Canter Cue

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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.
–Julie Goodnight

Bridling And Un-Bridling

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Horse Master How To
“Heads Up” Teaching a horse to lower his head and accept the bit and bridle
By Julie Goodnight

In the Horse Master episode we named “Heads Up,” I help a horse learn that the bridling process doesn’t have to be a fearful event and teach his owner how to correct his head-butting behavior. This is a common problem—often times the horse is taught to toss his head and avoid the bit because he’s been knocked in the teeth or felt the bit being pulled from his mouth. It’s important to take your time each time you bridle and unbridle your horse so that he learns to relax and accept the bit with ease.

Read on to find out more about bridling and un-bridling your horse easily and without a fight. The show is part of a whole new series of episodes shot at my ranch. In the new shows, there’s help if your horse refuses to approach obstacles, if you’re a new rider and want help learning how to work with your new horse, if you’re horse shopping, if your horse won’t accept a bit and bridle without raising his head, and if you want help finding the proper bit for your well-trained horse. Here’s more about choosing a bit that will allow your horse to swallow and relax—helping you make precise rein cues without causing undue worry and pressure….

Bridling Without a Fight
If your horse is tossing his head or raising his head so that you can’t place the bit and bridle, it’s time for some training. I recommend using the “advance and retreat” method. First, approach your horse as if you were going through the motions of bridling–but without the bridle. Make sure your horse is not tied. Advance slowly until you reach the point that causes him to resist (toss or raise his head, etc.). When you see his resistance behavior, stop and don’t go on. Hold that position quietly until he relaxes, then retreat (walk away a few steps for a moment).

Count to five and then approach again in the same way; advance and retreat repeatedly while watching for his relaxation signals. Do not try to hold his head or confine him, just advance until he resists, then hold that position. The worst thing you can do is to grab at his head or try to hold him still. That will reinforce his instinct to move away from your flighty movements. You should wait to retreat until there is some small sign of relaxation. That might just be when he stops throwing his head or it might be when he actually drops his head and takes a deep breath. Ideally, that is what you want him to do.

Your horse will learn that when he relaxes, the thing that causes him fear will go away. Then he will no longer be afraid of it. Gradually advance, but always retreat. Do not approach him with the bridle until you can rub all over his head and mouth with him relaxed. Then start all over with the bridle. This whole process could take one hour or one week. Be patient and give him all the time he needs. He is not just being obstinate, this behavior probably started with an honest fear of being hurt.

The Importance of Patience When Un-bridling
Horses that throw their heads up in the air when un-bridling have learned to be fear being hit in the teeth with the bit. It may have only happened once, but getting a chunk of metal slammed into your teeth is enough to make you wince–and that’s all the horse is doing when he throws his head up in the air when you take the bridle off.

Hitting the horse in the teeth with the bit is usually done unknowingly by pulling the headstall over his ears and pulling the bit out of the horse’s mouth before he has had a chance to spit it out. It then slams into his teeth and gets stuck on his lower teeth, which hurts, so the horse throws his head up in the air, which in turn causes more pressure against his teeth, especially if the person pulls on the bridle at that time. It only has to happen once for the horse to learn to panic every time he is unbridled; then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the horse because every time he throws his head up, the bit hits his teeth.

When you unbridle a horse, you should gently pull the headstall over the ears while lifting up on it, and always hold that upward pressure (slight) until the horse lowers his head. As he drops his head, you slowly release the upward pressure and allow the horse to spit the bit out; at anytime the head comes up, lift up on the head stall again. Experienced trainers know that this is a critical process and spend whatever time it takes in the beginning to teach the horse to drop his head to spit the bit out, so he learns how to protect his teeth.

As you pull the headstall over his ears, lay your forearm on the horse’s neck behind the poll, so that if he raises his head, your hand moves with him and so that your arm is stabilized by the horse. If your arm is free-floating, you will end up jerking the bridle and bit around. Take all the time you need—always bridle and unbridle slowly. When the horse tenses at all, pause what you are doing, hold your ground (neither advancing nor retreating) and wait for the horse to relax (drop his head).

All of training is in the power and timing of the release; it cannot be overstated that the horse needs the release and it has to be instantaneously when the horse begins to respond (not once he has completely done it). In this case, you’ll only release the upward pressure on the bridle when he lowers his head; if you released the pressure while his head was up, you would be training him to raise his head. Move very slowly and wait patiently for him to lower his head and open his mouth to spit the bit out. If he is really clamped down on the bit, you can very gently jiggle the bit in his lips, but do not let it drop too low and take the chance of it hitting his teeth. Do not try and force him to open his mouth, just wait.

Proper Introductions and Training
I describe this process fully on my Bit Basics DVD available at www.JulieGoodnight.com. And for more precise answers to your bitting questions, check out Dale’s multi-part video series online with a link at www.JulieGoodnight.com and visit the Myler’s online bitting questionnaire and guide at: http://mylerbits.com/bitting_assistant.php
–Julie Goodnight