Canter Malfunctions

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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.

Cantering Leads

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.

 

Breaking Gait

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.

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

Avoid Training Burnout

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Ask Julie Goodnight

Question:
I really enjoy your lectures you are so much easier to listen to than many of the other presenters! I was wondering about the appropriate length of time that a training session with your horse should last. I realize that a lot of that depends on the difficulty of what you are teaching your horse and where your horse is in his learning life. I want my horses to enjoy our sessions together so I don’t want to burn them out or not have them challenging enough. My last question has to do with seat position in the saddle. When we talk about opening our pelvis, I cannot do that without tightening my glutes. Is there a way to open your pelvis without tightening up? Are there visualization techniques to open your pelvis but not tighten up or am I simply doing it wrong, which would not be out of the realm of possibility! Thanks for your help!
Heidi in Topeka, KS

Answer: Heidi,
Glad to hear you enjoyed the presentations. As for your horse question, a mature trained horse should certainly stick with you for an hour or more, depending on how demanding your training session is. The younger the horse, the shorter his attention span. If you give your horse mental breaks throughout your session for a few moments here and there, he will not get too burned out. There is nothing more powerful than quitting on a horse when he has really tried hard so that he comes back the next day with that same attitude. Finished show horses at the peak of their training will generally not have much training at all between shows, but just get light exercise on a longe line or something to stay in shape. That’s how they are kept from burnout.

Pay attention to your own horse’s attitude and watch for early warning signs and know that you may need to vary his work or lighten his workload if his attitude suffers. The best thing is to give frequent breaks during your session. The biggest problem I see with people that leads to burnout in their horses, is that we get too greedy and as soon as our horse gives a good response, we ask again and again and again, which leads the horse to resent you. When you get the response you want, reward the horse with a pet and a break and move onto something else.

The answer to your opening the pelvis question is an easy one! You do NOT use your buttocks muscles to do this. Instead, you use your upper abdominal muscles. Sitting in your chair right now, cough or clear your throat strongly. You will feel your pelvis open when you use these muscles. Those are the muscles you use for pelvis control while you are riding, not your buttocks muscles. There is a set of muscles deep within your abdomen called the psoas muscles and these are the ones you use for opening your pelvis. I also demonstrate this technique in my first two Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVDs available at www.JulieGoodnight.com.

You are correct that you should never clench your buttocks, not only is this destructive to your riding, but it sends a message of alarm to your horse and pretty soon, you are both clenching your butts! Practice opening your pelvis with your abdominal muscles; using the cough or throat clear will help you get this feel. Check out, Zen and the Horse, Applying the Principles of Meditation to Riding, by Tom Nagel. This book is a quick read and has many great exercises that teach you to isolate the psoas muscles. It is available through www.zenandthehorse.com. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

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.

What’s The Difference In Longeing And Lead Line Circling?

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Question: Julie,

I purchased your DVD, Lead Line Leadership and I have been searching your library and need some basic clarification. What is the difference in lead line circling (from Lead Line Leadership) and longeing? What/when is an appropriate use of each and can you please include what is the proper equipment for each?

Thanks,
G

Answer: Good question! This is a subject I talk about at every groundwork clinic that I do, but I have not written much on the subject. So thanks for asking!

There are actually three kinds of circling work that you might do from the ground with horses—each for different purposes and with different technique and equipment. There’s round pen work, done with the horse at liberty in a confined area, for the purpose of establishing herd hierarchy between you and your horse and getting the horse to “hook on” to you. Then there’s circling work done on a training lead (12-15’ lead line) as is covered in the video you mentioned, for the purposes of refining your relationship and developing a line of communication with the horse. And also, there is longe line work , done on a 25’ or longer light line, primarily for the purpose of exercising or conditioning the horse or for training purposes such as bitting, teaching voice commands or working on transitions; or for performance ends, such as vaulting or longe line obedience competitions.

For round pen work, the equipment needed includes a small area of confinement with a high, sturdy and safe fence to discourage the horse from trying to jump out and to protect his legs if he gets them tangled up in the fence. The purpose of the confinement is to simply level the playing field between you and your horse, so you aren’t chasing him over 40 acres; it doesn’t really have to be round, it’s just easier if it is (otherwise he constantly gets hung up in the corners as you are driving him around). A 60’ pen is ideal for groundwork and allows just enough room to ride the horse at a walk and trot as well. A smaller pen of 50’ makes the circling work easier for you but harder on the horse and it may get a little crowded if the horse cops an attitude (and it’s too small to ride in effectively).

For round pen work, the horse should be at liberty (no halter, lead or bridle) and the handler should have a flag or stick or lariat in hand in order to direct the horse and defend himself if the horse should become aggressive or charge. Ideally the horse should wear protective leg boots, like splint boots or sports medicine boots, to protect the legs in hard turns and accidental collision with the fence. It’s also not a bad idea to wear a helmet when doing ground work with horses since it is not only possible, but likely that the horse will kick out, strike or become defensive.
As demonstrated in detail in my groundwork video called Round Pen Reasoning, the round pen process involves herding the horse, controlling his space and thereby establishing authority over the horse. It is accomplished in five stages: driving the horse away, controlling his direction with outside turns, controlling his speed, changing directions with inside turns and allowing the horse to hook-on to you as his herd leader.
Lead line work is also done in part on the circle, driving your horse away from you in a fashion similar to longeing—but for different reasons. With lead line circling, your goal is to refine the relationship with the horse that was begun in the round pen; to not only assert greater authority over the horse, but to establish a line of communication where the horse is focused on you and looking for each and every directive you issue. For lead line circling, you’ll also drive the horse in a circle, control his speed and do lots of changes of direction using subtle gestures. It has nothing to do with exercising or tiring the horse; it has to do entirely with relationship building and communicating—once you get the response you want from the horse, your job is done, regardless how much time it took or how many circles you made.

The ideal equipment for lead line circling is a rope halter and 12-15’ training lead. My halters and leads are specially designed for this type of work, with the halters made of a high-tensile and slightly stiff rope of moderate diameter (the narrower the rope, the harsher the pressure) that does not stretch. My training leads are made with a heavy yacht rope that is pliable and comfortable in your hands and heavy enough to give good feel between you and your horse. I prefer not to have a metal buckle attachment to the halter since it may bruise the horse’s chin if the rope is jerked hard. The handler should also have a flag or stick to direct the horse and prevent him from coming close enough to kick or strike you. The same protective equipment for you and your horse as outlined for round pen work is well advised. My video, Lead Line Leadership, explains the different exercises you can do on the lead line, including circling work.

Longeing is more simplistic and has more to do with the number or circles your horse makes and the distance he travels. You’ll probably want to use a halter that maximizes the horse’s comfort, like a padded nylon-web or leather halter or a longeing cavesson, with or without a bit in his mouth (depending on your purpose for longeing). A longe line is usually light weight and 25-30’ long to allow the horse to make the largest circle possible, thereby covering more distance and reducing the stress on his joints. A longe whip is generally used by the longeur to help cue and motivate the horse; it is extra long and has a long lash. Although a horse that is properly trained to longe will respond to visual and audible cues from the longeur, there is not as much dialogue or relationship-building between horse and longeur as there is with round pen and lead line work.

With my extensive travel schedule, I don’t get as much ride time on my horse as I’d like and therefore he gets longed each day, simply for the exercise—so he stays in reasonable shape for me to ride when I am home. He is well-mannered and obedient and does not need the ground work for relationship purposes; even if he has not been ridden in a very long time, I would not feel the need to longe him to “get the kinks out,” as many people do. I am not a big believer in longeing for that purpose, because I think it could be an indication that more ground work is needed to bring the horse into a more obedient and compliant frame of mind. Although having excess energy could be a reason for a horse to feel exuberant or energetic, it is not an excuse for disobedience.

There are numerous articles in my training library that relate to the different ground work techniques and specific issues that arise. Thanks for your astute question—it is always wise to think about why you are doing certain things. The more you understand, the greater the chances for success.

Good luck!
Julie

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