Julie Goodnight posted these pearls of wisdom on Facebook today:
“Watch any horse canter and you’ll see his nose drop down on the third beat of every stride; this is especially true on the first stride, when he is launching his whole body off the ground. It is critical that the rider reaches forward and drops the hands at this moment when the horse launches into the canter, to avoid hitting the horse in the bit, in effect, punishing him for doing what you asked him to do.
Unfortunately, this is also the moment at which the rider, who lacks confidence in cantering, will instinctively suck in her breath and raise her hands as if to stop. If the rider is sucking back on the reins at the very moment the horse’s nose dives in the canter, it is the double-whammy on his mouth. This is a sad truth for far too many horses. And that’s why I don’t push riders to canter before they are ready—in skill-level, in understanding and in confidence.
Happily, riders can be trained to cue the horse the correctly, which just so happens to be my specialty and what we work on a lot at my clinics. So whether the riders all work at the canter, or just watch and learn as others work on it, hopefully everyone goes away with a better understanding of cueing for canter.
I am not one to push riders into much canter work until they are ready. There’s an old saying in classical horsemanship that says, “the best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot.” I understand that at a very profound level and see it personified every time I do a clinic; that’s why the saying has been around for a few millennium. There is much to work on at the trot– riding, control, collection, etc. When the time is right, you will be ready to canter; don’t get in a hurry.
For those that are ready to take the leap to canter, the most important thing, I have found, is to break down the cue—making certain the rider has a clear understanding of how to use the aids and reaches forward at the moment of departure. Next, I have to set them up well in the arena, coaching them through the transition at a certain spot where the horse will be easiest to transition and is most likely to take the correct lead. I want the horse on the longest, straightest line to canter and also I’ll consider whether we need gate-gravity to encourage the horse into the gait or whether we want to canter the other way, so barn gravity is helping to slow down the horse.
People learning to canter often get into trouble cantering after the first 4-5 strides, especially when a turn is approaching (because the rider tenses). I like to keep these people on a straightaway and cantering short distances, then easing back into a slow trot. Riders learning to canter almost always inadvertently pull back on the reins when approaching a turn, causing the horse to nose dive into the bit, thus breaking to a hard road trot and pounding into his back as the rider struggles to maintain balance in the turn.
Keep it straight and keep it short. Canter 4-6 strides then cue the horse back to a slow sitting trot (instead of the horse breaking gait at the turn), get your wits about you at the trot and when you get back to that perfect spot in the arena, cue for canter again. After enough of this, the next step is to reach forward and canter around the turn without breaking gait. In the meantime, with the trot-canter-trot transitions, you are perfecting your cue and departure, which begs another profound wisdom in classical horsemanship—“all of training occurs in transitions.” Another infallible truth.”
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!