when a whisper would work. As you get more systematic with your cue and your horse comes to understand, you can use less pressure. If he is ready for the cue when it comes and you use less pressure, the kicking should go away.

Good luck!
Julie

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Cantering Help: Resistant To Canter Cue

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Question: I have a 4 yr old Arab gelding, has a wonderful jog and walk, but when ask to canter or anything faster than the jog, he displays a bad attitude, pinned ears and curled nose. I know he does have a very nice canter because he will do it out of the arena in the fields where we ride (and sometimes he has attitude with that). What are your thoughts on this?

Claudia

Answer: It sounds like your horse is resisting forward movement, probably because he is lazy. There are two types of horses, the ones with too much whoa and the ones with too much go; push-to-go or pull-to-whoa. You are blessed with a horse with too much whoa, which makes him easy to ride. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he will try to get out of work if he can. When he pins his ears and fusses, it is because he does not like the thought of working harder and he is protesting.

The canter has much more suspension (all four feet off the ground) than the trot (the walk has no suspension at all) and therefore requires a lot more physical effort on the part of the horse. He is okay with working at the walk and trot but the canter represents more effort than he is willing to put out. His hope is that by protesting (threatening gestures) you will not ask him to do that. I suspect there are some other areas where he might display this resistant behavior but maybe you have not encountered that yet.

One thing I would do is address this issue of obedience from the ground. I would put him in the round pen and put him through his paces and see if I could make him canter from the ground. Chances are, he will resist that as well. Use a lariat or whip and ask him to canter in the round pen and enforce your request. He may kick and resist, so make sure you keep a safe distance from him. Ask him to canter, enforce it with the whip or rope, make him canter a few strides and then let him trot or walk.

There is an old saying in horsemanship that says, “All of training occurs in transitions.” It is not so important that he canters around the round pen ad nauseum, but that he obediently picks up the canter when asked. As soon as he appears to be cantering without resistance, go ahead and let him trot or walk, even if he has only gone a few strides.

Also, from the lead line, you should be able to move the horse around you in a circle at the trot (it is too small a circle to ask him to canter) without any resistance from him. You will have to use a long lead. I use a rope halter and 12′ training lead for this type of work (you can buy the type of rope halter with 12′ training lead that I use on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com). If you need to, use a stick or flag to help you move the horse out in a circle around you. This is similar to longeing a horse and it helps if you have previous experience doing this. It is important that you stay behind the horse’s balance point (girth area) and drive him forward and away from you. Many people have trouble driving a horse away from them because they try to lead him in a circle or they stay in front of the balance point. You have to stay behind the balance point to get a horse to move away from you.

Once the horse will move out willingly in the round pen and on the lead line, he should be more willing and more obedient when you are riding. Be prepared to enforce your cue to canter with a stick or slap of the rein. Another concept in horse training is “Ask, Tell, Command.” This means that you ask once lightly and politely, then harder and then pull out the big guns. Unusually with a lazy horse I go right from ask to command because they will take every opportunity you offer not to do the work. The most important thing is that you reinforce your cue and do not ask, ask, ask, and ask; which only serves to prove to the horse that you do not really mean what you say and that there are no ramifications if he does not respond.

Make sure that when you ask him to canter, you are giving an adequate release of the reins, so that you are not contradicting your signal and giving him a legitimate reason to complain. When a horse canters, his head drops down with every stride. Often riders do not give an adequate release when they cue the horse to canter and the horse tries to pick the canter up, drops his head into the bit and stops. This is very frustrating to the horse and is a good reason for him to resist.

Once you have asked the horse to canter and he does, wait until he is cantering willingly, relaxed and forward before you ask him to stop. Do not canter to the point of diminishing returns. All of training occurs in transitions, so it is the asking and the compliance that causes positive training, not how far or how long you canter.

Good luck!

Julie Goodnight

Trainer and Clinician

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Cantering Help: My Horse Can’t Canter

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Question: Julie,

I have just gotten another horse that I have fallen in love with!!! She is a Fox Walker (Tennese Walker Fox Troter) Buckskin…. I have been working hard on my balance as well as her and to teach her what I need and want her to do. She has been responding well other than no matter what I do I can NOT get her to canter. Even when I see her out in the field she does that shuffle trot. I am not sure what I am doing wrong or if she is just not a canter horse.

Sounds funny, I know, but she always acts like she is ready to go and then when I start to let her loose I feel like I am skating across the field instead of doing even a distant lope! I have no clue what to do but I am ready for some tips!

Tyrayl

Answer: Tyrayl,

Many gaited horses have difficulty with the canter. Although some gaited horses are five gaited, meaning they can walk-trot-canter in addition to their other gaits, some are not and only possess the ability to gait. If he is not able to canter out in the field on his own, it is unlikely that he could do it under saddle. As the saying goes, that dog don’t hunt.

While an experienced trainer may be able to draw the canter out of your horse, it is probably not worth it to send him to a trainer. Many gaited horse trainers do not allow their horses to canter, even if they are so inclined, in order to emphasize the other gaits and ‘set’ the horse in its gaits. I would suggest you be happy with the gaits that your horse has (that’s why you got a gaited horse to begin with, right?) and forget about the canter. Or get a Quarter Horse 😉 You can’t have everything! She sounds like a great horse—enjoy!

JG

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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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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

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