What do you do when your calm and cool horse doesn’t want to move out at the trot or canter? Resist the urge to peddle and make sure your horse will listen to your cues. Find out how Julie helped this rider work with her slow and steady horse—first ruling out pain then making sure the horse follows her leadership.
I have a four-year-old gelding. He has a wonderful jog and walk. When he is asked to canter or do anything faster than the jog he displays a bad attitude—complete with 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 still has attitude with that, but he will move out more). What are your thoughts on this? –Claudia
It sounds like your horse is resisting forward movement. There are two types of horses: the ones with too much whoa and the ones with too much go; you find that depending on the horse you must always 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. He would rather stand still or amble along at the slow and steady gaits. When he pins his ears and fusses, it is likely because he does not like the thought of working harder and he is protesting.
That said, do make sure that you have his back evaluated and make sure that the saddle fits well—those factors can cause an otherwise willing horse to resist the speedier gaits. If they feel pain, they won’t want to move. Once pain and saddle fit is ruled out, you must work on his disobedience to move faster as a training issue. And even if he did start the resistance because of pain, he’ll need to know that he is expected to move past the pain memory once all is well.
Cantering is Work
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 become aware of this yet.
Work from the Ground
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 stick and flag to apply mental pressure (by waving it) and ask him to canter in the round pen at 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 flag, ask him to 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, working from the long training lead, 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 15-foot training lead for this type of work (available at JulieGoodnight.com). Use your 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.
Back in the Saddle
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 crop or the tail of your reins if needed. While I don’t endorse whips for horses, reinforcing your horse with one quick tap is much better than constantly kicking him into the canter gait. If he learns he must follow your direction, you won’t have to constantly kick in the future.
Another concept in horse training is “Ask, Tell, Command.” This means that you ask once lightly and politely, then tell with a reprimand. Usually with a lazy horse I go right from ask to command because they will take every opportunity you offer not to do the work. He will learn the sequence quickly then not need a command in the future. 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. Reach your hands toward his ears and give him room to move forward.
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!
Trainer and Clinician
Julie Goodnight Q&A
Q: How do I get my horse to move out at the trot without breaking into a lope? He’s a western horse learning dressage and the extended trot is part of the pattern we are working on. — Jen Vieira via Facebook
A: Horses differ in their physical abilities. Remember that a horse can only extend the trot as much as his physical conformation and athleticism allows him. How far the horse will extend differs with each horse. You’ll need to find out how much you can extend the gait. You’ll push him to the limit of what he can do to extend then you’ll need to back off on your cues and not ask him for more than that. You’ll only find out how far your horse can extend if you push him to the point that he feels the need to canter. In that process, you’ll find the defining moment. When he does start to canter clarify with a half halt (a momentary application of all the aids to rebalance the horse) then immediately go back to the trot. Ask for the extended trot once again.
What’s the cue for the extended gait? To ask the horse to move into an extended trot, start from the slow sitting trot. Reach forward with both hands to give the horse somewhere to go. Your center of gravity comes slightly forward as your legs move back and close on the horse’s sides. Move into a posting trot to drive him forward with your seat. You’ll be pushing as you rise in the trot and as you sit, your legs will close on his sides to ask him for more impulsion. As you reach forward and drive him on, he’ll extend. It’s your job as a rider to find out how much you can extend the trot gait without cantering.
Keep in mind that all training occurs in transitions. Once you find out how much you can extend the trot, alternate between a slow sitting trot and an extended posting trot. Over time, you’ll ask him to hold the extended trot for longer and longer—conditioning him to hold the new gait.
Be sure to use the entire arena. It will be easiest for your horse to move out on the long sides and diagonal lines of the arena. Practice your extended trot on the long lines of the arena then move to a slow sitting trot as you round the corners of the arena.
Q: I’d like to work my new gelding in the round pen and have him focused on me. Instead, when I turn him loose, he begins trotting or cantering around quickly before I even give a command. Why does he do this and how can I help him slow down and tune in? –Tammy Buffing, via email
When it comes to horses that are speedy or downright out of control in the round pen, there are two common reasons for the behavior. Either the horse doesn’t want to be there and is herd bound—he looks outside, kicks out and carries on to show you that he really wants to get back to his herd. It’s also possible that before you got this horse, someone inadvertently trained him to run. Some people think round pen work is simply a time to run a horse around in circles– to wear him out before riding. But the truth is, there is a lot more to round pen work than that. In that scenario, the horse may learn to run around in circles as soon as he’s turned loose. He thinks that’s what he’s supposed to do.
Either way, you have a horse that is not paying attention to you and probably has no regard for you. . First in the round pen, I want to control the horse’s direction and speed. To control the horse’s movements, you need to understand the horse’s driveline. Imagine a plumb line down from the horse’s withers. If you look or step in front of that vertical line, you cue the horse to stop and or turn around (because you are blocking his path). If you aim your eyes or body behind that line, you’re pushing the horse forward. You use your position to either drive the horse forward or cut off his direction..
Use caution, the round pen can be a pressure cooker for the horse. You have him confined, but you’re chasing him as if he was out in the open. That can cause a horse to be emotional, to kick out, to try to jump out of the pen, or to simply feel uncomfortable until he understands what you’re asking for and accepts your authority. Be careful; it’s easy get kicked or run over in the round pen.
Any time you’re in the round pen, make sure to have a flag or stick with you to help you pronounce your cues and to defend your space. If you’re working a horse in the round pen, it’s probably because you need to get his attention and establish that you are in charge. The flag will help you get your horse’s attention and if he disagrees with your leadership, it’s possible he could charge you; make sure you have a tool to defend your space if needed.
I like a flag so that I can wave it and I have a way to signal the horse visually without touching him. If the horse were to become aggressive, having the attached stick helps me defend my space. I have been charged in the round pen by a several horses. Sometimes it is predictable, sometimes not. You can’t predict how a horse will react when he is learning to follow your round pen cues. Kicking and charging are normal horse behaviors and you need to be prepared.
Your speedy horse is probably looking anywhere but at you. To slow a speedy horse, you’ll need to change his direction a lot. And to change his direction, you’ll need to visually block his way and get him to notice you. You’ll need to cut him off and send him in the opposite direction. You can’t just step directly in front of him or he may run you over. Plan ahead and visualize where the horse will be when he continues three quarters of the way around the pen. Then walk to that point of intersection. That gives him plenty of time to see you and stop and turn.
If you start turning the horse around every time you lose his attention, he will start thinking about you more. Turning around is extremely difficult. When the horse turns into the fence, he has to stop abruptly, roll back onto his haunches and launch forward—that uses lots of energy. If you turn him and after a few strides he starts going too fast again, turn him around again. Soon, he’ll get tired of turning. He’ll start to focus on you to see when he’ll have to turn around again. If he seems tired, see if he’ll stop instead of stop and turn.
If he’ll stop, I’ll walk to the fence that is away from the horse and talk to a friend. If your friend is close enough to watch, it’s interesting to hear about what the horse does as your back is turned. As long as he’s looking at you, allow him to stay still and rest. If your friend reports that he has looked away, put him back to work.
As soon as he looks outside the pen or speeds up, turn him around. You’ll see results in the first session. If he starts benefitting from looking at you—by being allowed to slow down or to stop and rest—he’ll give you his attention for longer and longer periods.
There’s a whole lot more to round pen work than a casual observer would ever see or understand. There’s so much communication and purpose in this complicated work. There are specific steps to take in the round pen—first drive the horse away, then control direction, then control speed. Even people who own horses don’t always realize how much is going on and may think that a round pen is just a place to chase a horse around to wear him out before a ride. Make sure to study the body language of horses and to learn all the ways you can communicate with your horse in this setting. If done correctly, the round pen can be a place where you establish your leadership and show the horse great rewards for listening and seeing your cues.
Surviving First Canter Lessons
By Julie Goodnight
Canter: Sometimes, the mere mention of the word is enough to send riding students into panic and cause high blood pressure in the instructor. And it usually isn’t much fun for the school horses either. But there is a great allure to cantering, whether the rider is mortified of it or not, and it is the stuff of their dreams– cantering off into the sunset with their trusted steed.
Before even thinking about introducing your students to the canter, consider this age-old wisdom of classical horsemanship: the best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot. I tell this to riders in my clinics all the time. Don’t get in a hurry to canter; keep working at the trot until you are ready. When the rider can ride the trot well; posting, sitting and standing; circling and going straight; making effortless transitions up and down; it is time to introduce the canter.
There are many different opinions on how to teach the first canter and there is no one right way (although there are many wrong ways, like starting them all at the same time). After 30 years of teaching and working with thousands of riders, I have come up with some dos and don’ts that have served me well over the years.
First and most important Do–always check the cinch or girth before starting any canter work. In normal circumstances at the canter (with an experienced rider) the rider’s weight shifts into the outside stirrup (when the horse is on the correct lead) and the saddle can get crooked. Add to that equation a loose cinch and an off-balance rider and it is highly likely someone is going to eat dirt.
Although I know of instructors that have had success teaching the canter on a longe line, personally I would never do it that way. learning to ride the canter on a straight line is much easier than turning. Where you tend to lose riders is in the corners or on the turns. Even on a straight line at the canter, the rider’s weight is shifting to the outside if the horse is on the correct lead. The centrifugal energy created by putting the horse on a longe line exacerbates his problem. Many beginner school horses don’t have the training and conformation to canter a small circle in a balanced way, making it ever harder for the rider to learn. It’s not to say that it can’t be done safely; it can– with the right horse and a suitable environment. But for me, I like to keep them on the straight away at first.
I think it is really important to prepare your students well before their first canter. I like to talk about how it is different from the walk and trot, talk about what suspension is and how the gait feels and how your body moves at each gait, particularly the differences between the trot and canter (more vertical–up and down movement at the trot and more pumping/circular motion at the canter).
“I like the beginner riders to only canter the long straight line of the arena and to bring the horse back to trot before the corner.”
The single biggest mistake beginner riders make is leaning forward and closing the pelvis at the canter, causing them to get thrown up and out of the saddle in a posting motion each time the horse comes into suspension. So I really emphasize sitting back, even slightly behind the vertical. This is why “pushing the swing” is such an effective analogy for the canter.
I think it is critically important to have a good demonstration of what it looks like to ride the canter, before they do it, so they have a good visual image of how to ride the canter. I also think it is important in the demonstration to show what happens
to the horse’s head as he canters (moving down with each stride) and especially how far he drops his head on the very first stride as he is launching his entire body weight off the ground. I spend a lot of time explaining what happens to the horse if the rider does not give an adequate release and causes the horse to slam his mouth into the bridle. This is a particular concern for fearful riders who may flinch and suck up on the reins when the horse first starts to canter. When this happens, the rider is punishing the horse for doing something she asked the horse to do. That is very unfair to the horse and at best will prevent the horse from cantering and at worst will make the horse fear the canter departure and distrust the rider.
How you set up your riders for the first canter depends a lot on the number of riders in the group, the horses, the size of arena, and how much help, if any, that you have. There are many acceptable ways to do it– each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Do you keep the horses in the middle and put them out to the rail one or two at a time? Do you line them
up on the rail and proceed around one at a time to the end of the line? Do you keep the line moving and play “catch up”?
For me, since I teach in the clinic setting, with 15 riders of varying ability levels, some very advanced and some having never cantered, I have certain parameters I must work within to keep all the riders active and happy. I like to keep all the horses on the rail, moving at a walk or trot, and ask two or three horses at a time to canter, coming to the inside track while all the other horses stay glued to the rail. I start with the advanced riders first so that the newbies can watch and so that their horses can see that horses are cantering and start thinking about it.
I like the beginner riders to only canter the long straight line of the arena and to bring the horse back to trot before the corner. This helps them stay better balanced and in control. Trying to canter the turn rarely works for the first time anyway because the rider tends to pull back with both reins to turn causing the horse to break gait. Cantering around the turn is a great next goal, once the rider is getting the feel of the canter.
Cantering short distances seems to work well at first. often you’ll see riders sit the canter pretty well for the first few strides then they gradually tense up and start bouncing, which leads to more tension and a downward spiral. Instead, I have them just go a few strides down the long side then come back to trot and get their composure back before trying it again. Besides, another important classical wisdom is that all of training occurs in transitions, so they are learning greater control at the same time.
“Always use gate gravity to your advantage.”
Riders that are nervous about cantering have a hard time convincing the horse that is what they really want. Their hesitancy and ambivalence is clear to the horse and since the horse probably doesn’t want to canter anyway, he’ll side with the part of the rider that says she doesn’t really want to canter. Also, most beginner horses have been hit in the mouth by the rider at the canter, so they aren’t all that enthusiastic about it anyway.
To mitigate this problem, I often set up the horses the first couple of times at the opposite end from the barn or gate, so at least the horse is headed in a direction he wants to go. If the horse is more energetic and eager to canter or might go too fast, I set them up to canter away from the gate. Always use gate gravity to your advantage.
If a horse has not been asked to canter in a while, he has long since stopped thinking about it and may be difficult to transition into the canter. In this instance, and in the instance of a fearful rider, it often helps if I get on the horse and ask it to canter a few times. This puts the cue and the thought of cantering fresh in the horse’s mind and is often reassuring to the fearful rider that the horse can indeed canter without the horse running off or pitching a bucking fit. But no good deed goes unpunished because sometimes I end up being asked to canter almost every horse in the clinic, which is time consuming, not to mention tiring!
The main things I don’t do at the first canter, is have everyone go all at once or push a rider to canter when they are reluctant. Even when I know most of the riders in my clinic are experienced and comfortable at the canter, I want to watch them each closely the first time to make sure all is as it should be. once I am comfortable that the riders and horses are in control, I’ll let them canter as a group. I also don’t worry too much about leads– that comes later, as we work on control at the canter and better cueing.
like all things with horses, the more experience you have, the easier it becomes. An experienced instructor can even keep track of the horses behind her back, unconsciously listening to the footfalls to let her know when the horses are traveling at a slow steady speed or when the footfalls sound suspicious.
As Mark Twain said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a whole lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Proceed cautiously and learn from the mistakes of others, so you keep your bad judgments to a minimum.
Top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you analyze your riding posture and prepare you for the perfect canter. Find out how rider errors contribute to wrong leads and more.
By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco
PHOTOS BY HEIDI MELOCCO
Cantering is the topic of choice at many of my clinics. Riders want to know how to ride the complex gait with confidence and what they can do to canter more easily. I often hear “my horse will never pick up the right lead,” “what can I do to stop this horrible fast trot that comes before my horse will canter,” and “my horse won’t keep cantering once we get the gait.” These are my top three cantering complaints and the easiest problems to fix—with a little bit of rider awareness, a new plan to make cantering cues clear, and an attitude shift to help riders know that they are in charge and can expect their horses to do what was asked.
When a horse is well trained and has cantered many miles in the past, I believe that ninety-nine percent of canter concerns are rider induced—there’s always something the rider can do to make their ride better and to help their horse know exactly what they expect. Here, I’ll help you understand how your body position, tension and timing may be telling your horse something different than you think. You’ll have the tips and tools you need to step into the canter with a clear cue and knowing that you’re sequencing your cues so that your horse can easily understand your requests.
Why does the lead matter? It’s difficult for the horse to balance himself if you ride around a corner. If your horse is following your exact cue, he should take the lead that you ask for—not just start cantering and choose a lead himself. Plus, for competition, there’s often a required lead depending on the direction you’re tracking or according to the pattern. All that said, if you’re riding straight down the trail or the middle of the arena, there is no correct lead to take. But to be a better horseman, it’s best to know what you’re asking your horse to do.
When riders come to clinics and they want to work on leads, I first ask if the horse takes the wrong lead when traveling both directions. If the horse misses his leads in both directions, there’s most likely a cueing problem. The horse isn’t clear about what lead you want him to take and he isn’t set up to take the correct lead.
What goes wrong with a cue? Many riders can’t state what they do to cue for the canter. Because you have to cue for a specific gait and cue for a lead, there are lots of variations in cues and there’s lots of confusion.
The horse pushes off into the canter with the outside hind leg. If you’re asking for the right lead, the horse first pushes off with the left hind (and vice versa).
Use your outside leg to reach back a few inches and apply pulsating pressure there with your Achilles tendon. To prep for a right lead, move your left leg back. A well-trained horse will step his hips to the right. This movement is done at the walk or while standing still. I practice this move at the walk in a relaxed and easy frame without thinking about adding speed. You need to be able to reach back and get the horse to yield his haunches. That needs to be a cue to move the haunches and not just a cue to speed up. I like to walk straight down the long side of the arena, reach back, if the horse yields his hip, release him and pet him. Do that over and over until the horse knows that the cue to move his hip. Once your horse can proceed with a canter cue. The horse is now set up for the correct lead. That’s called “haunches in.”
For me, the canter cue is outside leg to move the haunches in, then I lift up and inward with the inside rein to keep the horse from diving in, then the actual cue to canter comes when I curl my hips in the canter motion (which is a move like pushing a swing.) I also like to use a kissing sound. It’s all about the sequence—outside leg, inside rein, push with the seat and kiss. I would guess that 80 percent of people who think their horse has a lead problem find that the problem goes away once they clarify their cueing sequence.
Caption: Practice “haunches in” at the walk and trot so that you know you can control your horse’s hips before adding speed and cueing for the lead at the same time.
If your horse is still having trouble with leads after working on “haunches in,” try cueing your horse right before the turn to the short side of the arena. Make sure to cue before the turn and not during the turn. If your horse enters the turn, he’ll actually turn his hips to the outside and he may take the wrong lead as his hips pop out. This is why circling isn’t a great way to teach a horse to pick up a lead. As you pull your horse into the circle, the horse pulls his hip to the outside, he can’t pick up the correct lead, but if you’re going straight then just start to turn, he’s still moving correctly at that moment.
Caption: Cue your horse for the canter just before you turn to help him place his hips correctly to pick up the correct lead.
If the horse will only take one lead, there’s a chance that there’s a physical issue. This is true especially if your horse usually takes the correct lead and suddenly isn’t so willing. If that’s the case, I want to rule out physical issues and have the horse evaluated by a veterinarian or veterinarian who’s also an equine chiropractor. If it’s an old injury, especially on a hind leg, the horse may have learned to compensate and just isn’t as strong when traveling to one direction.
Trotting into the Canter
Cueing can be the culprit again. If you release the horse from the cue at the wrong time, the horse will learn to do whatever he was doing when he got the release. I typically see two types of horses who become afraid of the canter. If the horse becomes afraid to canter, the rider may be reluctant. The rider picks up on the reins or pulls back at the moment of cueing. Even if the rider is reluctant in their mind, the horse may pick up on that.
Other times it is a cueing issue. If you think you’re cueing for the horse to canter and instead he just trots faster and faster and faster, you’re probably releasing the cue at the wrong time. Compliant and trained horses can learn to take the cue to canter as a cue to trot faster. If the horse mistakes the cue and you start riding a fast trot—by posting or by sitting the trot—you are condoning the trot and telling the horse that he’s doing the right thing. Or, the rider stops the horse because he trotted instead of cantered. Once the horse gets a break, he thinks he’s been rewarded and he did the right thing. The horse doesn’t want to canter, he wants to work as little as possible.
If the horse mistakes your cue, make sure that you have a clear cue. If you’re confident of your cue sequence and your horse still trots faster, let him know that isn’t what you’re asking for. Stop him abruptly and immediately recue him for the canter. If he does it again, abruptly slow him down with a stop cue using your seat and reins then immediately ask again. Make sure not to give him a break and keep applying the pressure of the whole cueing process until he gives you the right answer and starts to canter. This is the same training sequence you’d use if you want to alleviate the trot or even a step taken before the horse begins to canter—to teach the stop to canter or walk to canter.
Caption: This young horse had not cantered often and thought a cue to speed up meant to trot more. Notice that I am sitting deeply and not posting with the trot. Soon, he understood and picked up the canter
Note that when the horse began to canter, my hands are forward and low, in front of the saddle horn. This position lets him know that rein pressure won’t mean too much pressure on his mouth when his head moves down into the canter.
Make sure to praise your horse when he picks up on your new, more precise cues.
Avoiding the canter: The horse’s nose dives down with every stride of the canter as he’s lifting his back and hindquarters and stretches his nose down. This happens especially on the first stride when he moves from no impulsion to full impulsion. If you as a rider don’t actively give a release with your reins, with each stride and at the beginning, the horse hits the bit. If you’re even just tense and don’t relax your hands to help the horse get a release of the reins, you can be adding to the problem. If your horse has a lazy demeanor and hits the bit, he takes that as full permission to stop cantering. If your horse is sensitive and nervous, he may hit that bit and get scared and therefore lose trust in you as a rider.
Whether it’s because of a cueing problem or because the horse has felt the bit in his mouth, the answer is the same. As soon as you step into the canter and with every stride of the gait, you need to reach forward and down (not up, that can still hit the horse in the mouth as your horse’s head goes down). If your horse is reluctant to canter –they actually become afraid to canter and throw their heads in the air and run in a panic. When I’m attempting to break that habit, I over exaggerate and reach farther forward than necessary to show the horse that he can trust me.
If you don’t think you can make an exaggerated change to break this habit with your horse, consider asking a more experienced rider work with your horse to show you how the canter can look and to remind the horse that stepping into the canter doesn’t have to mean getting hit in the mouth. You’ll still have to make an exaggerated change when you’re back in the saddle because he knows the difference between riders. You’ll have to focus on fixing yourself, but you’ll get a boost of confidence to see someone else riding your horse and knowing what your horse can do.
Trotting into the canter can also be a problem if you haven’t cantered your horse for a long period of time. If you haven’t cantered recently, your horse might think that your go faster cue just means trot and trot faster. It will take your horse a few times to understand what you’re asking for and it’s important to cue your horse with precision.
Once you’re already cantering, it’s the horse’s job to keep doing what you asked for until you tell him to do something different. He should keep cantering and not choose to slow down on his own. However, horses don’t necessarily want to canter around and carry a rider –it’s hard work! Some horses will look for any mistake by the rider and use it as an excuse to stop.
Ask Julie Goodnight:
How do I overcome fears of cantering?
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!
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
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.