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.
Use your voice and seat as stopping cues to help your horse understand that you want to slow down. This will give him the chance to stop willingly, so you won’t have to apply rein pressure to his mouth during everyday riding.
In the November/December 2010 issue of The Trail Rider, Julie Goodnight explains how to use emergency stopping techniques.
While it’s important to know how to stop in an emergency, such techniques aren’t the best way to stop your horse during everyday rides. Instead, learn to stop your horse with voice and seat cues and without needing to pull on the reins.
By using your voice and seat as stopping cues, you’ll help your horse understand that you want him to slow down. This will give him the chance to stop willingly, so you won’t have to apply rein pressure to his mouth during everyday riding.
(Note: For Goodnight’s Horse Master video clips on how to teach the stop, visit http://horsemaster.tv, and look for “Out of Hand” and “Whoa Means Whoa.”)
Avoid the Pull
If you pull on two reins to stop your horse, the pressure on his mouth is so great that he’ll lean into and brace against it. If he is constantly leaning into the pressure, he’ll develop a stiff brace in each side of his neck.
When this happens, you’re in a tug-o-war with the horse—a game that’s impossible to win, because of the weight difference between you and him.
It’s imperative that you use your seat/weight aid when asking your horse to stop, Goodnight teaches. If you pull on the reins first, without using your seat, you are sending him conflicting signals. Your seat says go and your reins say whoa.
3 Steps to the Stop
When teaching any new cue to your horse, sequence the cue into three parts. In this case, the three steps consist of the following:
- Step 1.Exhale, and say “whoa.”
- Step 2: Shift your seat/weight back.
- Step 3: Pick up the reins, but only if necessary.
If your horse ignores the pre-signals and needs a bit of rein pressure as a teaching tool, pull back gently with a right-left motion, instead of pulling on both reins at the same time.
If you use this sequence consistently, your horse will learn to stop before you ever touch his mouth.
(Note: For details and a visual aid, go to www.juliegoodnight.com, and look for Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD, “Communication and Control.” You’ll learn to break down the whoa cue into distinct parts, so that your horse gets a pre-signal with your voice and seat before feeling pressure on his mouth.)
Enlist a Friend
Although this pattern seems simple, it’s not always easy to distinguish your cues into three parts. Have a knowledgeable riding buddy watch you to make sure that you’re making this distinction. Ask her to make sure you’re first saying “whoa,” then shifting your seat, then picking up the reins.
Your friend just might catch you saying whoa and using your seat at the same time—even if you feel like you’re executing these steps in order.
Keep practicing! Your horse will love you for it! All horses are happy to do that if they know it to be an option. No horse in the world wants you to pull on his mouth.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Nyland (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Longmont, Colorado.
Trainer Julie Goodnight explains what to do if your horse is misreading the cue to canter.
If your horse walks sluggishly on the trail, there’s a chance your body cues are keeping him at a slow pace. Your horse should walk with a cadenced beat and allow you to keep up with fellow riders without breaking into a trot.
Improve your horsemanship, and develop a kind, trustworthy relationship with your trail horse with top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight. Teach your horse to sidepass for greater on-trail maneuverability.
When you teach your horse to sidepass, you learn to control his every foot placement and guide his every step. If you teach your horse this skill correctly, he’ll respond to your every cue and to your natural aids (seat, hand, and leg).
Here, top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight will teach you how to position your body so that your horse will quickly understand that you’re asking for sideways movement. She’ll help you reinforce this new skill by asking you to practice it using a fence line as a guide.
Natural-horsemanship lesson: You’ll learn how to use your primary natural aids – your seat, legs and hands – to cue the horse to move sideways. You’ll apply these aids to control his every step.
Why you need it on the trail: On the trail, sidepassing is an important skill. Without it, you may find yourself in a jam when you need to dodge through timber and tight openings or sidle next to another rider to offer aid. Sidepassing also comes in handy when it’s time to open a gate, drag a log, pony another horse, push aside brush, and avoid a rock or even a snake.
What you’ll do: You’ll begin by learning how to position your body so that your horse will understand the go-sideways cue. Next, you’ll reinforce your sidepass cues as you ride next to a fence or barrier to help him understand which direction to go. Once you’ve mastered your work on the fence line, you’ll progress to sidepassing over a ground pole and logs.
What you’ll need: If your horse hasn’t been trained to sidepass at all, it’s best to start out with a snaffle or curb bit with articulation between the shanks (rather than a solid mouthpiece). A bit with movement will help him better feel your side-to-side rein aids.
Skills your horse will need: Your horse needs to know how to stop with just a seat cue, go forward off your leg cue, and back up on cue (using more leg than rein).
Step #1. Learn the Cues
Tack up (see bit recommendation, above), and warm up as usual. Practice starting, stopping, and turns to make sure your horse is listening to your cues.
In this step, you’ll learn how to use your body to ask your horse for this precise cue. In the next step, you’ll introduce him to the training process by using the cue.
Keep in mind that there are only six ways a horse can move: forward, back, through the right shoulder, though the right hip, through the left shoulder, and through the left hip. Imagine these directions as the “doors” that you can open and close with your leg and rein aids. To start, we’ll open the doors to the right and close the doors to the front, back, and left.
Pick up the reins, and slightly shift your weight back to block your horse’s forward motion (that is, close the door to the front). For a sidepass to the right (shown), open the right rein (lift it slightly to encourage your horse to lift his shoulder), and slide your left hand to his neck’s midline (closing the “door” to movement to the left and opening a passageway to the right).
Open your right leg by stretching your foot to the right. (Be careful not to stiffen or brace this leg.) Close your left leg on his rib cage, and bump your lower leg against his side.
By disallowing forward movement with your hands, opening your right aids, and closing with your left aids, your horse will move toward the opening, that is, to the right (Photo 1).
Step #2. Use a Fence Line
Now that you know how to position your body, it’s time to teach your horse to move sideways. For this, you’ll need the help of a fence. Use a safe, solid fence to remind him to move sideways and that there’s no chance of moving forward.
Fence work will give you a visual guide to work with and provide a natural barrier to block your horse’s forward movement. You’ll also make sure that you’re truly moving to the left or right and quickly make any corrections.
Walk your horse up to a fence, and stop him with his nose to the rail and his body perpendicular to the fence. Keeping his body straight and perpendicular to the fence, ask him to sidepass using your opening and closing aids.
As soon as any movement occurs, release the cue, and return to a neutral sitting position. Reward your horse with a release and a pet no matter how small of a sidestep he takes. This lets him know that he moved in the correct direction.
Pause briefly, then ask your horse to move to the right once again. As soon as he steps to the side, however small, reward him with a quick release of cues
and a pet. When he associates your new cue with moving sideways, you can begin to ask for more steps before rewarding him.
Repeat these steps to ask for a sidepass to the left. That is, open the doors to the left, while closing the doors to the right, front, and back.
When your horse understands your sidepass cue and is responding well (that is, he’ll easily walk two or three steps before needing encouragement), ask him to sidepass a longer distance.
Troubleshooting tips: As you begin to teach your horse to sidepass, he may (1) move forward or back too much; (2) move his shoulder in front of his hips (this is most common and causes a turn instead of a sidepass), or (3) move his hip before his shoulder.
To fix these problems, use your aids either to block movement of a body part or to encourage more movement of another body part. For instance, if your horse moves his shoulders too far and lags with his hip, block his shoulder a little by closing with your right rein.
To do so, bring your hand back toward his neck (don’t pull back), and bring your left hand back and up toward your belly button in an “indirect rein.” At the same time, reach back more with your outside leg, and bump his side to encourage his hip to move. Apply slight, backward, equal rein pressure to close the door to forward movement.
Any time your horse moves correctly, or tries extra hard, reward him with a release and a pet. Moving laterally isn’t easy for him, so don’t overdo it. Once you get a few steps, reward him, and end on a good note.
If your horse gets nervous when working on this, he’s feeling too much pressure. Slow down, shorten your training sessions, and reward him for a smaller amount of steps.
Work on a sidepass to the right until your horse is compliant (Photos 2A and 2B). Repeat to the left. Then gradually increase the number of steps until he can sidepass 10 to 15 steps while staying fairly straight through his body.
When your horse is moving well off your aids, try sidepassing away from the fence, with his tail near the fence and his nose pointed away (Photo 2C). Focus on keeping him straight through his body so that his shoulders and hips are fairly even. In this position, he won’t have the fence to guide him visually, but you can easily note and correct any straightness problems.
Step #3. Add a Ground Pole
As your horse progresses, test your sidepassing skills over a ground pole. Work to keep the pole between your horse’s front and back feet. You’ll quickly notice any idiosyncrasies if your horse steps forward or back.
Work to the left and right, and always remember to stop and praise your horse for his efforts. Ride around the pole, then return to sidepass over it, in front of it, or behind it. Then he won’t learn that his feet must always be over a pole.
When your horse easily sidepasses over a ground pole, progress to sidepassing over larger logs on the trail. Look for other opportunities to sidepass, such as moving toward a post to pick up a slicker or rope.
Learning cues outside the round pen
Clinician Julie Goodnight tells you how to use pre-signals and breathing techniques to improve your horse’s transitions between gaits.
Are your horse’s transitions between gaits as smooth as glass? Or do you hold your breath and hope for the best as your horse hops on his forehand to slow down and lurches forward when asked to go?
If your response is the latter, then it’s time to relax and take a big breath, in and out, says horse clinician Julie Goodnight.
That deep breath, she finds, is the first step to making well-balanced and easily executed transitions in your horse from one gait to another. By combining breathing with a good pre-signal and consistent cues, you’ll set your horse up to smoothly switch gears.
Level of Intention
To get a good transition from your horse, you have to make your intentions really clear to him. If you’re unsure about making a transition, your horse will feel that apprehension.
“The rider has to be committed to whatever she’s asking the horse to do,” Julie says. “Horses are really keen to your level of intention when you’re riding-sometimes they know it better than you know yourself.”
For example, if you’re asking your horse to canter, but you’re nervous about cantering, it’s likely that you’ll unintentionally pull back on the reins as you’re kicking your horse forward. That sends your horse a mixed message. When the lines of communication falter, you’re unlikely to get that beautiful, prompt transition.
The inadvertent use of the reins during a transition, whether speeding up or slowing down, is one of the most common problems Goodnight sees. The end result is a horse that becomes nervous, antsy, angry, or indifferent in response to his rider’s unclear directions.
If you are unintentionally grabbing for the reins, you need to address the underlying issue. Are you scared of your horse’s next gear? Nerves are okay, and pretty darn normal. You just need to find a way to deal with them. Maybe you need more riding lessons to improve your balance, or your horse needs time with an experienced rider to build his confidence as he moves to the next gait. Or maybe you just need to work through the transition and really focus on not pulling on your reins when you become uncomfortable.
Perfecting the Pre-Signal
The best way to get a good transition is to give your horse a clue that you’re about to change something. Julie refers to this as a pre-signal. “It’s typically just a matter of shortening the reins and closing your legs around the horse,” Julie says.
With that subtle shift, your horse’s attention should switch directly to you, with him waiting for your next request.
“If your horse isn’t listening to you, then you might as well not bother asking for the transition,” Julie adds.
When your horse does respond appropriately to your pre-signal, you should feel like he’s tuned in mentally-and preparing himself physically-for the transition, whether you’re going to ask him to speed up, slow down, or stop.
As a pre-signal to her horse, Julie shortens her reins and applies pressure with her legs. These pre-signals let her horse know that he needs to pay attention, because something is about to change.
Your breathing can also become part of your cue to your horse, Julie says. Before an upward transition, she suggests inhaling, which is associated with movement. For example, a deep inhalation fills the lungs, and then the blood, with oxygen, which helps prepare the body for exertion or exercise. Breathing in also fills your chest with air, and naturally moves your center of gravity forward into an anterior tilt. “Inhaling is like saying, ‘Okay, get ready to move with me,’” Julie says.
When pre-signaling for a downward transition, do the opposite by exhaling and emptying your lungs.
“When you exhale, you kick back and relax,” Julie points out. Often, breathing out-or sighing-releases stress and tension. In the same way, it tells your horse it’s time to slow down, too.
If you’re consistent with your breathing, your horse will begin to associate your deliberate breathing with your pre-signal and, ultimately, the transition.
Cueing for the Transition
The next step for your transition is to actually cue your horse. Make sure your cues are deliberate and consistent, so your horse understands the request.
For your upward transitions from a halt to a walk, or a walk to a trot, squeeze both of your legs and give the go-forward cue. Also use a verbal cue, such as a specific word, cluck, or chirp. To ask for the canter, Julie suggests applying pressure at the girth with your outside leg as you tip your horse’s nose to the inside. Then add the motion of your seat going into the canter. Again, combine your body cues with your verbal cue, this time a kissing noise, the word “canter,” or whatever word or noise works for you.
If your horse is unresponsive to your request for a transition, Julie suggests the “ask, tell, demand” method of cueing. Start by asking nicely, then up the pressure and tell your horse what you expect, and, finally, demand with a light tap or spank with a crop or the ends of your reins, Julie says. Let your horse know exactly what you expect him to do.
Julie uses her breath to help cue her horse. Here, she blows out, letting the air expel from her lungs. This action causes her body to sit back, another clue to her horse that he’s supposed to slow down. The opposite happens when Julie breaths in. Now her chest rises and body moves forward, telling her horse to get ready to move forward.
When executed properly, the upward transitions should feel as though your horse is springing and stepping forward into the next gait.
In the downward transitions, you want to help your horse stay balanced, so he steps down from the gait, rather than lurching and falling on his forehand. To help your horse stay balanced, Julie says to avoid using the reins to slow your horse. Instead, use your breathing, along with the weight of your seat. Sit back and down into your saddle, and combine it with a verbal cue. The word “easy” is a popular choice for slowing between gaits. The word “whoa,” of course, should be reserved for complete stops. Most horses are pretty happy to stop, and will happily do so without their riders pulling on the reins, Julie points out. If you always use your aids in this sequence when you cue for the stop: voice-seat/legs-hands (only used if needed), your horse will elect to stop before the pull on his mouth comes.
Practice Makes Perfect
Once you’ve perfected your pre-signals, breathing techniques, and cues for transitions, it’s time to keep practicing. The more transitions you do when you’re riding, the more responsive and engaged your horse will become. He’ll also become physically stronger, especially through his back and hindquarters, which only makes his transitions better. Pretty soon, you’ll feel like you’re sailing over glassy water to get to your horse’s next gait.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Stop Your Horse Without Pulling on the Reins
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,
Ask Julie Goodnight:
When and how should I use spurs to prompt my lazy horse?
Question: Dear Julie, I’ve seen your show on RFD-TV about how to lower your horse’s head. In the episode you mentioned something about spurs, how to use the spurs at the right time and it’s not always a good idea to use on a lazy horse. My question is when I get ready to ride my horse, how do I make it go forward? Do I need spurs? I kick and pull but it won’t move forward. Does my horse need more training? I need advice. –Bryant
Answer: Hi Bryant,
Thanks for watching the show. We get lots of feedback from people on how much they learn in each episode and often they say they watch the show again and again and pick up something new each time. The truth is, there is a lot of info packed into a half-hour show and there are always things I wish I had more time to address. You touch on several really good issues in your question and I need to make a clarification about when to use spurs and when not to.
When talking about getting your horse to lower his head and round his frame, I always talk about using a lot of leg (not spur) and that you always increase leg pressure when you increase rein pressure. There are many articles in my Training Library that address the horse’s frame, lowering the head and collection and volume 5 in my riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection gives extensive instruction as well.
Before you ask for any horse to lower his head and round his frame, he must be moving freely and willingly forward in all gaits. This is a much more basic and fundamental stage of training which far precedes collection and rounding of the frame. Forward motion is one of the most fundamental tenets of classical horsemanship. Anyone who has ever started colts knows this—you cannot teach them anything (stop, go, turn) until they are moving freely forward. Free and forward movement is the basis of all training.
If your horse is not moving freely forward on command in all gaits, you must address this fundamental problem before you can ask a horse to lower its head or anything else. As with all training problems, you must first and foremost consider a physical cause. You’d be surprised how often people pour thousands of dollars and hours into training when the horse was acting that way because he was in pain—an ill-fitting saddle, a painful bit, a sore joint, a rib out of place that only hurts when you ask him to canter (right before he bucks you off). With a horse that is not moving willingly forward, it could be any of these and dozens of other physical causes. Best to have your horse assessed by a vet to rule out any issues.
Once a physical problem is ruled out as a possible cause of the horse’s refusal to move forward, then you can look to the horse’s training. First off, does he have any clue of what you are asking him to do? You’d be surprised how many horses are being ridden regularly but have very little actual training. When it comes to responding to the bit and cues, it has to be taught by someone. Often I see horses that just simply are untrained even though they are packing a rider down the trail with no problems. A horse must be taught how to respond to rein pressure; it does not come naturally to a horse. If your horse is lacking basic training, watch my video on Bit Basics and you can easily learn to train your horse for a light response and low head carriage.
The next thing to consider is whether this is learned behavior by your horse? In other words, does the horse know better (to move off your leg) but is acting this way now because it has worked so well for him in the past? It doesn’t take much of a perceived gain for a horse to learn that his refusal gets him what he wants—many insensitive horses will gladly endure the kicking and spurring from a rider if it means he doesn’t have to lope circles or do any work. Again, there are articles in my training library that may help if this is the case.
However, as is often the case, and the topic of an episode of Horse Master we just taped (it will air in May ‘11), in some cases the problem is that the rider is giving the horse conflicting signals by pulling back on the reins when she wants the horse to go forward. If you are riding a lazy horse or one that is reluctant to move forward in some situations (like when approaching a giant mud puddle—as in the case of the episode we just taped), and you pull back on the reins, the horse will choose to take that as permission to stop. Any backward pull on the reins inhibits forward motion; that is a fundamental truth that you should always remember. In some cases, we do want to inhibit forward motion, like when asking the horse to stop or collect his frame (but he has to be moving freely forward first). But in many cases, riders are pulling on the reins, inhibiting forward motion when they don’t really mean to, like when the horse spooks, balks, backs or is just plain being lazy.
Remember that forward motion precedes all other training concerns and when you need the horse to move more forward, you must reach forward with your hands towards the horse’s ears. If you pull back on the reins when the horse is not moving freely forward or even just keep your hands in a neutral position, the horse is unlikely to move forward. Actively pulling back on the reins of a lazy horse or one that is not moving forward for any other reason will always make the problem worse.
As to your question about spurs, let me clarify what I said on the show and how I feel about this artificial aid. I said that, to me, the use of spurs is not a good choice on a lazy horse. It is not an aid to make a slow horse faster; it is an advanced-level aid for advanced riders to use on advanced horses to motivate them to a higher level of performance and do more difficult maneuvers. If the problem with your horse not moving forward is simply because he is lazy and has learned to ignore a polite request from your legs, then he needs to be reminded to respond to a light leg.
I prefer the use of the crop to reinforce your leg aid, rather than the spur, in the instance of the horse not moving forward off a light leg cue. A spur will often make the lazy horse even duller to your leg and make him sull up and balk even more. Kicking harder on a lazy horse also does not work well because the lazy horse will tolerate the pressure and just wait for you to quit kicking from exhaustion (which doesn’t take long).
To use the crop as a reinforcement to your light leg aid, in a horse that is trained but not responding, ask once lightly for forward movement with a shift of your weight forward and a gentle bump with your calves (and a dramatic forward reach with your hands). If he ignores your polite initial request, immediately reinforce your leg cue with a sharp spank with the crop right where your leg cued him (make sure you keep reaching forward with your hands—a lot!). If done right, this will undoubtedly send him expeditiously forward, but do not contradict yourself as most riders do by then pulling back on the reins (and punishing him for doing what you asked him to do). Let him move forward freely and only stop him when he is voluntarily moving forward, without any pedaling from you.
Then ask your horse again lightly to move off your legs, prepared to reinforce with the crop again if needed, but always giving him the opportunity to respond to your light aids first. If your timing was good the first time and you used adequate pressure to motivate the horse, the second time you ask with your legs, he should step right off. But you may need more than one spanking before the horse begins to take your leg cues seriously again. With good timing and the right skill level of the rider, the horse will be moving freely forward in minutes. Again, this is a tip for refreshing a trained horse that has become unresponsive– you would train a young horse that didn’t know better a little differently.
I did a “Quick Tip” for Horse Master recently, which may be airing soon, about the use of spurs. Basically it said that spurs are neither a piece of apparel nor a fashion statement, they are an artificial aid. And like many artificial aids, they have a propensity to be used incorrectly, even abusively and they can become a crutch to good riding. I believe that spurs should only be used by an advanced rider that has excellent control over their balance and leg position; inadvertent/indescriminant use of the spur will confuse a horse and can be downright dangerous on some horses. I also believe that with an advanced rider, training a horse to do advanced maneuvers (like collection, lateral movements or other maneuvers that require more effort from the horse), the spur can be a useful tool to motivate the horse to try a little harder. I have written a lot about “finding the amount of pressure that motivates change,” so I’ll let you read up more on this concept by visiting my Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com).
I think that covers your questions and answers to a few you didn’t ask too! Thanks for watching Horse Master and keep learning!
Enjoy the ride,
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series