Fear Of Cantering

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
How do I overcome fears of cantering?

Hi Julie,
I have been riding for about 2 years. I’m 53, and although I have been around horses (started my daughter riding @ 4-5 yrs old, own a race horse) have always been terrified of horses, yet love them. I want desperately to ride well. Lately, I have been “stuck”; cantering sends me into a panic. I try, and yet I freeze, I can’t focus on steering or keeping him going, all I can think is stop! I think my instructor, patient as she is, as well as the barn staff have written me off, and are losing patience with me, (and I don’t blame them). What should I do, how do I combat this and get past it? Do you run intensive, submersed horse clinics to overcome debilitating fear? Or recommend one? Please help!

Sue

Dear Sue,
Fear and lack of confidence are more common in riders than you think. In fact, most people that have been around horses have dealt with this issue at some time or another. Let’s face it; they are big, scary animals capable of spontaneous violent combustion at any moment. I’d be more concerned about someone who said they’ve never had any fear around horses. Fear is a natural emotion and it’s one that keeps us safe—keeps us from doing really stupid stuff. But when fear begins to impact your enjoyment or begins to control what you do and do not do, it’s time to take action.

It always amazes me how many people want so desperately to ride and be with horses, in spite of their over-powering fear or after a bad accident or injury. There is a deeply rooted passion there that keeps you motivated even though the fear is sometimes crippling. That is why it is always important to think about why you are doing this—what is your purpose? Passion? Fulfilling a life-long dream? Enjoying an activity with your spouse? Whatever your purpose is, you need to define it and embrace it. Purpose leads to courage.

Canter is certainly the most fear-inducing gait and at just about every clinic I do, there are people that are fearful of the canter. That makes sense because if things are going to go wrong, it is likely to be at the canter. So your fear is perfectly understandable. Since canter is the closest thing to the flight response that we ask our horses to do, sometimes it can trigger undesirable behavior. So before you ever tackle the canter, make sure everything else is going well—your horse is responsive and obedient, you feel ready, the footing is good, the situation is right. I always tell my riders: Never get in a hurry to canter—it will happen when you are ready. If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it.

There’s an old saying in horsemanship that says, “The best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” In other words, you can accomplish much at the trot and unless and until your horse is working really well at the trot, there’s no point in asking for canter. The same things goes for you—if you work on improving your riding skills at the trot, it will prepare you better for canter. So work on posting and sitting trot; do lots of transitions—collected trot, extended trot, collected trot. Trot figures like circles, serpentines and figure 8s. You may even want to start working on lateral movements, like leg yielding at the walk and trot before you tackle canter. When you can do all these things confidently, the canter will be easy.

When all the stars are aligned and you feel like it’s ready to tackle the canter, I can share a few things with you that may help. First, make sure you know and understand the canter cue, so you can be clear to your horse. When you haven’t cantered a horse for some time, he isn’t thinking about a canter cue and so he may go into a fast trot instead of a canter. If he does, slow him down firmly and immediately ask for canter again, as if to say, “wrong answer; try again.” Repeat until he canters on cue. Once he realizes that you actually want him to canter, the cue will get easier.

Make absolutely certain you do not pull back on the reins when you cue for canter; in fact, you’ll want to reach up toward his ears as you cue him. One of the first things that happens in the canter departure is that your horse’s head will drop down as he launches himself into the gait—if he hits the bit at this moment, he will think you do not want him to canter. This is a HUGE source of problems at the canter; people are pulling back without realizing it, especially if they are nervous about it. It is a very frustrating problem for the horse because you are punishing him for doing what you asked him to do.

I suggest working on the canter in the arena, but only cantering a few strides down the long side of the arena at first, transitioning back to trot in the corners. The turns are harder and you are more likely to lose balance in the turn, so staying on the straight-away will help. Also, I’ve noticed that nervous riders will do okay on the first few strides but the longer they go, the worse they ride. So if you’ll just canter a few strides, then stop, then do it again, you will probably accomplish more. Gradually increase the distance you canter. Remember to breathe!

Some riders and/or horses will do better cantering out on the trail with other horses than they do in the arena. Often it is easier to get the horses into it and they will canter along naturally with the other horses. I have used this technique many times with nervous riders and we will generally canter on a slight uphill slope so the horses are working too hard to act up in any way. But you have to know your horse before trying this out on the trail; some horses will be better while others may be worse.

The biggest mistake people make in trying to ride the canter is to lean forward, thus closing your hip angle, which causes you to be thrown up and out of the saddle with each stride. To counter-act this, you need to sit well back, with your shoulders even slightly behind your hips. The canter involves a motion similar to pushing a swing—your shoulders come back as you push with your seat. So before you ask for canter, always remind yourself to sit way back and push the swing. Fear will make you want to perch forward in the fetal position; try to remind yourself to sit extra far back to counter-act this tendency.

One more thought on working up the courage to canter—try it first in a Western saddle. Even if you plan to ride English, getting confidence with the gait will be easier in a Western saddle since you have to the horn to hold onto if necessary and a little more support than in an English saddle. Take all the help you can get. Once you gain some confidence, you can switch back to an English saddle.

My video, “Canter with Confidence,” will give you all the information you need to cue, ride the canter, understand leads and all the way up to flying lead changes. Knowledge will help your confidence. I also have a new video coming out in September which is a compilation of Horse Master episodes dealing with real horses and riders that are working on the canter, from cueing to slowing down the canter to lead changes.

For anyone dealing with fear of horses, it is important that you do not allow others to push you into something you are not ready to do. There is no law anywhere that says you have to canter a horse. When you are ready and you want it to happen, it will. If you don’t canter—so what? It is also important to surround yourself with supportive people and share your goals and your plan with them and let them know how they can support you. I have written a lot about rebuilding confidence, so there are many articles in my Training Library that will help. I also have a motivational audio called “Build Your Confidence with Horses,” which you can download from my website (or purchase the CD). Many riders have found this to be a very useful tool in overcoming fear. Listen to it on the way to the barn.

By the way, it is your instructor’s job to be patient, keep you safe and help you attain your goals. You are not beholden to her and her staff—they are beholden to you. Don’t worry about them and don’t let anyone else pressure you or frustrate you. You are doing this for you—not for them. Don’t worry about what others think; surround yourself with people that are supportive of your goals. And don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small they are!

I have heard from hundreds of riders who have used my techniques to overcome their fear and learn to enjoy horses with confidence. You can make it happen but you have to work at it—have a plan, know what you are going to do when you feel fearful. Because of the mind-body-spirit connection, if you cave into the emotion, it will overtake your mind and body. If you have the mental discipline to think positive thoughts and control your body language (looking confident even when you don’t feel that way, the emotion cannot take over. Don’t ever give up! You can make this happen. I know you can.

Good luck!
Julie
If you liked this article, Julie suggests the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827 for ordering help):
Canter with Confidence DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Goodnights-Principles-of-Riding-vol-4-Canter-with-Confidence-GPRV4DVD.htm
Canter Master DVD: http://shopping.juliegoodnight.com/Horse-Master-Canter-Master-Horse-Master-Cantering.htm

Issues From The Saddle: Slowing Down A Fast Horse

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Hello

Just wondering if you could give me some advice. My horse, a six year old mustang had been trained for about ten months. He stops, turns fine, but I cannot get him to slow down. Of course then I get nervous and then he gets nervous and we end up a mess. Any advice? I would love to work it out with him, but cannot figure him out.

Thanks
Kellie

Answer: Kellie,

Sounds like you’ve got yourself a pretty forward Mustang and I have trained a few Mustangs myself that fall into this category. There are basically two types of horses: one with too much go and one with too much whoa. I just finished a Q&A to someone that has a great Western Pleasure horse, but now she wants to ride English and is frustrated over trying to make the horse move forward. Your horse has the opposite problem and although both are frustrating (for both you and the horse) in my opinion the forward horse is a little more challenging to deal with.

We get a lot of forward horses in training, because they are more challenging, so I’ll share with you some of the techniques that we use to get the horses slowed down a little and to get them steady in their gaits. You’ll never make a Western Pleasure horse out of him, but you should be able to get him to hold a steady pace and slow down and relax.

First let me tell you what definitely will NOT work. It will not work to use a harsher bit or to constantly pull back on the reins to slow the horse down. Any pressure on a horse’s mouth makes him more anxious. Forward horses tend to be more anxious to begin with and they also tend to be very sensitive. More pressure on their mouths almost always makes them faster. The classic scenario with a forward horse is that the rider is constantly pulling on both reins and the horse is getting more and more tense and starts to jig and speed up.

What we want to do with a forward horse is anything that will make him relax, put his head down and slow down. We want him to learn to make an association between relaxing and getting a loose rein, which is what all horses want. Since we cannot slow him down by pulling back on the reins (because the increase of pressure just makes him more anxious), the best option is to work on changing directions. Often people talk about using the circle to slow a horse down, but I find reverses to be much more effective.

For one thing, often when people use a circle to slow a horse down, they pull the horse into a sharp sudden fast circle, which tends to excite and irritate the horse, throwing him onto his forehand and unbalancing him, rather than slow him down. Every time the horse changes direction, he has to slow down as he turns back the other way.

For changes of direction, ride two-handed in a Myler Comfort snaffle or the Myler 3-ring Combination bit, with both hands well in front of the pommel and with a reasonably loose rein. In slow motion, move both hands to the side (in the direction you want to turn) so that the inside rein is a leading rein and the outside rein is a neck rein (see the Q&A about rein-aids). Move your hands as a unit like they are connected; there is NO BACKWARD PULL ON THE REINS.

Do not pull back on the reins and do not try to slow the horse down. Just turn to the left for a moment, and then slowly and gently change your turn to the right, then left, then right, etc. It is critical that you are moving your hands in slow motion and that you are not pulling back on the reins as you do. Your turns should be totally random, half turn, quarter turn, full turn, etc.; don’t let yourself fall into a pattern. You should flex your horses’s neck to about a 45 degree angle as you turn.

Gradually (it may take minutes, hours or days) your horse will begin to slow his trot every time he changes direction. Once this starts happening, let him go straight between turns and then slowly and gently bring him into a turn when you feel him first begin to speed up. Ultimately, you should be going straight between every turn, and then you will let the horse stay straight as long as he is relaxed and slow until he is maintaining a steady relaxed trot without turning.

Make sure your hands are moving together and there is very little or no pressure on the horse’s mouth. Whenever you need to correct the horse’s nose to bring it into the turn, pick up (not back or down) slowly on the inside rein, with a gentle bumping motion and immediately release it when the horse gives his nose. Eventually, you should be able to make these turns and straightness with just the slow movement of your hands on a totally loose rein and without actual contact on the horse’s mouth.

Another thing it would be very useful for your horse to learn is a drop-your-head cue. With nervous horses, this is a very important step. A horse’s head comes up as he tenses and it drops as he relaxes. If you can cue your horse to drop his head, you have succeeded in teaching him a cue to relax, since it is not physically possible for him to drop his head and stay tense.

Start from the ground with a rope halter and training lead. Apply gentle steady pressure down on the halter by pulling on the lead and watch the horse VERY carefully for his head dropping. At the very first fraction of an inch, release the halter and praise the horse. Then ask again, watching very closely for any movement in the right direction, then release and apply copious praise. It is better to err on the side of the release being sooner rather than later. Timing is everything in horse training. The optimal timing for a release is half a second after the desired response. The first few inches down will be a challenge, but the next foot is easy. Once the horse figures it out he will gladly drop his head all the way to the ground every time you ask.

Once he can do this reliably from the ground, it is time to teach the same cue from the saddle. Standing still, you will use one rein, shorten it up to apply light pressure to the horse’s mouth and wait until the head drops the smallest fraction of an inch then drop the rein entirely and give copious praise. Don’t worry if the horse begins to move about, just focus on the head dropping and release whenever it does. In the same process the horse will gradually figure out that when you apply pressure with one rein and he drops his head, the pressure will go away. Again, the first few inches are very hard to get and will require a great deal of patience and concentration on your part, but the next couple feet to the ground will come much more quickly.

What ever you do, don’t succumb to applying more pressure if the horse does not respond. Apply just enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of the pressure. He will guess what to do to find the release. At first, he may put his head up, to the side, etc., but eventually he will try moving his head down and that is the instant he must find the release so that he makes an association between the cue and the right answer. This is a general concept in training that applies to almost anything that you do. More pressure is not usually the answer; you just need enough pressure that the horse begins to look for a way out of it.

Oddly enough, sometimes a very nervous horse can actually become addicted to lowering his heads and relaxing. He doesn’t really want to be nervous and frightened all the time and when he finds the peace by putting his head down, he comes to like it. This can actually become a little bit of a problem in some horses (they want to put their head way down all the time) but that is not very common and it is a far better problem to have than the original one.

I would not expect your horse to become a Western Pleasure horse, but he is capable of slowing down, relaxing and getting steady. Try these exercises, be patient, always move your hands in slow motion and give the exercises considerable time to work. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

Julie Goodnight

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