Explosive Canter Departures: Learning to let go and allow the horse to move forward

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I’ve learned to recognize the signs of the horse who’s afraid of the canter departure. I’ve seen it many times throughout my career: A “forward” horse (with too much go) works just fine with the rider at the walk and trot, but when cued to canter throws a wall-eyed fit. 

To me, an “explosive” canter departure is one where the horse–when cued to canter–throws his head up in an emotional fit, grabs the bit and takes off at a gallop (crow hopping and bucking as he runs increasingly faster). Often the horse will settle into a nice steady canter after 6-8 strides of crow hopping if you ride through the initial drama. That is the hallmark of the horse that is afraid of the cue–it’s not cantering that bothers him, it’s just the moment of departure.

The Cause

If a horse does this, he has learned to fear the cue and distrusts his rider. Of course you must rule out any kind of physical issue or saddle fit problem–which may be contributing to the problem. After that is ruled out as an issue, an explosive canter departure is often caused by one of two things. Either the rider has grossly over-cued the horse, or the rider has inadvertently hit the horse in the mouth on the very first stride. Often it’s a combination of both.

A really forward-moving horse requires very little cueing and probably no leg cues at all. A novice rider learning the canter cue and trying to follow the complicated instructions in an uncoordinated way will almost certainly over-cue a forward horse. Some horses are so easy to get into the gait that cueing them should be more of an “allowing” them to canter than actively cueing for the canter. For those horses, as soon as you start riding it, they canter; as soon as you think canter, they step into it. Many riders have trouble bringing the cue down to the horse’s level of sensitivity; and instead, they over-cue and end up with a canter departure that looks like the horse was shot out of a cannon.

When the horse goes into the canter, he first lifts up and rocks back on his haunches, then lunges forward, pushing off with his hind legs as his nose dives down into the bit. If the rider is afraid to canter, she freezes up–at the moment the horse lifts up to push off into the first stride and clinches the reins. This causes the horse to hit the bit hard as he lunges forward and hurts his mouth. In that moment, the rider has essentially punished the horse for doing what she asked. So you can see how that might make a horse a little emotional and it would make it hard for the horse to trust the rider.

Fearful Horses

Recently, I met a horse and rider who were the poster children for this combination of training problems. It was indeed a very forward horse—one you only need think into the canter. He was a very handsome and kind-looking sport horse and he worked beautifully for his rider at the walk and trot. I knew as I watched her warm up, first with groundwork and then mounted work, that she was afraid to let the horse move forward and she seemed obsessed with control—stopping every-other step. Go-stop-go-stop.

The best thing you can do with a forward horse is let them move forward. A lot. Make them think it’s your idea. After all, forward motion is the basis of all training. Watching her, I knew that she was afraid of the horse’s forward energy and she was obsessed with controlling and containing it rather than just letting the horse move out with some freedom (and trust). I was not surprised when she declined to ask the horse to canter; she was sure he would go ballistic at any moment. That wasn’t the same impression I had of the horse—he seemed kind and willing.

Yes, her horse had a history of bucking at the canter departure. Indeed, it was the very problem that brought him to be a cast member on my Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV show. All the signs pointed to a horse that was emotional at the canter departure because he had been over cued, then halted with heavy hands as soon as he took off into the requested gait. The rider had no reason to trust the horse, but the horse had even less of a reason to trust the rider. After being asked to move forward, then hit in the mouth by her halting rein cues, he learned that the canter was something to fear. It was going to hurt. With this riding pattern, she constantly reminded her horse not to trust her. Asking him to do something then criticizing him when he did it would understandably cause resentment.

For the rider, her obsession for stopping was about wanting to make sure she had control. Ironically, she would have far more control (and far less emotionality) by letting the horse move forward.

The Answer

When I got on the big, warmblood gelding, my plan was to move him out at a strong trot, changing directions frequently and flexing his neck a lot, to get some of his forward energy in check. He was very responsive and it wasn’t too long before I was the one pushing him forward and he was thinking slower might be nice. When I felt he was ready, I reached way forward with both my hands, sat on his back and then gently started moving my seat in the canter rhythm. His first transition with the new canter cue was a bit exuberant, some might say explosive. He crow hopped and offered a small buck. But in just a few strides, he settled into a lovely working canter in a soft and rounded frame.

At that moment, I knew my initial suspicions were correct. He had been afraid of the transition. He wasn’t unwilling to canter. A soft cue and teaching him that I would not touch him with my rein aids allowed him to gain confidence and start to trust me.

With each subsequent transition from trot to canter, he was smoother and smoother as he came to understand two important things. First, that I would not hit him in the mouth or snatch up the reins when he did what I asked (me reaching extra far forward with my hands as part of the cue was my promise of that). Secondly, I would not “yell” at him (over cue) when I asked for the canter.

Turned out that the Reach-Sit-Pump cue was fine for him—he required no leg aid and hardly any seat aid to canter. Soon, the horse was stepping nicely into the canter with a very relaxed back when I reached and sat (no pumping of the seat required). He quickly gave his trust to me; horses are amazing that way—if you change the way you are doing things, they come right along with you.

Learning to Trust

Getting him to trust his owner, and her to trust him, was a greater challenge. It is a huge dilemma; when you are riding a horse that feels too fast and you have visions in your head of the horse running away with you, it is very hard to give him his freedom and let him move forward. But that is exactly what the horse needed. Time and time again, when horses are going too fast, loosening of the reins is what causes them to slow down. But it takes a lot of willpower, when you are afraid, to trust the horse and give him his freedom.

The horse that is bucking or crow-hopping at the canter needs to move forward at the canter until he relaxes his back and then allow him to stop (stopping a bucking horse only serves to reward his bucking). Nothing could be harder than to let go of a tight hold on a horse that you think you cannot control, but this rider did an incredible job. She was an excellent rider—certainly more than qualified to be riding this horse. And she totally understood the logic of the situation; but summoning up the courage to actually do it, was the challenge. And she did it!

It will take time for these two to learn to completely trust each other, but I am confident it will happen. Horses in general are happier when you let them move forward—especially a high energy horse. The key to good horsemanship is controlling the forward movement not trying to staunch it.

The underlying lesson for all of us is, that when our horses are acting emotional or resistant when we are riding, we must consider what WE are doing that is contributing to the problem. Often it is a “chicken and egg” scenario—is the rider afraid because the horse bucked or is the horse afraid because the rider contradicted herself by asking then snatching up the reins to stop? In the end it doesn’t matter which came first, because the dynamic is there now. But only one of you is capable of breaking the cycle.

You have to analyze and understand the problem, figure out the solution and then summon the courage to execute the solution. Breaking old dynamics is very hard but the outcome can be extremely rewarding, as it was in this case. We have several videos in the Horse Master with Julie Goodnight Academy site on this very subject. Hope you’ll check out the videos there and that you’ll join our Academy to watch: http://JulieGoodnight.com/search and enter key word “explosive canter.” You can watch this very horse and rider in the episode, “Let it Go,” when the new shows are posted there, too.

Enjoy the ride

—Julie Goodnight

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,