Mastering The Canter Logo

Mastering the Canter
Everywhere 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 pre-requisite 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 –and you’ll also find the new Canter Master DVD on the site. With knowledge, you’ll have the confidence you need to canter with confidence.

–Julie Goodnight

Ride By The Seat Of Your Pants

Dear Julie,

I have been riding and taking lessons for two years. I am steadily progressing but sometimes it seems like the further I get, the less I know! I was originally taught to squeeze with my legs to make the horse go and pick up on the reins to make him stop or slow down. Now I am riding with a new instructor, who I really like. He tells me I should be using my seat to ask the horse to stop and go, although he can’t seem to tell me how. What is the secret to using my seat instead of pulling on my horse’ mouth all the time?

Sitting it Out

Dear Sitting it Out,

I rode at a very high level as a youth competitor and it wasn’t until I was pretty far along in the game before I found about how to use aids correctly. In my youthful bravado I felt cheated that information had been withheld from me until the ripe old age of 14, but I am sure my trainers, in their wisdom, felt like they would teach me when I was ready to learn more theory and advanced use of the aids. Knowing the aids has influenced my teaching tremendously. I have always made it my goal to teach people more theory and advanced concepts early on in their riding. Here are some important concepts that I teach in every clinic. The info may help you put all of your training together.

The natural aids are the best tools you have to communicate with the horse. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat (weight), the legs, the hands and the rider’s voice. I prefer to teach riders that there are seven natural aids. In addition to the traditional four aids, I add the rider’s eyes (which assist in turning), the rider’s breathing (which helps for stop and go) and the rider’s brain (it helps to learn to think from the horse’s perspective). When all of these aids are used together, your horse receives clear and consistent communication—he’ll know what you want him to do.

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 don’t stop by pulling on the reins or go just by kicking). All the aids working together will guide the horse toward the appropriate response.

Seat Aids
By far, the most important aid is your seat; it’s in the most contact with the horse. Not only are you sitting on a very sensitive part of your horse’s back, but you’re also positioned over his center of gravity. He can feel your shift of weight easily. Because your horse can feel every move, it makes sense to use your seat more than any other aid.

For instance, asking the horse to stop or slow down isn’t 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 you must drop your weight onto the horse’s back by opening and relaxing the pelvis and plugging your seat bones into the saddle. As your seat drops down on the horse’s back, a connection is made between your elbows and hip. Then the shift of your weight and opening of your pelvis will cause increased pressure on the horse’s mouth through your 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 your entire body, not just from your hands.

Practice at Home
You can see how this feels by sitting in a chair pulled up to a table. With both feet flat on the floor and your back straight, put both hands on the edge of the table. As you exhale and rotate the seat bones down and forward (opening the pelvis and plugging the seat bones into the chair), pull on the edge of the table so that your seat bones 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.

The Gears of Your Seat
You have three gears to your seat: neutral, forward and reverse. Forward tells the horse to speed up; reverse tells the horse to slow down or stop. Neutral gear is that gear that you should ride in 99 percent of the time; neutral tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing, until you tell him something different.

That’s the way professional trainers teach horses to be obedient–once I tell you to walk, you should keep walking straight ahead until I tell you to slow down, speed up, turn right or turn left. You shouldn’t have to pedal your horse by constantly telling him to keep walking.

Neutral. For neutral gear, you’ll ride sitting straight up in correct position and in balance with the horse (ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment). Make sure all of your weight is on your two seat bones and your pelvis is level. When you want the horse to speed up, you’ll shift your center of gravity slightly forward–so that your pelvis tips forward. Since you’re sitting right over your horse’s center of gravity when you’re in neutral, he can feel the shift in your weight just like you could if you were carrying someone piggyback.

Forward. You horse knows that when your center of gravity shifts forward you intend to speed up. Your hand and leg aids, simply follow along with what your seat is telling the horse. Keep in mind that the position of balance with the horse occurs when you have ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment in your body; in neutral gear, that line is vertical; in forward gear, the line is canted slightly forward, causing your hands to give a release to the horse’s mouth, at the same time your legs move back and close on the horse’s sides. So all three of your primary natural aids, your seat, legs and hands, are giving a clear and connected cue to the horse.

Reverse. Reverse gear is basically the opposite of forward gear and tells the horse to stop or slow down. In reverse gear, you simply exhale, drop your shoulders down towards your hips and let your center of gravity fall back. As your pelvis tilts backwards, your seat bones sink forward and down, pressing into the horse’s back; your legs relax off of the horse’s sides and your hands come slightly up and back. Again, all of your primary aids are giving a clear and connected signal to slow down.

Now let’s use all the aids in a connected fashion to ask the horse to turn. First look in the direction of the turn–your eyes and body will initiate the turn. As your head turns slightly in the direction of the turn, your body will follow, swiveling slightly in the saddle and shifting your weight to your outside seat bone. Again, your legs and hands will follow the movement of your seat and not act independently. Your outside leg will sink down and close on the horse’s side, shutting the door to the outside.

Your inside leg will lift up slightly as the inside seat bone lightens, opening “the door” to the inside and keeping the horse’s inside shoulder elevated in an arcing turn. As your seat swivels slightly in the saddle in the turn, your elbows, arms and shoulders 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 your horse–having all of the aids combining to provide an exact signal– is a very effective and results in what looks like invisible cueing and seamless transitions. These concepts are explained in more detail in my training videos, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volume 1-5. Volume 3 in this series, Perfect Practice, includes 24 different mounted and unmounted exercises to improve your balance and communication. Volumes 2 and 4 (Communication and Control and Refinement and Collection) explain basic use of the aids as well as advanced use of the aids.

Enjoy the ride!