Mastering The Canter

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

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

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

Cantering challenge #1: Over-cueing the horse.
Our first rider is on a nicely trained horse, a very sweet mare, but she was blasting into the canter at warp speed because the rider was over-cueing, stiffening up and interfering with the horse’s mouth. When I rode the horse, she transitioned very smoothly and cantered slowly. Once I showed the rider how to prepare for the transition and cue the horse systematically and smoothly, she was able to loosen her death-grip on the horn and sit back and actually enjoy the ride! Horses can come to fear the canter because without knowing the precise cues and being relaxed, it’s easy for a rider to give the go and whoa command at the same time. If you’re tense and bracing when you ask for the canter, you can inadvertently hit your horse in the mouth with the bit when your arms are locked up and holding on too tight. Lesson one—relax and keep a balanced riding position before and during the canter. It’s tougher than it sounds.

Cantering challenge #2: Tension and bucking at the canter.
Our next subject was a really intriguing horse ridden by an up-and-coming young rider. It was a half-Arabian sport horse, and they were showing in Arab shows and huntseat equitation. It was a gorgeous horse, very athletic and very forward and each time the boy cued for canter the horse would launch into a bucking fit and run like a freight train. Bucking and/or running through the bridle at the canter are common problems and there can be many causes—sometimes rider induced, often stemming from physical problems in the horse. But in this case, it was an extremely common rider-horse co-dependence—a chicken and egg thing between the horse and rider (was the horse causing the rider to do that or was the rider causing the horse to do that?). Regardless of the cause, the cycle needed breaking and only that rider can do that. The solution was in first teaching the horse to lower its head and get rid of the stiff and bracing neck he had developed from years of being pulled on because he was going too fast. Then to get the rider to use his seat and not his legs to cue the horse and to give the horse the release he needs. You’ll see a big transformation in a short time. The young man did a great job once he learned to only cue as much as his horse required. The horse was sensitive and didn’t need a lot of convincing.

Cantering challenge #3: Feeling your leads.
If you look down to check your lead in the show ring, the judge is going to see it and deduct from your horsemanship score. You can, however, learn to FEEL your canter leads so you won’t have to look down again. Feeling canters leads is not hard, but you have to know what you are feeling and have the self-discipline not to look; think about how it feels for a few strides, make your decision then look if you need to verify your results. When the horse canters on the right lead, both his right hind and right fore are leading over the left legs (visa versa with the left lead) and he picks them up higher and reaches farther forward with those legs. Therefore his back will be slightly crooked underneath your seat, both front-to-back and side-to-side. In your hips you’ll feel your inside hip in front of your outside, so if he is on the right lead, your right hip and leg will be in front of your left hip and leg. Because he is picking both leading legs up higher, you’ll also feel your weight shift to the outside, so if he is on the right lead, you’ll feel more weight in your left seat bone and left stirrup. This unevenness that you feel in his back is important in setting your horse up for the correct lead, cueing for the canter and cueing for flying lead changes. As you go about cueing your horse for canter, you basically set your body into the canter position for the lead—your outside leg down and back (which tends to bring your inside hip and leg forward), your inside rein lifted (which shifts your weight into the outside stirrup), then a push with your seat in the canter motion (like you are pushing a swing) tells the horse to canter. Starting in the position will help you know how your horse starts the gait and help you feel the difference.

Cantering challenge #4: Collection for the advanced horse and rider.
For the next story on this video you meet a long-time cowgirl and her gorgeous show horse who are working on collection at the canter. I loved working with this rider who had recovered from several back surgeries and was still actively competing. Teaching her to use her seat, legs and hands together in a soft rhythm in timing with the stride of the horse, she was able to slow down and round up her horse and smooth out the gait. So often, riders want to learn collection at the canter—as a top goal. That’s a great goal to have, but there’s often work to be done first—and lots of work collecting the trot will help the rider collect the canter more easily.

Cantering challenge #5: The flying lead change.
Rounding out the video, is perhaps one of the most common questions I get about the canter—how do I get my horse to do a flying lead change? Well, if it were that easy, anyone could do it, right? First you must have all the pre-requisite skills like perfect canter departures, leg yielding, collection, etc.; the rider in this case was ready, on a horse that she had raised and trained herself. But every time she asked for the lead change, her horse would change to a cross-canter, if he responded at all—very common issues. The horse actually changed really well for me, it turned out he just needed more of a pre-signal from the rider (the most common fix for lead change problems). By breaking the preparation and cue down for the rider, she was able to make the leap and do some great changes.

Have you had any of these cantering challenges? Good luck as you master the canter and be sure to read more in the free Training Library on www.JulieGoodnight.com –and you’ll also find the new Canter Master DVD on the site. With knowledge, you’ll have the confidence you need to canter with confidence.

–Julie Goodnight

The Cross Canter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canter Leads

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Rule Out the Physical

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

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

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

Lead Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding Skills: Lead Changes

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Julie,

Hope all is going well for you. I’m continuing to enjoy teaching kids riding lessons. My question this time: What’s the best way to teach advance kids how to do flying lead changes? I’ve tried the use of the pole method (in the center of the adjoining circles) and I’ve tried using an “x” at the trot, getting shorter and shorter to give the horse the idea of the pattern, and the switching of leads. When I was a kid, we were taught to “crank” the horse over in tight circles, changing directions. This method I know is neither safe, nor good training for the horse. What would you suggest?

Best wishes
Katherine

Answer: Katherine,

Flying lead changes, Sheesh! Everyone wants to do them but no one wants to put in the time and gain the skills needed to execute proper lead changes. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest disservices we do to the sport– to let kids that are no where close to having the necessary skills compete in classes like Western Riding, where flying lead changes are required.

In our instant gratification society, everyone wants to be able to do everything right now. This leads to short-cut methods and poor execution. 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

There are probably more things required but these are just off the top of my head. The horse begins the canter/lope with the 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.

The rough (but commonly used) method you describe of jerking the 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 (one lead in front, other lead behind). 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.

As you may have noticed by now, this is a pet-peeve of mine 😉 No one wants to do all the hard work to prepare for such an advanced skill; they just want to know it now. It may help to have a list of necessary skills for the riders to work on first, such as the ones listed above. When they can do all these things, they are ready to work on lead changes. Then the exercises you describe above may work. Loping over a pole in the middle of a figure eight is a useful and commonly used exercise, but will only work when the rider has adequate skills.

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. Work on position, use of the aids (more seat-less hands), transitions, haunches-in and knowledge. There are no quick fixes. Good luck!

JG

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Riding Skills: Feeling Canter Leads

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Hi Julie,

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

Thanks,
Alissa

Answer: Alissa,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the ride!
Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.