Ask Julie Goodnight: Help, my horse kicks at the canter!
Question: I have 3 horses, all of which do the same thing. They walk and trot quietly, but when you cue for lope, they will kick up in the back. I know it’s probably a training issue, but I don’t know what to do next to try to get them into a canter without the kick up. I am a senior and have been riding all my life and showed for years, so it’s not lack of riding ability, but may be related to not riding often enough. I’m sure I could carry on once I got them started loping without getting bucked off. Answer: Since all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior, you have to consider the common denominator, which is the rider. While you should always rule out a physical problem first, the fact that all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior tends to point to the rider. But don’t feel badly, most “horse problems” are actually rider induced and you’ll be way ahead of the curve just knowing this, because before you can solve a problem, you must identify it.
Answer: Without actually seeing you and your horses in action, I cannot really diagnose the problem, but I can tell you that this is a very common problem and I see it all the time in clinics. In fact, we have an upcoming episode of Horse Master on this very problem—over-cueing for canter.
Generally speaking, when you cue a horse for trot or canter and he launches into the gait like he was shot out of a cannon—you over-cued him. In the case of the canter cue, there are compounding issues related to the flight response. When the horse is cued to canter, in a way, you are cueing for the flight response; so if you over-cue him you may get more than you bargained for. It is not uncommon for horses to have an outburst of emotion when cued for canter and kicking out the heels is one such example.
To resolve this issue and get a smooth, relaxed canter departure, you’ll need to get more systematic in your canter cue and tone down the signal, adjusting to each horse’s level of sensitivity. While you are working to improve the canter departure, you’ll want to cue from the slow sitting trot. This gives the horses fewer options to get the right answer; but don’t cue from the long-trot. At the slow collected trot his legs are close enough together to reorganize easily into the canter but as he moves into extended trot and his legs spread farther apart, the canter is more difficult to pick up. If he misses the canter cue and goes into long-trot, bring him back immediately to slow trot by using your seat and reins to check him back. As soon as he comes back to slow trot, you’ll cue him again for the canter right away.
Before you give any cue, always prepare the horse that a cue is coming by shortening the reins slightly and closing your legs on his sides. You’ll know he is ready for a cue and listening to you when his head comes up a little and his ears come back on you; that is your horse’s way of saying, “what do you want me to do?” If you develop a consistent and systematic cue for canter, the horse will understand better and he’ll know what is coming next.
Once he’s ready and listening, you’ll give a cue using all your primary aids in sequence: legs, hands, and then seat. First, use outside leg, slightly back; this sets the horse up for the correct lead and also helps him differentiate from the trot cue, where you use two legs at the same time. Next you’ll slightly lift the inside rein; this is less of a rein cue and more of a repositioning of your body into the canter position for the inside lead, with your inside shoulder lifted and your weight in the outside stirrup. The last part of the cue is a push with your seat in the rhythm of the canter motion—like you are pushing a swing. Leg-rein-seat; in a 1-2-3 rhythm.
If your horse is eager to canter or exuberant in the departure, you’ll want to keep the focus on your seat aid, rather than on your legs. There are many horses that cue to canter just by a simple rocking of the seat in the canter motion. If the horse is over-reactive to the cue, use less and less pressure each time until he accepts the cue quietly.
By sequencing your aids and getting more systematic in your cue, your horse will learn what you want and will not stress over the cue. As you practice your transitions, you should be able to make your cues more and more subtle, using less and less pressure. Start by slowing the rhythm of the cue down so that you are taking longer to cue the horse. This helps him think through what is coming next so he is not surprised. Practice many trot-canter-trot transitions. Each time you make a transition, it should be a little smoother as the horse learns the cue better, thus reducing his anxiety.
When horses kick out at the canter departure, often it is because it seems to him as if you are yelling at him when a whisper would work. As you get more systematic with your cue and your horse comes to understand, you can use less pressure. If he is ready for the cue when it comes and you use less pressure, the kicking should go away. You’ll find more help on my Canter with Confidence DVD and my Perfect Practice DVD: http://shop.juliegoodnight.com/
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician