Do you ever get stuck in your riding and feel like you are going nowhere? Perhaps even back peddling? Maybe you try to make a change and your actions are too strong and it creates resistance. When that doesn’t work you try the other extreme - you do nothing and make no progress. We’ve all been there. Sometimes the blocks are mechanical and you need lessons to learn new technique. Other times, it’s mental and you have a fear or mental block preventing you from success. Mine was the later, I had a mental block about cantering my green four year old dutch warmblood.
I am not sure when I developed my canter phobia. Maybe it was the day I purchased her and the owner said “Be careful, she’s going to be a bucker”. Or maybe it was the times in my childhood I rode naughty ponies that would bolt back to the barn. Or the ponies that I jumped that bucked like heck on the other side of the fence, or maybe it was the downhill coop I popped off on at my Pony Club C-2 rating because I wasn’t really on my leg and did have the abdominal strength to sit up on the other side. Regardless, for some reason I had a deep seated fear of teaching the canter to my four year old Dutch Warmblood.
I procrastinated cantering for quite some time, and truthfully moving from New York to North Carolina did take a chunk out of my riding time, but she turned four in July and by then it was way past the time to start cantering. When I started our canter work she threw some big bucks into the mix, but it was mostly okay and what I expected. The following day after our first canter I had a great ride with her with cantering multiple twenty meter circles in each direction with ease and no drama. Then it rapidly all went down hill. Like all good things with horses, the honeymoon phase ended and for the first time ever she actually said no. and I said yes, and a battle ensued. Then we had a difficult lesson with my trainer where she decided cantering was not for her anymore. It felt like an eternity to get her to go left, just at the trot, without bucking or kicking out. And then the bucking and kicking out manifested in her canter work….she would canter three or four strides and then throw a buck and kick out.
I knew that help was needed for my canter phobia. There are two types of riding lessons. The first, is the type you look forward to because you have all your strawberries together and you are confident and ready and aren’t going to make a fool of yourself while you learn how to advance your riding. The second, is when your strawberries are not together and you know it’s going to be an ugly mess that will challenge your confidence and you will be asked to do HARD and difficult things and you won’t be able to back down, say no, or walk away. You will sweat a lot and might even cry. I knew this lesson was going to be the latter.
I was so nervous at my next lesson that it started out rough simply because my horse could feel my tension. You know that awkward moment when you’re riding around waiting for your trainer to arrive and the only thing you can think to yourself is “Am I going to get bucked off today, and how am I going to ride two more horses and teach lessons tonight if I get bucked off?” My trainer kept telling me in my canter transitions that I “Had to want it”, but I really only wanted in my head, and as much as I would ask for the canter, I only followed through with half-hearted leg aids, so I didn’t really want it. I mean...I wanted it...but I was scared of the buck on the other side. That’s why our canter departs were getting messy. She would canter three or four strides and kick out and I would get fearful and pull back.
What is the best solution when you are having fear issues? I was put back on the lunge line in my next lesson to take steering out of the equation (so I couldn’t pull back when she bucked or kicked out) and it helped my confidence level grow tremendously. In between my lessons on Thursday and Monday I sat down and opened Denny Emerson’s book, “How Good Riders Get Good.” I knew that I needed some inspiration to fix my canter phobia. I found this quote by Callan Solem that helped. She says, "Focus on the little things that help you succeed, and try not to be overwhelmed by how far you have to go. Don't think something is going wrong because riding is not easy for you. Focus on getting one percent better every day: In a little more than three months, you could be 100 percent improved!”
The length of time between my first lesson with many bucks and my successful confidence growing canter lesson was just five days, two of which my horse had off. By the end of the week we were cantering independently. What did I learn? I absolutely cannot pull back to steer. In order to canter her I had to let go, balance in a half-seat, and ask with only gentle reminders using an opening rein. My hands also have to be limp. I can’t squeeze my hands onto the rein or that will make her tense. My hands must feel like they are heavy and tired from carrying too many bags of grain.
Less than a week and a half of riding and a shot of confidence later we were cantering around the hayfield. To go from being completely unsuccessful and feeling like a failure to finding success is what makes riding so rewarding. So, the next time you feel discouraged, please take heart and realize this too shall pass and it’s only a moment in time.
TRAINING TIP: How to Make a Killer Canter Depart PART B
The rider's weight aids make or break the canter transition. To get the correct lead, you want to make the outside heavy. By weighting the outside, it makes it easy for the horse to step off with the correct lead on the inside front leg.
So, how does the rider set up his/her aids for success?
1. Change your post 5 strides before you plan to make the canter transition. This just sets up the weight aids and timing a bit better for green horses. Eventually you won't need to do this on a trained horse.
2. Look over your inside shoulder. Don't just look over it, look behind it. This puts the weight on your outside seatbone. Make sure you don't pinch with your inside leg when you do this.
3. On green horses, open your inside elbow (push your hand towards the bit to make a little loop in the rein) the moment you ask for the strike off (this gives them a little room to turn their head to the outside and step forward with the correct inside canter lead. When they become more trained you transition to lifting the inside rein to keep contact).
4. Bump or touch your horse with the inside leg at the girth and your outside leg just a bit behind.. You should not have to squeeze. It's just a touch, and your leg shouldn't move backwards - only closer to the horse.
If you are still having trouble picking up a specific canter lead, check your shoulder and rib cage. A lot of riders seem to collapse their left shoulder. If you look behind your left shoulder for a left canter lead and still end up with the right, try picking up your left shoulder to your ear for the transition. That usually fixes the issue.
TRAINING TIP: How to Make a Killer Canter Depart PART A
If your horse rushes in the trot when you try to ask for the canter depart, try this simple exercise instead.
1. Ride your horse down the long side of the arena at the trot
2. Make a half turn, ride back towards the wall to change direction
3. As for the canter depart as you feel your horse's balance change, this is the moment to apply the aids
The key point: You want to teach your horse to strike off into the canter from balance instead of rushing into it and falling on his forehand.
Why this works: This exercise puts the horse's weight on the outside legs, so that it is easy for the horse to pick up their inside canter lead.
Stay tuned for Part B: How to use the rider's aids in the canter depart.
Have you ever dealt with a horse with an unsafe hind end? You know, the type that could wheel around, kick you in the forehead, and land you in the emergency room right away? This type of horse can be dangerous to be around. Today, I’m going to share with you some insight I have to help you deal with this kind of horse.
What is your Perception?
Step one to dealing with a kicker is to ask yourself, “How does it make me feel when a horse kicks out violently?” Usually the owner, trainer, and people involved see a horse kicking from a victim perspective.
How we see it: It’s disrespectful, dangerous, and unsafe for a horse to kick at humans.
How the horse sees it: I feel threatened, unsafe, and I only know how to respond with violence, anger, and defensiveness.
In other words, if you meet a horse that only knows how to respond with violence with more violence (hitting them with a whip, working them hard without understanding, punishing them with negative reinforcement) you will never correct the situation.
On a horse that is known to kick without warning and duplicity, it is my best recommendation to seek the help of a highly skilled trainer. A very refined training skill set using non-violence and judicious use of force is necessary for retraining this type of horse.
How do you approach a horse that kicks out violently? You have to be skilled in your body awareness to approach this kind of horse without emotion. Check in with yourself; is your mind clear? Do you have any extraneous thoughts running through your head? Are you angry, fearful, or focused on the task at hand? Do NOT approach or handle a horse with this kind of background if you are feeling angry or fearful.
Controlling the Feet – In a non-violent way
The key to success in rehabbing a kicker is to be able to control their feet in a non-violent way. I would suggest the following exercise to start teaching this idea. Your goal is to teach your horse to stand quietly in front of you by using the whip as a visual aid to block the horse side to side when it dances around. This will help an anxious horse connect with his feet, and it will give you the power of controlling his feet.
Take your horse into an arena. This is the tricky part right here. What YOU do as a horseman and HOW you respond to your horse is the key point, and if you’re not comfortable with the timing and effectiveness of this exercise, please hire a trainer.
What NOT to do: Don't give your horse time to look around, take things in, or react to anything spooky. This would give him the opportunity to move HIS feet instead of the other way around. If your horse walks into the arena and starts dancing around out of anxiety, this is where the real work begins. Your priority should be to teach this horse to halt (thereby controlling the feet) in a non-violent way. Do not respond to your horse by yanking on the lead rope, yelling, or by hitting him with the whip. He needs to stand quietly and focus on you, now!
Do the Following: Stand in front of your horse and block their head position with very strong body language. Use your dressage whip as a visual aid. If your horse dances to the left, lift the whip in your left hand vertically upwards to make a visual wall that your horse does not go through. If your horse goes through the whip – you can gently tap them on the shoulder. You want to give your horse plenty space on either side, so hold the whip about 3-4 feet away from the horse’s shoulder. If your horse dances to the right as a result, just cross your whip under your arm and use it as a visual aid on the right side of the horse to ask him to stop. Do this repeatedly until the horse takes a moment (it might be a very short moment in the beginning) to stand, think, and connect with his feet. Be very quick to drop the whip and give praise after he stands. Rinse and repeat.
Your horse might get really mad! If he is used to controlling you and moving your feet he will have a very strong reaction. He will probably act out by rearing, kicking out, and acting very frustrated on the line. This is normal temper tantrum horse behavior when they are used to getting their way and you establish new rules that have to be adhered to. It’s like telling a toddler in the grocery store “NO MORE COOKIES” and they throw themselves on the floor and have a big crying temper tantrum. It’s OKAY, and normal. However, if this kind of behavior terrifies you, then you need to hire a trainer that can deal with the temper tantrum without losing emotional control.
Eyes on Me
If your horse does this exercise and turns their head away from you to look at something distracting, poke him and turn his head back towards you. I like to call this the “Jealousy Game” or “Eyes on Me”. Looking away is avoidance behavior; demand that he keeps his head focused towards you.
Don’t Back Up!
Whatever you do throughout this exercise, never back up and invite the horse into your space. If the horse gets too close to you, tap him on the chest and ask him to move away from you. Take a lunge step, use your hands like a scary monster, and ask him to move away. When a horse puts his shoulders/chest into your personal space it should be considered rude behavior. Do not allow him into your personal space. Do not back up!
After you lay down the law a bit using the whip as a visual aid you can switch your tactics and approach the horse more as a friend. This is after the horse is halting in front of you, politely, just from using the whip as a visual aid. The horse should be licking and chewing at this point when you put them in this position. If the horse is presenting these behaviors, it’s time to get submissive. In order to do that, get down on one knee in front of your horse. This makes you less threatening, and can help build rapport and trust. Offer your hand to the horse to sniff, but DO NOT physically touch the nose of the horse. Let the horse touch you first. The key point here is that you only reciprocate touch. If you reach this moment and touch the horse too much and he turns his head away, then you know you the horse isn’t comfortable with your touch. In other words, you have a lot of work to do to gain his trust. If you reach this point and the horse sniffs you, then you touch his nose, and he maintains the connection, then you are in good shape!
Safely Pick up the Feet (of a Horse that Kicks)
Do not try to pick up your horse’s feet until you can safely do the exercises that I have suggested in this article. Why? Because now we are transitioning to human touch, and if he isn’t respectful enough to let you control his feet or engage and connect with you, he sure as heck isn’t going to let you physically touch him.
However, if you have made it through the previous exercises and are asking for the feet with trepidation I recommend the following exercise to get your horse more comfortable with touch and giving a hind foot. Take a long lead rope and make a loop at the end. Loop the lead rope around the pastern of the horse and ask the horse to yield to the pressure and give the hoof. Release the pressure on the rope immediately after the horse gives. This should be a game, and you can even do it in motion. I would also recommend using a verbal cue with the pressure of the rope. Most horses that are resistant with their hind ends comes around after a little work with this game.
When your horse acts out at you, don’t be the victim and think “Oh my goodness he’s bad and doing XYZ to me”. Instead, take a moment and ask yourself “Why is he responding with violence?” Be the adult and respond to the violent horse with non-violence. Punishing a horse that acts out by kicking or biting does nothing to ameliorate the situation. Instead, find a centered place in yourself and teach the horse to respond to you by controlling their feet in a non-violent way. It might be a bit challenging at first, but this is the simple and easy way to turn DISTRUST into TRUST in a horse.
Controlling the feet = The key to finding respect between you and your horse.
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