In Devon Danvers’ “Lost in Transition” episode of Horse Master, I helped a teenager who was ready to stop showing—and riding—because his horse exploded into the canter and just wasn’t fun to ride. The episode was my favorite shot during the Arizona series. Devon and his horse made so much progress and had a dramatic turnaround. When I watched Devon as we filmed his “before” footage, I could see the very obvious problem. When Devon cued his horse, the horse would explode into the canter–sometimes bucking and always running off. He was nervous and jiggy and anticipated the cue. “Rocky” was a very handsome horse Devon bought with the hopes of showing. However, his behavior made showing impossible. Interestingly, it wasn’t obvious to me what Devon was doing to cause this kind of reaction. He was a nice rider and didn’t appear to over-cue the horse.
I got on and rode Rocky and found the key to smooth transitions was to slow the cue down. I didn’t even need leg pressure—just the movement of my seat would change Rocky’s gaits without sending him into a frenzy. Amazingly, Devon was able to change the way he rode this horse right away and the results were tremendous. Both Devon and his mom were thrilled with the progress they made.
Read on to learn about how to cue your horse for a calm and collected canter. The lesson is good for you if you if your horse anticipates the canter or if you want to make sure you’re giving the correct signals. Be sure to watch the “Lost in Transition” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight May 4, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html or http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight and choose “Horse Master with Julie Goodnight 212 Lost in Transition, Teaching Segment”
Many horses become afraid of the canter cue after they’ve been hit in the mouth too many times when a rider asked him to canter. A fearful rider may ask for the canter, then immediately pull back on the reins to slow down—causing the bit to hit the horse hard in the mouth. If you’re having trouble at your canter transition, always rule out a tooth/mouth problem first. However, it’s likely that your horse threw a fit because of a physical problem, he would keep up the reaction while cantering and not just at the transition.
At the very first stride of canter, and every stride thereafter, the horse’s head drops down as he lifts his hind legs off the ground. If the horse is not given a release when you ask him to canter, then when he drops his head down, he hits the bit and in effect, he is punished for doing what you asked him to do. After a while, he is afraid of the canter cue and either throws his head in the air, runs off or both.
As I said, this is very common. I see it in every single clinic I teach. Many riders are a little intimidated by the canter, so they tend to clench up on the reins at the moment the horse departs into the gait. Or, the rider is concerned about the horse going too fast, so she pulls up on the reins at the same time she is asking the horse to go more forward. Or sometimes, the rider’s hands are just not moving with the horse as he drops his head in each stride.
When you cue a horse to canter, you should reach up toward his ears with both hands to give him the release he needs to drop his head in the stride. With each and every stride of the canter, your hands should extend forward as your hips move forward to give the release he needs with every stride.
Your horse has already learned to fear the transition, so you’ll have to really exaggerate the release for some time and eventually he’ll come to trust that you will not hit him in the mouth and he does not have to be afraid and throw his head up in the air.
All of these issues—how to cue, how to ride the canter and dealing with problems—are addressed in Volume 4 of Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Canter with Confidence. In addition, it covers refining the canter, lead changes and collection at the canter.