Does Your Horse Fear the Canter Cue?
At my clinics and during the TV show shoots, I often see horses that are fearful of the canter cue. 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. No matter which of these riding errors occur, the horse can feel pain and quickly learn to fear the canter transition. Here’s why: 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 isn’t given a release when asked to canter, 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.
Some horses have been hurt so many times in the canter departure by the rider hitting him them in the mouth and slamming down on their backs, that they become emotional train wrecks when asked to canter. They throw their heads up in the air and run off; running in fear of the pain they are sure is coming. It’s a self-defeating behavior that soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for the horse because it causes the rider to stiffen and hold the reins tighter, which in turn causes the rider to hit the horse in the mouth and back. However, before starting on a training solution, you’ll have to rule out any physical cause for the problem, which is also very common in canter departure problems. It could be a saddle fit issue, a chiropractic issue or even lameness. Have your vet or another qualified professional examine your horse and saddle fit and once you have ruled out any physical cause, you can look to a training solution.
If I work with a horse that seems scared to move into the canter, here’s what I do: First, I work the horse at the walk to trot transition until I can trot on a totally loose rein with the horse’s head down and with him working at a slow, steady speed (if this is a problem, you’ll need to back up and work more at the trot with the exercises for slowing down you’ll find in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php). Then I give my canter cue softly and in slow motion, (apply pressure with the outside leg, lift my inside hand slightly then push with my seat for the cue to canter as I make the kissing noise with my voice). Throughout the process, I leave the reins loose. If the horse throws his head up in the air and takes off, I let him go (so that he learns that he won’t be punished during the transition), then gently and slowly pick up on the inside rein to bring him gradually onto a large circle, which will discourage his speed (be careful not to get into the habit of turning your horse as soon as he begins to canter because it will teach him to drop his shoulder and come off the rail each time you cue him). I continue at the canter until the horse slows down and relaxes, then let him come back to a nice easy trot.
I repeat this exercise on a loose rein again and again until he learns to trust that his mouth will not be hurt in the upward transition to the canter and therefore loses his fear of the transition. Surprisingly, some horses will figure it out right away with the right rider, but if it’s an engrained pattern in both horse and rider, this problem can be difficult to overcome. It will help if the horse can learn the correct response from a skilled rider. This isn’t an easy problem to fix unless you have solid riding skills and confidence riding at speed.
If you need more help and a visual demonstration, check out my Canter with Confidence DVD and the Refinement and Collection edition, too (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827).
Once you have fixed the canter departure, and your horse is stepping smoothly into the canter, you can start thinking about collection. Before working on collection at the canter, you should be able to work your horse on a loose rein in an extended frame or on a short rein in a collected frame at the walk and trot, and have him maintain a steady speed, rhythm and frame.
You’ll need to have the ability to sit the trot and canter well and feel the rhythm of the gait in your seat and legs. You’ll need steady hands and to learn to use your reins in an alternating rhythm in timing with your seat and legs and your horse’s hind legs. If you can do all of this, you’re ready to work on collection once you’ve entered the canter gait. It will take time and patience for your horse to gain confidence in the canter departure and you’ll have to work to improve your riding at the same time. But if you work with patience and persistence, you’ll get there.