Mastering the Canter

Julie Cantering

Julie CanteringEverywhere I go—whether it’s to clinics, expos, conferences or just riding with friends—there are riders working on mastering the canter. Whether it is a novice rider just figuring out how to cue the horse and keep it going, a rider trying to slow down the gait and smooth out a wild ride or an advanced rider working on collection at the canter and difficult maneuvers like flying lead changes, we all have skills to master at this complicated and exhilarating gait.

I’ve been training horses and riders for several decades now, so I know that people have the same problems with their horses and horses have the same problems with their riders. That’s one reason I started my free online Training Library years ago and compiling all the questions I get and the answers I gave. Most of the questions I’ve already answered or written about so I am always on the lookout for unusual questions. Still, no matter how unusual the question is, the answers usually fall into a few common themes when it comes to cantering—the riders must have leadership, authority, know how to give the horse a release of the cue and they must know how to use seat aids.

I’ve been working on more ways to help with the canter—and the many questions that come my way about the fast gait. Today, I am very excited to see the big Yellow Freight truck arrive with two pallets of my new video, Canter Master.  In this new video we were able to address some of the most common issues at the canter from cueing to lead changes, with real-life riders, horses and issues. Working with five different horses and riders—all at different ability levels—I was able to address a multitude of common issues at the canter in a visual format that allows the viewer to see the problem and understand the solution.

Cantering challenge #1: Over-cueing the horse.

Our first rider is on a nicely trained horse, a very sweet mare, but she was blasting into the canter at warp speed because the rider was over-cueing, stiffening up and interfering with the horse’s mouth. When I rode the horse, she transitioned very smoothly and cantered slowly. Once I showed the rider how to prepare for the transition and cue the horse systematically and smoothly, she was able to loosen her death-grip on the horn and sit back and actually enjoy the ride! Horses can come to fear the canter because without knowing the precise cues and being relaxed, it’s easy for a rider to give the go and whoa command at the same time. If you’re tense and bracing when you ask for the canter, you can inadvertently hit your horse in the mouth with the bit when your arms are locked up and holding on too tight. Lesson one—relax and keep a balanced riding position before and during the canter. It’s tougher than it sounds.

Cantering challenge #2: Tension and bucking at the canter.

Our next subject was a really intriguing horse ridden by an up-and-coming young rider. It was a half-Arabian sport horse, and they were showing in Arab shows and huntseat equitation. It was a gorgeous horse, very athletic and very forward and each time the boy cued for canter the horse would launch into a bucking fit and run like a freight train. Bucking and/or running through the bridle at the canter are common problems and there can be many causes—sometimes rider induced, often stemming from physical problems in the horse. But in this case, it was an extremely common rider-horse co-dependence—a chicken and egg thing between the horse and rider (was the horse causing the rider to do that or was the rider causing the horse to do that?). Regardless of the cause, the cycle needed breaking and only that rider can do that. The solution was in first teaching the horse to lower its head and get rid of the stiff and bracing neck he had developed from years of being pulled on because he was going too fast. Then to get the rider to use his seat and not his legs to cue the horse and to give the horse the release he needs. You’ll see a big transformation in a short time. The young man did a great job once he learned to only cue as much as his horse required. The horse was sensitive and didn’t need a lot of convincing.

Cantering challenge #3: Feeling your leads.

If you look down to check your lead in the show ring, the judge is going to see it and deduct from your horsemanship score. You can, however, learn to FEEL your canter leads so you won’t have to look down again. Feeling canters leads is not hard, but 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. Starting in the position will help you know how your horse starts the gait and help you feel the difference.

Cantering challenge #4: Collection for the advanced horse and rider.

For the next story on this video you meet a long-time cowgirl and her gorgeous show horse who are working on collection at the canter. I loved working with this rider who had recovered from several back surgeries and was still actively competing. Teaching her to use her seat, legs and hands together in a soft rhythm in timing with the stride of the horse, she was able to slow down and round up her horse and smooth out the gait. So often, riders want to learn collection at the canter—as a top goal. That’s a great goal to have, but there’s often work to be done first—and lots of work collecting the trot will help the rider collect the canter more easily.

Cantering challenge #5: The flying lead change.

Rounding out the video, is perhaps one of the most common questions I get about the canter—how do I get my horse to do a flying lead change? Well, if it were that easy, anyone could do it, right? First you must have all the prerequisite skills like perfect canter departures, leg yielding, collection, etc.; the rider in this case was ready, on a horse that she had raised and trained herself. But every time she asked for the lead change, her horse would change to a cross-canter, if he responded at all—very common issues. The horse actually changed really well for me, it turned out he just needed more of a pre-signal from the rider (the most common fix for lead change problems). By breaking the preparation and cue down for the rider, she was able to make the leap and do some great changes.

Have you had any of these cantering challenges? Good luck as you master the canter and be sure to read more in the free Training Library on JulieGoodnight.com/Academy—and you’ll also find the Canter Master streaming training video on at Shop.JulieGoodnight.com. With knowledge, you’ll have the confidence you need to canter with confidence.

—Julie Goodnight

Wrong Therapy Horse

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Dear Miss Julie Goodnight,
I am a Wounded Warrior at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, and have sustained spinal injuries in Iraq. I have had surgeries and now am left using a cane due to nerve damage in my legs. I have waited 15 years to have a horse of my own. I was recently given a quarter horse that is about 7yrs old. I was told he would be a great therapy horse. He was abused, and prefers women. He is a lover, but has a very suborn side and is very spooky. I can saddle him without issue and lead him with a saddle on, but once in the pen and I’m on him he won’t budge. He has thrown my sister off while I was leading him with her on him. I was hoping to teach him voice commands, but am now a little leery. I cannot afford a professional trainer at this time due to my disability. Am I biting off more than I can chew? I don’t want to give someone else his problems.
Thank you for your time,
SGT Barbara

Dear SGT Barbara,
First, let me join all my readers in thanking your for your courageous and selfless service to our country and acknowledge the personal sacrifices you have made for others, both in Iraq and here at home.
Secondly, let me go on record as saying that horses can be a powerful tool in healing—not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well and I am so glad to hear that you are started down this path. But given your circumstances, I think it is critical that you start down this road with a safe and reliable horse. You cannot afford another injury at this time—who among us can? Furthermore, you deserve to have a horse that will help you heal and grow stronger, not take away your confidence and possibly cause you to get hurt.
This horse has some serious issues that probably need to be addressed by a professional trainer. My guess is that his problems are not insurmountable for someone more qualified, but it does not sound like an appropriate horse for you at this time. Who knows what led him to this state but the fact that he was given to you could be a red flag. It is true that there is no such thing as a free horse and yes, you should always look a gift horse in the mouth.
Believe it or not, the purchase price on any horse is the least amount of money you will spend—their upkeep and maintenance is where the real expense lays. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that you have a horse that you are not equipped to deal with and moving forward—it is the best decision for both you and the horse. No horse is worth getting hurt over and besides, this horse will be better off in more capable hands.
If possible, I would try to return this horse to the person that gave it to you. If that will not work, I would suggest contacting a horse rescue group for assistance in finding this horse a more appropriate home. Just because you are not in a situation to deal with this horse, does not mean that there are others out there that can’t. As long as you are honest and up front about the horse, you are not passing the buck but simply doing the right and sensible thing for your own personal safety and for the good of the horse.
You deserve a horse that is safe and steady and that you can start enjoying and progressing with right away—you’ve spent a long time waiting for this and you need it—but you want to start out right. These days, with the unprecedented glut of unwanted horses, I am confident that there are plenty of horses out there that would better suit your needs. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that right now, there are people reading this article that have a suitable horse for you that they would be thrilled to see put to such good use. If so, perhaps they could contact me and I could put them in touch with you.
I’d like to see you with an older horse, say 16 or over, that has “been there, done that.” Even a horse in his 20s will have a lot of usefulness left in him and the value of that life experience is huge. You know exactly what you’re getting with a horse of that age. They are set in their ways and generally there are no big surprises.
Whatever horse comes your way, you should evaluate him as if you were paying $10,000 for him, even if he is free. Have a trainer or a very experienced friend ride the horse and give you their opinion before you make a decision. Have a vet examine the horse to make sure he is sound and healthy. As you’ve seen already, just because a horse is free or low cost, doesn’t mean it’s a good deal if it costs you a fortune in training and vet bills; not to mention the cost of one trip to the emergency room.
Perhaps you can put it out on the Internet and at websites like dreamhorse.com that you are looking for a horse to help you recover from the wounds you sustained in Iraq. I feel confident that there are lots of people with more suitable horses that would love to help you.
Again, thank you for your selfless service and I hope that you find the horse of your dreams to help you grow strong again.
All the best,

–Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

Nurturing The Try In Your Horse

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I have lived with and worked with horses for more than half a century. And the older I get, the more appreciation I have for horses and their willingness, generosity and ability to forgive. It never ceases to amaze me how they tolerate some of the crazy things we humans do and how they will keep on trying to please.

Over the decades, I have learned that horses thrive on structure, consistency, praise and discipline. They crave leadership and authority and they feel safe and content in its presence. Leadership is very black and white to a horse and he knows it when he sees it. There is no faking leadership to a horse.

In domestic herds, groups of horses that are forced together, sometimes there are unqualified horses in the alpha role and the other horses know it—they agree to the terms, but do not have respect or admiration for the stand-in. Being a bully does not make you a leader and although a more subordinate horse will defer to the space of a more aggressive herdmate, he does not respect the bully as his leader and certainly does not like him.

A true herd leader is not a bully, but is willing to dish out discipline when it is needed. The true leader of the herd is responsible for the herd’s safety and for insuring that all the herdmates are good citizens of the herd—sometimes that means disciplining an unruly horse.

Horses recognize true leadership—fairness, courage, authority, confidence, intelligence, honesty, responsibility. When horses find a true leader, they have the highest respect and deference for and come to worship the ground their leader walks on. They trust and want to be with their leader and are always on the lookout for ways to please—to stay in the good graces of the one in charge.

To me, this is the ideal relationship to have with a horse and it makes me a much better and stronger person to live up to the ideals of my horse. When your horse thinks of you as the supreme leader, he will go anywhere with you, trusting you to look out for his well-being, having faith in your decisions and knowing you have his best interest in mind. He will work hard to please you and will get his feelings hurt if he thinks you are unhappy with him. But that attitude comes at a price—you have to earn it– and it is easily lost if you fall down on the job.

Once your horse recognizes the qualities of a true leader in you, it means that he trusts you to be fair, consistent and protect him from anything that could hurt him. That trust can be lost in an instant by asking the horse to do something that causes him to get hurt or frightened. This is an important obligation of the leader and should never be overlooked.

Horses are herd animals and as such, are instinctively drawn to the herd; but membership into any herd is not a guarantee. In the domestic setting, a new horse introduced an existing herd will automatically be shunned and treated harshly, as if to say, “We do not want you—go away!” Once the new horse shows a certain amount of contrition and a willingness to respect the hierarchy of the herd, he will be allowed provisional membership. But he is treading on thin ice and knows that if he is not on his best behavior, he could be once again banished from the herd.

Acceptance into a herd means that you are willing to abide by the rules of the herd and be a good citizen to the herd. Horses are very good at learning and following rules and as long as rules are clearly defined and consistently enforced, horses will follow the rules religiously.

There are many important lessons for us to learn from life in the horse herd. To be accepted as the leader, you have to establish authority right away and not worry about being liked—that will come later. You have to take charge, establish the rules and demonstrate your willingness to enforce them. Then your horse will come to accept your authority, feel safe in your presence and be eager to please you.

You cannot bribe or pamper your horse into thinking of you as a leader. That is not within his frame of reference. If you start out your relationship by begging him to be your friend, you automatically put yourself in the subordinate position. Horses crave authority, not pandering.

If you are the leader in your herd of two—you and your horse—then it is up to you to set and enforce the rules. Always. You lead—he follows. If your leadership skills are inadequate, your horse will step into the leadership role and start making all the decisions, like where you both go and how fast you get there. In that case, sooner or later, your horse will make a decision you don’t agree with.

It is a hard thing for some people to accept, but horses thrive off both praise and discipline; he gets a lot more of the latter in the herd. Praise is only meaningful to the horse if he has earned it and if he thinks of you as his leader and someone he wants to please. And without discipline, rules have no meaning and the horse will not make an effort to please you. If there are no rules, there is no leadership.

Discipline and praise go together and the horse needs both. If you constantly shower praise on a horse, without him making any effort to earn it, why should he keep trying to please you?

Your horse needs to know when you are pleased with him and know when you are not. Often just a stern word is all it takes, especially when the horse has an attitude of wanting to please you. But just like a child, the horse needs structure and rules to follow and ramifications to be meted out if he disobeys a rule. Otherwise, you end up with a very unpleasant animal—whether it is two-legged or four.

All of my horses, selected by me largely for their temperaments, fall into the category of very willing and eager to please. That does not mean that they are always perfect, never make mistakes or never misbehave. Since humans have been breeding horses more for pleasure and recreation than for beasts of burden for nearly a century, as a rule, horses are much better tempered than they used to be.

But this eager and willing attitude can turn into the likes of a tantrumming toddler in the presence of inadequate leadership. Recognizing when a horse is trying his best, when he is goofing off and when he is blatantly breaking the rules, is the first step in nurturing the “try” in your horse.

When I issue a directive to a horse, it is not his actual response or performance that matters—it is the effort he makes to do the right thing. If he tries, he gets rewarded and praised. If he doesn’t, he gets scolded and put immediately back to work. He doesn’t have to be brilliant, but he does have to make an effort.

Although praise is a great motivator for horses and scolding is a great dissuader, the best motivator of all for horses is comfort. When my horse puts out a good effort in response to something I have asked him to do, I always acknowledge it by whispering sweet-nothings to him, rubbing him on the withers and leaving him alone for a moment to let him rest and think about how good it feels to be a good horse. When he cheats me or doesn’t try hard enough, I put him immediately back to work. When he makes an exceptional effort, I might just stop what I am doing and immediately put him away.

Equine behaviorists have long known that safety and comfort are the greatest motivating factors of a horse’s behavior. Often people are surprised to learn that it is not food, as it is with dogs. Horses can find the food on their own—they don’t need a leader for that.

Horses only feel safe in the presence of a strong and committed leader who is fair, in-control and makes all the important decisions. Horses are comfortable when they are allowed to take it easy and have the satisfaction of feeling appreciated. Pampering, indulgence and a lack of rules and structure can turn a good horse bad in a matter of hours.

If you watch for and acknowledge the try in your horse—his effort to do the right thing or to please you– and recognize and reprimand when he is disobedient or distracted, he will work hard to stay on your good side and he will feel safe and content to be with you and to do your bidding.

All the money in the world cannot buy this kind of respect and devotion from a horse—you have to earn it by being a strong leader and recognizing your horse’s effort, be it good or bad. This is a tall order—that’s why horses make us better people.

Enjoy the ride,
Julie