Canter Cue

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Does Your Horse Fear the Canter Cue?
At my clinics and during the TV show shoots, I often see horses that are fearful of the canter cue. 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. No matter which of these riding errors occur, the horse can feel pain and quickly learn to fear the canter transition. Here’s why: 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 isn’t given a release when asked to canter, 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.

Some horses have been hurt so many times in the canter departure by the rider hitting him them in the mouth and slamming down on their backs, that they become emotional train wrecks when asked to canter. They throw their heads up in the air and run off; running in fear of the pain they are sure is coming. It’s a self-defeating behavior that soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for the horse because it causes the rider to stiffen and hold the reins tighter, which in turn causes the rider to hit the horse in the mouth and back. However, before starting on a training solution, you’ll have to rule out any physical cause for the problem, which is also very common in canter departure problems. It could be a saddle fit issue, a chiropractic issue or even lameness. Have your vet or another qualified professional examine your horse and saddle fit and once you have ruled out any physical cause, you can look to a training solution.

If I work with a horse that seems scared to move into the canter, here’s what I do: First, I work the horse at the walk to trot transition until I can trot on a totally loose rein with the horse’s head down and with him working at a slow, steady speed (if this is a problem, you’ll need to back up and work more at the trot with the exercises for slowing down you’ll find in my Training Library, http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php). Then I give my canter cue softly and in slow motion, (apply pressure with the outside leg, lift my inside hand slightly then push with my seat for the cue to canter as I make the kissing noise with my voice). Throughout the process, I leave the reins loose. If the horse throws his head up in the air and takes off, I let him go (so that he learns that he won’t be punished during the transition), then gently and slowly pick up on the inside rein to bring him gradually onto a large circle, which will discourage his speed (be careful not to get into the habit of turning your horse as soon as he begins to canter because it will teach him to drop his shoulder and come off the rail each time you cue him). I continue at the canter until the horse slows down and relaxes, then let him come back to a nice easy trot.

I repeat this exercise on a loose rein again and again until he learns to trust that his mouth will not be hurt in the upward transition to the canter and therefore loses his fear of the transition. Surprisingly, some horses will figure it out right away with the right rider, but if it’s an engrained pattern in both horse and rider, this problem can be difficult to overcome. It will help if the horse can learn the correct response from a skilled rider. This isn’t an easy problem to fix unless you have solid riding skills and confidence riding at speed.

If you need more help and a visual demonstration, check out my Canter with Confidence DVD and the Refinement and Collection edition, too (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 800-225-8827).
Once you have fixed the canter departure, and your horse is stepping smoothly into the canter, you can start thinking about collection. Before working on collection at the canter, you should be able to work your horse on a loose rein in an extended frame or on a short rein in a collected frame at the walk and trot, and have him maintain a steady speed, rhythm and frame.

You’ll need to have the ability to sit the trot and canter well and feel the rhythm of the gait in your seat and legs. You’ll need steady hands and to learn to use your reins in an alternating rhythm in timing with your seat and legs and your horse’s hind legs. If you can do all of this, you’re ready to work on collection once you’ve entered the canter gait. It will take time and patience for your horse to gain confidence in the canter departure and you’ll have to work to improve your riding at the same time. But if you work with patience and persistence, you’ll get there.
–Julie Goodnight

Buying A Horse

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In “Shop ‘Til You Drop,” the Horse Master episode taped at my ranch in Colorado, I helped my friend Sddita Fradette begin the horse shopping process. She’s a skilled rider and NARHA riding instructor but doesn’t have her own horse at the moment. She wants to make sure she has the know-how and strategy to start shopping with confidence. We talked about the importance of conformation, breeding, size, temperament, training, sex and more during the show.

Be sure to watch the episode on RFD-TV, log on to watch the extra footage at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghGuPH_bLOI then read on to find out more about finding your own perfect horse. The show is part of a new series of episodes shot at my ranch (we’ll shoot in Colorado again in late summer 2010 if you’re close and would like to apply to get help for you and your horse: http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/apply.html). In the new shows, there’s help if your horse refuses to approach obstacles, if you’re a new rider and want help learning how to work with your new horse, if you’re horse shopping, if your horse won’t accept a bit and bridle without raising his head, and if you want help finding the proper bit for your well-trained horse. Here’s more about horse shopping….

Horse Shopping 101
When it’s time to look for a new horse, you want to be an educated buyer—understanding what to look for and what questions to ask as you shop for your dream horse. You’ll want to find the safest and best-trained horse that your money can buy. You will love a horse that makes you feel safe; get one that you can build confidence with instead of constantly re-building.
It’s very important to identify exactly how you plan to use your new horse because you cannot fit a square peg into a round hole. Spend some time thinking about what your short and long term goals are; be realistic in terms of your time commitment and physical ability. If your time commitment is limited, you’ll need a very well-trained and seasoned horse that can stand around for days or weeks and still ride easy, not a “project” horse that is young or poorly trained. If your goals include competitive riding, you’ll need a horse that is the right type, with good athletic ability and solid training. The more demanding the competition, the more type, pedigree and training play a role.
It may be that you want an all-around horse that you can do a variety of things with, from casual trail riding to dressage, both English and western. If so, realistically rank all the activities you plan and what is most important to you and set up a list of priorities so that you can evaluate individual horses and rate their best qualities.
Realize that one horse may not suit your long-term goals and you may out-grow this horse, particularly if you plan to compete regularly. If you are just starting out as a beginner, you need a steady, solid mount that has a lot of patience; these horses are typically not the sharpest athletes. As you reach higher levels of riding, you’ll need a horse that can move up the levels with you. Maybe you’ll need a starter horse and in a few years you’ll be ready to move up to a highly bred and trained performer that will propel you to the highest levels (start saving your money now!). Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you’ll keep every horse you have for the rest of its life; horses are not like dogs. While it is possible that you may keep one horse forever, you may find that the horse you buy does not turn out to be the best horse for you in the future and you may need to sell him and move onto another.
In a booklet I wrote for the Certified Horsemanship Association (a non-profit organization that promotes safety in the horse industry, http://www.cha-ahse.org) called Ready to Ride, I cover when to buy a horse, purchasing vs. leasing, and the many and varied breeds and disciplines to consider. I also cover finding a riding instructor and trainer, setting realistic goals, etc. If you haven’t owned your own horse before or are looking for a horse for a young rider, the booklet helps you consider all the aspects of horse ownership—costs and extras you might not have added to your budget and plan. Here’s information from Chapter 10, “Should You Buy a Horse:”
“When you consider the purchase price, boarding, health care, and equipment needed, owning a horse is clearly more expensive than simply riding school horses. Owning a horse requires a substantial investment of time and energy and a serious long-term commitment.
Owning or Leasing a Horse Many stables offer leases and half-leases on horses, which gives a good introduction to horse ownership, without the capital investment. Often leases are available for the cost of board and maintenance, so it is a more affordable first step to horse ownership, without the long-term commitment. However, the purchase price may be the least amount of money you will spend on a horse; the maintenance costs can be considerably higher in the long run….
Many naïve horse lovers make the devastating mistake of buying a young horse for their first horse. Horses are not like puppies; you cannot effectively train a young horse without years of experience and a young horse is much more dangerous than a little puppy. Between the horse and the rider, it is imperative that one of you knows what you are doing. Unlike puppies, horses can become big dangerous animals in a heartbeat; it requires a competent and experienced horse person to raise and train young horses.
Horses are not really mature until they are about eight years old and they are in their prime in their teens. Most good beginner and novice horses are 14 or older, although some may be younger. The older a horse gets, the more he has learned about life, humans and his job. You want a horse that can teach you; not a horse that needs an education.
Look for a stable with a program that teaches good horse care and knowledge as well as riding skills. Volunteer for horse chores at a stable; allow your child to take advantage of the opportunity for character development. Horses are not machines and one of the most important things a child can learn is personal responsibility.
Some stables offer full care only, while others give you the choice of providing some of your horse’s care yourself. There should be a regular schedule for feeding, watering, stall cleaning/manure disposal, farrier, and veterinary visits….”
It’s crucial to consider all the costs and think through where you’ll keep your horse and how you’ll keep him safe and healthy before you buy. And no matter if you’re shopping for your ultimate dream horse or your first horse, take the time to research your purchase and seek out support for your shopping trips. Find a trainer that specializes in the discipline you’d like to work in or seek out a friend that has more horse experience than you do to help you weigh your options throughout the process. There are seller’s agents and buyer’s agents. You need a buyer’s agent that you can pay his/her regularly hourly fee to look at horses with you. Or you could engage a trainer to look for horses for you for a finder’s fee (be wary of commissions for buyer’s agents since that encourages the trainer to look for an expensive horse). Most often what you encounter is the seller’s agent (like with real estate), who is receiving a commission on the sale (usually 10%); therefore you may not get all the info you need about the horse. Be very leery of double-dipping agents (taking a commission from both buyer and seller). It’s best to have an objective third-party agent who has no motivation other than to give you his/her honest opinion.
Check out even more horse shopping tips and strategies in my Horse Buyer’s Guide PDF available free at www.JulieGoodnight.com. And visit the horse sales page on the site: http://juliegoodnight.com/horses.
–Julie Goodnight