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

Cantering Help: Cross-Cantering

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Question: Hi Julie,

I enjoyed your January newsletter and loved the idea of combining working out with riding!!! I have a problem with a horse that I hope you can help me with. I recently purchased a 6-year-old appendix QH mare to use in my lesson program. She is really sweet, willing and cute. The problem is when she canters she crossfire’s in the rear. She does this both directions. She will pick up the correct lead, canter once around the arena, trot and switch. She will canter like this a few strides and switch back. She does this the whole time she is cantering. What can I do to correct this problem? Is it a balance issue?? Is it a strength issue?? It concerns me because if I have a student on her in a bareback pad and she does this they could get bounced off, plus my daughter wants to show her English this year in 4H. Help!!

Thanks for your time in advance, Julie.

Lorna

Answer: Hi Lorna,

Cross-canter is the proper term for the gait that is commonly called “cross-firing” or “disunited.” It refers to when a horse is cantering on one lead in front and the other lead in back. As opposed to the correct lead, which is when both front and hind inside legs lead. The cross-canter feels very rough and is awkward for both horse and rider.

The problem you describe with your horse could be a balance issue but it could also be caused by a back problem or other unsoundess. I would suggest you get her checked out by a vet and/or equine chiropractor. If she has a problem with her back or hips, it could be inhibiting her ability to canter correctly.

If a physical problem were ruled out, I would start working her a lot on haunches-in and leg-yielding (two tracking) to develop her strength and coordination in her hips. Once she does well with haunch control, go back to canter and try to keep her haunches-in while she canters. The horse pushes off into the canter stride with the outside hind leg. By keeping her haunches bent slightly to the inside, it keeps more weight on the outside hind so that she has to push off with that leg and so she maintains the correct lead.

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 you are ready to start cantering again, only canter short lengths so that she can maintain the proper stride. Gradually increase the number of strides you ask for as she 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 unmounted), 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.

Good luck!

Julie Goodnight

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