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.
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.
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.
Getting your horse to drop his head gives him a serene, quiet place to be.
Is your horse “jiggy” and tense on the trail? Does he trot anxiously in place, refusing to move forward slowly and calmly? If so, you’re likely tense and worried that he’ll take off if you don’t hold
Recently, while trail riding, a friend’s horse stuck his tongue out to the side as soon as she asked him to canter. Another friend said, “Oh look, her horse is licking and chewing. That means he’s thinking.” However, the horse didn’t look relaxed, and it wasn’t an “aha” moment. What do you think of this behavior? Should a horse’s tongue ever be out while under saddle?
It sounds as though there’s a bit of confusion here. Licking and chewing is definitely a different behavior than a horse sticking his tongue out while you’re riding.
Licking and chewing can be seen when a horse is relaxing; in training, this behavior often occurs when the horse understands and is compliant.
There’s a lot of discussion about the behavior and what it means, but it’s a good sign. I watch for the behavior and study it quite a bit. I love knowing how the brain and body work together — especially under stress.
When a horse is licking and chewing, his lips and jaw are working softly. He’s swallowing with his tongue, but he doesn’t stick his tongue out. He may occasionally lick his lips a little bit, but it’s very different than sticking his tongue far outside his mouth.
A Moist Mouth
Here’s a little more background on how licking and chewing works.
Just like humans, horses salivate constantly. Just like humans, horses don’t drool; they swallow their spit.
Horses produce enough saliva to fill a bucket every day. That salivation is important to their physiology — they need the saliva to keep their mouths moist to dampen feed and move it through the digestive tract.
When your horse becomes tense and anxious, his salivation stops. Just as when you’re nervous and get cottonmouth (think of when you had to give a speech in school), your horse stops salivating when he’s anxious. When he relaxes once again, the saliva process starts again, and that’s the moment that he licks and chews.
When you’re training your horse to do something new, he stops salivating when he’s thinking, What are you asking? What do you want me to do? When he figures it out, he starts salivating again, and licks and chews to help lubricate his mouth.
This behavior has been condensed and commonly shared as, “When a horse is licking and chewing, that means he’s thinking.” That’s almost true, but it isn’t the whole story.
The licking and chewing actually means that the horse has moved back to relaxation from a state of anxiety.
A horse that sticks his tongue outside his mouth presents a complicated behavior that can be difficult to resolve.
First, find out if the horse sticks out his tongue all the time or only while being saddled and bridled. That information will help you know whether he has developed an endorphin-seeking behavior exhibited all the time or if he’s uncomfortable only in his tack.
Endorphins (endogenous morphine) are opioid peptins — neurotransmitters produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus that produce a feeling of well-being and can act as a painkiller.
A horse gets an endorphin release when he sticks out his tongue and bites it. If you see a horse sticking out his tongue and chewing on it when he’s just standing in his stall, he has learned a behavior and has almost become addicted to the feeling.
Saddle fit or back pain may also cause the horse to seek a way to find an endorphin release. This comes to mind especially because you say this only happens at the canter. Moving into that gait might create mouth pain (see below) or pain elsewhere in his body.
Advise the horse’s owner to have a veterinarian rule out any physical pain.
If the horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, it’s most likely because the bit is bothering his mouth.
There are many ways a horse attempts to avoid a bit that’s causing too much tongue pressure. He could be stargazing (holding his head high), coming behind the bit, opening his mouth, or sticking out his tongue out. All these behaviors are engaged to relieve tongue pressure.
If I know the horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, I immediately think about switching to a bit that offers tongue relief.
Here’s the caveat, though: Many of the bits riders think are the most comfortable actually increase tongue pressure. For instance, a fat bit, while dispersing pressure over a wide surface, actually places more pressure on the tongue, because there’s not enough room for that much bit in the mouth.
If you use a three-piece mouthpiece thinking that’s more comfortable, note that some are actually designed to place more pressure on the tongue.
Even with a snaffle (a direct pressure bit without shanks), the mouthpiece can collapse around a horse’s tongue and apply pressure that the horse learns to avoid.
There’s no one magic answer or one bit that’s best. I’d start experimenting with bits designed to relieve tongue pressure.
I make sure the bits I use don’t collapse in the middle, but rather are made to curve around the horse’s mouth.
A bit that is single-jointed and only folds in the middle will clamp down and place pressure on the tongue. A bit that collapses in the middle and has shanks creates the most pressure of all.
The horse might not like the bit or the pressure on the bit. And when the rider collects the reins to canter, she may be applying too much contact on the horse’s mouth.
When a horse picks up the canter, he moves his head down into the bit on the first stride and every stride thereafter; if the rider doesn’t release contact and ride with elastic arms, the horse hits himself in the mouth each stride.
This horse may’ve learned to avoid that pressure when he’s asked for a canter by sticking out his tongue.
Many riders don’t realize how much pressure they’re holding on the horse’s mouth — especially when they move to the canter.
Time Will Tell
The solution here may lie in a combination of finding a comfortable bit and/or saddle and teaching the rider to relax her hands. However, it may still take time to change the horse’s behavior.
Once a horse has adopted a coping behavior, it takes time to train him to stop that behavior, or replace that behavior with a more desirable one.
Some horses gradually diminish the behavior over time when they realize that the pain they felt before is no longer an issue. Others become “addicted” to the feeling of the endorphin release and continue the behavior even after they’re in a new bit.
Some horses will stop sticking out their tongue in a few days. Others may take a few weeks to totally eliminate the behavior. For many, there will be an immediate and dramatic resolution when the right bit is found.
If the horse is sticking out his tongue only when bridled, it’s most likely because the bit is bothering his mouth, explains Julie Goodnight.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem, since I didn’t find that our instructor found the right thing to do. Instead of finding an answer, he did what a program told him to do.
I have a friend whose horse is a 16-year-old QH gelding and a former roping horse. He still has some trust issues in my opinion and he’s very brace-y when he gets upset. He will lope with her riding him, but he tends to have this “I’m running away from you” lope. He has a hard time in the corners and on a circle, but he will lope. I noticed that she tends to brace in her knees and ankles and that she has her ankles to far forward which of course doesn’t help the horse to lope confidently…
Now, when she tries to lope him on the ground with the 22-foot line, he starts his race trot and carries his head as high as he can and he simply will NOT lope. They were working with him the other day (together with the instructor) for about 40 minutes and all they got was maybe a quarter circle at best at a lope. Her horse was soaking wet and I really didn’t see any real success.
Here’s what they tried: Trot the horse towards the fence and then put pressure on when he leaves the fence. Did NOT work at all! He just ran at a faster trot. Then they tried to bring the horse closer, “reel” him in, lift line, step out, swing and touch hard on his shoulder if he didn’t leave. The horse would make a few jumps and then would race around at a trot, so immediately bring him in again and start the whole thing over etc.
WHAT I SAW:
The horse obviously “shut down” and did not respond anymore besides “running at a trot for his life” (in his opinion anyway). I think his previous owner/s literally beat the crap out of him. It looks to me as if he was abused mentally and probably physically and he somehow learned to live with it by shutting down. I believe that in this state he’s absolutely UNABLE to learn. He braces and tightens up and it makes it even harder for him to get into a lope. I have to add that I’ve been watching the owner for a few months now. I don’t want to say that she easily gives up; she rather thinks she has to live with his antics and makes excuses for him. This of course doesn’t help to turn her horse around. I find that the horse is a mix out of fear and bully, which seems to me especially difficult.
I would really appreciate your input. The owner was heart broken, the horse looked like it’s going to have a heart attack any minute and I really don’t think anything got accomplished! I tried to put myself in her situation and I’m sure I would have told the instructor to stop. At one point he actually got a decent lope off with a few additional steps but he missed the release and felt that he had to “stop on a good note”.
Looking for the Answer
You have made some very astute observations with this horse. When a horse shuts-down mentally, he is no longer thinking about his situation and looking for the right answer that will get him the release. Some horses shut down more easily than others. There are many team-roping horses out there with trust issues and a lot of baggage from the high-stress work that they do and the sometimes harsh and heavy pressure put on them. These horses respond well to slow, quiet and clear handling and do not do well with pushing them beyond the boiling point. A team roping horse that has not been trained and worked in a balanced fashion (schooling on fundamentals of bending, turning, collection) and is only blown out of the box, running hell-bent for leather, only taking the left lead and only turning left when it reaches the steer, doesn’t really know how to do anything else. In some instances, the horse has had so much physical pressure put on his mouth and sides and so much mental stress on him waiting in the box and blowing out after the steer, that he has a total melt down when asked to perform. These horses can have a lot of baggage. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there are many excellent rope horse trainers that school their horses more holistically.
When the rider braces any part of her body, especially the knees and ankles, the horse will always become stiffer, hollowed out in the back and more anxious. The reason why is that the rider is no longer absorbing the motion of the horse’s movement and instead is opposing the motion and bouncing on the horse’s back and bracing on his mouth. Bracing or stiffening joints causes the riders legs and hands to become jerky. The increased pressure causes the horse to tense; at the same time the rider is sending a message of tension through her body to the horse (you have to tense muscles and lock joints to brace). Horses will learn that when the rider tenses and braces, that pain in the mouth and back will follow. A horse’s natural response to discomfort is to run away from it, so these horses will generally speed up in a effort to run away from the discomfort. Unfortunately, that will generally cause the rider to brace even more and the downward spiral spins out of control.
In clinics when I am teaching groundwork, I am constantly telling people to move slowly and progressively and never give the horse the sense that you are chasing him. You always want him to be thinking for a way out of his problem, the problem being the mental or physical pressure that you put on him when you ask him to do something. If the pressure (either mental or physical) becomes too much for the horse, his mind shuts down and he kicks into his survival/flight (or fight) mode. From this point, you have very little to gain and much to lose.
In the situation you are describing, it sounds to me like damage was done to this horse and certainly there was no positive benefit from the training session. Perhaps there would have been if the person had capitalized on the horse finally doing the right thing by removing all pressure and leaving the horse alone for a while.
It is an old-school of thought but one in which I believe very strongly: whenever you have trouble with a horse getting something (which probably means you are not a very effective teacher to your horse) always return to something more fundamental so that your horse can find some success and be in a better frame of mind.
There is a dilemma because once you have asked a horse to do something, if you don’t reinforce your request and follow-through; you have trained the horse to ignore you. However, if you are not as effective in teaching your horse or communicating with him and you keep asking something incomprehensible to him over and over again, and putting more and more pressure on him until his mind shuts down, you have taught the horse to be frightened and reactive to you, but he hasn’t learned the skill you were hoping for. Knowing when to push and when to back off a horse is a pre-requisite for being a good horse trainer.
There is no one system that could ever account for all the variances and intricacies of horses. The judgment and horse sense you need to train horses comes from the experience and wisdom gained from working with many, many different horses.
Timing is another essential skill needed to train a horse effortlessly. Although you hear a lot about repetition in training horses, if your timing is good you’ll need little, if any repetitions to train a horse a new skill. It is hard enough to teach people the physical skills they need to work horses from the ground or from the saddle, but to teach them timing is really difficult. Getting people to understand that to the horse, it is all about the release- of both mental and physical pressure. I’ll bet that with this exact scenario, if they had just stopped the horse and let him chill out for a few minutes here and there during the session when the horse made some kind of effort in the right direction, he may have made some progress toward the goal.
Of all the training systems, programs and techniques in the world, the one thing that they all have in common is that ability to give a timely and significant release to the horse and the judgment to know when to press your horse and when to back off. You only have 3 seconds with a horse to reward, release or correct, in order for him to make an association between his actions and the release/correction. It is a well-documented fact that the sooner within those three seconds the release/correction comes, the more meaningful it is to the horse. So by the time you have to think about what the horse did or what you should do to correct or reward, you are well past the optimal time period for training your horse.
Unfortunately, there are lots of horses out there like you describe, with baggage from bad handling. These horses will turn around dramatically, in the right hands with a trainer that is competent, clear, consistent and kind.
One final thought has to do with asking the horse to canter on a 22′ line. This is an awfully small circle for a horse to execute at a slow and balanced canter; it would be less than a 15-meter circle. There are some articles in the Training Library on my website that detail my opinion of cantering a horse (unmounted) in a round pen, which is closer to a 20 meter circle. For most young horses and for all un-athletic horses, this is very difficult, even when they are at liberty. A much smaller circle and the interference from the human on the other end of the rope make it hard for the most athletic of horses to canter, especially if they are untrained. In my experience, you are more likely to cause balance problems with the horse or problems with its purity of gait by working at the lope on a line or in the round pen.
I hate to pass judgment on a person when I have not personally witnessed the event, however, since I have known you for some time and know that you are an astute student of horsemanship, I am taking your descriptions of the event at face value, and it does not seem like the horse left the training session a better trained horse.
Question: Dear Julie,
When riding in the arena at the canter, for the first few strides my horse throws his head up in the air. Why is he doing this?
Answer: Dear Puzzled,
This is a very common response from the horse that is afraid of the canter cue. The reason why he is afraid of the transition is that he has been hit in the mouth too many times when a rider asked him to canter. Always rule out a tooth/mouth problem first, but it is likely that if this were a physical problem, it would continue as you cantered.
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 is not given a release when you ask him to canter, then 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.
As I said, this is VERY common. I see it in every single clinic I teach. 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.
When you cue a horse to canter, you should reach up toward his ears with both hands to give him the release he needs to drop his head in the stride. With each and every stride of the canter, your hands should extend forward as your hips move forward to give the release he needs with every stride.
Your horse has already learned to fear the transition, so you’ll have to really exaggerate the release for some time and eventually he’ll come to trust that you will not hit him in the mouth and he does not have to be afraid and throw his head up in the air.
All of these issues—how to cue, how to ride the canter and dealing with problems—are addressed in volume 4 of my riding DVDs, Canter with Confidence. In addition, it covers refining the canter, lead changes and collection at the canter.
Check Your Horse’s Mouth and the Bit
When you are having problems with a horse raising his head, the first thing to check is his mouth. Have your veterinarian examine his mouth to make sure there are no sharp teeth, other dental problems or tongue scaring that could be contributing to the problem. You always have to rule out a physical problem before addressing a training issue.
The second thing to do is to consider the bit you are using. With all evasive techniques (throwing the head, rooting, above and behind the bit, opening the mouth, putting the tongue over the bit, mouth gaping, etc.), the horse is trying to get a relief from the pressure on his tongue. If you are using a straight snaffle, which creates the greatest amount of tongue pressure, he may do better in another bit. You can learn more about how horses evade bit pressure and how bits can be designed to help your horse relax instead of tense at http://juliegoodnight.com/myler. It’s difficult to teach your horse to lower his head unless he can relax and swallow when his head is down.
Teach the Head Down Cue
Once you have ruled out mouth problems and made sure your horse is in the right bit, you can retrain your horse to drop his head when he feels pressure instead of throwing it up. What you want to do is make the horse uncomfortable when his head is up (by increasing bit pressure) and make him comfortable when his head is down (by releasing the pressure).
From the ground: I teach this concept of “seeking out the slack” from the very beginning of training, before we even mount the horse for the first time. When “bitting out” a horse, first I want the horse to just get used to the mild snaffle in his mouth, with no pressure applied to the bit. This may take days or weeks; the horse determines the time frame. Then we will put the horse in an elbow-pull (The Goodnight Bitting System available at http://shop.juliegoodnight.com) to teach him that when he gives to bit pressure, the pressure goes away. The elbow-pull is rigged from a 15-20 cord (I use leather); put the middle of the cord over his poll, run each end through the rings of the bit, between the horse’s legs (behind the elbow) then fasten it to the saddle. It should be adjusted so that when the horse is standing square in a relaxed frame, there is no pressure on his mouth. The pressure will come when the horse walks and his elbow will cause an alternating pull (R-L-R-L) on his mouth.
The beauty of this device is threefold. One, it is self-correcting meaning that the instant the horse gives the right way he gets slack. Two, the elbow-pull creates a rhythmic alternating pull, rather than a static pull on both reins (like side reins) and it is far more effective to use one rein at a time rather than two (a horse stiffens his neck and leans into it when you pull on both reins at the same time). And third, once the horse has learned to respond correctly and carry himself in a collected frame with no contact on his mouth, you can mimic this action on the reins when you are on his back. When he feels the same pressure, he’ll know to lower his head and seek the slack in the reins.
From the saddle: Keep in mind that all your horse wants is a release of pressure. Once you’re in the saddle, you need to create an association in his mind that when he puts his head down, he gets the release. As with all things in training, how good your timing is will determine how quickly your horse can learn this. As soon as his head comes up, you will pick up on the reins to increase the pressure on his mouth and the instant his head begins to drop, you’ll drop your hands clear down to his neck (making sure to touch his neck with your knuckles to give him reassurance).
As you walk, you’ll feel your hips moving in a side-to-side action which causes your leg to close alternately and rhythmically (R-L-R-L) on the horse’s sides. When you want the horse to collect, you’ll first feel the rhythm in your seat and legs and then increase the rhythm in a driving fashion, then add small squeezes with your fingers, alternating R-L-R-L, using the same side hand as leg. Your seat and legs will keep the horse moving forward at the same time your hands are applying resistance to his front end with alternating pressure and causing him to shorten his frame. It is critical that the horse finds a small amount of slack when he makes the slightest effort to collect and it is also critical that you time your hands with your seat and legs. When done properly, the horse will hold himself in this frame. Remember; don’t ask him to hold it too long. You’ll want to release the horse before he becomes uncomfortable and resistant and gradually increase the time you ask him to hold the frame.
With good timing and consistency, your horse will soon learn that when you pick up the reins and increase contact, he should put his head down. Your end of the bargain is to make sure he always gets a release when he does the right thing.
This technique is explained thoroughly and demonstrated on my videos, Bit Basics and Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volume 5, Collection & Refinement. You can also find out more about collection and many other riding skills at my Training Library: http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php.
I have been riding for eight months at a stable and am taking classes once-twice a week as well as clinics. I bought a horse from the stables I go to, he is a twelve year old Arab and a very forgiving horse. I bought him in June and I would say the last two months he has started to pull on the bit. I am finding this very very frustrating. My teacher is a very good trainer as well as a teacher. It is a very busy stable…. I guess what I am trying to say I kind of feel bad about looking to someone else for an answer. Just this weekend she told me to try a softer bit, and there was no pulling. I went out the next day to ride and he started to pull again. At first we maybe thought when he is getting tired he pulls, but it can be ten minutes into the ride and he starts to pull again. I thought maybe it could be his teeth but when she bought him she had had his teeth checked and they were fine. Would you please be able to give me advice into what else I could try? I am going into a show this weekend and with him pulling on the bit causes me to not enjoy my ride.
Pulling on the bit, rooting the reins and head tossing are always caused by the same thing: the rider. This is not a human with a horse problem, but rather a horse with a human problem; and a very common one at that, so don’t feel too badly.
The reason why he did not do this for the first few months you had him is that he tolerated the unrelenting and unfeeling contact on his mouth (or it wasn’t as bad at first). At some point he reached his limit and began to pull against your contact, begging and pleading for a release and undoubtedly it worked to his advantage and he got some rein away from you, even if only for a brief second, thus rewarding his behavior.
The first thing to fix is you. Talk this over with your instructor and she should be able to teach you how and when to release the contact. Even if you are riding English, in my opinion you should not be riding on direct contact until you are much more advanced in your riding. You would never want to ride with direct contact out on the trail, because you want your horse to be calm and relaxed and be able to use his head naturally to balance.
Although the rider inadvertently trains a horse to lean on the bit, root the reins or toss his head, once the problem behavior begins, it is challenging to correct it without making the problem worse. The first thing to always to ask yourself with any riding problem is, “what am I doing that is causing my horse to act this way?” Chances are you are holding too tight a contact for no reason. But you cannot release at that moment when he pulls because then you are rewarding his behavior.
The first thing I would do on a horse that has learned this defensive behavior, is make sure I was riding him on a totally loose rein and only taking contact momentarily when I had to cue him to turn or stop, with an instantaneous and dramatic release. He will probably do some experimenting by pulling his head down very low to see just how much rein he has and I will let him drag his nose on the ground if he wants (if I do not give him anything to pull against, it is a fruitless behavior). When he does root or pull on a shorter rein (which he will because this has become engrained learned behavior), I lock my hand on the rein, or even lock my hand against the pommel, so that he roots into a very fixed rein and hits himself in the mouth. If he does not get any release and instead punishes himself when he pulls, he’ll quit; but only if the rider holds up her end of the bargain: to not hang on his mouth. As with all horse training, how effective you are as a trainer depends on how quickly you can either correct or reward (release) the horse. To correct this behavior, the correction (the bump he gives himself in the mouth) has to be instantaneous with the pull. By the time you’ve thought about what to do, it is probably too late to be effective. Timing is everything for a horse. You have a 3 second window of opportunity to reward or correct, but the optimal time is half a second. If the correction comes that quickly, his behavior will be eliminated almost immediately. And if he is rewarded by not having constant static pressure on his mouth when he is doing his job, he’ll turn back into the solid citizen that he was when you got him.
If you can change your way of riding and have more awareness is your hands, your horse will change right away.
I want my pony to carry her head in a low position. . . .
My pony keeps her head up when I’m attempting to ride her in a collected frame. When I first got her she was so nervous about the bit in her mouth and what the rider might do. We outfitted her in a loose-ring snaffle, which has helped her put her head down somewhat. However, she still keeps her head up more then I’d like it to be. She has a wide back, but we worked hard to find a saddle that fits well. I’m pretty certain her head carriage isn’t due to saddle discomfort. I also ride her bareback and she carries her head high even then. What can I do to lower her head?
Dear High Headed,
Horses usually keep their heads up to avoid too much pressure from the bits on their tongues. When a horse puts her head up in the air, it allows the bit to slide to the back of her tongue as the pressure shifts to her lips and relieves the tongue.
You can feel how bad tongue pressure might feel to your horse by pressing your finger into your own tongue. Most horses that evade the bit are trying to find a release to this awkward tongue pressure.
Depending on the design of your pony’s bit, she might be feeling an unbearable amount of pressure. Look for a bit that offers some tongue relief—you’ll want a bit with a port (a convex-shaped bridge in the middle of the bit that allows the tongue relief). A ported bit might look like something that will cause your horse to feel more pressure, but in reality, the design allows the tongue to relax. I’ve used Myler Bits for years and have found that they’re designed to relieve tongue pressure and allow your horse to feel as relaxed as possible. Only when a horse is relaxed can she pay attention to your cues instead of her own discomfort.
Even when they are comfortable, horses must first be trained to respond properly to the bit; responding to the tool that you put into their mouths isn’t something they do naturally. You have to teach them how to find release from the bit’s pressure and how to “give” to the bit both laterally (to the side) and vertically (up and down). I have a new DVD that teaches you how to teach your horse to respond to lateral and vertical bit pressure so that you can use a bit as a kind communication tool (Bit Basics: Accepting and Responding to Bit Pressure). The DVD addresses how to train a young horse that’s never had a bit in her mouth and how to re-train the older confused horse.
I teach young and “rehab” horses to respond to pressure and find the proper release by applying light pressure to the bit through the reins (whatever amount of pressure it takes to make the horse notice and start looking for a way out of the pressure). I then watch the horse’s head closely. At the first instance her head drops—even a fraction of an inch— I release the rein pressure and rub the horse on the neck. Soon she will learn that when she drops her head, the pressure goes away. It’s best to use one rein when applying this constant pressure—ride with two hands, but only ask your horse to respond to the pressure on one side at a time. If you pull on two reins simultaneously you risk her locking her jaw or stiffening her neck. You’ll find an article, “Why one Rein is Better than Two” in my online Training Library (http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php)
Once your pony knows how to give to pressure on the bit, it’s your job to make sure she finds a small release every time she does the right thing and lowers her head. Most people make the mistake of continuing to put pressure on a horse’s mouth once she’s done the right thing. That’s when a horse continues to look for a release of pressure and ends up raising instead of lowering her head—to evade the bit and find a release in her own way. With soft hands and a bit with tongue relief, you can show your horse that there’s a release when she has her head in the proper position. She must have an incentive to drop her head and her incentive and reward is the release of pressure. Good luck with your pony!
Riding Right with Julie Goodnight
Speed Demon: Teach your horse to slow down on command
My 12-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse is always in a hurry—even to get around the arena! I’m always pulling back on her mouth to slow her down, but she speeds up again right away. We’re in a constant battle. My friend suggested I use a stronger bit, but I hate the thought of putting even more pressure on her mouth. What can I do to help her slow down so we can both have a relaxed and peaceful ride?
Searching for Slow
Sometimes it seems like there are only two kinds of horses in this world: horses with too much go and horses with too much whoa. In the overall scheme of things, a slow horse is easier to fix than a fast one, but there are some important things to know about slowing down your fast horse.
Since speediness is related to the horse’s flight response, it’s safe to assume that the speed demons are sensitive horses; they’re often anxious. They just have that wound up temperament—just like a person who’s prone to worrying. If you can show your horse a better way to be—he’ll gladly relax and slow down.
Because being speedy has to do with his overall temperament, a stronger bit probably won’t help and may make matters worse. When your horse feels the increased pressure on his mouth, he may become even more anxious. And guess what horses do when they become anxious? Speed up! That’s the flight response by definition. In the wild, a horse would flee the scene if he felt insecure or worried. Under saddle, your horse speeds up and attempts to avoid the worrisome experience.
Many riders don’t know what to do with their speed demons—so they pull back on their horses’ mouths. It sounds like this is the frustration you’re explaining. When your horse is speedy, you ride with the reins tight all of the time—never giving your horse slack. In essence, it’s like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brakes. Your horse is already to accelerate and—although you think you’re telling him to slow down—he hasn’t felt a release (what he needs to experience in order to learn another way) to tell him to do anything but keep going at his current speed. If the release never comes (even if it’s only momentary when he slows down at the tiniest of increments), he’ll never learn the right response. This fear-causing scenario may cause you to pull back more and your horse to speed up even more. You may also be inadvertently cueing your horse to go faster if your body becomes tense and you lean forward to pull harder on the reins. Your body tells your horse to go-go-go while you think you’re telling him to stop. Volume two in my Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD series explains how your weight/center of gravity cues your horse and rates your speed.
And let’s think about the mechanics of what happens in your horse’s mouth when you get into this pulling fest. Even with no pressure on the reins, it’s not pleasant for your horse to have a metal bar in his mouth. Any pull on the reins brings uncomfortable pressure. I like to empathize with the horse by thinking what it’s like to have x-rays of my teeth taken at the dentist. The slightest pressure on my gums or roof of my mouth with that little cardboard piece of film makes me cringe. Keep in mind that horses have nerves in their lips, gums and palate just like we do and the pressure can be sharp and may come without any warning. Some horses tolerate pressure on their mouths better than others. For a sensitive, anxious horse, more pressure on the mouth makes him more anxious and therefore faster.
The correction: When I work with “speed demon” horses, I start by placing a milder bit in his mouth and riding with a loose rein. You’d be surprised how many horses will be cured—slowing down immediately—with those two simple steps. If you’ve become fearful of your horse and going fast, you may ask an experienced horse person or local trainer for help during this initial step.
If a horse is still speedy, I teach him that slow is good. When he slows down, he’ll get the release he’s looking for. Here’s how:
1. For this exercise, work in an enclosed arena and outfit your horse in a mild snaffle with a nice long rein (a single-loop rope rein works well for this exercise, see www.juliegoodnight.com for the recreational rein I designed). Keep in mind that the worst thing you can do is pull back with two reins at the same time. That makes a speedy horse brace his neck, lean into the pressure and go faster.
2. Start by walking your horse on a totally loose rein. There should be a huge loop in the reins and your knuckles should be down on the horse’s neck (there must be a dramatic difference between contact and loose rein so he can figure it out). If he won’t walk with his head down on a loose rein, continue to practice the rest of the exercise at the walk until he lowers his head and shows you that he understands that he’ll get a release when he’s slow and relaxed.
When your knuckles are in contact with the horse’s neck, he’ll always relax because he knows you can’t pull on his mouth as long as your hands are on his neck. He’ll learn to modify his behavior in any way if it makes you put your knuckles on his neck and give him a loose rein.
3. Give your horse a gentle, soft cue to trot (some speedy horses you don’t have to cue to trot, but just think trot). If your horse lurches into the trot like he was shot out of a cannon, you’re probably over-cueing him.
4. Out of habit, he’ll start going too fast. Instead of hauling back on two reins and falling into your same old trap, slowly slide your hand down one rein (either one), then slowly lift that hand up and in just a little, asking the horse to flex his neck to that side. You aren’t trying to slow him down with your hand, just asking him to flex his nose around toward your foot.
Over-flex his neck, allowing him to turn with the outside rein totally slack. Keep him over-flexed on the turn until you feel him slow a little, then immediately drop that rein dramatically, and put your knuckles on his neck with a totally slack rein. He’ll probably speed up again. Slowly and gently pick up the other rein and over-flex him in the opposite direction, giving him a giant release (allowing slack in the rein) as soon as you feel his rhythm slow. Whenever he speeds up, pick up one rein and flex him (always alternate reins); whenever he slows, give the giant release. You’ll teach him to hold himself in a steady speed, without your constant nagging.
The outcome: Since going in a small circle with his neck over-flexed is really hard and going straight slowly is really easy, he’ll figure out how to move ahead easily at a slow and rhythmic pace. It’s not the turn that slows him down so much as the flexing his neck from one side to the other.
Depending on how good your timing is and how quickly your horse learns (those two things are directly related) it may take him a few repetitions or a few weeks to learn. With consistency, your horse will learn that all he has to do is go slowly and he can go straight on a loose rein.
Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse a better way so that you’re both happier! There’s lots of information on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com that can help you along the way.
Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
Question Category: Safety Concerns
Question: I have heard different opinions on whether or not to leave stirrup bar safety latches open on English saddles? What do you think?
Answer: CHA advocates always leaving stirrup bar safety latches in the open position. It is highly unlikely that the stirrup leathers will come loose from jumping or any other activity when the latch is open and even if it does, the result is far less dangerous than the potential for being drug by a horse.
The releasable latch on the stirrup bar is called a ‘safety latch’ and is intended to be used in the up position and release in the event a rider falls and the rider’s foot is stuck in the stirrup. However, if the latch is not regularly cleaned and oiled, it freezes in the up position and does not function properly, therefore it becomes a hazard by locking the stirrup leathers into place. Since few riders will properly maintain the safety latch, it is best to leave the latch open.
Perhaps very high level cross country jumpers and open jumpers may choose to leave the latch closed, to prevent the possibility of the leather releasing unintentionally, but novice level riders and all children should err on the side of safety and leave the latch open. It is highly unlikely that the leather will release during the normal course of riding. Many English saddles made today do not even have the latch and instead have a curved stirrup bar that will cause the leather to release in the event of a dragging.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question Category: Riding Skills
Question: How do you teach riders to use all the natural aids together–leg and rein aids?
Answer: The natural aids are the best tools the rider has to communicate with the horse. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat (weight), the legs, the hands and the voice of the rider. I prefer to teach seven natural aids, which in addition to the traditional four aids includes the rider’s eyes, the rider’s breathing and the rider’s brain. When all of these aids are used together, it gives a clear and consistent communication to the horse of what you want him to do and sets your body up to naturally give the correct cue. All of the natural aids should be used in unison and should always originate, or be connected to, the use of the seat. No one aid gives a cue to the horse (you do not stop by pulling on the reins or go by kicking), but all the aids working together will guide the horse toward the appropriate response.
For instance, asking the horse to stop or slow down is not simply a matter of pulling back on the reins. To ask the horse to stop using all of the aids in a connected fashion, first the rider must drop her weight onto the horse’s back by opening and relaxing the pelvis and plugging her seatbones into the saddle. As the seat of the rider drops down on the horse’s back, a connection is made between the rider’s elbows and hip, thus the shift of the rider’s weight and opening of the rider’s pelvis will cause an increase on the pressure of the horse’s mouth through the rider’s arms, hands and reins. In other words, the pressure the horse feels on his mouth is connected to the increased weight on his back and the pull comes from the rider’s entire body, not just from the hands.
You can see how this feels by sitting in a chair pulled up to a table. With both feet flat on the floor and sitting up straight, put both hands on the edge of the table. As you exhale and rotate the seatbones forward (opening the pelvis and plugging the seatbones into the chair), pull on the edge of the table so that your seatbones get even heavier on the chair. This is how you cue the horse for a stop or to slow down by using your weight aid first. You should feel a connection from your arms to your seat bones, as they press into the chair. If your seat bones lighten and your upper body moves forward when you pull back on the reins, your aids are not connected. Practice this exercise until you feel the connection between your seat and hands, and then try to feel the connection on a horse.
To use all of the aids in a connected fashion to ask the horse to turn, the rider must first look in the direction of the turn and use her eyes and body to initiate the turn. As the rider’s head turns slightly in the direction of the turn, the body will follow, swiveling slightly in the saddle and shifting the rider’s weight to her outside seat bone. Again, the legs and hands will follow the movement of the rider’s seat and not act independently. The outside leg will sink down and close on the horse’s side, shutting the door to the outside. Conversely, the rider’s inside leg will lift up slightly as the inside seatbone lightens, opening the door to the inside and keeping the horse’s inside shoulder elevated in an arcing turn. As the seat swivels slightly on the horse’s back, the elbows, arms and shoulders of the rider will follow (make sure your upper arms are in contact with your ribcage), giving a release with the outside rein and increased pressure to the inside rein, thus supporting the horse’s head, neck and shoulders in the turn.
Using your whole body to communicate with the horse and having all of the aids give the same signal to the horse, is a very effective way to communicate with the horse and results in invisible cues and seamless transitions.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.